A Soggy Sinner

In the beautiful city of Claremont where I live, there is a lively little section of shops and dining called The Village, and I occasionally go there to study and write. Recently I was sitting in the outdoor plaza there, which has a creative, interactive fountain that is well-loved by the children of our town. As I was working, I happened to see two ladies walking past with a little boy in tow, who was perhaps 5 years old. fountain ClaremontThe boy’s mom had a hold of his hand, but as they walked past the fountain (which the two ladies seemed not to notice at all) the boy was visibly attempting to get out of his mother’s grasp, and he kept longingly looking at the splashing water as he was dragged past it into The Coffee Bean cafe.

I smiled to myself at the boy’s obvious preference of playing in the fountain over sitting in the cafe while his mom and her friend chatted, and inwardly commiserated with him in his unfortunate situation. But then I got back to my work and forgot all about the boy, until some time later when he emerged with a grin from Coffee Bean, unrestrained by his mother’s grasp, and headed straight for the fountain. His mother was still deep in conversation with her friend, but threw a halfhearted threat in the boy’s direction, telling him not to get wet. Sarcasm got the best of me as I thought to myself, “Good luck–that’s not going to happen!”

Well, sure enough, the gravitational pull of the water proved to be greater than the fear of mom’s threat. But it was intriguing to watch that play out in front of me. First the boy just walked up to the edge of the fountain, then he pretended to dip one foot in the water. Eventually the foot that was hovering over the water accidentally got a little wet, then it was a full step down into the water with just that foot. After the first foot was soaked, it wasn’t long before the second foot joined in, and with both feet in the water, the delighted little boy couldn’t help but dance around and splash his feet.

I think you can guess as well as I could how this story played out. The stomping feet produced wet pants, and since the pants were wet, why not just sit down in the water? And since sitting down was so delightful, maybe laying down would be even better! In fact, the raised part of the fountain with water pouring into the lower part looks like a little waterfall, so why not crawl through that head-first? So it wasn’t long at all before this little boy was completely soaked from head to toe, and loving every minute of it. All the while, his mother would occasionally look up from her conversation and scold him, but never intervened to stop him.

As I watched this little drama unfold before me, I was enjoying the obvious delight of the little boy, yet at the same time I was dismayed by his complete disregard of his mother’s instructions (as well as her complete failure to follow through). It was as if James 1:14-15 was being acted out in front of me. James describes the progressive nature of sin, starting with desire, giving birth to sin, and finally leading to death. “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

The little boy’s desire was obvious–he wanted to play in the fountain. That was not a sinful desire in and of itself, but it became sinful when it was set against his mother’s command to not get wet. But desire is strong, and the boy was lured and enticed by what he desired, until desire morphed into action and the sin of disobedience was born. Unfortunately, if that little boy is not rescued from his sin through trusting in Christ, that seemingly insignificant disobedience will end in total separation from God–he will one day get what he desires and find that he has desired the wrong thing.

To be fair, the mother’s desire was also obvious–she wanted uninterrupted conversation with her friend. That also is not a sinful desire in and of itself, but it became sinful when she elevated her enjoyment over the well-being of her son. She also was lured and enticed by what she desired, and her desire translated into disregard and abdication of her parental role. Unfortunately, what took place that morning was probably already a pattern in her life, and the longer that pattern persists, the greater her need of rescue grows.

So what are you–and what am I–desiring in this moment? Is that desire starting us on a path toward deeper trust and dependence on God? Or is it starting us down the path toward sin and death? We would do well to regularly consider those questions…

Everyday OTS

Instead of the typical Vacation Bible School (VBS) that most churches do (usually consisting of 5 weekday morning sessions), our church does a 3-day, 2-night Vacation Bible Camp (in which the kids and staff camp out for a little over 48 hours). The kids love it, but it’s a whole lot of work for all the volunteers! This year my older son served on the “work crew,” which was a team of 10 high-schoolers who set up tents, cleaned bathrooms, washed dishes, and generally served as the go-fers for the camp. My son (and the rest of the team) worked really hard, with great attitudes–I was super proud of them!

But I was even more pleased when the day after camp, while my son was still very tired, he walked in to the kitchen, saw the sink full of dirty dishes, and immediately stepped up and washed them all. No one asked him to do it, and no one praised him for doing it–he just did it.

Some opportunities to serve (OTS) are big and visible and short-lived, such as serving on the work crew for Vacation Bible Camp. In one sense, that kind of OTS is easy because there is immediate payoff in the kudos that it (rightfully!) procures. Other kinds of OTS are small and seemingly invisible and ongoing, such as washing dishes at home. Though the work itself may be exactly the same (they washed dishes at camp too), the fact that it’s everyday and unending and probably doesn’t garner any praise, makes it much harder to do with a joyful attitude. And I’m not just speaking about my son here!

In Jesus’ parable of the talents (in Matthew 25), the Divine commendation to the faithful servants is: “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.” It did not matter how much each servant had started with or how much they had gained–what made them “good and faithful servants” was that they had invested and used the little that they had been given. Immediately after this parable, Jesus gives His well-known challenge that what Christians do for “the least of these,” Jesus sees as being done for Him directly. But in what Jesus says there, the righteous who give food and drink and welcome and clothes to Jesus (through doing it for unknown needy ones) don’t even know that they have done that. They are simply going about their everyday lives in kindness and generosity and love. It is an everyday OTS, not a one-time big event. They are being faithful in the little things, serving in the little ways, trusting that their heavenly Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward them (Matthew 6:4).

So I hope that we who call ourselves Christians will not only do the big OTS events, but will also faithfully invest in the small, unseen OTS of our everyday lives. Don’t get me wrong–serving at Vacation Bible Camp (or School, as the case may be) is a very valuable investment of time and talent, so do it, and do it joyfully! But don’t stop there and rest on your laurels, but look for the dishes that need to be washed or the disabled daughter who needs a smile or the stressed-out coworker who could use some help. It’s in those little, unseen OTS that we unknowingly serve our Savior and point others to Him.

A Prayer in the Valley of Shadow

In The Silver Chair (one of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia), the great lion Aslan gives Jill some signs by which she and Eustace are to find the lost prince. But then Aslan warns her, “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly; I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.”

We also speak of “mountaintop experiences” in which God’s voice seems so clear and our perspective is sharpened. Prayer on the mountaintop feels easy because God feels so close. But we don’t live on the mountaintop.

We live in the valley, where the air is “thick,” where our senses are dulled by the noise and our sight is dimmed by the shadows. We live in the “valley of the shadow of death,” as the psalmist put it, and prayer in the valley doesn’t feel so easy or exciting.

My favorite collection of prayers is a little volume of Puritan prayers called The Valley of Vision. The first prayer (from which the volume gets its title) is a prayer out of the depths of the valley, but in this case, the valley–because of its darkness–becomes a place of clear vision if one looks up to see the brightness of God’s stars above. Whatever valley you may find yourself in, may this prayer lift your eyes to the One who is far above you holding all things together, and yet is even now with you in the valley.

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.

Watch Out!!

If your 2-year-old daughter was unknowingly walking toward danger, you would use the strongest words and tone necessary to get her to stop; in fact, you wouldn’t hesitate to physically restrain her and pull her away from the danger, if needed. Likewise if your friend or parent started experiencing symptoms of a stroke, you would not be apologetic in demanding that they immediately go to the hospital.

If that is how we automatically respond when a loved one is in danger, why do we recoil when a pastor, or a friend, warns us of the very real danger of hell? If a loved one’s soul is in danger of being in torment forever apart from the mercy of God, why do we squirm and fidget and feel like we’re being tremendously unloving to say such a thing to them?

One possible reason is that we have relegated hell (along with God’s wrath against sin) to the category of “archaic” or “puritanical,” and therefore consider anyone who still believes in such a ludicrous notion to be rather backward or small-minded. Unfortunately, though, hell doesn’t just disappear when people stop believing in it.

Another reason might be that any discussion of hell elicits images of street-corner preachers shouting hellfire and brimstone condemnations. Perhaps even Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, comes to mind–and we’re not sure if that’s an accurate portrayal of the loving God we think we know.

Or maybe we’ve simply bought in to the relativistic worldview of the culture around us, that proudly proclaims each individual’s right to decide their own beliefs and determine their own destiny. And therefore for anyone to claim that they know something absolutely smacks of arrogance and presumption.

The more that I read of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons and writing (and I’ve probably read over 700 pages in the past few weeks!), the more impressed I am at the depth of his pastoral heart. And the more convicted I am of how small and self-serving my own love for others usually is. Edwards speaks of hell often, and solemnly warns his listeners and readers to consider the condition of their soul and turn to God so that they might be saved from the wrath that they are most certainly headed toward. He warns those who think they are saved, spelling out in great detail the ways to distinguish true assurance of salvation from self-deception or emotionalism. And he does all of this without apology or hesitation–simply because he loves his people.

So friend, take heed! Where does your soul stand before God? Hell is real–the mercy of God through Jesus is your only hope, so cry out to Him and put your trust in Him while you still have opportunity. Do not delay! And Christian, on what are you basing your confidence? Is there evidence of your union with Christ, in an increasing awareness of your sin and a growing dependence on God’s mercy to put that sin to death? Don’t presume that you are entitled to salvation, and don’t treat it flippantly (like, “Of course, I’m saved!”), but “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5).

Crunch Time

It’s crunch time, and I’m feeling the stress of it. Multiple papers for my classes at Talbot have been due in the past week. My final exam is tomorrow and I haven’t started studying for it yet. There are several big events happening in my pastoral ministry, which I am responsible to oversee. Even a couple of new responsibilities that I had no way of anticipating are converging on these same couple weeks. Despite my best efforts to plan ahead and avoid a crunch like this, here it is. Maybe you can relate?

So a couple verses of Psalm 22 resonated deeply with me as I read it today. In verse 11, the lament and plea of David is this:

Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.

David’s troubles were far greater than my own, but I can certainly relate to the cry of his soul that God would come close. Help is far away. Trouble is near at hand. “So God, don’t also be far from me!”

He repeats a similar plea in verse 19:

But you, O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid!

In place of the despairing groan of “there is none to help,” here David pleads with faith and hope. God alone is his help, therefore he is not left to flounder on his own. “So God, come quickly and be the help I need!”

David’s song ends with a note of hopeful praise: what will be “told of the Lord to the coming generation” is that “God has done it!” (vs. 30-31) When trouble is near and other help is far (or nonexistent), God is our “very present Help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Come quickly to our aid, God, in whatever crunch time we are facing!

Sins vs. Sin

A small view of sin results in a small view of the Gospel.

If our understanding of depravity is that we do bad things (or fail to do the right things), we focus only on sins in the plural. In that understanding, sin is tied to behaviors or actions that we do or don’t do. And certainly those sins are abhorrent to God (Proverbs 6:16-19, Galatians 5:19-21, etc.). But sin is bigger than acts of sinning.

Scripture speaks of sin as the nature that we as human beings are born with (Romans 7:18). It is what comes naturally out of our hearts apart from Christ. It is what makes us enemies of God who are destined to receive His wrath (Romans 5:10, Ephesians 2:3). It is the constant inclination of our hearts away from God (Genesis 6:5).

That sin is so pervasive that even our seemingly righteous acts can come out of a heart that is set on autonomy from God (Isaiah 64:6). Martin Luther coined a phrase that aptly depicts this pervasive sin in our hearts: incurvatus in se.  This Latin phrase means “curved in on oneself.” The essence of our sin is that we try to save ourselves–we try to make life work apart from God.

When we begin to grasp the depth of that sin, and when we begin to realize that even our virtue is clouded with self-salvation efforts, we can cry out with Paul in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” But it is that cry of wretchedness that then opens the door to exclaim in great joy with Paul, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25)

Seeing sin in all its ugly depth allows us to see the Gospel in all its wonder and beauty.

50 Years!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI flew up to Portland, Oregon yesterday in order to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, together with my siblings and their families. In a time in which commitments of any kind are hard to come by, let alone the commitment of marriage “till death do us part,” it is a tremendous gift to have parents who are still married after 50 years! And while my siblings and I certainly wish that there was a greater depth of friendship and intimacy in our parents’ marriage, we still rejoice in God’s faithfulness to carry them through all these years, and we honor their faithfulness to one another “for better or for worse.”

Marriage is meant to be a picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Because we are sinful human beings, the picture that our marriages portray is often clouded and less than perfect. And yet even in that it is still an accurate picture, because Christ has loved us even when “we were dead in our trespasses and sins” and He has given His very life for us “while we were yet sinners” and enemies of Him. So I rejoice in these 50 years that my parents have remained faithful to their wedding vows, and I rejoice even more in the faithfulness of my God to love me in spite of all my sin and brokenness!

50 anniv parents