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.

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.

Sarcasm

Sarcasm

A software engineer is a living contradiction – vacillating between optimism toward what might be and pessimism about what is.   Software development is the nearest thing to creation ex nihlo man can achieve.  Created in the realm of abstract ideas and breathed into life on digital devices, an app reflects unlimited possibilities, limited by only one thing — users.  Software is designed for totally depraved users.  Optimism regarding what an app can do is counterbalanced by pessimism of what users will do.   Though over 90% of any given app’s code is error checking, it is never enough.

This paradigm makes software engineers some of the most pessimistic people you will ever meet.  They are definitely in the category of “glass nearly empty” people.   They effortlessly convert every management attempt at team-building and motivation into sarcasm and non-compliance.  This is what makes them frustratingly anti-social, but this also good at their craft.   Being connoisseurs of human folly and masters of sarcasm enables them to drill down to what is actually deliverable in a world in which anything is theoretically possible.

The dictionary defines sarcasm as “the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.”  By its very nature sarcasm uses absurdity disguised as seriousness to bring clarity to what is true and contempt to what is false.   A colleague of mine once remarked that sarcasm had no place in preaching, that it was a form of speech beneath the dignity of a sermon.   Yet as a form of distilling truth, sarcasm is employed often in the Bible.  Sarcasm in scripture and in preaching often functions as the perfect colander to strain out the pulp of superficiality from the nectar of clarity.

Jesus used many figures of speech.   Surely Jesus instructions in Matthew 5:29-30 to pluck out the sinful eye or to amputate a sin-stained right hand are hyperbole and not surgical asceticism.  But it is in the prophets where we routinely encounter the literary device of sarcasm.  A short survey of the prophets all the way back to Elijah, shows that whenever they addressed the issue of idolatry, sarcasm was used to mock the impotence of false gods.   Elijah’s comments on Mt. Carmel are the gold standard.

And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 1 Kings 18:27

And Isaiah’s scathing rebuke of the folly of idolatry drips with sarcasm when he observes that idols are usually fashioned from scrap wood.

Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” Isaiah 44:16-17

The prophet Jeremiah continues this tradition as he confronts the people of Judah with the folly of their idolatry.  Comparing and contrasting their false gods with the true God he calls his people to see the error of their ways, to help them understand how to recognize their own idolatry, and to use the gifts God has given to keep them sliding down that slippery slope.   The sarcasm of the prophet makes it ridiculously clear how foolish their idolatry is, but how clearly do we see our own idols?

Can we recognize the things in our lives which take but never deliver, make fools of us, and keep us in fear of losing them?   It’s so easy to see the speck in the eyes of others, but planks are hard to detect.  What idol has your heart?  What is it, that if you lost it would make life not worth living?  That is your idol.

Join us this Sunday, September 15, as we learn from the warning of the prophet Jeremiah how to recognize the idols in our lives.  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.

A Time to Mourn

A Time to Mourn

The older I get, the more emotional I have become.  I have always been a bit of a stoic but, now children’s stories and sermon illustrations easily choke me up.  I try to pass these episodes off as dramatic pauses, but in reality I can’t read The Three Trees or Papa Panov’s Special Day or recount poignant sermon illustrations without turning into an emotional mess.   As I reflect on why this is, I have come to believe that with more of life’s water under the bridge, those stories and illustrations bear a strong resemblance to my own stories and my own grief – grief over opportunities and people lost and grief over my callousness to God’s grace and insensitivity to His presence.

But I have also come to understand that grief is a normal part of life.   Though it often takes us by surprise, it is not unexpected.  The longer we live, the more grief we live with.  Grief is not contrary to faith, nor a lack of faith.   Indeed, Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  At the tomb of Lazarus and in the midst of the Triumphal Entry, “Jesus wept.”   In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said that His soul was “sorrowful unto death.”  And Jesus’ faith and knowledge were complete and He was in perfect communion with the Heavenly Father.   Yet He was “acquainted with grief.”  Grief is a part of life in this fallen world.  Being a Christian does not change this, it only changes how we respond to it.

I appreciate the wisdom of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3.  He notes that life “under the sun” is a life with seasons.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; …
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; …. 

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart. —  Ecclesiastes 3:1-10

There is a time to mourn, a time to grieve.  But grief can be complicated.  Each person’s “Tear Soup” requires different ingredients, different cooking times, and has unique complex flavors.   Grief brings complexity to our feelings and to our faith.  Grief challenges the clichés by which we live and confronts us with the God who IS, and not the God we imagined.    But God has not left us without guidance for our grief.  His Holy Spirit is often called, in Scripture, the “Comforter.”  This Comforter inspired chosen men of old to give us words to speak, pray, and sing in the Psalms to teach us how to grieve.   John Calvin famously noted, regarding the Psalms,

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.  

John Calvin, Preface to Commentary on the Psalms.

And we have many examples in Scripture of grief observed.   Jeremiah’s emotional confessions and lamentations are potent examples.   Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.”   As one commenter noted, he was “never a dispassionate observer of his nation’s sufferings, but entered into the anguish of the people and suffered with them….  [He bore] a message of divine judgement while at the same time sharing the sufferings of the people…. [He was a man] torn asunder between God and the people, to both of whom [he] was bound with deep ties.”  (The Book of Jeremiah, J. A. Thompson)

In Jeremiah 8 and 9 we encounter the prophet in the depths of complex and conflicting grief over the sin and judgment of Judah.  God has called us to draw near to observe his grief to instruct us how to grieve over the sin and judgment of our own time.   In Jeremiah’s grief we see the necessities, complexities, expansiveness and available comfort for our grief – grief over our own sin and loss, and over that of our people.

Join us this Sunday, September 8, as we consider how the example of Jeremiah instructs us to grieve when it is a “time to mourn.”  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.