Dark Providence

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Catechism on Catechism

James Fisher was an 18th century Scottish Presbyterian pastor who, with his father-in-law, Ebenezer Erskine, was involved in the founding of the Associate Presbytery. He came to mind this morning not because of his church founding or his marital relations, but because he wrote a book on the Westminster Shorter Catechism entitled, “A Catechism on the Catechism.”

Our pastor preached a message from Philippians 1 yesterday morning looking at the Apostle Paul’s view of God’s providence. Even though there were those who were preaching the Gospel in order to cause pain in Paul’s life while he languished in prison, all that mattered to him was that the Gospel was being preached. He was able to trust God and rejoice in the midst of what the Puritans used to call a “dark providence;”which brings me back to James Fisher.

In his “A Catechism on the Catechism,” he presented fifty-five questions and answers (we Scottish pastors have a tendency to go overboard from time to time) explaining question and answer #11 of the Shorter Catechism:

“QUESTION 11: What are God’s works of providence?

ANSWER: God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”

As one who has experienced some challenging times lately, his forty-fifth question and answer caught my eye:

Q. 45. Are not some dispensations of providence very dark and mysterious?

Yes; his ways are many times in the sea, and his paths in the great waters, and his footsteps are not known.”

The providential ways of God in our lives are often “dark and mysterious” to us, but it is important to add that they are not “dark and mysterious” to God. He knows exactly what He is doing and he knows exactly what His purpose is, and it will not be thwarted. God does not have to show me why He has permitted trouble into my life; He is God, and I am not. As Pastor Nick said yesterday, I don’t have to ask, “Why, me? Why, now?” I just need to trust what He has told me in His Word that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Is that easy to do? No. Does it make the pain go away? Absolutely not. What it does, however, is give me hope. It gives me hope that my life has a purpose that is bigger than me; bigger than my sufferings; bigger than my personal darkness. Somehow, in His “dark and mysterious” ways, He is using me in the building of His kingdom, and that always works out for my eternal good.

 

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“Hope does not disappoint”

hopelessness

While scrolling through Twitter this morning I came upon this quote which had been posted without attribution: “The poorest people in the world aren’t the ones without money…It’s the ones without hope.” When hope is absent, life is almost unbearable; and there are many navigating through life whose hope has been crushed by the cruel circumstances of a fallen world. They see no end to their suffering.

The darkness that accompanies mental illness, debilitating sickness, broken relationships, and destructive addictions seems deep and never ending. Like Sisyphus repeatedly rolling his rock up the hill only to see it crashing down to the bottom, people often do live what Thoreau described as “lives of quiet desperation.” While admitting that God can and still works miracles, we also know that there are times when we will not see relief from our circumstances in this present evil age. So where is our hope to be found? Paul gave us the answer when he wrote to Timothy almost 2000 years ago:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus, who is our hope.” (1 Timothy 1:1)

Our hope is not to be found in a new product, a new lifestyle, a new leaf, a new way of thinking, a new job, or new friends; our hope can only be found in Jesus Christ. He is the only One who can give us hope both now in this “present evil age,” and in “the age to come.” That is why I love the Reformed faith: the doctrinal truths found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Smaller and Larger Catechisms point me to Jesus Christ and the mercy and grace He pours out upon me even in the darkest of nights.

If there is never a “healing,” or a “reconciliation,” or a “deliverance,” in my life, the Christ of the Scriptures is still an “ever present help in time of trouble.” Through our pain and through our darkness our “hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:5)

The pain is real. The darkness is real. Yet, the hope that is found in Jesus Christ is even more real.

When the Days are Dark


Most of us who grew up in the 1960s and 70s know who Joni Eareckson Tada is. In 1967 she was injured in a diving accident at the age of seventeen which resulted in her becoming a paraplegic. By God’s grace and through agonizing rehabilitation she has lived a very full life over the last fifty years, being an example to all of us that “God’s grace is sufficient” for whatever comes our way. She has written over fifty books and is the Founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Center. In 2010 she was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer and subsequently underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy. If anyone knows what the phrase, “a dark providence” means, it would be Ms. Tada.

When asked how she had been able to deal with all of the challenges that went along with her paraplegia she responded, “I suppose what helped me get through this more than any other thing was reading Loraine Boettner’s, ‘Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.’” It was the truth that God was in control and that He had a plan and purpose for her life kept her going. I am sure that there were times when she felt alone, afraid, despondent, and forgotten, but that truth kept her going forward even through the darkest night.

Yes, “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) As dark as life gets, as lonely as we feel, and as painful as our personal life experience gets; God, in His love, brings light, His comforting presence, and His all sufficient grace. As our new pastor, Nick Napier, said this morning (quoting Thomas Wilcox), “Judge not Christ’s love by His providence, but by His promises.”

(And it wouldn’t hurt to read Dr. Boettner’s book, either.)

Tuesday Hymns: “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” (One day early)

franck_j

At our Sunday evening worship service the congregation makes hymn requests and last Sunday night we sang, “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” by Johann Franck (You can always tell when a former Lutheran requests a hymn; right, Beth Poss?). Franck was not a pastor, but a lawyer, and politician (He was the mayor of Konigsberg) in early 17th century Germany. He wrote over 100 hymns, approximately half of them being paraphrases of the Psalms.

Franck’s hymn speaks of the comfort that one finds in Christ, even in the midst of a world filled with evil and suffering. It is sung to Johann S. Bach’s tune, Je¬su, Meine Freude .

Jesus, priceless Treasure,
Source of purest pleasure,
Truest Friend to me.
Ah, how long in anguish
Shall my spirit languish,
Yearning, Lord, for Thee?
Thou art mine, O Lamb divine!
I will suffer naught to hide Thee,
Naught I ask beside Thee.

In Thine arms I rest me;
Foes who would molest me
Cannot reach me here.
Though the earth be shaking,
Every heart be quaking,
Jesus calms my fear.
Lightnings flash and thunders crash;
Yet, though sin and hell assail me,
Jesus will not fail me.

Satan, I defy thee;
Death, I now decry thee;
Fear, I bid thee cease.
World, thou shalt not harm me
Nor thy threats alarm me
While I sing of peace.
God’s great power guards every hour;
Earth and all its depths adore Him,
Silent bow before Him.

Evil world, I leave thee;
Thou canst not deceive me,
Thine appeal is vain.
Sin that once did bind me,
Get thee far behind me,
Come not forth again.
Past thy hour, O pride and power;
Sinful life, thy bonds I sever,
Leave thee now forever.

Hence, all thought of sadness!
For the Lord of gladness,
Jesus, enters in.
Those who love the Father,
Though the storms may gather,
Still have peace within;
Yea, whatever we here must bear,
Still in Thee lies purest pleasure,
Jesus, priceless Treasure!

 

 

 

“”Life isn’t all fricasseed frogs and eel pie”

puddleglum

 

Puddleglum (my youngest son) and I went to Beaumont to give platelets and plasma at LifeShare Blood Center, and, lo, and behold, sitting in the chair next to me was an old friend of mine. I explained our connection to my son by saying, “We went to different high schools together.” (He went to LCM and I went to West Orange [no Stark]) As we began to talk, I asked about a certain lady, and his response was, “She’s retired now.” We started talking about someone else and I found myself saying, “I haven’t seen him since _______’s funeral.” Our talk turned to DuPont and we talked about how many fewer workers there are now than there were in its heyday back in the 1970-80s. The conversation ebbed and flowed around people’s sicknesses, weight losses and gains (mostly gains), and, sadly, deaths. It reminded me of something that I said a couple of weeks ago to an old friend, “Roy, when did we get old?

 

It is much like Jayber Crow, one of Wendell Berry’s characters describes:

 

Back there at the beginning, as I see now, my life was all time and almost no memory. Though I knew early of death, it still seemed to be something that happened only to other people, and I stood in an unending river of time that would go on making the same changes and the same returns forever. And now, nearing the end, I see that my life is almost entirely memory and very little time.”

 

As I have floated down that river of time I have experienced good times and bad times, happy times and sad times, anxious times and peaceful times, and I have seen people enter my life and leave my life (some sadly and, I really hate to confess, some gladly), but through it all there has been one constant, the Triune God. Before the foundation of the world, God, the Father, chose me by His grace; in the fullness of time, God, the Son, took on human flesh and sacrificed His life on my behalf; and, God, the Holy Spirit, one day quickened my heart (brought it to life), showed me my sin, and enabled me to rest totally upon the grace of God for my salvation. So that, in whatever season of life I am living, I can be content and know that I am in His all-powerful and all-loving hands.

 

Yes, as Puddleglum once said, (C.S. Lewis’s character, not my son), “Life isn’t all fricasseed frogs and eel pie,” but in Christ, life is good, both then and now, and into all eternity.

 

 

I’m Not Nearly as Smart as I Used to Be

means of grace

I miss my younger days when I knew it all. Back then, at the ripe old age of thirty-nine, I had the answers for all of my fellow pastors. Because of the fact that the two churches that I had pastored had grown, and, more or less, had acted “Christian,” I would often sit back and think (I wouldn’t dare say it out loud) when I saw pastors struggling in their churches, “If they would only be patient, keep loving the people, and preach God’s Word consistently, things would turn around.” Why? Number one, because I knew that is what we were called to do, and, number two, I had been “successful” by doing that. Of course, successful meant that the budgets, buildings, and baptisms measured up to everyone else.

However, when I arrived at my third church, my bubble burst. I did what I had always done: I preached “the whole counsel of God” by preaching expositionally through books of the Bible; I loved the people by being there when they were sick, troubled, dying, struggling, and, to be totally honest, fighting; and I was patient, knowing that in time everything would turn around…but it never did. And, that is when I discovered something: not that I was doing it all wrong and that I needed to have “Pack a Pew Sundays,” do the Sunday School Action plan (see, I’m older than you thought), or to bring it up to date, wear raggedy, skinny jeans, and a tee shirt to preach in, or put a bed on the roof of the church for 40 days (not going there), or have a “fire truck baptistery” for the kids to be baptized in (I’m really not going there). No, I was doing the right things, but my problem was my definition of success. It is not bigger buildings, growing budgets, and numerous baptisms, but it is being faithful to God and His Word.

When we look at Scripture we see times when there is great growth in the kingdom of God. We see Jonah at Nineveh, we see Peter on the Day of Pentecost, we see Paul at Corinth; but if we are honest, we also see Jeremiah preaching for decades with no outward result, we see John banished to the Isle of Patmos, we see Jesus being rejected by His own people, and we see many “lean years” down through history when it was almost as if God’s church went underground to survive.

So, keep in my mind, whether you are in a time of great reaping and rejoicing in your present situation, or in a time of great struggle; that we plant, we water, but it is God “who gives the increase.” Focus on providing God’s Word (Law and Gospel), prayer, and sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) to your people every Lord’s Day, and loving them all during the week, and then trust God in His time to accomplish His work in His people, whether you see it visibly in your time there or not.

By the way, I’m not nearly as “smart” as I used to be.

“And it came to pass…”

I’m tired. There. I said it.

Living in a fallen world can sometimes wear you out. I confess that life is not as stressful as when I was a pastor. Then, I not only had the ongoing stresses of challenges at home, but, also, as Paul called it, “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Cor. 11:28) So, from that standpoint, retirement has made my life bearable, but there are times when the phrase, “and while they were yet speaking” from the book of Job seems like one of those “lifetime Scripture verses” that some people talk about.

However, having said all of that, it is also important for me to say, in the midst of my “tiredness” (is that a word?) I fully confess that God is in control. He knows what He is doing, and He has purpose in every pressure that He has wisely and graciously allowed into my life. While I should never be satisfied with where I am (I should be “pressing toward the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus”), I should be content that God has me right where He wants me (Thanks, Jason Pickard, for starting that Sunday night study on contentment).

Thirty-five years ago, in my first pastorate, I remember Dr. A. J. Quinn saying that his favorite Scripture verse was “And it came to pass,” because he was so glad that it didn’t “come to stay.” So, if you are like me, (tired) I would encourage you to take heed to Paul’s direction to the Galatian church, “ And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow wearytired1.” (Galatians 6:9)

“Old Days Revisited”

(I posted this back in 2011. It is a reminder to me of how God has blessed me greatly in my much too short sixty years.)

This morning I woke up thinking about the Burger Hut in Orange, Texas. It has been closed for years now, but my formative years were spent sitting around the back table with many of my friends, enjoying good food, Dr. Peppers, and hilarity. Of course, I inhaled enough second-hand smoke in that place to rival the Marlboro man, and it was not out of the ordinary for me to eat our modern day’s yearly intake of fat in a twenty-four hour period, especially when a meal included a “Burro.” (The “Burro” was a huge burrito filled with meat [I never asked what kind], refries, Spanish rice, covered with copious amounts of chili, grease, cheese, and jalapeño peppers. And, since I weighed in at a sopping wet 155 pounds, I could eat two of them. Such activity today would require a visit to ICU.)

These memories remain (I can almost taste the “Burro” to this day–in my mind, not because of heart burn) because those days were special to me. It was then that I was learning about life, relationships, and most importantly, about God. Although the church that I grew up in was definitely program driven (I have often wondered if it was a good thing that I kissed a girl for the first time on the church bus during youth choir tour—I still think fondly of red-headed Sally) and more stress was put on Flake’s Formula for Sunday School growth than on theology; it was there where I was confronted with the Gospel, was called to faith by God’s Spirit, and was given a love for God’s Word that has never waned in these last 40 years.

I did not deserve to experience God’s grace, but I will be forever grateful that God is not only holy, just, and a consuming fire, but that He is also a God of mercy and grace, who through Christ’s keeping of the Law, and sacrificial death, provided the means for my salvation for “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)

This is the pre-Burger Hut, Zacks, when it was still just a drive in. Everyone who grew up in Orange, Texas has some Zack's memories. Mr. Jacobs put up with a lot from us.

This is the pre-Burger Hut, Zacks, when it was still just a drive in. Everyone who grew up in Orange, Texas has some Zack’s memories. Mr. Jacobs put up with a lot from us.

“Ordinary Lives”

I suppose as one gets older he begins to look back on events in his life that God has used to mold him into the man that he has come to be. One of those times in my life was the summer after my senior year in high school when I worked for the Hilliards, who operated the Dr. Pepper Bottling Company in Orange, Texas. It was the first “real” job that I had other than mowing grass as a boy, working in my brother-in-law’s rice field in high school, and delivering flowers for Arthur Black’s flower shop.

My first few days on the job were spent keeping the conveyer belt of the bottle washer full of empty glass bottles so that we could bottle thousands of bottles of Dr. Pepper, Triple XXX Root Beer, and Diet Dr. Pepper. When I didn’t quit after experiencing that torture, I was chosen to be a “helper” on the delivery trucks. It was there where I learned many lessons of life that I have carried with me to this day (not to mention many new vocabulary words that I have chosen not to make a part of my everyday life). One of the drivers seemed to make it his mission to make my life as miserable as possible. He was as vile as one could imagine and rather lazy which meant that I had to do most of the work while he spent time “shooting the bull” with the store owners as we made our deliveries.

However, one of the other drivers will always have a special place in my heart. His name was Lewis Norris. He was a humble man who loved the Lord very much. Although our theology didn’t agree completely (He went to the Church of the Nazarene) we had many discussions about what it meant to live the Christian life in a fallen world. He lived what he believed, “worked hard for his money,” trusted in the Holy Scriptures, and, witnessed, without being obnoxious, to “the hope that [was] in [him]” through Christ. I am grateful to have known him, and am sorry that I did not let him know how much his faithful life meant to me as a young Christian.

I am sure that there are many Lewis Norrises out there in the world doing the “ordinary things” that are quietly used by God to sanctify the lives of those with whom they come in contact; even the pimply faced 18 year olds who ride the Dr. Pepper trucks with them.

Thank you, Lewis, for your “ordinary” life. I look forward to thanking you in person in the “new heavens and the new earth” some day.

Dr. Pepper Bottling Company in Orange, Texas

Dr. Pepper Bottling Company in Orange, Texas

A “Wise Ignorance”

Joseph Hall was the Anglican Bishop of Exeter during the 1630s, a self-proclaimed moderate, who often found himself caught in the middle between the Puritans and the Laudians during the theological and ecclesiastical controversies of those tumultuous days in “jolly ole England.” He was involved in the publishing of some of John Donne’s poems (he of “No man is an island, we are all a part of the whole” fame) and once was caught up in a pamphlet war with John Milton over abolishing the episcopal hierarchy of the Anglican Church (Hall defended the hierarchy). While I assume that I would agree with the Puritans more often than with Hall, he wrote something in the 17th century that speaks volumes to us today:

As there is a foolish wisdom, so there is a wise ignorance; in not prying into God’s ark, not inquiring into things not revealed. I would fain know all that I need, and all that I may: I leave God’s secrets to Himself. It is happy for me that God makes me of His court though not of His council.”

While God has revealed to us in His Word all that we need to know, and we should mine that Word for all of the knowledge that we can possibly unearth; it is best that we leave God’s secret purposes in His hands. He is the One who is “causing all things to work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose,” and in the darkest of nights it is almost always better to cry out, “I am hurting, but I trust You, Lord,” than, “Why, me?”

We must keep in the forefront of our minds that the Omniscient One is also the Merciful One, and that He is working for our eternal good and His eternal glory through the difficulties that we are experiencing. I am not saying that you should ignore your pain, or dry your tears; I am saying that it is important to remember that the Good Shepherd will lead you through those dark providences (even if they include the “valley of the shadow of death”) and that His “goodness and mercy shall follow [you] all the days of [your] life, and [you] shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Pray to the Lord to give you a “wise ignorance” and cling to what Charles Spurgeon once said, “God is too good to be unkind. He is too wise to be confused. If I cannot trace His hand, I can always trust His heart.”

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