“We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!”

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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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“La vie est dure, mais Dieu est bon”

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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.

 

The Winter of Life

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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.

 

Happy birthday, Dixie!

 

 

Can you keep a secret? When I was a child I hated it when people would sing “Happy Birthday” to me; it always seemed so…awkward. I never grew out of it. But, there is enough of a libertarian side to me that if it makes people feel good, I just let them sing. It doesn’t hurt anything for me to feel…awkward. Dixie and I are different in many ways, but that is one trait that we share, so I have to be careful in writing this blog post. I don’t want her to feel…awkward, but I went to enough of those marriage conferences down through the years where the speakers said that it is a good thing to publicly praise your wife; so, here goes.

Tomorrow Dixie will be fifty-three years old (like me, Dixie doesn’t mind people knowing her age because she worked hard for all of those years). She entered my life when I was still going through the grieving process of losing a wife and daughter, so she learned very early about all “the fine print in the contract” as she adjusted to life around Clifton Rankin. The Russians only wished they had the intelligence network of a small southeast Texas town when the local pastor begins seeing someone (thankfully, this was during the time when there was no Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, etc., but the telephone lines were a-humming). One dear lady even said, “Oh, I wished Dixie would have talked to me first.” (I’m not sure what warnings she had mind to pass along)

I was used to life in the fish bowl, but Dixie had to figure it out as she went along. She, however, was a trooper, and stayed the course. We had no choice but to be perfectly honest with one another to survive, and it paid off in great dividends down the road. Our twenty-seven years together have not always been easy, but she has always been there for me through “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” and I am grateful that she took the risk of taking on the mantle of “pastor’s wife.” So, at the risk of making her feel…awkward; I’ll simply say, “Happy birthday, Dixie! You are still the one who can make me laugh.”

“Let the little children come to me…”

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Today at worship I sat in the next to the last row of our worship center, which meant that I was surrounded by young families on three sides. As a sixty-three year old my days of corralling a small child during a worship service are in my rear view mirror. Actually, they are in my wife’s rear view mirror, because as a pastor, I was always on the podium or in the pulpit during this time of struggle. She carries the battle scars of those difficult days, but I digress.

These young couples did a masterful job of working with their children. Yes, there was some noise. Yes, they had to go out with a child once (okay, maybe twice). But, they were doing something very important. They were teaching their children how very important worship is. Worship is so important that Mom and Dad don’t go to soccer games (or other places) on the Lord’s Day, but to church. Worship is so important that Mom and Dad pick up hymnals and sing songs of praise to God. Worship is so important that Mom and Dad confess their sins. Worship is so important that Mom and Dad pick up their Bibles and read along as God’s Word is read. Worship is so important that Mom and Dad put their tithe and offerings into the offering plate when it is passed. Worship is so important that Mom and Dad close their eyes and pray at the proper time (okay, maybe they peak to make sure no one escapes, but they work at it). Worship is so important that Mom and Dad are quiet and listen to the pastor open up God’s Word. Worship is so important that Mom and Dad do this Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year, and that lesson is not lost on a child no matter how small. It is a lesson that can never be learned in a children’s church or youth service. It can only be learned up close and personal by observing Mom and Dad on God’s day in God’s house.

Is it easy? No, but it is important. It is called parenting, and it is one of the most important things that we will ever do. So to all of those young families who are afraid that they are bothering the old guy with a gray beard and thinning, gray hair I say, “Thank you. Thank you for loving your children enough to accept the responsibility to teach them about the importance of gathering with God’s people and worshiping Him. And, by the way, I heard the sermon from 1 Peter about loving those around us with the overflow of God’s love, because of the foundation of God’s love, and the nature of God’s love. You didn’t bother me a bit. I heard every word.”

May the Lord bless the faithfulness of young parents!

Bernice Larner (1918-2017)

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During the last week two people who have had a significant place in my life as a Christian pastor experienced what has been described in the Westminster Shorter Catechism in the following way:

Q. 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.

One of these people, Dr. R. C. Sproul, through his teaching, preaching, and writing, is known in Christian circles around the world. His gift at making the complex simple has helped many come to grips with the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He has preached in front of tens of thousands during his life, and his radio broadcasts have touched hundreds of thousands down through the years. (He has even played golf with Alice Cooper, but, I digress) His ministry has been an enormous blessing to me as I have struggled to teach God’s people the truth of His written Word over my three decades of being a pastor.

The other, Bernice Holder Larner, is known primarily by the people who live in Erath County, Texas. You have never heard of Erath County? The Erath County website declares:

Erath County is located in central Texas, and includes the communities of Stephenville, Dublin, Three Way, Morgan Mill, Bluff Dale, Lingleville, Huckabay, Selden, Alexander, Duffau, and Clairette. Estimated Population 2010 – 36,184.

It is the home of Tarleton State University, “The Better Part of the Texas A&M System,” and the place where Ruth Buzzi now lives in retirement (If you don’t know who Ruth Buzzi is, use Google).

The first time I saw Bernice she was pushing a wheelchair containing her 95 year old mother into the Morgan Mill Baptist Church where I was about to preach “in view of a call.” (Southern Baptist Lingo Warning) At the time I didn’t know how important she would be to this twenty-six year old pastor in his first pastorate. On that day she was approximately the age that I am now, sixty-three.

A few weeks later, on the Monday morning after I had preached my first sermon as the “official pastor” of that congregation, as I sat in my study with my Seaport coffee steaming in my cup, I received a phone call from Bernice. She said, “I just wanted to let you know that Russell Laughlin is in the hospital in Stephenville.” As one who had been trying to memorize the church directory over the last few weeks, I was surprised not to recognize the name. I responded, “Should I know him?” She said, “No, he doesn’t go to our church,” but then proceeded to tell me all the different connections that made it important for me to know this information. She didn’t say I should go and visit him, but I figured that I probably should. At that moment, she became my official “go to person.” She knew everybody; their parents, their kids, their grand-kids, their third cousins once-removed, etc., and any other history that might be helpful to me. She wasn’t demanding. She didn’t tell me what to do. But, she made my life so much easier as a pastor. If anyone was ever sick, in the hospital, in some kind of trouble, or even mad at me (yes, that could happen), that phone would ring, and she would let me know so that I could shepherd Christ’s flock more effectively.

She immediately adopted my three year old son and three month old daughter, and became “Memaw Bernice” to them (their grandparents lived 400 miles away). Josh and Leah loved to walk down the farm to market road with their Mom and visit with her, and see what candy the glass hen on her living room table had laid that day. She was also a wonderful listening ear to my wife when the doctors diagnosed my daughter with Cystic Fibrosis.

She was one who loved her Lord, loved her church, loved her family, and loved her pastor and his family (And this doesn’t even begin to mention the meals she cooked, the cards she sent, the visits she made, the piano she played, etc.). I may have met some people who were as influential in his/her community for Christ, but I have never met any one who was more influential in his/her community for Christ than she was. She will be missed greatly by all those who knew her and loved her, which includes me.

Jesus Christ did a mighty work in her life, and then used her to minister to those around her in a humble, gracious, God honoring way. May her tribe increase!

Dr. R. C. Sproul

Yesterday afternoon R. C. Sproul became one of those men that the writer of Hebrews calls a “just man made perfect.” (Heb. 12:23) I never had the pleasure of meeting him personally, although I once saw him from about 20 feet away in the baggage claim area of an airport (I was too in awe to go up and introduce myself to him); yet through his teaching, preaching, and writing my life was profoundly affected. His understanding of the sovereignty and holiness of God, along with his ability to explain it in simple terms, allowed this young pastor (I was young back in the early 1990s) to begin to apply God’s truth to my personal and ecclesiological life.

I once heard someone say that “Books preach when we dare not, when we cannot, and even when we are not.” Although Dr. Sproul is no longer a part of life on this terrestrial ball, his books, articles, and now, audios and videos will continue to be used by God to change lives for years, decades, and even centuries to come should the Lord delay His return to usher in the new heavens and the new earth. His ministry will not end as his physical life did, but continue to be of great benefit to Christ’s Church.

May the Lord comfort his family and friends greatly during this difficult time, and may Ligonier Ministries continue to point people to the Gospel of Christ as the only hope for this fallen world.

Consistency

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and, maybe that is true, but the need to be consistent is something that my Dad drilled into my head as I was growing up. “Go to work. Do your job. Be responsible. People are depending on you. Be trustworthy.” I will choose my Dad over Emerson anytime, so every morning, whether I feel like it or not, I trudge over to my study, put on some music, climb on my Nordictrac Exercise Bicycle, and put in thirty minutes of painful aerobic exercise. Then, like the most ardent CrossFit aficionado, I post on Facebook that I have exercised. Why do I do that? It keeps me accountable. I know that there are a few Facebook friends who notice when I don’t exercise and make snide remarks. Plus, it brings a little joy to my life insurance agent that maybe, just maybe, he won’t have to pay off the life insurance policy to my family anytime soon. I hate exercising, but I love my family, so I do it five times a week.

Getting up and getting on an exercise bike every morning is not a big deal; it just has to be done. Much of life is like that. Go to church. Read your Bible. Pray. Vote. Care for your family. Be a friend. Put in an honest day’s work. Tell the truth. Be faithful to your spouse. As Woody Allen said, “Showing up is eighty percent of life.” (Now I’ve quoted two goofballs.) It doesn’t take a hero to do any of that. It just takes an ordinary person who is willing to act.

 

“As was His [Jesus] custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath.”

Sunday

Oh, that with yonder sacred throng
We at His feet may fall!
We’ll join the everlasting song,
And crown Him Lord of all!
We’ll join the everlasting song,
And crown Him Lord of all!

Immediately before the Benediction during this morning’s worship we sang Edward Perronet’s 1779 hymn, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” The last verse in the Red Trinity Hymnal was written nine years later by John Rippon and added to Perronet’s version, and it is printed above. As we sang that verse I was almost moved to tears. There was nothing “miraculous” about it. It was just God’s Hand of Providence at work.

We had sung praise to God. We had confessed our sin. We had heard God’s Word read. We had given God’s Tithe and our Offerings. We had heard a message from God’s Written Word, and now as we were about to leave, we were singing of the joys of eternity that will be ours all because of the manifold grace of our Jesus Christ.

I suppose the emotion came because the preceding week had been trying. We had faced challenges and struggles; many of which were those continuing kind of struggles that may not disappear until the new heavens and the new earth. Yet, in gathering with God’s people and focusing on and worshiping the One who is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, I found a hope that was at best feeble before I arrived at 4220 Crow Road this morning.

It reminded me of a verse from a hymn by Christopher Wordsworth that speaks of this weekly opportunity to grow in God’s grace:

New graces ever gaining
from this our day of rest,
we reach the rest remaining
to spirits of the blest.
We sing to You our praises,
O Father, Spirit, Son;
the church its voice upraises
to You, blest Three in One
.”

“Make It So!”

During our worship service this morning we had the formal installation of Nick Napier as our pastor at Reformed Presbyterian Church. He has been a vital part of our church life since our congregation extended a call to him back in February. Since that time he has been examined and approved by the Houston Metro Presbytery, moved his family halfway across the country, and has been on the field since April 23rd. Today made him, as he said on a Facebook post last night, “officially official.”

In our denomination (The Presbyterian Church in America), when a pastor is installed, promises are made both by the pastor and the congregation that, if kept, will make that pastor/congregation relationship a positive one. The questions asked of Pastor Nick (which were all answered in the affirmative, by the way) speak of his desire to have the right motives (“a desire to promote the glory of God and the good of the Church”), and the right actions (“discharge all the duties of a pastor to this congregation” and “maintain a deportment in all respects becoming a minister of the Gospel of Christ”). The full wording in our Book of Church Order is as follows:

  1. Are you now willing to take charge of this congregation as their pastor, agreeable to your declaration in accepting its call? 
  2. Do you conscientiously believe and declare, as far as you know your own heart, that, in taking upon you this charge, you are influenced by a sincere desire to promote the glory of God and the good of the Church?
  3. Do you solemnly promise that, by the assistance of the grace of God, you will endeavor faithfully to discharge all the duties of a pastor to this congregation, and will be careful to maintain a deportment in all respects becoming a minister of the Gospel of Christ, agreeable to your ordination engagements?

As I mentioned there were also questions asked of the congregation and promises made:

  1. Do you, the people of this congregation, continue to profess your readiness to receive Nick Napier, whom you have called to be your pastor?
  2. Do you promise to receive the word of truth from his mouth with meekness and love, and to submit to him in the due exercise of discipline?
  3. Do you promise to encourage him in his labors, and to assist his endeavors for your instruction and spiritual edification?
  4. Do you engage to continue to him while he is your pastor that competent worldly maintenance which you have promised, and to furnish him with whatever you may see needful for the honor of religion and for his comfort among you?

I had the privilege today of encouraging the congregation to follow the directions that Paul gave to the Philippian Church so many years ago:

“Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

By God’s grace let us “Make It So.”

 

 

 

 

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