Of movies and meditation

I started reading the Old Testament last week. My present goal (though it grinds against my mental nature) is to rapidly traverse the sacred ground, rather than meditating my way from point to wondrous point. But, as one might reasonably expect, the holy striving has not been without unexpected benefit. Exercising myself in this fashion has made me think of movies and of meditation.

Movies are popular. Who, besides the staunchest of self-professed Puritans, is unable to appreciate a truly good film? We are wired for stories, and movies are a wonderful and legitimate medium for the telling of a tale. Why do we love movies so much? Because we can see the fury of battle and the faces of friend and foe. We can hear the words, the weeping, and the laughter. We can memorize the lines and employ them humorously in apt moments! Movies afford us the luxury to kick back and let the storyteller paint the motion picture for us. And movies, really good movies, give us plenty to think about.

While good in itself, the art of film should function as a treat, a dessert in our lives. It is not the main course. Why? Because film is a shadow of the real film, the (do pardon me) reel story: God’s story. In other words, reading the Bible should be, at times, like watching a movie. If you’ve never experienced that, I daresay you’ve never really read the Book.

The long and fascinating narratives of Scripture are the epic movies of God’s universe. If we, by prayer and perseverance, will press forward in reading the large sweeps of Scripture, I do believe we will find our minds more captivated than they have ever been during the most engaging of movies. So put aside the devices, open God’s story, and watch. It will be both pleasure and profit to your soul, and living food for eternal thought.

You ain't got the answers Sway

It was an iconic (and very memeable) internet moment. Kanye West raged at Sway on the Wake Up Show. Some may respond that Kanye did not have the answers, either! Others may look to those they believe do have the answers, such as various noble pagans like Jordan Peterson or Elon Musk. And they would invariably do so by way of technology.

The interconnectivity of our digital age is a wonder of the world. We are (or so we like to think) on the cutting edge of information as new breaks from around the world and streams into the palms of our hands. But, putting the question of trustworthy news sources aside, how up-to-date are we really? How far does the knowledge of the world’s teachers extend? We may even, through digital news outlets and the remarkably intelligent, know what is happening right now, but what everyone wants to know is what will happen next and how to prepare for it. And that our digital wonderland cannot tell us.

The Bible is God’s word, which means that it is not only factually true, but it is divinely inspired. God speaks to us in the Bible. And God tells us what will happen in the Bible. God not only knows what will be; he is the one who will bring it about. He is the Teacher who was never taught. He knows our proper course, the paths of safety and of glory. He is the Wise One, at whose feet we may sit at will. If you love the idea of being connected, pick up your Bible and connect to this: GOD. Now that’s some real bleeding edge stuff.

What has the Shire to do with Jerusalem?

“There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow.”‬ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I’m making my second pass through the classic tales of Middle Earth and the One Ring (I will not tell you how many passes I’ve made through the movies). It’s been a good 6 years since I’ve been this way, and my ever-so-slightly older eyes are seeing new things everywhere. Good literature does this to us; the best Literature, the Bible, does this to us beyond measure. It (if you can bear with the comparison) is not unlike the One Ring, and seems to form itself to our exact size and grow with our years.

One thing is showing itself to me more plainly than ever: the hobbits are the true wonder of Middle Earth. ‪When we read Tolkien, we are quite taken with the strange races and even stranger characters of the wide world. But in the end we, like Tolkien, and like all his mighty characters, are most fascinated with hobbits. Their hidden courage is one such fascination to all the wise and wonderful of Middle Earth, but most of all to themselves.

We may even come to find no small measure of ourselves in them, which brings our quote into play. Courage lodges in the heart of believers. Ever so deep it lies hid, it’s there. God’s children, like hobbits, need strong circumstance to draw it forth. We hear of the martyrs with awe, and wonder if they were really men of like passions with ourselves. For they seem to be elevated, having powers we don’t. We’ve fallen into a common error, one which Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis wrote into his own novels (and not without characteristic pithiness): “Like many men of his own age, he rather underestimated than overestimated his own courage.”

The key to the martyr’s courage is the very same that unlocks our own. The martyrs were ordinary folks like you and I who were called by God into extraordinary times. His power upon their lives rose in step with their need of it. Rest assured, if some great trial or suffering comes upon the lowliest of God’s sheep, they will find a lion’s roar within themselves more than meet to the task. Impossible times will, under God, produce more spiritual bravery than we ever dreamed ourselves capable of. For it is he who trains our hands for war.

What has the Shire to do with Jerusalem? Very much, it would seem.

Strange fruit

“On the willows there we hung up our lyres.” Psalm 137:2

Sorrow, oppression, injustice … these are constant themes of human history. What people group has not encountered them in their chronicles? He who saw the tears of the oppressed said, “If you see in the province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter” (Eccl. 5:8). Such is the way of fallen mankind.

One such horrid spectacle of oppression was immortalized by singer Billie Holiday in her haunting song Strange Fruit. She was not the first to hit the note, for there are ancient songs of our Lord hanging from a tree. The psalm before us sings anticipations of this great, eschatological hanging.

The children of Israel found themselves far away from home, under the iron oppression of Babylon in the height of its power. And this too had produced a sort of strange fruit, harps hanging on trees. The willow is a peculiar plant, and lends itself to this idea, for it is popularly called the weeping willow. It sings a sad song by nature, and produces neither fruit nor fragrance. A fitting platform for the silenced instruments of Jerusalem’s singers. The picture is of absolute loss and great longing. In a word, it is exile.

It was our Lord himself, heaven’s very song of joy, who hung upon a strange tree in this Babylon world. He was exiled from God’s favor in our place, that we might find a home with him forever in true Zion. If we pass through strange lands on our way there—and certainly we must—let us keep this song on our lips as we go, the song of the Lamb and his great love for the lost children of God.

We wish to see Jesus

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” John 12:21

Christians tend to err into camps—the thinkers on one side, and the feelers on the other. But knowing God calls for both. We must be able to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” That is doctrine. And yet, doctrine is not to be simply conceived of, but experienced by the believer. This is precisely what it means to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psa. 34:8). This inspired expression is a perfect specimen of the two in perfect harmony: experience (taste and see) and doctrine (the Lord is good).

Here at last, in our text, is the right emphasis, Jesus. For he himself is the great equipoise, encompassing all good things in himself, and each in its proper measure. His glorious Person is that which brings them into their divinely-intended balance. When all things in heaven and earth were united in Christ, we think that doctrine and experience were among the subjects of his cosmic peacemaking.

We may safely gauge our spiritual health by our appetite for Jesus. Some knowledge of our great spiritual privileges should whet our hearts in this direction. We are the envy of believing world history, for we know him who was all the desire of the believers who lived and died before his coming. The fact that we know Jesus by name and as having already accomplished his work is that which gives us the fullness of joy our forebears sought. The Lord himself spoke quite plainly to the matter,

But blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matt. 13:16-17).

Peter applies it directly to the prophets,

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. (1 Pet. 1:10-11).

We are in constant peril of taking our privilege for granted. Against this we must be always on guard. We are becoming worldly if we seek mere propositional notion on the one extreme, or mere personal emotion on the other. Our desires are ordered rightly when we want, above all things and in all things and through all things, to see Jesus as he really is. And when people start asking to see Jesus, we may be sure that the Spirit is working and God is getting glory.

What I'm working on: John Owen biography

Between sermons (which, like any good Spurgeonist, I prepare late into Saturday evenings), I get space here and there to write. I’m the founding author of Wrath and Grace Publishing and, after a fairly productive 2017, I put my pen down for most of 2018 (we published a phenomenal book in 2018 that should be read by every pastor, young and old: In Praise of Old Guys by my dear friends Nicolas Alford and Nick Kennicott).

Well I’m back at it and nearly finished with my next project. John Owen: The Prince of Puritans is next up in our Wrath and Grace Biographies, a series including well-known and lesser-known Reformed Christians throughout history. They are short and sweet, but not (I hope) without some heft to them. They serve as introductory sketches that get the reader into the life and times of the subject fairly quickly. We believe this is important because studying church history can be an intimidating and overwhelming task. Our aim is to do the hard work for you and serve church history up on a silver platter…er, at least on a paper plate. The point is it’s cooked and ready to eat and should go down pretty easy.

John Owen remains a mysterious figure of church history. While his writings are largely known—they are heard of, at least, and sometimes bought (it is the reading of Owen that is so much in dispute)—his person is largely hidden. There are biographies in plenty, and we are thankful for new advances in the study of this great theologian which have been produced in recent years. We hope to add a fast-paced and hard-hitting (and laugh-inducing, it may be) production to the pile.

I have sought to put Owen’s personality, as far as we can discern it, on display in this little book. We will see his sometimes surprising connections with other subjects of our studies (such as John Wycliffe, Lemuel Haynes, and Olaudah Equiano), and we will also see how delight in Christ became the powerful fuel of his very high-octane and not uneventful life.

Please ask God to bless this effort to many souls.

The stuff of the promises

The other day I picked up volume one of William Tyndale’s works. A few pages in I am struck by this quote:

“Now is faith under the promises, which damn not; but give pardon, grace, mercy, favor, and whatsoever is contained in the promises.”

This expression appears in a discussion about law and gospel. The former requires perfect love and works; the latter, faith and faith alone.

What strikes me is the way he talks about faith in relation to God’s promises, that faith grabs “whatsoever is contained in the promises.” Faith, entering into the living promise of God itself, takes ahold of what it offers. It gets its hands on the stuff of it. This puts us in a mightily blessed position as children of God. For, whatever he offers us by way of promise (which is a whole universe of good things), we can have, and enjoy now.

It seems to me that when we think of God’s promises, we usually think of promised things to come, such as going to be with the Lord when we die, the resurrection of our frail bodies, our glorification, and the age to come in the new heavens and new earth. However, many of God’s promises offer us things right now. The peace of God, a cleansed conscience, strength to know his love, energy to serve him, love for one another and for all, earthly provision in all things, and much, much more.

Are you well familiarized with God’s manifold promises to his children? Acquaint yourself with this treasury of utterances standing ready to impart very substantial graces to you, and take hold of whatever you need today by faith, for he who promised is faithful.

Latent Anti-Churchism

“the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” Eph. 3:9-10

The Lord Jesus Christ famously uttered that his redemptive work would produce one people of God, with one Shepherd over them. The exact nature of this grafting in of the Gentiles has sparked endless debates in recent years (say, the last 150 or so). Older generations of Christians were wiser, and generally understood that the latter days fulfillment of all God’s promises to his people centered upon the church, the body of Christ. Even if there remain outstanding promises of God for ethnic Israel, they will only find their fulfillment as the ethnic children of Abraham become believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thus find their way into the fold of the church. And so it comes to the same thing: one flock with one Shepherd.

Paul is apostolically clear: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two…that he might reconcile us both in one body through the cross” (Eph. 2:14-16). I don’t suppose it can be stated any more forcefully than that: one new man in place of the two. For in the eschatological appearance of the Seed of the woman, he has brought about all things promised, fulfilling that ancient word to Abraham that in him and his Seed all the families of the earth would be blessed.

There lies within the belief we call dispensationalism a kind of built-in anti-churchism. If we maintain that the church is merely a sort of parenthetical work of God in history, while he waits to fulfill his “original” promises to natural Israel in the future, we have asserted, whether we realize it or not, a second-class citizenship within the kingdom of God. Incidentally, this is exactly how racism works, and how the black American population came to be the disenfranchised, shadow population that it has historically been (see my work, Lemuel Haynes: The Black Puritan). As it is, only equal citizenship in the kingdom of God can eliminate the very kinds of divisions that Paul is obliterating in the text. In fact, equal standing in the commonwealth of God’s eschatological people is the only answer to racism of any and every sort. What our Lord said of the poor may also be spoken of prejudice (and every other brand of sin for that matter): “The racists you will always have with you.” For while souls remain outside the covenant community of God, there will necessarily be such things.

Rather, let us rejoice in the astounding work that God has accomplished through Christ to create this new people, his people, the church. For we are those upon whom the end of the ages has come, and we stand on the brink of eternity. The present form of this world is passing away, and the only hope that anyone, Jew or Gentile, has, is the finished work of the Messiah on behalf of sinners. What our ancient sojourning brethren before us hoped for, we have seen and heard, and this is what it means to be grafted in.

Heaven on earth

“To you I lift my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!” Psalm 123:1

Mankind has always been fascinated with the skies. Who has not looked up at the nighttime tapestry with transfixed awe, gazing at the marvels it holds forth, and wondering what secrets it keeps for itself? And with good reason. For these things have been built into the heavens by God, as a testimony to his majesty.

The heavens as God’s dwelling place

Scripture constantly speaks of the heavens as the dwelling place of God. He looks down from heaven upon all the sons of man, knowing all their ways and searching their hearts to the very bottom (Psalm 33:13-15). Of course, heaven cannot contain God. He fills all things to overflowing (1 Kings 8:27; Jeremiah 23:24). But heaven is the place of his special dwelling (Isaiah 57:15). And while this dwelling place is what the Bible calls “the third heaven” and “the paradise of God” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4), it is also true that the first and second heavens (earth’s atmosphere and the physical universe, respectively) direct our attention to him.

Looking upward

We are wont to pray with our heads bowed and eyes closed. This is certainly a lawful posture for prayer—a downward gaze, such as the justified tax collector exhibited (Luke 18:13). However, there is also the looking up to heaven. Jesus did this when he prayed for the loaves and fish (Luke 9:16). I think we ought to do it as well, for even the psalmist does so in the present verse, as he directs his prayer to the living God.

As we consider the sun and the stars, the clouds and the galaxies, we are to think of the one who fashioned them, who rides upon the heavens, the great Helmsman of the universe (Psalm 8:3; Psalm 19:1). For though he is everywhere present, he is uniquely revealed in the skies, a wonder-work to man, and it humbles us (Psalm 8:4).

But, something has changed. For, while God is omnipresent spirit, there is now someone physically up there, so to speak, and seated on a throne. In fact, it’s a human, like us. For that is where our elder brother Jesus is seated in victory at the right hand of Power, directing the course of all things and ever interceding for us.

Now we look up to him, as we await his return, and we find our hearts stirred when we think that this God-Man will soon blast through the universe and ride on the clouds of the sky to harvest the earth with the great sickle of judgment and redemption. For then it will be that heaven, real heaven, comes to earth, and men may regret having prayed so often, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus! Crack the sky and take us home, for we long for our adoption as sons of the living God.

Year in review

I thought it would be beneficial for us to pause and reflect on the past year as a church. Here are seven encouraging things that happened at Redeeming Cross in 2018.

Moved to Anthony

In years past we have been as the patriarchs, dwelling in tents and not knowing whither we went. We have, however, been guided by a strong Hand every step of the way. We are so thankful for our time meeting at the Bridge Center, and, when we felt it may be time to move on, we spent months in prayer and deliberations as elders and with all the members. We are thankful to have reached a decision together and on April 1 we began gathering at Anthony Middle School in the Kenny neighborhood of South Minneapolis. It has been a challenging but beneficial move for us. We hope to continue growing at this new location, and it has certainly made our gatherings more efficient. We have done some door-to-door evangelism in the neighborhood and need to do more. We must continue to pray that God will use us in this part of town and beyond.

Pastor Marty

After years of prayer, the Lord has finally sent us a third elder! Pastor Gottfried and myself were absolutely thrilled when Marty Pagano and his dear wife Barb began visiting Redeeming Cross a couple years ago. I myself have been praying for an elder brother to come along ever since my mentor Bob Bert passed in 2014. We installed Marty in April and he has been a tremendous addition to the elder board. His experience and giftings compliment Gottfried and myself and add great wisdom to the team. Continue to pray for Pastor Marty and for all the elders. We are ever in need of grace.

Suffering well

This last year has been a time of trial for several of our members. From losing a precious child to suffering marital unfaithfulness and divorce to being out of work, I am so very proud of the ways in which the saints have endured in faith and joy in Christ. I don’t particularly preach on suffering, but I do preach Jesus Christ and him crucified as the treasure and gladness of his people. The Holy Spirit is blessing this kind of preaching to make our people strong.

Planting a church

Our dear friend and former Redeeming Cross member David Torres approached the elders this summer with a church planting idea for Mesa, Arizona, where he lives with his lovely family. It is a largely unreached part of town with a giant Mormon population. We are honored to affirm David in his godliness, gifts, and calling, and are so very thrilled to be the official sending church of Christ Church North Mesa. The process has not been entirely free of hand chopping and eye gouging, as we have sent one of our own beloved members, Nick Larson, to be part of the planting team. The new church is set to launch in May of this year. Please pray for dedicated members and more elders to help David. You can learn more about the church here.

Preaching through Numbers

Pastor Marty and I broke up the monotony of my infamous stand alone sermons to preach through Numbers this year. We emphasized seeing the great object of our faith, Jesus Christ, in the ancient book and were both challenged and strengthened by our times of study. The sermons were, we trust, encouraging and eye-opening to the people. It is always a special treat to trace out that blessed Emmaus Road through the Old Testament. The sermons may be found here.

Wrath and Grace Publishing

My writing ministry with Wrath and Grace Publishing continues to grow. This year I was approached by our friends at Desiring God to write an article based on my published biography, Lemuel Haynes: The Black Puritan. You can read the article here. This year we also published our first work by authors other than myself. My dear friends Nicholas Alford and Nick Kennicott wrote a tremendous book for young ministers entitled In Praise of Old Guys. Our friend Conrad Mbewe, the African Spurgeon himself, was kind enough to write a foreword. “This book,” he wrote, “may be small, but its potential for good is incalculable.” We are also adding several more authors to the team for 2019. Please pray for this ministry.

New members

As my faithful readers will recall, we were praying for 30 new members this year. The Lord did not see fit to provide us with the number, but has instead given us about 12 new additions. We have learned to calculate our size by spiritual weight rather than head count. Besides, it seems a special sized group, for with that very number our Lord turned the world upside down. They have just completed new member classes going through the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession and will begin interviews soon. We hope to install this exciting new group of folks sometime in February.

Please pray for the ministry of Redeeming Cross Community Church as we seek to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified as faithfully and effectively as he will grant us, for the glory of God in all things.