Tag Archives: Comfort

“We Do Not Lose Heart”

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Archibald Hart, the longtime Dean of the Graduate School of Psychology of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, said that he thought that depression was an occupational hazard of ministry. In his 1984 book Coping with Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions (Word), Dr. Hart explained –

The work of ministry, when it is undertaken with great sincerity and earnestness, is bound to open the way to attacks of despondency. The weightiness of feeling responsible for the souls of others and of longing to see others experience the fullness of God’s gift; the disappointment of seeing believers turn cold and pull away; the heartbreak of watching a married couple destroy each other, unable to utilize love and the grace of God in repairing the broken relationships – all will take their toll on sensitive and dedicated ministers. (17)

In a really insightful essay on ministry that he wrote back in 2011, Kevin DeYoung, one of the leaders of the “young, restless and Reformed” Movement in the church today, wrote about Paul’s “Apostolic Anxiety” (http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/apostolic-anxiety/). He began it by saying that 2 Corinthians 11:28 had always been one of the stranger Bible verses to him, that is, until he became a minister himself. This verse is preceded in 2 Corinthians chapter 11 by Paul’s recital of the very real and tangible threats to his life that he had faced as a minister –

24 Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.

And then, at the zenith of his list comes this –

28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.

And Kevin writes –

Ever since I became a pastor, I have found unusual comfort in this verse… I’m not surprised that Paul felt daily pressure for the churches… every earnest minister feels this burden for the church… Ask any pastor who really takes his work seriously and he will tell you of the pressures he feels in ministry — people in crisis, people leaving, people coming, people disappointed by him, people disappointing to him… And most pastors feel a burden for all those other things that they could be doing: more evangelism, more for the poor, more for missions, more to address global concerns, and more to address social concerns. There are pastors reading this who wonder if the church is still responsive to their preaching; if the leadership will ever be responsive to their leading; and if the congregation will ever grow like the churches they hear so much about. On top of all this, every pastor has his own personal hurts, his own personal mistakes, and his own spiritual health to attend to. We are all weak.

Some say that the primary theme of 2 Corinthians – one of Paul’s most personal and heartfelt letters – is about how easy it is for us to “lose heart” as people of faith.  It’s not just ministers who suffer from this “Apostolic Anxiety,” it’s everyone who loves Christ, belongs to the church, knows the Great Commission and is trying to reach their world.  2 Corinthians 4:1 reads like the letter’s thesis statement, and the bedrock of a Christian’s assurance –

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.

To this end, throughout 2 Corinthians Paul spoke encouragement into the lives and ministries of Christians who were growing discouraged in the struggle of faithfulness –

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.  Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God,  who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant.. (2 Corinthians 3:4-6)

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed… (2 Corinthians 4:7-9)

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure,  because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.  (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)

Recently, in a moment of my own “Apostolic Anxiety” and ministerial despondency, in my devotional readings I stumbled across a pastoral word “to a discouraged minister” from a ministerial colleague of a previous generation, Friedrich Zündel (1827–1891).  His counsel has provided me with some solid handholds of encouragement on the steep climb and sharp winds of ministry in the church today, and so, with hope that they will help you as they have helped me, I offer them now to you knowing just how hard this life can be. DBS +

“To a Discouraged Minister”

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Friedrich Zündel (1827–1891
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When difficulties pile up before you like insurmountable mountains… When behind you, you see nothing but failures.  When before you, you see nothing but trouble . . . 

  1. Do what is at hand to do.  Consider each single day to be your appointed task.  Leave to God the care of the future.
  2. Don’t desire to harvest.  You are only a sower.
  3. Remember that on the island of Nias the missionaries prayed for 25 years for an awakening.
  4. If you can be comfort and strength to even one single person, then even fifty years of no success have not been in vain.
  5. It is no help to a struggling person for you to be annoyed with him or her.  What he or she needs is seeking love.
  6. Even for Paul, the “thorn in the flesh” remained.  His grace is sufficient . . . 
  7. Christ can fight his battles even with broken swords.
  8. It is not ability but faithfulness that counts (I Corinthians 4:2).  “He dared to believe his way through the deepest gloom.”  

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“When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad…”

commonMy default prayer discipline is the Book of Common Prayer (1945).  You can take the boy out of the Episcopalians it seems, but you can’t take the Episcopalian out of the boy.

I was profoundly shaped by the rhythm and cadence of the prayers that I prayed at the very beginning of my spiritual life, and so just like the swallows returning to Capistrano, or is it more a case of the buzzards returning to Hinckley, I find myself going back to them when I am spiritually sick, or stuck, or stalled, or stifled. I especially love the “Forms of Prayers to be used in Families with Additional Prayers” (587-600).  I have prayed these prayers with some regularity now for more than half of a century, and they have left their mark.

“Graciously be pleased to take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection.”  I pray this petition, and my heart roams to south Fort Worth and to New York City, to Los Angeles and to Modesto in the central valley of California, to Garland next door and to Oklahoma City up the road, to North Carolina and to wherever the Special Forces have put a nephew in harm’s way this week.  I pray these words and I think of my family – my wife, my son and my daughter, my grandsons and my son-in-law, my sisters and their families, my brothers-in-law and their families, my mother-in-law and her husband.  I so want God to “take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection,” but there are weeks when, to be perfectly honest, it feels like anything but this, and this has certainly been one of those weeks.

Without bogging down in all of the messy details, suffice it to say that over and over again these past few weeks my heart has been wrenched by the painful and difficult circumstances that some of the people I love the most in this world have been forced to face.  I have been afraid and anxious for them.  I have worried, and I have wept, and I have prayed – “Graciously be pleased to take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection.”

The very first Bible verse that I ever consciously memorized (thank-you Billy Graham) was I Peter 5:7 – “Cast all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares about you.” And so I am in the long habit of translating my fears into prayers (Philippians 4:6).  But in a season of upset like this one that I and my loved ones currently find ourselves in, even as I pray I ponder. “Just exactly what are you expecting will happen because you are doing this?” I ask myself. “What do you think that God is going to do about it?” I am leery of what Vernon Grounds of blessed memory used to call “the heavenly helicopter” notion of Christianity.  Neither my experience nor my theology convinces me that Jesus Christ is going to automatically and invariably swoop into the rising flood waters of my discouraging circumstances and magically whisk me and mine away unscathed.  Of course, God could do this.  But God doesn’t always, and from my own personal point of view, God doesn’t often do this.  So, just exactly what then am I expecting of God?  What is that does God does?

kingdomActs 14:22 is another one of those Bible verses that I have deliberately committed to memory because I am a pastor, and a human being – “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” This is the realism of the Bible that only serves to reinforce my confidence in its inspiration and authority.  I don’t expect things to be easy for me, but I do expect that God in Christ through the Spirit will accompany and empower me in all of the twists and turns of my life, and finally bend it in the direction of  wholeness, peace, and joy.

So, “when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad,” as the song from “The Sound of Music” puts it, what sustains me spiritually?  As this week has unfolded, I’ve been trying to consciously keep track of how my being a Christian has supplied me with resources that have strengthened my faith and fueled my hope.  And so, in no particular order, here are some of the things that my Christian faith has provided me with, and that have proven sustaining to me as the rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew.  This is how my Christianity has “worked” for me in the midst of my recent storms –

  • doveThe indwelling Holy Spirit is called the Comforter, at least that’s one of the ways that the word that Jesus used in the Upper Room in the Gospel of John to talk about the Holy Spirit’s coming sometimes gets translated (John 14:16; 26; 15:26; 16:7).  And I have felt this Spirit’s comforting presence.  It’s not continuous, but it is real.  Paul described it as the assurance we have that we are children of God when God’s Spirit bears witness with our spirits (Romans 8:16).  And that’s it.  That’s what sweeps over me from time to time quite unexpectedly and inexplicably. It’s like a hug out of nowhere.  A reminder that I’m not alone; the reassurance that I have not been abandoned or forsaken.
  • The keys that the Holy Spirit plays on the instrument of my heart are the promises of God’s Word.  Bible verses will just pop into my consciousness like song melodies that get stuck in your ear, and I savor them.  My long love for Scripture has stocked my head and heart with lots of raw material for the Spirit to use.  I’ve sometimes heard this described as the experience of receiving a “living” Word, and that certainly “feels” right.  It feels like God speaking directly to me from the pages of the Bible.  Is this what Jesus meant when He told us that “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63)?
  • Finally, in 2 Corinthians chapter 1 Paul described an important dynamic that’s at work in the experience of comfort that we receive from God in Christ –

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.  If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. (1:3-6)

When we receive God’s comfort in our own times of personal struggle we are being equipped to share God’s comfort with people we will meet later who are struggling with the same sorts of things we have already been through.  Our comfort comes with a ministry assignment.  At the end of his life, when debilitated by a series of strokes, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was asked to reflect on what he had learned in his years of decline.  And this man of massive intellect and tremendous influence talked about what he called “the charismatic gift of love.”  After years of writing, teaching, traveling and leading, when health “dismissed him from the battle” and “relegated him to the sidelines,” Reinhold Niebuhr said that in the end it was the simple kindness and support of ordinary people who went out of their way to help him that was the most effective expression of the Gospel that he knew anything about it.   And it has in fact been the kind words, the offers of support and the expressions of care from Christian brothers and sisters who have travelled these same roads of sadness and carried these same burdens of fear and pain that have made God’s love so tangible and visible to me over and over again.

Paul in a season of struggle was able to say (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) –

lightWe have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed

And in the end, was bold to say (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)–

The Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

And in this season of struggle, it is because of the comforting Spirit, the comforting Word, and the comforting community that I have experienced the sufficiency of grace.  DBS+

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“Born that Man no more May Die”

bbbToby Sumpter took his young daughters with him to make pastoral calls at the nursing home one Christmas.  And as they sang the familiar words of a Christmas Carol – “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.  He comes to make His  blessings flow, far as the curse is found” –  Toby says that he “choked” on the words because he believes them, and because the dying faces in front of him at the nursing home “ache for it to be true.”

I cannot think of a better catechism, a catechism of bodies and emotions and song, a weekly liturgy wherein I look death in the eyes, and I sing to death. I sing songs about a little Child to death. A little Child in whom was life, and how this life was the light of men and how He rules the world with His truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love. And the question comes, why are we doing this again? Why do we sing to the dying? I have no words for these people. No words will possibly do. And these people don’t really have many words left either. How can we have words when life and death meet?  There are no words. We can only sing this part… Sing about the Child. Sing to earth. Talk to her, and tell her that the Savior reigns, and to stop growing thorns in His garden. Sing death to death. Sing with aching hearts. Sing while we watch the world die. Sing and stare at the Child. Decorate your trees, fill up the stockings of the dying, and sing until one by one we all nod off in our wheelchairs. And then we will awake, startled by the final ‘Amen’ and we’ll look up and see the Child. And He will stare at each of us, and we will stare at Him. Death meet Life. Beginning meet End. And as we stare, He will touch us and we will be healed, and this ancient will put on infant, and this aged will put on Child. http://www.credenda.org

This past week there were three deaths in our community of faith.  I always think of Toby’s essay – “Christmas for the Dying” – when this happens, and it happens every year.  Culture scripts Christmas with the accent on happiness and good cheer.  The church knows that Christmas has a different edge, and conducting funerals in brightly decorated sanctuaries sharpens it.

Here is the message I preached at one of our “Christmas funerals” this week.  I offer it to you

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                           “If Christ Has Not Been Born” – Luke 2:1-7                            

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.  This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria.  So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.  And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.   While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. [Luke 2:1-7]

Perhaps you found those familiar words from the Gospel of Luke, his version of the Christmas story, an odd text to read here in this service this morning.  But then again, it’s certainly no stranger than this setting, a sanctuary brightly decorated for Christmas.  Death and Christmas just don’t go together in our heads or in our hearts.  In this season when we are occupied with singing angels and lowing cattle, pretty paper and twinkling lights, musical nut-crackers and dancing sugar plum fairies, we don’t want to be bothered by thoughts of death.  In this season of light and life, talk of death is obscene.

But death is an intruder, an uninvited guest who crashes the party.  We don’t get to choose the times when or the places where he shows up.  And sometimes, no matter how much we would prefer for it to be otherwise, a death coincides with Christmas.  In the season when our focus is on Christ’s birth, we find ourselves having to deal with the death of someone we love, and the whole experience can leave us feeling just a little bit rattled, uneasy, emotionally torn in two.  A death a Christmastime forces us to grapple with feelings that are not normally related – joy and sorrow, peace and pain, loss and happiness.  In fact, you might be feeling just a little bit cheated sitting here this morning because in this season of celebration when others are gathering as families, you are having to deal with the absence of someone from yours.

All I want to suggest here this morning is that spiritually, it’s the exact opposite that’s true.  Through my years of being a minister, and having sustained some of my own life’s greatest personal losses in the weeks before Christmas, I have slowly come to the conclusion that there might not be a better time to deal with death than right now, during Christmas.

Years ago, Madeleine L’Engle, the novelist, sustained a great family loss in the days before Christmas, and in all of their preparations for the funeral service, Christmas got pushed aside.  It was after the services were over and the family had collapsed in physical and emotional exhaustion, that somebody pointed out that it was Christmas Eve.  “Should we even bother trying celebrate it?” they asked.  Wouldn’t it just be so much easier to forget it and go to bed?   And as the voices in favor of cancelling Christmas were gaining momentum, Madeleine finally spoke up.

She told them that she really thought that they ought to keep Christmas that year just as they had planned to before the death of their loved one broke into their schedule as an uninvited intruder. In fact, Madeleine argued that it was probably more important for them to keep Christmas that year than any in other.  As Madeleine explained –

If the love I define in my heart as Christian love means anything at all, then we must celebrate Christmas.  If the birth of Jesus as the Christ means anything at all, then we must celebrate Christmas.

What did she mean?

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A number of years ago a remarkable Christmas card was published by the title, “If Christ Had Not Come.” …The card pictured a minister falling asleep in his study on Christmas morning and dreaming of a world into which Jesus had never come.

In his dream, he saw himself walking through his house, but as he looked, he saw no Christmas decorations, no Christmas tree, no wreaths, no lights, no crèche, no Christmas cards, and no Christ to comfort and gladden hearts or to save us. He then walked onto the street outside, but there was no church with its spire pointing toward heaven. And when he came back and sat down in his library, he realized that every book about our Savior had disappeared. There were no carols or Christian music on the radio and no choirs or Christmas concerts on television.

The minister dreamed that the doorbell rang and that a messenger asked him to visit a friend’s dying mother. He reached her home, and as his friend sat and wept, he said, “I have something here that will comfort you.”  He opened his Bible to look for a familiar promise, but it ended with Malachi. There was no Christmas story, no angelic chorus, no shepherds or Wise Men, no Sermon on the Mount, no parables, no miracles, no “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” There was no gospel, no light of the world, no “God so loved the world”, no Lord’s Prayer, and no promise of hope and salvation, and all he could do was bow his head and weep with his friend and his mother in bitter despair.

Two days later he stood beside her coffin and conducted her funeral service, but there was no message of comfort, no words of a glorious resurrection, and no thought of a mansion awaiting her in heaven. There was only “dust to dust, and ashes to ashes,” and one long, eternal farewell. Finally he realized that Christ had not come, and he burst into tears, weeping bitterly in his sorrowful dream. There would be no Easter, and no hope of the kingdom of heaven and an age to come.

Then suddenly he awoke with a start, and a great shout of joy and praise burst from his lips as he heard a choir singing in a nearby church:

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him, born the King of angels,
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Ted Schroder – Christmas 2011
http://www.virtueonline.org

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We must not let the beauty and warmth of this holiday season fool us into forgetting what Christmas is really all about.  As we gaze lovingly upon that precious infant “wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger,” we must not lose sight of the fact that He grew up to be our Savior.  It’s why He came.  As Dag Hammarskjold put it in his book Markings – “The manger is situated in Calvary; the cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.”   This is why the angel told Joseph to name Mary’s baby “Jesus” – “because he was going to save His people.”  And while we need saving from lots of things – from sin and sickness, from danger and trouble, from tragedy and evil, from each other and ourselves – perhaps the biggest thing that we all need saving from is death.   And the good news of Christmas is that in Jesus Christ we have just such a Savior.

My favorite Christmas Prayer was written by the author Robert Louis Stevenson.  It goes like this –

Loving Father, Help us remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wise men…

May the Christmas morning make us happy to be Thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.

Because of Christmas, we can live our lives “happy to be one of God’s children,” and we can approach their close “with grateful thoughts, forgiven and forgiving, for Jesus’ sake.”  Because of Christmas, a funeral is not an end that we have gather to mark, but a beginning that we come together to celebrate.  Does death destroy Christmas? No, Christmas destroys death.  And if the birth of Jesus as the Christ means anything at all, then we must celebrate Christmas – especially here and now. DBS+

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“Surrounded”

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and  let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…  (Hebrews 12:1-2)

hallWhen I was a kid Halloween was always my favorite holiday.  In those days it was all about the candy, the costume and the removal of the curfew for a night.  There was nothing quite like prowling the neighborhood with my friends after 9 pm, all of us dressed up like the Beatles, or the Dodgers, or some Hippies, on the perennial quest for the full sized Hershey chocolate bar.  Now that I am an adult, and a minister, I find that Halloween is still one of my favorite days of the year, but for very different reasons.  Now it’s all about the communion of the saints, and I’ve been around long enough – beginning my sixth decade here on earth – to have as many friends and relatives, people I know and love, in the church triumphant as I do in the church militant.  Gary Thomas in his 1994 book Seeking the Face of God wrote about how he tries to consciously “live in the communion of the saints.”

When a contemporary saint dies, I live with that person’s death for weeks… I’ll post a picture here or a quote there of someone whose faith and life has encouraged me… Wise shoppers clip coupons.  Wise Christians clip obituaries. (153-154)

Being raised in a church that recited the creed, I was introduced to the idea of the communion of the saints when I was quite young.  It’s just another way of talking about the church, but in a way that is so much bigger than what we experience on Sunday mornings.  It’s the church in Revelation 5 – everyone, everywhere and always who has ever confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and who has known Him personally as their Lord and Savior. As a hymn we sang in our Service of Remembrance in worship last Sunday puts it –

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

It’s the oldest and truest meaning of the way that some contemporary churches that operate with satellite worship centers describe themselves: “one church in two locations.” 

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At the tail end of the inaugural vision of heaven that John was granted while he was exiled on the island of Patmos, after seeing the throne of God, and the 24 elders, and the four living creatures, and the Lamb looking as though it had been slain, and the myriads and myriads of angels — after all of that, John finally saw “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” (5:13). The communion of the saints is in that number!  It’s the church in heaven “triumphant,” and it’s the church on earth “militant.”

 

Another Biblical way to think and talk about the communion of the saints can be found in Hebrews 12:1-2.  The word picture here is that of a contest on an athletic field in a stadium filled with cheering spectators. The church C“militant” is comprised of those Christians who are still alive, in the competition, on the field.  And the church “triumphant” is comprised of those Christians who are in the stands, in the nearer presence of God, cheering on those of us who are still in the contest.  When the author of the book of Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses,” many interpreters have taken it as a reference to this understanding of the communion of the saints.  The power of this connection should be obvious, those who have faithfully run the race before us, now urging us on who are in the race ourselves. As John Colwell wrote –

Such a depiction prompts the notion of a continuing conscious presence of those who have gone before: they are observers of us as much as examples to us; in some sense… they remain involved with us… Albeit figuratively, the “saints” on earth are bound together with the saints in the heavens as one people, a single congregation, a continuous communion. And though all this is admittedly highly figurative, it surely is significant of something, of a division apparent to us that is less apparent to God.  [http://www.christianitytoday.com]

The most powerful expression of this faith perspective with which I am familiar is the old story that was confirmed by Coach Bobby Bowden to have actually happened.

When Lou Little coached at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., from 1924 to 1929 he had a defensive tackle who probably weighed two hundred pounds, which was very big back in those days. Little worked with the boy every day, but the young man just did not get any better. But the boy was persistent, worked hard, and had a great attitude. In fact, the boy never missed a practice in his four seasons on the team. Three or four days before the boy’s final game at Georgetown, Little received a telegram that informed him the boy’s father had died. Little had seen the boy walking with his father. “Son, I am sorry,” Little told him. “But your father passed away. Go home and take care of your family. We’ll try to win this game for you.”   That Saturday, Little walked into his team’s locker room and was surprised to see the boy standing there. “Coach, you have to start me,” the boy said. “Son, you have never been a starter,” Little told him. “This is the championship game. I cannot take that kind of risk today.” “Coach, I have to do this for my father,” the boy pleaded. “Just put me in for the first play and then you can take me out of the game.” Little was overcome with sympathy. How could he not grant the boy his wish? So he put the boy in the starting lineup, and the boy ran down the field to cover the game’s opening kickoff. He tackled the player returning the kick so hard he nearly knocked him into the first row of seats. The boy jumped up and ran to the sideline just like he promised his coach he would do, but Little motioned to him to stay in the game.  During the rest of the afternoon, the boy played like he was possessed. He led Georgetown’s team in tackles and delivered big hit after big hit. Georgetown won the game and claimed a conference championship. Little pulled the boy aside during the team’s celebration in its locker room. “Son, what in the world got into you today?” Little asked him. “You’ve never played like that before. You’ve never shown that much desire in four years.” “Coach, you know my father died,” the boy said. “You know my father was blind. Today was the first time he could see me play.” [http://sports.espn.go.com]

I am comforted and strengthened by the thought that those who have loved and supported me when they were alive, in some sense, continue to love and support me now that their faith has become sight.  When my hands droop, my knees wobble and I am at risk of losing heart (Hebrews 12:12), it helps to hear a cheer from somewhere in the great beyond assuring me that I am not alone and that I can finish the course.  And so, in the shadow of that great cloud of witnesses, I press on, running with endurance the course that is set before me, looking to Jesus, and rediscovering the joy of it all (Hebrews 12:1-2).   DBS+

 

 

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Praying Psalm 91

A Summer in the Psalms

duckWhoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

~ Psalm 91:1-4 ~

I suspect that after the 23rd Psalm, Psalm 91 is the next best-known and best-loved Psalm of them all. This is a Psalm that the church has traditionally prayed every single day. Eastern Christians pray it at noon because of the spiritual threat that it describes as stalking us at midday (v. 6), and Western Christians have prayed it at night because of the reference to the “pestilence” that dwells in the darkness, the “terror at night” (v. 5). There is evidence that our spiritual mothers and fathers, the Jews, used Psalm 91 as part of the exorcism rituals. It was regarded as a prayer for protection in a universe that was “crowded” with principalities and powers, both seen and unseen (Ephesians 6:10-17). This may explain why the adversary quoted it to Jesus during the temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of His public ministry (Matthew 4:5-7; Luke 4:9-12).

When I was a young Christian, I regularly prayed Psalm 91. It was my standard answering prayer to my fears and anxieties, and it gave me real strength. I have felt myself sheltered under the spread of God’s protective wings. I have felt myself lifted up and carried out of danger by the agency of God’s personal knowledge of me and His great care for me. “On Eagle’s Wings” – a hymn based on Psalm 91 – was sung at both my mother’s and my father’s funerals because it was the word of God’s promise that my sisters and I needed to hear the most at those particular moments. I know Psalm 91 intimately, and I love it deeply.

But, for all of the strength and comfort that Psalm 91 has provided me through the years, I must also admit that it has also confused me at times, and that it has left me feeling terribly uneasy at other times. You see, the promises that Psalm 91 makes are just so extravagant, and when I hear people invoking them magically, believing that they are somehow a Divine guarantee that they will never be touched by tragedy, suffering or loss, I can’t help but fear that they are setting themselves up for a great big spiritual fall, a devastating and unnecessary crisis of faith, and that sooner or later God is going to be getting the blame for failing them, when in fact, He hasn’t, and He doesn’t. You see, as precious as Psalm 91 is to us, it can be just as big a problem if we aren’t clear in our understanding and expectation of what it is promising us.

bookIn 1980, in my very first year out of seminary, I read Gustaf Aulen’s The Faith of the Christian Church (The Muhlenberg Press – 1960). I have since read longer, even better systematic theologies (Calvin’s Institutes and Bavinck’s Dogmatics come quickly to mind), but I can honestly say that this volume has been the most defining systematic theology for my personal faith. It put some foundational pieces for my life and ministry into place that are still firmly planted now some 33 years later. And one of those firmly positioned and unmovable boulders in my spiritual foundation is what Gustaf Aulen identified as “the prayer of militant faith” (356-360). Because the kingdom has not yet fully come, and God’s will is not yet being done on earth as it is in heaven, we must be very careful to avoid what Gustaf Aulen described as “the unwarranted anticipation of the ‘church triumphant,‘” the conflict between the world as it is and the world as God intends it to be, and is right now in the process of bringing about, being “swallowed up by victory prematurely” (358). Among other things, this means that not everything that happens to us is going to automatically be expressive of God’s purpose for us. As Christians we get no exemption from the fall. We are still broken people who have to live in a broken world, and this means that brokenness is still going to characterize our existence until the project of God’s healing is complete, which I understand to be the meaning of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Until that day when the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our God, and of His Christ (Revelation 11:15), we are going to have to live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet,” between the promises that God has made to us and their fulfillment which is still in the process of unfolding. This includes the promises that Psalm 91 makes.

I don’t find the perfect fulfillment of what Psalm 91 promises until I get to the new heavens and the new earth of Revelation 21 (and its parallels in places like Isaiah 65:17-25). To act as if that cosmic “then” is my personal “now” is to be guilty of what Gustaf Aulen called “the unwarranted anticipation of the church triumphant.” But just because all of that is “not yet” doesn’t mean that there aren’t elements of it that are “already.” There are episodes of the literal fulfillment of the kinds of things that Psalm 91 promises in our lives and in the lives of the faithful in all generations. Their perfect fulfillment is yet to come, but that’s not to say that we don’t have occasional, partial and temporary experiences of their fulfillment right here and now. These are what we call miracles, signs and wonders, and they happen, they really do, albeit neither as often nor as permanently as we would like. But every time they do, they are a reminder of the day that’s coming for us all and a renewal of the promises that have been made to us. And until that day of final fulfillment, our present experience of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit – the “comforter,” the “counselor,” the “helper,” the “advocate” – is the “earnest,” God’s down payment that guarantees that everything God has promised to us is going to find fulfillment eventually. And this means that while the full and final literal fulfillment of everything that Psalm 91 promises us is still out there somewhere in the future, that nevertheless, right here and right now, they are being spiritually fulfilled. I think that this is what Paul meant when he told the Romans – “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (8:18), and the Corinthians – “Therefore we do not lose heart, even though the outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day, and our momentary light afflictions are producing in us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison and so we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things that are not seen, for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). This is what Jesus meant when in Luke 21 when He told His disciples that some of them would be put to death for His sake, but that not a hair on their heads would perish (vs. 18-19). As a cancer patient once told me, “this disease may very well kill me, but it is not going to destroy me!”

And so, with all of this in mind, how do I pray Psalm 91?

castleWell, to start with, I pray it. That’s the first and perhaps most important thing to be said. I always seek God’s presence and protection. Many mornings begin with me praying an Order for Morning Prayer that includes the specific petition: “Defend us from all dangers and adversities; and be graciously pleased to take us, and all who are dear to us, under Thy Fatherly care and protection.” I love the cadence of those words, and their intention. I understand that every single day both I “and all who are dear” to me will be facing unknown “dangers and adversities,” and so I unabashedly begin every day by asking for God’s “Fatherly care and protection.” I am not strong enough or brave enough to get out of bed in the morning without such assurance. I regard this request to be part and parcel of what Jesus told us to pray for as His disciples. “Lead us not into temptation” (maybe “testing” is a better translation), Jesus taught us to pray, “but deliver us from evil.” That’s got a Psalm 91 ring to it. And so I pray it, and I trust it. I put myself and all those who are dear to me under the shadow of God’s wings. As Dr. John Stewart, my professor of Old Testament at Brite used to say, “If we can’t trust God with our material needs, then why should we trust Him with our spiritual needs; If he can’t take care of our bodies, what makes us think that He can take care of our souls?” And so I pray the promises of Psalm 91 for myself and my loved ones, and I trust that God hears my requests for safety and security. My extraordinarily “blessed” life is a testimony to God’s faithfulness to me and mine. I can point to moments in my life when I have felt God’s guiding hand and His sheltering cover. Who knows what trouble I’ve been shielded from because of God’s watchful care? But even as I write these words, I know that when the trouble has found me that God’s presence in my life has not been in doubt and that His sustaining care of me has not failed.

aRoger Olson down at Baylor’s Truett Seminary recently probed God’s will and prayer in a blog he wrote about healing (www.patheos.com). While the specifics of that blog are different, we’re thinking about protection and not healing here, it seems to me that the dynamics are exactly the same –

The Bible encourages confident prayer, not weak praying that lacks confidence in God’s desire to heal, to provide and to save. So long as petitionary prayer is prayed with understanding of God’s superior wisdom and sovereignty, attaching “if it be thy will” doesn’t, in my opinion, serve any purpose when the prayer is for something God has revealed to be his will. That something is revealed to be God’s general will doesn’t necessarily mean he will do it in every case when prayer is offered for it. Only God knows the total circumstances and whether something is possible even for him. (I’m not talking about his power here; I’m talking about his plans and purposes.) Generally speaking, in Scripture, healing of bodies is God’s will. But we are told that total healing is eschatological. Nevertheless, the apostles’ prayers and Jesus’ prayers for others’ healings do not normally come with the caveat attached.

When I pray for someone’s healing, especially if the person is suffering, I do not say “if it be thy will.” I understand that God doesn’t always heal in response even to powerful, confident prayer. God knows best; we simply have to rest in that at times. But Scripture models confident praying for healing. I would never presume to command God to heal a person (as some “faith healing evangelists” do). But to ask God please to heal someone is, I judge, thoroughly biblical. Adding “if it be thy will” implies that we’re not confident God wants to heal. Jesus always wanted to heal people, especially when they were suffering. Jesus is the revelation of the character of God. God’s character is that he wants to heal people. When he doesn’t, when we have prayed powerful, confident prayers on their behalf, we simply leave it in God’s hands and believe that God (has a good reason why) he couldn’t heal the person.

I know many people recoil at the word “couldn’t” in such a sentence. Can’t God simply do whatever he wants to do? Well, yes, if we mean “has the power to.” But, I believe, in his wisdom, God, and sometimes only God, knows why it would not be best to heal someone or answer another prayer that accords with his general character and desires for people. The apostle Paul reports that God simply said “no” in answer to his prayer for healing. Does that falsify everything I’m saying here? I don’t think so. We should always be prepared to accept a clear “no” from God. But to anticipate God’s “no” is, I think, wrong. James says that “the effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man [person] avails much.” He also says “the prayer of faith shall save the sick and the Lord shall raise him up.” My point is that petitionary prayer, in Scripture, is said to change things, not just the person praying, and that anticipating a “no” when we pray is likely to reduce the power of the prayer. Saying “if it be thy will” does not seem consistent with the clear Scriptural instructions about praying. But I also know that there are no guarantees that God will, for example, heal. We have to live in the tension of powerful, fervent, confident prayer (for things God has revealed wants to do and give) and the lack of response to the prayer as it was prayed.

In line with this point of view, Daryl Witmer (http://christiananswers.net) explains that he reads the promises of Psalm 91 as a “a testimony of what God has chosen to do on occasion in the past, an assurance of what God is altogether able to do today, and a beautiful literary portrait of His awesome omnipotent capability for the future.” And when he appropriates Psalm 91 as a part of His own prayer life, he prefaces its promises “with a little qualifying phrase that is, I believe, clearly implied by the rest of Scripture and a common sense knowledge of life.”

Except that You in Your love and wisdom allow something to the contrary to occur for the ultimate good God deliver me from the snare of the trapper, and from the deadly pestilence.

Except that You in Your love and wisdom allow it for the ultimate good… God, may a thousand fall at my side, and ten thousand at my right hand; but do not let it approach me.

Except that You in Your love and wisdom allow it for the ultimate good… God let no evil befall me, nor any plague come near my tent.

And it’s in that little nod to God’s “ultimate” purposes that the promises of Psalm 91 finally make sense. Everything that Psalm 91 promises us is sure; it’s just that we aren’t in full possession of all those promises yet. Ultimately – when the dust of life finally settles – we’re going to be able to clearly see how God has kept His word of promise to us. But for now we can only see through that glass dimly, and that means we’ve got to learn how to wait and trust.

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

DBS+

 

 

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A Friend Died Today…

A church member died today; more accurately, a dear friend died today.  Just because a minister has a professional relationship with his or her parishioners, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t personal attachments as well, especially when you’ve been privileged to be somebody’s minister for a stretch of time as long as I have been with her.  I buried her husband, and I have buried lots and lots of her friends, my friends — our friends.  She attended most of the funerals that I have conducted over the past 16 years, and she always would always give me a great big hug when they were done and tell me it was “perfect,” my best one yet, and that she was so glad that one day I would be conducting her service.  Well, that day has now come.

As these past few days unfolded, and it became increasingly clear that my friend was losing her battle with cancer, in addition to being prayerfully present and pastorally attentive, I have been thinking about the journey that she has been on.  Sedated and put on life support in order to give her body a chance to rally, I watched all of those wonderful doctors and nurses at the hospital interact with my friend and her family.  They were so competent, so confident, so scientific.  They explained with an impressive precision just exactly what was happening in my friend’s body, and what they were doing in response.  They spoke with authority, and it was comforting.  You felt like they knew what they were doing, that they had things under control, at least as far as things could be controlled, and that everything that could possibly be done was being done.  They inspired such confidence, and listening to them and watching them, I remembered something that the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in the journal that he kept during his days as minister at a church in Detroit.

I visited Miss Z. at the hospital.  I like to go now since she told me that it helps her to have me pray with her… Sometimes when I compare myself with these efficient doctors and nurses hustling about I feel like an ancient medicine man dumped into the twentieth century.  I think they have the same feeling toward me that I have about myself. (Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic – 42)

I know all about this inferiority complex.   Sitting in a conference room with my friend’s family earlier this week, I listened to her Doctor clinically assess the situation.  He gave them the hard data of tests and the readings from monitors, numbers they could see and count, important information that they could then use to make their looming decision.   When he finished, I spoke up, and told the family of my friend that from my field of expertise that there were some things that needed to be factored in to their decision as well.  I reminded them of what God has promised to us in His word and what the church teaches and believes.    Simplistically it might be said that the doctor dealt with “facts” while I was only dealing with “faith.”   That he “knew” while I only “believed.”   That his truth was the fruit of reason: careful observation, controlled experimentation and disciplined reflection; while mine was only the fruit of revelation: Divine self-disclosure, inner impressions and a leap of faith.  But I would disagree.  I would argue that what I offered the family of my friend was no less rooted in truth than what the Doctor offered.  We have different epistemologies – different ways of knowing; and we have different sources of information, different fields of exploration; but there is one God with just one truth however we arrive at it.   And so I can speak with confidence too.

At the bed of my friend this afternoon, soon after she had taken her leave of us, I gathered her family around and talked with them about what had just happened.  I shared the beautiful image of the author Henry Van Dyke, a Presbyterian minister – 

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.  She is an object of beauty and strength, and I stand and watch until at last she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says, “There she goes!” “Gone where?” Gone from my sight … that is all.  She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination.  Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There she goes!” there are other eyes watching her coming and their voices ready to take up the glad shouts “Here she comes!” This is how I see and understand death.  (Henry van Dyke ~1852 – 1933)

I anchored this comforting image in Scripture for my friend’s family this afternoon.  I talked with them about how death is described as being “gathered to your people” in the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 25:8, 49:33); and how the Christian Scriptures assure us of a continuing conscious existence after we die because of our faith in Christ (“…even though we die, yet shall we live…” – John 11:25; “I go to prepare a place for you… and I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am there you may be also…” – John 14:2-3).  And so I assured them that their mother, my friend, passed from this world surrounded by loving family into the next world where loving family gathered to welcome her home.  “Today you will be with me in Paradise” Jesus promised the good thief as they both hung dying on crosses (Luke 23:43), and so just as I had been assuring them that He had companioned her through the valley of the shadow of death, so now I told them that I believed that she was home in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:4; 6).  And my confidence in making such assertions is my certainty that God has spoken and acted to make Himself known to us, and that we have a reliable record of that Divine speaking and acting in Scripture, and the indwelling presence of God to lead us into all truth (John 16:13-15; I Corinthians 2:10-16). And so, I am not left to hunches and guesses when I am turned to for a word of wisdom and comfort from God.  It is not wishful thinking that I deal in as a minister.  That Doctor this week has his bases for the things that he said to guide the family of my friend in their decisions, and I have mine.  He wasn’t just making things up, and neither do I. 

Ben Haden, the longtime pastor of Chattanooga’s historic First Presbyterian Church, said: “The world has a gurgle in its throat when talking about death, but the Christian can speak with total confidence.”  And the basis for that confidence with which we can speak as Christians is God’s own self-disclosure. Hebrews 1:1-3 is foundational to how I operate as a minister: “Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways.   But in these last days, God has spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed the heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe.  He is the radiance of His glory, the exact expression of His nature….”  In Jesus Christ I have a sure reference point about who God is and what God does, and it is from that sure reference point, that “hard data,” that I operate confidently as a minister.   Just as Paul comforted the Thessalonians in their grief by anchoring their experience of personal loss in the things that had been clearly revealed in Jesus Christ (I Thessalonians 4:13-18), so it is my job to lead people to the things that the Bible teaches, especially in times of suffering and sorrow, so that they will not be left to grieve as those who have no hope.  “Hopeful grieving,” that’s what anchoring our lives and losses in God’s promises that are found in Scripture can do for us.  In the pain and confusion of our circumstances, we find the still point in the storm where we can find shelter and strength.

At the very beginning of his letter to the Romans (the book the Bible Study my friend attended is in the middle of right now), Paul declared that he was not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16).  As Christians we have a truth about which we can be confident.  My friend was, and that’s how I account for her extraordinary endurance, character and hope (Romans 5:3-4).  And now that her faith has become sight, she knows what we must still trust, that “This hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who is given to us” (Romans 5:5).  DBS+

 

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