Trembling at The Door

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Photo by Ingo Joseph on Pexels.com

One of the common stereotypes of preaching is that a sermon must have “Three points, a poem and a prayer.” Another is that a sermon should always begin with a joke—I guess that is to disarm people and make them think the dreaded message may not be so bad after all.

My sermons rarely include jokes or poems. Once in a while, however, there’s a poem that is, itself, a sermon. George Herbert’s poem, Love (III), is such a poem. When I heard it presented as an anthem by our wonderful choir recently, I felt compelled to spend time reflecting on it.

Herbert (1593-1633) served as a tutor at Cambridge University and as a parish minister in the Church of England at Bremerton St. Andrew, near Salisbury. He died from tuberculosis at age 39. The poem Love (III) is part of his anthology The Temple. While I’d love to share more about this fascinating pastor-poet and his superb compilation of devotional poetry (highly acclaimed by the likes of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden), let’s move right into this poem.

Just a few preparatory comments, then I’ll let the poem speak for itself. It helps me to picture the human narrator (listen also for the Lord speaking) as one overwhelmed by unworthiness. The unworthiness of having failed in faith and faithfulness. Shame in simply being all-too-human is mixed with regret and fear and the (un)belief that the Lord could or would never really want anything to do with her or him.

Love (III)
By George Herbert

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
     From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
     If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
     Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
     I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
     Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
     Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
     My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
     So I did sit and eat.

It’s sound corny, but there is a sweetness here, a gracious kindness, that melts all resistance. This is a portrait of love expressed not because of the worthiness of the person, but because of the greatness of the Lover.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12: 32 NIV).

Read this poem a few times.  Soak in it. Marinate. See it “play out” at the front door of a glorious mansion: You’ve just walked a very long, stately, tree-shaded driveway through magnificent grounds. The drive ends with a mansion that cannot be seen in its entirety without turning your head from side to side (Louis XIV’s Versailles palace comes to mind). With great hesitation you approach the door—and it opens while you are still debating whether or not to knock. It’s the Owner of the mansion (not the butler) who greets you. You stare in awe and then look down on your filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Every fiber of your being wants to run back down the long driveway…

Then the Owner grips you with a word. Welcome. As you are. Welcome. For Love’s greatest joy is showing love.

But God Believes In Us

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Doubt is a part the faith experience, including doubts about ourselves. There’s One, however, who truly believes in us.

Martha, a salty saint in our congregation, came to my study on a Monday morning following a sermon in which I had said, “The most amazing truth is not that we believe in God, but that God believes in us!”

“You really got me thinking yesterday,” Martha said, peeking in my door. I invited her to come in. “I realize my greatest doubts are not about God, but about me! I love God with all my heart–but I sure have problems with myself! I wrote this poem last night for you.  I tried to tell you what I mean.”

Then this wonderful woman, who had celebrated her eightieth birthday some time ago, gave me a poem that sets our quest in perspective.

Thomas and I

Thomas knew you well, noting small things…

    The contour of your beard, your sudden laugh,

            The gentle hands, the way your eyes caught fire

            At the desecration of a temple or a life.

            He more than most

            Echoed your fervor when he prayed, “Thy Kingdom come.”

            Yet Thomas doubted.

            Not you! It was himself he disbelieved

            And his companions, fearing their anguished need

            Induced illusions. You did not rail at him,

            But gently, with a smile exposed your wounds

            For added certainty of touch as he had asked.

            Lest I confuse my aching wants with your commands

            Show me your hands.

Martha has now seen the Lord’s hands, having gone to be with him just months after writing these wise words. I am so thankful that she shared her counsel with me. She sets us on the right track.

As we journey on the quest of faith, we are invited to lay aside doubt, including our doubt of ourselves: of our motives, of our abilities, of the distraction of past failed attempts and the anxiety of future expectations.  Just take the next step–that’s what matters now.

[NOTE: This poem by Martha Wynne is shared with the kind permission of Martha’s children Ms. Pat Wynne and Mr. Robert Wynne. Originally presented in Douglas J. Rumford, Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, Wheaton, Il: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998, pages 284, 285.]

If Angels Could Envy

 

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I have been fascinated by the thought that our faith, in and of itself, glorifies God. This shouldn’t surprise us when we think about the way a person’s faith in us expresses affirmation and inspires our best effort. When someone says, “I know you can handle this,” that faith itself energizes us.

The rest of the “spiritual world” — angels and the “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12)– knows “by experience” the reality of God. James affirms that even the demons believe. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19 RSV).

We alone, humanity created in God’s image, experience God by faith. We alone “walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Why? I think it is, in part, to glorify God in the eyes of the rest of the spiritual world. When the angels see our faith, they give glory to God. When the powers of darkness see our faith, they are baffled and discouraged. Our trust now honors God in a way unlike those who experience God “directly” in the spiritual world.

The first seeds of this thought were planted by a quote from Forbes Robinson in a book I often read for soul nourishment. It’s advice to a young pastor that easily applies to all of Jesus’ followers.

I think I have told you of my father’s words spoken during his last illness: “If I had a thousand lives I would give them all, all to the ministry.” You will not regret your decision.  If angels could envy, how they would envy us our splendid chance, to be able, in a world where everything unseen must be taken on sheer faith, in a world where the contest between the flesh and the spirit is being decided for the universe, not only to win the battle ourselves but also to win it for others!  To help a brother [or sister] up the mountain while you yourself are only just able to keep your foothold, to struggle through the mist together, that surely is better than to stand at the summit and beckon.

Forbes Robinson quoted in John W. Doberstein, Minister’s Prayer Book (Philadelphia, PA, Fortress Press, 1986), 203-04.

Jesus affirmed this in his post-resurrection encounter with “doubting Thomas”:

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:27-29 RSV).

So what? Glorifying God is more than praise and worship. We glorify and honor God when we show the world that God is able to do more than we could ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20-21).

I am learning to say to myself over and over again, “God’s got this.”

Worried about your job? “God’s got this.”

Concerned about your future? “God’s got this.”

Caught in a conflict? “God’s got this.”

Waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for an answer to your prayer? “God’s got this.”

Faith is not simply what you believe. It is believing now, trusting now, resting confidently on God’s grace and wisdom and ultimate goodness now.

So here’s a prayer to awaken your faith, “Lord, help me bring glory to you by trusting you now. You got this! Amen!”

 

 

How can I know God cares?

Bedford Baptist Church
First Baptist Church of Bedford, Massachusetts

I think most of us have a hard time believing God really cares, really loves us, and is really watching what goes on in our lives. Then you have one of those experiences that makes it clear.

During my first two years of seminary I served as an intern at First Baptist Church in Bedford, Massachusetts. Of the many special people there, Paul and Elsa had become dear friends. They were a couple in their early sixties who knew and shared the joy of the Lord. Paul was a school teacher and Elsa was a nurse who worked in order to provide the financial means necessary to care for their developmentally-disabled grown daughter.

On my last day there Paul and Elsa arrived early, before the evening service. They asked to speak to Sarah and me privately. They shared how much they had enjoyed our two years with their congregation. They handed us a card but said, “Now before you open it, we need to tell a story.”

“Elsa and I have been praying for you two daily for the past few weeks,” began Paul. “One morning the Lord impressed on my heart that we were to give you something special. I was a bit surprised by what he seemed to want, but I prayed about it and decided to talk it over with Elsa.”

“What Paul didn’t know,” chimed in Elsa, with a sparkle in her eyes, “was that the Lord was saying the same thing to me.”

When they discussed it together they were pleasantly surprised to find that God had put the same idea on the their hearts at the same time!

“God wants you to have this! So go ahead and open the card!”

I opened it, and out fell a check.

“We had each written down the amount the Lord told us on a piece of paper, traded papers and opened them at the same time— and it was the same amount.”

It was a check for $500! From this dear couple who had little “extra” to share.

“We felt the Lord wanted you to have this as you start your family.”

I was speechless. Sarah and I both were moved to tears. How could Paul and Elsa have known that we had been praying about starting our family? The gift of money itself was amazing, but their sense of the purpose for the money showed God’s care in a way I had never seen it before. The Lord moved through others to supply a need we hadn’t shared with another soul. (I told this story in my book Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1988, p. 234-235.)

I have never been able to share that story without tears welling up in my eyes. God is so good. Worry denies or distracts us from the evidence that God takes care of us every single day– even if we don’t notice it.

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:31-33 NLT).

The Lord used Paul and Elsa to convince us, as we stood poised on the brink of ministry, that he literally knows our needs before we even ask him. Bless the Lord– and bless his people who listen and are part of his provision.

“For we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7 NIV)

Now some of you may not have a dramatic story like this to share. Or it could be that you may have forgotten that time (or those times) God truly showed his grace and mercy. We walk by faith, not by sight—but always watch to see God’s hand at work. When God works, write it down in your journal—and go back to it often to fuel your faith and gratitude.

 

Billy Graham’s Doubts

Doug & Billy Graham
Meeting with Dr. Graham in Kansas City in 2004

The death of Dr. Billy Graham brought back some very special memories for me. Dr. Graham handed me my diploma at graduation from Gordon-Conwell Seminary. Then, over 25 years later, I had the privilege of being part of the pastors’ invitation team for Billy’s final full crusade in Kansas City, at Arrowhead Stadium, October 7-10, 2004. More on that in a moment.

First, let me share a story that has had a powerful impact on me about how he handled his personal doubts and misgivings about God’s Word. Billy described this situation in an article in the very first issue of the magazine he helped found, Christianity Today, published on October 15, 1956. Here is a portion of it (reprinted in Christianity Today, October 22, 1976) in his own words:

In 1949 I had been having a great many doubts concerning the Bible. I thought I saw apparent contradictions in Scripture. Some things I could not reconcile with my restricted concept of God. When I stood up to preach, the authoritative note so characteristic of all great preachers of the past was lacking. Like hundreds of other young seminary students, I was waging the intellectual battle of my life. The outcome could certainly affect my future ministry.

In August of that year I had been invited to Forest Home, a Presbyterian conference center high in the mountains outside Los Angeles. I remember walking down a trail, tramping into the woods, and almost wrestling with God. I dueled with my doubts, and my soul seemed to be caught in the crossfire. Finally, in desperation, I surrendered my will to the living God revealed in Scripture. I knelt before the open Bible and said: “Lord, many things in this Book I do not understand. But thou hast said, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ All I have received from thee, I have taken by faith. Here and now, by faith, I accept the Bible as thy Word. I take it all. I take it without reservations. Where there are things I cannot understand, I will reserve judgment until I receive more light. If this pleases thee, give me authority as I proclaim thy Word, and through that authority convict me of sin and turn sinners to the Savior.”

Within six weeks we started our Los Angeles crusade, which is now history. During that crusade I discovered the secret that changed my ministry. I stopped trying to prove that the Bible was true. I had settled in my own mind that it was, and this faith was conveyed to the audience. Over and over again I found myself saying, “The Bible says….”  I felt as though I were merely a voice through which the Holy Spirit was speaking.

Authority created faith. Faith generated response, and hundreds of people were impelled to come to Christ. A crusade scheduled for three weeks lengthened into eight weeks, with hundreds of thousands of people in attendance. The people were not coming to hear great oratory, nor were they interested merely in my ideas. I found they were desperately hungry to hear what God had to say through his Holy Word.

I saw that faith demonstrated at the 2004 Kansas City Crusade when I sat on the platform with Dr. Graham. What I remember most is how frail he seemed—until he stepped up to preach. At that moment, he was 30 years younger! It was like he grew in size and energy—like going from a lamb to a lion. And then, when he completed his message and invitation, he was back to the lamb.

For the word of God is alive and active” Hebrews 4:12 (NIV)

God’s Word is Living and Active—in more ways that we can imagine. Thank you, Dr. Graham, for being a witness to that. Glory to God.