For it is by grace you have been saved...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

One Shot

The old saying goes: You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule, but there is some truth to this. I was thinking about this as I listened to my advance download of a few songs from the Newsboys upcoming release (I was so excited about this new CD that I actually tried to buy it a month early. Had my dates confused and came away looking pretty silly. Anyway…)

One of the new songs, called One Shot, has a catchy little chorus that says:
All around the world
Every boy, every girl's got one shot
To prove what they're all about
I'm gonna sing about my God
And it doesn't matter what's hot

I thought about that and how it plays into all the “entertainment” oriented church services, using every popular hook we can think of to get folks in the door. What does that say about our one shot, our first impression? If we hook folks with gimmicks, how will they ever take us seriously when we talk about the life or death truth of the gospel? Have we squandered our one shot in that case?

Again, there are always exceptions. God often works in spite of us. The truth of his Gospel is powerful on its own, and often does its work in spite of the trite way we present it. But the church has become addicted to gimmicks and gadgets to try and draw the crowds and show that we’re bigger and better than the church down the street. And then we wonder why we end up producing shallow church members.

Way back in the day, Sheila Walsh recorded a song called Triumph in the Air (back when the girl knew how to rock). Even back then there were signs on the horizon about how we present the gospel. The song says: “Games, that’s all we have played. All we have made of the truth we have freely received.”

How right she was. The church has become a game. Sex sermon series to grab attention. Gimmicky T-shirts and bumper stickers that trivialize the truth by trying to imitate the world. On and on. (Check out the Museum of Idolatry some time for some sickening examples of this stuff).

Again, once we’ve hooked folks with these things, how do we then overcome the first impression of shallow crowd pleasers to show them the life or death seriousness of sin and the only way to overcome it? I’m afraid the answer is, we probably won’t in many (most?) cases.

I know that some folks think I’m a bit hypocritical. After all, here I am quoting a Newsboys song to make the point to begin with. Not exactly the most suit-and-tie kind of stuff. But I’m not saying we can’t like contemporary music, or even enjoy some entertainment. I’m asking whether or not we take the Gospel seriously enough to allow the Gospel to be the center of what we do. Why do we think the church needs gimmicks to reach people? Why isn’t the gospel enough?

Seems to me that God’s Word had been enough for the church for about 2,000 years. Then suddenly, we realized that it was lacking, so we had to add some more “fun” stuff to it. Otherwise, folks just won’t get it, right?

We may only get one shot at this. I’d rather fill my canon with the power of the Gospel message and let God do a work, than try to manufacture a bang on my own which may only lead to a long term fizzle once the excitement wears off. We were called to make disciples, not satisfied and entertained attenders.

To again quote that new song from the theologically astute ‘boys:
Are we scared to stand out from the crowd?
Make a difference in our own town?
If we stay silent with our voices now
The rocks will cry out
Believers let me hear you shout

As I’ve said here recently, and often, the church is called to stand out, not fit in. It may not be the best way to grow a big popular country club, I mean church. But it is the way God will build His church. Let’s use our one shot wisely.

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:2, ESV)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

21 And Counting

21 years ago today, by the very great grace of God, this woman became my wife.

In those 21 years, I’ve dragged her through seminary housing, living with a homeless ministry, several years on an Indian Reservation, and a couple of small churches. And she’s never once complained about the low standard of living that comes with being a small church pastor.

Along the way, God blessed us with four wonderful children, whom she has done the bulk of the labor in raising and homeschooling. Our children are becoming amazing servants of Christ, largely due to their mother (and of course large doses of God’s grace). Again, she does all this without complaint.

She is the very definition of what a godly woman should be. She loves Christ, loves her husband, loves her family, loves her church; pretty much in that order, as it should be.

I know that grace is an amazing thing in general. I know that receiving undeserved favor, unmerited blessing is at the core of our faith. And I am constantly amazed that God would ever love “such a worm as I.”

Though nothing can or ever will compare with that grace, I continue to marvel at the fact that God gave me Cheryl on top of it all. What a blessing to this worthless lump! And I am eternally grateful for it all.

Happy Anniversary, Cheryl! I love you more every day!

(Even if the kids do think there’s more than one dinosaur in this photo!)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Longing for God - Isaac Watts on Psalm 63

Most of you know that Isaac Watts is considered the “Father of English Hymnody.” He fought long and hard to sing songs written by “mere men” in worship, along with the singing of Psalms. You probably also know that one of his greatest works was to put the Psalms into “verse,” which is to say, putting them into English rhythms and forms while keeping the basic structure and meaning of the original Psalm.

I’ve found his Psalm verses to be very helpful for use in private devotions/worship. So I just thought I’d share. Below are three different versions Watts wrote based on of one of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 63. Each is written to a different meter so that it could be sung to a variety of tunes, and the Common Meter version is divided into two parts.

Maybe rather lengthy for a blog post, but I hope you might find a blessing in meditating on these words of longing after God. SDG

PSALM 63 PART 1 - v.1-5
C. M.

Early, my God, without delay,
I haste to seek thy face;
My thirsty spirit faints away
Without thy cheering grace.

So pilgrims on the scorching sand,
Beneath a burning sky,
Long for a cooling stream at hand,
And they must drink or die.

I've seen thy glory and thy power
Through all thy temple shine;
My God, repeat that heav'nly hour,
That vision so divine.

Not all the blessings of a feast
Can please my soul so well,
As when thy richer grace I taste,
And in thy presence dwell.

Not life itself, with all her joys,
Can my best passions move,
Or raise so high my cheerful voice,
As thy forgiving love.

Thus till my last expiring day
I'll bless my God and King;
Thus will I lift my hands to pray,
And tune my lips to sing.

PSALM 63 PART 2 - v.6-10
C. M.

'Twas in the watches of the night
I thought upon thy power,
I kept thy lovely face in sight
Amidst the darkest hour.

My flesh lay resting on my bed,
My soul arose on high:
"My God, my life, my hope," I said,
"Bring thy salvation nigh."

My spirit labors up thine hill,
And climbs the heav'nly road;
But thy right hand upholds me still,
While I pursue my God.

Thy mercy stretches o'er my head
The shadow of thy wings;
My heart rejoices in thine aid,
My tongue awakes and sings.

But the destroyers of my peace
Shall fret and rage in vain;
The tempter shall for ever cease,
And all my sins be slain.

Thy sword shall give my foes to death,
And send them down to dwell
In the dark caverns of the earth,
Or to the deeps of hell.

L. M.

Great God, indulge my humble claim,
Thou art my hope, my joy, my rest;
The glories that compose thy name
Stand all engaged to make me blest.

Thou great and good, thou just and wise,
Thou art my Father and my God;
And I am thine by sacred ties;
Thy son, thy servant, bought with blood

With heart, and eyes, and lifted hands,
For thee I long, to thee I look,
As travellers in thirsty lands
Pant for the cooling water-brook.

With early feet I love t' appear
Among thy saints, and seek thy face;
Oft have I seen thy glory there,
And felt the power of sovereign grace.

Not fruits nor wines that tempt our taste,
Nor all the joys our senses know,
Could make me so divinely blest,
Or raise my cheerful passions so.

My life itself without thy love
No taste of pleasure could afford;
'Twould but a tiresome burden prove,
If I were banish'd from the Lord.

Amidst the wakeful hours of night,
When busy cares afflict my head,
One thought of thee gives new delight,
And adds refreshment to my bed.

I'll lift my hands, I'll raise my voice,
While I have breath to pray or praise;
This work shall make my heart rejoice,
And spend the remnant of my days.

S. M.

My God, permit my tongue
This joy, to call thee mine;
And let my early cries prevail
To taste thy love divine.

My thirsty, fainting soul
Thy mercy doth implore;
Not travellers in desert lands
Can pant for water more.

Within thy churches, Lord,
I long to find my place;
Thy power and glory to behold,
And feel thy quick'ning grace.

For life without thy love
No relish can afford;
No joy can be compared to this,
To serve and please the Lord.

To thee I'll lift my hands,
And praise thee while I live;
Not the rich dainties of a feast
Such food or pleasure give.

In wakeful hours at night
I call my God to mind;
I think how wise thy counsels are,
And all thy dealings kind.

Since thou hast been my help,
To thee my spirit flies,
And on thy watchful providence
My cheerful hope relies.

The shadow of thy wings
My soul in safety keeps;
I follow where my Father leads,
And he supports my steps.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Worshipping Rightly

We hear so much these days about methods and styles in worship. We argue about which songs to sing, old hymns and gospel songs or newer “choruses” and so on. Some even argue over how many songs to sing or how much Scripture to read (I actually had someone tell me that Scripture reading was a “disruption” to worship and to the work of God’s Spirit. Hmmmm…).

However, the real matter of worship is not the externals, but the heart. I’ve been studying 2 Samuel 6 where David sought to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. You know the story. They throw it on a cart, put together a parade and start off. Along the way, the cart jostles, the Ark tips, and a poor guy named Uzzah reaches out to steady it. I call him a poor guy not because of the name (which is enough reason to feel sorry for him) but because of the end result here. God strikes him dead on the spot.

Seems like a bit of an overreaction. And some will point to the fact that part of the problem here is in the externals. God is upset in part because they were not doing this in accordance with his prescribed method for moving the ark. David figures that out, and later tries again, this time the right way, and the results are much better.

But is it really just about the externals here? Is God really upset just because they used a cart instead of carrying it with poles? Well, yes and no. That is the part of the reason, but it’s also because it reflects a deeper heart issue. David didn’t start with the right mind set. They did the wrong externals because their hearts were not in the right place. They took no thought at all to the issue of God’s will, God’s holiness, obedience to God’s Word, etc. And that’s the real issue in our worship.

Here are some thoughts from Charles Spurgeon regarding the issue. This is from a sermon on the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 13. (The Lesson Of Uzza. Delivered By C. H. Spurgeon, At The Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington. Nov. 4th, 1888. No. 2855) (Note: the entire sermon can be read here)

If I read the story aright, it seems to me…that there was too little thought as to God’s mind upon the matter. David consulted the people, but he would have done better if he had consulted God. The co-operation of the people was desirable, but much more the benediction of the Most High. There ought to have been much prayer preceding this great undertaking of bringing up the ark of the Lord; but it seems to have been entered upon with very much heartiness and enthusiasm, but not with any preparatory supplication or spiritual consideration. If you read the story through, you will see that it appears to be an affair of singing, and harps, and psalteries, and timbrels, and cymbals, and trumpets, and of a new cart and cattle; that is about all there is in it. There is not even a mention of humiliation of heart, or of solemn awe in the presence of that God of whom the ark was but the outward symbol. I am afraid that this first attempt was too much after the will of the Flesh, and the energy of nature, and too little according to that rule of which Christ said to the woman at Sychar, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” Yes, beloved, all worship fails if that is not the first consideration in it. Let the singing be hearty and melodious, let everything in our services be in proper order; but, as the first and most important thing, let the Holy Ghost be there, so that we may draw near to God in our heart, and have real spiritual communion with him. The outward form of worship is a very secondary matter; the inward spirit of it is the all-important thing; there appears, to me, to have been too little attention paid to that in the first attempt that David made to bring up the ark; and, therefore, it was a failure.

Sounds to me a lot like many of our worship services today. We have a lot of enthusiasm. We have singing and pomp and so on. But there is way too little of the humiliation of heart or the solemn awe in the presence of God.

Maybe I’m making it too simple (or maybe too difficult), but it seems to me that if we spent more time focused on God, humbling ourselves before Him, looking to honor and reverence him instead of pleasing our own flesh, then all of the fights over songs and styles and such would pass away. The externals do matter, but only as the outgrowth of hearts that are truly prepared for rightly worshipping our Great God of Grace. After all, it’s all about Him to begin with. Soli Deo Gloria!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Is “Fashionable” the Goal of the Church?

Timing is everything. I just finished reading an excellent book by Tullian Tchividjian called Unfashionable. He addresses the issue of how the church should interact with culture, specifically critiquing our fascination with “fitting in,” on in his terms, being “fashionable.” He does a remarkable job of showing how the church is supposed to be different from the world; not completely isolated from it, but different. Some good thoughtful stuff here.

Then on Sunday, the Springfield paper had a feature article called “Christian Ink.” It was highlighting a particular church in town that not only welcomes those who have tattoos, but actually has a wall in the church highlighting members who have been “inked.” A wall of fame, with pictures of their tats, welcomes all those who enter.

Now, I don’t want to turn this into an article strictly against tattoos, though I certainly think we can make some strong arguments against it. As a church, however, we ought to welcome anyone and everyone who comes, tats or not. So though I would strongly discourage getting them, we would certainly want to welcome folks who might have them. This isn’t really about that aspect of it.

The article tells how the pastor of this church preached a sermon while getting a tattoo, and offering “temporary tats” to everyone at the same time. I’m thinking, what’s the point here? Is this really what the preaching of this Gospel is supposed to be about? Isn’t this the very “fashionable” approach Tchividjian is talking about? Just trying to look like the world, to be hip, to fit in and so on.

Furthermore, the article highlights one man who owns or co-owns two tattoo parlors in the area with “sanctified” sounding names like Eternal Tattoo and Sacred Art. I don’t know this man. I don’t know his business ventures. But I am greatly disturbed by this comment from the article:

“(the owner) sees his art as a way to earn a living and a way to share his faith. ‘I thought if someone out there needed to hear what the Bible says, maybe I was that guy to reach them,’ he says. But his own faith does not get in the way of business. The artists in the shops will talk to a customer who requests an offensive tattoo, but they will not refuse one based on beliefs. ‘I do lots of Wiccan tattoos,’ says…a tattoo artist at Eternal.” (emphasis mine)

Does anyone else see the problem here? Don’t let you faith get in the way of business? Go ahead a put a permanent Wiccan mark on someone’s body, it’s ok? That’s like me saying to someone, “I don’t recommend Satanic books, but if you really want one, here let me give you one.” Hel-lo!

Furthermore, one of the featured “converts” in this article who came to the church I mentioned above because of it’s openness on the issue, posed for photos to accompany the article. On his forearm is a skull and crossbones and a scantily clad woman. One shot has his inked arms crossed, with a cross in his hand hanging right next to the tattoo.

Now, please hear me again. The church ought to be reaching out to folks like this. They need the Gospel just like the rest of us sinners. And I don’t want to disparaged what God may be doing in his life. But do we not see the problem with “accepting” artwork that is in opposition to Biblical standards; in fact, not just accepting but showing them off like some kind of badge of honor, when it is an offense to the holiness our God calls us to? Are we so enamored by the world, that we can’t even see the worldliness of stuff like this?

Again, I understand the man got the tats prior to “conversion” (at least that’s the assumption I make), and that’s something he’ll have to live with. But instead of encouraging him to maybe have the more offensive tats removed or at least covered, we’re going to show them off on the wall at church, along with the rest of our members’ “art”? We’re going to brag about permanently marking people’s bodies with Satanic symbols, and we don’t have a problem with that because we don’t want our faith to affect our business?

I may have read the book wrong, but this is precisely the kind of thing Tchividjian was talking about. Our failure to let our faith affect every area of our lives so that we live differently from the world around us. Not haughtily. Not judgmentally. Not in isolation from the world. But different. We are a new creation in Christ, the old is gone, the new has come. We must be in the world, but not of it. As Tchividjian says, “against the world, for the world.” Opposing the world system for the benefit of the world, seeking its redemption.

We will never have the influence we are meant to have in this world until we learn to live “unfashionably.” Until we learn to see that worldliness makes us enemies of God. Until we are willing to let our faith affect our business, and our families, and our lifestyle, and so on.

But as long as the church works so hard to look just like the world, the world isn’t going to see anything in the church worth having. Let’s remember that we are citizens of a different Kingdom, messengers of a better way and a better King to serve. And let’s faithfully engage those around us with the Gospel without cheapening it through worldly imitations of what’s hip and cool.

(Note: Thanks to Phil Johnson of the Spurgeon Archive and the Pyromaniacs site for the images. If you appreciate the satire, there are lots more where those came from HERE.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Foolishness of Preaching and Preachers

You know, it’s tough to get too egotistical about what you do for a living when God Himself calls it foolishness. Paul writes to the church at Corinth about how the message of the Gospel flies in the face of what the world calls wise. 1 Corinthians 1:21 says: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (ESV). King James says: “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”

So whether we’re talking about the message or the messenger, from the world’s standpoint, it’s all foolishness. And to be honest, there are many days when I feel pretty foolish doing it.

Not that I have any doubt about the message. It’s foolish to the world, but “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” according to Romans 1:16. The Word is strong and true. The Word is powerful and effective. The Word is alive; it’s just that the preacher is sometimes, well, not.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. My preaching hero, Charles Spurgeon, once preached from this same Corinthian letter, focusing about 10 verses later than the above where Paul reminds us that the one who boasts, should boast in the Lord. In the midst of that sermon, he spoke of his own weakness in preaching by saying: “I felt when I was coming up to preach tonight as if I had been down like a little child to the sea, and I had stooped to the wave and filled my palms as well as I could with the sparkling water, but as I have been coming to bring it to you, it has nearly all trickled away, for I am not able to hold it by reason of my leaking hands.” (C. H. Spurgeon, Glorying In The Lord). (BTW - Thanks to Eddie Eddings over at Calvinistic Cartoons for reminding me of this wonderful quote).

What a beautiful picture of the whole preaching process. Weak and “leaking” men trying to share with people the crystal clear truth of the Word of God in all it’s depth. What a challenge. And how foolish it seems that God would allow men to even attempt it.

I admit to feeling weak and worthless often. And reading such thoughts from men like Spurgeon who have been used by God to do such amazing things for the Kingdom, makes me feel even more foolish; my efforts even more futile.

In fact, as the folks at the Metropolitan Tabernacle gathered to celebrate their famed pastor’s 50th birthday, Spurgeon had this to say about his own preaching ability: “I confess I would not go across the street to hear myself preach.” Now if that be true of a man thousands of others crossed more than a street to come hear preach, where does that leave pitiful pretenders like me?

Actually, it leaves me in a pretty good place: in the hands of God. And that was really Spurgeon’s point, as well as Paul’s. The world may see us as foolish. We may even feel foolish most of the time. But it’s not about us. As Paul goes on to say: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

Foolish, weak, low and despised. Yep, that pretty much sums up my life and ministry. Not that I’m having a pity party. Just that it reminds me that it’s not about me at all. As I tell our folks around here, over and over, “It’s All About God.” It’s all about Christ, all for His glory, all for His purposes.

I need that reminder. I need to remember that it’s about His glory, His Word, His purpose and His power at work in His church. I’m just a weak fool with leaky hands who isn’t worth crossing the street to hear. So I ask that you pray for me; pray for your pastor; pray for all those who enter pulpits week by week with knocking knees, being fools for God. Pray, as Paul says in Ephesians 6:19 “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” And pray that in so doing, God will see fit to visit us with His power, to save those who believe through the folly of our preaching. Soli Deo Gloria.