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October 21, 2009

Last night was one of those nights where the kids kept me up for pretty much the whole thing. This morning I tried to do some writing but my brain was still clearly lying in bed. Therefore I am going to post something I wrote a couple of years ago; it is a topic that has been in my mind a good bit lately and I hope you can benefit from it.

It’s no secret around here that I love the book of Proverbs and consider it my “home page” in the Bible. I read through Proverbs at least once a year and, whenever I’m not sure what else to read, I turn to it. And while I love Proverbs and envy the wisdom of Solomon I find something really sobering about his life. Whenever I consider Solomon, I am faced with the question of how a man of such great wisdom and discernment could end his life so far from the Lord. How did such a wise man become so foolish? How did such a discerning man stray so far? If Solomon was the most discerning man who ever lived (besides Jesus, of course), and discernment is the application of wisdom, then how do we account for his spiritual digression? How can a truly discerning man be disobedient? How did Solomon, who was so wise and so discerning, end up so far from the Lord?

Solomon’s wisdom is unparalleled by any other human. The Bible tells us that the Queen of Sheba once came to Solomon, having heard of his great wisdom, and “told him all that was on her mind.” There was nothing she asked that he could not answer, for “Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her.” We know that “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all other men…” In the history of mankind, there was no one like Solomon. He was extraordinarily gifted by God.

“Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.” He was richly blessed, with wealth and power beyond measure. “He had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem. And the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah. And Solomon’s import of horses was from Egypt and Kue, and the king’s traders received them from Kue at a price. A chariot could be imported from Egypt for 600 shekels of silver and a horse for 150, and so through the king’s traders they were exported to all the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Syria.”

When the Queen of Sheba witnessed Solomon’s wisdom and gazed at all his wealth, the Bible tells us that there was no more breath in her. She was completely overwhelmed. I have felt the same as I’ve read about his life and have read his proverbs. The man’s wisdom and discernment is clearly unsurpassed among men. And yet there is more to the story.

It is always a shock to turn to the tenth chapter of 1 Kings and to read about Solomon’s downfall. It is awful to hear how a man with such wisdom strayed so far from God. “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, ‘You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.’ Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart.” I find the next verse instructive. “For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.” His wives turned away his heart so that it was not wholly true to the Lord his God. Solomon’s heart was at first divided between women and God, but it soon turned away altogether. He allowed the lust of his heart to overcome and overwhelm his love for God.

This is sobering, is it not? A man with the wisdom of Solomon, a man who had had the Lord appear to him twice and who had heard the Lord directly command him not to turn after other gods, turned away nonetheless. Though he was a wise man, the Lord told him “you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you.” How could this happen?

Ironically, I believe that we can find the key to Solomon’s downfall in one of his own proverbs. In Proverbs 19:27 we read “Cease to hear instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge.” There are some proverbs that are multi-layered and which require great thought. This is not that kind. That meaning of this one is plain. Those who cease to listen to wise instruction, instruction based on the fear of the Lord, will quickly stray. While we cannot know for certain, I am increasingly convinced that this is what happened to Solomon. While he was young, he was visited by God and was endowed with great wisdom and discernment. When he was only a young man, but still a king, he called out to God in what seems to be a healthy apprehension of the difficulties he would face as king:

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you. And you have kept for him this great and steadfast love and have given him a son to sit on his throne this day. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”

God was pleased with Solomon’s request, replying “I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.” Solomon knew his weakness and, in humility, cried out to God and asked for His strength. As a little child cries to his father for help Solomon cried out in dependence on God. God was pleased to hear, pleased to answer, and pleased to give to Solomon far more than he asked. Solomon asked for discernment, but was also given great wisdom, great wealth, and great power. God lavished gifts upon him.

But as Solomon grew older, he began to depend less on God. I believe he began to depend on his own wisdom and to stray ever-further from God’s instruction. Where there was once humble dependence on God, there was now dependence on himself. In so doing, he strayed from words of knowledge, and strayed from God Himself. John Anderson once preached a sermon in which he said, “Erring from the words of knowledge is direct rebellion against the authority of God, whose law binds us to believe whatever he reveals. The language of obstinate error is, I prefer my own wisdom and my own will in such a particular to the wisdom and will of God himself.” Solomon preferred his wisdom to God’s wisdom, his ways to God’s ways. The whole earth once “sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.” But I believe Solomon soon allowed his own earthly wisdom to overtake his mind. He ceased hearing instruction and strayed from words of knowledge. He strayed from wisdom. He strayed from God.

Wisdom and discernment, then, are character traits that, like the moon, can wax and wane. They are gifts of God, but gifts that we can throw away. They are gifts that need to be nurtured and maintained. We cannot take them for granted, taking refuge in the fact that we may be wise and discerning right now. We need to continue to strive after them and to seek them. We need to learn from Solomon that even the wisest man today may be the greatest fool tomorrow. We depend on grace, even to sustain our wisdom and discernment.

If Solomon could stray so far from the Lord, I know that I can too. This is a sobering thought. This is a terrifying thought, even. But the solution to avoiding the folly of Solomon is clear. I need to take care that I never cease to hear instruction. I must live with an intense focus on God’s Word, never believing that I have learned enough, never believing that I’ve arrived. I must know that from this day to the day I die, I need to maintain a humble dependence on God. I must trust that His words of instruction will continue to edify and strengthen me, protecting me from straying from the words of knowledge. I will never outgrow my need for His sustaining grace.

October 15, 2009

While I write many book reviews, the majority of these reviews cover titles that are written on a popular level. Rarely do I look at reference material or commentaries. Yet I do receive many such books and today I want to mention some of the more notable ones that have come across my desk recently.

The Acts of the Apostles by David G. Peterson (The Pillar New Testament Commentary) - With this huge addition to the series, the Pillar New Testament Commentary series now has eleven volumes. Though readers may not be familiar with the author, David Peterson, they will know of the series editor, D.A. Carson. In his Preface, Carson describes some of the challenges anyone will face when writing a commentary on Acts and then declares, “All of these challenges David Peterson has met superbly. His commentary focuses on what the text actually says, and his judgments are invariably sane, even-handed, judicious.” Acts is not a book that lacks strong commentaries but even then it sounds like this is a welcome addition to what is fast becoming a very valuable series. Carson’s endorsement pretty much seals the deal.

The First and Second Letter to the Thessalonians by Gordon D. Fee (The New International Commentary on the New Testament) - The NICNT has been underway forever, it seems (1946 is pretty close to forever). In fact, some of the volumes have already been replaced even while other books have yet to receive a first commentary. New to the series is this volume by Gordon Fee, now the editor of the NICNT and the author of the volumes on Philippians and 1 Corinthians. It is good to see this series grow one volume closer to completion.

Luke 1-5 by John MacArthur (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary) - With over one million volumes sold, the MacArthur Commentary series hardly needs an introduction. One the cover of this edition are accolades from Mark Dever, Al Mohler, C.J. Mahaney and Nancy Leigh DeMoss, all of whom affirm this as a valuable and understandable commentary useful for either pastors or lay persons. Can you believe it is currently the only MacArthur Commentary in my entire library (not including the ones in Libronix which I do refer to often)? I am glad to have it and hope to add the rest of the set as soon as I’m able.

Ephesians by Bryan Chapell (Reformed Expository Commentary) - I have often lauded this series, the Reformed Expository Commentary. I have read many of the volumes from cover-to-cover and look forward to reading through the latest, Ephesians by Bryan Chapell. Like its predecessors, it is based on a sermon series and is thus suitable for pastoral study or for personal study. I often use these commentaries in my personal devotions and have benefited from them a great deal.

1 & 2 Timothy and Titus by Samuel M. Ngewa (Africa Bible Commentary Series) - I know next to nothing about this new commentary series published by Zondervan (under their Hippo Books imprint—Hippo in honor of Augustine of Hippo, not in honor of the animal). The series is edited by Ngewa who teaches at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology in Kenya. In this case I am not recommending the commentary as much as I am letting you know that it exists and hoping that someone can tell me more about it. I would love to hear from anyone who has had opportunity to read it through.

Tracts and Letters by John Calvin - Banner of Truth has recently published this huge 7-volume set of the tracts and letters of Calvin. Having just finished an engaging biography of Calvin I can attest to the value of those tracts and letters! The series comes in at 3488 pages but costs just $80.

The Whole Counsel of God by Richard C. Gamble - The Whole Counsel of God is a book, the first in a series of three volumes, dedicated to recounting God’s acts in the Old Testament. This first volume “discloses the theology of the Old Testament within the organic, progressive, historical development of the Bible.” It is more than an Old Testament survey as it includes discussion of a wide variety of topics such as ecclesiology, the nature of God, justification, and so on. It comes highly recommended by scholars such as Richard Pratt and John Frame. I suspect it will appeal primarily to scholars but pastors, students of theology and other thoughtful readers will undoubtedly find great value in reading it.

October 14, 2009

Earlier this year I was asked to prepare a talk on families and technology. I was to speak to a group of adults, mostly parents of teenagers, and address issues related to digital technology. I was pleased with the challenge and was reasonably happy with the final result. As I prepared that talk I began to think about the role of parents in the media consumption of their children. I turned to the Bible and found three biblical description that I found helpful in describing how they are to serve their children: teachers, watchmen and gatekeepers.

Teachers
You are familiar, I’m sure, with the words of Jesus in Matthew 23 where we find some of his strongest “woes.” “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” There is an exhortation here to the listeners to ensure that they do not fall into the temptation to be like those whitewashed tombs, sparkling and clean on the outside but actually full of death and decay. They are not to make a show of being clean on the outside while remaining a mess on the inside. An application for us today is that we are to know and remember that the eye of God is upon us at all times. Though new technologies give us unparalleled opportunities to do deeds in secret, we cannot ever escape the gaze of God.

These exhortations apply to those of us who are adults and parents. They apply to us especially in this role. We know the words of James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” What applies to teachers applies to parents, the most important teachers our children will ever have. In our position of teaching and authority, we will be judged more harshly. We are responsible before God to ensure that we are modeling godly wisdom and discernment in our use of such technologies. How many fathers would be devastated to find their sons looking at Internet pornography even while dad knows that his computer is stuffed full of the same filth? How many mothers wish their children would stop spending so much time using the PlayStation even while mom spends the national average of 28 hours per week in front of the television (which means, mom, that by the time you are 65 you will have spent 9 years in front of the tube).

We are to be teachers, leading our children to greater wisdom through the wisdom that we have been given. We do not need to spend much time in Scripture to see how the Bible compares age with youth. Time and again the Bible tells us that youth is to be regarded with suspicion, age with respect. These verses are typical of Solomon’s proverbs: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him (Proverbs 22:15).” Compare that with Proverbs 16:31 which tells us that “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die (Proverbs 23:13).” “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother (Proverbs 29:15).” Leviticus 19:32 says “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” God even commanded that his people were to stand in the presence of the elderly to render to them the honor due. Perhaps one of the clearest endorsements of God’s commands towards the aged comes from Job 12:12. “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.”

The job of a parent comes into focus when we consider that the Bible tells us our children are foolish, in desperate need of discipline and in desperate need of both wisdom and discernment. If Proverbs does not teach us that, it teaches us nothing! Meanwhile, our task as parents is to lead and guide our child from foolishness into wisdom. Without our leading, our guidance, they will use technology foolishly and inevitably make foolish decisions about media.

Watchmen
Ezekiel 33:6 offers an important warning: “But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.” While we have to grant that this is a specific law given at a specific time, it is applicable even to us today. As parents, God has appointed us as the watchmen of our families. We stand at the gates of the home and at the gates of our children’s hearts. Like watchmen, we need to be vigilant, knowing what to look for and where to look for it. It is our job, as watchmen, to be aware of what technology our children are encountering. It is our task to watch, to warn, to protect. And this is exactly what a watchman would do.

He would watch to see if an enemy was advancing against his city. He would be focused outward, looking for the approach of anything that posed a danger. As a watchman, he needed to be constantly vigilant, never sleeping at his watch, never growing tired or distracted or disinterested. And like this, we are responsible before God to be vigilant, looking out for the safety of the families we guard.

This is where Ezekiel’s warning gets especially serious. The watchman was not just to watch but was also to warn. If he saw that the enemy was coming, he could not simply watch the advance while resting his head on his hands. Neither would his lack of watchfulness serve as an excuse. His life was tied directly to the lives of the people he protected. If an enemy was able to sneak past the watchman, it is the watchman who would be held directly responsible. In the same way we, as parents, are responsible for warning our children against what might harm them. This may mean warning them against specific dangers such as the addictive quality of the pornography that is so easily shared and viewed on a cell phone, or it may mean warning them of the remarkable power and privilege that is theirs simply by virtue of having that phone.

Of course if an enemy was advancing against the city, the watchman would not run home and go to bed, content that his task was done. No, he was a soldier and would be involved in the battle. He had to protect his city. As a defender of the wall, he might be the first person to wade into the battle. He would watch, he would warn, but he would also protect his city and its people. Likewise, it is our task to protect our children—to fight for them (and yes, I know this often means fighting with them!).

Gatekeepers
Finally, we are the gatekeepers of the family. We read about gatekeepers often in the Old Testament and usually in relation to the temple. The gatekeepers were assigned to the entrances to the temple and their task was simple—they had to keep out whoever or whatever was unclean. Like the watchmen, they would assume at least some of the responsibility were they to allow into the temple a person or even an animal that was forbidden.

Our task as the families’ gatekeeper is to guard the entrance to our children’s hearts. There are more entrances to their hearts than ever before. We need to be aware of what is on the television screens they watch, what they are writing about and taking pictures of when they use their cell phones and what they are downloading while on the web. We stand between them and the world as a gatekeeper stands between the temple and the crowds.

The Bible tells us that our children are foolish! Today we give them incredibly powerful tools and often simply trust them to handle them in a responsible way. It’s like giving a baby a set of power tools to play with and trusting him not to cut off his hands! Our children need us to teach them to use technology wisely. Our children need us to shepherd them in their use of technology, teaching them to seek wisdom and apply discernment to their use of any technology.

October 02, 2009

I went for a walk this morning, and pretty much had the town to myself, it seemed. Few people were out and about at 5:30 in the cold, dark, pre-dawn. This was the first time this year I’ve had to wear a coat while walking and the first time I’ve been able to see my breath misting the air around me. Winter is fast approaching.

I was thinking, as I walked, about Proverbs 11:1. It is one of my favorite Proverbs, for reasons I’ll explain at another time. It says simply, “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.” As I thought about it I began to wonder what else Proverbs has to say about “delight.” Delight is something I think about often. I find myself increasingly wanting to delight in what delights God. I find myself increasingly want to move from being a dutiful Christian to being a delighting Christian. Yet delight often comes slowly; it often comes only with great difficulty. Duty is simple enough; delight is a battle.

When I got home I searched through Proverbs and found all that it has to say about delight. I haven’t quite decided what to do with all of this, so for today I simply list it for you. Here is what God tells us in Proverbs about delight:

Foolish people delight in their folly. “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

Foolish people delight in evil. “…who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil…”

God disciplines us because he delights in us. “…for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”

The adulteress seduces with false delight. “Come, let us take our fill of love till morning; let us delight ourselves with love.”

A man is to delight in the wife of his youth and, further, to delight in her beauty and in his desire for her. “…a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.”

God delights in wisdom: “then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.”

God delights in those who conduct business morally. “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.”

God delights in those who live upright lives. “Those of crooked heart are an abomination to the Lord, but those of blameless ways are his delight.”

God delights in those who are truthful in word and deed. “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight.”

God delights in those who are pure and true. “Righteous lips are the delight of a king, and he loves him who speaks what is right.”

God delights in truth and uprightness. “…but those who rebuke the wicked will have delight, and a good blessing will come upon them.”

Discipline makes for delight. “Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart.”

October 01, 2009

Some time ago, no doubt while I was awake in the middle of the night with one of the children, I saw a documentary about some weird disease that causes a patient’s skin to harden. This disease often sets in during childhood and causes the skin to become hard and shiny. I searched around to find the name of this condition and I think it must be “systemic sclerosis.” “Dermatology Online Journal” describes it this way: “Systemic sclerosis is a clinically heterogeneous, systemic disorder which affects the connective tissue of the skin, internal organs and the walls of blood vessels. It is characterized by alterations of the microvasculature, disturbances of the immune system and by massive deposition of collagen and other matrix substances in the connective tissue.” That doesn’t mean anything to me, but I guess it all adds up to “hard and shiny.” Though most people experience the disease only moderately (these people see hardening of the skin mostly on their hands and forearms) there are some who see the disease progress so that the skin hardens all over their bodies, leaving even their faces set in hard “masks.” Sometimes it will progress to the organs, hardening them and leading to an early death. It is a horrifying illness when it progresses past the point where it can be easily and successfully treated.

I thought of this while reading Gum, Geckos and God by James Spiegel. In this book (to borrow a line or two from Publishers Weekly) “Spiegel, philosophy professor at Indiana’s Taylor University, takes deep issues of the Christian faith and dumps them smack into real life with a little help from his children… Spiegel ponders the great issues of the faith with a light touch, thanks to the innate comedy of kids, but also to his own brand of humor.” In a chapter entitled “How Can God Fix Us” he looks at how God can overcome our sin—how He can fix what we have done to ourselves through our sinful natures. He uses The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to springboard into this conversation, explaining how his son, at only four years of age, was able to draw the connection between the death of Aslan and the death of Jesus Christ. He mentions that, when teaching a faith and culture course at Taylor University, he often asks students to raise their hands if they became Christians at the age of four or younger. Almost invariably at least a few of the hands go up. This is amazing, he says, “considering that comprehension of the gospel demands that one understand such weighty moral concepts as duty, sin, punishment, love, and forgiveness.”

“I am sure,” he says, “there are many parents who are mistaken in thinking that their kids comprehend the gospel. But the point is that many do. And given their stage of cognitive development, this suggests something supernatural is going on.” And truly something supernatural must be going on for children to understand what too often escapes many adults. A child can sometimes grasp deep spiritual truths that are lost on adults who are, in any other wise, far more wise and far more intelligent. Those who hate the Christian faith and who hate religion in general will insist that children believe because they have been indoctrinated. But we know better; we know that God can work his supernatural work of regeneration even in a child.

Here is why it is more difficult for adults than for children to come to know the Lord. “Sin causes cognitive malfunction, and this is especially so when it comes to moral-spiritual matters. The older we grow without being redeemed, the more polluted we are by our sin and the more entrenched we become in our corrupt patterns of thinking. Though by no means pure, children are less corrupted in their thinking and less hardened in faulty thinking patterns simply by virtue of their being younger. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the overwhelming majority of Christians come to faith by the time they are eighteen years old.”

Of course there is a second barrier to coming to Christ and it is a spiritual one. As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 2:14, without the Spirit’s prior work, no one can grasp the gospel. The spiritual nature of the gospel, that part of the gospel message that transcends natural cognitive abilities, must be overcome by the Holy Spirit. “So there are two major barriers when it comes to grasping and accepting the gospel,” says Spiegel. “One is the spiritual nature of the gospel, which transcends natural reason. The other is our sin, which corrupts cognitive function. The Holy Spirit must graciously overcome both of these obstacles in order to work redemption in any human heart. This implies that all Christian conversions are doubly miraculous and doubly gracious. And given that even after conversion Christians continue to struggle with sin, the Spirit must constantly work to keep us faithful. Job really nailed it when he said that God, ‘performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted’ (Job 5:9).”

And this takes us back to systemic sclerosis. A person’s spiritual condition, it seems, is much like the condition of a patient with systemic sclerosis. While all humans are born sinful, children have less of the pollution and less of the hardening of adults. While the extent of our depravity cannot change, for from the moment of conception it encompasses all that we are, the degree will and must change. Life without God progresses much like the disease. It causes increased hardening. What was once soft becomes hard; what was once supple becomes stiff and stretched. The longer a person denies God and the more his internal pollution increases, the more hardened he becomes against God and against His gracious offer of salvation. No wonder the Bible is filled with commands and exhortations that as parents we dedicate ourselves to teaching our children what God requires of them. And what impetus this should give us to obey Him! “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise…”

September 23, 2009

A couple of years ago a friend forwarded me an amazing bit of writing. It was crafted by James Russell Miller a Presbyterian pastor who lived from 1840-1912 and who pastored churches in Pennsylvania and Illinois. I assume from the first sentence that represents the opening lines of a book geared toward young people, perhaps a nineteenth century equivalent to Don’t Waste Your Life. It is full of soul-stirring reflections on the brevity of life and the importance of living each day for the glory of God. There is practical wisdom (“Sin may seem pleasant to us now, but we must not forget how it will appear when we get past it and turn to look back upon it; especially must we keep in mind how it will seem from a dying pillow.”) and there are meditations on the person and work of Christ (“only Christ can make any life, young or old, truly beautiful or truly happy. Only He can cure the heart’s restless fever and give quietness and calmness. Only He can purify that sinful fountain within us, our corrupt nature, and make us holy.”). It is, in sum, a powerful encouragement to live a godly life always with a view to the end. Read it, and be sure to read to the end!

*****

This may scarcely seem a fitting theme to introduce in a book meant chiefly for the young, and yet a moment’s reflection will show its appropriateness and practicalness.

Old age is the harvest of all the years that have gone before. It is the barn into which all the sheaves are gathered. It is the sea into which all the rills and rivers of life flow from their springs in the hills and valleys of youth and manhood. We are each, in all our earlier years, building the house in which we shall have to live when we grow old. And we may make it a prison or a palace. We may make it very beautiful, adorning it with taste and filling it with objects which shall minister to our pleasure, comfort, and power. We may cover the walls with lovely pictures. We may spread luxurious couches of ease on which to rest. We may lay up in store great supplies of provision upon which to feed in the days of hunger and feebleness. We may gather and pile away large bundles of wood to keep the fires blazing brightly in the long winter days and nights of old age.

Or we may make our house very gloomy. We may hang the chamber-walls with horrid pictures, covering them with ghastly spectres which shall look down upon us and haunt us, filling our souls with terror when we sit in the gathering darkness of life’s nightfall. We may make beds of thorns to rest upon. We may lay up nothing to feed upon in the hunger and craving of declining years. We may have no fuel ready for the winter fires.

We may plant roses to bloom about our doors and fragrant gardens to pour their perfumes about us, or we may sow weeds and briers to flaunt themselves in our faces as we sit in our doorways in the gloaming.

All old age is not beautiful. All old people are not happy. Some are very wretched, with hollow, sepulchral lives. Many an ancient palace was built over a dark dungeon. There were the marble walls that shone with dazzling splendor in the sunlight. There were the wide gilded chambers with their magnificent frescoes and their splendid adornments, the gaiety, the music, and the revelry. But deep down beneath all this luxurious splendor and dazzling display was the dungeon filled with its unhappy victims, and up through the iron gratings came the sad groans and moanings of despair, echoing and reverberating through the gilded halls and ceiled chambers; and in this I see a picture of many an old age. It may have abundant comforts and much that tells of prosperity in an outward sense—wealth, honors, friends, the pomp and circumstance of greatness—but it is only a palace built over a gloomy dungeon of memory, up from whose deep and dark recesses come evermore voices of remorse and despair to sadden or embitter every hour and to cast shadows over every lovely picture and every bright scene.

It is possible so to live as to make old age very sad, and then it is possible so to live as to make it very beautiful. In going my rounds in the crowded city I came one day to a door where my ears were greeted with a great chorus of bird-songs. There were birds everywhere—in parlour, in dining-room, in bedchamber, in hall—and the whole house was filled with their joyful music. So may old age be. So it is for those who have lived aright. It is full of music. Every memory is a little snatch of song. The sweet bird-notes of heavenly peace sing everywhere, and the last days of life are its happiest days—

“Rich in experience that angels might covet,
Rich in a faith that has grown with the years.”

The important practical question is, How can we so live that our old age, when it comes, shall be beautiful and happy? It will not do to adjourn this question until the evening shadows are upon us. It will be too late then to consider it. Consciously or unconsciously, we are every day helping to settle the question whether our old age shall be sweet and peaceful or bitter and wretched. It is worth our while, then, to think a little how to make sure of a happy old age.

We must live a useful life. Nothing good ever comes out of idleness or out of selfishness. The standing water stagnates and breeds decay and death. It is the running stream that keeps pure and sweet. The fruit of an idle life is never joy and peace. Years lived selfishly never become garden-spots in the field of memory. Happiness comes out of self-denial for the good of others. Sweet always are the memories of good deeds done and sacrifices made. Their incense, like heavenly perfume, comes floating up from the fields of toil and fills old age with holy fragrance. When one has lived to bless others, one has many grateful, loving friends whose affection proves a wondrous source of joy when the days of feebleness come. Bread cast upon the waters is found again after many days.

I see some people who do not seem to want to make friends. They are unsocial, unsympathetic, cold, distant, disobliging, selfish. Others, again, make no effort to retain their friends. They cast them away for the slightest cause. But they are robbing their later years of joys they cannot afford to lose. If we would walk in the warmth of friendship’s beams in the late evening-time, we must seek to make to ourselves loyal and faithful friends in the busy hours that come before. This we can do by a ministry of kindness and self-forgetfulness. This was part at least of what our Lord meant in that counsel which falls so strangely on our ears until we understand it: “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, that when you fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.”

Again, we must live a pure and holy life. Every one carries in himself the sources of his own happiness or wretchedness. Circumstances have really very little to do with our inner experiences. It matters little in the determination of one’s degree of enjoyment whether he live in a cottage or a palace. It is self, after all, that in largest measure gives the color to our skies and the tone to the music we hear. A happy heart sees rainbows and brilliance everywhere, even in darkest clouds, and hears sweet strains of song even amid the loudest wailings of the storm; and a sad heart, unhappy and discontented, sees spots in the sun, specks in the rarest fruits, and something with which to find fault in the most perfect of God’s works, and hears discords and jarring notes in the heavenliest music. So it comes about that this whole question must be settled from within. The fountains rise in the heart itself. The old man, like the snail, carries his house on his back. He may change neighbors or homes or scenes or companions, but he cannot get away from himself and his own past. Sinful years put thorns in the pillow on which the head of old age rests. Lives of passion and evil store away bitter fountains from which the old man has to drink.

Sin may seem pleasant to us now, but we must not forget how it will appear when we get past it and turn to look back upon it; especially must we keep in mind how it will seem from a dying pillow. Nothing brings such pure peace and quiet joy at the close as a well-lived past. We are every day laying up the food on which we must feed in the closing years. We are hanging up pictures about the walls of our hearts that we shall have to look at when we sit in the shadows.

How important that we live pure and holy lives! Even forgiven sins will mar the peace of old age, for the ugly scars will remain.

Summing all up in one word, only Christ can make any life, young or old, truly beautiful or truly happy. Only He can cure the heart’s restless fever and give quietness and calmness. Only He can purify that sinful fountain within us, our corrupt nature, and make us holy. To have a peaceful and blessed ending to life, we must live it with Christ. Such a life grows brighter even to its close. Its last days are the sunniest and the sweetest. The more earth’s joys fail, the nearer and the more satisfying do the comforts become. The nests over which the wing of God droops, which in the bright summer days of prosperous strength lay hidden among the leaves, stand out uncovered in the days of decay and feebleness when winter has stripped the branches bare. And for such a life death has no terrors. The tokens of its approach are but “the land-birds lighting on the shrouds, telling the weary mariner that he is nearing the haven.” The end is but the touching of the weather-beaten keel on the shore of glory.

September 21, 2009

Americans are debating the future of their nation’s health care and as they do so, they keep looking beyond their borders to the systems in place in other countries. And, very often, their attention rests on Canada. More often than not, at least today, it is conservatives focusing on Canada, telling stories of woe, describing the utter breakdown of health care. You hear of people who have been forced to mortgage their homes and travel to the United States in order to receive basic care; you hear of people forced south of the border by hospitals that have no free beds; you hear of people who are utterly unable to find even a family doctor. Believe the press and you’ll think the Canadian system is in utter disrepair.

Now I am not much of one for politics, and especially so when those politics span two nations. Neither am I an economist who can talk about how Canada’s health care system impacts the nation financially (though obviously it’s a significant burden on the taxpayer). But what I do want to say is this: the truth about Canadian Health Care is that it’s really stinkin’ good. As a nation we are hard-wired to complain and we do tend to complain about our health system as we grumble about our politicians, hockey players and donuts. But we also like to boast and when we talk to Americans, one of the things we like to boast in most is the health care system (or the beer, depending on your personality type).

And it is good (the health care, that is—I’m not qualified to comment on the beer). When I hear Glenn Beck talking about the Canadian system as if it is hand-in-hand with Cuba, well, my blood boils a little bit. Of course I have little to go on beyond personal experiences and those of friends and family. But my experience is uniformly good. If I need to see my family doctor, I can call him and get an appointment usually the same day and, if not, shortly after. If I don’t care to wait, I can go to a walk-in clinic where, depending on the day, I may be seen immediately or after a couple of hours of waiting (there are at least four of these clinics within a fifteen minute drive of my home). Hospital emergency rooms, especially in cities, tend to be a little busy, but only if you have been triaged and determined not to need immediate care. If you need a couple of stitches, you may be waiting a little while; if you have a heart attack, you’ll receive much higher priority. I have only known one person who has gone to the US for treatment and, in her case, she chose not to wait a week for a mammogram. Living within minutes of the border and wishing to free her mind from worry, it was an easy choice for her to expedite things by driving to the US. When I speak to friends and family I generally hear the same things. Sure, we might like wait times to be a little shorter here and there; elective surgeries can come with long waiting times and in some locales there are just not enough doctors to go around. But overall, I do not know of a single Canadian who would trade our system for that of our neighbors to the south. I know of many more people who travel from the US to Canada to receive health care than vice versa. In fact, I hear there is a bustling business in forging health cards so Americans can pose as Canadians and be treated as them. If the health care is that bad, why would people be crossing the border to enjoy it?

It is worth nothing that in 2004 Canadians voted for the Greatest Canadian (yes, I know it was run through the liberal CBC, but still…) and winner was Tommy Douglas, the man who engineered the whole system. Though few Canadians would share his socialist political ideology (sitting as we are under a Conservative government), fewer still have any desire to dismantle the system he created. Is it a perfect system? No way. I don’t think there is a single nation we can point at as having a perfect system. But Canada’s system has to be as good as just about any of them.

Now it must be admitted that health care falls under the domain of the individual provinces, so care will differ from province-to-province. It is likely to be better in the Greater Toronto Area where I live than it is far to the north where towns are few and far between. Is it sustainable in the long term? I don’t have an easy answer. We could probably provide endless caveats. But for the average Canadian, the health care system is entirely adequate and we really have no good reason to complain. Take the time to ask Canadians and I am sure this is what you will find. There will always been exceptions, but for the majority of Canadians the majority of the time, our health coverage is exceptional.

I do not mean this as a defense or endorsement of what President Obama is proposing in the United States. Admittedly, if I were American, I’d be highly suspicious of the plan, especially when looking to the economics of it. Instead, I write all this simply to remind you, “don’t believe everything you hear.” This is as true when the rhetoric is coming from a conservative mouthpiece as when it comes from a liberal.

(For further reading, here are just a couple of useful articles: The Truth About Canadian Healthcare and Healthcare: Public vs. Private.)

September 16, 2009

Last week I met Rick Warren. I was in Los Angeles to speak at the Christian Web Conference (where my topic was “Tweeting Truth With Love: Grace in an Age of Instant Communication”) and at the conference I bumped into David Chrzan, Warren’s Chief of Staff. He and I spoke for quite some time—an hour at least—and chatted about some of the critiques I’ve made in the past regarding Warren and his books. With ministries as expansive and important as Saddleback and Purpose Driven, these people are accustomed to dealing with detractors and over the years some of my critiques have reached their ears.

The irony of my talk with David is that I had come all the way to California to speak about the importance of communicating truth with love and there I was, being challenged on doing just that. It was not David challenging me as much as my own conscience. I wondered, had I always been fair to Warren? As David and I spoke it suddenly dawned on me that Rick Warren is a real person. He isn’t a robot or a really clever computer who spits out books and sermons, but a real guy. And as a real guy, he is aware of some of the controversy that surrounds him—including reviews and articles written by the likes of me. And as I’ve often had to do in the past, I had to pause to consider whether I would say to Warren face-to-face what I’ve said about him in my reviews and articles. This is not to say that I’ve ever accused Warren of heresy or torturing kittens. But I have commented on the nature, the completeness of the gospel he preaches—surely a topic that is close to his heart.

Later that day I received a “tweet” (it’s a Twitter thing) from Warren inviting me to come and check out Saddleback. Every time I am in California I think of doing so, but it has never quite worked out. This time, though, it fit my schedule perfectly. So I set out for Saddleback with a couple of friends.

Before I got to Saddleback, I went back and read through some of what I’ve written about Warren over the years, focusing on what have undoubtedly been the three most-read articles: my reviews of The Purpose Driven Church, The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose of Christmas. As I read them, I was actually pleased to see that I was, at least in my opinion, quite level-headed in these reviews. I think they were generally kind and rational, even while disagreeing with some of what Warren communicated. What I have not done is critique Warren to the extent that others have done. I’ve never considered him a pawn of the United Nations who is attempting to bring about one-world government and the downfall of all society. I don’t think I’ve ever accused him of deliberately trying to push a pro-New Age agenda on his readers. I have sought to focus on the message and method he advocates in his books.

My main critiques of Warren and his ministry have been:

His use of Scripture. Most notably, this involves using many translations based, at least from an outside perspective, more on what the translations say than on their faithfulness to the original text.

The completeness of the gospel. In The Purpose Driven Life he says, “Real life begins by committing yourself completely to Jesus Christ” but really goes no further than that in explaining the gospel. And this in one of the best-selling books of all-time. I have often found that the gospel he preaches stops just a little bit short. It is just a little too easy.

His view of conversion. In The Purpose Driven Life he encourages readers to pray this prayer: “Jesus, I believe in you and I receive you” and then welcomes them into the family of God. His view of conversion and his haste to baptize people and welcome them into church membership (you can do all of these in a single day at Saddleback) have often caused alarm.

The role of pragmatism. In The Purpose Driven Church he makes a blanket statement that is really startling when you pause to consider it: “never criticize what God is blessing.” This kind of pragmatism in which faithfulness is judged by our perceived results is a hallmark of the Purpose Driven model of church.

So these critiques were in the back of my mind as I headed to Saddleback, as David kindly gave us a thorough tour of the facilities and as I attended the Saturday evening worship service. And I suppose they were just in the back of my mind as I spent perhaps a half hour with Warren after the service.

A few people have since asked me to describe my meeting with Warren. I don’t really know how or why I would do that. How or why would I evaluate and analyze a half-hour of mostly-random conversation? We sat down with no agenda and mostly just chatted. But what I will say is this: having met Warren and having spent a few hours at Saddleback I was at once impressed with his giftedness and confirmed in some of my concerns about his ministry. As an example of the former, he reads hundreds of books per year and just this year has already completed 18 of 26 volumes of the complete works of Jonathan Edwards (whom he regards as his hero). As an example of the latter, his sermon on Sunday used at least 6 Bible translations, some of which seemed to be chosen at the expense of the true meaning. So I guess I was confirmed in seeing that Warren is a pretty normal guy in most ways and an above average guy in other ways. I can see his passion for what he does—his passion for sharing Christ with the world. At the same time, I walked away realizing that many of my concerns are fair ones.

I want to affirm here, though, that I am allowed by Scripture to disagree with him. None of my critiques or concerns indicate that I think he is unsaved or deliberately doing things contrary to Scripture. Rather, I believe it is primarily that he and I read Scripture differently at certain points. We read the same words and come to different conclusions. If I did not believe my conclusions were the proper ones and if I did not believe they were important, I would have no reason to raise my concerns. Honestly, I feel that Warren is, in a sense, better than his theology—that with his intellect and knowledge of Scripture and expansive knowledge of what others have written, he ought to see a kind of disconnect between some of what he must believe and how this theology works itself out through his church. I wonder if he has paused to ask what Jonathan Edwards would have to say about his church, his books, his methods. So having spent time with the man and his ministry, and while granting that I saw just a brief glimpse of each, I want to affirm that there is much that seems sound but much else that bears a kind of iron-sharpening-iron kind of critique. Warren has thrust himself onto an international stage and therefore he cannot be surprised when he receives critique. If he were a small-town pastor in middle America, no one would be noticing and critiquing him. But as a pastor who prays at Presidential inaugurations and who has the ear of many world leaders, he has to expect that people will dissect his words. After all, as a Christian leader there are times when he represents all of us and there are times when hundreds of thousands of people are listening to his every word.

Somehow just meeting Warren reinforced in my mind the challenge we face as we reconcile ourselves to a fast-paced, digital world in which a person can quickly dash off a missive that can severely impact another person on the other side of the continent. It seems that ethics and morality have been a bit slow to catch up to ability in this new digital world. As I read those three reviews I realized that in each case there would be things I might say just a little differently. I am too often prone to forget that the authors whose books I review are real people and I am too quick to ignore my conscience when I consider whether the things I write and post online for all the world to read are things I would also say face-to-face. I hope this will help me in the future as I seek to be fair and godly in all that I write.

In November Zondervan will release The Hope You Need, the long-awaited follow-up to The Purpose Driven Life and one that is based on the Lord’s Prayer (which, in turn, was the subject of an eight-part sermon series). I intend to review this book as I’ve reviewed each of his other titles. But I think, having met Warren and having met the people who work with him, I can honestly say that this review will be a little bit different. It will come from a new perspective and, I hope, be as fair as I know how to Warren, to Saddleback and to Scripture.