He Gives and Takes Away

Ralph Duerden, RIP

The only reason that we shouldn’t want to be in Ralph’s condition right now is that we want to obey God’s calling. God has called us to stay, He has called us to continue working here. Here is where the good is that God is giving us. But God has given Ralph gain. As Paul wrote:

For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. (Philippians 1:21-23)

Ralph is now with Christ, and he has got it better.

Many of us have known Ralph as a brother in Christ for over a decade. Mary Kay has known him as her husband for six and a half decades. Others of you knew him as friend somewhere in between.

The last few years had been especially difficult for him. Some of you visited him, either in the hospital or at home, before he moved into the care facility and we got shut out by COVID protocols. I remember talking with him in the hospital, maybe three years ago, I think it was after he had fallen, and it seemed obvious even then: he was ready to see his Lord. Of all the things that got him excited, heaven was near the top.

It was hard as his body and mind declined. Even though I never knew him younger than 70 (which is sort of wonder), he wanted to work. He loved when guys came out to their property to do stuff, and he’d be lifting things heavier than he should have, or climbing ladders higher than he should have. Other times he had stories about growing up, about what he could remember about his mom’s passing when he was still such a young boy, about his service in the Navy. He loved seeing kids running around after church, trying to remember their names and which family they belonged to, and he wanted to be at church more than his health allowed. We are lesser because we get less time with him.

He could be cranky, and while it wasn’t helpful, pain and meds, chemo and falls, do make for quite the temptations that all of us need grace for. But Ralph professed faith in Jesus Christ, he gathered with the assembly for worship when he could, and he has entered into the joy of his Master on a different level.

Ralph’s life and death, his story and struggles, his faith and his home-going, remind all of us that we are immortal beings. We have so many things to think about that seem small, finite. In Ralph’s case, think about all the pills and the appointments and the pains. It is tediously consuming just trying to stay alive sometimes. And to whatever degree he was able to care about the news, he lived through WW2, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and other national and international dramas. It’s not necessarily the case those things distract us from the “important” things, but that those things tend to make us think our lives are a wrong sort of small.

The small part is comparative, so let’s make sure we pull up the right standard. Our lives aren’t small compared to supply chain problems and seven dollar a gallon gas, or compared to war in Ukraine. Those are beyond our control, but they are not that big. Our lives on earth are small compared to the glory of God’s kingdom and the glory He will give us in our eternal inheritance. Our pains are small not because other people don’t seem to care but because our heavenly Father’s rewards are great. The small part is only small like a seed is small, but that is far from insignificant.

I’ve been reading Mere Christianity for my first time, and Lewis makes the observation about how the choices we make now, here, today, are making us into the sort of people who will be able to know even more of what we’ll be in heaven (or hell).

every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. (Location 1252)

Lewis originally prepared these talks to share over the radio in England while World War II was taking place on their own continent; Ralph would have been three and a half years old when the war started. Elsewhere Lewis argued that wars, as significant as they are, aren’t enough to satisfy all our attention, because they are too small. Our souls are eternal, immortal. We’re looking to the Ancient of Days whose glory never fades.

It’s why 1 Corinthians 15 means so much for Christians. As Paul argued, we are quite pitiable creatures if we put our faith in a still-buried Savior. But Christ is raised from the dead, the first-fruits of many brothers, and we who believe in Him will likewise we resurrected. But the difference won’t be night and day, it will be more like the candle to the sun. It will be faith to sight. It will be seed to fruit.

What is sown perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42-43)

Of all the places to start, perishable seems maybe the most obvious. The body we have now is breaking bad. Whether quickly and painfully or not, whether we recognize it or not, it is inevitable. What is sown is perishable. It is in a state of corruption, of gradual decline; the body we have is at best temporary, and at death begins to decompose into dust.

But remember, this is not bad news for a seed. A seed is created as perishable by nature for something better. And, because of Christ, what is raised (from that perishable seed) is imperishable. The raised body is not provisional but eternal. But this is not merely a comment about how long this body will last, it is even more about how complete this body will be. Yes the resurrected body will live forever. But the raised body will be more than durable, it will be the perfect body, the body brought to fruition.

Sown in dishonor is not moral shame, but it is certainly physical loss and humiliation. The grave is just the last humbling.

In Christ, however, we will be raised in glory. This is what God does best. He’s already given glory to earthly and heavenly bodies (verse 40) and granted different glories to the sun, moon, and stars (verse 41). The process of glorification has already started for those who have turned to the Lord (see 2 Corinthians 3:18), and God purposes to finish the process (Romans 8:30).

Sown in weakness: we are without strength. Weakness could be from a debilitating sickness or disease, it could be the general condition of fragility. We do not share the same degree of weakness while alive, but we definitely share the same degree of weakness when we’re dead.

We will be raised in power, with enlarged capabilities and abilities, with remarkable energy and endurance. We will not be raised omnipotent, but we will be raised über-potent. What sort of work is the Lord going to give us to be done with these sort of empowered bodies?

It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body, bearing not just the image of the man of dust, but the image of the man of heaven.

This hope is only for those who hold fast to the gospel, that Christ died for our sins, that He was buried, and that he was raised on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). As sons of Adam we sin and we die, as believers in Jesus we are in Him and in Him shall be made alive. This victory over sin and death is God’s grace to us through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is what takes away the sing of death. It is what makes Ralph’s current condition so much better. He’s fought his fight, finished his race. We give thanks to the Lord for taking Ralph home.

The Lord still wants us on the field, like seeds. This does not make the present work small, it makes the present work significant. So, brothers,

be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Lord's Day Liturgy

Unilateral Forgiveness

I recently saw a guy I follow online post that he had started to read Mere Christianity. I remembered that that book began as a series of radio broadcasts by C. S. Lewis in England during WWII. Of all the Lewis lit I’ve read, that book isn’t one of them, so I thought, in light of what I see in the rest of my news feed, maybe there’s no time like the present.

It’s in that book that Lewis gives his Lord, Liar, or Lunatic argument. It’s fool’s work to claim that Jesus was merely a good teacher. Jesus said things that either were life giving truths or damnable lies. He was from heaven, or He was straight from the pit. He claimed to be the Son of God, and nice guys who aren’t God don’t say that sort thing. So Jesus was either crazy, or a conniver, or Lord of the cosmos.

It’s the immediately preceding context in Lewis’ book that struck me. The thing Lewis highlights is that Jesus forgave sin.

Remember the paralytic in Matthew 9. Jesus told him, in front of the scribes, that in order to know that the Son of Man had authority to forgive sin, the man could also rise up and walk. The healing by His word is a miracle. But the authority of His forgiveness is more awesome.

Lews asks:

But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. (Loc. 792)

Jesus asked and asks no man’s permission to forgive. It’s said that to forgive is divine, and amen. He is Lord, and He is Lord of forgiveness.

The End of Many Books

The Joy of Preaching

by Phillips Brooks

It’s probably been too long since I’ve read a book-length treatment of preaching. There are probably too many blog posts about it these days, and while they are fine, they are not always as well vetted. It compares to the productivity bloggers who write up their exhaustive thoughts after one whole week trying a new system/app.

Brooks’ book comes from lectures he gave at Yale University (in 1877) after almost twenty years of preaching. While I don’t think he and I would be doctrinal twins, I certainly appreciated his homiletical observations.

For what it’s worth, Brooks wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and was a contemporary of the well-known evangelist, D. L. Moody (from whom my father-in-law and brother-in-law were named).

Here are just two of my (many) underlined quotes, both tagged in my system as #emergency for when I need some vocational encouragement:

“And so the first business of the preacher is to conquer the tyranny of his moods, and to be always ready for his work.” (p. 63)


“A man’s first wonder when he begins to preach is that people do not come to hear him. After a while, if he is good for anything, he begins to wonder that they do” (p. 60)

4 of 5 stars

The End of Many Books

The Godly Man’s Picture

by Thomas Watson

I read this again because the men’s group at our church is working through it this year. Watson is full of wisdom. And like Proverbs, the book can be hard to read in big chunks, partly due to Watson’s pithy language and partly due to the proliferation of proverbial wisdom; you want your mind to marinate.

Though man is in the title, it’s not just something for males; ladies would benefit. But ladies would also be abundantly blessed without reading it if the men in their lives lived out the application Watson pictures.

Just one quote as an example (get and read the book for more like it):

“He who hath only a painted holiness, 
shall have a painted happiness.”

4 of 5 stars

Lord's Day Liturgy

The Lord of the Table Is One

It may be unexpected, and yet it is an obvious argument for justification by faith that God is one (Romans 3:30). Monotheism isn’t merely a guard against idolatry, it is also a guard against self-righteousness. Self-righteousness might be seen in man’s attempted defense before God, self-righteousness can be seen in man’s ethnic hatred and divisions. But God is one, His way of counting righteousness is one: by faith, and so no one can boast his way into separation from others.

Our communion as God’s people is monotheistic. That means that there is only one God, that we have peace with that God, and that we give our worship and thanks to no other.

Our communion as a church is also trinitarian. We worship one God in three Persons. We are baptized into the “name,” singular, “of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). This fits with the reality that God is love (1 John 4:16), and that different persons can share equal status and not share every attribute equally. The Father never took on flesh, nor did the Spirit. The Son made propitiation, and it was His Father’s plan.

We share the same God. We share the same way of peace with God. We are not welcome at the Lord’s Table differently, due to our different works, because then we might boast. But we are also welcome at the Lord’s Table as different persons, in love, united as different members of one body (Romans 12:4-5).

Enjoying the Process

Husbands Hauling Off

My wife’s podcast is almost a year old. The most recent episode happens to include some special guests, namely, the husbands of both hosts. It’s actually my first time being interviewed on a podcast, and the conversation covers quite a lot of topics. Head over to the episode here.

Lord's Day Liturgy

Upholding Love

In what’s called the Olivet Discourse Jesus told His disciples about the signs of His coming. There would be wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, famines and earthquakes in various places. There would also be an increased intolerance against Jesus’ disciples, alongside an increase in false prophets. After all that Jesus said: “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12).

Our modern teachers tell us that law and love don’t ever mix. But it is a lie that love, to be true love, must have no external restrictions, no given shape or schedule. Love, according to our false prophets, is only spontaneous and free and unhindered.

Is it really a surprise that “love” covers a multitude of sins, by which I mean love is used an excuse for lawlessness? In the name of love men do some of the worst things (breaking marriage vows because of “love,” or pursuing unnatural relationships for “love,” as just two examples). But it is neither genuine love nor is it genuine freedom.

When Jesus said that lawlessness will lead to cold hearts, to extinguished love like a fire that has gone out, He didn’t specify whether the love was love for God or love for neighbor. It is both, because the horizontal necessarily follows the vertical. And while obedience isn’t finished without love, the way to increase love isn’t by ignoring standards. There are plenty of places this applies; removing standards at home, in the classroom, in the city, is not the way to increase warm feelings between everyone.

As Christians we are justified by faith not law, but we are not a lawless people. We uphold the law (Romans 3:31), and this is good for upholding love.

Rightly Dividing

Believing vs Boasting

Here’s my diagram for Romans 3:27-31. The words in grey are grammatically assumed, meaning that they are not actually in the Greek text, and most English translations also reflect the sentence fragments. But when all the expected words are included, especially in verse 27, it really seems to be making a point about boasting (spoiler: boasting is right out).

And the English block/outline (also with grey as inserted for sake of complete sentences):

The End of Many Books

Finite and Infinite Games

A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility

by James Carse

There is a longer story behind why this book blessed me so much (and why I believe it will end up helping me to bless the people around me better. I’d go so far as to call it an answer to some recent prayers, and it certainly is a tool to help me address some weaknesses). I can’t imagine ever forgetting some of the worldview categories found within the book, and also I can’t imagine recommending the book to very many people.

The most compelling categories are in the title of the book. In our lives there are many finite games (contests, projects, interactions, etc.), and all those games fit into one infinite game. Maybe you already don’t like the idea of calling life a game. And actually, the more you don’t like it, the more you should probably read the book. But it is a lot about perspective and what’s important. It’s one thing to think about how to spend your four thousand weeks, it’s another to think about how to serve and spur on other eternal creatures.

I really like the concept of nerve (for life and for leadership) as Friedman defines, but he really doesn’t describe how to develop nerve. I also like the antifragile idea, though again, knowing that it is valuable doesn’t necessarily tell you how to become more of it. Carse’s ideas made me consider a direct correlation between having nerve in a “finite game” because of seeing it as part of the larger, “infinite game.”

Want more courage? Want more (imperturbable by circumstances) joy? Want more patience, and peace that passes understanding? As Christians these are works of the Holy Spirit, and one way the Spirit helps is by illuminating our place in God’s eternal narrative.

Anyway, the book is absolutely brilliant. Or, more accurately, one sentence is brilliant and the next is bologna, the kind that has been left out on the counter for a couple weeks. I actually think some of the attempts to be clever turn into self-contradiction, and some into damnable lies; watch out for lies. Maybe it’s because I don’t understand, or maybe it’s because some parts are not truly understandable (because they are nonsense). Yet with that said, it seems to me that there are some irreducible accuracies in the principle of finite and infinite games that must be reckoned with even if we don’t use those words.

I know, I feel, that I have lived to win too many finite games. I know that this book helped me think about winning/conquering (see Revelation 12:11) with my eternal life differently, in such a way that makes me want to be more sacrificially playful for my people.

Should you read this book? Again, probably not. Instead, spend more time getting wisdom from Solomon about life beyond the sun in Ecclesiastes, and just follow the instructions in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14.

3 of 5 stars

Every Thumb's Width

Grease All Over the Kitchen

I committed at the beginning of the year that I would not read any new-to-me books in 2022 about productivity or getting things done. I’ve already read a bunch in this genre, the grist is largely the same, and so it seemed reasonable to work on remembering and doing instead of searching for the next hack. So I choose twelve previously read books to review, one for each month.

In March I’m reviewing my highlights for The Supper of the Lamb. Capon’s book isn’t a self-help or to-do book, in fact, it’s actually a cook book. But it does an excellent job of helping one to see the world, to be thankful for it, and to be fruitful in it.

A common temptation for “truth lovers” (as David Wells labels in The Courage to Be Protestant) is to get stuck loving truth in two-dimensions. We get stuck at the sentence level rather than caring for propositions and also embodying their truth. Capon stirs the pot:

Every time he diagrams something instead of looking at it, every time he regards not what a thing is but what it can be made to mean to him—every time he substitutes a conceit for a fact—he gets grease all over the kitchen of the world.

(Loc. 299)

I still don’t know that I have any book with more highlights than this one, and would highly recommend that you read it, or review it.