Thursday, April 14, 2022

Pastoral Counsel From Old Newton

Countless times I've received pastoral counsel from a man I've never met- at least not face to face. I've met him in the words he wrote to others, and I've sat down with him, in a sense, as he has spoken into my life. I again received pastoral counsel from this old, long-deceased, man, John Newton, today in some words that I read some time ago, but they fit me just as well now as they did before. I have to admit that my heart yearns for the country, and warmth, and trees, and creeks, and fields. About this time every year, coming out of winter, when Buffalo weather just can't let go of yesterday and embrace the inevitable, I get restless. And I need a reminder from pastor Newton that the Lord always knows what is best for me, and He always gives it.

Newton knew the beautiful countryside of England. He pastored in village called Olney for a number of years, where he was able to enjoy the scenery. But in time, the Lord moved him to London, and his work broadened. The scenery was not as pleasing, he felt crowded and wanted to stretch his legs, and he often became restless. In one letter, to a woman named Miss Flower, Newton responds to her about the place she was writing from:

I hope, however, that while you continue abroad you will be happy and easy. How could you tantalize me with mentioning cottages and hills peeping between them? Cottages, hills, woods, birds and brooks, are words which always set my imagination on its tip-toes till sober judgment interposes and commands it to sit down again. Even admitting that Potters Pury far exceeds Windsor or Clifton, and were it June instead of November, neither the place not the company should tempt me to wish myself there when the Lord appoints me to be here

My imagination does just as his. In March and April, it stands on its tip-toes trying to see where the grass is already being cut, and the trees have already bloomed. But this is where I need to apply to my own heart what the pastor says. I will not wish myself anywhere but where the Lord has planted me. He knows what is best, for myself, for my family, and for the ministry He has given. I am greatly privileged to serve where I am. My church family has been such a blessing for 8+ years. They are God's good people, who know what grace, and love, and truth are. They have been what I've needed. I'm grateful that the Lord knew that before I did, and planted me where my heart could grow (if not April grass). I'll close with a final word from Mr. Newton, as to the wisdom of God:

I hope, however, as we grow older we shall grow wiser, and be more satisfied, that whether we are placed in town or country, whether we are sick or well, the present circumstances for the present time must be best, because of His appointment.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Whatever Your Heart is Devoted to, You Will Become Like It

I have been picking my way through a book recently called We Become What We Worship, by G.K. Beale (1). The guiding principle throughout is this: "What we revere, we resemble, either for ruin or restoration." Whatever it is that your heart is devoted to...you will become like it. Beale begins his argument in Isaiah 6, where the Lord tells the prophet to say to Israel,

"Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed" (Is. 6:9-10). 

Why would God want Isaiah to prophesy to these people who would not listen? Dr. Beale claims that the people's heavy ears and blind eyes are a judgment against them for worshipping idols who can't see nor hear. They have been made to become like what they worship. Psalm 115 says it plainly:

Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them. (Ps. 115:4-8 ESV)

I was struck by how profound this truth is. As the peoples reject Him, the Lord gives them over to become like whatever they devote their heart, soul, mind, and strength to. Is it any wonder that a person spends all his time listening to angry Fox News diatribes (or CNN if it makes you feel better), that his speech begins to sound like theirs? His heart is being discipled and shaped by the news network he loves. He becomes like what he worships. Do we not also see this principle work its way out in practical ways in our homes? Do our children not begin to resemble whatever culture they start to revere? Do they not begin to behave like those people that they esteem? And make no mistake, that behavior does not come about simply by imitation. Their hearts are being drawn in and shaped, therefore, they genuinely become like those people and ideas they are devoted to.

It caused me to wonder about the current state of the church in America. Couldn't this be the reason why the church looks so much like the world? Could it be that much of what calls itself the church in our nation has a heart that is really devoted to the world, though its lips say otherwise on Sundays? I don't know if faith, hope, and love are the obvious characteristics of the western church, and the simple answer could be that Christ does not have its heart.

As discouraging as this principle is in regard to idolatry, it encourages us to know that the Lord has chosen to remake us into His image, as we revere and worship Him. We are not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2). By God's grace, the Lord has chosen to conform us to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29) as we behold Him and love Him, from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). So, just as it is possible to be changed into the image of the idols that a man worships, so it is possible to be transformed into the beautiful image of the Son of God- if we will worship Him alone. If I behold Him, I will become like Him. If our church is beholding Christ, and abiding in Him, we all will take on more and more of the fruit of His nature in community together. This should have a practical impact on the way I (and our church!) choose to spend my time, what I listen to, what I put my eyes on. I need to be aware of devilish draw of the idols around me. These contemporary idols may not be made of wood, blind and deaf, but they have the power to capture my heart, and cause me to become like them. This requires vigilance about my devotion to the One who bought me with His blood. It requires me to "watch," as Jesus so often taught His disciples- to stay awake. It should cause me to press in to His Word, to pray always, and not grow dull. My chief aim then, should be to revere Him, love Him, and worship Him, so I will continue to experience the restoration God has begun (and thankfully complete- Phil. 1:6), to make me into the image of His Son, until I become like Him in glory (1 John 3:2). May the Lord bless your efforts, and faith, as you seek this as well, to the praise of His glorious grace...Do you have an example to share in how you have seen this principle work its way out? How a modern idol has shaped a people to become like it?


(1) G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008)


Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Satan's Delusions

John Newton wrote many pastoral letters in his lifetime. He was uniquely gifted by God to encourage his recipients so long ago, and still encourage those who read from his hand today. This is an excerpt from one such letter to Captain Alexander Clunie in 1766 about the delusions that Satan seeks to use on those in this world: 

The good Lord keeps us from his delusions; he is always dangerous, but never more so when he pleads for Gospel doctrines in order to abuse them, and when he tries to pass his counterfeit humility, zeal, and sanctity upon us for pure gold. No coiner can equal him for imitation. Where Christ has a church, he will have a synagogue; where the Spirit produces any graces, he, like the magicians of Egypt, will do something like it, and yet as unlike it, as possible. He has something that comes so near the Gospel, that it is called by St. Paul another gospel, and yet in reality it is no gospel at all. He deals much in half convictions, and almost Christians, but does not like thorough work. He will let people talk about grace as much as they please, and commend them for it, provided talking will satisfy them...But, let him look and talk as he desires--he is Satan still; and those who are experienced and watchful may discern his cloven foot hanging below his fine garment of light! He is never more a devil--than when he looks most like an angel. Let us beware of him; for many wise have been deceived, and many strong have been cast down by him. Let us continually apply to him who is able to keep us from falling, and to present us spotless in the end.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Conscience and the Covid Vaccine

Over the past several months, I've had a number of conversations with Christians who have encountered conflict in their homes, extended families, and workplaces, over the issue of the Covid-19 vaccine. In some cases, visitation of grandchildren is at stake. In others, it's keeping a job, or a spouse's concern for the other's health (I've been asked to tell someone that they need to get vaccinated, when they wouldn't listen to the pleas from their loved one). Mistrust abounds- for the political establishment, for the media, for government agencies. And now, with the FDA approving one of the vaccines this week, for those 16 and older, more mandates will be coming to an employer near you. For some who are reading this, the issue is as simple as doing what seems best for your own health and for others in society. You hear the messaging that the vaccines work, that this is the way out of the Corona-wilderness, and the only concern you should have is for the minor side effects of a sore arm and a little grogginess. What's the big deal? 

For others, it's not so simple. There are a multitude of concerns holding back, not just Christians, but a decent percentage of the population. Statistics vary, but there is still around 30% of the adult population who have not rolled up their sleeves. And in spite of the prevailing message from many in the popular media, that percentage isn't occupied only by Trump-supporting bumpkins that fit the narrative. See what I mean by watching this. (I had to chuckle a bit that the woman in the video said she was a goat, though the Lord's condemnation fell on those animals at the judgment. Anything, I guess, than to be the wrong kind of sheep.) The vaccine-hesitant, or vaccine-opposed, is made up of all shades, from all places, and from both parties...though yes, the largest concentration does seem to come from warmer climes and redder states. And though I can sympathize with the concerns that any regular Joe from fly-over country may have with being told to do something he doesn't want to do, my main concern is for Christians who understand that every decision they make will be held in the balance and weighed by their righteous Lord in Heaven. 

I disagree with the simplistic notion that to get vaccinated is the only right thing to do- that it is naturally the obvious, and only, fulfillment of the Lord's command to love your neighbor- and that anyone who doesn't do so must, then, receive a leery eye (or lashing tongue) reserved for such neighbor-haters. I've met some Christians who are genuinely motivated by the desire to take care of their neighbor's health, and this was their reason for getting the vaccine. I find that admirable, and a beautiful application of the Lord's command. But I don't see that, then, as an imperative for all to get the needle. There is plenty of room for disagreement among brothers and sisters in Christ as to what is right and wrong. The New Testament has nothing direct to say about vaccinations and herd immunity, though it does give guidance about matters that fall under matters of opinion. Like us, the early Christian community had their disagreements. Some of it involved foods, and what was appropriate for a Christian to eat ("Can I eat meats that have been involved in some sort of idolatrous ceremony?"). Others saw some days as more worthy of honor than others ("Since I came out of Judaism, I still want to keep the Sabbath. Shouldn't everyone honor that day like I do?"). The Apostle Paul's solution to these issues of dispute was to appeal to the individual's conscience. Each person, Paul said, "should be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom. 14:5). One man could eat, but his fellow Christian refrain from doing so, and each believe that he was doing what honored the Lord. Both could have a clean conscience about his conviction and decision. And make no mistake about it, one of these men would have believed it to be a grave sin to have eaten that meat (or to have not kept the Sabbath). The other man might have thought nothing of it. And though Paul would have had his own opinion as to what was best, his command was aimed at keeping unity, and unstained consciences, in the church despite differences. 

Final judgment over questionable concerns would be left to the Lord of the conscience. It was not the duty of the Christian to judge his brother in these matters. A man who knows he will have to stand at the judgment seat of Christ one day, maybe in the near future, and have all of his intentions, thoughts, opinions, and actions laid bare, will put the judgments of others in the appropriate category (or wastepaper basket)- whether personally (in churches, in the workplace, on social media, or in your home) or broadly (from the news media, government spokespersons, etc.). The key in this section of Scripture, is that the Christian's motivation is to honor Christ. So, concerning the issue whether one should partake, or not partake, of this particular vaccination, each Christian needs to see his/her decision in light of one's life belonging to Christ and His Kingdom. "Am I seeking to honor Him in this?"

Later in that same chapter, Paul makes a couple of other statements that have application here: "Do not for the sake of food destroy the work of God" (Verse 20). Our salvation does not hinge on what we choose to eat or not eat. Neither does it hinge on a person's vaccination status. One has a right to get it, or refrain from it, as he/she sees fit & wise under the government of Christ. Let us not, for the sake of medicine (or however else it might be framed), destroy the work that God has done in the salvation of His church, to unify a people in His love, under the blood of His Son. Keep Christ the main thing, and maintain the unity of peace and the bond of the Spirit.

And finally..."But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Verse 23). Paul envisions a man whose conscience tells him that he should not eat certain foods...and having been convinced that it's fine for him to do so, takes a bite. In that moment, his doubts are confirmed by an accusing conscience. He did not act in faith, and therefore has sinned. Coercion, in its varied forms, is the tool being used to bring the hesitant to the nearest vaccine clinic. Money and lottery tickets are distributed by municipalities. Shame and ostracism are levied from individuals and platforms. Mandates are coming down from state and federal governments. My concern, as a pastor, is for the people of God to make decisions because they are "fully convinced" and can "proceed from faith," not by being coerced into sin. Sometimes, loving your neighbor will mean not coercing him to go against his doubting conscience.

Everyone wants to move on from the cultural moment (well, I hope that's true anyway). For those of you who are facing pressure to make difficult decisions, you have my prayers right now. This is a challenging moment that affects your family, your finances, and your faith. I don't know what's motivating you to take this paritcular position, or that one (or one of indecision), but my hope is that you will do what you truly believe best honors Christ, and as much as can be possible, that you will be fully convinced of it, and maintain a clean conscience before Him.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Slowing Down for a Few Minutes on Sunday

 Yesterday, I was sitting in the balcony as people began coming in for the Sunday worship service. I saw an older man come in and hug two boys who need encouragement and love from a male role-model. There was joy on their faces, and his. Then a younger man snuck up behind a teenage girl and playfully startled her. I appreciate a good scare. I'm not sure this one counted as one, but I liked his effort. As I moved down to the floor toward the front stage, I looked back, and an older man and woman were dancing together to the worship music that was playing, like this was completely normal, right in the middle of a group of others coming in...I don't take time to watch the people each Sunday as they come in for worship, but on this particular day I was thankful I did. It reminded me that God is doing something wonderful among regular people, who love Jesus, and call themselves Caz Church. This particular group of people would have never been brought together in any one place at the same time, except by the grace of God. The thing that draws us to one another is Jesus, and He is leading us from what we were to what we will be...Currently, we are not buttoned up. We're a bit messy. I would say that a good number of the folks are not well-practiced at hiding their problems (or their personalities). They are who they are, and it's colorful, and it's beautiful, as seen from the right lens. We are not a tightly run organization, for better or worse, with catch-phrases and slogans. Paid professionals don't lead all of our ministries. Gifted volunteers, who believe the truth of God's Word, drive most of what gets done, to the glory of God. We're a simple, loving group of people that Jesus has brought together to teach the Gospel, and pray, and serve in the city of Buffalo. There's a great deal that we (and me especially) could do better, but whatever we are that's good, and pure, and admirable, and holy, has come directly from the hand of the Lord. I thank God for the people here, and pray that He will bring more, as He calls them from out of the world into gatherings like ours; and I'm thankful He gave me a few minutes to slow down on a Sunday morning and take note of His love that is in the midst of these people in South Buffalo. It was a gift of His grace and kindness, and it was just what I needed.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Disappointment with God?

Are you discouraged, or struggling with disappointment? Do you ever turn that disappointment toward God, and express frustration toward Him? In his commentary on the book of Romans (and on chapter 8 in particular), James Montgomery Boice writes some encouraging words that I hope will lead you to rejoice in your Savior, and in His work in your life, as you are wading through waters that will, at times, seem overwhelming.

Someone sent me a book by Philip Yancey, a free-lance author and editor-at-large for Christianity Today, titled, Disappointment with God. It grew out of counseling sessions the author had with young Christians, all of whom were disappointed with God and whose complaints boiled down to three accusations: (1) God is not fair; (2) God is hidden; and (3) God is silent- he does not answer prayers.

I am sure these accusations are genuine, and I appreciate Yancey's answers. He replies that "fairness" would send each and every one of us to hell; that God unveiled himself as fully as possible in the person of the historical Jesus Christ; and this it is out of his periods of silence that God draws forth the precious perfume of human faith.

Yet what stuck with me most about the book is its title; Disappointment with God. For I found myself reflecting, particularly since I was beginning at the same time to work through this great eighth chapter of Romans, how any Christian could possibly be disappointed with God.

Disappointed with God? When He sent Jesus Christ to die for us so that we might escape His just wrath and condemnation? 

Disappointment with God? When He sent His Holy Spirit to free us from our own sinful and debilitating natures and join us to Christ? 

Disappointment with God? When He has made us His very own daughters and sons, with all the privileges that come from it? 

Disappointment with God? When He has drawn us into a great cosmic drama of redemption, in which the heavens and earth have a part? 

Disappointment with God? When the Spirit intercedes for us, conforming our ignorant and incomplete prayers to the good, pleasing, and acceptable will of God?

Disappointment with God? When He has set in motion an invincible chain of saving action, beginning with His affectionate choice of us in eternity past, proceeding through His predestination of us to be saved from sin and conformed to the image of His own blessed Son, His effectual calling of us to faith in Jesus as the Savior, and justification, and ending with glorification in which all the blessed purposes of God toward us are fulfilled? 

Disappointment with God? When He has fixed such a lasting love upon us that nothing in all creation can separate us from it? 

Disappointment?

Brothers and sisters, what are we thinking of? Or is it that we are not thinking? Or thinking only of ourselves? Perhaps our disappointment (if we have it) means only that we are unhappy because God has not done exactly what we wanted Him to do when we wanted Him to do it, regardless of the fact that He has a much better plan for us and is actually working it our day by day, and will until the end of time.

Quotation from: James Montgomery Boice, Romans, Volume 2: The Reign of Grace, Romans 5:1-8:39 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992)

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Year of Fallow Ground and Hidden Fruit

This is a (modified) message I sent to our church family today, that I hope the Lord will use to encourage the flock at Caz, but also anyone else who needs it during these pressing, but providential, days..

Church Family,

It has been such a blessing to see a good number of you back in worship on Sunday mornings. As thankful as I am for that, I also look forward to a time when our entire congregation can gather together again- not only for worship, but for Bible study, for children's ministry, for service to the community- to be a whole family again. And though I lament these times, I am also strengthened in the knowledge that the Lord has a purpose in all we are experiencing as a church. In the Old Testament, there were years where the ground was to rest according to the will of the Lord. Every seventh year, there was a "Sabbath" year, and then one year after seven of those had occurred there was the fiftieth year called the "Jubilee" (Leviticus 25:1-22). During those "Jubilee" years, the people were released from certain debts and requirements, and the ground wasn't tilled and worked as it normally was. I'm sure there were a good many people who, during those years, didn't see that as the greatest wisdom. They would have wanted the normal routines of business and agriculture to continue as usual, for the sake of the "economy," or for the personal comforts that those routines provided. But God was teaching them to trust in Him during those years- that He would provide and care for them, since they were His people, not the world's. A good Father cares for His children, and there is no Father like the Lord. Now, I don't claim to know exactly what our God is doing during these difficult days with great detail and prophetic insight, and I do understand that the year of Jubilee (and the Sabbath year) is no longer mandated, or in effect, for God's people. However, I can see this as something akin to a Jubilee in the wisdom and purposes of God, because I know that He is teaching me (us) to trust Him during a year when normal routines are broken, and where the economy is restrained by people forced to rest. He will provide for His people, and teach them to depend on Him. This year may not have been on our calendars, but it was planned on the Lord's. Satan has a great deal of power in this world as its "prince" (Eph. 2:2), and, no doubt, he plays a part in all of this, but the "earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therin" (Ps. 24:1). All economies, all nations, all governments, and all peoples are His. He has a purpose on the earth and will work all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11)- not according to my timeline, or anyone else's. I may want to charge forward with the regular routines of ministry (and I do), but I willingly and joyfully submit to the Master who is so much higher and holier than a lowly servant like me. He is not required to tell me all His plans or His timelines. I am grateful to know I simply belong to One as good and wise as He, and am loved more than I deserve. His grace is enough. Yes, I look forward to something more "normal," but I also look forward to a time when I can see these days with a little more perspective, in the life of our church and in our home. Surely what is now hidden from my sight will become plain, and what was left fallow will, in His wisdom, have proven fruitful. Greater insight may not be mine until I'm with Him, but I will have learned, in the meantime, that He is my Sustainer, my Deliverer, and my Rock, similar to those who were faithful to keep, and celebrate, those Sabbaths and Jubilees so many years ago. And knowing Him more deeply through it all will be more than enough for me.