Three Pleas to My Formerly Christian Friends

Many of my friends who once professed to be Christians have walked away from the faith. If you are one of those people, I want you to know that I still love you and deeply appreciate our friendship. But I also grieve for you and pray for you. I know we don’t have the opportunity to go chat at a coffee shop, and perhaps we never will, but as my friend I hope you will take 10 minutes to read what I have to say. I want to make three pleas to you; one to your mind, one to your will, and one your emotions.

A Plea to Your Mind

One of the most common reasons I hear for why friends have walked away from the faith is their experience with hypocritical Christians. Perhaps your parents were considered exemplary Christians in their church, but you knew what really went on at home. Or you listened to preaching or attended a church that was ruthlesslly legalistic. Maybe you experienced a nasty church split or suffered as the church people shredded your dad, their pastor, to pieces. I don’t know what you have experienced, and I don’t downplay it in the least. One person once told me as I walked through deep ministry waters, “God is good, but sometimes his people are bad.”

Hang on to that thought, because we’ll come back to it in a minute. For now, though, would you please consider this simple plea? Please do not measure the worth of Jesus by his worst representatives. I get it, if that’s what Christianity is like, then you want nothing to do with it. But don’t stop there. Find the best imitators of Jesus you can, and then make your value judgment.

If I wanted to persuade you that soccer is an amazing sport (and I think it is), I would be foolish to take you to my 6-year old daughter’s Saturday soccer “game.” It looks more like a tornado of todders than a soccer match. No, I would take you to Spain to watch FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi work his wizardry live. Why? Because he’s the best of the best. And beautiful soccer is a delight to watch.

My plea with you is, even in spite of your experience, to consider there may be brighter fields of Christianity. Seek them out. I say this with sincerity, because I know there are brighter fields. And we have to ask ourselves, “How can people claim to be Christians, but live as hypocrites?” This leads me to my second plea.

A Plea to Your Will

Earlier I mentioned the quote, “God is good, but sometimes his people are bad.” I think that statement is partially true. As born sinners, all of us do bad things, but God’s children have been given new hearts, and their heavenly Father lovingly disciplines them when they do wrong. So if we think God’s people are bad without any repentance or spiritual growth, then we are wrong.

Which leads me to ask this question: when you walked away from the faith, did you really choose to walk away? Or did you simply confirm externally what had always been true internally? God says that when people walk away from the faith, it shows they never really believed it in the first place.

“They went out from us, but they were not of us;
for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.
But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

1 John 2:19

In other words, your will was never enamored with Jesus Christ, at least not in a persevering, saving way. It had always been captured by a different love. More than that, your former experience with Christians may have been no experience with Christians at all, for they too may have never believed. The hypocrisy you witnessed was no true faith at all, but actually a “different gospel” (see Galatians 1:6-9).

So I make this plea to your will. Repent and believe in the gospel, not on the basis of former experiences, baptisms, or altar calls. Believe it on the basis of the finished work of Jesus Christ. Believe in his death as a substitute for your sin and in his resurrection as power for your new life. If you do, I can promise you will experience a radically different kind of Christianity than the one you walked away from. This promise leads me to my third and final plea.

A Plea to Your Emotions

As someone who has never actually believed the gospel in a life-transforming way, I plead with you—come, “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8)! You have never truly feasted on him. You don’t know what he is like. You have never known the God who formed the cosmos with his word, wound the clock of time, called and created a nation out of a barren couple, judged nations who sacrificed their children to false gods, raised the dead at funeral processions, granted eternal life by the death of his immortal Son, turned the world upside down with a handful of stubborn disciples, and now waits to commence the end of this age.

This same God is full of compassion for you. He wants you to know him, delight in him, and be satisfied in him. As Psalm 36:7-9 says,

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
    The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
    and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light do we see light.

I have hope some of you who read this will come to know the delight found only in Jesus Christ. This gospel which you already know so well is still offered to you freely. And I am always open to talk more. I will always count you as my friend, and I will always pray you hear my pleas to turn to Christ.

~CP

“I Didn’t Know God”

At first when he answered the phone I thought it was a joke. I had reconnected with a friend I hadn’t talked to in ten years. But he sounded nothing like the friend I used to know. I even told him it didn’t sound like him. Of course, that made things awkward for a bit. As we did small talk I went back over my phone and reviewed how we had reconnected. Same phone number. Same Facebook page. Same guy. And yet, totally different.     

I slowly was starting to accept the reality that I really was talking to my old friend when he clarified, “You know Cameron, we really haven’t talked in a long time. A lot has happened since then.” He continued, “I think I got saved 4 years ago.” I was shocked.

This is the guy I went to Bible college with. This is the guy who had wanted to preach his whole life. This is the guy who traveled on evangelistic teams to churches and spent his summers sharing the gospel with young people.      

He went on to describe for me his frustration at repeatedly trying to preach, but never being satisfied with it. He came to the point where he gave up on preaching entirely. But that bitterly low point of frustration caused him to realize something incredible. “I didn’t know God,” he confessed to me. “I knew about God. I knew about the Bible. I was drawn to the experience of preaching and the feeling that came with it. I think that is the same reason I was drawn to evangelism. But I didn’t have a real relationship with God.” 

He went on to describe for me how he started sincerely praying to and seeking God. And God changed him. Radically. So much so, he was a different person. Other people in his life began to take notice. “My wife asked me what had changed,” he said. “I hadn’t said anything about it at first because I didn’t know what to make of it.” 

Our unexpectedly awkaward conversation had changed into a mutually encouraging moment as he began to share with me the lessons God had taught him since his conversion. I apologized for being rude, and he accepted the apology, and we had a great time catching up for a bit.

When I got off the phone, I sat on our couch and stared out a window for several minutes. It was so stunning, yet so refreshing and glorious to see God radically transform one man’s life. This is, in fact, how the Scripture describes salvation.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.
The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Many people in this world gravitate towards religion for the experience. They confuse the emotional fervor of a thrilling worship service or shared moments of religious experience with a genuine relationship with the living God. Unfortunately, many church leaders today are guilty of encouraging this kind of behavior. It is a spiritually draining, inadequate substitute for your soul’s satisfaction. If you are in one of those categories, or find yourself in one of those kinds of churches, you can be free from the emptiness that comes with religion apart from Christ. Look to him. He is “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).  Only he can satisfy the desire in your soul for something better, because he is the “something better” you are thirsting for. 

~CP

The Weak Church: Making Much of Christ

Planted in Weakness

Christianity has enjoyed a position of strength in Western society for a long time. The church once commanded kings, encompassed nations, and dominated the world. But things were not always this way. Before the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the Byzantine Empire through the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., Christianity was not known for its strength, but for its weakness.

Christianity was a strange sect to the Roman Empire. Belief in one God, not a pantheon of gods, was like atheism to the Roman mind. Christians also refused to deify Caesar and participate in ritual offerings to him, offerings that were often mandated by the Roman government. Rumors spread, claiming Christians devoted themselves to cultic rituals and incestuous practices at their love feasts. To make matters worse, Christians followed a man who had been publicly crucified as a criminal at the hands of the Roman Empire. Such devotion to Jesus invited scorn, ridicule, and even martyrdom.

No image better represents the reputation of the early Christians than the Alexamenos graffito found in Rome. It depicts the body of a man with the head of a donkey on a cross (presumably Jesus), while a man below raises his hand in worship. Crude Greek letters etched in stone read, “Alexamenos worships his god.” 

Enduring in Weakness

Today, Christians are once again beginning to taste a small measure of the cup of shame that we drink in association with Jesus. How can we, like those early Christians, learn to endure? By rediscovering one simple truth—we were meant to thrive in weakness. We have become so addicted to the luxury of strong institutions, strong cultural influence, and strong political power that we have forgotten and neglected the power of the cross. 

Paul latches on to this concept in 2 Corinthians 12. Since he could powerfully boast in the extraordinary experience of a heavenly vision, God crippled him with weakness.

 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, 
a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me,
to keep me from becoming conceited. 

This “thorn in the flesh” could have been a physical ailment or perhaps direct Satanic opposition. We’re not sure. What we do know is God sent it to humble Paul. And, like most of us would respond, Paul prayed for its removal.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 

Paul was not wrong for seeking the Lord in this way. But God had work to do in Paul that he could not otherwise accomplish unless Paul was weak. So God left the thorn.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

What Paul learned, and what we need to grasp as Christians in the 21st century, is the truth that God’s power is perfected in our weakness. We probably wouldn’t say this out loud, but we often imply by our words and actions that a good church is rich, self-sufficient, ecstatic, and strong.

But Paul is telling us God delights to use humble, poor, needy, downcast, and weak people in his plan. Our weakness presents us with an opportunity to make much of Christ, but our strength prevents us from making much of Christ. Which is why Paul concludes,

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Advancing in Weakness

What we need today is not a strong church, but a weak one. To advance the gospel in this world, the church must make much of Jesus Christ through our weakness. How can we make much of Jesus when we never need him? How can we make much of Jesus when we refuse the paradox of the power of the cross? The world will continue striving for power, seeking to cover up its weakness with fancy façades that vanish like grass in midsummer’s heat. But it cannot be that way for the church. In Christ, when we are weak, then we are strong.

~CP

The Corn is Still Growing

Every day on my way to work I drive past cornfields on the outskirts of town. I enjoy watching the farmers plough the soil, fertilize it, and plant the seed. But growth doesn’t happen overnight. If you expect a freshly planted cornfield to grow much in an hour, you will be highly disappointed. You could even pull up a lawn chair and watch through the heat of an entire day, and you still would not see much. But stop by a month or so later, and you will discover acres and acres of knee-high cornstalks shooting up from the ground. Another month, and the corn will be at eye level. Another month, and you’ll be hoping the farmer harvests soon so you can view the countryside again.

That’s how growth works. As someone recently said to me, “Progress is quiet and slow.” In our popcorn culture, we often forget how long it took to grow those salty, fluffy, buttery kernels we just transformed in the microwave in a matter of seconds.

Growth takes time, so we need to recognize the apostle Peter had this slow progress in mind when he said, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18). Spiritual growth does not normally occur in super-spiritual feats of miraculous proportions, but through the unspectacular glory of a daily walk in the Spirit. Reading a chapter in your Bible a day, praying for 15 minutes, making a sacrificial decision no one else noticed, sharing a passage of Scripture with a friend, and all other seemingly small spiritual acts have an exponential impact on your spiritual growth over time. God has chosen this process to make us like his Son. That’s not an insignificant end result.

And we can expect growth to be quiet and slow in every other area of our lives. Whenever I drive past those cornfields, it is God’s providential reminder to me to keep working diligently at the seemingly little things. Faithfulness works like compounding interest in every endeavor. That is why good teachers and coaches instruct their students and athletes to practice daily. Michael Jordan didn’t suddenly become a great basketball player overnight. He became great one dribble, one layup, one free throw at a time. And he didn’t quit or take days off.

So don’t be discouraged if your progress seems illusive. Keep growing every day, even if what you do seems little, insignificant, or ineffective. It might not be comfortable, and you may not always feel like it, but it will be worth it. ‘Cause the corn is still growing, whether you notice it or not.

~CP

Why I Don’t Watch TV

When I was in high school a friend of mine recommended the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It was and still is a fascinating read; Postman proved to be prophetic regarding the negative influence of television and show business on our culture. I wish I could say my initial reading of that book caused me to stop watching television, but it didn’t. What it did do, however, was encourage me to think more critically about my viewing habits.

It wasn’t until college that I broke the habit. Ironically, I stopped watching TV, not because I wanted to break away from the “Devilvision” (as one of my brothers affectionally called it), but because I was extremely busy. It was not really a conscious decision. When I got married, my wife rarely watched TV as well. Some friends gave us our first TV, an ancient-looking square-shaped Benq screen with a handle on the back to help you carry it around. We still have the same set. I have no clue where our DVD player came from. We watched a movie about once every six months. In the last few years that number hasn’t changed much. Except for a dose of children’s movies with our girls and a few movies/shows with the teens in our youth group, we don’t spend much time in front of the TV.

That’s not to say, however, that we don’t have our own screentime battles. The smartphone is an ever-present enemy. For that struggle, I found the book 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke to be of great help. I’d say my phone is the biggest timewasting threat in my house.

Now, lest you judge me as a backward, sheltered homeschooler, I’ll remind you the TV transformation happened in my 20s, after I was done homeschooling. And you know what I have found from my experience? I don’t miss the TV. I don’t miss it at all.

As a kid, I used to love getting to the hotel room on family vacations because they had so many more channels. More sports! More movies! More entertainment! But now, whenever we sit down to watch a movie, my wife and I usually come away more disastified than satisfied. There’s something that rings hollow about the world behind the screen when you spend almost all of your time in the real one. Truth is stranger than fiction, but we have lost eyes to see it.

Beyond that, though, there is the narrative power of everything you watch shaping you. Every image lifts up or puts down characters, behaviors, and values, subtly suggesting you do the same. Books work the same way, but because they require more cognitive engagement, written words don’t bypass our mental filters as easily. Images, though, flick instantly and effortlessly into our minds, shaping how we think, what we value, and, most importantly, who we love.

I am reminded of Proverbs 4:23, which warns us,

Keep your heart with all vigilance,
    for from it flow the springs of life.

Or, as another translation puts it,

Above all else, guard your heart,
    for everything you do flows from it.

What we watch shapes our heart. So we should guard what we watch zealously.

Particularly in this Covid pandemic, the constant barrage of news is designed to ensnare us in a never-ending spiral of urgency and crisis. Not just local crisis, or national crisis, but international crisis, and crises we have no power to fix. Our hearts were not created to carry the weight of that load. They ought not carry that load. That’s a burden for the King of heaven and earth to bear.

Perhaps part of the reason we like to keep up on the news is a fear of missing out. I like to check a few select news outlets daily just to keep up. But the reality is, if something important happens, I can guarantee you will hear about it from someone you know. Or you could read in-depth about it, carefully forming an educated opinion. That’s how people used to find out news.

Plus, think of all the constructive things you could be doing with your life. You could catch up with an old friend, spend time with your kids, start a new hobby, knock off a few items on that honey do list, memorize Scripture, or spend more concetrated time praying about this insanity we call 2020.

Please do not misunderstand me; I am not saying we ought to bury our heads in the sand. I am not saying everyone should be just like me and give up movies for six months. But if we were more selective about our daily media intake and more intentional about how we engage the vast array of information at our disposal, we would all live more happy and fruitful lives for the glory of God.

Technology is certainly useful, but all things have their limit. And once you get a taste of freedom from technology’s life-dominating stranglehold, you won’t want to go back.

~CP

Is Peace Even Possible?

Words cannot do justice to the tragedy and devastation our nation has experienced over the past month. Within the pressure-cooker of the Coronavirus pandemic we continue scraping at the festering wound of sinful racism. My heart breaks for my fellow black neighbors and for every police officer out there. Yes, the Christian heart pulses with compassion for all people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9-10); every human life is made in God’s image and equally precious in his sight (Genesis 1:27).

Which is why I get equally angry when anarchists with a political agenda hijack our national tragedy to serve their self-destructive end. Make no mistake, these rioters add insult to injury on those in the black community who rightfully pursue justice and peacefully protest. They undermine the very fabric of peace and order in our society and unnecessarily place our law enforcement officials in harm’s way. And I have to wonder—is peace even possible for our country?

There are rare moments in American history when we may have more in common with certain historical parts of the Bible than less. I think now is one of those rare moments. I’m referring to the crucifixion of Christ in Luke 23. In it, the gospel writer makes a point to establish Jesus’s innocence.

13 Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15 Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. 16 I will therefore punish and release him.”

It seems like the case would be closed. But the Jewish leaders have insidiously incited the people to condemn Jesus, so the crowd unanimously cries out with the most shocking of demands:

18 But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”— 19 a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder.

There he is—Barrabas, the Insurrectionist. Does that name carry new meaning for you now? It’s the insurrectionists keeping us awake at night. It’s the insurrectionists burning our businesses, spray painting our monuments, and slashing police tires. It’s the insurrectionists who murder for the sake of anarchy. There seems to be no greater contrast than that of Barrabas and Jesus. The irony is the Jewish leaders had already accused Jesus of insurrection, but they failed to provide the evidence. Now Pilate, ready to release innocent Jesus, faces the inexplicable dilemma of unjustly substituting an innocent man for one already condemned to die. We read the gut-wrenching conclusion.

20 Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, 21 but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22 A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” 23 But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.

Injustice. Shame. Insurrection. Do you see the substitution God made on the cross for us? Innocent Jesus bore it all. Why? To pay the penalty your sins and for mine.

And it’s no secret that racism was an equally divisive and explosive sin-problem in 1st century Israel. Romans, Samaritans, Jews, and the surrounding nations harbored deep-seated hatred towards one another. So when Jesus, a Jew, died for the sins of mankind, it was very difficult for Israel, God’s chosen people, to understand God had thrown the door wide open to people “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” In the book of Acts, the companion book to the Gospel of Luke, we read of the gospel spreading from Ethiopia (Acts 8:26-40) to Rome (Acts 8:16-31). When this new reality sank in, it left even believing Jews speechless (Acts 10:1-11:18). God’s gospel is a global gospel.

Peace with God results in peace with each other. Jesus Christ bore the injustice, the shame, and the guilt of insurrection on the cross that we might confess our sins and be forgiven. But he also died on the cross to tear down the racial wall that has separated our country. So yes, peace is possible. Our generation needs Jesus to “tear down this wall” that runs through the heart of America. He’s the only one who can do it. Think about this truth in light of one final passage in Ephesians. Paul reminds the Ephesian Christians that they, as uncircumcised Gentiles, were at one time considered outsiders to the promises of God. But God tore down that wall and made peace between Jew and Gentile.

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.

We can only have peace with one another by first being at peace with God. When we confess our sins against God and repent, claiming Jesus’s innocent death and resurrection on our behalf, Jesus makes us into “one new man in the place of the two, so making peace.” We join together with those “from every tribe and language and people and nation” to praise God for his unmatched mercy and forgiveness poured out on us sinners. Oh how desperately we need this gospel truth in our world. How desperately we need it in our nation. How desperately we need to model it in our churches. If we are to find peace, we can only find it in Jesus.

~CP

The Fruit of the Womb

A little over a week ago, my wife and I welcomed our third daughter, Lucy Virginia, into the world. It was an excruciating yet thrilling experience, and the joy never diminishes with each child. I think it actually increases.

I cannot tell you, though, how many people have asked us, “Is this your first one?” We usually smile sheepishly and admit it is our third. I keep encountering this assumption in society that young people should wait to have kids. I can see it in the age of other parents when we take our girls to the playground. Like many of my peers, I had been encouraged even from high school to stick to the pattern. Go to college. Find a spouse. Graduate. Get married. Finish up graduate school (for some of us). Get an established, well-paying job. Enjoy life a little… then have children. If you want. It is almost as if we were being told not to grow up.

And I accepted this advice with no questions asked. A lot of people I respected suggested it or seemed to imply it, so I figured it was the wisest path to follow. Then one day during my graduate school years we were hanging out at my cousin’s house, trying to talk over the noise of his two (or was it three?) kids. He mentioned in passing, “Yeah, people talk about it being hard to have kids, but you can do it.” I don’t think he was trying to persuade me, but God wedged that casual comment in my brain, and I couldn’t get it out. I decided to do a Bible study.

And you know what I found? God consistently portrays having children as a sign of divine blessing. Let me share my favorite passage of Scripture that talks about this truth.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
    and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
    for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
    the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
    are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
    who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
    when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

Psalm 127

This Psalm makes two truths clear. First, we are dependent on the Lord for everything (building houses, watching cities, balancing work and sleep). Second, having children is an incredible blessing the Lord alone can provide.

As I write this, I am sensitive to friends and family who have either lost a child or never been able to enjoy the blessing of children. To me, their stories provide a stark, painful contrast to the self-centered assumption in our society that rearing children is an inconvenience to be delayed or avoided. So many long for their own child in this life while scores more neglect having children or, God help us, murder them. I cannot comprehend God’s plan for those who endure this pain of withheld blessing, but I can, with Jesus, remind them that God has blessed them with “houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:30). There is no stigma for the child of God; every believer is blessed to be a part of his heavenly family.

And we should not downplay blessings in the Bible. The reality that children are a blessing motivates us to have them. God does not drive us from behind with a stick; he attracts us with the beauty of blessing. And beyond this initial blessing, we have the blessed opportunity to make little disciples within our homes. To be clear, I am not specifying how many or how often. I am simply saying, with the psalmist, “children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” And we need to reclaim this lost ground in the church.

~CP

How God Kills Pride

When I was a jr. higher in youth group, God used a particular passage of Scripture to grab my attention and strengthen my faith. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

These two verses clearly teach us salvation is not a work we can do, but a gift of God obtained by faith. God forgives us by grace through faith so we would not boast in our own wisdom, determination, will-power, goodness, or anything else we suppose could earn us forgiveness with God.

It has taken me much longer to realize God intends to kill my pride with this same truth, not only in my salvation, but also in my new life in Christ. Read carefully the very next verse. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (vs. 10). Even as we cannot boast in our salvation, neither can we boast in the works we do after we place faith in Christ, because we are “his workmanship.” The works we do as believers “God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” This work of God in us by grace through faith kills pride in any credit we may take for the good works we do as Christians.

We need to remind ourselves daily as believers that the starting point of our salvation, trusting Jesus by grace through faith, is also the lifeline of our daily sanctification. Why? “So that no one may boast.”

This truth can make a big difference in how we interact with unbelievers. It humbles us to realize God is working in and through us by his grace. It also gives us common ground with others as we call them to repentance. The good I do is all of Christ. And the good that an unbeliever can become is all of Christ. It’s the same foundation from start to finish, and it all exalts Jesus Christ. This is how God graciously kills any pride we may take in the good we have done.

~CP

The Fire of God

I recently trimmed the shrubbery around our house. The springtime growth was getting out of hand, and by evening I had a sizable pile of greenery overflowing my fire pit in the back yard. I pushed aside some of it to make room for a “real” fire. Standing a couple of big, dry logs end on end, leaning inward like a teepee, I carefully arranged a bed of small, short, and very dry sticks. I finished it off by inserting a couple of ripped up cardboard strips from Amazon boxes, and the preparation was complete. My plan worked better than I thought it would, and before I knew it I had a roaring fire. Every few minutes I would push some more shrubbery on top of the fire; the moisture inside would sizzle and pop, sending up plumes of smoke.

Maybe I had too much time on my hands as I stood gazing at the fire. But it seemed to me a perfect metaphor for the believer’s usefulness in ministry. The fire itself is the work of God in a local church. The oxygen that feeds the flames and give them life are the work of the Holy Spirit. And we are the wood God uses to keep the fire going.

Some believers have soaked up too much of the world to be very useful. When they are tossed on the fire, they create a lot of noise but their moisture actually douses the flames. Pile on enough, and they can actually threaten to kill the fire. In the end, though, if the fire prevails, it will consume those
bright green leaves
and
fading flowers
to curl and shrivel,
sending up plumes
of smoke
that choke every passer-by
and
billowing ashes
that float away,
ugly in the wind.
Every believer will be used of God, the only question is how willing we will be in that process. I do not believe in the existence of a “carnal Christian,” of a person who never bears fruit but somehow possesses faith. But I do believe in the dangers of the allure of this world, and as a pastor I am painfully aware of the impact worldliness can have on the people of God.

There are others, who, in their zeal, offer themselves up to God for service out of a willing spirit. But they have no patience. Rather than seeing the wisdom and value of studying the Scriptures, of stewarding their gift, and of learning from the leadership around them, they push ahead in zealous recklessness. I believe God loves their heart, but he groans over their foolishness. These may be, as it were, kindling sticks.
They are short,
they burn brightly,
and they cause a lot of light
but not much heat.
Kindling is useful for starting a fire, or perhaps for counteracting the dampening effects of suffocating shrubbery, but kindling can only last for so long. After all, it only has so much to give by way of zeal. So, in a moment, it comes and is gone.

There are some believers who take the long view in ministry. They see the seriousness of their mission and willingly sacrifice to make use of their gifts. They gladly give much of their time, abilities, and resources to the kingdom, and so their opportunity to contribute to the fire is equally great.
Like great, dry logs in the fire, the Maker lays them up to support one another.
They do not catch fire as quickly as the zealous kindling.
No, because these logs are so large, they take a great amount of heat to set ablaze.
They are too careful to burn up with passing fads, but when the flame burns brightly and the heat becomes overpowering with the all-important work of exalting Christ and his gospel, these logs burn for hours down to their very core.
They provide heat in the cold and light in the darkness.
They dance and flicker with joy, sending off pops and cracks that signify not a dousing of the flames but that of a healthy, roaring blaze.
They do not burn for sake of themselves, but for sake of the Maker who has placed them together into their perfect design for his own deserving glory.

Even as they burn up, sending their last flicker of light,
the hard wood falls blackened on a bed of coals beneath the fire
that make up the fire’s true center of blazing heat and energy.
Even in death and apparent weakness, this bed of dying coals can lay glowing with heat
through the coldest of nights.
And when day dawns, the Maker resurrects a new work from the ashes
by simply laying a few more well-placed logs and a little kindling.
Then, in an instant, the heat ignites a flame.
The work is alive again.

What part do you want to play in the kingdom of God? How have you made yourself useful in his service in your local church? We all have the opportunity to burn brightly for Christ, fully satisfied with where the Maker places us. May we make the most of it.

~CP

Fanny Crosby: Her Song Goes On

It seems fitting to conclude my series of blog posts on American hymnology by focusing on one of America’s most well-beloved hymn writers, Fanny Crosby (1820-1915). Even though Crosby passed away over a century ago, she still speaks to us through timeless texts like “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” “To God Be the Glory,” “Blessed Assurance,”  and “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It.” Crosby is the first female hymn writer I have had the privilege to write about, and her life teaches us some important lessons.

     Everything Crosby did strikes me as productive. She lived to the age of 95. She collaborated with many of the well-known gospel writers of her day, men like William Bradbury, George Root, William Doane, Robert Lowry, Ira Sankey, John Swenney, Philip Phillips, and William Kirkpatrick, to name a few. It is estimated she wrote over 8,500 texts, thousands of which were published before her death. She sold hundreds of thousands of copies of her hymn texts with the prominent gospel hymn publishing company Biglow and Main (what is now Hope Publishing Company) and wrote with 200 different pen names. What makes this output all the more remarkable is the fact that, by her own testimony, Crosby did not become a true believer until the age of 30 and did not start writing hymns until the age of 44. Any accomplishments before that time—and she had many—she counted as small in comparison to her hymn-writing work.

     It is well-known that Crosby became blind at just six weeks of age due to mistreatment of an illness. When she was fifteen years old, she began attending the New York Institute for the Blind. There she became a grammar, rhetoric, and American history teacher, and remained in that position for 23 years. While at the Institute for the Blind, Crosby began writing texts in collaboration with the institute’s music teacher, George F. Root, and she enjoy considerable success in publishing verse. She had met many important figures such as U.S. Presidents Van Buren and Tyler.

     But in her own words, Fanny Crosby “found her career” when she started writing hymn texts (Blumhofer, 199). Crosby clearly loved writing hymn texts and did not allow her blindness to handicap her. She frequently worked out lyrics in her head, editing them internally, until she had opportunity to ask someone to write them down for her. She could then recite up to 7 different texts at a time, usually with a book in hand, though she did not use the book. She also had an unusual gift for composing texts on the spot.

William Bradbury published Fanny Crosby’s first gospel hymn in his 1864 gospel songbook, The Golden Censer. The above picture is taken directly from the original.

     Crosby’s remarkable life reminds us of the necessity of making the most of the time. Yet Crosby did not do this with an attitude of a suffering victim. Let’s face it—if there was anyone who could have played the victim card, it would have been Crosby. But her faith in God went beyond what she could see. She faithfully wrote hymn texts at a staggering rate and loved every minute of it. She displayed a humble, cooperative spirit in that she was able to collaborate with so many different personalities. From a human perspective, Fanny Crosby was dependent on others to produce her hymn texts; but the real secret to her success was her dependence on God. She bathed the whole hymn-writing process in prayer and faced considerable adversity with joy-filled faith.

     For those of us who know Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, we would do well to face our trials with this same kind of steadfast, joy-filled faith. We would do well to approach our labors with this same kind of eager willingness. Fanny Crosby reminds us what God can do with a meager five loaves and two fish. We simply need to trust him and do the work he has given us to do, in spite of adversity, until our laboring days are done.

Bibliography

A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).

Church Music in the United States by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).

Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny Crosby by Edith L. Blumhofer (William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2005).