Ordinary Actions

new-and-improved

We live in a world where “new and improved” is the rage. We need excitement! We need thrills! We need bells! We need whistles! As one church advertised: “No more boring church!” However, all of that reminds me of something that R. C. Sproul once said, “There is one thing that I never find in the Bible when a person comes into the presence of the living God: ‘He is never bored.’” We don’t need a “new and improved” way to come into the presence of God, we have the “tried and true” way.

Way back in 1640s the men at the Westminster Assembly restated the Biblical proviso of how to draw near to God as His people that we might grow in grace:

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

We recoil at the word, “ordinary,” yet Christ has ordained the simple actions of “reading and preaching the Word; administering water, bread, and wine; and calling out to God in praise and supplication” as the means to discover Him anew, when we as His people gather in His name week in and week out. It is sufficient whether you are in a cathedral in London, a storefront in New York, or a grass hut in the jungle of deepest Africa. Word. Sacraments. Prayer. It is sufficient, and never boring (at least it isn’t if you are one of His children).

 

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.

 

 

Tuesday Hymns: “Alas, And Did My Saviour Bleed”

watts isaac

In Isaac Watt’s later years he once complained, “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.” Even in complaining about church members’ attitudes, Watt’s words flowed like a mountain stream. He has been called the “Father of English Hymnody” for good reason and his published hymns would be exhibit numbers 1-800. Our Tuesday Hymn of the Week, “Alas, And Did My Saviour Bleed,” is a good example of his inborn talent and his excellent theology. His understanding of the depth of man’s sin and the abundance of God’s mercy and grace is found in every verse.

As one who grew up in a tradition that sang, “At the Cross,” (which took the words of Watts, added a refrain, and sang it to a tune that sounded like it originated in a circus calliope…sorry, I just feel that way) I was thrilled to discover his words connected to a more appropriate tune in The Trinity Hymnal.

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.

PS—And, just for the record, I have no issue at all with the phrase, “For such a worm as I.”
;^)

 

 

 

“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.”

 

 

 

 

What I Miss (and Don’t Miss) about Attending General Assembly

coffin

I have now been “Honorably Retired” for two years (Every time I write that I think, “I love my denomination’s lingo”), so that means this is the third Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly in a row that I have not attended. There are things that I do NOT miss about this yearly adventure that was so much a part of my life during my time as a PCA Teaching Elder

I do NOT miss attending GA because of the need to travel across the country and live in a hotel for three days. My legs are too long to be comfortable on the flight, and one never knows who will be seated in the seat next to him for several hours. I still remember the college girl next to me who was on her way to work at a summer camp in New England who must have wanted to be a European because she decided to wear no deodorant on that particular day. At first I thought that I must have been the culprit of the odor hanging around aisle 23 until she stretched and I realized that I was the victim. Along with the travel, I must admit my curmudgeon-li-ness (yes, I know that is not a word) results in my not sleeping well in a hotel (although I often found myself dozing through the informational reports on Wednesday afternoon), so I knew that I would return home exhausted.

I do NOT miss attending GA because one never knows what you are going to get at the worship services. There seems to be some innate desire every year for the worship service to be more “creative” than the year before. I am still shaking my head at the year someone actually thought intinction was a good idea. [sigh]

I do NOT miss attending GA because being on the losing side of seemingly every vote gets old after a while. (Yes, I was on the winning side of the Federal Vision Study Committee vote several years ago but the PCA has found ways to ignore that result from the moment it happened.) I must admit one would think that I would be used to losing since the first fifteen years of my life as a pastor was spent going to Baptist General Convention of Texas Conventions where being a Biblical conservative meant: you’re a loser (except for the motion to adjourn, of course).

But, I DO miss attending GA because of the fellowship that I had with like-minded pastors from across the nation. It was the only time during the year that I saw most of them (unless I ran into them at a Banner of Truth Conference or the Reformation Worship Conference). It was always good to hear what was going right (and what was going wrong) as they sought to minister to God’s people in a fallen world in the particular place that God’s providence had placed them. I learned much from them and often it helped me to appreciate anew the people that I ministered to back home.

So, this year I will be checking Twitter to discover what is going on in Greensboro, but mainly I will be praying for God to be at work in the life of our denomination during this special week of the year.

Oh, and I almost forgot, I DO miss hearing David Coffin, the walking, talking, breathing Robert’s Rules of Order guy, correcting some parliamentary misdeed that has taken place on the floor (or, even more so, on the podium).
;^)

 

 

The “Hot-Tempered Man”

angry

I have been reading Sonia Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill entitled, “Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill.” It has been a fascinating look at the marriage of one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. She was one of the few people who could stand up to the overpowering personality, opinions, and bluster of Great Britain’s foremost statesman. One sentence in particular caught my eye: “Often it was only Clementine who would point to Winston’s faults; his lack of real empathy with others and tendency to bully meant that he often mistook silent acquiescence for positive support.”  One can get away with bullying in the political realm, and sometimes it can even prove beneficial at some level in the business realm, but one place that it doesn’t belong is in Christ’s Church.

My daily Bible reading today included the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Proverbs which contains the following truth, “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but the slow to anger pacifies contention.” In my thirty plus years of ministry I have seen the “hot-tempered man” leave countless broken people in his wake as he careens through the life of the church. Sometimes he is a pastor; sometimes he is an elder; sometimes he is a deacon; sometimes he is “Joe Church Member;” and sometimes he is not a man at all (the hot-tempered woman creates havoc, also); but whoever he (or she) is, destruction follows him the way the flying dust follows Pigpen in the Charlie Brown comic strip. And, often like Winston Churchill he mistakes “silent acquiescence for positive support.” Many church bullies aren’t even aware of the emotional bruises that they leave on those in which they come in contact.

So my plea, first of all, to church officers: Don’t ever let anger be the driving force in your life. I once knew a pastor who said that he was able to get more work done when he was angry, but I also knew that many of those around him were constantly walking on eggshells, being careful to not trigger one of his infamous outbursts. Secondly, I would ask church members to be prayerfully careful about whom they vote for when church officer elections are held. An angry church member can cause great harm, but an angry church leader can devastate the life of a local church.

And, last of all, as we live out our lives in this fallen world; always remember the guidance that the Apostle Paul gave to the church at Rome:

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. ‘But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)

 

 

 

 

 

Dealing with Challenging People

explosive child

In Ross Greene’s book, “The Explosive Child,” he writes about using three baskets when communicating with kids who have special needs to lessen the possibility of an explosive situation occurring:

 Basket A:  The essential safety behaviors. Non-negotiables.

 Basket B:  The high-priority behaviors which are very important, but not worth a power struggle that will result in an explosive melt-down. Use as opportunity to teach compromise and negotiating skills.

 Basket C:  The behaviors which once seemed important, but are not really a top priority and certainly not worth a melt-down. Things that in the big picture don’t really matter.

Of course, it can be challenging to determine which basket applies to a given situation, but I have found that this approach has been very helpful to me in the world in which I live. I have found that it can be useful in dealing with “The Explosive Adult,” also.

 

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.”

 

 

 

Memorial Day (Thinking about Bubba)

bubba williams

Today those of us in the United States will celebrate what has come to be known as Memorial Day. It was originally named “Decoration Day” and there is some question as to the actual beginning of the observance. Women in the South were decorating the graves of the Confederate dead before the end of the Civil War, but the first official observance came with the declaration of General John Logan (a Union general) when flowers were placed on the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868. The northern states and southern states celebrated Memorial Day on different days until the end of World War I, when the observance “remembered” all those who gave their lives in service for their country, not only in the Civil War, but in all wars. Until 1971 it was observed on May 30th, but then Congress changed the timing to the last Monday in May to insure a three day federal weekend holiday.

I was well aware of Memorial Day as a child because it was celebrated on my Mom’s birthday, and in the 1960s, with the Viet Nam Conflict raging across the Pacific, it was not unusual to see newspaper stories of local guys who were killed in action. However, Memorial Day really hit home for me when we received news that Marine Staff Sgt. Benjamin D. Williams, along with two others had been killed on June 20, 2006 in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. For me his death put “a face” on Memorial Day. It became more than a generic day of remembering but a personal day of sadness mixed with profound gratitude. I had watched Bubba (that’s what many of us called him) grow up and although by then I had been separated by many miles and many years from him and his family, his death was a grim reminder of the horror of war. Every Memorial Day Bubba’s life and sacrifice is one of the first thoughts that comes to my mind when I rise on the day when most of America is barbequing, picnicking, and celebrating the coming of summer and the end of school.

I would encourage everyone to take some time today to remember the sacrifice of the many that paid the ultimate price for our freedom, and those family members who feel anew the grief that never really goes away completely. Thank you, Bubba, for your sacrifice; you and your heroism will not be forgotten.

 

Dark Providence

dark__mysterious__mystical_moon_by_pixie_aztechia-d59kciy

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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