And the Lord said, “What is that in thine hand?”

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. ~William Blake

But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another. And indeed ye do it toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia: but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more; And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing. (1 Thess. 4:9-12)

In this passage, the apostle links “working with the hands” with a number of interesting things. He was urging the Thessalonians to even greater heights in their love for one another, wanting them to increase in it more and more. But the exhortation that immediately follows this is perhaps surprising to the American mind—we being so accustomed to mistaking gossip for gospel. Loving one another is closely associated in our minds with bustling around in the affairs of others, trying to help fix their multitudinous faults. As a result, we organize committees to do the important business of setting up fund-raising phone calls for the SCASBS (Suburban Coalition Against Second-hand Barbecue Smoke). We rarely note how truly odd our concept of good works has become. Paul has something else in mind here besides meddling.

Loving one another aright often means leaving one another alone. Notice that he exhorts the Thessalonians to learn to be quiet. Mind your own business. Work with your own hands. Keep your head down. When you do this you can be honest with outsiders because you are earning your own way, and you will not come up short in anything. This is love. This is loving one another more and more.

Working with the hands is a preventative measure as well. Paul uses it as an answer to those who would revile his motives for being in ministry. “And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it” (1 Cor. 4:12). In the tradition of the rabbis, Paul had a vocation (he was a tentmaker), and he worked faithfully at it when providence required (Acts 18:3). This was because the Jews required their seminary grads to be good at something besides reading big fat books. I have often lamented the fact that cabinet-making was not a part of my ministerial curriculum. Since my days in the halls of academia I have learned the hard way that there is a considerable difference between turning pages and turning a profit.

Working with the hands is also a protection against the sins of covetousness and stealing. “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:28). The point of a former thief getting this kind of an honest job is twofold. The first is obvious—to pay his own way, without forcing others to do so by means of theft. The second thing is that honest work with the hands produces a surplus, and the former thief is called to give to the needy. This, presumably, will help those others avoid the temptations to steal.

All this is groundwork. Working with the hands is part of what it means to love one another more and more. Working with the hands is an answer to slander. Working with the hands is the alternative to theft.

Now, look at those hands. What are they? To begin the discussion, they are an enormously complicated bit of engineering. Moreover, they are warm—alive. They do things that are beyond all mortal calculation. If you accidentally cut the surface of the skin, these hands have some sort of internal repair shop that sends out a team of repairmen who restore the surface within a week or so. If you play the guitar, these hands usefully grow calluses on the tips of your fingers. God helpfully gave us thumbs so that the hammer wouldn’t keep falling down. Each finger segment has the same mathematical relationship to the next as it does to the one beyond, making the hands architecturally elegant. The fingernails on the ends of the fingers are a real marvel; what are they doing? What are they for? And though I frankly don’t think science has advanced this far, I have no doubt that the answer will come out sometime—maybe after the resurrection—and we will all learn that fingernails were for picking up dimes and pulling apart Legos. Glory to God for dappled things.

Now our hands are a marvel because it was God’s declared intent that these hands of ours should do marvels. “And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship” (Ex. 31:1-5).

All manner of workmanship. To devise cunning works. All craftsmanship, diligence, and hard-working hands are from the Lord. The work might be close and tight, like cunning embroidery, or it might take place on a large and grand scale, like designing and building a suspension bridge. Sometimes the great and small works are combined. We all know someone that we think could probably repair sewing machines with a backhoe.

Hands on the keyboard writing a poem or a novel. Hands chopping and splitting wood. Hands framing a house. Hands on a drafting table, designing the next generation of space shuttle. Hands under the hood of a car. Hands creating a glorious watercolor. Hands ministering to the sick. Hands straightening up the living room. Hands holding a scalpel and removing a tumor. Hands skillfully typesetting a book. Hands pushing a lawn mower. Hands buttoning up a small child’s coat. Hands cutting hair. Hands cradling a hunting rifle. Hands arranging a table setting and bringing a platter of hot food. Hands positioned perfectly on a basketball while playing “horse” in the driveway. Hands laying brick. Hands holding a beer after a day of honest labor.

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). We are to give ourselves to handiwork because we are His handiwork. The word for workmanship here is poiema, which could even be rendered as artwork. We are made by God, fashioned by Him, and we are called to imitate Him as dearly loved children. This means working with the hands. Further, it means that we are called to get really good at what we do. We bear God’s image, because He made us as His workmanship. We were created unto good works, and we are therefore called to fulfill this particular design feature. We are a good work, our hands are a good work. It follows necessarily that those hands are called to reproduce themselves, accomplishing many good works of their own. This is why we are expected to do things well.

Because God has given this ability to us, and because we have fallen into sin as a race, it is possible for us to use our hands for purposes of evil. But the evil is in the intent, and never in the technology. Evil resides in the hearts of men, and never in the material stuff. This is where Tolkien’s great vision of Middle-Earth failed him. Because he hated the kind of Mordorian modernity that smoked, clanked, and fouled the water, he was quick to dismiss cunning work (that was not evil in itself). When he was shown the first tape recorder he ever encountered, he would not use it until he recited the Lord’s Prayer into it (in Gothic) in order to rid it of the devil that was sure to be in there—was it not a machine? Was it not therefore possessed?

But technology is wealth, and wealth is from God. From the beginning of the world wealth has come to us from the use of our hands. The scriptural admonition is that we are never to worship the work of our hands—a sin to which we are prone. An idol is an object of worship made with hands. But though it is a real temptation, it is one that is frankly as old as dirt, and has nothing whatever to do with modernity—manufacturing of personal computers, the invention of the Internet, the automobile, the cell phone, or anything else. We are supposed to build things, and those who want it all to stop want mankind to deny the image of God in themselves. But those who want our works to ascend up into the heavens, so that we might be as God, are guilty of the same folly—the folly of thinking we are wiser than He is. God has told us what to do. Work with your hands, and get good at it, so that you might glorify the One who made you.

As we undertake the lessons that will come to us through our hands, we need to remember that these hands receive as well as give. Further, they receive as they give. Every job with the hands done well places something in the hands afterwards. Sometimes it is as obvious as a paycheck. Other times it is as subtle as a sense of self-respect.

This leads necessarily to the next and last consideration, which is the teaching of our children. If we are called to work with our hands, this means that we are also called to teach our children to work with their hands. This means chores, lessons, picking up, yard work together, and all the rest of it. Chores should never be seen as a way of taking from children—free slave labor—but rather as a way of giving to them. Parents are giving a work ethic, not taking something for themselves. Parents who see chores as “taking” often react in opposite ways—some of them taking full advantage, and with others refusing to do so. The latter are also robbing their children but the problem is more subtle. They are robbing them because they refused to give something to them which they could have given. I was schooled in these lessons, but like so many pupils, I didn’t didn’t pay attention I should have. That means that I have failed many tests.

This kind of gift is not possible unless the grace of God is resting upon us. “Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it” (Ps. 90:16-17).

In this passage, the glory of God resting upon our children is connected to the beauty of the Lord resting upon us, and with God establishing the work of our hands. Unless the Lord builds the house, the one who labors at it labors in vain. But the flip side of this is not often noted. If the Lord does build the house, He does it through glory, beauty and callouses on the hands.

The Duty of Delight

(A prayer and exhortation delivered in a worship service at Berean Bible Church)

Almighty God and Everlasting Father, Thou alone art God. Thou alone art the Eternal One. Thou art the Triune Majesty.

Thou art the God who keeps covenant for a thousand generations. Thou art the God who keeps covenant and mercy with Thy servants. Thou art the God that saves to the uttermost all that come unto Thee in penitent faith.

Thou hast stooped low and consented to be our God, and Thou hast kindly called us out of darkness that we might be Thy Children. Thou dost dwell in the midst of Thy people and Thy holy presence sets us apart from those who are outside the covenant of promise.

Thou art the Pillar of Fire and the Cloud of Glory. Go before us, as we seek to worship Thee, and come behind us and shut us in with Christ. We ask for Thy blessing until the last amen is given, and we glory in the fact that because Thou hast raised Thy Son from the dead, there will never be a last amen.

Unto Thee, O Lord God Almighty, we render all glory and praise, and ask that Thou wouldst be kind to us, and take what we offer up now through Jesus’ name. Receive it as cleansed through His blood and magnify Thyself with it.

We come, not because we are worthy, but because we are bidden. We come, not because we are good, but because of Thy grace. We come because the way has been opened to us. The gates of death are closed to us because the Prince of Life conquered the grave. The gates of life are held open by nail-pierced hands. Our entrance unto Thee has been purchased with the gold of His blood and the silver of His tears. So receive us now, for His sake, as we come bringing glory that does not belong to us.

In the strong name of Jesus we pray. Amen!

The Duty of Delight

Once again we have assembled to worship the Lord. We must remember that our duty here amounts to a choice between one of two things.

The first is a deep delight and satisfaction with the knowledge that God is God, and we are not. This truth should be a morsel to taste with gladness, light that lets us see around us in a dark place, harmony that completes the melody that we once thought we knew. A creature can do nothing greater than glorify the Lord who made Him, and a blessed creature is one who rejoices to do so.

The second godly possibility is the realization that we do not possess this delight, and so we have come to tremble over the absence of it. This too is acceptable to God—He is pleased to draw near to the contrite heart.

But if we have come without delight, or without fear over the lack of delight, we have no business here. Any continued attempt to worship God on our own terms is insulting to Him and disastrous for us. It amounts to “trampling His courts.” So, as you love your own soul, don’t dare to worship God without delighting in Him.

Judgment awaits the tepid.

Mother Goose and Brother Preacher

I suppose that the first thing that needs to be said is that I probably don’t know what I am talking about. But I don’t want to emphasize this too strongly lest you, dear reader, get the wrong idea.

The conservative wing of the Church has understandably hunkered down behind a barricade of propositions. To change the metaphor and to paraphrase (I think it was) Emerson, the more liberals talk about metaphor, story, and the contours of narrative, and so on, the faster we should count our spoons. And then when conservatives also start talking about the importance of preaching “story,” the little uh oh light goes off in our heads. We all think that those guys have been amongst the beers or tarried too long at the postmodern kool-aid.

Consequently, orthodox preaching has tended toward abstract explanations of the doctrines of Scripture. The doctrine is usually a particular proposition to be proven from Scripture, and the proof texts then rally around in time to establish the point (hopefully). In reaction to the dryness of this approach, liberals and some chin-stroking evangelicals have drifted off into lightweight forms of anecdotal, sentimental, and inspirational stories. And so the impression is left with the average worshipper looking for a church that he must choose between a meal of dry Melba toast or a big bowl of wind pudding. But why must we choose between naked propositions and poor stories? Why can’t we have the orthodox story told well?

Men ordained to preach the Bible were at that moment ordained to tell stories, whether they were trained to realize this or not. But instead of doing this, we gravitate to our most comfortable home turf—the letters of Paul—and preach there for the rest of our lives. This is not to deny the importance of detailed doctrinal exposition because the books of Romans and Hebrews are there in Scripture. It would be no more balanced to avoid the doctrinal expositions of Scripture. But the nature of the exposition provided in Romans and Hebrews helps to emphasize in another way how important narrative is throughout the Bible. Both of these small doctrinal books are floating on the surface of a small ocean, an ocean of countless Old Testament stories. The complete and total familiarity of the first-century reading audience with the inspired narratives was simply assumed. When we continue with that same kind of exposition without the preacher and congregation being steeped in the stories of Scripture, we are trying to float the massive doctrinal boat in a mud puddle.

This means that the story must be preached, and when doctrine is preached, it must rest upon the history of our people. Salvation from God unfolds in history, and it is a story of the salvation of history as well as those who live there. Salvation is not dropped from heaven into our hearts, but was rather crucified when Tiberius was emperor and Pilate governor. Preaching is the declaration of what God has done in history, and of what He continues to do in history through the preaching of the Word. Preaching is the unfolding of the continuing story. Preachers are the makers of sequels.

Recently I have been doing experiments in preaching. I have been trying to take all sorts of texts and preach them as narratives. On top of that I have been trying to weave a unified tapestry between OT and NT texts as I go. This has been rather rewarding. The more that I do it, the more I see that it is rather easily done. And there is Jesus right in the center of everything, holding all of the pieces together. It’s almost as if God inspired the Bible.

If I were to preach on “justification by faith,” it is simple and easy to do this from one text, and to develop from this a number of (quite orthodox) observations, supported by other select texts which serve as flying buttresses for my sermonic cathedral. The edification is frequently the result of God’s people being reassured by phrases they have heard their entire lives. I am not saying this as an objection, but simply to contrast it with the much more textured and complicated stuff that happens when you try to preach the life of Moses in a sermon.

Attempt that, and suddenly, a host of textual details present themselves for consideration. When did Moses leave Pharaoh in great anger? What did the angel of the Lord in the burning bush say that Pharaoh would do exactly? Did you know that Levi was Moses’ great-grandfather? The particulars of story demand to be ordered rightly, and because these details are many, hard to keep track of, and quite important, they are soon hopping all over your manuscript like the frogs of Egypt.

And you realize that you don’t know your Bible as well as you thought you did. Moreover, you realize that you probably don’t know the details of your Bible stories as well as many laymen did in other eras. You, the preacher, rowing in that modern doctrinal boat, have learned to handle the oars masterfully, which has actually been quite easy because all the water evaporated a long time ago.

But there is power in the story of redemption the way God gave it to us. Story communicates truth in a way that abstracted truths taken from their natural abode within the story do not. Jesus spent the bulk of His teaching ministry telling stories. Why did He do that? Why do we do so little of it? Why have I never seen a Christian liturgy that had a place set aside for “the parable”? How many sermon series have you heard that worked through 2 Samuel?

Pimps, Wimps, and Culture Whores

(Not to be confused with those who just give it away. If this article brings to mind any particular organization, denominational entity, or a certain pastor in Florida with an almost unpronounceable name, then that is purely a figment of your wicked imagination.) 

The savage wit of Ambrose Bierce has quite a bit to teach us victims of the cultural tempest in our particular little fin de siecle teapot. In his Devil’s Dictionary he left us a short little edifying story under his definition of “valor”:

Why have you halted?” roared the commander of a division at Chickamauga, who had ordered a charge; “move forward, sir, at once.”
“General,” said the commander of the delinquent brigade, “I am persuaded that any further display of valor by my troops will bring them into collision with the enemy.

This kind of thing can happen for two reasons. First, the troops may be more than a little sympathetic with the adversary. They don’t want to fight when they could be friends. Or, second, there may be true antipathy—but it is mingled with cowardice. David’s brothers didn’t like Goliath, but they didn’t want to actually go out there either. It’s far easier just to sit eating cheese and chiding your younger brother which you accuse of having come down just to watch the big boys “fight.”

Theological liberals and moderates in our midst don’t like the antithesis and don’t want a fight. They expend their energies trying to make the Church relevant to the world by making the Church a third-rate copy of that world. For the purposes of definition here, by “moderates” I mean “liberals” who are confused enough to think they are evangelicals—which, incidentally, is now the character of the tepid moderate water of the evangelical mainstream. Just as conservative Republicans today are far to the left of the Democrats of forty years ago, so contemporary evangelicals are to the left of the theological liberals of forty years ago—and all done with the kind of serene ignorance that would make the Buddha envious.

At any rate, this relevancy gambit is taken up by all those who want to pimp the bride of Christ, although they usually like to use different verbs. And whenever you hear the word relevance used in any religious discussions, prepare for the most astounding irrelevance to follow on hard.

But then there are those who don’t like the bad guys—David’s brothers—so they stand over on the Israelite side of the line, vaporing helplessly with their swords. They do have enough valor to shout back at Goliath, something witty along the lines of “Oh, yeah?” But any display of valor beyond that would bring them into a collision with the enemy.

I know that many will think that this is an over-generalization, and they will think of many individuals and organizations that are involved in our “culture wars.” But this reputation for heroism is largely undeserved. We are generally so cowardly that we think yelling at the giant is Bronze Star level behavior. Conscientious insiders in many of these organizations will tell you that there is a fatal rule requiring hesitation and shrinking back. They will tell you of many discussions or board meetings where it was decided to hold back “for fear that . . .”

And so the armor continues to sit in Saul’s tent, with no one to wear it.

It may actually be the right size…

Looking Unto Jesus

(This is a prayer and exhortation offered in a worship service at Berean Bible Church where I serve as Minister.)

Almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus, we give Thee glory. We add our feeble voices to the heavenly choirs, and ask that Thou wouldst give us, Thy earthly Church, the leading part in that choir this morning—for the sake of Jesus Christ Thy Son, who makes all our offerings worthy.

Father, from all eternity Thou didst search us out that we might know Thee, and in knowing Thee, come to eternal life. It is Thy good pleasure that we come unto Thee in Jesus’ name, and we do so now. We acknowledge Him as King of kings and Lord of lords. We acknowledge Him as the Redeemer of the sons of men, and the Savior of the world. We rejoice before Thee because of His mighty work of redemption, and we ask that Thou wouldst received our praise now, wrapped in the perfections of Thy Son.

Thou has made the heavens and the earth, and everything that is under the earth. Thou didst speak angels and galaxies, suns and stars, into existence, and they all adore Thee. Thou didst fashion us from the dust of the ground, and didst breathe into us our very life. May we breathe out gratitude. When we had defiled the gift of earthly life, Thou didst extend Thy grace so far as to grant unto us eternal life, purchased at the expense of the blood of Thy Son.

We gather now to worship Him, and through Him, unto Thy glory, through the power of Thy Spirit.
In the strong name of Jesus we offer this prayer. Amen!

Look Unto Me…All the Ends of the Earth…

We are called to come before God. But we are not called to strut. It is not for us to casually saunter into the throne room of the Most High. We are invited to approach Him with boldness and with confidence, but this is not the same thing as presumption and complacency. We approach God with a boldness that trembles; a confidence that bows its head.

Our task here is to worship God; we have no program for the outside world besides this. But though we have no program for the world around us, we find that in the worship of God He has promises for the world around us. As we gather to worship God, and as we gather to worship Him rightly, the world around us can’t but be affected.

So don’t look outside our four walls—not because nothing is happening there, but rather because it will continue to happen to the extent that we gather here to look to Jesus Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.

Our duty, in life and in death, is to look to Christ. Our duty, regardless of how we feel, is to look to Christ. This does not mean that you are to gaze off into the middle distance, or become some kind of transcendental mystic. Look for Him where He told you to look. You are to look to Him through sacraments—He has established His Church for a reason. Look to Him in your prayers, in the preaching of the Word, in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine, and in the glad singing of psalms and hymns. When we are done, do not forget to look to Him in the table fellowship with one another this afternoon. Taste and see that He is good, for He is in our midst.

Then having done your duty in worship, look around you at the world, in faith. He is there and He is not silent. He is not idle either. The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ.