Can You Make It to the Next Tree?

If enduring through suffering is like climbing a mountain, don’t look at the mountain as you go. Look at the next tree.

Josh Squires gives us this helpful bit of wisdom in his article, “Lord, Help Me Endure One More Day.” His mountain analogy is memorable and insightful:

I once watched a documentary about the toughest school in all the military (or so the film claimed). It was the winter session of the Army Mountain Warfare School which contained unbelievable trials — physical and emotional — that seemed to assail the students from the time they arrived. But the event with the highest dropout rate was a multi-day hike up a snow packed mountain. It required traversing the whole mountain, from bottom to top, through over ten feet of snow drifts with a large, heavy ruck sack slung to their back and no special equipment. They had their feet and sheer determination.

On the morning of the infamous march, a drill instructor spoke to the soldiers. I expected it to be something full of bombast and bluster, urging the group to complete the task at hand or face swift retribution! Instead, the wise soldier simply said, “If you want to quit, look at the top of the mountain.” He went on, “But if you want to make it through, then just find the closest tree and tell yourself, ‘I’m going to make it to that next tree and then reevaluate.’ And then when you get to that tree, do the same thing again, finding the next closest tree. If you’ll do that, tree by tree, soon enough you’ll find yourself at the top of the mountain.”

For those in the midst of terrible suffering, looking for hope can be like looking at the top of the mountain, staring at it from the bottom. The thought is nice, but the climb seems impossible. In those moments, the next tree is simply praying for endurance: “Lord, get me through this season, this day, this hour, even this prayer. Do not let me go, that I may not ever let you go.”

You can read the whole article here.

From Worship to Murder in Two Sentences

Are any other back-to-back verses in the Bible more shockingly different? In one verse, the crowd at Lystra wants to offer sacrifices to Paul, thinking he was a god. In the very next verse, the same crowd stones Paul and drags his bloody body out of the city:

Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.

Acts 14:18-19 takes us from worship to murder in two sentences.

The Fickleness of Man

In reflecting on this astonishing turn of events in Lystra, one might astutely observe that people are fickle. O, you think so? Still, it’s good to be aware of the human capacity to vacillate. Perspectives and emotions and commitments can shift as suddenly as your car tires catching the shoulder of the pavement: one second you’re on the road, the next you’re in the ditch. Your most enthusiastic admirers can quickly become your most enthusiastic adversaries.

It should be noted that, in some cases, an abrupt change can occur in the opposite direction too: fervent opposition becomes fervent devotion. This latter alteration is more pleasant than the former, but don’t imagine that it is necessarily less problematic. Regardless of which way the wind is blowing, it’s still wind. There’s not much substance to the wind.

Early in Jesus’ ministry, many people believed in him. Yet we’re told that Jesus didn’t entrust himself to them, because he “knew all people” and he “knew what was in man” (John 2:23-25). We would do well to learn from Jesus. Don’t get wrapped up in being liked, being approved of, being praised. In other words, don’t believe the hype about yourself. The people who would offer sacrifices to you are the very ones who would stone you. Keep on loving people, but entrust yourself only to God.

The Power of Persuasion

The violent change in the crowd at Lystra can be accounted for. “Let’s worship this guy!” doesn’t become, “Let’s kill this guy!” for no reason. What explains the change? Persuasion explains it. In this case, poisonous persuasion. Unbelieving Jews arrived on the scene and turned the crowd against Paul. They spoke against Paul; they recast him in a negative light; they changed the narrative. “The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood” (Prov. 12:6). That bloody afternoon in Lystra is a dramatic and deadly case study in the power of persuasion.

I’ve seen this power at work in the church. People who were supportive become suspicious. What was once a warm friendship becomes frosty. Many pastors have experienced such a grievous change in their people. Poisonous persuasion often lies behind the change. Someone has taken it upon himself or herself to help others see the pastor in a “truer light” or to get “the whole story” about what happened. The pastor’s beliefs are misrepresented, or his actions are misinterpreted, or his character is maligned—and what was once a good relationship is damaged. Even if you aren’t a pastor, I bet you know what this kind of change feels like, having experienced it in some of your own relationships.

We must use our words wisely. Our words are always at work. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). We may not be out to get someone, like the Jews were Paul. But let us not think that our “sharing a concern” or “straight talk” or “venting” is innocuous. It’s never innocuous. Rather, we are always healing or wounding, unifying or fracturing, securing love or eroding it. We are always persuading.

Our Conversation and Confidence

So wield your power well. Aim to edify in all your conversation. Use your words to persuade people in the truth of the gospel and in love for God and others.

And place your confidence not in man but in Christ, knowing that the same person who supports you in the morning is capable of sabotaging you in the afternoon. That doesn’t mean you have to become guarded or cynical in your relationships. In Christ, you can love others freely and fully. But you must entrust yourself to the Lord alone.

Christmas Can’t Be Spoiled

Horrific headline news doesn’t ruin Christmas. It reminds us why we need it. “ For every boot of tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a Son is...

Corrupt politics, debauched leaders, racial strife, myopic media, broken families, entrenched poverty, personal heartaches—Christmastime isn’t holly jolly for everyone. We need some good news that transcends mere tinsel and lights and warm sentiment.

The good news is that bad news can’t spoil Christmas. Rather, the bad news reminds us why we need Christmas. Christmas is about hope. We have been given hope in the Christ of Isaiah’s prophecy, whose kingdom of peace will one day fill the earth.

For every boot of tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born,
to us a Son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

— Isaiah 9:5-7

Bethlehem was the kindling of a cosmic bonfire. The Prince bids you come and throw in your battle garments. He will prevail. No amount of bad news can stop him.

And so we celebrate.

Hope is in the Middle

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“’The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” — Lamentations 3:24-26

Jesus read these verses of Scripture. Can you see him standing at the desk in the synagogue, calloused hands resting on the scroll, poring over the poetic anguish of Lamentations in light of his future suffering?

He would not have failed to see God’s judgment against Israel. The edges of Lamentations—large edges that we call chapters 1-2 and chapters 4-5—are full of the judgments of the Lord. God has torn apart his disobedient people like a bear lying in wait and a lion in hiding. Perhaps Jesus pondered how he himself, the true Israel, would one day be torn to pieces. Had he not come for this very purpose: to bear judgment, to drink the cup of God’s wrath, to become a curse for us? Yes, he would be torn to pieces. Israel’s judgment was but a foreshadowing of what he would soon face.

Judgment is all around the edges of Lamentations. It encircles the sufferer, taking away every place to stand, until the only ground remaining is a tiny island in the middle. But, oh, the ground in the middle is good! It is solid ground. The middle of Lamentations—what we call chapter 3—is a place of hope, like a roaring campfire on an icy evening. Yahweh is there, blazing in goodness.

How encouraged Jesus must have been by Lamentations 3:24-26! It’s easy to imagine him taking these words upon his lips, speaking them out loud to himself. They were his Scriptures before they were ours. (Indeed, they are now ours only because they were first his.) With the devastation of the cross looming in his future, Jesus would take his stand on the middle ground of the lament. He would remember, when everything else is taken away, that his Father is portion enough. He would hope in the goodness of his Father. He would seek his Father quietly, believing that the Lord would save him from death.

And now, dear Christian, behold the risen Christ! Jesus was no fool to have made the Lord his portion. His hope did not disappoint, and neither will yours. Just as surely as Yahweh raised his Son from the dead, so in him you too will be raised. You will see the salvation of the Lord.

Inscribed on the coins of Geneva, Switzerland, and on the wall of the city are the words post tenebras lux: “After darkness, light.” This phrase is the motto of the Reformation, yet it captures the hope of Lamentations. No matter how deep the darkness encompassing your life, light is coming. If your feelings tell you otherwise, just look at the empty tomb. Jesus is alive, and he will lose none of those whom the Father has given him. So stand with Jesus on the middle ground of Lamentations. Seek the Father in him. Wait quietly on his salvation.

You will see the light.

Combustible Preachers

Jeremiah saw a lot of this coming. All he had to do was lighten up a bit:
“ Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah…. Come, let us strike him with the tongue, and let us not pay attention to any of his words. (18:18)
Then Pashhur beat Jeremiah the...

Jeremiah saw a lot of this coming. All he had to do was lighten up a bit, and some of his trouble could be avoided:

Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah…. Come, let us strike him with the tongue, and let us not pay attention to any of his words. (18:18)

Then Pashhur beat Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks. (20:2)

When Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the Lord commanded him to speak…, all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die!” (26:8)

The officials were enraged at Jeremiah, and they beat him and imprisoned him. (37:15)

They took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern…. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud. (38:6)

The prophet’s description of persecution includes verbal abuse, death threats, physical assault, and imprisonment. What compelled Jeremiah to keep preaching in the face of such severe backlash? How did he resist softening his message about the Lord?

If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. (20:9)

The word burned like a fire in Jeremiah’s bones. He was combustible with the glory of God. He felt as if he would explode if he didn’t speak in the name of the Lord.

O, for more preachers like this! For more Christians like this! May Almighty God set us on fire in the grace and truth of Christ Jesus, no matter the cost.

 

Evangelistic Prayer

It is no small thing that the apostle Paul, uber church planter, would ask the churches to pray for his effectiveness in spreading the gospel. I never had a course in logic, but I figure if Paul needed the Spirit’s help, then we do too.

Below are Paul’s evangelistic requests, summarized in four key words. We can’t go wrong adopting his requests as our own. We should pray for:

OPPORTUNITY

“At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ.” (Col 4:3)

CLARITY

“[Pray] that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.” (Col 4:4)

BRAVERY

“[Pray] that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” (Eph 6:19)

RECEPTIVITY

“Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you.” (2 Thess 3:1)

Father, please open a door for me to speak of Christ crucified and risen. And when that door opens, give me the boldness to walk through it and the ability to make the good news of salvation clear. Finally, grant a receptive heart in the hearer so that your word may be honored through repentance and faith. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

A Quick 3-2-1 on #MeToo

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The #MeToo movement is a horrific revelation about the prevalence of sexual abuse. As a pastor, it makes me wonder how many dark secrets are tucked away within my own church. For my own benefit, and hopefully for your benefit as well, here’s a quick 3-2-1 for consideration: 3 questions, 2 books, 1 prayer.

THREE QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

(1) “Where do I have power?”

Sexual abuse cannot succeed apart from power. The victimizer must possess, even momentarily, some measure of authority or control or influence or strength over the victim. Exhibit A: Harvey Weinstein. Exhibit B: anyone with power, which includes every one of us, at least in some of our relationships. It would serve us well to be aware of the power we hold in various contexts. Whether through the position we occupy, our credentials or reputation, our gender, age, physical size, bank account, or intellect, we need to steward the power we have over others for their good rather than for their exploitation. In what relationships do you have power? How do you wish to use your power?

(2) “What perceived gain would entice me to turn a blind eye toward sexual abuse?”

Honoring a friendship? Protecting authority? Keeping my job? Maintaining my income? Advancing the greater good? Of all I’ve read to-date, Joe Carter hits the hardest on this point. The whole article is worth reading. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

Would you be willing to turn a blind eye to accusations of sexual assault and abuse if it might benefit you in some way, either directly or indirectly?

Of course not. Unlike the denizens of Hollywood, we Christians have stringent moral standards. As servants of Christ we recognize it is our duty to protect the powerless and vulnerable from harm.

And yet . . . in the last election we had a choice between two candidates who have both contributed to the systemic abuse of women. One major party candidate had more than a dozen credible accusations of sexual misconduct against him, and had even been caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women. The other candidate had spent years aggressively covering up credible accusations of sexual assault and harassment against her husband, a former U.S. president. In both cases, the candidates attempted to shame the alleged victim into silence. Despite these actions, millions of Christians were willing to not only overlook the misdeeds of these politicians but were even willing to reward them by giving them the most powerful job in the world.

But that’s different, right? We had no choice but to cast a vote to support our preferred candidate, because otherwise our political enemies would have gained power. We had Supreme Court nominations on the line. We had important political concerns that could be set back for decades if the other party won. And, after all, the other side was as complicit in sexual abuse as our candidate was. We therefore shouldn’t be held responsible for making the best of a bad situation.

(3) “What steps might the church take to prevent abuse?”

From a satellite view, this question is relatively easy to answer: the church needs to speak up. It is good that we have child protection policies in place, but we also need to talk about sexual abuse, and not just on social media. We need to talk about it:

FROM OUR PULPITS — teaching the need to have new hearts in Christ; to fear the Lord; to value the image of God in others; to appropriate the promises of God in faith; to love the light more than the darkness; to bear the fruit of self-control; to love our neighbors as we love ourselves;

AROUND THE TABLE — among a band of brothers or a small group of sisters, engaging in down-to-earth, nitty-gritty, rubber-meets-the-road conversation in which we help each other keep in step with the gospel;

IN OUR HOMES — equipping our children to protect themselves and to be protectors of others;

ON OUR KNEES — asking the Father to uncover abusive situations in our church; to agitate the consciences of the guilty; to bring healing and restoration to the wounded; and to purify the hearts of us all;

WITH THE AUTHORITIES — reporting abusive situations to law enforcement without hesitation.

Admittedly, this list is pitched at a satellite view. It needs to be zoomed in and explored at the street level. Which is to say, it needs much more detail. But I believe it’s a good start at prevention.

TWO BOOKS TO READ

One book I would recommend is Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually BrokenDavid Powlinson’s counsel extends not only to those who are broken due to their own sins but to those who have been broken by the sins of others. His book is uniquely beautiful in applying the gospel to both people: “Jesus, the merciful, steadily intervenes. To the indulgent, he brings forgiveness, covering perverse pleasures with new innocence. To the frightened, he brings refuge, the name that calms our fears and bids our sorrows cease. There is pleasure and protection in Christ, God’s inexpressible gift.”

Another book I would recommend is Rid of My Disgrace by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb. This book is most helpful for the abused and those who care for them.

ONE PRAYER TO PRAY

Heavenly Father, our shameful record of sexual abuse shows our desperate need for you. Please bring it about that your name is honored as holy, that your kingdom in Christ explodes into our mess, and that your will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Do this especially in your church, Father. Expose our hidden sins, bring us into your light, wound us that we might be healed.

Give us today all the resources we need to live sexually faithful lives unto you.

Forgive us for our lusts, for our sinful sexual advances toward others, and for those times that we have exploited others for our own physical gratification. And, Father, with all the empowering grace of your resurrected Son and indwelling Spirit, enable us to forgive those who have harmed us sexually. Whether victims or victimizers — or both — we want to be made whole in you.

You are powerful, Father. Please use your power to keep us out of any situation in which we will be sexually tempted. Deliver us from the Evil One, who would love to see our lives ruined as sexual abusers.

Thank you for the hope you’ve given us in the gospel. We can’t wait to be in your presence, completely and gloriously renewed in your image. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. In the name of Jesus, Amen.