A Pastoral Letter

If you have read much of my blog, or heard any of my sermons, you know that one of my role-models in the Christian life is Robert Murray M’Cheyne, the young Scottish pastor of the early 19th Century. Much of M’Cheyne’s work was directed toward bringing renewal and reformation to the Church, having been pained by the spiritual deadness of many of the parishes he visited. If you read just a sample of his sermons, you find a great passion for Christ, and an earnest plea for Christians to fly to Jesus. 

As you read his memoirs, you find that he was often of poor health, and sadly died at the young age of 29. His good friend and fellow pastor Andrew Bonar collected his memoirs, letters and sermons, without which the memory of M’Cheyne would have been completely lost. I often turn to these memoirs when I have a couple of moments to spare, and happened to come across one of the letters that M’Cheyne wrote to a member of his parish on finding Gods blessings in the midst of sickness. I thought this highly relevant to our day, and thought to share it with you here.

How cares and troubles sanctify
March 31, 1840.

Dear M.,

I may not see you for a little, as I am not strong; and therefore I send you a line in answer to your letter. I like to hear from you, and especially when God is revealing himself to your soul. All His doings are wonderful. It is, indeed, amazing how He makes use of affliction to make us feel His love more. Your house is, I trust, in some measure like that house in Bethany of which it is said, “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.” They had different degrees of grace. One had more faith, and another more love, still Jesus loved them all. Martha was more inclined to be worldly than Mary, yet Jesus loved them both. It is a happy house when Jesus loves all that dwell in it. Surely it is next door to heaven.

The message of Martha and Mary to Christ (John 11:3) teaches you to carry all your temporal as well as your spiritual troubles to his feet. Leave them there. Carry one another’s case to Jesus. Is it not a wonderful grace in God to have given you peace in Christ, before laying you down on your long sick-bed? It would have been a wearisome lie if you had been an enemy to God, and then it would have been over hell. Do you feel Rom. 5:3 to be true in your experience? You cannot love trouble for its own sake; bitter must always be bitter, and pain must always be pain. God knows you cannot love trouble. Yet for the blessings that it brings, He can make you pray for it. Does trouble work patience in you? Does it lead you to cling closer to the Lord Jesus—to hide deeper in the rock? Does it make you “be still and know that He is God?” Does it make you lie passive in his hand, and know no will but his? Thus does patience work experience—an experimental acquaintance with Jesus. Does it bring you a fuller taste of his sweetness, so that you know whom you have believed? And does this experience give you a further hope of glory—an other anchor cast within the veil? And does this hope give you a heart that cannot be ashamed, because convinced that God has loved you, and will love you to the end? Ah! then you have got the improvement of trouble, if it has led you thus. Pray for me still, that I may get the good of all God’s dealings with me. Lean all on Jesus. Pray for a time of the pouring out of God’s Spirit, that many more may be saved. I hope the Lord’s work is not done in this place yet.

Ever your affectionate pastor, etc**

First of all, I am humbled by the pastoral skill demonstrated here.  In this time of social-distancing, I am making every effort to call and check in with my congregation. But M’Cheyne’s letters are truly amazing in how he can draw out spiritual truths and apply them to his readers.

Secondly, I find his pastoral instruction so helpful, even for today. While we are not to love the coronavirus for it’s own sake, we can see how this time of uncertainly teaches us to cling closer to the Lord, to hide deeper in him, and brings us “into a fuller taste of his sweetness.” For that we can truly be grateful.

Heed the advise of Pastor M’Cheyne, “lean on Jesus,” and “pray for an outpouring of Gods Spirit.” If we do nothing other than those two things in this Coronavirus season, this time will not be lost to us.

Grace and Peace!

** McCheyne, Robert Murray, and Andrew A. Bonar. Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne. Edinburgh; London: Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, 1894. Print.

My heart is not lifted up…

“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and marvelous for me.”
(Psalm 131:1 ESV)

We don’t know the occasion that prompted the writing of the 131st Psalm, but I think we all have been there before.  Just three verses long, this is one of the most heartfelt, humble, and sincere Psalms in Scripture.  It is one of the Songs of Ascent (Psalm 120 – 134) which were used by faithful worshippers ascending Mt. Zion to worship at the Temple.  Ultimately, it is a song of humble trust in the Lord, but it’s how we get there that’s important.

This week has been a tough week for some.  Some have had injuries.  Some have been sick.  Some have had their marriage fall apart around them.  Some have lost loved ones and friends.  Some have had life-changing, hope-shattering news.  Some have been wrestling with an important decision for weeks and months and are still no closer to a conclusion.  Some are dreading tomorrow and the uncertainty it brings.  Some have been wrestling with sin and disobedience in their own lives they just don’t see how God could continue to use them let alone love them.

That’s when this Psalm speaks to us.  “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not too high.”  Commentators suggest that this refers to the humble heart that is not lifted up in pride, and that very well may be the case.  But I hear it speaking also to the humble heart that is too overcome with pain to be lifted up.  It’s almost as if David is saying, “God, the joy of my salvation has been so assaulted by the crisis of this situation that it is impossible for me to raise up my eyes to you, to lift my heart in praise.”  Maybe this was part of David’s prayer when his first child with Bathsheba died; perhaps he prayed this when his own sons rebelled against him.  We don’t know the occasion, but we know the feeling.

“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me”
(Psalm 131:2).

David, here, teaches us that it is important, when our souls are overwhelmed, to quiet ourselves and trust in the Lord.  When we read this verse, it is easy to overlook that word “weaned,” and simply picture a young child being comforted in the arms of his mother.  A beautiful and comforting picture, indeed; but not what the Psalm is saying.  James Boyce writes:

When David says that his soul is “like a weaned child,” he is not saying that he has always been content with God or even merely that he is content with God now.  He is reflecting on the difficult weaning process in which a child is broken of its dependence on its mother’s milk and is taught to take other foods instead.  Weaning is usually accompanied by resistance and struggle on the child’s part, even by hot tears, angry accusing glances, and fierce temper tantrums, and it is difficult for the mother.  But weaning is necessary if the child is to mature.  David is saying that he has come through the weaning process and has learned to trust God to care for him and provide for him, not on David’s terms but on God’s terms.  (Boyce, James.  Psalms: An Expository Commentary (Vol. 3) (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998).  1150.)

“O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 131:3).

Whatever the crisis that David faced, when he “calmed and quieted his soul,” he could return to hope in the Lord.  Knowing that “God loved him and would care for him even if it was not exactly the way he anticipated or most wanted, he came to love God for God himself” (Boyce).  Rather than loving the gifts that God has given, rather than merely believing in God, David calls us back to loving God himself, believing God – taking Him at His word.

Whatever you may be facing when you read this, if your heart is downcast, calm and quiet your soul, putting your hope in the Lord, for He is faithful and good.  Only God is worthy of your hope and trust.  Only God will never let you down.  He cares for you, and will provide for you, even in ways you cannot possibly hope for or imagine.  As the companion Psalm 130 says in its conclusion,

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.
  (Psalm 130:7-8)