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It is not about what I am doing

Like most pastors, I really want our church family to know their Bibles. My desire for that explains why I preach the way that I do. I preach expository messages, informed by a quote I heard at the very first chapel service I attended while in seminary: “There are two kinds of preaching – expository, and bad.” In addition, I like to alternate testaments, so that our church family gets to see how the Bible works together, and that ultimately all of it points to Christ. I also like to preach through books that have been authored by different individuals, again, so that our church family gets to see how the Bible is one unified story, despite the differences in authors, audiences, languages, locations, dates, etc.

Currently, I am preaching through the book of Jonah. At first glance, I thought it was going to be a quick, 4 week series. Jonah has 4 chapters, a lot of it was narrative, so I figured this would be among my more brief and swifter series. But then I began to study the book intently. When I did so, I realized that 4 weeks was too short. There is way more going on than it appears. Four weeks quickly became 7 weeks. It has been a joy to get to preach through this book. Jonah’s account has revealed my tendencies and exposed my heart. His story has reaffirmed God’s relentless pursuit of me, and His relentless grace to me.

One theme that continues to pop up each week – so much so that our church family can repeat it on command – is that the story of Jonah is not about what Jonah is doing for God, but what God is doing for Jonah. And in like manner, my story is not what I am doing for God, it is what God is doing for me AND what He has already done for me through His Son.

Dwelling long on that truth has been challenging, yet encouraging. Nearly everyone defines themselves by what they do – “I’m a doctor, I’m a student, I’m a plumber, I’m a pastor…” What would it look like if we defined ourselves not by what we do, but by what God is doing in us? It might be a little weird and wonky to say it out loud “Hi, I’m Carl, and God is causing me to grow in the area of patience” (you know, I might just try that). But what if we started to at least think that way? What if we stopped defining ourselves by our spiritual works resume – “I teach this class, I lead this small group, I serve in this ministry…” and instead stopped long enough to recognize that God is doing a unique work in us? Do you recognize His work in your life? What area of your life/mind/heart is He working on? How have you been experiencing His presence? What is He teaching you? What He is nudging you to do? How is He bringing about His work of grace in your life? I’d love to hear it, so if you are willing, share your story of what God is doing for you in the comments section. A follow up post on my coming to grips with this will be coming next week, so I’ll be sharing too!

 


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Looking for God’s pleasure

Mentally preparing to soon begin training for another marathon (my poor training means in actuality it will be a half-marathon), I often think of the Eric Liddell quote “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” As soon as that thought bubble dissipates, the next one to appear is my own quote, “On this issue, Eric Liddell was an idiot.”

I enjoy running. But I don’t think I have ever described it as “pleasure.” I wish I had the perspective of Eric Liddell. I would even settle for the perspective of my dog Fledge, who usually has a “HEY LOOK! I’M RUNNING!!! WHEEEEEEEEE!!!” expression on his face.

I do admire Eric’s enjoyment of running. It is a commentary on my own character, and not his, that I do not share his thoughts. But he was exactly right. Not just about running either. He was right about God’s pleasure. This may not have been what he intended, but he was still very much correct. From the above quote, replace the word “run.”

-When I pray, I feel God’s pleasure.

-When I give, I feel God’s pleasure.

-When I sing praises to Him, I feel God’s pleasure.

-When I show love to others, I feel God’s pleasure.

-When I’m doing a good deed, I feel God’s pleasure.

Not too difficult to figure out how God’s pleasure is at work in those instances. What about these?

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Would they be welcome?

Last Sunday, I made a statement during the course of my message that could have made our church family a little uncomfortable. However, when I said it, not a single eyebrow was raised. It was as if what they heard was expected, or commonplace, or already understood. For that, I am profoundly grateful for the church family I have the privilege of serving, North River Community Church. I pray God allows them to see fruit from the ease with which they readily embraced this.

I shared with them a question I was asked a few weeks earlier during our Tuesday morning men’s Bible study. We are a small bunch, and while there is a structure to what we do, it is not particularly rigid, allowing for discussion, debate, encouragement, and questions, sometimes (ok, often) tangentially related to the text we are studying. That was the case when a brief discussion about a hot topic came up, leading to the question – “If a homosexual couple came to this church, would they be welcome?”

I answered that question for our church family on Sunday, and am expanding it a little here: Continue reading


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Correcting the Elvenking

In my reading diet, rarely will you find servings of fiction. I feast much more on non-fiction works, and generally concentrated in two areas: stuff written by dead guys from a long time ago, and stuff written by living men in field of biblical counseling. Of course, when I read to my children, I avoid reading John Owen’s “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” to them, but I reserve the right to adjust that as they get older.

There are two notable exceptions to this rule, and that is C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings. I’ve read the Chronicles of Narnia over and again. I was introduced to The Hobbit by my mom when I was 8 or 9, have read it numerous times in the three decades since. So, it was with great anticipation that I gathered with other Tolkien nerds to go the second of The Hobbit films at the midnight showing.

For those of you concerned about this being a review, it is not, other than to say I really enjoyed it. And if you are concerned I am going to give some big plot piece away, not to worry, I will not wreck it for you. There is much about the film that is compelling – the story arc, the music, the visuals, the tension, and some well timed moments of levity.

But one scene in particular grabbed me. It was not an action sequence, it was not a panoramic view of Middle-Earth, it was not the fulfillment of something anticipated. It was simple dialogue. The situation is that, for reasons I will leave untold, the Elvenking has decreed that the gates to his realm are to be closed – no one is to enter, no one is to leave. In response an… individual (see, I’m trying to not give away details) questions this decision. The individual says something to the effect of “are we to be protected while the world around us dies?”

The dialogue was simple. It was not drawn out, but it was poignant. As a follower of Christ, as a husband, a father, a pastor, it pierced me. Believers are called to find their comfort and security in Christ, and praise God He provides both! But what are we doing with it? The world around us is dying. It is dying, it is lost, and it is going to hell. Do we interact with the culture around us, or just condemn it? Do we invest ourselves in the lives of lost friends and neighbors, or do we run from them as if they are carriers of spiritual cooties? We find our comfort and security in Christ, which should then give us greater courage to go into the world to proclaim the glorious gospel of Christ because we do so while under His protective umbrella. If we say we find our comfort and security in Christ, but do not intentionally invest in the lives of the lost, what we are really saying is that we do not find our comfort and security in Christ, we are finding it in something else. Whatever that something else is will fail. That something else is likely an idol. That something else has taken reign over the heart.  Meanwhile, our lost friends, family, and neighbors are in peril. My comfort and security is in Christ. I have friends and neighbors who if they died tonight would spend eternity in hell. Jesus said He is sending us out as sheep among wolves. He did not invite the wolves into the sheep-pen. We long to see repentance and revival sweep our communities, our country, our world. It will not happen if we hide behind our own gates. Jesus’ call was to come to Him, and when you come to Him, He sends you out. He is your comfort and security. A lost and dying world awaits.

Go.


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Counsel for the 17 year old me

Last month I celebrated my birthday. If you missed it, that’s ok, I’m still accepting gifts. My birthday got me thinking about areas I would like to grow in. I considered who I am and where I want to be, as well as who I was and where I used to be. Those thoughts were magnified when I learned that my high school graduating class is having its 20 year reunion next month. Twenty years doesn’t quite seem possible. There are days when I feel like I just graduated high school last week – the beautiful bride laments that there are days when I act like I just graduated high school last week.

So, now that I have been out for two decades, what would I say to my 17 year old self? What counsel would I give to myself in my senior year?

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Covering great distances

It seems I am repeatedly, throughout every day, thinking about the word distance. If I’m not just thinking about it, I am planning for distance, or traveling some distance, or attempting to craft ways to either eliminate or shorten distance. There are three arenas that distance perpetually appear in my thinking.

First, I have the privilege of coaching the cross country team at North River School just down the road from us. The junior high team runs 1.5 mile races, while the high school team runs 3 mile races. Part of my responsibility as coach is to get my team to the point where they can cover those distances. Somehow though, my team is surprised when I tell them how far they will be running in practice on any given day – I have to remind them that: a. cross country is a running sport, and b. running two laps on the track is insufficient to get them ready for meets. Instead, we need to run longer distances. So far, we have topped out at 4 miles, but I’m hopeful by the end of the season that we will get in one long run a week of 8-10 miles. For those of you wondering, yes, I do run with my team, though I am tempted to coach them running on the road from the comfort and ease of my vehicle.

The second arena that distance is becomes a considerable thought is everyday life. As a reminder, we are in a fairly remote part of the country. Certainly there are other places far more remote, but for two raised-in-the-city-with-every-convenience-within-minutes-of-us folks like myself and the beautiful bride, this is remote, nearing isolation. From our driveway, it is 18 miles to a grocery store. 16 miles to a gas station. Three miles to a visible cell tower (the tower is still far off – three miles is the distance from our home before you can actually see it) – that makes sending and receiving calls a challenge. Some of you might be aghast to know that we are 19 miles from a Starbucks. We are around 60 miles from Target or Costco. When we run out of things, we have to think whether our need for that thing is greater than the distance we would need to travel to get that thing. More times than not, we choose to go without that thing. That was a hard adjustment for the guy who used to be able to walk to Fred Meyer at 10:30 at night to get the needed thing, and be done getting it by the time the store closed at 11. Our remote location has often caused me to wonder – what would happen if I ordered a pizza to be delivered to us? Would they even come? If they did, would my pizza still be warm? Would the delivery fee be twice the amount of the pizza? I may test this one day. Stay tuned.

Some days, thinking about either arena of those distances is an unpleasant task.

“Do I really have to run this far?”

“Why can’t somebody have enough vision to put a gas station closer to us?”

“If we go into town for that needed thing, we might as well get the rest of all our needed things, and that is going to take us all day.”

“How hard is it to put up a cell tower?”

I’m not proud of having those thoughts, just telling you what the thoughts are. Usually though, those thoughts diminish with two other thoughts.

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BB guns and the joy of salvation

If you are a follower of Christ, I want you to think back to when you heard, understood, and believed the gospel. Do you remember what was going through your mind? Do you remember how your heart, both your literal, blood pumping heart and your figurative, soul-driving heart, pulsated at the very thought of the eternal transaction that was made on your behalf and in your favor? Do you remember at last having confidence that by the work of Christ on the cross, you would no longer, never, ever stand in condemnation? Do you remember how delightfully jarring  it was/is to know that though you had violated God’s law and were (and truthfully, still are) very undeserving of such grace and mercy, you received it anyway?

I’m hopeful that you are not having too dig too far into the deepest recesses of your grey matter to pull those memories back in to your present thinking. But often Christians do lose sight of it. We end up not so much losing our amazement and joy, but not exercising it. It is not taken from us, we merely neglect it. Neglect it long enough, and your salvation becomes starved of its original amazement and joy. The result of that is a bland, milquetoast, lifeless Christian experience rather than the confident, passionate, victorious life that was assured for us by the cross, at the cross.

Please don’t read this as a rebuke, or if you do, read it as a rebuke of myself. I don’t want to lose that amazement or bewilderment. I daily want to live in light of the joy of my salvation. I want to be like the Psalmist who said “May we shout for joy over your salvation…” (Psalm 20:5). I want my words and my heart to mirror Habakkuk’s when he said “yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:18) – what’s really fascinating about Habakkuk’s declaration is that he is saying it in the face of suffering. Or we could take David who was caught in tremendous sin, was rebuked, and in repentance wrote Psalm 51 which includes this plea “Restore to me the joy of your salvation…” Daily, I want to have the joy that only Jesus offers “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). May one of the dominant themes of my life be that I “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8).

What I want to take permanent residence in my mind and heart is expressed on the face of one of my beauties pictured below:

bbgunjoy

Would you look at that face! Do you see the amazement in her face? Do you see the joy? I want my heart to everyday look like her face! Here is the story…while my mom was in town, my boys wanted to show off their shooting skills with first the bow, then the BB gun. As the marksmanship contest to impress Grandma was underway, this walking bottle of Pepto-Bismol joined the festivities. The second boy had completed his round and walked away. The one I affectionately call Babycakes remained and she had a question dangling from her eyes. I asked her if she would like to shoot the BB gun, reassured her that I would help her and protect her, and that it would not cause her to go deaf (my children are very particular about loud noises, which strikes me as odd because they are often the source of the loud noises). As you can see, I was with her and we practiced exceptional gun control, as there were four hands gripping the weapon. She received some assistance aiming at the burn bin in our backyard, 15 yards from where she was standing. When she was ready, I told her to squeeze the trigger. She hesitated, then squeezed, and upon hearing the “PING!” of the BB piercing through the rusty barrel, the picture above was her reaction (big photo credit to Grandma – thanks Mom!).

Oh that my heart would think on my salvation with such expression, with the right combination of stunned amazement and unbridled joy! Do you know what my pink princess did right after that? Shouted with joy and told everyone who would listen about what she had done. For the rest of the night. May my joy, and my amazement, over what Christ has accomplished on my behalf be proclaimed with such vigor, passion, and excitement. Let our hearts be overwhelmed, and “may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, “Great is the Lord!” (Psalm 40:16). Remember, and rejoice.