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.

“Try a Little Tenderness”

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Otis Redding sang it:

Oh she may be weary
Them young girls they do get wearied…”

Yes, they do. Old girls, too. Oh, yeah, and old men. Life in a fallen world can wear you out. Most of us have no clue what those around us are going through, so it is always a good rule of thumb to “try a little tenderness.”

Henry David Thoreau was a goofball (in more ways than one), but when he said that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” I think he may have stumbled upon truth. Ever since Adam and Eve thought that they had a better idea, mankind has lived with sickness, want, hatred, depression, mental illness, broken relationships, grief, pain, anxiety, and eventually, death. This is one of the reasons why worshiping with God’s people on His day is so important.

In God’s house you are reminded of the grace of God Sunday in and Sunday out. And not just the grace that brought you to repentance and life, and not just the grace that will one day grant you entrance into the new heavens and the new earth, but the grace that keeps you upright when you “get wearied.” On Sunday you gather with people who, just like you, are in need of hearing about God’s grace, and in need of coming to the realization that they are not alone as they struggle. As we are tender with one another, God uses us to make that journey a little easier both for the giver and the receiver of that tenderness.

Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, said it well in Romans 12:15-21:

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Or as Otis sang, “try a little tenderness.”

 

 

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

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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!

 

 

 

“Baby, the Rain Must Fall”

rain must fall

On this rainy Saturday morning my thoughts have wandered down memory lane. I think back on the many difficult times that I have experienced and also witnessed in the lives of those for whom I have cared. I have seen the tragic loss of spouses, children, parents, and friends to death; the narcissistic chasing of some dream (or “soulmate”) that has wreaked havoc and destruction in the lives of children, families, and churches; our culture “slouching toward Gomorrah” socially, sexually, verbally and in every other way imaginable; the pain and sorrow that accompanies mental illness, both in those who suffer with it and those who love and care for them; and the list of the woes that are our companions as we travel through this fallen world could go on and on.

In the midst of all of these things, what makes life worth living? What keeps us “keeping on keeping on” in the midst of pain, heartache, disease, and death? I believe two things primarily. First of all, people. I often quote my old seminary professor, Dr. Oscar Thompson, who said, “The most important word in the English language, other than proper nouns, is the word, ‘relationship.’” Life is all about “loving and being loved.” Being cared for by another human being makes all of life’s burdens bearable. It’s as Hank Thompson once sang (I know because I had the 45 rpm record), “It’s better to have loved a little, than never to have loved at all.”

Yet, there is something more. It is our God who is the “Father of mercies” and the “God of all comfort.” There is something calming about gathering with God’s people every Lord’s Day, hearing God’s Word read, confessing our sin, calling out to God in prayer, singing the hymns that God’s people of all the ages have sung, hearing the Law and Gospel truthfully preached, observing a Baptism or partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and in all of these simple ways being reminded that our God is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

It is true that “Baby, the rain must fall; baby, the wind must blow,” but it is good to know that our God is Lord over the rain and the wind, and that He has an eternal purpose for our daily, seemingly, mundane and ordinary lives. So, in the midst of my woes and uncertainties, tomorrow morning, I will gather with His people, and look again and again to the simple, ordinary means that God has provided to grow me in His grace.

“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)

Tuesday Hymns: “Abide with Me”

Henry Francis Lyte was a Scottish Anglican vicar who lived from June 1, 1793 until November 20, 1847. His life was filled with bad health (persistent lung issues) and changing theological views (ranging from being an unconverted vicar, to evangelical pastor, to leaning toward Anglo-Catholicism at the end of his life). He was also a hymn writer and three weeks before his death from tuberculosis completed our “Tuesday Hymn” for this week, Abide with Me.”

The hymn is Lyte’s prayer as he faces the end of his life. In it one sees the difficulties faced as disease begins to takes its toll on a body and soul: “darkness deepens,” “comforts flee,” “change and decay,” “ills,” and “bitterness.” However, through it all one finds that God if faithful. He is the “Help of the helpless,” and the One who “changest not.”

I am not sure why this hymn caught my eye. Maybe it is because my years are beginning to add up. Maybe it is because I see people who I care about battling debilitating diseases. Maybe it is because of the fact that I notice more and more often former classmates listed in the obituaries when I go online in the morning. For whatever reason I am grateful that I can say “Amen” to Lyte’s final plea that “Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee: In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide:
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me.

I need thy presence ev’ry passing hour;
What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s pow’r?
Who like thyself my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.

I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless:
Ills have no weight and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.

Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes:
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies:
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee:
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Tuesday Hymns: “Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard”

Isaac Watts once complained about the attitudes of some as they sang hymns in worship services: “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”

It would be difficult for me, however, to imagine how one could be “indifferent, negligent, and thoughtless” as he sang Watt’s, “Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard,” based on the final verses of Isaiah 40 (which just happens to be our Tuesday Hymn for this week [Yes, I realize it has been a while]).

The hymn speaks of God’s creating and sustaining power and asks the reader if he could be so foolish as to believe that God’s “power shall fail when comes your evil day?” The implied answer is, “Of course not.” Although “Mere human pow’r shall fast decay, and youthful vigor cease; they who wait upon the Lord in strength shall still increase.”

The hymn is sung to Lowell Mason’s tune, HERMON.

Have you not known, have you not heard
That firm remains on high
The everlasting throne of Him
Who formed the earth and sky?

Are you afraid His power shall fail
When comes your evil day?
And can an all creating arm
Grow weary or decay?

Supreme in wisdom as in power
The Rock of Ages stands,
Though Him you cannot see, nor trace
The working of His hands.

He gives the conquest to the weak,
Supports the fainting heart;
And courage in the evil hour
His heavenly aids impart.

Mere human power shall fast decay,
And youthful vigor cease;
But they who wait upon the Lord
In strength shall still increase.

They with unwearied feet shall tread
The path of life divine;
With growing ardor onward move,
With growing brightness shine.

On eagles’ wings they mount, they soar,
Their wings are faith and love;
Till, past the cloudy regions here,
They rise to Heav’n above.

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.”

“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning”

Is it not an unreasonable speech for a man at midnight to say, ‘It will never be day?’ It is as unreasonable for a man in trouble to say, ‘O Lord, I shall never get free; it will be always thus!’”—Richard Sibbes, 17th century Puritan

As I was reading on this last day of 2012, I came across this gem from the pen of 17th century Anglican pastor, Richard Sibbes. It is easy for us to believe (especially those who are in the midst of trying times) that the way things are now are the way that they will always be. However, just as sunrise follows the darkest night, quite often life resembles the Psalmist words, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

We do not know what the future holds, and, yes, the circumstances of our lives may not change, but we have the knowledge that our God is truly a God that is in control of all that goes on, even in this fallen world in which we live. As the Westminster Confession of Faith so wonderfully describes our Lord’s jurisdiction:

God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.” (V. i.)

We can trust this God to work out His purpose in our lives and in the lives of the people we love, for His eternal glory and our eternal good.

Sovereign Lord, forgive us when we fear the present darkness, instead of trusting in the light that will surely one day come.”

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