Worship and Community

ChurchCommunity

On vacation this summer, we had the opportunity to attend a few churches. The music was nice. The preaching was good. The Bible was prominent. God was central. But something was missing. Community was missing. Not their community, but our membership within that community.

We noticed visible signs of strong and active communities. Before and after the services, people were talking and expressing their care for one another. But we weren’t a part of their community. We aren’t together all year long with them. We aren’t involved in their lives. We are like distant cousins, not close brothers and sisters.

Without the blessing of the depth of relationship with those around us, the church services were mostly about us and God. Now, certainly, this isn’t bad, but it felt shallow. It felt like a mere ceremony, devoid of accountability and mutual encouragement.

This is not our regular experience at church. Usually, we worship the Lord in the presence of those we know and love. The experience is entirely different. It is deeper. It is more profound. It feels like family.

The writer to the Hebrews connects worship with community. He connects ceremony with life in the body. He writes, “Let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29). Certainly, this can (and must) be done through a ceremony of singing and Scripture reading and praying and preaching. There must be reverence and awe, for worship deals with the gravest realities of life: apart from Christ, we are consumed in the fiery wrath of God. But this cannot be void of community.

The author continues in the very next verse with this exhortation: “Let brotherly love continue” (Hebrews 13:1). This is what was missing from the churches we visited on vacation. It’s not at all to say that those at the churches weren’t loving. They were loving. We felt their love through their kindness and grace. Nor is it to say that they were uncommitted to serving Christ. They were committed. Our conversations were centered on Christ and ministry. But it is to say that we weren’t a member of their family. We weren’t engaged in brotherly love with them like we are at our home church. We felt the void. We are looking forward to worshiping with our church community this Sunday.

Turning 50

Birthday50

I am turning 50 years old today (April 5, 2017). On the one hand, I feel no difference. I feel the same today as I did yesterday. My life this week will look much like my life did last week. The rhythm of my life this year will probably match the rhythm of last year: Easter, Summer Vacation, Thanksgiving, Christmas, … (repeat). Some things change from day to day, but not much. Time marches on.

Yet, I have crossed a threshold. In all probability, I have already lived out half of my life. I am on the back end. Moses wrote long ago, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty” (Psalm 90:10).

I see my strength fading. I can’t run as fast (or as long) as I used to run. I can’t jump as high. My endurance is less. My injuries don’t heal as quickly. I have less hair and more weight than ever before.

Furthermore, I see my time slipping away. The older I get, the faster time seems to fly. I remember when I was in elementary school. Even today, I could take you to my classroom and name my teachers and my friends. I remember my days in middle school and in high school and in college and in seminary. They seem only a few years ago, even though they were decades ago.

Today is a natural time in my life for reflection. Moses (in the same Psalm) prayed for wisdom regarding our fleeting time. He wrote, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

There is something about all of us all that lets our days pass by unnoticed and uncared for. We move from day to day without a care. Yet, our end is coming. The death rate is still 100%. Moses encourages us to live in light of the end.

I have noticed that ball games are played differently when time is ticking down. Those in the lead take their time. Those who are behind show more hustle. I have noticed that people live differently when a big project is nearing completion. When the project due date is weeks away, people are willing to spend the evenings with their friends. But when the due date is tomorrow, they brew the coffee and burn the midnight oil.

How easy it is to live as if there is no end. How easy is it to eat and drink and enjoy the God-given pleasures of the world. But there is an end. And the end is coming. It is coming fast. I am closer to it than ever before. It’s a call for me to live with a sense of urgency. My prayer to God this day is that I would number my days. Such is the path of wisdom.

But the end of our lives is not the end. Moses began his Psalm with a declaration of eternity, “From everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:2). This is why we are to number our days. They are short.

We can number our days, but we cannot number eternity. Eighty years of life are less than 30,000 days. It may seem long, but compared with eternity, it barely begins. The hymn-writer penned these words to put our short life in perspective:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
bright shining as the sun;
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
than when we first begun.
(by Harriet Beecher Stowe)

My life here on earth is only the beginning. It is a very short beginning. In light of eternity, my few years (being more than 50 now) are but a fleeting vapor. James says, “You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).

If we truly knew how long eternity was; and if we truly knew how short our lives were, we might just live differently. We might live with a sense of urgency. God has put eternity into man’s heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11). He wants for us to live in light of eternity. And when we do, we will be wise.

Only one life, ’twill soon be past.
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
(by C. T. Studd)

First World Problems

FirstWorldProblems

Those in wealthy nations often experience “First World Problems.” These are problems that come only to privileged individuals, who have no worries of food, shelter, or clothing. It’s the owner of the yacht who bemoans the cost of upkeep. It’s the Porsche owner makes a fuss when a can of soda is spilled in the back seat of his car. It’s those at their vacation home on the lake who complain of the sand that comes into the door from the beach.

Those who complain in this way seem oblivious to their material wealth. They have a yacht! They have a nice car! They have a vacation home! They have things that most of the world could only dream of having. They really have no right to complain at all. Reminding themselves of how good they have it would help them to see how minimal these problems are.

In a similar way, those who know and experience the tremendous spiritual blessings of God would do well to remember the privileges that they possess. Those who trust in Christ have been blessed “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3). It is the Lord …

who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:3-5).

Such blessings can easily be forgotten. That’s why David reminds himself to “forget not all his benefits” (Psalm 103:2). That’s why Paul instructs us to remember where we were before trusting in Christ. “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).

For a believer in Christ, complaining about the troubles of the world we face is like a wealthy man complaining about his first world problems.

Our Daily Food

Autumn

We have a cute little white dog in our house, named Autumn. She is a maltese bichon, who loves everyone she has ever met. You can read the story about how she came into our home here.

Every morning, her breakfast routine is exactly the same. My wife prepare her an egg, a spoonful of yogurt, an omega supplement, and one scoop of dry dog food. And every day Autumn’s response is the same. She watches intently as my wife prepares her food for her, licking her chops. Then, she gobbles it down. You can check out a video of the event here.

As I recently watched this taking place, I reflected upon how she is totally dependent upon us. She looks intently at us because we are her provider. Without our provision, she would surely perish.

Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). These aren’t mere words. This is reality. We are just as dependent upon the Lord every day to provide us with our daily needs as our dog is. Without the daily provision of the Lord, we too would perish.

 

If he should set his heart to it
and gather to himself his spirit and his breath,
all flesh would perish together,
and man would return to dust (Job 34:14-15).

Textualism

Scalia

Antonin Scalia passed away in his sleep last Saturday (February 13, 2016). As I have been reading a bit about his life, one thing caught my attention: his view of the Constitution. He was a textualist. That is, he looked intently at the ordinary meaning of the words of the constitution to determine how to apply it. This is in contrast with the view of judicial activism, where a judge’s personal views impacts his (or her) decisions.

Scalia famously said, “If you’re going to be a good and faithful judge, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re not always going to like the conclusions you reach. If you like them all the time, you’re probably doing something wrong.”

The issues surrounding the interpretation of the Constitution are similar to the issues surrounding the interpretation of the Bible. The text of the Bible stands as God’s Word to us. Our task is to understand the ordinary meaning of the words of the Bible and act upon them. There will certainly be some things that we don’t like, especially when our well-loved sins are confronted. At these moments we can either accept the authority of the Bible or reject it. We can either be a textualist or a judicial activist.

The Bible clearly understands these two positions. First of all comes the textualist. This one will read the Bible and seek to apply in. Whenever something difficult to believe comes his way, he will cry out, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). When he fails, he will confess his sin, admitting that his behavior was in error and seeking the forgiveness of our gracious God (1 John 1:9).

On the other side is the judicial activist. He will interpret the Bible in accordance with his own views. So, if there is something he reads that he doesn’t like, he conveniently denies the Bible. Of these people, Paul writes, “Although they know God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking” (Romans 1:21). If something confronts his lifestyle, he will suppress truth so he can continue to live as he wants. Paul said that these are those who “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).

When it comes to the Bible, are you a textualist or a political activist?

The Genie

Genie

A genie is a magical creature of Arabian folklore, who is imprisoned in an oil lamp. When someone rubs the lamp, the genie is released, willing and able to grant wishes to the one who set him free. All sorts of stories result as wishes are granted by genie.

The magic of the fairy tale is that it easily engages us into thinking of what sort of wishes we might make if we happened to rub a lamp and set a genie free. Would we wish for a new car or a new home or for millions of dollars? Would we wish for success or for health or for world peace? How wonderful it would be to have such a genie! At some point, however, we come back to reality, realizing that the genie is mere fantasy.

Sadly, there are many who treat God like a genie who grants wishes. They pray to God, wishing for some good result in their life like health or wealth. Sometimes they pray in a crisis for a dying friend or for a wayward son or for an ailing marriage. But when God doesn’t act like a genie in granting their every desire, they give up on God, because he wasn’t working for them. Soon they come to deny God altogether, thinking that he is simply a fable.

How foolish this is. It is based upon a faulty understanding of exactly who God is. He is not our servant, compelled to obey our every whim. Rather, we are his creatures, created to love him and obey him. When he does’t answer our prayers, it isn’t because he is inept or imaginary. It is because he has plans that we know not of. Let us submit our will to his.

“You thought that I was one like yourself.
But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you”
(Psalm 50:21).

Veneer

 

veneer
Veneer can make sub-quality wood look great. The wood itself may be unattractive plywood or particle board, but glue a thin (1/8 inch) strip of oak on the outside and the wood looks like solid oak.

Many people live as if they were veneer-covered plywood. Whenever they are in public, they put on their good face. But in private they live otherwise.

The Pharisees of old lived like this. Jesus called them “white-washed tombs,” which look beautifully clean on the outside, but inwardly are full of decomposing bodies (Matthew 23:27). Jesus described them as cups that were clean on the outside, but on the inside were full of greed and self-indulgence (Matthew 23:25). To such people, Jesus said, “Woe to you.”

Over my years of pastoral ministry, I have discovered that people can hide their true selves pretty well (for decades, even). But eventually, their hypocrisy will be exposed, either during their lives or during the final judgment.

The good news is that we don’t need to be clean to be received by God. Neither do we need to cover our lives with a veneer of righteousness. The opposite is true. We must confess our uncleanness. God will take the old wood and transform it into something beautiful that doesn’t need to be hidden.

I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Psalm 32:5).