The Valley of the Shadow

Going to work with Mama was a special treat.   It was rare to spend time just with her.   At home she was busy with the demands of family, but at work her schedule was more relaxed.  Only there could I have her full attention.  She worked part-time as a secretary at the Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church in east Atlanta.   On Fridays, Pastor Obert “visited the Greens.”   All that was pressing was the printing of bulletins.   I still remember the smell of mimeograph ink and the bluish-purple stains on my mother’s hands.  By one o’clock she was done and we were off to Arby’s for Beef-n-Cheddars and then to Mrs. Mowery’s for Mama’s weekly hairdo – and, of course, the jar of butterscotch and toffee.

While my mother finished up at the church, I was explored the curiosities of Pastor Obert’s office, listened to stories of Mama’s childhood, and designed the next generation of spacecraft.    Her office was warm and inviting.  And Pastor Obert’s office was spacious, more library than office.   Mama would also allow me to go up to the sanctuary – a beautiful worship space with large windows, flooded with so much light that it seemed as much like heaven as a ten-year-old could imagine.  

But not all the spaces at Ormewood Park were warm and luminous.   In order to get to the sanctuary from the office, I had to pass through a dark, ancient hallway.   Its musty smell, noisy tile floor and penetrating dark, terrified me.   It seemed sinister and menacing.   Running was the only way to make the passage.   And I knew that whatever I did, whatever I heard, I must never look back.

Darkness is like that.   In the dark, common comforts become sinister uncertainties.   In the dark, we can’t distinguish between what is real and what our fears project.   We were not made for the dark.  Before God did anything else in creation, he turned the lights on.   Almost every dimension of life depends upon light.  Even in the black depths of the deepest sea, creatures use natural luminescence to survive.

We are afraid of the dark because we were created to live and walk in the light.   The Bible notes that heaven is a place with no night – lit eternally by the Eternal God who, himself is its light.   In the Gospel of John, Jesus repeatedly draws attention to the contrast between light and dark as a metaphor for our emotional and spiritual condition. 

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. John 3:19

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. John 12:46

And Jesus’ disciple, John, would later write.

God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

1 John 1:5-7

But walking in the light can be hard to do.   Even believers with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, may experience consuming spiritual and emotional darkness.  Three times the Bible uses the phrase, “shadow of death.”   We usually read this as a metaphor for death.   But in each instance, the Bible refers to the experience of the living, not the dead.   The ancient language literally reads, “the shadow of deepest darkness.”   It is a darkness so black it is palpable, penetrating every nook and cranny of heart and soul.  Grief, doubt, fear, sickness, and adversity easily shadow our lives with deepest darkness.  Little grows well in this darkness except questions.   Where is God?  Why is he silent?  Why has he allowed this?  Will the darkness ever end?  Can I trust him?  Follow him?

Jeremiah was a bold and persistent prophet.   He was set apart before his birth.  God promised to deliver him from all his enemies.  Jeremiah confessed that even if he wanted to forsake his calling, he could not. 

If I say, “I will not mention him,
    or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
    shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
    and I cannot.  Jeremiah 20:9

Jeremiah preached hard words to hard hearts.   For over four decades he did the work of a prophet, yet saw no profit from it in the people’s lives.  No repentance, no returning, no reformation – only the unrelenting judgment of God against his beloved Judah.   He was beaten, imprisoned, ridiculed, despised, outcast by foe, friend and family.   He was kidnapped.  He was denied every earthly relationship that might bring joy.   Little wonder he was the weeping prophet.  He wept for his people, but he also wept for himself.  In Jeremiah 20 we find the prophet in a valley of deepest darkness.   His grief, anger and frustration carry him close to the border of apostasy.  

Yet Jeremiah’s struggles, just like Jeremiah’s preaching, are written for our instruction.  How do we walk in the light when God leads us into the Valley of The Shadow?   We feel should feel the weight of this question every time we pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from [the evil one].”   Join us this week as we examine Jeremiah 20 and consider how to walk in the light through the valley of deepest darkness.  

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

Lost and Found

Before we posted our souls on social media, we had bumper stickers.   Back in the day, the bumper was the place to vent malcontentment.  And those posts were indelible.   But now the younger generation has taken up the ancient mantle.   No minivan is complete without its stick family of 5 and twin soccer balls emblazoned with the children’s names.   And every hipster’s Subaru rear window has Nativ© headlining the Get-Out-There motif – a gallery, never complete without a quote from Tolkien — “Not all those who wander are lost.”

Indeed, not all wanderers are lost.  But many are.  And lost people want deeply to be found.   You don’t have to read too many castaway stories or play hide and seek with many small children to realize that lost people are consumed with being found – they just don’t always understand what that looks like.   The problem with being lost is that it is easy to be overlooked.   Lost people are notoriously hard to see and recognize.   How many lost hikers have heard the helicopters overhead and the calls of searchers long before they were found?   

Children learn early that it is easy to be overlooked.   When they play hide-and-seek they quickly grow impatient with lostness and hiddenness.  The real object of their game is not to be hidden, but to be found.    If not quickly discovered, they rustle the curtains or mimic wild animal noises from behind the couch.   Nothing is more terrifying than the thought that Daddy won’t find them and they will remain hidden and alone.   Lost people want deeply to be found.

But there is a lostness much more profound than the lostness of the castaway or the children’s game.   To be lost from the love, care, and comfort of our Creator – to be aliens and strangers to the God’s promises and, by nature, children of wrath is a lostness the Bible describes as “deepest darkness.”  When the Lord warned Adam, “you shall not eat [from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil], for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die,” He was speaking a death more crushing than mere physical death.   In his first sin, Adam plunged himself and us into spiritual lostness and ruin. 

The lost can feel the weight of their lostness, but cannot find any way to be found.    And when you are this lost, it is easy to believe that you will never be found.  Will anyone see us?  Will anyone recognize that we are lost?  Will anyone look for us?    Does anyone know where we are?  Will anyone care enough to come?  These are the questions that keep us awake.  We often speak of ‘finding ourselves,’ but only another – a rescuer — can find us when we are this lost.  

Zacchaeus – the wee little man – in Luke 19 was lost.   He tried to find himself in work and in wealth.  And, in both he was at the top of his game.   He was no mere tax collector, but the chief-tax collector.   He oversaw all tax collection in Jericho, a fabulously wealthy and progressive city.   And he was fabulously wealthy.   But it came at a cost.  Success cost him his identity and his integrity.   His name, Zacchaeus, meant “righteous one.” But his reputation was that of an odious sinner.   All he had gained was nothing compared to what he had lost.   He was lost and longed to be found.

Perhaps Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus.  That he was a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.”   The religious establishment had no place for Zacchaeus in their lives or their religion.   But maybe this Jesus would be different.    Casting aside all pretense at dignity, he sought a vantage point from the branches of a roadside Sycamore tree.   What kind of man was Jesus?  He had to see.  You might think at first glance that Luke 19 is a story about Zacchaeus looking for Jesus.  But it is actually quite the opposite.  It was Jesus who came to Jericho looking for Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus was unable to see Jesus because of the crowds and because of his size.  But Jesus knew exactly how to seek and find this wee little lost man.   Obstacles may obscure our view of Jesus, but are never unseen to Him.  He knows how to seek and to find us.   That was what He came to do.   In this story Jesus is only days from the cross, but he pauses to seek and find Zacchaeus.  Luke 19:1-10 is a remarkable story about the power of the gospel and the love of God for those who have wandered and are lost.  Join us this Lord’s Day, July 26 as we examine this passage and see how God’s love for us unfolds in the seeking and the saving of Zacchaeus. 

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

Beyond Repair

When something grips Noah’s interest, he is all in.  He reads everything he can find, then trolls Amazon for outlets to express his latest passion.   I know he is onto a new thing when he comes and asks, “Dad, what can I do to earn $30?”  I have learned to ask, “Noah what is it that you want?”  Then we will discuss the wisdom of this new pursuit and the merits and demerits of his particular choices.  And Noah never comes to me uninformed.  He has researched his pursuits very carefully.  He knows I will demand four or five compelling reasons to spend his, as yet unearned, money.

Not long ago, the passion du jour was a drone.  He studied the topic, scoured the offerings, and presented his business plan.  He worked tirelessly, performing some labor intensive and unpleasant jobs to earn the requisite $49.   I had a few misgivings, but decided to let him make the purchase.   For days Noah scanned the horizon for UPS trucks and closely monitored Amazon delivery notifications.  The day finally arrived and Noah immediately set about configuring his drone for adventure.  Within a day or two the not-so-robust-drone had endured more rough landings than its Chinese manufacturers had anticipated and it was beyond repair.  Even many hours with his clever older brother and more hard-earned replacement parts were not enough to restore the drone to active duty.   And so, to Noah’s great sadness, the drone sits, unusable and unrepairable – broken beyond restoration.  Nothing can be done, nothing can be salvaged.  It is destined for the trash.

But Noah’s sadness is nothing compared to the sorrow over lives that are broken beyond restoration.  Sin breaks our lives beyond restoration.   Sin breaks everything it touches.  We were made to have fellowship with God and with one another, yet every relational disaster in our lives is the result of sin.   We are tainted by it and so everything we touch is tainted by it.   And we cannot undo what we have done.   Sin breaks us beyond repair.   Unless the Lord remakes us by His grace, there is nothing that can be done, nothing that can be salvaged.  We are destined for the eternal dump, a place the Bible calls Hell.

When Jesus talked about Hell in the gospels, he used a word picture, familiar to His hearers.  He called it “Gehenna.”  Gehenna was the local land-fill, the trash dump, to the south of the city of Jerusalem.  It was the place where unrepaired things were carted and thrown out.   Jesus described hell, Gehenna, as the place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”   It was the picture of the trash dump, in which the decomposition of things thrown away produced extreme heat and a haven for worms.  Jesus’ vivid illustration of Hell emphasizes that sad truth that Hell is the place where men, broken by sin and unrepaired by grace, will experience the full measure of their brokenness forever.

The gate of the city that opened out toward this dump was the Potsherd Gate, sometimes called the Dung Gate.  It was at this gate that the prophet Jeremiah was instructed to go with the elders and the priests of the people to give them a vivid illustration of the hard truth that no one can weather the justice of God unless they turn back to Him and seek His mercy.    The Lord had become to the people of Judah, just one more god among gods in a mythic pantheon.   They denied his sovereignty and did not fear His judgment.  They were backslidden, living with their backs to the Lord.

They presumptuously trusted in the works of their own hands.   They thought that they could endure God’s anger over their sin.  How bad could it be?  He relented in the end?  Surely, we can wait out his anger.  Surely it will blow over.  They rationalized, presumed, and lived in denial.  They thought that whatever problem God had with them, they could fix it or simply ignore it.   But their generation was beyond repair.   Jeremiah’s sermon from the Potter’s House had reminded them of God’s sovereignty and his ability to reshape them, despite the fact that they were bad clay.  Jeremiah proclaimed God’s offer of grace.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.  Jeremiah 18:5-7

Even at this late hour God offers mercy if His people return to Him.   If they repent, He will relent.  God who may sovereignly do whatever he pleases with his marred clay, extends grace – the hope of being reshaped by the loving, careful hand of the master Potter.   But rather than yielding, prideful Judah must have the last word – and what a dreadful last word it is.

“But they say, ‘That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’  Jeremiah 18:12

They rejected their only hope and continued to live with their backs to God.  What about you?  Have you lived with your back to God?  Are you unconcerned about his sovereign justice?   God offers us sovereign grace, but if we turn away from it, all that is left is sovereign judgement.   We should all be concerned.    Join us this Sunday, July 19, as we examine Jeremiah 19 and consider the dangers of living life with our backs to God. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

The Last Word

Everyone has one – the one person in your life who must always have the last word.  Whatever your great exploits, they have climbed higher, caught more, gone faster.   No story is complete until they have added the exclamation point of their own last word.   Though perhaps otherwise unremarkable, they are grand-masters of one-upsmanship.  Yet their quest for notoriety has gained only infamy.

No one likes a know-it-all.  No one enjoys the one-upsmans’ self-agrandizing sagas.  Far from inviting admiration, the know-it-all only invites scorn.   We all have this person in our lives.  You are not that person are you?  Let this be a lesson.  Don’t seek the last word.  Learn the art of humility.  As Solomon wisely cautioned.

Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
a stranger, and not your own lips.  Proverbs 27:2

You never know as much as you think.  You are not the smartest or most accomplished person in every gathering.   Praise others and you will be thought praiseworthy.  Learn to exalt others and you will be exalted.   Let another speak the last word.  Exercise restraint against the temptation to focus the lens back on yourself.   To gain discipline in this area helps us to remember that God always rightly has the last word in our lives.   Simon the Pharisee was a know-it-all and learned this the hard way when he invited Jesus to his party and an unexpected guest arrived.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw [a woman of the city touching Jesus], he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Luke 7:39-37

No one likes a know-it-all.  But what if the know-it-all in your life really did know it all?  What if He knew how everything would turn out.  One who not only knew the future, but determined it.  One who knew you better than you knew yourself.  Who knew how to loved you and knew what you loved better than yourself.   One who knew exactly what trials and triumphs were best for you.   One who, despite knowing all your thoughts and intentions, your failings, your rejections, still loved you better than you loved yourself?  Would you give that know-it-all the last word?  Would you prefer that know-it-all’s last word to your own?

Jeremiah 18 is a well know passage.  Here the Lord sends Jeremiah down to the local Pottery Works to watch and wait for a Word from the Lord.   As Jeremiah saw the potter work and rework the lump of clay on the wheel, shaping and reshaping, the Lord revealed to Jeremiah his sovereignty over all His works.   He has created all things for Himself and He may do with them as He pleases.   No man may complain or command His purposes.  He always has the last word.   And in this passage His last word is ‘grace.’   Even now though God’s people have provoked Him time and time again in the most despicable ways,  God speaks ‘grace.’

Then the word of the Lord came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.  Jeremiah 18:5-7

The God who previously declared, “I am tired of relenting,” offers mercy if His people return to Him.   If they repent, He will relent.  God who may sovereignly do whatever he pleases with his marred clay, extends grace – the hope of being reshaped by the loving, careful hand of the master Potter.   But rather than yielding the last word to the gracious Know-It-All, prideful Judah must have the last word – and what a dreadful last word it is.

“But they say, ‘That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’  Jeremiah 18:12

What about you?  When the Lord speaks the best, last word, the word of grace, will you let that be the last word?  Or must you speak the last word yourself, “following your own plans” according to the stubbornness of your heart.   Jeremiah 18 is a remarkable passage about God’s steadfast grace toward stubborn, ungrateful rebels.   What is the last word in your life?   What last word defines you?

Join us this Sunday, July 12, as we examine Jeremiah 18 and consider the power and beauty of God’s sovereignty exercised toward us in grace. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

Never a Fast Day!

The Lord’s Day is a Feast Day, never a Fast Day!  That has always been Christendom’s creed.  Even when long, protracted penitential fasts were the fashion of Medieval Christianity, the Lord’s Day was always excluded from the fast.  The Lord’s Day is to be a day of celebration, joy, and fellowship.  It is not the day for downcast faces or despair.   Any solemnity that marks the day is due to sheer awe for the graciousness of a Holy God of whom “mercy is His proper work.”   Any sorrow sown by conviction of sin is wiped away by the forgiveness and cleansing which are ours in Christ.  The Lord’s Day is a Feast Day, never a Fast Day!

Our forefathers were apt to call the Lord’s Day, “the Market Day of the Soul.”  It was not a day for buying and selling the commodities of temporal life, but a day to traffic in the commerce of higher things, better things – eternal things.   While our lives today blur the distinctions between the Lord’s Day and every other day, we are most blessed and at rest when we “remember the Lord’s Day and set it apart.”  The Lord’s Day is not like every other day.  Quite the contrary it is unlike any other day.  When the Lord was creating the world, He rested from His work, not just on the first day after he finished, but He finished by creating the seventh day – actively making it and setting it aside to celebrate, rejoice, and fellowship with His creation.

Thus, the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So, God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. Genesis 2:1-2

Is the Lord’s Day a feast day for you?  Is it the Market Day of your Soul?  Is it unlike any other day?  Or has it become like any and every other day to you?  Is it distinguished by the pursuit and enjoyment of the things that really matter, that last forever?  Or only the pursuit of more of the same things that won’t last.  Doubtless, for most of us, the week is the unit of time that most defines our lives, yet it is the only unit of time not defined by some celestial or environmental cycle.  It has no exemplar in nature.  It is simply given to us by God and delineated for us by the Lord’s Day.   Whether you observe it or not, your life revolves around the Lord’s Day.

Growing up, Sundays were always unique.  The usual biscuits that adorned every breakfast at our house, were replaced with blueberry muffins.   Lunch was a grand affair, usually grilled steaks, baked potato and salad – a meal we never ate except at lunch on Sundays.   My father always included me in his duties at the church.  Some weeks we drove a church van into downtown Atlanta to pick up a spunky group of elderly ladies.  Other weeks, I delivered the Sunday School boxes to each classroom before anyone else arrived.  My service made me feel important and useful.   After lunch, was “rest time.”  We could play quietly at home, but it was not a time for the usual kinds of play with friends and neighbors.  And then in the evening we would return to church for choir, and Royal Ambassadors (a Christian boys club), and worship.   It was a full day, different from every other day.  Full of feasting, fellowship and rest – all centered around worshipping and celebrating who we were in Christ.

When Christians lose delight in enjoying the “thousand sacred sweets” of the Lord’s Day, life begins to lose its savor in every other area as well.  Just as the Lord’s Table defines how we live at every other table in our lives, the Lord’s Day defines how we will live every other day.  The Lord’s Day with its corporate worship, fellowship, feasting, resting and serving is the heartbeat of the Christian life.  It is one of two positive commands in the Ten Commandments.  It comes with great promise.  Jesus reminds us that “man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.”  The Lord’s Day is a Feast Day and never a Fast Day.  It is the Market Day of the Soul.

The prophet Jeremiah took great pains to make clear the deeply ingrained sin in the people of Judah.  By the time we get to the end of Jeremiah 17, we have heard the prophet call the people to repentance for their perpetual idolatry, their self-serving greed, their heartless oppression, and their continual refusal to heed the call of God to return.  So, it seems a little surprising that Jeremiah makes so much of calling them to repent of contempt for the Lord’s Day .  With so many dire issues on the table, is this not a bit of straining a gnat and swallowing a camel?  Yet this thinking shows that we have not rightly understood that the Lord’s Day stands at the center of our Christian life.

Join us this Sunday, July 5, as we examine Jeremiah 17:19-27 and consider the the great blessing of remembering the Lord’s Day. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

Misdiagnosis

Medical misdiagnosis is a serious problem.  Recent studies have estimated that as many as 12 million adults a year seeking outpatient care are misdiagnosed.  Worse yet, diagnostic errors may result in as many as 10% of patient deaths — more deaths annually than breast cancer.  To be fair, diagnosis is incredibly complex and patients place extraordinarily high expectations for accuracy on their doctors.  Patients often bet their lives on the opinions of their doctor.  When those opinions are wrong the prescribed treatment will fail to address the real condition and may even make the condition more acute.

Misdiagnosis is serious but nothing compared to the misdiagnosis of a deeper sickness that affects us all – a spiritually terminal condition the Bible calls sin.  This condition is congenital and inherited.  It is always fatal.  Every one of us has it.  Yet it is often misdiagnosed.  Doctors of skepticism dismiss that any sickness exists, while doctors of philosophy are more concerned with classification than cure.   Doctors of psychology declare this sickness to be a non-fatal dysfunction, easily resolved with the right therapeutic tweak.   Doctors of religion prescribe a course of works, coupled with a regimen of rituals and outward piety.  But with all these prescriptions, the cirrhosis of the soul continues unabated.

Just before the Reformation, the Church taught that man needed the grace of God to overcome his sin problem, just not grace alone.  The Church and its teachers had misdiagnosed the depth and severity of sin as mere spiritual sloth.  If only the patients would exert themselves, even just a little, and show that they were trying, God would give them the loan of grace they needed to make up what they lacked.   God helps those that help themselves!

Yet these Doctors of the Church had failed to read their diagnostic manual, the Scripture, which reveals that the patients are suffering from total depravity.  They are already spiritually dead (Ephesians 2) and none of them can exert themselves, even just a little (Romans 3).

Martin Luther worked and worked to do his part, yet with all his working he only felt that more working was needed.   Far from loving or seeking God, he hated and despised God for his implacable justice and harshness.  It was not until he read in Romans 1, “the just shall live by faith” that he realized that his hope was not in a loan of grace, but in grace alone, grace given to him, not in response to his willingness, but in spite of his rebellion.  Luther commented.

“He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ…. The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it…. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.”

Dead men do not need renovation, but resurrection.   For this reason, the Reformers insisted that the only remedy for sin was Grace alone (Sola Gratia) through Faith alone (Sola Fide).

Our diagnosis is much more serious than we imagined.  The Fall broke more in us than we are aware.  The effects of total depravity extend into every last aspect of body, mind, and soul.  The prophet Jeremiah expressed this most poignantly.  “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)  The ancient word heart used in this verse is an inclusive idea, encompassing the heart, soul, mind, knowledge, thinking, reflection, memory, inclination, resolution, will, conscience, the seat of appetites, emotions and passions and convictions and courage.   All these, Jeremiah says, are treacherous, rebellious and incurably sick.  Yet, we cannot see it.   As one pundit noted.

“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” ― Malcolm Muggeridge

Join us this Sunday, June 28, as we examine Jeremiah 17 and consider the diagnosis of total depravity and the remedy God offers us in Christ. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP.

Costly Grace

Free and cheap are not the same thing.   They are not even in the same ballpark.  In fact, the “free” things in your life will often be the most costly.   Everything costs something, to someone.   A free car will come with unforeseen expense.   And a free pet is anything but free.

Years ago we took our children to a local pet store in search of a cat.  The pet store hosted a pet adoption and it seemed a good idea to give a good home to a free, stray cat.   The adoptable cats ran the gamut of breeds, colours, and patterns.  But as we were perusing, the charming salesperson said, “and then we have this poor little kitten.”  Ushering my tender-hearted little girls to the back of the store she pointed out a tiny little calico with only one eye.   The girls were smitten.  All other options were off the table.  Their little motherly hearts went out to Callie and she joined our family.  She was freely adopted, but she was not cheap.

In addition to shots, spaying, and the usual pet expenses that confront a first-time pet owner, Callie lost her eye due to an infection shortly after she was born.  The cost of her vet care was not cheap.   She was free, but costly.  But she lived a long life in our family and was a most beloved cat.  Unlike many of our other cats, she loved to be with us, to be held by us, to stay close to us.    She would hear the approach of our car, run to the end of our long drive, and run ahead of us as we drove up – without fail.

The free things in our lives are often the most costly.   This is especially true of God’s grace.  It is absolutely free, but unbelievably costly.  It is the costliest thing in your life.   It is freely given and can only be received freely by faith.   Yet it’s cost to God was incalculable as His Son spent His life to fully pay the debt of justice that was ours to pay.

But it comes also at the cost of our lives as well.   When we are made new by God’s grace, the old passes away and the new comes.  But this new normal is a life lived under the Lordship of Christ for the glory of God the Father.  It is not simply forgiveness of sin and pardon from its consequences.   But we are united to Christ and undergo the work of sanctification wherein our sin is forsaken and holiness is pursued.    Grace is free. But it is not cheap.  On the contrary it is costly.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer contrasts cheap grace and costly grace.

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate….

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. 

In the introduction to this book, Bonhoeffer famously observed that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  How far will you follow Christ?   In Luke 9, Jesus challenges three would-be disciples with just this question.  How far will you follow me?  Through what adversity?  Through what difficulty?  Jesus concluded these encounters with a startling statement. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

The prophet Jeremiah was called to follow Christ down a difficult road.   Four decades of preaching fell on deaf ears.  No one listened.  No one responded.  He was hunted by the authorities and hated by his own friends and family.   He had no one to support him in his own grief over the judgment coming upon his people.   His only refuge was the Lord, but even the Lord often seemed distant.   All this comes to a crisis in Jeremiah 15 and the prophet confronts God and God calls Jeremiah to repent – to turn back from contemplating turning away.   The Lord reminds the prophet of His grace and his calling.  He reminds Jeremiah that the only way to stay close to Him is to follow wherever He leads.  Then the Lord calls him to an even rockier path.   He was not allowed to marry.  He was forbidden to be a part of the life of the community either in the joy of its feasts or the sorrow of its funerals.   His life would be a living sermon, declaring that God has also withdrawn from the life of the people.  How far will Jeremiah follow?

What about you?  How far will you follow Christ?  He offers grace and mercy freely.  But it is a costly grace.  It bids us to come and die.  Is there a place where you say, “here but no further?” Join us this Sunday, June 21, as we examine Jeremiah 16 and consider the costs of God’s call to follow.  

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

Let Down

My twelve year-old son is the most optimistic person I know.  He loves technology and has boundless confidence that it will always work as advertised.  One particular app on his tablet just will not work.  We have researched, reconfigured, and run every diagnostic known to man – all to no avail.  Yet with every software update, he asks, with brimming expectancy, “Dad, I got an update.  Can we give it another try?”  As a recovering software engineer, I am steeped in pessimism, especially when it comes to software.  But nothing – not even repeated disappointments — can dampen Noah’s confidence that “today is the day” that the latest update will make everything right.  And time after time, we are let down by open systems that aren’t so open after all.

But life is full of let-downs — meals that bear little resemblance to the advertising and online products with five star ratings, 378 “awesome” reviews, and that one bad review that turns out to be the only faithful narrative.   And then there are social media friends who are really not friends.   Just in case you don’t realize, your social media friends are not really friends.  If they were not your friends before social media, they are not committed to anything more than spectating your life.

I recently crossed paths outside of cyberspace with an online “friend.”  She couldn’t quite place me.  I offered congratulations on her recent marriage and commented on the exciting places she traveled on her honeymoon.  Looking at me as though I was a stalker, she asked me how I knew.  Somewhat dejected, I said, “I’m your friend on Facebook.”   If you are depending on social media friends to be your friends, then I am sorry to say, you will be let down.

But live relationships let us down as well.   If you want to know if someone is really your friend, ask them to help you move.  Moving is a severe trial for the closest of friendships.   Years ago, Melanie and I were moving out of a second story apartment.  We moved almost everything ourselves, negotiating two flights of stairs with a narrow landing.  All that remained was a washer and dryer.   The dryer was not a problem, but our faithful old Maytag washer was crafted from heavy American steel and offered no easy hand-holds.   I called a close friend who lived nearby to help me get this last item into the truck.  After a few hems, lots of haws, and a flimsy excuse, I realized that we were operating on two different understandings of friendship.  I admit that our relationship never quite recovered from that let-down.

Every person you know is a sinner.  This guarantees that sooner or later you will be let down by someone close to you.   You don’t have to live very long to experience this.  But the pain is especially great when the let-down seems easily avoidable, or worse, intentional.   And the closer, more intimate the relationship, the greater the pain of this disappointment.   How do you recover?  How do you move forward?  How can your relationships survive a let-down?

The story of the prophet Jeremiah is a story of disappointments.   Four decades of preaching fell on deaf ears.  No one listened.  No one responded.  He was hunted by authorities and hated by his own friends and family.   He was not allowed to marry and lived a life of solitude and sorrow.   He had no one to support him in is own grief over the judgment coming upon his beloved people.   His only refuge was the Lord, but even the Lord seemed to him to be deaf to his prayers, unconcerned about his persecution, and unappreciative of his ministry.   All this comes to a crisis in Jeremiah 15 as the prophet confronts God.

Have you ever felt let-down by God?  Have you been disappointed when He seemed deaf to your prayer, unconcerned about your trials, and unappreciative of your obedience?   How will you respond? How will you move forward in following Him when he seems to have become an adversary?   Join us this Sunday, June 14, as we examine Jeremiah 15 and observe Jeremiah’s struggle to come to grips with a God who seems to have let him down.

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

Under Pressure

My father’s favorite poem, Rudyard Kipling’s “If-“, begins and ends with the following lines that have always resonated with me.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

“If,” Rudyard Kipling

I admire those who are cool under pressure – neurosurgeons, fighter pilots, and mothers of small children.   While neurosurgeons and fighter pilots are trained to anticipate fast-moving crises, mothers daily face a host of unforeseeable emergencies.  No one can predict where a small child will climb, what he will find and then eat, or what deep existential questions she will ask.  Men, remember this when you ask your wife, ‘how was your day?  what did you do today?’ — brace yourselves.   Whatever challenges you overcame were child’s play compared to the ones fielded by your children’s mother.

I am always in awe of how my wife handles the moment of crisis.  She may be rattled to the core, but she never lets it show.  She is all business.  Assessing damage, applying relief, anticipating the next step and dialing back everyone else’s drama, even if her own is skyrocketing.   Her faith in God’s goodness, wisdom and providence is daily put to the test and refined into a thing of growing beauty and strength. Struggle is good. But it is still struggle.  It does not merit us anything, but it may mentor us.  Struggle is the agency of refinement. James, the brother of the Jesus, put it this way.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. 

James 1:2-4

Crisis is an unavoidable part of life in a fallen world.  We try out best to avoid it.  We have text and app alerts for weather, bank balances, family location or status changes, hoping to get ahead of a situation before it escalates.  We have more news feeds than Reuters, keeping us abreast of developing stories.  We insulate our lives with insurance, security systems, backup power, and our “emergency fund.”  After all, Dave Ramsey assures us that those with an “emergency fund” don’t have emergencies.   But what about those crises that are bigger than our plans or our preparation?  Crises like financial ruin, sickness and death, irreconcilable estrangements, and even national and natural disasters?  Crises which penetrate to the depths of our souls.  How do we manage when the crises are unmanageable?

Jeremiah was called to a ministry of crisis.  From his calling to his conclusion, Jeremiah’s life and ministry was one of sorrow and struggle.  He was a man of great faith in the midst of a faithless generation, called to preach judgment to his beloved people.  But as we read through Jeremiah’s preaching, as well as his emotional confessions and lamentations, we see a man who was,

never a dispassionate observer of his nation’s sufferings, but entered into the anguish of the people and suffered with them….  [He bore] a message of divine judgement while at the same time sharing the sufferings of the people…. [He was a man] torn asunder between God and the people, to both of whom [he] was bound with deep ties.   

The Book of Jeremiah, J. A. Thompson

As God’s people suffer His gracious, Fatherly discipline for their unrepentance and idolatry, Jeremiah struggles along with them.  And by observing his struggle, the Lord sets before us warning and direction as we wrestle with God’s chastening.  What will God’s refining work provoke in us?  Bitterness?  Accusation? Presumption?  Growing hardness?  Faith and repentance? Lustrous silver? Or only dross?

Join us this Sunday, June 7, as we examine Jeremiah 14 and consider how the prophet’s lament in a time of crisis warns and instructs us as we respond to God’s refining work. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

Asking for a Friend?

English is a hard language to learn.   It plays fast and loose with its own rules of grammar.   And it refuses to conform to the basics of linguistics shared by virtually every other language — basics such as gender, case, and predictable syntax.   No doubt, this is a consequence of the long and storied history of English-speaking peoples.   As J. R. R. Tolkien noted, there is no such thing as a language without a history.   As English-speakers ventured out across the globe during the Age of Exploration, they imported bits and pieces of language and expression from a myriad of other cultures into the warp and woof of the mother tongue.   Consequently, the irregularity of the grammar and, especially, the pervasive use of idiom makes English one giant inside joke.  

One, not so subtle, example is the phrase, “asking for a friend?”  Nothing is more disingenuous than this qualifier.   We tack it on to uncomfortable or embarrassing questions.  Questions that, if actually from us, would surely reveal what we want to conceal.    But like the Emperor with new clothes, everyone knows the game, but no one will admit it.   We all know who is really asking the question.   “Asking for a friend” does not conceal anything – quite the contrary.   Yet we all play the game.   And the asker is allowed to lay all censure for shocking questions upon some imaginary friend.   The question is depersonalized allowing us to broach delicate concerns in third person rather than first or second.   Asking for a friend makes questions academic, not biographical.  Or so we think.

But there is a remarkable exception to this ruse – a time when “asking for a friend” is just that.   And that is intercessory prayer.   Typically, our chief concern in prayer is typically ourselves, asking for the things we want or need.   And, indeed, there is nothing wrong with this.  Scripture calls this dimension of prayer supplication, which is another way of saying “to ask.”   The Bible encourages us to ask God for what we need.  Jesus instructed his disciples and by extension us.

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” 

Luke 11:9-13

And in another place, Jesus promised, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”(John 16:23)   Jesus’ brother, James, wrote, “you do not have, because you do not ask.” But then goes on to warn you ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”(James 2:4)   We are instructed to ask boldly.  The author of the Hebrews reminds us of this.  “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”(Hebrews 4:16)

But James warning should give us pause.  What should we ask for?  What types of things?  And how do we ask?   Interestingly, most of the instruction in Scripture regarding involves praying for others.   While we are certainly to ask for our own needs, the bulk of our asking is to be for others through intercessory prayer.   And like most other aspects of our prayer, the prayer of the gathered church should model the trajectory for our private prayer.    The Apostle Paul, in giving instruction to Timothy regarding worship in the Ephesian Church wrote.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 

1 Timothy 2:1-4

The church has always understood this to mean that in public worship we are to pray for others – for those responsible for government, for the peace purity and prosperity of the church, for the general welfare of society and for the spread of the gospel among all peoples.   Christian worship puts a strong emphasis on intercessory prayer, particularly in public worship.    John Calvin noted that intercessory prayer exhibited the church’s core value.

“It has pleased God to work with human beings through human beings.  We are creatures of need. We need God and we need each other.  It is therefore through the ministry of other people that God in his wisdom has chosen to bless us.  It is in our intercession for each other that we realize what it is to be the Church.”

Just as Jesus’ prayer was characterized by intercession, so must ours be.   We are to “ask for a friend.”  We are to be bold askers at the throne of grace and mercy.  But much, if not most, of our asking is for others.   When we gather in church and pray alone in our closet, how much of our asking is “asking for a friend?”

In our idiom, “asking for a friend,” is a euphemism for our own concerns.   But when it comes to Christian prayer we are called to ask boldly for others through the ministry of intercession.    Join us this Lord’s Day, May 31 as we gather for worship both in person and by live-stream and consider Psalm 122 which calls us to pray for the sake of our brothers and to intercede for the church, the world, and our neighbors.

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP