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June 19, 2013

One of the great privileges of being a pastor is always having a good reason to speak to the children of the church. I love getting down to their level (i.e. sitting on the floor), talking to them, and hearing about their lives. A question I love to ask them is this: How can I pray for you? We ask this same question on Wednesday evenings when our church gathers for our mid-week service. The children go off to classes to learn about Jesus while adults go and spend an hour in prayer. But before we dismiss the kids we ask them the question: How can we pray for you tonight?

The answers are as likely to be hilarious as they are poignant. Sometimes it is all I can do to stifle laughter as they express what at that moment is so important to them. It might be a friend’s uncle’s daughter’s pet rabbit that has a cold. Or it might be a not-so-subtle critique of an older brother (“Pray that my brother stops being mean to me” while brother is sitting in the very next seat) or an embarrassing criticism of mom or dad. Sometimes the answers pose a kind of a dilemma like when two children each want prayer that their own team will win the upcoming tournament. But then often the requests are real and important and even painful.

I ask the children how I can pray for them because what is important to them ought to be important to me as their pastor. They are learning that when something is important to them, they ought to take it to the Lord and plead their case with him. And who am I to determine what is important enough to take to the Lord? And so I pray for them and count it a privilege.

There is another benefit in praying with and for children. By speaking to them and hearing their prayer requests I get a glimpse of how God must regard some of my prayers. I have greater maturity and (I trust) greater wisdom than the children and this allows me to see just how mundane or funny some of their concerns may be. Yet God is infinitely greater than I am, he sees the end from the beginning, and he still chooses to hear me pray and to take my requests seriously. He tells me to pray without ceasing (1 Thes. 5:17), to pray instead of fretting (Phil. 4:6), to continue steadfastly in prayer (Col. 4:2), and assures me that all the while the Holy Spirit is interceding on my behalf (Rom. 8:26). He hears, and loves to hear, even those requests that show a lack of trust, a lack of knowledge, a lack of insight.

Praying for children and praying with children allows me to serve them, but it also provides the opportunity to get just a glimpse of God as he patiently hears my requests which must be so petty and so simple to figure out. Yet these things are on my heart and if they are important to me, they are important to him.

June 17, 2013

There is much debate and much concern today about redefining marriage. Where it hasn’t happened already, it seems very nearly inevitable that the definition will soon be expanded to include homosexual unions. And once marriage has been redefined away from the union of one man to one woman, it seems almost impossible not to see it also expand to include polygamous relationships. Already books and media and reality television are attempting to convince us of the goodness, normalcy and health of polygamy; this is just the advance guard the portends a coming all-out attack.

Of course this is not the first attack on marriage in human history. Marriage has always been a battleground. No-fault divorce is taken for granted today, but was a massive, double-barrelled attack on marriage. Before 1968 in Canada, and beginning in 1970 in the United States, couples no longer had to prove adultery or unusual cruelty in order to divorce a spouse; now they could simply separate for a time or cite “irreconcilable differences.” What is considered normal and unremarkable today represented an incredible affront to marriage in its time.

Marriage is under attack. Those of us who look to the Bible for guidance in interpreting life, the world, and the course of human history, see the hand of Satan behind all of this. He is the sworn enemy of God and, therefore, the sworn enemy of anything good—especially something so very good as marriage. He is a master strategist and a master tactician and knows how to get his way.

While we acknowledge his hand in all of this, we need to be careful not to assume that his plan is simply to redefine marriage. Satan always aims for the utmost. He always aims at the furthest possible extent of any sin. He is willing to claim small victories on the slow march to his final goal. John Owen says it of sin but it applies equally to Satan: “Every time it rises up to tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go out to the utmost sin of that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression, every thought of unbelief would be atheism, might it grow to its head.”

If this is true, and I believe it is, Satan’s plan is not to redefine marriage but to destroy it. He hates marriage because he hates God and marriage is a godly thing. It was created by God to glorify God and to provide an ongoing glimpse of Christ’s relationship with his church. It strengthens families, strengthens society, provides the most natural context for spiritual growth and discipleship. It is inherently, intrinsically, all the way good. So why shouldn’t Satan wish to destroy it?

June 16, 2013

I have written previously about Charles Wesley and his talented and prolific hymn writing. I also mentioned earlier in this series his involvement in bringing us “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” But I haven’t yet said anything about how he got into hymn writing.

Both Charles and his brother John—two of Susanna Wesley’s 19 children—were zealous for ministry when they finished their studies at Oxford University. Both were soon ordained as clergymen in the Church of England; and in 1735, both sailed to the new colony of Georgia, John as a missionary and Charles as a secretary to General Oglethorpe, who was then governor of the colony.

On that trip they encountered a group of Christians from Germany called Moravians, whose constant singing awakened in John an appreciation for what spiritual songs can do for the Christian life. It wasn’t until 1738, however, after returning to England, that both brothers were truly born again, at which point their ministry took on a whole new character and energy.

John and Charles became itinerant preachers and began organizing meetings that would be called “Methodist societies” (and which would eventually become the Methodist Church). At the start, John would occasionally write hymns, but preaching and leading the new movement eventually took all of his time. Charles, on the other hand, almost immediately discovered a love and ability for writing verse which he would continue for the rest of his life.

He was naturally a poet, and now the writing of religious verse became to him nothing less than a passion. … Every experience of his own, every scene and occasion of the Methodist revival, became the inspiration of a new hymn. He wrote his first within a day or two of his conversion. He dictated his last to his wife from his deathbed, “in age and feebleness extreme.” (Benson)

There is no particular occasion linked to the writing of the hymn “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.” We know from the heading in its original publication (“In Temptation”) that it was apparently meant to be a help in fighting sin. Whether it was written during a time of temptation in Charles’ own life, though, we cannot say.

June 13, 2013

St. Pierre Cathedral in Geneva, Switzerland was the work of Arducius de Faucigny, the prince-bishop of the Diocese of Geneva. The building’s earliest construction dates from the 12th century, but wars, fires, renovations and additions have often changed its look and shape. Though today it is the home of a congregation of the Swiss Reformed Church, it will always be known as John Calvin’s church, for it was here that the great Reformer preached day-after-day and year-after-year. And there within St. Pierre’s, is John Calvin’s chair, the next of the twenty-five objects through which we can trace the history of Christianity.

In 1517, Martin Luther had sparked Reformation with his Ninety-Five Theses. In the years that followed, his seditious new teachings quickly spread throughout Europe so that Christianity was now split into two broad streams: Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The work Luther began was to be carried on by others and none would play so crucial a role in defending and systematizing Protestantism as John Calvin. As Mark Noll says, “If Luther sounded the trumpet for reform, Calvin orchestrated the score by which the Reformation became a part of Western civilization.”

St Pierre Geneva
John Calvin was a Frenchman, born at Noyon, Picardy in 1509. From an early age he had an interest in church matters. He intended to become a priest, but his father believed his son’s prospects were better as a lawyer and for that reason enrolled him in the University of Orleans to study law. Along the way Calvin became intrigued by humanism and began to study the methods of humanism; he also studied and mastered Greek, a skill that would serve him well later in life.

In 1533 a young Calvin encountered Luther’s teachings and was converted both suddenly and unexpectedly. Later he would say, “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected in such a young man.” He soon broke with the Roman Catholic Church and became known as a leader within the Parisian Protestant movement. His role as leader made him a marked man and he soon had to flee his native France, first going to Germany and then to Switzerland. He settled in Basel wanting to lead the quiet life of a scholar, but reports of Protestant persecution in France aroused his passion.

In 1536 Calvin published the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion and it immediately sold well, thrusting him again into the limelight. He determined to travel to Strasbourg where he could once more go into hiding, but on the journey he passed through Geneva where William Farel awaited him. Farel was a fellow Frechman and preacher who had determined to settle in Switzerland. With all the force of a prophet, he pleaded with Calvin to remain in Geneva and there to preach as a means of provoking reform within the city. But for a short interval during which both men were forced out of Geneva, Calvin was to remain in the city until his death in 1564.

June 12, 2013

Every analogy breaks down at some point which is why it is unwise to push an illustration too far. In the past I have written about the data each of us creates on a daily basis and have illustrated with airplanes and bloodhounds. We create data all the time and just as airplanes leave contrails in the skies, we leave a trail of data; like bloodhounds can track a trail of sweat and breath and dropped skin cells, people with access to our data can track what we have done and what we are doing.

While we all know that we leave data trails behind us, we may have been under the comfortable impression that this data is like contrails and skin cells that dissipate so that in a short time it is gone and can no longer lead to anyone or anything. But this is where the illustration breaks down. In what may prove to be one of the greatest government leaks of all time, Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA and warned us all that our data is being actively collected and stored so that, in time, it may be analyzed and used against us. Big Brother is watching all of us, or, at least, he can watch all of us if he so chooses. It is little surprise that sales of Orwell’s 1984 have spiked almost 10,000% in the days since.

You and I are data-creating machines. We create electronic data actively through Facebook comments, emails, blog posts, phone calls, and so much else. Even the letters we mail end up creating data as the envelopes are (sometimes) photographed and stored as an image. We also create data passively through cell phones checking in at the nearby towers and loyalty cards swiped at checkouts. All of this data is collected and increasingly it is collated and analyzed in order to create profiles. Such profiles are invaluable to businesses who want to market their products as precisely as possible; such profiles are invaluable to governments who want to prevent terrorism or dissension.

We still do not know exactly what the NSA and other government bodies are collecting and what they are doing with it. Caution is in order as some of the early reports probably over-stated the matter. What we do know is that government organizations are apparently demanding and keeping records of who is calling whom, when and for how long. There is a lot of dispute about whether they have some kind of backdoor access to Facebook and Apple and Google and all the other giants of the digital world. We will probably never know the exact details. It is likely that some of what is captured is genuinely helpful and important to the security of nations; it is equally probable that far more data is captured than is needed and that this data is stored for future use. But either way, the government is monitoring you.

June 10, 2013

Getting things done has always been difficult. Whether it is more difficult today than in days past is a matter of speculation and hardly worth the effort. What is clear, though, is that we have many things, some good and some bad, competing for our time and attention. I believe a key to productivity today is a willingness to exercise self-control by refusing a lot of the capabilities our devices offer us. Maybe you should consider getting rid of these 6 things.

1. Get Rid of Email
Some day we will look back on this era and laugh at ourselves that we ever used a form of communication as ridiculous and as inefficient as email. I’ll grant that email has come a long way since its infancy, but it is still a woefully poor method of communicating with others.

We cannot get rid of email entirely; ironically we need an email address just to sign up for many of the better alternatives to email. But what we can do is deliberately reduce our dependence on it. Here’s how: Unsubscribe from every single email blast or group that is not absolutely necessary; turn off Facebook and Twitter email notifications; stop sending emails that serve no purpose (such as that “LOL!” reply to the funny video); work hard to eliminate every email you can. This may require a shift in your mind where you regard email as more of an enemy than a friend.

Even more importantly, resolve to check email only at regular intervals. Probably the single most helpful thing I’ve done is schedule email so that I check at (approximately) 9 AM and 5 PM Monday to Saturday and not at all on Sunday. I will send emails as I need to, but will check only twice per day. Try it and you may be shocked to learn that the world goes on even when you are not reading and answering emails all day, every day.

2. Get Rid of DistractionHey Stupid
I’ve had to admit to myself that in some areas of life I need to outsource my self-control. When I am bored and at a computer I compulsively, unthinkingly type in my favorite sites and, before I know it, I’ve wasted half an hour or more. That can be okay on a Saturday evening when I am relaxing, but it is very unhelpful on a Tuesday afternoon when I am on church time. Some time ago I wrote that Leechblock changed my life. I’ve since changed my browser from Firefox to Chrome which means I changed from Leechblock to ChromeNanny, but the principle remains. I have identified the sites I tend to go to when I just want to be amused and distracted (I’m looking at you, Facebook) and block them during working hours. If I try to access them, I get redirected to this page. Yes, I can work around it if I want, but just that little reminder is enough to steer me to more productive things.

3. Get Rid of Notifications
I’ve said often that our devices evolve toward distraction. With every new generation of phones, tablets or computers we have more notifications, more ways of being interrupted. Do you need to be interrupted with every email and Facebook update and tweet and Instagram and all the rest? No, you don’t. So turn them off and catch up with your social networks on your own schedule, not on your phone’s.

June 09, 2013

Onward, Christian Soldiers” was written in 1865 with no intention of ever being published, especially in adult hymn books. Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, its author, was at that time the curate of a parish in Yorkshire county in the north of England, and he recounts how and why he wrote it:

It was written in a very simple fashion … Whitmonday is a great day for school festivals in Yorkshire, and one Whitmonday it was arranged that our school should join its forces with that of a neighboring village. I wanted the children to sing when marching from one village to the other, but couldn’t think of anything quite suitable, so I sat up at night resolved to write something myself. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was the result. It was written in great haste, and I am afraid some of the rhymes are faulty. Certainly nothing has surprised me more than its great popularity.

Though it was never meant for publication, it was nevertheless found its way into a periodical later that year, and soon it became included in English hymnals around the world. Louis Benson suspects that it caught on in the United States, at least in part, because it tapped into the “soldier-spirit left in the hearts of young and old Americans by the four years of the Civil War” which had just ended.

In 1871 Arthur Sullivan wrote the tune “St. Gertrude” for the hymn, which further popularized the hymn and has ever since been its standard melody.

Due to its militaristic theme and martial melody, the hymn has encountered some resistance in recent years, and some church denominations have removed it from their hymn books entirely. However, it is appropriate to remember that Paul commands Timothy to “share in suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:3), and that he instructs the church to “put on the whole armor of God” because we wrestle against the spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6).

The words of the hymn make it clear that the focus is on this spiritual battle—that our foe is Satan, not men, and that our King and Commander in Chief is the eternal, omnipotent Christ whose kingdom cannot fail.

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.

At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee;
On then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!
Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise;
Brothers lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.

Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we,
One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.

What the saints established that I hold for true.
What the saints believèd, that I believe too.
Long as earth endureth, men the faith will hold,
Kingdoms, nations, empires, in destruction rolled.

Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,
But the church of Jesus constant will remain.
Gates of hell can never gainst that church prevail;
We have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail.

Onward then, ye people, join our happy throng,
Blend with ours your voices in the triumph song.
Glory, laud and honor unto Christ the King,
This through countless ages men and angels sing.

June 07, 2013

This is the time of year when we see the articles on modesty. Well and good. Summer is here, the sun is shining, the jeans and sweatshirts have been replaced by shorts and t-shirts. It is as good a time as any to consider what you’re wearing and why. Modesty is a good and always-urgent topic because what a person wears has a way of shining a spotlight straight into the heart.

I have written about modesty in past, but this year my thoughts have gone to the opposite side of the equation, to “the look.” It began with a young man and his simple question: What’s in “the look?” He wanted to know why he looks and, even more pressingly, why it is so difficult not to look. Why would he look at what he cannot have? What’s going on in his heart when he takes that peek?

We all know the look. It’s that lust-fueled glance, the eyes that linger too long, the neck on the swivel, the hopeful glimpse of something forbidden. It may not be a full-fledged sexual fantasy, it may not be all Jesus meant when he spoke of committing adultery in the heart, but it is not far off. Not every look turns into adultery, but all adultery begins with the look. Though men may be particularly susceptible to it, it transcends gender so that women, too, are at least familiar with it.

The look must be what Job covenanted against when he said, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman.” He knew he could look at a woman with purity or he could look with lust, that the same eyes could look upon the same young woman and be fueled by lust or by love; the look is when the eyes are controlled by lust. We are all too familiar with the look. But have we really considered what it’s all about, why we do it, what it means?

When I was a young man I was visiting some friends and he, an older Christian man, unashamedly watched a woman walk by, only to explain it away: “It doesn’t matter where I get my appetite, as long as I eat at home.” But it is not that simple, not that innocent, not that innocuous. There is something nefarious in the look, something far more evil than we may think. I am convinced that the look is pride as much as it is lust. The lust of it is born out of pride.

June 06, 2013

The moment Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the university chapel at Wittenberg, he set into motion a series of events that brought about a great Reformation. This Reformation would soon spread beyond Germany and as it did so, it would forever transform the Christian faith. One of the jewels of that Reformation is now in the collection of the British Library: William Tyndale’s New Testament. It is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we are telling the history of Christianity.

Tyndale BibleWilliam Tyndale was born in 1494 in Gloucestershire, England. Born into a wealthy family he had the privilege of studying at Magdalen Hall, Oxford and at Cambridge. He was a brilliant scholar who was soon fluent in eight languages. At Cambridge he studied theology, but remarked later that the study of theology had involved little study of the Bible. Also at Cambridge he encountered the teachings of Desiderius Erasmus and became convinced that the Bible alone should be the Christian’s rule of faith and practice and that, for this reason, every Christian ought to have access to the Bible in his own tongue. The established church regarded these as dangerous ideas associated with Lutheranism and the Reformers. His controversial opinions led him to a disciplinary appearance before the Chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester, but no formal charges were laid against him.

In 1523 Tyndale went to London to seek support for a new English translation of the Scriptures that would be based on Erasmus’ Greek New Testament text. In that day the Latin Vulgate remained the authorized translation of the Bible and only fragments of God’s Word were available in English. He hoped that Cuthbert Tunstall, bishop of London, would sponsor this work, but Tunstall declined, being more concerned with preventing the spread of Lutheran ideas than with the study of the Bible.

June 03, 2013

Pornography is ubiquitous today; addiction to pornography, especially among men, is equally widespread. Young men are often introduced to pornography long before they are able to understand what it is and what it means. Many a young man’s first awakening to sex and sexuality is by exposure to pornographic sex and nudity. This is sadly, increasingly, the case with women as well.

Some Christians can take a kind of refuge in the fact that so many others share in the struggle. “We are all in this together” can minimize the weight of it. Yet the ubiquity of porn and porn addiction does nothing to lessen the horror of it. I want to ask you a question. But not quite yet. Read on…

Desecration and Titillation

There is an inescapable consequence to the fact that human beings bear the image of God: there is nothing God values more than human beings. Bearing God’s image is an extraordinary privilege and brings with it extraordinary worth. Jesus asked, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but forfeits his soul?” If you were to accumulate the wealth of Bill Gates and add to it the wealth of Solomon, you would barely be scratching the surface of the value of a soul, of a person. Wealth will fade. It will rust and decay and be lost. People are eternal. When all of that wealth is gone, the soul will live on.

God says there is nothing in all creation he values more than human beings. And if this is true, there can be nothing more abhorrent to God than the desecration of human beings. There is nothing that displays greater spite toward God than destroying what he considers most significant. As man rejects being made in God’s image, there necessarily follows a culture of death and desecration.

When you look at pornography you are watching the violation of what God considers more valuable than anything else he has created. It is a violation of all that person is, for sex is not only skin-deep but soul-deep. You are not only watching it but enjoying it, and not only enjoying it but being titillated by it. God says “I value her above all else because she is made in my image, in my likeness.” You watch her being humiliated and violated and desecrated and all the while fantasize about doing the same. God says “Of all I created there is nothing with more worth and dignity,” and you delight in her desecration and indignity. God says, “I hate it when her body and soul is stained” and you say, “It turns me on.”

I have an important question I want to ask you. But first I want you to consider another consequence of pornography.