Owning Up

We knew she had them, but we never saw them – eyes in the back of her head.   Like the answer to the children’s catechism question, “we could not see them, but they always saw us.”   Just when we thought we were under the radar and outside maternal surveillance, we were called to account.  But parental omniscience is not just the province of mothers.   Fathers can have it too.   My father was very in tune with my sinful tendencies.   One particular example from my youth is seared into my memory.  

My friends and I were going downtown, but the train did not come as far as our neighborhood. So we drove to the station in Decatur.    The station did not have much parking, but was happily located right across the street from the Maud M. Burrus Public Library.   The library had plenty of free parking, each spot adorned with a warning — “library patrons only, all others will be towed.”  With dire words and prophecies of doom, my father warned me against the temptation to park there.   But my 1973 Goldenrod Impala needed space.  It yearned for free parking and lots of it.  So, as children often do, I disregarded my father’s instruction.

When we returned at day’s end, to my horror, the Impala was gone.   It was the sum of all fears.   Adrenaline surged.  A dreadful panic seized me.  Where could it be?  How will we get home?  And how would I explain this grievous crime to my father?  Then I saw it, a sight worse than any scenario I imagined.   Parked in a corner of the lot, far from where I left it was the Impala.   He knew!   He knew I was not to be trusted.  He knew I had ignored his wise warning.   The ugly truth could not be concealed.   I had deliberately disobeyed.   Wriggling out was not an option.   My only option was to own up and to accept whatever came.

Much to my surprise, the consequence was not as severe as it could have or should have been.   My father knew the shock of his masterstroke was, itself, quite potent.    His goal was not to punish, but to discipline – to instruct me in the pain of disobedience and lead me to the freedom that comes from submission.    Indeed, punishment and discipline, though both painful, are radically different.

Punishment’s goal is to inflict, to harm, to exact.   It covers the debt of justice by demanding the value of what was taken by the hand of a perpetrator.   It seeks no redemption, no rehabilitation, and no restoration.   It is guided by wrath not mercy.   Vengeance is its telos — an eye for every eye, and a tooth for every tooth.  But discipline is quite a different matter.   Discipline is concerned for growth, change, fruitfulness, and maturity.    It is guided by love and governed by relationship.   Discipline is redemptive, rehabilitative, and restorative.   This is what it seeks.   It teaches us that freedom and fruitfulness come from submitting to yokes not breaking bonds.

We see this truth remarkably laid out for us in Hebrews 12:5-11

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” …For at the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

How will we respond to the Lord’s discipline?  When afflictions come.  When frowning providences are the only providence we know.   When we encounter many trials of various kinds?  Will we be like the God’s enemies in Psalm 2 who say, “Let us burst [His] bonds apart and cast away [His] cords from us.”   Or like God’s sons, who will “take [His] yoke upon us, and learn from [Him].”   

Punishment is for God’s enemies.   They will be destroyed by it.   They will rail against it and resist it.   They will not repent, but only raise a clinched fist.   They will call to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.”   But children receive loving discipline if they will submit to it.   Though it may be painful it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness in the end.   How willing are you to submit to the discipline of God?  Is your desire of comfort and relief greater than your desire to be conformed to the likeness of Christ?  

The Lord chastised Judah in Jeremiah’s day.  The best and brightest had been carried off to Babylon.   Zedekiah was placed on the throne only as a steward.   But the people were not content to submit to the God’s discipline.  They plotted rebellion.  And Jeremiah warned them with a powerful illustration.

This word came to Jeremiah from the Lord.  “Make yourself straps and yoke-bars, and put them on your neck.… Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel…  I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him also the beasts of the field to serve him. All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson, until the time of his own land comes….  But if any nation or kingdom will not serve this Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, declares the Lord, until I have consumed it by his hand.”

Jeremiah 27:2-8

If they submit they will live.  But if they rebel, they will experience the just punishment of God.   What about you?  How will you respond when God lays a heavy hand upon you?  When he brings discipline because of sin?   Will you own up?  Will you submit?  Will you put your neck under the yoke?   Join us this Lord’s Day as we examine Jeremiah 27 and consider what it means to submit to the Lord’s discipline.  

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

Worst Case Scenario

I have a diverse library.  Every “ology” can be found – theology, technology, sociology, anthropology, and mythology, just to name a few.  Widely varied genres and perspectives live on my shelves.  My catalog runs the gamut from ancient to contemporary, orthodoxy to heresy, and the profound to the absurd.   Seriousness and satire have a home in my world of ideas – a cosmos framed both on shelves and in clouds.    

In the outer reaches of this cosmos is a book entitled, The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook.   Supplied to me by a bookstore-owning friend, who usually plied me with theology, this little quod absurdium purports to give strategies for life’s worst-case scenarios.  For example, when aliens invade, it is imperative to construct a headpiece of tin-foil.   As is well known, aliens are telepathic.   Only a tin-foil headpiece can foil their telepathy.   The only alternative is simply to stop thinking.   Just don’t think about anything.   Clear your mind.  This is the only foolproof way to avoid alien domination.

Perhaps this explains why critical thinking seems to have disappeared.  Maybe our culture is preparing for an alien invasion.  We have clearly stopped thinking – at least any thoughts other than the mantras du jour fed to us by (anti)social media.   Critical thinking, and its expressive corollaries, free speech and robust dialogue are now anathema.   Dialogue has been replaced with cancel culture – a group-think which refuses to admit any narrative other than that clearly delineated by a viral hashtag. Meanwhile everyone and everything at odds from the approved narrative is declared “dead to us.”  While I am not sure that Central, Central Intelligence or Big Brother and his Ministry of Truth are behind the cancel-culture, it is certainly enforced through social media.

But cancel-culture is not new.   Media campaigns and boycotts are as old as the Fall of Mankind.  Public shame and commerce have long been powerful tools for policy change, for better and for worse.  What is new is the amazing speed with which shame and commerce is effected through social media.   The uneditable and unanswerable animosity unleashed by social media cancels without appeal.  The “brakes” of time – and therefore reflection — were never installed.  Time to reflect, to think carefully, to analyze motive, context and deeper intent is missing.   There is no time for thoughtful action, only violent and immediate reaction.   As social critic, Neil Peart, noted, “conform or be cast out.”  These are the options – the only options.

Cancel-culture strikes at the core of the Christian’s identity.   Christians are animated by the gospel.  Thought, speech and actions are to be transformed by the renewing of minds not conformed to the pattern of the world.   Thus, christians are fundamentally at odds with the ethos of cancel-culture.   Truth is not socially determined, but authoritatively revealed.   And that authority is not Twitter.   On the continuum of “conform or be cast out,” Christians will always be castaways.  The received and revealed gospel is the compelling means of grace for our lives and our world.  Our compulsion, our commission is to share it, preach it, declare it and defend it.    Yet, the gospel’s presupposition of a brokenness no state or hashtag can fix is obnoxious to the cancel-culture.   In its opposition to Christianity, cancel-culture reduces Peart’s “conform or be cast out” to only one option – “conform,” willingly or unwillingly.

And so, Christians find themselves is a familiar place – the place of persecution.   This is nothing new.   As Jesus unfolds the ethics and expectations of a life animated by grace, he concludes with are remarkable statement. 

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.  

Matthew 5:10-16

We love to proclaim and sing about being the salt of the earth and a city set on a hill, but notice how Jesus connects these to a faithful response to persecution.  The cancel-culture wants to silence the gospel and the truth of God.    How are we to respond?  Are we to soften our message?  Conform it to the differing expectations of culture?  Reassess our calling or the sphere in which we execute it?   These are all questions Jeremiah faced.   The “Temple Sermon” was one of his earliest and most memorable sermons.  Jeremiah was probably optimistic as he preached.   But the moment the sermon ended the cancel-culture attacked.   “You shall die” was the response of the religious establishment.   “Jeremiah, conform or be cut off.”

When God called Jeremiah, he warned him that this would be the case.

But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.

Jeremiah 1:17-19

How would Jeremiah respond?  How will we respond?  As Paul wrote to a young Timothy, “indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12)   It is only a matter of time before you face the ultimatum, “conform or be cast out.”  What will be the response to this worst-case scenario?

Join us this Lord’s Day, September 13, as we examine Jeremiah 26 and consider the Jeremiah’s response to the cancel-culture of his 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

Choose Wisely

I admit it.  I am absolutely syncretistic in my speech.   Wherever I live, the local accent and expressions find their way into my own.    On a recent family movie night, an ancient VHS tape surfaced of a presentation I gave in 1988.   Two things were notable.  First, I had as many verbal ticks then as now.  And second, my accent – it was positively “down home” – vintage Georgia.    I am without a doubt a verbal chameleon.  Yet, this is true for most of us. 

The attitudes and expressions of those around us together with the images and phrases we’ve invited into our souls will bubble up to the surface of our lives through our speech.  Beyond accents, inflection and expressions, movies, books and music often implant phrases into our psyche that become mainstays of our expression.  Brando’s eerie mantra from Apocalypse Now – “the horror,” and Ham Porter’s refrain from The Sandlot – “you’re killin’ me Smalls,” are go-to phrases for me.   But a favorite is the admonition of the Grail Knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – “choose wisely!”

After navigating the “leap of faith from the Lion’s Head,” Indy enters into a shine to the Holy Grail, guarded by an ancient knight.   The room is filled with different cups — elaborate and simple, some of precious metals and jewels, others of simple wood or glass.   In order to save his father’s life, Indiana Jones must choose the one true Holy Grail from the vast display.  But the first choice must be the right choice, for the Grail Knight warns him.

“You must choose, but choose wisely, as the true grail will bring you life and the false grail will take it from you.”

Indy must choose a cup to drink.  He must drink.  No other option is on the table.  He must choose – and choose wisely.   Life or death hangs on the choice.

We see a similar picture come into focus in Jeremiah 25.   The prophet is told to take the “cup of the wine of God’s fury” and make all the nations drink from it.   It is no mild vintage.  It has no smooth flavor.  This wine is neither light-bodied nor flavorfully rich in tannins.  No hints of this or notes of that.  And it does not finish well.  It is hard drink.  The cup of judgement.   Those who drink it, drink it down to the dregs.   It has no mild or pleasant effect.  The drinker becomes raging drunk and violently ill.   Bold drinkers think they can handle this liquor, but it reduces them to complete stupor.   But what if men simply refuse this choice?  What if they will not drink.   Note what the Lord says.

Thus, the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it…. And if they refuse to accept the cup from your hand to drink, then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: You must drink!’” 

Jeremiah 25:15, 28

Not to drink is not an option.   And there is no milder vintage.  But is there another cup?   The cup is a common picture of God’s judgment in the Bible.   But scripture reveals a remarkable promise —  that God, himself, will graciously take the cup from us.

Therefore hear this, you who are afflicted,
    who are drunk, but not with wine:
Thus says your Lord, the Lord,
    your God who pleads the cause of his people:
“Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more; 

Isaiah 51:21-22

But what is more, God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, drinks our cup for us.

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, … he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”  …Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

Matthew 26:36-42

And then He gives us another cup, a different cup – the cup of blessing which we bless.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Matthew 26:26-28

Jeremiah was told to take the cup of the wine of the wrath of God and to make all the nations drink of it.  But there is another cup.   For those who choose wisely — who trust in Christ, not in themselves, who acknowledge God’s righteous judgment of sin, yet plead for His mercy upon sinners, there is the cup of blessing.  The Grail Knight spoke more than he knew when he cautioned, “choose, but choose wisely, as the true grail will bring you life and the false grail will take it from you.”  What cup will you choose?  The cup of the fury of God’s wrath?  Or the cup of Christ?

Join us this Lord’s Day, September 6, as we examine Jeremiah 25:15-38 and consider the choice God sets before us between grace and judgement. 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

Adulting

Language is never static.  It always has a backstory.  Languages are living things, constantly changing to reflect a culture.   Like rings on a tree, linguistic change charts cultural change.  Words indexed to outdated ideas or behaviors become, ‘archaic.’  And new words are created to reflect cultural realities our forefathers could not have imagined.   This process can occur very quickly, especially as technological change accelerates the use of jargon.    The English language grows most prolifically by the addition of new verbs formed out of of old or proper nouns.   For example, we ‘google’ and we ‘message’ – and we ‘adult.’   As accessories to these ‘nouns gone verbal,’ we add the corresponding gerund – e.g. “adulting.”

The recent proliferation of the new word, “adulting,” demonstrates well how language grows to communicate changing social mores.  The Urban Dictionary defines “adulting.”

Adulting (v): to carry out one or more of the duties and responsibilities expected of fully developed individuals (paying off that credit card debt, settling beef without blasting social media, etc). Exclusively used by those who adult less than 50% of the time.

Laura Shear offers an insightful critique of the word ‘adulting’ and the idea behind it, in a blog post entitled, Growing Up Vs. Adulting.  She notes.

These days, evolving into an adult appears to be less a reality than a choice. Young people in their late teens and early twenties flirt with adult-like behavior, try it on for size, or push it off a few more years. When they embrace it, they post it.  It’s all right there on their Instagram feed: paying off a credit card, changing the oil in the car, roasting a turkey… #adulting.

Amidst this rapidly changing social landscape, millennials and Gen Z kids are reinventing what it means to mature. And, crucially, when it happens. Studies show that the trajectory of childhood into adulthood has lengthened, making room for a new, relatively prolonged adolescence…. Researchers have labeled this new life stage “emerging adulthood.”

To practice adulting, you don’t actually have to be an adult.  You only have to play-act at responsibility long enough to make the post.  When “adulting” becomes mundane or challenging, we can step out of the hashtag.   Adulting gives us the perfect cover for evading hard things.  While older generations tend to criticize Millennials for their lengthened “trajectory of childhood” and their “ambivalence about adulthood,” it is at the core of mankind’s fallen, sinful nature to avoid responsibility.   We love to take cover in immaturity and irresponsibility, but faith calls us to grow, mature and to take responsibility.   The scriptural remedy for sinful failure is confession and repentance, not excuse making.   Christians take responsibility for sin, even if we have a good excuse.

The men of Jeremiah’s day tried to avoid responsibility.  For forty years the prophet pronounces the sin of the people of Judah and God’s threatened judgment.   They lived with their backs to God, but Jeremiah calls them to turn back.   When they do actually listen, they make excuses, but never repent – they never accept responsibility for their sin.   It is always someone else’s fault.   And eventually, they no longer even listen.

In Jeremiah 24 we encountered the doctrine of election.  As Nebuchadnezzer subjugates Judah, God gives Jeremiah a vision of good and bad figs.  Through this vision God declares that he has chosen some for destruction and others for deliverance.   Though they all deserve, judgement, God determines to be merciful to some.  Our reaction to this doctrine of grace should be relief, but too often it is evasion.

Paul anticipated this when he discussed election in Romans 9.   He points out that God, “has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills.”  Then immediately writes, “you will say to me, ‘Why then does he still find fault?  For who can resist His will?”  God’s sovereign decrees are never a theological excuse to evade responsibility for our sin.   When we look at Esau, Judas, and Pontius Pilate in scripture, we see men who had chance after chance to repent and turn back.  Yet they freely rejected Christ, despite many warnings.   Scripture presents two complimentary truths.  God is sovereign and we have real, free will.   It is a mystery, but it is true.  No matter what God decrees for us, we are responsible for our own sin.  Jeremiah 25 points to this truth in a remarkable way in regards to the pagan King Nebuchadnezzer. 

“Therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Because you have not obeyed my words, behold, I will send for…  Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants…. This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, declares the Lord.”

Though he did not know it, Nebuchadnezzer is God’s servant.  In his free, wicked actions, he serves God’s purpose.  But this does not absolve him of responsibility for his atrocities.   God sovereignly decrees his conquest, but also holds him responsible for the sinful way he went about it.   In this same way, we cannot say, “it does not matter how I live, God will do what God will do.”  The doctrine of election is not fatalism.   It does not destroy the accountability of free moral agency that God has given to men.   We will be held accountable for our sin.  We cannot blame others.  And we certainly cannot say of God, “why does he still find fault?  For who can resist His will?”

Jeremiah called to the men of his day and us to repent.  “Turn now, every one of you, from [your] evil way and evil deeds… Do not go after other gods to serve and worship them, or provoke [God] with the work of our [your] hands.”   When God declares our sin, it is not enough to merely ‘adult.’  No, it is time to take responsibility through confession, repentance, and faith. 

Join us this Lord’s Day, August 30 as we examine Jeremiah 25:1-14 and consider the call to take responsibility through confession and repentance. 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 Horrible Doctrine

In a recent study, Steven D. Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) discovered that people who decided to make major life decisions — quitting a job, getting engaged, getting divorced — were happier than those who took no action, and stuck with the status quo.  But what he also discovered was that, for many, the decision to shake up their lives was not the result of careful thought and deliberation. It was the result of a coin toss.   Would you decide to change jobs or relationships with a coin toss?  Or bet everything you have on the flip of a coin?

Most of us despise nothing more than for our success or failure, gain or loss, salvation or condemnation to be wholly dependent on others or, even worse, mere chance.   Despite its wretched theology, we tend to resonate with William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus as he rages, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”  Yet we don’t have to live very long to recognize the delusion in this mantra.  

We are not so free as we like to believe.  And fate and evolution, to which so many ascribe, are, indeed, horrible doctrines.  Outcomes ruled by nothing more than time and chance destroy all hope of meaning, purpose, and lasting significance.  But at least victimization at the hand of impersonal time and chance, gives us little room to legitimately complain of injustice.  All we can say is “these things happen.”

But what if the decision that ordains and decrees the outcome of our lives, both temporally and eternally is made by a personal, all-powerful God without reference to our foreseen merit or demerit or consideration of our favorable or unfavorable circumstances?   On the surface such an idea is repugnant.  Though he taught it, Calvin labeled this a Decretum Horribile, or “horrible doctrine.”  Yet, this is exactly what the Bible describes as it unfolds the doctrine of election, and its theological corollary, reprobation.   Biblical support for these doctrines is copious.  But perhaps no passage is clearer than Romans 9:10-23

And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory

Romans 9:10-23

In the middle of Paul’s great exposition of grace, we find this “horrible doctrine.”  A doctrine which, in our pride, tempts us to accuse God of injustice, of being the author of sin, and of commanding apparently useless tasks such as evangelism or intercessory prayer.  In our hubris, election and reprobation are indeed “horrible doctrines.”   

Yet as we carefully consider what the Bible says about the total depravity of our fallen condition, these “horrible doctrines” soon become “doctrines of grace.”  Every aspect of our lives is affected by the guilt and presence of sin.   “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)   Were God to base His decision to save on anything in us, we would be hopelessly doomed.  

The early American pastor, Jonathan Edwards, once declared, “we contribute nothing to our salvation except the sin that made it necessary.”  And Jesus taught that “unless a man is born again [from above] he cannot see the kingdom of God.”    Those horrible doctrines, which at first fill us with indignation and accusation toward a Holy, Sovereign God, become gracious doctrines when the Holy Spirit enables us to see the depth of our sin.  

In scripture, these doctrines are always proclaimed to offer us assurance, not fill us with hopeless dread.  Such is the case in Jeremiah 24.   As the long-threatened judgment begins to unfold.  Nebuchadnezzar captures and conquers the land of Judah.  God gives the prophet a vision of two baskets of figs.   Through this vision, God declares his intention to save and restore some but to judge and condemn others, giving hope to the hopeless and warning to the heedless.  

On what basis do you appeal to God for his mercy?  Is it your works?  Your circumstances?  Your piety?   Is it enough?   Or is your hope in something much more solid?  Only in the calling and election of God is there assurance.   Have you answered His call? 

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out….  this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

John 6:35-40

Join us this Lord’s Day, August 23 as we examine Jeremiah 24 and consider the doctrines of election and reprobation – doctrines of grace, not horrible doctrines. 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

Spotting the Fake

Fake news is not new.  It was not invented by Russian hackers or media moguls during the 2016 Presidential campaign.   Fake news has been around since man first listened to the “Father of Lies” in the Garden.   News reporting is always saddled with some level of intentional or unintentional, benevolent or malevolent bias.  That news media has always been funded by advertising should make this obvious.  Persuasion is at the heart of most of our words, but unhinged from moral restraint, persuasion quickly descends into exaggeration, mis-construal and flat-out lying.

Fake news is not new.  What is new is that no one seems to care if their news is fake.  Fake news is no longer ‘news worthy.’  The mantra of post-modernity, “true for you, but not for me” has given way to a lack of concern for truth, so long as the story is moving.  The cardinal value for today’s man is emotional resonance not intellectual verity.  Does it grip me?  Does it grab me?  Does it move me?  These are the questions that have replaced, “Is it true?”  Neil Postman’s prophetic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, rightly predicted a society in which “truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

But man was not created to live in society where truth is drowned in irrelevance.  Truth exists – absolute truth, truth that is revealed and not discovered.  Without this truth there can be no beauty, joy, peace, redemption, mercy, forgiveness, justice or love – only “how I feel.”  Without this truth there is never any “us,” only a “me.”  Truth matters.  But can we spot what is true and what is false? 

Back in my school days, my classmates clamored for quizzes that were True/False.  The logic was simple. It gives us a 50/50 chance.  But who wants to get 50% on a test?   I despised True/False quizzes.  Give me an essay question any day rather than statements that, if properly or improperly qualified, had so many caveats that truth or falsity was murky.   None of us are as good with True/False questions as we like to believe.   We do a poor job at spotting the fake.  Game shows, icebreakers, and fashion counterfeiters have abundantly proven this point.

Gullibility and a love for the sensational makes us easy prey for deceptive news.   We scroll over a shocking headline on social media and, without any credibility filtration, share it copiously.  Only later realizing that our integrity has just taken a very public nosedive.   In an article from the Freedom Forum Institute, Samantha Smith offers a quick guide to spotting fake news.  She warns us to check out sources, resist click-bait, look carefully at an article’s URL, compare the story with reputable news sources, beware of sloppy writing and the absence of quotes, and use media literacy sites such as snopes.com or factcheck.org.  Nothing she says amounts to rocket science, but the simplicity of her analysis shows how easily we can be duped.    But if we are so easily deceived regarding things that can be seen and verified, what about eternal and spiritual truths?

Jeremiah expressed himself most in lamentation.   Reading Jeremiah is exhausting.   The weeping prophet laments the coming judgement of God, the idolatry of the people, the oppression of the powerful, and even the wasting of the land because of the sin of the people.   But Jeremiah’s greatest lament was for the deception of the people through the false prophets and lying priests, even though he knows the people love it that way.   In Jeremiah 21-23, the prophet offers a scathing rebuke to the kings of Judah for their unfaithfulness, then in Jeremiah 23:9, the prophet brings the hammer of God’s word down on the false prophets.  And in his rebuke, he offers his beloved people a warning. 

Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’ 

Jeremiah 23:16-17

Jeremiah pleads with the people to discern the false prophets, reject their message, and turn back to the Lord.   But this warning is for us, as well.  We live in a world brimming with false teachers who ‘despise the word of the Lord’ and say ‘it shall be well with you’ to those who stubbornly follow their own heart.’   Their teaching is a ‘dark and slippery’ path that leads to death.   How well can we spot the fake?   Can we discern a false teacher from a faithful one?   Have we loved truth or falsehood?   Are we wary of those who attempt to “heal our wounds lightly, saying ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace.”

Join us this week as we examine Jeremiah 23:9-40 and consider the prophet’s guidance regarding the sources, symptoms and solutions to the problem of false teaching. 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

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