Unlikely Converts

Unlikely Converts

Nothing keeps Christ in Christmas like our annual viewing of The Lord of the Rings.  Now before you accuse me of sarcasm or heresy, consider that Tolkien’s Christian worldview shines brightly through every line of his books as well as through all twelve hours of the extended versions of Peter Jackson’s adaptation.  Against all odds, as the irresistible darkness, oppression and malice of a Dark Lord covers the world in shadow and sorrow, salvation comes to the ruined race of men from the most unlikely of heroes.   Like all great epic tales, great odds are overcome and great courage is exercised as common men perform uncommon deeds.

Tolkien’s magnum opus is filled with many nuggets of wisdom, spoken at salient points.  In one exchange, the main character, Frodo laments, “I wish the ring had never come to me,” as bearing it had become unbearable.  His friend, Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”  But not all the quotable quotes have such gravitas.  Gimli, a dwarf, who provides no end of comic relief, quips when facing the prospect of a futile frontal assault on the Dark Lord’s stronghold, “certainty of death, small chance of success – what are we waiting for?”

The Lord of the Rings is a powerful story of courage, friendship, and redemption, eclipsed only by what its author once called “the only true myth” – the gospel.  The gospel is a story that is so unlikely, in which common men, empowered by faith, perform uncommon deeds and in which the ruined race of men is gloriously redeemed by a mighty hero, who took on the form of a servant and humbled himself, even to death on a cross.   The gospel is a story of unlikely converts, not of men whose moral excellence made them acceptable to God or earned his favor, nor men of power whose mighty deeds destroyed the power of their great enemies, death and the devil.  No, the gospel is a story of the weak and powerless, snatched as burning brands from the fire.

Nowhere is this seen more powerfully than in Luke 2 – a passage sometimes called, “the Christmas story.”   Here the Lord of glory is born into quiet obscurity while the only announcement is given to shepherds, the most despised and outcast class of society.  These enigmatic shepherds were the most unlikely of converts — men who were notoriously under suspicion, who were rejected from temple worship due to their habitual and ritual uncleanness, and whose word was not acceptable in the courts.  If anyone had hope to receive God’s goodwill and favor because of their works it was not these men.

Yet these were the men to whom God announced, “for unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  Unto “you!”  No one gave these men anything, but unto them God had given a savior!   Luther once wrote that “the gospel is in the personal pronouns.”  Like them, if we hope to receive God’s goodwill and favor because of our works, then we are sorely mistaken.  But the good news is that a savior has been born to us, Christ the Lord.  For you see, we are all the most unlikely of converts!

Join us this Lord’s Day, December 16, as we examine the story of the shepherds in Luke 2 and consider God’s powerful plan to save the most unlikely of converts.  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 you and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

Making Preparations

Making Preparations

No day of the year requires more preparation than Christmas.  The demands of the season have become increasingly prodigious.  We must find just the right gift for all our friends and relations, synchronize calendars so that all events can be attended, and devise elaborate culinary plans for nearly six weeks of feasting.   And then there is the decorating which gets earlier and earlier every year as it gets more and more sensational.

The first mile marker on the road to Christmas for our family is the baking of the Christmas Cake.  Inspired by an episode of All Creatures Great and Small, Isabella bakes the cake in mid-October then methodically feeds it brandy for the next two months.   There is no rushing the Christmas Cake.  Some things cannot be hurried.  The preparation must be slow and intentional.  Every step is important.  No shortcuts are possible.  And at last, after months of waiting, the day arrives just before Christmas when the cake can be iced and enjoyed with great fanfare.

I suppose it makes sense that our Christmas preparations are slow and methodical, unfolding step by step.   Since the great event our celebration signifies, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, was also slow and methodical, revealed step by step in the history of God’s redeeming work among men.   The Bible puts it this way.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. Galatians 4:4-6.

God took His time.  He worked in the fullness of time.  He could have done things differently, but He sovereignly chose an unhurried pace to prepare men for His work of reconciling them to Himself.   From generation to generation He raised up men and women through whom He acted to remind us that He is not powerless or unconcerned to save us from ourselves and prepare us to receive Him as our Savior and King.   But how careful have we been to heed this preparation?  Or have we spent more time preparing  for mere signs of His grace than the grace those things signify?

One ancient preacher warned his congregation before observing the Lord’s Supper.

“Why come ye to this table, if you will not come to Christ?   Why come to signs and seals and despise the very thing they point to?”  

We could ask ourselves the same thing.  Have we spent months preparing for Christmas, but have no time for Christ?  John the Baptist was the great preparer – the forerunner of Jesus.  His life’s work was to “make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”   At his birth friends and neighbors gathered to celebrate his parent’s joy, they speculated on what the baby would grow up to become.

As his father’s unbelief gave way to belief, the Lord restored his speech and he uttered a long-delayed word of blessing.  But his blessing and thanksgiving were not about his baby boy, but about the one his son would herald.   John’s whole life would singularly revolve around preparing himself and others for Jesus.  And Jesus would later declare that of all those born of women, John was the greatest.   Nowhere is John’s greatness seen more brilliantly than in the following exchange with a Pharisee in John 3.

And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Can you say that?  Are you content to decrease, that Jesus may increase?  Does your life revolve around preparing yourself and others to love, serve and follow Jesus?   Join us this Lord’s Day, December 9, as we examine the account of the birth of John the Baptist in Luke 1:57-80 and consider our own calling to prepare ourselves and others for 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. Or download the December 19, 2018 Order of Service

Come with a friend you and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

Gift Giving

Gift Giving

Christmastime is a season marked by many beloved and enduring traditions. But no ritual dominates American Christmas celebrations like gift giving. Thirty percent of all retail sales in the United States occur between Black Friday and Christmas. This amounts to a staggering $717,000,000,000 in sales. That breaks down to a little over $1,000 per consumer. For many of our friends and neighbors this means going to great lengths financially, incurring substantial debt.

The pressure to find the right gift can be enormous. For some on your list, perhaps the token box of chocolate covered cherries or a bag of holiday blend coffee nicely discharges a sense of seasonal obligation, but for friends and family, gifts must reveal the givers intimate perception of the receiver’s preferences and desires. While men love to receive a gift card for anything, woe to the insensitive husband who gives one to his wife. Men, the scripture commands us to “dwell with our wives according to knowledge.” (1 Peter 3:7) That means, you need to get her something that aptly reflects her preferences and desires – not a gift card. She expects you to know her well enough to be decisive about her gift. And so we go to great lengths to find and give the right gift to our beloved.

The preciousness of a gift reflects the preciousness of the relationship it celebrates. The home-made gifts of children are precious to their parents, because they are gifts of their love, creativity, and generosity. It is a gift that is invested with who they are. How precious are the gifts we give? Is our goal in gift giving to discharge a seasonal responsibility or to celebrate the preciousness of our love for others? It is worth noting that the whole tradition of giving gifts is commemorative. It commemorates the gift that we have been given the Incarnation – as the eternal, divine Son of God takes upon himself a human nature to give to us the gift of faith and life.

We think we know the story. We think we understand this gift, but the fullness of what God has done for us in the gospel is incomprehensible. Apostle Paul called it “the mystery of godliness, Christ Jesus manifest in the flesh.” When the Archangel Gabriel announced the Virgin Mary of God’s plan to make her the mother of the Messiah, his explanation of this mystery was mysterious.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”

But the angel’s point was not to explain the mechanics of Mary’s pregnancy, but the nature of our Savior. Jesus would be fully God and fully man, possessing a human nature, but not a fallen nature. Jesus alone would be capable of rescuing us from ourselves, able to stand in our place, and alone able to bear the weight of God’s justice that we might experience God’s mercy.

The story of the Virgin Birth is not just a story about God’s ability to do miracles, but it reveals to us the preciousness of God’s indescribable gift. Mary’s perplexity pulls back the curtain to allow us to glimpse the glory of Christ. God did not give us a token gift, but he gave a most precious gift. We read in scripture that “God did not withhold from us his only Son, but gave Him up for us all. How will He not give us all things in Him?”

The poet Luci Shaw captures beautifully the paradox of the Incarnation in her poem, Mary’s Song.

Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms. (Rest …
you who have had so far to come.)
Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world. Charmed by doves’ voices,
the whisper of straw, he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed who overflowed all skies,
all years. Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught
that I might be free, blind in my womb
to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.
Luci Shaw

Join us this Lord’s Day, December 2, as we examine Gabriel’s announcement to Mary in Luke 1:26-38 and consider the greatness of God’s gift to us in the gospel. 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 you and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

Breaking the Silence

Breaking the Silence

Every actor, every game-show host, every news anchor, and every preacher knows the importance of the dramatic pause. It heightens anticipation, it calls hearers to attention, it makes the heart race. It dials up the emotional intensity to the gravity of the word it so intently awaits. It is that silence which, for a moment, haunts the psyche of hearers as they struggle to predict or prepare for the coming word, suspended dreamlike between terror and hope. Such is the power of silence. It is hope, fear, uncertainty, disappointment, expectation all compressed by a sonic vacuum.

But what happens when that pause is more than a few fleeting seconds? What if that dramatic pause goes on for hours or days or weeks. Many couples have experienced the emotional estrangement that comes from a famine of words. Without the nourishing words of assurance, love and comfort, silence imputes motives that arise out of our worst fears and harshest assessments of those we love. But the silence of our beloved is nothing when compared to the silence of God. We can observe this keenly in the words of Psalm 22, a prayer which resonated on the lips of Christ upon the cross.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? Psalm 22:1

The songwriter, Andrew Peterson, expresses the tension this silence from God creates in our lives.

It’s enough to drive a man crazy; it’ll break a man’s faith
It’s enough to make him wonder if he’s ever been sane
When he’s bleating for comfort from Thy staff and Thy rod
And the heaven’s only answer is the silence of God

It’ll shake a man’s timbers when he loses his heart
When he has to remember what broke him apart
This yoke may be easy, but this burden is not
When the crying fields are frozen by the silence of God

And the man of all sorrows, he never forgot
What sorrow is carried by the hearts that he bought
So when the questions dissolve into the silence of God
The aching may remain, but the breaking does not
The aching may remain, but the breaking does not
In the holy, lonesome echo of the silence of God.   

The Silence of God, Andrew Peterson

Those final words are powerful. The man of all sorrows, he never forgot, What sorrow is carried by the hearts that he bought. Jesus — the Word made flesh — was born to speak God’s love, mercy and comfort into a dramatic silence that had lasted 400 years. God was not dead, not absent, not unconcerned, not idle. From before the foundation of the world, He had been bringing history to this point. “[When] the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law.” Galatians 4:4-5  The God of the Bible is a God that breaks the silence of fear, of sorrow, of uncertainty with comfort, joy and confident hope. He does this by sending His Son.

Zechariah knew something about the silence of God. As an aged priest, his whole life had been devoted to pleading for God to speak and to act on behalf of his people. How many years had he served God? How many he years had he prayed for the salvation of the Lord? How many thousands of times had he plead with God to redeem his people from the yoke of tyranny and sin? But where was an answer, any answer?

But Zechariah also had a personal plea. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had served God faithfully, but yet, God had closed Elizabeth’s womb. There was no child, no heir, no “sound of little feet that was the music they danced to week to week.” There was only stigma and silence from the God, whose service was their every thought and breath. Yet, silence is never the last word from God.

In the midst of this silence, Zechariah gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He is called upon to offer prayers and burn the sacred incense before the most Holy Place in the temple. It would be easy to imagine how he might be tempted to doubt, yet it is in this very moment that God breaks His long silence. The dramatic pause is finished and the even more dramatic truth is spoken. All that God has promised is about to come about. The gospel, the good news, is revealed to Zechariah. And Zechariah, whose life had been a silent witness to the silent God, becomes the silent instrument God chooses to make known his broken silence in the gospel.

Join us this Lord’s Day, November 25, as we begin a short series of lessons from Luke’s Gospel in Luke 1:5-25 and consider the power of the gospel to break the silence of God 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. And here for our order of service.  Come with a friend you and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

Caring for the Caregivers

Caring for the Caregivers

There is no dismay quite like it.  That crushed look in the eyes of a child when they proudly present their latest masterpiece for mounting on the refrigerator and Dad asks, “what is it?”  “Can’t you tell?” responds a quivering little voice.  And immediately parental stammering and backpedaling begins.

I learned long ago, after many parental fails, to ask “tell me about this one?”  This little bit of painfully acquired wisdom has served me well.  As I visit with those who are suffering long-term illness and look at the pictures displayed around their homes – pictures that tell their story and that of their family — I ask “tell me about this one?”  Just as our children’s masterpieces are often unrecognizable to us, so the appearance of friends may become nearly unrecognizable as long-term sickness takes its toll.  I have noticed that even the best Hollywood makeup artists cannot quite capture the withering effects of prolonged illness.

But the one who is sick is not the only one who suffers.  Caregivers keenly feel the effects of their “labor of love.”   Often, I have asked a primary caregiver, “your loved one has you to care for her, but who is taking care of you?”  Sadly, more times than not the reply is “no one” — the caregiver had no caregiver.  And it shows.  Weariness of face and weariness of soul is hard to disguise.   And the effects are devastating.

But this is not only true for those caring for the physical needs of others.  The burdens of spiritual care are wearying to those who bear them.   Paul lamented that he wrote to the Corinthians “out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears.”  And in Romans, Paul wrote that he had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” because of the unbelief of his fellow Israelites.  And in Colossians, we read of Epaphras who was frequently “wrestling in prayer” for his congregation.  Spiritual caregiving is strenuous and takes its toll on pastors and elders.  But who cares for the caregivers?  The answer Scripture gives is surprising.

In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul instructs Timothy in how the church is to behave as the household of God.  Following up on his commands regarding the support and care for widows, Paul gives important guidance about how the church is to care for its caregivers – its elders, especially those that labor in the word and in doctrine.

In the United States, on average, over 1700 pastors leave the ministry every year.  70% report suffering chronic depression and 80% believe that pastoral ministry has adversely affected their families.  Burnout is epidemic and extreme loneliness is characteristic.   Who is caring for these caregivers?  Paul’s admonition is that this is the collective work of the congregation.   Just as the congregation bears the burden of care for widows, who in turn have cared for the congregation, so the sheep are to provide care for the shepherds who have tended and fed the flock.

Join us this Lord’s Day, November 18, as we examine 1 Timothy 5:17-25 and consider the practical ways in which congregations care for their caregivers.  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 you and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

Flood Stage

Flood Stage

The sheer power of water is unfathomable.  When it is raging, it sweeps away everything before it.  It overwhelms, inundates and immerses.  Among the repertoire of weather catastrophes, few are more dreaded than a flood.   In the past decade we have endured many powerful hurricanes, but in the wake of each, it was the flooding that brought the most sustained destruction, loss and suffering.   Floods both large and small are feared because of their irresistible power.  For this reason, we have gone to great lengths to control the effects of flooding.

But in the history of the world, floods often had a better reputation.  Ancient men, without the means of modern flood control, endured regular cycles of flooding.  But these floods were life-giving, nourishing the land so that it might bear food in abundance.   The “fertile crescent” was the result of this life-giving overflow of the banks of Middle Eastern rivers as new soil was deposited by the raging waters to renew land wearied by farming.   Flooding was often viewed positively in literary imagery as it is today.  For example, when we receive help, encouragement, empathy in a time of trial we say we were flooded with love and concern.    The Bible also uses the image of overflowing when it speaks in Luke 6 of giving.

… give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. Luke 6:38

Jesus also noted that it is “out of the overflow of the heart, that the mouth speaks” – a truth that comes with a warning that whatever floods our hearts will spill over onto those around us.   What is it that fills your heart?  What is it that spills over onto those around you?  What “heart-flood” will overwhelm, inundate and immerse your loved ones, friends, neighbors and even enemies?

Paul, writing to a young Timothy, instructs him carefully in how the church is to care for women facing disaster because of the death of their husbands.   More than any other issue of family life, Paul gives detailed instructions for the care of widows.  Widows and orphans were the most at-risk members of every ancient society, but God is a “defender of widows and a father to the fatherless” and his people are to “plead their cause” and care for them in their need – not as a substitute for the gospel, but as the overflow of the gospel.

When the gospel is carefully guarded through orthodox teaching, powerful prayer, biblical worship, and accountable leadership it will overflow those banks and result in a flood of intense and intensely practical love for our neighbors — love that provides, love that instructs and love that redeems.   Paul’s instructions regarding widows do not constitute a mere social gospel, but set the bar much higher, reflecting the truth later expressed by John that “we love because He first loved us.”   When our lives are filled with the deep, deep love of Jesus they will overflow with committed care for “the least of these.”   What about you?  Is your life in flood stage?

Join us this Lord’s Day, November 11, as we examine 1 Timothy 5:9-16 and consider the practical effects of living a life flooded by grace.  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 you and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.

The Living Room

The Living Room

The old saying goes, “a man’s home is his castle.”  While there is some comfort in this, it is worth remembering that the primary architectural goal of a castle is to keep others out.  Castles have walls with battlements from which projectiles can be hurled and pots of boiling oil dumped on the heads of those who seek to gain entry.   A castle’s windows are designed for archers, not effective lighting.  And castles have moats – a feature that unequivocally says, “keep out, or else.”  Castles were not built for hospitality.  Castles were built to clearly draw the line between us and them.

The architecture of 1970’s Americana had an answer to this kind of bunker mentality.  It was called, the Living Room.  Not to be confused with the den, which was the private gathering spot for the nuclear family, the living room was a separate room designed and decorated for the reception of strangers.  This was the place where guests were received, where daughters were courted, and where outsiders became, for a brief time, insiders.  The Living Room served as a stone of remembrance that we lived in a world larger than just “us.”

Our society has grown increasingly divided, however.  We have our church groups, school groups, and various other groups.  And rarely do they cross-pollinate.  But this is not the normative expression of the Christian life.  Our faith must permeate, flavor and unite every realm of life.  We don’t hang up our Christianity on a hook at the back door of the church as we leave worship each week and only put it on again as we arrive the following Sunday.  The life of faith, modeled through our worship, is to be lived out in every sphere – our vocations, our avocations, and our families.  Like a living room, our faith forms the meeting place, the intersection, of all our little worlds.

In the New Testament, Paul wrote two letters to his young friend, Timothy, to instruct him in pastoral care.  To be sure, many of these instructions regarded doctrine, worship and organization within the local congregation.  But Paul also gave eminently practical instructions on questions of communication and family life, reminding Timothy and us that the gospel defines who we are, and what we are, everywhere that we are.

Join us this Lord’s Day, November 4, as we examine 1 Timothy 5:1-8 and consider how our faith informs some very practical matters of communication and family life.  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 you and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.