Friday, June 28, 2013


Yesterday I saw someone wearing a t-shirt with Johnny Cash’s picture on it.  In general I like Johnny Cash.  He had a very long career in music.  I don’t have an ear that can appreciate his early material but I do like his later music quite a lot, songs such as this one.

I remember reading his autobiography in the late 1970’s.  He talked pretty frankly about his early life, when the term ‘hell-raiser’ would have been an apt description.  I’m guessing that the picture I saw on the t-shirt came from that era, for it was a photo of an angry Johnny Cash, defiantly making an obscene gesture.   

Cash lived for quite a few years after the book I read was written.  I had read an autobiography, but one that only covered the first half of a long and complicated life.  I may be making a stretch of the imagination here, but judging from his later musical work and what I know of the second half of his life, I think that if he had anything to say about it that he would choose to have a much different picture as his public image on a t-shirt.  I don’t think that it would be his choice to be remembered as angry and obscene.  The legacy of Johnny Cash is much richer and deeper than that.

I read something just the other day that mentioned in passing how transient the legacies of most people will be.  Most of us may be remembered well by our children and grandchildren, from their first-hand experiences, but when they are gone most of the details of our lives will fade from history.  There will be information available to compile family trees.  Personal letters may survive, as well as written accounts that we may create and pass along.  But most of what we have done, and why, will fade from human history.

More public figures, like Johnny Cash, may be remembered generally for several more generations.  Others, such as John Dewey, may cast an influence on aspects of society and be remembered well, but by few people.  Still others, such as George Washington or Martin Luther, have cast shadows that have, and will, extend for centuries.

The words of Ecclesiastes 3:20 will apply to us not just in a physical sense, but also in terms of the kinds of people we were and the lives we led on earth:

“All go to one place.  All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”

Or do they?  Will we leave behind dust, or will we leave something more?

Two examples of people whose rather small actions made an enduring impact on my life come to mind.  One was about 25 years ago, when I wasn’t a Christian in any sense except a nominal one.  This woman told me in the course of conversation that she would pray for me.  I haven’t forgotten the setting of our discussion, nor her words to me.

The other was more recently, about 10 years ago, after I had come to know God personally and considered Christ Jesus as my Lord and Savior, even if I was only beginning to grapple with what that meant.  I met a man at a homeless shelter that was located in a church.  I asked if he was the custodian and he replied, “No.  I’m just an old man walking with the Lord.”  I got to know more of his story as we ate breakfast together and that image he placed in my mind, of an 'old man walking with the Lord,' was one that I thought I could aspire towards. 

I don’t know where this life will carry me, and I certainly couldn’t have predicted many of the places I have been over the past ten years.  But I have travelled them with God and I look forward to continuing to do so until He sees fit for me to draw my last breath and travel home.  And along the way I want to keep my eyes and ears open to the places where I may speak a small word, or say a small prayer, that God will use to eternal effect.

As much as it is up to me, that is what I would desire for my legacy.  To God be the glory, now and 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, June 19, 2013


One of my favorite things I like to do when listening to music is to hit the ‘repeat’ button.  It’s the button that plays the song I just finished one more time.  And when it finishes I’ll often repeat it again.  And again. 

I like variety in my music and I also like to listen through entire albums. (Please pardon the use of ‘old-fashioned’ terms. I grew up in the 70’s and recently parted with my last vinyl records.)  But once in a while I hear a song that just grabs me and I want to hear it again. And again. And again.  It could be an old song, one that for any number of reasons is dear to me.  It could be a song I’m familiar with but in which I’ve just noticed something in the music or lyrics that I had missed before and I want to listen to it more closely.  Or it could be a new song. One I never heard before but have taken an instant liking to.

I had that experience this morning.  Here is a link to the song.  It is a cover version of the original, which I’ve never heard.  But I do know that I like it.  It grabs me both musically and lyrically.  The words express deep biblical truth. 

In the same way that I may listen to a piece of music over and over, there are pieces of the Bible that I turn to again and again.  Some of my favorite parts of the Bible are similar to the message of this song, in that they speak of what is true and unchanging about God.  They provide deep assurance of who He is, of what He has done, and of what He promises to do.  I may have read them many times but I find myself going back to them again, reading them slowly and savoring each phrase. 

One of my favorite passages to read again and again is Ephesians 1:3-14, where Paul writes:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

This is one passage where God never fails to bring me comfort, to bring me security, and to bring me a sense of awe at whom He is and what He has done. 

In closing here are a few questions to ponder.  There is no need to give an answer, just some things for you to think about.

Where does God speak through His word to your heart?  Where in His word do you turn to find Him when your world seems to be on shaky ground?  What verses do you return to in order to feast on His word?

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, June 11, 2013


I had my hair cut today.  No big deal.  I went to the barber, the same guy who has cut my hair for four or five years, sat in the chair and put my glasses in my pocket.  As he wrapped a cape around my shoulders he said something like: “Clean it up, off the ears and not too short on top?”  To which I said: “Yes.”  He went to work and we spent the next 30 minutes talking as he did what he does for a living.  He does it well, having a steady business, with lots of regular customers.

But today something was different.  When he was done he took the cape off and I got out of the chair to pay him.  It was the first time that before taking off the cape he didn’t hand me a mirror and turn the chair so I could check out the haircut myself.  I didn’t ask but he must have remembered what I told him last time he cut my hair, about two months ago.

That time, as he got the mirror out, I told him it wasn’t necessary.  He was the barber and I trusted him to do his job well.  I didn’t need to look at it for myself. 

Later in the day while I was re-reading 1 Kings 19, in preparation to preach in a few weeks, I remembered this morning’s experience at the barber.  In 1 Kings 19 Elijah has just seen God do some pretty remarkable things.  And as a consequence of the power God has displayed Elijah is, somewhat surprisningly, running for his very life.  He is so desperate that he asks God to take his life.  It appears that for the moment Elijah has lost track of who God is and what God can do.

Sometimes we have the same thoughts that may be plaguing Elijah.  We are in a bad spot, a time of deep trouble, and we forget who God is, or where He is, or what He has promised to do.  Our trust in God wavers. 

In times of distress we want God to show up…right now!

In Deuteronomy 31 Moses speaks to the Hebrew people.  They have been wandering in the desert for 40 years and he is preparing them to be led by Joshua as they enter the Promised Land.  In verse 6 Moses says:

“Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”

Moses reminds the people of the same thing that we need to remember today, particularly in our times of suffering, our times of distress.  And that is that there is never a time when God is absent from His people. 

God is a God who is unfailing in every respect.  He has always kept His word, He always keeps His word, and He will always keep His word. 

And His word is something that we can always trust, no matter what the circumstances are that surround us.  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.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Book Review: The Heidelberg Catechism in 52 Sermons by Rev. G.H.Kersten

The Heidelberg Catechism was written in 1653 by two young pastors in what was then the emerging Reformed branch of Protestant Christianity, Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus.  They wrote this catechism at the direction of Frederick III, the Elector of Palatine, who wanted a tool to teach those people living under his rule the basics of Christian belief.  Ursinus and Olevianus wrote 128 question-and-answers to provide, in a thorough yet manageable manner, the information they believed should be known by all who profess faith in Christ.  These question-and-answers were then grouped into 52 parts so that a pastor could preach one of them each week and thereby work through the entire catechism over the course of one year. 

Within many Reformed congregations there has been a habit of worshipping twice on Sunday, with the evening service devoted to the teaching of the catechism.  This is the framework for which G. H. Kersten has written The Heidelberg Catechism in 52 Sermons (Sioux Center, IA: Netherlands Reformed Book and Publishing, 2nd ed., 1992).

I have read the Heidelberg Catechism several times and once read Andrew Kuyvenhoven’s excellent study of it, Comfort and Joy.  I had never heard of Kersten before coming across this book but now, having read it, I view Kersten’s work perhaps a bit like John Sutter may have felt when he found gold at his mill in California, for Kersten has written a rare treasure for all who want to understand the riches of God poured out in Christ.  

Kersten is a methodical preacher and each sermon uses a set structure.  There is an introduction, a reading of the catechism question-and-answer, a brief outline of the points of the sermon followed by a fuller discussion of each point, and then closing with a section of application to one’s daily life.

Kersten’s preaching is saturated in scripture.  Each answer of the Catechism, as written by its authors, is based in scripture but Kersten goes far beyond those scriptures, using both the Old and New Testaments, to dig deeply into each point that is being taught.  He is also both warm and practical in his preaching.  He cares deeply for those who are hearing God’s Word explained, and he never loses sight of the fact that not all of his hearers will be believers, so his purpose is always two-fold, being to bring non-Christians to faith and to deepen the faith of those who already know Christ as their Lord and Savior.

At the time he wrote and preached these sermons Kersten’s ministry context was in the Netherlands, just a few years after World War II.  As a result of those circumstances he very occasionally touches on issues that were very relevant to his congregation, such as the spread of Communism across parts of Europe, that are not really a concern today for the reader in North America in the 21st century. 

Those rare context-specific thoughts aside, Kersten has produced a real treasure for all who want to understand more deeply the riches of Christian belief to be found in the Reformed tradition.  This is a book which will nourish faith again, and again, and again. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Prayer and God's honor

“Prayer is the breath of life for the Christian.”  That sentiment is one I heard many times from a man I consider to be role model for me of the Christian life.  He considered prayer to be as essential for the Christian as breathing is to every living being.  He was a surgeon by vocation, so he understood well the critical need of breathing for the human body.  And I had the privilege of praying with him many times, so I caught a glimpse him putting these words into practice.  The idea of “prayer as breathing” was not just a collection of words he spoke to others.  They were words he lived by each day.

I have been reading an excellent collection of sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism, by Rev. G.H. Kersten.  As it explores the Lord’s Prayer, Catechism question 117 asks this:

“What is the kind of prayer that pleases God and that he listens to?”   

The answer is:

“First, we must pray from the heart to no other than the one true God, revealed to us in his Word, asking for everything God has commanded us to ask for.

Second, we must fully recognize our need and misery, so that we humble ourselves in God's majestic presence.

Third, we must rest on this unshakable foundation: even though we do not deserve it, God will surely listen to our prayer because of Christ our Lord. That is what God promised us in his Word.”

In explaining what the Catechism teaches in this answer Kersten writes:

“Praying is, in the first place, a subjecting of ourselves to God’s counsel and government.  He controls our lives and He decides what we need.  Hence we must pray to the Lord for all that He has commanded us in His Word to ask of Him; doing so in submission to Him and with childlike trust, so that He may fulfill that need insofar as it is subservient to His honor.  In dealing with His people He has His honor in view – and true prayer seeks God’s honor and the exaltation of His thrice holy Name; that is, in a manner subservient to our salvation and deliverance."

As I read that paragraph the part that I have highlighted just jumped out at me.  As I read, and re-read it several times, I thought about what Kersten is teaching here about prayer.  He is teaching that at its heart, true prayer is only incidentally about us, and that the primary purpose of prayer is to honor, or as I like to say, to bring glory to, God. 

True prayer does not so much seek for God to grant the desires of our heart, but it seeks to praise God above all things.  True prayer is prayer that is driven by a desire to magnify God’s greatness.

From that perspective my prayers often seem woefully short.  I am thankful for being reminded through this reading that God’s glory, or Kersten phrased it, God’s honor, should be at the forefront of my approach to God.  And I am thankful that whenever I turn to God in humility, He will gladly meet with me. 

Below are the scripture references that underlie each part of the answer to Catechism question 117, as well as a link to Kersten’s book.

First - Ps. 145:18-20; John 4:22-24; Rom. 8:26-27; James 1:5; 1 John 5:14-15
Second - 2 Chron. 7:14; Ps. 2:11; 34:18; 62:8; Isa. 66:2; Rev. 4
Third - Dan. 9:17-19; Matt. 7:8; John 14:13-14; 16:23; Rom. 10:13; James 1:6

Kersten, G.H.  The Heidelberg Catechism in 52 Sermons (p. 628)

Sunday, June 2, 2013


Yesterday I ran an ultra-marathon.  For my non-running readers that would be a race that is longer than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles.  Yesterday’s run was supposed to be 50 kilometers, or 31.1 miles.  It was held on the trails in a county park, and trail courses are not always accurately measured.  The GPS watches that several runners wore showed that the distance we ran was actually 32.5 miles, although none of us knew this until it was all over.

To put together a 31 mile race in a park the race director had us running several laps of a circuitous 10-mile route.  There are some fairly challenging hills, all of which we ran multiple times.  He also included a side excursion at the beginning to make the full 50k distance.   But a long race over a hilly course, daunting as they could be, weren't the only challenges awaiting us yesterday.  The weather was also a factor.

We have had a lot of rain over the past few weeks, including several inches the night before the run.  While we ran in clear skies, it was over a course that was very wet.  The side loop at the start was through a meadow that had spots of standing water.  When we left that part and went onto the main course I thought that we were done with the wet spots, but it turned out that they were just beginning.

Over the next 30 miles we ran through standing water in grassy trails, through mud on trails going up and down hills, through water running over the trail as it came off the hills in sheets, through water running down the trail as it found the most direct route to the river, and through two spots where the lake adjacent to the trail was so high that lake water covered the trail. 

A consequence of repeatedly running through all that water was that my shoes loosened and needed to be retied.  I stopped three times to re-tie them and when one of them loosened again with just one mile left to go I altered my stride a bit and kept going, deciding I was only going to re-tie it if it came off my foot.  The picture above is of my shoes after the race. 

As a runner, yesterday’s race was an exercise in perseverance.  The distance itself was a long one and the conditions were much more challenging than I had anticipated.  Running three loops meant that I had the repeated opportunity to decide that enough was enough and just stop when we were close to the finish area.  What kept me going was primarily a matter of my will.  I continually decided that while the going, for the moment, was hard, that I likely had enough to keep on going until the end.  And thinking about persevering as a runner led me to think a bit about perseverance as a Christian.

While running is primarily a function of my will, being a Christian and a disciple of Jesus is a function of God’s will.  The Bible teaches that God has put a claim on us before anything was created (Ephesians 1:3-14) and that He has known every part of our lives before a single moment of our life came to be (Psalm 139:13-16). And best of all, He promises to see us through to the end.

In Philippians 1:6, Paul writes:

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Throughout the ups and downs of life, our joys, our failures, our moments of deep gladness and our moments of deep pain, God is holding us firmly in His hands.  There will be times when we may be tempted by despair and want to quit but God is persevering, with us and in us, with a love that is eternal and unfailing.

In the challenging times of your life, when you feel the weight of life pressing down on you, may you know that you are always held in the hands of God, hands that will hold you both now and 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.