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.”

“The Good Outweighs the Bad”

I, Clifton, take you, Dixie, To be my wedded wife—to have and to hold—from this day forward—for better, for worse—for richer, for poorer—in sickness and in health—to love and to cherish—till death do us part—and therefore, I promise my love.”

Over the last twenty-six years I think we have covered just about all of that, well, except for the death angle. We’ve seen the “better and worse,” the “richer and poorer,” and especially the “in sickness and in health,” but it was the “to have and to hold,” and the “to love and to cherish” which kept us going through all of the other.

It was challenging from day one. To begin with, I was a widower with an eleven year old son and a pastor of the largest church in the community. I was living in the county where I grew up so everybody, and I mean, everybody knew who I was. Dixie and I would go out to eat and everyone in the church and half of Orange County knew about it before the sun came up the next morning. It was life in a fishbowl (it makes me feel sorry for Reed’s Tetras every time I look in the aquarium to this day). Dixie stepped into a world where I was still grieving the loss of my wife and daughter, preparing sermons, visiting the sick, preaching funerals, performing weddings, counseling angry husbands and wives, and at the same time trying to get to know her with the personal characteristics and intricacies that made up her own life. I get weary just thinking back on those days.

Yet, as Danny once said in the children’s book, “Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine,” (O the joys of the Scholastic Book Service and my education), she “jumped in head first with both feet.” And, I am glad that she did. The years of challenges have been real, but the loving and cherishing have made them worthwhile. As Dixie and I have said to each other often down through the years, “the good outweighs the bad.”

Marriage always reminds me of the words of Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes, while not speaking about marriage, are a good description of what marriage should be:

9 Two are better than one, Because they have a good reward for their labor.  10 For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, For he has no one to help him up.  11 Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; But how can one be warm alone?  12 Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecc. 4:9-12)

When marriage is made up of a Christian man, a Christian Woman, and Jesus Christ; it can last for a lifetime.

 

Common Sense

common sense

Merriam-Webster tells us that common sense is “the ability to think and behave in a reasonable way and to make good decisions.” I look around me in this world in which I live and it seems that this particular character trait has gone the way of the dinosaur and the bag phone. The latest evidence of this obvious lack of mental prowess is to be found in the Plano High School hierarchy. The powers-that-be of that fine educational institution north of Dallas, Texas, has decided not to allow the National Honor Society students to wear their NHS stoles at graduation because as one report stated, “it is not inclusive of all students.” (See http://www.wfaa.com/news/local/collin-county/no-national-honor-society-honors-for-plano-senior-high-students/225169092)  Of course it isn’t inclusive of all students because all of the students did not earn the recognition. I suppose that they also will not give out diplomas this year, because that is not inclusive of all students; because not all of the students finished their course work, or passed their tests, or turned in their homework, or came out on top in their STAAR exams.

Well, I suppose when one lives in a country that can’t even seem to figure out which public restroom to use, this is to be expected.

A Solemn Covenant with God and His Church—Part V

RPC

Today I am writing about the last membership vow that a new member of a local Presbyterian Church in America congregation takes to become a part of that body. After promising that he is resting alone in Christ’s work for his salvation in the first two vows; promising generally to live as a Christian should as he relies upon the Holy Spirit to enable him in the third vow; promising to support the worship and work of the church in the fourth vow; in the last vow he promises to submit [himself] to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise[s] to study its purity and peace.

Before we talk about the “s word” [submission], I would like to say a little bit about the phrase, “promise to study its purity and peace.” The word to study here means to “make an effort to achieve a result.” The first result that the new member makes an effort to achieve is purity. Yes, it is speaking of purity of life (to live as becomes a follower of Christ), but also purity of doctrine. One of the wonderful things about the PCA is that we are a confessional church. One can see very clearly what we believe the Bible teaches by looking at our doctrinal statements. The Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Larger and Smaller Catechisms, lay out in great detail what will be taught in a PCA congregation. One does not have to believe all that is contained in those statements to be a member (remember, all that is needed is a credible profession of faith), but that is what will be preached and taught in that place. So, in theory (as long as the pastors have integrity), one knows exactly what he is going to get doctrinally before he joins. No “bait and switch” in the PCA.

The second result that the new member will make an effort to achieve is peace. As the Psalmist has written, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psa. 133:1) Stirring up conflict, gossip, factions, “secret meetings,” slander, etc. have no place in the Body of Christ. Paul’s advice to the Roman church about relationships within the local body is very straight forward:

16 Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.  17 Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.  18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.  19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.  20 Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”  21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Rom. 12:16-21)

Now for the “s word.” The new member promises to “submit [himself] to the government and discipline of the church.” The writer of Hebrews (whoever that may have been) under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” (Heb. 13:17) The elders will have to answer to God for how they shepherded the sheep, but the sheep have a responsibility to submit to the elders. One must remember that there is never a struggle with submission until one disagrees with the one in authority. The Dad who says, “Let’s eat some ice cream,” will probably have a 100% approval rating from those under his care, but when he says, “It’s time for bed,” it is a different story. Even on the session there is accountability and submission. It didn’t happen often but there were times when I disagreed with the final decision of the session and was on the losing side of a vote, but I would dare to say that there was no one in the church, when the decision came down, that knew that I disagreed. The decision had been made after much prayer and discussion for the long term good of the church, and it was my responsibility to submit to my brothers. I did so gladly.

May the Lord work within each of us, to take seriously the vows that we have taken, and may He give us the grace and strength to fulfill them, that God may be glorified and His church strengthened.

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