A Grief Traversed

Dear Church Family,

This past Monday night, I received in the mail my copy of Letters to Ernie by Michelle Blanco. I began to read and couldn’t stop until I had finished the whole book in one sitting. The only thing that slowed my progress through the book was the need to wipe my face and blink through the tears. At first, they were tears of sadness and remembrance, but then as I finished the book they became tears of joy and thankfulness. Let me explain.

An Overtly Christian Man

During my time as an army chaplain in the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC, I was privileged to befriend and get to know Ernie Blanco, a young infantry officer and brother in Christ, who helped co-lead the youth ministry at a local PCA church with me and my wife. He was a great leader of men as well as a wonderful man of God, seeking to honor Christ in all that he did. He was “overtly Christian.” By that I don’t mean that he always wore his faith in Christ on his sleeve. But if you were around him for any amount of time, you felt almost compelled to ask him, “Why are you so joyful and full of life?” And he would have responded, “It is Christ in me, the hope of glory!”

There are many stories that I could tell about Ernie. At the time, Stacie and I had two small children and Ernie was a single young man who spent a lot of time in our home. He would come over for dinner, and we would spend hours talking about life, the army, the Bible, theology, dating, marriage, family. At one point, he even expressed interest in perhaps leaving the army, attending seminary, and becoming an RUF campus minister. In the youth ministry that Stacie and I led, Ernie sometimes led the Bible study, but most often he was playing his guitar and singing praises at the top of his lungs – pretty much drowning everyone else out.

One time while walking with Ernie on post, we passed a soldier from the Puerto Rican National Guard, which was temporarily stationed at Fort Bragg. The soldier’s uniform was a complete mess and he failed to salute us as we passed. Ernie immediately turned on the poor unsuspecting private and began chewing him out in Spanish as he made him fix his uniform and then do pushups as a reminder. Ernie had grown up in Puerto Rico and he apparently took it as a personal affront. I didn’t understand a word that Ernie said to that soldier, but I knew that he was very proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, his Texan heritage, his country, his army – and it showed.

Ernie fell in love with Michelle, a young woman from back home and fellow Aggie from Texas A&M. My wife and I were privileged to be observers and sometimes advisors in their growing relationship. Eventually they were engaged to be married, but Ernie’s unit was called up for a second deployment; he had been to Afghanistan and now he was headed to Iraq.

On the last night before his deployment, Ernie spent the night in our home and he and I went out to dinner to a local restaurant as sort of a ‘last meal’ send-off. As Ernie ate the meat off of his chicken wings, and then – as was his custom – proceeded to bite off and eat the ends of the bones (he said it was the best part!), we talked about his future plans. He had postponed attending his next career-advancing course so that he could deploy with his men (he was loyal like that), but he was looking forward to some down time. He was especially looking forward to marrying Michelle almost immediately upon his return home from war.

That was the last time that I saw Ernie. Instead of officiating at his and Michelle’s wedding in June, I presided at his funeral in January of 2004. You can read Ernie’s official army remembrance and obituary here; personal remembrances and testimonies of his faith, professionalism, and friendship are available here.

Ernie’s death was a sad loss for many people; his death was a sad loss for this world. After Ernie was killed in Iraq, many were asking God why – but none so fervently and despondently as Michelle. I commend to you her newly published book, Letters to Ernie. It’s her story of the love that she and Ernie had, the grief and anger at his death, and the hope and healing that she could only find in Christ, her Savior.

A Tale of Two People’s Love and the Love of Christ

Michelle’s book begins with the story of her and Ernie’s relationship – how it began, how it faltered, how it eventually blossomed. Michelle writes in a very readable and engaging way in describing their relationship such that there is a sense of anticipation throughout their story. Just this part of Michelle’s book – the story of the love between two young people – is compelling and beautiful, giving hope and encouragement. It’s a reminder to those who are in love, or hope to be in love someday, that such things are possible and to cherish every moment that you have.

Then, as Michelle describes hearing the news of Ernie’s death and her grief and subsequent anger, she is incredibly transparent and raw. This was the most difficult part of the book for me to read (for many reasons), yet it was refreshingly honest. Michelle relates how she became numb and hollow inside and spent years trying to cope, to manage, and to assuage her grief and anger – trying to live her life, now without Ernie and all the hopes and plans that they had together.

In the final chapters of Letters to Ernie, Michelle relates how nothing (work, distraction, time) could heal her sense of feeling lost and stuck – stuck in grief, unforgiveness, and anger. But, she eventually did find the answer. She writes with such clarity and wisdom that you really need to read the whole book to fully understand, but let me just give you a glimpse by way of a short section from near the end of the book:

Well-meaning friends, family and even strangers will try to provide an answer sometimes, show us some good thing that came out of the tragedy. But a good thing happening after the bad thing happens does not make the bad thing less bad. They are separate things. What we are really looking for is rest. In an answer. In a thing. In some explanation. We are looking for some place where the pain does not overwhelm us, and we can breathe. I’ve come to learn that the only place that I’m going to find that rest is in Jesus.

His rest is not the rest where you have all the answers and everything else makes sense, but rather, it is rest from having to have all the answers. That is the myth that I think most people believe. The myth that the burden is in not knowing, not understanding. The burden, I have come to believe, would be in knowing, knowing what God sees that we can’t because it is just too much for a human heart and mind. (Letters to Ernie, 130-131)

 

Psalm 4: Simplicity on the Far Side of Complexity

As I have reflected on my relationship with both Ernie and Michelle, and now having read Michelle’s book, I believe that Michelle’s story is a testimony of a life lived in Psalm 4. King David begins by crying out to the Lord in the midst of his distress: “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have relieved me in my distress; Be gracious to me and hear my prayer” (Psalm 4:1). As the Psalm proceeds, though, there is no answer from the Lord – no fixing of the problem that is causing David’s distress. Yet, despite not having been relieved from his distress, David concludes with a declaration that He has found peace in the fact that the Lord is enough: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep, For You alone, O LORD, make me to dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).

While on vacation this past summer, my family and I were able to visit with Michelle in Los Angeles and share a meal one evening. Our two oldest were toddlers when Ernie died and were now teenagers; all four of our children got to meet and get to know the woman that loved Ernie, the woman that Ernie loved. It was obvious that, though she had been through a devastating loss, Michelle had found the healing balm that can only come by resting in Christ.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That is what Michelle’s book is about. It’s the powerful testimony of a woman who was able to return to the simplicity of faith in Christ, on the other side of a terrible loss. I hope you will read the book.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 2: The God of the Bible

Dear Church Family,

In our continuing study of the Westminster Confession of Faith in the adult Sunday school class, this past Sunday we examined the second chapter of the Confession: “Of God and of the Holy Trinity.” There is certainly much that we could say by way of examination of the doctrine that is taught in this chapter; however, it might be helpful to simply summarize the teaching of this chapter by showing how each of the three paragraphs answers a different practical question.

WCF 2.1How do the attributes of the God of Scripture differ from the attributes of most pagan false gods?

Many false religions believe that there are many gods (polytheism); however, this portion of the WCF begins by declaring the teaching of Scripture that “there is but one only living and true God” (Deuteronomy 6:4; 1 Corinthians 8:4). Following this statement affirming the monotheism of the Christian faith, the WCF lists about 25-30 different attributes about God. It would be too much to try and expound upon each of these in this format, but we may summarize these attributes of God as falling into two categories.

The first group of attributes refer to God’s transcendence (His otherness or above-ness in relationship to us): “infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory.”

The second group of attributes refer to God’s immanence (His closeness or nearness in relationship to us): “most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.”

These attributes which speak to God’s transcendence and immanence is another way in which the God of Scripture differs from other false gods. In some false religions, the god or gods are so transcendent such that they are cold, distant, and lacking in any kind of mercy or kindness. In other false religions, the god or gods are so immanent such that they are capricious, impulsive, and selfish.

The God of the Bible who created man in His image is far different from those gods that men have created in their image. The only living and true God is holy and unapproachable (transcendent, Isaiah 6:3), yet He has also condescended to us by revealing Himself and sending His Son in order that we might live in His presence (immanent, 1 John 4:8-16).

WCF 2.2 – How is God related to His creation?

There are several words that help to summarize the relationship between God and His creation as it is taught in the second paragraph of this chapter in the WCF:

Aseity – God is self-existent and self-sufficient, not dependent upon His creation for anything (Acts 17:24-25).

Source – God is the alone fountain of all being (Romans 11:36).

Sovereignty – God has dominion over all creation and can do with it as He pleases (Daniel 4:35).

Omniscient – God’s knowledge of His creation is infinite, infallible, and independent (Psalm 147:5; Romans 11:33-34).

Righteous – All that God does in relation to His creation is holy and He is deserving of our worship (Psalm 145:17; Romans 7:12).

WCF 2.3 – What’s so important about the doctrine of the Trinity?

The Biblical doctrine of the Trinity – there is one God (Deuteronomy 6:4) who exists in three distinct Persons (Genesis 1:1-3; Matthew 3:16-17; 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14) – is an essential and basic element of the Christian faith. It is a delimiting doctrine in that it sets a baseline (or necessary belief) for all those who claim to be followers of Christ.

In showing the early Church how they ought to be discerning about false prophets and not believe every spirit, the Apostle John emphasizes the doctrine of the Trinity as a basic test of orthodoxy:

2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God;  3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 4:2-3)

 

Conclusion

Just as the first Christians needed to learn to be discerning and test the teaching of every spirit, we must do the same. There are some who claim to be Christians, yet implicitly deny what the Bible teaches about God and the holy Trinity. So, we must know what the Bible teaches about who God is.

At the same time, as those who claim to be Bible-believing Christians, we must also be discerning about what we believe and think, ourselves. True believers can sometimes begin to think of God on their own terms, and not according to how He has revealed Himself in His Word, thinking of God as we would like to think of Him rather than as He truly is. So, we must revisit and continually remind ourselves of what the Bible teaches about who God is in order that we may truly worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 1: The Holy Spirit Speaking in the Scripture

Dear Church Family,

This morning, the Lord spoke to me. I’m not talking about a feeling or a general idea about something. There were actual words by which God spoke to me in a very deliberate and concrete manner. I was sitting in my study at the church. This is what He said, “The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands; The Lord is among them as at Sinai, in holiness. You have ascended on high, You have led captive Your captives; You have received gifts among men, Even among the rebellious also, that the LORD God may dwell there.”

This was a strange word from the Lord indeed! What could it mean? I considered this word from the Lord and began to ask questions. Does Sinai have something to do with how God visited His people after the exodus, when He redeemed Israel from slavery? What about this idea about someone ascending on high, leading captives so that the rebellious would receive gifts and dwell in the holy presence of God?

It’s then that the Lord spoke to me again. The words were as clear and as understandable as the first time as the first time He spoke. By way of explanation, He said, “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.” Ah, the first word from the Lord must be speaking about Christ, but I was still a bit confused. So the Lord clarified even further: “Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.”

Now, I understood better what the Holy Spirit had been saying: The Son of God came in the flesh (He descended to the earth) and then He ascended on high (returned to heaven). And, in so doing, He has taken His people with Him (a host of captives), giving them gifts and bringing them into communion with God! What a glorious word from the Lord!

An Explanation

In case you haven’t guessed by now, I was reading the Bible. The first passage by which the Holy Spirit spoke to me was by way of Psalm 68:17-18. The second passage by which the Holy Spirit spoke to me (by way of explanation) was Ephesians 4:7-10. I haven’t succumbed to schizophrenia and begun hearing voices in my head. I was simply reading God’s Word.

This little exercise is an example of some of the profound and practical things that we learn in the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) – “Of the Holy Scripture” – which we examined this past Sunday in our adult Sunday school class). The Confession makes several points about the importance and necessity of Scripture. We learn several things about the Word of God that hopefully will encourage all believers to study and read the Bible, understanding that they are hearing the Holy Spirit, Himself.

First, while in the past, the Lord has declared His will to His people in various ways (theophanies or physical manifestations of His presence, dreams, visions, signs, wonders, an audible voice and direct communications, etc.), at the coming of Christ, those ways have now ceased (Hebrews 1:1-2). Therefore, God has committed all of these former revelations wholly unto writing (2 Peter 1:17-21). This is the teaching of the first paragraph of chapter one of the Confession (WCF 10:1).

Second, while there are many reasons to esteem the Holy Scripture, man cannot be convinced and persuaded of the divine authority of the Bible apart from the inward work of the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20-27; 1 Corinthians 2:10-12). And, the Holy Spirit bears witness in our hearts by and with the written Word of God. (John 16:13-14). This is the teaching of the fifth paragraph of chapter one of the Confession (WCF 10:5).

Third, the supreme Judge and arbiter of truth is the Lord speaking in the Scripture (Ephesians 2:19-22; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Revelation 22:18-29). Whatever creeds and confessions we have received from history, whatever man has written in the past, whatever we presently believe to be true as individuals or as the people of God – all are to be examined by, and to submit to, the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. This is the teaching of the tenth paragraph of chapter one of the Confession (WCF 10:10).

Conclusion

In reference to this first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, B.B. Warfield writes:

There is certainly in the whole mass of confessional literature no more nobly conceived or ably wrought-out statement of doctrine then the chapter ‘Of the Holy Scripture,’ which the Westminster Divines placed at the head of their confession and laid at the foundation of their system of doctrine. It has commanded the hearty admiration of all competent readers. (The Westminster Assembly and Its Work, 1901)

 

May the Lord add His blessing to our reading of His Word. God has inspired the prophets and apostles of old to set down His will for the Church in written form. May He, therefore, also give us a renewed zeal to read and study the Bible, illumining our hearts, such that we may hear Him speak in the Scripture. Indeed, it is a wonderful blessing and great privilege to hear direct communication from the Holy Spirit!

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

A High View of Preaching

Dear Church Family,

This past Sunday, we began a new series in our adult Sunday school class on the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). In our first lesson, we talked about the purpose and helpfulness of creeds and confessions, along with a brief look at the historical context of the writing of the WCF. This coming Sunday, we will begin our chapter by chapter study of the WCF in chapter 1 and the doctrine of Scripture. I invite you to join us at 9:30 am on Sunday mornings for this journey that will take us through the thirty-three chapters of the Confession, concluding in May of 2017.

During our first class, we noted that our denomination and our local church has adopted the Westminster Standards (the Westminster Confession of Faith, along with the Larger and Shorter Catechism) as our confessional standard. What that means is that our church receives and adopts these documents as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.

Instruction on Worship

A little known fact – at least to some – is that the Westminster Assembly also published a document called “The Directory for the Publick Worship of God” (please excuse the old English!). Even though this document is not a part of our church’s confessional standards, it contains excellent principles and valuable instruction for worship that seeks to be biblical. If you follow the previous hyperlink, you will be able to read all of it for yourself.

One of my favorite parts of the “Directory” is the section on ‘The Preaching of the Word.’ A great resource in this regard is a book published in 2008 called The Westminster Directory of Public Worship: Discussed by Mark Dever & Sinclair Ferguson. In addition to the 1645 Directory of Worship, this little book contains two essays by Dever and Ferguson that focus especially on the Directory’s instruction on preaching.

Dever’s and Furguson’s essays are an excellent resource for those called to preach in the church. They provide valuable insight, instruction, and advice for preachers. In fact, using this book as a guide, I’ve developed a ‘sermon evaluation form’ for use in presbyteries when hearing the sermons of men coming to be examined for ordination.

Even as this book is a great help for preachers, it also provides all Christians with a helpful framework for thinking about the importance of the preached word. And, there are some very practical ‘nuggets’ that will aid both preachers and hearers. Here are just two.

1. A minister ought to be resident among his people, not absent from them. (“Puritans: Minsters of the World” by Sinclair Ferguson, in The Westminster Directory of Public Worship, 32-33)

There are three reasons why preaching ought to be anchored in a local context where the preacher feeds a flock he has come to know and love:

(1) A minister is called to feed the flock in his charge through the ministry of the Word.

(2) Preaching must be accompanied by prayer for the people.

(3) A minister is called to apply biblical truth to his congregation individually in personalized instruction and evangelism.

 

2. Four basic guidelines for preaching (“Preaching Like the Puritans” by Mark Dever, in The Westminster Directory of Public Worship, 42)

(1) The sermon should be faithful to the text and its central point.

(2) Sermons should be true, biblical, and helpful – flowing plainly from the text for the edification of the hearers.

(3) The sermon should be clearly expressed and understandable.

(4) Every part (arguments, illustrations, applications, etc.) should fit with the whole of the sermon.

 

Conclusion

The Puritans and the Westminster Divines had a high view of preaching. One that the church (along with preachers and hearers!) would do well to recover. The Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God concludes with seven exhortations for ministers of the Gospel:

But the servant of Christ, whatever his method be, is to perform his whole ministry:
1. Painfully, not doing the work of the Lord negligently.
2. Plainly, that the meanest may understand; delivering the truth not in the enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect; abstaining also from an unprofitable use of unknown tongues, strange phrases, and cadences of sounds and words; sparingly citing sentences of ecclesiastical or other human writers, ancient or modern, be they never so elegant.
3. Faithfully, looking at the honour of Christ, the conversion, edification, and salvation of the people, not at his own gain or glory; keeping nothing back which may promote those holy ends, giving to every one his own portion, and bearing indifferent respect unto all, without neglecting the meanest, or sparing the greatest, in their sins.
4. Wisely, framing all his doctrines, exhortations, and especially his reproofs, in such a manner as may be most likely to prevail; shewing all due respect to each man's person and place, and not mixing his own passion or bitterness.
5. Gravely, as becometh the word of God; shunning all such gesture, voice, and expressions, as may occasion the corruptions of men to despise him and his ministry.
6. With loving affection, that the people may see all coming from his godly zeal, and hearty desire to do them good. And,
7. As taught of God, and persuaded in his own heart, that all that he teacheth is the truth of Christ; and walking before his flock, as an example to them in it; earnestly, both in private and publick, recommending his labours to the blessing of God, and watchfully looking to himself, and the flock whereof the Lord hath made him overseer: So shall the doctrine of truth be preserved uncorrupt, many souls converted and built up, and himself receive manifold comforts of his labours even in this life, and afterward the crown of glory laid up for him in the world to come.

 

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch