In Honor of the Children

Today is the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a day to mourn the loss of millions of unborn children since 1973.  In their honor, John Piper shares his poetic reflection—and a charge to those who live.

The Person of Peace

peace (1)I have been surprised by the large number of hits on my latest post, “The Gift of Peace.”  It must have struck a chord with many people, maybe because we have been conditioned to expect—often in vain—an abundance of happy memories, hopes, and dreams to accompany the season.  But, peace is not found in memories of the past nor hopes for the future, but in a Person.  In the Prince of Peace.  In Christ alone.  In Immanuel.  In God with us.  In light of this, I want to share with you the following paragraph I read yesterday in my favorite book about the incarnation—God’s Gift of Christmas—in which John MacArthur reflects upon the Prince of Peace of Isaiah 9:6-7:

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders, and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.  There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.

“In Messiah’s kingdom there are no conflicts because He is the Prince of Peace.  He offers peace from God (Romans 1:7) to all who receive His grace.  He makes peace with God (Romans 5:1) for those who surrender to Him in faith.  And He brings the peace of God (Philippians 4:7) to those who walk with Him.  As we hear so often at Christmas, the beginning of His earthly life was heralded by angels who pronounced peace on earth (Luke 2:14).  There never really has been peace on earth in the sense we think of it.  Wars and rumors of wars have characterized the entire two millennia since that first Christmas, as well as all the time before it.  The announcement of peace on earth was a two-pronged proclamation.  First, it declared the arrival of the only One who ultimately can bring lasting peace on earth (which He will do when He returns to bring about the final establishment of His earthly kingdom).  But more importantly, it was a proclamation that God’s peace is available to men and women.  Read the words of Luke 2:14 carefully and note this emphasis: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with WHOM HE IS PLEASED.”  God is pleased with the people who yield their lives to Him.  “The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in His mercy” (Psalm 147:11 NKJV).  When the angels proclaimed peace on earth, they were speaking primarily of a very personal, individual application of God’s peace that grows out of a firsthand knowledge of the Prince of Peace. . . . The prophetic message of Christmas is the good news of God’s answer to all the confusion, chaos, complexities, and conflicts of life.  It is the gift of the newborn infant who is also the Father of all eternity.  He is an innocent child, yet He is a wise Counselor and mighty King.  He is God with us.  Immanuel.”  (MacArthur, God’s Gift of Christmas, pp. 29-31)

Have you found peace in this Person?

The Gift of Peace

christmas-presents1_thumbFifteen years ago this week we lost our first child.  Twelve weeks of morning sickness and multiple tests and ultrasounds told us that someone was there.  Struggling, but there.  Finally, in the doctor’s office on Christmas Eve,  there was a steady heartbeat.  In the same office the morning after New Year’s Day, there was none.

I haven’t thought of our unborn child for some time, but I was reminded today—twice.

This morning in church, along with Christmas carols, we sang a song about restoration—how God turns our mourning into dancing.  As I sang, I thought of how God made those lyrics a reality in my own life this very week a decade and a half ago.  In January 1997 I was struck with unexpected sadness, but I was also strengthened with unexpected grace.  In the midst of our loss, God gave a gift of indescribable peace—a sober joy—to walk that sorrowful road.

This evening I was visiting with a neighbor on her front porch.  The porch light must have caused the gold band I wear on my right fifth finger to sparkle for just a moment.  In the middle of our conversation, it caught her attention, and she complimented the ring.  Nobody ever does that.  The ring is small, simple, and insignificant in design.  I walked through the open door the Lord presented . . .

“Thanks,” I said.  “Would you like me to tell you about this ring?”

“A year before our oldest was born, we lost a baby.  Actually, it happened during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. . . . This ring represents that baby.  It is a reminder to me, my husband, and my children that someone else was here.  It was so hard, but through it all, I had a very special sense of God’s grace.  I knew God loved me, and I knew God loved that child.  And, I also knew that God had a good plan and purpose in all that happened.  The Lord gave me great peace.

Near the end of my explanation, I realized that I was smiling as I spoke.   An authentic, unpretentious smile of healing—of peace.

Such peace is not a result of memories faded by time or positive thinking.  Such peace is only possible through a personal relationship with Jesus—the Savior and the God of all comfort.  The genuine spiritual peace I experienced in the midst of this loss was only possible because of the peace I first had with God through Christ:

“Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we exult in hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1-2)

1.  “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The perfect, sinless Jesus made payment for my sin by bearing the wrath of God on the cross in my place.  He arose from the dead proving His sacrifice was acceptable to the Father and displaying His victory over sin and death.

2.  “The grace in which we stand.”  Because of Christ, I am secure as a beloved child of God who continually receives His grace and bountiful gifts in my life.

3.  “We exult in hope of the glory of God.”  Because of Christ, it is an assured expectation that I will experience and enjoy the glory of God forever.

And so, today I am reminded of the Prince of Peace who came to bring His Peace to earth—and to me.  Through faith in Him I am at peace with my Heavenly Father, I experience His grace and help on a daily basis, and I have an eternal hope and perspective amid the sorrows of life.   Apart from Christ, there is no salvation, strength, joy, or ultimate purpose for this life nor the life to come.  But in Him, I receive these gifts—these gifts of peace.  (To learn more about finding peace this Christmas, click HERE.)

“Why New Churches Should Sing Old Songs”

I began my Christian and musical journeys the same year: 1975.  As a little five-year-old, the Lord saved me.  In addition, in His sovereign plan I began piano lessons.  Fast forward 37 years, and you will find a woman still in the hand of her Savior and a musician who recognizes that music is but a tool in her hand with which to honor Him . . . both vocationally and in the church.

Years ago, my husband and I were members of a wonderful congregation in which we sought to open their minds to the value of adding contemporary congregational songs to their regular selection of traditional hymns.  It wasn’t easy.  Today, many of us live in a church culture in which we must stand for just the opposite—reintroducing traditional hymns to the church’s modern repertoire.  This isn’t easy either.

There are Christian composers today who write beautiful songs with sound doctrine that are singable in a congregational context.  I am thankful for those people and the music they produce.  Unfortunately, such composers are few and far between.  And so, although I enjoy various styles of contemporary church music, I do advocate the use of traditional hymns in our churches and believe that they should be sung with greater frequency.

Why?  I have two reasons:

1.  “The hymnal is the layman’s systematic theology,”  said Dr. Jonathan Blackmon (our friend and associate professor of music at Missouri Baptist Univeristy) during one of our conversations on this subject.  How right he is.  Basically speaking, systematic theology is the synthesized study of what the Bible teaches on various topics. Of course, the hymnal is not exhaustive on what the Bible teaches, and you may find a few hymns “off” theologically. But, the point is that within a basic hymnal you will find expressions on the doctrine of God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, Scripture, sin, salvation, the church, evangelism, the Christian life, death, end times, and eternity.  Contemporary Christian church music as a whole simply does not hold a candle to the breadth of biblical truth that the hymns convey.  Music is a powerful means of education and memorization.  And so, if we want the Truth poured from our pulpits to steep long and well in the minds, hearts, and lives of our church members, then stir it vigorously with the hymns . . . over and over and over. 

2.  Modern Christians can receive priceless wisdom from their Christian heritage.  It is sad that most modern Christians have little or no knowledge of their brothers and sisters who have walked before them, nor of the encouragement, exhortation, and instruction that they have to give us today.  We are people with a history.  We are a people with a God who did not cease dealing with mankind when the canon closed and then became active again at the moment of the latest church plant or revival.  God has taught and applied the wisdom of His Word throughout the centuries to the lives of believers just like us.  They thoughtfully penned their lessons learned and set them to music so that the ultimate Truth would be repeatedly proclaimed and praised—by their own voices, by their contemporaries, and now by us.  And we say that is irrelevant?  Oh, no.  God’s Word expressed with such care and craft is never irrelevant.  

There’s one more thing I want to mention, especially if you are a church musician.  (And I’m speaking as a contemporary musician myself.)  Just like St. Paul’s Cathedral in London doesn’t need me to hold it up, most hymns don’t need you to musically hold them up, either.  Don’t rearrange hymns so that they become unrecognizable.  Leave the melodies alone—tell your vocalists to sing it like it is.  Leave the lyrics alone—quit adding new, flippant refrains and tags.  And when you rearrange a hymn in a contemporary style, honestly consider whether or not you are enhancing the mood and message of the lyrics.  I know it can be done well, but first ask yourself,  “After singing this hymn, what will be more memorable: the arrangement or its words?”  You will be pleasantly surprised how powerfully your congregation sings a great hymn of the faith when simply accompanied by acoustic piano or guitar.  Give them the musical space to sing boldly.  Listen.  Listen to your people sing.

Well, the name of this blogpost is in quotations because I wrote this post to introduce you to another with this title by Stephen Miller at The Gospel Coalition.  Enjoy . . .

“A B C D E F G

H  I  J  K  LMNOP . . .

You’re singing along, aren’t you? This catchy melody was responsible for teaching you one of the most foundational facts you ever learned.

That’s the way music works. It teaches. It forms us.

We don’t need scientific studies to know that music and melody fuses truth into our memories and intellects. We can all observe how melody infuses meaning, emotions, affections, and experiences into words. It takes lyrics to new heights and depths that they couldn’t go on their own.

As a church musician, I’m not trying to downplay the formative importance of preaching. But I couldn’t tell you the take-home point of two sermons I heard growing up, no matter how clever the preacher’s alliteration. But I still sing “Holy Holy Holy” word for word. I know “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” by heart. “The Solid Rock” is an ever-present companion for me in difficult times. Those songs have given me a vocabulary to express myself. I have learned the truth of God in a way that will stay with me for a lifetime. . . “

To read the rest of this blogpost by Stephen Miller, click here:  Why New Churches Should Sing Old Songs.

God in the City: Jonah 3 & 4

A few years ago, we were members of an inner-city church in Louisville, Kentucky.  Dilapidated buildings, homes with barred windows, unkept yards, and cracked sidewalks lined the two-lane streets.  The clouds of poverty, drugs, and prostitution hung over the neighborhood, but the Light of the Gospel shone gloriously from Immanuel Baptist Church at the corner of Oak and Clay.   Physical needs within that Louisville community were apparent with even the most casual glance, and the spiritual needs were quite easy to identify. Mercy mixed with Truth poured from the congregation into many homes in the surrounding city blocks, and the Balm began making the old new.

Today, my family lives in a much different place.  In this Houston suburb, our street medians are perfectly manicured with beautiful trees and brightly-colored flowers, community pools boast sand beaches and three-story water slides, few vehicles heading to the boutique shops and full-service grocery stores were built prior to this decade, and first-graders are decked in the latest fashions.  Physical needs are neatly tucked away in resort-style retirement homes and in older neighborhoods on the other side of the highway.

What about the spiritual needs?  They’re here, too.  But they are harder to see behind the stylish sunglasses, professionally landscaped yards, and lead-glass front doors.  I remember driving into this community on a sunny September day when we moved into our home.  I looked at the many affluent neighborhoods we passed, and it felt strange.  It felt fake.  I looked at my children in the rear view mirror and told them something I never want them to forget.  “Honeys, you see all of these large, beautiful homes?  Inside every single one there are people hurting.  There is pain.  There are idols.  There is sin.  Everything looks so good here; everything looks okay, but it’s not.  The people here need Jesus and His salvation, just like they do everywhere else.”

God is the one true God in the city, in the suburbs, and in the rural areas less than an hour drive from here.  Jonah had to learn that God was not only God in Israel; He was also God in Ninevah.  God commanded Jonah a second time to proclaim His message of judgment to Ninevah:  if the city did not repent, it would be overthrown.  By now Jonah knew he couldn’t run the other way, and so he obeyed.  The Ninevites, led by their king, put on sackcloth, fasted, earnestly called upon God, and turned from their wicked ways.

Ninevah repented, and God relented.  “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them.  And He did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).  The city was saved!  But, Jonah was angry.  How dare God spare these wicked people?  Jonah just knew God would do this, and he didn’t like it!  “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country?  Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2).

What is God like?  He hates sin.  But when He sees repentance and faith, He amazingly displays His Grace, Compassion, Slowness to Anger, Abundance of Lovingkindness .  . . and He “relents concerning calamity.”  Judgment is removed.

The effective reach of God’s compassion is not thwarted by the flagrant in-your-face evils of the inner-city or the masqueraded behind-closed-doors evils of the suburbs.  As He says in Romans 9:15, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”  With His last recorded words to Jonah, God made His purpose perfectly clear, “Should I not have Compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand?” (Jonah 4:11).

Yes, He should.  Yes, He did.  And He still does today.  Wherever you live, will you be like Jonah, and proclaim God’s Word to your neighbor, your co-worker, your enemy?  Unlike Jonah, will the compassion of the Lord be the lifeblood of your witness?

“The Lord, The Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindess and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Exodus 34:6-7).

God in the Deep: Jonah 2

A few nights ago, a friend called for some advice regarding her teenage daughter’s misbehavior.  We discussed how my friend could address her daughter’s heart issues and which natural consequences could be appropriate for the situation.  Near the end of the conversation, my friend commented on how she was realizing she shouldn’t be angry with her daughter, but rather she needed to see this as an opportunity to discipline, or train, her teen with the intention of teaching her daughter the right way to go.  Compassion trumped frustration.

Jonah knew that the Lord disciplines those He loves in order to teach and correct the wayward.  God told Jonah to go to Ninevah.  Jonah refused.  God sent a storm and a large fish to redirect Jonah.  Jonah then obeyed.  Jonah, a very real man with a very real experience,  found himself in the deep under the discipline of the Lord:

“For You had cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the current engulfed me.  All your breakers and billows passed over me.  So I said, ‘I have been expelled from Your sight. . .’  Water encompassed me to the point of death.  The great deep engulfed me.  Weeds were wrapped around my heard.  I descended to the roots of the mountains.  The earth with its bars was around me forever” (Jonah 2: 3-6).

Have you ever been able to describe yourself like that?  I have.  It sure isn’t pretty . . . in despair, in the dark, in the deep.  But, in that very place, God is found.  Jonah declared,

“I called out of my distress to the Lord, and He answered me.  I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; You heard my voice . . . But You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. . . Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2: 2,6,9).

God may have you in the deep.  He may be correcting you, training you, redirecting you.  But, He has taken you there, so you will find Him there.  Like Jonah, will you say,“While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to You, into Your holy temple” (Jonah 2:7)?  The discipline of His child is not a curse, it is a mercy;  He knows the direction you have been going, and He knows a better way.  It is His kindness that leads you in the way you should go, because although “all discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful, yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11).

Peace.  Righteousness.  Deep down, dear Christian, isn’t that what you want?

The Lord disciplines, and He also delivers.  Call out to the Lord for help, humble yourself before Him, and obey.  Like Jonah, you will find Him—even in the deep.

God in the Storm: Jonah 1

This past week I was in a storm.  It was not a storm of wind and rain.  It was a storm of the heart and mind.

I was despairing and angry about my circumstances.  I was facing a dilemma for which I had no solution . . . and that just frustrated me to no end.  I did not run to the Lord.  Instead, I fled from His wisdom and peace by sailing away in my fears and discontentment.  The storm grew, and I was sinking.

By no chance, I have been studying the book of Jonah with some dear friends.  Near the end of our hour together this past Saturday morning, the question was posed, “What did you learn about God from studying Jonah 1 this week?”

As I sat back and listened to their answers, I was convicted.  And I was comforted.  I would like to summarize for you some of the answers that were shared around my dining room table as these women recounted who God was in the storm of Jonah 1—and in the storms of their own lives when they also have fled from the Lord.

1.  God is sovereign over the storm.  “The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up” (Jonah 1:4).  Not only did God use the storm, He sent it!  The Creator exercises power and authority over His creation (including calamity), and He is also sovereign over the smallest details of life:  “Each man said to his mate, “Come, let us cast lots so we may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us.’  So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah” (Jonah 1:7).  As it says in Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but it’s every decision is from the Lord.”

2.  God is present in the storm.  “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.  So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. . . Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, ‘How could you do this?’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them” (Jonah 1:3, 10).  The saying, “He can run, but he can’t hide,” was first attributed to the American boxer Joe Louis, but Jonah was one of the earliest examples of this truth:  You can’t escape the presence of God; His dominion is not limited; He is everywhere, even in your storm.

3.  God is purposeful in the storm.  “He said to them, ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea.  Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you.” However, the men rowed desperately to return to land but they could not, for the sea was becoming even stormier against them . . . So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging” (Jonah 1:12-13,15).  The storm achieved the purpose for which God had sent it—to get Jonah back on track.  It was not a storm of fate.  It was not a storm of vengeance.  It was a storm with purpose, and God always achieves His purposes in the storms of our lives.  As it says in Isaiah 46:9-10, “I am God and there is no one like me . . . saying, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish my good pleasure.”

4.  God is mercifully pursuing through the storm. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Ninevah the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me. . . Then the men [sailors] feared the Lord greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. . . And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:1, 16,17).  God pursued Ninevah.  God pursued the sailors.  God pursued Jonah.  It was a storm of correction and discipline, redemption, and declaration.  In His mercy, not because of any merit of their own, God went after these people to show them the error of their ways, to pour out His grace upon them, and to declare to them the greatness of His name.  Likewise, the Lord pursues us in our storms.  What a tender mercy.