A Christmas prayer
Can I commend the English prayer book available on the Church Society website ? I'm far from being Mr Liturgy (possibly as far as it is possible to be) and yet I still love this helpful little book. And some of the short prayers are simply delightful. Here is the collect for Christmas Day:
Almighty God, who gave us your only Son to take our nature upon him and to be born of a pure virgin, grant that we, who are born again in him and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
It might seem a bit odd to be talking about away days the week before Christmas, but they're in my head. We've got a PT staff away day early in Jan and we're also planning an elders' away day at church. So, even though we're drowning in festive yuletide tat, awaydays are in my head. I want to commend them. Take the question of church leadership, for that is the sharp end of church life. I don't know how your church works, but my guess is that a large part of your leadership time is spent firefighting or carrying over items to the next meeting. Prayer time is squeezed – especially praying together for those big ticket items. You spend so much time thinking about the next preaching series, for example (and please hear me, that is Very Important), that you never have time to read the Scriptures together in a meaningful way and measure up the church against biblical values and visions. Training is relegated to a quick agenda item. And as for pastoring one another….
This is the value of time together away. We've asked our working elders to take a day's annual leave to make it happen (it's unrealistic to just add another Saturday to the mix for most). We aim to pray, read the Scriptures and try to not have just another elders' meeting. We want to think ahead and look at the church critically and thankfully as we see what God plans and purposes for his people in the Bible. Have a think about planning such a day. It may just be the best Christmas present you can give your church.
Sending wives away – Ezra 10
I'm getting to the end of prep for teaching Ezra at Cornhill and must deal with one of the most perplexing parts of the book – what is going on when the foreign wives (and their children) are sent away in Ezra 10. Some of the most helpful comments I have read on this come from Carson in his For the love of God volume 2. This two volume devotional commentary is often a good go-to place for initial thoughts and it is now available online for free through the Gospel Coalition website. Basically he outlines two views:
- that the sending away is akin to a revival. Serious steps are taken to maintain purity.
- that the sending away is a wrong response to a rightly discerned problem and the Law does not sanction such inhumane treatment.
His conclusion is worth repeating in full. Note the last line which is full of pastoral wisdom for anyone ministering in a local church context.
Without meaning to avoid the issue, I suspect that in large measure both views are correct. There is something noble and courageous about the action taken; there is also something heartless and reductionistic. One suspects that this is one of those mixed results in which the Bible frankly abounds, like the account of Gideon, or of Jephthah, or of Samson. Some sins have such complex tentacles that it is not surprising if solutions undertaken by repentant sinners are messy as well.
A book I really like
Every now and again it's good to read books you really agree with. I don't think it's always a good idea, but it's good to be reminded that you're not a total goofhead and that some things you hold dear and feel passionate about are probably right.
This is one of those books. It's called The most misused verses in the Bible and is by Eric Bargerhuff, published by Bethany House. That does mean it is not too easy to get hold of in the UK – though Amazon and the Book Depository already have it – perhaps others will follow?
There are 19 short chapters focusing on 17 of the most misused verses in the Bible – how they are mistreated and what they actually mean. It's essentially a lesson in understanding the Bible well in the context in which it was written. As such, it ticks two useful boxes:
- First, it demolishes some shibboleths. I agreed with Eric's assessment of every one save James 5, where I'm more inclined to go along with Doug Moo in his little Tyndale guide.
- Second, it establishes a wonderful paradigm for understanding Scripture correctly. It's not just – in other words – here's not how to do it, but here's how to do it.
It's written at a popular level and would be useful for church members, small group leaders, Sunday School teachers and so on. Pretty much everyone really. Brilliant. And I'm not a complete goofhead. Here's the complete list:
- Matthew 7.1
- Jeremiah 29.11-13
- Matthew 18.20
- John 14.13-14
- Romans 8.28
- 2 Chronicles 7.14
- Colossians 1.15
- 1 Timothy 6.10
- 1 Corinthians 10.13
- Proverbs 22.6
- Philippians 4.13
- Exodus 21.23
- James 5.15
- Acts 2.38
- Proverbs 4.23
- Proverbs 29.18
- John 12.32
Ministry and suffering (5): contentment
What is the answer to suffering? How, as a minister of the gospel, do we endure the slings and arrows that come our way? How do we learn to live with tension, illness, family trouble, disgruntled church members, divided leaderships and so on?
We don't pretend that they aren't tensions. Gospel ministers are not called to be ostriches. We have to face up to difficulties, deal with them head on when necessary and realise that the world is sinful. It is sinful corporately – sin is in the world and the world is broken. It is sinful individually – the world is made up of sinners whom we interact with every day and the greatest sinner of all is closer to us than we imagine (work it out). That means that sometimes life is rubbish.
The answer is not to make the rubbishness go away. That could easily become the focus of our prayers. Whilst I don't want to play down praying for the particularities of situations we find ourselves in we must, at the very least, begin to recognise that every moment is a teaching moment given by a gracious father and the one quality we must learn above all is CONTENTMENT.
I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Phil 4.10-13).
Ministry and suffering (4)
In the midst of current struggles, a colleague wrote us a very helpful and encouraging note. He too had been through some tough times and he took the time to write down (for his church) some of the lessons he had learned. I offer here the headlines…some of them really need a little more explanation but there is not really room – perhaps I will encourage him to write it up in a form we could publish…?
Anyway. with "the important caveat that sometimes the most profound lessons defy neat explanations in words" here are the lessons he learnt:
- God is infinitely sovereign and kind, even in the midst of difficulty when it doesn't seem like it.
- God is the only One who is control of my life and to desire control is, in effect, to desire to be God.
- To be conformed to Christ who was bruised, necessitates being bruised ourselves.
- It is a good thing to consider [one's own] death.
- It is good not to cross bridges until you have to cross them.
- Physical illness is part of a much bigger spiritual battle.
- God is more interested in building character than giving us explanations.
- The local church is a wonderful instrument in the Redeemer's hands.
- Above all else, guard your heart.
- The weight of glory far outweighs any number of momentary afflictions.
These have been really helpful for us. And here is John Ryland's great hymn (ALL the verses!):
Ministry and suffering (3): Question 26
Close friends and I often – rather mysteriously – say to one another (or text) – "Question 26" by which we mean Heidelberg:
Question 26. What believest thou when thou sayest, "I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth"?
Answer: That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (who of nothing made heaven and earth, with all that is in them; who likewise upholds and governs the same by his eternal counsel and providence) is for the sake of Christ his Son, my God and my Father; on whom I rely so entirely, that I have no doubt, but he will provide me with all things necessary for soul and body and further, that he will make whatever evils he sends upon me, in this valley of tears turn out to my advantage; for he is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing, being a faithful Father.
It's that last truth which is such a great sustaining grace during times of suffering. We hold two truths in glorious tension – that God is both Almighty and Father. I was talking to my eldest daughter, Alice, about this just the other day and she, rather profoundly, said, "Wouldn't it be terrible if God was just one?"
- For a God who is Almighty but not Father would be a terrible despot – unconcerned for our wellbeing and acting out of selfish motives alone.
- For a God who is Father but not Almighty would be a terrible comfort – only able to put his arm around you and say "there, there…" (which, by the way is the irony of Open Theism which claims that God responds to tragedy by saying, "I didn't see it coming either" – some comfort, that is!).
It is the glorious tension of these two truths together that sustains us through the tough times. It doesn't matter whether the crisis is personal or church related; individual or corporate – God is both Almighty and a faithful Father.
By the way, pastorally speaking, I am convinced these are truths you need to learn in the good times. And teach in the good times. Try teaching someone about the sovereignty of God when things are bad. Not a good time to hear it for the first time!
And these truths are tied up with the consistent nature of God – so one song I find very helpful goes something like this:
Shall I take from Your hand Your blessings
Yet not welcome any pain?
Shall I thank You for days of sunshine
Yet grumble in days of rain?
Shall I love You in times of plenty
Then leave You in days of drought?
Shall I trust when I reap a harvest
But when winter winds blow, then doubt?
Oh let Your will be done in me
In Your love I will abide
Oh I long for nothing else as long
As You are glorified
Are You good only when I prosper
And true only when I’m filled?
Are You King only when I’m carefree
And God only when I’m well?
You are good when I’m poor and needy
You are true when I’m parched and dry
You still reign in the deepest valley
You’re still God in the darkest night
© 2008 Integrity’s Praise! Music/Sovereign Grace Praise (BMI)
Ministry and suffering (2): Ask for wisdom
Right now these are the hardest words for me in the whole Bible:
Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so tht you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
How can the real, painful, trials of life ever be joy? It's completely counter cultural. But here's what I've learnt:
- Firstly, we're not talking here about the kind of joy that shouts out "whooppee, another trial. BRING IT ON!" That's just stupid. And Jesus taught us to pray "lead us not into temptation" which could also be translated (and perhaps better is) "lead us not into times of testing." In other words, only the fool looks for trouble. So, if the joy doesn't come from the circumstance itself, where does it come from?
- It comes, secondly, from the result of the trials. James is clear. "The testing of your faith produces perseverance." Ultimately, the trials we are enduring will make us mature and complete – in other words they are part of our sanctification, making us like Christ. Think of them like this and you can begin to think about them in joyful ways.
- Thirdly, there is help in James for those who struggle to see joy in tough times. It comes in verse 5. it may seem like I'm stating the obvious but verse 5 comes after verse 4 and there is therefore a pretty good chance the two are linked. Verse 5 is often proof-texted as a kind of poster text. But in the context it must be about asking for the wisdom that is required to see our trials as joy because of the ultimate fruit they produce.
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
So, in my sometime-joylessness, I have been praying for wisdom to the one who gives generously to all.
Ministry and suffering (1): Self pity
This week I'm putting up five posts on ministry and suffering. A wise elder once told me that "ministry is suffering." There's no particular direct Scriptural warrant for that, but every preacher/pastor knows that there is an element of truth about it. That suffering may take many forms:
- it may be personal and spiritual – struggle with a particular sin, for example
- it may be family – illness or trouble in family which can take many forms
- it may be opposition in church – from an individual or a group, or even other leaders
- it may be the hardship of mourning with those who mourn – or watching keen Christians slip away
- it may be the simple wearing down that comes from the sometimes hard graft of ministry
Most ministers know something of all of these. We need to be honest about them and help each other.
Of course, ministry is also joy if it is suffering. There are moments of unbridled joy and delight – and there is always deep Christian joy which comes from our security in Christ. But if the latter is to dominate ministry then we have to know how to think rightly about the struggles – and that is what this week is about. So five posts from my heart – as, to be honest, this is a particularly tough season for us.
Please – no pity. I need no help in this area.
I've been thinking a lot about this. Tough times make me cry. I don't think tears are necessarily unhelpful nor wrong. I certainly don't think the kind of repressed emotion and false masculinity that some people seem to have is godly. But the truth is I often feel sorry for myself when times are tough. Ultimately, this is why I like to solicit sympathy. But self-pity is one of the ugliest of sins. Self pity is self importance by another name. Self pity knows nothing about the sanctifying sovereign work of God. Self pity blinds me to the providence of a gracious God who knows what he is doing. Self pity prevents me from asking the right questions in difficult circumstances.
It saddens me greatly, therefore, to find self pity in my own heart. But if I'm honest I must confess pastoral strategies that develop and nurture self pity in others. "Poor you" is a common pastoral approach, and when I've not been thinking, it's sometimes been mine. What are we thinking? How are we helping people? We are those who should proclaim Christ and call people to look to him and fix themselves upon him. Tragic is the pastor who fails to do this noble thing and is the bringer of nothing more than empty platitudes.
Sex (and marriage)
Just dusting down some notes and doing some prep for a marriage seminar we're running in Jan. Looks like 2013 is going to be the year of marriage seminars as Mrs R and I are doing one at the EMA as well. Here's some Bible info on sex – what is the purpose of sex? I think this material may originally have been based on something from Driscoll, but it's almost 10 years old, so to be honest, can't remember where exactly we got it from. In no particular order:
- sex is for pleasure. Songs 7.6-8 clearly presents sex as pleasurable. There's no hint of children.
- sex is for reproduction. Genesis 1.28. It's a simple biological fact that sexual intercourse is the way children are conceived (whatever you may tell your toddler!). This has to be read carefully in the light of the trouble some couples have.
- sex is for oneness. Genesis 2.24. Sex expresses marital union in a way that nothing else can. In some cultures, for example, it is acceptable for two male friends to hold hands. But this can only be an expression of friendship. Sex is something more. This reason of course is linked closely to the picture of Christ and the church (almost worthy of a separate point?)
- sex is for comfort. 2 Sam 12.24. After the death of David's illegitimate son, David comforts Bathsheba with sex. This is an often overlooked purpose that many couples who are struggling would do well to heed.
- sex is for holiness. 1 Cor 7.2. God gives sex within marriage as a guard or protection against immorality and Satan (see verse 5).