God seems to have abandoned me – now what?

It is not at all uncommon for God’s people to go through periods of time in which it appears that God Himself has forsaken them. Perhaps it’s a prolonged period of illness or injury that doesn’t improve. Perhaps it’s a loved one killed by police, as we’ve seen again in the last few days. Perhaps it’s a child straying from the faith, wandering heedlessly down a path of destruction. Perhaps it’s a period of spiritual dryness, in which nothing tastes. Whatever you may be walking through, you are not the first to experience God’s absence. Just look at Psalm 77 – it is one of the most helpful expressions of “Where are you, God???” in the whole Bible, for it not only gives voice to the deep cries of our heart, but it also shows us where to go for relief.

Asaph was where we so often find ourselves: in a day of trouble (2). He sought the Lord, crying out to Him, believing that He would hear him (1), yet he did not find comfort (2). In fact, he found just the opposite: “When I remember God, then I am disturbed” (3). Going to God made his troubles even worse, for as we see from his list of questions in verses 7-9, it appeared to Asaph that God had rejected him, that He would never be favorable again, that His lovingkindness had ceased forever, that His promise had come to an end, that He had forgotten to be gracious, that He had withdrawn His compassion. In a nutshell, it seemed that “the right hand of God had changed” (10). We’ve all been here. God feels distant, unconcerned with my affliction. He only purposes to harm me. The only proper interpretation of our circumstances seems to be that He is no longer the faithful and caring and loving God He promised to be. We are afflicted, and then afflicted again as we contemplate our situation.

When we find ourselves where Asaph was, then we must go where Asaph went. And where did he go? To the past. “I shall remember the deeds of the Lord; surely I will remember Your wonders of old. I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds” (11-12). Asaph went back in his mind to God’s mighty acts of deliverance and redemption, and what he found there was the holiness of God (13), the greatness of God (13), the strength of God (14), the redeeming grace of God (15). He found a God whose ways are ultimately beyond figuring out; indeed, “Your way was in the sea and Your path in the mighty waters, and Your footprints may not be known” (19). But even in the darkness of God’s ways, he found a God who carefully and lovingly led His people like a flock by His appointed servants (20).

Asaph found resolution in his trouble by remembering – remembering who God had revealed Himself to be in the past brought the comfort He could not find as he cried out to God in the present. Seeing God’s character and concern in days gone by assured him of God’s nearness in the days to come. Yes, it can indeed appear that God has changed, that He has rejected us and has forgotten to be gracious, that His promises have failed. But appearances can be deceiving, and the past brings the present into clearer focus.

If Asaph could gain comfort today by meditating on God’s faithful power yesterday, how much more can the disciple of Jesus Christ? “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Jesus Christ was truly forsaken and abandoned by His Father in heaven, enduring the whole measure of judicial wrath in our place, in order that we might never be orphans again, but forever sons and daughters of the King on high. May the Lord give us grace to cry out to Him in our pain, to remember the days of old, to fix our eyes on Jesus, the forsaken one, that we might find what Asaph found and even more – He will never, ever let us go.

 

The Christian’s Freedom

On the 4th of July, we celebrate the independence and freedom that is ours as Americans. Our liberties are a privilege not to be taken for granted, and we should regularly remember and review them so that we might stand firm in them. Yet even more precious are the freedoms that we enjoy as Christians – freedoms that transcend national borders, histories, or forms of government. If we still lived under a monarchy – if we lived under a brutal dictator – if we lived under a Communist regime – the freedoms that Christ Jesus has won for us by His death and endlessly righteous life would still be ours, as they are for so many of our brothers and sisters who are citizens of governments other than constitutional republics.

So what are the freedoms of a Christian? In what does our liberty consist, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? Briefly, expanding on the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 20, thus:

  1. We are free from the penalty of sin, the condemning wrath of God, and the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13; Romans 8:1; I Thessalonians 1:10). We have been declared not guilty through faith in Jesus Christ, our debt has been paid by His perfect obedience and the shedding of His blood in our place. The law has been satisfied, God’s anger has been appeased, our record is spotless in Christ.
  2. We are free from having to keep the law as a means of salvation (Galatians 2:15-16; 5:1). No longer are we under the covenant of works, but have died to that covenant – it having been kept perfectly by Jesus on our behalf. We are no longer struggling to be free – we are free indeed, having been rescued by the grace of Jesus.
  3. We are free from the tyranny of Satan, and from this present evil age, the domain of darkness (Colossians 1:13; Galatians 1:4; Acts 26:18; Hebrews 2:14; II Timothy 2:26). The strongman has been bound, he who had the power of death has been rendered powerless, we have been powerfully rescued from Satan’s kingdom and brought into the kingdom of light. He can no longer accuse us of guilt, for we are not guilty in Jesus Christ.
  4. We are free from the power and dominion of sin (Romans 6:6, 14; 8:2). Sin has lost its grip on us, we are no longer its slave. Thus we can practice righteousness by God’s grace, and one day the very presence of sin will be eradicated.
  5. We are free to be what God created us to be, obeying His law not out of slavish fear, but out of a childlike love and willing heart, in the power of the Holy Spirit (Titus 2:14; Romans 8:3-4, 14-15; Galatians 4:6; I John 4:18). We are no longer struggling to be free – we are free to struggle against sin, fighting against it in the power of the Spirit.
  6. We are free from the yoke of the ceremonial law of Moses (given by God for the church under age), and any commandments of men (Ephesians 2:15; Galatians 4:1-7; Colossians 2:20-23). We are not bound by the obligations under which the Jewish church labored – no more food laws, no more sacrificial system, no more religious symbolism of the old covenant. And definitely no human commandments, which Pharisees of all sorts are prone to add to the holy law of God.
  7. We are free from the fear of death, and thus free to lay down our lives for the cause of King Jesus (Hebrews 2:15; Revelation 6:9-11; 7:13-17). There is no more sting in death; rather, it is but our entrance into glory. What can men do to us? Only kill us. They cannot take away our salvation or our freedoms. We go boldly into the world, proclaiming the reconciling love of God in Christ.
  8. We are free to approach the throne of grace without fear, confidently in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:14-16; 10:19-22). God hears our prayers, for He receives us in the person of our great High Priest, His beloved Son. We need not come through any merely human intermediary, but can come directly through Christ Jesus the God-Man to our heavenly Father.
  9. We are free from the evil of afflictions (I Corinthians 15:54-57; II Corinthians 4:15-18; Romans 8:28; Psalm 119:71; Romans 8:18). Though we suffer in this life, every trial comes from the hand of a loving heavenly Father, who is not angry with us, but designs and works all for our transformation and glorification.
  10. We are free from worrying what people think about us, and from the fear of man (Galatians 1:10; I Corinthians 4:3-5). We are no longer slaves to men and their opinions, for we are slaves of God, bond-servants of Jesus Christ. Our boldness is not arrogance, however, for being free from people means that truly…
  11. We are free to love other people sacrificially (Galatians 5:13). True freedom is never license. We are free for the sake of others, and for the glory of God. Christian freedom is self-denying, Christ-affirming, others-pursuing, God-devoted.

These are the deepest, most important and most substantial freedoms that we celebrate, not just one day a year, but every day, and particularly every Lord’s Day. May God enable us to stand firm in this freedom, not be subject again to a yoke of slavery, and not turn our freedom into an opportunity for the flesh.

A (Brief) Theology of Sand

If you go to the beach this summer, I encourage you to consider for a moment, from a Biblical and theological perspective, the sand beneath your feet. What does sand have to do with Christian theology? Quite a lot, actually. When God wanted to illustrate for Abraham the immensity of His promise, he turned to two things the patriarch would have seen a lot of: stars and sand. “Indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore…” (Genesis 22:17). Later, in Genesis 32:12, God makes clear that his point in pointing out the sand is that it “is too great to be numbered.”

So Abraham’s offspring would be too great to be numbered. And certainly the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham’s physical offspring, are innumerable (cf. Hebrews 11:12). But the New Testament teaches us that God wasn’t merely speaking of physical offspring. Rather, to be a true son of Abraham, one must have saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. “Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham…And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:7, 29). Where did Paul get this ideas? From the Lord Jesus, of course. When the Jews who refused to believe in and obey Jesus claimed to be the offspring of Abraham, Jesus asserted that they were actually children of their father the devil, murderers and liars just like him (John 8:38ff.). Thus Paul can write, “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (Romans 2:28-29).

So as you take that walk on the seashore this summer, over sand dry or wet, make sure to ask yourself, am I one of the grains of sand that make up that innumerable company of Abraham’s spiritual children? That is, do I have true faith in Jesus Christ? Or rather, to use that more dreadful imagery of sand in the Bible, is my life built upon sand – do I hear the words of Jesus and refuse to act upon them properly , and so my prospect is one great fall (Matthew 7:24ff.)?

Grace for the Nations: Some Reflections on Our Trip to Zambia

From June 9-22, three men and eight women from Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland, MS, and one woman from Trinity Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS, served the Lord with gladness in the country of Zambia. Jet lag is beginning to wear off, though I’m still going to bed and waking up a lot earlier than I did before the trip (Zambia is seven hours ahead of MS, so 8:00 p.m. here is 3:00 a.m. there). Before I forget more of what I saw and experienced, I offer these reflections for those who prayed for us, and continue to pray for Bennett and Bonnie Ndelemeti, and the ministry of the Centre for Christian Missions (CCM) in Kitwe, Zambia. Certainly each team member would have his or her own perspective and thoughts about what they saw and experienced, but hopefully mine are broad enough to reflect the team as a whole.

  1. Our team served CCM in a variety of ways. CCM consists of an Academy (preschool-7th grade), a Bible college, and a seminary, as well as a number of missionaries that it supports on the African continent. I taught the book of Galatians to 17 students at the Bible college. The rest of our team taught God’s word, music, art, and played with the students at the Academy, and mentored the students and staff of CCM. We all participated in evangelism and outreach in the neighborhoods surrounding CCM, and shared testimony of God’s work in our lives to the people of CCM and to churches in the community. One thing that stood out about this trip was how each person was able to use the particular gifts and talents God has given them, whether teaching, encouragement, creative arts, service, etc. – and each of us was stretched in areas outside of our relative strengths.
  2. The Lord graced us with sweet unity as a team. Every mission trip I’ve been on has been a bonding experience, as you share life together in a way so unlike life back home. This trip was no exception, as the twelve of us shared a small dorm building with six rooms, two bathrooms, one sink, and one shower with intermittent hot water the first few days. We traveled for 48 hours there, and nearly the same amount of time back again, as well as another 16 hours last Saturday from Kitwe to Livingstone to see Victoria Falls. When people who don’t really know each other that well (even though they’ve been fellow members of the same church for many years perhaps) spend so much time together, so close together, you might expect there to be friction, short tempers, and hurt feelings. But the Lord was so very gracious to us, and unless something happened that I didn’t see or wasn’t told about, not once was there a relational difficulty that had to be dealt with. The Lord granted us the graces of self denial, patience, love, and a servant spirit. We delighted in one another, laughed with one another, encouraged one another, and helped one another. We came to know one another on levels that only trips like this can foster, and Lord willing these relationships will only continue to grow.
  3. The people of Zambia are hungry for the word of God. We saw this in the churches on the two Lord’s days we were there, in the Academy with the children, with the Bible college students, and in the community as we went out to share the gospel on the streets and in the marketplace. Perhaps the people were attracted to us only because we were a group of white Americans handing something out (the gospel of John), but I doubt it. There was an openness to hearing the gospel, a desire to know God’s word, a willingness to hear us sing and speak of the grace of Jesus Christ. Our outreach in the marketplace (something that is nearly impossible to do in the States, with anti-solicitation laws in place) felt like that of the apostle Paul in Athens or another city in Asia Minor, as we opened our mouths in the public square to a receptive audience. To be sure, there were many in the marketplace and on the streets who had no interest, but the Lord’s word was sown in many hearts, and we pray that follow up visits by the Bible college students will bear much fruit. We were convicted of our lack of evangelistic zeal and boldness, and challenged to testify of Christ’s love more faithfully and publicly.
  4. The Bible college students were my primary ministry during the week we spent in Kitwe. It was such a privilege to open up the book of Galatians over a 15 hour period (three hours a day). They were familiar with it to some degree, but we were able to go deeper into the text than they had gone before. We were also able to frolic in the gospel of free grace, justification through faith alone in Christ alone. Legalism, nominalism, and prosperity teaching abounds in Zambia, even as it does here in the States. I saw God work in the hearts of the Bible college students (not 18-23 year olds, as here; their ages ranged from early 20s through mid 50s, and many were already involved in church ministry in some way), growing them in their knowledge of the gospel, enabling them to rest even more soundly in Jesus Christ alone, and equipping them for ministries both present and future. We spent time not only studying God’s word, but praying and singing together, fellowshipping around meals and in small groups, and playing football (soccer) and Ultimate Frisbee together. Through modern technology I hope to continue to be able to encourage and be encouraged by these men and women who have a passion to spread the gospel around Zambia and the whole continent of Africa.
  5. CCM, through the leadership of Bennett and Bonnie Ndelemeti, has a huge passion for seeing the Zambians engage in missions beyond the borders of Zambia. So they are training not only pastors but missionaries, and supporting missionaries. As Europe and America grow darker, and dark Africa is enlightened more and more with the gospel, who knows but that some of these missionaries might not travel to our shores one day with the message of hope and truth? If you’re looking for a ministry to support in Africa, check out CCM. They have big plans, and need the Lord’s people to give generously to see those plans come to fruition.
  6. The joy and gentleness of the Zambia Christians are so palpable as they worship the Lord in song. Experiencing worship with this very different culture was a highlight of the trip. Though we could not understand the words, we could see their delight in the Lord. In spite of the material poverty of many, there is a richness of spiritual enjoyment and experience that runs far deeper. I will not soon forget the smiles that overcame the faces of these brothers and sisters as they began to sing and pray. As a pastor, I look out over many an unaffected face Sunday after Sunday, and wonder if there is any spiritual life present, any understanding of the words we sing. There was no doubt these Zambia believers believed and loved the words that came out of their mouths, as simple as they sometimes were. I hope that my joy in worship continues to be affected by their joy.
  7. We came to Zambia to be workers for their joy (II Corinthians 1:24), and I believe the Lord granted us that request. But even more were the Zambians workers for our joy, through their love for one another and us, their deep faith in the Lord, their love for the Bible, their hunger to see the lost saved. We came to be a blessing, knowing all the while that we would receive a blessing. The grace of God for the nations came to Zambians and Americans this past week. We saw the glory of God, not only in the splendor of His creation at Victoria Falls and the animals of Chobe National Park, but most of all in the people of God in Zambia. Jesus is building His church among the nations, and it spurs me on to greater diligence and zeal in the work of evangelism and discipleship in my own local context, greater holiness, greater knowledge of the Bible, and a greater passion for the work of missions around the world.

Hopefully I will be able to post some pictures soon, but for now may these words paint a picture for you. If you supported our team financially and with prayer, we thank you and thank God for you. May He continue to use us all to bring the blessing of Abraham to the Gentiles!

David Dickson’s beautiful, gospel centered dying words

David Dickson was a 17th century Scottish pastor. When lying on his death bed, a friend of 50 years asked him how he found himself. He answered: “I have taken all my good deeds and all my bad deeds; and cast them through each other in a heap before the Lord; and fled from both; and have taken myself to the Lord Jesus Christ; and in Him I have sweet peace.” 

(from Truth’s Victory Over Error, page xxi)

Invictus vs. My Captain

How do you respond to the afflictions, trials, and suffering that is our lot in a fallen world? So often, we respond by collapsing under the weight of them, even to the point of taking our own lives; by trying to escape the pain in all manner of idols, whether alcohol or sex or shopping sprees or work or 24 hour sports TV or movies; by a stoic resignation; by a fierce bitterness again other people, “the man,” or God Himself; or by a self-courage that pulls itself together and relies upon itself by a mighty act of the will.

Or, by the grace of God, we can respond like Habakkuk. While not denying the pain and confusion of his trials, he confessed his faith in one of the most beautiful declarations in all the Bible: “I heard and my inward parts trembled, at the sound my lips quivered. Decay enters my bones, and in my place I tremble. Because I must wait quietly for the day of distress, for the people to arise who will invade us. Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, and makes me walk on my high places” (Habakkuk 3:16-19).

These two responses have been eloquently expressed in poetry, the first by William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus,” and the second by Dorothea Day’s poem “My Captain.” The contrast is stark. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God,” said Paul in Acts 14:22 – may the Lord give you grace to sing the song on the right as you journey to glory!

Out of the night that covers me,                        Out of the light that dazzles me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,                     Bright as the sun from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be                            I thank the God I know to be
For my unconquerable soul.                               For Christ the conqueror of my soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance                     Since His the sway of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.                   I would not wince nor cry aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance                    Under that rule which men call chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.                      My head with joy is humbly bowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears               Beyond this place of sin and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,                  That life with Him! And His the aid,
And yet the menace of the years                        Despite the menace of the years,
Finds and shall find me unafraid.                       Keeps, and shall keep me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,                    I have no fear, though strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,     He cleared from punishment the scroll.
I am the master of my fate                                    Christ is the Master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.                                 Christ is the Captain of my soul.

— William Ernest Henley                                           — Dorothea Day

The inaugural issue of POPC’s new online journal is here!

Notes From the Orchard, the online journal of Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church, has just come out with its first issue this week. This periodic publication (monthly? biweekly? only time will tell…) will include writings from POPC church staff, as well as members, and friends from church history and from the church today. The articles will aim to be short, yet rich and full of meat for you to dig your teeth into. Here’s the contents of issue #1:

– Is Your Marriage a Covenant of Works or a Covenant of Grace, by Dr. John Kwasny
– The Benefits of Afflictions, by Mr. Caleb Cangelosi
– The Gospel and the Incarnation, by Dr. William Swan Plumer (1802-1880)
– Moving Forward: God’s Call for Redemptive Ethnic Unity, by Mr. Lance Lewis

We hope you enjoy it!

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