An Exemplary Response To Suffering

Nehemiah - PraysNehemiah was cupbearer to the King of Persia, living 800 miles from Jerusalem, when he received the grim report that the most precious icons and monuments of his homeland had been destroyed. Undoubtedly, friends and family of Nehemiah were casualties of the attack that destroyed Jerusalem.

It is difficult to measure precisely what Nehemiah lost when the city of his homeland was destroyed, but we can safely conclude that the loss was profound, and his pain, acute.

Nehemiah handles this tragic news in a manner that is both balanced and inspiring. For this reason, I commend the example of Nehemiah to all who suffer today. Whether we face the challenge of a personal illness, the anguish of a strained or severed personal relationship, or whether we feel the burden of a loved one’s pain, Nehemiah’s example can help our response to suffering.

Looking to the book that bears his name, from 1:1 to 2:8, Nehemiah models a three-pronged response to suffering:

1) Grief

2) Prayer

3) Action

We read about Nehemiah’s initial response to the tragic news in 1:4, “I sat down and wept and mourned for days.

Nehemiah is not in denial about his pain. Friends are dead. Things that were important to him have been completely destroyed. Nehemiah hurts badly. I think it is normal, natural, and even helpful, that before doing anything else Nehemiah grieves.

Nehemiah did not unduly linger in his grief, but rather, he eventually transitions into a time of prayer and fasting (1:4-1:11). Chapter 2 begins, three months after receiving the report, and Nehemiah is still praying. But now, he’s back on duty, serving wine to the king who notices Nehemiah’s somber disposition and asks if he can be of any help.

What follows is inspiring: “Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king” (2:4).

Picture it: Nehemiah is standing before the King of the Persian Empire with cup in hand; he has already admitted to the reader in 2:2 that he “was very much afraid“, and yet he pauses to pray. It was probably not a long prayer; the king probably did not even notice the pause, but it was long enough for Nehemiah to call upon the God of the Universe for help.

Nehemiah demonstrates for us that God was often on his mind, and that no time was the wrong time; no time was too short a time, to pray to the Lord for help.

Nehemiah initially spent much of his time grieving, and then he spent a great deal of time praying, but his response to his suffering did not end here. Nehemiah was poised and prepared for action.

He asks the king for a leave of absence in order to return to Jerusalem and personally oversee the rebuilding of the city. The remainder of the book describes Nehemiah’s leadership in the reconstruction of Jerusalem. The improbable rebuild is successful. Suffering gives way to celebration.

We want that, don’t we?

We don’t want to linger in a season of suffering any longer than we need to. Nehemiah shows us the way–He shows us a balanced way. We grieve. We pray. And then we go out and do something about our situation. Having prayed, we act in anticipation of God acting on our behalf.

Are you presently suffering in some way? Are you facing a daunting challenge? I urge you then, let Nehemiah show the way–let Nehemiah serve as your exemplary response to suffering.

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“Nehemiah: Passion For Change”, based on Nehemiah 1:1-2:8, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, June 19, 2011.

10 Books That Changed My Life

Christian Theology WorksDuring my years at Ridley College, and during my time at the University of Western Ontario (beginning as an English major), I had the opportunity to read a wide variety of excellent novels. Particularly memorable were Wuthering Heights, To Kill A Mockingbird, Gulliver’s Travels, 1984, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Frankenstein (I had a Sci-Fi bent). As good as these books were, none of them changed me.

As I set out below the 10 Christian books which did have a profound affect upon me, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that all “Christian” books transform and all “secular” books fail to transform. I don’t subscribe to that. I love how science fiction books stretch my imagination and challenge me to think outside of the box. I have read “secular” books that have elicited powerful emotions from me. I have also read Christian books that were a complete bore, and some which were utter nonsense. But, at the end of the day, as I consider the books (outside of the Bible) which had the biggest impact on me, it was this group of 10–all of which happened to be written for the benefit of followers of Jesus.

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My good friend, Brian K. Smith, introduced me to this book, and John MacArthur, in 1991 when I was a freshman in University. Having become a Christian as a teenager, I struggled to live that out consistently. This book challenged me by sensibly laying out what Jesus requires from His followers. Having understood that Jesus was my Saviour from sin, this book cemented in my mind the necessity of Jesus also being my Lord and Master. My Christian walk has never been the same after reading this compelling book.

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Before I even knew what an Arminian was, I was one. I imagined that I was the master of my own destiny. I reckoned that the faith I had in Jesus originated with me. It was again during my University (undergrad) years when a friend’s father encouraged me to read this book. I might say that Pink’s book was the sandpaper that prepared the surface of my heart so that the doctrines of grace and God’s sovereignty (as revealed in the Scriptures) might stick. Pink boldly lays before the reader two alternatives: “God must either rule, or be ruled; sway, or be swayed; accomplish His will, or be thwarted by His creatures.”

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I am certain that during my undergrad years of University I read more Christian theology / lifestyle books than I did University textbooks. Jerry Bridges’ book was one that I read a couple of times during those years. I had been lukewarm in my faith for too long. The gap between what I believed and how I behaved was too big. Bridge’s book set me on the path to pursuing holiness. To keep this from becoming a legalistic pursuit, I strongly recommend following this work with Bridge’s Transforming Grace, which I read in 1993.

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If there was ever a book that I wished I had read before graduating from seminary, it is this one. It wasn’t until I was in my second charge as a Presbyterian Pastor that I was introduced to this excellent work. Recommended to me at a conference at Alistair Begg’s church, Lectures To My Students helped me to recalibrate my personal walk with Christ in a way that it overflows into the ministry entrusted to me. Before reading this work, I fear that I had compartmentalized my private faith from my public faith. A must read for every pastor and soon-to-be pastor.

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This is another work that I picked up at the recommendation of Alistair Begg. In my mind, this is the best book ever written on preaching. Why do I include it in a list of the books that helped “change my life”? Because one of the strengths of this work is Lloyd-Jones’ understanding that preaching and the preacher can’t be separated. The one inevitably affects the other. One of my favourite quotes from the book: “The preacher’s first, and the most important task is to prepare himself, not his sermon.”

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I think it was 1999 when I first heard John Piper preach at Moody Pastors Conference. I’ll never forget the main point of his message: “Stop serving Jesus…as if He needed you!” Piper was addressing then, and does so thoroughly in this book, our tendency to want to “pay God back” for the grace we receive in Jesus. Piper makes the compelling argument that we cannot live the Christian life today fuelled by yesterday’s grace. We need grace today! Furthermore, we need grace in the future in order to do that which we are called to do.

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Having come to accept the doctrines of grace, as revealed in the Scriptures and explained by the Reformers, what remained for me was to understand how God’s sovereignty affects every aspect of our everyday life in a most positive way. Hearing R.C. Sproul speak on this over a weekend of lectures at a Ligonier Conference in Toronto, and reading this work, hugely advanced my understanding of God’s sovereignty and what it means for Him to work “all things together for good” (Rom. 8:28). One of my favourite quotes from the book: “The Providence of God is our fortress, our shield, and our very great reward. It is what provides courage and perseverance for His saints.”

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The turning point within my first pastoral charge (1998-2002) was hearing Piper preach at Moody, and reading this book. I feel like there is a huge difference between the Bryn MacPhail who pastored and preached before reading this book, and the Bryn MacPhail who has laboured since, guided by the compelling principle that “God is most glorified in me, when I am most satisfied in Him.” Members of my congregation at the time even noted the change in my preaching, which had shifted to a new focus: magnifying the supremacy of Jesus in all things. The other distinguishing mark was learning to labour as a delight rather than as a duty. I imagine that this book makes a lot of Christians’ Top 10 lists.

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I read Crazy Love in 2009, in the final year of my pastoral charge in Toronto. This book challenged and changed me on so many levels I don’t even know where to start. Using this space for any kind of review won’t do this book justice. You’ll have to read it for yourself. Disclaimer: This book will make you squirm. I highly recommend the accompanying video curriculum (which I have done with 4 groups in the last 2 years). Chan has a endearing, sensible, manner to him which helps immensely as he lays out some intense biblical principles for us to apply. One of my favourite quotes from the book: “God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. He calls us to trust Him so completely that we are unafraid to put ourselves in situations where we will be in trouble if He doesn’t come through.”

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I was 19 years old when I first read the Institutes. If that sounds young, remember that Calvin wrote the first edition of the Institutes in his mid 20s! I confess to first reading Calvin in order to understand this mysterious doctrine of election. It’s as if I went mining for one gem, but found a myriad of gems. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once described preaching as “logic on fire”–that is exactly how I would describe Calvin’s work in the Institutes. To reduce the Institutes to a treatise on election is to entirely miss the boat. Nowhere else have I found such a rich Christology, such a profound description of the majesty of God, and such a compelling description of how the church should conduct itself. For a book loaded with complex theological statements, one of my favourite quotes from the Institutes is beautifully simple: “Whatever we need and whatever we lack is in God.”


Afraid and Powerless

I suspect that you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would tell you that being afraid and powerless is a good thing, and yet that is exactly what I want to suggest to you with this post. I observe as a general principle that the God of the Bible is in the habit of helping those whose predicament is dire and whose personal resources are inadequate to meet the challenges before them.

It’s possible that your Sunday School teacher taught you that “God helps those who help themselves”, but that’s not something you’ll find in the Bible. What you’ll find instead is a God who helps the helpless.

We see this principle in play with the example of King Jehoshaphat, who was on the brink of war with three nations who wanted to push Judah into extinction. When Jehoshaphat learned of this threat, the author of 2Chronicles records that “Jehoshaphat was afraid” (2Chr. 20:3).

Is it not true that the thing most likely to drive us to our knees in prayer is fear?

When the waters of life are calm, when the tasks of life appear manageable, we will likely admit that our motivation to call upon the Lord is diminished. But when the storm clouds gather, when the obstacles before us appear insurmountable, people of faith are irresistibly drawn to God in prayer.

This was the response of the king of Judah: “Jehoshaphat was afraid and (so) he turned his attention to seek the Lord; and proclaimed a fast throughout Judah” (2Chr. 20:4).

There is much we can unpack from Jehoshaphat’s prayer, and for that you can listen to the audio message posted at the bottom of this article. But for me, what stands out is Jehoshaphat’s posture before God. The godly, wealthy, and influential King of Judah confesses to the Lord, “We are powerless before this great multitude who are coming against us; nor do we know what to do” (2Chr. 20:12).

On the surface, this example of a nervous king confessing powerlessness is not all that inspiring. And then we read on and see that the Lord answers Jehoshaphat’s prayer and decisively delivers him and the people of Judah from their enemies.

I am left with no other conclusion but to say that Jehoshaphat’s posture of weakness is the key to his ultimate success.

Jehoshaphat’s predicament couldn’t have been more dire. He couldn’t have been more needy. Overmatched. Afraid. Powerless. Unsure of what to do. But Jehoshaphat has the humility and the wisdom to call out to the One who is never overmatched and always knows what to do.

Admittedly, our adversity is of an altogether different nature. For some, our faith in God’s goodness is rattled by the threat of a deadly disease or a nagging physical ailment. For others, our faith is challenged when a relationship with a loved one is strained or severed. And still others, perhaps many of us, find that our faith wanes as we allow Christian priorities to be squeezed out by worldly temptations and career-building ambition.

As I consider the myriad of enemies to the Christian faith, I conclude, as Jehoshaphat did, that I am powerless against them.

But the good news is that God stands ready to help. As He says through the Psalmist, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; (and) I will deliver you, and you will honour Me” (Ps. 50:15).

This was Jehoshaphat’s experience, but it can also be your experience. Call upon the Lord, and find your strength in Him.

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“Jehoshaphat: Passion For Power”, based on 2Chronicles 20:1-13, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, June 12, 2011.

Pray Like Jabez

PrayingVery few people had even heard of Jabez until the release of Bruce Wilkinson’s best selling book from 2000, “The Prayer of Jabez“. Everything we know about Jabez comes from two verses tucked between lengthy genealogical tables within the not often studied book of 1Chronicles.

We are told that Jabez “was more honourable than his brothers” and that his name means “pain” because his mother gave birth to him in pain. We have his four petition prayer, God’s reply, and that’s it. That’s everything we know about Jabez.

The prayer itself is quite short, and my suspicion is that our interest in this prayer has a great deal to do with the statement which immediately follows it: “God granted (Jabez) what he requested.

We read that, and the logical train we create looks something like this:

  • Jabez made some petitions to God in prayer.
  • God gave Jabez what he asked for.
  • If we make the same petitions as Jabez, then God will give us what we ask for.

While the logic of that seems rather tidy, I would submit that we will be quickly tripped up if we don’t have a good handle on what Jabez’s petitions are precisely asking for, and an equally good handle on the purposes (end game) for which he makes these petitions.

This past Sunday, I unpacked the prayer of Jabez in a message entitled, “Jabez: Passion For Blessing“. You can listen to the entire message (audio below), but my conclusion was this: What Jabez wanted for himself was precisely what God wanted for Jabez. And this is why God granted him what he requested.

It’s not the case that God is like a cosmic vending machine, and if we put in the correct configuration of prayer change then we get what we want–it’s not that at all! I would argue that one of the primary aims of prayer is to bridge the gap between what we want and what God wants, until it comes to be that we want the same thing.

I regard Jabez to have wanted what God wanted. He reflected that in his prayer, and his requests were granted. It is in this sense that I encourage you: Pray like Jabez.

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“Jabez: Passion For Blessing”, based on 1Chronicles 4:9,10, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, June 5, 2011.

My 1st Nassau-versary

Nassau AnniversaryMy wife and I have been feeling quite sentimental the last few days as we consider all that has transpired in the past year. You see, today is our 1st “Nassau-versary”—one year ago today we moved from Toronto, Canada to Nassau, Bahamas.

I shared many of the details related to this transition in a post written in March 2010. This current post is intended as a kind of “Year in Review” that affords me the opportunity to say “Thank you” to those who have helped us along the way.

I’m inclined to keep this post brief having read this morning my wife’s reflection on our transition and believing that she has conveyed better than I  how we currently feel.

One year later, we feel at home.

The transition shouldn’t have been so smooth. None of us had ever lived outside of Ontario. The differences between Nassau and Toronto are too numerous to list. We left behind family, friends, and familiar culture. I left behind, not only a congregation, but a denomination. My wife gave up her Marriage and Therapy practice and transitioned with no guarantee of being able to establish a similar practice here. My 8 year-old daughter left behind the only home she has ever known and all that was to connected to it.

Somehow, in spite of these drastic changes, one year later, we feel at home.

There are many who deserve credit for this. I immediately think of my new congregation, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk. The people have been exceedingly kind toward me and my family. I am acutely aware of my flaws and my shortcomings as a pastor, and yet these shortcomings have been continually met by grace.

As I consider all of the Sessions I have worked with as a Moderator and Interim Moderator, I can say that my experience has always been largely positive. It has only been a year, but I am proud to say that my interaction with the Kirk Session here has been entirely positive. At our last meeting I explained why I hadn’t suggested that we have a Session retreat this year. My feeling was that every meeting felt like a Session retreat. I am so grateful for that.

Many Kirk members have offered hospitality to our family–taking us out for lunch, or having us over for dinner. This may be something that can be anticipated in most congregations, but it is something that I refuse to take for granted. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.

There is always a danger in naming individuals while attempting to say thank you to a group, but I must. Two individuals have gone above and beyond what you might expect from any church leader. Earla Bethel and Robin Brownrigg, by every appearance, have made it their mission to help the MacPhails adapt, settle, and thrive in this new environment. I will forever remember and give thanks for their kindness to my family.

Above all else, I thank the Lord for His sovereign mercy in my life. He has controlled and managed the things that I could not. He has kept congregational conflict at bay. He has shown Himself faithful in so many ways.

I suspect that many people read a passage like Jeremiah 29:11ff and think, “I hope that holds true for me.”  It delights me to say that I have experienced the fulfillment of this promise in my transition here:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Grateful seems like too small a word to convey how I feel today on my Nassau-versary. I say that I feel at home, but I am quite open to the possibility that this might just be home.