Thursday, November 27, 2008

Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation

I'm in Venice, Italy today getting ready to put on an outreach event for 30 or 40 Italians who do not know Christ. Our plan is to treat them to a Thanksgiving feast and explain the true meaning of it to them which has much to do with Christ.

In fact, from May to mid-July 1621 (the year of the first Thanksgiving) there had been a horrible drought and the people feared for their lives. Thus, they fasted and prayed and the Lord answered their prayers with much rain. The Native Americans were very impressed with this and so sometime after the harvest they celebrated the Lord's blessing by way of a meal. What we're normally taught is that the meal was the sealing of a treaty, which in part it was, but mainly it was a celebration of the Lord's provision for all the peoples of the "New World."

Some 242 years later President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a day of national "thanksgiving and praise." Here is the text of his proclamation:

Washington, D.C. October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America. A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward, Secretary of State

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A City on a Hill

I'm sure Assisi was built high atop a hill so that the people could protect themselves from the warring faction of Perugia, but as we approach the city I cannot help but think of Matthew 5:14--"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden."

From below Assisi appears to be one massive monastery but as we make our way up the winding road I can see that it's not quite that. After locating a parking spot, we exit the car and ascend several flights of stairs which lead to a very modern looking set of shops and eateries. Unfortunately, all them are closed today because for whatever reason Italy all but shuts down on Mondays.

So we traverse through the shopping area and let ourselves out the back where we're met with slushy snow that sometimes turns to rain. It's cold but we keep moving toward the steps that seem to lead up to the Monastery, however, we soon discover that they don't. Instead, we find ourselves in a small community that resembles something you'd read about in a fairy tale.

The streets are narrow and paved with various types of stone, and almost seem to be one with the walls that climb well into the sky. It's hard to believe that cars actually drive on this street and that the people don't mind walking there as they do but that's in fact how it is.

Because the walls are so high, and the streets are so unconventional, it's difficult to tell which way to go. We ascend and go to the left, we ascend and go to the right, we make the best judgments we can at each juncture but the only thing we're certain of is that we don't quite know where we're going.

Pretty soon we happen upon a restaurant that's open and decide to get a bite to eat. It's a quaint little place with home bake goods, soothing art, and a little pug dog that wanders the dining area in search of affection and, of course, donations di cuisine. In Italy, eating is an event. It takes time. So we order the cheapest things we can find on the menu and settle in for what our Mexican friends call a siesta. It's nice to feel warm. It's nice to be in Assisi.

The food is simple but delicious, and on such a cold and dreary day it sure does hit the spot. We begin plotting our next moves but don't even consider asking for directions because both John and I love adventure and, of course, we're men. As we stroll towards the door I try to tell the restauranteur that the food was excellent and the ambiance was superb but I must not have done a very good job because she looks at me as though to say, "That's nice, you irritating tourist, now move along." I'm not offended but I sure wish I would have taken the time to learn a little Italian. That would show more respect and garner a better response to my compliments, I'm sure.

We walk back into the cold, wet air and decide on what we think is the best course of action which turns out to be, not the best, but not bad. Eventually we find what we're looking for, the Basilica of Saint Francis.

The Basilica is not very impressive from the outside. It's attractive but plain, inspiring but not pretentious. But as we enter the upper Basilica my impression immediately changes. The more than 30 frescoes, as well as the unique design of the ceiling, move my heart and capture my attention. Without thinking I grab my camera and click off a shot. The attendant, who's dressed like a policeman, quickly makes his way over to me and whispers that I'm not allowed to take pictures and that I should remain as quiet as possible. I apologize profusely which seems to affect his demeanor. He tells me I can keep the picture but that I shouldn't take anymore. I assure him I won't.

It doesn't take long to notice that we're in a different kind of place today. I don't know exactly why it is, but I don't feel as put off by this place as I did by Saint Peter's. It's humble. It feels more like an attempt to communicate something sacred than a display of the church's power. I can't tell exactly what the frescoes are trying to teach me but I can see that they're inviting me into something bigger and more important than myself, and yet they're not doing so in a forceful way.

We traverse the entire upper Basilica and then decide to head downstairs. We get a little turned around but then finally discover the steps that descend into the lower, and older, Basilica. It's modest but very moving. Unique architecture, carved wood, vibrant frescoes, and near silence combine to make one feel reverent, even if he doesn't embrace Catholocism or agree with every aspect of the various depictions of the Bible. I wonder again if Protestants have gone too far in rejecting the potential of structures to inspire the soul toward God.

I look toward the back and notice twenty or thirty people sitting on several pews looking as if they're waiting for something. Slowly we approach the area where they are and notice that just in front of them and to the right there is a set of stairs leading down to where Saint Francis' remains are kept. We want to go down but it's hard to tell if we should, so we stand atop the stairs for a moment and then, hearing no objection, begin our descent. I don't know what John is thinking but I'm thinking, "If we're doing something wrong someone will stop us."

But no one does and we soon find ourselves in what feels like a very sacred place. It's scantily lit, even more quiet than above, and every aspect of it is obviously designed to strike reverence in the soul. We pass through a gate and approach the actual tomb, but again, we both hesitate to come near to it because others are keeping their distance and, at least for my part, I can't tell what I'm supposed to do.

So we sit for a few moments waiting and watching, and pondering what we see. I think to myself, "I don't agree with the theology that drove Francis to be who he was, and I certainly don't beleive all the stories about him or think it's a good thing that his remains are enshrined like this, but I can see that my life too will be short and I don't want to waste any of it. Francis lived to be forty-four; I'm now forty-one and who knows how long I have left to live. Father, for the glory of your Name help me to make the most of what remains."

Within a few minutes a younger couple approaches the tomb. This gives me the permission I need to do the same so I get up and begin to make my way around but as I do something of the sacredness of the moment is broken for me. To my left I notice that the priest who had been off to one side praying on his knees is now sitting at a desk, filling out some paper work, and taking money from the young man. John whispers to me that he's paying for mass to be said in his name.

Without thinking I feel the putridness of profitting off of people's devotion to God. It seems to me like this whole thing has been a set up to make me feel something that would in turn cause me to fork over my money. I'm sure this is not true to an absolute degree but I can't escape the fact that I'm witnessing a version of what caused Luther, Calvin, and so many others to break with the Catholic Church at the cost of their lives. I feel the outrage that is Protestantism in a way I've never felt it before.

We fairly quickly make our way back upstairs, not so much because we're offended but because we don't want to disturb those who are on a pilgrimage. We take our time exiting the Basilica and then make a quick stop by the gift shop since we were unable to take pictures. Both of us find books that meet our needs, after which we take one last look over the city and then begin the journey back down to our parking place. Soon enough we descend into the valley below and make our way toward Florence.

It's dark now and I feel a strange mix of emotions. I'm very moved by the wonder and beauty and uniqueness of Assisi. I've never seen a city like it. I'm inspired by the architecture, the art, the culture and I wish I had grown up in such a place. I also appreciate the humble magnetism of the Basilica and I do feel inspired toward God. But at the same time, I'm very much disturbed by the fact that the Catholic Church is, in so many ways, a money making machine designed to take advantage of people. It seems to me that the reason they don't want to reject their traditions in favor of close adherence to the Bible is because it would cost them too much. I don't feel arrogant about it, but I'm more confident than ever that it's right to be Protestant and I'm sure that the deaths of our forefathers were not in vain. I feel willing to lay down my own life for the truths that cost them theirs.

In a sense Assisi is a city set on a hill and it is a light for all to see. But it's not at all clear to me what the source of that light is and whether or not it will prove to be of God. God knows. For my part I pray for Assisi and hope that all who live there will come to know the true light of the world and lay their lives down to make him known, no matter what the cost.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

An Interesting Juxtaposition

My friend John Anderson and I are in Rome today so we thought we'd stop by Saint Peter's Bassilica which, of course, is home to the Popes and the epicenter of Roman Catholicism. We happened to catch a mass while we were there and, as I said to John, I felt at once a sense of awe and disgust. I felt awe because of the magnitude and architectural genuis and artistic beauty of the structure, as well as the reverent way in which the mass was carried out. Everything is designed, it seems, so that one almost cannot help but feel an overwhelming sense of the holy. But these very things also provoked in me a sort of disgust because they seemed so much like a flexing of the muscles, like a display of earthly power, like Roman idol worship with a veneer of Christianity. The day before we had toured the ruins of the Roman empire and learned a little bit about how they conducted their religious affairs. Frankly, I could hardly tell the difference between those ancient practices and what I was now experiencing, except of course that it was all decorated with Christian language and symbols. I thought more than once, "Surely, this is not what the Lord and his apostles had in mind as they laid their lives down to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of him throughout the world."

But on a more redemptive note, I did come away thinking that we American Evangelicals have gone too far in forsaking almost any sense of reverence in our architecture and liturgy. In reacting against things that must be rejected we have, I fear, dispensed of other things that are valuable and perhaps even desirable. Granted, we must labor to keep ourselves from venerating structures and traditions rather than God but I wonder if there is a way to utilize the gifts God has given us to exalt his name and inspire his people to look upward toward him. I don't have the answer to my own musings but I do have a longing to nourish a deeper sense of reverence for God in my soul and the souls of those I'm privileged to shepherd.

Once the mass was completed, we had to race back to the main part of Rome because we were scheduled to attend the worship service at The City of Church of Rome where a friend of John's, Corrado Primavera, serves as Pastor. John met Pastor Corrado in Italy but then also attended Dallas Theological Seminary with him. The building was very small and the congregation was even smaller but the praise was sincere and the preaching was "tethered to the Word," as John Piper is fond of saying these days. The people sang and Pastor Corrado preached in Italian so I didn't understand the majority of what was being sung or said but I could pick up a few words here and there and, more importantly, I could see love for Jesus radiating from Corrado and the people. It's strange how being in the presence of Jesus causes one to worship even if he doesn't understand everything that's going on. We have all the most important things in common and therefore nothing can truly divide us, not even the deep and high walls of language and culture. I felt very privileged to be there and I rejoiced that one day the curse of Babel will be removed and we will, with one voice, worship him who was and is and is to come forever and ever.

After the service was over we visited for a while and then walked back to our shuttle which was near the ancient Coloseum. As we strolled along I could not help but feel somewhat jarred by the juxtaposition of these two worship experiences. One was the most amazing display of earthly beauty, power, and ceremony one could imagine but it left me with a deep sense of tumult; the other was almost completely devoid of these same attributes and yet it left me feeling that I had been in the presence of Jesus and of his people.

I will leave the ultimate judgment of these things to our God and Father but I have come to the conclusion that as for me and my house we will choose the simple. We will choose the church where Jesus alone must captures people's attention by the wooing of his Spirit rather than by earthly means. There's more than one way to breed a sense of the awe of God in the soul and, at the end of the day, I think the best way is careful and regular meditation on the Word of God.

Tomorrow we leave Rome for Assisi, Florence, Venice, and Bologna--not all in one day, of course! Please continue to hold us up in prayer. God is doing much in my heart and I am eager to listen well. Thanks again for your faithful partnership.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I'm Traveling to Italy Today!

A couple of months ago, a man in our church, John Anderson, invited me to come along with him to Italy to help some missionaries there put on a couple of outreach events. I said yes, of course, and now the time has come for us to leave.

We will be leaving Minneapolis at 3:00 today and landing in Amsterday on Friday about 6:30 a.m. (11:30 Mpls time). From there we travel to Paris and finally Rome. We have a day or so to recuperate and the we'll be visiting a church plant in Rome on Sunday night, after which we'll travel to Venice and Bolgna to serve at the outreach events.

Finally, we plan to travel to Athens and Corinth for some sight-seeing and study, coming back to the States on December 3.

Please hold John and I up in prayer. Besides serving missionaries and sight-seeing, we plan to have a long conversation about foreign missions at Glory of Christ and this conversation feels very significant to me. Thanks so much for your partnership in prayer! I will blog as often as I'm able to access the internet.

By the way, please also pray for Kim and Rachel. Rachel is traveling to Disney World with her grandmother and a few others tomorrow where she'll be for one week. Kim will be staying with her father next week (he lives close to her work) and then taking care of Rachel and all the household affairs by herself the following week. Kim loves Christ with all her heart and she'll be depending on him, but she could use your prayers as well.

Thanks again, in Christ!

Thanks for Praying!

The second day of the TCT church planter's meeting was a blessed one. We heard a presentation of a church planting proposal from Tim Cain who plans to plant a church in San Diego beginning next year. It's so exciting to be around guys who love Christ and have such passion to see others come to love him as well.
Then we spent the rest of the day working out several important details about how the TCT network will look in the coming years. The Lord was very gracious to us and gave us clarity of insight with regard to the future and we're all very grateful for that.
Thanks so much for holding us up in prayer over those two days. Your partnership is greatly appreciated!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Personal Transformation & the Gospel

Yesterday Sean Cordell, Pastor of Treasuring Christ Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, brought a devotional before the TCT church planters (see yesterday's post for context; Pastor Sean is on the far right in today's photo). He spoke with us about how personal transformation can happen when we reflect on our attitudes and actions in light of the gospel.

Often, he said, when we sin and feel regret for that sin our impulse is just to try harder, to encourage ourselves to do better next time. However, that will never bring change. Instead we must push past the surface and ask ourselves, Why did I do what I did? What was I craving at that moment? What did I believe about God and myself at that moment? Then, in light of our answers to these questions, the next step is to ask, What does the Bible say about my answers?

For instance, Sean shared the story of a time when he was irritated by someone because he had invaded "Sean's space." Sean's self-assessment was that his craving at that time was for his own comfort and pleasure and his belief at that time was that he was the most important person in the situation rather than God. So what does the Bible say about this? Matthew 20:26-28 came to mind, "It shall not be so among you [the followers of Jesus]. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Now, with the wisdom of the Word of God in hand, Sean was in a place to see transformation happen in his heart and actions. He was in a place where, by the power of Jesus Christ applied to his life by grace through faith, he could think and act differently and, more importantly, for different reasons, namely, the glory of God and the blessing of the other. Far from being some self-help scheme, Christianity is about the power of Christ pouring into our hearts through the Word of God and transforming us from one glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). Christianity is about the application of the finished work of Christ on our behalf. It's not at all about what we can do for him, it's about what he's already done for us, what he's doing for us, and what he will do for us.

Sean spoke for over an hour so I'm not doing justice to his devotional here, but I must say that I was so helped by this train of thought. I was moved by the idea that I must learn to preach the gospel to myself and to apply the things of Christ to my own heart in an intentional way. Or perhaps better put, I must learn to reflect on my attitudes and actions in light of the gospel and open myself to the transforming power of Christ. I was overjoyed to think of the twin facts that I do not have the will or power to change myself but that Christ has both.

Ephesians 2:4-10 says this: "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

Amen. May the power of God in Christ pulse through our hearts and minds until we are formed perfectly into the image of Christ.

Monday, November 17, 2008

TCT Church Planters Meeting this Week

The church at which I serve, Glory of Christ in Elk River, Minnesota, is part of a larger network of church plants called the Treasuring Christ Together Network (TCT). TCT emerged out of the minsitry of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis as one means by which they could fulfill their mission, namely, "to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples, through Jesus Christ."

Currently there are five church plants in the network (Charlotte NC, Raleigh NC, Memphis, TN, Brooklyn Center MN, & Elk River MN) with two more to be born in the next year or so (San Diego, CA & Saint Paul, MN). The pastors of these churches meet in Minneapolis four times per year for fellowship, accountability, training, and vision. This week is one of those meetings.

Leading us this time around is Jordan Thomas, pastor of Grace Church Memphis in Memphis, Tennessee. We plan to talk about "soul-care" of the pastor, the pastor's family, and the flock of God. We alsom plan to spend some time dreaming about the next stages of the TCT network, about where the Lord wants to take us from here.

Please lift us up in prayer over these next two days. Pray that the Lord will draw near to us and lead us in the way he would have us go. Pray that he will grant us power from the Holy Spirit to fulfill the mission on which he's sent us.

Thank you so much for your faithful partnership in the work of the Kingdom!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Sovereignty of God

The sixth chapter in Arthur Pink's book The Attributes of God (Baker Books, 1975) is entitled "The Sovereignty of God” and is an extension of the last chapter. Pink argues that the supremacy of God is his exaltation and power over all things while the sovereignty of God is the exercise of his supremacy. In other words, the sovereignty of God makes the supremacy of God visible.

“Divine sovereignty means that God is God in fact, as well as in name, that he is on the Throne of the universe, directing all things, working all things ‘after the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11)…‘Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that he did in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places’ (Psalm 135:6). Yes, dear reader, such is the imperial Potentate revealed in Holy Writ. Unrivalled in majesty, unlimited in power, unaffected by anything outside himself” (40-41).

But at this point many object for, they say, such a view of the sovereignty of God excludes human will and responsibility. However, Pink counters, the sovereignty of God does not exclude human will or responsibility rather it is the basis of both. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). And among what he pleases is making creatures as he sees fit—angels, Adam, Israel, the elect, whomever—with whatever freedom of will he decrees. For instance, “What right has the husband to require submission from his wife? None, unless God had appointed it…[In this way,] human responsibility is based upon Divine sovereignty” (44).

“Many have most foolishly said that it is quite impossible to show where Divine sovereignty ends and creature accountability begins. Here is where creature responsibility begins: in the sovereign ordination of the Creator. As to his sovereignty, there is not and never will be any ‘end’ to it!” (43)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Supremacy of God

The fifth chapter in Arthur Pink's book The Attributes of God (Baker Books, 1975) is entitled "The Supremacy of God.” Pink is very concerned that the “god” of the modern pulpit is “all too human.” He writes, “The ‘god’ of this twentieth century no more resembles the Supreme Sovereign of Holy Writ than does the dim flickering of a candle the glory of the midday sun” (36). But to Pink’s mind God is either absolutely supreme or he is not God at all. “A ‘god’ whose will is resisted, whose designs are frustrated, whose purpose is checkmated, possesses no title to Deity, and so far from being a fit object of worship, merits nought [sic] but contempt” (36).

With this, Pink moves along to prove his case positively, mostly by quoting Scripture. For example, “Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name” (1 Chronicles 29:11-13). “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). “The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works [this word means ‘effectually works] all things according to the counsel of his will…” (Ephesians 1:11).

The Scriptures so plainly display the supremacy of God over inanimate things (Exodus 14, Numbers 16, Joshua 10), animate things (1 Kings 17, 2 Kings 6:5, Psalm 135:6), and the human will (Exodus 34:24, Proverbs 21:1, Ephesians 2:1-10) as to make the doctrine an undeniable tenet of the faith. And this ought to bring great comfort to the believing soul. Pink concludes:

“Here then is a sure resting-place for the heart. Our lives are neither the product of blind fate nor the result of capricious chance, but every detail of them was ordained from all eternity, and is now ordered by the living and reigning God. Not a hair of our heads can be touched without his permission…What assurance, what strength, what comfort this should give the real Christian” (39).

Friday, November 07, 2008

A Tribute to my Brother Ralph

Many of you know that my brother Ralph died earlier this year. Recently I took the photos from my trip to California and put them into a video. It speaks for itself. Ralph is to my immediate right in the first photo.

To my family, I love you and I pray this video blesses you.

For the glory of Jesus,