Dying well: A Word for St. Bartholomew’s Day

What are you doing to celebrate St. Bartholomew’s Day?  I’m celebrating by asking God to give me courage to live and die well.

Have no plans for St. Bart’s Day?  Let me tell you a story.

Shortly after the Reformation hit France in 1555, French Reformed Churches were covering the country.  Some estimate that more than 2000 Reformed churches emerged and that half the French population had left Catholicism.  These French Calvinists were known as Huguenots.  As this Reformation advanced, the hostility that existed between the Catholics and Protestants led to an ongoing, bloody “war of religion” during the decade spanning 1562 to 1572.  But on August 18, 1572, some Parisians were hopeful that the bloodshed would soon stop.

Catherine de Medici

The grounds for their optimism was an ethically-dubious marriage of convenience.  On this day, Henry of Navarre (a Protestant) and Margaret of Valois (a Catholic) were married.  Thousands came.  Prominent Catholics and respected Huguenots, who for ten years had been in conflict, descended on France for many days of celebration together.

Unbeknownst to her family, Catherine de Medici, the mother of the bride, was doing more than planning a wedding.  She was plotting to assassinate Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, a beloved French war hero and well-known Protestant.  On his early morning walk around the rue de Bethisy, a single shot was fired.  Coligny shifted abruptly, causing the bullet to narrowly miss his vital organs.  His left forearm was fractured and his index finger was lost.

Gaspard de Coligny

When her plan failed and subsequently came to light, the Queen Mother was angrily confronted by her embarrassed 22-year-old son:  “Mother, if you going to kill Coligny, why don’t you kill all the Huguenots in France, so that there will be no one left to hate me?”  Sadly, Catherine heard her son, marking today’s date as a dark day in church history.

During the early hours of August 24, 1572, Catherine ordered the gates of the city locked.  Major thoroughfares were blocked by chains making it impossible to leave the city.  During the night, the homes of Paris Huguenots were marked with white crosses and in the early morning hours, the bells of Saint Germain le Auxerrois, a church near the Louvre, began to ring.    This served as a signal to the armed guards to invade the marked homes, killing their occupants while messengers ran through the streets urging the citizens, “Kill! Kill!  The King commands it!”  Admiral Coligny was the first to die, murdered as he knelt in prayer.  His body was hung from his window.  The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre lasted for weeks.  Bodies, including those of women and children, littered streets of Paris and were thrown from bridges into the river that snaked through the city.  Whole families perished.  Accurate estimates are impossible but it is probable that 10,000 French Protestants lost their lives on this occasion.  1100 were pulledfrom the Seine River.

So, what principles might we lift from this grim chapter in church history?  Here are a few:

  • Death is certain.  (Hebrews 9:27)
  • Gospel people suffer.  Always have.  (Matthew 10:21; John 16:2; 2 Timothy 3:12)
  • No cause exists that is more persecution-worthy than the gospel.  (Acts 5:40-41)
  • God sees.  (Luke 11:50-51; Revelation 2:10; 6:10-11)
  • We are heirs to a bold legacy.  (Hebrews 11:33-40)
  • Martyrdom is real.  Martyrdom is now.  Learn more here.  (Matthew 16:24-25)
In places like Qatar and North Korea and Somalia and the Sudan and Nepal and Indonesia, brothers and sisters will end this day with Christ because they would not deny Him.  May God give them grace to stand in the day of testing.  A few weeks ago, my son, Caleb, returned from a region known for its hostility toward the gospel.  Dear friends are there, seeking to, in John Piper’s words, “spread a passion for the supremacy of Christ for the joy of all peoples.”  A highlight of Caleb’s trip was meeting a humble, unassuming married couple who had endured repeated episodes of persecution because they love and serve the Lord Jesus.  The husband told Caleb, “I am grateful for the persecution for it allows me an opportunity to love and forgive those who would harm me.”  Heroic.
This quiet couple carries the legacy of those in Hebrews 11 who, “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war. . . were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life . . . suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment . . . were stoned . . . were sawn in two . . . destitute, afflicted, mistreated . . . of whom the world was not worthy (Hebrews 11:33-38 ESV)
Everyone dies, but some deaths are more tragic than others.  A death brought on by the excesses of Western indulgence is a sad death.  Most American’s do not fear the executioner’s sword.  There is a higher probability that polyunsaturated fat will get them before a Muslim cleric or Columbian cartel.  And that’s a tragic death.

It is no tragedy to close your eyes under the heavy hand of some mortal oppressor only to open them to see, for the first time, the One Whose glory consumed you until your dying breath.  That death is not tragic. In Jeremiah Burroughs’ Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, he quotes the marytr’s life-infusing reminder, upon facing the sword:  “Though we have had a hard breakfast, we shall have a good dinner.”

So, Happy St. Bartholomew’s Day, everyone!  Be bold.  We were made for another age.

This morning, I was emboldened by Sovereign Grace’s treatment of this forgotten hymn by Henri Malan:

It is not death to die,
To leave this weary road,
And midst the brotherhood on high
To be at home with God.

It is not death to close
The eye long dimmed by tears,
And wake, in glorious repose,
To spend eternal years.

It is not death to fling
Aside this sinful dust
And rise, on strong exulting wing
To live among the just.

The Lifelong Joy of Learning Marriage

For the past few months, Bridget and I have spent a few hours every other Tuesday over coffee with our sweet friends who are preparing for marriage.  We are nearing the end of our time together (They informed us tonight, “One month and two days!”).  We hate to see it end.

Technically, it’s premarital counseling, but it has the comfortable feel of a casual conversation.  We have covered a wide range of topics:  the one-flesh relationship, the Christ/Church parable, the nature of the marriage bond, how the fall affected relationships, roles, marriage as sanctification, how to respond when sinned against and more.   We’ve drawn from contemporaries (like Andreas Kostenberger and Dave Harvey) and the old dead guys (like Martin Luther and Jeremiah Burroughs.)  There is just so much to take in.  Someone has said that newlyweds should not be issued “marriage licenses”, but rather “learner’s permits.”

I’m unsure how many couples I’ve done premarital counseling for, but this trip through the material has been particularly enjoyable for me.  In part, it’s because this couple has the humble disposition of learners.  When we get together, they are fully present.  They both ask such insightful questions.  The husband-to-be is a copious, diligent notetaker.  The bride-to-be is completely engaged in the discussion.

Toward the end of tonight’s session, there was this really honest moment when the prospective groom (no doubt, wearied from addressing invites, registering, picking out shoes and vests and the myriad other banal decisions as the big day nears) set down his pen, leaned back in his chair, glanced at his future wife and said, “I just can’t wait to start learning this together!”

In that moment, we all understood where he was.

The privilege of “learning marriage together” is one of life’s great joys.  On our ride home, Bridget commented on how good it is to revisit these topics.   It really is.  She and I are a year into our third decade of marriage and I can say more than ever, I understand this young man’s heart.  May I have the grace to sit under my own teaching.  May God give me the same eager, “pen poised”, eyes-riveted enthusiasm about caring for my precious wife that I see in this good man.  And may that same zeal mark him throughout his married life.  Marriage is too great a privilege not to enjoy!

How Paul Handled Therelessness.

As I woke up this morning, I was immediately aware of my “therelessness”. Friday morning is our weekly Theology Breakfast and I was not there. Theology Breakfast is our informal weekly gathering at Pimentos on Bearden Hill. The Godward conversation among friends is a consistent encouragement, something I hate missing. But today, I’m forced to miss. We are enjoying a few days on beautiful Lake Jackson in North Georgia. Each year, our extended family gathers for a weeklong vacation — a tradition we enjoy very much, but my thoughts are never far from home. Being here means I’m not there.

Paul understood therelessness.

When he was in Corinth, he wanted to be in Rome. When he was in Caesarea, the Philippian believers were on his mind and in his heart. When in Greece, he longed for Jerusalem. When he was on the Mediterranean coast, he wanted to be with friends in Macedonia. That frustration followed Paul throughout his missionary work. It’s inescapable: ministry here precludes ministry there.

In fact, Paul’s concern for his friends’ joy and progress in the faith drove him to choose here over there. (Philippians 1:23-25) Delaying the joys of heaven, Paul sacrificed his personally preferable there for his friends’ spiritually advantageous here. (But that’s neither here nor there.) His hereness or thereness was driven by a protective love for those under his care. Which raises a question: how do you care for people there when you’re here?

The way Paul answers therelessness is brilliant. His answer? Elders. Plural.

On Paul’s first missionary journey, visiting Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, he saw the importance of local, onsite leadership and “appointed elders for them in every church [and] with prayer and fasting committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:23) This Pauline method insured that the fledgling churches across Asia Minor would be well cared for as the apostle moved from here to there. The church’s need for responsible, called leadership is one reason young Titus was not released from his difficult assignment in Crete. “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you”. (Titus 1:5)

Last Sunday, our church affirmed the appointment of three elders to join the two already in place. Each man exhibits a humble readiness to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3)

God has assembled a team of overseers under whose shepherding eye, our fellowship will grow and thrive. So while I’m here, they’re there. And their thereness encourages me in my hereness. The steady presence of four called, qualified, accountable leaders gives me a confidence that our church is being well cared for. Our elders are present to comfort, encourage and exhort the family there. It’s happened already this week. Elders shepherding. This Lord’s Day, the Scriptures will be reverently, cautiously and authoratatively preached. Should a crisis arise within our assembly, men are ready to lead those they love through hardship. Were sickness to strike, one or more of these men would be there to pray. If counsel is needed, wise advisers are present. Basswood is being shepherded.

Contrast this with what is so often seen in churches, where the task of direction-setting, vision-casting and pastoral care is vested in one man. Pastors under that system might be tempted toward an inflated assessment of their own importance. I once heard a pastor tell his congregation, “My job is to lead and to feed. Your job is to follow and to swallow.” That’s not innocent swagger — it’s self-serving and shameful. As they say, “One monkey doesn’t stop the show.”

A more pressing concern (one I contend is scripturally-warranted) is that when one man carries the full shepherding load, the church is left in a vulnerable place. In recent days, I have heard of several tragic stories of churches that were decimated by the moral default of their Senior Pastor. In some cases, those churches will likely never recover. The short-sighted structure of long-held tradition sabotaged the church’s health.

Churches need leaders. Plural.

So content that our friends in Knoxville are being capably shepherded,  our family will worship this Sunday with strangers. We will sing and fellowship. We will pray and worship. We will hear the Bible preached.  I pray that Christ will be magnified.  Still . . .

Here is not home.   When 10:30 on Sunday comes and our brothers and sisters at Basswood are gathered, there’s only one place we want to be.