November 23, 2013
In September, Brian Norris of Citylight Church interviewed me, focusing on church planting and DGCC’s vision for reproducing discipleship:
November 22, 2013
[Dr Fred Zaspel is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA and Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He posted these thoughts on the October 31 death of his daughter at credomag.com on November 13. This is an edited version; the entire post is well worth reading. Credo Magazine has many helpful articles. The latest issue focuses on the grand story of the Bible. – Coty]
For a dozen or so years our daughter, Gina, suffered unspeakably from more maladies and on more levels — physical and otherwise — than I could begin adequately to explain. The infection that ravished her central nervous system, the years of sleeplessness, the constant nausea, the passing out and the many falls and concussions that came as a result, the severe and relentless headache pain, the haunting hallucinations, the struggles with confusion, the blood clots, the systemic infections, and so very much more, all in the extreme, made her life the most severely agonized I have ever witnessed. Amazingly — yet true to form — she found moments of laughter almost daily, and we delighted in her company even while hurting for her. But the suffering became increasingly severe on so many fronts. And as we watched her suffer, how we prayed, often in despair, that God would deliver her from it all.
About three years ago he did. In a dramatic and miraculous moment the disease was gone, and for a short while it seemed her life had been returned to her. But further setbacks were to follow. The suffering again became intense and unspeakable. Until finally, on Thursday, October 31, it was all over. Forever. Gina is now with the Lord.
At several points over the years it seemed she was dying, but then she would rally. And on occasions she and even we could have wished it for her sake — her suffering was so awful, death would have been considered a mercy. We still feel all that, but nothing could have prepared us for the pain we now feel over our loss. She was Daddy’s girl, Mommy’s soul mate, and brother’s very closest friend. We are a very close family, and we loved Gina more than words could ever express — and we told her so many, many times every day, verbally and with countless hugs and kisses. Surely a day will never pass, in this life, without sensing this deep, gaping hole in our hearts. We just cannot imagine life without Gina. How we loved her.
I have often suspected over the years that Christians who romanticize death have likely never experienced the loss of a close loved one. Death remains a dreaded and a devastating enemy, and there is just no way to make it pretty. It still stings, deeply so, and when it comes close like this it leaves us feeling all but completely undone.
Yet for Christians there truly is a difference. And during this past week since Gina passed, agonizing as it has been, we have learned first-hand that we really do not sorrow as those who have no hope. The weighty promises and massive truths that God has revealed to us in his Word truly are life-shaping and soul anchoring, and they provide a sure point of reference for even the most hurting heart.
United to Christ by faith Gina belonged — and belongs — to God. And through the years of her suffering we reminded ourselves often that the God who in grace had rescued her in Christ from sin loves her even more than we do. And so we trust his providence. He is too wise ever to make a mistake, and too good ever to do us wrong. And we acknowledge that just as he was free and sovereign in giving Gina to us 29 years ago, so now he is free and sovereign — and good and just — in taking her. He has not wronged us. Indeed, not only do we affirm this great truth — we rest in it. This God is himself our Father, a Father who knows what is best for his children and faithfully directs our lives accordingly. Moreover, he is the Father who in love one day gave up his own Son to bear our curse in order to redeem us to himself. Yes, of course there are many “Why?” questions that we cannot answer, but we lack no proof of God’s love or his goodness. And we bless him today with deeper passion than ever.
We are so very grateful not only that God gave us our daughter for 29 years, but also that in grace he saved her and made her his own. This is really everything — everything — and we recognize that we are blessed to know that Gina is rejoicing today in the presence of our great Redeemer. How she loved him! How she loved the gospel. Gina was marked by passion in everything she did, but nothing so stirred her like the gospel of Christ. She loved to hear it, she loved to learn it more deeply, she loved to sing it, and she loved to share it with others. Her whole hope was in Christ. Virtually every day, even in much pain, she would sit down at the piano to play and sing and refresh her aching soul with some of her favorite songs about Christ, God’s love in Christ, salvation in Christ, God’s faithful love and providence, and the glory that awaits us. And this same gospel is what assures us still. And we rejoice that neither death nor life nor anything else in all God’s creation could ever separate Gina or us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And we have come better to appreciate that our hope in Christ is not for this life only. We eagerly await the day of Christ’s return when we will rejoice together in his glorious presence and discover for ourselves that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will then be revealed in us. . . .
We are hurting for our loss. The pain is massive, and on one level I’m sure it will never be absent in this life. But deep as this hurt is, we are not left adrift. With minds and hearts shaped by gospel truth, with the love of God marvelously shed abroad in our hearts by his Spirit, with confidence in his unerring providence, and with an unshakable joy and hope in Christ, God has given us more than all we will need. . . .
November 22, 2013
C.S. Lewis died 50 years ago today. God used him powerfully in my life, as in the lives of so many others. In celebration of and thankfulness for his life, this morning I read one of his less well known works: Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1963).
Lewis is properly humble about the shortfalls of his own prayer life:
If God had granted all the silly prayers I’ve made in my life, where should I be now? (28)
For me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence. (63)
And his speculations, while always stimulating, in my opinion sometimes stray from their biblical moorings. But you will profit from meditating on the following quotes. The lengthy quotations from chapter 17 have been especially powerful for me.
So thank you, Father God, for the life of C.S. Lewis – for your sovereignly drawing him to Yourself, for his devotion to you, for his careful thought about You and Your Word. Continue to use his writings for the glory of Your Name – and may we, like him, strive to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration.
(Should you want to explore more of Lewis, Desiring God’s fall conference on him was excellent. All the talks are available online. I particularly recommend those by Joe Rigney and Kevin Vanhoozer. ) – Coty
[A writer] has substituted religion for God—as if navigation were substituted for arrival, or battle for victory, or wooing for marriage, or in general the means for the end. But even in this present life, there is danger in the very concept of religion. It carries the suggestion that this is one more department of life, an extra department added to the economic, the social, the intellectual, the recreational, and all the rest. But that whose claims are infinite can have no standing as a department. Either it is an illusion or else our whole life falls under it. We have no non-religious activities; only religious and irreligious. (30)
One of the purposes for which God instituted prayer may have been to bear witness that the course of events is not governed like a state but created like a work of art to which every being makes its contribution and (in prayer) a conscious contribution, and in which every being is both and end and a means. . . . Let me hasten to add that [prayer] is also an end. The world was made partly that there might be prayer; partly that our prayers . . . might be answered. But let’s have finished with “partly.” The great work of art was made for the sake of all it does and is, down to the curve of every wave and the flight of every insect. (55-56)
How or why does such faith [in particular answers to prayer] occur sometimes, but not always, even in the perfect petitioner? We, or I, can only guess. My own idea is that it occurs only when the one who prays does so as God’s fellow-worker, demanding what is needed for the joint work. It is the prophet’s, the apostle’s, the missionary’s, the healer’s prayer that is made with this confidence and finds the confidence justified by the event. The difference, we are told, between a servant and a friend is that a servant is not in his master’s secrets. For him, “orders are orders.” He has only his own surmises as to the plans he helps to execute. But the fellow-worker, the companion or (dare we say?) the colleague of God is so united with Him at certain moments that something of the divine foreknowledge enters his mind. Hence his faith is “evidence” — that is, the evidentness, the obviousness — of things not seen. (60-61)
On the one hand, the man who does not regard God as other than himself cannot be said to have a religion at all. On the other hand, if I think God other than myself in the same way in which my fellow-men, and objects in general, are other than myself, I am beginning to make Him an idol. I am daring to treat His existence as somehow parallel to my own. But He is the ground of our being. He is always both within us and over against us. Our reality is as much from His reality as He, moment by moment, projects into us. The deeper the level within ourselves from which our prayer, or any other act, wells up, the more it is His, but not at all the less ours. Rather, most ours when most His. . . . To be discontinuous from God as I am discontinuous from you would be annihilation. [68-9]
It is well to have specifically holy places, and things, and days, for, without these focal points or reminders, the belief that all is holy and “big with God” will soon dwindle into a mere sentiment. But if these holy place, things, and days cease to remind us, if they obliterate our awareness that all ground is holy and every bush (could I but perceive it) a Burning Bush, then the hallows begin to do harm. . . . We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.
Oddly enough, what corroborates me in this faith is the fact . . . that the awareness of this presence has so often been unwelcome. I call upon Him in prayer. Often He might reply—I think He does reply—“But you have been evading me for hours.” For he comes not only to raise up but to cast down; to deny, to rebuke, to interrupt. The prayer “prevent us in all our doings” is often answered as if the word prevent had its modern meaning. The presence which we voluntarily evade is often, and we know it, His presence in wrath.
And out of this evil comes a good. If I never fled from His presence, then I should suspect those moments when I seemed to delight in it of being wish-fulfillment dreams. That, by the way, explains the feebleness of all those watered versions of Christianity which leave out all the darkest elements and try to establish a religion of pure consolation No real belief in the watered versions can last. Bemused and besotted as we are, we still dimly know at heart that nothing which is at all times and in every way agreeable to us can have objective reality. It is of the very nature of the real that it should have sharp corners and rough edges, that it should be resistant, should be itself. Dream-furniture is the only kind on which you never stub your toes or bang your knee. You and I have both known happy marriage. But how different our wives were from the imaginary mistresses of our adolescent dreams! So much less exquisitely adapted to all our wishes; and for that very reason (among others) so incomparably better.
Servile fear is, to be sure, the lowest form of religion. But a god such that there could never be occasion for even servile fear, a safe god, a tame god, soon proclaims himself to any sound mind as a fantasy. I have met no people who fully disbelieved in Hell and also had a living and life-giving belief in Heaven. (75-76)
It’s comical that you, of all people, should ask my views about prayer as worship or adoration. On this subject you yourself taught me nearly all I know. . . .
You first taught me the great principle, ‘Begin where you are.’ I had thought one had to start by summoning up what we believe about the goodness and greatness of God, by thinking about creation and redemption and’ all the blessings of this life’. You turned to the brook and once more splashed your burning face and hands in the little waterfall and said: ‘Why not begin with this?’
And it worked. Apparently you have never guessed how much. That cushiony moss, that coldness and sound and dancing light were no doubt very minor blessings compared with ‘the means of grace and the hope of glory’. But then they were manifest. So far as they were concerned, sight had replaced faith. They were not the hope of glory; they were an exposition of the glory itself.
Yet you were not – or so it seemed to me – telling me that’ Nature’, or ‘the beauties of Nature’, manifest the glory. No such abstraction as ‘Nature’ comes into it. I was learning the far more secret doctrine that pleasures are shafts of the glory as it strikes our sensibility. As it impinges on our will or our understanding, we give it different names-goodness or truth or the like. But its flash upon our senses and mood is pleasure.
But aren’t there bad, unlawful pleasures? Certainly there are. But in calling them’ bad pleasures’ I take it we are using a kind of shorthand. We mean ‘pleasures snatched by unlawful acts.’ It is the stealing of the apple that is bad, not the sweetness. The sweetness is still a beam from the glory. That does not palliate the stealing. It makes it worse. There is sacrilege in the theft. We have abused a holy thing.
I have tried, since that moment, to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration. I don’t mean simply by giving thanks for it. One must of course give thanks, but I mean something different. How shall I put it?
We can’t – or I can’t – hear the song of a bird simply as a sound. Its meaning or message (‘That’s a bird ‘) comes with it inevitably-just as one can’t see a familiar word in print as a merely visual pattern. The reading is as involuntary as the seeing. When the wind roars I don’t just hear the roar; I ‘hear the wind’. In the same way it is possible to ‘ read’ as well as to ‘ have’ a pleasure. Or not even’ as well as’. The distinction ought to become, and sometimes is, impossible; to receive it and to recognise its divine source are a single experience. This heavenly fruit is instantly redolent of the orchard where it grew. This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. There need be no question of thanks or praise as a separate event, something done afterwards. To experience the tiny theophany is itself to adore.
Gratitude exclaims, very properly: ‘How good of God to give me this.’ Adoration says: ‘What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this! One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.
If I could always be what I aim at being, no pleasure would be too ordinary or too usual for such reception; from the first taste of the air when I look out of the window–one’s whole cheek becomes a sort of palate – down to one’s soft slippers at bedtime. . . .
One must learn to walk before one can run. So here. We-or at least I-shall not be able to adore God on the highest occasions if we have learned no habit of doing so on the lowest. At best, our faith and reason will tell us that He is adorable, but we shall not have found Him so, not have’ tasted and seen’. Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are, patches of Godlight ‘ in the woods of our experience. . . .
In this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven. (From Chapter 17, p. 88-93)
November 8, 2013
He’s a squirmy one, he is. If I don’t watch him, he’ll wriggle off the bed. But he doesn’t want to. He’s enjoying the tickle fight too much. I can’t blame him. Those giggles make this father’s heart want to leap out of my chest. I wonder how long this laugh will last.
Reflect on the tickle fight with me. See the layers of reality at work. . . .
On the surface: an adult male and a one-year-old of the species, smiles, laughter, darting fingers, kicking legs, squeals, deep breaths, rapid kisses on the neck, raspberries on the belly, and did I mention the laughter?
Beneath the surface: emotional bonding, fatherly affection, wide-eyed childhood delight. A contribution to the child’s sense of safety and security in the world. Perhaps he’ll be “well-adjusted” (or at least better adjusted). This will, no doubt, help him on his standardized tests.
Beneath and in and through it all, Trinitarian fullness is being extended. The Joy that made the mountains is concentrated in my home. Fatherly delight is at the heart of reality. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” It plays on a looping tape in the back of my mind. Thus sayeth the Lord to his Son. Thus sayeth the Lord to all of his sons that are in the Son. . . .
This is the pitch of fatherhood. This is the melody line of motherhood. This ought to be the dominant note in the familial symphony. Delight, Pleasure, Joy. This tickle fight is high theology. . . .
This is our fundamental calling as parents — to be the smile of God to our children. We are charged by God to bring our children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. God himself has commanded us to communicate to our children what he is like. And God is fundamentally a Happy Father, a Well-Pleased Parent. And just as the Father communicates his delight in his Son through his words and deeds and demeanor and presence, so also should we.
Read the whole post.
November 1, 2013
This Sunday is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. We will spend some time during our service reading relevant Scriptures and praying for our brothers and sisters around the world who boldly proclaim Jesus at the cost of family, jobs, health, freedom, and, in some cases, life itself.
I was privileged these last few weeks in India to meet with many such brothers and sisters who are suffering today, or putting themselves at risk of suffering, because of their faithful witness. At the same time, I read an excellent and challenging book, The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected (B & H Books, 2013). Nik Ripken (a pseudonym) and his wife spent many years ministering in Somalia; after being forced out because of the deteriorating security situation and then having their 16 year old son die tragically, the Ripkens returned to the US questioning God. They began traveling around the world interviewing believers who face daily suffering and persecution, in part to help them process their own suffering, and in part to help picture what must happen among Somalis for the Gospel to spread widely.
What they found challenges our American mindset time and again. The challenges come, yes, from the experience of those who have suffered, but also from Scripture itself. The challenges also lead us to ask another question: What must happen among Americans for the Gospel to spread widely to the unreached groups within this country?
Below, find some Scriptures interspersed with quotes from the book. Ponder these truths. By all means, read this volume. And pray that we might value Christ enough to live like our brothers and sisters around the world.
2 Timothy 3:12 All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
(From a Russian believer)
“Nik, that’s why we haven’t made books and movies out of these stories that you have been hearing. For us, persecution is like the sun coming up in the east. It happens all the time. It’s the way things are. There is nothing unusual or unexpected about it. Persecution for our faith has always been—and probably always will be—a normal part of life.” . . . I had always assumed that persecution was abnormal, exceptional, unusual, out of the ordinary. In my mind, persecution was something to avoid. It was a problem, a setback, a barrier. I was captivated by the thought: what if persecution is the normal, expected situation for a believer? And what if the persecution is, in fact, soil in which faith can grow? What if persecution can be, in fact, good soil? I began to wonder about what that might mean for the church in America—and I began to wonder about what that might mean for the potential church in Somalia. 2253
(From a Russian believer, recalling what his father said to the family before being arrested)
‘All around this part of the country, the authorities are rounding up followers of Jesus and demanding that they deny their faith. Sometimes, when they refuse, the authorities will line up whole families and hang them by the neck until they are dead. I don’t want that to happen to our family, so I am praying that once they put me in prison, they will leave you and your mother alone.’” “‘However,’ and here he paused and made eye contact with us, ‘If I am in prison and I hear that my wife and my children have been hung to death rather than deny Jesus, I will be the most proud man in that prison!’” When he finished his story, I was stunned. I had never heard that kind of thing in my church growing up. I had never encountered that in my pilgrimage 2449
(From Chinese women, when asked how they became church planters)
“Once churches are planted, the leaders are often imprisoned,” they explained. “When those leaders are away, other people begin to lead. Sometimes, those leaders are taken to prison too. Every time, though, others rise up to take their place. We simply do what we have been trained to do; we take God’s Word and we share it. When people receive the message, new churches are started. That seems to be the way that God grows His church.” I was astounded by the clarity and simplicity of the strategy—and by their commitment to it. These women seemed completely uninterested in titles, positions, and formal structure. They were committed to sharing the story of Jesus; nothing else seemed to matter to them. 3446
John 8:31-32 ”If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
(From Chinese believers, on the meaning of “freedom”)
The security police regularly harass a believer who owns the property where a house-church meets. The police say, “You have got to stop these meetings! If you do not stop these meetings, we will confiscate your house, and we will throw you out into the street.” Then the property owner will probably respond, “Do you want my house? Do you want my farm? Well, if you do, then you need to talk to Jesus because I gave this property to Him.” The security police will not know what to make of that answer. So they will say, “We don’t have any way to get to Jesus, but we can certainly get to you! When we take your property, you and your family will have nowhere to live!” And the house-church believers will declare, “Then we will be free to trust God for shelter as well as for our daily bread.” “If you keep this up, we will beat you!” the persecutors will tell them. “Then we will be free to trust Jesus for healing,” the believers will respond. “And then we will put you in prison!” the police will threaten. By now, the believers’ response is almost predictable: “Then we will be free to preach the good news of Jesus to the captives, to set them free. We will be free to plant churches in prison.” “If you try to do that, we will kill you!” the frustrated authorities will vow. And, with utter consistency, the house-church believers will reply, “Then we will be free to go to heaven and be with Jesus forever.” 3534
1 John 4:17 As he is, so also are we in this world.
How many of us who strive to follow Jesus today have ever wished we could have witnessed firsthand the kind of spiritual adventures and the world-changing, resurrection-powered faith experienced by believers in the New Testament? I believe that we can—and we don’t need a time machine to do it. We need only to look and listen to our brothers and sisters who are faithfully living for Christ today in our world’s toughest places. . . . When Ruth and I first departed for Africa with our boys almost thirty years ago, I was a young, naïve Kentucky farm-boy who believed that God was sending us around the world on a great adventure to tell people who Jesus was and to explain what the Bible was all about. Today, I realize that God allowed us to go out into the world so we could find out who Jesus was from people who really knew Him and actually lived the Word of God. 4069
2 Corinthians 1:8-11 For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.
If we spend our lives so afraid of suffering, so averse to sacrifice, that we avoid even the risk of persecution or crucifixion, then we might never discover the true wonder, joy and power of a resurrection faith. 4140
(From a woman from a Muslim country after witnessing a public baptism in the US)
“I cannot believe this! I cannot believe that I have lived long enough to see people being baptized in public. An entire family together! No one is shooting at them, no one is threatening them, no one will go to prison, no one will be tortured, and no one will be killed. And they are being openly and freely baptized as a family! I never dreamed that God could do such things! I never believed that I would live to see a miracle like this.” 4291
Psalm 73:25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
Finally, a quote from another book on suffering that drives the challenge home:
If the foundation of our identity is anything less than God—if the thing that makes us who we are is a position in life, a certain relationship, a prestigious (if difficult to pronounce!) last name, money, you name it—then we will experience pain whenever and wherever that foundation is assaulted, as it inevitably will be. Our suffering will serve as an indication of how little we actually believe this good news, or at least an indicator of what we are building our life on and where we are looking for meaning. And when we lose something that we believed was crucial to our existence and value, maybe even something that we felt we deserved, when one of the load-bearing beams in the house that glory built collapses, we will become embittered or despondent. The truth is, suffering does not rob us of joy; idolatry does. But if our identity is anchored in Christ, so that we are able to say, “Everything I need I already possess in Him,” then suffering will drive us deeper into our source of joy. When theologians talk about God “imputing” His righteousness to us through the death and resurrection of Christ, this is what they mean: that our identity, and therefore our freedom, is not a matter of Why or How but Who. Our ultimate standing has been secured—from the outside—and nothing we may do or say can shake the foundations that were built two thousand years ago. We are freed to revel in our expendability! 1566, Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free by Tullian Tchividjian (David C. Cook, 2012).
(Reference numbers are Kindle locations in the ebook version.)