Never a Fast Day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misdiagnosis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Costly Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under Pressure

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

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

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

“If,” Rudyard Kipling

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

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

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

James 1:2-4

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

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

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

The Book of Jeremiah, J. A. Thompson

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

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

Asking for a Friend?

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

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

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

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

Luke 11:9-13

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

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

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

1 Timothy 2:1-4

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

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

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

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

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

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.  

Good for the Soul

Visits to my Nana’s house were always an adventure.  After lunch, the adults spent their time “porch sitting.”   Their stories of the good old days riveted us for a while.  But eventually the stolid heat and humidity of Georgia summer and the quiet of spent storytelling drove the children indoors in search of more lively entertainment.  Nana’s house was always dark and mysterious.  Filled with curios from bygone ages and places. There was always something to explore.   As an older home, with no AC, her windows were always open.  And during the summer time, the old wood and linoleum floors were gritty to our bare feet.   When I think of summer in Georgia I think of that humid, grittiness.  A kind of pervasive, latent oppression Southerners learn to live with.

Any good Southern author knows that conveying this grittiness is a mark of regional authenticity.   The short stories of Faulkner are a good example.  They always evoke for me a feeling of grittiness.  But perhaps nothing I have read has made me feel more gritty, than the Russian novel, Crime and Punishment.

Crime and Punishment unfolds the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student in St. Petersburg who murders an unscrupulous old pawnbroker for her money.  Before the killing, Raskolnikov believes the money will liberate him from poverty and change his life for the better.  Afterwards, however, he finds himself consumed with paranoia and self-loathing.  All his justifications unravel as he struggles with guilt and horror and confronts the consequences of his crime.  Dostoevsky’s work is a brutal character study in “urge to confess” and of the overwhelming power of guilt.

“The urge to confess” is a common theme in crime stories.   Guilt is powerful, controlling, and irrepressible.   We can rationalize it, conceal it, run from it, and attempt to mitigate it, but we cannot escape it.   Guilt clings with the tenacity of an ant and is a “thorn in the flesh” that no self-help strategy can eradicate.   As wise mentor once told me, “when people express guilt, don’t tell them they should not feel that way or that they are not guilty, but instruct them to confess.”   The old saying, “confession is good for the soul” is very true.  Solomon wisely instructed his sons, and successors, and us.

Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
    but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.
Blessed is the one who fears the Lord always,
    but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity. 

Proverbs 28:13-14

While confession is never easy, nor comfortable, the comfort it brings is powerful.   Confession is the only way to deal with our guilt – because it depends upon another, alone, who has the power to release us through forgiveness.  The ancient word for forgiveness, has at its root, to untie, or release.   Like the Gordian knot, only confession, repentance, and forgiveness can untie the knots that sin and guilt tie in our lives.   This is why confession is an essential part of worship.  

Just as the Psalms form the “anatomy of all parts of the soul,” instructing us in the liturgy of prayer and worship, corporate worship sets before us the pattern of life with God and with others.    Central to that pattern is the act of corporate confession and assurance of pardon.  In confession we “agree with” God about the truth of our condition, unmasked as men of unclean lips, hands, and hearts among a people of unclean lips, hands, and hearts before a Holy God.

Every person in Scripture who came face to face with God through prophetic vision or theophany, was terrified.  When Moses asked to see God’s glory, he was hidden in the cleft of the rock and only allowed to see God’s back.  When Job demanded an audience with God, God confronted him out of a EF5 tornado.   To enter God’s presence as a sinner is to invite death and terror.   Unless, there is one who can cover us and mediate for us.  

Job’s fear was that “there is no arbiter between [God and I], who might lay his hand on us both. Let him take his rod away from me, and let not dread of him terrify me.”  But the good news is that we do have a mediator in Christ.  One who can lay his hand upon us both. One who has stood in the gap.  One who has become sin for us that we might be accounted righteous in Him.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 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 4:15-16

It is God’s kindness in Christ that invites us to confess and find forgiveness and release from the Gordian knot of guilt.   Have you learned to confess?  Is confession a regular feature of your prayer life?  Or have you tried to find every other way to rid your self of that one dark blot, that no soap or good works can wash away?  

Join us this Lord’s Day, May 17, on Facebook Live at 10:30 am as we examine Psalm 130 and consider the next steps in our fellowship with God expressed through confession of our sin.  

Unprepared

We have all had them – anxiety dreams.   We are suddenly back in college.  It is final exam day for a forgotten class.   You have not attended a single lecture and know nothing about the subject.  You wake in a sweat.  Then, slowly, a wave of comfort washes over you as you remember that you’ve been out of school for years!  It was only a dream.  

We all have our own brand of anxiety dream.  For some it is being back on the high-school basketball team.  For me it is realizing ten minutes before the end of worship that I am supposed to be at church and in the pulpit.   I can’t find my Bible or my sermon notes.  As I approach the service in my pajamas, there are hundreds of new visitors.  This is the stuff of recurring nightmares.  We all have these anxiety dreams about appearing somewhere unprepared.  And, of course, the mother of all anxiety dreams is the one which involves a wardrobe malfunction.

But for ABC News reporter Will Reeve, this ubiquitous adolescent nightmare recently became reality.    Reporting from his home due to the quarantine, Will was broadcasting live on ‘Good Morning America‘ for a segment about pharmacies using drones to deliver prescriptions to patients.  According to CNN, the 27-year-old acted as his own cameraman for the broadcast, but failed to angle the camera such that it hid his pants-less legs.   He initially appeared to be wearing a full suit, but eagle-eyed viewers quickly noticed that he had no pants on below his suit jacket and took to Twitter to call him out. 

Growing up, Will Reeve – the son of Actor Christopher Reeve — probably dreamed of the glorious ways he would leave his mark on the world.   Yet his greatest fame appeared, as it does for many, in a moment of infamy.   He will forever be the man who appeared before millions with no pants.   We laugh at his failing, but fear this ourselves.   Appearing before others unprepared and uncovered is in everyone’s anxiety wheelhouse.  But as much as it worries us, how concerned are we about appearing before the Lord unprepared and uncovered?   How careful have we been as we approach the throne of grace and mercy rightly?

Perhaps the sweetness of God’s promises in Christ have emboldened us, and rightly so.  Jesus bids us to come – “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  We are promised that “whoever comes to [him, He] will never cast out.”   Because Christ is our great high priest, we may “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

The throne is open, the golden scepter is extended to us, but there is still a manner of approach we must consider – the gracious manner God has laid out for us in His Word.  Like the wedding feast in Matthew 22, God calls us who are unworthy to attend and graciously gives us what we need to approach Him.  But Matthew 22 also issues a serious warning.

But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Though unworthy, the man was graciously called.  Not called just to feast, but to celebrate the groom.  He was offered all he needed to join in the celebration, but refused to put on the wedding garments.   If we refuse God’s gracious means, the “wedding garments” he has laid out for us, we will become of us?  We are never to come before the Lord casually or carelessly.

How do you appear before the Lord in prayer and in worship?   We are warned in Scripture not to appear casually or carelessly before our God.  God loves to receive his children, but he has established the approach – an approach clearly revealed in Scripture, and especially in the Psalms.  Prayer and worship, if not directed by Scripture, are fertile fields for idolatry.   Worship is never an open field for human creativity.   But when worship is reformed, according to scripture, it instructs us in our approach to the Lord in every other area of life.

How do you appear before the Lord in prayer and in worship?  Do not appear unprepared, but learn from his word and his worship how the Lord delights to receive you.   Join us on Facebook Live at 10:30 am this Lord’s Day, May 10, as we examine the Psalm 113 and consider how we are to call upon the name of the Lord in prayer and in worship. 

The Empty Chair

A disappearance is powerfully bewildering.   Every magician knows this.   Disappearance mystifies us.  We doubt what we just saw.  Was it really there?  Was it what we thought it was?  Where is it now?  What just happened?  A disappearance unsecures what was secure, makes us rethink what is real.   Calls remembrance into question.  Creates suspicion of others.   Whether David Copperfield is vanishing the Statue of Liberty or we are missing our car keys, a disappearance raises questions and fuels emotions – frustration, uncertainty and anger.

But if this is true of things that disappear, how much more is it true when people disappear.   People disappear from our lives in many ways.  Some are taken from us and some choose to leave.   Some leave expectedly and some suddenly.   Some may return or be found, but others may be gone forever.   Some circumstances make it easier to accept, but the disappearance of people from our lives is never easy.  Questions become more urgent and unanswerable.  And the emotions — grief, loneliness, and fear — become more consuming.   The empty chair casts a long shadow.

The Lord Jesus knew his “leaving day” was coming.  His departure would be hard for the disciples to understand and even harder to accept.   As he celebrated a last Passover with them, he explained the nature and necessity of his return to the Father.  They were grief stricken and filled with questions.   In John 14-16 we read how Jesus comforted them and answered their questions.  Then after he rose from the dead, he remained with them 40 days to prepare them for their part in the story of redemption.  After those 40 days, he ascended and returned to the Father with the disciples looking on.  Can you imagine their emotion in that moment?  Luke records the moment In Acts 1.

as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Acts 1:9-11

We might have expected the disciples to be dismayed at Jesus disappearance.  During the 40 days following his resurrection, Jesus had appeared and disappeared.  But this was different.  Jesus was gone for good this time.   But Jesus had taught them what his Ascension meant.  He would send them the Holy Spirit.  Far from being alone, now, in the person of the Spirit, Jesus would be more with them than ever.   At last he ascended to the throne and begun to rule, as they had long desired.   Luke tells us that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy.   The enemies who sought their lives were still enemies.  The dangers they would face remained.  The bodily presence of Jesus that they had followed and loved for three years was gone, never to return in their lifetimes.  Yet they have great joy.

The disciples now understood what Jesus’ Ascension meant and what it promised.  Do you?  Every week millions of Christians profess their faith together in the Apostles’ Creed.   Among its central doctrines is a profession that Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”  Yet many have never considered why this is such an important doctrine.   Join us on Facebook Live at 10:30 am this Lord’s Day, May 3, as we examine Luke 24:50-53 and consider the hope and comfort we receive from the Ascension.