A Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod, Part 1

I have begun reading the classic Christian treatise by Thomas Brooks, The Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod. It is a wonderful little volume on how the Christian should react to trials and suffering.

In the coming days, I will attempt to summarize it, with lots of quotes from Brooks. It is my hope that it will be as much a blessing and help to you as it has been to me.

As you will see shortly, Brooks was a typical Puritan writer in that he makes lots of prefaces in this writing. The Puritans did not want to leave any stone unturned, or leave anything out in their explanations.

With that in mind, I have two prefaces of my own: First, I strive to put quotations from the book into modern English for the benefit of the modern reader.

Second, I quote Brooks in many places so that you will get a feel for his writing. However, there are so many good quotations, I will actually have left some out. But that’s okay—if reading this spurs you to get your own copy of A Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod, all the better!

“[I]t is mercy, it is rich mercy, that every affliction is not an execution, that every correction is not a damnation. The higher the waters rise, the nearer Noah’s ark was lifted up to heaven; the more your afflictions are increased, the more your heart shall be raised heavenward.”

So writes Brooks in his preface. In the first part, he gives eight reasons why he put this work into writing. Secondly, he provides six points of counsel for his readers that “the following tract may turn to your soul’s advantage.”

Brooks’ reasons for writing:

  1. “The affecting hand of God has been hard upon myself , and upon my dearest relations in this world, and upon many of my precious Christian friends…which put me upon studying the mind of God” on this subject.

2. He wanted to provide the world what the Bible says about suffering long after he would be gone: “What is written is permanent…and spreads itself further by far, for time, place, and persons, than the voice can reach.”

“The pen is a kin of image of eternity; it will make a man live when he is dead, Heb. 11:4.”

“A man’s writings may preach when he cannot when he may not, and when, by reason of bodily distempers, he dares not.”

3. While preaching is useful, “Few many, if any, have iron memories. How soon is a sermon preached forgotten, when a sermon written remains!”

4. It is suitable and useful for Christians have are going through “these great turns and changes that have passed upon us.”

5. Since the Lord had blessed Brooks’ other writings, he decided to write this work as well: “God is a free agent to work by what hand he pleases; and sometimes he takes pleasure to do great things by weak means, that ‘no flesh may glory in his presence.”

6. He wanted to provide a “proper salve” for hurting Christians: “As every good man, so every good book is not fit to be the afflicted man’s companion; but this is.”

7. He wrote this for the aid of some friends. On this point, Brooks goes on to discuss the wonderful value of friendship.

8. Brooks was unaware of other Christians authors who had handled this subject.

II. Brooks’ Counsel to his readers

  1. As you read this, look to God to bless it: “Paul may plant, and Apollos may water,” but all will be to no purpose, “except the Lord give the increase” (1 Cor. 1:6-7).

2. Brooks encourages his reader to meditate upon what they read: “Meditation is the food of your souls, it is the very stomach and natural heat whereby spiritual truths are digested.”

“They usually thrive best who meditate most. Meditation is a soul-fattening duty; it is a grace-strengthening duty.”

3. Read with a Berean spirit (Acts 17:10-11). That is to say, see that what he writes is consistent with the Scriptures.

4. Put what you read into practice.

5. Apply what is here. “all the reading in the world will never make for the health of your souls except you apply what you read.”

6. Read and pray. “He that makes not conscience of praying over what he reads, will find little sweetness or profit in his reading.”

With these prefaces in mind, let us get into the text!


Does Starbucks Have Christians Seeing Red?

Does Starbucks have Christians seeing red?

Judging by the mainstream media, the answer is yes. This controversy has already been covered by the likes of CNBC, The Chicago Tribune, Us Magazine, CNN, ABC News, and many others.

In past years, the coffee company has brought out red coffee cups with various Christmas themes at this time of year, featuring Christmas trees, deer, snowflakes, and the like.

But this time, Starbucks has decided to jettison these designs, and just go with a basic red cup. And to hear the media reaction, Christians across the nation our outraged about this.

Why all this fuss over a red cup? When I first heard about this alleged outrage, it didn’t quite pass the smell test. And so, I wondered which Christian leader(s) are spearheading this controversy. Was it Billy Graham, or his son Franklin? Nope.

The Family Research Council? Nope.

The American Family Association? Nothing about red ups on their website.

Albert Mohler? Not him.

Fox News? All I could find was a commentary decrying that anyone is making such a big deal about this.

So then, what is the source of this controversy? All of the stories above only mentioned one name: Joshua Feuerstein.

My first reaction: Who?

His website describes his as “an American evangelist, internet and social media personality.” However, Feuerstein also holds to the heresy of one-ness Pentecostalism, thus denying the deity of Christ. Therefore, to suggest that he is a leader of the Christian Right or whomever is a stretch.

But here’s where the controversy comes in: Feuerstein recently declared on a Facebook post, “Starbucks removed Christmas from their cups because they hate Jesus.”

Really? I was not aware that Joshua Feuerstein was such a recognized leader of the Christian Right. Nor did I realize that the removal of reindeer, Christmas trees, and elves from the cups of a company that sells $5 coffees constitutes anti-Christian bigotry.

Here’s the bottom line: this is a tempest in a tea-pot; a manufactured crisis, if you will. With the exceptions of one online media personality and his followers, and maybe Donald Trump, almost nobody outside of some media outlets trying to drum up newspaper sales, Internet click-bait, and TV ratings really cares.

As for me, I am infinitely more concerned about Christians being persecuted in the Middle East, abortion, evangelism, the state of the American Church, and other issues than I am about whether a coffee company puts Christmas trees and reindeer on its coffee cups.

Book Review: From the Mouth of God by Sinclair Ferguson

What is the Bible? Where did it come from? How can you know for certain that it’s God’s Word, exactly as He intended to give it to us? How should you go about reading it? And, what are some of the mistakes you should avoid when doing so?

Sinclair Ferguson very capably answers these questions in his new volume, From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading, and Applying the Bible.

Written with the layperson in mind, this work is vintage Ferguson–that is to say, it is simultaneously easy to read, and yet displays great theological depth and knowledge of the subject matter.

Ferguson begins with the concept of revelation, how it is that we can know about God, and what He expects from us. In this, he demonstrates that while God’s revelation of Himself to us in creation is sufficient to reveal Himself to us (i.e., general revelation), it is not sufficient to tell us what we need to know for life and salvation. Therefore, Ferguson explains that God worked through human authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to give us what we need to know about Him (i.e., special revelation).

Following an easy to understand chapter on canonicity, Ferguson then takes his readers through all of the topics relevant to studying God’s Word, including revelation, the various genres of the Bible, and how to read them.

On this last point, Ferguson demonstrates how to read God’s Word from a Christ-centered perspective. He shows how the different parts of the Old Testament point to and find their fulfillment in Him, offering helpful tools for His readers to do this. And it’s here that From the Mouth of God becomes a hands-on book for the layperson: after teaching his readers how to find Christ in all of Scripture, Ferguson then offers a test case for putting these tools to work by walking his readers through the book of Ruth.

Ferguson also offers some bonuses to his readers in the appendices, via treatises from John Murray and John Newton the guidance of the Holy Spirit and divine guidance.

It is difficult to find a weakness in this volume. The only one this reviewer can find is that if one wishes to go deeper on any of the sub-topics, they will have to look elsewhere (e.g., B.B. Warfield’s classic Inspiration and Authority of the Bible on inspiration, Michael Krugers Canon Revisited for issues related to canonicity, etc.).

That aside, From the Mouth of God is a wonderful introduction to the Bible which can either be read individually or as part of a group. I highly recommend it.

I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Tactics by Gregory Koukl

Have you ever had one of the following encounters?

  • A family member (perhaps even your own child) blurts out in front of a large group of people that they no longer believe in God;
  • An unbelieving co-worker calls you “intolerant” due to your beliefs about God, abortion, and/or gay marriage in front of others;
  • In witnessing to a stranger, you are asked, “How could you believe in fairy tales? Everybody knows that Christianity has been disproven.”
  • Someone challenges you on a divisive issue at a church gathering, daring you to defend a controversial belief while constantly cutting you off mid-sentence.

Were you rendered speechless, wondering what to say? Or looking back, do you realize that you were more stridently combative than you should have been?

Most of us have been there. So if you answered yes to any of the above, then you would benefit greatly from Gregory Koukl’s helpful little book, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions.

The book is divided into two parts. In part one, Koukl, who has his own apologetics radio show and website (see str.org), gives you an easy to follow strategy, modeled after the TV character Columbo. If you will recall, Columbo was a frumpy, slightly clumsy detective who underwhelmed the alleged perpetrators of a crime. But right as it looked like he couldn’t crack a case, he would say, “Oh, wait a minute. There’s one things that’s bothering me.” And then, he would ask a simple yet penetrating question that would usually lead to the guilty party’s confession.

As Koukl applies this method in Tactics, let us suppose an unbeliever makes a statement like, “Of course there is no God.” Instead of getting upset, an appropriate response would be, “Can I ask how you come to that conclusion?” This is effective because most of the time, the person hasn’t thought the issue through completely.

Attached to this, it is imperative to ask follow-up questions that will show the other person where they are in error, or how inconsistent their worldview really is. In using this tactic, Koukl notes, you will have turned the tables on the unbeliever, and so put them on defensive in just seconds.

The second part of Tactics focuses on countering the various tactics of unbelievers. One of these tactics is what Koukl calls the steamroller: the person who uses bullying tactics to win arguments. If you have ever gotten into an argument with someone like this, you know how intimidating they can be.

But Koukl helps his readers to calmly handle them: first, when they interrupt you in the middle of a point you’re making, stop and gently ask them if you can continue. Second, name them. This gets their attention, and more often than not, it lets them know that they have crossed the line and are engaging in rude behavior. Third, if they continue to be belligerent, it is best to just end the conversation there. At this point, they have proven that they are not interested in dialogue; their only goal is to win the argument by force. Therefore, it is simply best to just walk away.

This is but one example of difficult situations Koukl teaches his readers to navigate. As they follow his tactics in each of them, they will find both helpful and edifying.

This is not to say that Tactics is a perfect book. Koukl’s apologetic method has its problems, in that he places reason above the Bible. Additionally, there is not much in the way of facts that the Christian can use, like proofs for Christ’s resurrection or evidence against evolution. Readers will have to look elsewhere for such information.

Those criticism aside, Tactics still has much value for the believer, as Koukl skillfully teaches his readers to respond wisely and calmly to common objections to their faith. While this should not be the only apologetics book in a Christian’s library, it is nonetheless a very helpful volume. I recommend it.

Book Review: Crazy Love by Francis Chan

Have Christians in America “missed it”?

In other words, have we in the land of the free not fully grasped, appreciated, and embraced what it truly means to be followers of Jesus Christ? Francis Chan answers that question with an emphatic “yes” in his bestselling book, Crazy Love. It has caused quite a stir since its release in 2008. Better late than never, I decided to get a copy and read it for myself.

Chan’s critique boils down to this: “The goals of American Christianity are often a nice marriage, kids who don’t swear, and good church attendance.” In other words, not much else besides that. Rather, he sees American Christianity as all form and no substance with little emphasis upon service, especially towards the poor.

In the first two chapters, Chan talks about the greatness of God, and how He is far bigger, more holy, more loving, and more merciful than we realize. He then reminds us how short our lives are when compared to eternity, and hence how little time we have to do good works for God’s kingdom.

Following are the next two chapters, which are by Chan’s own admission the most controversial in the book. Here, he profiles the lukewarm–those who say they are Christians, but the way they live runs counter to their confession of faith.

Chan then describes what true love for God looks like–namely in acts of service towards others, especially those who are less fortunate.

In chapter nine, the author profiles several people who are his ideal–that is to say, they have lived in such a way to demonstrate their radical love for Jesus. And in the final chapter, Chan issues a final challenge to his readers to truly live for Christ.

On the One Hand…

Chan is right that in far too many instances, the lives of churchgoers are little different from their non-churchgoing neighbors, and that there is too little emphasis upon service and humility. He is also right that there is too little contemplation about the greatness of God.

The author also has valid criticisms of American churchgoers, whom he says “feel secure because they attend church, made a profession of faith at age 12, were baptized, come from a Christian family, vote Republican, or live in America. Just as the prophets in the Old Testament warned Israel that they were not safe because they lived in the land of Israel, so we are not safe just because we wear the label Christian or because some people persist in calling us a ‘Christian nation.’”

Chan is also very careful about his motives. He wants it to be clear that he is not attempting to bash Christians. Rather, it is because he loves Christ and His bride, the Church, that he writes what he does.

While Chan does make sweeping statements (more on this later), he tries to note that not everyone is called to the pastorate or mission field. But most importantly, he tries to stress that Christians should be doing more with a right motive: it should not be done out of fear, but out of a deep and heartfelt love for God.

On the Other Hand…

Crazy Love is not without its problems. Others have done a very capable job of probing the deeper theological issues (especially here), so I will limit my criticisms to five points.

1. Chan does not properly contextualize the Scriptures he quotes.

For instance, he quotes Luke 14:12-14 at least twice: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

The clear impression given is that this was a stand-alone command given to all Christians. But the context tells a different story: this is in the midst of a passage where Jesus was invited to dine with the pharisees–and the passage is clear that they had sinful motives which contributed to our Lord’s strong statement. Additionally, Luke 14:12 begins with, “And He said to the man who invited Him…”

In other words, this is a word of admonishment to an individual; since Christ is God, He knows the hearts of men, and so He knew that the host’s motives were not pure. Hence Christ rebuked him, and hence this is not a universal command to all believers.

Of course, this is not to say that this passage has no bearing on our lives; it is in the Bible, and so it certainly has much to teach us about proper motives for giving and generosity. But as with any passage of Scripture, it is critical to teach what it is saying without divorcing it from its original context.

Chan also makes the very common mistake of using Christ’s confrontation with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:21-25) as a proof-text for professing Christians who don’t serve others. In using this text, Chan commits a very common mistake: he assumes it’s teaching something that it’s not–i.e., that a rich man selling all that he has and giving it to the poor is in some sense a prerequisite to eternal life; rather, Jesus is confronting this man who had just said that he had kept all of God’s commands from his youth. When he walked away from Jesus’ challenge to give away all he had to the poor, he showed demonstrably that he could not even keep the First Commandment.

As the saying goes, a text without a context is a pretext. In other words, if you wrench a verse out of its original setting, as Chan does quite often, you can make the text say whatever you want it to. In quoting these and other verses out of context, the author places unnecessary guilt on the backs of his readers.

2. In his chapter on “Profile of the Lukewarm,” Chan makes some troubling, contradictory, and/or sweeping statements, and he uses some questionable teaching methods. Chan quotes Revelation 3:15-18: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.”

Chan is emphatic that Christ is speaking exclusively to unbelievers; and given the above description, he may be correct that there were many in the Laodicean Church. However, he neglects to mention the very next verse, 19: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” In omitting this verse, Chan ignores a very crucial piece of evidence that Christ is also speaking to believers. This is so because verse 19 is consistent with Hebrews 12 and Proverbs 3, both of which speak of God’s loving discipline towards His children.

So then, perhaps this verse is speaking not just to unbelievers, but also to believers who have gotten stagnant. This would make sense, as we are going to find both in any local church.

But Chan will not acknowledge this. Instead, he offers the following explanation for why he comes to such an abrupt conclusion: “In an earlier draft of this chapter, I quoted several commentators who agreed with my point of view. But we all know that you can find quotes to support any view you want to take. You can even tweak word studies in your effort. I’m not against scholarship, but I do believe there are times when we can come to more accurate conclusions through simple reading.”

Setting aside his shallow caricature of scholarship, why does that “simple reading” not include Revelation 3:19?

To be clear, Chan may well be right about the state of Christ’s audience. But as a pastor, Chan is required to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), and patiently walk his reader through the passage, which he does not do.

He continues: “Rather than examining a verse and dissecting it, I chose to peruse one Gospel in each sitting…I attempted to do so from the perspective of a twelve-year-old who knew nothing about Jesus. I wanted to discover what reasonable conclusions a person would come to while objectively reading the Gospels for the first time.”

Granted, there is something to be said for the simple reading of the Bible. But a book targeted at a popular audience is not the place to do it.It’s obvious why: the author has no way of knowing how much, or if any, theological training his readers have had. Therefore, he should examine and dissect verses since he is purporting to teach what the Bible says on a vitally important topic.

Chan also makes sweeping statements about those whom he considers to be lukewarm. There are many examples that I could point to from Crazy Love, but I will limit it to two.

In one place, he states, “Lukewarm people will serve God and others, but there are limits to how far they will go or how much time, money, and energy they are willing to give.”

Never mind, apparently, that some people have busy schedules; perhaps some parents have to work two jobs to make ends meet, have small children to tend to, or have to care for a sick relative or a special-needs child, and so are only capable of committing so much time, money, and energy.

In another place, Chan declares, “Lukewarm people do not live by faith; their lives are structured so they do not have to. They don’t have to trust God if something unexpected happens–they have their savings account. They don’t need God to help them–they have their retirement account in place…They don’t depend on God on a daily basis–their refrigerators are full and, for the most part, they are in good health.”

If this statement isn’t legalism (and assuming that this is not merely a sarcastic comment which should have been edited out of the final manuscript), it comes perilously close to it. Why is it his business if people have a saving or retirement account, or even a full refrigerator? While we should heed Luke 12:16-21 (Chan’s proof-text), we should also heed 1 Timothy 5:8, which says that one who does not provide for his own “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

While Chan is correct that Christians should be more giving of their time and resources, that does not mean that they shouldn’t save ahead for their future. Having a savings or retirement account does not mean lack of trust in God–rather, it is part of caring for one’s family, and easing the burden on one’s children when one gets older.

Simply stated, giving to the poor and saving for the future need not be an either/or situation for the Christian, as Chan seems to be saying; rather, it should be both/and.

3. There are confusing and possibly contradictory comments about grace. After spending nearly two chapters slamming “the lukewarm,” Chan suddenly backtracks and says, “I do not want true believers to doubt their salvation as they read this book. In the midst of our failed attempts at loving Jesus, His grace covers us.

“Each of us has lukewarm elements and practices in our life; therein lies the senseless, extravagant grace of it all. The Scriptures demonstrate clearly that there is room for our failure and sin in our pursuit of God…I’m NOT saying that when you mess up it means you were never really a genuine Christian in the first place. If that were true, no one could follow Christ.”

This statement would not be a problem except that earlier, he declared the following: “To put it plainly, churchgoers who are ‘lukewarm’ are not Christians. We will not see them in heaven.”

So then, which is it? Are they Christians, or are they not? How many times does a person need to veer into lukewarmness before we can begin to question their salvation? It is unclear.

Or, perhaps Chan was just being careless with his verbiage. But when one is writing a book–and especially on such an important topic–one ought to go out of their way to be crystal clear about what they are saying so as to avoid any unnecessary confusion. This is an unfortunate oversight that may have some readers scratching their heads.

4. I was troubled by some of the people Chan chose to spotlight as believers who should be emulated. For example, he writes approvingly of a man at his church who “donated his house to the church and moved in with his parents. He told me that he will have a better house in heaven, and that it doesn’t really matter where he lives during this lifetime.”

One wonders how that man’s parents feel about this.

Additionally, Chan highlights Shane Claiborne without mentioning his questionable teachings (see here). Granted, Chan does site some worthy examples for believers to consider as heroes. But citing Claiborne as an example of Christlikeness without examining his teachings shows an appalling lack of discernment.

5. There is not much Scriptural balance to the picture that Chan paints of the ideal Christian life. While he quotes verses about serving the less fortunate, nowhere is any mention made of 1 Timothy 5:16-25, which qualifies diaconal assistance–and even says that it should be denied in some cases.

Neither is there any mention of Galatians 6:10, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” While this verse does not teach that Christians shouldn’t help unbelievers, it does say that there should in some sense be a priority toward our fellow Christians.

Lastly, there is no mention of verses like 1 Thessalonians 4:11, which tell us to “aspire to live quietly, work with your own hands, and tend to your own affairs” (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5). In short, the call here is to live modest and unpretentious lives, work with excellence at our chosen vocations, and tend diligently to our own affairs. Further, it reminds us that rather than doing “something big” for God, Christian growth more typically takes place while doing the same mundane things over and over again: going to church to partake of the means that God has provided for growth, disciplining children–often on the same issue many times over, and working at your job to provide for your family.

These verses provide helpful correctives to Chan’s thesis. It is a pity that he does not mention them, and so not present a more balanced picture of the Christian life.

In Closing

American Christianity does need to be awoken from its slumber. I had heard that Crazy Love might be the book to do that. But while it had its moments–some of which were useful, convicting, and humbling–I have a hard time recommending it for the reasons cited above.

Announcement Time

I am privileged to bring you a big announcement. I have been struggling to hold this in for quite some time, but now I can tell you:

I recently accepted a call to pastor a mission work, Grace OPC, in Fargo, North Dakota. Stella and I were blessed to candidate up there March 19-24. The people were very friendly, made us feel right at home, and they let us know, both in their homes and after my ministry to them on Sunday, that they would be thrilled for us to move up there and for me to be their next pastor.

Stella and I are both of the same mind on this: we cannot wait, and we are looking forward to the opportunity, and for what the Lord has in store for us.

Of course, this is the closing of a chapter in my life. Minus my 22-month sojourn in the Atlanta, Georgia area, Florida has been my home since 1998. I will miss it (everything except the humidity, anyway). It has been a place of growth for me. I came into the state as a young man, and I leave (hopefully) much wiser. I’m not sure when we’ll be back, and we will greatly miss all of our friends here.

At the same time, Stella and I are excited to begin this new chapter in our lives. As you think of it, please be sure to add us to your prayer list. For now, our requests are these:

1. Please pray for the many logistics involved in moving, especially such a long distance.

2. Pray that the families would be receptive to my ministry. Pray that hearts would be opened for the gospel.

3. Pray that people would see the love of the brethren at Grace OPC, and want to be a part of what we are doing–establishing a Reformed church in Fargo, which is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation.

4. Pray that we would be able to adjust to a much colder climate. Actually, this prayer is more for me, as Stella grew up in the Philadelphia area, and so is far more familiar with that white stuff that falls from the ground than me.

Thanks in advance for your prayers and friendship.

Johnny Farese’s Homegoing

It is good for me that I have been afflicted, so that I might learn your statutes. -Psalm 119:71

I can think of no one whom this verse would better apply to than Johnny Farese. For those who don’t know, Johnny was born with spinal muscular atrophy, an ailment which massively undermines an individual’s usage of his/her body and muscles (for more, please read here).

For Johnny, this meant that when he was younger he could sit up and get around in a self-operated cart. But for the majority of his life, including the 12 years that I knew him, he was confined to a bed. His body was so badly mangled, it was almost uncomfortable to look at him when you first met him. But any apprehensions you might have had immediately vanished when you got to talk to him and know him, and the special Christian that he was.

Johnny’s Story

Johnny was born in August 1956, being one of seven children in a nominally Roman Catholic family. He was also one of three children afflicted by spinal muscular atrophy, including his older brother Bernie and their sister Tina, who died at the age of three (early death is very common for those with this ailment, as one of the symptoms is a weak immune system).

In Johnny’s young adult years, something happened that dramatically affected his life: his brother Bernie came to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. Bernie witnessed to and prayed for his family, and gradually some of them also came to faith in Christ, including sister Gina, Johnny, and their younger brother Paul.

Until he came to recognize Christ as Lord, Johnny lived in rebellion. But when he repented of his sins, it was dramatic: he gave up his sinful lifestyle, sought to regularly attend church, and became a devotee of the Bible and good Christian books–most especially the Puritans.

In the early 1990s, Johnny was still living at home. His parents had separated for a time, and so his mother was his sole caretaker. Paul had just gotten married, and he and his young wife, Janis, were visiting. They quickly came to realize how difficult it was for their mother to care for Johnny alone, and so they took him in, barely three months into their own marriage. Not only would they take care of him through his many ups and downs (mostly downs, given the fragility of his health), but two of Paul’s and Janis’ four children would have special needs as well–one with speech problems, while their youngest, daughter Kayla, has Down’s Syndrome.

Through it all, Paul and Janis cared for Johnny and their own children with the help of the pastors and members of Emmanuel Baptist Church. Caring for him was not easy. To give just one example, Johnny could not swallow his own saliva–something which you and I do without thinking about every day. So for many years, someone–usually Janis–would have to go into his room several times a day, take a small tube, place it into his mouth, turn on the machine it was connected to, and it would suck out his saliva. Thankfully, the Fareses were eventually able to find a way for Johnny to do it himself through computer voice activation. But until then, helping Johnny to spit the saliva out of his mouth was just one of the many physical needs he had that needed to be met every day.

All of that said, if anyone ever had an excuse to feel sorry for himself, it was Johnny. But he didn’t. Instead, he was very active in the life of his church. He ran a twice-monthly Bible study using R.C. Sproul’s “Dust to Glory” series, which could feature as many as 20 people gathered in his room. He also mentored several people through their own trials, and he was not afraid to confront those close to him if he feared that they might be straying into sin. I should know, because there were a few times where he confronted me; never in anger, but always firmly and in love.

Meeting Johnny

I met Johnny for the first time in 2002 when I began to attend Emmanuel Baptist Church (I was a Reformed Baptist at the time). He was in his portable bed at church, and because of all of the people around, I had to strain a little bit to hear what he was saying. But he invited me to his Bible study, and it was there that our friendship began. I would attend his Bible study, and often visited him on Saturdays, where we would talk about our many shared interests: the Bible, the Puritans, and baseball (since he was from Boston, he was an avid Red Sox fan).

Early on, I would go to see him, thinking that a visit might somehow brighten his day. I’m not sure what affect I had on him, but I always left thinking that I had been blessed rather than him. He was a true friend and brother in the Lord who always knew what to say, and whose speech was saturated in Scripture. He was also the living personification of Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” When you were simultaneously confronted with his physical condition, his Christlike humility, and his personal accomplishments, you could not help but be personally convicted by the shallowness of your own complaints and the lack of your commitment to Christ. Without him saying a single word of rebuke, he helped me numerous times to keep my spiritual bearings, and (to borrow from William Carey) attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.

Johnny on TV

In 2005, I was working at Coral Ridge Ministries as a radio producer, and progressing through seminary. I had told my boss, Chuck Burge, about Johnny from time to time. One day, Chuck said to me, “Why don’t you go tell our TV department about Johnny? They might do a feature on him.”

And so I went and spoke to our ministry TV show’s executive producer about it. I didn’t hear anything for a while, but a few months later, I got a phone call from the conference room, where the TV production team was brainstorming ideas for future programs. They asked me about Johnny, and I told them his life story and how his brother and sister-in-law took such good care of him and their own special-needs children as well. They then sent a TV producer and film crew to their house in Boca Raton, and about two months later, the following feature was aired nationally on The Coral Ridge Hour.

In his interview, Johnny spoke of the sanctity of human life, and how God caused this to happen to him. He said in part, “I reject the notion that God allowed this to happen to me. No. God caused this to happen to me for His own glory. I don’t know why, but when I get to Heaven, I’ll ask Him.”

I later asked him what reaction he got from his TV appearance. He told me that dozens of women had contacted him who had gotten abortions because they learned that the child they were carrying might have birth defects. After seeing Johnny, they were so ashamed, and they told him so. Johnny wrote them all back (through voice activation) to let them know that God is forgiving, and how He loved us by sending His own beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins. This was a tremendous example of God’s power being manifested through the weakest of vessels.

Johnny had also previously appeared on Cross TV, where he spoke with great knowledge and insight on the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. He demonstrated himself to be a strong student of the Scriptures, and as one who paid great attention to the preaching of Pastors Robert Fisher, William Hughes, and Robert Diekema, whom he sat under.

Saying Goodbye

Looking back, I see in hindsight that I said goodbye to Johnny in stages. The first stage was when I told him that I had embraced paedobaptism (the practice of baptizing infants); being a Reformed Baptist, Johnny strongly opposed this. I was nervous about telling him. But while he was sad, he could not have been more gracious. Even after this, I remained in contact with him, and for a time continued to help him lead his Bible studies.

In 2007, I met Stella, whom I would eventually marry. I made sure to take her to Johnny’s on her first visit to Florida to see me, which she enjoyed very much. A year later, we were married. In June 2008, Stella and I left for Atlanta, where I was to serve a one-year pastoral internship. I met together with Johnny one last time. We talked, reflecting on the Scriptures and the fact that his beloved Red Sox had just one their second World Series in four years. Deep down, I wondered if that would be the last time I saw him.

Thankfully, it wasn’t.

In 2010, I was called to serve as pastor of Faith Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ocala, Florida. While it was nearly 300 miles from his home, I still had the chance to visit him from time to time. But as I was beginning my first pastorate, he gave me a wonderful gift: he designed our church website (he had taught himself HTML by voice activation), and maintained it free of charge for nearly two years!

In 2012, he wrote to me that his health was taking a turn for the worse, and that he could no longer maintain our website. I told him I understood, and thanked him for his generous help to me and to our church.

In spite of Johnny’s declining health, he continued to hang in there. I visited him in 2013 for what I honestly thought would be the last time. The visit just seemed to have a sort of finality to it as we talked and prayed together.

But I got to see him one more time. In January 2014, Stella and I were in the area; I filled the pulpit of a PCA church the night before. When we came into his room, we noticed that he had lost a lot of weight, and he looked much weaker than any other time I had seen him. His nurse said that he really couldn’t talk anymore, so I would have to do all the talking. So the first thing I said was, “Johnny, I have four words for you: World Champion Red Sox!” (They had just won the World Series in October 2013.) His face immediately lit up.

I then told him about what we were going through–especially about how the church in Ocala, my first call as a pastor, had just closed. He looked sad, and I knew that if he could speak, he would have said, “I’m sorry, Greg.” But I told him that we would be okay, and that I knew the Lord would take care of us. He seemed to like that.

Even though he couldn’t talk with his mouth, he spoke with his eyes. I asked him if he had heard from certain people, and his eyes would quickly move up and down for “yes.” I inquired as to whether certain men whom he had mentored still kept in touch with him. He sadly moved his eyes sideways for “no.” When we finished catching up, I prayed for him. Johnny obviously couldn’t pray for me (at least audibly), and I missed that. He prayed the most beautiful prayers. In his raspy voice, he always communicated a deep love for God, an appreciation for His holiness, a reliance upon His grace. Johnny truly held the gift of prayer in high regard.

As we were about to leave, Johnny motioned towards his nurse. She asked him if he wanted to say something. He nodded with his eyes. She then put her finger on a tube on his neck, and I could barely hear him say, “Thank you for visiting.” I will always be thankful that I got to hear him say that, and that the Lord so graciously gave me several “last” visits with him.

Johnny’s Passing

This last Sunday night (March 10), Stella and I were traveling back from visiting a church in Mobile, Alabama when I got the news: Frank Pontillo, a longtime friend and brother in Christ to both me and Johnny, called me to inform me of Johnny’s passing. Johnny had died peacefully in his sleep at 2:30 pm.

I was sad to hear the news. I will miss my friend. I did not get to tell him that I will soon be candidating at another church, and I won’t get to introduce him to the children that, Lord willing, Stella and I will one day have.

Even still, I was also happy to receive this news: I know, that as Paul said, that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” and that it is “far better” to be with Christ. Johnny had fought the good fight, finished his race, and kept the faith, and he now has a crown waiting for him.

I know the Scripture teaches that Johnny’s body will rest in the grave until Christ’s triumphant return and that his soul is with the Lord. Even still, it is tempting to think that he is now dancing in God’s presence, free from all of his physical pain, and that he has met other Christians near and dear to us who have already passed on, including my own brother. Johnny has passed from this life, but he has begun his time in eternity.

Those who knew Johnny should be comforted by the fact that we will see him again. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul speaks of what will happen at Christ’s return: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”

What a great reunion that will be! Then, we will see Johnny again. Only, this time it will be much better. But even better than that, we will see Christ.

I’m already looking forward to it! Until then, I won’t be saying “Goodbye forever” to my friend. Instead, I’ll say, “So long for now, Johnny. I’ll see you in the clouds.”