Friday, April 26, 2013

From the Newsletter: On the day that darkness comes home

I think everyone in the Boston Metro is going to be able to tell you where they were and what they were doing when they heard about what some have referred to as “the Boston Massacre”. The act of homicidal evil perpetrated by the Tsarnaev brothers shook the Boston metro and brought it to a standstill. No one was unmoved. People moved on pins and needles, and fear infected hearts. It was a day that darkness came home to all that live in the Boston metro; a day when it became so real that you could taste it.
Some things jump to the head of the line. This is one of them. This was a hard moment for Boston, one that should not go unexamined. What should go through our mind when evil happens, and how should we respond when evil is perpetrated on us? Not just when bombs go off, but when other terrible and tragic things are done, both around us and to us? Here are five things I would encourage you to think about on those days when darkness comes home to your life.
First, remember that our world is fallen and therefore we should expect evil things to happen around us and sometime even to us. Haddon Robinson, my professor of preaching, began the first class by saying “I believe in two things, the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man”. No words are truer. This world is broken. It is not as it should be. It bears the marks of sin, everything in all creation groans under the weight of sin, and our lives groan under the weight of the evil we bring upon each other. There is no one that is not sinful and corrupt by nature. When Adam sinned, we all sinned with him, and the result is that every one of us is corrupt and sinful by nature, we are hostile to God from birth. “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5-6) David writes. When we look around, with honest eyes, we see this. G.K. Chesterton, the British scholar, once wrote that original sin "is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved." At our core we know that to be true. We like to say that we think people are naturally good, but let’s face it, the reason people move to places like Medfield is that “we are looking for a safe place to raise our kids”. We inherently know that something is gravely wrong with this world. Events like the ‘Boston Massacre’ remind of this. But so do those other moments. Those moments when you find out a corrupt stock broker blew up your investments, or your grandkid got mugged, or, or, or. We should never forget this world is evil. We should expect that evil things will happen around us or to us.
Second, do not doubt the sovereignty of God. Thankfully, we can’t stop with recognizing that the world is evil. We can know that God is sovereign. He created the world. He sustains the world. He holds all things in his hand. He’s not an 80 pound weakling who’s begging for us to like him. He’s over all things. There is nothing that happens that can thwart his will. He is the God who knows all things and controls all things. Scripture says that he numbers your days. He holds all things together, and yet he knows everything about you, even the number of hairs on your head. He is in control of all things. And yet, He is at work for your good. He is the God who says, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11), and makes clear that “all things work together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). He is sovereign, nothing can thwart His will, and He is working for your good.
Now, does He allow sin to be at work for now? Yes, it’s a result of the fall. But even so, while he gives us free will and allows sinful rebellion, He does not allow our free will to run and evil hearts to run unchecked. He restrains our conscience, and upsets the thwarts the plans of the wicked. Scripture says that “He frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success”(Job 5:12). Think of how this worked out last week in Boston. As I mentioned several times after the event, it’s worth pondering that only 3 people were killed in the bomb. Many were wounded, but only three were killed. That’s amazing. Think of how few died, compared to how many probably would have if they hadn’t done this so close to where all the medics were. Now three deaths is a tragedy. All deaths reflect the fact that this world is not as it was designed to be since the fall. But for them only to have gotten three is amazing to me. Yes, he allowed these men to exercise their free evil will, but he also thwarted the plans of the wicked. Not only does He thwart the plans of the wicked, but scripture makes clear that someday every wrong will be righted and everything sad will come untrue. Someday Christ will return and deal with evil once and for all. He came and went to the cross, so that someday He could destroy evil once and for all, without destroying us. Someday, He will return and deal with evil totally and completely. He will return with power and glory, not as a humble baby in a manger but as the King of Kings who comes on a white horse with a sword and garments dipped in blood, having tread the winepress of the wrath of God. He will destroy evil once and for all. God is sovereign.
Third, know that God doesn’t leave us alone in the middle of hardship and pain. Scripture makes clear that Christ is with us in the middle of our hardship. We have a savior who was tempted and tested and tried, who suffered, died, and rose in glory, and declares "I will be with you always, even to the end of the age". When hardship comes, we can rely on God.  Psalm 46 tells us that “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging” Even when things seem terrible, when things seem hard, and painful. Even when bombs go off and you feel like huddling at home under the bed, He is with you. And that does not guarantee that bad things will not happen around you or to you. But it does mean that you are not alone in the hardship and pain. He is with you, walking beside you, going ahead of you and forging the path. You are not alone. Fear not. Even when bad things are happening around you or to you.
Fourth, keep in mind that we bear a message of hope to preach to ourselves and to others. God is at work. In the midst of this broken world, He is redeeming for himself a new people who are called by His name. A people who are marked by His grace. A people who bear scars, but know that their savior bears greater scars, and no matter what pain enters your life, your savior took greater pain, so that this pain cannot destroy you. Yes, darkness came home to Boston. But on the cross, darkness came home to his life, as the ultimate darkness of eternal wrath crashed down on him. Now, He brings healing and hope to us. There is freedom and life and grace, even in the mist of darkness. There is restoration and salvation in the midst of darkness. We tend to look around and say. The world is falling apart. But that’s the wrong attitude. Carl F. Henry, the founder of Christianity today, notes that “The early Christians did not say ‘look what the world is coming to!’ but ‘look what has come into the world!” We bear a message of hope. Look what has come into the world. Redemption! Salvation! A new power, a restoring power. This message is hope for all. Freedom and life and grace is offered and available to everyone, even the vilest of sinners, even Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It’s an across the board offer. The sweetest grandmother, the vilest offender, the kindest child, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, all are offered Gods saving grace. There is hope that is held out in the midst of darkness. Are times like the last week hard? Yes. But there is hope; hope of healing, of restoration, of his presence, and life and light.
Finally, understand that there is joy in Christ available in the midst of hardship. The reality is that we live in a fallen world. One that has been and will continue to bear the marks of the fall. But the gospel means that because Christ died and rose you can trust him and rely on him in the middle of dark days and even find real joy in the middle of it all. Will tragedy happen? Yes. Will the sovereign Lord of all be with you? Yes. And in the midst of it you may find great joy. In his book, Margin, Richard Swenson writes of A Vietnamese pastor who was thrown into prison, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. The family’s home was taken, so that the destitute wife and children were forced to live on an open balcony, exposed to the drenching rain. And yet, she was full of joy in the Lord for His comfort and care. She wrote, "When we experience misfortune, adversity, distress and hardship, only then do we see the real blessing of the Lord poured down on us in such a way that we cannot contain it. I do not know what words to use in order to describe the love that the Lord has shown our family. I only can bow my knee and my heart and offer to the Lord words of deepest thanks and praise. Although we have lost our house and our possessions, we have not lost the Lord, and He is enough. With the Lord I have everything. The only thing I would fear losing is His blessing! She concluded, “As far as my husband is concerned, I was able to visit him this past summer. We had a 20-minute conversation that brought us great joy” (Cited by Richard Swenson, Margin [NavPress], pp. 188-190.).I don’t know if I could say that, but she knew that God was with her in tragedy and hardship. She encountered His grace and sustenance in the middle of the hardship. She was able to say with the psalmist, in the middle of darkness, “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever (Psalm 30:11-12)! “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy” (Psalm 126:5).
Last week may have been unprecedented, or it could be (as some commentators and pundits are suggesting) the new normal. We don’t know. But I promise you, hard times will come into your life. Times that make you sob will assault you. Be it terrorist bombs or something that is ten times less scary, and still real and hard. In those moments you are not alone. There is hope. There is joy. There is the presence of God at work even when the darkness comes home. Evil is real. But God is sovereign, and even though hell itself pour down on you, if you have placed your faith in Christ, He is with you. When the day of darkness comes crashing down, do not forget this.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

From the Newsletter: The Great Missions Field Called New England

I think it’s safe to say that New England is in my DNA. My mom’s family has been in New England since the 1600’s, and they were some of the first people to move into Vermont. I grew up in New England, and God seems to be making it clear, that I will be a New England pastor for the rest of my life. When I was young I dreamed of going oversees to train locals for ministry because they know the culture that they are ministering to backwards and forwards, and at 18 I left New England and never expected to return. But at 23, something funny happened, God made clear that I was supposed to return to New England and go to Gordon Conwell. Since then he has been making clear that all along he has been making me someone who is built for ministry in New England. Someone from New England, who speaks it’s language, loves what it loves, mourns and cheers when it does, and bleeds when the Sox lose.
Which is why I look around and feel a deep sadness and excitement. I feel a deep sadness, because I see a place, in desperate need of the gospel. I was at a recent association meeting for the denomination, and  the speaker was Glynis LaBarre (LaBarre is a “transformation strategist” for the denomination, and the leading missional thinker in the ABC -as far as I can tell, the only one -we’ll get to the missional church next month), And at one point, she spoke about “the numbers”. She noted that the world that we live in has changed. It used be a world shaped by, and friendly to the church. 8 of 10 used to be in church. Now it’s 2 of 10 of ten, if... Soon it will be 1 of 10. LaBarre, who looked to me to be in her late 50’s, commented that “in the  generations under me, less than 1 in 10 has a significant connection with love of God”.
But, the facts on the ground are worse in New England. A 2009 Gallup poll placed the six states of New England in the top ten least religious states in the nation. According to the NETS Institute for Church Planting, all six New England states rank in the top 10 least religious states in the US. Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts make up the top four. Roughly 2% of New Englanders attend evangelical churches. One of every six residents of Massachusetts and Connecticut is atheist or agnostic, nearly double the national average.  Of the 27 most populous states, Massachusetts has by far the lowest percentage of self-professed "born agains." There is a higher percentage of evangelical church attendees in Mormon Utah than in Rhode Island.  That’s pretty mind-blowing. Furthermore, there is very little biblical literacy to speak of. According to a Barna poll entitled “America’s Most (and Least) Bible-Minded Cities” that came out this winter, 5 of the 6 least biblically literate cities are in New England.
As you well know, things are pretty grim here in New England, which is why New England has been designated an unreached people group by some denominations. As a native New Englander, my heart breaks when I think of the reality on the ground here. New England, as a region, fits the category of unreached people. The missions field is not just, over there. It’s here, in our backyard. And this is not new    info to many of us. We live in a giant mission field.
So that’s the bad news. However, and there’s the big huge however, at the same time, I’m excited. First, all the bad new means that we have an unprecedented opportunity. Paul dreamed of going and sharing the gospel where no one else had. We get to. We get to work, in almost untilled ground. You, and I. We are the people God has called to proclaim the gospel, and model the gospel to a place that desperately needs the good news of the gospel. That excites me. Will it be hard? Yes. But we get to be missionaries to a place that desperately needs the gospel. We get to walk out the door into one of the toughest missions field imaginable and take the gospel there! We have been called to take on this mantle. That thrills me. I dream of seeing God move here in New England. I dream of seeing revival in New England as in the days of Edwards.  I long for revival. For the day when the gospel is preached from pulpits, shared by friends at the coffee shop, over lunches and dinners, at work and at the ballgame, and wherever we go! I dream of a day when the ripe harvest that I see here in New England is reaped. The scary and awesome thing is that the bad news means we have an unprecedented opportunity to share the Gospel!
Furthermore, there are plenty of signs that God is at work in a big way. In the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, there are signs that Aslan is moving well before he is seen. Every part of Narnia buzzes with his presence. The rumor is passed with excitement, and the snow starts melting, and flowers bloom. Father Christmas returns. Throughout Narnia, there are hints, and whispers that the dark days may be ending, and here in New England there are signs that God is beginning to send long prayed for revival; signs that God is already doing something amazing.
Here are a few. First, I look around and see young pastors being called to New England ministry. A few weeks ago, Veronique and I attended an overnight retreat hosted by the New England Church revitalization network, and gathered with other pastors and their spouses doing revitalization work here in New England. Most were young, and all of us were telling stories of God working slowly but faithfully. There was a sense that there are shoots appearing both near and far.
Second, last fall, 1300 Christians gathered for the Gospel Coalition NE Conference. 1300 people! Some were pastors, but many others where faithful Christians who where there to be fed, energized, and equipped for life on the missions field of New England. 1300 Christians excited about living gospel centered lives, and caring enough to get to a conference in the heart of Boston!
Third, shortly after the Gospel Coalition Regional Conference an interesting article appeared in Slate, entitled, “Re-evangelizing New England  ‘how church planting and music festivals are bringing about a quiet revival”, and it spoke of some of the things that God is doing in New England, and pointing out that there is a quiet revival going on in New England that has been flying under the radar. It points out that “In Boston, though the population has dipped slightly below its level in 1970, the number of churches has almost doubled, and the number of people attending church has more than tripled in that same period”. Dozens and dozens of churches have been planted here in New England in the last 10 or 15 years; this article is just catching onto something that has been happening for awhile. 
Fourth, there are churches returning to Gospel faithfulness even in our own mainline denomination. Dale Edwards, the executive Director of VT/NH ABC was one of the speakers at the retreat Veronique and I recently went to, and he told us that most of the ABC churches in VT/NH are now somewhere on the spectrum of orthodoxy. In the ABC!
These are some of the reasons I’m excited. It’s a good time to be in New England. Shortly after the Gospel Coalition gathering in October, Collin Hansen, one of the speakers at the conference, wrote an article entitled, “The best of times in New England”, one line stood out to me above all the rest. These are the best of times in New England because God has raised up local church leaders who love their communities, who have committed to staying over the long haul as they trust Christ to change hearts and redeem souls. They understand the challenges. The have endured hardship. They have been tempted to hunker down but defied Satan to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to their neighbors and encourage fellow believers to do likewise”.
I look around, and feel a deep sadness, and great excitement. But the work is just beginning. I was speaking with a friend recently and I commented that I am feeling the weight of the great commission  more and more, and I’m sure it is because I know that in large part the work is just beginning.
My hope and prayer is that you do too. My hope and prayer, is that you feel the weight of the facts that lay before us, and that they break your heart. May they break your heart for New England, for Massachusetts, for Metro-west, and for Medfield. But I hope that as they do, that you will be excited about the fact that God has called us to be here at this time and place for this very reason. He is sovereign, and he has called you and I to such a time as this. May God use you to be about his work, to be one of those men and women, that look at the world, and hear the words of your Lord, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field (Matthew 9:36-37)." My hope and prayer is that you will be one of those workers, who shares the gospel, who hears the great commission, who hears the reminder that fields are ripe with harvest, and shares the good news of what Christ has done as you are going through the day to day parts of your life and live for the glory of his name.
Next month, I will talk about the Missional Church movement, which I believe is one of the fundamental church culture shifts that the American church, and especially the New England church, will need to go through, as we switch our gaze from ourselves, to the lost world around us. But for now, let me just ask you to do one thing. Pray, seriously pray, for revival. I dream of revival, I long for revival. I want to see that day with all my heart. But it starts, with prayer. It will not happen without prayer. As Stepehn Um, one of my professors at GCTS and one of the speakers of the Gospel Coalition NE noted “ God puts us into situations that show us we cannot rely on anything else but God who raises the dead." Not cutting-edge ministry methods. Not the memory of a Christian past. Not the social benefits of church attendance. Only the power of the Holy Spirit, the promise of union with Christ, and the persevering love of our heavenly Father”. Prayer is needed. We will not see any change, without prayer. Lots and lots of prayer, and so my request is that you pray, earnestly, fervently, for God to be saving souls, for God to be sending revival. The stats are all bad, but we serve the God who opens channels through the sea, who make the mute speak, and rose, in power. He’s the God who created all things, sustains all things, and holds everything in the palm of his hand. Long odds are nothing new for him, nor all that intimidating to him. So pray. Pray for him to act. Pray for your home region. Let your heart break for New England. My guess is that New England is in your DNA too. Pray for God to move once again in New England.