Window on the World is our weekly adventure in looking at the world from the biblical point of view. Ordinarily, I address an issue of public interest, but every now and then–like tonight–I offer a more personal reflection on the events of my own life. I do not do this because I think that my own life is particularly interesting, or important, but rather to remind you to approach your own life in a thoughtful Christian way.
One year ago we buried my grandmother on a hill overlooking rich Iowa farmland. If you go there you can see the inscription, right next to the names of three other family members: Eva Ryken, 1908-1999. In a typical display of Dutch frugality, the four of them had decided to purchase a single gravestone. There they lie–the bodies of four thrifty Rykens, sharing a burial plot as they wait for the last trumpet.
It was David who wrote, “Record my lament; list my tears on your scroll–are they not in your record?” (Ps. 56:8; NIV). David was crying out in anger and frustration after being captured by the Philistines, but the principle holds true for all the sorrows of life. God keeps track of every last one of our tears. The King James Version expresses it even more poetically: “Put thou my tears in thy bottle” (Ps. 56:8; KJV). If it is true that God holds our sorrows so close to his heart, then we should treasure them as well, allowing God to sanctify our grief. One of the best ways to do that is to remember those who have died, thanking God for the gift of their lives.
Now that a full year has passed, and most of our tears have been stored away in God’s bottle, this is a good time to treasure my grandmother’s spiritual legacy. She was a woman of strong convictions, but never more so than when it came to preaching. Tonight I want to share some of the things she taught me about pastoral ministry.
Grandma often wrote me short letters of encouragement and exhortation. The first time I preached at Tenth she wrote, “I prayed much for you, especially when you preached in 10th… . I can see how you’ll be driven in pure love and devotion to preach and honor Jesus.” As the time came near for my ordination, she said, “Oh, I feel so thankful tonight with… Phil going to be ordained and dedicated to the Lord’s work. If such good things may come to you some day, you’ll remember how I feel tonight. God is so good.”
When I was actually ordained, she tried to picture the scene: “It is Friday the 2nd of February and I’m thinking of your ordination, or as our minister long ago called it, being ‘installed.’ I was a young girl and wondered what that word meant; now I think I know: you are being ‘tied’ to 10th Church. What makes it serious is those promises you make!… [Y]ou will probably kneel on a carpet and a couple of other preachers will lay their hands on you, meaning you are dedicated to the work of the Lord.” But Grandma also had words of warning, prompted by her outrage at ministers who fail to keep their promises to the church: “Imagine how angry the people were when the guy walks out on us!… Now Phil, when these preachers made their promise they had no intention to run out on their church, no way, but when the hardships came along they tossed in the towel… . What a shameful thing to do!”
Grandma warned me about a lot of things. She warned me about Satan: “He’s still in business!” she reminded me. “I know, because he even dares to visit me, and I can’t trust him a minute. Watch him. This is a great little room to pray, but he doesn’t bat an eye to take God’s chair and talk to me.” She even warned me about my relationship with the elders: “A lot of preachers do fine with the congregation. But in the ‘consistory [session] room,’ no one would recognize the preacher! Of course, I’m only an innocent bystander, but Frank [that’s my grandfather, who served as an elder most of his life] has had some absolutely terrible times, even had to see a doctor… . So many ministers forget that the Lord attends the consistory meetings, pro and con, the good and the bad. So if one of those people gets rough remember, there sits the Lord.”
Often Grandma wrote to assure me that I was in her prayers. She understood that when it comes to ministers, you get what you pray for. So she prayed. “When the going is tough, remember there’s much prayer for you all,” she would say. “P.S. You can depend that there’s someone in far-away Iowa praying daily for you.” “I pray to God He will ever hold your hand as you work hard to prepare the materials for all your work… . I pray especially on Sunday… as I visualize you standing on the pulpit, calling men and women to repentance and Godly living.”
As she pictured the scene, she reminded me of your need for the gospel: “Phil, when you preach, do keep in mind, those nicely-dressed people can be miserable inside. Comfort them. They need to hear it over and over: ‘God is able and willing.’ ‘Fear not!’ ‘Repent and enter in’.”
So you see, it was my grandmother who taught me what it means to be tied to a church, and to resist the devil, and to be kind to my elders, and to preach faith and repentance. She taught me some of the most important lessons I have learned about preaching–including several I am still learning. I leave you with the gift of her words: “All too soon ebbs out life’s little day; earth’s joys grow dim, its shadows flee away. And then we need and receive grace to let go. Press it on their hearts, Phil, Jesus said, ‘Fear not, only believe!’.”
© 2023 Tenth Presbyterian Church.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2023 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org