PRAYER’S OPENING PLEA

February 4, 2023

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. Psalm 25:1

Psalm 25:1 is not an easy thing to do. On occasion, in my daily devotions, I can climb the Delectable Mountains and see the Celestial City shimmering on the horizon. Too often, though, Isaiah has a better description of my devotional prayers to God—“… this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…” Too often my wildly imaginative, undisciplined mind flits hither and yon as I mouth familiar words. It is a mockery of our Holy God to lift our pleas to heaven with our minds bogged down in earthly mire. An ancient poet said, “In vain to heaven we lift our cries, and leave our souls behind.” My prayer closet is my predawn living room long before my bride arises and there is nary a single exterior distraction, but the devil with regularity launches a full frontal assault on my thoughts, and sometimes I can mouth amen and not remember what I just prayed.  I need Divine intervention to lift my soul to heaven and hold it there. I can no more lift my soul by my own power than I can stand in a bucket and lift myself by the handle. I’m trying to make this cry of my heart my focused opening petition:

O God,
In Jesus’ name I make my prayer,
Lift up my soul and hold it there. 
Its weighted down by worldly cares,
Unfettered pride and lustful snares.

Incline my will to seek your face,
Block carnal thoughts with your embrace.
Without your grace my case is dire.
My hope is in your mighty power.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

See you in church.

LISTEN TO THE STARS

January 29, 2023

Pictured is a collage of three zoom views of a tiny piece of the Andromeda Galaxy by the James Webb Space Telescope, a technological marvel, from its observation outpost a million miles from Earth. The farthest of countless stars the telescope can see are 13.6 billion light years away, and all are spinning through space at incomprehensible speeds and every one of them precisely choreographed. God-made them. God placed them. God named them (Psalm 147:4). If God “marked off the heavens with a span” (Isaiah 40:12), the distance between an outstretched tip of the thumb and little finger, then how big is God?

He tells us through the Psalmist in 19:1 “the heavens declare the glory of God” and “proclaim his handiwork” as “they pour out speech” and “reveal knowledge.” If you’re a “time and chance” religionist, you could try calculating the godless probabilities of this mind-boggling heavenly extravaganza and at the end of the day you’d still be 13.6 billion light years away from the truth. Best you listen to the stars and bow to reality and confess with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).


“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Psalm 19:1-4).

See you in church.

MAKE DISCIPLES

January 22, 2023

“Some men have a mind to go to h*** for company’s sake.” – Thomas Brooks 

Late one night a long time ago in an elegant home before a crackling fireplace on a hillside above San Francisco Bay, I was having an intense witnessing episode with an unsaved soul. He was a most amiable pagan and a longtime friend but a hard case. He replied, “If my father is in h*** then that’s where I want to go.” I had to fight off an urgent impulse to bolt from the room so as not to be caught in the frag pattern when God struck him dead with a lightning bolt. I have not heard anyone talk like that before or since, and I have not led a sheltered life.

I have memories of many intense moments in my life, but none that come to mind more often. I think it is because in the world today I see so many souls as tragically lost as he was … still is. My natural inclination is to take it personally, to think if only I were a better communicator, a more winsome witness….

Scripture makes it clear why otherwise intelligent folks cannot see the truth of God. Jesus told Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). Even the most self-sufficient pagan knows he had no control over his physical birth. Likewise he has no control over the spiritual rebirth that Jesus revealed to Nicodemus. Until a Sovereign God opens one’s eyes he cannot see the kingdom of God, even imagine it. So talk to God about the man before you talk to the man about God. And after. He’s the Prime Mover. You may not be able to get through to your unsaved loved one’s hard heart, but you can always get through to the Sovereign God who controls the next beat of it. Pray that God would give him a new heart and eyes to see his truth (Ezekiel 36:26). Persevere. Childless Hannah prayed to God for a son for the better part of her adult life. Monica prayed for her wayward son Augustine’s new heart for over 30 years. God answered both in his own perfect timing. Prayer is the best weapon a witness has and I will employ it on behalf of my friend as long as either of us has breath.

I have a mind, “for company’s sake,” to take as many souls to heaven with me as God allows.  Jesus’ last marching orders, as he ascended into heaven, were to “go therefore and make disciples….” If, God forbid, I show up at heaven’s gate and my after-action report claims none, nevertheless it will still show the battle scars and the covering blood of Christ that prompted my efforts, and that is the real entry fee. It’s paid by grace, not works—the latter, however imperfect, are the fruit of the former.   

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

See you in church.

A MIDWEEK MEME: A Morning Prayer

January 18, 2023

RADICAL UNCERTAINTY

January 15, 2023

I have an old friend, a retired very senior ranking military officer who spent the latter part of his career in the Pentagon planning division, assessing risks to America’s freedom and designing contingency war plans for dealing with them. It’s a critical job—there are more risks to America’s freedom than you have ever imagined. We stay in touch at a minimum around Christmas time and in this year’s conversation he said, “JD, we are living in radically uncertain times.” It certainly confirmed my feelings, and in jolting fashion. “Radical uncertainty” is Department of Defense talk for “unknown unknowns”—unknowns in our future that we don’t even know that we don’t know, the most dangerous kind. 9/11 was an unknown unknown until tragedy struck. Coming from a man more in the know about the dangers in this smoldering planet than anyone of my acquaintance, it has provoked considerable sober reflection on my part.

The unchanging bottom line of my reflection is that there is no uncertainty of any kind in the mind of our Sovereign God, who foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, but he has not endowed his creatures with foreknowledge. He can see the future, which he ordained before the world began, but we cannot. Life is uncertain to us. The antidote for those in Christ is the gift of faith that we reside securely in the palm of his hand (John 10:28) throughout this brief uncertain (to us) life. The life to come is wonderful beyond comprehension and everlasting, in the presence of the One who suffered and died for us that we might live in his presence forever.

Life was radically uncertain when a world of rampant evil felt the first ever drops of rain, but Noah had faith.  It was radically uncertain when Moses and all Israel stood on the bank of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army bearing down on them, but Moses had faith. Panic and radical uncertainty consumed the young man with Elisha when they were surrounded by the enemy, until the Lord opened his eyes and he saw “… the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17).

Jesus said he “…is coming [again, as Judge] at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:42). In the last chapter of his Word he said, “I am coming soon.” Jesus’ promise is a certainty, the timing he declared to be uncertain to us, but it’s a “known unknown.” Each passing day brings us one day closer, each beat of the heart, each breath. On that promised day Jesus will abolish all uncertainty, radical and otherwise: Sheep on his right, goats on his left. (Matthew 35:33)

Until then we live by faith in the certainty of God’s known promises:

“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). “Be anxious for nothing … the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). “I will fear no evil, for you are with me …” (Psalm 23:4).

See you in church.

HARD QUESTIONS

January 7, 2023

A passionate young preacher at our church had this to say last Sunday: “I am Presbyterian to my bones. We are called the Frozen Chosen. It’s much more about the frozen than the chosen. I’ll say that.”

It was not so much a theological statement as an astute observation of the state of Presbyterians who sit frozen in the pews while our “apostate Christian culture” gains momentum in its downhill slide. It actually applies on a national, even global scale. To borrow a political acronym, there are too many CINO’s—Christians in name only. And there are too many Christians huddled in Benedict Option enclaves just trying to survive with their faith intact as godlessness runs rampant through the culture.

Rod Dreher’s best seller with that title a few years ago was absolutely prophetic in hindsight. A key aspect of Benedict’s survival method in the dark ages was monks who were out among society during the day, returning to the refuge of the monastery at the end of the day for rest, refreshment mutual support and corporate worship. A gospel-preaching church today can provide a semblance of the refuge, but the modern dilemma is a God-mocking working culture that increasingly demands accommodation, whose hatred of Christians is merely stoked by a “winsome witness.” Such can cost you a job, and God’s Word quoted in the public square can be adjudicated hate speech. Two days before Christmas a pro-life activist was arrested for silently praying outside a UK abortion clinic—a “thought crime.”

In my working years I had a large picture of an F-15 going straight up framed on my office wall and at the bottom were the words “they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” It meant nothing to anyone who did not know the rest of that powerful truth. If a client fixed his gaze on it for more than two seconds, he heard the rest of it from me: “…  but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31). That could get me fired today. Nonetheless it’s eternal truth.

Nonetheless the Light of the World shined in extraordinary fashion in the midst of catastrophe this past week, as sportscaster Dan Orlovsky laid a seven-figure salary on the line and extemporaneously, passionately prayed to God for the life of a football player, whose heart stopped twice on the field, before millions of TV viewers. God put some beautiful words on his lips. Thus far he has kept his job and been widely praised for his courage, a role model for all beleaguered Christians. Three days later the stricken player, Damar Hamlin, posted from ICU on social media, “The love has been overwhelming … keep praying for me.” Our Sovereign God reigns!

Jesus’ last words on this planet were “Go ye therefore …,” (Matthew 18:19) not “hunker down and weather the storm.” The disciples and the Apostle Paul took Jesus at his word in tougher times than we have known, and to world changing success, but at great, even ultimate cost, the first of a long line of Christian martyrs. This year of our Lord 2023 will be a year to try men’s souls. Jesus said, “ … whoever denies me, I also will deny before my father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). Would you deny Christ and forfeit eternal life to keep your job? To avoid incarceration? Would you stand with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3:16-18) or opt for the deferred fiery pit forever? Are you prepared to be a martyr for Christ? Do you dare NOT? 

Keep praying, put on the whole armor of God and stand, Christian. Victory looms. Eternal glory with our Lord and Savior is guaranteed.

“I launch my bark on the unknown waters of this year with thee, O Father, as my harbor, thee O Son, at my helm, thee O Holy Spirit, filling my sails. Guide me to heaven with my loins girt, my lamp burning, my ear open to thy calls, my heart full of love, my soul free.” (Puritan prayer from the Valley of Vision)

See you in church.

WITNESS

December 31, 2022

I suppose you could call this an obit for a fighter pilot not yet dead, though my old associates are “flying West” in increasing numbers. Like Marines, once…always…, a short, intense chapter early in life has a profound effect on all the rest. It’s been said fighter pilots are capable of such things as love and affection and caring but they rarely involve anyone else. I confess humility is a lifelong challenge, but God can humble the haughtiest heart. To wit,

Our Sovereign God took a brash, badass young fighter pilot, led him into the wilderness of the business world for 32 years, there to duel with dragons on Wall Street, LaSalle Street and Threadneedle Street, then up the mountain and molded him into a lowly gatekeeper in his wilderness tabernacle at Ridge Haven, the Presbyterian (PCA) Camp and Conference Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC. In God’s amazing grace I began my working life flying high and ended it flying even higher with two feet—sometimes two knees—on the ground. Twenty years on and my flight plan, filed before the world began, calls for higher still. There remains one glorious victory roll “up the long delirious burning blue” in formation with angels—heavenbound. The Wall Street Journal ran my witness at the 59-year waypoint on its op-ed page 20 years ago next Tuesday:

A  DIFFERENT SORT OF RETIREMENT

Brevard, NC. My first chore of the day, after rolling out of bed in the most humble abode I’ve ever called home, requires a broom handle with a spike mounted on the end of it, the better to spear any detritus of humanity that defiles my hallowed habitat. The last is checking lights out, doors locked and the gate closed.

How did it come to this—an MBA with Latin superlatives, a combat veteran and Top Gun fighter pilot, CFO and CEO, at age 59, laboring in such a setting?

I asked for it, agreeing to live in the small, endearingly seedy older home that was provided, perched on a steep mountainside in deep woods, and even offering to forgo a salary.

After 22 years as a Northern expatriate on the Suncoast of Florida, I thought I had the best that this life could offer. My wife and I were hooked on sunshine and immersed in the life of our little Presbyterian church in a pasture north of Tampa. The nest was blissfully empty and grandfatherhood fit like my favorite codger hat. A partnership and an enlightened employment policy at my firm, combined with the marvels of modern technology, were allowing me an extended transition into retirement from a home office. Our cup overflowed . . . and yet there was a nagging restlessness in the soul.

One evening in the spring of 2001, I was casually perusing the classified ads in a magazine. “Wanted: Retiree for resident manager position at Ridge Haven,” the Presbyterian Church in America’s Retreat and Conference Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. I read it aloud to my resolutely change-averse bride of 35 years. She shocked me with, “Cool!” That’s all I needed.

I applied and was invited for an interview. We were enthralled by the splendor of this wilderness tabernacle—900 acres of beautiful rustic retreat for 400 guests in a near-rainforest mountainside setting. The folks who staff it exude a contagious joy in their work. It seemed like a wonderful way, after a lifetime of selfish getting, to spend the rest of our days in grateful giving, honoring the author of this abundant life. And so it is.

The new work is less arduous than its title implies, just part-time off-hours and weekend basic guest services for the people who come for “rest, refuge and renewal and nurturing in the truth of God’s Word,” as Ridge Haven’s mission statement reads.

Servanthood in this lush vineyard is richly rewarding. I’m making new friends every week, a blessing indeed that is enlarging my territory in the manner of Jabez. At day’s end, I ruminate in a back porch rocker, absorbed in the sublime babble of a mountain stream on warm days, a wood fire when it’s cold, consumed by a feeling the hymn writer called peace like a river.

As to that spiked broom-handle, it’s my scepter as self-appointed keeper-of-the-pristine in this higher realm. I carry it on my sunrise devotional as I walk a narrow road of exhilarating humus-cushioned hiking paths through a towering cathedral of maple, oak, pine and spruce. Scattered about are brilliant-colored remnants of the high sacred season just past, when the divine artist repaints the cathedral in fluorescent fall colors.

Some mornings the blue sky is so radiant that I squint as I look up at it through the jagged interstices of denuded branches. The avian choir in the spires joyfully sings the Gloria Patria in fortissimo. Other mornings the blue is pale and soft and soggy, shrouding the treetops in silence like the Old Testament glory cloud descended to consecrate this most holy place. Then only the hushed applause of water molecules splashing down the mountainside reminds me that I have ears to hear.

On the sanctuary floor a multitude of evergreen rhododendrons, mountain laurel and holly congregate so closely that the heavenly host could whisper hosannas in my ear without my seeing them. And the rarefied, rain-scrubbed, pine-scented air I inhale is so intoxicating that it must be the Lord’s own mountain-cooled breath of life.

If my 17th-century role model, Brother Lawrence, author of that classic gem on servanthood, “The Practice of the Presence of God,” could attend my house of worship, he would find that enjoying the presence of God requires no practice at all.

***

“The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).

See you in church.

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THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD

December 25, 2022

Christmas is not about the tree or the trinkets or the brightly wrapped toys and treasures heaped under it. The Light of the World supersedes all of that. The Son of God is the Light of the World whose arrival was announced by the Star of Bethlehem. Why did the Son of God come to Earth? In his own words, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:38–40).

God the Father’s will always wins. God the Son will at the last day raise up all who are given him by the Father, all those he came to die for that first Christmas, and lose not one from that group. If you are among “…all that he has given me,” you have received the most valuable Christmas present of all, and you cannot ever lose it or wear it out. Can you even begin to comprehend such a rapturous reality? That is the joy of Christmas, and Jesus promised “No one will take away your joy.”

Dear Lord, may our Facebook friends know that joy this Christmas. In our precious Savior’s name we pray. Amen.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

See you in church

O HOLY NIGHT

December 24, 2022

O HOLY NIGHT

It was dark as the inside of a goat. The sheep were restless in their stone corral for the night. The shepherds pulling second watch noticed it and were alert for predators as everyone else tossed and turned in their bedrolls on the ground. All of a sudden a light brighter than the midday sun switched on and every breathing creature in the area bolted upright onto his feet. Doc Luke tells it best: An angel appeared before their eyes and they were terrified. In a calm but commanding voice the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” He no more got the words out of his mouth and a choir of 1000 voices began to sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” In the next instant they were gone and it was dark again and the only sound was dumbstruck shepherds hyperventilating. Amos, the informal leader of the group was the first to speak. He said, “Hey man, I think that was God talking and I think we need to go into town and check it out.” And … well you know the rest of the story. The Son of the living God who created heaven and earth had just launched the greatest rescue mission in the history of the world by being born of a virgin peasant girl amid the animals in a barn, and the people to see him after mom and dad were the dregs of society. Thirty or so years later he died hanging naked from a cross at the city dump, only to rise from the dead three days later. And by this he ransomed sinners from hell. You just can’t make this stuff up. What…kind…of…love…is … this? He promised he’d be back and everyone will know it this time. Do yourself an eternal favor and take him at his word … and let your weary soul rejoice this Holy Night.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

PEACE ON EARTH

December 23, 2022

Taken at face value this Christmas slogan, so popular in carols and cards, is a fanciful wish. There has hardly been a moment’s peace in this fallen world in the two millennia since the heavenly host sang these words. As in all things biblical, context is key. The sentence in Luke 2:14 from which the slogan is likely derived reads, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). The “peace” is peace with God. We are sinners in the hands of an angry God, as Jonathan Edwards so graphically preached, born sinners under the curse in the Garden, and are far from peace with our Maker. But while we were yet sinners the Son of God, whose incarnation we celebrate this season, bought peace with God for “those with whom he is pleased” by sacrificing himself on the cross in atonement for our sins. That is why he came that holy night so long ago. The carol writer said it well, “peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” It’s the most important peace any man could have. This Christmas, amid the strife of this crumbling culture, do you know this gift of peace that passes all understanding? Are you numbered among those with whom he is pleased? 

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’” (Luke 2:13-14)


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