The elusive Arisaema triphyllum

Photography by Mark Knox

Arisaema triphyllum, also known as a Jack-in-the-Pulpit, is a flowering plant found in the wooded areas of eastern North America, including the forest behind my back yard. They show up quickly in early May and stick around into June. This year, with a cold, rainy spell this past week, I saw a second wave of blooms.

Every year it’s a challenge for me, as my dogs playfully tread the mountain paths, to spot these plants when they first arrive. In the midst of May Apples, thorny sprouts, ferns, and other greenery, the Jacks hide tucked away in shady spots. Each evening as I return home, I announce how many new plants I spotted that day.

This search goes all the way back to my high school days, when in my sophomore or junior year, my science teacher whose name escapes me, assigned us to search the woods and dales of the north-central Ohio landscape for wild spring flowers. We were to collect, press, display, and describe as many as we could find. We would be graded on a sliding scale based on how many specimens we completed.

As one who woefully underachieved in high school and seldom did homework, ironically I really enjoyed this assignment. I even bought a little pocket guide to wildflowers to help me with the identification.

Unfortunately, my excitement for the assignment failed to overcome my inherent laziness and procrastination (something I struggle with to this day), so I ended up not turning in many examples. I probably got a “D” as I recall.

But near the due date, I summoned up some initiative and headed into the wood across the street from my house on Ohio Route 58, hoping to find enough to get me over the threshold of failure. For some reason, and I had no real scientific knowledge of this, I thought maybe I might find a Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

I spent the better part of an hour wandering through this small woodland. I don’t remember if I found any other specimens, but I continued to look for Jack. I didn’t know that most Jacks plants have an additional stem with 3 leaves; I was just looking for the familiar striped spathe – the pulpit – that housed the spadix – “Jack” – that I had seen somewhere before in some distant memory.

Suddenly, there he was! It was almost startling, kind of like the feeling you get when someone jumps out at you from behind a door. And then, where before I couldn’t find a one, now I was seeing dozens everywhere. Some were light green, and others had more of a purple-ish striped hue. I carefully broke one off at the base, took it home, and pressed it into my collection. I never went back to that woods.

Here in the temperate climes of western North Carolina, I began to walk the woods with Shadow the Dog, later adding the Amazing Roscoe Dog, I began to think about hunting for Jack anew.

Again, that nervous pursuit. Where might I find him? Looking, looking, looking. Peering, staring, studying. This time, he didn’t startle me; he was just there. I looked around; surely there are more of his mates. But no, he was a solo preacher. Maybe that first year I found three.

The next year there were more, and in additional places. Each year the numbers increase. Either they are spreading, or my powers of observation and discovery are hightened.

I’ve even found some variations beyond the coloring, green or purple. There are the early ones that are shorter and smaller with thinner stems. 3 leaves. There are some stalks with only leaves that grow. I look closely; they’re the same leaves, but no pulpit. I’ve found some with five leaves. Is this a new species? After all, they’re called tri-phyllum. Probably not, just a variation. Later in the season, I start to see a different kind. The base is a brown wrap giving way to thick stems, 3 in fact! One with the Jack and two stems of 3 leaves. Big leaves!

Today’s the first day of summer, and the Jack blooms are starting to wilt. With the cooler weather, we’ve had an extended season this year. so it’s been a gratifying adventure to take my nightly walk.

I like to think that this is something like what Adam must have felt in the Garden as he worked it and gave names to his discoveries. I believe my Father is pleased when I delight in what he has placed in this world. Through no fault of its own, the whole creation was subjected to corruption and eagerly awaits the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:19-23). But, though groaning, creation still tells a story.

Each spring, these Jacks step into their pulpits and preach the glory of God.

Sovereignty on the back end needs sovereignty on the front end

What follows is part of an ongoing series of articles that discuss places in Scripture where the sovereign plan and working of God are clearly seen to intersect with time.  Rather than trying to fit these descriptions into a pre-determined theological understanding, I aim to let these revealed descriptions stand for themselves. See other posts in this series here and here.

A number of us were conversing, and someone noted that God had worked some good things in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. I asked, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, if it also wasn’t true that God had worked to bring the pandemic. As usual, they rolled their eyes and sighed at my theological intrusion. “The same God who has worked good from the pandemic is the same God who could have prevented it, but didn’t,” said I.

We often look at various disasters as bad things, and something about our mindset will not allow us to attribute those to the divine Hand of Providence. We recoil at saying that God brings disaster. But the Bible does not. Amos 3:6 says, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” Such directness is hard for us, who may want to soften the blow by affirming that God may “allow” such disaster but not actively cause it.

We tend to speak in terms of God doing good things, and allowing bad things, all the while retaining for ourselves the right to define what’s good and what’s bad. We even take a promise such as Romans 8:28 (“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”) to mean something like, “here’s this bad thing, and God turns it into good.” Kind of a lemons-lemonade dynamic.

Again, this is not the biblical perspective. One of the greatest examples of a biblical understanding is found in the life of Joseph, whom his brothers planned to murder, sold into slavery instead, and then years later were rescued from starvation by this very brother. In the end, they worried that Joseph, now Pharaoh’s #2 in Egypt, would exact vengeance on them for past wrongs. Instead Joseph said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). Not, “you meant evil, God turned it to good.” But, “you meant evil, God meant good.” Equal agency. In fact, I would say that God was the primary agent. The God who orchestrated Joseph’s rise to power in order to save people from famine could have ordained that there was no famine to be saved from.

All this to say that God is sovereign over and ordains all that comes to pass (Ephesians 1:11). The greatest sin ever perpetrated in human history was the crucifixion of Jesus, “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men,” yet the Bible is clear that he was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). It would be completely unbiblical to say that God only “allowed” the crucifixion of Jesus, and then turned it into something good.

We love the promises and provision of God in the midst of trials, but the sovereign care that comes in trial has been there all along, even over the occurance of the trial. If God is to work all things for good for his people, it is necessary that he be sovereign over all things. Sovereignty on the back end requires sovereignty on the front end.* May we affirm this; may we trust this.

*This is an expression that I’m pretty sure I heard from John Piper. I cannot locate the source.

Is God unjust to save only some?

Whenever the topic of God’s saving of some while condemning others to hell comes up, the accusation is soon made that God is unjust to only save some and not all. Particularly if we look at salvation rightly as the sovereign work of God, we wonder, Why not all?

But, is it unjust to save only some? To have mercy on some and not all? How can God be just and save anyone for that matter? Let’s consider some of these issues.

1 God is not subject to our sense of justice.

As Sovereign Creator, God is not to be judged on our sense what is just. He himself is his own standard for justice, and our insight is both creaturely and fallen. God has revealed himself to be just (Deut. 43:4; Gen. 18:25), but rather than measure up to our understanding of what that means, we see in Scripture his revelation of how God is right and just. We can only begin to grasp it, but we are reminded that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

2 God is just to condemn sinners.

When Adam sinned, he plunged the entire human race into death (Romans 5:12). As a result there is not, nor has there ever been, nor will there ever be, a single human being who does not deserve death, condemnation, and hell (the one exception would be Jesus Christ, the perfect God-Man). If God had decided to save none of humanity but instead send us all to hell, he would be just. Habbakuk describes God as, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (1:13). A holy God is just to condemn sinners.

3 God in his mercy saves some.

God, for his glory and by his own good pleasure, ordained that he would save some out of a fallen humanity. Many would call this unjust. But rather than an injustice on God’s part, it is out of his mercy that he saves.

“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.”

Romans 9:14-15

Mercy, by definition, is undeserved. And those whom God shows mercy are not the objects of mercy because they have earned it. This goes against our “fairness” grain. We want to ask, why this one and not that one? There is no answer to that question. “It depends not on human will or exertions, but on God who has mercy.” People assume that we think ourselves special by being a “chosen one.” Those whom God has chosen and saved are special, but not in the sense that they’ve done anything to merit salvation. Being a chosen child of God is not a cause for pride but a catalyst for humility.

4 When God saves, he does not forego his justice.

A simple (but erroneous) understanding of salvation is that God saves by simply forgiving and forgeting the sins of man. If this were the case, then indeed salvation of some would be unjust. But salvation is provided by the death of Jesus Christ, who took the punishment that we deserved in our place. God’s righteous justice is carried out in Jesus for those who believe, thus saving us from wrath. This is the biblical idea of propitiation [wrath satisfied] and it is at the heart of the gospel message.

“All [who believe] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This…was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:24, 25a, 26

Just and the justifier. This is how a holy God accepts the ungodly. Not through a spiritual wave of the forgiveness wand, but through enacting his just wrath on Jesus Christ in our place.

When I consider that I am a recipient of God’s sovereign mercy, and that the price of that was the death of his Son in my place, I am left aghast. I often think, why me? And I have no response but, Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15)

Are we in danger of living in a world of Post-Christian Christianity?

I pray for revival, Christian revival. But I do not see the necessary conditions for it to occur, barring a miracle of God, which is what a revival is anyway.

The last widespread nationwide revival that I can recall was the so-called “Jesus Movement” of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was a teenager then, already a believer, but the movement affected me greatly in deepening my faith and zeal for the Lord.

In many ways, it was a simple movement. The gospel of salvation was preached, many young people responded, and it stretched across our land to almost every corner. In my town, the movement showed up in conjunction with the movie, “The Cross and the Switchblade” and a coffee house/Bible study run by a couple of local seminary students.

The main reason why I don’t see the conditions right for that now is that more than ever, when the gospel is preached, we have to ask, “Which gospel?” Is it the gospel of the Bible – Creator God, sinful man, sacrificial Savior, repentance and faith? Or is it something else? A “gospel” that appeals more to our felt needs and exhibits characteristics more of therapy than surrender? A “gospel” that promises “your best life now” as if that’s the best the Bible has to offer? A “gospel” that gets people fired up for Jesus without any sense of who he is or what his Word teaches?

This all boils down to a dearth of biblical knowledge, biblical illiteracy if you will. I don’t mean that you have to know a lot of the Bible to come to Christ, but certainly those of us who proclaim the gospel ought to be well-versed, so that those who respond are in fact believing the real gospel about the real Jesus.

One of the marks of the Jesus Movement was its simplicity. We sat in informal circles, sang simple songs (mostly from Scripture), prayed for one another, and studied the Bible together. You would be hard-pressed to find small groups today whose primary purpose is to study the Bible and systematically build our knowledge.

Voddie Baucham has been quoted: “The modern church is producing passionate people with empty heads who love the Jesus they don’t know very well.” By and large, Christians are just not that interested “contend[ing] for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We’d rather sit in our circles and talk about our experiences with no biblical compass to guide us.

Because of this, we are in danger of passing into a kind of “Post-Christian Christianity.” A time where identifying as a Christian means different things to different people and thus means nothing. This is why I believe that before any true revival can take place, we need to recover the place of content in our Christianity.

I am thankful for the voices that God is raising for biblical literacy. Jen Wilkin is doing amazing things targeted for Christian women that is substantial, unlike what is typically marketed to women. For years, Ligonier Ministries under Dr. R.C. Sproul has been engaging believers in content that bridges the gap between the local church and a seminary education. John Piper, before he stepped away from Bethlehem Baptist Church, preached massive sermon series from Romans and Hebrews (I wrote about that here). May their tribe increase.

And then maybe we can have revival.

The law enforcement “industry” has a problem

Police in riot gear walking in front of a boarded up whole foods
Photo by  Nour Chamoun  on  Scopio

[This is a post that may get me in trouble from some of my friends. If so, so be it. I am trying to listen and understand more, because I’m finding more and more that the ways I’ve thought about race in America are not always in tune with the reality. May I be ever learning and sympathetic to my brothers and sisters of color.]

If your response to the senseless brutality and killing of George Floyd and other African-Americans at the hands of police or the unexplainable arrests and violence members of the press who are just doing their job have experienced is to say, “There are bad cops, but most are good,” you’re being dismissive. The better question to be asking is, what is it about law enforcement that generates such a wide array of behaviors?

If we think for a moment of law enforcement as an “industry,” why does this industry have so many questionable incidents, particularly toward minorities? Is the problem somewhere in the recruitment and attracting of new officers? Are there lapses in training? Are those in the profession afraid to call out their offending colleagues? Does a profession that is based on power and authority know how to properly wield it?

Consider other industries. My wife works in the long-term care industry. Oftentimes, incidents of negligence or abuse send ripples throughout the entire profession, even to those facilities that were not guilty of bad care.

Back in the 70s and 80s, American car manufacturers were losing the battle to better-made cars from foreign companies. It was widely known that the imports were just better and lasted longer. So the American companies as a whole made some serious commitments to better quality, and the result has been increased confidence in buying a Ford, Chevy, or Chrysler product.

The law enforcement industry is at a similar crossroad. It is not enough to say that most cops are good cops. This is true. But the burden of proof lies with law enforcement to demonstrate that it “gets it” and is willing to take the necessary steps “industry”-wide to hire better, train better, and discipline the ranks better.

The law enforcement profession has a problem. I pray they know this and will take the necessary steps to build trust and confidence.

For the perspective of an African-American friend of mine, see my recent post.

Thoughts from an African-American friend on George Floyd, race in America

Darnell Phillip is a friend of mine, an African-American man. On Tuesday, the day after the murder of George Floyd, he posted these thoughts. This is raw, fresh, and real. At the time, all I could post was the words, “thank you.” His words have stayed with me throughout the week, even as tensions have mounted. I have tried to stay focused in my mind on the single incident, not wanting the unrest and the riots to dilute my sense of shock and horror of that senseless act. His words have further opened my eyes; I truly do not know what it’s like to be a black man in America. I asked if I could share his words, and he agreed. I want all of us to begin to see through the eyes of others.

If you comment, please keep your comments related to his thoughts. If you bring up the riots and how they may or may not discredit or minimize the racial injustice, I will delete your comment. This is not the place to discuss that.

Darnell

“Today has just been a gut wrenching day. I’m reminded of every time that I have been pulled over by police or questioned by a position in authority. I am reminded that no one had to teach me coping mechanisms of how not to appear to be a threat. I am reminded of how I have changed my body language, altered my tone, dressed differently, or walked to the other side of the street as to give you space and made you comfortable. And why do I do these things? Because this nation has taught black men that the consequences of not doing them can be deadly.

“I think of the ways that we have explained it, the lengths we have gone to demand a voice and a place within this society. When we held back our hand and refused to adopt methods of violence, we were hosed and assassinated. When we decided that we must stand up for ourselves by any means necessary, We were vilified and assassinated. We were ridiculed for kneeling during the star spangled banner when no one else would seek change.

“I remember the ways that my hands gripped the wheel each time I drove through long sections of Southern states anxious that I may have a tail light out and a reason to be pursued. And I could comfort myself with the notion that the South is the only region that I would need to avoid. The South has been the epicenter of black suffering and trauma the effects of which are still prevalent today. But that would only be a delusion. These stories of murder at the hands of those sworn to protect us hail from NYC, Baltimore, Minnesota, as well as New Orleans, Ferguson, Florida and too many other places to name. The fact is that this is an American problem. Not a regional thing. Or a blue or red thing. Or a religious thing.

“The most disheartening thing that I experience is people who claim ‘well, we were not there and it’s easy to make a judgment about a video but you don’t know what he did to provoke that kind of attention.’ Or the way that people will scour a black victims social media to find anything that would suggest that he deserved to die. It sickens me when I think that white supremacists have been arrested after killing in cold blood American citizens while black men have been murdered in broad daylight without resisting arrest. I have no easy answers for those who want to help. There are no convenient ways that we as Americans can begin to set right what is so broken within our own society. It’d be so easy for our conscience to donate to a fund because in our own detached way we could convince ourselves that we were in an active role for seeking change. POC don’t need saviors (in any non-religious sense), but we certainly could use allies. People brace enough to speak up and admit that enough is enough. We won’t have any solutions until we can admit what we as a society have done wrong. Can you see America putting down its pride long enough to make that kind of restitution? Right now to be completely honest it doesn’t seem likely. However, I have been encouraged by the people who have asked I wanted someone to vent to or asked how we can help.”

John MacArthur on COVID-19, church closures, NT Wright, God’s sovereignty in pestilence

There is a fair amount of posturing and hysteria online these days. As usual, pastor John MacArthur has a biblical, measured response (originally posted 4/23/20) on the issues facing the Church and Christians in these days. Fair warning – there is a small tipping of his pre-Tribulational views. If you don’t buy into that, don’t let that keep you from this excellent analysis. The first 15 minutes or so covers the questions surrounding the closing of churches on the recommendation/mandate of the State. Theological and pastoral.

Thinking Biblically About the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Interview with John MacArthur

Embrace mystery: thoughts on Ephesians 1:3-14

The following is a portion of a chapter I have written on Ephesians 1:3-14. It is a part of a book I am writing: Framework: Passages That Teach Theology (working title).

There is mystery in these verses; embrace it! Whenever I discuss the issue of the sovereignty of God with other believers, invariably objections are raised. If God has predestined us for salvation, then what about free will? Why should we share the gospel? Why should I even pray? These are all good questions, but I urge you to pump the brakes a little on those questions and simply meditate on the truths that are plainly stated. “The words speak of a mystery, but words could not be plainer.”

All too often, believers look at a passage like this and immediately go in to denial-mode. “Since I know this is true, then that can’t mean…” And what ends up happening in our thoughts is that the truths about God we see plainly stated are mitigated and softened. And before you know it, we’ve created a mental picture of God that we can be comfortable with but is a distortion of what the Bible reveals.

The closer we come to truths about God, the more mystery there is. We will not be able to “figure it out.” If you can’t reconcile God’s sovereignty with mankind’s being held responsible for their sins, then you’re in a good place! Don’t try to reconcile two irreconcilable truths. Embrace the mystery.