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.

Remembering

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Today is Memorial Day.  Memorial Day was originally intended to honor soldiers of the Civil War who died in combat, and was first observed on May 30th, 1868.  Observance of Memorial Day gradually caught on throughout the country and every state was celebrating it by the end of World War I, in honor of all soldiers who had given their lives in war.  We celebrate Memorial Day to honor the dead, those who sacrificed their lives in war to ensure our freedom and liberty.  Memorial Day is a day of remembering.  

But we are not to remember for remembering's sake.  There is to be a purpose in our remembering.  Remembering the sacrifice of those who have died for our freedom would be worthless if it did not change our thinking and living in the present.  As we remember those who died, we remember them in gratefulness for their sacrifice, and so that we might be changed by our remembering.  

Memorials point us to God.  Throughout scripture, certain monuments, historical events, songs, or histories served to remind the people of the greatness of God.  God commanded his people to remember not specific people, places, or events primarily, but that they should instead remember the God who orchestrated the events, used the people, and created the spaces.  The Bible teaches us that memorials exist to remind us of the God who is working in the world.  Even days like our American celebration of Memorial Day serve to point us to the God who uses people for his purposes in the world.  God has used people in our nation's history to accomplish his purposes.  And as we remember them we must remember him.  "Remember the Lord your God."  This was the command to God's people throughout scripture, and it is the command to us this day.  

The Bible is replete with memorials that are designed to cause God's people to remember (Exodus 12.11-14, Leviticus 2.16, Acts 10.4, Joshua 4.1-7, Luke 22.14-21, 1 Corinthians 11.23-26).  But why are they to remember?  God does not tell his people to remember for the sake of remembering, or for the sake of living in the past, or even for the sake of honoring a memory.  Nor does he tell his people to remember as a sentimental or nostalgic notion.  Rather, God tells his people to remember the past in order to affect the present.  Remembering the past is worthless if it does nothing to affect the present.  

In Psalm 78 we read about the Ephraimites who, on the day of battle, turned back in fear and timidity.  The author of Psalm 78 directly connects their retreat to having forgotten the works of God (Psalm 78.9-16).  God had proven himself to the Ephraimites throughout history, and he commanded them to remember his works.  But they forgot his works and they wonders he had shown them.  And so, on the day of battle, they turned back, running away and forgetting that God is a God who works in the world.  The purpose of remember the past is to affect the present.  If we will not remember, we will not trust in God or in his power.  

In Psalm 77, a man named Asaph sits alone in the middle of the night, feeling as though his life were pressing in on him.  His depression was deep; his suffering was profound; nothing in his life was going right, and it felt as though God had left him.  So he said to himself, "Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?  Has his steadfast love forever ceased?  Are his promises at an end for all time?  Has God forgotten to be gracious?  Has he in anger shut up his compassion?" (Psalm 77.7-9)  To Asaph, it seemed as though the good ness of God was gone.  What could he do to convince himself that God truly cared?  What could he do to assure himself that God was present with him in his suffering?  What would lift his spirits?  Remembering.  Considering the memorials of the Lord.  

"Then Asaph said, 'I will appeal to this to the years of the right hand of the Most High.  I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.  I will ponder all your work and meditate on your mighty deeds.  Your way, O God, is holy.  What god is great like our God?  You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples.'"

The remedy for Asaph's depression and suffering was remembering.  Its was in remembering the works of the Lord that Asaph knew that the goodness of God had not ceased.  It was in remembering the works of the Lord that Asaph knew that God had not left him.  It was in remembering the works of the Lord that Asaph knew that God would act again on his behalf.  It was in remembering the God who works wonders and who has made known his might among the peoples that this God would work wonders yet again, and make his might known among the peoples once more.  It is through remembering the past that God's people draw strength for the present.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul declares that the cross of Christ is the ultimate memorial that should speak to us of what God will do in the future.  He says, "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also along with him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8.32)  The cross of Christ is a memorial.  It speaks of the greatness of a God who created the world and its inhabitants, and who loved them and desired to show his glory among them.  But they rebelled against him.  They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1).  This rebellion separated them from God and made them worthy of the just and holy judgment of God.  But in his mercy, God desired to save his creation for his own glory.  So he sent his Son.  "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5.21).  

And now, Paul says, "Look at that cross!  Look at the Son of God who died there and remember the love of God for you.  God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all.  That cross is a memorial of his great love and mercy.  And since he has given us the gift of greatest price - that of his only Son - know this: he will graciously give us all things!  IN all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  As you look to the future, look back to that memorial cross and know that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present northings to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from then love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." 

The cross is the ultimate memorial that points to God's continued faithfulness.  

As you celebrate Memorial day, remember the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.  And remember the God who works in the world, who has shown his power through his mighty works, and who has made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of all those who will trust in him.

Come Sunday

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Last night I logged onto Netflix and immediately saw a new release to the streaming service - a movie called "Come Sunday."  I watched the trailer for the movie and was intrigued.  It's a true story about a Pentecostal minister named Carlton Pearson who eventually adopted a universalistic theological stance and was subsequently excommunicated from his church and denomination.  I clicked "Play" and found the movie engaging and intriguing.  Although Pearson eventually comes to adopt what I would consider to be an unorthodox and heretical theology, I thought it was a good movie and one that is worthy of being watched.  In fact, I would recommend that parents of high school-aged children watch the movie and work together to think biblically about how Pearson comes to his conclusions outside of the guidance of the Bible and against the counsel of close and trusted godly friends.  If anything, the movie is a fantastic example of how man's wisdom fails and the wisdom of God as found in his word holds true.  (Note: the movie contains a couple of "mild" swear words and some discussion of homosexuality).

Pearson starts out as an orthodox Pentecostal minister who consistently and persuasively preaches the biblical gospel to his church and to all those who will hear.  As time goes on, however, he becomes increasingly disturbed by the plight of Africans - particularly Rwandans - who are dying as a result of war and atrocity.  He cannot bring himself to understand how God - a loving God - would condemn to hell those who have not heard the gospel due to no fault of their own, and who are condemned to perish forever in hell simply because they were unfortunate enough to be born in a country where Christianity is not prevalent, and ruthless violence is a regular part of life and death.  Pearson is torn by what the Bible teaches about the punishment of hell for unbelievers, and the plight of his unevangelized fellow human beings.  

Later, Pearson tells his church that he has had a direct revelation from God - hearing a voice "as clear as my own" -  that those who die without ever hearing the gospel are already saved and in heaven.  In short, Pearson adopts a universalistic soteriology, meaning that he believes that all people will be saved, regardless of their knowledge or belief.  When members of his church - including trusted friends - push back against his newfound universalism, Pearson clings to the personal revelation he received as his reason for not being willing to recant.  After all, why would God have told him that all people would be saved if it weren't true?  Even when encouraged to consider the possibility that the devil told him this, and not God, Pearson balks, and holds that his personal revelation is from God and is true.  

The rest of the film deals with the consequences of Pearson's new beliefs (such as losing his church, his excommunication, strained family relationships, etc.).  The movie is superbly acted, especially by its star (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was heretofore unknown to me, and is entertaining and engaging to the end.  I especially appreciated how the movie was fair and balanced to the different stripes of Christian belief that were present.  In other words, none of the characters were made to seem as Bible-thumping crazy religious people, even though they held very different views.  Additionally, the movie's treatment of homosexuality was good and balanced.  It's refreshing to watch a movie with religious themes that doesn't make you feel like your beliefs are getting picked on.  

Although the movie is indeed entertaining and engaging, it is worth noting that the primary issue that it raises (Pearson's struggle over how God can allow people to go to hell who have never heard the name of Jesus, and his eventual embrace of universalism) is not new, nor is he the first to succumb to its draw.  This is a question that honest believers have wrestled with - and provided solid, biblical answers to - for centuries.  In fact, one of the characters in the movie (Pearson's closest friend and advisor, Henry) gives Pearson a solid biblical answer to his questions.  He says that everyone has exposure to God, regardless of their geographical location or cultural eccentricities (Romans 1.19-20) according to what has been made (creation), and are therefore responsible to seek him.  Indeed, even God's invisible attributes are made known to all people.  Those who seek God according to his natural revelation will find him, as Henry says, "...through a missionary, or through a dream or a vision."  This answer, however - both generated from scripture and from the mouth of a wise and godly friend - is not enough to persuade Pearson.  

Perhaps the biggest warning given by the movie to Bible-believing Christians is the danger of so-called personal revelation.  After all, Pearson's persuasion to universalism is primarily and almost completely founded on "hearing God's voice."  The foundation for Pearson's move to universalism is that he allegedly heard God speak to him and tell him that all people are saved.  To be fair, Pearson does use 1 John 2.1-2 as a proof text for his newfound beliefs, but his argument from scripture for universalism takes a far back seat to the personal revelation he received from God (not to mention that 1 John 2.1-2 is not even close to teaching universal salvation, nor does the film portray Pearson dealing with the immensity of scripture that teaches individual salvation).

This is the danger of "hearing" from God outside of his word.  We have no objective way of knowing that the voices, impulses, or feelings that come and go in our hearts and minds are from God, or are from the undigested bit of pepperoni pizza I ate last night.  If we regard personal "revelation" and feelings from God to be authoritative in our lives, a large number of people would venture out on all sorts of crazy crusades.  Indeed, a brief observation of history yields a myriad of examples of people who have done just that!

Instead, we must trust that God has spoken to us through his word, and that his communication to his people in these last days is limited only to his word.  We know that God has spoken to us through the Bible; we are very much less certain about feelings and hearing voices in our heads.  

Moreover, to suggest that in order to answer life's difficult questions we need personal revelation from God, the implication is that the Bible is not enough to answer those very same questions.  Pearson had a very legitimate and honest question: "What happens to people who die who have never heard the name of Jesus?  Will they go to hell?"  To find answers to that question, he relied on a "voice from God."  What Pearson apparently didn't know was that God has already answered this question with the voice of his word (see Romans 1.19-20).  If Pearson believed that he needed a personal revelation from God to answer his question, then he (either knowingly or unknowingly) implied that the Bible was not sufficient to answer his question.  

Bible-believing Christians reject this notion.  In his word, God has given us everything we need for life and godliness.  If we were in need of additional revelation from God to be able to think, live, and answer difficult questions in life, then by necessity the Bible is insufficient.  And, as Pearson's story so vividly and painfully illustrates, when we elevate personal revelation above the revelation of God in his word, we are very easily drawn away from the true and saving message of the gospel.  

The Bible is enough.  Know it.  Love it.  Live it.