A Challenge at Thanksgiving

November 24, 2014

It’s not the event itself that makes you nostalgic, it’s the memory of the event.

I remember back to a life of memories of the second Monday in October. It always seemed nice to have the three day weekend with no shopping Armageddon following it. I remember the turkey, the mashed potatoes, the corn, the stuffing, the home-made rolls. And the pies… Dear Lord I remember the pies. Apple. Pumpkin. Pecan. You name it. It was there. That was of course because my mother wasn’t able to make enough food only for us. Clearly she had to make enough for an invisible army that was going to attend. I remember her maxim for how many mashed potatoes to make: one large potato for each of us, and then add 2 or 3 others for good measure. But I digress…

Certainly my experience of the event may not have been as profound as many Americans. Yet, so much of it was the same. A meal with the family. An opportunity to be thankful for what we had. Time spent with family (whether we liked it or not!). And whatever the historical reason why we celebrated, we simply wanted to enjoy a good meal together and to be thankful. And, while I may not always have been thankful at the time, I’m thankful for the experience and the memories to this day.

While so much is the same, so much is different. In a few short days we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving here in the United States. There will be turkey, pie, and all the trimmings. There will be traditions and family, and good times had by all. And while the proclamation of giving thanks for survival in a new land in 1621 might be more profound than giving thanks for the recovery of King Edward VII in 1872 (although Thanksgiving was celebrated informally in Canada as early as the 1578 voyage of Frobisher), at the foundation, they are the same: being thankful for what we have, no matter what we have. I haven’t been able to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving since moving to the US (it’s hard to make the trip back to Canada for the weekend), but I am thankful for the many years of Thanksgiving celebration that I did have. And I’m thankful that, even while I celebrate the event on a different day, I’m thankful for my homeland, my family, and Thanksgivings of bygone days.

And that’s what being thankful really means. It’s not about being thankful when in plenty. It’s about being thankful in all situations (1 Thessalonians 5:18). There are times in our life where we don’t have all the family support or even the big turkey on our table. That doesn’t mean it isn’t time to be thankful. Have a roof over your head, but stovetop stuffing on your table? Be thankful. Don’t have a roof over your head, but have friends and family that help to take care of you, be thankful. Don’t have friends or family to take care of you? Be thankful you are alive and have breath. Everyone has something for which they can be thankful. The question to ask yourself this year is, in plenty or in want, what can I be thankful for?

I missed Thanksgiving in Canada for another year. But I celebrate my Canadian holidays in abstentia (my wife is gracious to me that way). I don’t have to be present to celebrate Victoria Day, Canada Day, or Canadian Thanksgiving. I can be thankful that I can celebrate here, both Canadian and American Thanksgiving. I can be thankful for family, for food, for fellowship, for friends, for everything I have. And I can be thankful for, the things I once had, and the things I will have. I’m thankful for the memories of things past, and the memories I make today. What are you thankful for today?

Book Review – Persuasive Preaching by R. Larry Overstreet

November 22, 2014

Preaching, as most should know, is not just providing a lecture (despite the many preachers that do this week in and week out) but involves taking the text preached and applying it to the lives of the hearers: essentially, persuading them to live differently in light of the sermon. While this should see a no-brainer, considering the failure of many to do this, Persuasive Preaching, by R. Larry Overstreet, is a helpful, academic tome for pastors seeking to be better at persuading people to change.

The bulk of Overstreet’s book focuses on the biblical support for persuasion. Some, perhaps concerned about manipulating people, may never actually call people to live or think differently. Therefore, it’s important for Overstreet to develop the overwhelming support for persuading people in our sermons. It is clear from his presentation, that the Bible calls those who “preach” the Word of God to people, need to call them to live or think differently in light of the Scripture preached. It is insufficient to simply teach them, you must call them to live differently.

He then shows how those more persuasive messages might look, which is probably the strongest part of the book. Here Overstreet is helpful at laying down messages that motivate, solve problems, demonstrate cause and effect, and refutation. This is helpful for pastors to see the varied ways they may approach their preaching to help bring people to real biblical change.

Finally, Overstreet deals with issues of the problem of manipulation, how the Holy Spirit relates to preaching, and the invitation. And it is over the invitation this writer disagrees a bit. Overstreet doesn’t deal at all with the problems of the invitation system (see Iain Murray’s excellent work on the invitation system), but I think Overstreet is not wrong to suggest people make a definitive move to change following a message, but the “coming forward” of most invitations becomes tools to manipulate rather than make actual biblical change. Other than Overstreets failure to deal with those with whom would disagree with him, the application of his book in these chapters is helpful.

The appendices are rather technical, but the sample sermons is helpful to see what this would look like in real life.

Overall, Overstreet’s book is helpful in converting people to the idea that preaching is more than lecturing. It should be calling people to biblical change. While my caveat over invitations stands, Overstreet is a helpful addition to the preacher’s library who wants to improve, overall, how the Holy Spirit uses their preaching to bring about change in their hearers.

Flexing My Pastoral Muscles

November 17, 2014

Expository preaching (preaching that takes as its main point the main point of the Scripture that is being preached upon) is defended in the Bible itself, and there are both benefits from it for the pastor and for the church. Things that are a good thing sometimes takes a lot of effort. It is in expository preaching that we really flex our pastoral muscles.

Often it seems that many in our churches expect that we can feed them from the Word of God without actually preparing for it. This is both a crime for the preacher and for the congregation.

The fact that we’re almost at Thanksgiving made me think about this illustration. I have a friend, Heinz Dschankilic, who is a wonderful servant of Christ and Executive Director of Sola Scriptura Ministries International, who offers an excellent analogy about sermon preparation. He explains that there is quite the difference between a microwave dinner and Thanksgiving dinner. The microwave dinner is quick but rarely tasty and frankly, far from filling. Thanksgiving dinner though is delicious and highly filling, but it takes substantial time. For a shepherd to effectively feed his flock, he needs to take time to prepare the feast for the flock. Isn’t a feast better than a Hungryman TV dinner?

In an issue of Preaching magazine Stan Toler has an excellent article called “Leading from the Pulpit.” He offers the story of Pastor W. A. Criswell of First Baptist Church in Dallas, TX and the importance of study in preparation of Sunday. He writes that Criswell,

… used to stay away from the “office” during the weekday morning hours. He was home in his study–pouring over the Scriptures, seeking the Spirit’s leadership in putting the menu together for a sheep-feeding the following Sunday. Criswell said in his autobiography, Standing on the Promises, “If you want to succeed in ministry… keep your heart fixed on Jesus and your mind centered on God’s Word.” His afternoons were given to the church business, but his mornings we devoted to Bible study.”

It is important as shepherds to feed our flocks. If I want you to to be healthy and to live according to the glory of God, I need to feed you what they need, a steady diet of the Word of God. And before I can feed you, I need to prepare the feast. This takes time and effort on behalf of the preacher, but the rewards for both the pastor and the flock are extraordinary. It doesn’t mean I’m only stuck in my study. I’m out and about visiting people, evangelizing, and other pastoral elements. But it’s helpful to know that the time spent in my study, hopefully helps to make me a more effective preacher.

So, for all you at Cornerstone BFC, know that I want the best for you and I intend to prepare feasts for you each week from the Word of God. This means that it will take me time each week to prepare the meal for Sunday. It means I need dedicated time to study the Scriptures, to apply them to my own life, so I can proclaim them to you. But in the end, this dedicated time of study will pay off as you are able to experience a steady diet of the Word of God. I intend to feed you and feed you well. So, I must prepare the meal well!

Book Review – Alby’s Amazing Book

November 11, 2014

There has been a marked growth in good children’s material from a gospel-centered focus of late. For too long, most children’s material was focused on a moralistic picture of our relationship to God, rather than a Christ-focused one. I am thoroughly pleased that this change is happening and that I can find good books for my children in that vein. Alby’s Amazing Book, helpfully fits into that category.

The story of a squirrel who likes adventures is very cute. The fact that his adventures are tied into real life stories from the Bible is even better. The fact that the Author of those stories is real and loves Alby, is the best part. It’s a short book, so don’t expect a lot of theology behind it. For instance, I was wishing for Alby to tell us more about the One at the heart of the stories he loves, but perhaps that’s best left to other books, and Alby’s Amazing Book serves as a little appetizer (especially consider Jim Hamilton’s recent, The Bible’s Big Story). Overall, it’s helpful to point out to our children that the stories in our Bible are true, and aren’t there in isolation from the rest, but there to point us to the Author of the stories. In that, Alby’s Amazing Book, succeeds.

As to the illustrations, they are certainly eye-catching and interesting, if albeit a bit frantic at points. My second youngest found it a little difficult following the illustrations at points, and is convinced Alby is a bear and not a squirrel, because he doesn’t really look that much like a squirrel (outside the tail), but these are minor things to consider.

If you’re looking for a cute picture book that helps point your children to the Author behind the stories of their Bible, then Alby’s Amazing Book, is a good introduction.

A Civil War Tale of Welcome

November 10, 2014
I mentioned the following story in my sermon yesterday but couldn’t remember the details of it. There’s debate on whether this really happened, but regardless, it’s a beautiful picture of an inclusive worship as typified in our study of Acts 10 yesterday.

One last dramatic scene awaited the rebirth of the Republic. Back in Richmond, soon after the war was over, the congregation of St. Paul’s met again for the usual Sunday services, which were to be the Episcopalian Order of Holy Communion.

The Richmond gentry and the former leaders of the Confederacy were present as usual in spite of the destruction of much of the city. When it came time for the faithful to kneel before the altar and take the Eucharistic bread and wine, a joyful young black man strode forth and knelt at the altar rail alongside the white congregants.

A silence and a gasp went across the segregated congregation. This had never happened before, and the clergy were frozen in their places not sure what to do. A black man kneeling beside a white man? It was unknown in the old South.

From the back of St. Paul’s a lone figure in a gray suit walked forward and knelt beside the freed slave. With a look of command he nodded to the priests, who gave both him and the black man Holy Communion together, eating bread from the same paten and drinking wine from the same cup.

The lone figure was Robert E. Lee, who knelt beside the man whose slavery, among other things, he had only recently fought to defend. And when the vanquished Southern commander came to the altar, the rest of the congregation followed him as well, white and black together.

Book Review – The Christmas Promise

November 6, 2014

There are  a lot of Christmas books out there for children. Some of them good, some of them barely tolerable. I found Alison Mitchell’s The Christmas Promise, to be a helpful overview of the Christmas story which emphasizes an important concept often left out of Christmas stores: that Christ is King.

It seems that overall, most of the world has this idea that Christ is still a little baby, and that they fail to realize that Christ’s coming to earth as a child was for the purpose to fulfill the promises of God to provide a king who would lead and redeem His people. In that, The Christmas Promise succeeds.

The illustrations are interesting and clear, although perhaps a bit frenetic at points. Otherwise, they do helpfully add to the story rather than detract from it.

If you are looking for a helpful children’s book to tell you one of the most neglected “whys” of the incarnation, then let me recommend The Christmas Promise wholeheartedly.

Guy Fawkes Day

November 5, 2014

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I can think of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.

Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

Today, for all you who do not know, is Guy Fawkes Day! On November 5, 1605, a plot was foiled to blow up the Houses of Parliament by a number of Catholic conspirators including Guy Fawkes. Hardly remembered anymore outside of the United Kingdom, it should be the ever present reminder to Christians for God’s providential preservation of order in a world that craves chaos.

Book Review – The Foundation of Communion with God

November 4, 2014

I am probably a tad biased regarding this book. First, I own all the previous volumes in this series. I just cannot get enough of these wonderful introductions to reformed and puritan writers of the past, and especially, to their writings. Second, I’ve contributed to a future volume in this series as well. That being said, I’m thrilled to wholeheartedly endorse this new volume on John Owen.

Owen is known to be difficult to follow (although McGraw notes that some of his most difficult works were first preached to teenagers!), and so it is helpful for resources like this to be made available. McGraw notes two good reasons to study Owen: “Owen potentially meets several contemporary needs at once. First, he provides us with a model of the inseparable connection between doctrine and piety in Reformed theology. Second, he places the doctrine of the Trinity, which is merely an intellectual exercise for many people, at the heart of Christian experience and godly living. Third, he recognizes that who we worship and how we worship Him is not a secondary question in the Christian life.” (p. 2) The design of the series is helpful already. First, McGraw introduces us to the life and thinking of Owen. It’s important to note the historical milieu that Owen was writing and his particular theological perspectives that influence his writing. Following an outline of his writing used in the book, McGraw points us to a number of selections that emphasize a spirituality that is found in being in communion with God.

Here’s a taste of what you’ll get when you begin to read:

“The manifestation of grace and pardoning mercy, which is the only door of entrance into any such communion, is not committed to any but to Him alone in whom it is, by whom that grace and mercy was purchased, through whom it is despised, who reveals it from the bosom of the Father.” (p. 28).

“Unless a man be a believer–that is, one that is truly engrafted into Christ–he can never mortify any one sin.” (p. 47)

“The sum of this direction is that if we would be preserved from the prevalence of the present apostasy, we must have a strict regard to our principles and practices with respect to the privileges of the church and ordinances of gospel worship.” (p. 82).

“This access in our worship to the person of the Father, as in heaven, the holy place above, as on a throne of grace, is the glory of the gospel.” (p. 106)

Overall, I find these volumes to be helpful guides to the works of the godly who have gone before us. It helps us to understand more of the piety that they derived from the Word of God, and place our own spirituality in the heritage of the church. Frankly, these volumes would be excellent resources for your devotional life, as I have used previous volumes in this way. This is a wonderful resource, recommended to everyone, who longs to understand Owen, how our communion with God shapes our spirituality, and how we can continue to grow in Christ with the help of able guides from the past. Highly recommended to all.

How Then Shall We Vote

November 3, 2014
With a busy couple weeks recently, I have found I’m a little behind with some other projects, so in light of the upcoming election tomorrow, let me re-post this entry from my friend Mark Snoeberger at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s very appropriate and worth the read.

With the election hard upon us, it is a good time to be reminded that nothing we do can rightly be divorced from the sufficient governance of Christian Scripture. No pockets of neutrality exist in any sphere of life, including our politics. While the battery of issues facing voters today is exceedingly complex, one option always proves better than the rest—and it is safe to say that were the incarnate God to join us in the polling booth next week, he would be able, in his perfect wisdom, to discern in every case the best possible option in view of all the facts available.

Of course, we possess neither all the facts nor the wisdom necessary to perfectly harmonize and synthesize those facts. As a result, we Christians tend to vote provincially, and we do not all vote the same. This does not mean (necessarily) that one voting bloc is sinning and the other is not. Still, moral ought does exist in politics: there are some choices that are better than others, and some choices that are flat out wrong.

Most Christians will admit this, conceding that the Bible should inform our voting decisions at some level. We can’t vote for a platform of pure evil. But platforms of pure evil are rare: all candidates exhibit at least some common grace, and a goodly percentage of them are sincere in pursuing what is, at least in their best opinion, most advantageous to their jurisdiction or to the country.

In their various stewardships of common grace, however, politicians tend to privilege certain virtues over others, and we voters do the same. Some of us privilege national security, others economic stability, others moral values, job security and a safe workplace, education, freedom, protecting the environment, assisting the disenfranchised (whether ethnically, generationally, medically, or financially), or the advance of the Gospel. All of these are arguably good things, and if asked to do so, we could all arrange them in an pecking order ranging from the issues most important to me to the issues least important to me.

In Christian ethics, however, the unaided self is never awarded such broad liberties. Instead, the Scriptures are declared to be the Norma Normans non Normata,sufficient for every expression of godliness. Obviously, the Scriptures do not give us the names of the best candidates, but they do give us more guidance than a list of “good stuff that you can prioritize however you want.” Specifically, the Scriptures offer us a short list of duties of government commended in Scripture as duties of government that take precedence over all other “good things” that our government might accomplish. These primary duties include…

(1)  The Protection of Citizens from Violent Death. This is the sole occasioning concern that led to God’s original establishment of human government (Gen 9:6), and it has been a primary reason for the formation of nearly every human government since. And lest there be concern that this purpose has been usurped, we see Paul revisiting this theme, asserting that the emblem of human government is the “sword” of protection/justice leveled against “wrongdoers” (Rom 13:4). The first concern of any government is to protect its citizens from violence. Peter concurs (1 Pet 2:14).

(2)  The Establishment of an Environment in Which the Gospel Can Advance. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul urges believers to pray that their governors would create an environment where believers may pursue holiness and godliness without harassment (2:2); an environment conducive to the announcement and embrace of the gospel (v. 4). Note that Paul does not expect the state to establish or even to favor the Christian religion, but he expresses hope for a climate in which the Gospel is able to flourish without restriction. This being Paul’s primary hope and only recorded prayer for human government, it follows that this is a primary duty of human government.

(3)  Finally, the Promotion of Moral Good. This theme, found in both Paul and Peter’s calls for governors to commend those who do good (Rom 13:3–41 Pet 2:14­–15), is the broadest of God’s prescribed purposes for government. The specific “good” is not given, but the word group used here (ἀγαθός) favors the nuance ofbeneficence over the nuance of righteousness. As such, government is to praise and encourage, by its policies, the private practice of charity and benevolence, and thereby serve as a societal “minister of good.”

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things that human government may legitimately do; indeed, the Bible seems to allow the government to assume rather broad powers. But by privileging these three concerns, the Scriptures offer specific guidance to Christian voters today about what should be their principal voting concerns.