I always let poetry I’ve written settle for awhile before publishing it. There’s a couple of reasons behind this practice. First, I’ve found that the well which feeds writing poetry is typically much stormier than the well which feeds writing prose. It’s good to vet the emotion behind the poetry as much as the words themselves. Second, good poetry is personal yet cryptic in a way prose is not. I want to be careful about presenting myself or my circumstances in a myopic, alarmist manner – especially when the topic is suffering. That being said, I wrote this a few months back:
“Oh God!” I cried,
“It hurts much more for You to pry
My gaze away from lesser lights
To You than I had thought
For You I sought
Assuming that the cup of pain
You drank for me was Yours alone.
For how could God condone
For greater Hell
Be swallowed up by Christ and not
Absolve the lesser horrors as well?”
“Oh God!” I cried,
“Forgive! For I have sought and tried
To scale and gain the happy heights
Apart from what You’d taught:
That joy is bought
Through faith amidst the pain.
For darkened days You have me sown
That you might more be known.
And I will tell
What’ere You make my earthy lot
When I have You, all else is well.”
During my visit to Southern it was impossible to miss the emphasis placed upon the Southern Baptist Convention. I don’t think this is a bad thing, as it is rooted in a care and concern to see the SBC be saturated with an understanding of the person and work of Christ, but it is very different from the non-denominational church culture I’m used to. Like any traveller wanting to prepare himself for a new cultural context, I’ve been reading up on the distinctives and history of the SBC. I found this quote in Tom Nettles’ The Baptists: Key People Involved in Forming a Baptist Identity (Vol. 2):
The anti-Calvinist context of Helwys’ arguments indicates that he believed Calvinism fostered the assumed prerogatives of persecution. He even applied his central idea of the ‘Mistery (Mystery) of Iniquity’ to the distinctive doctrines of the Calvinists. ‘We are not able to the full desire of our souls to discover the depth fo the mystery of iniquity in this opinion of Particular Election and Reprobation and of so Particular redemption, nor to show forth the great mystery of godliness in the true and holy understanding of Universal or the General Redemption of all by Christ.’ That persecution and Calvinism did not share the same soul soon would appear by the arguments of many Particular Baptists for liberty of conscience. (28)
Early in their history, Baptists in England found themselves persecuted by their brothers who held to a covenant-theology Puritan understanding of ecclesiology. Some, like Helwys, reacted against the whole of Puritan doctrine. It is a caution to us in two directions. First, we must take care that our actions do not poison our good doctrine. By persecuting fellow believers for their beliefs about the ordinances, many Puritans drove their brothers further from the Lord, not closer to him. And second, we must take care that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater like Helwys and take care to separate clear biblical exegesis from misapplied biblical truth.
Have you ever stopped and wondered how the Corinthian believers managed to factionalize themselves between Paul, Peter, Apollos, and “Christ” without the aid of digital downloads? It’s not like Apollos or Peter tweeted pithy little theology sound-bites two or three times a day for their Corinthian fan club to chew over. And yet despite limited access to the teachings of these men, the Corinthian believers managed to shatter the unity of their church through by obsessing over the style and ministry of one particular church leader.
I’m definitely not the first to make this observation, but our generation is the first with almost unlimited access to thousands of sermons preached every Sunday. I can find a pastor who teaches in whatever style I most identify with. And rather than being challenged by the voices of people around me who have different perspectives and preferences, I can allow my understanding of biblical truth to be defined by a particular pastor I easily identify with rather than having to fight for clarity through the words of a pastor who communicates differently than I do.
Every preacher will over-emphasize and under-emphasize certain aspects of doctrine and practical living. The only preacher to ever strike a perfect balance was Jesus. I will naturally be drawn to listen to the preachers who emphasize what I emphasize and neglect what I neglect. Unfortunately, this means that I won’t be challenged in my weaknesses nearly as much as I should be. Putting only the familiar and the comfortable in my iPod will change me only in familiar and comfortable ways.
I don’t mean to sound like it’s wrong to have a favorite preacher. I have one: John Piper. He’s taught me incredible things about the glory of God and how delighting in Him is the chief end of man. He’s redefined my understanding of what it means to take radical risks for the kingdom of God and how often wisdom and risk are the same. And yet, listening to only Piper is dangerous. Dangerous that I will lose sight of some aspect of the full counsel of God that Piper does not emphasize and dangerous that I will begin to believe that only those who listen to Piper can understand the greatness of God. The Corinthians are proof that even a wonderful thing like unlimited access to sermons can be used by Satan and our own self-deceiving hearts to derail our spiritual growth.
So who do you listen to? Who do you read? Leave a comment at the bottom if you want. Outside of John Marc at Cornerstone, here’s the men who are shaping my understanding of the whole counsel of God:
The Master’s College Podcast (Various Southern California Pastors)
John Piper/Desiring God
Pyromaniacs (Phil Johnson, Frank Turk, Dan Phillips)
Authors (During 2010):
T. David Gordon
When we choose to follow Christ, we do not get to choose how we follow Christ. Usually our expectations do not match the reality of what Christ has bought for us on the cross. I think we all expect to be Jonathan Edwards writing Religious Affections, not David Brainerd grasping a bloody handkerchief in Edwards’ back room as he dies of tuberculosis. Or we expect to be Hudson Taylor opening up a vast unreached people group to the forward grasp of missionaries, not William Borden who spent his whole life preparing for life among the unreached and, on the way to his first missions assignment in Mongolia, contracted cerebral meningitis in Egypt and died at the age of 24. Everybody dreams of being Hebrews 11:1-35a; nobody dreams of being 35b-38.
God is out to prove to His creation and His adversaries that He is far more glorious than anything He has created. Some of His children He gives an abundance of wealth. And He’s out to prove through them that He is far more desirable than the siren seductions of wealth and the lie of self-sufficiency. Some of His children he gives a life of suffering. And through them He’s out to prove that the joy of His sustaining grace is of far greater weight than the sorrows of this life. The world does not understand how the wealthy man can care so little about what the world thinks is the pinnacle of life, and the world cannot understand how the sorrowful man can rejoice in his grief rather than spiraling down into hopelessness and bitterness.
But we all expect God to place us in the first category. The second category? I don’t want to worship that way. I want to be the one who escapes the edge of the sword (Hebrews 11:34), not the one who is put to death by the sword or sawn in two (Hebrews 11:37). I don’t want to worship that way. But when we choose to follow Christ, we don’t get to choose how we follow Him.
After Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac, the owners of the pigs come and implore Jesus to leave. And then, as they’re begging the Son of God to depart from their land, the one person who believes in Him approaches. Clothed in his right mind for the first time in years, the former demoniac approaches Jesus and implores Jesus to be allowed to accompany Him. Literally, “to be with Him.” And as this man implores Jesus to let him follow, Jesus turns to him and says no. “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.” No, former-demoniac-now-worshipper-of-God, the way you want to worship me is not to be your path. You are the one imploring me to let you come with me. I’m sending you to witness to the ones imploring me to leave.
Everyone pities Job. But what of the wives of Job’s servants that were killed in the fire that consumed the sheep? They didn’t get their husbands back once God restored Job’s possessions. Nobody wants to worship that way. What of Ezekiel, who had God say “I’m going to kill your wife and you can’t mourn because you’re to be a picture of my lack of mourning for Israel as they die.” And Ezekiel buried her that night. Nobody wants to worship that way.
And what of Christ, crying in the garden, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” Nobody wants to worship that way.
Sometimes it is a bitter thing to yearn for God to be made much of. It takes much fire to burn away the dross in our souls. Paul understood this. How else could he have described himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”? (2 Cor 6:10) We don’t get to choose how we get to follow Christ, but He does. And He knows that oftentimes we don’t want to worship in the way He has ordained for us. He knows because that was His road too: “This man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death.” (Acts 2:23) “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)
Christ understands exactly what it’s like to be torn between wanting God to be made much of and not wanting to worship in the way that often makes much of Him. He is the great high priest who understands our weaknesses, for He endured it Himself. If we are to gain an understanding of the power of His resurrection, we must too know Him in the fellowship of His suffering (Philippians 3:10). And, as a father comforts his scared and weary little son about to go into surgery, so too our Father stands beside us and comforts us, sustaining in trial and keeping alive the hope of eternal joy.
As I sat in Chicago O’Hare airport waiting for my connecting flight to depart, a stranger approached me.
“Is this the flight to Louisville?”
“Yes it is.”
“This is my first time in America.”
“Really? That’s great! Where are you from?”
I knew at that point this conversation wasn’t going to be ordinary. But I couldn’t have imagined where it was headed. He settled into the seat next to me in the terminal and started the small talk while I sized him up and tried to figure out a strategy for steering the conversation towards the gospel. He was dressed entirely western, so it didn’t seem like a high-risk proposition, though I hope that wouldn’t have mattered anyways. All at once he asked “So what do you do?” There’s my entry card. Lord, don’t let me miss this opportunity.
“I’m sort of like a youth pastor.”
“Really?!? I’m a Christian.”
All at once the six-inch scar running from his left ear to the corner of his mouth began to occupy more of my attention. I asked him how he became a believer, and that’s when I discovered that I was sitting next to a man who had lived what I read about in Voice of the Martyrs:
“I was born into a very wealthy family in Afghanistan. We were businessmen, and I was sent by my father across the border to Pakistan to worth with a contractor. We worked very closely together for a number of months. One day we were driving together and he pulled over to the side of the road and told me he was going into a building for a little while and not to follow him. I asked him what was inside the building, but he just said ‘Don’t follow me.’ After a while I got tired of waiting and went into the building looking for him. I walk up to him and he cried out in alarm ‘What are you doing here? You can’t be in here! This is a church and these are all Christians! You need to go before someone sees you in here.’
I refused to go. I wanted to find out what these Christians were all about. After attending the church for several months, I converted to Christianity from Islam. I came to see that Jesus Christ was God and not just a great prophet and that Islam was untrue and Mohammed was a false prophet.
Eventually I went home and the time came when I had to tell my father. I did not know what he would say or do. I walked up to him and said ‘Daddy, I have become a Christian. I believe in Jesus.’ Without saying a word he picked up a knife that was lying on the table and cut me here, here and here–fingers the heavy scar across his face, then gestures twelve inches down his chest and along his entire right thigh. I ran out of the house, fleeing for my life as he was trying to kill me. All the next day I had to stay in hiding as he and my eight brothers roamed the city looking for me to kill me. The Koran says to kill any who are not Muslim, and it is not a peaceful religion.
I was smuggled out of the country and into Pakistan by the same Christian contractor that I worked with. I bribed an official $12,000 USD and flew into Malaysia. The official said he would get me documents, but he just took off and I never saw him again. Time came for me to check out of the hotel I was staying in because I had no money and I just sat crying on the curb outside. I just cried, ‘Lord, you have abandoned me. I’ve given my wealth, family, everything for You and You’ve abandoned me! I’m going to get deported back to Afghanistan because I’m here illegally and then my family will kill me.’ As I wept on the side of the road, a stranger, a woman, came up to me and asked why I was crying. I told her my story and she said, ‘Come. You will live in my house.’ I lived with that woman for 3 years. I learned English and went to Bible College in Malaysia. I changed my name. It used to be Mohammed, but now it’s John Smith. I applied through the United Nations for asylum, and was granted it by the United States government as a religious refugee.”
It’s tempting to try and spin John’s testimony to make a point. And a lot of those would probably be legitimate conclusions to draw. But in my rush to find a lesson, a principle to draw out of John’s incredible story, I don’t want to forget about the cause of that story. God, through the gospel, took a man doubly hardened by his own sin nature and the lies of Islam and shattered his worldview through a little church in a little border town in Pakistan. God is indeed compassionate and gracious. He is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness. Who indeed is like Him?
Yesterday half of our church body was away on the annual Cornerstone Church Campout. Pastor John Marc and most of our young families took to the Oceano campgrounds, and I led the services back up in Atascadero. This Friday-Saturday-Sunday event has been a spring highlight for several years, but this year added a new wrinkle: We now have two services on Sunday mornings. Which means we have twice the Sunday School teachers, twice the ushers, twice the A/V crew, and twice the nursery caregivers as in previous years. And the need doesn’t lessen just because half the congregation is in Oceano.
This week demonstrated yet again that our church body isn’t full of consumers. On their own initiative, ushers from the first service realized we were shorthanded for the second service and stayed to serve. Others stayed to teach. I didn’t even realize it until someone mentioned how many people had unexpectedly stayed to serve when the need became apparent. What a blessing it is to serve in a church where the members themselves identify needs and step up without fanfare to sacrifice for the sake of others.
[For your discretion: This post quotes Dr. Helen Roseveare’s account of her being raped at the hands of the Congolese rebel army. The account is entirely non-graphic.]
I don’t really like Helen Roseveare the missionary. Which convinces me that I would probably like Helen Roseveare the person. He Gave Us a Valley serves as a sequel to Give Me This Mountain, both written about by her about her work as a medical missionary in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I say I don’t really like Helen Roseveare the missionary because she doesn’t fit what I want missionaries to be. Missionaries aren’t supposed to have their first impulse be to shrink back from suffering. They’re supposed to have made that decision to suffer already. Missionaries aren’t supposed to be rebuked by the natives for having a paternalistic view of them. They’re supposed to have a well-ordered plan to turn control over to national leaders once they’re spiritually mature enough to shepherd themselves. Missionaries aren’t supposed to wrestle over returning to the field after a furlough. They’re supposed to be totally committed to the country God has called them to be.
I say I’m convinced I would like Helen Roseveare the person because her honesty and humility shatters my preconceived notions of what missionaries are “supposed” to be like. Becoming a missionary does not elevate a believer to a new level of sanctification where the struggles of faith and belief suddenly change form. Noel Piper’s endorsement of this book appears on the cover: “Her stories are about a real person with a real God.”
And so, like the previous book, this one is never short on human weakness meeting divine aid. At the end of Give Me This Mountain, Roseveare is raped by the rebel Congolese army. In the second chapter of this book Dr. Roseveare records her second period of captivity with the rebels,
We were ushered into this first room: a settee, a few chairs with o cushions, a table at the other end; windows seemed to be all round and rough guards seem to be everywhere. We sat crouched on the cement floor, our backs to the wall, watching warily like trapped animals. Three or four younger guards, slightly better dressed, swaggered towards us and we shrank back. The first grabbed at a young woman missionary and Jessie Scholes, wife of our team leader, moved quickly to intercept him. There was an ugly moment as he raised his gun to strike her angrily for her interference…and the younger woman leapt up, almost offering to go with him, rather than see Jessie struck or hurt.
‘She’s suffered before,’ my coward heart encouraged me.
They dragged another to her feet and took her away. I shrank wretchedly behind the settee and watched her go, with misery and fear in my heart.
‘What did you counsel that young nun? OK for another, eh, but not for you?’ So some voice seemed to taunt me. Still I shrank and prayed to remain hidden from their wicked seeking eyes.
‘They’re looking round for more prey. Don’t forget, everyone left in here, but for you, is so far untouched,’ and there seemed to be only one young guard at that moment.
He took me, out into the dark.
I don’t quote this passage of the book for shock value, though it is shocking. I quote it because it crystallizes the tenor of the entire book. Initial human weakness overcome by divine enabling. She did what was Christ-like, it just took a little while to get there. When I say I don’t really like Dr. Helen Roseveare the missionary, I say so because her words are far too often a convicting portrait of my own heart. It’s easy to condemn her for her hesitation. It’s sorrowing to have the Spirit turn my condemnation upon myself as I realize I hesitate in circumstances with overwhelmingly less cost.
The crown jewel of this book is the last chapter, entitled Was It Worth It? And the answer is a resounding yes. Not spurred on by impulse. No one who has read this book and seen the cost of fellowshipping with Christ in His sufferings could ever confuse her Yes with an impulsive one. But rather it’s a yes motivated by an understanding of the superiority of Christ over all circumstances. He Gave Us a Valley won’t ever be the topic of an inspirational Disney movie. But it is the tale of a woman who faithfully served the Lord, and a God who faithfully upheld His servant.
My one criticism of the book is that oftentimes the gospel plays a secondary role. While Dr. Roseveare talks much about the Lord aiding her, rebuking her, and transforming her, we meet very little of Dr. Roseveare’s God. This is a book about her work, not about her motives. Despite this, the greatness of the Lord still shines forth in glory. Read the book…you’ll be thankful you did.
Bottom Line: 4/5
Photo courtesy of eden.co.uk