Sunday, February 24, 2008

Looking for Help in All the Wrong Places

James 2:5-7 (NKJV)5 Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?

Christians are notorious for looking for help in all the wrong places. This was true in James’ day and it is true in ours. The congregations to which James wrote were facing the great temptation of cow-towing to the rich and famous. The truly influential people are these rich people, they reasoned, and so we need to make sure that we treat them exceptionally well. I know, when they come in let’s give them the best seats. This will show them honor and respect.

Aye – that’s true enough. It will show them honor and respect. But James reminds his audience that no amount of honor and respect from men can make up for the honor and respect we should be seeking from God. To highlight for his readers the folly of their actions, James makes two observations by asking two rhetorical questions. First, he asks, “Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts?” These folks are not really your friends. Why are you showing preference for them when they aren’t even decent to you? When they treat you abominably ill? This is plain old common sense. Why show preference to someone who is simply out for their own advantage – trying to squeeze out of you every bit of worth there is rather than pour into you more worth than you can hold? Don’t be so enamored with their status or wealth that you miss the obvious point – these people are your enemies.

Second, James remarks, these folks are not friends of Christ either. “Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?” For all their influence and importance in your city, they have no influence with the One whose will is truly influential. They blaspheme the name of God. Why show them favoritism? Why not rather call them on their sin? “Call them on their sin?” we reason. “But then they might treat us like Herod treated John. We might end up with our heads on a platter.” Yes, we might, but then we would be influencing others rather than simply being influenced ourselves.

James’ observations remind us that our true loyalty needs to be with those who confess the name of our Lord and Savior regardless of their social status or shortcomings. We must identify with those whom our Lord Himself identifies. How often do we separate ourselves from other believers who have shortcomings that make us embarrassed when in fact they are our friends? And then, simultaneously, we go out and seek favors from our enemies? We experience this same thing in our families. You older siblings, when your little brother or little sister does something that you find terribly embarrassing, do you distance yourself from your real ally – your sibling – in order to save face in front of others? And when you do so, are you not doing the same thing James warns about? We need to remember who our real friends are and be loyal to them – while there are not many wise, not many noble, not many glorious in the world’s eyes among the people of God, they are our brothers and sisters.

This problem of misplaced loyalty exists not only on an individual level, but also on a corporate level. How often do we see Christians panting after the so-called trend setters in society? How often is the “quote unquote” evangelical vote prostituted for men and women who could care less about the things of God? How often do we refrain from stating the truth simply because we are awed by someone’s social status or income level? We are a people who fear men more than we fear God.

Reminded that we often betray those to whom we should be loyal and simultaneously seek kudos from those who oppose us, let us kneel and confess our sin to the Lord.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Confess Your Sins to One Another

A helpful portrayal of the good that can come from confessing our sins one to another. Enjoy.

Educating Our Children

For those of us who homeschool our children, it is imperative to remember the goals toward which we are striving. What is it we are endeavoring to achieve as we educate and train our children?

As we answer this question, it is helpful to consider the answers of others who have gone before us, Christian and non-Christian. Among the latter group was the ancient Roman senator and statesman Cato the Elder, who lived during and after Hannibal’s attacks on Italy.

Cato is perhaps best known for his unflinching commitment to economy and industry both in private and in public life. He was a great politician – serving in various public offices throughout his life. But Plutarch tells us that Cato himself reckoned a man’s handling of his family more important than his management of public affairs. After all, a man’s treatment of his family was reflective of the way he would treat the state. And so he considered a good husband worthy of more praise than a great senator and maintained that he who laid violent hands on his wife or child, violated that which was most sacred.

In keeping with these sentiments, Cato took his responsibility toward his son very seriously, considering it his highest calling to train his son personally. Unlike many Roman fathers who preferred to observe their sons from a distance, Cato often joined his wife as she bathed and changed him as an infant. When his son was old enough to learn, Plutarch tells us that “Cato himself would teach him to read, although he had a servant, a very good grammarian, called Chilo, who taught many others . . .; [Cato] himself . . . taught him his grammar, law, and his gymnastic exercises.” And when Cato found himself in need of curriculum to teach his son the history of Rome, he himself wrote it out: “he wrote histories, in large characters, with his own hand, so that his son, without stirring out of the house, might know about his countrymen and forefathers."

Not only did Cato train his son intellectually, he also mentored him physically. As it came time for his son to train for war, Cato took the task upon himself. “Not only did he show him how to throw a dart, to fight in armor, and to ride, but to box also and to endure both heat and cold, and to swim over the most rapid and rough rivers.”

Nor did Cato overlook the importance of moral education and example. He was extremely careful “to abstain from speaking anything obscene before his son, even as if he had been in the presence of the sacred virgins, called vestals.” And he took the time to write a series of precepts for his son to guide him on the path of life.

As we examine the training that Cato offered his son, we see that it was full orbed – hitting all aspects of his son’s life – mentally, physically, morally. But the training was simply that – training. It was not the end, but a means to the end. Cato hoped to see cultivated within his son a desire for virtue that would establish him as a man worthy of praise in his own right. And indeed, “though delicate in health, his son proved a stout man in the field, and behaved himself valiantly . . . when his sword was struck from him by a blow, he so keenly resented it, that he turned to some of his friends about him, and taking them along with him again fell upon the enemy; and having by long fight and much force cleared the place, at length found it among great heaps of arms, and the dead bodies of friends as well as enemies piled one upon another.” Thus, Cato had the satisfaction of seeing his labors come to fruition when his son became an admirable soldier and later a fine jurist.

The Apostle John sets before us the same basic expectation for the training we offer to our children. “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.”

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Genevan Missions

While Jimmy Swaggart has long since been discredited as a minister of the Gospel, his sentiments continue to be embraced by a surprisingly large number of evangelicals. Among the maxims issued by the infamous evangelist was the following: “Calvin has caused untold millions of souls to be damned.”

Swaggart’s quote captures the standpoint of millions of evangelicals on the character of John Calvin--cold, hard-hearted, irrecoverably devoted to logical precision, determined to keep as many folks out of the kingdom of heaven as possible--this is the vision of Calvin which fills many evangelicals’ nightmares.

But here at St. Anne’s Pub, we’re in the business of relieving your distress, changing your nightmares into peaceful visions of elysium. I have it on good authority that the very best way to accomplish this is to envision the person about whom you are dreaming in pink poke-a-dot pajamas; but the next best way is to dispel the ignorance of Swaggartisms from your mind with a good dose of historical data. And since we can’t supply the pajamas, we will supply the data. I am Stuart Bryan and this is Ancient Biography.

When folks think of Calvin today, “mission-minded” is not the first adjective that springs into their minds. Perhaps “astute”, “logical”, or even “precise.” But not “mission-minded.” However, as Frank James explains in his recent article “Calvin the Evangelist,” Calvin was remarkably driven by a desire to foster missions throughout the world.

The majority of Calvin’s missionary work was devoted to France, his former home. From the years 1555 to 1562, the number of underground Protestant churches in France mushroomed from 5 to over two thousand. These churches were planted largely through the efforts of missionaries sent out by the Genevan Consistory--the group of pastors in Geneva. And, as James says, these weren’t no sissy churches either--they were mega-churches. In Bergerac and Montpelier the churches included around five thousand people each and in Toulouse the Reformed church grew “to the astonishing number of eight to nine thousand souls.” Wow!

But Calvin’s missionary drive could not confine itself to continental Europe. His vision was too expansive. He dreamt of Protestant missionaries visiting the remotest parts of the earth. And so, when the Huguenot Admiral Gaspard de Coligny proposed sending a group of Protestants to a colony in Brazil, Calvin jumped at the opportunity.

Two Genevan trained missionaries, Pierre Richier and William Chartier, were to serve as pastors for the eleven other colonists and as missionaries to the Brazilian natives. The expedition set out in 1556 and arrived in Rio de Janeiro in March, 1557, the first Protestant mission to the New World. Let me repeat that. Calvin sent the first Protestant missionaries to the New World. I’ll bet you haven’t heard that before.

Unfortunately, the leader of the colony, Nicolas Durand, was a turn coat and began persecuting the Protestants shortly after their arrival. After eight months they were forced to flee into the jungle and seek refuge with the Tupi Indians, a tribe of cannibals! However, rather than despair in the midst of their trials, the Protestants sought to win the cannibals to the Gospel! Ultimately unsuccesful, they found their way onto a ship heading back to Europe and, after a harrowing journey, most of them arrived home.

It would appear, then, that the real Calvin was far different from modern perceptions of him. Far from the cold hearted, disinterested scholar that most Christians picture, Calvin was a man with a passionate heart for the spread of the Gospel. Visionary and enthusiastic, Calvin supported and prayed for numerous mission efforts throughout the world, not only in Europe but in the New World as well. We would do well to imitate him.

Oh, and by the way, if you are interested in reading more about Calvin’s missionary labors, here are a couple book suggestions. First, Robert Kingdon in his book Geneva and the Wars of Religion in France traces Calvin’s missionary activities in France. Second, the expedition to Brazil is described in Jean de Lery’s book History of a Voyage to Brazil, translated by Janet Whatley and published by the University of California Press. De Lery was one of the colonists on the journey and recorded their experiences in this book for the glory of God and the advancement of His Church.

Rich and Poor in the Assembly

James 2:1-4 (NKJV)1 My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. 2 For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, 3 and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” 4 have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

According to Karl Marx, the founder of communism, the key to interpreting world history is class struggle. The rich and the poor have contrary designs and aims – the rich constantly endeavoring to repress the poor and the poor continually endeavoring to supplant the rich. This conflict is the key to understanding and interpreting history as well as resolving the problems of humanity. For, according to Marx, the problems of humanity will only be solved when inequalities of wealth have been eliminated.

But notice that James tells us that the solution for such societal ills lies not in the elimination of rich and poor but in the recognition that the distinction between them pales in light of the distinction between Christ and the rich and poor together. Wealth is not the source of the world’s problems, sin is. Consequently, communism is not the solution to the world’s problems, Christ is.

In Christ, divisions between rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white, aged and young, tall and short are not simply minor errors but undermine the very fabric of the Christian faith. They preach another Gospel. They declare that humanity’s problem lies somewhere other than sin – and hence they proclaim that the solution for humanity is not the Gospel but some type of social engineering orchestrated by the state.

In the passage before us today, James acknowledges that both rich and poor will find themselves in the Church of God. However, he notes that their class standing has absolutely no relevance for their place in the Church of God.

Jesus, James tells us in verse 1, is the Shekinah Glory of God Himself. Notice that James makes this observation in the context of corporate worship – when a man comes into your assembly. In light of what we have learned about worship, James’ comment makes complete sense. When we enter worship, we are entering into the Temple of God, the very throne room of God, Heaven itself to appear before our great God and King as the Church of the living God. When we enter the Holy Place we come before the Shekinah glory - so how can we even dare to divide people based on lesser principles of glory among men? On an earthly plain the rich may appear more glorious – but does not this glory pale before the far superior Glory of our Great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, in whose presence we gather for worship? In Christ, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white, aged and new born, tall and short are to worship together in joyful unity and complementary diversity, proclaiming the excellencies of the one who has saved us from our real problem - sin.

Let us then learn the lesson of James about the Gospel. We must beware lest we become deceived by the empty philosophies about us and imagine that humanity’s problems can be solved in some way other than through Christ. We are living through a period of electioneering in our country. Do not listen to the siren call of those who promise deliverance from societal ills through social engineering. The Gospel is the solution – not Barack Obama, not Hilary Clinton, not John McCain, not Mike Huckabee, not Ron Paul, but Jesus.

Let us pray that He would solve these problems by first and foremost forgiving us for transgressing His ways. Let us kneel and confess our sins together.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Boniface of Crediton

Born in the latter half of the seventh century, he established schools, monasteries, and churches, some of which remain to this day. He labored tirelessly to see the Gospel embraced and applied among a pagan people. He instructed the ignorant, rebuked the immoral, empowered the righteous. His labors spanned a period of 40 years and, in the end, he crowned his life with martyrdom. Who is he? Winfrid is his name, though he is more popularly known as Boniface, the Apostle of Germany.

Boniface was born in England around 680, the son of noble parents. He is accounted one of those esteemed Anglo-Saxon missionaries who rescued continental Europe from the second darkness that descended upon it after Rome fell. Convinced that God had called him to missionary labor, Boniface took the Gospel to the Frisians, a tribe who lived in what is now the Netherlands. Rebuffed in his efforts, Boniface returned to England. However, he could not be content with a sedentary life in a monastery. And so he traveled to Rome. There he met the Bishop, Gregory. He was so encouraged by Gregory’s zeal and confidence, that he ventured into Germany with the Gospel.

Germany was a dark land--it reaked with the stench of paganism. Human sacrifice was common, immorality was rampant, and Christian missionaries not infrequently were murdered. Long attached to the pagan gods, most Germans refused to consent to Christianity. Boniface strove arduously for some time until finally, in a strategic move, he challenged the Germans to a duel. Imitating the faith of Elijah on Mt. Carmel, Boniface met the Germans while they were worshiping at the massive Oak Tree of Thor, god of Thunder. After challenging the Germans to renounce their false gods and embrace Christ, he pulled out an axe and began to chop down the tree. The startled Germans recoiled in horror, awaiting the dread judgment of Thor to fall upon Boniface. To their surprise, no doom fell--on Boniface, at least. Rather a great wind arose, seemingly miraculously, and the tree toppled and burst into four pieces. Thor died that day--and the German people converted to Christianity in droves over the succeeding years.

As his preaching and organizing ministries continued, Christianity became more solidified in Germany. Though encouraged by this turn of events, Boniface once again became restless. He recalled his abortive labors among the Frisians and resolved to return. He was convinced of the great need and impelled by missionary zeal. Accompanying him were numerous assistants ready to endure any hardship for the sake of the Gospel. And hardship came. Encamped by the river Borne where they were baptizing converts, the missionaries were set upon by armed men and slaughtered. Their labors in the land of Frisia ceased; yet their sacrifice was a fragrant offering unto the Lord and He considered it as He used the Gospel to crush the Frisians and bring them to faith in Christ.

What can we glean from the life of Boniface? First, boldness. Boniface was not content with quietude. He pushed himself again and again to advance the kingdom of God. His determination involved great sacrifice, even death, and yet it earned him the title of the Apostle of Germany. By God’s grace, his boldness was used to break the Germans’ bondage to paganism. Second, consistency. Rather than seek to coexist with the dominant paganism of the Germans, he demanded complete allegiance to the Triune God. Boniface understood that the Church has enemies with whom she cannot peacefully exist side by side. Christianity and paganism were mutually exclusive--one must win, the other lose. And, so far as Boniface was concerned, the victor was destined to be the Church. Finally, Boniface can teach us strategy. In his attack upon paganism, Boniface sought out the central symbolic pillar of the German religion and focused his attack there. With the fall of the symbol, German paganism disintegrated. Likewise in attacking our enemies we must make decisive blows against strategic objectives. We must look for the Oak of Thor in Mormonism, Islam, Planned Parenthood and political conservativism. Once found, we must take up the weapons of our warfare which are “divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses” and lay them low. We must seize our axe and fell the tree.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

An "Ungodly" Match: The Marriage of Zeus & Hera

Scripture tells us that the pattern for all marriages is the covenantal union between Christ and the Church. In Ephesians 5, Paul grounds his exhortations to husbands and wives upon this covenantal union. The Christian approach to marriage is, therefore, theological in nature; it is based upon our understanding of Christ and His mercy toward His people.

Enter the gods of the Greeks as portrayed by Homer in The Iliad. Rarely respectable, often pitiable, the gods routinely offend us with their licentiousness, shock us with their callousness, disgust us with their fickleness, and sicken us with their childishness. And the more powerful the god, the more revolting the scene becomes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the “ungodly” marriage of Zeus and Hera, king and queen of the gods.

The marriage of Zeus and Hera is a case study of instability, unrighteousness, and adultery. It seems that, in Platonic irony, the marital problems among men are patterned after the “form” found in Zeus and Hera! After comparing their marriage to Paul’s admonitions to wives and husbands in Ephesians 5, it is evident that Zeus and Hera fail to measure up to the marital mandate given. They demonstrate in both their attitudes and behavior the paucity of their character and the repulsiveness of their hearts.

The headship of husbands is asserted and assumed in Paul’s admonitions. He recognizes that the husband is the head of the wife; hence, the husband is responsible for the wife. Scripture’s vision of this responsibility is driven by Jesus’ teaching on leadership. The true leader is the one who serves. Consequently, the husband is to give himself, in love, for the benefit of his wife. He is responsible to promote her growth in holiness; to nourish and cherish his wife as he does his own body. He is not to take advantage of his wife’s weakness, but is to respect this weakness and make allowance for it. Only in so doing will the marriage be blest.

In addition to being a servant, the husband is to manifest covenant loyalty. Just as Christ is faithful to his bride, the Church, so too Christian men are to be faithful to their wives. When a husband fails to keep covenant with his wife, he teaches that God is not a covenant keeping God, and this is blasphemy.

Zeus manifests none of these traits of a godly husband. First, Zeus never serves Hera. He lectures, he commands, he berates, he threatens; but never does he serve. Never does she receive a soft word from him; never does she receive from his hand acts of love and kindness. He treats her with contempt and her treatment of him is a fitting rejoinder to his pattern of leadership.

Second, Zeus takes advantage of Hera’s weaknesses, both emotionally and physically. Emotionally, Hera is understandably suspicious of Zeus and his dealings with other women, both of gods and men. Zeus recognizes this, but allows it only to embitter him the more firmly against her, rather than move him to repent and abandon his adulterous liaisons. In addition, Zeus takes advantage of his position to taunt Hera and goad her into some outburst. Physically, Zeus often threatens to beat Hera and thus drives her to “submission,” even boasting of the way in which he had cruelly tortured her on one occasion. Quite the loving husband!

Third, Zeus breaks covenant with his wife and even boasts of his immorality. When in the height of his lustful desire for his wife, Zeus proceeds to recount for us, and for her, numerous adulterous affairs he had engaged in. This must have warmed Hera’s heart! What we find is that Zeus’ marital infidelity manifests itself in his treatment of all relationships--he is not a covenant keeping god; he betrays those who most rely upon him. While himself the judge of deception, he openly deceives those who trust in him. Zeus’ failure to keep covenant with his wife is symptomatic of his treacherous character.

Zeus’ failure as a husband is well matched by Hera’s failure as a wife. Hera is anything but submissive and respectful. She is deeply suspicious of Zeus and questions him on his behavior. She finds it difficult to contain her anger and often answers back to Zeus. She uses her womanly charms to seduce and deceive Zeus, hardly the actions of a virtuous maid in whom the heart of her husband trusts. She despises Zeus, is frightened by him, and yet defies him in his weaker moments, rather than seeking to win his heart. Hera’s deviousness matches Zeus’ haughtiness; together they make a miserable couple.

Zeus and Hera epitomize a marriage gone bad. The seed of their hatred and contempt for one another having been sown, it produces destructive fruit in their relationship. Zeus’ infidelity breeds Hera’s suspiciousness which breeds Zeus’ bitterness which breeds Hera’s hatred, ad nauseum.

Thankfully, the pattern set before us in Scripture is much more beautiful, harmonious and alluring. It is one of joyful unity, complementary diversity, mutual serenity, unfathomable mystery. It is the relationship between Christ and the Church.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

White-washed Tombs

James 1:26-27 (NKJV)26 If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

Having exhorted us to be not merely hearers of the word but doers thereof, James now exhorts us not to be mere jabberers about the word but to put its precepts into practice. Here we see the remarkable wisdom of Jesus’ brother and that he too learned from his parents to evaluate things in light of the Word of God.

Most of us hear the exhortation to be doers of the law and not merely hearers and its truth resonates with us. That’s right, James, we say – doers not hearers. We need to be doing what the word says not just hearing it. And immediately having heard the principle we apply it in all the wrong ways.

"Hey you, George, get off your duff and go help that elderly man mow his lawn." "Fran, can you believe that my husband wouldn’t help me do the laundry last night?"

You see rather than hearing the word and doing it ourselves, we hear the word and apply it to our neighbor. You all need to be doing what the Word of God says by gum! Meanwhile we sit idly by, imagining that dictating others’ obedience is the same as being obedient ourselves.

Nowhere is this tendency more noticeable than in our homes. Husbands demand their wives submit to their decisions, but never think to model what submission looks like by dying to their own desires. Wives demand that their husbands talk with them and reveal their innermost thoughts and dreams but wouldn’t dream of uncovering themselves without the lights off. And as parents we do this type of thing all the time with our children. “How dare you raise your voice to me?” we scream as our child retreats into his room. We demand of our children far more than we would ever dream of demanding of ourselves and then have the audacity to call ourselves “good parents” rather than white washed tombs and hypocrites.

What is James’ remedy for our hypocrisy? In short – shut up, mind your P’s and Q’s, and go help somebody who needs it. Stop jabbering about what your neighbor should do or what your child should do and set the pattern yourself. Be an example. James once again exhibits his John the Baptist style – saying it like it is, not pulling any punches.

Reminded that we fail to maintain the same standard for ourselves as we do for others, that we long to take the speck out of our brother’s eye before taking the log out of our own, let us kneel and confess our sin to God.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Why Change Our Church Name to Trinity Church?

January 28, 2008

Dear Brothers and Sisters at St. Brendan’s,

In the great battle at Chancelorsville during the War Between the States, General Robert E. Lee found himself at an impasse. Positioned opposite an enemy well entrenched, well supplied, and looking to be reinforced very soon, Lee tried numerous assaults on the front line – only to meet with disappointment time and again. He simply couldn’t make headway. It was at this crucial juncture that the skills of his fellow general, Stonewall Jackson, enabled Lee to develop a new strategy. And so, keeping a contingent of men on the front line under Lee’s command to dupe the enemy, Jackson took another contingent around the flank of the Union army and caught them totally off-guard. Jackson’s troops stormed the Union lines and the Union fell back in precipitous retreat – harried and pursued by the Confederates along the way. The next day the Confederates continued the push forward and the Union army suffered one of its most disastrous defeats of the war.

This story illustrates for us a very important principle. Pushing ahead in the same direction simply for the sake of pushing ahead is no virtue. There are times in the course of battle, and in the course of life, when the most strategic thing to do is to stop pushing in a certain direction and look for an alternative route. Indeed, this kind of strategic thinking is the crucial point that separates excellent generals from others. Excellent generals are willing to consider that the first course of attack may not have been the best. And when they meet obstacles in the way that are hindering the march forward, they adjust and develop new ways of overcoming the enemy.

In the life of St. Brendan’s we are facing one of these decisive moments. I have now served as the full time pastor for six months. In that time we have grown in considerable ways – our love for one another is deeper, our passion for the Word is increasing, and our devotion to our God is adamantine. Thanks be to God for this growth!

Alongside this growth, we have faced a number of challenges endeavoring to convince others to join us in this venture. Some of these challenges simply go with the territory of church planting – being a small church, meeting in unusual places, being unable to escape notice when you visit church, etc. Others are connected with our doctrinal and liturgical distinctives – the sovereignty of God, Calvinism, covenant renewal worship, etc. The challenges we have faced in these areas are challenges which we have expected and in which we rejoice. The enemies surround us on all sides and, as one early American naval commander remarked, “They can’t get away from us now.”

Alongside these difficulties are others which appear to be of our own making and which, in the judgment of the Steering Committee, are worth avoiding. Among these, the most noticeable is the confusion that is frequently generated by our name, St. Brendan’s. “St. Brendan’s?” folks ask, viewing us with slanted eye, “Are you Roman Catholic?” “Well, no,” we reply with a smile and proceed to offer an explanation of who we are. Meanwhile our acquaintance is thinking to himself, “St. Brendan’s? What in the world are these folks doing venerating saints? I thought only the Catholics did that. Hmmm. I guess there are more strange creatures in the world than I had imagined before.” And why all this self-deliberation when we’re delivering such a persuasive and profound explanation of what it means to be Reformed and Evangelical? Because of the name.

Proverbs 15:2 tells us that “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable.” I fear that our name thwarts this intention. Rather than earning us at least a reasonable hearing with those we meet, it conjures up associations which don’t represent who we actually are and which are contrary to what we are. What are these misconceptions? As I mentioned above – that we are Roman Catholic and that we venerate images. And the tragic thing is, is that the precise point where we most stridently disagree with the Roman wing of Christendom is the exact point where we are tacitly implying we agree with them. Namely, whom are we to worship?

When Paul visited Jerusalem and found himself falsely accused of despising the Mosaic law, he did what he could to dispel this misconception. While the outcome certainly didn’t heal the rupture, Paul’s action exhibits the type of wisdom displayed in Proverbs. Since folks were falsely misconstruing his actions and since he could allay the concerns that were being raised without compromising the truth, he visited the temple to try to bring peace. I think that our situation parallels Paul’s and that we should exhibit the same type of wisdom – changing our name to avoid obvious misconceptions of who we are and what we value.

It is important as we make this change that we also be realistic. Our name is not the only barrier we present to would-be inquirers. We’ve got our fair share of unusual practices and doctrines – Calvinism, the sovereignty of God, covenant succession, covenant renewal, liturgical worship, psalm singing, hand raising, chair banging (oops – I haven’t introduced that one yet), etc. And so don’t expect to see the doors burst open and a massive crowd shove its way into the sanctuary. But do expect less raised eyebrows when you mention where you go to church.

What then shall we call ourselves? Since we have been learning the last couple weeks that the Triune God is to be the center of everything, the Steering Committee has recommended that we call ourselves Trinity Church – A Reformed & Evangelical Congregation. The essence of who we are is Trinitarian believers organized by the Lord Jesus Christ into a formal body. And so the word Trinity emphasizes that that which should most characterize us is Trinitarian living and reflection. All of life – marriage, family, business, community, government – should reflect the life of the Godhead: joyful communion revealing unity and diversity in majestic orchestration. In addition, we are the Church – not simply a warm association of like minded people, but part of the living body in which the Lord Jesus Christ has vested His own authority for the proclamation of the Gospel and the discipling of all the nations. The explanatory phrase – A Reformed & Evangelical Congregation – explains where Trinity Church fits within the current stream of Christendom. We are Reformed, heirs of the robust and biblical exposition of the historic Christian faith found in such 16th century Reformers as Calvin, Bucer, and Beza. But not only are we Reformed, we are also Evangelical – passionately devoted to the Gospel (euangelion) – the good news that the Triune God has invited us to enjoy communion with Him.

Shall we then leave St. Brendan wholly behind us? No. Like Lee at Chancelorsville, we’ll leave those troops on the front line to befuddle the enemy. And so St. Brendan’s may emerge as the name for some celebratory feast or some missionary endeavor that encapsulates the passion which Brendan himself shared with us for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In consideration of these things, let us remember that the church shall ultimately grow only as our Lord Himself blesses our endeavors. And so let us beseech Him to pour out His Spirit upon us and use us to transform our community into the type of Trinitarian community it should be.

For the Steering Committee,

Stuart W. Bryan
Trinity Church
A Reformed & Evangelical Congregation

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Preference or Principle?

James 1:22-25 (NKJV)

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.

It is imperative for us as the people of God to distinguish between being men and women of preference and being men and women of principle. The text before us today provides the basis for this distinction and so let me explain it briefly.

A man or woman of preference is one who would prefer things to be a certain way but who can’t seem, for one reason or another, to accomplish his objective. He would prefer to be sexually pure, but he just can’t seem to resist looking at pornography. She would prefer to be respectful to her husband, but he’s just so unworthy of respect. He would prefer to be honest at work, but the boss simply doesn’t pay him enough. She would prefer to live a life characterized by joy and gladness, but what her parents did to her when she was young is just too much to forgive. He would prefer to have obedient children, but the children God has given him are difficult and his wife just doesn’t do a good job with them. She would prefer to be content, but all her friends have so many more clothes than she. He would prefer to make it to church each Lord’s Day, but it’s simply too hard to get the whole family ready ahead of time. She would prefer not to gossip, but she’s just so lonely she needs someone to talk with. You get the picture. These are all men and women of preference. They are hearers of the word only.

Contrast these scenarios with a man or woman of principle. He knows it is sinful to be sexually impure, and so he does whatever is necessary to shield himself from temptation. She knows that she must respect her husband, and so she begins honoring him with her words and actions, praying that her heart attitude will gradually change. He knows the utter necessity of honesty, and so he takes another job rather than steal from his employer. She knows that God commands her to be joyful, and so she confesses her sin of bitterness and refuses to listen to her own sob story. He knows he is responsible for the state of his children, and so he asks his wife’s forgiveness for failing to train them and then he sets about to make them obedient. She knows that contentment is not an option, and so she meditates on the Word of God and rejoices that God is her portion in the land of the living. He knows that his family needs to be in worship every Lord’s Day, and so he organizes everything Saturday evening so they can make it. She knows it is a sin to gossip, and so she confides her loneliness to the Lord and looks for ways to praise others with her words. These are men and women of principle. They are doers of the word and not hearers only.

What kind of man or woman are you? Are you a man or woman of preference or of principle? If the former heed the warning of James - But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

Reminded that we often fail to be men and women of principle and that we make excuses for our disobedience, let us kneel and ask our Lord’s forgiveness.

Bovine Excuses

James 1:19-21 (NKJV)19 So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; 20 for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

Excuses, as they say, are a dime a dozen. At no time do excuses range more freely than when we are angry. Like cattle freed from the stockade, when we are angry excuses start pouring out the open doorway of our lips and become a stampede trampling down any hapless victim who happens to confront us for our sin. But as the stampede makes its way precipitously forward the excuses confront the granite wall of James’ declaration – the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. And when the bovine excuse finds itself charging the wall its has two choices – veer out of the way and continue its rowdy course into the distance or hurl itself against the wall and die.

And so what of us? Are we pouring out excuses for our anger? That kid just won’t listen. My boss is too damn hard on me. My wife won’t have sex when I want to. My husband didn’t lead family devotions yesterday. My mom and dad spoke harshly to me. And so our anger rises, the blood boils, the face becomes red. And then our Lord places before us the granite wall – the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God – now what do we do? Do we veer out of the way, avoid the word of God, and continue in our rampage? Or do we instead crash headlong into the text and let it kill us? Let it kill our anger? Jesus declared, “He who desires to be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow after me.” Let him die.

Have you been a disciple of Christ this week? Have you killed yourself on the Word of God? Slain your excuses for getting angry and sought forgiveness for your sin? Or have you avoided the Word of God instead and offered up your litany of reasons why it is just for you to get angry? Let us kneel and let us confess that we are often quick to anger and more foolish than a rampaging bull.

Trials and Temptations

James 1:12-18 (NKJV)12 Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. 15 Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. 18 Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.

In the text before us today James makes an important distinction. The distinction that he makes is between trial and temptation. Having just discussed the subject of trials – the importance of counting them all joy and the necessity of seeking wisdom from God in how to do this – James goes on to address the topic of temptation.

The first thing that James does is help us understand the promise of God. To the man or woman who endures temptation, the Lord will give the crown of life which He has promised to those who love Him. The Lord promises to reward tangibly those who cling to Him in the midst of temptation and say no to Satan’s allurements.

Notice, then, that obeying God out of an awareness of what He promises to do for us is not wrong. Sometimes ethicists will speak as though the only pure form of obedience is obedience for obedience sake. There can be no thought of the reward that comes at the end otherwise the obedience is tainted. But James has no such compunction. He freely holds before us the reward – remember, he says, if you endure, God promises to bless you beyond measure – promises to crown you with life and glory and honor. Keep that before you. True pleasure comes not as a consequence of giving in to temptation but of resisting it.

What then is the difference between trials and temptations? Trials are the hard providences that we encounter throughout our lives. Sometimes these trials come upon us through no fault of our own – destructive weather, crop failure, certain forms of sickness, abuse at the hands of wicked men; other times they come as a consequence of our own sin or folly – jail time, certain types of diseases, crashing the car after driving 90 around a corner. Trials are the hard providences that we face. As such, they come ultimately from the hand of God.

Distinct from trials are temptations. Temptations are enticements to do wrong by promise of pleasure or gain. Frequently the temptation to do wrong arises in the context of a hard providence and so James wants to make sure that folks don’t ascribe these enticements to do wrong to God Himself. While God does in His providence send trials our way to test and approve His people, He does not tempt us to evil. Where do temptations come from? They come from within, out of the heart. We are corrupt and tainted. When we are tempted, whether it be in the midst of trials or in the midst of smooth sailing, such temptations derive their power not from anything outside us but from our own corruption.

What then should we do when we find ourselves in the midst of temptation? First, look to the promise. Remember God’s promise to bless us if we endure through this battle. Second, ask for strength from God Himself. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” for while the Lord is not the one who tempts us, He is the one who can rescue us from our sin. “For every good and perfect gift comes down from above, from the Father of lights.” Third, resist the temptation. It is no surprise that the temptation has come – the world, the flesh, and the devil are all conspiring to bring down the people of God. In tennis, we do no marvel when our opponent hits the ball onto our side of the court. But when the ball comes, what are we to do? Are we to catch the ball and admire its furry texture and bounce? No. We are to hit the ball back over the net. And so the last thing we must do is resist. And what promise do we have? Resist the devil and he will flee from you.

Reminded that we have failed often to remember the promises of God in the midst of temptation and have transgressed against our Lord, let us kneel and ask His forgiveness.

Wisdom in our Trials

James 1:5-8 (NKJV)5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Last week we noted that James lays before us the truth of God with no mealy mouth flattery. James cuts to the chase and tells it like it is. You want to know what to do with trials, James asks? Let me tell you – rejoice in them, for through them our Lord is training us into the kind of men and women he wants us to be.

In the text today James takes up the matter of wisdom. But let us remember context. James has just told us to do something incredibly counterintuitive – to rejoice in our trials. To support us in this determination, James now encourages us to seek wisdom from God in how to do this very thing – seek wisdom from God in how to rejoice in the midst of trials.

It is important to note this context because the passage before us is one of the more abused texts in the book of James. Mormons, for instance, tell us that Joseph Smith was endeavoring to decide which of the various denominations around him to join when god himself appeared to Joseph and announced that he was to join none of them. However, note that what Joseph was seeking was not wisdom but knowledge – knowledge which he should have acquired by studying the Word of God and then applying it to the situation of the day. The promise that James makes here is one of wisdom in the midst of trial – how can I possibly count it all joy? Ask of God.

And notice the promise that James makes in connection with this conditional statement – if you ask of God in the midst of your trials for wisdom in how to count it all joy – guess what? – God will give it. Why? Because He is the kind of God who gives liberally and without reproach. He delights to lead and guide His people through the valley of the shadow of death – and so encourages us to seek His face in the midst of the valley.

But there are a couple conditions laid down by James for us. First, we must seek the wisdom – God doesn’t give to him who does not ask. And so, bang on the door like the importunate widow; seek out the judge; ask Him for wisdom. Second, we must seek the wisdom in faith. There is no easier time to doubt the promises of God than when we are in the midst of trials. But there is no time when it is as important to do so. And so James, in his blunt manner once again, tells us not to doubt – because if we doubt then we’re like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind – moving up and down and around and lacking the stability that comes from building on the rock, Christ. God is free with His wisdom. He liberally bestows it on those who ask. But to those who aren’t really asking; who, when they receive God’s answer through His Word by His Spirit, question whether His answer is really relevant; to those who doubt, in other words, there is no promise that they will receive anything being double minded and unstable.

Reminded of the promise of God – that He will supply wisdom in our times of deepest need and distress – let us kneel before Him and confess that we have failed to seek this kind of wisdom from Him.

Count It All Joy

James 1:2-4 (NKJV)2 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.

We begin this morning a series of exhortations from the book of James. The author of the book was James, the half-brother of Jesus. His book has been called the New Testament version of Proverbs – full of pithy directives and foundational principles for practical Christian living. James is well known for confronting issues without blinking. Whenver I imagine James, I picture him as a type of John the Baptist – saying it like it is with no mealy-mouthed flattery.

The text we read this morning illustrates James’ straight forwardness well. James hits one of the most sensitive topics in Christian living – trials. Visit the bookstores and you’ll see numerous books devoted to the topic of trials. Why do bad things happen to good people? Can God be Trusted in our Trials? How To Let God Solve Your Problems: 12 Keys For Finding Clear Guidance In Life’s Trials. The subject of trials is a hot one.

What wisdom then does James have for us? What are we to do with our trials? First, he declares, we are to count it all joy when we fall into various trials. “Count it all joy, James?” we find ourselves asking. My son just broke both his arms – count it all joy? My car just broke down – count it all joy? I can’t find a job – count it all joy? Our marriage is struggling – count it all joy? My work load is heavy – count it all joy? I’m lonely – count it all joy? I told you that James doesn’t pull any punches – that’s right, he says, with his garment of camel’s hair and leather belt about his waist, count it all joy.

But how, we ask? How call it all joy? That’s just not possible. Why should we look upon trials with joy? James doesn’t keep us in suspense – he is, after all, a straight shooting sort of fellow. Count it all joy, he says, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. For some weeks now we have been meditating on the call to wait upon the Lord. James shows us the practical consequence of this teaching – waiting on the Lord requires patience; the more we have to wait the more patient we must become; the more patient we become the more we grow in virtue and holiness – and so what better response than joy? Count it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter trials because these very trials are the things that God uses to make you into the type of person He wants you to be.

But James reminds us in the next breath that there are different kinds of patience. There is the first type of patience – which sits in the waiting room bobbing the knee, tapping the finger, pacing the floor – yeah, I’m being patient, can’t you tell? This kind of patience will never do – why? Because, James tells us, patience is not an end in itself – it is a means to an end. It is a means to personal growth – growth of character. God trains us in the school of trials so that we will grow in patience and thereby grow in faith – being perfect and complete, trusting in God’s goodness so much that we are able to rejoice in trials, not just grin and bear them.

So how are we doing? Are we counting our trials all joy? Are we remembering that our Lord’s purpose in this life is not first and foremost to make us happy but to make us holy? This is certainly not a lesson that our culture reinforces. Whenever a trial arises the pundits are sure to issue their wisdom – you deserve better; that’s just not fair; someone should pass a law; the government should fix that. We do not handle trials well. And the reason why is that we don’t trust in the Triune God, the God who does all things well and uses even the bitter cups we drink to make us holy. And so let us kneel and confess that we have failed to count it all joy to endure the trials that God in His providence brings our way.