“We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!”

mlkjr

I was sitting in a tenth grade history class at West Orange High School in 1970 when I noticed that an African-American friend of mine had a medallion hanging around his neck with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s picture on it. Sib and I had been friends since eighth grade so I felt it was safe to ask, “Why are you wearing that medallion with his picture? It doesn’t make sense to me.” He responded very simply, “That is because you are not black.” (Side note: Forty years later his nephew became a member of our church for a while before he moved to New York for his job. That in itself is a picture of how far we have come since the 1960s.)

He was right. I didn’t understand because I wasn’t black. I think I know better now, although I still don’t pretend to understand all the emotions that African-Americans feel today. Nevertheless, I understand the importance of Dr. King. I don’t agree with the political views that he held since I seem to find myself becoming more and more Libertarian every day. I absolutely don’t agree with his theology since he was a follower of Walter Rauschenbusch who believed that the substitutionary atonement was to use his words, “repugnant to human sensitivity.” But I realize that apart from Dr. King’s sacrifice, Blacks would still be using different restrooms, drinking from different water fountains, and would still be waiting to see Dr. Pearce on his back porch instead of in the front waiting room with the white people. The world is different now. Oh, it’s not perfect, but it has come a long way. I hope that we are getting to closer to what Dr. King said in his “I Have a Dream” speech:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

On this 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I recognize very clearly his importance to African-Americans, and to be perfectly honest, his importance to all of us. As challenging as racial relations can sometimes be today, as the old Virginia Slims cigarette commercial once said, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” Yes, we have. And, I think Sib would be glad that I understand him a little bit better.

 

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“Wiser than God?”–Heidelberg Catechism

goldfish

We live in a culture that has been called a “visual culture.” People my age and younger grew up watching television and it is said that everyone’s attention span is shorter than it used to be. And, now with IPhones and such, one study has shown that a goldfish has a longer attention span than a human (yeah, I know; can such a study really be trusted?). Modern churchmen have latched on to that thought and have postulated that if we are going to teach people about God, we are going to need pictures. The problem with that kind of thinking is that the second of the Ten Commandments states very clearly that “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Any image that we would make to portray God could never capture His worth and glory, and thus pictures of the Godhead must be placed in the category of idolatry.

The idea of using pictures of God to teach is not exactly a new thing. The writer of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus, felt that it was needful to discuss it several hundred years ago. I love the way he handled the subject:

Q. May we then not make any image at all?
A. God cannot and may not be visibly portrayed in any way. Creatures may be portrayed, but God forbids us to make or have any images of them in order to worship them or to serve God through them.

Q. But may images not be tolerated in the churches as ‘books for the laity’?
A. No, for we should not be wiser than God. He wants His people to be taught not by means of dumb images but by the living preaching of His Word.

Yesterday, as we were about to share the Lord’s Supper, our pastor said something that bears repeating. He mentioned that although we do not have “pictures” in the place where we worship God to be an aid to worship, God has declared that we, as the church, may use two images to our benefit: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Each of them is a “sensible sign” that points us to the truth of the Gospel. They are reminders that Christ took on human flesh, kept God’s Law (something that we could never do) on our behalf, died as a sacrifice for our sins, and if we rest in Him, our sins will be cleansed through His sacrifice.

I think that I will meditate upon what Ursinus said and not try to be “wiser than God.” No matter how short my attention span  is.

 

“He is risen!”

empty tomb

Easter (or Resurrection Sunday, if you prefer) is not the earth shattering holiday for Old School Presbyterians that it is for so many others. Why, you may ask? It is simply because we celebrate His resurrection fifty-two Sundays a year. Every Sunday we gather to worship Him, confess our sins, be reminded of His sacrifice, and hear His glorious Gospel preached directly from His inerrant Word. For us, contemplating the phrase, “He is risen,” is not a yearly occurrence, it is a weekly occurrence. Three hundred years ago Isaac Watts captured with pen and ink the hallowed good news of the cross/resurrection event when he wrote:

Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain,
Could give the guilty conscience peace,
Or wash away the stain:

But Christ, the heavenly Lamb
Takes all our sins away,
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.

My faith would lay her hand
On that dear head of thine,
While like a penitent I stand,
And there confess my sin.

My soul looks back to see
The burdens thou didst bear,
When hanging on the cursed tree,
And knows her guilt was there.

Believing, we rejoice
To see the curse remove;
We bless the Lamb with cheerful voice,
And sing his bleeding love.

So for the thirteenth time this year we will gather, worship, and praise our Risen Lord this coming Lord’s Day, and look forward to next Sunday when we can do it all over again!

Tuesday Hymns: “Awake, My Soul, Stretch Every Nerve”

philip doddridge

The “Fire and Ice: Puritan and Reformed Writings” website posted this description of the rather inauspicious birth of non-conformist pastor, Philip Doddridge:

It was June 26, 1702. After thirty-six hours labor, Monica Doddridge gave birth to her twentieth child. It was obviously stillborn and Monica’s hopes were dashed. Eighteen of her children had already died in infancy and she had so wished to have a brother for her only surviving child Elizabeth. The midwife picked up the pale corpse to put it out of sight of the sorrowing mother. Suddenly her heart fluttered. Had she not seen a slight movement in the breast of the tiny boy? She began to slap the infant in an effort to wake him to life, and, sure enough, soon the tiny baby gave out a large cry as if he had the lungs of a robust healthy child.”

Doddridge was a prolific hymn writer and his “Awake, My Soul, Stretch Every Nerve,” is our Tuesday Hymn of the Week. It is the call of the author to his own soul to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” I would quibble a bit with his second verse as I would suggest the “witnesses” of the Book of Hebrews are witnesses to us, not of us, but it is still a great hymn made even greater by singing it to the tune of “Christmas” (https://www.opc.org/hymn.html?hymn_id=66)  (As Shepherds Watched Their Flock) by George Frederick Handel.

Awake, my soul, stretch ev’ry nerve,
And press with vigor on;
A heav’nly race demands thy zeal,
And an immortal crown.

A cloud of witnesses around
Hold thee in full survey;
Forget the steps already trod,
And onward urge thy way.

‘Tis God’s all-animating voice
That calls thee from on high;
‘Tis his own hand presents the prize
To thine aspiring eye.

That prize with peerless glories bright,
Which shall new lustre boast,
When victors’ wreaths and monarch’s gems
Shall blend in common dust.

Blest Saviour, introduced by thee,
Have I my race begun;
And, crowned with vict’ry, at thy feet
I’ll lay my honors down.

“There is nothing new under the sun…” or Where Has the Time Gone?

I have been retired now for almost three years. I was one of those guys who retired because he needed to, not because he wanted to, but there has been a silver lining to this cloud called retirement: I have more time to read. Granted, I read all the time when I was a pastor, but it was mostly a part of the process of preparing a Bible study, or a sermon, or studying to be able to protect the sheep from predators. Now, I read to learn, grow, and simply enjoy.

I am presently about three-quarters of the way through Theodore H. White’s, “The Making of a President: 1968,” which means that I was in the 7th and 8th grades when all of these events took place, and it has caused “my little gray cells” (Hercule Poirot reference) to come alive. Several thoughts have been bouncing around inside my head.

First of all, I am reminded of what the “Preacher” said in the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” As I listen to the political vitriol of the left and the right, read about the protests (I don’t watch the news much anymore because my trust level is at a low ebb at the present moment), look at our precarious financial situation ($20 trillion in debt and counting), and hear the cries of “it has never been like this before,” I must snicker. 1968 was no different. The choice for President was between Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace. That’s a choice? In Viet Nam we had grabbed the ears of an angry dog and could neither keep holding on nor let go. That year we witnessed the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Lyndon Johnson could not leave the White House because the Secret Service was afraid that they could not protect him, plus, who wants to hear the chants of “_____ Johnson, _____ Johnson,” when one is trying to give a speech. Watts (the black neighborhood in Los Angeles) was burning as were other black neighborhoods in Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, Miami, etc. and the Democratic Convention in Chicago was marred by what Abraham Ribicoff called “Gestapo police tactics ” in the streets which were provoked by Tom Hayden’s SDS using college students as cannon fodder. Yeah, it was a mess then, also; but, by God’s grace we somehow survived, and if the Lord wills, we will survive the bitterness of the present day.

The thought which really put my mind into overdrive, however, was “that was fifty years ago? It can’t be.” But it was. Where has my life gone? It has gone the way of every man. As Isaac Watts’ hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” says:

“Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

I need to live. I do not know how many days that I will remain on this earth, but I need to live every day as full as I can for the glory of God. I must run with endurance the race that is set before [me], fixing [my] eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

 

“La vie est dure, mais Dieu est bon”

archibald-campbell-tait-1811-1882-archbishop-of-canterbury-CP3R26

In A. N. Wilson’s, “Victoria: A Life,” he describes the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Campbell Tait: “He looked like a man who had been battered by life—a huge, fleshy face, pitted with line and scarred with grief.” Why might he look this way? During one year, five of his seven children (all daughters), ranging from the age of two to ten years, contracted scarlet fever and died. We think today, “How horrible!” (and it was), but such an ordeal was not that uncommon during the nineteenth century. It was just another reminder that we indeed live in a fallen world.

In our present day, although we may not usually see such loss in one family (at least in the United States), we still “know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.” (Romans 8:22) Our world is filled with heartache, trouble, trial, sickness, sin, and death; and, as I sit here on this rainy Saturday night pondering my own problems, I am so grateful that tomorrow (Deo Volente) I can go and gather with God’s people and be reminded of God and His grace for me.

As the old French saying goes, “La vie est dure, mais Dieu est bon” (Life is hard, but God is good). And, because of that truth, I need to be with God’s people; I need to confess my sins; I need to join my brothers and sisters in prayer; I need to sing songs of praise to God; and I need to hear God’s Law, and the Gospel of His grace preached in my hearing. And, even if my face is “pitted with line and scarred with grief,” God’s grace is sufficient for me.

 

Tuesday Hymns: “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word”

luther6

Last Sunday we sang one of Martin Luther’s hymns which has an interesting history. In 1541 the Turks were laying siege to the city of Vienna and the German rulers called on the churches to pray for the safety of the Viennese. Luther responded by writing a hymn for a prayer service in Wittenberg asking for deliverance from the Turks and from another enemy which threatened the German Christians:

Lord, keep us in thy Word and work,
Restrain the murderous Pope and Turk,
Who fain would tear from off thy throne
Christ Jesus, thy beloved Son
.”

Once the crisis had passed, the first verse was altered to be a prayer for any enemy Christ’s church might have to face. It is sung to the tune, ERHALT UNS, HERR . The hymn we sang Sunday is our Tuesday Hymn for this week and was similar to this version (with a few minor differences):

Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word;
Curb those who by deceit or sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Your Son
And bring to naught all He has done.
 

Lord Jesus Christ, Your pow’r make known,
For You are Lord of lords alone;
Defend Your holy Church that we
May sing your praise eternally.
 

O Comforter of priceless worth,
Send peace and unity on earth;
Support us in our final strife
And lead us out of death to life.

The Winter of Life

dotage

Antonio Vivaldi was an Italian composer of the Baroque Period (1699-1750) who wrote over 500 concertos during his lifetime. Granted, some say he wrote one concerto 500 times but I digress (I also disagree). One morning this week as I was getting dressed I was listening to his most famous work, “The Four Seasons,” and I began to think about my life. The average male lifespan in the United States is 78.74 years as of 2015, and if that, in God’s providence, works out for me than I am officially in the “winter” of my life. I entered it when I turned fifty-nine.

The Bible speaks in general of the length of a man’s life in the old King James language as being “threescore and ten” years and “if by strength, fourscore” years. (Psalms 90) On my next birthday I will be sixty-four so the shadows are beginning to lengthen for me. So how should I face these wintry years?

First of all, I should be grateful to God for the years that I have already experienced. Every day is a gift from God that I didn’t earn and didn’t deserve; yet, He, in His grace, has chosen to bless me with almost sixty-four years of these “days of grace.” As I look back I see all the joy and love that I have experienced and I have much for which to be thankful.

Secondly, I need to live my life now to the fullest for the glory of God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us that “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” and that is true whether I am in my thirty-third year or my sixty-third. Yes, “my back is a little stiff and there are some lines around my eyes” as Randy Stonehill sang, but I can still love, pray, worship, grow, serve, etc., maybe not at the same level as I once was able, but I can do what I can in the Lord’s strength.

Last of all, I need to look with joy toward the future. It is true that my body cannot do what it once did, and I sometimes have to struggle to remember a name, or a word, or a…what was I talking about? Anyway, I need to remember that God is in control, and that I can trust Him to guide me through the possible difficult days of what President John Adams would call my “dotage” just as He did the difficult days of my youth; and that He is also the one in charge of bringing me from this “present evil age” into the “age to come.

 

Tuesday Hymns: “Thee We Adore, Eternal Lord”

moravians

In the “Trinity Hymnal” one will find hymns written by Martin Luther, Charles Wesley, Francis of Assisi, the Bonar brothers, Isaac Watts, Jack Hayford, Margaret Clarkson, and others representing the Body of Christ around the world and through the centuries. Today our Tuesday Hymn comes from the Moravian Collection of 1724, “Thee We Adore, Eternal Lord!” These spiritual descendants of John Hus have passed on to us a hymn of praise that begins with Christians singing praise to Lord who are then joined by angels, apostles, prophets, and martyrs who make up a congregation that will sing the Triune God’s praises throughout all eternity.

It is sung to Frederick M. A. Venua’s familiar tune, PARK STREET. I used to snicker when one of the prisoners at the Federal Prison would come up to me after one of our worship services and say, “I really like that NEW song that we sang today.”

Thee we adore, eternal Lord!
We praise thy name with one accord.
Thy saints, who here thy goodness see,
Through all the world do worship thee.

To thee aloud all angels cry,
The heavens and all the pow’rs on high:
Thee, holy, holy, holy king,
Lord God of hosts, they ever sing.

Apostles join the glorious throng,
And prophets swell th’immortal song;
Thy martyrs’ noble army raise
Eternal anthems to thy praise.

From day to day, O Lord, do we
Exalt and highly honor thee!
Thy name we worship and adore,
World without end, for evermore.

Tuesday Hymns: “Jesus, with Thy Church Abide”

Because of family issues, Dixie and I have been alternating going to church for a while, but Sunday we were able to attend together. When we got into the car to head for home, I turned to her and said, “Did you notice the words to the offertory hymn?” and she responded with, “Yes, I was about to mention that. They were really good.” It was a hymn that I was not very familiar with; thus “Jesus, with Thy Church Abide” becomes our Tuesday Hymn for this week. Thomas Benson Pollock (1839-1896) was an Anglican pastor from Ireland who spent much of his life ministering to the poor at St. Alban’s Mis­sion in Birm­ing­ham (plus, he had a great beard). This hymn is a prayer to the Lord to use His church to minister in a fallen world.

John H. Gower’s tune may be a bit pedestrian, but frankly, so is the Indelible Grace tune. The lyrics, however, make it a hymn worth singing, which we did at our evening service.

Jesus, with thy church abide,
Be her Saviour, Lord and Guide,
While on earth her faith is tried:
We beseech thee, hear us.

Keep her life and doctrine pure;
Grant her patience to endure,
Trusting in thy promise sure:
We beseech thee, hear us.

May she one in doctrine be,
One in truth and charity,
Winning all to faith in thee:
We beseech thee, hear us.

May she guide the poor and blind,
Seek the lost until she find,
And the brokenhearted bind:
We beseech thee, hear us.

Save her love from growing cold,
Make her watchmen strong and bold,
Fence her round, thy peaceful fold:
We beseech thee, hear us.

May her lamp of truth be bright,
Bid her bear aloft its light
Through the realms of heathen night:
We beseech thee, hear us.

Arm her soldiers with the cross,
Brave to suffer toil or loss,
Counting earthly gain but dross:
We beseech thee, hear us.

May she holy triumphs win,
Overthrow the hosts of sin,
Gather all the nations in:
We beseech thee, hear us.

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