Faro and Lisbon Portugal (Mar. 25-Apr. 1, 2016)

With Edviano and Rosilene Silva, and Their Children

With Edviano and Rosilene Silva, and Their Children

(The following post was written by my wife, Mary.)

Our first trip to Portugal began nicely with us being bumped up to business class on the flights from Grand Rapids to Minneapolis and Minneapolis to Paris! What a difference it makes to be able to stretch out completely and sleep. And we won’t complain about the special food and personal service either. The last leg was a two-and-a-half-hour flight to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Brothers Joel and Erik Lopes picked us up, and we met Edvanio Silva, the FIEL (fiel means “faithful”) Portugal director, and his wife Rosilene, teen daughters Marina and Haissa, and eight-year-old son Vinnie, as well as Guilermo, the tech guy, for lunch. Then we had a three-hour scenic drive to Faro, Portugal for the weekend, of which the first half passed us by because we couldn’t stay awake. They checked us into a hotel, and we took another nap. It is at times like this that we reflect on our human frailty and the fact that we aren’t getting any younger. We walked to a nearby mall to get water, fruit, and supper.

Portugal is slightly smaller than Indiana, covering 36,000 square miles. Its population is 10.5 million. It is not as rich as some other countries in the European Union, but it is not poverty stricken. Its hard-working citizens treasure their heritage. Even though it is very close to Northern Africa, and it would be easy for Muslim migrants to find work and settle there, most of them go to Germany, France, Norway, and Sweden, because more housing and financial support are offered.

On Easter Sunday, four churches gathered at their denominational camp’s chapel for services. There were about 400 souls there in the morning. They said it would be about half in the afternoon, but about 350 returned. Joel preached in the morning on “How Christ’s Resurrection Shapes Our Hope” from 1 Corinthians 15:19–20, and in the afternoon on “The Only Way to Live and Die” from Philippians 1:21. We are grateful many people can speak some English, or they can snag someone standing nearby to translate. If all else fails, they put their hand on their heart and make an upward motion, with tears and a smile, and say, “Obregato!” (Thank you).

We had supper with Pastor Luis and his wife Maria. Luis lost his first wife 14 years ago in a tragic accident when his children were 11, 14, and 15 years old. Luis and his daughter testified of God’s goodness in helping them through that difficult time. Luis and Maria shared the miraculous way God brought them together ten years ago. They live in Maria’s grandparents’ home and care for her father, Alfonso, and her ninety-one-year-old uncle, Joao, who is nearly blind and deaf. The father was a barber and a taxi driver in New York City for 33 years, before returning to his homeland. Joao had a life-changing experience at 13 years of age when his grandmother warned him that the leaders in their Roman Catholic Church (RCC) were teaching things that did not agree with the Bible, and that he should test everything by the Bible. He never married. He composed music, some testifying of his love for and devotion to God, and he was a professional accordion player. Later he also became a beekeeper. We tasted some of the delicious honey he produced. After Joel prayed for all of them, Joao prayed and thanked God for that minister from America, for his grandmother, and for a special person who helped him over the years, that God would save him. We were so impressed with the care and kindness Luis and Maria expended on these elderly men. It was a special Easter for us.

Monday morning, we went for a long walk in a nature reserve along an estuary by the Atlantic Ocean. We have been surprised at how refreshingly cool it has been (50s and 60s), considering Portugal’s latitude. We were also surprised so many people wore winter coats. The southern half of the country is dry and the northern half is green. Luis picked us up at 11:00, and with a member of his church, Julieta, we traveled the three hours back to Lisbon, this time with our eyes open. They did not know English well, so conversation had a lot of back and forth questioning to make sure we understood each other, with both humor and frustration infused. It helps that Portuguese and English both have a Latin base.

We have been to the FIEL conference many times in Brazil, where it gets about 1300 ministers and their wives. The evangelical movement in Portugal is small but growing. The conference here is in its fourteenth year. There were 50 attendees for many years, but four years ago the Silva family moved here from Brazil, made many improvements to the program, and now the numbers are up to about 300. The whole family is involved; they are very observant and in tune to the needs of the attendees, even eight-year-old Vinnie who helped us carry our bags to our room, who patted his friend on the back when he was coughing, and whose eyes were always darting around, quick and ready to help.

Portugal is traditionally Roman Catholic, but many are only nominal Catholics now. Monasteries and convents have closed or down-sized. Many of the people at the conference have come out of the RCC and still have family in it. Others have come through the Pentecostal church or Jehovah’s Witnesses. FIEL has an Adopt-A-Pastor program where donors sponsor a pastor so that he can come to the conference and receive Reformed books throughout the year.

With Augustus and Meinke Nicodemus

With Augustus and Meinke Nicodemus

The speakers were Augustus Nicodemus Lopes, Mike McKinley, Mez McConell, Jose Pinto Ferreira, and Joel. I spoke to the ladies twice. The theme was “The Health of the Church.” Joel spoke four times: “The Church Cherished” (Matt. 16:18b), “The Church Purchased” (Matt. 27:46), “The Church Preserved” (Luke 22:31–32), and “The Church Married” (Rev. 19:6–9).” I spoke on “The Kindness of the Church’s Savior” and “Blooming in Your Church Garden.” Lodging, meals, addresses, and book sales all took place in the same venue. We took several walks in the neighborhood.

There is a small group of young families that are trying to start a Christian cooperative homeschool, in order to rear their children according to biblical principles that they would not receive in the public school. Homeschooling is legal in Portugal.

We met again a friend who told us a few years ago in Brazil that he was greatly convicted by an address Joel did on family worship, particularly by a statement of Thomas Brooks, “A family without prayer is like a house without a roof, exposed to all the storms of the heavens.” He is still faithfully doing family worship. We praise God when we hear of stories like this, knowing how young children interpret so much of life through the lens of principles that their parents teach them.

Both Joel and I had the privilege of meeting people who have read and studied our books (my one and his many). It gives us joy to be used as instruments in God’s hands to influence souls in a Godward direction—my hubby on the forefront, and me in a supporting role. We are thankful for the opportunities that we have to travel to different places and for Joel to preach from the beautiful Book of books, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to sinners. We pray that our hearts might truly be in line with Scripture, that our walk of life might coincide with our testimony, and that we might be humble servants, used to do His bidding.

Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries)

Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries)

On Thursday afternoon, a small group of us toured a bit of Lisbon (Joel’s translator, Thiago and his family, Pastor Jonatas, and Augustus Nicodemus and Minka Lopes). Our first stop was to experience coffee and the famous tart, pasteis de nata, in the first restaurant to bake them, following the recipe of the monks in the Jeronimos Monastery from before the 1700s. With fresh vigor, we walked the waterfront of the Tagus River near its mouth into the Atlantic. The Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) commemorates the place where many ships departed for exploration and trade to India and the Orient in the 15th and 16th centuries. Portugal was a world power, building a vast empire, controlling territories in South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. But over the centuries, the Dutch, English, and French took over the spice and slave trade by conquering the Portuguese trading posts and territories.

From old Lisbon, we went to the modern part of the city, where apartments can sell for more than a million dollars. Many Chinese are buying them up. Where ever we go, the Chinese are building infrastructure and buying up property. At Peter’s Cafe we ate traditional beef stew of the Azores, which is a group of nine islands, located 850 miles off the shore of Portugal. We had wonderful conversation with Jonatas, Augustus, and Minka. We overnighted in a hotel, then up at 3:30 to fly home. May God bless and grow the Reformed church in Portugal!

New Book: Living in a Godly Marriage

I am excited about the new book that I co-authored with James La Belle on marriage that arrived yesterday. In this book we collate what 29 Puritans have said about marriage, and present their material in 300 pages in a contemporary way, sprinkled with their inimitable quotations. We have also provided study questions that will facilitate numerous group discussions in various churches.

Though quaint on occasion, the Puritans are amazingly contemporary in their understanding of living a godly marriage for God’s glory. In fact, in some ways they are far beyond us. For example, in expounding Ephesians 5:21ff., they stress that the secret to a very good marriage is when both spouses are minding their own business—that is to say, when the husband does not pay attention to how his wife is treating him (because that is her business), but is wholly devoted to loving his wife the way Christ loves the church, and the wife does not pay attention to how her husband is treating her (because that is his business), but is wholly devoted to showing respect and submission to her husband the way the church does to Christ. In nearly four decades of counseling marital couples, I can honestly say that if all Christian husbands and wives would truly heed just this one piece of advice, 80 percent of all marital counseling would not be needed.

Let some wise pastors of three to four centuries ago provide you with wise advice on how to live your marriage every day in a more godly way that purposefully aims for glorifying God!

 

Living in a Godly Marriage 2Living in a Godly Marriage

Joel R. Beeke and James A. La Belle

Foreword by Michael A. G. Haykin

Paperback, 296 pages

Page Size: 5.5 x 8.5 inches

ISBN  978-1-60178-463-6

eBook ISBN  978-1-60178-464-3

Retail Price: $15.00

To order your copy at a discounted price, click here.

 

 

Description:

The Puritans believed that godly marriages were foundational for the future life of families, churches, and nations. Therefore, they wrote prolifically on the subject of marriage, seeking to bring biblical reformation to this subject in a comprehensive way. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other previous Reformers had begun this task, but the Puritans took it much further, writing a number of detailed treatises on how to live as godly spouses. Out of the wealth of material available to us from the seventeenth century, Joel R. Beeke and James A. La Belle have gathered together insights from the past and summarized them in a contemporary form in order to encourage modern-day couples to glorify God in marriage.

Endorsements:

“It is an established, if little known, fact that the Puritans rescued marriage from the dreary ascetic grasp of the Roman Church and returned it to its full, biblical, Christ-centered estate—overflowing with creational joys, pleasures, and duties. In this book, eminent Puritan scholars and pastors Joel Beeke and James La Belle provide us with a rich gift, as they have mined the writings of twenty-nine of the great Puritans and then arranged their wisdom into brilliantly organized user-friendly chapters and subheadings (complete with penetrating study questions)—all done with a skill that only “hands-on” pastors could have. The Puritans were Word-centered wordsmiths, and the chapters are packed full of memorably stated theology and application. What a pleasure to commend this book!” —R. Kent Hughes, senior pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and visiting professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary Philadelphia

“The reason for the resurgence of interest in the Puritans today is found in their extraordinary devotion to the things of God and the depth of their understanding and exposition of sacred Scripture. I welcome this series of books that make the Puritans even more accessible in our day on a variety of important but often neglected subjects.” —R. C. Sproul, founder and president of Ligonier Ministries and author of The Intimate Marriage

“In the midst of the cultural confusion as to the definition of marriage comes this refreshing work from Joel Beeke and James La Belle that provides all Christians with a biblical view of this God-sanctioned institution through the wisdom of the Puritans. Living in a Godly Marriage serves both the husband and wife who have been married many years and those just beginning on the path. Use this book to breathe new life and new joy into your marital relationship while seeking to live together for God’s glory.” ––Steven J. Lawson, president, OnePassion Ministries, Dallas, Texas

“This book is a true treasure. It provides profound theological insights on marriage from the great Puritans of the past while simultaneously rendering contemporary, relevant, practical, and timeless counsel to the married couples of the present. Biblically based and Christ-centered, this volume offers vast riches of wisdom and knowledge that are equally suitable for those contemplating marriage and for those who have been married for decades. This is an eminently helpful and godly guide to one of the most fundamental ordinances of God’s kingdom and human experience.” —Anthony T. Selvaggio, minister, lecturer, and author of What the Bible Teaches about Marriage

JOEL R. BEEKE is president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and a pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He and his wife, Mary, are blessed with three children. JAMES A. LA BELLE is the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Cape Cod (OPC), Massachusetts, and a doctor of divinity candidate with The North American Reformed Seminary (TNARS). He and his wife, Chantry, are blessed with seven children.

Contents:

Foreword

Biographical Introduction

Abbreviations and Select Bibliography

1. The Institution and Honor of Marriage

2. The Purposes and Benefits of Marriage

3. Securing a Good Entrance into Marriage

4. Preserving the Honor of Marriage

5. The Mutual Duties of Love and Chastity

6. The Mutual Duties of Help and Peace

7. The Wife’s Duties in Marriage

8. The Husband’s Duty of Love

9. The Husband’s Duty of Authority

10. Concluding Counsel

Appendix: George Swinnock’s Prayers for Husbands and Wives

Deepen Your Christian Life

From the late 1500s to the early 1700s, Puritan ministers wrote thousands of Christian books that contain massive amounts of biblical, doctrinal, experiential, and practical instruction to energize your Christian life. In the early seventeenth century, nearly 20 percent of the material coming off English presses consisted of Puritan sermon material popularized in book form. Unfortunately, many believers today find it difficult to read the antiquarian Puritan language and, when they attempt to do so, find themselves more frustrated than energized.

This new series, Deepen Your Christian Life, presents in contemporary language the major teachings that several Puritans wrote on subjects that are seldom addressed adequately, if at all, today. Finally, you too will be able to enjoy the Puritans and see, by the Spirit’s grace, that they really do energize your Christian life.

  • Living by God’s Promises, Joel R. Beeke and James La Belle (2010)
  • Living with Zeal, Joel R. Beeke and James La Belle (2012)
  • Living with a Good Conscience, Joel R. Beeke (forthcoming)

My Indebtedness to the Puritans

My life has been profoundly shaped and enriched by men who died long ago, but whose ministries live on through their books. As a theologian I have read a lot of books about the teachings of the Bible, but none affect me more than the writings of the Puritans, and its parallel movement in the Netherlands, the Dutch Further Reformation.

As a young man, I found myself nourished by the writings of Thomas Goodwin, whose books about Christ the Mediator and Christ’s compassionate heart in heaven deeply moved me with faith and love for Christ. In my adult years, some of my favorite books have been Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, a combination of Reformed theology and ethics written in a warmly experiential tone; Anthony Burgess, Spiritual Refining, a classic on recognizing God’s saving work in our lives; and The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, letters full of meditations on the beauty of Christ by a man who suffered much for Him.

While there are many ways that the Bible-saturated books of the Puritans have influenced me, I would like to highlight three special lessons I have learned from them about experiential, practical Christian living.

  1. The Priority of Love

The Puritans not only commended love, but called Christians to excel in love with godly zeal. Oliver Bowles said zeal “is a holy ardor kindled by the Holy Spirit of God in the affections, improving a man to the utmost for God’s glory, and the church’s good.” Such zeal is not proud and harsh, as religious zeal can sometimes be, but a sweet and gentle energy to do good. Jonathan Edwards wrote,

As some are mistaken concerning the nature of true boldness for Christ, so they are concerning Christian zeal. ’Tis indeed a flame, but a sweet one; or rather it is the heat and fervor of a sweet flame. For the flame of which it is the heat, is no other than that of divine love, or Christian charity; which is the sweetest and most benevolent thing that is, or can be, in the heart of man or angel.

William Ames said that love for our neighbors means that we desire their good “with sincere and hearty affection” and “endeavor to procure it.” When we speak of being on fire for God, the Puritans remind us that it must be a fire of love. And they realized that no one but God can kindle and fan this fire. John Preston wrote, “The love of God is peculiarly the work of the Holy Ghost…. Therefore the way to get it is earnestly to pray . . . . we are no more able to love the Lord than cold water is able to heat itself . . . so the Holy Ghost must breed that fire of love in us, it must be kindled from heaven, or else we shall never have it.” This leads me to my next point.

  1. The Power of Prayer

When it came to ministry, the Puritans were definitely activists, putting in long hours of arduous labor to spread the kingdom. However, they also understood on a practical level that all kingdom work is God’s work. Neither evangelism nor edification can succeed without the Spirit of God. Thomas Watson wrote, “Ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts, the Spirit comes with a key and opens the door.” John Owen said, “The Lord Christ . . . sends his Holy Spirit into our hearts, which is the efficient cause of all holiness and sanctification—quickening, enlightening, purifying the souls of his saints.”

Therefore, our ministry must be done on our knees. Richard Baxter said, “Prayer must carry on our work as well as preaching; he preacheth not heartily to his people, that prayeth not earnestly for them. If we prevail not with God to give them faith and repentance, we are unlikely to prevail with them to believe and repent.” And Robert Traill wrote, “Some ministers of meaner [lesser] gifts and parts are more successful than some that are far above them in abilities; not because they preach better, so much as because they pray more. Many good sermons are lost for lack of much prayer in study.”

  1. The Pursuit of Holiness

In the worldliness of our fallen nature, our hearts pursue earthly happiness. When sorrow, disappointment, and frustration inevitably come, we grumble and dishonor God. Thomas Manton said, “Murmuring is an anti-providence, a renouncing of God’s sovereignty.” Watson wrote, “Our murmuring is the devil’s music.” However, the Puritans recognized that in Christ, our hearts have a new fundamental direction, one that cherishes God’s kingdom and righteousness above all earthly treasures.

Holiness begins and flourishes with faith in Christ. John Flavel wrote, “The soul is the life of the body, faith is the life of the soul, and Christ is the life of faith.” Isaac Ambrose said that we must fix our eyes upon Christ, not with a bare, intellectual knowledge but an inward and experiential “looking unto Jesus, such as stirs up affections in the heart, and the effects thereof in our life. . . . knowing, considering, desiring, hoping, believing, loving, joying, calling on Jesus, and conforming to Jesus.”

Holiness must be real in our private lives and families, or it is nothing but a hypocritical show. John Trapp wrote, “Follow hypocrites home to their houses, and there you shall see what they are.” Matthew Henry said, “It is not enough to put on our religion when we go abroad and appear before men; but we must govern ourselves by it in our families.” Real holiness is a reflection of Christ having been brought into the heart and the home.

Love, prayer, and holiness—these are the ABCs of a biblical life. They are the very outworking and activity of a living faith in Christ. That’s a large reason why I am so indebted to the Puritans: they keep driving me back to the basics of walking with God through Christ.

End the Year Well by Meditating on Glory

The closing curtain of this year reminds us that our end is drawing near on earth. When the true believer bids farewell to the house of God below, he finds another home above. The departed saint reaches the summit of Mount Zion and enters the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22–24). He joins the innumerable company of angels and saints, whose names are written in heaven. He appears in peace and reconciliation before God, the Judge of all, and forms an everlasting fellowship with the spirits of the just made perfect. He comes to Jesus “the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel” (Heb. 12:24).

Oh, how blessed is a believer’s translation from the church on earth to the church in heaven! Goodness and mercy have followed him throughout life, and now goodness and mercy surround him on every side. Who shall describe the unspeakable joy of his soul as he enters into glory? How satisfied he will be with all he sees and hears! With grateful adoration he will worship his faithful God who has fulfilled all His promises and surpassed even the believer’s highest expectations. Who can conceive of the joy and gratitude with which he will join in the song of his redeemed brethren: “Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 1:5–6)!

How imperfect are our highest conceptions of the beauty, blessedness, holiness, and glory of God’s eternal house. To know it as it is, we must be caught up, as Paul was, into the “third heaven,” but even then its realities cannot be described in earthly language (2 Cor. 12:2, 4). As great as is the happiness and glory that the departed saint enjoys in his purely spiritual condition, there is more to come. His mortal body will be raised out of the dust and no longer be natural and corruptible, but be transformed into a Spirit-dominated and immortal body, made fit for heaven (1 Cor. 15:44). Gathered from the dust of the grave by the hand of the Creator, it will become a pure and crystal vessel prepared to receive the believer’s glorified soul. Joy will abound in the house of the Lord on resurrection morning, when the souls of the saints are joined with their resurrected, glorified bodies. They will be delivered from the bondage of corruption and be introduced into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Rom. 8:21). “So shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17).

When the Great Shepherd appears in the heavens, there will be joy unequalled in heaven and earth. The “times of the restitution of all things” will gladden all the holy angels and every redeemed human being (Acts 3:21). The trumpet will sound to proclaim that “the year of my redeemed has come” (Isa. 63:4). Universal liberty will be granted to all God’s elect. The bond slaves of corruption will finally be emancipated. The prison house of the grave will be thrown open, and its bodies resurrected. There will be a continuous season of spiritual peace, harmony, joy, brotherhood, happiness, and prosperity. All the saints will be arrayed in white and shining garments; as victors, they will wave palm branches and wear crowns of life and righteousness received from the hand of Christ.

The dead in Christ will rise first, and the saints who are still alive will be changed into the likeness of their Lord. Then in one blessed company they will all be caught up in the air to meet their glorious Redeemer (1 Thess. 4:13–18). He has already changed their vile bodies into the likeness of His glorious body—incorruptible, powerful, spiritual, and heavenly (Phil. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:42–44, 49). So in soul and body the redeemed saints will now be the perfect possession of their Lord. Their names will be confessed before the angels of God (Luke 12:8), and they will possess their everlasting inheritance. They will forever dwell in the house of the Lord and surround the throne of the Lamb!

The pilgrims will rest in their true home (Heb. 11:13). As good and faithful servants, they have completed their work, which the Lord declares to be well done. They are then invited to enter into their Master’s joy (Matt. 25:21). The runners of the race have finished their course and have won the prize of their high calling (Phil. 3:14; 2 Tim. 4:7). The soldiers of Christ have fought the good fight of faith, secured victory by grace, and received the crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:7–8).
The little flock of sheep need not fear anymore, for they see that their Father’s good pleasure was to give them the kingdom (Luke 12:32). They were poor but now find treasure in heaven, inheritance in light, fullness of joy, and an eternal weight of glory (Ps. 16:11; Matt. 6:20; 2 Cor. 4:17). All doubts of their acceptance are gone. Faith has given way to sight; hope has given way to fruition. They see that the One who went before them has indeed prepared a place for them (John 14:2). They are safe within their fold. They are welcomed at the table that their gracious Host has prepared for them. They behold the King in His beauty (Isa. 33:17) and live in the enjoyment of His love. The reigning Lamb leads them to fountains of living water and wipes away all their tears (Rev. 7:17). The Lord God Almighty is their unfading portion, their ever-open temple, their everlasting light, and their eternal glory (Rev. 21: 22–23).

As believers, we will dwell in heaven in a perfected state; all good will be walled in, all evil, walled out. There we can do no wrong, see no iniquity, hear no evil, and receive no spiritual harm. The Redeemer, then seen in His glorified human form, will fill our thoughts, and will be the theme of our conversation and the object of our adoration. Our soul will burn within itself while Christ reveals what He has suffered and the glory that is now His. In beatific vision, we will experience inexpressible delight in Christ’s presence and praise the Triune God forever in high, holy, and celestial strains. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).

Best Wishes in Christ Jesus

Every blessing to you and yours in Immanuel—“God with us”—during this special season, and for 2016 (Phil. 4:19). May it be your comfort that when our Redeemer came to earth, He did not cease being God, and when He returned to heaven, He did not cease being man. Samuel Rutherford said, “My salvation is my Lord’s second greatest miracle—the first is His Incarnation.” Will you pray with me for more grace that we might all live wholly and solely for this glorious Incarnate One?

Fall 2015 Conferences in US, Canada, England, and Wales

If you would like to read a summary of my conference trips this fall, with accompanying photographs, you may download one by clicking here.

Prayer for Michigan Lawmakers

With Majority Whip Rob VerHeulen, Mary, and Senator Dave Hildenbrand

Mary and I drove to our state capital this morning in Lansing, Michigan, as I was invited by our state senator, Dave Hildenbrand, to give the invocation to the senators at the State Legislature. We met with Senator Hildenbrand and the Majority Whip of the State House, Rob VerHeulen, who has been a good friend for many years. After my prayer, we toured the capitol building, and then went out to lunch with Senator VerHeulen. We had a fascinating talk, especially about politics and next year’s election. May God have mercy upon our land and nation. Here is the invocation I gave.

Most High God, we thank Thee that thou art the living Triune God. Grant us to know Thy greatness and to feel our smallness. Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and Thy dominion is from generation to generation. Thou rulest over the kingdom of humanity; the powers that be are Thy servants for the good of mankind.

Therefore, heavenly Father, I thank Thee for these State Legislatures and pray that Thou wouldst grant them in all that they do the holy fear of Thy Name, which esteems the smiles and frowns of Thyself to be of greater value than the smiles and frowns of men. Guide them in all the decisions they make; grant them great wisdom—heavenly wisdom above and beyond their own. Help them to serve Thee and others as men and women of truth, of fairness, and of love. Let them hate sin, and honor Thy Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Let them pursue and promote spiritual, moral, and fiscal righteousness. Grant them the courage and wisdom to show mercy to the needy and to defend the defenseless. Fill them with an over-flowing ocean of compassion. Let the reign of love be their motive and the law of love their rule. Let them strive to be godly men and women, well-known for their integrity; let them be honored for their goodness by the people who elected them.

Lord, we live in troubling, sin-embracing times when many people seem to do that which is right in their own eyes rather than Thine with regard to issues that relate to the sanctity of life and the foundational structures of our society. Oh Lord, deliver us from going our own way. Help us all to humble ourselves before Thee, to repent of sin, and to come back to Thee, for Thou has promised that if we repent, Thou wilt hear us from heaven, forgive our sins, and heal our land. Wash away all of our shortcomings and sins in Christ’s atoning blood. Help us all to remember that Thou, O God, art the Judge of all the earth. Grant us all therefore that we may find mercy from Thy Son when He returns to judge the living and the dead. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

 

Ten Lessons from My Eye Surgeries

Yesterday my dermatologist removed the basal cell skin cancer from my lower left eyelid. In Mohs surgery, the doctor removes a slice of the affected area. They examine it microscopically and, if there is more cancer, they remove another a slice until the margins are clear of cancer. Usually one or two slices are needed, but in my case he needed to take four layers, as it extended down and to the sides. This involved 60% of the lid. If it had been 30% or less, the plastic surgeon could have just pulled it together, but more extensive surgery was needed. Mary took me from the dermatologist’s office to the out-patient surgery center. God gave us the two best doctors possible. So the plastic surgeon grafted a sliver of skin from the fold of my upper eyelid to repair the lower wound. Then she made a flap of the cartilage from the upper eyelid and stitched it to the wound site. Consequently, my eye is sewn shut, allowing the cartilage to establish a blood supply and grow into the wound site. In three weeks, she will snip the shared cartilage and, aside from missing 60% of my lower eyelashes, the repair should not be noticeable. The amazing thing is how the body repairs itself—we are fearfully and wonderfully made!

I suppose that I am too much of a Puritan not to reflect upon lessons to be learned and to examine myself after going through these surgeries. I hope that such self-examination is a good thing, although it can be painful in itself, and, of course, it can become too introspective if it is not corralled by biblical principles, such as those taught by John Calvin. Calvin taught that self-examination is necessary and profitable so long as it is based on the Scriptures, ends in Christ, and is guided by the Holy Spirit. Here are ten practical reflections the day after my surgery which I hope you will find helpful:

  1. Unlike God, doctors are not infallible, sovereign, and almighty. They too can make mistakes. I have a very skilled dermatologist with whom I often talk theology—he’s read a number of my books. Despite having a great dermatologist, he wrong diagnosed a wart on my lower eyelid early this year, and told me it was definitely not cancerous. Four months later, it proved to be cancerous, however. “Regretfully,” he said, “I was wrong last time, but you know your theology well enough to know that only God is infallible!” Well, I couldn’t argue with that! Meanwhile, it kept growing until I could finally get the two specialists scheduled back-to-back for yesterday, but I see even more clearly now that this is all, of course, God’s sovereign will for me. (Positively speaking, my dermatologist has been right the other ten times when I’ve had less serious spots taken off by him, mostly on my face. I seem to have inherited this thorn in the flesh from my father. My brothers and nephew have it too.)
  2. Under God, doctors are invaluable and important. We don’t put our trust ultimately on earthy physicians but in our heavenly Triune God, but even as we do so, we recognize that the Ultimate Cause of all things (our fatherly sovereign God) normally carries out His fatherly will through secondary causes (like earthly doctors). Therefore it is not wrong but actually important to ask meaningful questions and seek for highly qualified physicians in whose abilities you can have confidence on the human, secondary level. The doctors God appointed me are both well-known as being highly skilled and gifted—and I took some comfort in the fact that several of my friends who are physicians concurred strongly with this. I regard this as a significant act of God’s grace in the larger picture of what I experienced yesterday.
  3. Faith versus sense and unbelief wages a fierce war at times. That already began early this month when the plastic surgeon told me in a pre-op appointment that though it was rare (5 per cent chance, she said), there are times that if more than 30 percent of the lower lid needs to be taken, then the surgery becomes “messy and complicated,” and the eye must be stitched shut for about three weeks. Knowing how long this cancer had been growing, I was immediately afraid. A week later that fear was compounded by speaking with someone else who went through this surgery and developed severe problems such that another surgery was needed three months later. So, when my dermatologist yesterday said that a second surgical extraction needed to be made because the cancer was both deeper and wider than thought and the first extraction made was like mush, I asked the doctor if that means he’d have to take more than 30 percent of my eyelid, and that I would have to go through the more difficult plastic surgery route. When he said, “I’m afraid that it is looking that way,” my immediate thought was, “But Lord, didn’t the last person who prayed with me at the seminary this morning ask that Thou wouldst do exceedingly abundantly above all that we could ask or think—which was exactly my prayer the day before”—and isn’t this prayer being refuted now? The battle of faith versus sense was enflamed. My only recourse was to consciously discipline my mind to fly to Christ.
  4. Faith and pity can far too easily coexist. After the dermatologist took a large chunk the second time, I felt confident that the cancer was all removed, but the report came back that there was still cancer on both sides, which meant that even more of my eyelid had to go. For a few minutes faith receded and self-pity rose it’s ugly head. Again, my only recourse was to think about Christ—specifically that beautiful first question of the Heidelberg Catechism that my only comfort in life and death is that I belong to Him.
  5. Faith and false submission are often hard to discern apart. When word came back that I would need a nearly unprecedented fourth extraction, I felt nothing but submission, but it was a mixed submission. On the one hand, I felt like I could surrender all into Christ’s hands but at the same time I felt rather numb and stoical. I gave up the battle but that surrender was not pure in its motivation. Once more I had to flee to Christ for help and forgiveness in all my unworthiness.
  6. Despite faith’s activity, God’s deliverance is often like a beautiful surprise. The one time I expected the nurses to come back into the waiting room and say, “You still need more taken,” was when she said, “You can go to the plastic surgeon now!” I was so surprised that I had to ask her to repeat it. God’s goodness overwhelmed me, though I knew the road before us was not an easy one.
  7. Meditating on Christ is by far our most important help in days of affliction. The fact that He has suffered and died for me, is always interceding for me, never allows me out of His perfect high priestly eye, and has perfect plans and goals for me so as to wean me from this world and ripen me for glory helped more than anything else to make me submissive throughout this day more than anything else. Most helpful of all was this thought: if Christ was submissive while going through far worse sufferings for me as an unworthy sinner, why should I not be submissive to Him when His providence is leading me through trials for His glory and my good?
  8. A God-fearing spouse to support you and help you pray your way through a day of surgeries is a priceless gift. My Queen’s prayers with me throughout the day’s waves of disappointment, together with her periodical comments, “It is going to be OK, honey,” and “God will help you through this,” together with meant more to me than sermons at this point.
  9. The prayers of believers are also a remarkable support, both in person and through electronic media, particularly when they briefly stress one or two of God’s sweet and powerful promises. Each time we would go back to the waiting room after another layer of cancer was removed, we would pray, meditate, and then open up email and Facebook to find new prayers waiting for us. The love and help we felt from this—often coming from people who I have often visited in time of need—is beyond words. The communion of saints is sweet.
  10. Kindness, touch, and clear communication are significant human helps in distress. In both offices, the doctors and nurses were remarkably kind and empathetic, and also used touch in a non-flirtatious way, such as rubbing the shoulder empathetically while speaking to me. Their clear, honest communication was also a great help. For example, just before I went into surgery, my plastic surgeon, whom I had only met once before, assured me that though the stitched procedure was necessary and not pleasant, she had done a goodly number of these and believed it would turn out well long-term. She did a great job of encouraging me to meditate on long-term benefit rather short-term discomfort. She also gladly let me pray for her and thanked me warmly for doing so. After the surgery, she was very reassuring again, and told me exactly what to expect, and made clear she was available at any time to address any complications that might arise.

In conclusion, let me say that it is good for a minister to be on the receiving end of surgeries. Over the last four decades, I have had the privilege of visiting more than 5,000 parishioners in the hospital. Being on the receiving end makes one realize more strongly than ever how important bedside manners and words and prayers are on the part of physicians, ministers, and nurses.

It also gives me renewed respect and love for those who have had to face larger, more life–threatening illnesses and to reflect on their acquiescence. Their trials have a way of making us face our own mortality and the need to prepare to meet our God.

Well, the 20-minute ice-packs on and 20-minute ice-packs off over the next few days should give me more time for reflection, but I pray that these ten reflections may be of some help to all of us now.

 

 

 

 

 

Puritans, Piety, and Prodigals: The Mortification of Spin

Mortification of Spin

An interview that Mortification of Spin did with me is now available on their podcast. Topics include holiness, backsliding, and why read the Puritans.

North Carolina (October 8-12, 2015)

The Beauty of North Carolina

The Beauty of North Carolina

(This blog post was written by my wife, Mary.)

On Thursday evening we flew to Atlanta, then to Ashville, NC. Pastor Mike Thompson and his wife Robin picked us up. We bonded immediately, talking about family and scriptural convictions. Joel was pleasantly surprised to learn that Faith PCA is the church where dear friends Olin and Jean Coleman were members before they went to be with the Lord. Olin was a leader of the Puritan Project in Brazil. As an elder, he mentored Mike and had a profound impact on him.

Our home for these days was a log cabin on a dirt road in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It is really dark in the country at midnight. After trying a couple wrong driveways, they were quite sure they found the right one. The code worked, and an autographed welcome sign confirmed we were in the right place. Phew!

Hiking with Mary in North Carolina

Hiking with Mary in North Carolina

Our favorite recreational activity is hiking, so we accepted with pleasure their invitation to come a day early to hike the Shortoff Mountain Trail. Dr. Howard Hall picked us up. About 25 folks of all ages came along, ranging from toddlers and babes in arms to a Superior Court Judge of North Carolina! We climbed 1,321 vertical feet in 4.5 miles. Aside from a rain shower, it was beautiful weather.

When some of the group arrived at the top, they realized they had not seen nine-year-old Emmett. Several of the men retraced our steps. The rest of us prayed. He had taken a wrong trail with others in the group, but when they had turned around, they didn’t realize he was out ahead of them. He eventually realized he was alone, and returned to the vehicle just as the men came looking for him. Relief and gratitude! We had a beautiful view of Lake James and the Linville Gorge—called the Grand Canyon of the East. It is always so refreshing to exercise in God’ amazing creation!

The conference began that evening and continued Saturday. The theme was “Parenting by God’s Promises.” The church has been studying Joel’s book on the subject. In six addresses, he spoke on many aspects—bringing our covenant children to Christ; parenting as prophet, priest, and king; encouragements and practical steps. We met some very special people, some who have huge challenges in their everyday life, such as a family with nine children, three of whom have a condition in which they are going deaf and blind. The dad is an orthopedic surgeon; the mom has a degree in psychology and homeschools the children. They drive a cheerfully painted mini-bus. Another couple has a daughter with a severe seizure disorder.

Pastor Mike and Robin Thompson, with their daughter Ginnie

Pastor Mike and Robin Thompson, with their daughter Ginnie

Pastor Thompson’s oldest daughter has a chromosome disorder. At 20 years of age, Ginnie can walk but not talk, except “Mama.” She has a constant smile and shows love to everyone. She doesn’t understand personal space, so she gets very close. She has certain favorites in the church. She adores her dad’s preaching. When the music plays, she stands in front of her dad or mom, and moves her arms up and down. All of these parents with special needs children have had their times of feeling they could hardly go on, but they all say they are so very blessed to have their special children! So much love! What a testimony of God’s grace working through trials! They ministered to us more than we ministered to them!

On Sunday, Joel preached on “Coping with Affliction in a Christ-centered Way,” “To Live is Christ and to Die is Gain,” and “The Utopian Marriage.” We had lots of fellowship over a soup and chili lunch the church shared. Friends formerly from Grand Rapids, now from Charlotte, NC, Leo and Marilyn Markwat, attended. This church has some very special, yet everyday people—doctors, a judge, businesspeople, teachers, nurses, factory workers, etc. We had wonderful fellowship, and they expressed much gratitude for Joel’s ministry. Soli Deo Gloria!