My Bibles

About a month ago my wife and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary.  It has been my practice to follow the "traditional" anniversary gifts for my gifts to her.  This means that for our 15th anniversary I got her a crystal vase with our names engraved into it.  It was very nice, if I do say so myself.  

But then, on the way to meet her at the restaurant to celebrate, I dropped the vase on the concrete sidewalk and it broke into a million pieces.  So much for that.  

My anniversary gift for my wife didn't work out, but she got me a gift too: a new Bible.  It's a compact, yet large print, ESV Bible with my wife's nickname for me ("Hubbz") imprinted in gold on the front cover.  I was excited to receive it, and immediately moved my previous "go-to" Bible from its spot on my desk to a retirement position on my bookshelf.  It had gotten worn out over the past 10 years or so that I've had it, and it was time for a new one anyway.  

That got me to thinking about the Bibles I've owned through different seasons of my life, all of which I still have in my possession.  Each one of those Bibles tells a story about my life at the time I was using it.  

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The first Bible I ever wanted for myself was a King James Version.  For some reason I don't recall, my friend and I were fascinated with the old-times feel of King James english so I asked my mom to get me a copy, and she did.  I was probably about 12 years old at the time.  It was a large print King James, with the words of Christ in red (which I don't recommend).  At the time I got this Bible, I wasn't a Christian, and the King James english proved to be more challenging than I thought it would be.  This Bible is still in great shape because it was almost never read.  

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The second Bible I remember having was given to me at some point in time when I was a teenager.  I don't remember who or why it was given to me, but it was.  This one was a NIV Student Bible.  Inside of this Bible are little explanatory notes that help the reader understand the context of scripture.  This is a special Bible to me.  In high school, I used to bring this Bible with me to school and place it on the top of the chest-high lockers in the school and read it before class started in the mornings.  As you can see from the picture, there are plenty of teenage indicators on the Bible: stickers, duct tape, and lots of highlighting and underlining and drawings in the margins (I don't highlight or underline anything in my Bibles anymore - you can, but it's not something that helps me).  This Bible is also special to me because it is the Bible I used when I read the Bible from cover to cover for the first time in my life.  According to a note I put in the margin, I finished my first read-through on August 4, 2002.  This Bible - by far - is the most-used one I've ever owned.  It went with me through my teenage years and also through college, and its pages are stuffed with notes, cards, and other mementos from that time in my life. 

After I got married, I bought my next Bible: a New King James Version of the John MacArthur Study Bible.  This Bible got me through my first years of vocational ministry, and helped me immensely as a budding preacher in his mid-twenties.  MacArthur's commentary is wonderful, and the New King James translation is solid.  One of the significant factors of this Bible was the price tag, a hefty $70.00, which was a big deal for a newly married couple.  I remember that when I got home with it, I plopped into a hammock we had hanging outside and began to read.  These days the cover is frayed and torn a bit, and the bookmark was somehow cut off, but overall, it's still in good shape.  

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My next regular Bible is the one that I've just retired.  I've been using it regularly for about 10 years or so.  This is the Bible that could tell the most stories about ministry.  It's been to hospital rooms, to the bedside of the sick and dying, in broken homes, and and through many counseling sessions.  As I said earlier, I don't like to write in my Bibles, but this Bible has some writing in it.  But the writing all has to do with counseling sessions I've used it in.  If there is something underlined or written in it, it was done in order to show someone else what it was saying.  One of my favorite things about this Bible is the single-column text, which seems to be a rarity in Bibles these days.  I really love having the text in a single column for some reason.  I think it makes it easier to read.  There are some torn pages, and as you can see in the picture, the cover is well worn.  

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Finally, here's the new Bible my wife got me as an anniversary present.  It's a compact, large print (as large as it can be for a compact size, at least) ESV.  At this moment it is sitting on the corner of my desk, ready for use at a moment's notice.  Who knows where I'll go with it, or where it will take me.  Just as God used and directed my use of his word in and throughout the seasons of my life, I know that he will do so again as I look to the future of studying and applying his word.  Truly, there is no greater gift than a new Bible.  

The Healing Power of Lament

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It's hard for us to admit that things aren't going well in our lives.  When we see a friend or neighbor, they ask, "How's it going?" and we instinctively answer "Great!" without giving it a moment's thought, even if things in our lives aren't actually that great.  There's an unspoken cultural pressure for us to put on a front that our lives are happy, successful, and fun. 

But often that's just not the case. 

One of the common themes we see throughout the pages of scripture is that of lament.  A lament is an emotional and visceral response to the often sad state of reality in our lives.  Of the 150 psalms in the Bible, dozens of them are classified as "lament psalms," in which the author of the psalm mourns the ever present reality of living in a fallen world where difficult things happen.  The author asks big questions, like "Why did this bad thing happen, God?" and "Do you even still love me?  Do you care about me?  Are you really watching over me?  Because sometimes it doesn't seem like it."  In our society (and especially in the church) there's an unspoken pressure to come off as a happy, successful, fulfilled person, in which there isn't much room for lament.

But the reality is that bad things do happen, and we do have big questions about life and God and how he orders things because, sometimes, it just seems unfair and even malicious.  I was visited by a friend recently and he expressed to me that he was questioning God's love for him, because lately in his life, it sure didn't seem like God actually did love him.  He had been through the wringer, to put it mildly, and he was lamenting his circumstances.  He was lamenting that it seemed like God's love had been cut off from him, and that God's mercies weren't actually new every morning, as scripture says.  It was a difficult conversation, but I was so glad that he felt able to come and express these feelings to me.  Even though we all have questions and feelings like these, I think it's common for most of us to bottle them up and put on our happy face (especially when we go to church) and pretend that everything is great.  Lament allows us to put down our guard, admit that the smile we put on when we come to church is phony, to be open and honest with each other and with God. 

We need to make room in our Christian lives for lament, because when we lament we ask good and deep questions about God and life.  Some people are afraid of asking those hard questions, because they feel that to ask them is to expose doubts in their hearts.  But the writers of scripture knew that God was big enough to handle their questions, their complaints, and even their doubts, and so they laid them all before God.  We should learn to do the same.  And in the process, we will discover that lament can be a healthy and even healing thing in our lives because, when we ask deep questions, we find satisfying answers in God's word. 

A year or so ago, my friend Pam died of cancer.  She had been diagnosed a year previous, and went through the usual treatments and the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy.  She was miserable.  About a week before she passed away, she told me she had some questions for me and would like to talk, so I went to see her.  As we talked, she very honestly lamented to me, "Why me?  Why did God give me this cancer?" 

Have you ever been asked that question?  It's not an easy one to answer. 

All I could do was reaffirm to her what scripture tells us: We don't know the exact reason why God does what he does, but the Bible tells us that he is wise, kind and good.  It tells us that he watches over us, both in our best times and in our worst times.  It tells us that he cares for us, and he uses all things - even cancer - to make us more like Jesus. 

Pam rejoiced and found peace in this answer.  To be clear, this wasn't my answer to her question, but it was the answer that God gives us through his word.  And in this answer, Pam found her hope.  She had lamented that it seemed that God was far from her, but in turning to scripture she could stand firm on the truth, even in the face of death.  We ended our visit together by singing her favorite worship song, "He Will Hold Me Fast," which she sang loudly and with a newfound confidence in her God.  A confidence which she may not have had, had she not brought before the Lord her lament.  We need to make room in our Christian lives for this kind of lament because it can lead us to truth and healing. 

My favorite biblical example of the healing power of lament is in Psalm 77.  The first nine verses of this psalm are the author's lament.  In these verses he says things like, "I remembered you, God, and I groaned" (wow!), and "Will the Lord reject forever?  Will he never show his favor again?" and "Has God forgotten to be merciful?"  Those are pretty serious complaints.  Obviously the author of this psalm has been through something difficult, and he feels that God just simply doesn't care.  And so he honestly, openly, offers his lament. 

But the psalm doesn't end there.  The psalmist's lament leads him to the healing truth of the testimony of what God has done.  In response to the deep and significant questions the psalmist has about life and God, he turns to the record of the testimony of what God has done: "Then I thought, 'To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.  I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.  I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.'  Your ways, God are holy.  What god is as great as our God?  You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples." 

The answer to the psalmist's deep questions was the truth of God's word.  The healing to his pain came in the knowledge of what God has said and done throughout history, and the faith that he would act again. 

It's OK to be sad.  It's OK to have questions.  It's OK to be angry (as long as your anger doesn't lead you into sin).  It's OK to lament.  And not only is it OK, but it's a good and healthy Christian practice.  So make room in your Christian life to lament.  Maybe the next time someone asks you how you're doing, instead of the usual "Great!" answer you can lament, and use that as a way to be a witness of how God has been working in your life.  Or maybe instead of wearing the typical "Perfect Christian Smile" the next time you go to church, share about the difficulties you've been struggling with.  Lament.  And be healed.

Top 10 List

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This morning I participated in the graveside service of a spiritual giant in my life.  Virginia Ahlquist was a member at Riverview for decades and had a significant impact in my life.  In fact, as I said at her funeral service, of all the people in my life who have had an impact on me spiritually, Virginia would be high on my top 10 list.  No, we didn't have a special or even particularly close relationship, although I've known her all my life.  And no, I can't point to one single event or or dramatic experience in which Virginia was the difference maker or proclaimed to me some deep spiritual revelation.  Rather, it was in the ordinary ways that she served God that had such a monumental impact on my life and, I believe, my eternal destiny.

Although I grew up in the church and made a public profession of faith at the age of nine, I don't believe I actually came to genuine faith until later in my teenage years.  I can't pinpoint the day or time of my conversion as some people can.  Instead, I can point you to a season in my life in which I believe God saved me.  It wasn't dramatic, and there weren't any bright lights or voices from heaven.  It was a process over a long period of time.  But that process actually began much earlier in my life. 

I grew up at Riverview, and as such, I still go to church with people who taught my Sunday School classes when I was a child.  Virginia was one of those teachers - a fact that she reminded me of almost every week she was at church during my tenure as Senior Pastor.  Each week I shake hands with people as they exited the sanctuary, and whenever it was Virginia's turn to shake hands, she'd do so, look at me, and say, "My little first grader!"  She said this because I was one of her first grade Sunday School students (or maybe it was kindergarten - or both!  I don't recall).  I think it was special for her to see one of her old Sunday School students serve as the pastor of her church, and it was special to me to serve one of my old Sunday School teachers from 30 years ago. 

And that's mostly it.  Like I said, Virginia's influence in my life - from an outsider's perspective - would have seemed rather minimal.  Sure, she was my Sunday School teacher as a child, but we never had an exceptionally close relationship.  The reason I mark her as having such a monumental impact on my spiritual life is that it was the biblical foundation laid by her and others when I was young that God ultimately used to bring me to faith.

Even though I grew up in the church, I was rebellious, and I was really good at hiding it.  I'd put on one face for church, and another face for other interactions.  Most people thought I was a good kid, and I suppose that by some metrics I was.  But I, like most, had periods of deep rebellion.  And regardless of how things looked on the outside, on the inside I was lost.  I was at enmity with God.  I was bound for hell.

But in the midst of rebellious activity that I set my hand to before my conversion, there was always an inner voice that was appealing to the biblical foundation that had been laid in my childhood.  The Spirit used what so many faithful volunteers and teachers had put into my mind to convict me that what I was doing was wrong, that I knew better, and most importantly, I knew the truth: that I needed a Savior who could save me from my sin.  When I eventually listened to that conviction and began to act upon it, it was the biblical foundation that Virginia and others had laid that God used to bring me to salvation.  Where would I be had Virginia not invested in teaching me the foundations of the Christian faith so many years ago?  God only knows.

For this reason, I rank Virginia rather highly on my top 10 list of people who have had a significant spiritual impact on my life.  I'm sure that when Virginia said "Yes" to being a volunteer first grade Sunday School teacher, she probably had no conception of the monumental and eternity altering impact it would have on the young children she would be teaching.  Rather, she probably thought that it was something simple that she could do to use her time and talents to serve the Lord and glorify God.  But that's the point: God takes our simple acts of obedience (like teaching first grade Sunday School) and magnifies them into salvation-building events that change the course of eternity.  I praise God for the life and ministry of Virginia Ahlquist.  We don't often think of first grade Sunday School teachers as being world-changers, but Virginia certainly was. 

The testimony of Virginia's simple acts of obedience provide all of us with a wonderful example to follow.  God doesn't need us to be dynamic preachers, to have international appeal or reach, to have limitless funding for ministry initiatives, or anything else.  All he needs is for us to say "Yes" when he calls us to do something.  The reality is that God probably won't call you to some dynamic international preaching ministry that will affect the hearts of millions.  But God probably will call you to do something small, something simple, and something ordinary.  And if you will say "Yes," to that small thing, God can and will do amazing things with your willingness to obey. 

In what small way could God use your obedience to potentially change the eternity of someone else? Maybe, like Virginia, you could teach a Sunday School class.  Providentially, Virginia's husband, Al, who passed away several years ago, also occupies a spot on my top 10 list.  He was never a Sunday School teacher of mine, but when I was a teenager he offered to simply hang out with a group of boys from our youth group once a week during the school year.  Those times spent with him were deeply impactful to me.  And all we did was hang out. 

I don't know if I'm on anyone's top 10 list the way that Virginia is on mine.  I hope I am, but not for any vainglorious reason.  Rather, I want to be found faithful in the little things.  I want to be used by God to be a part of his eternity-shaping work in this world.  I know that I serve a great and powerful God who can do remarkable things with my ordinary obedience.  My prayer is that God would lead each of us to say "Yes" to the simple and ordinary acts of obedience.  If we do that, God can use us to change the world.

But Ruth Clung to Her

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July 26, 2018 will mark the fifteenth anniversary of the wedding between my wife and I.  Time seems to move faster as it goes on, I think, and it is remarkable to me that fifteen years will have gone by so quickly.  In just a few short years, I will have spent more of life with my wife than without her.  

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The vows that my wife and I chose for our wedding ceremony came from Ruth 1.16-17, which I just preached on this past Sunday: "...where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.  May the Lord deal with me if anything but death separates you and me."  As he was reciting these vows for my wife and I to repeat, my father-in-law (who performed the ceremony) had a slip of the tongue and said, "Where you die I will die, and there I will be married" instead of "buried."  Everyone had a good laugh.  I think every wedding ceremony needs a slip-up or two to remind us that nothing is perfect.  

As I prepared to preach this text this past week, I read K. Lawson Younger Jr.'s commentary on Ruth.  Toward the end of his comments on chapter 1, he has a section that argues that the use of Ruth 1.16-17 as wedding vows is a misuse of this text, as the circumstances between Ruth's commitment to Naomi are completely different than those between a husband and wife.  Having read Younger's argument (and perhaps, much to the chagrin of my wife!), I am inclined to agree with his assessment.  The context of Ruth 1.16-17 is not at all similar to that of a marriage covenant between a man and a woman.  Moreover, it would be downright wrong for a person to commit to another that "your God will be my God," as though he or she would follow the lead of one spouse from god to god!  That being said, I do believe that the commitment of Ruth to Naomi is one that is admirable and which all husbands and wives should seek to emulate toward their spouses.  

The broader context of the story of Ruth helps to illustrate this.  Naomi (Ruth's mother-in-law) saw herself as a marked woman, a target for the displeasure of God.  After all, her husband and both of her adult sons had died, leaving her a destitute woman.  As such a woman in a patriarchal society, Naomi had no prospects of joining the work force and providing for herself.  There was a very real danger of her facing death by starvation.  At best, she could be a beggar who subsisted on the leavings of and charity of others.  Needless to say, the outlook on her life was grim to say the least. 

This is why Naomi encouraged her daughters-in-law (Ruth and Orpah) to go back to their hometowns, remarry, and live happy lives.  If they were to stay with Naomi, they would share a similar fate of destitution and even potentially death by starvation.  "And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her" (Ruth 1.14).  

At her mother-in-law's insistence, Orpah takes off with a kiss goodbye.  But Ruth "clings" to Naomi.  What is pictured by these words is an embrace - an extended and passionate hug.  But there is much more that is going on.  By "clinging" to Naomi, Ruth is throwing in her lot with Naomi to the extent that they will share a common destiny, a common fate.  Whatever happens to Naomi will happen to Ruth; however Naomi suffers, Ruth will suffer; wherever Naomi goes, Ruth will go; wherever Naomi dies, that is where Ruth will die.  

Just think about what Ruth was willingly accepting by "clinging" to Naomi: Naomi was too old to remarry, but Ruth wasn't.  By clinging to Naomi, Ruth was willfully giving up the prospect of remarrying and having children (note: this wasn't ultimately the case for Ruth, however - read Ruth 4!).  

By clinging to Naomi, Ruth was giving up her cultural and social identity and taking on a new one: that of a destitute widow.  

By clinging to Naomi, Ruth was accepting the fate of Naomi: most likely death by starvation.  

By clinging to Naomi, Ruth's identity was wrapped up in Naomi's.  Whatever happened to Naomi would happen to Ruth.  If one suffered, they both suffered; if one rejoiced, they both rejoiced.  

Compare Ruth's commitment to Naomi to the sentiment communicated by traditional vows that are used in wedding ceremonies: "I take you to be my husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in scenes and in heath, to love and to cherish, till death do us part."  They sound pretty similar to me.  

I imagine that Ruth wasn't excited about the prospect of becoming a destitute widow who faced starvation - especially when she had the opportunity to go back to her homeland, remarry, and live happily ever after - but that's what she chose to do.  Why?  Because she was clinging to Naomi.   I'm sure she also wasn't excited about moving from her homeland to go to Naomi's homeland where Ruth would be a foreigner.  

What it meant for Ruth to "cling" to Naomi is exactly what it means for us to "cling" to our spouses: to take on a common destiny or fate.  To stand by each other regardless of the circumstances we face individually or as a couple.  Sometimes one spouse does something that creates difficulty and tension for the other spouse, or in the marriage, or even in the family in general.  And the results can be miserable: discontentedness, strife, emotional distress, and so on.  But still, we cling.  We have intertwined our fates together, our individual destinies have become one destiny together.  "Where you go, I will go; how you suffer, I will suffer; where you die, I will die."  Sometimes clinging to a spouse isn't very fun or enjoyable - indeed, sometimes it's downright miserable.  But still we cling.

It's important to note that this type of clinging in marriage doesn't give one spouse license to run roughshod over the other spouse, or to be intentionally harmful, manipulative, or abusive.  It's not as though one spouse can behave terribly and demand allegiance from the other spouse under the guise of clinging to one another.  This would be to completely misunderstand Ruth's commitment to Naomi.  

Although Ruth's exact words to Naomi may not be appropriate to recite during a wedding ceremony, the principle behind her words are exactly the kind of commitment that husbands and wives should endeavor to display in their marriages.  Be like Ruth, and cling.  

And Also Much Cattle

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Although the book of Jonah is known primarily for its fantastic tale of a rebellious prophet who is swallowed by a fish, it has another distinction that it shares with only two other books of the Bible.  This distinction is that the book ends with a question.  Only the books of Nahum and Jeremiah also end with open-ended questions. 

Not only that, the specific question that concludes the book of Jonah is kind of a strange one.  God asks Jonah, "And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" (Jonah 4.11)  The confusing part of the question is the last four words: "and also much cattle."  It makes sense that God would certainly care about and pity the great city of Nineveh and the 120,000 inhabitants that he had made in his own image.  But why is God so concerned about the cattle?  Does God want to save the cattle? Certainly cattle can't repent of their sin, nor do they have immortal souls to save.  This is one of the few places in scripture where God is concerned with not just the human beings in the picture, but also animals. 

This question - and particularly God's regard for cattle - has puzzled Bible scholars for some time.  But I don't think this verse is too tricky to understand when we consider the scope of the plan of redemption that God has in mind for the world - including cattle.  God's rescue plan includes not just people, but also the world which he has made, including everything in it and on it.  God is in the process of redeeming the world, including cattle!

A year or two after my wife and I were married we adopted a stray kitten that a neighbor friend had found.  It was just a tiny little thing that was discovered sleeping on the engine block of a car, huddled up for warmth during the winter.  We took this kitten in and named her Martha.  We still have her, but she has gotten old, and you can start to tell her age.  She's moving slowly, she has a bit of a limp, and she's becoming thin.  It's becoming more and more apparent that she probably doesn't have a lot of time left. 

Does God care about my cat's life?  Much to the chagrin of dog lovers, the answer is, "Yes!"  Cats - and all animals, all living things - die because we live in a fallen world were sin affects every living thing.  God did not create cats to get old and thin, and to limp and die.  God created all things good and perfect, and he is in the process of redeeming the world to recreate it the way that it was. 

So does God care about the cattle in Nineveh?  You better believe he does.  Not because he's a member of PETA or because he's a vegetarian, but because God created cattle to be good - not to die under his judgment.  And God is redeeming the world because he cares about all of his creation. 

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together int he pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  (Romans 8.19-23)

God is in the process of redeeming the world and everything in it: cats, dogs, cattle, the ground, human beings, etc.  The heart of God is to redeem the world, including cattle - and cats!  As his people, we long for the day when we will experience the redemption of our bodies and of this world, and we will live forever with our cats.