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.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Reflections on "The Soulwinner's Reward"

One of the books I'm currently reading is The Soulwinner by C.H. Spurgeon.  My colleagues and I on the pastoral staff are reading and discussing it together.  I have found this book and our discussions on it to be helpful and challenging.

The chapter we are reading this week is called "The Soulwinner's Reward."  In it, Spurgeon addresses rewards for those who are actively evangelizing.  Seeking to win souls.  And I thought I'd share a few passages that could encourage us in our evangelistic efforts.

The first paragraph encourages us when we don't see the conversions we would like to see.  When our evangelism doesn't seem to be "working."  We've all been there, right?  An evangelistic conversation is shutdown for one reason or another.  Then it happens again.  And again.  It's heartbreaking because we want to see people come to faith in Christ.  Does God really reward these unsuccessful attempts to evangelize?  Hear Spurgeon's words:
"Even if we did not succeed in it [i.e.- our evangelistic effort], the Lord would still say of it, as He did of David's intent to build a temple, 'Thou didst well that it was in thine heart' (1 Kings 8:18).  Even if the souls we seek all persist in unbelief, if they all despise and reject and ridicule us, it will still be a divine work to have at least made the attempt.  If no rain comes out of the cloud, it has still screened off the fierce heat of the sun.  All is not lost, even if the greater purpose is not accomplished.  What if we only learn how to join the Savior in His tears and mourn, 'How often would I have gathered thy children together...and ye would not!' (Matthew 23:37).  It is sublime honor itself to be allowed to stand on the same platform with Jesus and weep with Him.  We are better for such sorrows, if no others are." (p. 172)
It's good to know that there is reward in the going.  In the attempting.  In the sharing.  In the preaching.  In leaving a tract.  In trying to start conversations.  But some might hear this and be tempted to remain satisfied with never seeing people converted.  I don't mean we don't want to see people converted.  I just mean that we can become so satisfied in attempting that we lose our passion...our drive...our hunger...to succeed in seeing people saved.  We can forget the joy of being part of God's work in the world.

Parents, surely there is a sense in which we must be satisfied with remaining faithful in teaching our children the gospel.  In faithfully praying for them.  In using every means God has given us to teach them the faith.  That's all we can do...really.  But how can a Christian parent not hunger for their child's conversion the way a starving man wants just one bite of food?  How can we not be driven to see it happen?  Can we really think of ourselves as "Christian" or "parents" if we remain apathetic?

Part of the problem is that we won't keep attempting if we become apathetic.  We won't keep sharing the gospel.  Very often, we would just as soon give up as keep failing to see conversions.  Well, Spurgeon has encouragement for us here, too.
"I may be speaking to a few who have not succeeded.  If so, I would recommend that they steadily look over their motives, their spirits, their work, and their prayers, and then begin again.  Perhaps they may come to work more wisely, more believingly, more humbly, and more in the power of the Holy Spirit.  They must act as farmers do who, after a poor harvest, plow again in hope.  They ought not to be dispirited, but they ought to be roused.
"We should be anxious to find out the reason of failure, if there is any, and we should be ready to learn from all our fellow laborers.  But we must steadfastly set our faces, if by any means we may save some, resolving that, whatever happens, we will leave no stone unturned to effect the salvation of those around us." (p 173)
He aims at two things to do...examine yourself, and examine your work.  Look into your heart.  Do we believe in the power of the gospel as we share it?  Do we know that the dead can be raised right before our eyes?  Are we sharing as a proud man who has religious insight or as a humble man who has received God's grace?  As one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread?

Also, look at your work.  What exactly are we sharing?  What is our focus?  Does our conversation focus only on how bad the world is?  Are we putting forward some message other than the gospel (e.g.- political, social, etc.)?  Do we ever express the truths of the gospel?  If we believe we need to grow, then what are we doing to grow in our evangelism?  How are we learning from fellow laborers?

One way to learn from others is to read what they have written about evangelism.  But BEWARE...reading about evangelism does not make us more evangelistic, but books and articles can help us grow.  With those warnings given, here are a few suggestions to consider:

  • The Soulwinner by C.H. Spurgeon - How could I not recommend the book I'm quoting in this post?  You can get it in Paperback or on Kindle (for only 99 cents).
  • The Gospel and Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever - This is a very helpful book to think about what the gospel is and some practical ways to improve your evangelism.  It's also not as long as Spurgeon's work.  Paperback or Kindle
  • Here's an article from Jim Eliff at Christian Communicators Worldwide that will help you think more intentionally about evangelism: "A More Spontaneous and Genuine Evangelism"
Let me quote one last passage.  It reminds us of the pleasure of God in our evangelism, and it is a fitting way to finish this post.
"When you bring others to His feet, you give Him joy, and no small joy, either.  Is not this a wonderful text: 'There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth' (Luke 15:10)?  What does that mean?  Does it mean that the angels have joy?  We generally read it so, but that is not the intent of the verse.  It says, 'There is joy in the presence of the angels of God.'  That means there is joy in the heart of God, around whose throne the angels stand.  It is a joy that angels delight to behold.
"What is this?  Is the blessed God capable of greater joy than His own boundless happiness?  What a wondrous thought!  The infinite bliss of God is more eminently displayed, if it cannot be increased.  Can we be instruments of this?  Can we do anything that will make the Ever Blessed glad?  Yes, for we are told that the Great Father rejoices beyond measure when His prodigal son, who was dead, is alive again, and the lost one is found.
"...It is a great pleasure to be doing a kindness to an earthly friend; but to be doing something distinctly for Jesus, something that will be of all things in the world most pleasing to Him, is a great delight!...
"Go, dear friends, and seek to bring your children and your neighbors, your friends and your relatives, to the Savior's feet.  Nothing will give Him as much pleasure as to see them turn to Him and live.  By your love for Jesus, become fishers of men." (p. 178-179)