Thomas Brooks on the Christian’s experience of death

after Unknown artist, woodcut, early to mid 17th century

Over at the excellent Union Theology website, you can find gems like this letter written by Thomas Brooks (1608-1680). In this letter, Brooks lays before the reader what the Bible teaches about the Christian’s experience of death. These are his points in list-form:

  1. Death is that which is best for a believer
  2. Death is a remedy, a cure
  3. Death is a rest, a full rest
  4. Death is a reaping day
  5. Death is gainful
    • By death you shall gain incomparable crowns
    • By death you shall gain a glorious kingdom
    • By death you shall gain a glorious, joyful welcome into heaven
    • By death you shall gain full freedom from all your enemies
      • Death will free you from the indwelling power of sin
      • Death will free you from the power and prevalence of sin
      • Death will free you from all temptations to sin
      • Death will free you from all the effects/consequences of sin
        • …from all reproach associated with your name
        • …from all physical weakness and disease
        • …from all your sorrows, inward or outward
        • …from all natural calamities/miseries on the earth
    • By death you shall gain a clear and full knowledge of God and his work
  6. Death is a sleep
  7. Death is a departure
  8. Death is a going to bed

Read the full letter here.

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Tim Keller on the danger of becoming conceited in ministry (2 Cor. 12:7-10)

Tim_Keller_at_Beeson_cropped-1

The following is a transcript of a lecture Tim Keller gave to theology students and faculty at Beeston Divinity School, Stamford University in 2016. You can watch the lecture here.

—–

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Introduction

I would like to immediately get negative. I’ve been on the verge of having been in the ordained ministry for 42 years, and those of us who have been in the ministry for that long know how many people who started with us didn’t get to the finish line. It’s a grievous percentage, it’s a lot of people. I think one of the main reasons why so many people fall by the wayside over the years is because they aren’t warned, that’s why I’m going negative about the temptation of ministry.

Let me read again V7 from 2 Corinthians 12: Paul says, ‘…to keep me from becoming conceited by the surpassingly great revelations, I was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me…’

‘…to keep me from becoming conceited…’

There’s a tendency to miss how much what Paul says here applies to us. Here’s the reason why:

Paul was called into the ministry and he was trained for the ministry in the word of God (trained by the risen Christ, taken to the third heaven – his seminary experience was extraordinary! But let’s not miss the principle that he was called into the ministry and equipped by being given insight).

Paul says that when you’re theologically trained and called into the ministry it can lead to conceit. In fact, it does lead to conceit unless something happens. Let me take a look at the one conceit he talks about here, and a couple of others that we see in the NT. Three ways the ministry can make you conceited – in fact, three ways the ministry will make you conceited unless God intervenes with your cooperation:

1. The conceit of theological knowledge itself

You might say that it’s stretching it a bit to say that this is what Paul is saying here. But there’s another place, 1 Cor. 8:1-2, where Paul says this: ‘…we all possess knowledge, but knowledge puffs up, while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know what they ought to know.’ What’s Paul talking about here? Something very simple – knowing the truth has a tendency to inflate you. Love is by very definition self-emptying. Love is saying “your needs are more important than mine.” But being puffed up means that you become more self-involved, you become proud, you become proud of your knowledge, you become proud of the insight you have. Paul says that it doesn’t have to be that way, but the fact is that it very often is.

Lloyd-Jones in his exposition of Ephesians – the one volume that’s called The Christian Warfare – at one point goes away from Ephesians and goes into what he calls particular ways in which Satan overthrows Christians. And he has an extended meditation on 1 Cor. 8:1, and the name of the sermon is ‘Love puffeth up.’ In it he says a couple of things that are really strong – and maybe too strong, so I’ll quote them:

“Whenever you allow your relationship to the truth to become purely theoretical and academic, you are falling into the grip of Satan. The moment in your study you cease to come under the power of the truth you have become a victim of the devil. If you can study the Bible without being searched and examined and humbled, without being lifted up and made to praise God, or moved with sorrow over what God has endured in you, or amazed at the beauty and the wisdom at what Christ has done for you, if you do not feel as much of the desire to sing when you are alone in your study as when you are standing in the pulpit, you are in bad shape, and you should always feel something of its power.”

He goes on and says the marks of someone who has learned to master the Bible as a set of information but has ceased to come under the power of it are:

  1. You become a spiritual crank – someone who is always arguing over relatively fine shades of doctrinal distinction, always denouncing people on the wrong side of the latest theological controversy; someone who uses the word of God rather than the word of God being something that uses you
  2. Intellectual pride
  3. Tribalism – “wisdom perishes with our theological tribe”

It doesn’t have to, but it usually does lead to some kind of conceit to become theologically trained. Unless God intervenes with your cooperation you’re going to make shipwreck.

2. The conceit that comes from a false identity

You will tend to identify personally with your ministry, so that your ministry and its success or lack of success will become your success or lack of success. If you don’t know what I’m saying right now, this is going to be one of the main battlegrounds that will come in years ahead. You don’t know your own heart yet.

What do I mean by a false identity? In ‘Exclusion and Embrace’, that great book by Miroslav Volf, he does a bit of reflection on the Cain and Abel story. He’s a little bit speculative but I think he’s got warrant here – he says, why is Cain so upset with Abel? Why is he getting murderously angry with Abel? When it says that God had favour on Abel what it essentially means is that Abel was being successful and Cain wasn’t being successful. God was favouring Abel in the things that he was doing, and God wasn’t favouring Cain in the things that he was doing. Why is Cain so angry at Abel? Why is he becoming so murderously bitter so that God, in Genesis 4, actually has to come and say, ‘Sin is crouching at your door, its desire is to have you but you must master it’?

Here’s what Miroslav Volf says, and it makes perfect sense: There’s no good reason that we think that Cain was just simply an angry person and he just happened to get angry at Abel. No, here’s what he says: Cain’s identity was probably constructed in relationship with Abel, so that he thought that he was the good kid. (By the way, I know a number of families like this – you have a family, you’ve got siblings and one or two of the siblings go off the rails and very often the one child who doesn’t go off the rails, and who does well in school and marries well, very often that sibling’s identity become this: “I’m the one kid who’s pleasing my parents; I’m the one kid who’s not breaking the heart of my parents.” It’s amazing how these identities develop.) It makes perfect sense – he says that Cain’s identity was constructed in relationship to Abel. He was the good kid, he was the kid who the parents liked the most – and that’s a false identity, an identity based on your performance of pleasing your parents, and when Abel became the kid who was the most successful, the brightest light of the family, there’s only two things that Cain could do: he could either change his identity, or destroy Abel.

Then Volf says something that is still true even if you disagree with that reading of the story: “The power of sin lies less in some insuppressible urge than in the reasoning of the perverted self which insists on maintaining its false identity.” So, for example, let’s just say – in New York I know a lot of people like this – “I go to church, I believe in God, I’m a Christian, that’s my identity.” No, your identity is that you’re successful – you have three homes, you have done very well. That’s your identity, it’s a false identity, it’s based on circumstances and your performance. And now suddenly it looks like you’re going to lose your career, or you’re going to lose an awful lot of your wealth. And suddenly you think “I can’t do that,” and even though you’re a “Christian” and you go to church, you cheat, you embezzle, you trample over somebody else and you destroy their career in order to stay where you are. Why did that person do all those things? Volf’s answer is that he has a false identity, and the power of sin comes from the need to maintain that false identity when it’s threatened.

Every single Christian is struggling with a false identity. Every non-Christian has a false identity. And that false identity is always based on something, and I’ll tell you what it’s going to be for you if you get into full-time ministry – it’s going to be, ‘How successful am I?’ Let me tell you what that means: when people come to your church you’re going to feel that they are affirming you; when people leave your church, you’re going to be devastated because it will feel like a personal attack – it’s not, they don’t like your church, but you are your church.

Criticism – you won’t be able to handle criticism if you identify with your ministry, if your ministry is your false identity. Sometimes criticism will come and it will be so traumatic because it means its questioning how good a minister you are, its saying that your preaching really isn’t very good. And instead of saying “Oh, I want my preaching to be better,” it feels like a personal attack, a completely personal attack. So, you either get too devastated by the criticism or you dismiss it and you learn nothing from it.

Not only that, but I would say cowardice also comes from having ministry as your false identity. There’s two kinds of cowardice I think. There’s true cowardice, which is “I’m afraid to rock the boat, to say something that will offend the people who give the most money to my church, I’m afraid of looking like I’m not very successful and I don’t know how to build a church because I may have to say something in this time and place that’s going to turn people off, I’m afraid I’m going to preach something from the word of God and all my young people are going to leave. It’s true cowardice, and it comes from having ministry as your false identity.

But there’s another kind of cowardice, I call it counterfeit cowardice, and it’s the cowardice of being too abrasive, of being too harsh, of running people off and then saying “See, I’m valiant for truth.” And that also, by the way, comes from identifying with your ministry. It’s not who you are in Christ, it’s who you are in ministry.

One last thing that is a sign that you have fallen into ministry as your identity is that you cannot stand comparisons. You get very envious when you see people who you feel don’t work as hard as you do, or maybe they’re not as theologically astute as you are, they’re not as diligent as you are, and everything is coming up roses for them in their ministry and it bothers you. Oh, my word, let me tell you – there is nothing worse than identifying with your ministry. And if you don’t realise that that is going to be a life-long struggle, you don’t know your heart.

So first there’s the conceit of just theological knowledge in general, and secondly there’s the conceit of ministry as a false identity. But there’s one more.

3. The conceit of focusing on your outward life rather than your inward life

These kind of go together but not completely. Here’s what I mean by that: here’s what’s so horribly dangerous about the ministry, about what I’m doing right now – when you speak to people about God, you either have to be close to Jesus at the moment (really close to Jesus) or you’re going to have to act as if you’re close to Jesus. Because what you’re doing is you’re telling people how great God is, that is what the ministry is, you’re telling people how beautiful Jesus is, how wonderful God is, how wonderful the Christian life is, how transforming the Christian identity is. In other words, you either have to be close to God as you’re speaking or you have to act close to God. Which means that your prayer life has to ramp up so fast when you get into full-time ministry. You have to truly learn how to commune with God. Otherwise, and this is what almost always happens to a degree, you learn how to fake it. You talk as if you’re a lot closer to God than you actually are and not only do people think that but you start to think it too.

Here’s how it works (and the old Puritans understood this difference, the difference between the outer life and the inner life): the inner life is the life of prayer, communion with God, and the real growth in the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, humility, self-control). The outer life is ministry and especially in the area of spiritual gifts. The inner life is the area of spiritual fruit, the outer life is the area of spiritual gifts.

For example, your prayer life might be terrible, your relationship with your spouse might be awful, you might be giving in to sexual fantasies, and then you go on a youth retreat and there’s something about the situation that draws out your spiritual gifts (especially if you’re a speaker). And you speak and several people become Christians, and people come up to you and they weep and they say, “Oh you’ve just changed my life,” and you think, “I’m not so bad, God’s using me.” Yeah, God’s using you – you know, there were these twelve disciples and Jesus was training them and then one night he says, “One of you will betray me.” It’s very interesting because when he says that in John 13:21, in 13:22 they all look around and they say, “Who is it?” In fact, at the very end when Judas goes out into the night after Jesus told them it would be the one who he gave the bread to, they still don’t get it. Why? Because Judas didn’t look any different. In 13:22 you don’t see them saying, “Oh yeah, I wondered about Judas. You know when we go out casting out demons, Judas’s demons never came out. And when we went out healing lepers, Judas’s lepers never got better. And I always said to myself that there is something different about him.” You see, the point is that his demons did come out – there’s no indication that they didn’t. His lepers did get cleansed – there was no indication that they didn’t. Outwardly he was an effective minister. Inwardly, there was nothing there.

We do that all the time. The older writers used to say that we mistake the operation of gifts for the operation of grace in our lives. When you do that, here’s the temptation – the ministry becomes your identity, you wake up in the morning and you realise that you’re not prepared for the two or three things that you need to do, and you can either pray or you can prepare. Now, it was your fault that you got to that place where you have that choice, but how often are you going to choose to pray rather than be prepared? If your identity is false then you’re automatically going to be focusing on the outward life rather than the inward life, and it’s absolutely deadly. I actually did know a man some years ago who had an affair with a woman in the congregation and at one point he told me he was able to maintain that for a while because every time he would start to get convicted he’d preach a great sermon and people’s lives would be changed and he’s say to himself, “I’m not that bad, God’s still using me.” Be careful. Jonathan Edwards in his great book, ‘Charity and its Fruit,’ talks about how God used Judas and he wasn’t saved at all. There’s no particular reason why you should ever do that to yourself.

Here’s where the hypocrisy starts: you’re not praying, you don’t think Jesus is great, and you have to get up and speak as though he is. Either the ministry is going to make you a far better Christian or it’s going to make you a far worse Christian than you would be otherwise. It’s going to make you into a hard, Pharisaical hypocrite or it’s going to turn you into a softer, tender person because you’re forced by the ministry to go to the throne of grace all the time and to plead “Oh Lord, be real to me,” and “Soften my heart,” and “Give me what I need to minister to these people.” It’s either going to drive you away from him or drive you to him, you choose.

Conclusion

Now, how do we overcome all these conceits? Let’s go back to the text, 2 Cor. 12:7-10:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Now, don’t forget the situation. Paul was facing people, other false apostles, who were saying “Paul doesn’t have the credentials, he’s not a true apostle.” What Paul does is he writes to these people to say, “Yes I do have the true credentials,” and yet then he inverts all the categories when he gives them the credentials. In a shame and honour culture for Paul to boast in insults and boast in hardships and boast in being run out town, he’s actually showing them all ways in a sense that he looks like a failure, or that God wasn’t favouring him. Yet he says, “That’s how I know that God is with me.” Why? Because being in ministry leads to conceit and look at all the things that God has done to bring you to your knees. Look at all the ways in which he’s broken your pride. Look at all the ways in which he’s brought you to the end of yourself so that you have to cling to him because you’ve got nothing else to cling to. And when you have a list of those things – the things that are going to drive you like a nail into the love of God. And the only things that will drive you like a nail into the love of God, are all the places where things break down, all the disappointments, all those places where you blow it. Paul says that is how you know, because God is letting those things happen to you, that’s your credentials. It’s only if those things happen that you will become a real minister, a true minister.

Some years ago I used to listen to D.M. Lloyd-Jones cassette tapes when things were on cassette tapes. I was preaching on the text of Jacob was wrestling with God in Genesis 32, and interestingly enough Lloyd-Jones spoke on that topic. He was actually speaking to medical students because he was a former physician, and he told a fascinating story in the middle of his exposition of Genesis 32, Jacob wrestling with God. I transcribed it and I’ll just read it to you:

‘I remember some old Welsh preachers years ago, when I was a young man, talking together. I’ve never forgotten the phrase that one of them used. They were discussing – perhaps they shouldn’t have done it, but preachers do this – a young preacher who had come on the scene and he was a popular preacher, and the crowds were following this man. I remember they praised him – oh, they all praised him – they said he was a gifted young man, he’s a man of ability, they said. But then I remember one of the old men shaking his head and saying, “I’m not sure that he’s been humbled yet.” How can a man remain what he was if he’s gotten near God? When God deals with us there’s a kind of laming. Jacob was a schemer so he could work it out, get his way, manipulate, wheedle, and cajole. But when he wrestled with God – really met God – he was given a permanent reminder of his weakness and inability and entire dependence upon God: the laming. You get the same thing in the apostle Paul, God gave him a thorn in the flesh. We don’t know what that was, but he was given it lest he become exalted. He asked for it to be removed, it wasn’t. What was it? We’re not sure, but it was a laming, a constant reminder of his weakness, inability, and entire dependence upon God. And then, as he put it, he realised that ‘It is only when I am weak that I am strong.’

Martin Luther, A Father Who Grieved

Martin Luther is best known as a bold Reformer, full of fire and passion, and that he was. Luther is a hero to many of us today and is often perceived as a man of impenetrable steel. Yet the sixteenth century German preacher wasn’t immune to heart-aches and griefs. Reading his letters and his ‘Table Talk’ (published notes written by those who spent time with Luther around his meal table) reveals the fiery Reformer to be at the same time a gentle and tender-hearted husband and father.

Martin and Catherine (Katie) Luther knew the joy of parenting six children together. They also knew the sorrow of burying two of those dear children. Elisabeth (1527-1528) died at just eight months. Magdalena (1529-1542) died at just thirteen years. Magdalena’s death hit Luther and Katie particularly hard as raising her, their second daughter, had helped them overcome the loss of Elisabeth.[1]

Luther’s letters and speech tell of the pain that Luther and Katie felt at losing their children, offering insight into the depths of grief experienced by parents who lose a child. At the same time we wonderfully see a glimpse of the hope that Luther and Katie held firmly to throughout their heart-ache.

Elisabeth Luther (10 December 1527 – 3 August 1528)

Luther and others had been shaken by the tragic death of a friend in the church, a lady called Hanna. She was the wife of a deacon in Wittenberg, George Rorer, and she died shortly after giving birth to a stillborn child. Luther wrote to his friend, Justus Jonas, a week later and expressed his concern for Katie:

‘I am concerned about the delivery of my wife, so greatly has the example of the Deacon’s wife terrified me. But He who is mighty has done great things for me; and so the endurance of great things also is required of me. May my Christ, whom I have purely taught and confessed, be my rock and fortress. Amen.’[2]

One month later, on 10 December 1527, Elisabeth Luther was born. Elisabeth was Luther and Katie’s second child (after John) and first daughter. A thrilled Luther again wrote to his friend, Justus, this time on the day of his daughter’s birth:

‘At this hour, ten o’clock, when I returned home from a lecture, I received your letter. I had read only ten lines of it when at that very moment I was told that my Katie was delivered of a little daughter. Glory and praise be to the Father in heaven. Amen. The mother in childbed is well but weak. And our little son John is also well and happy again…’[3]

It’s likely that Elisabeth was weakened by a plague that hit Wittenberg around the time of her birth, and just eight short months later she sadly died. Luther again put pen to paper, this time writing to his friend Nicholas. Here he reflects on the raw pain he felt:

‘My baby daughter, little Elizabeth, has passed away. It is amazing what a sick, almost woman-like heart she has left to me, so much has grief for her overcome me. Never before would I have believed that a father’s heart could have such tender feelings for his child. Do pray to the Lord for me. In him, farewell.’[4]

Magdalena Luther (4 May 1529 – 20 September 1542)

Less than a year after losing Elisabeth, Katie gave birth to another daughter, Magdalena. A day later Luther wrote to another Nicholas, a friend in the ministry in Germany, to joyfully tell him of the Lord’s kindness towards them:

‘The last letter to you … I wrote in the presence of Katie, who soon thereafter began to moan and to go into labor. Three hours after I had written the letter she gave birth to a healthy baby daughter without difficulties. The Lord has blessed us so richly that she had an uncomplicated delivery; to him be glory forever. Amen.’[5]

A note recorded in Table Talk by Veit Dietrich gives us an insight into Luther’s hands-on parenting, as well as giving us a glimpse of his affection for the then two-year old ‘Lena’:

“Though I am a great doctor, I haven’t progressed beyond the instruction of children in the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. I still learn and pray these every day with my Hans and my little Lena.”[6]

Fast-forward eleven years, Luther and Katie would once again suffer the loss of a daughter. In September 1542 Magdalena had become seriously ill and was expected to die. Growing up, she had become especially close with her older brother John, who was away from home studying with a Marcus Crodel. In an obviously pain-filled letter and concerned for both John and Magdalena, Luther wrote to Marcus Crodel:

‘My Marcus Crodel! I ask you to be quiet to my son about what I am writing to you: my daughter Magdalen is ill and almost in her last hour; in a short while she might depart to the true Father in heaven, unless God has decreed otherwise. She herself longs so much to see her brother that I feel compelled to send a carriage [for him]. They loved each other so much; perhaps his arrival could bring her some relief. I am doing what I can so that later the knowledge of having left something undone does not torture me. Therefore without giving John any reason, order him to fly back in this carriage; he will return soon, when Magdalen either has fallen asleep in the Lord, or has recuperated. Farewell in the Lord! Tell John that something is the matter which is to be entrusted to him in secret. Otherwise everything is fine.’[7]

Concerned as a father for John, Luther was also concerned as a husband for his dear Katie. Whilst Magdalena was suffering, her mother ‘wept loudly,’ and Luther comforted her with his solid understanding of the future hope for the Christian:

“Think where she’s going. She’ll get along all right. Flesh is flesh, spirit is spirit. Children don’t argue. They believe what they’re told. All things are simple for children. They die without anxiety, complaint, or fear of death, and they have little physical pain, as if they were falling asleep.’[8]

Desiring to comfort John and Katie, Luther also sought to comfort Magdalena in her suffering. A note published in Table Talk records an intimate conversation between Luther and his daughter:

“Dear Magdalene, my little daughter, you would be glad to stay here with me, your father. Are you also glad to go to your Father in heaven?”

The sick girl replied, “Yes, dear Father, as God wills.”

The father said, “You dear little girl! … The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. I love her very much. If this flesh is so strong, what must the spirit be?”[9]

He would comfort her regularly:

“Dear daughter, you have another father in heaven. You are going to him.”[10]

And this was not an empty comfort that Luther offered his daughter, but it was the counsel with which he comforted himself:

“I love her very much. But if it is thy will to take her, dear God, I shall be glad to know that she is with thee.”[11]

‘Often’ he would say:

“I’d like to keep my dear daughter because I love her very much, if only our Lord God would let me. However, his will be done! Truly nothing better can happen to her, nothing better.”[12]

On September 20 1542, Magdalena died. Luther fell on his knees at her bed and, it is recorded in Table Talk, ‘weeping bitterly, [he] prayed that God might will to save her.’ She died in the arms of her father, with Katie in the same room but unable to draw near through grief.

During Magdalena’s illness, Luther had acknowledged how hard he found it to praise God. “In the last thousand years God has given no bishop such great gifts as he has given to me,” he said. Yet he continued, “I’m angry with myself that I’m unable to rejoice from my heart and be thankful to God, though I do at times sing a little song and thank God. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s …”[13]

Understandably still finding it hard to ‘joyfully give thanks’ to God after Magdalena’s death, Luther wrote again to his friend Justus Jonas. In this letter, the grief that Luther and Katie felt as parents now without their child is painfully evident:

‘I believe that report has reached you that my dearest daughter Magdalen has been reborn in Christ’s eternal kingdom. I and my wife should only joyfully give thanks for such a felicitous departure and blessed end by which Magdalen has escaped the power of the flesh, the world, the Turk, and the devil; yet the force of [our] natural love is so great that we are unable to do this without crying and grieving in [our] hearts, or even without experiencing death ourselves. For the features, the words, and the movement of the living and dying daughter who was so very obedient and respectful remain engraved deep in the heart; even the death of Christ (and what is the dying of all people in comparison with Christ’s death?) is unable totally to take all this away as it should. You, therefore, please give thanks to God in our stead! For indeed God did a great work of grace to us when he glorified our flesh in this way. Magdalen had (as you know) a mild and lovely disposition and was loved by all. Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ who has called, elected, and made her glorious. God grant me, and all my [loved] ones, and all our friends such a death – or rather, such a life. This alone I ask of God, the Father of all comfort and mercies. In him, farewell to you and your whole family. Amen.’[14]

When ‘Lena’ was placed in her coffin, Luther said, “You dear little Lena! How well it has turned out for you!”[15] His understanding of life after death was not an abstract understanding, but he held firmly to the concrete hope of the resurrection, looking at her and saying:

“Ah, dear child, to think that you must be raised up and will shine like the stars, yes, like the sun!”[16]

When friends spoke to Luther at the funeral, we read this hope-filled response from him:

“You should be pleased!” I’ve sent a saint to heaven – yes, a living saint. Would that our death be like this! Such a death I’d take this very hour.” The people said, “Yes, this is quite true. Yet everybody would like to hold on to what is his.” Martin Luther replied, “Flesh is flesh, and blood is blood. I’m happy that she’s safely out of it. There is no sorrow except of the flesh.” Again, turning to others, he said, “Do not be sorrowful. I have sent a saint to heaven. In fact, I have now sent two of them.”[17]

And returning home from the funeral he said:

“My daughter is now fitted out in body and soul. We Christians now have nothing to complain about. We know that it should and must be so, for we are altogether certain about eternal life.”[18]

He also wrote a short epitaph to console Katie, pointing her to the blessing of Magdalena’s death:

‘I, Lena, Luther’s beloved child, Sleep gently here with all the saints And lie at peace and rest. Now I am our God’s own guest. I was a child of death, it’s true, My mother bore me out of mortal seed, Now I live and am rich in God. For this I thank Christ’s death and blood.’[19]

Yet Luther’s resurrection hope was not at odds with Luther’s grief:

“I am joyful in spirit but I am sad according to the flesh. The flesh doesn’t take kindly to this. The separation [caused by death] troubles me above measure. It’s strange to know that she is surely at peace and that she is well off there, very well off, and yet to grieve so much!”[20]

Both Katie and Luther knew this grief all too well. On October 9 1542 he wrote to his friend, James Propst. It’s fitting to give Luther the final word here, and so we shall. As was his fiery nature, Luther snarled at death; as was his fragile and tender nature, he did not hide his tears and his affection:

‘My most beloved daughter Magdalen has departed from me and gone to the heavenly Father; she passed away having total faith in Christ. I have overcome the emotional shock typical of a father, but [only] with a certain threatening murmur against death; by means of this disdain I have tamed my tears. I loved her so very much.’[21]

[1] Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbert, London: Yale University, 2006), 238.

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works (ed. Gottfried G. Krodel; 55 vols.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), 49:173.

[3] Ibid., 181.

[4] Ibid., 203.

[5] Ibid., 218-9.

[6] Luther, Luther’s Works, 54:9.

[7] Luther, Luther’s Works, 50:234-5.

[8] Luther, Luther’s Works, 54:428-9.

[9] Ibid., 430-1.

[10] Ibid., 432.

[11] Ibid., 430-1.

[12] Ibid., 432.

[13] Ibid., 430-1.

[14] Luther, Luther’s Works, 50:236-8.

[15] Luther, Luther’s Works, 54:432.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 432-3.

[18] Ibid., 433-4.

[19] Oberman, Luther, 312.

[20] Luther, Luther’s Works, 54:432.

[21] Luther, Luther’s Works, 50:246.

The Good God & a son without a father

The Good God and a son without his father colour

Five years ago my dad lost his battle with Multiple Sclerosis. Recently I’ve had the great joy of sharing his and our story (which I plan to blog at a later date). I’ve also had the chance to reflect on this event specifically in light of providence and other aspects of the doctrine of creation. Simply put, this is a personal reflection on how who God is has comforted me over the last five years.

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Reflections on personal history in light of providence and other aspects of the doctrine of creation

In the early hours of the morning of the 19th November 2009 my dad let out his final breath. His breathing had been laboured and pain-filled for almost a day by this point, his body groaning as a result of the final blow of its enemy, Multiple Sclerosis. I leaned over and kissed his forehead one last time, drawing his eye-lids shut as I stepped back. He lay in the arms of his beloved and now heart-broken wife. I moved to comfort my mother before going to make the necessary phone calls. Five years on and it seems like just last night.

Reflection on worldly doctrines of creation

I wonder what I might have felt that night, and many nights afterwards, if the sovereign God had not claimed my affections. What would that night have looked like if my God was not the Uncreated, Creator and Sustainer of all things?

I might have interpreted the event through a fatalistic ideology that would limit God’s power to intervene. Mankind has rebelled against its Creator and now we live in a broken world, riddled by disease and illness. God was powerless to prevent my dad from getting Multiple Sclerosis. He was powerless to prevent him deteriorating at the pace in which he did and so it was merely inevitability that his body would eventually fail him – the simple cause-and-effect of broken human biology, operating outside the control of God.

Or perhaps without a God of providence I might have put it down to chance. It just so happened that my dad was my dad; it just so happened that he suffered this illness; it just so happened that he died on this particular day at this particular time; it just so happened that I found myself in this family at this moment.

The thing is, throughout this period of my life, I just could not believe in either fatalism or fluke. My dad’s passing and all of the emotions and thoughts that came with it just could not be explained by fatalism or fluke. I wanted to thank God for providing me with my father; for providing my mum with her husband; for providing my sisters with their dad. But why thank a god who is powerless to intervene? Is he even the one to thank, if everything is just one big fluke? Indeed if everything is one big fluke then why do I feel the need to thank anyone or offer any praise for my dad’s life – it’s all meaningless anyway, isn’t it?

Fatalism nor fluke could explain it. But rather, as I observe the secondary causes that placed me in that particular situation at that particular time, things point towards purpose rather than accident; to intent rather than fluke; to intervention after intervention rather than mere cause-and-effect.

Reflection on providence

Not long before that night, perhaps just months before, a transformation had taken place in my life. I had gone from seeking pleasure and popularity (indeed from finding pleasure in popularity) to no longer caring about people’s perceptions and opinions. I had become a Christian. God had revealed to me the dazzling wonder of his grace in the person of Jesus Christ against the jet-black backdrop of my now mournful past. I was no longer seeking the empty pleasures characteristic of twenty-first century adolescence but was now in hot pursuit of knowing more and more of my Saviour.

In quite possibly the most painful time of my mum’s life, she didn’t need a self-indulgent adolescent around the house. She needed someone who could point her to her God. She needed someone who could care for her and who could serve her. God had saved me so as to provide for her in this way.

In a dark and confusing time for two young teenage girls, the last thing they needed was an older brother who was leading the way in empty living. They needed someone who could lead the way in how to grieve with hope. God saved me so as to provide them in this way.

The secondary causes that had placed me in that particular situation at that particular time pointed overwhelmingly to a purposeful and powerful God.

This God of purpose and power revealed himself also to be a God of great care. I saw him caring for my mum and my sisters. I saw him care for us as a family in intimately kind ways. One family friend thought that we wouldn’t like to drive around in a wheelchair-accessible car any longer and so gave us her car. Many people gave us money to see us through what were financially difficult days. Church members brought round meals for us well into the following month. All of these acts of kindness pointed towards a God of tremendous care.

Not only did these things point to his care for us as a family but also to the fact that he knew and understood our situation. As our Creator, ‘the LORD looks down from heaven; he sees all humankind. From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth – he who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds.’ (Ps. 33:13-15). I knew his providence then to be not a detached providence, but an intimately involved care and governing. This brought comfort in knowing that I and my family are worth ‘more than many sparrows’ (Matthew 10:31) to God.

Reflections on God’s sovereignty as Creator

What gave God the right to rule over this situation – to move people to generosity and to manoeuvre circumstances – is the fact that, as Creator of everything, he owns everything and everyone. Through seeing that my dad’s life was not his own (‘the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away’ – Job 1:21); through seeing that my mum’s life was not her own (she would not have chosen this course of events), it came home to me that I did not only belong to God because he had ransomed me in the Lord Jesus, but that even if I did not bow the knee to him, he is still my rightful Owner.

This had a significant impact on how I responded to that situation. As the rightful Owner of all things – including me – I had no right to shake my fist at God and complain of his dealings. I remembered something that my uncle and aunty had written on the order of service for the funeral of their 10 year old daughter and it struck a chord – “We thank God for loaning Megan to us for 10 great years.” They understood how the reality that God, as Creator, having an implied ownership of all things impacted on their response to him. I was beginning to learn a similar lesson.

In the midst of the difficulty, the truth that God is a wise and good ruler brought much comfort. Because God is wise, I could trust him to deal wisely with me. I could trust him that even though at the time things were unclear and painful, he was working out his wise purposes. He understands his creation better than anyone else does. Who better to have ordain my steps and circumstances? Many a nights were spent during this period of time sitting and resting in the knowledge that God is a wise Sovereign.

Many a nights were spent marvelling at the fact that God is not only a wise Sovereign, but a benevolent Sovereign also. His creation is good (Genesis 1) because it comes from Him, and so I could trust him to be able to work all things together for my good, and for my family’s good (Romans 8:28). This brings a new dimension to reflecting on the past as God, in manoeuvring circumstances and ruling over his creation, is not just showing off his power or his wisdom, but is working for the good of his creation. There is a great deal of comfort to be found in reflecting on this truth.

At the heart of God’s benevolent care for his creation is his care for his people. Not only is he able to work all things together for his peoples’ good, but he does work all things together for his peoples’ good. During this time upon which I am reflecting, it brought great hope to rest in the knowledge of God’s good intentions.

Reflections on God’s will in creating

Having a biblical doctrine of creation means believing nothing happens by chance. Believing that the opposite is true only brings a sense of hopelessness. My dad’s death would have been pointless. The grief that I was experiencing would have been merely an inconvenience. But knowing that God creates and sustains by his will (Revelation 4:11), meant that I could have a very real hope that my dad had not died in vain; that the grief I was experiencing had purpose. Looking back, much character shaping was done through that event. God willed that my dad would die, and that is a hope-inspiring truth.

The fact that God sustains his creation by his will also gave me strength to carry on. If God did not sustain by his will, then by implication I am self-existent. That’s not good news when you feel incredibly frail and life seems so obviously fragile. But the truth is that since God is the purposeful Sustainer, then I am invincible until God says otherwise. Grief would not overwhelm me. The seemingly immense responsibility ahead of looking after my younger sisters and mum would not crush me. God would sustain; God did sustain.

Therefore, all the glory belongs to God. The world might look at this situation and think that it speaks of my strength or resolve. The fact of the matter is that it speaks of God’s strength and resolve. To him belongs all the praise as it is due to him that we, his creatures, are sustained.

Summary

Providence and the biblical doctrine of creation is good news. It inspires hope, brings comfort, gives meaning, and allows us to interpret history in light of these things. As Creator, Owner and Sustainer he is due all the glory for everything that is praiseworthy.

Personally, it means that I can look back on an emotional event and not hate God. It means that there is nothing in God to hate, and indeed I have no right to do anything but praise him. It means that even though I don’t understand everything that has happened, I can trust that his purposes and intentions are good and wise, and so rest in the fact that I don’t need to understand everything.

It is then a great joy to finish with the words of Revelation 4:11,

“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

Reflections on a week of prayer

This last week we embarked on a ‘week of prayer’ as a church. It was nothing extravagant – one prayer meeting in the morning, one prayer meeting in the evening, Monday to Friday, 45mins to an hour in length.

And when I say it was nothing extravagant, it’s because it really wasn’t! We could have been more creative and engaging. We could have gotten out and about to pray in certain geographical areas and for certain places; we could have had more visual aids to help direct our thoughts; we could have done many other helpful things that would help us to pray, but for whatever reason, we didn’t. It was simply a group of us sat together in a cold (though surprisingly not too cold) church building, praying. Twice a day, for five days. It was so simplistic, and yet right now I can’t think of a better way to spend five days’ worth of spare time.

Reflecting on the week, here are three things that I’ve learned and/or been reminded of:

1. God teaches us as we pray

Sometimes we might think that prayer is a completely different subject to teaching for the Christian. We are taught from the Bible, and we respond in prayer. We are taught as we read, and we then discipline ourselves to pray. But while it’s true that we are indeed taught from the Bible we are taught also as we pray.

This makes sense doesn’t it? Particularly as we pray together as God’s people. A big part of our praying is that we verbally affirm truths about God. This is how Jesus prays in John 17. So in verses 1-5, for example, his request – “Father, glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (v.1,5) – is made with a string of affirmations about the Father – “You have granted [the Son] authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him”; “This is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” When Jesus prayed he verbally affirmed truths about God.

When we pray out loud together as God’s people, we find that people voice truths about God that we have not pondered before, or that we have not pondered for a while. God teaches us through his people as we pray together.

2. God convicts us as we pray

Praying is an emotional task. Take Psalm 90 for example, which is a prayer Moses prayed. It’s so clearly packed with emotion as he retraces how “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” (Ps. 90:1) Retracing our steps is always an emotional task. You don’t have to talk about ‘good old days’ with an old friend for very long before you find yourself experiencing the emotions of yesteryear, the highs and the lows. Praying is an emotional task. It was emotional for the Lord Jesus too, more emotional than we will know it to be. Just consider Gethsemane; consider the intensity of Matthew 26:36-46, of Mark 14:32-42 and of Luke 22:39-46 as Jesus prays before being betrayed and crucified.

And praying is an emotional task even in more ordinary prayers. Why? Because the very act of praying is a humbling act. It says, “God I am completely dependent upon you.” And in the midst of our humility and our vulnerability, to pray is to say, “God, you are completely dependable, completely sufficient.” As we are brought to that point, God convicts us. He convicts us not only in the negative sense of the word. He doesn’t just convict us of sin (though he absolutely does) as we pray. He convicts/convinces/persuades us of ways forward, of steps to take, of people to minister to and so much more. In the vulnerability of of corporate prayer, God deals with us.

3. God unites us as we pray

There’s something special about God’s people praying audibly together. There’s something unique that is achieved as we pour out our hearts and minds to God among brothers and sisters. In these times we are struck that the person sat a few seats around from us who annoyed us earlier with an off-hand comment about something or someone, is in fact a child of the King, and so our annoyance disappears. In these times we can sit opposite somebody who we disagree with on x, y or z on how church should function and love them as we hear them speaking to our God – the God we share; the God we worship together. When we pray together small things are seen for what they are – small things.

Of course, this isn’t a given. In 1 Timothy 2:8 we see that Christian men in first century Ephesus were full of anger as they prayed. Disputes even broke out during prayer times! (Nobody ever said a prayer meeting was boring in first century Ephesus…) Corporate prayer is a great opportunity for us to come and lay down our preferences and put our little annoyances aside – but we need take that opportunity. We can harbour anger in our hearts against one another even as we pray together. Disputes still break out in prayer meetings today – probably not so often as clear cut disputes, but we can easily turn our prayers into duals and try to counter-act something that somebody else has prayed! Corporate prayer is an amnesty invitation to gather together around our great God and Saviour with worshipful hearts, not divisive hearts. Corporate prayer entices unity. I’m pretty sure that we could coin the phrase “Show me a united church, and I’ll show you a praying church.”

In summary…

Let’s not neglect meeting together… to pray. It has value. It has bigger value than we know. And in a (Christian) culture that is constantly in our face urging us to do, do, do, we need to remember to gather together and pray, pray, pray.

End of Year 1 – Thank You!

Dear family and friends,

Little over a year ago I made the decision to begin training for full-time pastoral ministry. I am writing to thank you for the support you have shown to me over the last twelve months, and also to give you an update on how things are going.

In September 2013 I began a course of study at Oak Hill College. Oak Hill is based in London but has also established a learning ‘base’ for distance education students in Liverpool. When I was looking choose a theology course to take, I had two desires (if you take the need for the course to teach sound doctrine as a given!)  that I wanted said course to satisfy: I wanted the course to, 1) allow me to stay as a part of my home church and, 2) offer the opportunity to meet with other theological students as regularly as possible. The course in Theological and Pastoral Studies offered by Oak Hill via the North West Partnership in Liverpool looked like, and has proved to be a good fit.

It has meant that I travel over to Liverpool on the train on Tuesdays and Thursdays where I meet up with 7 other students. We meet in a building owned by the North West Partnership and Christ Church Liverpool and there we watch video recordings of lectures from Oak Hill. This year I have studied the following modules: Biblical Theology; The Word of God; Theological Reflection; OT: The Pentateuch, Joshua & Judges; Denominational Identity; Church Planting; Ministry for Corporate Worship; OT: Prophetic & Wisdom Literature; An Introduction to NT Greek. I am extremely thankful for the lecturers of these modules who have stretched my thinking and unpacked gem after gem from God’s Word for me! I have uploaded most of my essays to an online blog (www.deiniolsblog.wordpress.com) should you want to see in more detail the content of some of the modules.

While proving to be very demanding, the course is, however, only part-time. The rest of my time week-to-week is spent as a ‘trainee elder’ at Gwersyllt Congregational Church. Ministry ‘trainee’ job-titles are, in my opinion, one of the vaguest job-titles you can come across! So let me explain a little bit of what I do as a trainee elder. What the title is helpful in suggesting is that I am being trained for eldership. Practically, this looks like sitting in on elders meetings, regular conversations and meetings with the existing elders, visiting people from the church family, preaching, leading a church ‘community group’ and co-leading another ‘community group’ which we hope will soon have the foundations to become a church plant. In this role I would value your prayers. Training for eldership cannot have a timescale as the qualifications for eldership are not primarily academic qualifications, nor experiential qualifications, but are spiritual qualifications. Please pray that I would mature spiritually in order to serve the church in the role of an elder.

It has not always been easy to get ‘the balance’ between studies at Oak Hill and work at Gwersyllt Congregational Church, in fact, it has been very difficult. Having vetoed university, I have found myself needing to cultivate a study-ethic from scratch, and at times it is much easier to throw discipline out the window and spend the bulk of my time on non-study based projects. However, while this has been challenging, I am grateful to God for the opportune to spend a number of years intentionally studying who He is and what He has done. Thank you for the ways in which you have supported me in both study and church work, and thank you for your prayers.

In summary, looking back over the last twelve months I can see and feel that I have known God’s blessing in this work. Perhaps the main lesson I have learned (and re-learned) is that He is faithful. I hope I get to spend many more years diving deeper into this truth.

Next steps? Well, the next twelve months will be similar in many ways. I will continue with Oak Hill for another year before the course looks set to change provider to WEST, and I will continue for another year at least at Gwersyllt Congregational Church. There will be, however, one beautiful change. In July Charis and I will get married! We can’t quite believe the wedding is now just seven weeks away! Following the wedding and our return from our ‘honeymoon’ we will be living in Wrexham. We are both thankful that we have been able to buy a small apartment in Wrexham itself – our new address being the address at the top of this letter.

As well as knowing God’s provision in the form of a home, we are also so thankful that He has provided Charis with a job teaching history at a school in Malpas, a 30 minute drive from our home. Please pray for Charis as she finishes off her PGCE and begins her first teaching post.

Something that has overwhelmed me over the course of the last year has been the generosity of many people in helping support me in my studies, church work and recently in our purchasing of our first home. I, and we, are incredibly grateful to you all and to the generous God who is at work in you. As I’m sure you can appreciate, these two big steps of moving into our first home and getting married have increased our forecasted expenditure for the next year. While the course at Oak Hill is a good fit, it does come with fairly large tuition fee demands and also travel demands, approximately to the sound of £5000. I am currently trying to enlist the support for another year of an evangelical trust. Without their financial support last year I would not have been able to enrol at Oak Hill. Studying brings with it not only financial demands, but is also very time-demanding. This arrangement of study and work in the church leaves me with very little time to find paid employment elsewhere in order to raise funds. As a result, this year I will be heavily reliant on the generosity of trusts, family and friends again. I don’t want to push this matter any further in this letter, so if you would like more information on this front please get in touch. Once again, thank you for your generosity

So, thanks for being part of what has been an amazing journey so far! I’m looking forward to chapter 2.

With love and from a grateful heart,

Deiniol