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

Grace and Gratitude

Nothing reveals the vulnerabilities in the supply chain like a robust pandemic.   We think we can anticipate what will be in short supply – gas, water, generators, basic food stuffs – but herd instinct offers surprises.   While some shortages, such as toilet paper, have been widely reported, you may not have heard about shortages of bikes, audio-visual hardware, and seeds.    

Avid gardeners are meticulous planners.   They order seeds like clockwork according to their climate zones and carefully scripted calendars.  Yet this pandemic has thrown their plans into disarray.  An invasive species has appeared – the victory gardener!   Indeed, this is a good thing.  But it has created shortages for seed companies and nurseries. 

For too long people have labored under the notion that food comes from a supercenter.   Panic has led many to realize that maybe, just maybe, food comes from somewhere else – their yard.   Finding and eating food is one of the most basic parts of our lives, yet most of us have lost touch with its basic mechanics – its heart and soul, its deeper importance.   The author and poet, Wendell Berry,  laments this in his essay, “Eating and Pleasure.”

The industrial eater is, in fact, one who does not know that eating is an agricultural act, who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical – in short, a victim….  Both eater and eaten are in exile from biological reality…. Eating with the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that is, that does not depend upon ignorance – is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.  In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and from powers we cannot comprehend.

Wendell Berry

Nothing is more time-consuming, day in and day out, than finding and eating food.  Yet, in all that planning, finding, preparing, and eating, how often do we “experience and celebrate our dependence and gratitude.”   Sure we “say the blessing” before the meal, but do we realize how deep that thanks should go?  This failure of thanks-living, this systemic ingratitude, goes much deeper than our eating – it extends to all other areas of life.  Nothing highlights our fallenness more than ingratitude.    Paul’s ringing indictment of our fallen nature in Romans 1 crescendos in our ungratefulness.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

Romans 1:18-21

Ungrateful hearts and lives are futile hearts and lives.   Gratitude is our primary response to God’s graciousness toward us.  Our worship seeks to glorify God through proclaiming His grace in the gospel and by expressing our gratitude to Him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.   Worship is a gracious and thankful conversation between God and His people.   To be ungrateful is the hallmark of practical atheism.  Thanksgiving is a sanctifying agency in our lives.   Elsewhere Paul, in writing to his friend, Timothy, remarked.

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

1 Timothy 4:4-5

Is your life characterized by thanksgiving, or better yet, thanks-living?   Have you learned to receive everything – the good and the bad, the joyful and the sorrowful – with thanksgiving?   Have you chosen to pursue every moment, every action, every aspiration to celebrate your dependence and gratitude toward the gracious God revealed to us in Christ Jesus?   Our redemption is manifest chiefly in a grateful heart.   In Psalm 107, the Psalmist exhorts us.

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever!
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
    whom he has redeemed from trouble. 

Psalm 107:1-2

Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.   What does your life declare of thankfulness to God?  The inspired author goes on to speak about the promptings, the praise, and the practice of giving thanks and living thankfully.   Join us this Lord’s Day, May 24, on Facebook Live at 10:30 am as we examine Psalm 107 consider the power of experiencing and celebrating our dependence and gratitude toward our Gracious God.  

Behold Your King

How many times have you misjudged someone, thinking they were weak, incapable, or a push-over? Then, unexpectedly, they act out of unforeseen strength to save the day and make a mockery of your precipitous assessment.   King George VI of England was such a man.   Encumbered with a speech impediment, a man of great natural reserve and deference, he was considered by English society to be a royal embarrassment.  He had none of the eloquence, confidence or charm of his elder brother and heir to the throne, Edward VIII.  

But for all of the appearance of strength, Edward had none.  His great love was not a love of duty or country, but a love of self.   His sordid affair with Wallace Simpson led him to abdicate the throne on the eve of Great Britain’s entry into World War II.    In his stead, the timid and unpromising, George VI ascended to the throne.   George hardly looked the part of King. But for all his apparent weakness and inability, he had a strength none guessed.  His love of country and of duty and his strength of conviction guided Britain through its “finest hour.”  The remarkable story of George’s reign is told in the 2010 movie, “The King’s Speech.”

Outward appearances never define a king.  Samuel learned this when he went to the house of Jesse to anoint a successor to King Saul.   Saul had possessed a kingly bearing.  A head taller than every other man in Israel, Saul had looked like a King.  So Samuel looked for such a man among Jesse’s sons.  But the Lord warned Samuel,

“Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.  For the Lord sees not as a man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

1 Samuel 16:7

Samuel’s search led him to David, the smallest and least promising of Jesse’s sons, but the one who was a man after God’s own heart. (Acts 13:22)  Outward appearances never define a King.  

Luke’s account of the crucifixion is remarkable in many ways.  It gives scarcely any details about the crucifixion itself, but focuses attention on the reactions of those Jesus encountered as He traveled the way of suffering.   He was met with pity, mockery and bitter anger, but also remarkable and unexpected faith.   At every turn Luke declares the Kingship of Jesus.   Yet, Jesus hardly looks like a King.  To the eye he appears to be victim, not victor.  Luke uses the word ‘spectacle’ to describe the scene.   Those who looked upon this spectacle without faith saw Jesus as anything but a King.   But through faith others saw the King entering His kingdom.   Outward appearances never define a King. 

The “Daughters of Jerusalem” looked at outward appearances. They were warned by Jesus not to weep for Him, but for themselves.   They were looking at the cross and the Christ all wrong.   They did not understand what was unfolding before them.  They saw a victim suffering injustice, rather than a King bearing justice. How do you look at the events of Good Friday?  What is your response to the cross?  Does it evoke pity, mockery, or despair?  Or does it call you to repentance, faith, and hope?

Join us on Facebook Live at 10:30 am this Lord’s Day, March 29, as we examine Luke 23:26-49 and consider the Kingship of Christ, powerfully declared, brazenly rejected and savingly believed.  For more information about how we are gathering for corporate worship amidst calls for “social distancing” go to our post, How to Survive the Pandemic.

On Trial

Southerners are lousy at being quarantined.  Untrained in this discipline by a lack of inclement winter weather, we tear through our stock of quarantine supplies by noon on day one.  We love to prep for disaster, but have little patience to live within the parameters of our preparations.   We cancel everything in order to stay home, then stand all day with our noses pressed to the glass, itching to get out to see “what’s going on.”    Like school children after the first two weeks of summer vacation, we become quickly bored.

As long as our internet does not go out and take with it our Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, we may actually make it.   Surrounded by our hoarded TP, we outwait the lengthy COVID 19 incubation period by binge-watching.   For my wife and I, our nightly habit is British crime drama.  We especially like the adaptations of Ann Cleeves’ crime novels.   Her stories are complex.   The obvious culprits are never the perpetrators.   Only slowly does the truth come into focus as the “DCI” sifts through seemingly endless strands of contradictory evidence.   Cleeves’ stories give an appreciation for the complexity of criminal investigation, warning of the dangers of precipitous judgment.   To get to the truth, we cannot take a cursory look.

Perhaps we love fictional crime drama because it satisfies our need to see justice done, without complicating it with the complexities of our own sin.   In sixty minutes, confusion gives way to clarity and good triumphs over evil no matter what means it uses to get there.   But our lives are not so tidy.  In our real story, we are the fugitives who face a justice none of us can bear.   Yet the scales of God’s justice do not weigh the arguments for and against our guilt, but rather God’s justice and His mercy.

It is remarkable how much legal imagery the Bible uses to picture our condition.  The Old Testament anticipates a redeemer who will set prisoners free.  In the New Testament, both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are pictured as advocates, God the Father is often likened to a judge, redemption depends upon a declaration of judicial righteousness and our condemnation is set aside in Christ.  

History’s greatest courtroom drama is recorded in the Bible in Luke 22 and 23.  Following an irregular grand jury indictment, Jesus is brought before the criminal court on charges trumped up religious rivals.  In Pontius Pilate’s courtroom we see the greatest miscarriage of justice in human history.  Everyone is guilty – the judge, the prosecutors, the jury – everyone that is except the one on trial.  He alone is innocent.  Evidence is ignored and the judge is captive public opinion and his own corrupt history.  Despite his declarations of Jesus’ innocence, Pontius Pilate condemns him to death and compounds injustice by releasing a man who is truly guilty of all the charges leveled against Jesus.

As spectators, we recoil at this apparent travesty of justice.  But we must look more deeply.   No cursory examination of Jesus’ trial reveals the extent of the guilty.   It is easy to spot the guilt of the Sanhedrin, of the crowds, of Judas, of Pilate, and of Barabbas.  But the investigation must go deeper.  For we are not just spectators of this drama.  Jesus is not a hapless victim of human injustice, but a willing sacrifice to divine justice – justice that is rightly ours to bear.   It is not just Barabbas’ cross that Jesus bore, but ours.   God is just – His justice cannot ignore our crimes or allow them to go unpunished – but in His mercy He is the justifier of those who have faith in Christ.  Because of this we can have peace with God and with one another.  This my friend is good news.

Join us on Facebook Live at 10:30 am this Lord’s Day, March 22, as we examine Luke 22 and 23 and consider the greatest courtroom drama in history as it unfolds Christ’s innocence and condemnation for our guilt and pardon.  For more information about how we are gathering for corporate worship amidst calls for “social distancing” go to our post, How to Survive the Pandemic.

Caring for the Caregivers

There is no dismay quite like it.  That crushed look in the eyes of a child when they proudly present their latest masterpiece for mounting on the refrigerator and Dad asks, “what is it?”  “Can’t you tell?” responds a quivering little voice.  And immediately parental stammering and backpedaling begins.

I learned long ago, after many parental fails, to ask “tell me about this one?”  This little bit of painfully acquired wisdom has served me well.  As I visit with those who are suffering long-term illness and look at the pictures displayed around their homes – pictures that tell their story and that of their family — I ask “tell me about this one?”  Just as our children’s masterpieces are often unrecognizable to us, so the appearance of friends may become nearly unrecognizable as long-term sickness takes its toll.  I have noticed that even the best Hollywood makeup artists cannot quite capture the withering effects of prolonged illness.

But the one who is sick is not the only one who suffers.  Caregivers keenly feel the effects of their “labor of love.”   Often, I have asked a primary caregiver, “your loved one has you to care for her, but who is taking care of you?”  Sadly, more times than not the reply is “no one” — the caregiver had no caregiver.  And it shows.  Weariness of face and weariness of soul is hard to disguise.   And the effects are devastating.

But this is not only true for those caring for the physical needs of others.  The burdens of spiritual care are wearying to those who bear them.   Paul lamented that he wrote to the Corinthians “out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears.”  And in Romans, Paul wrote that he had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” because of the unbelief of his fellow Israelites.  And in Colossians, we read of Epaphras who was frequently “wrestling in prayer” for his congregation.  Spiritual caregiving is strenuous and takes its toll on pastors and elders.  But who cares for the caregivers?  The answer Scripture gives is surprising.

In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul instructs Timothy in how the church is to behave as the household of God.  Following up on his commands regarding the support and care for widows, Paul gives important guidance about how the church is to care for its caregivers – its elders, especially those that labor in the word and in doctrine.

In the United States, on average, over 1700 pastors leave the ministry every year.  70% report suffering chronic depression and 80% believe that pastoral ministry has adversely affected their families.  Burnout is epidemic and extreme loneliness is characteristic.   Who is caring for these caregivers?  Paul’s admonition is that this is the collective work of the congregation.   Just as the congregation bears the burden of care for widows, who in turn have cared for the congregation, so the sheep are to provide care for the shepherds who have tended and fed the flock.

Join us this Lord’s Day, March 10, as we examine 1 Timothy 5:17-25 and consider the practical ways in which congregations care for their caregivers.  We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.

Knock Offs

To say I was unpopular as a boy would be an understatement.   I wanted to fit in and find acceptance, but there were three significant strikes against me – I struggled with my weight, I loved to read the World Book Encyclopedia for fun, and I wore Trax shoes.   For those unfamiliar with vintage 80’s knock-off footwear, Trax were the K-mart Adidas want-to-bes.   But no one was fooled.   In a time when being a part of the “in-crowd” at school demanded the full complement of status symbols – Jordache, Izod and Adidas – wearing a K-Mart knock off was the worst of all possible worlds.

Discount stores finally figured this out and started producing their own distinctive, no-name brands.  At least a no-name brand says, “I don’t really care what you think; I’m more practical and not pandering to your good opinion.”  But the knock-off attracted all the wrong kinds of attention.   My father was trying to help, but as a child of the depression, he was oblivious to the narcissism of the age and the power of the status symbol.  He was far too practical (and wise) to spend beyond our means to purchase a logo.  But, alas, there was no anonymity for the wearer of Trax shoes.   Everyone knew you were trying to fit in but came up short.   No one was fooled by the knock-off.  It was important to be the real deal.

Authenticity is important.  We want this in our food, we this in our relationships, but what about our faith?  No outcry is more universally raised in reaction to Christians than the cry of “hypocrite.”   Once when the missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Mahatma Ghandi he asked him, “Mr. Ghandi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?” Ghandi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”   No one is fooled by a knock-off.

The Apostle Paul in writing to Timothy pointed out the importance of authenticity for pastoral ministry.  He instructed him to preach the word, in season and out of season, but he also stressed the importance of living authentically as a follower of Christ before the believers in Ephesus.

… set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity… Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. 1 Timothy 4:12, 15-16

Walking the walk, makes our talk talk.   Just like Timothy, we are called to live authentically — our lives and doctrine corroborating one another.  Scottish pastor, Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously wrote.

“A minister’s life is the life of his ministry….  In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument will be the success. It is not great talents that God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus.  A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”

Join us this Lord’s Day, February 17, as we examine 1 Timothy 4:11-16 and consider the call to live authentically as Christians.  We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.

Dirty Jobs

For our children, a stay in a hotel has many charms.  The pool, of course, is at the top of the list.  Hotels without pools fall into the “emergency only” category.  Booking a room at such a venue is seen as a breach of paternal trust.  But our children also enjoy the freedom to jump from one bed to another (before 9:00 pm) as well as the carb-overloaded cereal bins in the breakfast area.  And then there is television.

We have a television at home and recently got basic cable, but we rarely watch anything that does not stream from Roku or spring from a DVD.   Unless we have a hankering for big-pharma or big-auto commercials, we never venture past the evening news into TV land – except when the Olympics are on.  But when we are at a hotel, we enjoy a small dose of cablevision, especially “Dirty Jobs.”  While the show’s host, Mike Rowe glories a bit in the “muck and mire” aspect of each episode, I appreciate the heroic light he shines on those who work these jobs, day in and day out.  But “dirty jobs” are not for everyone.  It demands special people to work these special jobs.  Despite the natural revulsions these jobs may inspire, each one is of value and produces something that makes our lives better.

As far as I know, “Dirty Jobs” has never done an expose on the work of elders in the church, though it certainly might qualify.  A mentor of mine once declared, “working with sheep is a dirty business.”  And, so it is with any helping and caring profession from the work of an elder, to a nurse or caregiver.   But the value of this work extends far beyond the here and now, into eternity.   For this reason, the Apostle Paul writing to his apprentice, Timothy, instructs him to instruct the church in regards to what type of men God calls into the work of elder and deacon.

Paul declares that anyone who sets his mind on this work desires a “noble task,” then sketches the qualities of elders as men who have been tested in life and leadership.  They have a proven track record of living and leading consistent with their creed.  But Paul’s instructions are not just for Timothy and an elite group of executive recruiters in Ephesus.  They are for the whole church, so they may know what type of leaders to desire and how to pray for the leaders they have.

Join us this Lord’s Day, January, as we examine 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and consider what type of men are to be desired and selected to do the dirty job of shepherding the flock of God.  We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:45 am for worshipGet directions here or contact us for more info.   We look forward to seeing you.