Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Walking by Sight, Not by Faith

In 2 Corinthians 5:7, Paul says that Christians "walk by faith, not by sight."  This should be the normal rhythm of the Christian life.  What God says, not what I see, governs how I live.  God's Word determines how I walk through the circumstances of life.  The circumstances of life do not determine how or whether I walk with God.

Yet, so often, the circumstances of life are like muggers.  They ambush us on the sidewalk, beat us up, and take our wallet.  As a result, the way we walk through life can change.  We look over our shoulder in fear of what might happen next.  We believe a "good day" is merely one without pain or trouble.  In other words, we start walking by sight, not by faith.

One picture of this reversal is in Exodus 4-6.  In chapter 4, Moses pronounces God's promise of deliverance to the Israelites, with accompanying miraculous signs to validate his message.  In response, "...the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped" (4:31).  They're prepared to walk by faith, not by sight.  So far, so good.

In chapter 5, though, circumstances begin to take a turn for the worse.  Pharaoh is outraged at the call to "Let my people go" (v. 1).  As a result, he makes life worse for the Israelites.  They were already slaves, but now, they must keep meeting their daily work quota without Pharaoh providing the resources needed to do so.

The Israelites' painful circumstances have pounced on them, and they're left staggering.  They question Moses (5:21).  In turn, Moses questions God (5:22-23).  The faith displayed at the end of chapter 4 is nowhere to be found.  Why?  They're responding to what they see, but not with faith.

The story goes on.  In chapter 6, God's Word comes through Moses again.  God reiterates the truth about who He is and what He will do for His people.  He is the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob...the LORD (v. 3-4).  He has heard their groaning for mercy, and He will keep His promises (v. 5).  He will deliver them from their bondage, redeem them by His power, be their God, and give them the land He promised (v. 6-8).

Now, remember, in chapter 4, God's Word was received in faith, and the people bowed their heads in worship.  Will they respond in faith again?  Will worship break out once more?  Will they gain new strength to trust the Lord as they wait for Him to work?  Sadly, the answer to all three questions is no.

"Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery" (Ex. 6:9).  They can't get their eyes off their circumstances long enough to see the hope of God's promise.  In chapter 4, they had sung, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow..."  Now, they sing again.  It's the same melody, but in a minor key and with different lyrics: "Where's God when all my burdens grow?..."

Why have they changed their tune?  Because they are walking by sight.  They see Pharaoh's anger.  They see harsher masters and harder labor.  And quite frankly, they see no end in sight.  And what they can see is determining whether they will listen to the Lord, trust the Lord, or hope in the Lord.  They are walking by sight.

Oh how easy it is for us to walk by sight!  How common it is to measure the reality and benevolence of God by the circumstances of our lives!  How often my soul has been mugged by opposition, mauled by suffering, and molested by trials!

And it is here that we need the Lord's grace to clear away the scales that blind us to His promises.  We need the Lord Jesus Himself to clean out our spiritual ears, so we hear and believe the truth.  And what we need to hear, with ears of faith, are the same truths God spoke in Exodus 6. 

We need to hear that God has made a covenant with us in the blood of His Son, Jesus.  It is an eternal covenant, securing our forgiveness and making us right with Him.  And it cannot be broken.  We need to hear that we have access to God's throne of grace through Jesus, our High Priest.  There, we can groan for mercy and grace in our time of need and expect to be heard.

We need to hear, over and over again, that Jesus Christ has broken the bondage of sin's slavery and has redeemed us to be His people.  We need to hear that, because we've been redeemed and reconciled to God, God Himself is our God, and we are His people.  We need to hear that the promised eternal home on the new earth awaits, and the Holy Spirit is the guarantee of our safe arrival.

With that faith in place, how are we to live in this world of sorrows?  The apostle Paul tells us.  "For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:17-18).

In short, walk by faith, not by sight.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Worship with Regularity

How do we approach public worship as a Christian?  What about private worship?  Have we made it a habit to worship the Lord publicly, as well as privately?  Do we discipline ourselves to do both regularly?  Now, I realize that asking such questions may result in confusion or even accusation.  After all, when we talk about making habits and establishing routines, aren't we jumping into legalism?  Isn't it only the heart that matters?  You know, being genuine.

Well, of course, being genuine is a great concern for God.  God hates vain, meaningless offerings (Is. 1:12-20).  He also despises empty, rote, religious action (Is. 29:13; Mk. 7:6-8).  Habits, actions, and routines, in and of themselves, are quite meaningless, fruitless, useless, and a monumental waste of time.  However, I think we've made a mistake when we pit the habits of the Christian life against genuine Christian life.  This makes it sound like habits can't be genuine and genuineness only expresses itself in spontaneity.  That's just not true.

Take expressions of love in marriage.  Spontaneous, romantic trips and dates are great.  Surprising your wife by finishing some home project while she's away for the day is a loving thing to do.  Picking up flowers for her when all she needed from the store was mustard is a kind, generous act. 

These can be genuine, but the vast majority of our loving expressions in marriage can be quite routine.  Always hugging and kissing before you leave the house, or once you arrive home.  Calling or texting at lunch to check on one another.  Choosing to do the grocery shopping, mow the yard, pay the bills, wash the dishes, make the bed, or clean the toilet because you know your spouse hates it. 

These are routine, meaning we make a habit of them, and we could do them in an empty, callous, or even hateful way.  However, it's it true that they can all be absolutely genuine.  Everyday, routine actions full of genuine love for the other person.  The same can be said of a nightly routine to talk, a monthly date, a yearly overnight trip.  These things need not be spontaneous to be genuine, and the same can be said of worship.

I bring this up because the God who despises empty, routine offerings and religious gatherings is also the God who commands routine offerings and religious gatherings.  This was made clear once again when I read Numbers 28 this morning.  It's a very repetitive chapter.  It's a chapter we may be tempted to speed read without thinking about it.  That way, we can check it off our plan and be one step closer to reading the Bible in a year.

However, let's not do that.  Let's consider what's happening.  God is establishing a routine.  A habit.  A regular rhythm of worship.  There are daily offerings (v. 1-8), weekly offerings (v. 9-10), monthly offerings (v. 11-15), and yearly offerings (v. 16-25).  Then, we move on to feasts that should be observed with regularity, which starts in verse 26 and doesn't finish until the end of chapter 29.

God isn't commanding regularity for the sake of regularity.  Habit for the sake of habit.  Routine for the sake of routine.  God doesn't want His people to know that He's got them under His thumb, like some cruel dictator.  No, these are gracious commands that God gives to His people.  God has already shown His commitment to them by delivering them from slavery in Egypt.  He would be their God, and they would be His people.

Then, in Numbers 13-14, the people chose against trusting the Lord to help them enter and take the promised land.  Still, God is committed to His people.  God knows that His people need a regular reminder of His goodness, His grace, His mercy, His redemption...as well as their sinfulness, their need, their dependence on Him.  So, He establishes a regular rhythm of worship.  Through the many offerings that will be offered daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly, the people will be reminded of their need and God's provision.  Their weakness and God's strength.  Their sin and God's forgiveness.

The same is true for us.  We need routine reminders of God's grace, mercy, and love.  We need reminders of our sin, our neediness, our weakness.  These are what regular public and private prayer provide us.  We sing songs together, being reminded of God's greatness and our need to recognize that greatness...that He is God and we are not.  We pray corporately, reminded of His power and sovereignty, as well as our dependence on Him for all things.  We give, worshiping God as the source and owner of all things and expressing that we are stewards who act for the sake of our Master.  God's Word is preached, recognizing our regular need to hear God speak and submitting our lives to His scrutiny.

Are you getting the picture?  A regular rhythm of worship is good.  Of course, routines can dissolve into ruts, but don't assume that they will.  Fight against it.  Recognize that the ability to develop routines and habits has been given for God's glory and for our good.

With all this in mind, let me leave you with some questions to consider.  Again, the goal is not to establish a legalistic mindset, but we do need to be challenged to think about our lives.  Very often, we get into the wrong kinds of habits with our time, energy, money, etc., and need to be shaken out of it.  So, here are questions for me and for you:
  • Is it your routine to be involved in public worship?  Do you discipline your time in order to make sure it happens?
  • Do you have a regular rhythm of private worship - getting into God's word on your own, meditating on it and memorizing it, praying regularly and often, etc.?
  • Are there regular routines at your church that you're choosing to ignore?  Maybe it's a Sunday morning Bible study, a Sunday evening service, a gathering for prayer, or Wednesday evening small group.
    • Why are you ignoring them?  Do you think it's unnecessary for you to have any rhythms other than Sunday morning?
    • Have you convinced yourself that busyness in your life forbids being involved?  Has it also forbidden Facebook, television, playing/watching sports, and other recreational activities?
  • Do you have a regular rhythm of giving money away for the sake of God's kingdom and for the good of others?  My guess is that your church offers such opportunities regularly.  What would keep you from giving regularly, as God would have you do?
  • Have you established any regular rhythms in your family?  Rhythms in any family may vary from one season to another, but is there any sense of rhythm?
    • Natural rhythms are things like game nights, eating dinner together, going on walks, movie night, family vacations (either the out-of-town or stay-at-home kind), playing catch, bedtime routines, etc.  (These are called "natural" rhythms because one doesn't need to be a Christian to do them.  However, when Christians do them, we should be motivated to please the Lord and serve our families.)
    • Spiritual rhythms may include praying, singing, reading the Bible, reading through a helpful book, serving, regular conversation about spiritual issues and growth, discipline aimed at the heart and not just behavior, etc.
So, God has commanded routines.  He commands habits.  It glorifies Him for us to have a regular rhythm of worship, and it does our souls good.  Let's fall into the trap of believing that simply having spiritual habits makes them inauthentic.  Instead, let's be committed to authenticity in the midst of spiritual habits.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The New Phonebooks Are Here!: Church Directories, and My Bittersweet Experience

In the 1979 movie, The Jerk, Steve Martin plays Navin R. Johnson, a character described as a "befuddled homeless simpleton".  In one scene, Navin yanks a phone book out of a delivery guys hands and begins furiously whipping through pages.  Then, he stops and yells that most famous line.  "The new phonebook's here!  The new phonebook's here!"

Why is he screaming about such a mundane event in life?  He's excited because he found his name.  On page 73.  What a moment!  He's sure millions of people will see his name in print.  And as a result, he's convinced that great things are going to start happening for him.

Our congregation, like many others, occasionally produces church directories.  This last week, the new directories came in.  I didn't jump up and down screaming, "The new directory's here!" However, I do like having a directory.  A church directory isn't just a photo album.  And it's not just a phonebook.  A church directory should be a tool for prayer and ministry.  Let me explain.

Do you pray for the other people in your congregation?  Not just those on "the prayer list."  Not just those facing crisis.  Surely, we need to be praying for them, but are you praying for every member?  Using the directory as your guide, you can systematically pray for every member of your church.  Even if you don't know all the inner workings of their life, you can pray for them.  I've always found that using Paul's prayers as a model is helpful when I'm praying for someone I don't know as well (e.g.- 1 Cor. 1:4-9; Eph. 1:15-21; Eph. 3:14-19; Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:9-12; etc.).

We can also use our church directory as a tool for ministry.  Are there faces in the directory that you haven't seen lately in the Sunday morning gathering?  Use that as an opportunity to write a card, pick up the phone, or make a visit...not to your elders, so they'll do something about it.  Take responsibility for your brother/sister in Christ.  Express your concern about their absence. 

Are their children plagued by illness?  Is there a conflict with another church member she's avoiding?  Is his boss demanding work on Sundays?  Is there some change they're struggling to embrace?  Have they decided things just aren't as exciting as they were at first, so maybe they need to "make a change"?  Is there some other issue that needs to be addressed?  God can use you to speak into your friend's life.

There's more ministry than just noticing who's absent.  As we peruse the church directory, we see the faces of those struggling.  Those recently diagnosed with one malady or another.  The single mom dealing with her rebellious teenage son.  The man who lost his job 6 months ago and can't find work.  The single woman who's subtly expressed her loneliness.  The young couple about to have their first baby.  The not-as-young couple about to have their 6th.  And all these are opportunities to speak and act in the lives of others...for God's glory and their good.

But beyond these basic, helpful uses of the church directory, I find my first glance at a new church directory both bitter and sweet.  The pictures can stir grief and burden.  I see pictures of men or women.  They're alone in their pictures.  However, the last time we produced a directory, a husband or a wife was present.  I also see those struggling with God's purposes in the midst of diagnoses that weren't present the last time their picture was taken.  There are also those struggling with their unbelieving spouses or children.

Then there are those I don't see.  For various reasons, they're no longer part of our congregation.  In another state.  In another county.  In another congregation.  It's probably the last of those three that's most difficult.  People leave churches for all kinds of bad reasons.  And people often just silently sneak away, thinking they're being nice...doing everyone a favor by not talking about their struggles.  But that's simply not true.  And why isn't it true?  Well, that's another blog for another day.  It's sufficient to say that I'm burdened for those I don't see.  (Of course, I didn't mention those absent because of church discipline...or those who have left church altogether.)

That's the bitter part of the church directory experience, but there's sweetness too.  The sweetness of seeing pictures and thinking of how God is at work.  The couple who's fighting for their marriage...and winning.  The families with children in this picture...who weren't in the last picture.  Families we have sent to serve the Lord in other countries.  Men and women who are involved in ministry far beyond what they would've imagined the last time directories were published.

Older couples who have renewed vigor in serving the Lord.  Young, single men and women sacrificing worldly ambition for the sake of others.  People who are being trained in biblical counseling...and sitting in on biblical counseling.  Retired folks who are working like crazy for the Lord, seeking first His kingdom.  Young men who want to pursue pastoral ministry of one kind or another.

Five years of serving in this congregation, and the pictures mean a lot more than they did on day 1.  At the beginning, I was just trying to get the right name with the right face.  Now, I long to know the right spiritual condition that goes with that name and face.  Their needs.  Their strengths.  Their weaknesses.  Their struggles.  And I'm certain these pictures will mean more in five more years.

The new directory's here!  And it's a bittersweet experience.