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.”

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Tuesday Hymns: “Teach Me, O Lord, Your Way of Truth”

Teach me o lord your way of truth

Ray Lanning, a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, had this to say about The Psalter of 1912:

The year was 1912, and the place was Pittsburgh. In the heart of the city famous for steel and beer, a small group of Psalm-singing United Presbyterians held a last committee meeting. They sat to put the final touches on the labor of nearly twenty years, as they wrote a preface to a new metrical version of the Psalms with music. It was published that year, and has come to be known as The Psalter, 1912, or simply, The Psalter. This book of praise has been in use ever since in North America, and its influence has spread to many denominations and many other books of Psalms and hymns. It is likely no exaggeration to say that The Psalter, 1912 has been used longer and more widely than any other book like it in American church history.”

Our Tuesday Hymn for this week, “Teach Me, O Lord, Your Way of Truth,” comes to us from that Psalter. It is a metrical paraphrase of Psa. 119:33-40 and reminds us that not only is our justification by grace, but so is our sanctification. The Psalmist asks for the Lord to “teach us” His way of truth, to “give us” an understanding heart, to “make us” walk in His commandments, to “give us” a heart that loves to obey, to “turn our eyes” from vanity, to “cause us” to walk in His ways, to “turn away” our reproach and fear, and to “revive us” in His righteousness.

As we sang this hymn last Sunday morning, I thought back on how my preaching has changed over the years. It went from “come on guys, we can do this,” to “look at what Christ has done for us.” Our obedient Christian life is a result of the “love of Christ that compels us.” (2 Cor. 5:14) This Psalm is sung to the Joseph Holbrook’s tune, Bishop.

Teach me, O Lord, Your way of truth,
And from it I will not depart;
That I may steadfastly obey,
Give me an understanding heart.

In your commandments make me walk,
For in your law my joy shall be;
Give me a heart that loves your will,
From discontent and envy free.

Turn now my eyes from vanity,
And cause me in Your ways to tread;
O let Your servant prove Your Word
And thus to Godly fear be led.

Turn away my reproach and fear;
Your righteous judgments I confess;
To know Your precepts I desire;
Revive me in Your righteousness.

“Let the little children come to me…”

children-in-pew-300x199

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)

bernice larner

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.

“Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat”

john newton

We sang two John Newton hymns during our morning worship today and neither one of them was “Amazing Grace.” The first hymn was “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder” which has that marvelous line, “when through grace in Christ our trust us, justice smiles and asks no more.” And, because Pastor Nick was preaching on prayer from Philippians 4:4-9 we also sang the less familiar, “Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat.” It is a marvelous hymn that describes Christ’s invitation to us to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:16)

Approach, my soul, the mercy seat
where Jesus answers prayer;
there humbly fall before his feet,
for none can perish there.

Thy promise is my only plea;
with this I venture nigh:
thou callest burdened souls to thee,
and such, O Lord, am I.

Bowed down beneath a load of sin,
by Satan sorely pressed,
by war without, and fears within,
I come to thee for rest.

Be thou my shield and hiding place,
that, sheltered near thy side,
I may my fierce accuser face,
and tell him thou hast died.

O wondrous love! to bleed and die,
to bear the cross and shame,
that guilty sinners, such as I,
might plead thy gracious name!

 

“There’s no business, like soul business.”

I have always been a fan of the Rev. Will B. Dunn and the comic strip “Kudzu.” Sadly the reason that the strip is so entertaining is because the writer has his finger on the pulse on what is called Christianity in the twenty-first century. This may be why the modern worship center looks alarmingly like a theater or a recording studio. Maybe there is “no business like soul business.” It is comfortable, it is entertaining, maybe it is even exciting; but I am not convinced that “comfortable, entertaining, and exciting” are necessarily prerequisites to Gospel worship.

In that context I think back to what I experienced yesterday when I gathered with God’s people. We sang hymns of praise that contained Biblical depth. We confessed our sins and heard the promise of forgiveness from God’s Word. The Bible was read publicly (more than just a snippet) because that is how God speaks to His people. A child was baptized and we were reminded of the grace of God that is ours through what Jesus Christ did for us through His obedient life and sacrificial death. We called out to God in prayer. We heard the Word of God proclaimed. We shared the Lord’s Supper together which again reminded us of God’s grace. Christ was pointed to as our hope again and again.

It wasn’t comfortable, but it brought comfort. It wasn’t entertaining, but it was focused on God, both who He is and what He has done. It wasn’t necessarily exciting, but it fed more than just the emotion; it fed the soul. I am grateful that God Sunday after Sunday reveals Himself to us through simple things like prayer, Word, and sacrament. Maybe it is “soul business” after all.

Consistency

Consistency-In-Marketing-1

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.

 

“Old Truth in Old Forms”

Givens Brown Strickler lived quite a life. He was born on April 25, 1840 in northern Virginia. While a student at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion in the South. Promptly, many in the student body formed themselves into “The Liberty Hall Volunteers,” and became a part of the Stonewall Brigade to protect their beloved Virginia against an invasion by their own countrymen. Strickler fought bravely until he was captured at the top of Cemetery Hill during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. While a prisoner of war he “prayed, conducted religious meetings, made religious addresses; and in every practicable way sought to exert the best moral and religious influence on his fellow sufferers in prison,” according to John Miller Wells.

After the war he returned to Washington College (where Robert E. Lee was president at the time) to finish his degree and then on to Union Seminary to prepare for the ministry. As a pastor and seminary professor he touched many lives for the Gospel of Christ. But, his friend and colleague, Thomas Cary Johnson, said something about him which spoke volumes to me about what a pastor should be:

Dr. Strickler was a pre-eminently great teacher of the Reformed Theology. He gave himself to inventing no new statement of any old truth; but accepting the old truth in its old forms he exhibited unrivalled skill in expounding, defending, and impressing this theology as set forth in the Westminster Standards—that rugged and massive system of Christian truth which so perfectly matched his own character, which had moulded his own character.”

Pastors don’t have to “cast visions,” be clever, entertain, come up with new and imaginative ideas, etc., they just need to “expound, defend, and impress” the truth of Scripture to their congregations. God’s flock needs to be fed with the green pastures of God’s Word, not the spirit of a shallow and callous culture. Thank you, Dr. Givens Strickler, for showing us a better way.

Tuesday Hymns: “Christ Shall Have Dominion”

christ shall have dominion

We sang a Hymn last Sunday morning that I had never sung before (I have seldom been able to write those words) and because of that it is our Tuesday Hymn of the Week. It was entitled, “Christ Shall Have Dominion” and it is sung to the same tune as, “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Like so many of the hymns in our Trinity Hymnal, it comes from The Psalter of 1912. It is a metrical version of a segment of the 72nd Psalm which reminds us of the good news that Our God Reigns.

In this troubled world in which we live it is good for us to remember that Satan is bound (yes, the chain sometimes seems very long), and he cannot hinder the purposes of God being fulfilled. His (Christ’s) Gospel is going out to “men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and [Christ] hast made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” (Rev. 5:9-10) We need not fear that Christ and His Church will be defeated for not even the “gates of hell shall overpower” them.

“For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:36)

Christ shall have dominion, over land and sea,
Earth’s remotest regions shall His empire be;
They that wilds inhabit shall their worship bring,
Kings shall render tribute, nations serve our King.

Refrain

Christ shall have dominion, over land and sea,
Earth’s remotest regions shall His empire be.

When the needy seek Him, He will mercy show;
Yea, the weak and helpless shall His pity know;
He will surely save them from oppression’s might,
For their lives are precious in His holy sight.

Refrain

Ever and forever shall His Name endure;
Long as suns continue it shall stand secure;
And in Him forever all men shall be blest,
And all nations hail Him King of kings confessed.

Refrain

Unto God Almighty joyful Zion sings;
He alone is glorious, doing wondrous things.
Evermore, ye people, bless His glorious Name,
His eternal glory through the earth proclaim.

Refrain

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