Stay the Course

How are you handling all of this? 

How are you handling the daily avalanche of anxious news, the challenging conditions of having to do work and school at home, all together, under one roof, all day, all night, with nowhere you can go? 

And what about how all of this is going to impact the economy, and our community, and our church? And what if we get sick, or someone we love gets sick? 

Like storm waves crashing on the shores of our minds, it feels like these things keep coming at us relentlessly, from every direction, weighing down our already-heavy minds, eroding away at our patience and our peace. 

How are we going to get through all of this? 

Well, it depends. We can decide to get through this with focused and  dependent trust in our Savior, or, worried and afraid we can lose sight of His sovereign strength. And when that starts to happen, we begin to drift, untethered from our Safety, out into the storm, in danger of being drowned by the undertow. 

It’s moments like these that put our faith to the test. Trials like these are  meant by the Lord to deepen our dependence and strengthen our endurance. It’s training us for a life that walks by faith, not by sight. 

Take the old prophets as your mentors and examples. James 5:10-11 tells us that they put up with anything, went through everything, and never once quit, all the time honoring God. 

Of course, you’ve heard of Job’s endurance, and you know how God brought it all together for him at the end. That’s because God cares for us, loves us, and is working for our good right down to the last detail. What a gift to those who don’t quit!

So stay the course. Remember the faith, the endurance, and the ultimate joy of Joseph, of Job, and, of course, Jesus. And remember these encouraging words:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

So stay the course. Endure this cross. Trust the Lord. 

He cares. He’s sovereign. He’s never letting us go. 

When Less Becomes More

With each new day of the coronavirus crisis, we are being faced with challenges we never would have anticipated just a few weeks ago and forced to make decisions we’re not thrilled about.

As each new day breaks with a presidential news conference, an update on the coronavirus numbers, and another layer of guidelines and restrictions, we’re informed of something more we’ll have to live without or something less we’ll be able to do.

What are we supposed to do? What are we supposed to do when we can’t do what we normally do? It’s already getting frustrating isn’t it? This all feels so strange. Like a fish out of water.

The world is on lockdown, we’re stuck at home, feeling isolated, trying to be productive, and we’re already starting to feel pushed to our limits. And we’re only a few days into this!

We’re all feeling pushed out of our normal limits and our normal schedule.

That makes this a great time for us to find our limits, find that we have limits, and begin asking deeper questions.

Here’s one to get your imagination working.

What can this season of slowing down, staying home, and suspended schedules reveal about our need for the gift of rest, and what does it reveal about our tendency to resist it when we’re not normally forced to stop?

Sabbath means “stop”, and regular stopping is a gift from God given for our well-being. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2.27). For the moment, the stopping is involuntary. No one wants this present state of lockdown to last forever.

But just for a moment, while we find ourselves isolated in the quiet solitude of the eye of a storm swirling around us, let’s try to imagine a less-busy life when things get back to normal. Restful evenings. Meals together. Slower Saturdays. Room to breathe. Space on the calendar. Spacious life.

One of the things I find myself wondering is if one of the things God is working for our good in all of this bad is to make us slow down enough to taste the good gift of rest that we normally tend to resist when we’re left to ourselves to manage our own schedules. And then, having tasted it, to be trained by it to manage our time more wisely than we did.

The Apostle Paul said, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15–16).

We Americans tend to read that verse as a call to productivity and busyness. But if rest is a good gift from God, then maybe the best way overbusy, overloaded, overwhelmed people can use their time is to start taking more time to rest.

Try putting it on your calendar (hint: it looks like blank space). You might need to start saying “no” more often than you have before. Scale back. Draw some fresh boundaries. Make some space.

Let’s see this as a time of pruning. Let’s see the things we don’t really need to be doing all the time. Let’s focus on what’s essential. So that when this is over, we don’t have to go back to the old, exhausting normal but can look forward to experiencing a new normal. And then let’s enjoy it as a gift from God.

Saying “no” to more and “yes” to less is just one of the ways we can experience Jesus’ gentle invitation to “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28–30 28)

How the news coverage of Tiger Wood’s adultery illustrates some not-so-randomly-connected truth

I know that this has become “old news” already, but I’ve been trying not to waste the lessons of the scandal from a few weeks ago. I have prayed for the Lord to soften my own heart and be sanctified by the news of the sin of another. I have no stones to throw, except at myself. In all honesty I can say that I am the most sinful man I know.

That humbles me, and the way that Tiger Wood’s sins have been put so publicly on display has put the fear of the Lord in me even more deeply. Who would want any of his own sins exposed the way Tiger’s have been? That’s humbling and frightening and sanctifying.

There are some things illustrated in this scandal that have been on my mind and in my prayers:

1. Americans still view adultery as wrong. I am glad to see this reaction by the public. Frankly, I was surprised that the world still cared about the commitments involved in the marriage covenant.

2. A beautiful wife does not equal a happy life. Other ways of expressing this principle: Wealth does not equal having-it-all-together (too often it undermines it!). Outward luxuries do not carry the power to produce inner fulfillment – only the love of Christ toward us carries that power for us.

3. Self-discipline in one area does not guarantee it in all areas. There are too many professional athletes to mention that illustrate this truth all too well (Michael Phelps, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, etc.). If you give all your effort to being good at some particular outward skill, chances are you may be neglecting other important areas of your inner life and character.

4. Be sure your sin will find you out. Be afraid – enough to not sin. A carefully crafted and controlled public image of yourself cannot conceal the truth about you indefinitely, no matter how good at it you are. What you are before God is what you really are.

5. We are all too voyeuristic about celebrity scandals – grocery store magazines, news sites, news shows – it’s been everywhere all the time. It’s too much. But it’s there because the public loves to know. May this scandal make us wiser than before about our own lives, and find our cravings for celebrity gossip lessening.

6. We should pray that God would humble him and bring him to genuine repentance and faith in Jesus Christ the Savior. I’ve been praying this for Tiger Woods. And it looks like I’m not the only one.

Do I think that movies like Avatar are too pagan for Christians to watch?

Someone emailed me with that question this week. I’m posting our exchange here in the hope that you’ll find my answer helpful.

Pastor Scott,

I, too, am a recovering fundamentalist. So I really have enjoyed your web sites and the focus of your church. I would like your take on a topic that has me in some hot water with some friends…. The movie Avatar.

How do you address blatantly pagan entertainment such as “Avatar” which, apart from its pantheistic theme, is a fun, exciting, interesting movie? Why should a believer waste his/her time with this? How, in light of Phil 4:8 and Romans 14:23 can a believer ingest a movie like this “in faith”? I do believe some things might be fine for one person and not fine for another (Rom 14). But with movies like this – which I place in the same category as pornography – I find it hard to see how it’s a good thing for anyone to partake of.

What do you think? How do you counsel your people, if asked, about such a film that finds itself in the cross hairs of not just fundies, but also folks like Mark Driscoll.

Resting in peace because of what He has done, (name withheld)

My answer:

Thanks for your email. I’ll try to answer you helpfully.

I’ve been pondering your question, as well as the appropriateness of entertainment such as Avatar for Christians, since it presents a portrayal of openly pagan elements. This really is an oft-raised question about the point at which it is appropriate to deem something “too pagan” for Christian consumption.

It seems to me that the question is one of degrees. Paganism has infected a great deal of today’s entertainment, so much so, that it is difficult to even notice it anymore, because it has become so common, and we’ve become so used to it, that we’ve become immune to it (which is a good thing).

For example, you could conceivably create a scale with TV programs and movies that use magic such as Bewitched or I Dream of Genie or Mary Poppins on one end of the scale, then you could move further up the scale from those lighter-fare shows (to which most people are immune to the paganism, and are thankfully able to be uninfluenced by the superstitions in them), to those programs containing a bit darker magic such as Star Wars or Harry Potter or even movies such as Avatar, which contains open praying to a goddess.

Honestly, different people would place these shows/movies on different points on the scale, depending on their sensitivity to such things, and the perceived blatancy of the movie’s attempt to influence the viewer to embrace ideas or practices clearly contrary to Scriptural teaching.

I know some people that condemn Bewitched and Genie, and even Disney’s Snow White and Aladdin, as being “too pagan” and therefore unfit for Christian viewing, whereas others I know actually came out of the theater after watching Avatar with a list of things in the movie that caused them to have moments of worship to Christ. They said things like:

“If the imagined world of Avatar is that astounding and beautiful and awe-inspiring, then what must the new heavens and new earth be like?”

“If a mere man can imagine that kind of beautiful world, then surely God has put eternity in our hearts, and what God has imagined, and will one day create, will be even more spectacular than anything man can imagine! God is beyond comprehension and full of glory!”

Also, Avatar was really nothing more than a future-looking take on the very well-known religion of the American Indian that most American school children are aware of (or used to be): a people primitive in weaponry, but skilled hunters with a sense of brotherhood with the animals, and communal worship of the “Great Spirit”, in Avatar’s case this was the goddess Eywa – who was strikingly similar to the American Indian concept of an all-emcompassing deity that is one with nature. It was all somewhat panentheistic. Pagan? Yes. More so than something we’d see in a cowboy and Indian movie? Not any more than ones I’ve seen in my day. Do the prayers to Eywa in the movie bother me? Yes, just like Luke using the force or Indians chanting and dancing for rain around a fire. But, I do not feel that my allegiance to Christ is threatened by those things, and can appreciate the imaginative value of the movie as an enriching experience, much like I can with Narnia and Lord of the Rings.

So, in my view, it is a question of degrees: where does it go on the scale of an acceptable vs. unacceptable portrayal of paganism? To what degree is it harmful to the souls of the viewers, or to the consciences of the Christians? (the latter is a question which falls within the scope of Romans 14). For this reason, I am unpersuaded by the comparison of this kind of exposure to pagan religious practices with exposure to pornography.

Being exposed to greater or lesser degrees of pagan religious practices can be withstood by possessing greater faith in the truth of Christ. But there are no degrees of exposure to pornography for which there is no defilement. Pornography does not call for an embrace of faith like false religion does, it lures one to indulgence of man’s carnal nature through lust. This is why a Christian can travel to an Islamic or Buddhist or Hindu nation and observe their worship in the streets and be unmoved by it, but cannot enter a strip club and be unaffected. There is a difference.

I know that that’s not a simplistic answer, but I hope that it gives you at least some helpful insight. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to think out loud with you. These are good questions to wrestle with. Keep thinking through how to practice your faith in Christ. May God be glorified in us!


Scott Kay

I said, “America is not a Christian nation”, but here’s a clarification

In my sermon this past Sunday, I said this:

America is not a Christian nation. In fact, there’s never been any such thing as a Christian nation. There has been a Jewish nation, which was a theocracy. But never has there ever been anything like that since then. America has never been in a covenant with God like Israel was. We’re not a theocracy. In that regard, we are more akin to Babylon as a nation than to Israel.

But I could have said more. I didn’t due to time constraints, and because I plan to say more about it as I preach through Daniel.

Here’s what I was driving at with that comment.

I know that, unlike Babylon, America is unique in that it was founded on many principles that derive directly from Scripture. Biblical principles and concepts abound in the founding documents, which have been woven into the fabric of our American government and culture. Yet, it is without question that those principles that have influenced American life and though for so long have been eroding at alarming rates in the past number of decades. The trajectory toward increased secularism is just that: a movement away from the Christian concepts, practices, and principles that have undergirded and permeated our American society.

And yes, this concerns me greatly. Yes, there is much more that Christian individuals should be doing to influence government, society, and our culture to retard this trajectory. The operative word here is Christian individuals, not Christian churches.

Christians are citizens of two kingdoms simultaneously, and so should participate in both for the sake of the good of others and the glory of God. But the responsibility of the church is to minister the Gospel, not seek to run a government. That is the realm of individuals. And I believe that it would be a good, God-glorifying thing if more Christian individuals were involved in these matters than there are at present.

On the other hand, the church is to serve a prophetic function in the world, not a civil one. The church proclaims the good news of the Kingdom of God, but individual Christian citizens of the kingdom of man are free to influence government, culture, and society for the sake of maximizing the effectiveness of the preaching of the Gospel of the kingdom of God by the church. The church’s task is simple and clear: to minister the Word and the ordinances – to preach the Gospel, not to promote political agendas, politicians, or parties. The church’s function is prophetic, not political.

This would mean that while the church does have a responsibility to preach on abortion, homosexuality, marriage, murder, theft, stealing, etc. (because the Scriptures directly address each one of those issues), the Scriptures do not promote any one political agenda, and therefore the church shouldn’t either.

Furthermore, pastors need to be careful not to blur the lines between what Scripture says, and what even the pastor thinks is the best political agenda. As a pastor, when I speak behind the pulpit (that is, in a prophetic role) I am to speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where it is silent. The pulpit is not the place for expressing my personal opinions or political persuasions.

Now, to be honest, I am a political junkie, and love to talk politics in private. But I do not have the freedom to impose my political persuasions on those whom I pastor, when I stand to preach or when I counsel those who come to me for Biblical guidance. I must keep my heavenly charge in clear view: preach the Word. And Christian individuals must recognize that the function of the church is not to play politics or try to create a “Christian nation,” it is to preach the Gospel.

If Christian individuals want to be more involved in politics, then there is great freedom from Scripture to do so, and there is a great motivation from the second greatest commandment to do so, because serving your neighbors in positions of authority can be a good way to “love your neighbor as yourself.” And if anyone should be loving their neighbors, it’s Christians! But Christians shouldn’t confuse their function as an individual seeking to serve and influence government and the culture through political involvement, with the function of the church to proclaim the good news to all men. Politics isn’t for that, pulpits are. Ultimately, the goal is not a “Christian nation,” but a nation filled with Christians.

I often feel like Spurgeon did about his preaching

That is, to get to stand and preach Christ each week is a privilege beyond description, but I often feel terribly inadequate for the task. This makes me deeply appreciative for your prayers for me as I stand each week to preach. I couldn’t have expressed this struggle any better:

It is a long time since I preached a sermon that I was satisfied with. I scarcely remember ever having done so. You do not know, for you cannot hear my groans when I go home, Sunday after Sunday, and wish that I could learn to preach somehow or other—wish that I could discover the way to touch your hearts and your consciences, for I seem to myself to be just like the fire when it needs stirring—the coals have got black when I want them to flame forth!

If I could but say in the pulpit what I feel in my study, or if I could but get out of my mouth what I have tried to get into my own soul, then I think I should preach, indeed, and move your souls! Yet perhaps God will use our weakness, and we may use it with ourselves, to stir us up to greater strength.

(Good Earnests of Great Success, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 14, Sermon #802, p. 176)

Thanks to my good friend Rob Murphey for pointing me to this.

What I would have said about the Lord’s Supper if I’d had time…

After last Sunday’s sermon (Removing the Obstacles of Legalism from Taking the Lord’s Supper), I’ve been amazed at how many people have shared with me how they have struggled with taking the Lord’s Supper. The guilt, the unworthiness, even the fear and dread of taking it. On the one hand, I’m glad that people take it so seriously, but on the other hand, I’m convicted by how many of those serious-minded worshippers I’ve had a part in discouraging in the act of taking. I pray that Sunday’s message will be a tool for bringing a whole lot of grace-induced liberation to hearts bound by condemnation.

My heart is still rejoicing to hear of the burdens that were lifted. Praise the Lord!!

Some have asked about who then is to be “fenced” away from the Lord’s Table. The short answer is this: those who are unrepentant about sin should not partake, since, THAT is a state of rebellion, or as Luther said, a lack of DESIRE to receive the grace given in the ordinance.

So, we should fence the table from 3 kinds of people: unbelievers, the unrepentant and the self-righteous. Everyone else is invited to come.

Luther had really good pastoral advice in his Larger Catechism. I had planned to use this in the sermon, but simply ran out of time. I wanted to find a way to share it with you so I’m posting it here. This is really good, so I’m giving you all of it.

Notice specifically the distinction in who should and shouldn’t come to the Lord’s Table in the first few paragraphs (paragraphs 2-4 in particular). Luther’s use of the term “desire” is the key here. (underlines and bracketed comments are mine)

Luther in the Larger Catechism:

But if you say: How if I feel that I am not prepared? Answer: That is also my scruple, especially from the old way under the Pope, in which a person tortured himself to be so perfectly pure that God could not find the least blemish in us. [This is a Catholic approach to the Lord’s Supper!] On this account we became so timid that every one was instantly thrown into consternation and said to himself: Alas! you are unworthy!

But if you are to regard how good and pure you are, and labor to have no compunctions, you must never approach.

We must, therefore, make a distinction here among men. For those who are wanton and dissolute [deliberately intend to continue in sin] must be told to stay away; for they are not prepared to receive forgiveness of sin, since they do not desire it and do not wish to be godly.

But the others, who are not such callous and wicked people, and desire to be godly, must not absent themselves, even though otherwise they be feeble and full of infirmities… For no one will make such progress that he will not retain many daily infirmities in flesh and blood.

Therefore such people must learn that it is the highest art to know that our Sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness. For we are not baptized because we are worthy and holy, [or] …because we are pure and without sin, but the contrary, because we are poor miserable men, and just because we are unworthy; …

But whoever would gladly obtain grace and consolation should impel himself, and allow no one to frighten him away, but say: I, indeed, would like to be worthy; but I come, not upon any worthiness, but upon Thy Word, because Thou hast commanded it, as one who would gladly be Thy disciple, no matter what becomes of my worthiness.

But this is difficult; for we always have this obstacle and hindrance to encounter, that we look more upon ourselves than upon the Word and lips of Christ.

We must never regard the Sacrament as something injurious from which we had better flee, but as a pure, wholesome, comforting remedy imparting salvation and comfort, which will cure you and give you life both in soul and body. …

those who are sensible of their weakness, desire to be rid of it and long for help, should regard and use it only as a precious antidote against the poison which they have in them. For here in the Sacrament you are to receive from the lips of Christ forgiveness of sin, which contains and brings with it the grace of God and the Spirit with all His gifts, protection, shelter, and power against death and the devil and all misfortune.

They Keep Crawling Down

Do you ever struggle with a recurring sin? One that, just when you think you’ve got it conquered for good, manifests itself once again, to your surprise and frustration? And you think, “I can’t believe I did that. Where did that come from? Why do I keep doing that?”

It’s discouraging, isn’t it?

Well, here’s the best help to that problem I’ve read in a very long while (and it’s from a long time ago):

“Every Christian must make up his mind and lay out his life to crucify all his several sins and to keep them crucified, till God has time to have them forever mortified. For, if a malefactor was once arrested and was crucified and was kept crucified till at last he died upon his cross, in that case his days of robbery and murder were at an end. But let the watching soldiers fall asleep, or let them become drunken, and let that crucified criminal’s old companions come and take him down from his cross, as sometimes happened, and that rescued malefactor would immediately return to his former crimes and even worse than before. And so will it be with those robbers and murderers who are still alive and unmortified in our own hearts. They may be really and truly be crucified and their days of open and outward transgression may seem to be at an end. But cease watching them; cease for so much as a day our an hour from keeping them crucified, and they will be back that very hour at all their former evil works. Those so besetting sins of yours that are today nailed to their cross ard are silent and motionless and shamming death, unless you watch with all your watchfulness they will be down from their cross and will be back again at all their evil ways.”

(Source: Alexander Whyte, quoted in Worthy is the Lamb: Puritan Poetry in Honor of the Savior, Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2004, p. .275)

Colossians 3:3-10 (ESV) is the relevant passage:

3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. 5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

Maybe You Think They Went Too Far, But Maybe They Didn’t.

Maybe we haven’t gone far enough.

Ian D. Campbell writes at the Reformation21 blog:

Some of today’s Scottish newspapers are running a story about our local school’s girls’ football team. Against all the odds, they beat off older teams from larger schools all over Scotland, to reach the final of a national tournament sponsored by Coca-Cola – only to discover it was scheduled to be held on a Sunday. To not a little disappointment, the decision was taken to pull out of the opportunity to win the national tournament because of the religious convictions of our community.

I’m not sure how many communities would be featured in the press for this reason. Sunday has, of course, become this generation’s sports day, and sports is the opium of this generation. It is the new religion, with its own heroes, its own songs, its own loyalties, and its own holy days.

I’m not sure what other evangelicals think of the decision of our local girls to pull out of the final: I suspect that on the whole issue of observing the first day of the week as the Christian Sabbath, many evangelicals have capitulated to the world’s way of doing things, and would see nothing wrong with holding, or attending, sports events on the Lord’s Day.

If this week’s headlines demonstrate anything, they show that there is one God-given opportunity for us to nail our Christian convictions to the social mast – to honour the Lord publicly by honouring his day, and making it altogether different from every other day of the week, whatever the cost.

Are they being legalistic? Or are they being weaker brothers (sisters)? Or are they honoring the Lord?

Frankly, I’m heartened by the decision of the team. It reminds me of the “Flying Scotsman” himself, Eric Liddell (of Chariots of Fire fame), who made the same decision for the same reason.

This past year I preached on the Christian’s observance of Sunday as the Lord’s Day (audio here – see the sermons on 11/11/07 & 11/18/07), where I publicly refused to become legalistic about making a list of rules on what is and is not permitted activity on Sundays, yet at the same time I pleaded with our congregation that whatever else they did on Sundays, they should honor the Lord’s Day by making it a priority to faithfully worship and rest on Sundays in accordance with the pattern established at creation – both for their own good and God’s glory.

I realize that this is another one of those “debatable issues” over which godly and sincere Christians disagree. Yet I think that there is something noteworthy about this team taking the costly opportunity to publicly align themselves with a more noble cause than that of a sports competition. And not just any cause greater than that of sports, but a the particular cause of God’s honor.

Honoring the Lord by honoring the Lord’s Day is a simple but too often flippantly-disregarded way to bring God glory. Our over-busy culture is probably baffled by such a “foolish” decision to withdraw from the games, especially for such a “silly” reason. Yet what is even more disappointing to me is that so many Christians feel the same way, and never attempt to honor the Lord in this way themselves – even when it wouldn’t cost them much more than getting an already longed-for break from the break-neck pace of their lives. It’s ironic to me that there is such resistance to, not legalistically, but gladly, ceasing one day a week from the normal pressures of life and spending it resting and worshipping the Lord with God’s people – both to God’s glory.

If that were our higher priority, then Sundays wouldn’t be so negotiable.

God’s Joy – in a Bird

While I was praying this morning a bird kept singing outside my window. It sounded so joyful. As I listened and enjoyed the song, it made me realize that God even gives joy to birds – birds that, as Scripture sometimes describes the animals, “as having no understanding.” (e.g. the ostrich in Job 39:13-17)

We know that birds and animals feel fear. Just try to get near one, and they’ll flee. We know God put that in them too (Gen. 9:2), for their own good. But when there’s no threat, they can even feel joy. What an amazing thing to realize that God made them to have emotions too. That little bird sounded so happy, just singing away.

And it made me happy. In God.

It reminded me that even my joy, in listening to a joyful song of a joyful bird, was a joyful gift from God to me. Both my joy and the bird’s joy are God’s gift to us both. What a joyful God we must have! Isn’t that encouraging? It is to me, because it sure did deepen my worship of my loving Lord this morning.