On Taste, Shade and Common Grace

Green SmoothieLet me just say up front:  I know that some of you women proudly feed your family organic chaff flakes and hemp milk for breakfast.  That’s your business.  It’s likely that, within our own church family, there are ladies (for whom I have real brotherly affection) who harvest and mill their own wheatgrass, churn their own butter and have cheesecloth-covered vats of something fermenting in their basements.  Again, that is none of my business (though I might question the legality of that last one!)  This is America.  If you feel strongly about giving your children arame, kefir, kelp and cod-liver oil smoothies, that is your constitutionally-protected right, and far be it from me to mock you.  Again, that’s 100% your business!  Now, some dear sister may be saying, “Oh, Ronnie! But you’ve just never had seaweed prepared right!”  Thank you, but I’ll just trust you on that.  And yes, I’ve seen Food, Inc.
 
I just want you to think about something for a second.  Think about an Oreo cookie with peanut butter on top that’s covered with another Oreo.  You got that?  Now, spread peanut butter on top of your two-Oreo stack and put it in a cupcake-paper-lined muffin tin.  Now, do that over and over until you fill up your muffin tin.  Maybe two or three muffin tins.  Then [and this is important] cover all these little Oreo-peanut butter stacks with brownie batter!  Then, put them in the oven and bake them!  And eat them!  Warm.  My father (who is from South Alabama) has a line that I think applies here.  “You put one of those onOreo Brownie Cupcakes top of your head and your tongue’ll slap your brains out trying to get to it!”
 
I don’t share this just to torment the men whose wives pack kale chips and sprouted flax nuggets in their lunch.  I share it to illustrate a great theological truth.  In fact, it is one of the most mysterious of all doctrines.  And one that I love to contemplate.
 
In Latin, it’s called gratia communis — common grace.  The Westminster Dictionary of Theological terms defines common grace as “God’s universal, non-saving grace in which blessings are given to humanity for physical sustenance, pleasure, learning, beauty, etc., as expressions of God’s goodness.”  In short, common grace is every favor that is “common” to humanity — every pleasant experience or enjoyment short of conversion.  Examples are everywhere.  
  • The joy of conversation.
  • Imagination.
  • A well-crafted argument.
  • Music (Boston College professor, Peter Kreeft has famously argued for God’s existence by pointing to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach).  
  • Color.  
  • A well-told story. 
  • Shade.
  • Marital intimacy.
  • Poetry.  
  • Baseball.
  • Wildflowers.  (Beautiful flowers on the side of the road?  That nobody plants?)
  • Humor.
  • A good, strong cup of black coffee.  
  • Art.
Examples of common grace are abundant and enjoyed by all people — even those who oppose God — around the world.  
 
I’m sure you’ve heard the familiar humanist objection:  “How can I acknowledge a God Who permits earthquakes and hurricanes?”  Seen rightly, this is no hard question.  In a world populated entirely of those who have defied God’s rule, hurricanes are no mystery at all.  Do you know what is a mystery?  Oreo and Peanut Butter Brownies, that’s what.  What explanation does a humanist have for the existence of Oreo and Peanut Butter Brownies?  Surely, a man would have to be spiritually blind to bite into one of these and not testify to the glory of the benevolent God Who designed this experience!  How aware are you that you were created by a kind God to recognize and distinguish various tastes?  God has equipped us with a whole cluster of tiny, busy, highly-sensitive receptors — thousands of them — that awaken and excite and heighten our enjoyment of these good gifts!  We’re given little neurotransmitters that direct chemical processes involving tryptophan and endorphins and serotonin.  And it’s a completely involuntary response.  It’s like shaking a happy little chocolate snow globe in your mouth!  Why would God permit His enemies to know this experience?  Common grace.
 
Let me encourage you.  Ours is a world that was marred by rebellion.  It is no surprise to you to hear that we are inhabitants of a broken world.  Yet, in spite of that, there are (everywhere) evidences of God’s abundant generosity!  We would do well, I think, to gratefully note all that is right in our imperfect world.  God is very good to us.  You might pause to thank God for your taste buds (that is, unless your mother insists on giving you kale chips, which might’ve caused them to go dormant.  And atrophy.)  I contend that it would be an appropriate application of 1 Corinthians 10:31 (and not the least bit irreverent) to fix and enjoy this expression of common grace.  Then, wipe your mouth, set down your napkin and sing the Gloria Patri.   God is good.  And praise is right.  You can find the recipe here.

Signs. Seasons. Days. Years.

Among the astonishing ways that God displayed His glory in creation was the whole complex gravitational relationships between theEarth from above earth, its moon and the sun.  Here we are, a massive orb, floating (on nothing!) in a predictable circuit around the sun, year after year!  I’m told that the brightest astrophysicists in the world remain puzzled regarding what exactly gravity is and have little explanation for what causes it to work as it does.  That just makes me smile.  How very great is our God!  Genesis 1:14 tells us that this whole cosmic system exists as a means of marking out time — ” . . . let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and for years.”  There’s such grace in this.  Jesus encourages us not to busy our minds over the uncertainties of the future.  “Do not”, He said, “be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.  Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:34)  Were we forced to chart a course for the next year, considering all the contingencies and uncertainties, we would be swept under.  Years overwhelm us.  So, our Lord gave us days.   And, to that end, each night, our Lord turns the lights out and puts us all to bed, “giving His beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2).  That’s sweet, isn’t it?  David said, “I will lie down and sleep in peace for You alone, O Lord, make me to dwell in safety.”  (Psalm 4:8).  The seasons, likewise, testify to God’s unshakable sovereignty.  So, we sing, “Summer and Winter and Springtime and Harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above, join with all nature in manifold witness, to Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.”      
 
In time, God would establish yearly festivals as a means of enforced reflection and remembrance.  
  • Don’t forget your deliverance.
  • Don’t forget My promise.
  • Don’t forget I fed you in the wilderness.
  • Don’t forget that all you have you were given.
  • Don’t forget a perfect Sacrifice will come.
God seems set on a regular pattern of pausing and collectively reflecting.  It is good that we would “number our days, that we might apply our hearts to wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).  Our memories are simply not reliable, so times of disciplined remembrance are necessary.  It’s why we commune so often.  The beginning of a new year seems to be a perfect time to recount God’s mercies — mercies, apart from which, we would be “consumed” (Lamentations 3:22).  Consider how He has fed you — how He has shielded you from all that your sins have earned you.  Think of the many common graces you’ve enjoyed over these months — laughter, meals, music, beauty, coffee, art, a great story, etc.
 
It is good to look back in gratitude.  It is also good to look forward in faith.  We may confidently settle this in our minds: the same rock-solid faithfulness that has carried us these past twelve months will surely sustain us over the coming twelve.  Our very lives are held by the One who choreographed the primordial planetary waltz, sustained it since Eden and will insure, by His decree, that our floating home turn another pirouette today.  Breathe easy, Christian.  Let that truth steady you as you enter a new year.  You are well-cared-for.  As you’re praising God for His unfailing care throughout 2013, you might also offer high praises that the same trustworthy, loyal love will be your every-day companion throughout 2014.  He is good — so very, very good.  So, Happy New Year, everyone!  Your wise, strong and capable God has everything well in hand!

Worshiping through Hardship: An Encouragement to make a 9-Minute Investment in your Theology of Suffering

Almost every Tuesday morning (including yesterday), one of the men in our early prayer meeting Imagewill pray for those in our congregation who face lingering physical weaknesses — generally, by name.  Several in our congregation live with pain that hardly ever relents.  Can you imagine?  
 
Mercifully, it is infrequent that I get sick.  Every couple of years, though, I’ll have a short bout with the flu and when that happens, I’m insufferable.  To watch me, you’d think this is the worst thing a human has ever endured.  I moan and whine and shuffle around the house like an aged man.  If I were not me, I would mock me for being such a baby!  For the past few years, I try to remember, when sickness hits, that what is to me a brief parenthesis in an otherwise healthy life is the every day reality for a few of my dear friends.  For some of the people we love, pain is a constant companion.  They wake up hurting, hurt all day and go to bed hurting.  Stop and think about that.  I wonder:  what effect would you expect that kind of experience to have on your view of God?  
 
As we were driving away from church on Sunday, Bridget and I recounted different conversations we had had with people in our church who were facing hardship and sorrow.  There’s just no getting around it — this side of Eden, suffering is a cruel reality.  You probably know that the prevailing “folk theology” leaves little room at all for real suffering, including chronic illness, death or deep sadness  Naturally, this error leaves us ill-equipped to reconcile faith and experience.  If a season of providentially-decreed hardship can deconstruct my understanding of who God is, then it is a matter of time before I quit worshiping.  The implications of neglect in this area are great.  While we make no effort to answer the unanswerable, we simply must think Biblically on this topic.
 
As a means of serving that end, can I encourage you to watch the 9-minute discussion on this topic between Matt Chandler, John Piper and David Platt that was recently posted by the Gospel Coalition?  The tone and content is warm, pastoral and wise.  While we couldn’t expect this short exchange to fully address such a difficult subject, it will provide a starting point for your considerations of hardship, pain and the providence of God.  You can find it here.

On Franks Hot Sauce, Cathead Biscuits and the Kindness of God

BiscuitsFar be it from me to contradict Stonewall Jackson on anything.  An iconic Confederate General and educator, few characters in American history command more respect.  150 years removed from his tragic death at Chancellorsville, Thomas Jonathan Jackson remains immortalized as one of the finest military tacticians our country has ever produced.  History tells us that he was a sharp theologian as well.  He was brilliant, influential, admirable and much-revered.
 
But he was wrong about butter.
 
Maybe you’ve heard that as a young man, Jackson first tasted butter on a biscuit.  And he liked it.  A lot.  As the story goes, Stonewall Jackson was so concerned that he might like butter on his biscuits too much (and consequently make it an idol) that he resolved then and there to eat his biscuits dry.  Which is very, very sad.  For the rest of his sad life, Stonewall Jackson abstained from butter, eating his biscuits dry.  Can you imagine anything more pitiful?  A hot biscuit with lots of melted butter is one of life’s great joys!  (Someone has said that the first bite is a half-moon.  The second bite, a total eclipse!)
 
Remarkably, God designed our bodies to be sustained and nourished by the good things we eat.  Isn’t that wonderful?  How very kind of God!  Surely, it is for this reason that we are meant to eat food in a way that amplifies and exposes the excellencies of God’s character.  “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).  If your table is typical, good food will be featured in a special way tomorrow.  I wonder: will you give thought during the meal to the miracle of taste?  Will you slow down long enough to consider the sweetness of God in giving such wonderful gifts?  It’s noteworthy that Scripture uses the language of taste to speak of our Lord, His Word and His ways.  God, it appears, equipped the human tongue with papillae containing thousands of little receptors that allow us to discern sweet from bitter or sour from savory.  Why did He do this, do you suppose?  Perhaps, He did this, in part, to provide a window through which we might experience delight in Him!  David certainly did.
 
“. . . how sweet are Your words to my taste . . .”  Psalm 119:103
” . . . my soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food . . .” Psalm 63:5
Concerning the Words of God, he said, “. . . sweeter than honey . . .”  Psalm 19:10
” . . . O, taste and see that the Lord is good . . .” Psalm 34:8 
 
God made us to taste!  Christians have always flourished in the tension between epicurean indulgence and ascetic deprivation.  Paul told Timothy that it was God Who has given “all things richly to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17)  This morning, a friend made a pithy observation.  “Christians fast”, he said, “but they also feast.”  True.  So, glorify God as you eat.  Practice restraint, but don’t fail to enjoy the kindnesses of God.  Experience it all as a gift.  
 
Solomon advised us to “eat joyfully”.  It could be that what makes gluttony so grievous is that it amounts to unconsidered and immoderate consumption.  How much better that we enjoy nice long meals with friends and family, pausing often to relish particular tastes.  God meant it that way.  
I have long contended that a hot Krispy Kreme doughnut is ironclad evidence for the existence of a benevolent God.  How else would you propose that we account for such gifts?  
A cup of strong black coffee?
Or a South Carolina peach?  
Or Franks Hot Sauce?  
Or chocolate?  
Or a good steak?  
Or jalapenos stuffed with bacon and cream cheese?  
Or those little weenies in barbecue sauce?
 Or warm oatmeal cookies?
Or Kalamata olives?  
Or hot cider?  
God is kind and gracious.
 
So Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  Eat your meat “with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46).  And by all means, in light of God’s goodness and for the sake of His glory, butter your biscuit!

On Nehemiah 8 and the Public Reading of Scripture.

Sunday, we will read Nehemiah 8.  And that should excite you.
 
In 2010, our church embraced the practice that Paul commended in 1 Timothy 4:13. 
 
“. . . devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture . . .”  
 
Over these years, our pattern has been to simply read a passage from the Bible — generally one chapter a week.  We have explored Ezra Reading the Lawdifferent genres of Scripture including historical narrative, poetry, epistles and — over recent weeks — lists of names and numbers.  It is all profitable.  Since we began this practice, we have read through the following books, alternating Old and New Testaments, in this order:  Ephesians, Malachi, Galatians, Ecclesiastes, Mark, Psalms 120-134, Philippians, Micah, Colossians, Joel, Acts, Ruth, Hebrews, Psalm 119, 1 & 2 Peter, Hosea, Jude, Obadiah, 1 Corinthians, Ezra, 2 Corinthians and Nehemiah.  Each week, it is a particularly reverent time.  We love hearing the simple reading of the Word of God over the people of God.
 
A similar scene is in view this Sunday when we arrive at the eighth chapter of Nehemiah.  The city is secure.  The people of God are gathered.  A wooden platform is constructed and set out in the open near the southeastern entrance to Jerusalem.  Then Ezra the priest mounts the platform, carrying the scroll which contains the book of Deuteronomy and begins to read.  
 
Can you imagine the excitement?  It seems that the impulse of the people, upon hearing the Scripture, was to stand, which they did for hour after hour.  As Ezra read, the Levites circulated through the crowd insuring that everyone understood.  Scripture says that Ezra blessed the LORD and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen”, lifting their hands.  Then they bowed their heads and worshiped with their faces to the ground.  This passage says they wept when the Word of God was read.  Then, Ezra, Nehemiah and the Levites comfort the people, telling them not to weep.  Rather, they are urged to fix a big meal, eat good food, drink good wine and share it all with others, for “the joy of the LORD is your strength!”  Then, Nehemiah tells us that there was great rejoicing that day because ” . . . they had understood the words that were declared to them.” (8:12)
 
I’m told that there are 4300 different languages globally that have no Scripture.  None.  This represents 615,000,000 speakers who have never read or heard a single paragraph from the Bible in their own language.  Not once.  Suppose you were a tribal herdsman in Cameroon with no Bible.  Yet, word reaches you that years ago, God spoke and that His Words were contained in a book.  What would you give for that book?  Would you sell your cattle and land?  Would you give up your home in exchange for the book of God?  Would you sell yourself into indentured servitude to obtain a copy of that book?  Could there be a possession more valuable than the book of God?  
 
As I type this, I have 17 copies of this book within arm’s reach (not including the digital versions contained on my computer and phone).  Should I not be overwhelmed at this grace?  It seems right that each Sunday, as the offertory ends and the reader approaches the platform, that a low, rumbling murmur of anticipation should sweep across the room.  We have the book of God.  May God grant that His Word never fail to thrill us!  
 
So, I say again: Sunday, we will read Nehemiah 8.  And that should excite you.

Beloved Thomasville: Encouragement to love your Future Home

Downtown ThomasvilleWhen Caleb was a year old, our family moved to Thomasville, Georgia.  I had taken a job on staff at a church there and became immediately enamored by this charming Southern town — her sweet people, rich history and stately Old South architecture.  

I loved Thomasville.  

Still do.  

In the weeks leading up to our move, I began poring over maps and articles about Thomasville.  I picked up every piece of free promotional literature the Chamber of Commerce offered and read them all, front to back.  An insufferable know-it-all, I felt obligated to share what I learned with Bridget and my, was she grateful! 

I bet you didn’t know that Joanne Woodward, Bailey White and Heisman Trophy Winner Charlie Ward were all born in Thomasville.

Bridget would cock her head with interest, no doubt grateful to be married to such an informed man (and one so willing to share!)

 After we moved there, I continued to fascinate her with all that I knew about our new home.  In the evenings, if we were walking Downtown, I might casually gesture at one of the buildings,

Mamie Eisenhower used to get her prescriptions filled at Thomas Drug Store.  You know, the Eisenhowers visited here often.  That Ike was quite a quail hunter!  Yes Sirree.

She’d smile.  

You know what else?  You’ll be interested to learn that Jackie Kennedy’s first public appearance after JFK’s assassination was right there at All Saints Episcopal Church.  She used to take mass there whenever she visited the plantation.

As you might expect, Bridget was just riveted.  I became an obnoxious fan of Thomasville; the mayor could not have been prouder! 

I laugh about it now, but it somehow seemed important to me to know all that I could about the place that would be my home!  Which leads me to ask, how well do you know your future home?  

Paul challenged his Colossian friends:

If you have been raised with Christ, seek [keep on seeking] the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds [direct your fixed attention] on things above, not on things that are on the earth. 

I wonder:  Does your mind ever drift to the place that will be your home in 75-100 years?  Do you ever think about it?  Does heaven occupy your thoughts at all?  Do you love it?  How long would it take to exhaust all you know about your heart’s true home?  A young woman in our church, a 19-year-old, will often remind her struggling friends of our hope.  “Ah”, she’ll say with a bright countenance, “but heaven’s coming!”

It is interesting to me how little attention is given to that place that Paul describes as “far better” (Philippians 1:23).  If you’re typical, you will expend more mental energy this week considering how to make life comfortable or how you might delay your departure through diet and exercise than to considering the glories of eternity.  How much better that we grow in our affections for a place and condition that is (according to Paul in Romans 8) incomparable?  

Consider heaven.  Can you imagine what it will be like open your eyes in place unaffected by sin?   Can you even fathom the experience of seeing our Beloved Lord Jesus, face to face?  

Imagine your future home.  John describes its capital city as a place of incredible natural beauty with rivers and streams and fruit-bearing trees and mountains!  As I write this, East Tennessee is showing off her Fall color and it is spectacular!  Heaven is better.  John said that in this restored earth there is a “river . . .  bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city.”  The dimensions are massive (Revelation 21:15-16).  Were the New Jerusalem positioned over the lower 48, it would extend from the Appalachian Mountains where we live to the Sierra Nevada mountains out West and from the southern border of Texas up into Canada!  What a wonderful place our Bridegroom has gone to prepare!

It might do your soul good to think a little bit today about your future home!  Randy Alcorn can help you get started here.

Gospel Centered Encouragement from Augustus Toplady

ImageNo practice that I am aware of more effectively serves the soul like frequently reciting gospel themes to yourself.  This is often called, “Preaching the gospel to yourself”.  Throughout Scripture, examples are given of believers “singing” their theology.    This is a long-forgotten hymn written by Augustus Toplady, who gave us “Rock of Ages”.  The text of this song has encouraged my heart.  I’m certain it will yours as well:

From whence this fear and unbelief,
If God, my Father, put to grief
His spotless Son for me?
Can He, the righteous Judge of men,
Condemn me for that debt of sin
Which, Lord, was charged to Thee?

Complete atonement Thou hast made,
And to the utmost farthing paid
Whate’er Thy people owed;
How, then, can wrath on me take place,
If sheltered in God’s righteousness,
And sprinkled by Thy blood?

If Thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my place endured
The whole of wrath divine;
Payment He’ll not twice demand,
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.

Turn then, my soul, unto thy rest;
The merits of thy great High Priest
Speak peace and liberty;
Trust in His efficacious blood,
Nor fear thy banishment from God,
Since Jesus died for thee.