Faith Anchored by Heaviness

As a pastor, of all the characters in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress I’m drawn especially to the faithful and fearless Mr. Greatheart. Mr. Greatheart was a guide guiding pilgrims from the City of Destruction to their hoped for arrival at the Celestial City.

He was, that is, a pastor.

Mr. Greatheart would guide people of every disposition. Those who made that journey were not only men of strength, such as Hopeful and Christian and Faithful, but also Mr. Little-faith, Much-Afraid, Mr. Despondency, and Mr. Ready-to-Halt. Pastors come alongside many people for whom the journey is long and hard and difficult. That is what a congregation looks like.

One of those struggling pilgrims was one Mr. Fearing. A cloud of darkness clung to Mr. Fearing, but Mr. Greatheart hung with him and saw him to his destination. In talking about him afterwards with Mr. Honest, Mr. Greatheart makes some thoughtful observations regarding those for whom such darkness is close companion.

Honest: But what should be the reason that such a good man should be all his days so much in the dark?

Great-heart: There are two sorts of reasons for it; one is, The wise God will have it so, some must pipe, and some must weep: Now Mr. Fearing was one that played upon this bass. He and his fellows sound the sackbut, whose notes are more doleful than the notes of other musick are; though indeed some say, the bass is the ground of musick: And for my part, I care not at all for that profession, that begins not in heaviness of mind. The first string that the musician usually touches, is the bass, when he intends to put all in tune; God also plays upon this string first, when he sets the soul in tune for himself. Only here was the imperfection of Mr. Fearing, he could play upon no other musick but this, till towards his latter end.

Heaviness of mind, depth of thought, even depression, adds a weight and solemnity to one’s profession of faith that holds it steady through much struggle. Too often, of course, as with Mr. Fearing, that is the only note we learn to play.

Dr. Jeremiah, Reprise

Thoughts this week have been driven by a desire to see the hope of Christ rekindled in those for whom it has burned dimly, that as we come to the celebration of Easter we might indeed be renewed in the joy of life given by the life of Him raised from the grave.

These thoughts lead me to a post made a couple of years ago. I repost it here for the sake of those who struggle. Some have found it helpful. I trust others might as well.


Prone to self-pity, I told my wife the other day that I must like despair like some like ice cream since I indulge so often. But though our thoughts may be trained to flow down well-worn channels, we are never meant to stay there.

My Bible reading plan for the other morning had me reading the book of Lamentations. This is by no means the first place I’d go to or recommend going to when one is feeling the weight of life, and I had little hope of the morning’s reading bringing much comfort.

But the prophet Jeremiah, the book’s reluctant author, has been nicknamed ‘the weeping prophet’ not because he curled up in a useless puddle in the face of the affairs of life, but because he gave expression to the frustrations that life brought to him. He took those frustrations to the One whom he believed to be the source of life.

He wrote as the city of Jerusalem fell apart around him under a Babylonian siege. That siege, Jeremiah had repeatedly pointed out, was the judgment of God upon the squishy, superficial spirituality of Israel. God had had enough and was bringing his promised judgment.

As I sat in “Dr. Jeremiah’s” couch, he showed me that affliction and sin all mixed up and confounded can drag one from freedom to bondage.

“She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.” (1:1)

He showed me as well that it is okay to trace this to its source.

“…because the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions.” (1:5)

The cause may be my sin, but the source of the affliction is and always will be God. It does not help to try to sidestep God’s sovereignty when we are suffering. In fact, it is appropriate to give full vent to how this makes us feel.

“The Lord has swallowed up without mercy all the habitations of Jacob….” (2:2)

It seems wrong to accuse God of acting “without mercy”, but when that is the way it feels, that is what we need to say. But in Jeremiah I see as well one who, giving vent to bitter honesty, cannot remain at the place of bitter honesty. That is the case with any who truly know God. Yes speaking with such honesty is good, but we must at some point emerge elsewhere.

“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (3:22, 23)

I want to live in that verse, but I often don’t. I think that one of the reasons public worship is so important is that being with God’s people under the ministry of God’s word is a place where, if even for a brief moment, God can move us from the despair of 2:2 to the affirmation of 3:22, 23.

But we want to be there always, not just for a brief moment, we protest from Dr. Jeremiah’s couch. He knows that. But he also knows that in God’s wisdom there is ordained a time for everything under heaven, and for some times we must wait.

“The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” (3:25, 26)

Waiting is something foreign to me and to many others. Waiting is not what spoiled and soft children are prone to practice. But waiting, nevertheless, is what God demands.

It does not take one long to realize that the afflictions facing the Israelites and observed and experienced by Jeremiah were far worse than those faced by the readers of this blog (both of us). Nevertheless, ours FEEL as real and as painful and the hard place for all of us is to wait quietly. Quiet waiting is a far better place than quiet (or noisy) desperation.

And so Dr. Jeremiah dismisses us from his office with a prayer purged of complaint and focused as it ought to be.

“Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old….” (5:21)

The ellipses can be used to hide things to make the text say what I want it to say. Many writers hide behind abbreviated texts. Here note that I have dropped an important qualifier from the text.

“…unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.’

What Jeremiah could only sense is what we know to be fact – that we may trust in one who was utterly rejected for us, so that we might know that God would never remain exceedingly angry with us.

With that hope we leave our appointment with this soul doctor. And the good thing is that his consultation was free.

The Most Important Thing

In the car today I heard someone say on the radio with regard to the cardinals gathering in Rome to elect a new pope, “This is the most important thing these cardinals will ever do.”

And I wondered about that.

I understand the context and what the quoted meant to convey. But I wondered if he or they really believe that. These cardinals were no doubt once ordinary parish priests doing ordinary parish work. Is the work of electing a pope more momentous than what pastors perform in their own parish environments every day? Something tells me that it is not.

I rather suspect that the most important thing that any of us ever may do will not be known to us. Perhaps that word idly but fitly spoken settles upon another like an “apple of gold in a setting of silver.” (Proverbs 25:11) Perhaps that act of hospitality easily carried out by us sets a guest thinking about Jesus. We can’t know the importance of our acts.

A college professor changed the tenor and direction of my life by listening to me one day and then recommending a good book. Probably not the most important thing he ever did, but something of great importance in my life and something the impact of which he could never have imagined.

As I said, I suspect that the most important things that we do in our lives are never quite known to us but come about not because we have achieved a place of prominence but because while being faithful in our callings God opens up a door of influence.

And we may never know what he will do with that faithfulness.

Calvin the Poet?

John Calvin was known for his theology and not for poetry. However, this snippet from the introductory sections on the Christian life if not poetic is at least lyrical, and shows just how readable Calvin really is.

This is worth sharing. And pondering.

We are not our own:
let not our reason nor our will therefore sway our plans and deeds.
We are not our own:
let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh.
We are not our own:
in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.

We are God’s:
let us therefore live for him and die for him.
We are God’s:
let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions.
We are God’s:
let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal.

from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.7.1

Lenten Fast

Predictably this time of year debates ramp up over the propriety of the observance of Lent in the Church. I’m not interested enough in those debates to enter into them now. What I can affirm is that properly framed, fasting is good and commended by Jesus. And I can also testify that fasting from anything is anathema to me because the stuff I love, I love. I don’t let go easily.

But I’m fasting this Lent, and am loving it.

I’m a naturally introspective person. And generally, when I turn my thoughts inward, I don’t like what I see. My sin, my weakness, my personality defects, my lack of faith, often overwhelm me. And I can’t seem to help it.

Consequently, when I read the scriptures, I don’t see the kindness and compassion of God. I see more readily my inability to hold on to God’s promises, I see my weak commitment to holiness, I see commands that I’ve been unable to keep.

THAT is what I’ve decided to give up for Lent.

My focus this season – and one hopes there is a lasting effect – is to read Scripture with the goal of simply seeing my Savior. I read and reflect upon the attributes of God. I’m not allowed to ponder long my defects along the way.

I’m not expecting this to give me a whole new personality. I’ll still be far too quick to note my faults and highlight my failures. But perhaps incremental progress will matter in the long run.

A guy who cares too much about his appearance will look in the mirror and see only the mole on his nose or the hair out of place. Such a focus will wear him down to the place he can see nothing good. The remedy is to take his eyes off himself and look at the beauty of the One who loves him without concern for his appearance.

I’ve put away the mirror for Lent. Care to join me?

Chapter 37 and Holding

Community groups at the church I pastor are looking this year at the stories of various biblical characters, thinking through them in the light of our own stories. It is a dual purposed vision of engaging scripture as well as coming to know one another better. It has generally worked very well.

This past Sunday, the group of which I’m a part considered Genesis 37. Genesis 37 introduces us to Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph and his relationships with his father and siblings. Dysfunction does not seem to be a strong enough word to describe this family. Eventually things fall apart so terribly that his brothers decide not to kill Joseph, which was their first impulse, but to sell him into slavery.

I’m not sure too many families are dealing with their dysfunction that way, but I think we all can identify with family life falling short of what we might imagine as an ideal.

We were asked then to consider what we learn about God from the passage. Our general answer was either “nothing” or “he’s absent”. But then it was argued that he was not absent, though he is not mentioned in the chapter. It was pointed out that in Genesis 50, when all was resolved, that Joseph is able to see God’s hand in the whole mess as moving purposefully through his life and the lives of his brothers.

But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Genesis 50:19, 20)

This was true, others of us argued, but we are not being asked what we learn about God from chapter 50, but what we learn about him in chapter 37. We found it terribly frustrating to try to make sense of chapter 37 without being given recourse to the later chapters.

And then it struck me that this is the very thing that works frustration into our own lives.

We see the dysfunction in our families or churches or work environments. We see the miserable state of our lives. And we can make sense of none of it. We want to see purpose, but we see only sorrow. But that is because we are by our human limitations constrained to see only the present. We are stuck in Chapter 37 where God seems absent. But perhaps one day we will be able to peruse our own “Chapter 50” which will give meaning to our Chapter 37 life.

And if we take Biblical teaching to heart, we can be encouraged to wait with patience. We can be assured that God is at work, purposefully, even when his work is not seen. We can know that we rest in the palm of his hands. We can know that he who began a good work in us, will not leave us unfinished on the potters wheel. We can know that he who raised his Son from the dead is intent on restoring all things and removing all sorrow. We can know that it will make sense one day.

We are simply (!) encouraged to wait. Waiting is hard. Our lives often feel Genesis 37-ish. But waiting is softened by the promise of Genesis 50. And for that we should be grateful.

Sanctification: Fixed. I think.

A few years ago, I wrote a series of posts in which I puzzled through the question of how change might really be seen and gained in a Christian’s life. And over those years, people have asked me questions which seemed best answered by in some measure referring them to that series of posts. So, I compiled a single post with links to the others in the series, and have directed people there.

However, also, in the course of those years, I switched from posting on Blogger to posting on WordPress. And, silly me, I did not realized that in making such a transition, all the links in those posts would be broken. So, any I’ve sent to read through those have found a spaghetti nest mess.

I think I have now cleaned up the mess. I have, oh arrogant claims, fixed sanctification. Well, at least my posts on them.

For those curious what all the fuss is about, you can see the whole series here. All joking aside, I find this topic so terribly important. The thoughts expressed in these posts have been ones which have been particularly helpful to me. I offer them here in the hopes that they remain helpful to others.

Needless to say, if you find any more broken links, do let me know via the comments here.

A Teacher

A follow-up to my two previous posts. If I find the time, someday, perhaps I will comment.

The bible as a means of grace requires reflection:

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:1, 2)

The bible as a means of grace requires community:

And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:27-29)

The bible as a means of grace requires integrity:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)

But I Don’t Understand What I Read

An earlier post questioned the nearly universal assumption that to be a good and growing and maturing Christian, one needs to be a regular, preferably daily, reader of the bible. Being raised in the tradition that I have, it grates against me to question that. But years of experience as a pastor causes me to wonder if indeed it is true.

I have known people who were absolutely voracious students of the bible whose theological conclusions were wide of anything that could be construed as sound, and whose profession and character were far from godliness. At the same time, I’ve known wise and godly people who were sporadic readers of the bible. My experience is anecdotal, I know, and no match for the pollsters, and yet I wonder if there is not something to it.

There is a diversity in the mix of those who do or who try to read their bibles. Among that diversity, there are those who admit that there is much in the bible they do not understand. As well, there are others who stumble over the same passages, but are afraid to confess it. I can say this because I often read without understanding. I have a seminary degree. My day job requires me to study the bible. And yet, when I’m just reading the bible, there are large sections as opaque to me as they are to others.

There is no joy, and from what I can imagine, no longterm benefit from hours spent reading something that, truth be told, makes no sense to us. The lack of bible reading is no surprise to me.

The ‘fix-it’ answer to this dilemma, of course, would be to ‘teach them how to do it’. There is some sense to that, and maybe that is the answer, depending on how we conceive of the ‘teach them’. Inevitably, bookish people that we are, we will challenge bible non-readers to first read a good book on how to read the bible. Again, not a bad idea, but it does not somehow manage to address the issue.

The issue is not volume or depth of bible reading; the issue is the pathway to the knowledge of God. We understand that the word of God is a means of grace, a pathway to knowing and communing with God. But is reading the primary means by which that word becomes a pathway to God?

Though I may be wrong, bible ‘engagement’ (Stetzer) or ‘intake’ (Whitney) in the bible is nearly always a corporate act. We are to allow the word of God richly to dwell in us “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16) We are to respect our “leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7) Faith, it seems, comes by hearing (Romans 10:17) the word of God, through the gathering of God’s people and through its preaching (Romans 10:14).

Perhaps our evangelical emphasis upon bible reading is itself a reflection of the literate and individualistic culture of American Christianity. Yes, indeed, faith depends upon the word of God revealed, heard, understood, and applied to the heart. I’m just not convinced that the absence of bible reading is the precise thing to be alarmed about.

Again, I am interested to know what you think.

The (Bible Reading) Sky Is Falling

LifeWay Research has recently released an alarming statistic: less than 20% of churchgoers read the bible daily.

I have two problems with this. The first is ‘statistic’ and the second is the sense of ‘alarm’. I have addressed both of these concerns before. We are drawn to the seeming irrefutability of statistics and we seem to be only motivated by the sense of alarm that those stats can raise.

I find that when I am inundated with stats and alarm that I become numb to both. Lacking the tools to evaluate the methodology of the statistic purveyors, I am inclined to mostly ignore them.

But this study raises a more critical question. I really don’t doubt the general concept the study has measured: that few Christians read their bibles on a consistently regular basis. It’s been measured before, but common experience shows it to be true. My question here is not with the reality, but with the conclusion – that this is somehow an alarming thing.

Should we see this not as a measure of a crisis but the identification of a reality, akin to the fact that 99% of people who jump in pools, and 100% of them without scuba gear, get wet? That people do not and have not and may never read their bibles should not alarm us but be accepted as a simple reality. In this case, perhaps the question should not be ‘What can we do about this?’ but rather ‘Why are we surprised or concerned about this?’

Perhaps we should be willing to say that people do not read the bible and that is, generally, an okay thing.

Ed Stetzer of LifeWay, in discussing this study, doesn’t quite seem to know what language to use in addressing his concern. The study addresses ‘bible reading’ but he speaks of ‘bible engagement’. Maybe his term, akin perhaps to Donald Whitney’s ‘bible intake’, is purposely chosen to make room in the spiritual spectrum for the illiterate. Stetzer asks the question, “…if tangible life changes are statistically related to bible engagement in the life of a disciple of Christ, why aren’t more reading and studying the bible?” A reasonable answer might be that reading and studying are not the only ways, and perhaps not the primary way, by which people receive God’s word.

Few, I suppose, would disagree that the goal of the Christian life, and of bible reading, is to know God. And few would disagree that the book through which God has revealed himself is, in fact, important to that goal. But if spiritual growth occurred for fifteen hundred years before the printing press, and if maturity still somehow happens in cultures where literacy is low, and if, in fact, people who read their bibles infrequently still come to know God with depth and devotion, is it not reasonable to ask whether we have put too much emphasis upon the ‘necessity’ of individual, private bible reading? Is it possible that we focus here because bible reading is measurable and knowledge of God is not?

I ask this as a serious question and am interested in genuine responses. Do we put too much emphasis upon the idea of individual, private bible reading?