Saturday, December 30, 2006

Quote from the "Valley of Vision"

I recently acquired a very precious addition to my personal library. Arthur Bennett has edited a collection of Puritan prayers and devotional titled "The Valley of Vision" (published by the Banner of Truth Trust). Bennett has taken quotes from a variety of Puritans including C.H. Spurgeon, John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, Henry Law, Isaac Watts, Thomas Watson, and others. This book will perhaps become the jewel of my growing puritan collection. For your enjoyment, I am posting the first prayer below.


Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,

Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths
but see Thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter Thy stars shine;
let me find
Thy light in my darkness,
Thy life in my death,
Thy joy in my sorrow,
Thy grace in my sin,
Thy riches in my poverty,
Thy glory in my valley.

To listen to this prayer, performed by the acclaimed Max McClean, click here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Can Christians use the term "X-mas"?

X-mas is a common abbreviation of the word "Christmas". Some people believe that the term is part of an effort to take Christ out of Christmas, or as evidence of the secularization of the Christmas season. But is this really the case?

Actually, no. The word "Christ", along with its compounds ("Christian", "Christmas") have been abbreviated by Christians for over 1,000 years. As far back as 1021 AD Christ was often written as XP ("X" and "P" being the first two letters in the word "Χριστος" - Greek for "Christ").

Several hundred years before this, the early church used the Greek letter "Chi" (Χ) to stand for "Christ" in the ancient Greek acrostic ΙΧΘΥΣ (ichthys). Also, many manuscripts of the New Testament abbreviated the word Χριστος (Christos) with Χρς, or Χς.

Why would faithful Christians throughout history abbreviate the name of Christ? It was because they cherished the name so much they didn't want to use it lightly. They were trying to show reverence and honor for the name "Christ" by abbreviating it. In fact, some of them would probably think WE were the pagans for referring to Dec 25th as "Christmas".

Of course, this isn't to deny that the secular world uses the abbreviation as a way around the obvious religious overtones. It is certainly sad that many people forget about the spiritual aspects of the Christmas season, but it is almost equally as sad that many Christians are apparently unaware of the origins of their own traditions.

I think people who fuss so much about the word "X-mas" are fussing about the wrong issue. They are angry that Christ is missing from the holiday (in fact, "holiday" actually means "holy day", but you never hear about Christians getting angry at this word). But they are getting angry at the wrong issue. They are worried about words when Christ himself is worried about lives. Christ is missing from people's hearts. He is missing from their attitudes and actions. He is missing from their hands & their checkbooks. He is missing from their thoughts and ambitions. He stands ready to accept, forgive and love all who come to Him. And he is calling all Christians to share & live this message of love to the world.

But sadly, Christ is too often missing from the Christians.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Last Night...

So much is happening in the Church on Wednesday nights, and it certainly keeps all of us busy.
I lead the Prayer & Bible Study group (usually about 8-12 people), and over a dozen others assist with the Awana program or Youth Group.
Last night the church had a full house. We had 63 Awana kids in the building, and 20 youth groupers. Counting leaders, the youth & children's program had over 100 in the building.
God is very good to us. Two kids accepted Christ, and a couple more asked to be counseled in order to find out more.
Our prayer group is currently going through Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life. While the book is not without its flaws (I will eventually be reviewing the book on my other blog), it does a good job reminding us what our purpose is in life. So many times we can get sidetracked with needless arguments & controversies, or distract ourselves with the tasks and things. Pastor Warren reminds us that our single, all-consuming purpose in life is to life for God.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Monday, December 11, 2006

About Us

In September of 2006 our family moved to beautiful Northern Michigan. I have took at pastorate at Indian River Baptist Church. As you can see in the background, the winter season has begun (though on this day we had strangely spring-like weather). The church is wonderful, and I deeply enjoy teaching God's word and sharing (and living) Christ among our community.

This is my family. As you can see, I have a three of the cutest stink'n kids. They keep us very busy, and have far too much energy. I love being their Dad. The girl is ALL girl (but she does like to play rough with Dad sometimes). The boys are little monsters who continually discover ways to attack their unsuspecting father. For some reason, I have been permanetly type-cast as "Darth Vader" in the family wrestling wars.

More to come. Blessing to all.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Sermon on Ruth

[This is a work in progress, and is not the final version of my sermon for this Sunday]

Have you ever wondered why our lives don’t seem to match up with the promises of God? Life for the Christian is supposed to be better. We are supposed to experience the love, peace, and blessings of God. Yet we have just as much misery, suffering, and black ugliness in our lives as the unbelievers around us.

Certainly we do experience joy and happiness, but we also experience pain. Live long enough, and everyone will eventually experience the bitterness of life.

The book of Ruth is a story of bitterness and pain. But it is also a story of faith, hope, kindness, and choice. We will see this morning that the book of Ruth sets before us two ways of approaching life. One which fights against the bitterness and darkness, and one that is consumed by them.

Now, this little book has held the church spellbound for thousands of years. It captivates our hearts and imaginations. Actually, it is interesting to see how non-believing scholars admire this little book. It is studied in the literature departments of some of the most prestigious universities and universally held to be one of the greatest examples of literature ever produced. We can agree with them to this point, but you and I must go further – because we also believe that it speaks truth.

Stories are wonderful things. True stories, as in the case of Ruth, are even better. They don’t so much lecture to us, as they call us to enter into them, to become one of the characters, to take part in the plot.

So, how is it that the book of Ruth continues to hold such power over us? I suggest it is because it offers us a glimpse of ordinary people who live life in an extraordinary way. We will talk about this extraordinary way of life this morning. But first, we must enter into the story.

Follow along with me as I read the first chapter of Ruth.

The story of Ruth takes place sometime during the period of the Judges. This was a 400 year time frame in Israel’s history, after the conquest of the land under the leadership of Joshua and before Saul was proclaimed king.

I want to draw your attention to the very last verse of the book of Judges. It says “everyone did as he saw fit” – though I still prefer the King James rendering – “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”. In fact, the final chapters in the book of Judges are particularly troubling – as they tell the story of a heinous sin committed by the tribe of Benjamin, as well as an equally heinous reaction by Israel as a whole. This was a spiritually dark time in Israel’s history, when people rebelled against God again and again. Foreign enemies continually terrorized the young Jewish nation. There was no peace. As another preacher has said, the book of Ruth gives us a glimpse of the hidden work of God during the worst of times.[i]

In the first five verses tragedy after tragedy occurs in rapid succession.
Verse 1 tells us that Elimelech and his family were from Bethlehem. Wheat, barley, olives, almonds, and grapes grew plentifully in this area – thus earning it the name "bet lehem" – meaning ‘house of bread’. The original Jewish audience that read this book would have been surprised to learn that this ‘house of bread’ could no longer feed this family – an indication of how severe this famine really was.[ii] Yet the most shocking element in this verse was that the man traveled to Moab. Make no mistake – Israel hated Moab. Judges chapter 3 indicates how the king of Moab continually oppressed and attacked the people of Israel. To have to leave your home to provide for your family was bad enough – but to go there, that was simply kicking a man while he was down.

The situation quickly changes. Elimelech dies. His sons marry two Moabite women before they also die – leaving 3 women destitute. Now, we must stop for a moment on reflect on this. Imagine yourself as an Israelite woman several thousand years ago. Your only hope of being cared for is through marriage. The death of one’s husband would have been painful, but also terrifying. Naomi in particular, as on older woman, “faces her declining years with no children to care for her and no grandchildren to cheer her spirits”.[iii]

But to focus only on the financial dimension is to miss the true tragedy of this story. To the culture of this time period, family & clan & tribe meant everything. The extinction of a family clan would have been considered a horrific loss – unbearable not only to Naomi, but also to the original Jewish reader.

This is the darkest period of Naomi’s life. This is her great bitterness.

Bitterness was no stranger to Israel. Today, millions of Jews around the world remember the bitterness of being slaves in Egypt. But they do more than remember it….they actually experience it year after year. During the Seder meal devout Jews eat a bitter herb. It’s horrible. Its flavor leaves a foul taste in the mouth. But, they love it. We will discover why in a moment, but first, let’s return to Naomi and her bitterness.

Naomi now returns to Bethlehem. One of her Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth, accompanies her. Orpah, the other daughter-in-law, returns to Moab when Naomi gives her permission to do so. The townspeople are shocked and overjoyed that Naomi has returned. “Can this be Naomi”, they cry? Can this be our beloved friend and sister?

But Naomi’s bitterness clouds her perspective on life. Much like the native Americans today, the names of the ancient Hebrews held great meaning. Many years before, when Naomi was just born – her parents looked at their precious baby and named her the most appropriate thing they could think of: Pleasant. And their baby girl must have been especially pleasant to them. As you might have guessed, the Hebrew word for “pleasant” is “Naomi”. But now as an older woman battered down by life Naomi takes on a new name: “Mara”. “Bitterness”. She can see nothing pleasant in her life anymore. Life is only misery, suffering, and pain.

Now, Naomi never doubts that God is behind everything that happens. To be honest, her faith in this regards is probably much stronger than yours and mine. In our sophisticated and modern age we feel we know better. Famine and death, we tell ourselves, can be explained perfectly by natural causes. But in our sophistication we have somehow forgotten the simplest truth in life – that God is in control of everything! Naomi’s faith would not allow her to forget this.

In verse 21 Naomi proclaims that it was the Lord who made her empty: empty of happiness, empty of the men she loved, empty of hope. “What should have been a joyous homecoming only reminded Naomi of how much Yahweh had deprived her”.[iv]

Naomi, however, is not the evil character in this story. Make no mistake, she is a believer. She has true faith in God…only it is a “flawed faith”.[v] She believes fully in God’s sovereignty, but “it is a sovereignty without grace, an omnipotent power without compassion, and a judicial will without mercy”.[vi]

But….there is another character in this story, one who has been quietly standing by Naomi’s side. And, before we can move forward we must go backward.

Chapter 4 verse 9 informs us that before his death, Naomi’s son Mahlon had married Ruth. We know very little of who Ruth was, other than she was a Moabites. As we have already said, the Jews and the Moabites didn’t get along very well. If you know anything about the origins of the Moabites, you would know that the Jews despised them not only for what they did (which was to oppress Israel), but also for who they were (a people with a contemptible origin). If your interested in that story you can read about it in Gen 19:30-38.

Along with the other daughter-in-law, Ruth is urged to return back to her own people and her God. The false god the Moabites worshipped with Chemosh. Ruth then utters one of the most moving and faith-inspiring lines of scripture:

“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”

How is it that a girl from Moab can have such faith? She was willing to leave her people, her family, and her Moabite god to follow after Naomi and the true God she worshipped. In Matthew 19:29 Jesus says, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother c or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”

Ruth leaves everything behind to become a follower of God.

But the story continues. To most of us, what follows is familiar. Ruth and Naomi still teeter on the brink of devastation – struggling even to find enough food to eat. In chapter two we discover that this is no ordinary story. Rather, it is a love story. We are introduced to Boaz – the great kinsman-redeemer distant relative whose budding interest in Ruth is a welcome change. This man could marry the girl, keep the family name alive, and provide for Naomi.

Naomi for her part, contrives and manipulates the situation. Taking matters in her own hands, she sets up a secret meeting between Boaz and Ruth on the threshing floor. One can’t help feel for Ruth – this selfless innocent young woman who does whatever Naomi asks.

The plot then thickens when we discover that another man is first in line. In 4:1 the NIV says that Boaz called him “friend”. This is a poor translation. The King James is a bit closer, but the best translation would be Mr. so-and-so. The message is clear. The man who is unwilling to save the name of Naomi’s family was unworthy of even being named in the story.

This beautiful little story ends with Boaz getting the girl, and Ruth producing a son. It ends with Naomi holding her new little grandchild.

This book produces so many emotions. We ache for sad Naomi, bereft of any heir. We pray for an answer, then celebrate with Naomi when the love story provides her a little grandchild…the heir. But yet we sense that something is wrong. Through both tragedy as well as blessing, Naomi still seems to miss the point of life.

I began this sermon talking about two different ways of life for a believer. One way fights against the darkness and bitterness of life, and the other way is consumed by them.

Ruth stands as the prototypical disciple. When an auto manufacturer wants to produce a new vehicle, they make a prototype. Everything that is produced on the assembly line looks to this prototype as a guide. In a sense, Ruth serves as what a believer is supposed to look like. This simple little Moabite girl – a woman who new very little about this new God Yahweh she had just begun to worship – shines as a model of faith for all time. Despite life’s darkness and bitterness, her faith, hope, and love shines bright.

If Ruth is the prototypical disciple, then Naomi is the stereotypical one. Naomi is a woman who is consumed by her circumstances. She is overwhelmed by the bitterness of life. She has faith – great faith. But she has no hope. Somewhere along the way she ceased placing her hope in God. When life is filled with blessings and joy, Naomi’s hope is high. When life takes a tragic turn, her hope is dashed.

Naomi should have known better. It was she, not Ruth, who was raised in the knowledge of God. It was Naomi who faithfully worshipped God each week and memorized scripture. It was Naomi who had a faith seasoned with years of spiritual maturity.

But is was Ruth, not Naomi, who lived as a disciple should.

Earlier, I mentioned that Jews today still partake of the bitter herb. They do this to remind themselves of the bitterness of their former slavery in Egypt. I mentioned that despite the foul taste of this herb they still love it. They love it because it reminds them that their hope is in God. Bitter herbs, mixed with faith and hope in God, have a sweet flavor.

This little book portrays God as being involved in life’s ordinary affairs; indeed, they are exactly the arena in which he chooses to operate. It describes how God works through, not despite, the everyday faithfulness of his people. God is a central character in this story, and he continually pursues his people.

God is calling us to be his disciples. He is asking us not only to believe He exists – to have faith. He is also asking us to hope in Him.

Naomi believed in the sovereignty of God. She just stopped believing in His kindness and mercy. We can only be truly liberated from whatever life throws at us when we learn to trust the sovereign and merciful God who is continually pursuing us.

When we can trust in both the power and mercy of God, then bitter herbs have never tasted so good.

c Some manuscripts mother or wife
[i] Material and ideas in this paragraph taken from a sermon by John Piper. See
[ii] Robert L. Hubbard Jr. New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Ruth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 85.
[iii] Hubbard, 97.
[iv] Hubbard, 126.
[v] Daniel I. Block, The New American Commentary: Judges, Ruth (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 647.
[vi] Block, 647