“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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“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)

 

Tomorrow is the Lord’s Day

patriotic worship

The story is told (although I have never seen other than anecdotal evidence that this event actually happened) that during the Revolutionary War a group of British soldiers entered a Long Island church on a Sunday morning and ordered the congregation to sing, God Save Our Gracious King which was the British national anthem (sort of, not officially until the 19th century). The congregation responded by singing a hymn which (at that time) was sung to the same tune:

Come, thou Almighty King,
Help us thy name to sing,
Help us to praise:
Father, all glorious,
O’er all victorious,
Come, and reign over us,
Ancient of days.

Come, thou Incarnate Word,
Gird on thy mighty sword,
Our prayer attend:
Come and thy people bless,
And give thy Word success;
Spirit of holiness,
On us descend.

Come, Holy Comforter,
Thy sacred witness bear
In this glad hour:
Thou who almighty art,
Now rule in every heart,
And ne’er from us depart,
Spirit of power.

To the great One in Three
Eternal praises be,
Hence evermore.
His sovereign majesty
May we in glory see,
And to eternity
Love and adore.

I have never read what the supposed response of the British soldiers was to this declaration that there are higher allegiances in existence than just earthly political allegiances, but it does make for a good story. It also makes an important point: When we gather together as the church of God on His Day, we are there for the worship of the living God, not to espouse any political or national agenda.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I love the country in which I live. I appreciate the sacrifice that has been made by those who have fought and died to protect her. I pray regularly for President Trump (although I didn’t vote for him), and for all those that God has placed in governmental authority over me. However, when we gather on the Lord’s Day, it is not to salute the flag, sing songs about our country, or recite the pledge of allegiance (although I have no problem doing that in other places); it is to worship the Triune God and to focus on Him. The first two paragraphs of Chapter Twenty-one of the Westminster Confession of Faith speak directly as to how God should be worshipped by His gathered church:

The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.

So, if a group of soldiers were to ever enter our worship service and demand that we sing “The Star Spangled Banner” (or any other anthem), I hope that we would respond as did that supposed Long Island Church, by singing of our primary allegiance to the Triune God.

 

 

Frank Deford (1938-2017)

I was saddened to hear of the death of sportswriter and commentator Frank Deford at his home in Key West, Florida, at the age of 78. There were many reasons why I admired him. To begin with, he was a marvelous writer. One doesn’t win “Sportswriter of the Year” six different times for sloppy writing about “safe subjects.” He was willing to tackle controversial subjects, and even though I often disagreed with him, his arguments were always logical and well thought out.

While often writing about serious subjects (apartheid in South Africa, for example), he could also let his hair down as he did in this Miller Lite commercial with Billy Martin and Marvelous Marv Throneberry:

“The” commercial

The reason that I admired him most, however, was his willingness to openly share the pain he experienced as he cared for his daughter, Alexandra, and the grief that haunted him because of her death to Cystic Fibrosis in his book, “Alex: The Life of a Child.” As the father of a child who had that horrible disease, I was helped tremendously by knowing that there were other people who felt many of the same emotions as I did as our family walked that lonesome valley. Thirty-five years later I still pull that book off of the shelf and read it from time to time, and I admit the tears flow almost as readily now, as they did the first time that I read it. After Alex’s death, Deford picked up the mantle and from 1982-1999 served as the Chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, bringing greater awareness to that often misunderstood disease and raising countless funds for research to combat it. The following is a snippet from his book that may give one a hint of his prowess as a writer, and his willingness to share some of his most personal memories to help others. This is his description of a conversation he had with eight-year-old Alex when she asked him if she was going to die:

“ ‘Well, sure,’ I said, as casual as I could be myself. I’d been prepared for this for a long time. ‘You’ll die sometime. But I’ll die, too. If there’s one thing we all do, it’s die.’ 

“ ‘But you’ll be real old,’ she said. 

“ ‘Not necessarily. I mean, I could die in an accident anytime.’ 

“Alex threw her arms around my neck. ‘Oh, my little Daddy, that would be so unfair.’ 

“ ‘Unfair?’ I said. Unfair is just what she said. 

“ ‘You don’t have a disease, Daddy. You shouldn’t have to die till you’re real
old.’ ”

Thank you, Frank, for your love for your family, and your service to many others in need. And, furthermore, I, for one, am glad that the Lord saw fit for you not to have to die until you were “real old.”

 

 

 

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.

Tuesday Hymns: “Before the Throne of God Above”

(As you read this feel free to snicker at me. This hymn was actually written in 1863, and has been sung for years to the same tune as “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” I will leave the rest of this blog post as it was written to show my ignorance of this old, great hymn that has been put to a new tune.)

Last week on Facebook I unintentionally started a firestorm concerning what is appropriate music for corporate worship. As it so often does when the discussion turns to music, it turned into a pitched battle between “new” and “old” because I began with this quote from Keith Getty: “I think the modern worship music movement has been driving the church down a dangerous and sinister path. I think it’s because of the move away from theology and the fact the music itself isn’t congregational. It doesn’t bring people together anymore and the art form itself has been degraded completely.” Getty’s concern was that so much (not all) of the modern “worship music” was shallow theologically and often so “pop” oriented that it is difficult to sing corporately, and because of that, congregational singing in the 21st century is being hampered.

In the midst of all the kerfuffle, I mentioned that there is “modern music” that is theologically sound and also relatively easy to sing as a congregation and one of those is our Tuesday Hymn of the Week, Before the Throne of God Above by Charles Bancroft. This hymn speaks of the high priestly work of Christ on our behalf: He is our High Priest, He satisfied the justice of God on our behalf, He was our Passover Lamb, His righteousness has been imputed to us, we are hidden in Christ with God, and He ever lives to make intercession for us.

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea:
A great High Priest, whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.

My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart;
I know that while in heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart
No tongue can bid me thence depart.

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see Him there
Who made an end to all my sin.

Because the sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free;
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
To look on Him and pardon me

Behold Him there, the Risen Lamb
My perfect, spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I am,
The King of glory and of grace!

One with Himself I cannot die
My soul is purchased by His blood
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ, my Savior and my God
With Christ, my Savior and my God

“Can anything good come out of Liverpool?”

On August 30, 1968, The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” was released. At seven minutes and ten seconds in length, it was the longest song ever to be #1 on the British charts. It was #1 on the American charts for nine weeks, and I still have vivid memories of listening to that song on the School Bus heading to a track meet just a few years later.

It was written by Paul McCartney for Jules (he changed the title and lyrics to “Jude” because it sounded better and was easier to sing), the son of John Lennon, when his parents divorced over John’s adulterous affair with Yoko Ono. Paul wanted to encourage Cynthia (John’s ex) and Jules to “take a sad song and make it better.” In other words, don’t let this get you down; keep living. The “her” in the song was supposedly Jules’ self-worth, reminding him that all of this was not his fault. When John heard the song, being who he was, thought it was all about him, and the “her” was Yoko, and that he should “go out and get her.” Some people just—don’t—get—it.

The upshot of all this is that divorce is a horrible thing. How horrible is it? It is so horrible, and the harm done by it is so great, that God only provides two reasons why a divorce should be allowed. The first of these is made very clear by Jesus in Matthew 19 when he says, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” The Greek word translated, “sexual immorality” is “porneia,” which covers a wide range of sexual infidelity. The second reason given why a divorce may be sought is found in 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul writes:

13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.  14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.  15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. (1 Corinthians 7:13-15)

These three verses are describing what we would, today, call, “desertion.” If the husband or wife leaves (thus, showing evidence of unbelief) there is absolutely nothing one can do about it. The “innocent” party (innocent in terms of not being unfaithful or deserting, not perfectly innocent because we are all sinners) has to let the unbelieving spouse go. In both of these cases, divorce is not required (the spouses can work diligently to repair the broken marriage covenant), but it is allowed.

However, even in these cases the pain caused to the offended spouse, the children, the two families, the friends who too often are pressed to “take sides,” etc. is great and does not quickly go away. Thus, I plead for husbands and wives to take seriously those vows made to his or her spouse and God on their wedding day when the promise was made to:

I, ________, take you, ________, 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.

Is it really “worse now than then?”

J. Edwin Orr once wrote:

Not many people realize that in the wake of the American Revolution (following1776-1781) there was a moral slump. Drunkenness became epidemic. Out of a population of five million, 300,000 were confirmed drunkards; they were burying fifteen thousand of them each year. Profanity was of the most shocking kind. For the first time in the history of the American settlement, women were afraid to go out at night for fear of assault. Bank robberies were a daily occurrence.

What about the churches? The Methodists were losing more members than they were gaining. The Baptists said that they had their most wintry season. The Presbyterians in general assembly deplored the nation’s ungodliness. In a typical Congregational church, the Rev. Samuel Shepherd of Lennos, Massachusetts, in sixteen years had not taken one young person into fellowship. The Lutherans were so languishing that they discussed uniting with Episcopalians who were even worse off. The Protestant Episcopal Bishop of New York, Bishop Samuel Provost, quit functioning; he had confirmed no one for so long that he decided he was out of work, so he took up other employment.

The Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall, wrote to the Bishop of Virginia, James Madison, that the Church ‘was too far gone ever to be redeemed.’ Voltaire averred and Tom Paine echoed, ‘Christianity will be forgotten in thirty years.

Take the liberal arts colleges at that time. A poll taken at Harvard had discovered not one believer in the whole student body. They took a poll at Princeton, a much more evangelical place, where they discovered only two believers in the student body, and only five that did not belong to the filthy speech movement of that day. Students rioted. They held a mock communion at Williams College, and they put on anti-christian plays at Dartmouth. They burned down the Nassau Hall at Princeton. They forced the resignation of the president of Harvard. They took a Bible out of a local Presbyterian church in New Jersey, and they burnt it in a public bonfire. Christians were so few on campus in the 1790’s that they met in secret, like a communist cell, and kept their minutes in code so that no one would know.

After reading Dr. Orr’s assessment of the early days of our country, we are reminded that there is truly “nothing new under the sun.” It is not necessarilyworse now than thenas Marijohn Wilkin once sang. The world, the flesh, and the devil have been our enemies ever since God told Satan after Adam’s first sin that He wouldput enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) Yes, there is much evil in the world, and we should do what we can to be salt and light in this decaying and dark place, but we should never forget that God is sovereign and that He is at work in our present situation for His glory and purpose.

I do not know if spiritual reformation or destruction lay in our immediate future as a nation, but I do know that God’s grace is real, and He will continue to call sinners to repentance regardless of the darkness of the day. Just be diligent to rest in Christ, walk in His Spirit, proclaim the Gospel, and be faithful even unto death and remember that “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does its successive journeys run; his kingdom spread from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more.”

Who made Whom?

Mark Twain once said, “In the beginning God made man in His image. And man has been returning the favor ever since.” It is a dangerous thing for us to make God in our image. I, for one, do not need or want a God who is like I am. I am selfish, and I need a God who is gracious. I am a sinner, and I need a God who is righteous. I change constantly, and I need a God who is immutable. I am foolish, and I need a God who is omniscient. I am weak, and I need a God who is omnipotent. I tend to keep a record of people who have wronged me, and I need a God who will “be merciful toward [my] iniquities, and…will remember [my] sins no more.” (Heb. 8:12) My heart is “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” and I need a God who “cannot lie.”

If we want to know what God is like, it is best to stay away from the “God, to me, is…” crowd, and stick to the description of God given to us in His Word, the Bible. The God of the Bible is a God who must be worshiped “with reverence and awe, for [He] is a consuming fire,” (Heb. 12:28-29), yet, is also a God who invites us to “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” through the finished work of Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.

“What God has joined together, let no man separate”

As if we needed another reason to ignore people who claim to have received visions and special revelations from God, this article adds yet another: Pat Robertson Says Alzheimer’s Makes Divorce OK. When a viewer asked Pat Robertson what advice he should give a friend who had started seeing another woman because his wife has Alzheimer’s, he responded: “I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her.”

When I married Dixie, I made vows to her and to God that I would take her as my lawfully 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 us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance.” Did that mean that our time together would always be trouble free? Of course not. The very vows taken are a reminder that along with the better is the worse, along with the richer is the poorer, along with the health is the sickness, etc. Christian marriage is an “until death do us part” commitment that a man and a woman make depending upon the grace of God to leave family, cleave to one another, and become one flesh.

As a son who watched his father care for his mother as her mind began to slip away, I realize that such care is draining and difficult, but I also realize that such care is one of the reasons why two people marry in the first place: to be there when they are needed most. I often read Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 at a wedding. It is not specifically about marriage, but the principle is very true for a husband and a wife: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him – a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

One should always turn to God’s Word when asking such questions about divorce. God is very specific when it comes to divorce, and the Westminster Confession of Faith lays out clearly the Biblical position in Chapter XXIV: “Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage.” As Jesus commanded: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate,” (Matthew 19:6) no matter what Pat Robertson says.

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