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Monday, January 20, 2020

"Amazing Grace" and the Sound of Racial Reconciliation

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…literally and figuratively. The strains of beautiful music that please the ears, and refrains of profound truth that transform and thrill the heart.

The truth of amazing grace, rather than the music, is actually more of what British pastor John Newton had in mind when he wrote the verses for a New Year’s Day sermon in 1773. The song was more like a poem then, and the traditional melody we all know and love was not attached to it until 1835, long after Newton’s death. Over the years the words have been sung to over twenty tunes, in fact, so we shouldn’t complain when someone does it to a different one than we’re used to. (Except when someone sings it to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island,” which I’ve heard—that we can complain about!)

The sound of the music is more sweet to the ears of people from all races and backgrounds because the truth of the words is so meaningful to them. And the history of the song is part of the reason why…

Grace was so amazing to John Newton because he had committed horrible crimes against his fellow man, and therefore against God. He’d been a slave trader in his former life, kidnapping African men, women, and children from their homes, transporting them aboard ships to the British colonies, and selling them there to the highest bidder. Along the way, if the slaves grew sick or the ship needed to be lightened in a storm, he threw them overboard to their deaths.

He traded over 20,000 Africans during his many years in that infamous profession, but God brought him to deep repentance for his sins, and forgave him when he put his trust in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to pay the penalty for even the worst kinds of sinners. So Newton wrote, “I once was lost and now am found, was blind but now I see.”

He also wrote, “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,” highlighting an often-forgotten blessing of grace, and echoing the words of Titus 2:11-12: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” Grace is amazing because it convicts us of our sins, which all people have, not just slave traders. That’s amazing because by nature we excuse or minimize our faults, and think of ourselves as better and more deserving than we are. It’s amazing because our sinful pride and self-righteousness is so incredibly resilient…

H. A. Ironside tells a story of one time that he realized he had a problem with sinful pride, and a friend suggested that he spend a day walking up and down a busy street in Chicago wearing a big sign with words from the Bible on it, and shouting them so that everyone could hear. So Ironside did, and after he was done he thought to himself, “Hmm. I'll bet there's not another man in town who would’ve done that."

It’s amazing that grace is powerful enough to break through our otherwise indestructible self-righteousness to show us our need for a Savior. But of course grace is even more amazing because of the hope it then brings to those who are broken over their sins: “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,” Newton wrote, “and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”

He also wrote, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come,” a portion of the song which is also pregnant with meaning. He’d inflicted horrible suffering on others, and he knew many kinds of suffering himself, not the least of which was living with the regret of his terrible crimes (and some people saying he shouldn’t be a pastor because of them). But grace had brought him safe thus far, and grace would lead him home—not just to heaven, but to meaning and purpose in this life. And God brought that meaning and purpose even out of his sins and regret…

Newton became a fierce advocate for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, and influenced a future politician in his church named William Wilberforce, who actually brought abolition to pass after more than twenty years of exhausting labors in Parliament. The Lord kept John Newton alive just long enough to personally witness the vote for abolition in 1807, right before died at the age of 82, and later a city in the African country of Sierra Leone was named after him, in recognition of his contributions to racial equality.

Which leads us to the verse about heaven in the hymn Amazing Grace: “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” The word “we” is found three times in that verse, and it speaks of the sharing or fellowship of all kinds of people in past, present, and future grace. We all have shared the “many dangers, toils, and snares” in this life, we all will share eternity together, and it’s amazing grace that creates this fellowship between people of extremely diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.

I recently attended a concert where this song written by a white English slave trader from the 18th Century was performed by an African American grandson of slaves, who also happens to a be a dear friend and ministry partner of mine, though we are from widely different backgrounds. “How sweet the sound” of an amazing grace can break through any walls between us, because it’s already torn down the much bigger one between us and God.

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Monday, January 13, 2020

Favorite Songs - The Enemy Within by Rush (in memory of Neil Peart)

(Are there some songs that never get old for you? You can listen to them over and over again, even after you've just listened to them, and you still enjoy them? When they also make you think about interesting and important stuff, you get the kinds of songs I'm talking about in this series of blog posts.)

Neil Peart died after a long battle with brain cancer this past week, so I wanted to celebrate his talent and accomplishments (and even more so the truth contained in many of his lyrics) by posting about a few of my favorite Rush songs.

The first is "The Enemy Within" from the album Grace Under Pressure. It's interesting that the album takes its name from the words of this song's chorus but changes them slightly to add the word "grace." That reflects the intentions of my post very well...

The "enemy within" described in the song (lyrics below) is fear, of course (the song's subtitle is "Part 1 of Fear"), but it can apply to anything that would hold us back from pursuing "the promise of adventure" or "implausible dreams" in our lives. The "experience to extremes" concluding the chorus, at first glance, might seem contrary to my Christian beliefs, but when understood in context it's not talking about drugs or sex or whatever other form of hedonism. Rather it's talking about doing good and great things that we might dream about. Understood this way, the song actually reflects one of my favorite passages in Scripture, the end of Ecclesiastes, where the wise man says, "Cast your bread upon the waters" (Eccl. 11:1). "He who observes the wind will not sow," he adds in verse 4, "and he who regards the clouds will not reap." And then in verse 6 he concludes, "In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which will prosper, either this or that, or whether both alike will be good." He goes on to talk about the onset of old age and our declining opportunity to realize our dreams and ambitions.

In other words, "While you have the chance, go for it!" Pursue your dreams, as long as they are not contrary to God's Word (which would end up being bad for us anyway). Ecclesiastes 11:9 says, "Rejoice, young man, in your youth,...walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these God will bring you into judgment."

Though I don't think Neil Peart was thinking of drugs and sex and other forms of immorality when he encouraged "experience to extremes" in this song, I do know that (even more unfortunate than his death) he did not recognize the authority of God and the Bible in his life. At least during the part of it that he was speaking publicly, that is--I always have hope, when I hear of someone's death, that God may have granted them saving grace in their last days or hours, like Jesus did for the thief on the cross and apparently does for many, many others (see the parable in Matthew 20:1-16).

Neil Peart certainly knew a lot of the truth contained in the Bible, and that truth comes through in so many of his lyrics. I've always prayed that it would eventually lead him to the Source of all truth and that when facing the ultimate pressure of mortality pressing upon him, he would realize his need for the grace of Christ and the forgiveness of sins through the cross. (This interview reveals that grace is exactly what he didn't understand about Christianity--he thought salvation was a result of meritorious works.) 

And my prayer is the same for all of us. If we will accept that grace and forgiveness and commit our lives to the One who gives us all good things, we can boldly pursue the dreams and ambitions that are within His plan for us (and not be hindered by fear or any other enemies).

The Enemy Within

Things crawl in the darkness
That imagination spins
Needles at your nerve ends
Crawl like spiders on your skin
Pounding in your temples
And a surge of adrenaline
Every muscle tense to fence the enemy within
I'm not giving in to security under pressure
I'm not missing out on the promise of adventure
I'm not giving up on implausible dreams
Experience to extremes
Experience to extremes
Suspicious-looking stranger
Flashes you a dangerous grin
Shadows across your window
Was it only trees in the wind?
Every breath a static charge
A tongue that tastes like tin
Steely-eyed outside to hide the enemy within
I'm not giving in to security under pressure
I'm not missing out on the promise of adventure
I'm not giving up on implausible dreams
Experience to extremes
Experience to extremes
To you, is it movement or is it action?
Is it contact or just reaction?
And you, revolution or just resistance?
Is it living, or just existence?
Yeah, you, it takes a little more persistence
To get up and go the distance
I'm not giving in
I'm not missing out
I'm not giving up on implausible dreams
Experience to extremes
I'm not giving in to security under pressure
I'm not missing out on the promise of adventure
I'm not giving up on implausible dreams
Experience to extremes
Experience to extremes

Here's a live version of the song if you're interested:

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Prayer Answered and Unanswered (Some Profound Wisdom from Spurgeon)

Within God's sovereign plan (and never contrary to it), he interacts with his people in a way that includes our human choices and responsibility. So, for example, knowing full well from eternity past that he had planned to allow Israel to have a long line of bad kings so that we would all see the need for a perfect one, a dialog took place between God and the people in 1 Samuel 8:4-21. When they demanded a human king, he warned them about the consequences, but then let them have one when they foolishly insisted. He did so because of the greater good of exalting his Son, as I mentioned above, and teaching his people important spiritual lessons.

That's the kind of interaction Charles Spurgeon is talking about in the following prayer, which blessed me so much this morning in my time with the Lord. It's rather lengthy, but well worth a few minutes of your time. And at the end of it I will share a brief insight of my own that I think is one of the best I've ever received from the Lord.

But first, here's the Spurgeon prayer...

GOD of Israel, God of Jesus Christ, our God for ever and ever! Help us now by the sacred Spirit to approach Thee aright with deepest reverence, but not with servile fear; with holiest boldness, but not with presumption. Teach us as children to speak to the Father, and yet as creatures to bow before our Maker. 

Our Father, we would first ask Thee whether Thou hast ought against us as Thy children? Have we been asking somewhat of Thee amiss, and hast Thou given us that which we have sought? We are not conscious of it, but it may be so, and now we are brought as an answer to our presumptuous prayers into a more difficult position than the one we occupied before. Now it may be that some creature comfort is nearer to us than our God; we had better have been without it and have dwelt in our God and have found our joy in Him. But now Lord, in these perilous circumstances give us grace that we may not turn away from Thee. 

If our position now be not such as Thou wouldst have allotted to us had we been wiser, yet nevertheless grant that we may be taught to behave ourselves aright even now lest the mercies Thou hast given should become a cause of stumbling, and the obtaining of our hearts' desire should become a temptation to us. Rather do we feel inclined to bless Thee for the many occasions in which Thou hast not answered our prayer, for Thou hast said that we did ask amiss and therefore we could not have, and we desire to register this prayer with Thee that whensoever we do ask amiss, Thou wouldst in great wisdom and love be pleased to refuse us. 

O, Lord, if we at any time press our suit without a sufficiency of resignation do not regard us, we pray Thee, and though we, cry unto Thee day and night concerning anything, yet if Thou seest that herein we err regard not the voice of our cry, we pray Thee. It is our hearts' desire now, in our coolest moments, that this prayer of ours might stand on record as long as we live, not as I will, but as Thou wilt. 

But, O Lord, in looking back we are obliged to remember with the greatest gratitude the many occasions in which Thou hast heard our cry. We have been brought into deep distress, and our heart has sunk within us, and then have we cried to Thee and Thou hast never refused to hear us. The prayers of our lusts Thou hast rejected, but the prayers of our necessities Thou hast granted Not one good thing hath failed of all that Thou hast promised. 

Thou hast given to us exceeding abundantly above what we asked or even thought, for there was a day when our present condition would have been regarded as much too high for us ever to reach, and in looking back we are surprised that those who did he among the pots of Egypt should now sit every man under his vine and fig-tree, that those who wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way should now find a city to dwell in, that we who were prodigals in rags should now be children in the Father's bosom; that we who were companions of swine should now be made heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. Oh! what encouragement we have to pray to such a prayer-hearing God who far exceeds the request of His children. 

Blessed be the name of the Lord for ever, our inmost heart is saying. Amen, blessed be His name. If it were only for answered prayer or even for some unanswered prayers we would continue to praise and bless Thee as long as we have any being.

The related insight God has given me is that his heart is like that of a loving earthly father who deeply desires to give to his children whatever they want and ask for, unless he knows it will be bad for them in the end. So when we share our desires and dreams with the Lord, he always will say yes if he knows in his infinite wisdom that it will be good for us, and he only will say no when he knows it wiil not be.

This helps us to understand some otherwise enigmatic passages about prayer, as well as repeated phrases like asking "in Jesus' name" and "according to his will." So never hesitate to ask God for whatever you want, but always be willing to accept his answer and trust in his fatherly love for you. Always say, like Jesus did, "Not my will but yours be done."