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Posts Tagged ‘trials’


I have long been an admirer of John Newton. He has written many letters and hymns that not only address my mind but also my heart. He was not a “speculative” theologian but an practical or pastoral theologian. He is one of my “long distance” mentors- stretching across both time and geography thanks to God’s providential gift of the printing press. While I am surely not the pastor (and Christian) I want to be, I am a better pastor because of John Newton.

Tony Reinke has done people like me a great service with his contribution to Crossway’s series Theologians on the Christian Life. This is the first book I’ve read in the series. It makes me want to read more. But let’s look at Newton on the Christian Life: To Live is Christ.

As Reinke notes at the end, he doesn’t say everything Newton does, nor cover every topic Newton covered. It would therefore be larger than the 4 volume Works of John Newton I also purchased recently.

In about 240 pages, Reinke summarizes Newton’s view of the Christian life and then examines key areas like Christ’s All-Sufficiency, the Daily Discipline of Joy in Jesus, Gospel Simplicity, the Discipline of Trials and so much more.

As the subtitle notes, the focus is on Christ, who as is noted above is All-Sufficient. Our Christian life is lived in union with the all-sufficient Christ. That does not mean he held to a view of Christian perfectionism. Newton made much of the reality of indwelling sin (there is an excellent chapter on the subject here). Too few pastors and theologians address this constant hindrance to our movement towards obedience. It is also the source of a steady stream of temptations. Any book on Christian living that makes little of this reality is fundamentally flawed.

One of Newton’s other contributions is the stages of Christian life: childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Wise pastors should consider this as they preach and structure discipleship programs. This is one of the chapters in which Keller is mentioned often, as he is nearly as dependent on Newton as he is on Lewis. We need to help people see their own immaturity and what it looks like to become more mature in Christ and how Jesus brings us there.

He includes a very convicting chapter on Seven Christian Blemishes. These are “respectable” sins that hinder our gospel proclamation and witness. He isn’t saying we aren’t Christians, but these attitudes and practices are sub-Christian. They are frequently a turn off to others. For instance, he mentions the one who quarrels about politics (I told you this was convicting). He was not against political involvement for he encouraged Wilberforce to stay in politics to put an end to the slave trade. The problem is people who are in no position to change anything (they are not politicians) and often lack sufficient information. Many people’s never-ending stream of political FB posts would fit here. These are rarely calls to prayer, or to contact your elected officials. This is one reason why some non-Christians are offended by our “politics”- not that we have views but how we express them or when we are ill-informed.

The chapter on the Discipline of Trials is also quite important. Too few pastors really spend time talking about this. We then fail our congregations in preparing them for suffering well, with an eye to Christ above all. It is a lengthy chapter, and really needed to be lengthy. We all experience trials, and unless we have a solid theological understanding of the ways God uses them we will be mired in immaturity and grow bitter against God.

The chapter on Christ-Centered Holiness was frustrating at points. I don’t disagree with what he said. I wish there was more. The focus is on beholding Christ as our Savior as well as our Pattern or Example. This is a very biblical idea (see 2 Cor. 5). Newton also talked about straining toward or agonizing toward holiness. He could have written more on this aspect of the pursuit of holiness.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time. It is much like Newton’s ministry in that it is profoundly focused on Christ. It is filled with quotes from Newton to illustrate his points, many great encouraging quotes. He brings in some others too via quotes. This produces a very encouraging book.

This is not just a book for pastors. Nor is it intended to be. Most Christians would benefit from this book. They will grow in their understanding of the Christian life, and therefore what God is up to in your life and how to grow up in Jesus. These are important things and Newton is a gentle but faithful pointer to Jesus.

 

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In some ways it was like I was in school. It was not a book I would have chosen to read. But, thankfully, the Women’s Ministry wanted me to preview a book they want to use this summer. They wanted something that had chapters that were not dependent upon one another. People will be on vacation at times, so they wanted each lesson to stand on itself. But the author is not within our theological heritage. She’s a Christian, and we want to honor our theological heritage instead of giving people mixed theological messages. I may address this topic at a later date.

They asked me to read To Fly Again: Surviving the Tailspins of Life by Gracia Burnham (with Dean Merrill). If you haven’t heard of Gracia, you’ve probably just forgotten that you did. She and her husband Martin were missionaries in the Philippines with New Tribes Mission. In 2001, they were kidnapped while enjoying an anniversary at a hotel. An Islamic militant group was rounding up foreigners to hold for ransom. This is called fund raising in certain corners of the world. They were held captive for over a year until there was one last gun battle with the army. This time Gracia was freed, while Martin was killed.

Martin and Gracia under guard

She has a missionary foundation and a speaking ministry. I heard her speak at a fundraiser in 2010. She’s very engaging and has a great message. That comes across in this book. The chapters are short, and have the feel of more of a talk than an essay. That’s okay in my book. She weaves stories from her life that help make the point she presents with Scripture. The overarching theme is dealing with unexpected suffering. Life interrupts our plans, and sometimes in a way that strips us of our identity. We try all kinds of methods and mechanisms to try and control the uncontrollable.

I could really identify with much of what she had said, particularly about identity. They “lost” their identity while being held captive. They were parents, but not parenting. Missionaries, but now captives. During the Great Transition of 2007-2010, I was a pastor but not. I earned my living doing pulpit supply, working in a hardware store and being an EKG tech at the hospital. My whole vocational identity was discombobulated. Down was up and up was down. Or was that sideways. Tough to tell in the tailspin, which is her point.

Due to the topic, the book is fairly “atheological”.  What I mean is that she doesn’t draw on the distinctive beliefs of any particular theological heritage within Christianity. The book is thoroughly Christian. Her view of sovereignty fits under both Calvinism and Arminianism (as far as it is expressed), but clearly not Open Theism. It is not a deep book, but it is an encouraging book. She helps us put our crashed and burned events back within the context of God’s love and care. Tragedy does not mean that God is weak or unloving. It means that He has greater purposes in mind than we do. We see this often in Scripture. I think of Joseph, Moses (the middle years) and particularly Jesus. For some reason we think it all stopped because of Jesus, not that Jesus gives it meaning. Paul and Peter had a more biblical perspective than we do. And Gracia is trying to point us in that direction- oh, so gently.

My one criticism is that she calls union with Christ a metaphor. She’s not a theologian, I get that. She also lives in a time when we have greatly neglected the importance of union with Christ. It is a real thing, not a metaphor. If we are not united to Christ, we have nothing of Christ’s. In light of the overall context, this is not a huge deal. Just one of those things a guy like me notices.

I’ve been going thru some smaller tailspins lately (more like minor setbacks), and I would find encouragement here. It also reminded me that I want to read In the Presence of My Enemies one of these days.

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In the course of ministry, hard spots are inevitable. It could be a set back, a conflict or perhaps an illness. They cannot be avoided. They are part of the providence of God. They are for your sanctification.

Do you remember that often? I mean between the whining, complaining and the pity parties you throw. We all do that. But do we remember they are intended for our maturity?

 2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1 (ESV)

How is that, you might ask. One important thing is perseverance. James 1 points all Christians in this direction. Pastors are no exception from that instruction. We should not be surprised when the hard spots hit. Pastors, just like lay people, will have their faith tested in order to produce steadfastness, otherwise known as perseverance. There can be no maturity without perseverance. You can’t excel at anything without perseverance. Ask any great musician. Ask a woodworker or a computer programmer. Perseverance through boredom (that’s been a tough one for me), pain, disappointment and more.

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In one of his letters to Daniel West, John Newton talks about trials.  His friend had been in the “furnace” recently, and Newton addresses that.

“I hope you have much to say of the grace, care, and skill of the great Refiner, who watched over you; and that you have lost nothing but dross.”

If you have been in a trial recently, you may have trouble hearing that.  My family’s recent trials were far from pleasant.  As we went through the furnace it was had to see all the grace, care and skill of the Refiner.  But I can see it more clearly in retrospect.  Pain, physical or emotional, has a way of blinding your eyes.

This afternoon I was listening to Daniel Amos Live at Cornerstone 2000.  Terry Taylor, the lead singer and song writer of the band, shared that it had been a hard year.  But that is when it gets back to the main thing- intimacy with Jesus.

“Let this experience be treasured up in your hearts for the use of future times.”

Yesterday’s trials are meant to assist us in tomorrow’s trials.  “Remember” is a frequently used word in Deuteronomy 8.  Israel needed to remember their time in the wilderness, and God’s steadfast love there.  We can’t just move on, but take lessons with us.  We have to call His past faithfulness to mind when we begin to enter the furnace again.

Many of those trials have to do with our “weak spots”.  God is purifying us of habitual sin (which he first forgave in Christ).

“You know your weak side; endeavor to set a double guard of prayer there.”

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My friend, the Jollyblogger, has been commenting on his unexpected journey as a cancer patient.  He says some very good things about what he has learned and the difficulty he has experienced.

One thing he mentions is the realization that so much is out of your hands.  We like to think we are control of large parts of our destiny (I’ve taken too many tests for job openings that expect you to answer that success is the result of ONLY hard work).  I can identify with that sense of powerlessness, that lack of control, in my own set of circumstances.  Mine are different- I’m not facing the possibility of death.  But there are some incredibly unattractive alternatives encircling me.

I have little to no control over the outcomes as I search for a new position.  My fate, seemingly, is in the hands of others.  I can’t control pastoral search committees.  I can’t control human resource departments.  I appear to be at the mercy of other sinners who are just as inconsistent as myself.

I’m not called to be in control, but to be responsible.  Surely, no search committee will call me to be their pastor if I don’t apply for that position.  The same goes locally as I attempt to make ends meet while searching for a new pastorate.  I must take the time to fill out forms, send out e-mails, look on the internet.  I must then WAIT (and wait, and wait- while continuing to follow other leads).

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