Several Things On My Mind

There probably isn’t a Sunday that goes by where I don’t enter the pulpit to preach without some trepidation. Think about it: it’s not that I’m scared to speak in front of a crowd of people. It’s not that I have nothing to say. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; I do have something to say and it is from God.

No, I don’t claim ecstatic revelations and secret prophetic messages. I simply know that when I open up God’s Word and preach from it, it is God who is speaking and it is His Word that is being heard.

This means I take James 3.1 very seriously: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Join that with 2 Corinthians 5.10 “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” and Hebrews 13.17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” and you’ll understand why I might experience a measure of “holy anxiety” when preparing to preach.

But I wonder if those who sit under preaching (not just mine, but any true proclamation of God’s Word) take their role as listeners as seriously? Do they enter into the sanctuary with any fear at all? Do they sense the gravity this situation calls for? How well do they prepare themselves before they come to listen to the preaching of God’s Word?

Tim Challies had a post a while back in which he listed three quotes from some good, ol’ Puritan preachers regarding how a person should listen to sermons. Here are the quotes:

Richard Baxter:
Remember that all these…sermons must be reviewed, and you must answer for all that you have heard, whether you heard it…with diligent attention or with carelessness; and the word which you hear shall judge you at the last day. Hear therefore as those that are going to judgment to give account of their hearing and obeying.

Thomas Watson:
You must give an account for every sermon you hear….The judge to whom we must give an account is God…how should we observe every word preached, remembering the account! Let all this make us shake off distraction and drowsiness in hearing, and have our ears chained to the word.

David Clarkson:
At the day of judgment, an account of every sermon will be required, and of every truth in each sermon….The books will be opened, all the sermons mentioned which you have heard, and a particular account required, why you imprisoned such a truth revealed, why you committed such a sin threatened, why neglected such duties enjoined….Oh what a fearful account!

I pray you’ll come well prepared on each Lord’s Day, prayed up for your pastor and prayed up for yourself.


Yet I don’t wish that any believer would read this and think, “I can’t do it. I can’t listen like that. I’ll never be prepared enough. How can I go on?” I’m not Moses, coming down off Sinai with the tablets in my arms, ready to club you over the head with Law. There is no “no more… or else” here. Read this, from Of First Importance:

“What is the curse of the law [Gal. 3:13]? It is the or-else-ness of the law: ‘Do this, or else.’ Christ took the or-else-ness of the law onto himself at the cross, so that there is no more or-else for anyone in Christ, as God looks upon us now. Or-else is gone forever from your relationship with God.”

– Ray Ortlund “Christ is Deeper Still” blog post Jan. 13, 2010

Rejoice that God is gracious to let us hear His Word proclaimed. Then prepare yourself well to hear it and receive it.

(HT: Of First Importance)

I’m really hoping this is a perspicuous post for I’d be very disappointed to learn otherwise. And, just in case you’re wondering, this word is apposite to the situation*

And finally, here’s why I believe preaching to be up such great importance (not necessarily mine, of course; although I pray that our congregation finds the preaching absolutely necessary to their lives):

* I wonder who got a Word-A-Day calendar this year?


“Happy Anniversary”

Yesterday was my anniversary.

Not my wedding anniversary (that’s in August).

No, this was the 12th anniversary of my very first Sunday as the pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church. Back in 1997, I’d been waiting for a call to pastor a church for over 16 months. Cornerstone had been working at calling a pastor for just about the same length of time. God saw fit to bring us both together. Fascinating is His sovereignty.

When Cornerstone was first without a pastor (back early in 1996), they put together a search committee to find their new pastor. It didn’t take them very long until they had a man they thought would work out. He came, he met, he interviewed & was interviewed, and he preached. He wasn’t called here. So, back to that proverbial drawing board. Another man was selected. As the weekend drew near for him to come & candidate, he called, saying he was withdrawing his name. Another setback. The search committee then committed themselves to seeking God’s face through prayer and asking Him to truly lead them along in this process. (I’m sure they’d prayed previously, but not as earnestly as now.)

The church plant I’d pastored in central Iowa had closed in July of ’96. (It’s a long story; maybe it’ll show up here sometime; maybe not.) The one other time I’d been in between churches, I thought the process would probably go quickly. It didn’t. Yet here I was, without a church and thinking that it might only take 3-6 months for a church to call me. It didn’t.

When CEFC first sent me a packet of information about their church, I read it and said, “Nope. No way would they want me and my doctrinal beliefs. And I’m pretty sure I’m not going to want to pastor them.” Yet they persisted. The committee chair called me and talked to me at length. I asked a lot of questions of them and they of me. They really wanted a face-to-face interview and Ann said that we might as well go. So away we went. Following the interview with the search committee, Ann and I drove home to Iowa, talking all the way and both of us thinking, “Well, that wasn’t too bad; but God can’t really want us there (because we didn’t really want to be there).”

God wouldn’t let us alone about Cornerstone, however. We continued on, praying and seeking His guidance in this. When Dennis called to talk about coming for a candidating weekend, we simply “had” to say we would. And we did. And here we are.

God knew this is where I needed to be with my family. God knew I was the pastor this congregation needed (I say this with all humility; there really isn’t anything special about me that could have helped bring this congregation around, other than a whole-hearted trust in a completely sovereign God who uses some pretty weak vessels to accomplish His will). And I’m still here and so are they. Twelve years. It seems to have gone by quickly (well, there was that one stretch in ’01-’02 that dragged on for a bit). How much longer does God want me here? I’m not about to try to guess that one. If He grants my heart’s desire, I’ll never leave. These are great people. This is a wonderful opportunity to serve and see what God can do. May He see all the glory go to Him however He sees fit.

Thanks, Lord. Thanks, Cornerstone.

A Conference I Must Go To… And Really Don’t Want To

I’m registered for this conference. I’ve signed Ann up to attend with me. The reservations are in at one of the conference hotels. I’ve watched all the latest promo videos. And I don’t want to go.

I got a little beat up last evening. Not literally, but mentally and pastorally.

It was one of those phone calls you really dread getting. If you’re a pastor, you know the kind: angry, frustrated parishioner calls, maintains a good semblance of control, but still lets you have it with both barrels. Several things made it quite painful: I was one week back from a really great, restful two-week family vacation; just prior to leaving, we had a leadership meeting that I hoped would put us on a good track to move forward from where we’re at as a church; my first Sunday morning back went well; and, much of what this person had to say was true (maybe it could have done with a great deal of explanation of reasons/motives on my part, but that wasn’t the time). There will need to be some measures taken on my part toward reconciliation. There will need to be some serious matters addressed elsewhere. However, when the words "we may well need to leave this church" are uttered, all the air goes out of my sails.

If those words are the real sentiment of the heart and the expression of a heart’s discernment of the Lord’s will, I can’t and won’t stand in the way; that would be sin on my part. If the words were uttered as a means to manipulate and force me into doing things that person’s way, then that is sin on their part. At this time, I can’t say where this is going.

I do know this: re-watching the DGM videos promoting the Fall Conference, hearing the words to challenge & exhort toward persevering are not the words I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear, "Go ahead. Pack up and leave. That would serve them right. It would be the easiest thing to do. Pick up your things and find some place else where they’ll really appreciate you." What I need to hear is: "Set aside your sinful pride. Confess your sins and seek His forgiveness. And above all things, seek His grace to stand firm, to endure to the end, even if it hurts (and it will hurt a lot)."

So, for the masses that read this (all three of you at this time, I think), I’d encourage you to consider this conference with me. And above all, to stand firm.

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This Week’s Devotional

This is the second posting of a devotional from a man in our congregation. I trust you’ll find it an encouragement to your faith and a meal for your soul.

Why do you seek the living among the dead?

Luke 24.5

“But I have never had a desire to look for the living among the dead,” you may expostulate. “Besides, unlike Mary, I am not one to overlook the resurrected Lord.” Ask then why the dead works of self-effort persist in vitiating a living faith in Jesus Christ? The High Priest of Heaven declares plainly, I am not the God of the dead but of the living. Why does failed culture continue to eclipse the will of the Father? The Master speaks vividly, Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the Kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in Heaven. And why do the moribund teachings of men shackle the wisdom of Immanuel, when whoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. (James 4.4)

Consider the query, Why do I seek the living among the dead? There is only One among those once dead who now lives and is alive forever. He is the only true God and Potentate. He is the Shepherd of mercy, healing and grace. He is Christ Jesus, Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Resurrection and the Life.

“Lord Jesus, enlarge our faith in You. Teach us Your ways. Therein we shall subdue kingdoms, enact righteousness, obtain promises, stop the mouths of lions… and out of weakness be made strong. (Hebrews 11.33,34) Eternal Savior, awaken us from indolence to become not unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (II Peter 1.8) Cause us to uphold the testimony of the Holy Spirit; honor the triumph of Christ Jesus; and rejoice in the truth of the Everlasting Father. Gracious Friend, for these gifts of Life we thank You today and praise You world without end. Amen.”

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New “Feature” – a devotional for your encouragement

There is a man in our congregation who writes devotionals for our encouragement. We place them in our weekly bulletin and hope that most will read them, find strength, encouragement, hope and rest in God’s Word as it is placed before them in this way.They’re quite "spurgeonesque."  I’ve asked permission to begin posting the "archive" I’ve built up of these devotional readings. Here is JDV’s entry for this week:

In that day, a man shall look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah 17.7

There is a city, whose Builder and Maker is God. There is a people, whose Creator and Shepherd is Christ. And there is a day, when every man shall know his Maker. For those who have condemned the Most High God, the hour shall bring unremitting darkness. For those who are the Redeeded of the Lord, the hour shall brighten eternal Day.

Christ Jesus is the Bright and Morning Star, the firstborn from the dead. He dwells in a light that no man can approach. He is Light and in Him is no darkness at all. We were once darkness, and offspring of wrath by nature. Yet, He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us that the righteousness of God might live in us.

The Messiah is the Holy One of Israel. He pleads with His own, Draw near to me, and I will draw near to you. Come to Me all who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of Me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Lord Sabbaoth instructs our conduct, He who loses his life for My sake shall gain it. The wonderful Counselor teaches us faith, Cast your bread upon the waters, and after many days you shall find it.

“O Lord, You are our fountain of holiness and lifespring of wisdom. May we look to You our Maker. My our eyes have respect to You, O Holy One of Israel. Amen.”

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Cornerstone Prayer Time Meditations

True Prayer

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Romans 8.26-27 (ESV)

In prayer, it is not only important how we pray, but what we pray for. We’re told in verse 26 that we do not know what to pray for as we ought. So, we’ve seen that we are not to pray with arrogance; that we are to come humbly, yet boldly. Now, let us see what we’re to pray, especially when we don’t know for what we’re to pray.

Sometimes we think we pray well. This is almost dangerous, for we will never master the art of prayer. Read of those masters of prayer from the past and you’ll see this is true. Even they, like George Mueller, believed they had so much to learn of prayer.

There is also evidence in Scripture of this. Moses, when the Israelites were about to enter into Canaan, did not know what to pray. Elijah, didn’t know what he was parying for when he prayed, “O Lord, take my life.” The disciples didn’t either, when they asked for fire from heaven to come down and consume a village. The apostle Paul, even in asking three times for a thorn to be removed, didn’t know to pray as he ought. We’re in good company when we recognize this.

It’s also a good thing that some prayers are answered in the negative. God does not grant all we request of Him. Like the country song says, “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.” Just look at Israel: God gave them what they asked for – a king; and not just a king, Saul. Now God told them He would give this to them, but they really didn’t know what they were asking for when they made this request.

So, how shall we pray? And what shall we pray for? We should ask for God’s grace, for His will to be done. Along with these, we should pray for temporal and eternal matters.

Scripture tells us that two intercessors are needed when we pray, and for this, we should give thanks. First, we need a pleading Christ. it is only for His sa that God the Father hears us. Second, we need a purifying intercessor through whom our prayers are cleansed – the Holy Spirit. Christ prays for us, His people. The Spirit prayer within His people: He helps us in our weakness.

In our own strength, we cannot offer up any prayer that will be acceptable to the Father. We’re too feeble, too powerless, too full of sin and sinful motives, too full of foolishness, ignorance, shortsightedness to offer up a sweet-smelling sacrifice of prayer to the Father. We need a helper – the Spirit who intercedes for us.

When I was about 4 or 5 years old, my dad still farmed. He had an old John Deere Model A. One day, he took me with him to head out to the far end of the pasture. When I asked if he would let me drive the tractor, he didn’t just jump off the tractor, look at me as I rolled away and say, “Best to you! Do your best!” No, he kept me on his lap, placed my hands on the steering wheel, throttled the tractor down and “let me drive.” Now, if I started to drift off the path, he didn’t knock me off the tractor to the ground and shout, “Foolish boy. Stay away and let me do this for you.” No, once again, if I was going astray of the path, he would simply reach his strong arms around my small, child’s body, place his hands upon mine on the wheel and “help” me straighten the tractor out. I think this illustrates what the Spirit does when we dont’ know what to pray for as we ought. He comes alongside us, places His mind in the Father’s and utters those groanings that only He knows to utter.

There are times when we fail in our prayers. This is due to sin. We’re still filled with selfishness, pride, greed, etc. But the Spirit doesn’t thrust us aside; He comes alongside, stoops to our needs and helps us in our weakness.

What are these groanings? I think they’re our deepest needs which are too difficult to express. We we find we can’t explain ourselves to God adequately, He prays in this way. When we can’t find the right words to pray, He’s right there, praying within us and for us. The Spirit, who is one with the Living Word, has all the words we need.

The more childlike we are in this, the better. It is when we find ourselves praying like a child – small, weak, simple, stammering with our words – this is when the Spirit is most strong to help us. He puts our concerns and needs before the Father on our behalf. And our prayers are truest when the Spirit is praying them for us.

Intercession, helping us in our weakness – this is what the Spirit is so good at. At times, our hearts are cold and distant, even though we keep on trying to pray. Our heart cries out to God, even about our praylessness. And the Spirit is at work, the new life within us still cries out, through the Spirit. It is htis new life, the Spirit of God, groaning out loud for us.

At times, the Spirit may pray “against us”, as it were. We pray, with short-sightedness, without full knowledge. Paul, in praying for the thorn to be removed, is an example of this. So, the Spirit intercedes “against” us, for He knows the will of God for us and prays that perfectly. At times, we’ll pray for things we think we need and yet the Spirit, who knows the mind of God, realizes we will be better without it. So He prays: “Father, don’t give this to her. Keep that from him. You know perfectly that this is out of selfish motive or only for his own glory, not Yours.”

This is not to aggravate us. It is for our well-being, for our best interest. The Spirit is preparing us for eternity and for our eternal joy in Christ Jesus. If we would rest in this truth, then we will be blessed indeed.

“He who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit.” He who searches hearts… this would be God the Father. He knows us, inside and out. And the Spirit dwelling within us, is seen and known by God the Father. God’s will is being prayed within us, even when we don’t realize it. This means our prayers are being purified in order that God would be pleased.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. When we recognize our failures and our weaknesses, we’re never in a position to pray more truly. The Spirit works mightily in us during these times. And the more the Spirit works, the more we learn to pray according to the will of God. The more we learn to pray according to the will fo God, the more trust, the more peace and the more instruction we’ll have.

The Spirit also works in our hearts and in our prayers to sanctify us. He makes us and our prayers more holy, which is God-pleasing. More and more we’ll find ourselves cut off from self. More and more we’ll find ourselves turned toward heaven. More and more we’ll be made into the image of Christ. We seldom abide in Him better than when we are in prayer.

Give thanks that the Spirit prays against our flesh. Once, Brother Lawrence prayed, “O Lord, this is what you may expect of me if you leave me to myself.” Praise be to God, we are born of the Spirit. Thanks be to God that we laern to will what He wills. These will be true prayers and they will be heard.

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Cornerstone Prayer Time Meditations

Humility & Boldness. What do they have to do with one another? Don’t they contradict each other? In the flesh, yes; but in the Christian’s heart in matters of prayer, no. Humility, for the Christian, is found by looking at ourselves, seeing who we are in light of God’s holiness. Boldness is found by looking to Christ. bold prayerHebrews 4.16 says, "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." (ESV) Do you see it right there? We are bid to come boldly before God, at His throne of grace. Now, I can’t come boldly beofre a governor, a mayor, or the president. I’d be so nervous, my hands would be shaking. And now, Scripture exhorts me to come boldly before the King of kings? In Isaiah 6, the angels had to cover their faces before the awesome glory and holiness of God… and they serve Him night and day! They are way holier than I am. And when Isaiah saw this, he fell at his feet and cried, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips…" (ESV) When the Pharisee tried this kind of bold approach in the middle of the synagogue (Luke 18.9–12), his prayers stopped at the rafters. True biblical boldness in prayer arrives when we see our own vileness in light of God’s holiness. Sometimes, however, we find ourselves asking: "Doesn’t God get weary of me and all my sinning and failings?" At other times, it’s as if the more we see of righteousness and holiness the less and less inclined we are to come boldly, if at all. Yet we’re told to come, commanded even, to come boldly to His throne of grace. This boldness is not found in the sinner; so how can I come? We must make sure we see the "therefore" (or the "then" in the ESV). This leads us back to verse 14: "Since then we have a great high priest…" Praise the Lord, we have Christ, not a man, as our high priest. Study this in Hebrews and you will rejoice in this glorious truth. In the Old Testament, the people of God needed a prophet who would side with God and speak to men on His behalf. They also needed a high priest who would be on their side, speaking  – or better yet, sacrificing to God on their behalf. But now, you and I, have Jesus Christ, the perfect prophet, the Son of God who comes to us; and the perfect priest, the Son of Man who saves us. He takes our side as guilty sinners. So, come boldly; it’s a great encouragement for the humble. I hope by now, you’re beginning to see how humility and boldness go together in prayer. We’re to come boldly to the throne of grace and we’re to come humbly before the throne of grace. Satan tries to convince us otherwise. How many times have you heard him whispering in your ear: "You’d better shape up first; you have to get your life straightened out before God will ever listen to you." If this were true, we’d never, ever be able to approach God. We can’t cleanse ourselves enough to ever approach Him. This is the glory of this passage: the boldness isn’t in me, in my works, my good deeds, my fine upstanding motives or even in my praying. All my good deeds can’t open up heaven’s door. No, my boldness is not in me; it’s in Christ Jesus, my Great High Priest. But have you ever found yourself, as a sinner, saying similar things: "It’s just impossible; I can’t pray. Who am I kidding? Certainly not God." And it does appear that the more we see of righteousness and holiness that the less and less we dare to draw near in prayer. Yet God says: "I accept you. I see the blood of Christ My Son, not you and your sin." Our boldness is in Christ and only in Christ. God’s a consuming fire, so if you or I came in our own strength and merit, how could we avoid the deluge? No, we must lean on Christ and receive boldness, courage and strength to draw near to Him. Jesus is the way for sinners. There is no other. When we think we dare not come near, Jesus lets us know: "It’s all about grace, not your worth or works." So we join boldness with humility and say, "God, be merciful to me, the sinner." And in humility with boldness we say, "I come in Christ’s name." The bolder we are in Christ, the more humble we will be in ourselves. And the more humble we are in ourselves, the bolder we will be in Christ. Bold prayer glorifies Christ as well. We use Him as the door, the way. He loves to work for us: "…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…" Bold prayer also glorifies God the Father: He sees the joy of the Son interceding for us, His children and it brings Him great pleasure. And bold prayer also glorifies the Holy Spirit: He is the one who clothes us with humility and He also clothes us with boldness. This glorifying boldness is not a matter of working myself all up into a lathering and some high energy emotional state. No, this true boldness is a matter of simply coming through Christ to God and praying. So come boldly; hold nothing back. That’s what the word literally means: without concealment, freely, openly. That means we come confessing everything: sins, joys, weaknesses and strengths. There is nothing hidden when we come before the One who sees into our very heart. It’s like coming as a little child, with that little child’s faith. We bring a bold request to our Heavenly Father. What glory: this true boldness doesn’t make little ones proud, it makes proud ones little – we become humble. Boldness, humility, child-like faith: they all bear fruit together. "… that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." Mercy is God inwardly moved through Christ to work for us. Grace is what we receive, undeservedly so and yet in Christ Jesus for the times we are in need (and tell me, when aren’t you in need?). Mercy and Grace. They’re all-sufficient. One writer said: "One crumb of these is worth more than all the riches of the world." Finally, help in time of need: we’ll find this in God, not in ourselves. We’ll never be able to pull up our own boot straps; God is the one who helps us. So come boldly.

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