Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Back at Home: Going Home, part 9

The saga involving my mother and our family has taken another unexpected turn.  To review, briefly, in late November she was acutely and critically ill, with a diagnosis that was expected to quickly result in her death.  She decided to come home from the hospital and spend her remaining days there, with support from her family and hospice.  I began a series of posts about what was going on as my mom moved through what we anticipated as being the final stage of her life, with the first post here

Mom didn’t die, but in fact she gradually got better, surviving the acute phase of her illness.  Seven weeks ago, when it was no longer possible for my siblings and I to care for her in her home, we made a plan for her to move into our home, a plan that changed at the last minute when my mom opted to move into a care facility within her own community.  I wrote about that here, the most recent post of this series.

And now she has moved back to her home, something none of us would have ever anticipated.  At the care facility she continued to improve in virtually every way, so much so that she didn’t think she needed to live their anymore and that she could return to her home.  So she made a plan, got some support services in place and went home for a trial stay over the weekend, a trial that seemed to go well enough that she is back at her own home to stay “for good.” 

I haven’t asked her any probing questions about her motivation to return home.  I think that all of us have an innate longing to “be home,” to live in the place where we feel the most at ease.  The place that always feels comfortable.  The place that contains those people and things in which we find the most meaning.  As Dorothy says in The Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.”

I agree with Dorothy’s sentiments, and what, without asking, I presume to be my mom’s desire too, that there is no place like home.  And yet I also know that even at its very best, a home here on earth only dimly points to that best of homes, our eternal home with God.

In John 17:2-3 Jesus tells his disciples this about home:

“In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

I’m glad that my mom has made it back to her home and I hope that she time she spends there is enjoyable and peaceful.  And in that joy and peace I hope that she tastes something that gives her a longing for the eternal home that Jesus promises his disciples, the place that is perfect in every way. 

Even now, Jesus is preparing a place for my mom.  And one day he will be returning to gather her, and every person who calls on him by faith, so that where he is, they, or more properly we, may be also.  Forever.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and today I noticed several emails and Facebook posts on the general topics of ‘love’ and ‘true love.’  They all had a nice, uplifting tone to them.  Some of them were faith-based, with images of Jesus and verses from the Bible.  The most common verses used were John 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 13:13.

Throughout the day another part of my brain has been pondering God’s providence.  I have been reading an excellent discussion of what the Puritan’s had to say about providence.  Providence is the idea that God is actively engaged in the world, maintaining it and guiding it for His purposes.  Many Bible verses speak to this, with Matthew 6:25-33, being among the most familiar.  Jesus closes this portion of the Sermon on the Mount saying:

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all of these things will be added to you.”

Jesus is teaching that because God is taking care of us, and everything around us, that we don’t need to have anxiety over the circumstances of our lives.  We can trust Him and love Him the way He deserves to be loved, rather than being consumed by other pursuits.

These two thoughts, Valentine’s Day and God’s providence, connect with each other because God provides for us out of His love for us.  His love isn't the idealized love of the Valentine’s Day card, or the romance movie, or some other image we carry in our mind. 

His love is something infinitely better than idealized love, because it is perfect love. 

One of the ways that God shows His perfect love and providential care is through His protection.  His protection is always present.  Even when we are suffering His protection is present.  One day we will die, but it will always be within the limits that He sets, and as we pass from this world we will pass into an eternity in Heaven with Him.

So the last thing I have for this post is a link to Whom Shall I Fear, a new song by Chris Tomlin that I was listening to today, a song that speaks of the protection God always has for those who have faith in Him through Christ Jesus.  May you be blessed as you listen to the song here.  The lyrics are here.  And since I have linked this from youtube you may have to endure a cheesy add.  It’s worth it.  

Be blessed in God’s perfect love today and everyday.


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Treasure in Heaven

“In the end it’s not the years in your life that count.  It’s the life in your years.” 

I have seen that quote several times recently.  It has a nice, feel good sound to it.  The person speaking seems to want us to understand that at the end of our life what we have done with the time available is of much more importance than the number of years we lived.  That sounds well and good. 

The quote has been attributed to Abraham Lincoln, someone with a well-deserved reputation for careful, deliberate thinking and who used his intellect and understanding of human nature to lead our country through its most troubled time.  Lincoln should be a trustworthy source of wisdom.  A quick check online, here, shows that Lincoln is not the likely source.  But even removing Lincoln as the source doesn’t really lessen the meaning we might take from the message.

But, I wonder, is it true?  Is the ‘life’ that we put in our years what is of real importance when life reaches its end?  Or does such an idea point to us to an even greater truth?

Recently I read Think, by John Piper.  My review is here.  Piper’s proposes that for the Christian, critical thinking is essential to loving God.  He reminds us that we are called to love God with all of our minds, as well as our hearts and souls.  This is sound biblical teaching, from Matthew 22:37.  Piper wants us to encourage us use our intellect actively as we grow in faith. 

With that thought my question becomes something more like this: How can I use my mind and add ‘life to my years’ in a way that gives glory and honor to God? 

Or maybe this: How can I add ‘life to my years’ in a way that points beyond me and both to others and to God? 

The key, I believe, also lies in Matthew’s Gospel.  Matthew 6:19-21 says:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Jesus is teaching that when I invest my time in things of eternal significance I do more than merely ‘add life to my years.’ Much more.  And when I look around God has placed all kinds of opportunities around me.

One opportunity involves my youngest daughter.  I want to do my part to help her grow up.  To teach her how to do all kinds of things, like learning to ride a bike and learning to read.  I also want to help her learn confidence and build character.  I want to help her learn how to pick good friends and nurture relationships over a lifetime. 

And all of these are good things, the things that add ‘life to my years,’ but at the end of the day, or of my life, they are meaningless unless I have made my greatest priority the nurturing within her of a vibrant and deep-seated love of God, God as made known in Jesus Christ.  Above anything else my calling as a parent includes teaching my daughter what it means to love God with all of her heart, and her mind and her soul. 

My treasure is in heaven, in the person of Jesus Christ.  And one of the longings of my heart is for my daughter’s treasure to be there too.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Book review: Think by John Piper

“Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking.”  Those words, attributed to Steve Jobs, were widely shared shortly after his death in 2011.  Depending on the way in which Job’s words are understood they both agree and disagree with the goal of John Piper in his book Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).  We can simply live with other people’s thinking, which is not always a bad thing, for much wisdom has come before our era.  Or we can think deeply about what we learn today, so that our faith rests and grows on a solid foundation.

Piper asserts that thinking, i.e. giving serious consideration to the things one is called to believe, is needed for a person to come to faith in Christ, and for one who has that faith to then grow as a Christian.  Rather than simply having ‘faith,’ without understanding what that may mean or how it may call one to live, he makes a “plea to see thinking as a necessary, God-ordained means of knowing God.  Thinking is one of the important ways that we put the fuel of knowledge on the fires of worship and service to the world.” (15)

Using a writing style that is conversational and very readable, Piper starts with a description of his early career, first as a scholar and then a pastor, showing the role that thinking played in broadening and deepening his faith.  He writes “But thinking under the mighty hand of God, thinking soaked in prayer, thinking carried by the Holy Spirit, thinking tethered to the Bible, thinking in pursuit of more reasons to praise and proclaim the glories of God, thinking in the service of love – such thinking is indispensable in a life of fullest praise to God.” (27)

The middle of the book contains a discussion of the importance of thinking in a person’s coming to saving faith in Jesus Christ, showing from the Bible that faith isn't something that is simply ‘acquired’ but must also be understood.   We don’t have faith merely by believing a text such as John 3:16.  Thinking is essential to understanding the meaning contained in the text.

Later in the book Piper explains several ways of thinking that may sound acceptable to modern readers but which are actually contrary to the kind of thought that helps believers to understand God.  He demonstrates the fallacies within relativism, which is a rampant thought-form in the 21st century, and he also shows how pragmatism and subjectivism are both forces that lead to an exaltation of human thinking, rather than a deepening of godly wisdom.  He concludes with a discussion of the connection between knowledge and humility, demonstrating that while thinking nurtures spiritual maturity and deepens faith it does so in a way that continuously exalts God.

In Matthew 22:37 Jesus said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  Throughout this book Piper connects loving God with thinking about God deeply, saying “loving God with all our mind means that our thinking is wholly engaged to do all it can to awaken and express the heartfelt fullness of treasuring God above all things.” (91, italics Piper)

And “treasuring God above all things” is what a life of Christian faith is all about.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Wind

I’m a marathoner and also, I guess, an ultra-marathoner.  I ran my first marathon just over 30 years ago and my most recent one was last fall.  A marathon is 26.2 miles long and as runner I have often thought that it was my best distance.  I am glad that God gifted me with the athletic ability and temperament to enjoy a discipline that even other runners can find to be daunting.  Perseverance honed on the roads can be a good thing to carry into other parts of life.

I hesitate to call myself an ultra-marathoner, which is someone who runs distances longer than the marathon.  I ran one last spring, as a back-up plan for my intended spring marathon, which conflicted with my work schedule.  It was 50 kilometers, or 31 miles, and I figured if I was trained for the marathon I could add another five miles without a problem.  I also planned to run it at a slower pace than I would run for a marathon.  Just keep it low-key and enjoy the run.  Which I did.

Now I am on the verge of running a second ultra-marathon, which is probably the essence of the definition of ultra-marathoner, i.e. someone who has done it twice.  For all practical purposes the training is essentially the same.  I believe the most important part of the training is to get out and run for 20 miles several times before the race.  A race of 26 or more miles is a long ways to go, and a runner needs to be used to being on their feet for a long time in order to make it to the finish line.

Today I got out for the last 20 mile run of this training cycle.  It was beautiful day for a winter run, with a temperature in the 20’s and the roads being fairly clear of snow and ice.  I checked the weather before going out and the wind speed was 12, with gusts into the upper 20’s, coming from the south.  All-in-all it was a pretty good forecast for February.

The ultra I am training for is going to have lots of hills, so I planned to run three loops of a hilly route near our home.  It was pleasant on the first leg, heading west, sheltered by a hill.  Then I turned south.  I could feel the wind now, not too bad but strong enough that I wished I had something warmer on my hands.

The south leg is about 2 miles long, winding through some trees as it climbs a long hill.  And the farther south I went the more intense the wind became.  When I got to the top of the hill I was out in the open and there was no 12 mph wind.  It was blowing steadily at over 20, stiff enough to noticeably slow my pace.  Then I turned east, running on a road with bare farm fields on both sides.  The crosswind was intense and unabated.

Eventually I reached the place where I turned again and headed north, essentially downhill towards my starting point.  It was mostly sheltered and with the wind at my back I was hardly aware of its presence.  While the respite was nice I was mindful that I was on my first loop.  I would go into that stiff headwind and crosswind two more times before finishing this morning’s run.

Running 20 miles takes a bit of time and as I ran I found my mind pondering the wind, both its physical presence this morning and also the ways wind is referred to in the Bible.

Climbing the hill the wind was my adversary, something I had to persevere with, or against.  It brought to mind seasons in my life when I just had to keep on going.  Things in life were hard but I had to endure and hope that a better time was coming.

The Bible teaches that Job heard God in the whirlwind. For Elijah, God was not in the raging wind but in a whisper.  And the Holy Spirit was poured out to those following Christ in wind of Pentecost.

The Pentecost moment reminds me that unlike the wind, which comes and goes, God, poured out on us in His Spirit, is a presence that never leaves us.  Like the wind at our back, we may easily recall the times when God has been with us. 

But God is also just as present in the times of calm or when we are in storms that seem to rage without end.

Whatever your season, your moment in life, may you know His presence and His voice.

“For great is his steadfast love toward us,
  and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.”

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: Calvin’s Theology and its Reception: Disputes, Developments and New Possibilities by J. Todd Billings and I. John Hesselink, eds.

The presence of John Calvin looms large over the Protestant Reformation.  This was true during the 16th century in which he lived, and it remains true today.  In Calvin’s Theology and its Reception: Disputes, Developments and New Possibilities editors J. Todd Billings and I. John Hesselink have gathered ten essays that consider ways in which aspects of Calvin’s theology were received and understood during both the early Reformation and more recently in history.  The essays are paired by topic, with an essay on the early influence of Calvin, in the 16th and 17th centuries, followed by as essay that considers his influence on the same topic in the 18th through 21st centuries.  The topics addressed are Scripture and Revelation; Union with Christ; Election; the Lord’s Supper; and Church and Society.

The authors are all scholars who teach, or have taught, on seminary faculties.  While they have written serious essays that draw from extensive references I felt that the work collected here does have relevant application for those serving in pastoral ministry.  I believe that the first four topics all touch on issues that powerfully shape faith and worship today.  God’s people who are gathered for worship need to understand scripture and revelation so that they allow the Bible to speak vibrantly and authoritatively into their lives.  They need to know how closely believers are joined by faith to Christ and how this is the result of God’s gracious mercy in choosing them.  They need to appreciate the distinctive way in which Calvin understood the Lord’s Supper so that they may be well-nourished when they come to feast at His table.

Here is one example, from Michael Horton’s essay on the modern reception of Calvin’s understanding of what it means to have union with Christ.  Summarizing Calvin, he writes, “Justified once for all through faith by a righteousness that is external (alien) to us, we are nevertheless united to Christ by an inseparable communion so that, in spite of our weaknesses, we will always seek our salvation in him.” (90)  The implication then, Horton says, is this: “So when we consider ourselves, there is nothing but despair; when we consider ourselves in Christ, there is faith, which brings hope and love in its train.  In the gospel, God calls forth a new world of which Christ is the sun and we are drawn into his orbit.” (90; italics Horton)  In our day, when it seems that we are constantly being pulled to worship other gods, I appreciate the clear way in which both Calvin and Horton articulate the bonds that hold believers to Christ.

In sum, Billings and Hesselink, who each authored one essay in this collection, and their collaborators, shine new light on issues that weren't simply resolved once-and-for-all because Calvin wrote about them nearly 500 years ago.  These essays help us to understand how Calvin’s work was perceived in its day, and how it can be reexamined to teach and strengthen the church today.

Disclaimer: I studied under two of the authors, J. Todd Billings and Sue A. Rozeboom, while I was at Western Theological Seminary.

Monday, February 4, 2013

A Thought on Prayer

Last night in our small group at church we watched and discussed a video about prayer.  The specific topic of the video had to do with obedience as an aspect of our prayer life.  One of the suggestions of the speaker on the video was that when we have questions about the effectiveness of our prayer, i.e. when we wonder why God is not answering our prayer, then we need to look inside ourselves and see if we are carrying any disobedience that is blocking our ability to reach God in prayer.

I both agree and disagree with that claim.  Since the speaker wasn't there in person for me to ask questions of and understand more about what he intended to teach us my response here will be one-sided by default.  I welcome any of your thoughts in response to my thoughts.

First my agreement.  If I am knowingly carrying unconfessed sin in my life that is something that is going to have an effect on the nature of my communication with God.  How can I humbly approach a holy God when I an intentionally keeping Him out of a part of my life?  How can I praise God for who He is when I am unwilling to let Him be God over all of my life? How can I ask God to grant my request when by my action, or inaction, I am not loving Him with all my heart? (Exodus 20:3; Matthew 22:37)

Quite simply, I can’t.  Any attempt of mine to approach God in a way that I know is deceitful is flawed from the outset.  It must be, for God is holy and I am not, something that at times I am acutely aware of.

Now, my disagreement.  As I said above, God is holy and I am not, and this is something that God understands, and has eternally understood, much better than I ever will. 

I know that God the Father has given His Son for the forgiveness of sin, which in my case specifically means my sin, every last bit of it. (Belgic Confession, article 21 and 22.)

Being claimed by God in Christ and forgiven of my sins means that I am justified.  Being ‘justified’ means that I am, in God’s eyes, free of sin and able to approach Him without fear and trembling, but in confidence. (Hebrews 4:14-16; Belgic 23)

Further, God’s work in shaping me in the image of His Son is an ongoing work, something that began when I confessed faith and will continue until the moment I pass into Heaven. (Belgic 24)  I will always have rough spots that need shaping and polishing.  One day it may be unconfessed sin.  Another day it may be hardness of heart. 

This isn't to excuse my lack of perfection before God, particularly when I am holding back from Him, but to remember that His Son was perfect and did a perfect work of atonement, precisely so that in my imperfection I can know God’s love and eternal assurance.

Should I confess my sin as I approach God in prayer?  Absolutely.  But I will admit that there have been times when I have held something back.  And there have been times when I haven’t first searched my own heart before coming before Him, such as when responding to the request of someone else for prayer, or when I am just overwhelmed by a particular set of circumstances. 

But I don’t think that those failings on my part are the reasons why God hasn't answered some of my particular, and persistent, prayers, such as to bring healing for a friend with cancer or for the salvation of my children.  At the end of the day, and at the end of time, God has His own reasons for answering, or not answering those prayers.  And knowing that God is perfect in every way, I trust that God’s reasons are correct.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep praying, and try to cooperate with the work that He’s doing in me.

"Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."  Hebrews 4:14-16

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Teaching Moment

“What are you doing Dad?’” said my six year-old daughter as she entered the dining room.

“Praying” I replied as I raised my head and opened my eyes.

Tomorrow, Saturday, is a work day for me so I had today off. It was very cold this morning and the first thing I had to do when I woke up was to drop my car off to get repaired.  I had planned to drop it off last night, on the way home from work, but it has been a hectic week and plans had to be changed.  A mechanic from the shop gave me a ride back home. 

My daughter and wife were up and getting breakfast together when I got back so I sat and ate with them and then took care of a few things.  Soon my wife was headed off on an errand and I sat down by myself, with my Bible and a devotional reading.  A few minutes into my quiet time with God my daughter came into the room, with her question about my activity, or perhaps, my seeming inactivity.

One thing a day off means is a change in the ordinary Monday through Friday routines.  The basic events of weekday mornings for me are run, clean-up and dress for work, pack lunch, read the Bible and pray, eat breakfast, and then head to work. 

Most days those activities happen when I am the only one awake.  My wife usually gets up for her own quiet time before I leave but our daughter only awakens before I leave for work on rare occasions.  Our little one knows we pray because we have regular patterns of  praying with her, such as if we are all awake when I go to work, at mealtimes, and as the last part of her bedtime routine.  But I can’t recall another time when she has seen me home, by myself, with my Bible open and my hands folded.

I suppose I could have had my ire aroused in some way over her interruption this morning, as I sat in conversation with the Lord God Almighty.  But it is this very same Lord God Almighty who nearly four years ago very powerfully called my wife and I to parent this little girl, so I am glad that instead of being riled up He led me to see the opportunity in the interruption.

All parents watch their children grow and wonder at the possibilities that lie before their lives.  They wonder what kind of people their children will become as they move though the early stages of life and set off on their own as adults.  On our best days we try to give them good directions, to set them on a course to learn the right things and to develop character and integrity.

More than anything else my wife and I desire that our youngest grow into a godly woman, someone who knows God personally and loves God deeply within her soul.  We want to nurture within her faith in Jesus as the bedrock of her identity, because we know from our own experiences that storms will come in life and that Christ Jesus provides the only solid place to stand. 

“Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

and Ephesians 6:4 says:

“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

I was glad for the small and unplanned opportunity to teach my daughter just a little about prayer and the need to be grounded in God.  We talked about this morning over dinner this evening and our daughter seemed to be pretty oblivious to everything I’ve just written.  That’s okay.  Raising her is a journey and this morning’s moment was just one step along the way. 

I am thankful for the teaching moment of this morning and will try to watch for the next one God will provide.  The long-term goal is to cultivate and nurture the faith that God has given her.  And every time He is using me to work on her He is also working on me too.  And that is one more reason for me to praise God.  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.