Tag Archives: heart

“I’ve Sent my Heart on Ahead”

Intro

A Reflection on Loss and Love, Hope and Reunion
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Loretta Lynn’s son, Jack, drowned while fording a river on his horse back in the late 1980’s. As you would expect, this was a devastating loss for her, and she wrote about the experience of her deep grief in an article for the Guideposts magazine published in August of 1990.  Now, I’m not really a Guideposts sort of Christian, and I certainly don’t look to country music artists for very much of my theology.   And yet, I have never forgotten this article that Loretta Lynn wrote for Guideposts back in 1990.   After telling her story, Loretta Lynn finished that article with these words –

lorettalynnIt’s been around five years now since Jack died. And I’ll tell you something: The bond I have with him is still as strong as the bond I have with my living children. Anyone who knows me will tell you that Jack’s death has changed my life, and the biggest way is this: My dreams are not here on earth anymore. Why spend precious time running around chasing after money or fame when we’re not going to be here that long? A blink of an eye and we’re gone. There are wonderful things here, all right. There’s… our family, and there’s music and flowers, lots of things that I love… But my biggest dream is living with God and what happens when we get there. The time we’re gonna have! …Momma and Daddy and Patsy Cline and Jack…the parts of me that have been missing won’t be missing anymore… The Bible tells us to store up our treasure in heaven, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” When the time comes for me to cross that ol’ river myself, don’t fret too much for me. It’ll be an easy trip—’cause you see, I’ve sent my heart on ahead.

In her own “down-home” folksy way, what Loretta Lynn said here is something that the church has long taught and believed.  Our identities survive death and our relationships find their final fulfillment in heaven.  This is how the Venerable Bede, an English monk from the eighth century, someone the church has officially named as an indispensable teacher of the Christian faith, wrote about it –

 A great multitude of our dear ones are there expecting us; a vast and mighty crowd of parents, brothers, and children, secure now in their own safety, anxious yet for our salvation, and longing for the day when we will come to them and embrace them. What joy there will be on that day when we are together again. (Paraphrased)

LL

Separated by more than a thousand years, one from the “hollers” of Appalachia and the other from the moors of Northumbria, one a Doctor of the Church and the other one a Country Music Superstar, two people possessing vastly different capacities for theological refection and expression, and yet, Loretta Lynn and the Venerable Bede, are two people who have shared a common faith, and who have looked to the future with a common hope. As Christians, they both believed that they would be with their loved ones again after death.  So, where did they get such an idea?  And the quick answer is Scripture.

bookNow, there is no single verse from the Bible that I know about that explicitly says the people we have known and loved here in this life will continue to be known and loved in the life to come. This cherished belief and consistent teaching of Christianity that our identities and relationships continue after we die is more a matter of the “preponderance of the evidence” than the citation of any single specific “chapter and verse.”

 To make the case for this idea that sustained both Loretta Lynn and the Venerable Bede in their seasons of sadness and loss, I would first point to the way that in the Bible’s earliest books and first stories the way that death routinely gets described is as a matter of being “gathered to one’s people” (Abraham – Genesis 15:15; 25:8; Isaac – Genesis 35:29; Jacob – Genesis 49:29; 33). Some say that this is just a reference to them being buried in a “family plot,” but others view it as a reference to the continuity of one’s community. The people with whom we are most intimately connected here are the same people with whom we will be most intimately connected there.

Second, to make the case for the church’s teaching that Christians will be with their loved ones after death, I would point to the way that Old Testament figures like Jacob, David and Job all talked about their own personal expectations that after they died that they would be reunited with somebody they loved and had lost in this life. For Jacob (Genesis 37:35) and David (2 Samuel 12:23) it was the death of a child that prompted them to both say, “I will go to him one day,” clearly voicing their belief that their most meaningful relationships in this world were going to continue in the next one. And in what is widely regarded as one of the most important affirmations of faith in life after death in the entire Old Testament, Job spoke of his own rock-bottom conviction that he himself would survive death as himself –

 I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he will stand upon the earth at last. And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God!  I will see him for myself.  Yes, I will see him with my own eyes.  I am overwhelmed at the thought! (19:25-27)

Redeemer

Third, to make the case for the cherished Christian belief that our relationships find their final fulfillment in eternity, I would point to the way that Old Testament characters like Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration showed up as themselves again in the New Testament long after their deaths, and that they were recognized as being the same people then as they had been before. In fact, all of the stories of Jesus’ own resurrection include this same element. Despite some significant changes – resurrection is not resuscitation, it involves more than just the reanimation of an old form but an actual transformation into a new one – Jesus was always eventually recognized by His friends to be the same person after His death that He had been before His death, and His relationships with those people He had known and loved and who had known and loved Him before He died continued after He had been raised from the dead.

orbAll of these strands of the Biblical witness combine to convince me that both we and our relationships as Christians will transcend death. We will be with our loved ones, our faithful departed, again. And for me, the exclamation point for this conclusion of faith is that story about the good thief in Luke’s account of Christ’s crucifixion that read as we began. “Remember me,” he begged Jesus in their dying throes, “when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus answered, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” “You” and “me” – this tells me that our individuality will continue. “You with me” – this tells me that our relationships will be preserved.

I’m old enough now to have crossed that mysterious line when I have just as many family members and dear friends on the other side of death as I have here on this side. Some of my most important people are over there now. I love them deeply. I miss them terribly. And from the depths of those feelings I suppose that it would be easy for me to project a belief in the continuity of personality and relationship after death because I so want it to be true. But, without denying these feelings and desires, I can honestly say that my confident hope in a heavenly reunion is at least as much a matter of what I find in the Bible as it is a matter of what I find in my heart.

Philipp Nicolai was a German Lutheran pastor in the 16th century who had to bury 1300 members of his congregation – men, women, and children – who died in the days of the plague. This pastoral circumstance forced Pastor Nicolai to think deep, and long, and hard about what becomes of us and our relationships when we die. And what he finally concluded, based on his own thoughtful and prayerful search of the Scriptures, was that what awaits us as Christians is in fact a heavenly reunion. He wrote –

…Parents and children, husbands and wives, bridegrooms and bides, brothers and sisters, neighbors, relatives and friends… will be reunited in heaven and they will love each other with an ardent cordial love that is a thousand times stronger, and with an embrace that is far more friendly than any that might be imagined here in this world… (paraphrased)

Is this right? My heart tells me “yes,” and I believe, so does my Bible. DBS +

 

 

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“We Do Not Lose Heart”

grief

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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Our *Lacuna?

puzzle

* Lacuna: noun – “an unfilled space or interval; a gap.”
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 H. Wheeler Robinson (1872 – 1945) was one of the foremost English Baptist theologians and Old Testament scholars of his day. From 1920 to 1942 he was principal of Regent’s Park College. It was largely through his efforts that this college was transferred from London to Oxford where it now continues to operate as one of the 44 Colleges and Halls of the University of Oxford. One of his 18 books was on the Christian Experience of the Holy Spirit (1928). What prompted him to write this important book was a deeply personal and painful experience.

balloonIn 1913, in the course of a serious illness, he was led to ask himself why the truths of his own “evangelical” Christianity which he had so often preached to others had failed to bring him personal strength in his hour of need. The content of his faith remained true enough to him, but the content of his faith seemed to lack any real vitality. It seemed to demand an active effort of faith, for which the physical energy was lacking. The figure that presented itself at the time was that of a great balloon, with ample lifting power, – if only one had the strength to grasp the rope that trailed down from it. This experience led him to seek the “lacuna” in his own conception of evangelical truth. And he found it in his relative neglect of those conceptions of the Holy Spirit in which the New Testament is so rich. …The Bible is the Book of the Spirit. (4-5)

In Christian College I was warned that this was one of the potential blind spots for us Campbellites. So put off by the emotional excesses and Biblical inattentiveness of so much of the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening that he saw on the American frontier, Alexander Campbell consciously tapped the brakes on what he called “experimental” religion, and this caution was misconstrued by some to mean that he had no room for the person or work of the Holy Spirit in his theological “system.”

In James DeForest Murch’s history of the Restoration Movement – Christians Only (Standard – 1962), there is a fascinating discussion of the reticence of some of Barton Warren Stone’s “Christians” to merge with the Campbell’s “Disciples” because of their suspicion that Alexander Campbell and his followers promoted a “Spiritless” form of Christianity.

Campbell’s views were branded as those of a “Bible worshipper.” Badger’s “Christian Palladium” asserted that the sage of Bethany denied all activity if the Spirit since the time of the apostles except through the written Word. Said the editor, “If God communicated to Christians only by the Bible, all spiritual experience would cease and Christianity would become a “spiritless system.”  And some of Campbell’s followers undoubtedly held such views, saying that the Bible was the only Holy Spirit they knew about. The fact is, that at this time Campbell was concerned with the popular doctrine of regeneration without the Word, and experiential salvation which considered “impressions” and “operations” as superior to the clear instruction of the Scriptures. Probably the clearest proof of Campbell’s belief in the operation of the Spirit of God in conversion is to be found in a letter he wrote to Mr. Meredith, the editor of the “Baptist Interpreter” –

ChaliceThe human heart must be changed and renovated by some cause… The question is: “How is this moral change to be effected?” By the Spirit alone? By the Gospel facts alone? By the Word alone? I do not affirm any one of these propositions. I never did affirm any one of them. How the Spirit operates in the Word, through the Word, by the Word or with the Word, I do not affirm.

In other words, Alexander Campbell confessed that he didn’t really know how all of this worked. The operations of the Holy Spirit were a “mystery” to him. But the operation of the Holy Spirit itself was not in doubt. Of this much he was absolutely clear –

I only oppose the idea that anyone is changed in heart or renewed in the spirit of his mind by the Spirit without the Word. (117)

In this insistence on the tethering of the Holy Spirit’s actions to the Word, in a backhanded sort of way, Alexander Campbell was affirming something truly important and absolutely essential about the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. Christianity simply doesn’t work without the Holy Spirit.

Over the past few weeks I have been writing about how the light gets in. After more than 40 years of vocational ministry in local churches, working with people and their spiritual lives “up close and personal,” I have become increasingly interested in the question of why some people “get” it while others do not. It’s the question Jesus addressed in His Parable of the Soils (Matthew 13:1-9). The good seed of the Gospel falls on different kinds of soils. Some hearts are receptive. Others are not. Why?

In the last two weeks I have affirmed my belief in the ordinary means of grace as the standard delivery system of the good seed of the Gospel, and I have written about the “Providences” – all of the outward and inward crosses that we are called to bear – as the primary way that the fallow soil of our hearts gets prepared to receive the good seed that takes root and sprouts up to eternal life. This is the position of the Puritan preacher William Perkins (1558-1602). He believed that–

God gives man the outward means of salvation, especially the ministry of the Word, and with it he sends some outward or inward cross to break and subdue the stubbornness of our nature that it may be made pliable to the will of God

And it has been my own experience as a human being and my observation as a pastor that this is right.  It is the Providences of life that break up the fallow ground of the human heart where the good seed of the Word can then take hold and grow.  The Providences of God expose our deep need for God’s grace so that the Word, the Sacraments and the Church can actually become the means of grace that God designed them to be for us.  And I am absolutely convinced that the “agent” in all of this is the Holy Spirit who both “inspires” the Biblical text and “illumines” the human heart.

Years ago I was told what happens when these two functions of the Holy Spirit get separated –

When all you have is the Bible, you dry up.
And when all you have is the Spirit, you blow up.
But when you have both the Word and the Spirit, you grow up.

flameH. Wheeler Robinson dried up. He had the Bible, and he believed what was in it. But when Providence tore the roof off of his life and left him utterly exposed, he struggled to find the peace that his faith promised (Philippians 4:7). His lacuna – the gap in his spiritual experience – was that he had no expectation of the Holy Spirit’s ministry of assurance – the way that the Spirit of God bears witness with our spirits that we are in fact the children of God, and if one of His children, then heirs of all of His promises too  (Romans 8:16).  H. Wheeler Robinson needed his heart “strangely warmed” in his season of trial, and when he had recovered enough from the illness that laid him low, he set himself about the task of remedying this deficiency in his theology and his spirituality.  How about you?

If you’re “stuck” spiritually – and more of us are than you might think – then I would send you to the means of grace – to the Ministry of the Word, to the Breaking of the Bread at the Lord’s Table each week and to the Fellowship of the Church where we become members of one another and get to bear one another in love. And I would urge you not to look for the escape hatch when the storms of life begin to beat against the bow of your vessel. The sea may be big, and your boat may be small, but it is this very vulnerability that cracks open our hearts.  It is the Providence of God that creates the strategic openings in our lives through which the Holy Spirit rushes in as the comforter, taking the Bible’s objective truths and subjectively applying them to our individual circumstances and conditions, and when that happens, everything changes.  The Christianity that has always been true becomes equally real.  That’s what H. Wheeler Robinson ached for, and finally found when he came to terms with what the Bible says about the empowering presence of God in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who indwells us.

Paul asked John the Baptist’s disciples on the way into Ephesus whether they had received the Holy Spirit when they first believed, and they answered, “We didn’t even know thhere4 was a Holy Spirit!” (Acts 19:2).  That was their lacuna, and Paul knew that it needed to be addressed if they were to possess a full Gospel.  That was H. Wheeler Robinson’s lacuna, and he knew that it needed to be addressed if he was to know the power of a full Gospel in his times of need.  And for many of us who are “stuck,” this is our lacuna, and it needs to be addressed if we are to have the experience of the full Gospel in our lives. DBS +

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If after reading this blog, you find yourself asking: “So where do I turn to begin addressing this gap in my spiritual life?”  I would tell you that few spiritual guides have proven more helpful in my own spiritual life when it comes to the Holy Spirit’s ministry of assurance in my heart than have A.W. Tozer (1897 – 1963) and F.B. Meyer (1847 – 1929),  Start by accessing online A.W. Tozer’s classic essay – “How to be Filled with the Holy Spirit”http://www.sermonindex.net/modules/newbb/viewtopic.php?topic_id=22632&forum=34 – and then turn your attention to F.B. Meyer’s essay “The Blessed Life”http://www.gracegems.org/SERMONS/blessed_life.htm  These two teachings are a great place to start addressing the lacuna in your spiritual expectation and experience that is keeping you from knowing the peace of Christ that has been promised, and for which you are so hungry and thirsty.

 

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Breaking up the Fallow Ground

rockBreak up your fallow ground for it is time to seek the Lord till He come and rain righteousness upon you. (Hosea 10:12)

It’s language that I learned from reading the revival authors. Charles Finney (1792-1895) explained it like this –

To break up the fallow ground, is to break up your hearts, to prepare your minds to bring forth fruit unto God. The mind of man is often compared to the ground in the bible. The Word of God is the seed sown there, the fruit representing the actions and emotions of those who receive it. To break up the fallow ground therefore, is to bring the mind into such a state that it is fitted to receive the Word of God. Sometimes your hearts get matted down, hard and dry, until there is no such thing as getting fruit from them until they are broken up, and mellowed down, and fitted to the Word. It is this softening of the heart, so as to make it feel the truth, which the prophet calls breaking up your fallow ground.

And A.W. Tozer (1897-1963) wrote –

Here are two kinds of ground: fallow ground, and ground that has been broken up by the plow. The fallow field is smug, contented, protected from the shock of the plow and the agitation of the harrow… Safe and undisturbed, it sprawls lazily in the sunshine, the picture of sleepy contentment. But it is paying a terrible price for its tranquility… Fruit it can never know because it is afraid of the plow and the harrow. In direct opposite to this, the cultivated field has yielded itself to the adventure of living. The protecting fence has opened to admit the plow, and the plow has come as plows always come, practical, cruel, business-like and in a hurry… The field has felt the travail of change; it has been upset, turned over, bruised and broken, but its rewards come hard upon its labors… Nature’s wonders follow the plow.

There are two kinds of lives also: the fallow and the plowed…The man of fallow life is contented with himself and the fruit he once bore. He does not want to be disturbed… The spirit of adventure is dead within him… He has fenced himself in, and by the same act, he has fenced out God and the miracle. The plowed life is the life that has, in the act of repentance, thrown down the protecting fences and sent the plow of confession into the soul. The urge of the Spirit, the pressure of circumstances and the distress of fruitless living have combined thoroughly to humble the heart…Discontent, yearning, contrition, courageous obedience to the will of God: these have bruised and broken the soil till it is ready again for the seed. And as always, fruit follows the plow.

So, what’s the condition of the soil of your heart (Matthew 13:1-23)? And if it’s lying fallow, what can be done to ready it for the sowing of the seed and the harvest of righteousness? How can one do what Hosea 10:12 enjoins? How can one break up the fallow soil of the heart?

pureWell, I suppose that there are lots of answers that could be given to this question, but increasingly I find myself turning to the Puritans for insight into matters of spirituality and the heart. I got an incredible book for my last birthday that has become a regular staple in my theological diet: Joel Beeke’s and Mark Jones’ magisterial A Puritan Theology (Reformation Heritage Books. 2012). Until I actually started reading the Puritans I had dismissed them with H.L. Mencken’s famous swipe that a Puritan was somebody who suffered from “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Now I know that this is the worst kind of bearing false witness against the Puritans. A more accurate assessment of their very real and very important contribution to the Christian equation is J.I. Packer’s – a scholar who is sometimes called “the last Puritan” – assessment that –

The Puritans exemplified spiritual maturity; we don’t. We are spiritual dwarfs. A much-traveled Christian leader (an American himself)… has declared that he finds North American Protestantism, human-centered, manipulative, success-oriented, self-indulgent and sentimental, …3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep. The Puritans, by contrast, as a body were giants. They were great souls serving a great God. In them clear-headed passion and warm-hearted compassion combined.

Old ManAnd among the Puritans was one Dr. William Perkins (1558-1602) who had some very clear ideas about how God’s “preparatory grace” works in the human heart before salvation. Criticized by many of his fellow Puritans for these ideas, William Perkins nevertheless taught that before one becomes a Christian through the application of the finished work of Jesus Christ to the heart by the work of the Holy Spirit, that there is a prior work of the Holy Spirit on the human heart whereby a person’s will is made pliable — think: “breaking up the fallow soil”! This work of “preparatory grace” was no less a work of the Word and the Spirit Dr. Perkins argued than what happens to us in “saving grace,” the difference between them would seem to be primarily a matter of which part of the Word the Spirit applies to the human heart – the Holy Spirit uses the Law in “preparatory grace” to condemn the heart, and then the Holy Spirit uses the Gospel in “saving grace” to console the heart. Take a look at Romans 7:7-8:4 to get a clearer sense of how this works – what it looks and sounds like.
So, coming back around to the question of the condition of the soil of your heart, and what to do should you determine it to be fallow, my counsel would be to tether your heart to the preaching and the teaching of the Word. Consistently and consciously position yourself under the Word where the Holy Spirit can use it to break up the fallow soil of your heart. This is what the priest Ezra did in Nehemiah 8:1-12 that resulted in the post-exilic revival of covenantal faithfulness in Israel, and it’s what King Josiah did in 2 Kings 22-23 that produced the pre-exilic revival of covenant faithfulness in Israel (see 2 Kings 23:1-3). And I believe that the Word at work in the human heart in the power of the Spirit has the same potential for us. DBS+

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O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go…”

In my E-100 sermon yesterday on God “cutting” the covenant with Abram in Genesis chapter 15 I said –

This covenant that Abram made with God was not Abram’s idea.  Abram didn’t go to God with the proposal of a special relationship between them.  It was God who approached Abram with it.   And just so that we would know what sort of man this Abram was – God’s intended covenant partner-in-between the story of God’s proposal to him in Genesis chapter 12 and their wedding in Genesis chapter 15, we are told stories about Abram that show us his flaws and failures as well as his strengths and faithfulness.  Just like us, Abram could run hot and cold.  He had good days and bad.  One moment he could be courageously faithful, and the next, shockingly faithless.  And so, in our Scripture lesson this morning, at the pivotal moment when it was time for God and Abram to take their covenant walk between the animals cut in two, we are told that Abram fell sound asleep.  Only God passed through the sacrifices that created the covenant.  God cut His covenant with Abram while Abram slept!  18And whatever else this might mean, it means this – that just as it was God alone who proposed this relationship with Abram, so it would be God alone who would see to it that its terms would be kept. 

I am thoroughly captivated by this idea that God keeps the covenant even when, especially when, we turn out to be groggy covenant partners.  Talk about grace! We are loved by God with a love that “wilt not let us go.”  I am not persuaded that God’s covenant faithfulness to us undoes the separation that our covenant faithlessness creates, but it does convince me that God doesn’t give up on us.  In the words of Francis Thompson’s familiar poem, “The Hound of Heaven” –

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;  
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;  
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways  
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears  
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

 

Up vistaed hopes I sped;  
And shot, precipitated,  
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,  
from those strong Feet that followed, followed after.  
But with unhurrying chase,

 

And unperturbèd pace,  
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,  
They beat—and a Voice beat  
More instant than the Feet—  
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’  

In her book Hope Has Its Reasons, author Rebecca Manley Pippert told a story that I have never forgotten.  Had there been time, I would have told it in my sermon last Sunday on Genesis 15.  But since there wasn’t, and I didn’t, I want to share it here –

A few years ago I met a friend of my husband’s who was to change my life.  He was quiet and unassuming in manner.  But after talking to him for ten minutes I realized he was one of the most supernaturally powerful men I had ever met.  His sensitivity and gentleness of spirit made me wonder if he had suffered.  Then he told me his story.

He had been a minister for a long time.  He felt his life was fairly in order, a good ministry, no problems in his marriage and fine kids.  Then one day his wife came to him and said, “I have wanted to leave you for a long time.  The marriage is not what I want and I don’t feel any love for you.  I want out.  I’m filing for divorce.”

He was devastated, and shocked.  He simply had not seen it coming.  He said, “Please don’t do this.  Let’s try to make this work.   Please don’t get a divorce.”  And she said, “All right, I won’t file yet.  But I will not stay.  I’m going to separate from you.”

…He saw his wife occasionally after she left him, and they would talk.  But she held out no hope that they would reunite.  Still he believed that he was to remain constant and faithful. He was sure that someday she would change her mind and return.  Then one day she came to him and said, “I have given up a lot of things I used to believe in.  But, I can’t let go of my faith in Jesus because I’ve seen Him so clearly in you.  I want to thank you for that.  But I haven’t changed my mind about marriage, and I have decided to file for divorce now.” …She chose to get the divorce, and it went through.

That’s when the members of his church came to him and said, “Listen, you’ve waited and been faithful.  Now she’s divorced you.  We know some lovely women who’d be delighted to share your ministry.  Let us help you get to know them.” But he couldn’t.  He believed that God wanted him to remain faithful to her. It was his sense that God was saying to him, “I want you to love her as I have loved you.” He explained, “I don’t think that this is necessarily God’s calling to everyone, but I felt like it was God’s direct calling to me.” And so he did.  For nine years he waited and remained faithful.

And then about a year after I met him, as I was going through the mail I saw a large envelope.  I opened it to find a card that read [the names are changed] “Joe and Carol, and Ann invite you to share in the celebration of the reuniting of the marriage of their parents.  For it was said on this day, “Lo, this is our God. We have waited for him.  Now let us be glad and rejoice, finally in the day of our salvation” (Isaiah 25:9).

This story could have ended differently.  She could have chosen to respond in another way.  His obedience to God could not control his wife’s response. Yet there is no question that his willingness tom learn how to love and forgive his wife dramatically affected her life…

New Year’s was approaching shortly after that when we got a call.  It was from this man.  He said, “Guess what?  My wife and I are in town.  We want to take you and Wes to breakfast.  I said, “I can’t imagine a better way to start the New Year!”  So we went to breakfast and I remember saying to Wes on the way, “I’m not sure I’m going to like her very much.”  But the truth was, I found her to be utterly delightful.  And then I realized, how could she be anything else?  She was wonderful in her own right.  But when you have also been encircled with Christ-like love as she had, how could anyone not be the more marvelous for it? (191-194)

This is a story of what the Bible calls “steadfast love,” and if it sounds familiar that’s because it’s the rest of the story that the Bible tells.  It’s the story of how the faithful God of Abram loves we who are his less than faithful descendents, God’s groggy covenant partners. It’s the rhythm of the stories about David, and Hosea, and Isaiah, and Peter that the Bible tells.  It’s the portrait of the God that Jesus Christ painted in His lost and found parables of Luke 15.  And it’s the story of you and me.  This is how we are loved, God swore Himself to it in Genesis 15 in the covenant He cut with Abram.  And it’s the covenant that gets renewed every Sunday morning when we break the bread and bless the cup.

Upon that cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One Who suffered there for me;
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess;
The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.

 DBS+

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His Heart Went Out to Them

This has been a hard week.

Early Sunday morning when I drove through my Starbucks for a cup of coffee before church I learned that the wife of one of the workers was in the hospital, and not doing well.  I married this young couple a year ago, and so I was quite concerned about what was happening.  On Monday morning I learned that she had died, and that’s how the week began.  She was just 19 years old.  She got the flu, it turned into pneumonia, and then she was gone.  I will be conducting her service this afternoon; their first year anniversary would have been Sunday. Needless to say, I am heartsick.  As I will be saying in the service in a couple of hours, “19 year olds are just not supposed to get sick and die, and the fact that they can and do is a terrifying reality, one that we’ve banged our heads hard against this week.”

Last night at the Visitation Mary Lynn and I watched young people silently come and go, tears in their eyes and questions on their hearts.  And in other rooms down the hallway of the funeral home there were other families and friends sitting with their beloved dead, tears in their eyes and questions on their hearts.  At one point in another room down the hallway, the sobs became shrieks as a young girl was ushered out of the room where her loved one’s body lay, her family holding her as they passed by those of us who had gathered around the body of our loved one.   There was a silent bond of suffering between us.  We were all experiencing the same thing.  And an old man who had his arm around this young grief-stricken girl, looked up as he passed the door where we were gathered, and then he bowed his head and made the sign of the cross.

Calvin Miller calls this “Christifying” the world around us, “consciously viewing the people and circumstances of our lives with the eyes of Christ.”  He explains –

I generally think of Christifying my world as painting the face of the Savior on the anxious, hurried faces about me.  I write I.N.R.I. on the anxious hurried faces about me (I.N.R.I. is an acronym of the Latin inscription IESVS·NAZARENVS·REX·IVDÆORVM – Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, which translates in English as “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.” Luke tells us that it was this statement that hung above Jesus’ head as He died on the cross.)  I write I.N.R.I. on the most tangled of circumstances, and as soon as they are autographed with His name, they yield to meaning and life. (Table of Inwardness – 76)

And this is what I will be doing this afternoon — “Christifying” the circumstance, autographing the situation so that it will yield to meaning and life.  As Michael Horton explains in his new systematic theology –

Faith is tested throughout our lives (James 1:3; I Peter 1:7).  As the object of our faith proves Himself faithful throughout these trials, our faith grows.  Even if we do not have God’s personal revelation about why we are suffering or how He is weaving our trials into a hidden pattern, we do have the revelation of God’s hidden purposes for us and for creation in Jesus Christ.  God has demonstrated His faithfulness objectively, publicly, and finally in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. (The Christian Faith 92)

On Sunday evening in Bible Study we looked at the story of Jesus raising the son of the widow of Nain.

Luke 7:11-15

Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him.  As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out — the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”  Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

All week long it has been this Gospel story that has been bouncing around inside my head and heart as I have been getting ready for the service this afternoon. Every miracle story in the Gospels of Jesus raising someone from the dead was a way of foreshadowing His own resurrection, and pointing to ours as well.  That makes this story part of the public and objective declaration of God’s faithfulness.

Three details of the story particularly stand out for me this morning after the week I’ve had  –

 “When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her…”
 Jesus was not emotionally indifferent to the situation of this widowed mother who was burying her only son.  In another Gospel narrative of Jesus raising the dead, we are told simply that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). The Savior was prophetically foreshadowed by Isaiah as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (53:3).  Because of Jesus Christ we know that God “gets it.” God knows how hard it is because in Jesus Christ God experienced firsthand our struggles and our sufferings; He has shared our life and our death.

 “He said, ‘Don’t cry.’” 
 Now, if this was the only thing that Jesus Christ said and did that day outside the village of Nain, His counsel would have been hollow and even callous.  The instruction “Don’t cry” is empty and cruel if there is not a good reason for the crying to stop.  The only way to make things better for those who stand over the casket of a loved one is to get that loved one back.  And this is what Jesus did.

 “And Jesus gave him back to his mother. “
 Philip Yancey has written about the reality and the promise of Easter as the day when we will get our loved ones back.  As Paul put it in I Corinthians 15:20- 26 –

 Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep… For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

 The only I can do this afternoon at the funeral of this19 year old girl who died way too young is to point unswervingly to the Savior.  As I will say in my comments in just an hour or two –

 A long time ago a man named John caught a glimpse of what things were going to be like when God finally got done fixing everything that‘s gotten broken in this world.  He wrote –

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. (Revelation 21:1-6)

Now, what John saw was in the future; it still is for us. Today there are tears in our eyes; one day they’ll be wiped away.  Today death appears to have the victory; one day death will be no more.  Today we mourn, and cry and ache; one day we’ll rejoice, and laugh and be made whole.  That day is not here yet, but it’s coming, and it’s sure because God got it started 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem’s manger, and died on Calvary’s cross, and got up out of a borrowed tomb early on a Sunday morning, and sent His Spirit to indwell and empower us just as soon as He got back to heaven. The day is coming when God will complete His saving work in Jesus Christ,   and everything John saw in his vision will come to pass.  Oh, it’s not here yet — today is proof enough of that.  But if we can bring ourselves to trust what God is doing in Jesus Christ, then there is a way to real peace here this afternoon.

DBS+

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