Thursday, January 27, 2011

He Lives to Intercede

There is great comfort to be found in this verse, "He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:25). It is the type of comfort that can drive away the dark night of despair; it is the type of truth that can warm a heart grown cold.

Jesus is the Christ; he is the Son of the Living God; he is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. By his will, the world holds together. He framed our night sky with billions of stars; he knows the name of each one of them. He knows when we rise up, and he knows when we lie down. He knows every word we speak even before it passes our lips. He knows the length of our days, and he knows the frailty of our flesh. He is incomparable. He is mighty. He is God. He is all this, and he is interceding for you.

Robert Murray M'Cheyne said it like this, "If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet distance makes no difference. He is praying for me." We would do well to lay hold of this truth for ourselves. Peter reminds us, "Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:6-7). You see that Christ cares for you? Do you feel that, when your flesh is weak, it moves our Lord Jesus to intercede? Jesus the Mighty kneels for us. He stoops for us. He prays for us. Are you surprised? The enemy of our souls would like for us to think that Jesus was done with us when he rose from the dead, as if the resurrection was the final mission accomplished. No, our Lord ascended to the right hand of His Father where he ever lives to intercede for his beloved people.

Oh, blessed thought, Jesus intercedes for me and for you! He asks of the Father on our behalf, and the Father delights to answer. You are safe today, beloved. Jesus has prayed for you. He loves you today as he did at Calvary. You are not forgotten; you are engraved on his hands; you are the love of his heart.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A House of Horrors

I read an article today that horrified me. It horrified me because it is a true story. It horrified me because of the absolute depravity that it depicted. It horrified me because there were so many willing accomplices to the crime.

I am speaking of the recent arrest of Dr. Kermit Gosnell of Philadelphia. Dr. Gosnell ran an abortion clinic that was really more of a baby "chop shop" than it was a clinic in any form. You may read the story here. I want to add my thoughts and reactions to having read this article.

For one, I wonder about the people who worked at this clinic. How could they participate in such work? Could you watch as a doctor severed a living child's spinal cord with a pair of scissors? Not once, but at least seven times?

Secondly, I was aghast that, even though this place was known as a House of Horrors, people still came from overseas to have their children killed there. I have an image in my mind of a mother, drugged into a stupor, lying helplessly unaware as her crying baby's life is mercilessly extinguished by a man wielding a pair of scissors. I have to temper this image with the understanding that the mother was complicit in this death. It is sickening.

Finally, I imagine that some pro-abortion people will say that this is exactly what will happen if abortion is outlawed. I must force myself to acknowledge that this may be true. It could be that these "Houses of Horror" would indeed spring up in the back alleys of major cities. I have some reactions to that.

First, it makes it clear that this is not an issue of mere legality. This is, in the end, an issue of convincing people that human life is sacred. If everyone believed that human life was sacred, it would be unnecessary to make abortion illegal, they would simply cease.

Secondly, just because these macabre clinics might indeed spring up, that is no reason to keep abortion "sanitary." That is, if a baby is indeed being murdered, having a clean scalpel does not make the act any more dignifying. We shouldn't legalize wickedness in an attempt to make it safe and sanitary.

This story grieves me. God have mercy.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Some Things Every Pastor Should Know

I have been in the pastoral ministry for seven years now. It is not at all what I thought it would be when I began. It is not at all what I thought it would be when I graduated seminary. It is so unusual, in fact, that I find it is very difficult to explain what it means to be a pastor.

I know that it is my duty, as a pastor, to display the glory of God through the proclamation of the atoning death and glorious resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. I also know that it is my duty to display the glory of God in such a way that it will cause Christians to love God and one another more. The difficulty then, lies not in the job description, but in the carrying out of one's duty.

In the best case scenario, a young man who aspires to enter the pastoral ministry does so because he wants to do exactly what the job description calls for. Unfortunately, a young man enters the ministry with the idea that he can actually accomplish it. He goes to seminary, learns to parse Greek and Hebrew words, he learns to preach, and he might even learn to say prayers. He will then get hired, go to a church, use those skills confidently, and quickly find that his skills do not avail him.

For myself, I was under the impression that simply preaching the Word of God rightly would lead to the growth of the church, the salvation of souls, and the general progress of others in holiness. What I did not realize was that none of these things can be measured very accurately, that true spiritual growth is like fighting an uphill battle against a deeply entrenched foe, and that the vast majority of pastoral work is actually personal. I need to explain this because I believe it is far too often overlooked in the mentoring process of training a pastor.

I confess that when I began as a pastor that I thought I was an above average Christian. I thought that I was smarter than the average pew-sitter, and that I was more zealous for my God than many of my contemporaries. I even reckoned myself as one of the better preachers that I had ever heard. I thought that this would mean that I would be a great pastor and that the goodness and mercy of God would be showered upon those who would sit under my ministry. I have hardly met a pastor who did not esteem himself in the same way.

I want to be exceedingly careful here, lest I be misunderstood. I ask you to allow me to grant that what I thought was and is actually true. Grant to me, that compared to the average Christian, that I am of above average zeal and talent, and that I am an above average preacher. Here's what I learned: even if you grant me this, it is utterly and completely insignificant. I was, in the beginning, impressed with my skills even if God wasn't. It is difficult to learn that God is not interested in sharpening our talents and skills per se. He loves us far more holistically than this.

This leads to one of the greatest discoveries in the ministry. When a young man is preparing for the ministry, he believes that God is preparing him to use these skills to help others, and so he does. However, for a young pastor in pursuit of the heart of God, he will quickly find that the tools he thought were meant for others will first be turned upon himself. The sermons he prepares for others will convict him deeply if he has a modicum of true zeal for personal holiness. The Word will reveal to him his own failures and sin, and most often, he will ascend to the pulpit knowing that he preaches as the hypocrite. It is marvelous thing to watch a man preach "Thus saith the Lord!" when it is apparent that he himself keenly feels the weight of those words, and I highly doubt that God corrects a flock when He hasn't first dealt the shepherd the brunt of the blow.

This is how we begin to see how insignificant talent and skill are. By this, I do not mean that skill in the Word of God is useless. I simply mean that the pastor does not develop his sermon for eloquence. He approaches the Scriptures as one who goes to God, like David, and says, "Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!" (Psalm 139:23-24). Sermons are for the heart, and they are for the whole church, the pastor included. When a man preaches to others, he ought to know first that he preaches to himself. If he should forget this, he will be a poor pastor, and he will become an enemy to the flock and to his own soul besides.

Pastoral ministry is particularly out of step with modern times, and this poses its own challenges to the modern pastor. It is decidedly not a forty hour a week job, and the product which the pastor produces cannot be measured. These two truths are permanently inter-twined. A man never gets a break from the all-seeing gaze of God. David wrote, "You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether" (Ps. 139:2-4). The primary responsibility for the pastor is to walk humbly with his God and to bare himself unflinchingly every moment to the light of God's grace. Every action must be measured; every word must be weighed. Everything that he does must be done to display God's worth, even when he sits to eat. A pastor who opens himself to the scrutiny of God will not falter under the scrutiny of man.

This is slow, necessary, and lonely work The pastor must place himself under the discipline of the Lord; he must feel the weight of his yoke upon him. And when the pastor sees that his own sin is deep and odious, and when he finds that the chastening stripes of the Lord are gentle and loving, then he will be prepared to face the flock of the Lord in a right spirit. Oh how naive is the thought that learning Greek and parsing verbs is the major portion of sermon preparation! People often ask me how long it takes to prepare for a sermon. I often say, "It has taken me my entire life." We usually both laugh at that, but I could not be more sincere.

I have not touched on how the title of "pastor" will cause others to treat you differently, and it will hinder genuine relationships as much as it helps. Maybe some day I'll write on those aspects, but this post is already too long. I am very grateful that God has given me the privilege to pastor, and I hope that if you are a believer reading this, you will take a moment to pray for your own pastor as he seeks to love both you and Lord with all of his might.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Brief Thought about the Tucson Massacre

I read a great blog post today by Kevin DeYoung. I encourage you to read it here. He brings up a couple of very good points that I think are definitely worth pondering. Here are a couple that struck me.

One, for all the talk about the murders, have you heard a single person in the media place the responsibility for the shooting squarely on the shoulders of the shooter himself? I cannot recall a single one. I heard the local sheriff blame ramped up political rhetoric and things of that nature. Some have blamed this on the man's "mental illness." But I have not heard anyone say, "This guy was a wicked, evil wretch. That's why he shot the Representative and the nine year old girl."

So I will say it, this man was evil. The blame for the murder of innocents falls squarely on his shoulders, and he should be the one to pay for the crime. There is no excuse, no upbringing, and no mental disorder that justifies his behavior. If he had the wherewithal to purchase a pistol and plan a murder, then he is morally culpable and wicked. It isn't the fault of either the Democrats or the Republicans.

Does that sound like radical talk to you?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

How to Think About Art

Before I write about the nature of artistic endeavor, I want to be clear from the start that I am not a stereo-typical "artist." In speaking of art, I feel a bit like the guy who can play G, C, D, A, and E chords on the guitar. Sure, I can play basically every country music song ever written with those, but does that mean I can play the guitar? Listen first to Eliot Fisk play the guitar, and then you can tell me if the ability to perform a five chord progression qualifies one as a "guitarist."

I am, however, a bit of a wordsmith. I am also an orator. The proof of the former is that you are reading this. The second proof is that I am a preacher. Unfortunately, the art of oration is a bit of an under appreciated art form in this era of history. (Insert angsty sigh here to prove my artistry.) This does not qualify me to define what art is or does, but I'm going to give it a try for you anyway.

I am writing this, primarily, with the Christian in mind. I fear that many of my fellow Christians, especially evangelicals, have no clear grasp of what art is for and what it is should do. This is evident in the way that we condemn works of art like Harry Potter or "modern" art. Each is sniffed at or assailed for different reasons, and those reasons more often reveal the ignorance of the observer than it does the quality of the art. Yes, sometimes art is bad. But if art is bad, it absolutely must be bad for some other reason that "It offends me." Being offended is not the cardinal sin, nor is a measure of the value of something communicated. My wife may say, "You're being an idiot." I may say, "You've offended me!" My nearby friend may say, "Nevertheless, you're being an idiot." Not a very artistic conversation, but it can demonstrate that offense taken is no measuring stick for value.

So let me take a few criteria we can use to judge the value of an artistic expression, whether it be art by painting, by music, by oratory, poetry, or writing in general. These are made up criteria for myself. I use them to make certain that my personal sensibilities, which are sometimes wrong, are not getting in the way of a more objective consideration of what I am being presented. These are not in order of importance, but rather, they represent a series of questions I ask myself as I analyze art. Some questions I answer are not "stand alone", but naturally lead to other questions.

1. Is this piece presenting something that corresponds to reality?
I need this criteria when I am presented with something that is offensive to me. If I am watching a television show, reading a book, or looking at a painting, I ask myself if this is corresponding to reality. Even abstract art is attempting to say something about reality. If I am reading a novel, and one of the characters is flirting with adultery, it alarms me. I do not like it. But does this correspond to reality? Yes. Is it sinful for me to read about this? Not necessarily. If it were, the story of David and Bathsheba is too obscene to consider. So first, I ask if this corresponds to something in reality. Sin is reality. Simply presenting things as they are is not necessarily bad.
2. What is this art saying about reality?
I am reminded here about an art display I once saw where a man had taken a dead cow, put it behind glass, and put maggots and flies in there to display a rotting carcass. All that was missing was smell. The visceral reaction to that is, "That isn't art! That's just disgusting!" Well no, it was presented as art. This guy was "dead" serious. Was it reality? Yes. We die and we rot. Is it disgusting to look at? Yes, it most certainly is disgusting. So what was the man saying about reality? I think he was saying, "You are going to die, rot, and the maggots will eat you."

This is true, but is the piece trying to say that this is all we have to look forward to? Did it mean to do that, or did it only mean to spark the conversation?

Now remember, not every art piece is a Rembrandt. This very blog post is a work of art, if I may say so. It is low art, and it will be quickly forgotten. But it is serving a purpose. But hopefully, it may lead the reader to further thought. Dead, maggot filled cows will not be around in a 100 years like Rembrandt, but I thought that the artist who offered the dead, rotting cow was very brave, and he reminded me of a harsh reality. Death is real. Death is ugly. Death is coming. That isn't the whole story, but it is a true story and people need to be confronted with that reality from time to time, especially in a sanitized, clean, high-brow art museum. It was an unforgettable display to be sure. I'm still writing about it.

3. Does the art "keep it between the lines?"
I judge art on a continuum. This is most helpful in judging stories, movies, but it might apply to paintings and such. Imagine a line at the top that is called "cheesy" and at the bottom there is a line called "indulgently/erroneously wicked." I define cheesy as a movie whose message is, in reality, too good to be true. For example, and I hope I do not get hate mail for this, "Facing the Giants" stayed mostly above the "cheesy" line. Does that mean it is bad art? Not necessarily. I would say that it is what it is. It didn't win an academy award for a reason. Does that mean it is useless? No. It was entertaining, and there were elements that can lead someone to introspection and thought.

On the flip side, I recently played through a game called "Bioshock." Can games be art? Certainly they are, just as comic books are art. I think that Bioshock dipped below the "Indulgently/erroneously wicked" line. (I can't think of a better antonym for "cheesy".) The characters in the game were irredeemable. The story gave you no reason to feel any sorrow or sympathy for the villains. That is below the line because "good" stories should give us pause when we consider the villain. Great art does that. Consider gollum in "The Lord of the Rings." Was he a wicked little thing? Indeed, most wicked. Did the story move us to pity him? Yes, it did. There was a reason that Frodo didn't slay him outright. The ability of a story to help us see wickedness as pitiful is a mark of reality and it says something right about reality. Hope springs eternal for the redemption of others, and when they aren't redeemed, we should feel grief.

The reason I take pains to point out a few steps I take in regarding the arts is because I get the sense that many Christians feel that if a movie, painting, or book depicts wickedness then that movie, painting, or book itself is wicked. If this were the case, then the Bible would be wicked. Rather, a piece of art ought to deal with reality as it is, but not indulgently one way or another.

Finally, I want to be clear that not everyone has to enjoy or work at understanding artistic expression. I have an acquaintance who is a police officer, and his job is to troll the internet to look for child pornography. He has to sift through thousands of pornographic images every day and try to determine if those depicted are under age. I pray for him and others who have his job.

For me, it is important as a Christian to understand those who are around me. Why are they watching "The Office"? Why is this guy putting a dead cow under glass? What are the video games that children are playing teaching them about reality? What's right with it? What's wrong with it? I need to be able to have a conversation with someone, in a sane manner, that demonstrates that I have, in good faith, tried to understand what they are saying. Then, they will be more prone to give my words a fair hearing as well.