The Love that Forgives

The Love that Forgives

This was an exhortation at Holy Trinity, delivered by Pastor Brian Phillips on Sunday, September 15, 2019. The image above is part of a stained glass windows at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.

On this day (September 15th) in 1963, approximately 15 sticks of dynamite had been placed under the back steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four members of the congregation perished when the church exploded, sending brick through cars, nearby businesses, and destroying the church building.

The blast was intended to not only destroy the building, but kill members of the black or African-American congregation. The racist hatred that motivated the bombing stood in stark contrast to the sermon delivered in the pulpit of 16th Street Baptist Church that very morning. The sermon was entitled “The Love that Forgives” and was rooted in Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:43-44: You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’”

In the face of such hatred, which not only still exists today, but exists in perhaps even more forms, against more people, and is expressed in wider formats, than it did in 1963, Jesus commands His people to love, not only their neighbor, but even those who hate us.

C.S. Lewis summarized it well: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

Echo Response: Cardiac Arrest & The Resurrection

Echo Response: Cardiac Arrest & The Resurrection

by Brian Phillips

Rain poured from the densely clouded sky for what seemed like the fortieth straight day. It had already been the rainiest season in recorded history and there appeared to be little break in sight. The clouds darkened everything, making it feel much earlier than it was.

I rose, mumbling my complaints at the weather, and dressed to exercise in hopes it would make me feel a bit better. The kids were just stirring, following my bad example of griping at rain, while my wife tried her best to motivate them to complete chores.

Having finished my workout, I walked into the kitchen while the sound of our morning routine bounced off the walls – a mixture of music, dishes being put away, homeschool memory chants, feet padding down the hallway, and children being told to stay on task. Another sound began. A loud, unpleasant, piercing sound. Tones, followed by a series of rapid beeps.

“Medic 61, Squad 81. Cardiac arrest.” An address was given, then more dreaded words. “Echo response.”

Every call is assigned a response level, from routine to “get there yesterday”: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, and Echo.       

I ran to our bedroom closet, threw on the pants, boots, and hat I keep ready for such situations, put my bright coat over my sweaty t-shirt, and sprinted out the door. My wife, having heard the call when it came over my radio, had already started my truck, giving me time to punch in the address. I flipped on the dashboard emergency lights and headed directly to the scene. Though I would normally report to our fire station and ride on the squad truck (a fire department’s vehicle for medical calls), the call’s severity made me think it best to simply go.

“Units responding…patient is a 36-year-old female. Not conscious. Not breathing. Found by her mother. Currently on the bedroom floor.”

The rain pounded the windshield, slowing my progress and making it difficult to see. Cars ahead, seeing the emergency lights, did their best to move to the side, but pulling off the road was a treacherous proposition. Navigating through traffic, trying to follow directions on my phone, and listening for updates from dispatch, I prayed repeatedly, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners.”  

“8105 on scene. Dispatch, please call in mutual aid.”

“CPR in progress.”

Though it felt like an eternity, I arrived on-scene just minutes after leaving my house. Pulling onto the slick and pothole-pocked dirt driveway, flashing lights greeted me. A city fire engine had already arrived, having been nearby when the call went out. Two other firemen from our department were there, the rain having canceled their work for the day. More were coming, along with a paramedic unit. The sound of sobbing met me at the door – the patient’s mother.  

Medic 61 arrived. The paramedics made their way off the ambulance and I helped them carry their oversized bag and bulky monitor into the house, down the short narrow hallway.    

“In here! Climb over that bed and get ready to relieve him with compressions.” An older fireman had taken command of the scene and was directing what we call “pit crew” CPR, lining up relief after every 200 chest compressions, ensuring little interruption and keeping us all from becoming exhausted too quickly. The room was already crowded, so I crawled over the bed and took my place in line, standing at the foot of the patient.

She was pale bluish, her eyes were partially rolled back, and other less pleasant signs of death had already appeared. Trauma shears threatened more of her dignity, as her clothes were cut away so defibrillator pads and monitor leads could be applied. Compressions continued, then stopped as the defibrillator analyzed.

“No shock advised.”

Compressions started again, monitor leads attached. Medications were administered. More breaths given.

The next man rotated forward for chest compressions. More breaths given. The paramedics continued to work. The mother wept in the hallway. All continued in suspended time. 

From my position now just below the patient’s knees, I saw her right hand flop to the side. The force of the compressions? Perhaps her body was rocked to the side a bit by all the impact? The monitor showed something.

“Stop compressions.” The paramedic spoke loudly, her voice rising above everyone else. “We have a pulse. She’s breathing.” Stunned silence, other than the beeping of the monitor. The paramedic spoke again: “Tracy? Are you with us?” It was the first time I heard the patient’s name.

Things changed rapidly from there. The “patient” was “Tracy” again. Her eyes moved forward. She was lifted from the floor. Her body was covered, her dignity restored and guarded. Her mother’s tears continued, but for a far different reason. “Thank y’all so much! Please tell that man on 911 I didn’t mean to be rude to him.” Firefighters, a notoriously gruff bunch, continued their work with stunned smiles, relieved laughter, and watering eyes. The paramedic said, with shaking voice, “I want each of you to know that I love you. Thank you for your help.” I had never met her before that day.    

Tracy was lifted aboard the ambulance and admitted to the hospital for observation. She was discharged and returned home that night.

­­­­­­­­­­__________________________________________________________________

Dead men are not supposed to rise. God made man, male and female, in His own image, placing them into the Garden, to tend and work it (Gen. 2:7-9, 15-17). He gave them the world, with one prohibition: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

The talking serpent came and tempted the woman, leading her to doubt what God had really said. With him, he brought death. Fruit from the forbidden tree was eaten, and man went from working and keeping the garden paradise to being condemned back to the dust from which he was taken (Gen. 3:19).

But, in the midst of that fall, a promise was made. A promise that One would come who would crush the head of the serpent and slay death itself. That One would, to the shock of many, come not as a knight in shining armor, but as a baby – a reminder of life, its delicacy, and beauty. Death – the hideous specter that looms over and threatens us all – with all its indignities and ugliness, would be defeated. Both the death of our physical bodies and the death of our souls (the real specter) would be crushed. Our bodies promised resurrection, our souls promised redemption.

Jesus was betrayed in a garden (John 18:1). He was crucified in a garden (19:41). He was buried and rose again in a garden (19:41). When Mary came to the tomb on the first day of the week, finding His tomb to be empty, she thought He was the gardener (20:15). All that was lost in the first garden, Jesus reclaimed in this garden.  

Peter and John did not understand it at first. Seeing the empty tomb, they went back home, “for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (20:9). The word “must” is beautiful. Death could not hold Him.

The disciples did not understand. Mary did not understand, but she waited at the tomb. Two angels appeared to her, sitting where Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet, because the empty tomb is the true Ark of the Covenant. When turned back, she saw the “gardener,” and said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Then, Jesus spoke her name. “Mary.” And she knew it was the Lord.

__________________________________________________________________ 

God gives glimpses of His victory. We miss most of them, claiming ignorance (“We don’t know what happened to his cancer”) or applying a different label (“It’s resuscitation. They only appeared to be dead”). But, as my friend Cyndi McCallister recently noted, we “sacrifice the best for the bland – and to take something holy and beautiful and make it bland is evil.”    

She’s right, and we commit this evil daily. We go through life tripping over blessings – from our homes and families, to our work and relationships. Whether it’s a patient who “comes back,” a child who learns to read, the satisfying tastes of new food, or the comfort of friends and family, we must learn to rejoice in the wonder and mystery of life. Failing to do so is a kind of death in itself. It is a rejection of the life we are being given.   

Death is an enemy, but Resurrection changes everything.

__________________________________________________________________  

*Note: To protect patient privacy, and the privacy of some first responders, names and some other specific details have been omitted and/or changed.

Good Friday Service

Good Friday Service

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

- Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Good Friday

Join us as we remember the crucifixion of Christ our Lord.

When: Friday, March 30th at 6:00 p.m.
Where: Holy Trinity Reformed Church
             3747 Trinity Church Road
             Concord, NC

Coats & Palm Branches

Coats & Palm Branches

Reflections on Palm Sunday, Holy Week, & Eternal Rest
Also posted for
The CiRCE Institute
By Brian Phillips

Just a few days ago, the Church celebrated Palm Sunday, the commemoration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, and the beginning of Holy Week – the final days of Christ on earth before His crucifixion. The event is recorded in all four Gospels – Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-10, Luke 19:29-38, and John 12:12-15 – and the event shares connections and echoes with several other passages as well.

Here is the Triumphal Entry as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel:

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”

Mark tells us that the owners asked the disciples just what they were doing with the donkey and colt.  Mark 11:5-6 say, “And some of those standing there said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’  And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go.” This is similar to the response the soldiers gave in John 18. Jesus was about to be arrested, and in order to stop it, Peter tried to kill the high priest’s servant (it seems more likely that Malchus would duck than that Peter would aim for an ear). Yet, even after Peter’s attack, when Jesus told the soldiers to let His disciples go, they did (John 18:8). These are tremendous displays of Christ’s sovereign control over the circumstances.

As Jesus and the disciples prepared to enter Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover, they came near Bethphage (a town not mentioned in any other context) to find a donkey and a colt (which had not been ridden by any other man – Mark 11:2, Luke 19:30).     

The disciples spread their cloaks or outer coats over the back of the colt and Jesus rides into Jerusalem as the humble King (Zechariah 9:9). The crowds responded by spreading their cloaks along the road in front of Jesus, while others cut down palm branches and spread them out on the road as well.

These two items – cloaks and palm branches – carry significance. Spreading garments out for someone to walk on was more than an act of chivalry (i.e., spreading your coat over puddle so a lady does not soil her feet). It is connected with Christ’s Triumphal Entry in that it is a show of deference and honor, but spreading garments out before someone was an act of submission paid to royalty.

The only other time this is done in Scripture (that I could find) is in 2nd Kings 9:13 – “Then in haste every man of them took his garment and put it under him on the bare steps, and they blew the trumpet and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’” And, while we initially think of Jehu as a particularly violent king, we dare not miss that it was he who destroyed Jezebel – the wife of Ahab who led Israel astray and tried to kill Elijah. Was not Christ riding into Jerusalem to do the same?

The people also cut down branches to lay before Jesus. Only John specifies that these were “palm branches” (John 12:13), which is interesting given what he writes in Revelation 7:9-10 (a book which I increasingly think was greatly connected with his gospel) – “After this I looked and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”  

John portrays the Triumphal Entry in Jerusalem as a picture of what happens in the heavenly Jerusalem – with multitudes, palm branches, and shouts to the Lord.

But, the palm branches also call us back to the Feast of Booths – a feast designated to remind Israel of God’s guidance out of Egypt. And, in every observance of the Feast of Booths, the people would “take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Leviticus 23:40).

At the Triumphal Entry, Christ was celebrated as the one who would bring His people out of the captivity and slavery of sin (the spiritual Egypt, if you will). Jesus was welcomed by the same sign of palm branches and shouts of rejoicing, and a new Feast of Booths was initiated. This new Feast of Booths also lasted seven days.

Remember that the Jews counted part of a day as a whole. This is why Christ was crucified on Good Friday, rose again on Sunday, yet it is regarded as three days. The new Feast of Booths lasted seven days, from the Triumphal Entry to Saturday – the day after Good Friday. But, what happened on the Eighth Day? In the Feast of Booths, “the eighth day shall be a solemn rest” (Leviticus 23:39). In the new Feast of Booths, Christ rose from the grave, securing eternal rest for His people.  

Why We Should Observe Lent (Part 2)

Why We Should Observe Lent (Part 2)

by Pastor Brian Phillips

Pastor Doug Wilson offered four “Presbyterian caveats” in support of not observing Lent.  But, given the large and growing number of Reformed, Presbyterian, and other Protestant and evangelical Christians who now observe Lent, such caveats warrant more consideration – questions, if you will, rather than statements.  In part one of this article, I offered some thoughts on the first two caveats, posed as questions.  Here, I do the same with the last two.

3 – Does Lenten observance reveal the “rootlessness” of evangelicals?

On this point, Wilson commends Dr. Carl Trueman’s article “Ash Wednesday: Pick and Choosing Our Piety” where he offers multiple objections to Ash Wednesday and Lenten observance.  Among them, he says, “I suspect that the reasons evangelicals are rediscovering Lent is as much to do with the poverty of their own liturgical tradition as anything… Yet if your own tradition lacks the historical, liturgical and theological depth for which you are looking, it may be time to join a church which can provide the same.”

I would agree wholeheartedly that modern evangelicalism suffers from liturgical poverty.  In fact, I would call it liturgical squalor.  I would also agree that fleeing such churches could be a good move.  However, why would an evangelical who is fed up with the lack of “historical, liturgical, and theological depth” join a church which, according to Trueman’s (and Wilson’s) description, would explicitly not provide that depth for which they are already searching through the specific observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent?  It seems an odd invitation: Join our church because we also do not observe the things you increasingly see as important.

Dr. Trueman counters that the need is not for evangelicals to observe days like Ash Wednesday or seasons like Lent, but rather to embrace a higher view of the Lord’s Day.  He writes, “Presbyterianism has its liturgical calendar, its way of marking time: Six days of earthly pursuits and one day of rest and gathered worship.”  Evangelicals do need greater appreciation of the Sabbath, but Trueman seems to assume that this would (or should) rule out the observance of other days.  But, observance of Ash Wednesday in no way indicates that one despises or neglects the Lord’s Day, as observance of Advent does not indicate that one neglects the Resurrection (for more on Ash Wednesday, see here).

The Presbyterian and Reformed world does not speak with a uniform voice on the observance of days.  In fact, as mentioned in part one of this article, the Westminster Confession of Faith states that the “ordinary religious worship of God” may also be accompanied by “religious oaths,  vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner” (XXI.5).  Special seasons or occasions of both fasting and thanksgiving are permissible and in no way detract from faithful observance of the Lord’s Day.  More to the immediate point, given that the Lenten fast is suspended on Sundays, for celebration and feasting on the day of Christ’s resurrection, one could argue that the Lord’s Day is emphasized during Lent, not neglected.

Trueman further argues that Ash Wednesday is unnecessary because its message of repentance and forgiveness is “conveyed by the reading of God’s Word, particularly the Law, followed by a corporate prayer of confession and then some words of gospel forgiveness drawn from an appropriate passage and read out loud to the congregation by the minister.”  He seems to describe part of what many call “covenant renewal worship,” which is based on the Old Testament pattern of offerings – sin offering, then burnt or ascension offering, then peace offering (cf. Leviticus 9).  The result is a biblically, historically, and theologically rich liturgy.  But, this Old Testament liturgy, given to be observed on the Sabbath, was also accompanied by days of fasting and feasting.  Why accept part of the Old Testament pattern of worship and covenant life, but reject others?  We should observe a rich liturgy (biblically, historically, and theologically) on the Lord’s Day and observe days or seasons of feasting and fasting.

Continuing, he claims, “When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history.”

Is this the only thing one could conclude?  Given what has already been argued here, from both Scripture and the Westminster Confession, it seems that one could conclude that some Presbyterians are attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent because their understanding of history and theology has grown.  Presbyterians are not dispensationalists, which means we can and do find authority and value in the Old Testament and its patterns (to what extent, of course, is hotly debated – like nearly every issue brought up among Presbyterians), and those patterns inform our liturgies, our theology, and they should inform our calendars.  Granted, Presbyterians who observe Ash Wednesday and Lent might be out of step with certain strains of Presbyterianism, but that does not mean they are out of step with broader Presbyterian and Reformed theology or tradition.

Additionally, being a historically faithful Presbyterian (or Baptist or free church evangelical, for that matter) does not require acting as if nothing good happened before 1517.  When Protestants of various stripes observe Lent, they may step outside of their particular denomination’s traditions, but they are not outside of Christian tradition.  It seems odd to tell those Christians that, in order to have greater historical depth, they must neglect Christian traditions that began in the fourth century (conservatively) and embrace those that began in the sixteenth, even when the earlier traditions do not violate Scripture, the Creeds, or the Confession of Faith.  Odd, that is, unless our goal is merely to deepen denominational distinctives.

One final contention from Dr. Trueman is what could be called the “hipster” accusation.  He writes, “I also fear that it speaks of a certain carnality: The desire to do something which simply looks cool and which has a certain ostentatious spirituality about it. As an act of piety, it costs nothing yet implies a deep seriousness. In fact, far from revealing deep seriousness, in an evangelical context it simply exposes the superficiality, eclectic consumerism and underlying identity confusion of the movement.”  In other words, they hold to Ash Wednesday or Lent ironically, for the sake of appearances, while neglecting the substance.

These assumptions do not seem to add up.  Why would we assume that someone from a liturgically-impoverished evangelical tradition, who is “poorly instructed in the theology or history of their own tradition,” yet recognizes these deficiencies, would only observe Ash Wednesday or Lent out of ironic, superficial consumerism?  Wouldn’t a Presbyterian who longs for richer liturgies, deeper historical and biblical awareness, and greater theological sense to take root in the American church should take heart in such developments?  Why would those of us who lament the state of American evangelicalism respond with more lament when we see trends away from it?

Rather than seeing the growth of evangelical Lenten observance as a negative development or consigning them as hipsters, we should welcome it as a sign of maturation.  And, if it does reveal dissatisfaction with their impoverished traditions, haven’t we been begging them to see it all along?  Such trends represent tremendous pastoral opportunities to shepherd “rootless” evangelicals, rather than simply assign flippant or ironic motives, which we could not possibly know and have little right to assume.

4 – Is it more important to fast during Advent since that season is so commercialized?

Wilson argues that keeping Lent is not a priority for him because everyone already understands that it is a season of fasting.  Rather, he keeps the Advent fast, and sees that as more important because so many think of Advent as a four-week extension of the Christmas celebration.  He writes, “I celebrate Advent and Christmas because it has been successfully highjacked by commercial interests. Not one person in a hundred knows that Advent is supposed to be a penitential season, and not one person in a thousand doesn’t know that you are supposed to ‘give stuff up’ for Lent.”

Wilson’s disdain for the over-commercialization of Advent, which he rightly notes is a penitential season rather than an extended pre-Christmas party, is admirable.  But, while attempting a kind of counter-cultural switcheroo, it seems rather like the culture is dictating which penitential seasons he observes.  Given our culture’s proclivity towards indulging every whim and desire, is it pastorally wise to pick a fight with the one season of self-denial they still recognize?  Fasting is a widely neglected spiritual discipline within the Church already, so we should feel no need to encourage further neglect.

The church calendar, like the pattern of fasting and feasting in the Old Testament, teaches us to remember the works of God for His people.  Lent, like Advent, helps us view our days through the lens of Christ.  In Advent, we anticipate His birth with fasting, prayer, and a growing longing for Him and, yes, we should do so even more faithfully given the commercialization of the season.  And, in Lent, we commemorate Christ’s fasting, journey to the cross, and His crucifixion.

Sure, there is more cultural familiarity with Lent as a penitential season, but so what?  Knowledge of the season’s meaning, or lack thereof, has no bearing on whether we should keep it correctly.  There is great cultural awareness that Easter has some connection with the resurrection of Christ, but I will continue celebrating it in spite of insistence that it also has something to do with bunnies.  Partial or false observance by some should not create negligent observance by those who know to do better.

Why We Should Observe Lent (Part 1)

Why We Should Observe Lent (Part 1)

by Pastor Brian Phillips

When the Lenten season begins, so does open season on Lent.  Particularly enjoyable are those who, with great vehemence, vitriol, and (for alliteration’s sake) venom, argue against Lenten observance, claiming it reflects a too curmudgeonly view of Christ and His work.  Not all Lenten detractors object in such a way, and their more thoughtful critiques warrant further conversation.

Of particular interest were posts by Douglas Wilson (here) and Carl Trueman (here), because they both pose their objections to Lent and Ash Wednesday as being distinctly Presbyterian or Reformed objections – an intriguing claim, given the varied nature of Presbyterian and Reformed response to both (see here and here, for example).  Wilson offers four “Presbyterian caveats” to support his willingness to “sit this one (Lent) out.”  Condensed, while hopefully capturing his point, they are:

1 – Ash Wednesday is a violation of Matthew 6:16.
2 – Lent is inconsistent with the Old Testament pattern of feasting, particularly now that Christ has come.
3 – Lenten observance reveals the “rootlessness” of evangelicals.
4 – It is more important to fast during Advent because the season is commercialized.

Now, I would like to turn Wilson’s caveats into questions and then argue the opposite of his conclusion – that is, Presbyterians (by that, I refer to Reformed Christians and, if I may, Protestants in general) can and should observe Lent.

1 – Is Ash Wednesday a violation of Matthew 6:16?

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is traditionally observed by the imposition of ashes on the forehead in the shape of the cross.  In other words, while it is a day of mourning over sin, the mourning is not without hope – it points to the cross, to the work of Christ.  It is not the sour-faced ash-sitting that some describe.  Rather, it is a service in which we confess our sins, seek the Lord in repentance, and look to the cross.

But, does the imposition of ashes violate Christ’s words in Matthew 6:16 – “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”  It sure could.  In fact, I bet some people violate Matthew 6:16 every Ash Wednesday.  And then continue the violation by social media-ing their Lenten fasts and sacrifices, ad nauseum.

If you parade the ashes about, putting off a good scrubbing as long as possible, hoping to be noticed, then, sure, you are violating Christ’s command.  But, while pastors should instruct their congregations about the dangers of that, we must be humble enough to admit that we cannot pinpoint why someone got the ashes.  After all, Christ’s admonition in Matthew 6:16 is one of several that address the motive for good deeds, whether giving to the poor (v. 2), prayer (v. 5), or fasting (v. 16).

Ash Wednesday is not a default violation of Christ’s words any more than praying out loud is a default violation of Christ’s words in verse 5.  Nor would we stand by a Salvation Army bell ringer and berate those who give as “self-righteous hypocrites.”  Christ is attacking the self-righteousness of the Pharisees who gave, prayed, or fasted to be seen.  He is not attacking the humble attempting obedience.  The question, then, is whether the ashes are received to be seen by others or to be reminded again of Christ and His cross as the remedy for our sin?

2 – Is Lent inconsistent with the Old Testament pattern of feasting, particularly now that Christ has come?

Wilson writes, “In the Old Testament, there was one public day out of the year where they were instructed to afflict their souls (Yom Kippur, Lev. 23:27).”  That is an excellent argument for observing Ash Wednesday – one public day on which we afflict our souls.

He continues, “Everything else about their prescribed calendar was made up of feast days. There was always room, of course, for private disciplines (Num. 30:13), just as there is room for that in the Christian era (Matt. 9:15).”  Lent is a season for the private discipline of fasting.  Jesus, after all, describes fasting as a private discipline (Matthew 6).  Pastors and individual churches may recommend Lenten observance and provide resources for encouragement during the season, but there are no Presbyterians (or any Protestants), to my knowledge, arguing for the mandatory observance of Lent.  It begins with a day of public “affliction of soul”, but it continues through to Easter with a private, non-mandatory fast.

Wilson quotes the Westminster Confession XX.1 here: “But, under the New Testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.”

Fine and good.  But, if the Westminster Assembly had intended to rule out seasons like Lent by such a declaration, then XXI.5 is horribly out of place.  There they wrote:

“The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner” (emphasis mine).

It is worth noting that Chapter XXI addresses “Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day,” that is, things done by the Church for the benefit of Christians.  Lent begins with a day of repentance on Ash Wednesday, and continues with a “holy and religious fasting” that is encouraged by the Church.  I would argue that both are in keeping with the pattern of the Old Testament (even as described by Wilson) and with the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Wilson argues that “Deliverance should not be commemorated with long faces.”  Agreed, but this is only an argument against improper fasting, as prohibited by Jesus.  But, given that Lent commemorates the 40-day fast of Christ in the wilderness, and is suspended on Sundays for feasting on the day of His resurrection, it could be argued that Lent highlights the work of Christ, rather than detracting from it.  It highlights feasting through fasting.

To be continued…

Reflections on the Beginning of Lent

Reflections on the Beginning of Lent

by Pastor Brian Phillips

As we prepare to begin our journey through Lent – a journey of fasting, repentance, and prayer – the encouragement and perspective gained on Ash Wednesday is extremely helpful. The Ash Wednesday service… 

  • Unites us in a "mere Christian" practice, a tradition observed by our Christian brothers and sisters through the ages, and around the world

  • Provides encouragement and fellowship with one another as we begin Lent

  • Reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ

  • Nourishes our souls through the Lord’s Supper

  • Calls our minds back to the purpose of fasting

  • Helps focus our fasting on Christ, not on our own “suffering” or what we are “giving up”

  • Gives us an opportunity to pray for one another

  • Allows for a time of focused prayers of repentance and confession

But, what about the ashes?  First of all, the imposition of ashes is optional.  It is not a sacrament, but it is a powerful reminder of our own mortality, and therefore, of the great attention we should give to repentance and our walk with Christ.  One Anglican pastor recently reflected over the sobering act of applying the ashes:

“—An older man shuffles forward to receive the ashes. This would be his last time…and he knows it. The cancer has eaten away at his esophagus and the doctor gave him less than nine months. He gets these eleven words more than most: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

—A new mother presents her sleeping baby. The skin of the child is soft and pure…it seems too harsh to remind this woman that her child will die; would go down to the dust. How awful! But it is true. None are exempt. The words are hard to say, but I say them anyway and try to not wake the child. I touch the new forehead lightly: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

—Once, a business woman stood before me in a smart looking suit. She was dressed for success. She had come during her lunch hour to our service at high noon. I press the ashes on her forehead and then realize that I am smudging her makeup too. Her careful facade has been marred by the sign of the cross. I wonder if she will make a quick trip to the bathroom to reapply her cosmetics. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Second, the imposition of ashes does have a biblical basis, in addition to centuries of Church practice.  For more on that, take a look at "Ash Wednesday: What & Why." 

If you decide not to receive the imposition of ashes, you will still greatly benefit from the Ash Wednesday service and you will not be out of place. 

If you do receive the imposition of ashes, do so humbly, as a reminder of your own mortality and need for repentance.  Remember the warnings of Jesus - “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.  Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.  And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).

We can all be tempted to parade our “righteousness,” even in circumstances that should create humility.  When we fast or – as in the case of Ash Wednesday – begin our fast, we should never do so to be seen by men.  Once the ashes are applied, remember their meaning – repent.  Then, pray, wash them off, and walk in obedience. 

Finally, remember that the ashes are made in the shape of the cross for a reason – there is hope in Christ!  In Christ alone do we rise from the ashes to new life.

 

Ash Wednesday - What & Why?

Ash Wednesday - What & Why?

by Pastor Brian Phillips

We are nearing the season of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting that begins on Ash Wednesday (February 14th) and ends on Easter (excluding Sundays). The 40 days mirror numerous biblical accounts – it rained forty days and forty nights in the flood, Moses spent forty days at the top of Mt. Sinai, Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years, Elijah was given bread and water by the angel of the Lord but then didn’t eat again during his forty-day journey to Mt. Horeb, Nineveh’s 40 days of repentance before the Lord, and Christ’s 40 days of battling temptation in the wilderness. The tradition behind Lent, then, can be traced back to the early Church, but also back to the Scriptures themselves.

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, a day that is unknown to some Protestants, even those who may observe Lent. Traditionally, Christians gather for a service of contrition and repentance on Ash Wednesday, typically called a “service of ashes.” Elements of those services differ, but many churches practice the “imposition of ashes” – the applying of ashes in the sign of the cross on the forehead.

Why? The Scriptures repeatedly refer to ashes as a sign of repentance for sin or mourning.

  • Esther 4:3 – “And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.”

  • Job 42:5-6 – “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

  • Jonah 3:4-6 – “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.”

  • Ezekiel 9:4 – “And the Lord said to him, ‘Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.’”

Note that the “mark” here is literally the tav, a Hebrew letter which in ancient script was written as a cross-shaped letter (tav = “+”). The Church father Tertullian remarked that God had given to Ezekiel “the very form of the cross…”

Of course, the imposition of ashes on the forehead is quite new to many, so we should stress that it is not required, and that an Ash Wednesday service is significant whether or not ashes are applied. Beginning Lent with an Ash Wednesday service…

  • Provides encouragement and fellowship with one another as we begin Lent

  • Reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ

  • Nourishes our souls through the Lord’s Supper

  • Calls our minds back to the purpose of fasting

  • Helps focus our fasting on Christ, not on our own “suffering” or what we are “giving up”

  • Gives us an opportunity to pray for one another

  • Allows for a time of focused prayers of repentance and confession

In other words, ashes or not, make time to attend an Ash Wednesday service as you begin the Lenten season. And, as we prepare for Lent, let us ask the Lord to grant us longing hearts; hearts that seek Him above all else – above our own lusts and desires, above our love of self and comfort. For we don’t fast in order to gain favor with God or out of some severe asceticism, but rather to bring to light our struggles with sin and put them to death by His grace and strength. We do it so that we might be reminded of how serious our sins truly are, and that we might lay them before the cross, in preparation for the celebration of resurrection.

When King Solomon Kicked Me in the Face

When King Solomon Kicked Me in the Face

This was originally delivered as an exhortation at Holy Trinity Reformed Church on January 20, 2019

by Brian Phillips

In Proverbs 17:27, Solomon writes, “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” In our home, we are developing the habit of reading one chapter of Proverbs each morning and then praying together as a family around the breakfast table. Just a few days ago, on a particularly hectic morning, we came to this verse in Proverbs 17.

After waking up late, suddenly remembering several things I needed to do that day, getting peanut butter on my shirt, and losing patience with both the kids and my coffee maker, I sat down to read “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.”

Sometimes the Bible is inspiring, encouraging, and uplifting. Other times, it is a swift kick to the face. We need both. And while I think this particular verse deserve contemplation on its own, I want us to take a moment to remember something more general: we need the Bible. May God forgive our neglect of His Word and give us grace to walk in obedience to it. 

Epiphany: Why & How to Celebrate

Epiphany: Why & How to Celebrate

The celebration of Epiphany is the culmination of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  The word literally means “revelation” or “sudden unveiling,” and Epiphany commemorates the day when wise men from the East came to Bethlehem, guided by the miraculous star.  The magi, it seems, were the first to comprehend that Jesus was not merely the fulfillment of Jewish hopes, but the Light of the World, the joy of every man’s desiring.  They beheld the glory of God in the City of David, the Savior was born.  Epiphany is the celebration of that good news.

In Epiphany, we not only see the unveiling of the good news of Christ to the wise men, but the unveiling of Christ to the nations; the proclamation of salvation to all the nations.  And, what good news it is!  It begins with the wise men, but goes so much further.

In Acts chapter 10, Peter has the strange vision in which he is commanded to eat the unclean animals, and comes to understand that God is speaking, not just of food, but of the Gentiles themselves.  In verses 34-35, Peter says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Paul makes a similar declaration in Ephesians 3.  There he refers to himself as an apostle to the Gentiles and says that it has been given to him to proclaim the “mystery of the Gospel.”  In verse 6, he says, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

There are numerous other passages that could be examined in light of this, but one more will suffice to echo the beauty of this; that God would extend His mercy and redemption beyond Israel to all the nations; that He would graft us in through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus.  Ephesians 2:11-16 says:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

We were once “separated” and “alienated” from Christ, but now we “who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  How wonderful!  “He himself is our peace,” and He has tore down the walls of separation that once divided Jew from Gentile, bringing us together as His one people.  Christ has “reconciled us…to God in one body through the cross.”  That is what Epiphany is all about!  That is why it matters!

So, now what are we to do?  How should we or could we celebrate Epiphany?  Scripture does not give us specific requirements that must be observed in celebrating Epiphany, but Church history is quite helpful here.  So, here are some ideas and principles to keep in mind.

  • Be sure to teach your children – The days God commanded Israel to observe were opportunities for teaching the children. Why do we observe this day? Why are we doing these things? Teach your children about Epiphany so it doesn’t become a simple matter of routine, but a true tradition.

  • Feast & celebrate – If you study Epiphany throughout Church history, you will see that one thing is certain: it is a day of feasting. In fact, while there is no set menu, the common elements were beer and wine, lots of chocolate, and a King’s Cake (some quite elaborate and others quite simple). Christmas decorations are often taken down on Epiphany, but amid the singing of carols and hymns. Even though the decorations come down, they come down in celebration that the Light of the World has come and, though the season ends, life in the light of Christ continues.

  • Remember & be thankful – Israel observed special days so they would not forget (the most common sin they are charged with in the Old Testament), and we too must learn to remember the goodness of God. Epiphany is a time to celebrate the good news that Christ has come to save. He has extended His grace even to us Gentiles, grafting us into the true olive tree, making us the new Israel, reconciling us to God by the cross. Remember and be thankful!

Join Us This Christmas Eve!

Join Us This Christmas Eve!

"FOR TO US A CHILD IS BORN, TO US A SON IS GIVEN; AND THE GOVERNMENT SHALL BE UPON HIS SHOULDER AND HIS NAME SHALL BE CALLED WONDERFUL COUNSELOR, MIGHTY GOD, EVERLASTING FATHER, PRINCE OF PEACE."

Isaiah 9:6

Join us this Christmas Eve for our annual combined worship service with Trinity Lutheran Church, as we celebrate the end of Advent and the arrival of Christmas! The service begins at 4:00 pm and will include singing, prayers, a homily, and communion.

When: 4:00 pm on Christmas Eve
Where: Holy Trinity Reformed Church - 3747 Trinity Church Rd., Concord, NC

2018 Advent Readings - Week Three

2018 Advent Readings - Week Three

by Pastor Brian Phillips

Among the many wonders God wove into His creation are the seasons. With every year comes Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Spring brings new life, Summer brings warmth and growth, Autumn brings the turning of leaves as the old is pushed away, and Winter is a season of death – death of flowers, grass, insects, in preparation for the coming life of Spring.

Yet, in this season of death, we pin lights to our houses, put bright decorations on our lawns, and put trees up in our living rooms! This time of year, even our mini-van grows a red nose and antlers. We wear festive colors and intentionally ugly sweaters, sing songs written solely for this season, and break out recipes we only use this time of year.

We do all of these things in winter – the season of death. And it is so fitting that we do so. The Advent season is a time of preparation, but like Lent, we know that this season has a definite and joyful end. We know that our fasting during Lent will end with resurrection! We know that our Advent preparations will end with the Incarnation and celebration that our Savior has come.

And so, we prepare in hope that is certain; not wishful thinking, but certain promises. Let us pause now to contemplate the growing light, the growing anticipation of celebration. Come, thou long-expected Jesus, the Light of the World to pierce the darkness, the Life of the World into a dying world.

To help us observe Advent, here is a collection of Scripture readings for each day of the season, drawn from the Book of Common Prayer. The readings for week three are taken from the Psalms, the prophet Isaiah, and the four Gospels. It can be helpful to begin the day with the first Psalm reading, then read the prophet at mid-day, and end the day with the Gospel reading and evening Psalm(s).

Contemplate these passages in light of the Advent and its call to preparation for the celebration of Christ's Nativity.

Sunday, December 16th – Third Sunday of Advent
Psalms 63:1-8; 98 (morning) · Psalm 103 (evening)
Isaiah 13:6-13
John 3:22-30

Monday, December 17th
Psalm 41, 52 (morning) · Psalm 44 (evening)
Isaiah 8:16-9:1
Luke 22:39-53   

Tuesday, December 18th  
Psalm 45 (morning) · Psalms 47-48 (evening)
Isaiah 9:1-7
Luke 22:54-69

Wednesday, December 19th
Psalm 119:49-72 (morning) · Psalm 49 (evening)
Isaiah 9:8-17
Mark 1:1-8 

Thursday, December 20th
Psalm 50 (morning) · Psalm 33 (evening)
Isaiah 9:18-10:4
Matthew 3:1-12

Friday, December 21st
Psalms 40, 54 (morning) · Psalm 51 (evening)
Isaiah 10:5-19
Matthew 11:2-15

Saturday, December 22nd  
Psalm 55 (morning) · Psalms 138-139:1-17 (evening)
Isaiah 10:20-27
Luke 3:1-9

2018 Advent Readings - Week Two

2018 Advent Readings - Week Two

by Pastor Brian Phillips

Advent is the beginning of the Church year. For four Sundays before the celebration of Christmas, Christians observe Advent. Traditionally, the first act of Advent is the lighting of one candle on the Advent wreath – which is made up of four candles (one for each Sunday in Advent), 3 purple/blue and one pink (though that varies from culture to culture and by Church tradition).

Lighting Advent candles is not necessarily “magical,” but it does mark the beginning of something. To give one very inadequate example, when you light birthday candles, the song begins. When we light the candles, we mark the season of Advent and, with each additional candle each week, the light grows, pointing us to the Light of the World whose birth is the end of the Advent season and the beginning of Christmas. Just as the birth of Jesus divided all of history into B.C. and A.D., so it divides Advent from Christmas – two different seasons. 

The Advent season is a time of preparation. It is a time to decorate the church, our homes, even our yards. But more than that, it is a time for spiritual preparation - individually, household by household, and as a whole congregation.

To help us observe Advent, here is a collection of Scripture readings for each day of the season, drawn from the Book of Common Prayer. The readings for week two are taken from the Psalms, the prophet Isaiah, the Gospel of Luke, and the Gospel of John. It can be helpful to begin the day with the first Psalm reading, then read the prophet at mid-day, and end the day with the Gospel reading and evening Psalm(s).

Contemplate these passages in light of the Advent and its call to preparation for the celebration of Christ's Nativity.

Sunday, December 9th – Second Sunday of Advent
Psalms 148-150 (morning) · Psalms 114-115 (evening)
Isaiah 5:1-7
Luke 7:28-35

Monday, December 10th
Psalm 25 (morning) · Psalms 9, 15 (evening)
Isaiah 5:8-12, 18-23
Luke 21:20-28  

Tuesday, December 11th
Psalms 26, 28 (morning) · Psalms 36, 39 (evening)
Isaiah 5:13-17, 24-25
Luke 21:29-38

Wednesday, December 12th
Psalm 38 (morning) · Psalm 119:25-48 (evening)
Isaiah 6:1-13
John 7:53-8:11

Thursday, December 13th
Psalm 37:1-18 (morning) · Psalm 37:19-42 (evening)
Isaiah 7:1-9
Luke 22:1-13

Friday, December 14th
Psalm 31 (morning) · Psalm 35 (evening)
Isaiah 7:10-25
Luke 22:14-30

Saturday, December 15th
Psalms 30, 32 (morning) · Psalms 42-43 (evening)
Isaiah 8:1-15
Luke 22:31-38

A Bit about St. Nick

A Bit about St. Nick

Reposted from The CiRCE Institute, with permission and with additions. 

December 6th is the feast of St. Nicholas!

by Brian Phillips

Santa Claus stands as a centerpiece of the Christmas season and though the feast of Saint Nicholas lasts but one day (December 6th), the Santa frenzy will continue through the holidays.  Children around the world will find it hard to sleep, anxiously waiting for him to swoop down the chimney, leaving presents under the tree.  But, where did the idea of gifts from jolly ole Saint Nick come from?  The tradition stems from an event that vividly displays the “gentler side” of Saint Nicholas.

Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, lived during the tumultuous fourth century, when both false teaching and the Roman Emperor continually assaulted the Church. Fascinating stories swirl around the life of Saint Nicholas, and while we face some difficulty in distinguishing the tall tales from the true tales, they all combine to create the portrait of an inspiring man. Orphaned when he was young, Nicholas’s wealthy parents left him a small fortune. As Nicholas grew older, he developed into a man after God’s own heart, passionate and compassionate, zealous for truth and mercy. His passion and zeal for truth compelled him to slap Arius the heretic across the face at the Council of Nicaea (“You’d better watch out…Santa Claus is coming to town”), but his compassion and mercy are the foundation for the more well-known tales of his life. These stories gave rise to Nicholas’s “alter-ego,” Santa Claus.

When not assaulting heretics, Nicholas ministered as a bishop with a true pastor’s heart. One night, while walking through the village where he lived, Nicholas heard a girl crying. He stopped to listen and overheard the girl lamenting the fact that her family was too poor to provide dowries for her and her two sisters. In those days, dowries were given from a father to the suitor of his daughter and young ladies had little prospect of marriage without one. Unable to bear the girl’s sadness, Nicholas filled a bag with gold coins and tossed it into the poor family’s house, providing enough for the girl’s dowry. The following two nights, he did the same for the two younger sisters. All three girls were married the following spring, thanks to the mercy and generosity of Bishop Nicholas. The family never knew who provided the money.

Details of the story vary. Some say the bags of coins were thrown down the chimney, giving rise to the idea that Santa Claus comes down the chimney to leave presents. Others suggest that the coins landed in shoes or stockings left by the fireplace to dry, inspiring the practice of putting out stockings or shoes for Santa to fill with gifts. But all agree that Saint Nick’s stealthy delivery skills continue to thwart those trying to catch him in the act. May the warm and generous spirit of Saint Nicholas inspire the same in us all.  Merry Christmas!

Ideas for observing the Feast of St. Nicholas:

1) Fill a boot (we use a plastic "Santa" boot) with chocolate coins and put it by your fireplace or Christmas tree for the kids to enjoy.  It's a great time to retell the story of St. Nicholas.

2) Host a lunch or dinner for friends or neighbors and tell the story of St. Nicholas while feasting.  It's a great way to extend hospitality, show generosity, and everyone gets to remember the life of a great man.

3) Make up "St. Nicholas bags" (not sure if that's a real term, but it works) for the homeless and needy.  Use large Ziploc bags and put in helpful items (a bottle of water, granola bar, toothbrush, toothpaste, even a few dollars, if you like).  These can be packed on St. Nicholas day, then kept handy for when you see folks in need, at a stop light, exit, sidewalk, etc.

2018 Advent Readings - Week One

2018 Advent Readings - Week One

by Pastor Brian Phillips

Advent is a season of preparation – of prayer, contemplation, fasting, and spiritual renewal.  It is a time in which the people of God, by God’s grace, make straight His paths in their hearts.  Rather than simply being an extension of the Christmas celebration, Advent prepares us to more truly and fully celebrate Christ’s birth. 

To help us observe Advent, here is a collection of Scripture readings for each day of the season, drawn from the Book of Common Prayer.  The readings for week one are taken from the Psalms, the prophet Isaiah, the Gospel of Matthew, and the Gospel of Luke. It can be helpful to begin the day with the Psalm reading, then read the prophet at mid-day, and end the day with the Gospel reading.

Contemplate these passages in light of the Advent and its call to preparation for the celebration of Christ's Nativity.

Sunday, December 2nd – First Sunday of Advent
Psalms 146-147
Isaiah 1:1-9
Matthew 25:1-13

Monday, December 3rd
Psalms 1-3
Isaiah 1:10-20
Luke 20:1-8  

Tuesday, December 4th
Psalms 5-6
Isaiah 1:21-31
Luke 20:9-18

Wednesday, December 5th
Psalm 119:1-24
Isaiah 2:1-11
Luke 20:19-26

Thursday, December 6th
Psalm 18:1-20
Isaiah 2:12-22
Luke 20:27-40

Friday, December 7th
Psalms 16-17
Isaiah 3:8-15
Luke 20:41-21:4

Saturday, December 8th
Psalms 20, 21:1-7
Isaiah 4:2-6
Luke 21:5-19

Hanging of the Green

Hanging of the Green

On Saturday, December 1st at 10:00 a.m., we will gather for the Hanging of the Green - decorating the church for the coming Advent and Christmas seasons, including the Advent wreath and the church Christmas tree.

The Christmas tree is deeply rooted in Christian tradition, going back at least to the story of St. Boniface, an 8th century missionary to modern-day Germany, a region controlled by Norsemen who brought their religion with them.  They worshiped many gods, Thor being the chief of them and they consecrated a gigantic oak tree in Thor’s honor at the top of Mt. Gudenberg. They would gather around the tree for feasts, idol worship, and animal sacrifices.

St. Boniface, in the company of these pagans, chopped down the tree. Angry at first, the response of the Norsemen turned to repentance – if Thor could not defend his own holy place, what good was he?

Boniface then used that tree as an object lesson to tell them of a tree that actually does save, not because the tree was magic, but because on that tree, Jesus Christ died for the sins of men. That tree, Boniface said, is an evergreen, an eternal tree.  Many Norsemen were converted to Christ and it was there that they began the practice of decorating evergreen trees (even in their homes) in celebration of the Savior's birth.  Increasingly, the tree became a focal point in the home and gifts were laid under it, not in honor of the tree, but in honor of the Savior who died on the tree. It is His birth that we celebrate during Advent and it was for our sins that He died on the tree, the cross.

When: Saturday, December 1st at 10:00 a.m.

Fall Back!

Fall Back!

It's time to fall back!  Don't forget to move your clocks back one hour on Sunday, November 4th!

Of course, unless you plan to set an alarm for the wee hours of the morn, you should probably just do it on Saturday.  

If you live in Arizona, you may ignore this.

John Wesley & the Spiritual Practice of Self-Examination

John Wesley & the Spiritual Practice of Self-Examination

by Pastor Brian Phillips

John Wesley (1703-1791) was an Anglican minister who, with the help of his brother Charles and friend George Whitefield, founded the Methodist movement. Wesley served as a missionary to native Americans, itinerate preacher, prison minister (during his days at Oxford), and authored numerous books and hymns. 

In 1735, while journeying to the American colonies with his brother, their ship was severely battered by a storm. While most of the travelers were anxious and frightened, a group of Moravian Christians sang hymns. Wesley was deeply touched by their seemingly unshakable faith and piety, which influenced his later theology and practices. 

Among Wesley's personal spiritual practices were questions for self-examination. Here they are, as listed in Jake Hanson's book Crossing the Divide:

1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?

2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?

3. Do I confidentially pass on to others what has been said to me in confidence?

4. Can I be trusted?

5. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits?

6. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?

7. Did the Bible live in me today?

8. Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?

9. Am I enjoying prayer?

10. When did I last speak to someone else of my faith?

11. Do I pray about the money I spend?

12. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?

13. Do I disobey God in anything?

14. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?

15. Am I defeated in any part of my life?

16. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?

17. How do I spend my spare time?

18. Am I proud?

19. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?

20. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?

21. Do I grumble or complain constantly?

22. Is Christ real to me?

John Newton: Finding Grace the Hard Way

John Newton: Finding Grace the Hard Way

John Newton (1725-1807) penned "Amazing Grace" in 1779. It is perhaps the world's most well known Christian hymn, an anthem to the forgiveness of sin offered to man through Christ. But, Newton came to understand that grace the hard way.

Around age 18, Newton became a sailor for the Royal Navy, and eventually worked aboard British slave ships. His life at sea was rough, and throughout his years, he endured lashes from cruel captains, and was even abandoned by his shipmates in West Africa. He was taken captive by a slave trader there and Newton described himself then as "an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in West Africa."

He was finally rescued in 1748 (after about 3 years enslavement) and, while journeying back to England, Newton was dramatically converted to Christ. In 1764, he became an Anglican priest and, eventually, a dear friend of William Wilberforce, the most influential abolitionist in Britain.

Newton understood grace. He understood shackles, both literal and spiritual, and he wrote and preached often of the true freedom found in Christ. This hymn, "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds," was penned by John Newton in 1774, five years before he wrote "Amazing Grace."

No Other Gods

No Other Gods

The exhortation delivered by Pastor Phillips at Holy Trinity on May 13, 2018.

“And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’” (Exodus 20:1-3).

After reminding Israel of their deliverance from Egypt, God gave them His first commandment: You shall have no other gods before me. Egypt was a polytheistic culture – they had many gods. And so, having been delivered from Egypt, Israel needed to settle in their minds that they had but one true God.

But, having another god is not simply a matter of actively practicing some other religion or of bowing down to a graven image. It is often subtler, simpler, and more deceptive than that. The wording of the first commandment literally reads, “You shall have no other gods before My face.” In other words, there is to be nothing else between us and the Lord our God.

It can be helpful to think of this in a physical way - an object obstructing our view, literally coming between us and the Lord.

Given that word picture, it becomes somewhat clearer that the possibilities for idols are seemingly endless – work, money, our over-filled schedules, and sometimes even family and friendships. Even these good things can be wrongly loved in such a way that they are placed between us and the face of the Lord.

What keeps you away from the face of God? Are there things between you and the face of God? May God help settle in our minds that we have but one true God. We are His people. We too have been called out of “Egypt.” Let us confess our sins...