Friday, July 28, 2017

Who Hardened Pharaoh's Heart?

I have found this article by G.K. Beale to be a really helpful resource in understanding the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. It is technical, but you can skip the parts in Hebrew and still get the gist of things. If you are trying to carefully think through the first cause of hardening (was it Pharaoh or God or both?) then this is a must read. I am grateful you can read it for free!
Here is a sample:
"A classic and important objection to this idea is that it associates God too closely with the cause of sin. No doubt the theologian must be very careful in discussing God's relation to sin. Nevertheless, the above exegesis shows that Exod 4-14 says that God was the ultimate, unconditional cause of Pharaoh's volition while holding him accountable for his disobedient volitional acts. While many theologians see an antinomy between divine sovereignty and human freedom in Exod 4-14 and Rom 9, the present evidence places the mystery between divine sovereignty and human accountability."

Friday, June 16, 2017

Interest and Enjoyment: A Father's Day Thought

I was talking with a friend the other day about our fathers. The conversation moved to those men besides our dads who made a father-like impression on us. One of those men for me was my father-in-law, Bob Hueni.
Bob was a man’s man. I mean, he was a little short by my standards, but he was all man. It’s funny what impresses you about a person once they’re gone. As I thought about his deep encouragement in my life I was struck by how few times he actually said something like, “You’re going a great job, Paul.” Because that is almost always what I felt from him. I realize now that so much of that affirmation came from two things.
First, he took an interest in my life. A real interest. Not just in my pastoring (since he was also a pastor), but in all the other stuff, too. We went to Leafs games, worked on the lawn, talked about the Blue Jays… just lots of stuff that he really didn’t have any reason to be interested in other than it was my interest.
Not only did he take an interest in these things, he enjoyed them along with me. Some of my happiest memories of Bob are cheering along the 1993 World Series Champions Toronto Blue Jays from a little hotel room in Southern California. Bob and Letty had come out to visit and made an extended stay of it. We had a blast cheering for the boys in blue. That died in the wool Cubs fan enjoyed my team.
I realize now how precious this all was. And is.
It makes me want to copy him all the more. Take an interest in other people’s lives and enjoy it with them. Sounds like a great plan. In fact, it sounds a lot like how God loved us in Christ.

Zephaniah 3:17
The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Why is the Super Bowl on a Sunday?

The Super Bowl is tomorrow. Maybe you have heard about it? I was thinking about the big game today and got to wondering what I would do if the Toronto Maple Leafs were in a Game 7 to win the Stanley Cup. That would be the ultimate game of all time I would never want to miss. But I would miss it, if it happened to fall on a Sunday when we had a church service. 

I suppose you could argue that I would have to since I am the pastor of that church, but I am 95% sure I would miss it even if I was not a pastor. You see, there was a time when my love of hockey would have tempted me to change a service time in order to get in a game. But then I had this Game 7 scenario run through my mind and I thought, “At some point, you just have to die to things you love.” That was remarkably freeing. And not just because some people can record games and watch them later. It was freeing because it exposed and toppled an idol in my heart. I looked at a thing I adored (hockey, especially winning Leafs hockey) and the Lord. He tells me to not forsake gathering together with my church. So, I looked at the idol, looked at my Lord’s command, and the decision was easy. I went with the Lord. And these kinds of decisions really are freeing. I was no longer enslaved to a thing. 
I am sure lots of friends will joke that it is not much of a self-denial as my Leafs are perennial losers. Fair enough. But, should they start to win, I am glad to have this decision already made. What does all this have to do with the Super Bowl. Just that I think you should free yourself from every form of cultural bondage. Value God and His people above the Super Bowl. You will be glad you did. Super Bowls crack and rust. The Kingdom of God does not. If your church ends up not having services during the game, then by all means feel free to enjoy wisely. But don't forget that fellowship is not restricted to your church service times. Maybe a brother or sister is going to need you tomorrow night. If you are set free from your bondage to football, then you will be free to serve. And Jesus said, “It is better to give than to receive.”

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The March for Life Wrecked Me

The size of the crowd caught me off guard. Some early estimates placed it well over half a million. I am not one for crowds and find anything more than 6 kind of suffocating, so shuffling in line for 45 minutes to get screened and frisked in order to stand 100 meters from the Vice President of the United States was not my comfort zone. Neither was holding a sign that read, “All people are created in the image of God.” And that is ironic, because I like to preach about that. I like to preach about that in my church or other churches that are friendly to the Gospel and trusting of the Bible. But there was a sense in this very public demonstration that not everyone in Washington agreed with my sign. 
It was just last week another march took place that had a lot more famous people and they laid down the law that anybody like me, anybody who believed in the sanctity of life from the womb to the tomb, was not welcome at their march. And it was like that vibe still hung in the air. So, I felt like a quiet Canadian in a big American thing and it was uncomfortable.

I also felt like I had failed. The March for Life is a Roman Catholic project. Sure there have been evangelical voices in the March over the years, but hardly so. At least 30% of the crowd seemed to be of high school age. Entire Catholic schools had bussed in hundreds of their students to stand for life. I was standing in a sea of the high pitched voices of cheerleaders.  And I was ashamed that my tribe, the evangelical world of which I am happily a part, had done so little for so long. We were a mere flea on this elephantine event. 
When Dr. Mohler spoke last night he reflected on how Catholics had centuries of thought and writings in the area of moral law to turn to when the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down. They also had orders of nuns and other social agencies to immediately help women in crisis pregnancies. So, they knew what to do. We didn’t. 
A few years ago I was walking past an abortion clinic in a US city and passed two elderly Catholic women who went there every week to lovingly tell the young moms going in those doors that they had other options. Walking with a friend we inadvertently ended up between the sidewalk counsellors and that girl. That poor, scare girl. It all happened very fast but I was changed that day.

I know my situation is different. Canada has strict rules about how close you can stand to an abortion facility and even what you can say. Plus, we lack that decisive moment like Roe v. Wade to mark our country’s decision to take life rather than protect it. And we are so Canadian. It is not in our nature to march or protest or hold up signs. But I still felt waves of grief for how little I have done to help the marginalized and hopeless in my neighbourhood. I have done some things. But not as much as I should. 
So, marching along the Mall with my new friend, Kevin, was a bit of a surreal experience. I was proud to stand for life, yet ashamed I had never done so before. I was thankful for these dear Catholic friends, yet ashamed that we evangelicals had watched in silence for so long. I was thrilled to stand not just for the protection of the unborn, but the flourishing of all human life (especially of the disabled, the refugee, the minority, the oppressed, the aged); yet wondering what more I could do to help the very people I say I want to protect and serve. 
All of this going on while T-shirt vendors hawked their wares, the odd food truck offered a cup of hot coffee (for a price!) and some guy on a segue dressed up as Uncle Sam handed out flyers. America.

Going to this March, staying in it and actually walking along and carrying my sign was an act of obedience for me. I felt I needed to do this to honour the Lord and take my stand. I am glad I did. But like so many things in life this was only a first step. I am not yet sure what step two and three are, but I know they are coming. Maybe that is what was nagging at my heart all day. There is more to do and the doing of it will not be easy. But it will be worth it, because God loves life and because of that, I do, too.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


Monday morning I went out to shovel the snow. It is Saturday evening and I am still a mess. All it took was one short push of a broom across the hood of my truck, attempting to clear the snow off my vehicle before I shovelled, when that electric shock zapped me mid-back. It had happened before so I started for the front door. I managed to get in the house and to the living room floor. Flattened. In pain. Broken. Sometimes I feel so capable and happy to be able-bodied and of generally sound mind. Then a day like Monday shows up and I remember all over again how weak I am.

The next few days were on the floor, to the doctor, stronger muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories, a 45 minute attempt at work in the office and back to the floor. In fact, I had to hit the floor once I got to the office.

I don’t like not working. I don’t like having to get other people to put my socks on my feet. I don’t like standing at the window and watching my wife, children and mother(!) shovel my driveway as more and more snow hits. I don’t like not being able to do what I want, when I want to. But there has not been much choice. 

If I stand, my legs go numb. If I sit, my back seizes up. So I go back to the floor. It is definitely improving, but I am still feeble and walking around with that sense of “one bad move and you’re done.” In other words, I am weak. And I do not like it. I first noticed my repulsion to this weakness when I found more comfort in Netflix than my Bible. It took my mind off the pain and distracted me from my condition. I am just watching a movie…

But the more I considered this, the more I realized how deep was my resolve to care for myself. More than that, to find my own happiness. Paul wrote, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” But I could only say, “When I am weak, I dig down even harder to survive without His grace. My power is sufficient for me.” 

I was startled by the revelation, for I have felt a particular closeness in my fellowship with God this fall and winter. I have found my heart wanting more and more of Him. But when this trial appeared, all it did was show me how tight a grip my (supposed) self-sufficiency had on my most secret heart. Thankfully, in His grace, He stretched out the pain and floor time almost an entire week and kept whispering, “You’re not strong enough.”

I wonder why we are so afraid of weakness? In my best moments I glory in His power in the middle of my powerlessness, but perhaps that is only in those areas of my life that I am willing to admit I need Him. I don’t want to need help to get up, to get dressed, nor to move from one part of the house to the other. I want help with big projects or seemingly impossible situations in other peoples lives. I just don’t want help with brushing my teeth. 

All of this made me think of some of my disabled friends, some of whom would be thrilled to move as much as I am moving today. So many of them seem to have reached a calm acceptance of their lot. They are not humiliated by their humble situation. Acceptance. Contentment. That seems to be at the heart of it, doesn’t it? 

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. (2 Corinthians 13:4a)

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.

- John Newton

So in the end I thank Him. He loves me so faithfully that He is willing to keep digging down deep to pry my fingers off my idol of self-sufficiency and, in the process, show me all the more how much I need Him.

Come, Lord Jesus.

(And yes, this post was written from the floor.)

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Child Dedication Services: Some Friendly Last Words from Us Paul's

Many Points of Agreement and One Observation on Paul Carter’s Evaluation of My Article on Not Performing Child Dedication Services (Paul Martin)

I really enjoyed reading Paul Carter’s engagement with my article on why we do not practise Child Dedication services in our corporate worship at Grace Fellowship Church. And that sentence was intended to be really precise. Paul’s article highlights a second issue that I want to engage, but some points of agreement first.
First of all, I agree that looking to the one instance of a baby being dedicated (1 Samuel 1) is bad form, but I have heard this very appeal on numerous occasions! Not from guys like Paul, but from many others. In fact, it was hearing this exegetical fallacy so often that caused me to start there in my presentation. (Again, I should note that what I posted was a lightly edited version of something I wrote twenty years ago.) So, I agree that looking to that text is a terrible way to justify a position, but I have heard it done (either vaguely or specifically) on so many occasions that I thought a careful look at what that passage was actually saying was in order. So, I basically agree with what Paul wrote on that point.
I also agree with Paul’s statement that “the abuse of a thing is not the negation of a thing.” But I think Paul would agree with me that neither is it the endorsement of a thing. Child Dedication services are a great example of something that two churches, in very different contexts, might come to very different conclusions on - and both be right. 
I also want to stress my agreement with Paul that we don't become all “grim and forbidding.” (Paul is such a good author. I love his turn of phrase!) So, just to be clear, at Grace Fellowship Church we tend to do wild and crazy things like, wait for it, applaud when we see a new baby in the service for the first time or include a very specific word of thanksgiving to God for a newborn in our pastoral prayer. I even try to visit hospitals and hold babies and pray for them there. To be honest, I really love kids and enjoy them immensely. So, I don’t think we are grim and forbidding nor ungenerous. We just don't have a special Child Dedication service as part of our corporate worship. 
And that leads me to that thing that Paul’s article highlights in a kind of accidental way (I think). Paul quotes Matthew 19:13-14 as a kind of endorsement of such a service. This starts to lead us into the waters of what is typically called the Regulative Principle, or the Hooker Principle, depending on where you land on such things. Basically, it is the way students of the Bible have tried to answer the question of what is allowed in a corporate worship service. If you run with Bishop Hooker, you basically surmise that anything not prohibited is permitted. If you put yourself under the Regulative Principle, the basic gist is that you will only do those things that are positively commanded. Now, read enough and you will realize it is hard to find three pastors who agree on what are those prescribed elements of corporate worship.From my perspective, I think an official Child Dedication Service in an official Sunday Worship Service is very close to adding in to the list of things we can do. In other words, it might be something the Bible does not prescribe and therefore should not be included in corporate worship. Paul might look at Matthew 19 another way and suggest that is exactly the kind of endorsement needed. 
Either way, I wonder how different our practise looks in comparison to First Baptist Church of Orillia’s practise in the end. 
  • We are both very happy when a baby is born.
  • We both publicly thank God for that child and pray for her parents.
  • We both do this in a public worship service, albeit in very different forms. 

In the end, what I want for my church and Paul’s is that we think though all the things we do in a corporate worship service biblically. And if we come to varying opinions on how to work that out, we have only to be sure that we can stand before the Lord with a clear conscience with what we do. “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5 ESV) After that, we can happily agree to disagree and should I visit First Baptist on a Child Dedication Service day, I will pray just as much as the next guy for that little one.

Now, here is Paul's rejoinder to my reply. Enjoy!

How I feel when get a reply from Paul Carter.

Closing Thoughts By Paul Carter

I enjoyed this public exercise a great deal and wish that all debates could be handled in such a manner. Of course the game was somewhat rigged in that Paul and I actually really like each other and we hold positions that are really not that far apart. We both reject child dedication done poorly and wish to make clear that it is in no sense and in no way to be understood as an ordinance or a sacrament of the church. We both think it is a great thing to recognize and to celebrate new life in the context of a worship service. In fact, there is a line in Paul’s article that I would have happily included in my own:

“Is it incorrect to publicly pray for a newborn child?  Not for a second. We want to receive children in the spirit with which Jesus held them and blessed them.”

Hear hear.

Where we differ, to the extent that we do, we differ without malice. I appreciate the verse that Paul cited in his closing statement and to it I would add one more from the same chapter:

"Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God" (Romans 14:10 ESV)

This is not the sort of difference over which brothers should judge each other or exclude each other from fellowship. In fact, while I knew that Paul did not practice child dedication at his church, and he knew that I did at mine, we had never even discussed this issue with each other before we engaged in this public exercise. My friendship with Paul is worth more to me than the opportunity to express or to have validated my conviction in this area. Had I not been invited to engage this topic with Paul, I would not have.

Paul rightly makes mention of the Hooker and Regulative Principles. I think both Paul and I would both want to locate ourselves closer to the Regulative Principle on that particular continuum. We would both want to see a strong Biblical warrant for each and every aspect of our corporate liturgy. Our disagreement presently comes down to how we do the things we both feel warrant to do: celebrate babies and encourage moms and dads. I do it a little more formally than my brother Paul. As the Scripture says, let each be convinced in his own mind.

Paul Carter

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Child Dedication Services Are Not Such a Good Thing

My good friend, Paul Carter, recently posted an article on Baby Dedication services that jogged a memory. I recall spending a lot of time thinking through these things when I was a young pastor. There seemed to be a great deal of confusion over what a dedication service was and, more importantly, what it did
As much as I love Paul and appreciated his article, I disagreed with his conclusion. Since he really is my friend, I thought I would offer a different opinion here, in part so you can see that pastors who really do love each other really can disagree about stuff. 
I should note that Paul is the best kind of baby dedicator I can think of! He makes clear what he is doing and what he is not doing. I still disagree with him, but at least he is not all loopy. 
Here is how I thought through the matter. For an opposite conclusion, be sure to read Paul’s post.


Where Does the Idea of a Baby Dedication Come From?
The only Biblical reference for a baby dedication is 1 Samuel 1:28 “So I have also dedicated him to the Lord; as long as he lives he is dedicated to the Lord.”  These were Hannah’s words as she brought her freshly-weaned son, Samuel,  to the temple and gave him to the priest, Eli.  Hannah had prayed fervently for a child to end her barrenness, and had promised the Lord that, should He enable her to conceive, she would (literally and physically) give her child to God.  The practical, geographical location to do this was the Temple in Jerusalem.  So when she dedicated Samuel to the Lord, she actually gave the child to God’s human representative on earth, the High Priest. It was here in the temple that Samuel grew up and received an annual visit from his mother from far-off Ephraim (1 Samuel 2:19).
Thus, the only biblical example of dedicating a child to God consisted of actually giving the child to the God… and walking away.  This is affirmed by Eli’s prayer for Hannah to have more children “in place of the one she dedicated to the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:20).  The Hebrew word translated “dedicated” (used only here in the Old Testament in this way) means, “to lend.”  It is a business or commercial term that means to either “borrow or lend some valuable asset to another.”  In Samuel’s case, he was permanently lent to the Lord by his parents to do the Lord’s work. If we work from this example, to dedicate a child to God means to permanently lend him/her to God. 

Are There Other Examples in the Bible of Parents Dedicating Their Children to God?
No. The only other times the word “dedicate” was used refer to items being handed over to the temple or the Lord for His use (especially those items recovered in war or given to Israel as a gift from other nations.) 

Why Do Some Churches Hold Child Dedication Services Today?
There is probably a wide range of answers to this question including the infamous, “We don’t know! It is just what we have always done.” But I think on the whole, there is generally one good motivation and one not so good.

Genuine Love
Christians love their children and acknowledge them as a gift from the Lord (Psalm 127). They note how Jesus invited little children to come to Him that He might pray for them (Matthew 19:13-15). In a desire to thank the Lord for the real gift of these children, many churches feel some kind of public ceremony of thanks to God and prayer for the child is appropriate.
This is a good motivation. We ought to be thankful to God for our children and we ought to rejoice when parents are blessed with a newborn. However, there might be other ways to do this that do not involve a dedication service. 

Theological Envy?
A less noble motivation is theological envy. Some Christians understand infant baptism to be a parallel to the Old Covenant requirement of male circumcision. Children (infants) are therefore sprinkled with water (baptized) as a sign of entering into the “covenant community.”  Although it is expressed in many different ways, the underlying result of this baptism is a supposed “inclination” or “better chance” of responding to the gospel later in life. This drifts dangerously close to superstition.
Unfortunately, some of our Baptist churches seem to have wanted a similar ordinance for their children to perhaps give a similar kind of confidence to parents. Churches developed their own kind of kingdom initiation rite called “baby dedication.”  J. I. Packer, accurately (although with tongue in cheek), suggests these baby dedications are nothing more than “dry baptisms” and adult (believer) baptisms are simply “wet confirmations!”  In other words, they are accomplishing the same thing. He has a point.
We do not baptize babies because there is no biblical example or instruction to do so and the whole concept is contrary to the biblical definition of baptism as that which follows conversion. In the same way, we would be better off not practising Baby Dedications as there is no Biblical precedent for them and to do so confuses the dedication service with something like an infant baptism.

Don’t You Love Children?
At Grace Fellowship Church, we love children.  Our theology, however, teaches us that as sweet as our children are, they are born under the curse of sin (Romans 5:12ff). As sinners, they are not any more predisposed to the gospel of grace than the child of the witch doctor in some forgotten land.  Both children need the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit to bring about the new birth.  Both need to turn to Jesus in repentance and faith.  This is their only hope for salvation.  
It is true that the child who grows up under the “sound of the Gospel” is given many benefits that the child of the witch doctor does not receive, but the Bible is crystal clear that both need the same Saviour in the same way.
One of our hopes in omitting Child Dedications from the formal worship services of our church is that parents will be more motivated to do the four most important things they can for their children: 
  • pray for their salvation
  • preach to them the gospel
  • model to them a growing Christian life
  • and train them up in the discipline and instruction of His Word. 

A parent who (perhaps even subconsciously) holds on to the false hope of some supposed “dedication” may be prone to depend on a ceremony rather than the Saviour of sinners.

Why Make Such a Big Deal About Baby Dedications?
Part of the responsibility of churches is to teach. As a pastor who formerly practiced baby dedications, my own experience was that I would spend more time explaining what the ceremony was not than I would actually praying for the child and parents. The reason for this was who came to the ceremony. Generally it would be the family and friends of the parents, many of whom were unbelievers or who came from churches where infant baptism was practiced. In order to ensure they understood we were not ushering the child into some kind of safety net for babies we would go to great lengths to explain this was more a ceremony of accountability for the parents to fulfill their biblical parenting obligations than it was of anything to do with the child. Is it incorrect to publicly pray for a newborn child?  Not for a second. We want to receive children in the spirit with which Jesus held them and blessed them.  However, we feel that it is important to express this love in a way that is consistent with the Word and does not mislead any (the parents, the relatives and friends, the church and even, later on, the child himself).

Is Holding a Child Dedication Service a Sin?
Not if it is accompanied with correct teaching and those in attendance are not led to believe it means anything more than simply praying for the Lord’s blessing on the child’s life and the parents’ parenting.  It is a sin, however, if it pretends to be ushering the infant into some kind of special relationship with the Lord that He never promised.
The line between what is taught and what is perceived, however, is not always easy to keep sharp.  Therefore, since omitting such a service would not be a sin, and would certainly keep anyone from misunderstanding, it might be better for all churches to stop having them.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Intentional Spiritual Friendships

Something we are going to seek to work at in the coming year at Grace Fellowship Church is what I like to call intentional spiritual friendships. We tend to let fear or fancy dictate most of our relationships - we avoid people that intimidate us and strain to cozy up to folks we think will make us happy. Neither of these motives is Biblical love.
When you join our church you enter into a covenant with all the existing members “to seek to watch over your fellow members, in brotherly love” and “to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling.” In other words, you declare your intention to get to know the other members and to build a relationship with them around the Gospel, not fear or fancy. That takes work. At least, it takes initiative, risk and some death to self. And that is wonderful.
So, the goal for our members to is to seek to cultivate relationships with other members that are centred on God. Intentional spiritual friendships.
Sometimes the most difficult aspect of this is the intentionality component. How do I get started? At our Members’ Meeting last night I listed a bunch of potential ways to do this and promised one sister I would post the list on the blog so it could be reviewed and hopefully spark some ideas. So, here you go!

  • One woman gathers with others one morning per week to complete the new Missional Motherhood study by Gloria Furman.
  • A brother looks on our (soon to be released) “Where I Work Map” for a brother who works in same geographical vicinity. Even though he has never met this guy before, he shoots him an email and suggests that eat their lunch together once a week and read through the book of Acts one chapter at a time.
  • A couple asks another couple (or two!) to set aside one night a month to get together. Before each meeting they will all read one chapter of Tim Keller’s, The Meaning of Marriage, then spend time talking together about what they learned and how they intend to apply it in their own lives.
  • A group of friends pull together a Truth Application Group then meet at a home every Monday night to discuss the previous week’s sermon.
  • Five sisters decide to study True Womanhood 101 in our building on Wednesday nights while GraceYouth is going on.
  • An older dad grabs five single young adult men and has them come over to his home every Sunday night after church service to talk about life and how they are progressing in their own sanctification.
  • Man2Man /  Woman2Woman. You join a group or start a new one.
  • A couple with a young family decides that dad will meet with some brothers on the first and third week of every month and mom will meet with some sisters on the second and fourth. That way, one of them is out every week one night, but childcare is taken care of.

These are just a handful of ways to intentionally cultivate spiritual friendships. Can you think of some more?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: "Being There - How to Love Those Who Are Hurting" by Dave Furman

Dave Furman has written a helpful little book for the church. “Being There: How to Love Those Who Are Hurting” is just what it sounds like - a how-to manual to care for the hurting. It may seem like this is unnecessary for Christians, what with the Gospel and the indwelling Spirit and all that, but Dave has lived through suffering in the first person and he writes from the perspective of the sufferer and the one who has caused suffering in others.

There are two things about this book that are very unique. One is that the first chapter is addressed to the suffering that caregivers and those surrounding the sufferer experience. The first chapter, not the last. This is not what I expected when I picked up the book, but having lived through some of this stuff myself I am so glad to see this topic addressed. Too often the faithful spouses, family members and friends of the suffering never have their experiences addressed, but that is precisely where good Gospel balm can be applied:

“We must remember to love those who are hurting not because they’ve done anything for us, but because of what Jesus has already done for us. You will get the strength to help the hurting only when you understand what God has done for you in the gospel.”  (35) 
“Your strength to care for the hurting comes directly from Christ. You have no hope to truly help the hurting if you are disconnected from Christ, the vine.” (38) 
“You must be much with Christ before you are anything for anybody else.” (40)

The second big surprise in the book was that, in my opinion, the second to last chapter was the best. (Side note: It is a pet peeve of mine that most popular Christian books seem to have two to five chapters of good material followed by endless prattle to fill publishing pagination requirements. Give me blank pages rather than empty thoughts!) This chapter is entitled, “Whatever You Do, Don’t Do These Things” and it is brilliant. 

Dave gives a kind of Top Ten List of stupid things people do and say for the hurting. Most of these are not new, but it floors me how often these same old bad moves get played. I am thrilled to have a comprehensive list to hand out to the church, especially to new or aspiring elders, to say, “Don’t do these things and you are 80% of the way there to helping the suffering.”

I don’t want to make it sound like the book is a big gripe session. Dave writes in a winsome style mostly because he is a winsome guy. I feel like I am pretty attune to suffering and disability, but even after the third time I forgot Dave can’t shake hands when we greet each other, he still reminded me with a big grin and an invitation for a hug. That may not sound like much to you, but if you read the book you will see how the Lord has applied the Gospel to Dave’s life to move him from depression to love, and this in the context of authentic Christian friendships. 

“People suffering with pain, depression, or loss will be pressed in ways they’ve never been pressed before. Naturally, their sin will show itself. It’s not an excuse, but they will need faithful friends who will be committed to the well-being of their souls by rebuking them in love. Help your friends know that they need to stay in community and that the cross has already criticized them more than anyone else can.” (109)

The fact is, the local church ought to be the one place where the suffering are loved. If we really grasp what Jesus endured for us, we will have an increasing capacity to love the troubled. Not that this is an easy thing. No one said anything about easy, but Jesus did talk a lot about death to self.

“When we serve those who are depressed, disabled, handicapped, and hurting, we’re going to have to serve without need for recognition or thanksgiving. Our giving of service cannot be dependent on the response we get. Distinctly Christian service must be humble and lowly, and we must aim to honor the Lord if we want to look like Jesus.” (74)

To sum it up, we need to learn to simply be there for our suffering friends.  Essentially, we need to be Job’s three counsellors before they opened their mouths.

”…ask more questions and grow in your understanding of another’s pain rather than offering solutions for something you know very little about. Sometimes the best thing you can do is say, ‘I’m sorry, can you help me better understand what you are going through?’ And then listen.” (113)

Oh, for more loving and careful listeners.

If you are suffering or know a sufferer, buy the book. It will help you and remind you of what is most important.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Why Did the People of Lystra Think Paul and Barnabas Were Greek Gods? (Acts 14)

About 50 years before Paul and Barnabas entered the small town of Lystra, the Latin poet Ovid wrote his epic Metamorphoses. In it, he described a fictitious scene in which Zeus and Hermes took on human appearance and asked a thousand homes in Phrygia for lodging. They were rebuffed again and again until they came to the unassuming cottage of Baucis and Philemon.

Ovid is putting into poetic form what was a widely-known myth. This helps to explain why the citizens of Lystra were so quick to identify Paul as Hermes and Barnabas as Zeus after the miraculous raising of the paraplegic. Nobody wanted to miss extending hospitality to those two Greek gods again since, in the myth, they wiped out the entire area with a flood for their failure! 

You can read it here if you like this kind of thing.

The Story of Baucis and Philemon 

Thus Achelous ends: his audience hear 
With admiration, and admiring, fear 
The Pow'rs of Heav'n; except Ixion's Son, 
Who laugh'd at all the Gods, believ'd in none: 
He shook his impious head, and thus replies. 
These legends are no more than pious lies: 
You attribute too much to heav'nly sway, 
To think they give us forms, and take away. 

By Jacob van Oost (I) - Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Public Domain,

The rest of better minds, their sense declar'd 
Against this doctrine, and with horror heard. 
Then Lelex rose, an old experienc'd man, 
And thus with sober gravity began; 
Heav'n's pow'r is infinite: Earth, Air, and Sea, 
The manufacture mass, the making Pow'r obey: 
By proof to clear your doubt; in Phrygian ground 
Two neighb'ring trees, with walls encompass'd round, 
Stand on a mod'rate rise, with wonder shown, 
One a hard oak, a softer linden one: 
I saw the place, and them, by Pittheus sent 
To Phrygian realms, my grandsire's government. 
Not far from thence is seen a lake, the haunt 
Of coots, and of the fishing cormorant: 
Here Jove with Hermes came; but in disguise 
Of mortal men conceal'd their deities; 
One laid aside his thunder, one his rod; 
And many toilsome steps together trod: 
For harbour at a thousand doors they knock'd, 
Not one of all the thousand but was lock'd. 
At last an hospitable house they found, 
A homely shed; the roof, not far from ground, 
Was thatch'd with reeds, and straw, together bound. 
There Baucis and Philemon liv'd, and there 
Had liv'd long marry'd, and a happy pair: 
Now old in love, though little was their store, 
Inur'd to want, their poverty they bore, 
Nor aim'd at wealth, professing to be poor. 
For master, or for servant here to call, 
Was all alike, where only two were all. 
Command was none, where equal love was paid, 
Or rather both commanded, both obey'd. 

From lofty roofs the Gods repuls'd before, 
Now stooping, enter'd through the little door: 
The man (their hearty welcome first express'd) 
A common settle drew for either guest, 
Inviting each his weary limbs to rest. 
But ere they sate, officious Baucis lays 
Two cushions stuff'd with straw, the seat to raise; 
Coarse, but the best she had; then rakes the load 
Of ashes from the hearth, and spreads abroad 
The living coals; and, lest they should expire, 
With leaves, and bark she feeds her infant fire: 
It smoaks; and then with trembling breath she blows, 
'Till in a chearful blaze the flames arose. 
With brush-wood, and with chips she strengthens these, 
And adds at last the boughs of rotten trees. 
The fire thus form'd, she sets the kettle on 
(Like burnish'd gold the little seether shone), 
Next took the coleworts which her husband got 
From his own ground (a small well-water'd spot); 
She stripp'd the stalks of all their leaves; the best 
She cull'd, and them with handy care she drest. 
High o'er the hearth a chine of bacon hung; 
Good old Philemon seiz'd it with a prong, 
And from the sooty rafter drew it down, 
Then cut a slice, but scarce enough for one; 
Yet a large portion of a little store, 
Which for their sakes alone he wish'd were more. 
This in the pot he plung'd without delay, 
To tame the flesh, and drain the salt away. 
The time beween, before the fire they sat, 
And shorten'd the delay by pleasing chat. 

A beam there was, on which a beechen pail 
Hung by the handle, on a driven nail: 
This fill'd with water, gently warm'd, they set 
Before their guests; in this they bath'd their feet, 
And after with clean towels dry'd their sweat. 
This done, the host produc'd the genial bed, 
Sallow the feet, the borders, and the sted, 
Which with no costly coverlet they spread, 
But coarse old garments; yet such robes as these 
They laid alone, at feasts, on holidays. 
The good old housewife, tucking up her gown, 
The table sets; th' invited Gods lie down. 
The trivet-table of a foot was lame, 
A blot which prudent Baucis overcame, 
Who thrusts beneath the limping leg a sherd, 
So was the mended board exactly rear'd: 
Then rubb'd it o'er with newly gather'd mint, 
A wholsom herb, that breath'd a grateful scent. 
Pallas began the feast, where first was seen 
The party-colour'd olive, black, and green: 
Autumnal cornels next in order serv'd, 
In lees of wine well pickled, and preserv'd. 
A garden-sallad was the third supply, 
Of endive, radishes, and succory: 
Then curds, and cream, the flow'r of country fare, 
And new-laid eggs, which Baucis' busie care 
Turn'd by a gentle fire, and roasted rare. 
All these in earthen ware were serv'd to board; 
And next in place, an earthen pitcher stor'd, 
With liquor of the best the cottage could afford. 
This was the table's ornament and pride, 
With figures wrought: like pages at his side 
Stood beechen bowls; and these were shining clean, 
Varnish'd with wax without, and lin'd within. 
By this the boiling kettle had prepar'd, 
And to the table sent the smoaking lard; 
On which with eager appetite they dine, 
A sav'ry bit, that serv'd to relish wine: 
The wine itself was suiting to the rest, 
Still working in the must, and lately press'd. 
The second course succeeds like that before, 
Plums, apples, nuts, and of their wintry store 
Dry figs, and grapes, and wrinkled dates were set 
In canisters, t' enlarge the little treat: 
All these a milk-white honey-comb surround, 
Which in the midst the country-banquet crown'd: 
But the kind hosts their entertainment grace 
With hearty welcome, and an open face: 
In all they did, you might discern with ease, 
A willing mind, and a desire to please. 

Mean-time the beechen bowls went round, and still, 
Though often empty'd, were observ'd to fill; 
Fill'd without hands, and of their own accord 
Ran without feet, and danc'd about the board. 
Devotion seiz'd the pair, to see the feast 
With wine, and of no common grape, increas'd; 
And up they held their hands, and fell to pray'r, 
Excusing, as they could, their country fare. 

One goose they had ('twas all they could allow), 
A wakeful sentry, and on duty now, 
Whom to the Gods for sacrifice they vow: 
Her with malicious zeal the couple view'd; 
She ran for life, and limping they pursu'd: 
Full well the fowl perceiv'd their bad intent, 
And would not make her master's compliment; 
But persecuted, to the Pow'rs she flies, 
And close between the legs of Jove she lies: 
He with a gracious ear the suppliant heard, 
And sav'd her life; then what he has declar'd, 
And own'd the God. The neighbourhood, said he, 
Shall justly perish for impiety: 
You stand alone exempted; but obey 
With speed, and follow where we lead the way: 
Leave these accurs'd; and to the mountain's height 
Ascend; nor once look backward in your flight. 

They haste, and what their tardy feet deny'd, 
The trusty staff (their better leg) supply'd. 
An arrow's flight they wanted to the top, 
And there secure, but spent with travel, stop; 
Then turn their now no more forbidden eyes; 
Lost in a lake the floated level lies: 
A watry desert covers all the plains, 
Their cot alone, as in an isle, remains. 
Wondring, with weeping eyes, while they deplore 
Their neighbours' fate, and country now no more, 
Their little shed, scarce large enough for two, 
Seems, from the ground increas'd, in height and bulk to grow. 
A stately temple shoots within the skies, 
The crotches of their cot in columns rise: 
The pavement polish'd marble they behold, 
The gates with sculpture grac'd, the spires and tiles of gold. 

Then thus the sire of Gods, with looks serene, 
Speak thy desire, thou only just of men; 
And thou, o woman, only worthy found 
To be with such a man in marriage bound. 

A-while they whisper; then, to Jove address'd, 
Philemon thus prefers their joint request: 
We crave to serve before your sacred shrine, 
And offer at your altars rites divine: 
And since not any action of our life 
Has been polluted with domestick strife; 
We beg one hour of death, that neither she 
With widow's tears may live to bury me, 
Nor weeping I, with wither'd arms may bear 
My breathless Baucis to the sepulcher. 

The Godheads sign their suit. They run their race 
In the same tenour all th' appointed space: 
Then, when their hour was come, while they relate 
These past adventures at the temple gate, 
Old Baucis is by old Philemon seen 
Sprouting with sudden leaves of spritely green: 
Old Baucis look'd where old Philemon stood, 
And saw his lengthen'd arms a sprouting wood: 
New roots their fasten'd feet begin to bind, 
Their bodies stiffen in a rising rind: 
Then, ere the bark above their shoulders grew, 
They give, and take at once their last adieu. 
At once, Farewell, o faithful spouse, they said; 
At once th' incroaching rinds their closing lips invade. 
Ev'n yet, an ancient Tyanaean shows 
A spreading oak, that near a linden grows; 
The neighbourhood confirm the prodigy, 
Grave men, not vain of tongue, or like to lie. 
I saw my self the garlands on their boughs, 
And tablets hung for gifts of granted vows; 
And off'ring fresher up, with pious pray'r, 
The good, said I, are God's peculiar care, 

And such as honour Heav'n, shall heav'nly honour share.