A Blog by Bruce Baker

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Wednesday
Jul302014

Tragedy, Providence, and Faith

(I wrote this post several months ago. Since that time my father-in-law has graduated this life and is at home with the Lord. Why I never published this when I wrote it I don’t recall. But seeing as my readers don’t know these events and this still expresses truth, I’ve decided to post it now.)

An email hits my desk this morning, telling of the death of a 45-year-old pastor, as he prepared to leave for church one Sunday morning.

It leads me pondering on what a mystery are the works of God. At the same second I read about this young preacher being snatched away from family and flock, my father-in-law lies lingering in horrible health and great pain.  While he is ordained, he can no longer actively minister and repeatedly states his desire to be home with the Lord.  Yet God chooses to take a young man with children in the prime of ministry years. And so suddenly … preparing for church on Sunday morning only to be found unconscious on the floor by his wife. No chance to say goodbye or tell his family he loved them. No final message to his flock about what he considered most important for them to remember. No chance to make amends with those who were estranged (and we all have those in our lives, don’t we?) It’s the same mystery I guess that Job wrestled with.

God is not a capricious God who acts on mere whims. Indeed, “Precious in the eyes of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (Ps 116:15) As I recall, the word for “precious” refers to something valuable, something treasured, not to be used or traded away without careful consideration. Therefore, the LORD our God has a reason for this just as he has for all that he does. We evaluate what he does not on the basis of our finite reasoning, but rather on the knowledge of his character … that he is the definition of good and the sum of all perfections. So the apparent evil of the death of a 45 year old faithful pastor who leaves behind a wife and 6 children is not an evil at all but the best of all possible circumstances.

Still, knowing these things to be true does not remove the mystery from our finite minds; it does not lift the thick fog that blankets our thoughts from all except what God has revealed. And the truth of the matter is that God may never reveal why this occurred. His answer gave no response to the question that burned in Job’s mind: Why? 

While the Scriptures don’t really indicate such, still many people in the pew believe that these mysteries will be revealed to us when we are finally at rest in that eternal city. But I’m not so sure. Proverbs 25:2 teaches that in some way these mysteries enhance God’s glory. They work to remind us that he is the Creator, and we are the creatures, that he is completely other, that the vastness of his wisdom we will never discover. 

Perhaps I’m wrong, about eternity. Perhaps, because we are now friends of God (and more than friends, but children!), he will reveal these things to us. After all, John 15 15 records Jesus as saying, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” But who knows? Here again is another mystery about God we cannot know until then. 

At the end of the day we must remember that “the just will live by faith.” Not only is faith required to remain sane in this inexplicable world, but also because God commands it. Like the mysteries he chooses not to reveal, our faith in response to them enhances his glory. And even if we never find out the answers and eternal faith is required of us, when we are at home with him we will say with joy that this is good enough. 

Friday
Aug232013

A Great Day In Uvira

Thank you for praying. Here’s what happened today.

Liz and I started the day early by walking the short walk to the shore of Lake Tanganyika which is right behind the Villa Ilac where we are staying. We were both taking videos and both of us think we got some powerful shots of people coming to the lake at sunrise to wash their clothes, brush their teeth, and so forth. The sunrise was nice as well.

Then came the unpleasant discovery that, unlike last year when I stayed here, this year there is no hot water…..ever……period. We compared notes at breakfast and discovered that our coping skills for a cold shower were remarkably similar! We met a woman about my age in the cafe tonight that has stayed here for several years as have I. Every time I come back, it’s just a little bit more run down. This is what you should expect from everything here in Central Africa.

We walked the short distance to the “university” where the teaching and meetings were to be held. The teaching started out a little rough as the concepts I was teaching were completely unfamiliar with the students. Unlike last year, we had both men and women, and the classroom was packed by the end of the lesson. Even though the concepts were tough, all were very attentive and by the end of the day, I think most understood the concept of a dispensation, how they are derived from the Bible, and what characterizes all the dispensations.

Flory got up after I was finished (he came late and had one of his students translating for me in his absence). He insisted that people ask questions. There had be few prior to that. I asked him later why he did that and he said that in previous years, people save their questions till after I’m gone and then ask him! He wanted all the questions out while I was there.

The interest in the topic was intense. Some of the men complained that I wouldn’t be there long enough to finish the topic and insisted that I stay an extra day. We were planning on heading back to Bujumbura on Monday, but Tuesday afternoon will work just as well.

After the lesson was over, Liz and I came back to the hotel for rest and lunch. We discussed better ways to get the video that we wanted.

When we returned (at about 3 PM), we were shocked. The crowd was so large that in was overflowing into the street and taking up about a third of the road. We had to press our way through the mass of people that was literally packed in together.

After the choirs finished singing and dancing (a part I always love), I got up to preach. I wasn’t expecting much because in past years its been difficult for me to keep the attention of the (mostly) young crowd. I confess that while the choirs were singing, I was praying earnestly that God would bless my sermon.

People come to me all the time with short-fused requests and say something like, “Oh I’m sure it won’t be any problem for you. You’re so smart you can just wing it.” They say that only because I never wing it. My goal is always to be studied and prepared before I speak anywhere.

But I wasn’t expecting to preach today. I had no time to prepare. So…….I winged it. God, being ever merciful, made this the most effective sermon I have ever preached here. The crowd was large, they were attentive all the way through, and at the end, two people came forward for salvation.

The altar call was given by Pastor Timothy, but when they came forward, I was called forward to pray with them. They handed me the mic and I took the time to explain the Gospel as simply but as completely as I know how. I explained how we are all sinners, how our sins have earned us a wage, how wages must be paid, and how Christ paid that wage for us by dying in our place. When I was sure they understood, I prayed with them and they returned to their seats. Thus, not only did they get the gospel explained to them, but everyone else in the overflow crowd heard it as well.

Bottom line: as usual, all the glory goes to God, who condescends to help unprepared preachers. He uses his word as he sees fit, even when it is being translated into another language from a preacher speaking with notes.

It is true that there is nothing to wonderful for the Lord.

PostScript: There are not photos are movies in this blog post because I’ll be lucky (as Calvin would say) to get this text posted at all. There’s no point with the fragile internet here to even try anything more complicated. We we get home, I *promise that videos and pictures will be posted.*

Saturday
Jul272013

Back to Africa (Aug 18–29, 2013) 

Officially the war is over…officially. The Second Congo War began in July 1998 or just a little more than a year after the First Congo War ended…officially. The Second Congo War (also known as the Great War of Africa or the African World War) ended in either 2002, 2003, or 2005 depending on who you read. The confusion stems from the number of countries and armed factions involved in the fighting. When the war ended depends on how many of those nations and armed groups withdraw from the fighting. Is the war over if half the groups stop or do all have to stop before the war is over?

Whether the war is “official” or not, armed groups still fight for power in Congo, particularly along the border of Rwanda. The short film below was shot in 2012. You can decide for yourself if the war ever ended.

 

What is not in dispute is the devastation the war has caused. It’s difficult to count the number who have died, since bullets and rockets aren’t the only things that kill. It is estimated that in 2004, approximately 1,000 people a day died from easily preventable cases of malnutrition and disease in The Democratic Republic of Congo (or Congo DR, which is different than the Republic of Congo). While they weren’t killed in the fighting, it was the war that killed them just the same. And even though it’s not official, the war continues to this day.

What’s this got to do with me?

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 

 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.  1Cor. 12:12–22 NIV 84

When we see the villagers running for cover and hear of the horrors of the refuge camps (officially known as  IDCs — Internally Displaced Camps), it’s easy to forget that some of these are our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Pastor Floribert Kazingufu

When the war broke out (I’m speaking of the First Congo War), the majority of western missionaries fled. Those that didn’t, lasted until the outbreak of the Second Congo War. Unfortunately, without the support of western missionaries, the beleaguered pastors had no help in ministering to their flocks. Almost none of the national pastors in either Congo DR or Burundi have had any formal training whatsoever. The missionaries were no longer available to help them understand the fundamental truths of God’s Word. That assumes, of course, that they have Bibles, which many of them don’t. Of those that do, many can’t read them because they can’t afford the glasses that older men require. 

So the church in the Congo basin was basically left to fend for themselves.

 

I became involved when my friend, Floribert Kazingufu, told me about how many Health/Wealth preachers were coming to Africa from North America. He said, “We know they are not telling us the truth, but we don’t know what the truth is. You must come and tell us what to believe and we will believe it.” How could I say no?

So for the last five years or so I’ve traveled to Bujumbura, Burundi to meet with Flory, and I’ve taught the pastors basic bible doctrine.  He organized a group of churches so that they could strengthen each other. The “Network of Missionary Churches in Christ” (REMAC—it’s a French thing) have received a doctrinal statement in Swahili and I have been teaching it to the pastors, section by section. 

In Africa when someone hears something new that is wonderful and marvelous, they laugh. They aren’t laughing because they find something funny. They laugh with joy. I’ve found this is a common (and welcome) response to my teaching. What people in the States take for granted is often new and exiciting for them. 

The local congregation building a churchOn of the biggest hindrances to REMAC is their rented church buildings. They have thatched roofs and mud floors. The Roman Catholic and Pentecostal churches point to these crude buildings and insist this is a sign that REMAC is a cult. “If they were a real church, they’d have their own land and a proper building…like us!”

Setting the corner with care

What Can You Do?

First and foremost, we covet you prayers. We desire that you pray for our safety, since the situation into which we go is tenuous to say the least. We desire that the pastors receive the training with open hearts and pure hands. We ask that you pray that in all things, God’s will receive the glory.

Second, for a gift of $3000 (US dollars), the local congregations of REMAC can purchase land and build a building that won’t hinder the spread of the gospel. The total cost is more like $3500, but Flory and I felt it was better if the local church put up some of the money. Think about it: what does $500 look like to someone earning $600 per year. Five hundred dollars to a Burundian looks like $36,000 to an American. Let’s just say it’s a huge investment on their part. Likewise, the church members will be doing most of the work themselves. This gets the local congregation involved and helps strengthen the church.

Still a long way to go! Won’t you help in this work?

This year my daugher Elizabeth is going with me. This will be her second trip. Her main purpose is to document the ministry of REMAC so that we may tell their story more effectively. The cost of travel for both of us is about $3500.00 …each.

The truth is we cannot do this without God helping us with the finances. I say God helping us because I am trusting he will provide for this work whether or not each individual who reads this contributes (via the PayPal link below) or not. But I so want as many as possible to receive the blessing that comes with participating in God’s work. I want you to generate thanksgiving to God as other parts of the body give thanks for you! As Paul says, 

This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 2 Cor 9:12–15

Checks my be sent to :

Washington County Bible Church

PO Box 425

Chappell Hill, TX 77426

 

 

Saturday
Sep082012

When a Believer Dies

I read an article recently that encouraged the blogging of letters that others might find valuable. My last post followed this model. Quite a few have responded positively to that letter (though curiously not through the comments section). Now once again I find myself writing a private letter on a topic that others may find helpful. I’ve decided to start posting such letters as they occur, omitting those items which may identify the recipient. My prayer is that God will use these public letters to strengthen his people.

 ______________________

Dear _________,

Please accept my most sincere condolences on the death of your mother. Even though her illness made such an event only a matter of time, the actual death is always so painful. Oh, we think we are prepared, but in reality one can never really be prepared for the death of one we love. 

I’m thankful that God heard our prayers uttered over these many months and that “her passing was peaceful.” It is also an indescribable blessing to know that “she was at peace with death and confident in her faith in Jesus.” You are quite correct that such knowledge gives peace and hope for the future. 

As a pastor for many years, and having mourned the death of both my parents, I’ve discovered a few truths about death that people who have never gone through it don’t realize. These aren’t Bible truths, but the numerous funerals in which I’ve participated have proven them true.

  1. When a parent dies, you’re nine years old again. It doesn’t matter how old you really are, what responsibilities you carry, what marks of maturity are evident in your life. The basic relationship that defined the bond between you and your mom overrides all other truths. Oh, you may continue to act the part of a mature adult, but the raw emotions that burrow a hole in your stomach are those of a child. 

  2. When the second parent dies, you’re an orphan. The safety net that parents provide may not have functioned for decades. In fact, you may have been the caregiver for your parent. But even though the roles are reversed, your memories of the ones who could “make it better” overwhelm you. The loneliness that is an integral part of all grief is even more intense when the second parent dies.

  3. It hurts a lot more than other people know. Even those who have endured the grief you now experience have had the memory of the gnawing, devastating grief dulled somewhat by time. This is just another reason why the mind-numbing pain we experience makes us feel so alone.

  4. It hurts a lot longer than other people realize. In a few weeks, other people’s lives will return to normal, but yours won’t. It will take about a year before the ache truly begins to subside, for it will take a year to get by all the “firsts”: the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, the first birthday, the first Easter, etc. You will get better, but not as quickly as others imagine. And no, you can’t just “get over it” even though others may expect you to.

All of the above is merely the fruit of my experience and observation. But at a time like this, what we really need is God’s perspective, not merely on death, but on the death of a believer. Because even though I may be able to describe the grief we experience, there is nothing in my words that can comfort. Only God’s Word can do that.

The Old Testament’s standard way to describe God’s character is that he is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love” (Psalm 103:8 among many other passages). Because God is who he is, death for a believer is changed from a terrible curse to a good and gracious gift. 

To say that death can be a good and gracious gift is not to deny the evils associated with death. Death, the Bible teaches, is the consequence of sin. Death brings separation and sorrow. In fact, the Bible always portrays death as an enemy that has invaded the land of the living.

Even the Lord Jesus did not look forward to his death, despite his confidence that he would be raised from the grave. But the Bible does teach us that God is able to use what is, in and of itself, evil, in order to bring about what is good. 

Rom. 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

 Understanding that God works things together for good, even an evil such as death, it seems appropriate to ask what happens when a believer dies. What is it about a believer’s death that so changes the experience? Well, there are at least four truths concerning death that apply to all believers.

So what is death for a believer?

  1. Death is a key in a Door

Rev. 1:18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

The fact that he holds the key to death means that no one dies unless he puts the key in the door. In other words, no army no matter how great can kill me unless Christ puts the key in the door (I remind people of this truth every time I go to Africa). In the same way, no team of doctors can save me if he uses the key.

This is a great comfort when you understand who God is. As I stated above, the standard way to describe God is that he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Knowing this to be true, we can be assured that he waits until the absolute best time, having weighed the alternatives, to put the key in the door. In the same way, we can also be assured that if we had the ability to go back and undo that doctor’s report, undo all the tests, undo the illness, we would only make things worse. Jesus knew the right time before he put the key in the door.

And this also shows that this was really no mere chance occurrence. There is no such thing for a believer. God knew the best time and so arranged circumstances that he brought about the best for your mother and for you, for her entire family and even her friends. 

2. Death is a Change in Location

2Cor. 5:6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.  7 We live by faith, not by sight.  8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

 We must remember that the body that was laid to rest was not your mother. She experienced a change in location when she died. If death were all that there is, if it was really the end, then we would have the right to mourn without ceasing because there would be no way to ever see our loved ones again. But death isn’t the end.

Instead your mother is now experiencing the joys of heaven where there are pleasures at the right hand of God forever more. She now looks upon the unveiled face of God in all his holiness, and experiences freedom from the sins that plagued her and the physical ills that were her constant companions. Her body is laid to rest here, but your mother is not here. 

She is in heaven waiting for that great day “when Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with him in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thess 4:16-17)

3. Death is an Answer to Prayer

John 17:24  “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”

Jesus so loved your mother that he prayed that she would one day be with him in heaven and would be able to behold his glory, a glory far greater and more wonderful than anything that this world could produce. And so, even though our hearts are breaking, God has said no to our prayers for just a while, so that he could answer the prayer of his Son. 

Of course, one day this prayer will be answered for us all. We will all be gathered together with those that have gone on ahead, and we will all together behold his glory forever more. Still, until that time, we can rejoice that your mom is there now, experiencing the glory of God, even though we must wait a while longer.

4. Death is the Delivery of a Gift

Eph. 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God —  9 not by works, so that no one can boast.

In one sense it is true that we may enjoy eternal life in the here and now, but it is also true that the entire benefits of this gift of God are not realized until we are in his presence. Your mother has received this gift. She knew what it meant to be saved by grace alone apart from works. And now, because of God’s grace, she has received in full the gift that God has promised to all who believe.

Understanding this gift means that we realize that this is not our true life, or final life.  There is something so much greater and so much more significant than the life we now live in the flesh.  There is something beyond the present, so much more important than the present, that what is now is scarcely worthy to be compared with it.  

The present life can be compared to the training ground for eternity.  It is the mere entrance, like a porch on a great mansion.  It is like the preface to a book which contains many chapters.  And while the porch of a mansion might be beautiful, it is vastly inferior to the wonders that lie inside.  The preface of a book gives us some clue as to the author’s purpose, but it is not the important feature.  Both the porch and the preface are insignificant in comparison to that to which they lead.

 In the same way, our life now is so vastly inferior to the life that is to come, that we may rightly say that your mother has entered into the life that God gave her so long ago as a free gift.

Your mother will forever experience the glories of God’s holiness. She will forever enjoy a banquet of pleasures that God has promised are at his right hand. She looks forward to an eternity of blessed contentment and will spend endless hours of unbroken fellowship with the Savior who loved her so much that he died for her.

I know _____, that you have this same hope. And while I have no delusions about the reality of grief, God desires that we do not “grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13) Please be assured that I will continue to pray to this end, just as I prayed for you and your mother these past months.

Mourning and Rejoicing with you,

Bruce

Friday
Aug312012

A Public Response to a Private Letter

Dear ______,

Let me begin by lightening your heart. I assure you there is no problem between us. I haven’t been offended in any way. There is absolutely no damage done to our friendship and relationship in Christ. 

I want to thank you for your email. In fact, I’d like to commend you for even writing in the first place. Most people wouldn’t. To write in such a way as to make yourself vulnerable and open to criticism, all for the sake of harmony in the body, is a bold move. To ask if your actions have offended invites a critical, even hostile, response.

Similarly, to speak in favor of another brother, taking the side of love and assuming the very best of intentions, risks being dragged into a dispute not of your making. For the record, I am aware of no issues between myself and the brother you mention. Still, you had no way of knowing that. 

People are unpredictable. And since all people have had their lives ravaged by sin, that volatility all too often expresses itself in bitterness, malice, and hostility. Everyone has experienced, at one time or another, shock and bewilderment as rancor and venom spew from the lips of those we considered friends over some completely unintended word or slight. Sometimes we are able to repair the damage done, but all too often we cannot. The hopelessness, the feeling of loss at such times is overpowering. 

On the other hand, it seems more common for people to take offense at some snub (real or imagined) but never let you know. Oh, over time you notice a difference in the relationship. The warm camaraderie that was previously enjoyed is now merely a cordial exterior. There is always some reason why the invitation to spend time together is not accepted. The friendly slap on the back eventually turns to a cold shoulder. When you begin to search for the basis of the change you are assured there is nothing wrong or (more likely) that they don’t want to talk about it.

In the very worst cases you later learn from a mutual “friend” the real problem. You discover that many others know as well. Enough time has passed that hurt feelings have hardened into permanent resentment. As the story has gotten round (each time worse in the telling), your reputation is damaged, your character besmirched, your good name slandered.

And the real tradgedy is that all of this is avoidable. If people…if believers……if brothers and sisters in Christ would simply love more, repent quickly, forgive freely, be tender always, the shambles that exist in so many churches would be gone. To be more explicit, if more people would reach out in love early, at the first hint of trouble, and seek reconciliation (as you have done) then Jesus’ prediction would be a reality (John 13:35).

Oh to be certain, such a loving response is not really optional. We are commanded to reconcile with each other. In fact according to Jesus, being reconciled to a brother is more important than worship (Matt 5:23). But few in the body seem to take that seriously. 

I’m thankful you’re one of the few.

With much gratitude and tender affection in Christ,

Bruce