A prayer for the dignity of life

Fetal heartbeat graphic found via Google

Earlier this month the Iowa Legislature passed a bill banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. The Sunday after this was in the news, I included these lines in the prayer I offered during Trinity CRC’s morning service:


Thank you, God, for leaders in government who have been listening to those who advocate for the voiceless – the unborn. Use recent legislation to reduce the number of abortions in Iowa, the US, and even around the world. Transform the hearts of people – perhaps including us at times – who reduce sex to merely a pleasurable thing for selfish enjoyment with no intention of commitment toward the other person or possibly a child. Forgive us for any time we have thought of a child as a nuisance or a burden instead of as a blessing from you. Bring healing to those of us who have had an abortion or are close to someone who has. Increase in each of us here and in the leaders of this state and nation the realization that every life is a gift and has dignity, that every person – whether in the womb or approaching death’s door – bears your image.

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Talking together about creation

Grand Canyon photo found at Reader's Digest (rd.com)

Jesse and Maria are visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time. Both are Christians and marvel at God’s masterful work in the immense canyon.

Jesse sees within the beauty around him evidence that the earth is very old. He finds convincing the arguments that the various layers of the Grand Canyon together with the fossils contained therein suggest a slow, orderly deposit of rock and bones over millions of years. He cannot dismiss the radiometric dating analysis scientists have done which suggests the Grand Canyon could be up to 70 million years old. Instead of the result of a cataclysmic global flood several thousand years ago, Jesse sees within the grandeur of the canyon evidence that over a long period of time God carefully and beautifully “laid the earth’s foundations.”

Maria on the other hand takes in the same panoramic beauty and is increasingly convinced that God made the “basement” layers of rock on his third day of creating the universe when he said, “Let dry ground appear.” Maria finds compelling the evidence that the remaining layers were then deposited by the waters of a global flood in the days of Noah and the ark approximately 4,500 years ago. The beauty of the Grand Canyon is redemptive for Maria: Even though it was God’s judgment on sin (the flood) that created the chasm, over time it has become beautiful, reminding Maria of how God can heal the worst of circumstances.

Depending on your perspective, it’s tempting to write off either Jesse or Maria and their interpretations of science and scripture. We might label one as an out-of-touch conservative or the other as a truth-denying liberal. The fact is that both Jesse and Maria are representative of faithful Christians – including many scientists – who subscribe to the authority of the Bible while also taking seriously how God speaks through his creation. Some Bible-believing Christians defend the view that Genesis teaches God created everything in six 24-hour periods and then rested on the seventh day. Other Bible-believing Christians see within the opening chapters of Genesis elegant poetry refuting the false ancient religions that taught the universe was created haphazardly by many gods; therefore the “days” of creation do not need to be understood as 24-hour periods any more than one has to believe God is made of granite or quartzite because the psalmist declares God to be a rock (see Psalm 18).

It’s sad but true that Christians are often harsh and uncharitable when they disagree over matters of creation. However, it’s also true that both Jesse and Maria and all the Christians they represent are together Christ’s ambassadors on earth and will be together for eternity in the new heaven and earth. So it makes sense that, even if it means agreeing to disagree, we begin figuring out how to get along here and now! And it makes sense for both adults and students at school to examine and evaluate the various biblical and scientific perspectives on creation, not fearful of them, but eagerly expecting to grow in appreciating and understanding God and his creative work.

I wrote this column for this week’s Rock Valley Bee
where I noted that I find Deborah and Loren Haarsma’s book
Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution,
and Intelligent Design
helpful in thinking about this subject.

Praying the psalms unselfishly

If the psalms cover all the different emotions I experience in life, chances are good that there’s at least one psalm that expresses what I’m presently feeling. But because there are so many different emotions and corresponding psalms, chances are also good that the particular psalm I read today will not directly connect with what I’m feeling. For example, today’s psalm in my daily psalm reading may be a psalm of lament which does not match my good mood and general optimism at present. Or today’s psalm may be filled with praise even though I may be nearly in tears with frustration.

There are at least two ways to deal with discrepancies between the tone of a particular psalm and how I am presently feeling. One way is to simply skip ahead to another psalm until I find and can pray one that more accurately expresses the state of my heart and mind. The despair in Psalm 22 is followed by the hope of Psalm 23. At least one line in one of those two psalms ought to resonate with me!

But a way to stick with a psalm that doesn’t happen to match my present mood is to consider how it does perfectly match the feelings of othersHolding hands graphic found via Google near or far in the faith community. I may not feel like lamenting at the moment, but I can still express the lament in solidarity with sisters and brothers in Christ who are presently experiencing pain. Or if today’s psalm in my daily psalm reading is one filled with praise despite me being in foul mood, I can still read and pray it thinking of others who are having a great day, learning to thank God (and not complain to him!) for their happy circumstances. A suitable prayer to accompany reading a psalm in this way goes something like this: “God, these words do not reflect my present experience or state of mind, but there are others in the world for whom these words fit perfectly. I lift them up before you and pray these words in solidarity with them knowing we are united in Christ.”

Moreover, reading and praying a psalm that doesn’t match how I’m presently feeling may help me better identify with someone who is feeling the emotions the psalm portrays. For example, reading a pain-filled psalm may help me better understand and relate with someone who is presently filled with anguish. When I skip over such a psalm to find a cheerier portion of Scripture, I deny myself the opportunity to grow in empathy by putting myself in someone else’s shoes.

Instead of finding a psalm I can more easily relate to, I hear the Holy Spirit inviting me to read each psalm unselfishly, praying for and identifying with those for whom the words may hit closer to home. The Spirit may even surprise me from time to time by showing me how the words are more applicable to me than I originally presumed.

This post is inspired in part by Martin Tel’s comments
in the webinar he led last month for CRC Worship Ministries
titled “Creative Use of the Psalms in Worship.”

There’s a psalm for that

Years ago the Visine marketing people produced clever commercials saying that no matter what problem your eyes were having, a Visine product offered relief: Red, irritated eyes? There’s a Visine for that. Itchy, allergy eyes? There’s a Visine for that. Irritated by contact lenses? There’s a Visine for that, too.

The same marketing campaign could work for the book of Psalms: Happy with how life is going? There’s a psalm for that. In the depths of depression? There’s a psalm for that. Worried about the injustice in Psalms graphic found with Googleour society? There’s a psalm for that. Angry with God? There’s a psalm for that, too.

It was Martin Luther who made this observation: “The Psalms is the book of all saints, and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.”

I suspect this at least partly explains the popularity of the Psalms: Read long enough and I read myself – I read words I could have written at this very moment of my day and of my life. But more than reflections written in a journal, each psalm is inspired Scripture filled with words the Holy Spirit invites me to pray. Through the psalms, instead of bottling up what I’m feeling, I express back to God the joy or angst of my heart. I’m not left to process it on my own but to and even with the One who gave me my emotions in the first place and loves me more than words can describe.

Reading a psalm a day has been a habit of mine since before that Visine ad campaign. Try it for a while and let me know what you think of the practice.

A different sort of king

Palm Sunday cross graphic found via Google

Probably to the surprise of some, Jesus does not arrive in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding on a stallion with guns blazing as people might have expected a king to do. Rather, as the church remembers this weekend, he enters on a colt. And his eyes are filled with tears, knowing the trial and death that awaits him. Jesus is a different sort of king than the people are expecting.

Jesus had sent his disciples ahead to fetch the colt and bring it to him. If anyone asked what they were doing with the animal, he instructed them to say the Lord needed it and would return it shortly. In those days kings would not have asked to borrow an animal; a powerful ruler would simply have taken it and added it to his stable. But Jesus is a different sort of king.

As Jesus rides the donkey into Jerusalem, a crowd gathers – ordinary citizens with their children waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” It’s a word that means “Save us!” The crowds probably mean to say “Save us from the Romans occupying our land!” Jesus, however, has his eyes on a bigger enemy than Rome: He is entering Jerusalem to battle sin and death itself. Jesus is indeed a different sort of king.

Looking at the pieces of this story, I can’t help but wonder about the owner of the colt. Did they have any idea who the animal’s rider would be when they loaned it to the disciples?

It reminds me of a 19th century Sunday school teacher in Boston named Kimball who introduced a shoe clerk named Dwight L. Moody to Jesus Christ. Dwight L. Moody became a famous evangelist who influenced someone named Frederick B. Meyer to preach on college campuses. Meyer led someone named J. Wilbur Chapman to the Lord. Chapman, while working with the YMCA, arranged for Billy Sunday to come to Charlotte, North Carolina to attend revival meetings. This led to community leaders in Charlotte scheduling a second revival with someone named Mordecai Hamm. Under Hamm’s preaching, a young man named William gave his heart to Jesus Christ. You knew this man as Billy Graham, who preached to more people than anyone in history. I am certain that that 19th century Sunday School teacher in Boston had no idea what would happen from leading a shoe clerk to Christ.

It’s amazing what can happen when you and I welcome the Lord to work through our lives. I might think I’m just letting someone borrow a colt or that you’re just having a nice conversation with a shoe clerk. But don’t underestimate Jesus’ ability to take little things in life and use them for great purposes. He is ruler over all, yet he knows, loves, and guides you and me individually. What’s more, he had you and me in mind that day as he entered Jerusalem to conquer sin and death. Do you know any other rulers who relate to you like that?

As I said, Jesus is a different sort of king. He’s one worth worshiping this Palm Sunday.

I shared these thoughts in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.

Encountering Jesus at his table more frequently (part 3)

So why are we content with depriving ourselves or our children or new, freshly baptized believers of the nourishment God longs to give us at the Lord’s Supper table by not celebrating the Sacrament more frequently?

Maybe part of the answer is that we don’t fully appreciate how much God indeed longs to nourish us. The late Robert Webber once counseled a troubled student with this advice: “Flee to the Eucharist!” Jesus would begin to care for and heal this student’s heart at his table.

Hearing about this incident between Professor Webber and his student led Howard Vanderwell to pen these reflections: “How different, I thought, than the way we so often understand and present the Lord’s Supper as a rather stern and somber event we participate in only after we have carefully scrutinized ourselves to make sure we are prepared and ready to come. Here, instead, was the Sacrament with a wonderfully warm welcome where wounded and struggling people could find healing and peace, a table where people could find refuge” (Living and Loving Life, p. 70).

It seems to me that God is eager to welcome, care for, heal, and nourish us, and he will use as many means possible to accomplish this. He indeed speaks his grace to us through our senses of sight and hearing as we read and listen to the Word. Through the Word, “God makes himself known to us,” as the Belgic Confession puts it (article 3). But, as I mentioned in part 1, recognizing that we are physical and material beings, God graciously uses physical and material things (namely the water, bread, and juice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper) to also communicate his grace to us.

As Leonard J. Vander Zee explains in his book Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God knows “we need more than talk, more than words on a page; we [also] need a touch, a smell, a taste – just as lovers need more than the words ‘I love you’ but also a kiss or an embrace… The Lord’s Supper is a physical handle faith grabs hold of, allowing us to grasp God’s promises with our bodies as well as our minds” (pp. 192, 193).

Our gracious God engages all our senses: He invites us to listen attentively to his Word; to feel the cleansing baptism water flow over us; to smell, taste, and see his goodness through the Lord’s Supper. It’s as though he’s eager for us to “get it.” It thus seems counterintuitive to suggest that we should be skimpy with any of these modes of communication, particularly with the Lord’s Supper. What better way for us to “get it,” to better grasp God’s grace than by frequently availing ourselves to the Sacrament?

Writer and pastor Thea Nyhoff Leunk makes this warm observation in A Place at the Table, her book on welcoming children to the Lord’s Supper: “The Lord delights in nourishing His people, and we respond by coming with grateful, but empty hearts to His bountiful table” (p. 18).

I for one would be grateful to experience more often God’s delight in nourishing me at his bountiful table. So I am grateful that the elders of Trinity CRC have decided to increase the frequency we celebrate the Sacrament as 2018 progresses and I look forward to seeing and hearing (and maybe even smelling, tasting, and feeling) how God will bless that decision in our congregation.

Lord's Supper graphic found at thebanner.org

The leadership at Trinity CRC found this article in The Banner
on weekly Communion helpful in our conversation on the subject.
See also my blog post titled
“Physical.”

Encountering Jesus at his table more frequently (part 2)

So what’s stopping us from inviting Jesus to open our eyes by gathering around the Lord’s Supper table more frequently?

Some worry that celebrating the Lord’s Supper more frequently will diminish the preaching of the Word. While it is conceivable that the Lord's Supper graphic found via Googlependulum could swing the other way where the table pushes the pulpit off of center stage, churches I’m aware of in the Reformed tradition that celebrate the Lord’s Supper more frequently still have faithful preaching. I do not see coming to the table more often as a threat to our historic and enduring emphasis on the centrality of Scripture. If anything, I’d suspect that more frequent participation in the Sacrament will actually help the congregation more deeply comprehend and embrace the Word.

A more common fear I encounter is that the Sacrament will become less special if we celebrate it more frequently. I have two responses to that: First, part of me wonders if that actually wouldn’t be such a bad thing. There is, after all, something very ordinary, very common about the Lord’s Supper. As William H. Willimon observes in his book Sunday Dinner, Jesus specializes in “taking the stuff of everyday life … and using them to help us see the presence of God in our midst” (p. 25). Have we made the elements of the Lord’s Supper “too special,” leading us to think we require “special things” in order to encounter God?

Second, it occurs to me that doing something frequently does not automatically make it less meaningful. The late Harry Boonstra expresses this in a memorable way in the winter 1997 issue of Calvin Theological Seminary’s Forum: “It’s strange that we use this argument about the Lord’s Supper [that increased frequency will make it less meaningful] and not about preaching or praying or singing… It certainly is possible to pray or to sing thoughtlessly and carelessly. But the solution is not to sing less frequently … but to sing with conviction and devotion.” Both the Word and the Sacrament are means of grace God uses to bring his Gospel message to us, yet no one argues we should hear less preaching of the Word for fear it’s becoming less meaningful. (Frankly, between hearing a sermon or joining others for a meal, I’d probably tire less quickly of the latter than the former!)

Think about how we need to eat healthy food throughout the day – typically three meals with additional beverages and snacks in between. Sometimes these are memorable occasions; most often they are routine. Regardless, we eat and drink because our physical bodies need the nutrition. It turns out that our spiritual life “needs feeding and nourishment just as much as our physical life,” as Howard Vanderwell observes in Living and Loving Life, and “much of that kind of nourishment comes from the Lord’s table… Speaking of our need of such nourishment, John Calvin said, ‘Our faith is slight and feeble and unless it be propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters, and at last gives way.’

“And so we come to the table: A 72-year-old woman with all her struggles, a young father trying to find balance in life, an 80-year-old still vibrant and eager to be nourished, a teen whose faith is growing, and an 8-year-old boy who knows for sure that Jesus loves him” (p. 71; the quote from Calvin comes from his Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.14.3). They all come (as do I) needing this very ordinary yet also very good food to sustain our spiritual lives.

The advantages of celebrating the Lord’s Supper more frequently outweigh any disadvantages. Why are we content with depriving ourselves or our children or new, freshly baptized believers of the nourishment God longs to give us?