Autumn and the Beauty of Death for the Christian

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(Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash)

I am a pastor in New England, and let me tell you–there is a reason people come from all over the country to see the Fall foliage. Here in New England, we call them “leaf peepers.” During peak leaf season, our sleepy tourist town of 5,000 goes into traffic-jam mode on the weekends. And with good reason. In our part of Vermont, we are surrounded by the Green Mountains on either side of the large valley we live in. When Fall really hits, there are a couple of weeks when the Green Mountains become the Orange, Red, and Gold Mountains.

We are currently easing into leaf season. There are bright bursts of brilliant crimson and orange on certain trees, but there is still plenty of green foliage that will have the chlorophyll leaving soon. Many leaves, however, are already floating to the ground. When a leaf falls to the ground, it is dead. The beauty of Fall foliage is death.

The Beauty of Christian Death
As I have watched the breathtaking hues begin to appear this Fall, I keep thinking about the fact that sometimes death is beautiful. In fact, for those who belong to Jesus, for those who are “in Christ,” death is always beautiful. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). If the LORD calls the death of those he has saved “precious in his sight,” then it is beautiful.

I am a pastor. I am not naively saying that the death of those who are in Christ is without sorrow, or always happens painlessly in our sleep. Just this week I visited a member in a hospice home, suffering under the ravages of Alzheimer’s. I have sat and cried with spouses and children moments after their loved one has departed this earth, sometimes after a terrible battle with death. I have visited church members in the hospital who are in excruciating pain days before their death. Accidents happen to saints and sinners alike. Cancer can visit us all. The Apostle Paul calls death the “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

No, I am not talking about Christian death being beautiful because it is somehow less physically painful or less final on this side of eternity than non-Christian death. I am talking about Christian death being beautiful because the gospel gives us God’s perspective on even our final enemy, death.

Going Home–The Joy of Jesus’ Presence
Last night in Prayer Meeting we sang, “When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” Great gospel truths like this one from “How Great Thou Art” can become white noise to us if we don’t stop and think about the wonder of death being the door through which we are usually “taken home.” In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul reminds us of the joy of Jesus’ presence that awaits us by exclaiming, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Death for the Christian is beautiful because it brings us to the place we were made for. We are only pilgrims now. We will finally be home with the Lord either when Jesus returns, or on the day that we die. This is why there is beauty in Christian death.

But there’s more. Four verses earlier in 2 Corinthians 5 we are told why the day of our death is the day of our greatest joy: “…so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4). We think that we are really living life here and that one day we will die, but one reason that the death of the LORD’s saints is precious in his sight is because he knows that our death day is the day that we pass from mortality to life. The beauty in Christian death is that it is when we begin to really live, with the One we were made to live with, our Savior–not to mention saved family and friends who will meet us there. In Jesus, it is not death to die. This is why King David can sing, “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). It’s like arriving home to the family you love after a long trip–only a billion times better.

The Beauty of Fall and The Hope of Resurrection
Every time that I officiate a Memorial Service for a believer in Jesus, I feed my soul on 1 Corinthians 15 in the days leading up to the service. We need to weep as Jesus wept. We need to feel that death is so final on this side of eternity. But we need to remember that for the Christian, their death day was the most beautiful day they ever experienced.

And there is coming a day when Jesus will reveal that beauty to all of us. For on the day that he returns, the resurrection body given to each believer will be imperishable, glorious, and powerful (1 Corinthians 15:42-43)! “We shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

The beauty in Christian death is hard to see sometimes. Winter can be long and bleak. After the leaves fall, our trees will be barren here for over 6 months.

But lift your heads, brothers and sisters, because Spring follows Winter. It may be Fall now, but Spring time–and Resurrection Morning–is coming.

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Why We Actively Support a Local “Crisis Pregnancy Center”

Each Spring since my family and I arrived in Bellingham for me to be the Pastor of Family Ministries at Immanuel Bible Church, we have joyfully participated in the Whatcom County Pregnancy Center Walk for Life. There are many reasons to share about why we do this, but let me explain a few:

1) God cares about every life.   “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb…Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” (Psalm 139:13-14) Every time that God talks about the unborn or children in the Bible, it is positive. God is actively and personally involved in the unborn’s life—and the LORD calls them babies even before they are born (Luke 1:43-44, Jer. 1:5, Job 31:15, Is. 44:2, Job 10:8-12).

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The 2013 Walk for Life–with a few friends from our church!

2) Doing the Walk for Life is good for my kids. Our children are too young to understand abortion, but when we go to the Walk for Life and explain that we are there to help mommies be able to help their babies live, they understand that it is important. They also understand that our faith should not just be something we talk about, but something we try to act on as much as we can. We pray together before and after for the babies and their parents, and that they would find the hope of Jesus.

3) My kids being present at the Walk for Life is good for others. Whether they are people on the street that see us walking, or the single elderly man in our church who comes out to support the WCPC every year, having kids present at the Walk for Life is a reminder of why we are doing it. These are kids who were not aborted. There are children who should be in our community who are not because of abortion. In fact, the equivalent of this year’s graduating classes at both Bellingham High School and Sehome High School are surgically aborted every year just in our county—415 who would have graduated in the year 2033.

My wife Melanie and I actively support the work of WCPC because we care about what God cares about. After almost a decade serving in Youth and Family Ministry, we have known teenagers who lived with the regret of abortion and needed to understand God’s grace, and others who needed to understand God’s truth and grace as they were pregnant and needing encouragement to have their baby. The WCPC is a place where teens and women in our community that we would never have contact with on our own can go and hear both truth and grace.

Roe v. Wade happened six years before I was born. As Christians, we cannot let abortion become “white noise” to us simply because it has “always” been there. It is always the time to stand together for life. If a woman hears the Gospel for the first time in her moment of crisis and also decides to not abort because we raised pledges and arrived before 9am on a Saturday with our children in tow, then praise God! What a small sacrifice for a life and eternity-changing ministry.

As citizens of only four countries in the world that allow abortion for any reason after viability (North Korea, China, Canada and the U.S.), and as Christians, we must do something. In addition to the Walk for Life, Melanie has helped with a Baby Shower that our church hosted, attended the WCPC Annual Dinner, and I recently brought our High School Ministry to pray in front of Planned Parenthood and then pray in front of WCPC after a Bible study on what God thinks about the unborn. At this stage in our lives, we can’t personally be there to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the women and men who come into those doors scared and looking for answers. But we can support those who are the hands and feet of Christ there on a daily basis! And sometimes that is as simple as going for a walk.

*This article will appear in the WCPC April 2015 Newsletter.

Gaze Upon the LORD Even When You Feel Like You Will Be “Eaten”

Paul David Tripp recently helped me to keep my focus where it should be during the storms of life, firmly on the LORD of glory, as I listened to a sermon from Psalm 27.  I think Psalm 27 will help you too.  Here are 4 practices we need to do daily.
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1) Gaze
It appears that David wrote Psalm 27 either when he was in a cave hiding for his life from King Saul, or running for his life during his son Absalom’s grab at the kingdom.  When David wrote, “When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh…” (Ps. 27:2a), he literally may have had an army encamping against him (Ps. 27:3a).  It can’t get much more dire than your enemies breathing down your neck, like hungry wild dogs who want to eat your flesh.

What would you ask for if you could ask the LORD for anything if you were in a similar situation?  Maybe for weapons?  If you were honest, maybe for a bomb that would wipe your enemies out, or for the situation to simply change radically–like being beamed right out of the problem to another location?  Listen to what David asks for: “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in His temple.” (Ps. 27:4)

2) Remember
 When we gaze upon the beauty of the LORD, we are not only reminded of who God is, but also who we are.  We have a new identity as His child.  The LORD is not just “light” and “salvation,” He is my light and my salvation!  Because of this personal truth, David can exclaim, “Of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1)

3) Rest
Resting in the LORD is not a passive activity, but a vigorous spiritual activity.  We can rest because we continue in the fight of faith.  This gives our hearts rest and hope: “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.” (Ps. 27:3)

4) Act
After gazing upon the beauty of the LORD, remembering who He is and thus who we are as His children, and resting in Him, we can then act with great hope and courage when the time comes: “…be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (Ps. 27:14)

This One of glorious beauty has been connected to you by faith.  Because of Christ, we can be confident and hopeful even when we feel like we will be “eaten”!

HT: These main points are from a wonderful message by Paul David Tripp given at the Desiring God 2014 Conference for Pastors, “Living the Gospel That You Preach.”  You can listen to it for free here.

The Congregation

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Note:  This is part of an on-going series as I blog through D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ “Preaching and Preachers.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones turns to the congregation in Chapter 7 of Preaching and Preachers.  Considering that this book was originally published in 1972, it has amazing relevance to today.  In talking about modern men and women and how the “pew” too often now tries to dictate to the “pulpit,” Lloyd-Jones defends the idea of a pastor opening the Bible and preaching from the text.

We are told that today they cannot think and follow reasoned statements, that they are so accustomed to the kind of outlook and mentality produced by newspapers, television and films, that they are incapable of following a reasoned, argued statement…

…Another form which it takes is to say that these people cannot understand the biblical terminology, that to talk about Justification and Sanctification and Glorification is meaningless to them… (135)

Lloyd-Jones explains that although people in the congregation at different levels of maturity (and even different ages) will be able to comprehend biblical truths on different levels, that there should be a simplicity to our preaching that all can understand: “There is no greater fallacy than to think that you need a gospel for special types of people.” (141)

I praise God that I serve a congregation who hungers for God’s Word.  We are a local body that ranges from men with Master of Divinity degrees to stay at home moms to university professors to little children.  We have union workers and high-level programmers and custodians all sitting in our pews on Sunday.  We have believers who have walked with God for over 60 years and others who are still asking questions about who Jesus is.  My job is to tie myself to God’s Word and proclaim Christ Jesus and Him crucified.

Times will change.  Times have changed since Lloyd-Jones wrote Preaching and Preachers.  Education level and careers and technology and even spiritual maturity will be in a constant state of flux in our world.  But there are several constants that I thank Lloyd-Jones for reminding me of: people are sinners, Jesus is a great Savior, and the Holy Spirit speaks powerfully to people through His preached Word!

With the Apostle Paul I declare, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24)  The Spirit of God takes the Word of God and points to the Lamb of God to bring people to God.  That will never change.

Source:  Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn.  Preaching & Preachers: 40th Anniversay Edition.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

See God’s Glory Through Your Children’s Eyes

This morning, I was sitting next to a 4th Grade boy and I witnessed something that made me thank God for the marvelous way that He has created children.  We need to learn from them.  Study_of_the_human_hand

I was in chapel at the Christian school that my son attends, and as we were singing before I got up to teach I noticed the boy next to me flexing his hand again and again.  It didn’t seem that it was hurting, but simply that all of a sudden he was fascinated with how his hand was made and how he could open and close it.  Then, just as soon as he had gotten distracted from singing to marvel at the intricacy of the human hand, he began to sing to the Lord again.  And I mean belting it out, eyes closed in worship.

As we sang about how awesome our God is, I was moved to thank God for the ways that we can see His glory through children’s eyes.  Children are naturally curious.  They are sponges.  This is why your 2 year old’s every other word is, “Why?”  They are constantly learning about the world, which is why it is so important that we are there and willing to take the time to point them to the God who created the world: “Young men and maidens together, old men and children!  Let them praise the name of the LORD, for His name alone is exalted; His majesty is above earth and heaven.” (Psalm 148:12-13)

maple leafI brought my 20 month old to the mailbox the other day, and as we walked back he stopped, fascinated with the way the breeze was blowing the leaves in the tree near our house.  I had never even noticed that tree there.  My 2 1/2 year old daughter and 6 year old son would have sat for over an hour on our front porch recently if I had let them, as they were enthralled with the trail that a snail was making across the step.

Do you have eyes to see the world the way a child does?  The human hand, the dark red of a maple leaf waving in the breeze, and the slow inching along of a snail all speak something of God’s glory.  He is a creative, omnipotent God.  If we have eyes to see, they are pointing us to Him.  Your children, grandchildren, or the kids in your class delight in the details that we as busy adults often miss.  Just as they point out these glories of God’s creation, we need to be ready to point them to the glory of our matchless God who created all of these things.

Do You Tremble at God’s Word?

open bibleIsaiah 66 holds an incredible promise and posture that we should have toward God’s Word.  The LORD God who made the Heavens and earth declares:

Thus says the LORD: Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool … All these things my hand has made; and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD.  But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.  (Isaiah 66:1a, 2)

Jeremiah Burroughs, a Puritan who preached a series of sermons around this verse in 1644, helps us today:

Who are more despised among men than those who are poor and contrite spirits, whose hearts shake and tremble at God’s Word? … All the beautiful objects in the world are not so lovely in the eye of God as a heart that trembles at the Word.  The Lord accounts nothing in all the world worthy of looking at in comparison to this object.  But at this the Lord looks with abundance of delight…

…Certainly, if you tremble at God’s Word, you shall be comforted.  Though perhaps you do not yet find comfort, yet if the Word of God can make your heart to tremble, it will comfort you.  Wait for it…

…Whenever you come to hear, do not hear it as the word of men, but as the Word of God.  Though it seems to be harsh to you, oh, it comes to your good.  And there is cause why you should do so. It is the Word from whence you had your life.  That’s the immortal seed of the Word by which you are begotten.  If your souls are begotten to God, it was by the Word…

One of the great comforts to our soul that we know Christ as our Savior and have peace with God is if our hearts tremble at God’s Word.  Only the Lord knows if your heart truly trembles at His Word.  If that is true, He looks to you!  If that is not true, beg Him to make it so!  For He loves to answer the prayer that exclaims, “For you have exalted above all things your name and your word”! (Psalm 138:2)

Source:  Burroughs, Jeremiah.  Gospel Fear: A Heart that Trembles at the Word of God.  Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1991.

Do You See Election as an Act of God’s Eternal Love?

Believer, you may have had times of great struggle or confusion in your theological understanding of election.  Even those of us who have long held to a reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation will often admit that although we think there is great clarity in God’s Word regarding election, there is also great mystery in this doctrine.

diff-lighthouse-waveBut brother or sister in Christ, I hope that there are times in your pursuit of the Lord and your understanding of Him and His Word that you throw out all of your objections and cling to this doctrine as a beloved anchor for your soul.  I am not suggesting that you should not continue to study and think hard about great sections of Scripture like Ephesians 1:3-6, “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.”

What I am saying, though, is that Scripture does not present election as a great conundrum but rather as a great comfort.

When you feel as if the earth has given way under your feet, you no longer question God’s ways but you cling to Him and His promises with all that you have.  This is strongly implied in Romans 8:28-31.  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.  What then shall we say to these things?  If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, doesn’t answer, “What then shall we say to these things?” by questioning God’s unconditional decrees and purposes.  Rather, Paul sees God’s sovereign election mixed right in with God’s sovereign goodness:  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35)  The answer is a resounding “nothing” (Romans 8:39)!

He who chose those He would save in eternity past is intimately involved in every detail of their lives today, and will continue to be until He brings His bride to glory.  When I read, “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ…” (Ephesians 1:4b-5), my heart no longer questions my Lord and my God.  But my heart rejoices in my Savior’s eternal love, a love that loved me long before I loved Him.  That is security.