Every Tribe and Language and People and Nation

every-tribe

We had three young people visit our church this morning from the Netherlands (when I say “young,” I’m guessing mid-twenties). They were visiting Texas and in the next day or two would be flying back to their native land. As we attempted to communicate through their thick Dutch accents and my deep southeast Texas twang, I discovered that they belonged to a free Dutch Reformed denomination, and although I am a “Westminster guy,” we discovered that we all shared a love for the Heidelberg Catechism. Although separated by miles, cultures, countries, years (no one would guess that I am in my mid-twenties and I no longer have to ask for the senior discount, they know), and Confession of Faiths we joined together and sang of Christ’s Gospel, heard His Word preached, and shared the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” It gave the four of us a glimpse of that future day when around God’s throne we will sing to our Lord and Savior, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Rev. 5:9-10)

But today, in time and space we sang Isaac Watt’s beautiful hymn about the love and sacrifice of a holy God for sinners:

Alas! and did my Saviour bleed,
And did my Sovereign die!
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I!

Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree!
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker, died
For man the creature’s sin.

Thus might I hide my blushing face
While his dear cross appears;
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt mine eyes in tears.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away,
‘Tis all that I can do.

On Being a Pastor Part 2

sick-pastor

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.” (1 Timothy 3:1) The word translated “bishop” in this verse is a word in the Book of Acts that describes the church office of “pastor.” In my last post, I shared about some of the challenges that make the life of a pastor a difficult one. I wrote about people problems, task problems, emotional problems, and time problems, and because of this, pastors, whether Baptist or Presbyterian, can often be a rather whiney lot (there is also one Methodist pastor that I shared a funeral with in West Texas who moaned to me about how badly the Bishop was treating him, so my guess is this characteristic cuts across all denominations). All that being said, let me go on record after spending 35 years in the ministry that being a pastor in one of Christ’s churches is one of the greatest blessings that one can experience this side of heaven.

When one is a pastor he gets to make his living reading and studying the Word of God. Hours of every week (if a pastor is worth his salt) is spent in mining the treasures of God’s truth. He has the opportunity to dig into the languages of Scripture, to read the commentaries written by the servants of God of all the ages, and to seek to discover how to best communicate that truth to God’s people. Before a sermon is ever preached to God’s people, the pastor has preached it to himself again and again throughout the week.

When one is a pastor he has the opportunity to spend time planning the corporate worship of God’s people. He has the privilege of reading through many Psalms and hymns to discover which ones will help explain the text of Scripture that he will be preaching on that Sunday. “The Trinity Hymnal,” for example, consists of 742 hymns covering hundreds of years of Christian hymnody filled to the brim with Biblical truth. When one adds in “The Trinity Psalter” he also is blessed by the metrical versions of the Psalms that have spoken to God’s people for generations.

When one is a pastor he has the great privilege of baptizing new believers, and the children of believers, pointing people to the grace of Christ as their only hope in this life and the life to come. He has the privilege of breaking bread in front of the flock of God and speaking on behalf of our Lord, “This is my body which is given for you,” and to hold up the cup and say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

When one is a pastor he gets to hear people share how Christ has changed their lives as they communicate their profession of faith, and then to hear them express their commitment to Christ as they take their membership vows. He has the privilege quite often to pray with his brothers and sisters in Christ during their times of joy, and sadness, and during their days of youth, and old age.

And, yes, while there are those who make life difficult for the pastor, there are many, many more that are a great blessing to him. To hear from people in the congregation share that they pray for you every day is a great comfort and encouragement during the challenging times. There are those who share materially, emotionally, and spiritually with their pastor to make his life in ministry easier.

A pastor even has some flexibility in his schedule so that even though there are times when he is absent from the his family during the evening, it is possible (as I often mentioned to my son) to make those 5 o’clock games when some fathers are unable to be there because they can’t get off work in time.

When the time came for me to retire (earlier than I had hoped because of family needs) I was saddened because I miss greatly the work that has filled most of my adult life. Oh, I don’t miss long session meetings, or the slings and arrows that often fly in the direction of spiritual leaders, but I do miss the many blessings that accompany ministering to the people of God. For I learned early in my life that “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.

On Being a Pastor (Part 1)

pastor

 

 

 

 

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.” (1 Timothy 3:1) The word translated “bishop” in this verse is a word in the Book of Acts that describes the church office of “pastor.” There have been many articles written lately on the Internet describing how tough it is to be a pastor in the 21st century, and there is some truth to be found in that contention. As one who was ordained in August of 1981 and just recently retired, I can speak with some expertise on the subject.

The pastoral life has its challenges. To begin, there are always people (probably in any church one belongs to) that seem to have the “spiritual gift of criticism.” They criticize every decision that the pastor makes and make life truly miserable for him at times. I still remember a story that Dr. A. J. Quinn once told me about his days as an associational missionary when a young pastor pleaded with him to find him another church because of this lady who hounded him constantly as he tried to do his work in that small west Texas town. The good doctor responded by asking him how many in his church were like this woman. The young pastor said, “Only one. Just that Jezebel.” Dr. Quinn told him that he had better stay put because the next place that he serves may “have a church full of them.”

There is also the pressure of the calling. There are often eternal consequences to the things you do (Of course, I realize only God can change a heart, but the pastor “feels” the importance of the tasks he is called to do). He is called upon to open God’s Word week after week to feed Christ’s sheep with spiritual food (That amounts to approximately 150 sermons, Bible studies, etc. every year). Thankfully, God has given 66 books of the Bible full of heavenly truth. However, a diligent pastor will strive (and that is a good word to describe it) to make sure that he “rightly divides the Word of truth” as he explains, illustrates, and applies that Word to God’s people.

A pastor also feels emotional challenges as he ministers. He is there when the doctor comes out of surgery with bad news from the biopsy, he is there when church members and even people in the community die, he is there when husbands and wives are acting like the Hatfields and McCoys, he is there when the teenager is pushing every boundary that he can push, he is there when a child has been abused and seeks to help that child put the pieces of his life back together, and he is there when…well, I think you get the picture. No pastor feels comfortable when these events happen, but you are there to pray, and to be the Lord’s representative, because that is what you are called to do, and that is what those people need at that time. There are those who say you need to put some space between you and the people, but that is impossible when you are “weeping with those who weep.”

A pastor feels the pressure of time. When he is at home, he feels guilty because he is not out ministering to people, and when he is out ministering to people, he feels guilty because he is not home with his family. And, honestly, this is just the tip of the iceberg. As one older pastor once told me when I was a young whippersnapper, “If you can do anything else other than pastor, do it.”

But, wait,” you may say, “you said that the one who desires to be a pastor desires a good thing.” Yes, being a pastor is not just a great responsibility, it is a great blessing. In my next blog post, [Deo Volente] I will speak of the many positive sides of being a pastor.

Oy, Vey!

Atkins

In Philippians 1, Paul speaks about being torn between two good options: I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” On the one hand he would love to go on to heaven to be with the Lord, but on the other hand he knows that he is needed by the Philippian church.

My choices are somewhat different and not near as enticing. As most of you know, several years ago I weighed 223 lbs. and all of the numbers from my blood work were less than stellar. I began exercising (running) and went on a diet similar to The Atkins Diet and lost approximately 50 pounds. Along with taking Zetia (not a statin, it just hinders the absorption of cholesterol into my body) my blood work showed remarkable improvement. At the end of last year I began to add a few carbs back into my diet because I looked like a wrinkly, old man (granted I am old, but I really looked frail) and leveled out around 180. Then, (here you may play whiney self-pitying music in your mind as you read) I was hammered by a kidney stone attack. I decided that I never wanted to experience that again, and after reading that high protein, low carb diets have sometimes been connected to the making of kidney stones, I tried the approach of a more balanced diet. Ta-da! I gained almost ten pounds and my blood work went south significantly.

So now, I am back on my semi-Atkins diet (I have lost about six pounds), and I will try to get back to between 175-180 and try to keep my weight there, and see what the Dr. says (technically, the Nurse Practitioner since normal everyday people don’t see doctors anymore…I am sure President Obama sees a nurse practitioner, too). [Sigh] After that I will be careful when the weight begins to creep up, and see, if that, and my bicycling (after two years of running my knees and Achilles’ heels said, “Enough!”) will keep all of my “numbers” at a good place.

All that being said, I am grateful that the Lord has blessed me with relatively good health, and I can say along with Zacharius Ursinus, the principal writer of the Heidelberg Catechism:

What is your only comfort
in life and in death?

That I am not my own,
but belong-body and soul,
in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven;
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.

“Father” is a Good Description

Dad

Years ago a young lady came up to me after I had preached a message about the joy of being able to call God, “Father,” (I was preaching from the text of the Lord’s Prayer) and told me that it was so difficult for her to think of God as a Father because of the earthly father that she had. He was controlling, abusive, and had managed to make her life miserable for decades. I tried to encourage her about all the other ways that God is described in Scripture such as the Good Shepherd, as a hen gathering her chicks, as the Way, as the Bread of Life, etc., but as I went home on that Sunday night, I was reminded of how fortunate that I was to have had a Christian dad.

My Dad wasn’t a perfect man, but he worked hard to provide for his family (he was a welder in a shipyard for 39 years), he took time to be at my sisters’ piano and voice recitals, my Little League baseball games and later my high school games, he took us to church (of course, we had to be there 30 minutes early), he disciplined us with love (with his hand; Mama always used the belt), he read the Bible to us, prayed with us and for us, and, although he never showed his emotions outwardly, we never doubted his love.

Twelve years ago tomorrow he became one of those “just men made perfect” that the Book of Hebrews describes, and I still miss hearing the sound of his voice. Because of my Dad, when I hear God being described as a Father, I am so grateful that He is.

A Lamp unto our feet and a Light unto our path

heavens declare

 

 

 

Anyone who has ever looked up into the night sky in the country away from Ray Price’s “City Lights,” or gazed across the Gulf of Mexico from the San Luis Hotel at a sunrise on Galveston Island, or looked down into the Grand Canyon, or looked out at the Rocky Mountains from the Alpine Visitor Center outside of Estes Park, Colorado, understands what the Westminster Confession means when it says,

Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter One, Paragraph One)

The heavens declare the glory of God,” and remind us that our God is a God of power, order, and might, but those same heavens cannot tell us that man is a sinner and falls short of the glory of God, that Christ came and kept God’s Law on our behalf, and that He died as a sacrifice for our sin, so that through resting in Christ alone we could have eternal life. No, it took more than the sky, the ocean, the Grand Canyon, and the beautiful mountains to tell us that; it took God’s Holy Scripture to present that Good News to us.

God, in His written Word, has given us “all things that pertain to life and godliness,” (2 Peter 1:3) to establish and comfort His church. In a world that mocks Christ’s Church, it is tempting to look to the pragmatic schemes of the world to grow the Church, to nourish the Church, and to protect the Church, but we would be much wiser to look to God’s written Word for His plan to shepherd His people. His church is not an organization, business, or group of volunteers; but we are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.” (1 Peter 2:8-10)

May God’s church use His Word as “a lamp unto [its] feet and a light unto [its] path” as it lives out its life in a dark and hostile world.

What is the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America?

Westminster Assembly

Several years ago the Iraqis were struggling to put together a new constitution. Jay Leno responded during his monologue by saying, “Why don’t we let them have ours? We don’t use it anymore.” The joke was funny and the people laughed, because there was some truth behind the humor. There were people who were questioning whether our federal Constitution was being followed.

We Presbyterians have a Constitution, also. If I remember correctly I was asked the question, “What is the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America?” at the time of my Presbytery floor exam during my ordination process. I answered dutifully,

The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America, which is subject to and subordinate to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the inerrant Word of God, consists of its doctrinal standards set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Book of Church Order, comprising the Form of Government, the Rules of Discipline and the Directory for Worship; all as adopted by the Church.”

The brightest minds in England worked for the better part of two years (from August 1646-April 1648) creating the Confession of Faith and the two Catechisms at the Westminster Assembly which spell out in detail what they believed the Scriptures taught, and their work has stood the test of time (as we can see by the very few changes that have ever been made to that document). To this day we pastors take vows affirming that we “sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time [we] find [our]self out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, [we] will on [our] own initiative, make known to [our] Presbytery the change which has taken place in [our] views since the assumption of this ordination vow?” Our ruling elders and deacons take a similar vow promising to report to the session if their doctrinal views ever change.

Just as I would hope that the powers-that-be in our nation would enforce the laws enacted under the Constitution of the United States, I would also pray that the shepherds in our denomination will take seriously the vows that they have taken to shepherd the flock of God according to “the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” May the Lord protect the purity and peace of His Church.

True Confessions

true confessions

We have all seen the “True Confessions” magazines that have been around seemingly forever, quite often when one is waiting to check out in the grocery store line (or course, now they have been replaced by any magazine with a Kardashian on the cover). Today I will share my version of “True Confessions.” Being raised in a Southern Baptist Church in the South, being a Southern Baptist pastor for 25 years, and a conservative Presbyterian pastor for the last ten, there are some things that you just do not share publicly, but today I will step out on thin ice and bare my soul. From the time that I was a preschooler…I have hated Vacation Bible School. Can we still be friends?

[If you loved Bible School as a child, we have no quarrel. These are my True Confessions]

It was not that I didn’t like studying the Bible. I always have. I was fascinated by the Old Testament stories of God’s people, and the New Testament stories of Jesus, His Apostles, and the early church, but I hated to see that week in June arrive on the calendar every year. I suppose the heart of my dislike revolved around “craft time.” Let’s just say my gift “for the arts” would never be confused with the gifts possessed by Rembrandt, van Gogh, or even Charlie the second grader. My drawn pictures, my Tempera paint portraits, my Popsicle stick creations, my clothespin décor, my (just fill in the blank with anything my teachers wanted me to create) were nothing more than “vessels of wrath created for destruction.” If they were part of a Cecil B. de Mille film, they would be found on the cutting room floor. It…was…misery…for…me.

Then, as I got older the people in Nashville (that Baptist Mecca were the Sunday School Board was located) got this great idea that the older children would enjoy quoting free verse like some kind of liturgy (maybe they thought if it worked for Maynard G. Krebs, it would work for them). The teacher would say something, and we would respond. It was very bad poetry, plus George (his last name will not be written but everyone at McDonald Memorial Baptist Church will know who I am talking about because he was one of our favorites) just could never say “degradation” correctly. And, then, we would get tickled, and laugh…and then we would be lectured. It happened every day…all week…like clockwork.

But, for me, worst of all, was the program on Friday night where everyone was supposed to show all the things that we had learned that week to all comers. We would be paraded up to the front of the auditorium much like steers at a cattle auction, and sing a song, or chant free verse (with “degradation” not said correctly). Of course, the adults loved it. They snapped lots of pictures, and some even had the 8 millimeter movie cameras filming it for all of posterity. For me, however, when that night was over, and we went home (and I threw all of my creations in the garbage can), I would breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that for the next twelve months I would not have to worry about creating anything, or chanting the word, “degradation.”

I realize looking back that God could use even Vacation Bible School as a tool to prepare children’s hearts for hearing the Gospel (He can do all His holy will), but I confess (True Confessions, you know) that the sound that made me happiest as a child was hearing Bro. Burks or Bro. Tony, or whoever the pastor may have been at that time, say that glorious word, “Amen,” at the end of his closing prayer on Family Night.

Courage!

Emily1

I am often teased about my almost total disdain for Emily Dickinson and her poetry. I have wondered aloud if the lights dimmed whenever she walked into a room because of her constant musing about death. However, there is one poem authored by this “merry maid”  that has always struck a chord with me and I would like to share it with you now:

“There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of prancing Poetry –

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll –

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears the Human Soul –”

Through books we can travel through time, visit the deepest jungles (I am in the process of reading “Jungle Book”), go to West Point, look deep into the hearts of characters (both male and female), learn how to do a task, see great courage expressed, read truth, learn about heresy, find encouragement, hear warning, solve mysteries, and a myriad of other adventures that we would not experience otherwise. One book that was such a “frigate” for me was Stephen Ambrose’s, “D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II.” On this 72nd anniversary of that pivotal event in human history I am once again amazed at the courage of those men (many of them 18 years old, and I am sure that some lied about their age and were younger) as they stormed those beaches under heavy enemy fire, and gained a foothold on Hitler’s Fortress Europe.

When I see the word, “courage,” thrown around so quickly today to describe some people’s actions, in my mind, I return to those soldiers on those LCIs waiting for that door to drop, knowing that there was a good possibility that their next moment would be their final moment on this earth. That, my friend, is courage. I am thankful for that “greatest generation” that did what had to be done to free Europe from Nazi oppression, and I hope that we will never forget those young men and the price they paid.

ambrose

Thankless Jobs

garbage

I’ve been thinking lately about the many thankless jobs in the world in which we live. I remember reading about the sanitation workers’ strike in New York City several decades ago (full disclosure, it was 1975). Almost overnight, as the piles of garbage began to grow on the city sidewalks, these people who were usually looked down upon and joked about were suddenly seen as a vital cog in the working of a city. I once thought that the people that drilled and serviced our water well were a pretty rough looking bunch of guys; that is, until the pump quit working, and they suddenly turned into some of the most important people in my life. Years ago, Lydia’s father served (it is appropriate that it is the same word used to describe a prison sentence) on the school board, and I remember the late night phone calls and the constant complaints from people sniping about every decision that was made. But, after being a Presbyterian pastor for the past decade I would like to nominate a new group that would belong on the list of those who serve in an often thankless job: the ruling elder.

I know, I know, I have sometimes joked that teaching elders are paid to be good, but ruling elders are good for… (Well, you know how this sentence ends) But, I must admit, I admire these men greatly because I have seen the long hours they have spent praying, dealing with difficult issues dropped in their laps by others, respecting the privacy of those whose lives they are trying to shepherd, sitting through long and arduous meetings striving to make decisions that will result in the long term health of the church, spending a great amount of time caring for the flock of God, and working to accomplish countless tasks of which the church at large is not even aware, and the list of their duties could go on and on.

And, to make their responsibilities even more demanding, they have “real jobs,” too. As a teaching elder, I was always compensated financially for the many hours I spent caring for the flock of God, but they do it out of a love for God’s people, and a love for God’s church. I came across a blog post from January of 2015 (five months before I retired) which describes my respect and love for those who have been elected by God’s people for this great responsibility. I meant these words when I penned them, and I still feel the same way, one year into my retirement:

When one comes to the end of Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome we find this interesting collection of greetings that Paul desires to pass along to those in the Imperial city:

3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. 5 Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert1 to Christ in Asia. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia,1 my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles,2 and they were in Christ before me. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers1 who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. (Romans 16:3-15)

As I left our session meeting last night (if you are not Presbyterian, a church session is the body of elders in a local church) I thought of this passage. The men I had left had spent the last five hours praying, discussing, sharing, and debating issues involved in the shepherding of Reformed Presbyterian Church in Beaumont, Texas. These are men from different walks of life who have been chosen by the people of RPC to “shepherd the flock of God,” and I saw again what wise choices the congregation has made. These are not perfect men, but they are men who have been touched by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and desire as much as possible, to nourish, protect, and care for God’s sheep.

I have ministered with good men before during my 35+ years of ministry, but I must admit that these men are the cream of the crop. Thank you, Lord, for the “gifts” that you have given to our local congregation. These men are like the ones Paul wrote about in Romans: they have “worked hard in the Lord” for His people, and are “beloved.”

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