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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Have You Grown Accustomed to a Cold War?

The first days of membership at a new church are so wonderful.  No one knows you well enough to be themselves and thereby rub you the wrong way.  Accordingly, you don’t anyone well enough to be mad at them!  So for a short time, you are exhilarated to go to church, eager to worship and see these magnificent people with whom you’ve gladly made a lifelong covenant.  

But we all know what happens next.  Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say.  They get to know you, you get to know them, and before you know it, everyone is being themselves to the degree that someone offends you or you offend someone else.  Perhaps that offense was a bona fide sin. Perhaps it was just a misunderstanding.  Maybe it was an all-out sin melee.  At any rate, it changes things.  

In the absence of biblical reconciliation, something akin to a religious cold war begins.  In milder cases, the participants are able to smile and make small talk while quietly harboring ill will toward one another.  Beneath the weekly greeting and handshake is the subtext, “See? I can still be nice. But I can’t forget!”  In colder relationships, the participants seek to go to the same church while having as little to do with one another as possible, sometimes even managing to go months without having to acknowledge one another’s existence.  

The weaker among these members may eventually adopt a “covenant-shmovenant” attitude, opting to look for greener pastures.  The stronger, in a somewhat ironic demonstration of commitment, steel themselves to remain and co-exist with their unwanted covenant-fellows.

Perhaps you’ve found yourself in that position at a former church.  Maybe you are somewhere on that cold war spectrum now.  There is someone or someones at PBF with whom there is shared suspicion hidden by mutual smiles.  Or worse - there’s full-blown “bad blood” between you and someone else.  Maybe you’re somewhere in between.  Initially, you didn’t really want it to be this way, but slowly you’ve gotten used to it.  It's possible you even forgot about it until you started reading this. 

There may have been attempts to minimize the situation in your own mind and conscience:

“It’s a personality thing.  I can’t be best friends with everyone.  Of course, there are going to be people that I enjoy more than others.  It’s that way with any group of people.  There’s not necessarily anything awry here.”  

“Everybody has somebody they don’t really get along with.  We’re all human.  There’s no reason to make a big deal about it.”

“I’d love to make things right with that person, but I already know how they’d respond, so I’m not going to waste my time trying.  When the Lord changes their heart, they’ll come to me.”

“The church is plenty big enough for both of us.”

As your pastor, friend, and brother, I warn you - you must snap out of it.  If there is anything more troubling than the reality of such relationships in the church, it has to be how common they are.  It may be “normal” to find strained and broken relationships in the typical local church, but we should never tolerate something in the church that the Bible does not.   

We’re studying the Highly Priestly Prayer of John 17 on Sunday mornings.  In the next couple of weeks, especially the second of those weeks, the text is going to move us to see what an unnatural thing is a broken or strained relationship in the body of Christ.  I’ll not preach that text ahead of time by covering it here.  I simply want to bring before you in an introductory way that what you and I may have learned to live with should be an intolerable atrocity in a community of gospel-loving believers.  

The gospel reconciles us not only to God the Father and makes us one not only with the Father and the Son, but unites us with one another in such a profound way that Paul can write in Ephesians 4:25, “we are members of one another.”  Our union with one another pictures the unity of the Father and Son, which is why Jesus prays that we will continue in the faith: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11b).  This means that by our relationships within the church we either commend or deny the gospel to a watching world!

Let’s pray as we approach John 17:11-23 that the truth would penetrate our hearts and He would eradicate all hints of division among our members.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Growing Need

As we have considered the plight of the orphan in recent years, we’ve focused on several theological realities.  First, God is a helper of the fatherless (Psa 10:14).  This moves Him not only to defend them, but also to judge those who do not care for them and bless those who do (Exo 22:22-24; Deut 14:29).  Second, the gospel teaches that we ourselves who have trusted in Christ are all spiritual adoptees, former orphans in need of the Father to rescue us.  Jesus did not leave us as orphans, but saved us and brought us into His family (John 14:18; Rom 8:15).  Our love for the gospel should move us to live it out by caring for the fatherless.  Third, the Bible teaches that devotion to the Father entails entering into the suffering of the orphan just as He entered into our suffering through Christ (Jas 1:27).  

Adoption and funding adoption is not the only way to embrace these truths and care for the fatherless.  There is a rapidly growing need for foster parents in Ohio.  In July 2013, there were 12,654 children in the Ohio foster care system.  By July of 2017, the number had grown to 15,510.

(It’s quite easy to depersonalize such numbers.  Stop for a moment to consider that’s 15,510 names.  Last Summer there were fifteen and a half thousand people - the most vulnerable people in society - enduring what could be considered among the most traumatic things a child could experience - removal from their parents’ care.)

Due to the opioid epidemic, the number is expected to continue to rise.  A December 2017 study by the Public Children Services Association of Ohio projected that by 2020, the number of children in foster care would reach 20,154.  That’s a 60% increase over 2013.   

And while the opioid crisis is credited with much of the growth, drug abuse by parents accounts for only 32% of foster care cases nationwide.  By far, the number one reason children are removed from homes is neglect (61%).1  Upon entering the system, the average child will spend 20.4 months in foster care before being reunited, adopted, or placed by some other means.

As long as there are enough foster parents to care for these children, perhaps there is little reason for alarm.  But here in Hamilton County there are so few licensed foster parents that almost half of children in foster care are sent to other counties.2  It’s not unusual for County child welfare workers to put a cot between their desks to put a child to sleep because they are unable to find an available foster home.  

What a door this represents for those who love the gospel.  The opportunities are voluminous for those who become foster parents.  The children themselves may have never known a thing about Jesus, but there is also the opportunity to build relationships with their families and the various workers who facilitate placements.  Everyone in the equation has seen the damage created by sin but no true, eternal solution to it.  What a privilege to enter that darkness, painful and difficult as it is, and shine the redemption of Jesus there.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction…(James 1:27).  Of all the things James could have pointed to as unadulterated devotion to the Father, he chose entering into the plight of the needy, the orphan and widow.  This must be because in doing this we re-enact what He has done in the gospel.  While children in foster care may not technically be orphans, they are functionally without parental care and they need someone to step in and fill that role.  James 1:27 calls us to this kind of ministry as an act of devotion to our God.  

Not all are equipped for foster parenting, just like not all are equipped to adopt.  But perhaps more are equipped than we think.  Perhaps the Lord would have us momentarily to lay aside our reasons not to do it and ponder the reasons to do it.  It’s possible that when we’ve done that, the reasons not to do it will seem smaller, less significant, even ridiculous.  

If you would like to learn more about foster parenting in Hamilton County you can find information here:  If you’d to hear more of the personal side, there are people at Providence who can give their testimony.  We’d be happy to connect you with them.  Just call the church office.
1The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System.


Thursday, May 10, 2018

Suffering Well Out of Love for Others

There are many dangers that we face when we suffer.  Perhaps the least recognized is how our suffering affects others.  When we suffer, its possible that we can turn so far inward and downward away from the Lord that our example in suffering negatively affects the faith of others.  

What are we saying about the Lord by the way we suffer?  

Psalm 69 is a great script for pouring your heart out to the Lord in a difficult season.  But it’s more than that.  It contains instruction about how our suffering is not just about us, but about God’s reputation and others’ faith.

Much of the psalm reads just like what you would expect from a person who is in the throes of a desperate trial…

Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. (v1)
I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. (v3)
Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. (v16)
Hide not your face from your servant; for I am in distress; make haste to answer me. (v17)
Reproaches have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. (20)

Most of us can identify with this place: “I’m in terrible trouble.  I’m in terrible pain.  This is awful.  Please help me.”  

But one striking feature of this psalm is a plea in vv5-6:

O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.
Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, O Lord GOD of hosts; let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me, O God of Israel.

Here is David’s concern that may be incredible to us: “Lord, help me to endure this trial so that others’ faith will not be harmed.”  

You see, David understood what you and I should understand as well even though we are not kings of Israel—when we suffer, other believers are affected.  They are affected by our response to suffering in at least a couple of ways.

First, when we suffer, we represent the body.  The Bible does not recognize the individual with the same ferocity as does the Western mind.  We belong to one another.  As Paul writes, “we are members of one another” (Eph 4:25).  When we fail to endure, that is, when we fail to trust Him in the midst of pain, that not only reflects poorly on Him and us, but it also reflects poorly on the rest of the body.  This is the main concern of these verses in Psalm 69.  David is saying, “Lord, let me not fail and bring shame upon those who trust in you.”  

One of the main points of the book of Titus is that believers should live lives that commend the gospel.  It’s a terribly destructive thing to share the gospel with our mouths and then deny it with our lives.  This phenomenon exists not just in individuals, but in the body as a whole.  For the cause of Christ to be harmed, it is not necessary for the same believers proclaiming Christ to be also living ungodly lives.  All it takes is for any believer to live an ungodly life while any other believer is proclaiming Christ.  We are one body.

In the same way, when we as a body proclaim a Christ who is enough to see us through the difficult struggles of life, and any one member deals with a trial as if He is not, the reputation of the whole body is called into question.  We are members of one another.

Second, when we suffer, we either demonstrate or deny the validity of the faith and therefore encourage or discourage others in their trials.  Consider those younger in the faith than you.  They watch you as you suffer.  If you run to false refuges in the heat of affliction, what conclusion might they make about the Lord?  He is insufficient to help on the day of trouble.  When their day of trouble comes, they may just follow your example.  As David characterizes it, they’ll be disgraced and humiliated.

Even in our darkest hours, may the Lord keep at the front of our minds, “Love one another as I’ve loved you.”  Remember that Jesus loved us in His hour of greatest affliction by thinking first and foremost of ways to safeguard our faith (John 13-16).  We are capable of the same thing because the Spirit that empowered Him resides within us (John 3:34; 14:17).  So let’s pray with David: Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me… Let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Sovereign, Comforting, Weeping Savior

Below is an article I wrote several years ago.  Given the recent tragedy that has left many of us reeling, I'd like to post it again.  

Several of our members have either recently lost loved ones or have loved ones who are in dire health. When suffering comes our way, especially in the form of the death of a loved one, what can we find in Scripture that will help us to grieve in a way that honors the Lord?

There will always be the temptation to blame God for our pain, to think of Him simply as the unfeeling puppet-master who is moving history without a concern for those hurt in the carrying out of His sovereign plan. There is the temptation to be angry with God and to become embittered against Him. 

There is one passage that calls to us in times like these, a passage that is profoundly comforting.
John 11 tells the story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus. It is an account that exposes three things: God has a divine plan in our suffering, God desires to comfort us in our suffering, and God desires to mourn with us in our suffering. 

Most of us are familiar with the story. Jesus receives word from Mary and Martha that Lazarus, their brother, is very ill. In v5, the writer inserts a pivotal editorial comment, Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. This one sentence provides the foundation for our understanding God’s motive for all that He does in relation to our suffering in this life. When tragedy strikes, the evil one will undoubtedly tempt us to doubt the love of God. But that thought must be taken captive and made obedient to the truth of John 11:5. God loves us. Everything that He does in the lives of the elect is motivated by His love for them.

The next verse delivers something so profound that it warrants a day or two of solid meditation: So, when he heard that Lazarus was sick He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was. There is one word in that verse that blows the mind. It goes against everything that our human flesh assumes to be true.  “So…” That word attaches vv5-6 together so that one verse becomes the reason for the other. Why did Jesus stay two days longer in the place where He was even after hearing about the grave illness of Lazarus? Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Of course, the understood result of Jesus’ staying where He was is that Lazarus would die. Jesus delayed so that Lazarus would die, because He loved Lazarus and his sisters.

What a monumental statement on suffering in the life of believers. God sovereignly brings suffering into our lives because He loves us. Now, our natural self-centered understanding of good tells us that if God loves us, He won’t allow us to suffer. But that is terrible theology. And if we look closely at this passage, we will see that God’s purpose in allowing us to suffer is benevolent in the truest sense.

When Jesus received word that Lazarus was sick, He replied, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” The true end of all suffering is that God would be glorified. But the question remains, in what way is that benevolent to us? We find the answer in v40, when Jesus says to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” What Jesus planned to do was to glorify Himself and in doing that He was going to display the glory of God to those who were suffering. And in His estimation, that gift was well worth the suffering that they were enduring. 

Suffering in the life of the believer is always an opportunity to see more of who God is. The pain may seem unbearable, but if we will focus on Him and the truth that He allows us to suffer because He loves us, we will find in that pain some of the sweetest fellowship with God Almighty that we have ever known. But we have to believe, He said. We have to believe in His goodness, believe that He loves us, and believe that He is being glorified in our suffering. We would do well to understand that there is far more opportunity for God to be glorified in our pain than in our pleasure.

Not only does this passage tell of God’s divine plan in our suffering, but it also tells of His desire to comfort us in our suffering. Jesus says to Martha in v23, “Your brother will rise again.”  Why would Jesus tell her anything? Why not just say, “follow me,” take her to the tomb, and raise her brother? Why take the time to have a conversation with her? Because Jesus desired to comfort her. 

And in His comforting her, Jesus gave her a peek at the ultimate reason for her suffering – He revealed more of Himself to her: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (vv25-26). He comforted her by pointing to Himself and the glory that waited on the other side of the pain. Life waited on the other side of this death – life that can only be given by the Resurrection and the Life. And notice that in the midst of her pain, Martha was given the opportunity to affirm her belief in the Savior. 

I honestly believe that the only true comfort available in this life is found in God Almighty. Paul writes in 2 Cor 1:3-4, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

God is the God of all comfort. There is comfort nowhere else. And we find throughout the Bible, and certainly in John 11, that God is a God who desires to comfort His people.

Finally, we find here that God desires to mourn with us in our suffering. v35 is one of the most famous in the Bible: Jesus wept. There are a number of proposed interpretations of this verse. Some say that Jesus wept out of anger at what sin had done to the earth He created. Others say that Jesus wept out of disappointment that those around Him failed to believe in Him. Still others say that He wept for joy at the work He was going to do on the cross.

But these interpretations are working way too hard. The text tells us explicitly why Jesus wept. vv33: When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled. He was troubled by their weeping, their suffering, so He wept. What we see here is Jesus weeping with those who weep. He was joining them in their pain. He was mourning with them.

All this, even though He knew precisely what He intended to do – bring glory to Himself by creating good from their suffering. He knew the joy that awaited. He knew the blessing they would receive in beholding His glory, yet He wept in their moment of mourning.

Is there any reason to think He doesn’t do the same with us? The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psa 34:18). God loves us and empathizes with us in our pain.

God has a divine plan in our suffering, He desires to comfort us in our suffering, and He desires to mourn with us in our suffering. If in our sorrow we can turn our focus to God and His character and the things we learn of Him in John 11, it will be possible to mourn in a way that honors and glorifies Him. Suffering is universal. It touches everyone at some point in life. But for those of us who are in Christ, even in our mourning we have hope.  We exult in the hope of the glory of God (Rom 5:2).