Lookout Points

One door closes and another opens. The way is always forward not backward even if it seems like I moved to the side. That being said, there are moments when the way provides lookout points to assess where I’ve been and where I’m headed. I have come to view these lookout moments as pauses or breaks in the action. The hustle and bustle of life has a way of swallowing them up. When the way provides breaks in the action, wisdom demands that I respond in kind. It’s so very important to recognize where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. Someone once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I agree with that assessment wholeheartedly.

I’m not suggesting that introspection is the ticket. Maybe I’m splitting hairs a bit, but my gut tells me that there’s a difference between introspection and reflection. The former requires that I look inward for the answer while the latter searches outward. The tagline to The X-Files show has some basis in reality: “the truth is out there.” When I scan the horizon at this current lookout point, what do I see? One thing I realize is that my view seems partially obstructed by my finite condition. Some of the path is perceptible, but some of it isn’t. When I glance behind me, the view is clear. I see the dark and shadowy patches as well as the lush ones and those moments that were somewhere in the middle.

Now, the way forward seems more or less visible to the naked eye; however, I can’t help noticing that I’m looking for higher ground in order to get a better view. From where I stand, I see what I am able to see. I want to see more, to know more. Way off in the distance, I see the final destination. It’s a glorious sight, and my heart yearns for it. There’s still much more of the journey that remains. I know that as I keep moving forward, the moments between here and there become clearer. Each step requires faith in my Lord because this fuels hope and perseverance during the rough and tumble moments. Faith is also the sight needed for perceiving people, places, and things along the way. Without it, I’m a blind man ambling along the way oblivious to moments of blessing and danger.

Not only does faith in Jesus give me sight, but his word lights up the way that I walk (Psalm 119:105). What I find ironic about this is that the journey is real and takes place on this physical earth; however, the only way that I can truly navigate it requires that I have spiritual or unseen things in my possession like faith in him and the indwelling presence of his Spirit. Both of these grant me the ability to make sense of his word in order to apply it to my life. If I don’t have faith in Christ and the indwelling presence of his Spirit, I’m a blind man on the way. It doesn’t matter how clear the path is, or how bright and sunny the weather is, a blind man is blind. It was a wonderfully, gracious and merciful act on the Lord’s part to enable me to see. The journey demands it.

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Reflecting on the Fall Season

I’m enjoying a much needed hiatus after a rigorous fall semester at Talbot School of Theology. The workload caught me by surprise even though I had been in graduate school twelve years ago. I thought that I’d take to the classroom like a duck to water. In one sense, I soared higher than I thought possible; however, in another sense, I found myself struggling to organize my time into a schedule that suited me. The demands of the private sector are quite different. I knew my schedule and adjusted things accordingly. In the academic environment, the class time is known, but not the hours needed to complete the work. It is this aspect that flayed me in the first half of the fall semester.

The more I connected with my peers, the more I realized that I was not alone in my struggle to create a schedule and stick to it. Of course, the upcoming spring semester only gets tougher. I feel like I’m in the early stages of a role-playing game in dire need of experience points. One big plus has been settling into a local church earlier this summer, which was a season of transition. In the month of August alone, I left my Hollywood job, started seminary, and began exploring several churches in the Pasadena area where my wife and I call home. Back in March, my wife and I sought the Lord together about this year and decided that he was leading us to set down roots in Pasadena.

When August rolled around, it was comforting to know that seminary, church, and life in general began to settle down ever so slightly. For me, the local church piece was significant because I wanted to find a solid place for my wife and future family. We really resonated with the blend of the Word and the Spirit at Sovereign Grace Church in Pasadena. The elders stand for God and his word with humility and conviction. Personally, this was a big one for me, especially since I’m responding to God’s call on my life. Sadly, we visited many churches where the leaders either equivocated on controversial topics, or downplayed the importance of Baptism.

After listening to a couple of Sovereign Grace podcasts, and reading over their statement of faith, I knew that the leaders had a solid grounding in God’s word. Their embrace of the spiritual gifts wound up being another plus. Interestingly enough,what sold us on Sovereign Grace Church of Pasadena had to do with the maturity of the people and the leaders. It just seemed like these folks knew what it meant to walk with the Lord in all of life’s circumstances. They practiced what they preached. Is this our church for the next decade? I don’t know. It definitely seems like the place to be throughout my seminary education. The way I see it, one step at a time.

Given the intensity of the previous semester, it refreshed me quite a bit to have a solid home church. My wife and I have a place from which to draw strength and to give back. Like I alluded to earlier, the next semester only increases in difficulty. I’m taking slightly more units, the content level goes up, and I have a child on the way. The temptation for me is to power my way through seminary. In fact, I even began the previous semester with that mindset. It did not take long for the Lord’s discipline to exert its effect. His target was the pride in my heart. It remains a central focus of his, but there is grace and mercy, too. I have needed the Lord to remind me of the importance of acknowledging the good that he has done in and through me.

Flawed in Deep Ways

Back in September, I wrote an entry on my blog after a period of silence. This particular post comes after losing myself inside of a black hole. I am not engaging in any social media fast or the like. Instead I have been buried underneath the rigors of seminary education. Greek is not easy, but neither is Hermeneutics. When you mix together these classes, it becomes quite clear that ministerial training transcends the academic aspect. There is a larger issue at stake: faithfulness to God.

With each passing day, I sense the gravity of the call. For example, the following text in James 3:1 speaks volumes: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (ESV). If this is not plain speaking, then I do not know what plain speaking is or looks like. When I think about how Moses hesitated with becoming Israel’s leader, or how Gideon resisted the Lord’s call, I find myself in good company. I sympathize with Jonah, who boarded a ship for Tarshish rather than bring God’s message to Nineveh.

Now, the responses of Moses, Gideon, and Jonah raise some interesting points. All three men refuse to pretend before the Lord. It is true that Jonah’s response is flagrantly disobedient; however, he is honest about it. This leads to to the next point. Moses, Gideon, and Jonah have a deep enough relationship with the Lord, which allows them to be honest. These men do not hide their reluctance to respond to the Lord’s call. At the risk of pressing this point too far, it seems to me that expressing reluctance to God’s call is a good sign. The last time I checked, I didn’t see myriads of people clamoring together in order to be one of the Chief Shepherd’s under-shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-5, ESV).

One last point to make is that Moses, Gideon, and Jonah were far from perfect in their obedience. Moses failed to enter the Promised Land because he let his temper get the best of him. Gideon made an ephod, which ensnared the people of Israel and his family in idolatry. Lastly, Jonah wallowed in anger toward the Lord for his deliverance of the Ninevites. All three men were flawed in deep ways, yet the Lord of heaven and earth used them to accomplish his redemptive purposes and plans. I need to remember that the Lord has not called me to perform perfectly, but to obey him. This includes owning up to any wrong words and actions.

What astonishes me even more is that the Lord knows all about my imperfections. He is aware of the ways that I can and will fail him. Still, his invitation to join him remains constant and sure. The Lord delights in using me, but I have my doubts. He is the one who encourages me in the midst of my unbelief. When I am weak, he is strong. When I can’t or won’t pray, His Spirit groans with words too deep to express. He lights my way in the dark. The Lord deserves all of the credit. Will Judgment Day be joyous? I’m sure it will, but there are no easy outs. On that day, I will face the music for how I have shepherded the Lord’s people.

People and Their Idols

The likelihood of a Westerner knowing someone who makes idols of religious worship for a living is pretty slim. I contend that it is even rarer to have acquaintances, friends, or relatives who make religious idols for use in their home. This was widespread during the days of the Old Testament (OT) and in the New Testament (NT). Due to space limitations, I will focus only on the OT. There are many OT prophecies and/or oracles of judgment pronounced against the idolatry of the nations and God’s OT people, the nation of Israel. Reading any of the four, major prophetic books, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, will bear this out. In fact, reading just one of those books is more than enough to realize that idol worship and idol-making are abominations before the Lord of heaven and earth.

For example, here is a chilling passage from the book of Isaiah:

“All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame. Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit nothing? People who do that will be put to shame; such craftsmen are only human beings. Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and shame.” (Isaiah 44:9-11, NIV)

Now, the prophet Isaiah wrote these words sometime during the last decades of the 8th Century BC. Some OT scholars believe that the prophet’s ministry overlapped with the start of the 7th Century BC. The point being that Isaiah lived and ministered for several decades. During his ministry, he prophesied that the Assyrians would conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He saw this take place with his own eyes in 722 BC. Why is this significant? Portions of Isaiah’s prophecies in the seventh and eighth chapters of his book place the certainty of the Northern Kingdom’s demise precisely because of their idol worship and idol-making. The leaders and the people dismissed the prophet’s warnings about their impending doom. Their destruction exemplified the truth of the eleventh verse in the above quoted text: “People who do that will be put to shame…they will be brought down to terror and shame” (Isa. 44:11, NIV).

Did the Southern tribes of Israel pay attention to what happened to their northern brothers and sisters? The answer is no. Isaiah directs most of his prophecies against the people of Judah, which comprised of two tribes: Judah and Benjamin (see 1 Kings 10:29-36; 2 Chronicles 11:5-12, ESV). They also were called the Southern Kingdom of Israel. Now, common sense would seem to dictate that the people of Judah would learn from the disaster that befell their brothers and sisters to the north. Isn’t it better to learn from others’ mistakes? The Southern Kingdom knew all about the spiritual idolatry of their northern brothers and sisters. The people of Judah heard the prophet Isaiah himself speak the words that he recorded for them, which the Lord preserved for us in Isaiah 44:9-11. These words are neither hypothetical nor cryptic. The passage is crystal clear about what happens to those cities and peoples who worship and make idols. 

The Southern Kingdom loved their idols so much that they rejected the prophet Isaiah’s warnings much like their brothers and sisters to the north. Tradition has it that Isaiah suffered martyrdom during the reign of King Manasseh, who ordered the prophet’s execution. Many bible scholars believe that the reference in Hebrews 11:37 to those being sawn in two refers to Isaiah’s manner of death. Manasseh’s reign represented the nadir and the soon coming end of the Southern Kingdom (2 Kings 21:1-9, ESV). In the OT book of second Kings, the Lord prophesies judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem because of Manasseh’s sins and his peoples’ sins, which included idol worship, witchcraft, child sacrifice, and shedding innocent blood; consequently, there was no way for them to avert the coming disaster (2 Kings 21:10-15; 24:2-4, ESV). In 586 BC, the Babylonians overthrew the Southern Kingdom. 

One terrible truth comes to the forefront at this point. No civilization wants to be told to give up its idols and idol-making. Manasseh’s bloodthirsty reign epitomizes this, which also overshadows the fact that he genuinely repented and reversed from his murderous ways near the end of his life (2 Chron. 33:12-16, ESV). Sometimes one is able to turn back from the deep darkness of idolatry and idol-making like Manasseh. There are other times when this is not the case. In fact, Isaiah spells this out near the end of the forty-fourth chapter:

“They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. No one stops to think…Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?'” (Isa. 44:18-20, NIV)

Those are powerful words that hit home even today. Like I said at the very beginning, most Americans do not have physical idols. What we do have are spiritual ones, which dwell within our souls. These idols may be rising to the top at all costs, pursuing pleasure for its own sake regardless of the consequences, and seeking spirituality without the Lord. There is another idol that is more insidious and much more ancient than those three. I call it the idol of the autonomous self. It lead to the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden. This idol is all about pursuing the right to live my life in whatever way I want free its creator, the Lord. I am the sole arbiter of what is valuable to me. Nearly every magazine, commercial, television show, movie, or news item trumpets the idol of the autonomous self. Social media only has made things worse. May we heed Isaiah’s warning about the ultimate end of those civilizations who worship and fashion idols.   

 

     

A Dream about an Underground City

The apostle Peter spoke before thousands on the Day of Pentecost. He taught the crowd that what they had witnessed fulfilled Joel’s prophecy about the outpouring of the Spirit upon all human beings during the last days (Acts 2:14-18; cf Joel 2:28-29, NASB). Now 2000 years later, we are still in the last days experiencing the age of the Spirit. In fact, here is a portion of Joel’s amazing prophecy: “It will come about after this that I will pour out my Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28, NASB).

Before I proceed a little further, I want to say up front that I am not an old man. I am in my late thirties, so middle-aged is probably the best descriptor. When the text states that “your old men will dream dreams,” I must confess that this sort of thing happens with some regularity. To be blunt, I know the difference between a dream from my subconscious mind and one from the Holy Spirit. I am never able to remember the former, but I can recall the latter down to the smallest detail. For example, sometime during this past Labor Day Weekend, I experienced an unusual dream.

I hiked through a wooded trail that reminded me of the ones in Temescal Canyon. This particular trail ended at a mountainside, which I began to climb. When I reached the top, I struggled to pull myself up. An unidentified man came to my aid and lifted me up with ease. His great strength impressed me. I followed him into a large, bustling city with automobiles, buses, sirens blaring, people walking around and on and on. The more I looked around us, I noticed that the city was populated with adults. The children were noticeably absent. I asked my guide about this detail. We waited for a few minutes. Then like clockwork, all the kids (ages K-12) streamed out of the buildings and down to the subways with joy and excitement.

At this point, something did not feel right. I wondered to myself why these kids headed below the city for fun and excitement instead of remaining above ground in order to enjoy the sun, mix it up in the parks, and so forth. I followed my guide down into the subway tunnel. My first impression was one of amazement. It was an elaborate underground mall of arcades, candy stores, game stores, and the like. When my guide and I proceeded further into the storefront, the scene shifted into one of horror. Zombie-like people began attacking and devouring the children. There was nowhere for these kids to escape. The stairways back to the surface had been locked shut as the city life continued as normal.

Meanwhile, I stood next to my guide watching in horror as every child of this city wound up devoured by these evil beings. I realized that this whole scenario unfolded by design. These kids were deceived by the adults into thinking that this underground city was safe, fun, and exciting. Instead, they ended up being chased and devoured by demonic beings. It was a massacre of the innocents. I turned to my guide and I asked him what all of it meant. He said to me, “You live in a nation that devours its children. Their blood cries out to their heavenly Father, who hears them and will avenge them on judgment day. The time is short. Warn them.” After this, I woke up. I have been unable to shake off this dream and its implications ever since.

I invite my readers and followers to pray for the leaders of our nation whether federal, state, or local. May we be salt and light in our families, our jobs, with our friends, and strangers. We are ministers of reconciliation, ambassadors of a new covenant. Holy Spirit, empower and sustain us for this work till either Jesus returns or calls us home. In his name I pray, Amen.

Dusting Off the Cobwebs

Ok then, I have attended seminary for a little over one week. This accounts for my silence of late on the blog. I apologize to my readers and followers. It has been twelve years since I sat in a graduate classroom. At this point, I’m dusting off the cobwebs and refurbishing the rusty areas with gleaming steel. The process is not easy and the days have been long. If someone were to ask me, so how do you really feel, Matthew? My answer is rather simple and to the point. The coursework has been an overwhelming flood. It’s been hard to tell if I’ve been standing on the solid rock.

I started out with a total of twelve rock’em, sock’em units through Talbot. Now, here, at the end of this week, I am proud to say that I am down to nine units. The surgery was absolutely necessary in order to preserve my sanity and health for this first semester. One of the things that I learned through this process had to do with pride and arrogance. The Lord reminded me through prayer and interactions with fellow peers and professors that knowing my limitations is a sign of wisdom and humility. If I had continued to “muscle through my classes,” then I would have succeeded in becoming the living definition of pride and foolishness.

How many times have I heard it said that the Lord is always ready to receive those who need him? I lack the proper number of fingers and toes in order to give a full account. One thing is certain, I’m blessed to have a wife at my side who refuses to allow me to slink and slack with respect to seeking the Lord’s counsel. She does not abide with such disobedience. To that I say, Amen. I will end this short post with the words from the great hymn, “The Solid Rock”:

My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

Refrain:
On Christ, the solid rock, I stand;
all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand.

2 When darkness veils his lovely face,
I rest on his unchanging grace;
in every high and stormy gale,
my anchor holds within the veil. [Refrain]

3 His oath, his covenant, his blood
support me in the whelming flood;
when all around my soul gives way,
he then is all my hope and stay. [Refrain]

4 When he shall come with trumpet sound,
O may I then in him be found,
dressed in his righteousness alone,
faultless to stand before the throne. [Refrain]

A Land of Images

Southern California is home to Los Angeles, sometimes called the City of Angels. Hollywood makes its home here along with a large portion of the entertainment industry. This is the place for images and image-makers. Some of the local radio stations interject the following quip in between songs, “Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world.” That in itself creates an image of this city in the minds of listeners. Thousands of people flock to Los Angeles for the glitz and the glamour. Of course, glitz and glamour are merely artifacts or side effects of Hollywood and the entertainment industry. It seems to me that I can describe Los Angeles as a city of images.

The reason that I bring this up has to do with something that I read in the Bible. I have been reading through the Old Testament (OT) book of Jeremiah for a one-year, Chronological Bible Reading plan. I came across the following verse: “…For it is a land of images, and they are mad over idols” (Jeremiah 50:38b, ESV). Now, the immediate context of this verse and passage centers on the future judgment coming upon the nation of Babylon. The Spirit of God inspires Jeremiah to characterize this ancient, world empire as a land of images filled with men and women who are mad over idols. I could not help seeing the parallel to Los Angeles.

I live in a city of images filled with people who are mad about them. Billboards line the freeways and streets of Southern California. Everywhere I look I see something vying for my attention. The steady flow of images is like an avalanche upon the soul. I understand the point behind marketing and advertising; however, there is something desensitizing about them. Commercials, television programming, movies, magazines, radio programming and more all have the ability to suck the life out of human beings. The images coming through these various forms of media become idols. These are the men and women to admire and/or to follow. Eat these foods, consume these drinks, and life and energy return to your body.

For the Christian, his life and energy issue from the Lord not the world. In Jeremiah’s day, big bad Babylon set the tone for its citizens and those it conquered. King Nebuchadnezzar and his successors made sure that devotion to Babylon’s ethos remained wholehearted under penalty of death. For example, the famous account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego illustrates this perspective quite clearly, but their miraculous deliverance by the Lord also highlights his ultimate sovereignty over all kings and kingdoms (Daniel 3, ESV). There is relief for God’s people in godless nations, but this is not a principle for living in the kingdom. Sometimes the Lord delivered his people, but other times he did not as in the life of Isaiah, John the Baptist, Stephen, and the apostles Peter and Paul.

I do not bring this up to broach the subject of suffering and the corresponding theological problems that ensue. The key point to remember is that Stephen and John the Baptist enjoyed an earthly, covenant relationship with the Lord like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. All of five of these men enjoy the blessed, heavenly fellowship of the Lord’s presence as I type this up. They are in heaven awaiting their glorification at Christ’s second advent. Most, if not all, of Babylon’s citizens and rulers cannot say the same. The Lord raised up Jeremiah in order to warn this ancient empire about its impending doom. This demonstrated his love, his mercy, his longsuffering, and the certainty of his coming judgment.

If the Lord did not hold back his earthly judgment upon Babylon and its people, there is no reason to expect future relief judgment day. I realize that such rhetoric sounds alarming and harsh, but that day is coming. All of the warnings and admonitions from Christ, the apostles, and Christians throughout human history testify to the absolute certainty of judgment day. When I think of my current city, Los Angeles, I feel the sorrow of the Father’s heart toward this city and its people. Open their eyes and hearts Lord by your Holy Spirit in order to receive your truth and Kiss the Son. Grant your people, Lord, the grace, humility, and boldness to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the message of reconciliation. Amen.