Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Are You a Contender?

Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed . . . ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 3-4 NASV)
A few years ago I read a news story about a British Columbia woman who saved her son from a cougar. She saw a cougar mauling her seven year old son as he played outside, so she ran out and fought off the predator with the kitchen towel she carried in her hand. She courageously risked her own life to protect her boy.

Looking for the news story about this incident, I googled the phrase “mom saves child from cougar,” and on the first page of results I found four other stories of heroic mamas. One mother used a camping cooler, one a water bottle, and another her bare hands to save their children from a cougar attack. The last mother saved her child but died from her injuries.

Faced with a dangerous attack on a beloved child, would any mother simply stand and watch? No, a mother's love for her child compels her to protect and defend—and fight to the death if necessary.

When Jude wrote his New Testament letter to one of the early Christian churches, he urged the members to fight to protect and defend the faith—or, to use his language, he called them to contend earnestly for it. “Certain persons” who claimed to be believers, had "crept" into the church. They looked like ordinary Christians, and they settled into the body like ordinary Christians did, but they had joined the group for shady reasons. We don’t know the details, but it seems that both their actions, which were immoral, and their teachings, which were false, attacked “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.”

The believers in this church (the true ones, that is) knew enough about the doctrine of the apostles—the teachings that were probably already set down (and handed down) in a not-yet-completed New Testament canon—that Jude didn’t need to flesh out the “the faith once for all delivered.” These early Christians were already united around the body of doctrine that was the faith, so Jude could jump straight to his appeal for them to defend it.

The sneaky false teachers were attacking this church from within, and Jude’s letter is a plea for every single true believer there, everyone “called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1), to rise up and defend the apostles' gospel. And because Jude’s letter is scripture, it is, by extension, a plea for every true believer down through the ages and across the world to be ready to protect and defend the gospel. The call to defend the faith is not just for pastors and deacons, but for all laymen and laywomen, too. God calls us all to be defensive warriors, fighting against imposters within the church who destroy others by distorting the truth.

Like the brave mothers who snatched their children from the cougar’s jaws, our fight to defend is compelled by love. We fight, first, because we love the truth, and second, because we love people and want to save them from certain death. We fight to “save others by snatching them out of the fire” of God’s judgment against unbelief and apostasy. We defend the truth as an act of mercy toward "those who doubt” (Jude 22-23).

But we can’t contend for the faith if we don’t know what it is. We won’t recognize infiltrating false teachers if we don’t know what the apostles taught. We can’t discern a destructive false gospel if we don’t understand what the real gospel is.

Step one for contenders, then, is to know the truth. Jude’s first readers (or hearers) had a partial canon of scripture, yet he assumed they understood what the faith once for all delivered to the saints was. We have a complete canon, and our own personal copies of scripture, so we have no excuse for not knowing the whole body of doctrine handed down to us from the apostles. If we don't know it, we can learn it as we study the Bible, or as we read or listen to faithful Bible teachers.

Step two is to step up and defend the faith we know. Although there may be cases in which false teachers need to be physically removed from the body, fighting for the faith is mostly a war of words. We fight for the faith by talking (and maybe writing). And while we may sometimes be forced to use strong language as a weapon against wolves in our midst, most of our contending won’t look like a war—even a word war. No, our most most common defense tactics will be teaching and reminding.

We contend for the faith when we teach the truth to those among us who don’t have a firm grasp of it. Our hope is that as they learn, they become more grounded in the faith and less likely to be snatched away by false teachers with a false gospel.

And for those who are already established in the faith? As we remind each other of the beauty of the truth we already know, we encourage faithfulness to it (2 Peter 12-13). We fight for the faith by helping each other remember how lovely our gospel is, because those who are busy basking in the glory of the real gospel aren’t fooled by a false one.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Hope in a vale of tears

I just got off the phone with my dad. Today was a rough day for him and my mom. He never knows what the dementia may bring, but the stress ramps up when my mom won't comply with the care that is necessary and good for her. Because of the disease, she will question and argue, and because of the disease, trying to reason with her is futile. This is hard for my dad when all he wants to do is help his wife whom he loves. I encouraged him as best as I could, and we prayed together on the phone.

When I hung up, then I could release the tears I had been holding inside. It's no wonder the Heidelberg Catechism refers to this life as a vale of tears. It's not just family circumstances either. Brothers and sisters in my little local church are weathering heavy trials. If you broaden the circle, there probably isn't a person on earth whose life has not been touched by suffering even if they are not experiencing it at the present moment. It would be easy to throw in the towel because reality is too much to bear. But that's not the whole the story.

26. Q. What dost thou believe when thou sayest: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth?

A. That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who of nothing made heaven and earth, with all that in them is, who likewise upholds and governs the same by His eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ His Son my God and my Father; in whom I so trust, as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul; and further, that whatever evil He sends upon me in this vale of tears He will turn to my good; for He is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father.

My pastor preached on this Q&A from the Heidelberg drawing from Matthew 6:25-34. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his hearers to not be anxious because our Heavenly Father knows what we need. If he takes care of the birds and the grass of the field, will he not take care of us? Even as I typed out that previous sentence, it's easier said than done when anxiety attacks or dementia strikes, but it then becomes a time for "I believe! Help my unbelief!" 

When circumstances are overwhelming, walking by sight is next to impossible because the way seems so foggy, but that's where faith comes in. It's not faith in the strength of my faith or even how well I can recall God's promises. It is the hand that reaches out and clings desperately to the One who is really holding on to me and not letting me fall. He knows I am dust because he made me. And no matter how much the prosperity gospel may distort this truth, my Father loves me. I only have to look at the cross if I wanted further proof, and oh how I need reminding of this fact!

I don't know what your vale looks like at the moment. Mine seems hard to see at times because of the tears, but even though I may doubt and forget, God's care doesn't depend on my memory. I have a Father who will provide all things necessary for body and soul. Whatever trial he sends, he will turn to my good, the good of my family, and the good of my brothers and sisters. He is Almighty God. He is a faithful Father, and he is my hope in this vale of tears.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Who's In Charge Here?

When I was a teenager, the big bad bogeyman of the world was the Soviet Union. While previous generations had been taught to hide under their desks in case of a bomb, my generation watched the nuclear arms' race. Some of my teachers took great pleasure in telling us just how many times over the world could be blown up with current nuclear arsenals, and just how eager our enemies were  to push that button. Those accounts left me uneasy to say the least. The reality of evil disturbed me. Who was in charge, anyway? I believed in God, but I was not converted at that point, and I longed for some reassurance.

I have been a Christian now for 33 years, but I still have moments when I ask myself that same question. I don't think I'm the only one. The bogeymen are not gone; they just have different names. As Christians we face uncertainty about what is happening not only in the world, but to the Church; the Church has its own bogeymen.

In the Lord I Take Refuge

The psalmist in Psalm 11 opens with certainty: "In the Lord I take refuge." Yet, he faces the cries of the naysayers:
How can you say to my soul
"Flee like a bird to your mountain
for behold, the wicked bend the bow;
they have fitted their arrow to the string
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart;
if the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do?" (v.1b-4)
Do you ever feel powerless? Do you ever wonder "What can the righteous do?" It is difficult not to feel like everything is pointed against Christians. While we don't suffer nearly the kind of persecution that Christians in other part of the world endure, here in North America, Christianity is becoming more and more marginalized, and in some cases morally bankrupt. Yet all is not lost.
The Lord is in his holy temple;
The Lord's throne is in heaven; (v.4)

A Secure Presence

When I was twelve years old, I was able to stay home alone at night when my parents were out somewhere. While I enjoyed having the house to myself, by bed time, I was ready for them to return, and I would wait up until they got home. I wanted to know there was someone in the house. My parent's presence gave me a feeling of security. Just as I wanted to know my parents had arrived home and I was not alone, being reminded that the Lord is in his holy temple gives me a feeling of security. When that helpless feeling comes, I can rest in the truth that God is in control. He is with us. There may be times when we throw up our hands in despair and say "What can the righteous do?" but that is not a solution. Instead, we can be certain: the Lord is in his holy temple. When the whole world has gone mad, the reality is that God is right where he is supposed to be.

Putting trust in people and authorities only provides temporary security. We may think that our safety comes from authorities, political power, wealth, or personal influence. We may look for answers from social media or Christian celebrities, but we have something more sure, God himself.

Divine Favour

At the end of the psalm, in verse 7, we are told:

For the Lord loves the righteous
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face.

Alec Motyer, in his volume, Psalms By the Day, comments about verse 7: "It is not by flight (verse 1b) but by confidence in divine favour (verse 7) that life's challenges can be faced." Sometimes, life's challenges are the every day things: work, relationships, family. And sometimes, they are living in the shadow of disturbing news stories, natural disasters, and the fear of what is happening in and to the Church. But the remedy is the same. We must put our confidence in divine favour; in the hope of beholding his face. And that takes faith. It isn't always easy to just sit and wait when things around us are chaotic. But we can pray for the faith to cling to the certainty that God is in charge. And I am thankful that he is.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Book Review: Walking Through Twilight

Walking Through Twilight by Doug Groothuis
A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament by Douglas Groothuis

Four years ago, Doug Groothuis’s wife Becky was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia that begins in the language centers of the brain. Becky Groothuis is in her early sixties and cannot read or write. She has lost most of her ability to speak, too. Sometimes she knows she wants to say something, but can’t find the words to express her thought. Losing language would be devastating for anyone, but as an author, editor, and speaker, Becky’s world was the world of words. Now all of this is gone.

Becky can no longer care for herself, either. She can’t accomplish even simple tasks because she gets confused. She can’t take her dog for a walk without getting lost. She has a hired caregiver, but still, much of the responsibility for her care falls on her husband Doug, who is a philosophy professor at Denver Seminary.

This book is a collection of his reflections on his experience walking through the twilight of a mind and a life—and of his marriage, too. Many of his reflections are expressions of sorrow for what his wife and he have lost. He found permission to lament and a pattern to follow in scripture: “[C]onsider the many psalms of lament, such as 22, 39, 88, and 90, as well as the book of Lamentations.” But it is Ecclesiastes, he writes, “more than any other book of Holy Scripture, [that] has given me the perspective and language of lament necessary for my own sad sojourn . . .. It is a deep well of tough wisdom for the weary and wasted soul.”

Still, even as he cries out in grief, Groothuis knows his time of anguish will not last forever. Most of the biblical laments are ultimately hopeful, and he grieves with hope, too. One day, he knows, everything will be made gloriously right. In the meantime, “God counts our tears before he takes them away . . .. Learning to lament is, then, part of our lot under the sun.” In this world, we will have sorrow. In this world, we will lament. But in the world to come, we will forever rejoice.

Walking Through Twilight is an excellent resource for anyone who is suffering, but especially forthose who are caring for a loved one who is ill and facing death. Doug Groothuis is a Christian philosopher, so his reflections are often philosophical and theological. This is not a weakness, but a strength, because almost everyone who experiences deep trials searches for answers to the troubling philosophical and theological questions that arise from their suffering. And when we are in the midst of tribulation, we long to find meaning in it.

Groothuis grapples with some of the hard questions, like “What do I do when I feel like I hate God?” He admits that he is sometimes very angry with God, but he has come to see that at the heart of his anger toward God is rebellion against him. When we are angry with God because of our circumstances, we are, in effect, saying that if we were God, we would do things differently—and better—than he is. This is, of course, is a ridiculous thought and an idolatrous one. Even though Groothuis understands this, his trust in God “waxes and wanes . . .,” he writes. “When I am outraged at God, I try to think of God in Christ hanging on a cross for me. This sometimes brings me back to theological and psychological sanity if not sanctity. I must work with what I have and seek more as I walk through the ever-darkening twilight.”

Another question he tackles in his reflections is “It is okay to give up—to stop fighting and praying for a cure for a disease?” He finds a piece of his answer in Ecclesiastes: “There is a time to search and a time to give up” (Ecclesiastes 3:6). “To go down fighting an unwinnable war . . . is sheer idiocy—and exhausting,” he writes. There is a time to surrender and accept the inevitable, a time to relinquish our efforts to change our situation and accept the outcome our loving God, who knows what is best, is giving us.

One practical feature of this book is an appendix with suggestions for readers who want to help those who are in the midst of suffering. Groothuis concludes this appendix with an invitation “I am but a babe in this loving skill, suffering well with others,” he writes. “Will you join me in the school of lament? Will you learn to sit on the mourner’s bench before God and with those whom you love?” Reading and learning from Walking Through Twilight is a one way to prepare yourself to suffer with your suffering friends.

Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, where he heads the Apologetics and Ethics masters degree program. He has written numerous books, including Christian Apologetics and, most recently, Philosophy in Seven Sentences.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

My only comfort in life, in death, and in the face of dementia

For the last several years, my daughter and I have been spending Christmas with family. I'm thankful for these times because it's always a joy to be with the people you love. However, there is a practical aspect as well. My parents are aging, so this is an opportunity for their children to reassess their current situation and consider any help they might need in the days ahead. These discussions aren't easy, though, because any increased care will take away some of their remaining independence. It's also a difficult adjustment as the role of caregiver has shifted from parents to children.

My mom has dementia, and although she is functioning to some degree, she isn't able to do what she used to do including simple tasks most people would take for granted. She also doesn't think she needs any help. But the progression of her disease is inevitable barring a medical breakthrough or divine intervention. My dad has gotten more frail this past year, and the weight of helping my mom has taken its toll when he is already dealing with his own health issues. I wish he had an outlet to express what he is feeling deep down because I am sure he is grieving. But given his age and background, opening up is probably not the easiest to do. He is only willing to say but so much before it becomes overwhelming. These changes seem more pronounced compared to the last time I saw them. This was also the first time I said goodbye to my parents wondering how many more times I would be able to see them in this life., and it hit me hard.

As we were driving home, I grieved for my parents. Dementia is so cruel because it robs a person from the inside out, and it inflicts such loss, not just on the sufferer but on the surrounding family too. But as I was praying, I asked myself - is this life and its eventual deterioration all my parents have to look forward to? And as I asked the Lord to comfort us, the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism came to mind:
What is your only comfort in life and in death?
As providence would have it, a few Sundays after returning home, my pastor preached a sermon on this very catechism question and answer. While this is not Scripture, it encapsulates so many scriptural truths and the blessings and security they bring. It speaks of the unmerited love of God that would save sinners at the cost of the blood of Jesus. It speaks of full forgiveness of sins and deliverance from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God. It speaks of a loving Father who will not let a single one of his children fall through the cracks and that all things work together for our salvation. So whether in life or death or in the face of dementia, we are not left to fend for ourselves, but we belong to a faithful Savior. And in the end, we will be with him forever, fully healed from every effect of the fall.

Since that sermon, I've returned to these words again and again as I pray for my family. I can't think of any source of lasting comfort unless we find it in God and the hope of our salvation.  Your situation may be different than mine, but I hope you will draw comfort from these words as well.

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.  Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.