Count Down

Count Down

Our vacation to Melbourne Beach, Florida was filled with expected and unexpected high points.  The beach, the weather, the manatees, and our hosts’ phenomenal hospitality were all amazing.  But among the unexpected high points were the nesting sea turtles, viewing the construction site for SpaceX’s Starship and visiting the American Space Museum and Space Walk of Fame.   With its awkwardly long name and very small building, on a quiet side street in Titusville, Florida, the American Space Museum and Space Walk of Fame did not seem very promising at first glance.  Oh, how wrong that assessment proved to be!

The museum’s collection of NASA artifacts and memorabilia is prodigious, but its greatest treasures are its volunteers, many of whom were career NASA employees.   Their depth of knowledge, experience, and perspective about all things NASA was worth any price of admission.   You quickly discover that these unassuming docents are retired rocket scientists and electrical engineers.  Even some of the guests had remarkable stories.  One woman we met designed and fabricated the heat tiles, as well as the heat resistant quilted lining, for the STS (Space Shuttle) vehicles.

An entire room was required to house the carefully restored  computer used to synchronize the countdown for all the Saturn V and Atlas rocket launches.  After all, nothing is more essential to a rocket launch than the countdown.   But countdowns not only sequence the details of a rocket launch.  They also conduct and heighten expectations surrounding the important events of our lives.

As a child, once Halloween had passed, I could give anyone who asked an accurate countdown to Christmas.  Even now in our family, the beloved Advent calendar is an important part of our Christmas décor and observance.  But in all the excitement of counting down the days to Christmas are we preparing ourselves as much for the reality of the Incarnation as we do for the remembrance of it?

It is easy to confuse the remembrance with the realities of the great mystery of Christ manifest in the flesh.   Perhaps this is why so often when December 25 passes, a sense of unfulfillment and drear settles upon us.  We vested confidence in the celebration and not the thing celebrated.  Then predictably it fails to deliver. And our holiday peace, hope, and joy get stored away in the attic with the lights and greenery.

God spent thousands of years preparing mankind for the coming of Christ.   The countdown begins in the book of Genesis.  Even as God was pronouncing the curse of the Fall, He was also promising a redeemer.  He gave the people sacrifices and law and ceremony, designed to teach them how salvation would be provided — ceremonies that painted a vivid picture of sins curse and its cure.  Yet these ceremonies had no power to save through mere religious observance.   So, scripture warns about the insufficiency of mere creatures to save.

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.  Hebrews 10:1-4

And again,

… you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ. 1 Peter 1:18-19

Men predictably confused faith in the promise with faith in the practice.  Just as we often confuse celebration with substance, and remembrances with realities, God’s ancient people put their hope for redemption in mere creatures rather than in the Redeemer, God had promised.   Our Heidelberg Catechism warns us not to follow their ruinous example when it asks.

Can any mere creature make satisfaction for us?  None: for first, God will not punish, in any other creature, that of which man has made himself guilty; and further, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin, and redeem others therefrom.  Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 5, Question 14.

The countdown is on.  Christmas is a little more than 5 weeks away.  What are you preparing for?  Are you preparing for the reality of the Incarnation, or trusting merely in annual remembrance to provide peace, joy and hope? Join us this Sunday, November 17 as we examine Hebrews 10:1-18 and consider the danger of seeking redemption from created things, including our holidays, traditions, religious observance, celebrations or family.     We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

Debt Free

Debt Free

Mathematics has placed this Thanksgiving as late in November as possible.  While this is good for those who dread the onslaught of the holiday season, it is disastrous for retailers who depend upon every Saturday between Thanksgiving and Christmas to make or break sales for the year.   Black Friday may put retailers in the black, but it will plunge many holiday gift-givers into the red.  Like it’s namesake, 90 years ago last month, Black Friday spells financial ruin for many American consumers.

Our desire to take advantage of once-in-a-lifetime deals, exhibit remarkable generosity, or just give into the pressure to out gift one another drives us to budget busting binges.   We spend more than we have, because Visa, MasterCard, and Amex have promised to give us 5% cash back on short term loans with an interest rate of 26%.  In a matter of days, we accumulate debt we will spend years struggling to erase.

The modern-day credit card — which entered the scene in the late 1950s — means far greater buying power but also financial disaster for many individuals and families.  Consider the following statistics.

  • More than 189 million Americans have credit cards.
  • The average credit card holder has at least four cards.
  • On average, each household with a credit card carries $8,398 in credit card debt.
  • Total U.S. consumer debt is at $13.86 trillion. That includes mortgages, auto loans, credit cards and student loans

Each statement comes with a helpful “minimum payment.”  While the current balance seems insurmountable, the minimum payment seems manageable.  But here is the bad news.  If you only pay the minimum, you are daily increasing a debt through interest and fees and you will never pay off.   If you are drowning in debt there is help available.  Your lenders may work with you.  Dave Ramsey will educate you.  And by implementing your own austerity measures, with great discipline, you can slowly swim against the tide of consumer debt.

But there is a debt more dreadful than consumer debt.  The Bible tells us that we have all sinned against a God who is our creator and our judge.  His holiness does not allow him to simply write off the debt without someone making sufficient payment.   And even the minimum payment is beyond our reach.  God’s justice demands perfect obedience and death as the penalty for past failure.   Our imperfect and self-centered attempts to pay this debt through religious observance, good works, and expressions of remorse only increase the current balance.  The debt grows every day.   And it must and will be paid — every last penny.  Dave Ramsey has some good advice, but a degree from Financial Peace University will not equip you to pay this debt.

The Heidelberg Catechism, a time-tested set of questions and answers designed to teach the basics of the Christian faith, expresses our conundrum well.

Question 12. Since then, by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, what is required that we may escape this punishment and be again received into favor? 
Answer: God wills that His justice be satisfied, therefore we must make full satisfaction to the same, either by ourselves or by another. 

Question 13. Can we ourselves make this satisfaction? 
Answer: By no means: on the contrary, we daily increase our guilt.

Our situation is dire, but there is good news.  God himself has offered a remarkable payment plan — a plan that goes far beyond clearing our debt.   Join us this Sunday, November 10 as we consider how to become debt-free forever in the economy of God’s justice.     We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

Coal and Switches

Coal and Switches

My enthusiasm for the Christmas season rivals that of ‘Buddy the Elf.’  Growing up, Christmas-time was filled with daily wonder.   Each Sunday we would light a bulb on the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering wreath for each $100 given for world missions.   A few Saturdays before Christmas, Daddy and I would load up our ax, travel to our garden spot, and cut a sparsely foliated (but free) pine for the living room.  What it lacked in branches was easily compensated with icicles.  The color-wheel was set up and blue electric candles lighted every window.  My mother made fudge and divinity on an industrial scale.  And on Saturday mornings, my father would patiently take me on the annual Christmas shopping pilgrimage – which always included chocolate-covered cherries and a calendar refill for Mama.

On Christmas Eve we would make all the final preparations.  Mesh stockings were hung on each door knob, in hopes that they would be filled with an apple, an orange, a giant candy cane and spice drops.  After supper, we would open our gift from Nana.  She always gave us the same thing — a new pair of pajamas.  Predictable though it was, it never got old.  Donning those flannel PJs signaled the beginning of Christmas.   Before bed, we would set out chocolate pie for Santa because my father said he would be tired of cookies by the time he made it to Georgia.   Then Daddy would pull out his giant reel-to-reel audio recorder and conduct interviews with my sisters and me.

My father had a flair for the dramatic.  With a news reporter’s demeanor, he would conduct his man-on-the-street interview with us, always wrapping up with the devastating question, “Have you been good this year?”  Of course, I always tried to answer a confident, “Yes.”   But in the quiet of my mind and the long night, conscience began to do its work.  Had I been good?  Had my merits exceeded my demerits?  Had my kindness overshadowed my unkindness?  Had I helped others more than I had hurt them?  How good did I need to be?  Had I obeyed my parents?  Had I obeyed them joyfully?

These days the darker side of Santa is rarely discussed – the vindictive, cold, works-based side of Santa Claus that delivers the punitive gifts of a lump of coal and a bundle of switches to bad children.  But in my childhood Santa’s Covenant of Works was well publicized.   Many hours of reflection would follow bedtime.  While Nana passed the hours in sonorous oblivion, under the weight of three quilts on my bed, I pondered the question, “Had I been good?”  How good did I need to be?  I had never heard of any of my friends actually getting a lump of coal or a bundle of switches, but would that be my lot?  Between considering other questions such as “how will Santa get in our house since we don’t have a chimney,” and “how can he get to every home in just one night,” the central quandary would return.  Had I been good?  In the final assessment, I could only hope that Santa’s intelligence network was not very good, otherwise I was sunk.   If he really knew who was naughty and who was nice, it would be coal and switches for me.

A man once came to Jesus and posed the same question, but concerning for a more serious outcome.  “Good teacher, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus reply was devastating.  “Why do you call me good, no one is good except God alone.  You know the commandments!”  Then Jesus proceeded to remind him of those commandments which related to people.  The young man’s superficial claim of perfect obedience was then met with a final command which utterly crushed him.  “One more thing, go sell everything and follow me.”    At these words he was saddened and went away grieving.   How good do you have to be ‘good with God?’   Well if it is up to you, you have to be perfect.  Unless you can love God perfectly with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength and your neighbor just as much as you love yourself, you will receive, not just the temporal punishment of a lump of coal and a bundle of switches, but the eternal wrath and curse of a just and holy God.

Who can make a claim to this kind of goodness?  The Bible tells us that “no one is good, no not one.”  But it is in that same context that we are told the good news that the judgment of God is not the last word.   God loved us and sent his son, the eternal Son of God, to become man, to live a perfect life and to die a sinner’s death on our behalf so that we might receive the gift of life through faith in Him, not by our works.   There is no hope for bad children with Santa, but with the eternal God, sinners have hope.  For Jesus said, “the one who comes to me, I will never turn away.”

Join us this Sunday, November 3 as consider what the Bible teaches about the justice and the mercy of God for men who recognize that they are not good.     We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

Care Instructions

Care Instructions

It is proverbial that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’   And while no one can deny the power of illustration, a picture without a word of explanation is worthless.  Words have a level of precision in communication that pictures can never attain.  We call pictures, illustrations, for just that reason.  They adorn or clarify words, but never replace them – a fact lost on the author/illustrators of modern instruction manuals.  Words have been replaced with undecipherable instructo-glyphs.  Yet no decoder ring or Rosetta Stone can be found in the packaging.

Pictographic laundry care labels are equally mysterious, especially for men, who already struggle with the basic idea that more than one load is ever needed.  Left to our own devices, all our clothes would be two sizes too small and a dingy, grey shade of pink.  Men are by nature insensible to the significance of laundry care.  But any man who has loved and lived with a woman recognizes the importance of making this important.   You only get one, or maybe two, chances at shrinking your wife’s perfect fitting top before you tempt her to keep a record of wrongs.   So men, take time to learn the laundro-glyphic arts and treat the sorting and laundering of clothes with utmost care.  Because how you care for your wife’s laundry is directly related to your care for your wife.

This principle has an important analog in spiritual life as well.  Intimate relationships require great care and attention.  They cannot be neglected or treated carelessly.  In a very strange passage of scripture in thirteenth chapter of Jeremiah, God compares his people, Israel, to a linen loin cloth.  As is the occupational hazard of biblical prophets, Jeremiah acts out the illustration.  The linen loin cloth is a precious garment.  The prophet is instructed to handle it carefully and not even wash it.  Just as the loin cloth is designed to be worn, clinging intimately to its owner, so God’s people are made to cling to him.  When this intimacy is treated with great care and attention it brings glory to God and joy to man.

But God shows the people the effects of carelessness, apathy, and neglect on this relationship.  He tells the prophet to make the long journey to the Euphrates River.  There he is to bury the linen garment in the cleft of a rock along the riverbank and to leave it for some time.   Placed in a harsh environment and neglected, it predictably spoils.  And as anyone who has owned a linen garment knows, if it suffers neglect and abuse it is impossible to restore.  God’s people had not protected and cared for their intimate relationship with their creator.  They were created for him and him alone.  They were made, perfectly fitted, to cling closely.  But when this intimate fellowship is neglected and abused, how can it be restored?  There is a warning here for us.  We were made to glorify and enjoy our Creator.  We were spoiled beyond hope by sin, yet God’s grace reclaimed us, restored us, and called us to cling to him.  Like Jacob and Peniel, we are not to let go.

But how careful are we to heed these “care instructions?”  Have we become careless and neglectful in the intimate relationship with Christ to which we have been called?  Have we put ourselves in the clefts of other rocks? Or buried ourselves into other pursuits? Or allowed other things to flow in and through us apart from a love for Christ?   How carefully are you heeding the instructions to care for your spiritual life?  Are you more careful with your woolens than your relationship to Christ?

Join us this Sunday, October 27 as we examine this important reminder from Jeremiah 13 to guard and cherish with care our intimate fellowship with God through Christ.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

Sad Songs

Sad Songs

Why is it that the music that grips our souls is filled with sorrow and brokenness?   Think about it.  Without these themes country and western music would disappear and Delilah’s overnight radio program would be reduced to a three-song playlist.   A happy song can lift our spirits for a moment, but a sad song resonates our whole being.   It’s images, its expressions, its vocalization of our own grief is powerful.  Happiness can be superficial, but sorrow has a rich topography – with dark, foreboding peaks and deep valleys.   Sorrow is a richly woven tapestry more common to our human experience than joy.  We can instinctively feel the truth of the Solomon’s sage observation, even though it seems counterintuitive.

It is better to go to the house of mourning
    than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
    and the living will lay it to heart.  Ecclesiastes 7:2

So, it is no wonder that the Psalms in the Bible contain many more songs of lament than songs of joy.   The Holy Spirit instructs us to lay our sorrows before a God who is not a cold, indifferent higher power, but a Heavenly Father who delights to hear cry of his children and wipe away their tears, who loves us with a depth and intensity that we can scarcely grasp.  As Calvin aptly noted, the Psalms reflect the anatomy of the soul and teach us how to exercise faith even in the midst of fear, pain and sorrow.

And Jesus, our Savior, made like us – truly human though also fully God — was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” who bears our sorrows and carries our griefs.   The depth of our character and our being is revealed more clearly in our sorrow than in our joy.   As Jesus’ sorrow is highlighted in the gospels we perceive the depth of his love for broken sinners.   He wept over the unbelief of his people.

Jeremiah demonstrated this same type of grief for the people of his day.   Often called the weeping prophet, Jeremiah’s sharp pronouncement of judgment and urgent calls to repentance are interleaved with songs of sorrow over the unbelief of his people.   Some of these are interspersed throughout his sermons while others are collected in Lamentations.

But in Jeremiah 12 we encounter another lamentation – not from the lips of Jeremiah, but from God himself.  Here we see God singing a lament over his people because of their unbelief.   It is a song that gives us a picture of the depth of God’s love – love that weathers unfaithfulness, love that holds out mercy, love that longs to restore.   To despise God’s love, grace, and salvation, to trample underfoot the blood of the covenant is to be worthy of all His wrath – yet in wrath, He remembers mercy.

From Jeremiah, we have heard of our sin and of the certainty of God’s justice.  We have heard time and time again God’s willingness to have us back, calling us to turn back from having turned backs.   But here we see His grief over our lostness and over every sin that clings so closely.  We see how he feels about us.   There is no harsh, cold, indifference.  There is no eagerness to judge and destroy.   In his love and compassion for us, he has gone to the extremity of entering into our condition in the person of Jesus, to satisfy justice and show mercy.   Our impassible God is no dispassionate God.  His love and concern for us is beyond what we can grasp.  In this passage we are called the “beloved of [His] soul.”

Not sure how God feels about you?   Join us this Sunday, October 20 to find out.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

Tagging Along

Tagging Along

As a boy, I liked nothing better than tagging along with my dad.   Sometimes he would take me with him to work, where I would unbox and prepare typewriters for delivery, investigate the trinkets littering his desk, and eagerly anticipate lunch at Mary Mac’s Tea Room or chocolate pie on the swiveling stools at Krystal’s.  Other times we would run errands.  My father loved to run errands.  He would spend $0.50 extra in gas to save $0.22 on some small necessity.  And his car was always filled with the smell of pipe tobacco.  Borkum Riff was the smell of my childhood.  As enthusiasm for the quest waned, the last stop would reveal some small surprise just for me – never demanded, but always produced.  My joy in being with my father was never defined by our activity but our proximity.

My Saturdays were completely defined by my father’s agenda.   My absolute favorite Saturday activity was to help mow the church yard.   Mowing with the riding mower was both terrifying and exhilarating.  Navigating the board ramps into the storage room and mowing the steep bank behind the church always produced a surge of adrenaline.  My dad’s anxious expressions and “earnest” admonitions, no doubt, increased to the adrenal flow rate.   My driving produced tense moments for my father – especially when I ruptured the freon line on the church AC unit.  Yet he continued to entrust the job to me.  Being with my dad gave me a sense of my place in the world.

As I got older, however, my diverging interests and preferences made my father’s agenda less pleasurable and more drudgerous.  Nothing had changed for his part.  Yet, now his plans always seemed at variance from my own.   Activity trumped proximity.  What we did was more important to me than that fact that we were together.  My friends got to sleep in and wile away their Saturdays in sports and leisure, while my father’s plans never included those categories.   Being with my dad was no longer more important than doing what I liked.   Now he is gone and I would love to have a few more days weeding the garden, raking leaves, and running errands.  But in the foolishness of youth, following him became more of a chore than a joy.

This danger also awaits us in the Christian life.  We are called to follow Christ.  Our chief calling as Christians is defined by proximity not activity.  Wherever Christ goes and whatever He is doing, we are called to follow him in the going and the doing.  Often as young Christians our enthusiasm to be with Him overcomes the calculus of the where and the what.   Then, like Peter walking on the water, we take our eyes of Him and begin to look at the wind and the waves.  Suddenly following Him does not seem like such a good idea.

How far are you willing to follow?  What inconvenience, crisis, relationship, or circumstance will be the place where you say, “this far and no further.”  Hebrews reminds us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus.” And Jesus has a challenging word for the casual, conditional follower.

Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62

How far will you follow?  The prophet, Jeremiah, had taken great risks to follow God’s call.  His preaching offended everyone, alienated him from family, and made him the mortal enemy of powerful people.   His words were powerful but seemed ineffective.  The people did not turn back to God.  And God’s judgment was not turned back from the people.   He gave up the hope of wife and family and a peaceful life as a priest to be an outlaw, hated and spurned by the very people he suffered to serve.

The Bible preserves for us Jeremiah’s teaching as well as his personal struggles.   Like Jeremiah, sorrow, opposition, broken relationships and ineffective ministry can deter us from following Christ.   It is easy to quit following, if we are following an idea or activity.  But we are called to follow a person.  Jeremiah’s struggles resonate with us and challenge us to consider, “how far will we follow?”

Join us this Sunday, October 13, as we consider the challenges we face as we follow Christ.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

Saying “I Do”

Saying “I Do”

Do you remember your wedding vows?  Perhaps you remember saying, “I do,” but do you remember what you agreed to when you said it?  As a pastor, I get to stand with couples as they make vows to live as husband and wife “for as long as [they] both shall live.”   For newlyweds this is a day of joy, celebration, and anticipation.  The weightiness of their vows waits for the happy couple in their future.  But I also walk with couples to the end of this vow through the valley the shadow of death.  As joyful as it is to hear couples recite vows at their wedding, it is a pastor’s sacred privilege to observe vows faithfully discharged on a couple’s last day as husband and wife.

Not long ago, I sat with “June” at the bedside of her husband of sixty-nine years.   As his earthly life was fading, she told me the story of their life together.  It was a hard story.  A life of challenges, setbacks, disappointments, sickness and some good times too.   “How did you make it through?” I asked.  Never looking up, she quoted without hesitation.

“For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”  Ruth 1:16-17

As she spoke, I was struck by the remarkable picture of faithfulness.   That vow, so easily spoken seven decades earlier, had been faithfully kept through poverty and plenty, sickness and health, better and a great deal of worse.   It was not merely promised.  It was lived.

It is powerful to see vows made and kept, “so long as [they] both shall live.” Far too often it is a pastor’s grief to see vows made and broken.  This kind of grief was what caused the weeping prophet, Jeremiah, to weep.  Yes, he was sorry for the consequences of God’s judgement against his own people, family, and land, but much deeper than that, he grieved a marriage broken – a marriage between Christ and His Church.

Years before Jeremiah’s time, Moses stood before the people on the edge of the Promised Land and administered the wedding vows.   The covenant was confirmed by the words of God, “I will be your God and you will be my people” – the language of a wedding in ancient Israel.   But the covenant came with both promised blessings for faithfulness as well as threatened  curses for unfaithfulness.   Both to the blessings to the curses, Israel consented, declaring, “Amen, so let it be.”

But now in Jeremiah’s day, the marriage of the people to their God is faltering.  The people have strayed.  They have treated every other lover as a husband (Baal in Hebrew) and have despised their true husband.   They have been unfaithful to their vows.  In fact, they have forgotten their vows.  The consequences, the curses, for their unfaithfulness are coming home to roost.  The prophet reminds them, warns them, and points them back to the vows they had made so many years ago.  And so he reminds us.

The life of a Christian is one of making and keeping vows to our beloved.  Not in order to earn His love, but because He loves us.  Christ’s love is what captivates us to live lives of grace and gratitude.   This is what Jeremiah reminds the people as he pleads with them to turn away from being “turned away” and to turn back and follow Christ.

Join us this Sunday, October 6, as we consider the warning from Jeremiah to remember our first love and the vows we have made to belong wholly and only to Him.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.