D-DAY REFLECTIONS: THE GERMAN FAILURE TEACHES US TO AVOID THE DANGER OF OVER-COMPLICATING GOSPEL MINISTRY

One of the common myths of the Second World War is that the Germans were equipped with far better weaponry. It is certainly true that German equipment was often technically more advanced. They were the first to introduce jet aircraft into the front line (the Me262 fighter and Arado 234 light bomber) and use ballistic missiles (the VI “cruise missile” and V2 rocket). Much western and Soviet military technology of the 1950s-70s, especially aircraft design, was based on captured German technology or the expertise of captured German scientists. As we remember the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landings, we would do well to reflect that it was largely a German achievement, building on their rocket programme and led by Werner Von Braun.

Although individual German equipment, such as the Tiger Tank, might have been more technically advanced, this does not mean that it was superior to the Allied equipment. My colleague Adrian Reynolds encouraged me to read James Holland’s recent book Normady’44, where he thoroughly deconstructs this myth. His assessment is that German military equipment was over engineered and too sophisticated for the task at hand. It was difficult to manufacture, more expensive to build, harder to operate and near impossible to repair in the field. Allied equipment was more rudimentary but more robust, cheaper to produce, easier to operate and simple to repair. Individually each item might have been slightly inferior, but collectively it did the job much more effectively in the conditions of the front-line.

The Tiger Tank, for example, had an incredibly complex 6-speed hydraulic gearbox. In contrast the Allied Sherman has a simple 4-speed manual gearbox based on conventional automotive designs. Only 1,347 of the complex Tigers were built, compared to 49,000 Shermans. The German Panther Tank has 18 wheels that were interleaved, which all had to be removed before any could be replaced. The standard German machine gun, the MG42, could fire 1,400 rounds per minute. However, it took 75 man-hours to manufacture compared to 45 for the Allied equivalents, and cost roughly twice as much to make. The rate of fire meant that the barrel overheated, requiring multiple barrel changes such that German machine gun squads had to carry at least six spare parts.

It seems to me that there are parallels with our gospel ministry.  We are involved in spiritual warfare, but we can all too easily make the task more complex than it needs to be. God has supplied us with all that we needed to fight and win the battle. We wear his armour for protection, and our weapons are the gospel-word and prayer. Gospel ministry ought to be fundamentally simple: Glorify God, love people, pray for opportunities and boldness, tell people about Jesus.

The danger is that we over-engineer these fundamentally basic tasks. We complicate the message and the method, and insist on such a high level of training for the messengers that we cannot meet the needs of the hour. For example, sermons become overly complex lectures on systematic or biblical theology that do no preach Christ with a clarity and directness. Evangelism becomes high-level academic apologetics addressing the questions that most ordinary people are not even asking. We presume that a high level of education is essential for pastoral ministry. I am astounded by the job adverts that assume that a Doctorate or Postgraduate degree is somehow a necessary qualification for pastoral ministry. Some  seminaries spend years teaching their students a high level of competence in biblical languages that is, in all likelihood, of marginal benefit to their gospel effectiveness. Ministers can parse Hebrew but not connect with people. This desire for technical mastery is a feature of conservative evangelicalism and deeply rooted in our history, and our idolatry of academic and social respectability.

I am not at all rejecting the need for a high level of ministry competence, nor for appropriate spiritual gifting. However there comes a point at which we need to have confidence that what we have is adequate for the task in hand, no matter how much we could improve it. There is always an opportunity cost in working to achieve further marginal improvement, meaning that there are other vital things we will not be able to do. A pastor who expects to spend 20 hours a week preparing a 35 minute sermon, for example, will inevitably have less time for other ministry activities that might grow and build his church more effectively than the marginal gains to his message produced by the last 5 or even 10 hours of his sermon preparation.

This tendency to over-engineer ministry also makes it harder to multiply ministry. If we make evangelism over-complex and intellectual, requiring lengthy training, then it is no wonder that we fail to produce confident church members who can speak simply to others about Jesus. We set examples and establish expectations that disempower them and make them feel inadequate and incapable of ever attaining the skills we have inadvertently taught to be essential. The most rapidly growing evangelical movement around the world is Pentecostalism, which has a less intellectual approach to gospel ministry but far greater scale and ability to deploy members to work in evangelism. There is much we could learn from it.

The vast majority of the work of the gospel in the world today is, as it always has been, done by relatively uneducated church members who love Christ, rely on the power of his Spirit, pray fervently, and have confidence that the simple gospel message declaring Jesus to be Lord is God’s power for salvation. They are the equivalent of the Allied Shermans, less sophisticated but adequate, and they get the job done. We can too easily be the equivalent of the German Tigers, individually more advanced but unable to be produced in enough quality and insufficiently robust to thrive in the front-line.

We need to avoid the danger of over-engineering gospel ministry. It looks more impressive but is wasteful, unnecessary and ultimately reflects a lack of confidence in what God has supplied that will win the war.

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This blog appeared on Tim Challies, INFORMING THE REFORMING; June 24, 2019.

A MESS ON THE SHELVES by Andree Su Peterson

Public libraries are enthusiastically joining the LGBTQ crusade

A mess on the shelves

I drove to the library for a book by Max Lucado that might help me with my puppet show. I asked the librarian if she had heard of him. She said yes. We walked together to the “L’s” and she went through the motions of looking, but no Lucado was to be found between the Longs and Ludvigs.

What I did spot was a large free-standing rack of children’s fare dedicated to LGBTQ topics.

I said, perplexed: “Lucado is a famous author. What happened?” “There are new authors coming out all the time,” she said. “So the new titles push out the old?” I asked, not wanting to embarrass her or myself, though already suspecting it was more than that. “Unless they’re classics,” she gratefully seized on my out.

You are probably not so thoughtless as I have been to suppose that books just somehow show up in libraries—the way we all once thought babies just showed up in hospitals. You probably have not been so naïve as to think that beneath the sartorial primness of the local librarian still beats the heart of old heartland American virtues.

I googled the ALA (American Library Association) official magazine, American Libraries. The home page featured a drag queen in a hot red dress, faux pearls, garishly painted eyes, and a strawberry blond wig, dancing in seductive manner before a roomful of sponge-like 3-year-olds, the caption promising to bring this show on the road to all of America, including “red-state towns like Juneau, Alaska, and Lincoln, Nebraska.”

‘Librarians are suiting up for battle.’—American Libraries, June 2017

A June 2017 article titled “Standing Up for Our Communities” announces:

“Librarians are suiting up for battle. Faced with … an awakening of hate groups …, librarians have become more emboldened by their core values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and are fighting to maintain those values. … This is a guide for librarians seeking best practices to serve the LGBTQ+ youth community in these times of uncertainty, and a road map for those who might be new to serving this community.

“… ALA’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table (GLBTRT) has developed a series of professional tools for serving LGBTQ+ library users. … The latest toolkit is an eight-page document that … covers a variety of topics including user needs, collection development [italics mine], terminology, outreach, and recommended reading.”

Christian Max Lucado evidently didn’t make it through the “collection development” process.

I grabbed three colorful hardcover books from the LGBTQ display, sat in the kids’ room, and read them one by one:

Transphobia: Deal With It, by J. Wallace Skelton, is a large-picture book that starts with a bang. Certain female students complain to the coach that a trans girl (i.e., biological male child “transitioning” to, or declaring himself, female) on their team has an unfair advantage in competitions. These complainers are schooled in short order. One by one, other unenlightened objections against fellow trans students are set straight. Trans is to be celebrated.

Princess Princess Ever After, by Katie O’Neill, manages to have it all: LGBTQ, race, and toxic masculinity propaganda packaged in one revisionist knight-in-shining-armor story. A (white and weak) princess named Sadie is rescued by a dashing (black and butch) princess named Amira, and they ride off on Amira’s horse into the sunset and love “ever after,” but not before making a dunce of a boorish and bumbling (white male) prince who is not up to the job of rescuing.

Star-Crossed, by Barbara Dee, takes us back to school where 12-year-old Mattie, by a lucky turn of events, gets to play Romeo to a Gemma Braithwaite’s Juliet in the 8th grade play, Gemma being a girl she has a mad crush on—though she is also attracted to Elijah (there’s your “B” in “LGBTQ”).

Feeling nauseated after my foray into modern kids’ lit, I brought the three books to the front desk and complained to the librarian about the library’s all-out effort to plant these disturbing suggestions into innocent minds.

“Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come. It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:1-2).

HOW DO WE BECOME SPIRITUALLY MATURE ? by John MacArthur

We don’t want to remain spiritual children, perpetually stuck in infancy. We don’t want to be weak, vulnerable, and immature. Nor do we want to be ignorant about God’s truth, because we want to fully glorify Him for everything He has done. We want to appreciate Him in all His fullness, knowing and loving Him thoroughly. If that’s the goal, then how do we get there? How do we respond to the Word in a way that drives that progress?

I see three definitive steps in the biblical pattern of sanctification.

The first is cognition. John 17:17 gives our Lord’s prayer: “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” We have to understand what the Bible says and what it means if it is going to produce growth in us. Sanctification begins with spiritually renewing the mind, that is, changing how we think. We need “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). There is no premium on ignorance or naivete in sanctification. The discipline of putting the truth constantly at the forefront of our minds is crucial.

If we lack spiritual maturity, we must read everything we can that faithfully and accurately explains the Word of God to us. We must study the Bible and memorize it; we must read commentaries from biblical scholars, listen to sermons from faithful expositors, and read the biographies of godly saints whose lives display the kind of maturity we want to see in our own lives. We must soak our minds in the Scriptures, fueling the Spirit’s sanctifying work.

That seems like an obvious first step, but it’s one that many believers fail to take. They can’t fathom why they keep succumbing to the same temptations and why their love for the Lord has cooled and their interest in His church has plateaued. They fail to understand that the absence of biblical knowledge retards spiritual thinking and slows spiritual growth.

Don’t confuse childlike faith with childish thinking. Legalism won’t lead us to holiness and spiritual maturity. Mysticism and sacramentalism won’t get us there, either. Pragmatism will likely lead us in the wrong direction, and it invites us to pursue quick fixes and worldly wisdom instead of grounding us in the truth of God’s Word. The only activity that catalyzes the ongoing sanctifying process is taking in the truth of Scripture. Cognition—knowing and understanding the truth—is the first step in pursuing spiritual growth through the Word of God.

After cognition comes conviction. As we learn the truth of Scripture, we must begin to develop beliefs into convictions. Our lives are controlled by our convictions. As the truth of God’s Word begins to occupy our minds and shape our thoughts, it will produce principles that we desire not to violate. This is what sanctification is about—being inwardly compelled to obedience.

The Apostle Paul suffered many things during his ministry—imprisonment, severe beatings, shipwrecks, and a constant stream of unfounded accusations from false teachers.

In 2 Corinthians 4, he describes the difficulties of his life: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (vv. 8–9). In verse 11, he continues, “For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake.” Every day, he understood that any one of the several plots against him could come to fruition. At any moment, he could be dead. Everywhere he went, he offended people. He was constantly being thrown out of synagogues and into prison. He lived in a perpetual cycle of opposition and oppression.

What made him keep going in spite of all the hardship he faced? In verse 13, he quotes the Psalms, saying, “I believed, therefore I spoke.” That is conviction. Paul might as well say: “What else do you want me to do? There is no alternative for me. This is my conviction from the Word of God.”

That conviction shaped Paul’s life and ministry. Earlier in 2 Corinthians, he testified, “For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you” (1:12). Paul was true to the wisdom of God, and his conscience did not accuse him, regardless of the accusations against him. In Acts 23:1, he says, “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day,” and in Acts 24:16, “I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men.” Paul’s firm convictions, rooted in Scripture, helped him live a righteous life, with nothing to be ashamed of.

John Bunyan, the great Puritan preacher and author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, remained in jail for twelve years, but it wasn’t the prison bars that held him there. He could have walked free if he would simply promise to stop preaching. Facing that option, Bunyan wrote, “If nothing will do, unless I make of my conscience a continual butchery and slaughter-shop, unless putting out my own eyes I commit me to the blind to lead me, I have determined, the Almighty God being my help and shield, yet to suffer, if frail life might continue so long, even till the moss shall grow on mine eyebrows rather than thus to violate my faith and principles.”1 That is conviction. When we read the Bible, we are learning the Word of God in order to develop convictions that will rule our lives and hold our consciences captive, activating them when we start to violate God’s righteous standard. Biblical truth establishes cognition in the mind and develops restraint in the conscience.

The third feature is affection. The love of God’s truth is a consistent theme throughout Scripture, and particularly in the Psalms. Psalm 119 is an exhaustive account of the psalmist’s love for the truth and his delight in the law. We’ve already looked at Psalm 19, where David says that God’s Word is “more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb” (v. 10). Or look at Psalm 1, which describes the great blessing for the one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (v. 2). As we expose ourselves to the Word, we begin to understand what it says. It begins to form our convictions, and then it becomes our sincere affection.

How strong should that affection be? Peter put it this way: “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Spiritual growth comes when we know the Word, when it shapes our convictions, and when we learn to long for the sustenance it alone can provide.

Psalm 42:1 says, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God.” The psalmist is not referring to the way some people read the Bible as a curiosity or as ancient literature. He’s not talking about perusing the Bible for intellectual stimulation or gathering ammunition to win an argument. This is studying Scripture eagerly and earnestly, hungry to extract all of the nourishment we so desperately need out of the Word.

The Word of God is our spiritual sustenance. May we have the same solitary longing for it that a baby has for milk—because by it, we are conformed to the image of Christ, who sanctified Himself for us. The Word reveals Christ to us, and the Word transforms us into His likeness. We are reminded of what our Savior repeated three times in the upper room—that He would send us the Holy Spirit. We know that sanctification is a divine work through the Word by the Spirit of truth. So, we must plead with the Spirit that He would mold and shape us into the image of Christ, through the truth, from one level of glory to the next. As the Apostle Paul explains, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).

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This excerpt is adapted from Final Word: Why We Need the Bible; REFORMATIN TRUST; by John MacArthur.

6 WORKS OF CLASSICAL MUSIC EVERY CHRISTIAN SHOULD KNOW

 

Why bother with classical music? On the face of it, it seems like a serious indulgence to give time and attention to something so trivial as music—classical or otherwise. Yet the fact remains that no human society, however impoverished, has yet managed to do without music in some form. The impulse to sing, to blow air through wooden tubes, and to draw hair across strings seems ineradicable. What’s more, it’s long been recognized that people pour their deepest longings and passions into music-making. Music can be a remarkable index of the profoundest impulses and stirrings of a culture—impulses and stirrings that are often theologically charged.

Music can be a remarkable index of the profoundest impulses and stirrings of a culture—impulses and stirrings that are often theologically charged.

What, then, of classical music in particular? Strictly speaking, “classical music” is the music of a fairly brief era (roughly, the second half of the 18th century), but the term is commonly used to refer to the whole stream of music associated with European concert and operatic culture, emerging around 1600. Sometimes called “art music,” it’s generally regarded as there to be listened to, not just heard. This doesn’t make it superior or more valuable than other music, just different. It asks for your concentrated attention over time, a willingness to stay with it in the belief that it will deliver more with each listening. It means suspending the question, “Do I like it?” and asking instead, “What’s going on here?”

And the Christian can ask a further question: “What might I learn theologically from what’s going on here?”

If you are new to this genre, here are six pieces of music (listen to them on Spotify or Apple Music) that might provide a good “way in.”

1. J. S. Bach (1685–1750), St. Matthew Passion

This is arguably the greatest Christian musical achievement of the early modern era. Vivid, compelling, and emotionally direct, it takes you inside the story of the suffering and death of Christ in a way that perhaps has never been equalled. Bach, a committed Lutheran, was steeped in Scripture, and understood its nuances, subtleties, and ramifications better than most other musicians of his time. You are made to feel responsible for what happened on Good Friday, and made to rethink your entire relation to the One who was crucified. Bear in mind that it lasts almost three hours. It’s best not to listen to it in one sitting, especially if you are new to Bach. Digest it in sections. And it’s wise to use a guide. Try Calvin Stapert’s book My Only Comfort, the best introduction to Bach’s theological world. (See also Bethany Jenkins’s article “Without Luther, There Would Be No Bach.”)

2. G. F. Handel (1685–1759), Messiah

Pity the concert hall in the United States or Britain that fails to include Messiah at Christmastime, when album sales and downloads of the oratorio escalate. Written at breathtaking speed (in less than a month), it has understandably become a classic. Handel sets to music nothing but biblical texts (the majority are from the Old Testament) in order to show the coherence of Scripture’s story, culminating in the coming of Jesus Christ. The result is a drama in three parts, roughly corresponding to Christ’s incarnation, redemptive work, and eternal reign. Again, Calvin Stapert provides the best guide (Handel’s Messiah). The best recording, in my view, is that by Stephen Layton with Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia. Stunningly dramatic.

3. W. A. Mozart (1756–1791), Piano Concerto, No. 21 in C major, K.467, last movement

In his later years, the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth used to listen to Mozart’s music every day as a kind of spiritual practice. In it he said he heard the physical world being enabled, by Mozart, to praise God. In other words, Mozart doesn’t get in the way. He doesn’t struggle to “say” something, or express his inner self. He simply lets himself become the vehicle of a fresh iteration of creation’s hallelujah. Listen to the bubbling, joyful abundance of this piece’s third movement for piano and orchestra, and you may end up thinking Barth had a point.

4. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”), fourth and fifth movements

Standing at the turn from the “classical” to the “Romantic” era, Beethoven unleashed forms of human expression that permanently changed the course of music history. His massive output mesmerized the 19th-century composers who were unlucky enough to come immediately after him.

Beethoven become well known for his “heroic” style—aspiring, thrusting, and often highly aggressive. This “Pastoral” symphony shows a different side to him—less assertive, far more settled, gracious, and thankful. For him, this work was meant to turn into sound the feelings evoked by the countryside surrounding Vienna, the fields and lanes where he often wandered. The fourth and fifth movements lead you from a fierce storm into “Shepherd’s song: cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm.” It is one of the great transitions of Western music: The sense of almost childlike gratitude is likely to melt even the hardest of hearts. (Simon Rattle’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic is exceptional.)

5. Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943), Piano Concerto No. 2, Adagio sostenuto

Never has the longing of the human heart for a distant Home been more eloquently evoked than in the music of Rachmaninov, a composer forced to spend much of his life away from his beloved Russia. Composed as he emerged from severe depression, the second piano concerto is perhaps the best-known piece of classical music ever written, and it deserves its popularity. N. T. Wright has said our world is marked by an “aching beauty”—its splendor is glorious, but it is marred and awaiting fulfillment. Listen to the second movement with that in mind. (Among the plethora of recordings, try Krystian Zimerman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.)

6. James MacMillan (1959–), Seven Last Words from the Cross

I began with the cross, and now return to it. Sir James MacMillan may be the most theologically profound Christian composer alive. He manages to give voice to a vibrant hope, but never descends into sentimentality, never allows us to forget that God heals the world by descending into its darkest depths. In seven short movements, the last words of Christ are set to music in a way that is both profoundly true to the Gospels, and disturbingly fresh. Among other things, we are reminded how silence can become the very substance of music. In the last piece, we hear an evocation of Jesus actually dying, taking his last breaths. If you ever need to be convinced of the theological power of music, you could hardly do better than begin here.

GOD DOES NOT OWE US A HAPPY ENDING

It is a visual age. Cameras are ubiquitous, software is cheap, computers are powerful, and together they give us a video for every occasion. We, as Christians, have a video for every occasion. I love to watch the ones that tell the story of a husband and wife who had been on the verge of divorce but rekindled the flame, the ones about the godly wife who was willing to reconcile with her adulterous husband, the ones telling about the couple who endured the difficulty of a long and complicated adoption but were able to return home triumphant, holding that precious child in their arms, the ones about the dear, elderly man who found joy and contentment in caring for the wife who could no longer recognize or acknowledge him.

These videos provide a glimpse of God’s grace in the lives of his people and they are inspiring in the best sense. They give us hope that if we were to find ourselves in those situations, we would experience the Father’s kindness and blessing.

And yet, not every story has a happy ending.This world is so broken, so marked by sin, that many of our stories do not end with a kiss, they do not end with fulfillment, they do not end with a clear purpose. I love these videos just as you do, but they tell only select stories, not everystory.

For every powerful story of repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation, there are many husbands who break their vows and never repent, who walk away, never to return. There are wives who are willing to grant forgiveness, willing to save their shattered marriage, except that the husband will not have it. There are husbands who are repentant but wives who cannot or will not forgive. These stories are equally real, but we do not make films for them. We don’t see the soft camera shots and hear the music swell dramatically as she gets served with the divorce papers.

There are the adoptions that fall apart at the last moment, the man and woman who had set their hearts on a child, who had fallen in love with him, who had traveled across the world to pick him up, but who had him snatched away. I have watched a family adopt a child only to find that he was so scarred by his time in brutal Eastern institutions that he returned their love with violence, threats, and sexual deviancy so dark they felt they had to relinquish him. There were no cameras to capture the story and to inspire us with it.

I love to see the film of the elderly husband caring for his dear wife who suffers from Alzheimer’s. It’s powerful and effective and inspiring and I want to be like him should the situation ever befall me. But there is no film for the man whose wife no longer recognizes him and is terrified of him and who, locked into deeper and deeper dementia, must be placed in an institution far from the husband who loves her. There is no narrator to speak words of hope and inspiration.

It is as natural as the sunrise to want to find meaning in our suffering and often we find it, or believe we find it, in a happy ending. It was a grueling time, but I endured it and now I can say it was all worth it because I have the baby in my arms, my marriage has been renewed, my husband is reconciled to me, my prodigal son gave up his rebellion and returned home. But sometimes–oftentimes–the answers are not so readily apparent. So often these films do not represent life as we actually experience it.

But the Bible does. The Bible is full of unhappy endings or unexplained endings. There are Psalms of all praise and all rejoicing, and there are Psalms of pain and bewilderment. There is joy in the Bible, but there is grief too. God saw fit to capture many stories that end without a word of explanation. And these, too, matter to him. These, too, are important and are full of meaning and significance.

There is danger in our dedication to happy endings. We may come to believe that God extends his goodness and grace only in those situations that end happily. We may believe that a happy ending is what proves God’s presence through it. We may believe that the experiences that do not have a happy ending mean that God is somehow removed from it. We may resent the times that we do not hear the crescendo of the music and see in our own lives a story other people will want to hear.

We all desire happy endings to our suffering. Of course we do. But God does not owe us a happy ending and he does not owe us the answers. At times he chooses to give one or both. At other times he does not. Some day these things will make sense and and in that day we will acknowledge that God has done what is right. But until then, it is faith in his character and in his promises that will sustain us far more than a happy ending.

For 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 (Is. 55:8-9).

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Hab. 3:17-18)