Here is the next video I hope our congregation will take 5 min to watch this week. This is a broad overview and subsequent videos will get more specific.
As you watch, what do you learn that is new for you about the Bible?
What is a bit confusing? What helps clarify?
With whom in your circle of influence can you share this video? On social media? in a text?
I recently challenged our congregation to take just a few minutes a week (or a few minutes a day if you want to be on the fast track!) to respond to God’s loving, but also correcting, hand in the Covid-19 situation, by learning more about the Bible. I will plan to post a blog each week with a video link for each of the videos in this helpful series produced by The Bible Project.
As we watch this very short intro video, let’s ask ourselves some important questions:
– What am I most familiar with in the Bible?
– What do I understand the least?
– What do I think is the overarching theme of the Bible?
– How do the sections of the Bible relate to each other?
– If I have doubts about the Bible’s truth and reliability, what steps will I take to get answers?
A few nights ago, I made the mistake of watching a short Washington Post news video documenting the tragic conditions of those dying from COVID-19 in one of New York’s overwhelmed hospitals. I had a restless night and woke early, troubled. As a pastor I’ve encountered death, I’ve visited hospital rooms where I had to put on a complicated hazmat suit to enter, I’ve sat with a family as they disconnected life support, I’ve been to funerals with coffins just slightly larger than a shoebox, and I’ve even had a couple of my own near-misses. But seeing those ICU rooms with precious human beings straining to breathe their last breaths haunted me more than I thought it would. The few medical personnel who had time to enter patient rooms did so as rarely as possible, separated by layers of protective gear. Even more tragic, the severely sick could have no family or friends with them and no pastor or chaplain holding a hand. They were alone in this world, as they passed from it. Maybe a few were spiritually well-prepared for that moment. Whatever kind of life they had lived, they certainly seemed to be undergoing a very BAD DEATH.
A GOOD DEATH? – As we face COVID-19, even if we only experience the lowest estimated death tolls, we are all thinking more about health and sickness, life and death than we were 2 months ago. Of course it is fitting to mourn this loss, to be concerned for our wellbeing and that of loved ones, and to be stressed by the new framework of daily life into which we have been thrown. None of these seems particularly “good.” If we do see any good in the global pandemic it is in the sense of commonality we experience, or the blessing of added family time. Perhaps, we also have taken time to reflect on what is happening from a Christian posture, no doubt considering afresh the general truth that we are not in control as much as we thought. And this Easter season our pastor will probably help us to realize how the resurrection can have special meaning at this time. These are reasonable Christian thoughts. Yet they may lead us away too quickly from the powerful message God could want us to hear – about the hard-cold reality of death and the error of our normal practice of pushing it out of our sight. What if we are being beckoned to look head-on at what we could learn about the longstanding powerful perspective on death – the ARS MORIENDI – the “art of dying” – or as everyday Christians used to commonly understand – the GOOD DEATH.
THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING – Most academic histories probably do not end up the subject of light-hearted dinner parties or casual water-cooler discussions at work. But merely the title of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, would be unwelcome at any carefree social engagement. These are not “carefree” days though, and maybe our current “distancing” will allow us the context to give Faust due attention. In any event, Faust, was the first woman president of Harvard, the first from the South, and the first since 1672 who did not have a degree from Harvard. So maybe she does not have to care if her writings would be a big hit at our social gatherings or not. She wrote, “The concept of the Good Death was central to mid-nineteenth-century America, as it had long been at the core of Christian practice. Dying was an art, and the tradition of ars moriendi had provided rules of conduct for the moribund and their attendants since at least the fifteenth century: how to give up one’s soul “gladlye and wilfully”; how to meet the devil’s temptations of unbelief, despair, and impatience, and worldly attachment; how to pattern one’s dying on that of Christ; how to pray.” (Page 6 of the abovementioned) What can we learn from Faust’s account of how American’s, from both North and South, generally viewed their “man-made” wave of death, one that took over 600,000 American lives, or what today would be 6 million deaths? And how can this help us with COVID-19?
OUR MORTALITY REALITY – Prior to the Civil War, most Americans faced their mortality much more regularly than we do. Today we have vaccines for many of the illnesses that threatened them daily, we have a massive medical infrastructure and they had almost no medical care. Infant mortality rates were so high that in any given family the number of children that died commonly outweighed the number who survived. But just as we have gotten used to the fact that most of us won’t make it past age 95, and we might get in a car wreck, and terrorist threats could take us out, the believers of the 1800s had grown used to “typical” mortality. The Civil War carnage changed all that, and forced them to reconsider not only human frailty, but how they processed death. Maybe this pandemic could do that for us.
ELEMENTS OF “THE ART” – Since most Americans before 1860 rarely traveled more than a day’s horseback ride from home, when a loved one took gravely ill, the family was customarily nearby. For Christian’s who sensed they were nearing death, they would have initiated the normative steps to ready themselves to give up their soul. In a time when “secular” would have been a perplexing concept to most, Christians recognized the devil was real and were particularly sensitive to how he might work through the threat of death. They guarded against discouragement, doubt and worldliness, to protect their final witness. Many of them, in a far less busy time than our own, had learned to pray, in greater depth and dependence. As the Civil War threatened to disrupt their patterns for encountering their day of reckoning, they, and their loved ones fought hard to keep hold of those practices. In short, they embraced a GOOD DEATH as a central concept for all Christians and prepared for it just as we spend hours with the school guidance counselor to help our child take the steps for college or we gather at least annually with our financial planner to organize our affairs for retirement.
THROUGH DEATH TO RESURRECTION – In our time, the threat of death from COVID-19 is not just redefining how we live, but maybe it could have the potential to recalibrate how our culture, including many Christians, comprehend death. We have all heard the saying, “He’s too heavenly minded, to be of any earthly good.” As Christians, we know the reverse is actually true. The more we “set our minds on things above,” the better we are equipped to live now. But how can we as 21st Century First-World Christians begin to have the heavenly mindset if we don’t first embrace our mortality? What if we don’t just take a quick glance at it, but a hard stare and even a sobering preparation for “giving up our soul?” What if we if we put on God’s armor through much deeper prayer lives so we can face COVID-19, or whatever will one day be our demise? What if we learned the art of walking in step with our Savior the path he took when He died, on that “good” Friday, that we might better appreciate the glorious resurrection He grants to us?!
As we saw in our recent sermon series in Colossians we are called to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is…to set your minds on things that are above…For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (3:1-3) Later in the same chapter we read, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly…and whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” How do we fulfill this? Through the daily Christian 3-step dance of repenting, believing, and striving, in the Gospel.
The past several years, all in our church family have been encouraged to join in this dance of spiritual growth individually or as a household, which is also linked to readings in our weekly church worship service. With our lives often scattered and our attention easily distracted, carving out even just 10 minutes a day to learn something new from God’s Word or remind ourselves of things we forget, is vital. Having resources in hand to pursue that teaching during the week, is as important as it ever was. To that end, in the past, we have invited everyone to walk together through the Westminster Shorter Catechism (English from 1640s) and the Heidelberg Catechism (German from 1563), using the daily readings from Starr Meade, as well as the Read Scripture app for daily bible reading, and last year the New City Catechism (American from recent years!).
This year we are doing something similar and different. Similar in daily content that is easily accessible, but different because it is not in the question and answer format of a catechism. I hope everyone in our church will take a moment right now to purchase the book “New Morning Mercies” by Paul David Tripp through Christianbook.com or Amazon, in good ole fashion paper, or e-book if you prefer. If you have children old enough to read a one page devotional each day or several days a week, you may want to purchase extra copies for them as well. See video for an introduction.
The devotion runs Jan 1 – Dec 31, daily, but each stands on its own, so no worries if you missed the Jan 1 kickoff. (Our family has been on vacation so will be getting a start a few days late, while we are on the road). If you are a highly disciplined family, you may want to read the devotionals as a family, once a day and discuss, perhaps in the morning before the days activities or around the dinner table. Or it may make sense to block out 3-4 times a week to read together as a family and allow for individual reading the other days of the week.
For those with children, I would encourage you not to be the least bit surprised if your children are not excited about this! Ha. Just like us adults, they are not always enthusiastic about the means of grace we know we need for spiritual growth. As children do not usually love to eat a healthy meal, or go to the dentist, or yield their precious screen time, they will not necessarily see why they should read for spiritual growth on their own, or join in family devotional time, or for that matter, go to worship service or youth activities! Ha. They will need loving but clear direction from parents who care about them, and are okay with not always being perfectly liked by their children.
If you have another devotional plan for the year, this certainly does not need to replace that, but it would be awesome if everyone in our church engaged with this process at some level, beyond our Sunday morning worship. As we do, we will look for the truth of God’s Word to transform us, and make us a blessing to those around us for God’s Kingdom. John 17:17 “Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth.”
“Clear!” the nurse shouted to the array of other medical personnel who had rushed into the room where they had been performing a “routine” arteriogram on me. It was May 11, 2018, and she would yell that echoing word two more times, followed each time by what can only be described as feeling like my body was being exploded – internally detonated. I honestly still don’t know a year later, whether they had 10 more tricks up their sleeve to try and get my heart back going, or only one more. But, the doctor was able to figure out it was a blood flow issue and not just an electrical rhythm problem, and thankfully that approach proved successful. The doctors don’t have a good answer for why I had blockage there to begin with, in only one artery, somewhat unusually shaped, in a man of my age and health, but I’m thankful for the stint they were able to insert, and for good reports that I’m an otherwise healthy dude.
(If you would like to know more about all that happened last year, go here.)
KISS THE WAVE – A book my wife, Patience, has been reading to us, bit by bit, the last 6-7 months, quotes Charles Spurgeon, the preacher of the 1800s in London, who endured personal chronic suffering, as well as tragedies in his congregation. He said, “They who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls.” The same man said, “I have learned to kiss the wave, that throws me against the Rock of Ages.” I have thought a lot and prayed a lot through those statements, which I recognize are absolutely in line with Biblical teaching, despite what the TV preachers might try to tell us. God uses struggle in our lives.
(For my messages from last fall on this theme, begin with Aug 12 in our sermon archive, here)
RARE PEARLS – In the weeks following my incident last year, I wrote a good bit, not necessarily to share with anyone but just to process and record what I sensed the Lord was teaching me. I’m thankful to be able to write some more, now one year later, and hope the Lord plans to give me a good number more years. As I recovered, some good friends from our church came by and the husband said that I would not believe this at the time, but I would one day see the whole experience as a gift. I’m still sorting through that for sure. But in my clear moments, I am seeing his point. The Lord has given me some “rare pearls.”
HEAVENLY MINDED? – One of those pearls is seeing that one can be worldly, even as a pastor. Pastors, like everyone else, have sin patterns that hound us daily. But in general I’d say most of us are a bit less likely than others to chase after the material things of this life. It kinda comes with the job description. But one can be worldly in other ways. This past year it has definitely been no fun to have a heightened, sometimes overly acute, sense of my mortality. Yet this has really helped me to see that I had preached to others about the blessings of living “heavenly minded” but I had not progressed very far toward that myself. I might not have been worldly in trying to stockpile material stuff in this life, or acquire the latest sportscar, but my attention, my focus, my hopes in many areas, were rooted in the here and now, not in the life to come.
TRUST IN THE LORD – When I came to faith in Christ during my high school years the passage that resonated so mightily in my soul was Prov 3:5-6 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge Him and he will direct your path.” Fact is, I like my own understanding. I like thinking I can plan out the next 40 years of my life and I have control over it. I don’t like James 4:13 “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” I like trusting in myself. I don’t like losing my life to save it. I don’t know all that the Lord is doing in my life and those around me through the struggles I faced, and their continued effect on me, but I know that even if I have made some progress in applying these passages the last 27 years since I first began my spiritual journey, I still have a long way to go.
CHRIST THE SUFFERING ONE – Another spiritual lesson the Lord gave me, especially right after my struggles, was the contrast between the struggle I faced and that of Jesus. I’m not sure why this particular reality of my situation has stood out to me, but maybe it will help someone, somehow to read and consider it. Without Christ, I deserve God’s wrath and separation from Him. Jesus does not deserve any pain or separation. Yet he accepted it for us. A year ago today, I was surrounded by people trying to help me and the pain they inflicted was momentary and for my restoration. The people around Jesus were trying to hurt him, badly…so badly…and his pain was ongoing, comprehensive.
CHRIST THE RESURRECTED ONE – My heart will one day sputter again, and then stop completely, unless Jesus returns sooner. And so will yours, and your spouse’s and your children’s. But Jesus has a resurrected heart, and he will give you and me such a heart one day, if we are found in him, by faith and repentance. I’m more excited about that than I have ever been. And I hoped to be used in God’s hands to help others discover that resurrected life in Christ.
SUSTAINED BY GOD’S WORD – As I mentioned, my wife and I have been carving out time weekly, or close to it, for us to read a book together. I like listening to her read to me. As a preacher I’m always speaking stuff, and when folks speak to me, I’m sure like other professions, it is often because they are looking for something from me. My wife just reads to me, to help me…to help us. We’ve worked through an excellent book Kiss the Wave, by David Furman. He has suffered immensely and chronically. Others around me have as well. The book has been an invitation to dive deeper into the truths of God’s word about struggles and his grace to be found in them. Whatever challenges we face, certainly all are opportunities to live more dependent on the Rock of Ages.
THE WAY FORWARD – Thanks for taking time to read this far and let me share these matters with you. Maybe it will bless or challenge others in some God-glorifying way. Pray for me when you can. And redeem the time. Not in an anxious way, but in a heaven-focused way. Get yourself ready for heaven, not just by professing Christ as some kind of fire insurance but by plunging fully into the local body of Christ, a bit of heaven here on earth. Seek help from that body for your journey and offer what help you can to others along the path. Pray. Hug your wife or kids or friend. Pray. Embrace the first catechism question…what is the chief end of man…to glorify and enjoy God forever. And tell others the way to finding that “end.” And pray…
John 4:24 “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The past three or four years, all in our church family have been encouraged to pursue a pathway for spiritual growth individually or as a household, which is linked with our weekly church worship service. The goal has been to grow in spirit and truth. With our lives often scattered and our attention easily distracted, repeating a passage of the Bible or from a historic teaching tool, like a catechism, and then having resources in hand to pursue that teaching during the week, is as important as it ever was. To that end, in the past, we have invited everyone to walk together through the Westminster Shorter Catechism (English from 1640s) and the Heidelberg Catechism (German from 1563), using the daily readings from Starr Meade, and this last year, using the Read Scripture app for daily bible reading and helpful summary videos.
This year we are doing something similar and different. Similar in the catechism format (it just means using short questions and answers to learn important stuff), but different because it uses contemporary wording accessible in an app format. I hope everyone in our church will take a moment right now to download “New City Catechism” from your app store. Best of all, it is free. We will start the journey on Sun, Jan 6.
As you look at the app you will see 52 questions total…so, you guessed it…one question/answer per week. You will also see that for each question you can view a supporting scripture reference, read a short section from a helpful commentary, and listen to a little song. The songs can help everyone of any age, but in particular could be useful for moms and dads of young ones as they drive around town to activities, or spend time around the house. Even better, if you permit your child to have a device, let them download the app. I know at our house this last year we set a simple concept in place for our boys – 10-15 min of Read Scripture app each day, before any video game time. Can’t remember if you call that positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement, but it sure worked like a charm!
You can also find the videos here on a Youtube channel if you want to watch them as a family on a laptop or smart TV. We will have samples of several books for adults and kids that accompany the New City Catechism app. These are helpful for those who like to have an ole fashioned dead tree in their hand (like me), and because they provide supplemental content. They can be ordered here. The large one with the white cover replicates the exact content of the app.
One way to approach it might be to pursue a different element of the material Mon-Fri. Mon read the question and answer that you will have heard on Sun, Tues read the accompanying scripture passage, Wed pray over the application of the truth in your life, Thu read the first commentary entry and Fri the second. If you use a calendar on your device you could program these in as repeated weekly activities with a daily reminder to help. If you are doing it as a family or couple, your could each share questions it raises for you, or how you hope to apply it, or something new you learned.
If you have another devotional plan for the year, this certainly does not need to replace that, but it would be awesome if everyone in our church engaged with this process at some level, beyond our Sunday morning worship. As we do, we will look for the truth of God’s Word to transform us, and make a blessing to those around us for God’s Kingdom. John 17:17 “Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth.”
Most of us in the West enjoy relative protection as we live out and express our faith. No doubt challenges are brewing and have come for many Christians. But even if we have not faced particular attacks or losses as a result of our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we have certainly all encountered a culture that is sometimes at best ambivalent about Jesus and the things of His Kingdom. In case we think we can gird ourselves with the buckle of the Bible belt, we would have to have blinders on to not see the shifting winds even in the American Deep South.
If we know our Bible, we know that God can bring revival as He wills, so we should be cautious about doomsday scenarios, and if we know our history, we will also be cautious about envisioning an idealized past 50 or 200 years. Some things are worse now, but others probably better, as we live out the Gospel.
But whether we find our neighbor critical of a Biblical worldview, or work in corporate America where certain aspects of Biblical teaching are taboo, or serve in the military where expressions of personal faith have recently been curtailed, or attend a school where other students embrace an entirely different religious system, we know that as believers we are called to walk in faithfulness in a world that may not be cheering us on.
As we look at the book of Daniel over the next weeks, I’m excited that we can get back to an Old Testament book of Scripture, and also happy to return to more expository preaching from a narrative/wisdom/prophetic book. Topical series are needed as well, but it is good to get back to our bread and butter! Daniel was one of the Old Testament people of God, a Jew, who was hauled off from the wayward nation-state of Israel to a completely foreign environment. The Hebrew people of the time had wandered from faithfulness to God, but their society still remained generally God-directed and many were Biblically focused. In Babylon, things were quite different.
How did Daniel make his way?
What was God doing in the famous stories about the Fiery Furnace and the Lion’s Den and then Handwriting on the Wall?
What does it mean for us today?
In preparation, I would encourage each person in our church body to carve out some time to either listen to Daniel on your bible app while driving or working out, or better yet, to sit down and read it all (takes about 40 minutes). Hope to see you this Sunday morning as we kick things off.
Just over 8 weeks ago we began a journey through what the Bible teaches about not wasting our struggles. Another title for the series could have been “How to Harness Our Struggles.” If you missed the blog I wrote about my personal struggles and how I felt God was leading and preparing me to preach that series, you can find it here.
If you missed a message or live out of town or just want to go back over where we have been, you can connect to the podcast here. I’ve also found the following two versions of the same song personally encouraging in times of struggle (introduced to me by Jeff Koonce)
This upcoming Sunday we will start a new series, but I know many have shared with me how “Don’t Waste Your Struggles” affected them. For further growth in these areas I recommend these resources. Several copies of each will be available on the welcome table at church this Sunday.
A Bruised Reed – a classic on struggle from a Puritan writer that is very accessible
Kiss the Wave – written recently by a man who struggles with severe physical limitations and serves as a pastor in Dubai. Based on a quote by Spurgeon that in suffering we learn to “kiss the wave that crashes us against the Rock of Ages.”
Walking with God through Pain and Suffering – by Tim Keller…nuff said.