Intimations of Mortality

I am not sure why, but the words to a famous nineteenth-century hymn have been spinning around in my head for several days.

“When ends life’s transient dream/ when death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;/ blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;/ O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!” (“My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” by Ray Palmer)

I have been asking myself, “Why this sudden preoccupation with death? Where is this coming from?”

Maybe it is the repeated images on TV news: hospital ICUs crowded again with patients struggling against the resurgence of COVID-19 and the daily reports of the number of COVID-related deaths.

It may be the recent death of the young son of a friend of mine who died under tragic circumstances. His passing has been on my mind a lot as I have prayed for his family in their anguish.

Or it may be because I just had my 75th birthday and I realize the distance to the finish line is getting closer by the day.

I rather think it is because I have been studying the book of Ecclesiastes. One of the persistent themes in this ancient book is the fact that life is short and death is inevitable. This is not a morbid thought. Nor is it pessimistic. It is realistic. It is the inspired wisdom of God.

The writer says: “So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny — the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them. . . . The same destiny overtakes all . . . and afterward they join the dead. . . . For the living know that they will die” (Ecclesiastes 9:1-6).

This is, of course, the language of appearance. It is how things seem to be to limited human experience. The author of Ecclesiastes is not commenting on life after death. For the exposition of that glorious theme we must fast forward to the New Testament. Here he is taking a somber look at life “under the sun.” In a hundred years the majority of us will have been forgotten (v.5).

What happens at the time of death is worth pondering. The writer asks, “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward, and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth”(Ecclesiastes 3:21)? On our own we cannot know. Yes, God has put “eternity in our hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). This is the universal hope for immortality. But who can know apart from a revelation from God?

The writer of Ecclesiastes answers his own question: “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to the God who gave it” (12:7). This is an intimation, a hint of continued existence with God after death. These words of wisdom were “given by one Shepherd” (12:11). The writer is conscious that he was inspired by God to write about the destiny of the sprit of believers at death. “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23:1).

Ecclesiastes says the prospect of death produces one of two responses. On the one hand there are those who say, “Let us eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” On the other hand there are those who “fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it be good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

The book of Ecclesiastes  teaches us to live life to the fullest as long as we have life, to enjoy it while we can. “Go, eat your food with gladness and drink your wine with a joyful heart for God has already approved what you do” (9:7). This life-affirming word is a reminder that the blessings of life are to be enjoyed as gifts from God: food and drink, love and marriage, vocation and purpose (vv. 8-10). We should not let the fear of death hover over us like a dreaded specter.

Those who are in Christ can look death in the eye without fear. Jesus takes away the fear of death because he has broken the power of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).

I have attended several funerals lately. Every funeral I attend is a reminder of my own mortality. But my faith is in Jesus the Savior. So, I can be sure that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Life “Under the Sun”

I have been studying the book of Ecclesiastes. The English title of the book is derived from its anonymous author (Solomon?) who calls himself a qoheleth, or teacher of an assembly. Thus, the translators of the Greek version  of the book gave it the title Ecclesiastes which is derived from the word “assembly.”

The book is enigmatic because it is a collection of observations about life on earth “under the sun,” which apart from God, appears “meaningless,” or futile and empty. Yet the author recommends the enjoyment of life’s opportunities and pleasures, because life is the gift of God.

The tone of the book is sometimes dark and pessimistic. It is as if the author is saying to the unbeliever, “So you want a life without God? Okay then, grab all the gusto you can, while you can, because death is inevitable and life is meaningless anyway.”

At the same time, he is saying to the open minded inquirer, as well as to the true believer, “Remember your Creator and live life in obedience to him” (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 13-14).

In fact, whether a person is a believer or not, the book is an invitation to take an objective look at the obvious futility, injustice, and disappointments that come to everybody living “under the sun.” This phrase is repeated throughout the book as a figure of speech denoting the limits of life in an imperfect world.

The author of Ecclesiastes makes use of poetry, proverbs, and parables to illustrate his point. An example of this is the little parable in Ecclesiastes 9: 13-18. “I saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it and built huge siege works against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than strength.’ But the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are no longer heeded.”

That is how it is in this imperfect world. The little man’s wisdom saved the town. But no one expressed appreciation. There was no citation, no medal, no appointment to a position of honor in government. He was forgotten. The town ignored him and moved on.

In the news reports that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks there appeared a story that shook me. I was saddened to learn that one of the terrorists who flew a passenger jet into the Pentagon in Washington twenty years ago had taken flying lessons at an aviation school in Arizona. The manager of the flight school had reported concerns three times about the man to the FAA. Nothing was done. Her wise warnings could have saved lives, but her cautionary words went unheeded, with disastrous results.

This is not always the way things turn out, but it shows how things can be in an imperfect world. Life “under the sun” has both sorrows and blessings for both believers and unbelievers.

The book of Ecclesiastes does not tell the entire story or complete the narrative of life. There is another, bigger perspective. Derek Kidner quipped, “Ecclesiastes asks the questions. Christ is the answer.” He was right. Believers do not look only at life “under the sun.” Believers follow Paul’s suggestion in Colossians 3:1. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Be a Friend

I read about a man whose lawnmower had broken down. He struggled for a long time to get it running. Nothing worked. His neighbor appeared unexpectedly with a handful of tools.

“May I help?” he asked. In twenty minutes he had the mower functioning beautifully.

“Thanks a million,” the man said. “Say, what do you do with all those tools?”

“I make friends,” he answered. “Call me anytime.”

Making friends is a great way to share our faith. In today’s world it may be the best way. After all, how much attention do we pay to addressed-to-occupant junk mail or to bumper stickers about Jesus? How do we react when strangers show up at the door uninvited?

Real friendship is different. By building friendships we build trust. When people trust us, we can freely talk about what’s important in our lives.

Summertime is an opportunity to make new friends. We see our neighbors out-of-doors. We can fire up the grill and invite them over for burgers. Or invite them for a walk in the neighborhood. Or a round of golf. Or a Labor Day block party. Or PTA back-to-school events.

I once heard Howard Hendricks say, “I’ve never found a verse of scripture that tells unbelievers to go to church. But I have found lots of verses that tell Christians to penetrate the world.”

He quoted pollster George Gallup as saying, “Never before in the history of the United States has the gospel of Jesus Christ been professed by so many while at the same time making so little impact upon society.”

If we who follow Jesus will simply do what he told us to do and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we can make a difference in society, and for eternity. The key is friendship, building relationships of trust.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Communion Does More Than We Realize

One of the things Connie and I appreciate about the church we attend is that we get to receive the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. It never gets old. It does not devolve into an empty routine. We are glad for the fellowship of the local church in the expression of our common faith.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The Lord’s Supper confers bodily fellowship and communion with the Body of the Lord whom we receive, and through it the bodily fellowship with the other members of his Body.” Christians of all denominations the world over meet around the Lord’s table in remembrance of his sacrifice for our sins.

I read about a church leader whose ministry took him around the world. He said he received Holy Communion three Sundays, one after the other, on three continents — Australia, Asia, and Europe.

“The first service was a Methodist one held in a cinema in Sydney, Australia. The second service was in the historic Carey Memorial Baptist Church in Calcutta, India. The third was in the glorious Anglican sanctuary of Westminster Abbey in London, England. … I was equally at home in each of these services, in spite of differences in tradition and distance.”

The famous British evangelist George Whitfield testified to the same sentiment. In America he sought the opportunity to worship and observe communion with evangelical Presbyterian, Baptist, and independent churches. He did this because in some of the churches of his own denomination, “Jesus Christ was not preached in the church.” He enjoyed sharing communion with brothers and sisters in Christ of other traditions because of their common faith in the gospel.

The Lord Jesus established the Supper to remind us of his sacrifice for us. His apostles knew he wanted his people to come together for this purpose on a regular basis. This is because the Lord’s supper is effective. It does something. We come together for thanksgiving, for confession,  for renewal of our faith, for restored relationships and for remembrance. More than anything, we come to the Table to meet God, to receive his love and forgiveness. In prayer we come to God. In the Lord’s Supper he comes to us.

Thomas a Kempis said, “In this Holy Sacrament God can do more than we can understand.”

What does it do? Communion pulls us, however reluctant we may be, out of our selfish individualism and isolation. It draws us into the awareness that as believers in Jesus, we are part of his spiritual Body, symbolized by the “one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:15-17).

It brings us back to the cross, reminding us of of the sacrifice that redeemed us. I think this is what it means to “discern” the Lord’s physical body (1 Corinthians 11:29). To discern is to recognize and to remember.  “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

To whom do we proclaim it? To ourselves, to each other, and to the world. And, I might add, to the invisible realm of angels and evil spirits, we proclaim the Lord’s victory over evil and death itself.

So, it is really important that Christians meet regularly to observe communion. How regularly? The Bible gives no explicit instructions about that. But I am glad Connie and I get to do it every week.

Pastor Randy Faulkner


The American Flag and Christian Faith

Many American houses of worship proudly post our nation’s flag. We place the American flag in our churches out of respect for our national ideals. We do this to encourage prayers for the nation and its leaders. We do this for the same reasons citizens of other nations have the flags of their countries in their churches.

It is not because we believe America is or should be a theocracy. It is not because we believe America is a covenant nation the way ancient Israel was. In fact, Christians hold dual citizenship, and our primary loyalty is to God’s kingdom. Philippians 3:20 says, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Most churches have two flags, the American flag, and the Christian flag. This does not mean that we think that our earthly citizenship is as important to us as our heavenly citizenship, or that the two are equal. They are not equal.

On this weekend in which we celebrate our nation’s independence, we are praying for our nation with gratitude for our liberties. Liberty depends on the ability of citizens to govern themselves. Self-government depends on an informed and intelligent electorate. For that to be true we need good schools that teach civic responsibility. We need a free press that shines the light of truth into hidden places and holds leaders accountable for their decisions and actions.

Most of all we need healthy churches that will produce citizens of a strong moral character whose lives are shaped by the gospel of Christ. What is the church’s role in helping to encourage an informed and intelligent electorate? It is to produce a biblically informed and intelligent electorate.

It is not to tell its members who to vote for. It is not to be aligned with any political party. It is not to assume that to be an American is to be a Christian. Theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote, “We must not confuse the kingdom of God with our country. To put it another way, we should not wrap Christianity in our national flag.”

If there are American flags in our church sanctuaries, let it be for the reasons we find in Romans 13:1-7, where Paul wrote about the Christian’s relationship to the state. There he stated his belief in the sovereignty of God. “There is no authority except that which God has established” (v. 1). God rules. All powers, governments, and human authorities are subject to God whether they know it or not.

At his trial, Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “You would have no authority over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar was humbled and forced to acknowledge that “the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whom He wishes” (Daniel 4:3, 17).

Romans 13 goes further and states that God has authorized human government as an institution. God established the family as the foundation of society. God established the church to proclaim his truth in the world. And God established human government to create an orderly society where the family and the church can flourish in freedom.

Thus we are commanded to submit to the lawful authority of government and to do what is morally right. We should be respectful of the God-given authority of those who serve in government and pray for them, whether we personally like them or not. We know from scripture how a sovereign God can and does work his will through leaders who do not acknowledge him.

The ideal that Paul sets forth in Romans 13 is that the proper role of government is to commend and approve good behavior (for public safety and peace) and to punish wrongdoers. Governments and their leaders do not always get this right. Sometimes unjust rulers arise and impose unjust laws and tactics of oppression. The question arises, “Are we to obey laws that violate our consciences and contradict God’s word?”

The answer is an emphatic, “No!” Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s law, then civil disobedience becomes our duty. This is borne out in several examples from scripture. Think of the early apostles who refused the order to stop preaching in the name of Jesus: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

But the basic principle stands: There are duties of citizenship which Christians are to observe as matters of conscience. Some of these duties are enumerated in Romans 13: 5-7. These include obeying the law, paying taxes, and respecting the authorities. To these are added the duty to pray for our governmental leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

Several years ago my wife and I were worshipping with a congregation in her hometown in Southwestern Virginia. It was a Sunday morning which happened to be the fourth of July. On Independence Day, the people of that church honored America by spending an extended time in prayer for our nation and its leaders, asking God to heal our land.

There was an American flag displayed in its usual place in that small church sanctuary. But the people were not worshipping the flag. Their primary allegiance was not to Americanism. They were worshipping the sovereign God, the ruler of all nations, and Jesus Christ, the King of kings.

I was deeply impressed by the sincerity and honest faith of those prayers. I was reminded that it is just such humble dependency on God that is our nation’s greatest strength. I thought to myself, “This is truly the hope of America.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner