Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Time to Take a Stand

You may or may not know that this past Sunday was the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.  Churches all over the world united in prayer for those Christians scattered literally all over the world who face regular persecution as a part of their daily life and faith.  According to this site, there are more than 60 countries in the world with strict religious laws on the books, most of them designed to frustrate Christians.  It's something that we believers in the west are virtually unaware of.  Thank God for religious freedom.  Seriously.  It would be worth your time to Google "Christian Persecution" and just spend some time reading about those who suffer for Christ.

After church this past Sunday, a woman at our church approached me and asked me if I thought that the United States government should come to the aid of persecuted Christians throughout the world.  That question led to others, and we had a brief conversation on the topic.  Since that conversation, I've been thinking more about it and have amended the thoughts that I shared with her (which, to be honest, were rather off the cuff).  So what should governments do to protect or advocate for persecuted Christians across the world?

As I've thought about it, Romans 13 shows that God puts governments in place for essentially two reasons: 1) enforcing the rule of law, and 2) punishing evildoers.  As far as I can tell, this would apply when a nation's citizens (regardless of their faith) are being unjustly persecuted on account of their faith.  The government should enforce the law and punish the evildoers, thereby rescuing those who are persecuted.  The question becomes difficult, however, when we consider that there are Christians who are not, say, Americans who are being persecuted throughout the world.  Should the United States government intervene in those cases?

As of this moment (and I say so, because I could potentially be persuaded otherwise), I would say no, the United States should not seek to punish evildoers outside of its borders or come to the aid of persecuted Christians in other countries (at least in regards to Christian persecution - a just war is a whole other issue).  Rather, I would say that our government should pressure the government of the nation where the offense and persecution is being perpetrated to take action on behalf of those being persecuted.  It's not our job to punish evildoers in other parts of the world.  This is not happening currently in our country, however.  Our government seems oblivious to Christian persecution in other parts of the world - even when it comes to Americans.

So then, as I read the Bible, I think it is our government's job to protect its own citizens, and to advocate and come to the aid of its own citizens (again, regardless of faith, but the vast majority of persecuted religious people in the world are Christians).  It is not our government's job to come to the aid of people persecuted for their religious beliefs in other countries.

That being said, I take the polar opposite position when it comes to the church's role in defending and and advocating for persecuted Christians throughout the world.  The church should must come to the aid of those who are suffering, particularly its sons and daughters.  The church is not bound by geographical or political boundaries, nor is there a biblical restriction placed on it to only protect and support a certain people in a certain place in a certain situation.  In fact, it's just the opposite.  The church is commanded to care for the needy, stand up for the oppressed, fight for justice, and provide aid wherever needed.  Unlike the government, the church is a "universal" entity that exists where there is someone who names the name of Christ.

A good question for churches (including my own church) to ask would be, "What are we doing to stand with our brothers and sisters all over the world who are being persecuted because of their love for my king?"  We (the Western Church) need to start thinking about how we can engage in this war.  What can we do?  We can all certainly pray.  What else?  Could we support an indigenous missionary who ministers to persecuted Christians?  Could we send aid in the form of money or supplies to people who are putting their life on the line when they go to church?  It's time to take a stand.

Monday, November 4, 2013

"But God..."

Buckle up, because this is a long post.

Last month I was privileged to fill the pulpit at Riverview, as I do on occasion, and I preached on Ephesians 2.1-7.  Riverview usually records the sermon each week and makes it available for download from our website, and I usually post the audio here as well, but on this week the audio from the recording was very choppy and virtually impossible to listen to.  So then, I figured I'd put a transcription of the sermon here.  Enjoy.

Whether it is before conversion or after, I think it's probably common for someone who is either int he process of being converted, or who has been converted, to sit back and be in awe of the gospel.  It's a remarkable thing to think of the great exchange that happens when we believe the gospel.  Our middle school Sunday School class talked about this "great exchange" just last week.  In the gospel, Jesus transfers his perfectness - his righteousness - to our account, and in exchange, we transfer our sin to his account.  And so, we then reap the benefits of his perfect righteousness before God, adn he reaps the just desserts of our sin.  He receives the wrath of God on our behalf, even though he's never done anything to deserve it, and we receive everlasting life from God, even though we've never done anything to deserve it.  That, in a nutshell, is the gospel.

And if you think about that long enough, not only will you be in awe of the love and mercy of God, but you'll eventually come to this question: Why?  Why me?  We wonder why God saved us.  We feel we are not worthy.  We feel inadequate.  Personally, I can't wrap my mind around why God would want to save me.  That is, if he knows everything about me, what made him choose to open my eyes and give me faith to believe?

Some of you this morning have probably even felt that way: there is nothing about me that could make me look desirable or pleasing to God, or make God want to forgive me.  And to be very frank with you, the Apostle Paul wants to affirm that notion within you: you're right, there's noting about you that is lovely or that makes God want to save you.  In fat, it's quite the opposite.  In our scripture for today, Paul gives several reasons why God shouldn't save people.

You heard that right: Paul tells us in these verses why, if we're keeping score of things, God shouldn't save people.  His description of the unregenerate state of human beings is the stuff that zombie movies are made out of.  In an unregenerate state, human beings are the spiritually walking dead.

But as we'll see, God does indeed save people, even though they are unworthy of his love and affection; even though they have all, at one time or another, turned away.  But then we're still left with this question: Why does God do this?  Why does God save people who are utterly undeserving of being saved?  Why me, God?  Why did you save me?

We can feel this way because most of us have felt the way Paul describes the unregenerate life in verse 1: "And you were dead in trespasses and sins."  It's interesting to note here that Paul doesn't say "You were sick with sin," or "You had a sin problem," or "Your sin was a hindrance, a pain in the neck, or a chronic illness."  Paul wants to paint such a bleak picture of the state of an unbeliever that the best metaphor he can conceive of is death -  a state from which there is no recovery, no hop, no remedy.  There is nothing that can be done by any earthly power.

Think for just a minute about what it means to be dead: to be absent of all signs of life; to be decomposing; to be powerless to change your status.  Dead is dead.  And this spiritual death is the result of sin.  This is what sin does and it leaves people in a hopeless state of death.  And sinners have as much ability to save themselves from this sin as a corpse has of reanimating itself.  Don't miss this, because it's important to understand the gravity of your situation: sin brings about death, and dead is dead.  There is no earthly hope for you.

And Paul gives evidence of this reality.  He points out patterns that existed int eh lives of the Ephesian believers before they came to faith in Christ.  It makes sense that dead people would exhibit the characteristics of dead people.

For the past 18 months or so I have volunteered as a chaplain with the West St. Paul and Mendota Heights police departments.  My main duty is to accompany police officers on death notifications, and then to minister to the families of those who have died.  Sometimes my job boils down to telling a family member about a loved one who has died in a traffic accident, or sometimes there is an unexpected death at a home, and a body is discovered.  And it is my job to be with the family at the scene so the officers can go and do their job on the streets.  Having been called out to these death scenes, I can tell you that being in the same room with a body that has been dead for a period of time is an experience that you are not likely to soon forget.  Without getting to graphic, there is a grim reality that comes with death that assaults all of your senses, and it is an experience that is pretty much unlike anything else.  You see, dead bodies have characteristics of deadness.

And so people dead in trespasses and sin bear the characteristics of dead people lost in sin.  Have you ever had a dead mouse in the house, but didn't know where it was?  You maybe couldn't find it, but you knew it was there.  How?  The smell.  The smell of death.  Jesus said, "The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks," and "what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander."

How can we know that lost sinners are dead?  The same way you know there's a dead mouse - the smell of death: dead thoughts and words and deeds come from a dead heart.

With the Ephesians, their spiritual deadness was exhibited in a few ways.  Paul says in verses 2-3 that they were "Following the course of this world...the prince of the power of the air...the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience."  And they were living "...in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind..."

What does all that mean?  it means that in our deadness, we are without the light of God, and so we pursue dead things.  We follow the ways of a world that does not honor God.  Instead of being obedient to God, we are obedient to Satan, the prince of the world.  And we do whatever gratifies our bodily desires.  The bottom line is this: the Ephesian believers, before they were converted, were engaged in gross, over sin in their thoughts, their actions, their relationships, and every other part of their lives.  And this sin condemned them and bore witness to their spiritual deadness, just as it does to those who come before God today who are likewise lost and dead in sin.

And so, this state of spiritual death, as evidenced by characteristics of death, leaves the unbeliever in a certain state before God.  What is this state?  "Sons of disobedience" (V. 2) and "By nature children of wrath..." (V. 3).  There is some relational language here, not unlike the kind you will see in Ephesians 1.  Ephesians 1.5 says "In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ..." and 1.11 says, "In him we have obtained an inheritance..."  What is the inheritance that the sons of God through Christ are entitled to?  Salvation!  Eternal life!  The glories of the riches of his mercy!

People are entitled to an inheritance because of their positions - because of whose child they are, and because of whom they call "Father."  Those who are Christ are sons of God and stand to inherit the goodness of his grace.  But here we see a different grouping of sons: sons of disobedience and children of wrath.  What do these children have as their inheritance?  What can these sons expect to receive from their father?  Romans 2.6, 8: He will render to each one according to his works: for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.  There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek."  And Romans 6.23a: "For the wages of sin is death..."  The sons of God will inherit the spiritual blessing of God - the sons of disobedience and the children of wrath will get an inheritance as well, but it will be one of judgment and condemnation.

So when you sit back and wonder at why God chose to save you, or if you ever feel unowrthy of your salvation, allow me to echo the apostle Paul and affirm that notion in your brain: You are not worthy of your salvation.  Before you came to Christ, you were dead in trespasses and sin, and you followed after the ways of the world and after your own sinful lusts.  There was nothing about you that would make God say, "Oh, that one's nice, I think I'll take that one."  And for those of you here today who are not in Christ, this passage is describing you: you are dead in sin; you are a son of disobedience and a child of wrath and God's judgment abides upon you.  And if you feel the weight of death on you this morning, and if you realize that you are so hopelessly lost in sin, then stay with me, because there is good news for you this morning.

Verse 4 begins with two of the greatest words in the Bible: "But God..."  And to really get a grasp of them, we need to go back to grade school grammar.  The word "But" refers to a contrast.  In other words, in spite of everything Paul has said about the dead nature of sinners, what he's about to say is going to fly in the face of all of that.  And the word "God" is the subject of this very long sentence which comprises the next few verses.  And the subject of a sentence is what performs the action - all of the verbs - in the sentence.  In other words, God is the one who makes us live together with Christ; God is the one who raised us up and seated us with Christ in the heavenly places.  The emphasis is that it is God who is doing all of these things.

Notice that the text says "But God..." not "But you..."  There's nothing you've done to make this a reality in your life.  In fact, as the previous verses say, you've done everything wrong, and if anything, you've given God all the reason in the world to cast you into hell for all eternity.  But because God is rich in mercy, and because he loves us with a great love, he does these things for us.  Even while you were dead in trespasses and sins!  "By grace you have been saved" it says in verse 5 and again in verse 8.

These words are so monumental because they signal that salvation is a free gift of GOd and cannot be earned. Why is that a good thing?  Because if it had to be earned, you wouldn't be able to earn it!  Look at yourself in light of God's word - in light of the law of God: you all short at every occasion!  You are utterly hopeless when it comes to earning your salvation!  It's not just that you've sinned, it's that you've never done anything but sin.  You were dead in trespasses and sin.  And you have as much ability to earn your salvation by your good works as a dead body has in bringing itself back to life.

So then what does God do?  he makes us alive together with Christ (v. 5).  That which was once dead in sin is resurrected and made alive.  That which once resembled a corpse now resembles a living, breathing, human being who no longer follows after the prince of the power of the air, but follows after Christ.

He raises us up and seats us in the heavenly places with Christ (v. 6).  No longer are we sons of disobedience and children of wrath, but we are now sons of God and heirs of the promise, seated at the table, sharing in the inheritance of Christ.

And then we get to verse 7 which, I believe, is the main point of this passage.  It tells us why God does his work of saving people.  It tells us why - if we are confused or if we feel unworthy - God would want to save walking corpses of sin.  So the next time you ask "Why me, God?  Why did you save me?" you can come back to this verse sand know the truth.  God saved you "so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus."

That's it.  That's why God chooses to save people.  You see, if you are stuck on the idea that you're not worthy to be saved, you've got something backwards.  You don't realize that your salvation isn't about you - it's about God!

Psalm 25.11 - "For your name's sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity, for it is great."  Why does God pardon iniquity and make dead sinners come alive?  For his name's sake.

1 John 2.12: "I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name's sake."  God forgives sin for the sake of his name - for the sake of his reputation as a good and loving and kind and merciful God.

And this is a pattern we have already seen in Ephesians 1: "In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will to the praise of his glorious grace..." (Eph. 1.5-6).  "In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory." (Eph. 1.11-12)

God saves and resurrects dead sinners to show the world that he is the only one with the power over sin and death, and that he alone has the power of resurrection and life.  God saves you so that you, a walking zombie who is rotting away in sin, might be made alive again, and so all the world might see the miracle of this resurrection and praise the only one worthy of being praised: not you, but God.  And God does this so that no one else gets the credit - he wants all the world to see how amazing and glorious he is.  And in seeing what God has done with a dead person like you, they also might put their hope and faith in Christ, so that God may receive even more glory for his goodness.

This is why it's not based on your works, because if it was based on something good that you did, then God wouldn't get all the credit.  God would still get some of the credit, but even if you did one thing to merit God's favor, then we would have to say yes, God is good to save, but not that good, because you kind of deserved it anyway.

But we're not going to praise you in any way because you don't deserve it - you were a walking corpse of sin, and the only thin you deserved was wrath. But instead God gave you life.  This is why it says that salvation is by grace through faith - not by works so that no one may boast.  Because the only one who gets to boast is God, because God is the only one who does anything worth boasting about.  And God is not in the business of sharing his glory with anyone.  He wants it all for himself, and he is worthy of it.  It is by grace you have been saved.

Listen: if you're here this morning and you look into your own heart and you see the characteristics of death, now this: there is nothing you have done that God cannot forgive - no sin that is too be or unforgiveable.  He is ready and able to give you new life, to raise you up from death.  And if you think that you're too bad for God to save, you're attempting to rob him of his glory.  What you need to realize is that this isn't about you - it's about God and his goodness and his kindness, and his mercy, and how great he is - not about how bad you are.  We already know how bad you are.  You're dead in sin.  But the Bible says that God makes dead things come alive.

And if you've ever pondered the gospel and asked yourself the question "Why me?" know this: your salvation isn't about you, it's all about God.  Asking the question "Why me?" is starting at the wrong place.  Instead of asking "Why me?" we should be asking why God does these glorious things, like raising dead sinners to new life in Christ.  And the answer to that question is found in scripture, and is found in our text for today: so that all the world would see his glorious grace and kindness in Christ Jesus.  God didn't save you because you were such a good person that he just couldn't resist.  No, he did it because he is full of love and grace and because he is worthy of your praise, and the praise of all the universe.

And you also need to know this: God doesn't love you less because you still struggle with sin.  For those who are inChrist, there is nothing you can do or not do that will move you further from or closer to the love of God in Christ.

I know that there are some here this morning that carry around guilt for their sin on a daily basis.  You don't feel that you deserve forgiveness.  You don't feel that you do enough right.  Let me tell you this as lovingly as I can: if that is describing you, you're forgetting the gospel.  You're right, you don't deserve forgiveness; you don't do enough right and good things.  But remember these words: "But God.  But God loves you; but God forgives you; but God raises you up from death to life.  In spite of everything you have or haven't done, God chose to save you anyway.  Why?  To the praise of his glorious grace, so that the coming generations might know the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Jesus Christ. 

Don't let guilt rob you of the joy of being a trophy of God's grace.  Don't get me wrong, guilt can be a good thing.  It can convict us of sin; it can lead us to repentance; it can lead us to a deeper faith.  But it cannot condemn those who are in Christ.  It cannot cause believers to lose their standing before God as righteous and as having been justified.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  Are you acting and living like there is?  Get rid of your guilt and glory int he gospel, that all of your guilt has been transferred to Jesus and he has sufficiently born the punishment that was due your guilt, and that there is not one thing that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord: neither death nor life, neither angels or rulers, nor things present, nor things to come (including future sins), nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.

If you are in Christ, you have been found not guilty an account of Jesus Christ.  The guilt of my sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more.  Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Thursday, October Halloween, 2013"

We have a large pocket folder/hanger thingy/calendar hanging in our kitchen.  Each day the kids take turns putting the number of the day's date in the pockets on the hanger and then say the date.  It's a good way for them to practice knowing how to read and use a calendar.  For today's date, instead of a "31" the calendar simply says "Halloween."  This morning, Ferg said, "Today is Thursday, October Halloween, 2013."  Close enough, I guess.

This year it seems as though there have been an inordinate number of online articles published by various authors and organizations that address how Christians should approach Halloween.  To costume, or not to costume?  To trick or treat, or not to trick or treat?  These are the questions that preoccupy the hearts of Christians at this time of year.

Some people appeal to the pagan roots of Halloween - which to be sure, are there - as a reason to not celebrate.  Others point to how Halloween has become somewhat of a low-brow holiday, as it seems the goal is to see how gory, disgusting, or risque we can get without crossing a line (or maybe intentionally crossing several lines).  Still others balk at how closely related Halloween is to death, witches, ghosts, etc., and don't want to be a part of it.  These are definitely good reasons to abstain.

Those Christians who do celebrate the holiday, however, usually justify their participation by arguing that Halloween is a cultural holiday, and amounts to nothing more than dressing up the young'ns in cute costumes and shuffling them off from house to house, and then sneaking some candy out of their bags after they go to bed.  This is mostly where I fall, for several reasons that I won't go into here.

Interestingly, opinions on whether or not to celebrate Halloween vary even amongst the members of our church.  There are some who partake, and some who abstain.  Who's right?  They all are.

I don't want to oversimplify the question, but to me it seems that there is an easier response to the question of whether or not Christians should celebrate Halloween.  As I see it, in order to answer this question, one should read the Bible, pray, and then do whatever one wants.  Abstain or partake, either one - as long as you are informed by scripture and are walking in the Spirit.  Based on this approach, whatever you decide will be right and good.  The minute we start making our opinion a standard by which we judge others, however, we have erred.  I don't think that one can hold up his or her beliefs on the celebration of Halloween as a standard of righteousness for all others.  The Bible doesn't speak clearly on this issue, and we should allow for differences.

So go trick or treating tonight with the little ones.  Or don't.  Whatever you decide will be what is best.  But in whatever you do, take some biblical wisdom along with you.  The first thing that comes to mind when I think about this participating in Halloween, specifically when it comes to costumes, celebrations, etc., is Philippians 4.8: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  

Monday, October 28, 2013

An Update, and Some Facebook Withdrawal

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll have noticed by now that I haven't posted to it in, oh, about four months.  But since there aren't any regular readers of this blog (including me), you likely haven't noticed, and have just stumbled back here coincidentally.


Why no posting for such an extended period of time.  Most of the reason can be summed up in this word: summer.  Another word that describes the absence is: work.  In truth, there are several reasons why I haven't posted for a while, even though I had good intentions to do so for some time.  Oh well.  What's that they say about good intentions?

But a recent development in my life is affording me the opportunity to post more.  What's that development?  As of yesterday, I'm done with Facebook.  Done.  If you look at the right side of this site, you'll notice that the Facebook widget is not emblazoned with an image in my likeness, but instead merely reads "Facebook."  That's because I've deactivated my account.

Why did I do away with Facebook?  Quite a few reasons, actually, most of which are related.  Here are a few:

1. It had become apparent to me that I spent a lot of time on Facebook.  I never really posted much, but I ended up spending a significant amount of time reading the posts of others.  Over the past few months, I have felt more and more like reading posts from people I neither had regular contact with, nor would have contact with in the future, wasn't an efficient and valuable use of my time.

2. I was more convinced of this after reading this convicting article by Tim Challies that Facebook wasn't likely to be in my future much longer.  I tend to think that when I write my own "Things I Don't Regret Doing With My Kids" post, it won't include a bullet point talking about how much I don't regret spending time on Facebook.

3. I'm sick of overshares.  Let's face it, there are far too many people who share far too much information about themselves on Facebook.  It's stuff I don't need to know.  I know that I could just block them in my newsfeed, but if I do that, then what's the point?  I didn't see one.

4. The forth reason is like the third, and is potentially the most significant reason.  Facebook was affecting the way I relate to people in face to face contact, in what I think was a negative way.  The more I learn about people on Facebook, the less I feel the need to relate to them personally.  Additionally, the more "dirt" I get on people via Facebook, either intentionally or unintentionally, the more that influences the way I relate to them personally.  This has not been a positive trend in my life and ministry.  So it was time to cut it out.

The withdrawal symptoms have been more significant than I was expecting.  A couple times today I caught myself, seemingly subconsciously, moving my fingers to type facebook.com into my browser.  I resisted though, convincing myself that it was simply force of habit.

So as to not completely remove myself from the social media world, I've opened a Twitter account for myself.  I have no intention to tweet, or twit, or whatever it is.  I merely want to stay in touch with the media organizations I frequent in order to get continual updates to content - mostly theological.  I'm not saying I'll never go back to Facebook, but I plan to take a long break.

So here's to more blogging and no Facebook.  I guess I'll see where it takes me.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Where Dead Batteries Do Not Destroy

This has been a busy week.  Backyard Bible Club has been taking up much of my time, and my family's time each day, and it's been tough to stick to our usual schedule.  But it's a good kind of busy, and I enjoy it.  Each day there are 15 preschoolers running around like maniacs in our back yard.  What's not to like?

One of the songs we've been teaching the kids throughout the week is a couple verses from Matthew six, which say: "Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is there your heart will be also."  We've been encouraging the kids to treasure God all week, and not the stuff of the world.

It's interesting how, when you are teaching biblical truths to children, it's easy to go into what I'll call "teacher mode."  That is, adults tend to somewhat condescendingly teach truths to children and as though it is something for the kids to learn, and as the adults, they have already fully appropriated these truths.  That is not true of me, however, even though I sometimes teach as though I am an authority in believing and enacting the truth of God in all matters.  I'm still a sinful, flawed human being who is being perfected by Jesus, and I need to grasp the same truths that I am trying to teach the kids this week.

A little reminder of my lack of appropriating biblical truth came to me this morning in the form of a non-working car.  I had to run to the church this morning to get some things for today's lessons, and so I went.  I entered the church, got what I needed, and then went back out to my car, only to find that it refused to start.  My car has been a horse for me, and has almost never had any problems.  But here it was, on the third day of Backyard Bible Club, refusing to start.  Not too big of a problem, except my role in the four Backyard Bible Clubs is to be the gopher and go to each club and deliver materials and supplies, as well as to take pictures and shoot video of the clubs, and even to lead songs at a couple locations.  Needless to say, I was not a happy camper Bible Clubber when my car wouldn't start at the church this morning.

Providentially, my dad just happened to be turning into the church parking lot when I was having my difficulties.  He was able to give me a jump, and I was on my way.  But after I returned home and shut the car off, it wouldn't start again.  Oh well.  I got into the wife's car and started my day of driving - off to the other clubs!

When I was at the last club of the day, leading songs, I decided to take a minute to explain to the kids why Matthew 6.20 talks about moths destroying earthly treasures.  They probably didn't know about moths and the damage they can do, or about how metal corrodes.  So we talked about how things that can be damaged or destroyed -like clothes and cars - are not worthy of being our treasure, because they won't last forever.  Instead, our hearts should treasure eternal things - heavenly things.

It started to get to me when I realized I was telling the kids that the fact that something rusts is evidence that it won't last forever, and that we shouldn't treasure those things.  I thought about my car, and how disappointed I was when it wouldn't work right this morning.  Could it be that I was "treasuring" my car?  I certainly don't worship my car, but maybe I worship the convenience a car brings.  The fact that my car wasn't working this morning was a good reminder to me to not put my trust or find my satisfaction in earthly things, because one day I'll wake up and those things - like my car - either won't work or will be gone completely.  And if I am treasuring the convenience of having a car, what does that say about my heart?  Nothing good.

The lesson for me today: store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where moth and rust (and dead batteries) do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

You're Gonna Have to Wait for that Penguin

This summer at our church I am privileged to teach an intergenerational Sunday School class called "Lord, Teach Us To Pray."  As you might have guessed, the class focuses on prayer - the Lord's prayer, specifically - and uses it as a model for all prayer.  Today's class examined the "in heaven" portion of the opening of the Lord's prayer, and we talked about how, when we pray, we should acknowledge in our hearts and minds how God is in heaven - that is, he is the Lord of the universe, looking down on all things, observing all things, and doing whatever he pleases.

Like I already said, this is an intergenerational class, which means that all ages are combined (K through adult).  This format makes it possible from the young to learn from the old, and vice versa.  It also affords families the chance to look at the Bible together during the class and talk about the subjects the material presents.  As the teacher, I feel really privileged to be a part of the class.

This year The Mrs. and I thought that our oldest child would be "with it" enough to attend this class, even though he is just entering kindergarten this year.  After all, we thought, even if some of the content was over his head, it would at least be beneficial for him to see other people devoting themselves to the word, and he could get a good sense of the corporate nature of the church.  So we have been having him attend the classes.

This week the lesson talked about how God answers prayer in three ways: either "Yes," "No," or "Wait," and how all of these answers are good and right for us (even if it isn't the answer we want) because God is always good and loving, and always does what is best for us.  At the end of the class I passed out a little diagram of a stoplight that had these three answers on the sheet next to the green light (yes), the yellow light (wait), and the red light (no).  I encouraged the class to think of times when they prayed prayers and received on or more of these answers to their prayer, and to share that with the group.

After church this morning, my son showed me his sheet.  I was blown away by what I saw, partly because it was very cute, but also because it was a very real interaction from a five year old with the ideas regarding the subject of prayer that we have been tackling in Sunday School.  His sheet is pictured at left.  Click to enlarge

A bit of interpreting needs to be done in order to understand the sheet.  The picture at the top of the page is of our now deceased cat, Bartholomew.  Ferg explained to me that he had prayed that Bartholomew would live, but that God's answer to that was "No" since Bartholomew died (and actually, he still prays for Bartholomew on a regular basis, even though he has been gone for about two years now).

The picture at the bottom of the page is of our cat Martha, who is very much alive.  Jamie said that he prays that she will be a healthy cat.  Since she has suffered no significant illness, God's answer to that prayer so far been "Yes."

And then finally, the somewhat indistinguishable picture in the center of the page is of a penguin.  "Why did you draw a penguin in the 'wait' circle, James?" one might ask.  "Because I prayed that God would give me a penguin, and I haven't gotten one yet, so the answer must be 'wait.'"

I don't mean to brag on my son too much, nor would I say that he's especially smart or in tune to the spiritual realm, nor would I say that he is even a Christian, but this just goes to show that kids can apprehend and grasp a lot more than people think.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day

Here's what my kids got me for Father's Day.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Baseball Stories

Former Minnesota Twin Dan Gladden is the color commentator for Twins radio broadcasts, which I listen to on a regular basis.  Now that Major League Baseball has completely removed all local baseball from network television, the regular fan who doesn't have a cable subscription service is forced to follow the local nine on radio only.  In truth, this is fine with me, as I actually prefer listening to the games on the radio to watching them on TV.

Gladden has a rather shaky broadcasting reputation when it comes to the opinions of online commentators - the fans who listen to the radio broadcasts.  Some don't think he's good at calling the plays (which he does for four innings per game).  Others don't think he gives the score or the count often enough.  It's true that he's less descriptive than his broadcasting counterpart, Cory Provus, but Gladden still has some great qualities for being a Twins broadcaster, and I'm glad he's here.  

One of the things that  makes Gladden fun to listen to is the fact that he's a former player, and a former Minnesota Twin.  What makes it especially enjoyable for me is that Gladden played on the Twins team of my childhood, with all of my boyhood baseball heroes like Kent Hrbek and Kirby Pucket.  Gladden likes to tell stories during the game broadcasts about these guys, and about his time in the majors.  It's almost as enjoyable to hear Gladden's stories as it is to hear the game.

One story Gladden told on tonight's broadcast caught me as funny.  Danny and Cory were talking about nicknames that the players give one another, and about special handshakes they share with each other after a good play or a home run.  Gladden said that he remembered Kirby Pucket and Al Newman doing what he called the "Nestea Plunge" high five.  Cory asked him if anyone on the team ever gave him a nickname.  He said that many people had nicknames, but the one that stuck most was one that Kent Hrbek gave him: "Wrench."

"Why 'Wrench?'" asked Provus.  "He said that I looked like the dirty kind of guy who was a mechanic who could fix anything," Gladden responded.  He said, "I could fix anything, but I told Hrbek I couldn't fix his swing.  He was 0 for his last 18."

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Year of God's Grace

Several months ago I posted on this blog about the bad accident suffered by missions innovator Steve Saint. As Steve has progressed through his injury and recovery, ITEC, his company has released videos on his progress and the testimony of God's grace in his life.  Yesterday was the one year anniversary of the accident, and so another video was released, recapping the previous year's activities.  The video stories are embedded below, beginning with the first down the most recent one at the bottom.  If you watch all the videos it'll take you about 47 minutes, but it's well worth your time.

Worship at the Altar of Relevancy

I read an article today in the most recent version of the WorshipIdeas newsletter that lists several bad reasons to worship, or better put, to worship in a particular way.  The article did not set out to give bad reasons to worship, but that's what it ended up doing, nonetheless.

The article reports that a survey by Faith Communities Today indicates that churches who make a switch to contemporary worship receive an almost immediate and consistent growth rate of 2%.  Also, churches with more contemporary worship styles are more likely to see continued growth than their more stylistically traditional counterparts.  This is not necessarily a bad thing per say, but it sounds to me like a terrible reason to "switch" worship styles.

One worship pastor says that the style of music in the church affects how "people see the church as relevant," and so, because the church is seen as relevant, people will supposedly come.

Is that really how we want to be determining how we do worship in the church - by what the masses consider to be "relevant?"  Really?  The church's relevancy is determined by what people think of the worship style?  Are we missing something here?  Seems to me like we're more concerned about what people think is relevant than what God thinks is relevant, which is the opposite of the way it should be.

The underlying tone of the report implies that churches who want to grow should switch to a contemporary worship format.  I couldn't disagree with that implication more.  Don't get me wrong: I realize that we are cultural beings who have cultural persuasions and preferences, and it would be foolish to dismiss the impact of these persuasions on our people, and even on worship leaders and pastors.  But to focus on the desires of the people at the expense of focusing on the desires of God is dangerous ground to tread.

What the statistics promote is a pragmatic way of conducting worship services.  In other words, church leaders have an idea of what they want to accomplish when they conduct a worship service, and they then ask themselves what they need to do to accomplish that goal.  If and when your goal is to attract X number of people to your worship service, than you will do what you can to cater to their whims and desires: you will play the music they want to hear, you will preach sermons they want to hear, and you will create an atmosphere that is comfortable for them.  

The opposite (and more biblical approach, in my opinion) is to ask "What does God want from this worship service?" and then to work toward accomplishing whatever the church has determined that to be.  In this way of seeing worship, the reaction or opinion of the masses doesn't matter.  When our goal is pleasing God with our worship instead of people, whether or not people like what we're doing or how we're doing it is a question that never even blips on the radar screen.  When we are working to please God with our worship, our goal is obedience to what we believe he would have us do in leading and conducting worship.  Our goal is obedience to God - not numbers; it is working to honor him - not to please people.

What is the most relevant thing the church does?  Is it not to maintain faithfulness in the proclamation of the gospel?  If the most relevant thing about the church is its music, then we have serious, serious issues.  May it never be at my church.  Another question to consider is this: can the church be focused on the gospel and still utilize culturally relevant music and modes of communicating the message?  I think it can, and does.

The question is not, "What do we need to do to get more people?" but is instead, "What should we do, because that's what God tells us to do?"  There is a significant difference between the two questions, and the answers you will get from each are vitally important in the life and ministry of the local church.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Camp Miscellany

This week finds me back at Village Creek Bible Camp, in the midst of the Mississippi river valley in northeastern Iowa.  I usually find myself here 2-4 times each summer, and then probably a couple other times throughout the other seasons.  Needless to say, it's become a pretty familiar place to me.

This week I'm here with four of our church's junior high girls, attending the "Young Teen" camp.  Although we've only been here for one full day now, it's been a full day, and so I thought I'd write about a few things, in no particular order.

Sunday School saves the day.
I was able to fill in on a somewhat last-minute basis for this morning's chapel session.  I usually end up being one of the camp pastors at least one week each summer at camp, but declined the invitation this summer, citing an extra work-load due to the church's lack of a youth minister.  Be that as it may, the opportunity presented itself for me to stand in the gap this morning, and I was happy to do so.  Thankfully I had some old Sunday School lessons that I could draw from with which to fill the chapel session.

Is there a camp for introverts?
I think I've finally discovered why I was never much of a camp person as a kid, and why it still doesn't appeal to me now even as an adult.  As an introvert, being around people for extended periods of time wears me down.  But at camp, there is no escaping the people.  They are everywhere.  Campers are sectioned off into cabins, so you're always with those folks.  And when you're not hanging out with those people, you're with the larger group.  People.  Everywhere.

There's nothing wrong with this, per say, but it's hard on those of us who not only like to be alone, but need to be alone - at least for a time.  As a kid I remember a lot of people trying to talk to me and be my friend and get me to socialize when I was at camp.  But all I wanted was to be left alone.  It's not that I didn't (don't) like people - it's just that too many people for too long of periods of time overtaxes my system.

The camp environment is definitely geared toward extroverts - people who get energized by being around and socializing with others.  This is not me, however, and probably explains why I always feel so drained when I get back from a week at camp.

First world problems
I've never been much for sleeping bags, so any time I visit camp I make sure to pack bedding: sheets and blankets.  The beds at camp are, shall we say, less than desirable, both in aesthetic appearance and physical comfort.  If nothing else, a week at camp will help you count your blessings of having a nice, comfortable bed.  

The Mrs. packed my bedding for me this time, and unbeknownst to me, she packed a sheet for a twin sized bed.  Well, the room I'm staying in has a full size bed.  And try as I might, a twin sized sheet does not fit on a full sized bed, which means I get to sleep on a bear mattress.  Yay.  But even then, I can count my blessings, as there are undoubtedly millions of people around the world laying their heads on bear ground.  Thank God for mattresses.

Camp Cramps
For the past several months I've been trying to incorporate physical exercise into my regular routine.  This started out with some "core" exercises earlier in the year, which were going along swimmingly until I somehow injured my knee.  I had to put my exercises on hold for a while, whilst my body healed up.

From there I discovered the Kettlebell, a very fun to use and challenging piece of exercise equipment.  I started using that on a regular basis, and was making quite a bit of headway with it, until my shoulder started hurting me.  So again, I was sidelined by injury.

After those two injuries, I decided to go back to the basics, i.e. walking and running.  We do own a treadmill, after all, so I took to it.  I started out by doing a few weeks worth of faster-than-normal walking, gradually increasing the pace.  After I was confident that my stamina had increased sufficiently, I purchased a "Couch to 5K" app for my phone.  This is a nifty little app that trains you to be able to run - all the way up to 3.2 miles at a time (or whatever 5 kilometers is).  I completed the first week of this training with flying colors, and was excited by the progress I was making.

The second week came, and during the middle of the week of my running training, I began to feel some pain on the inside portion of both of my knees.  I didn't think much of it at first, but the next time I got on the treadmill that week, the pain was enough to make me stop my exercises.  A couple days later, and I could barely climb a flight of stairs, my knees hurt so bad.  So again, I was sidelined by injury.

It should be noted that before I took on any of these exercise regimens I made sure that I was doing the necessary stretching and pre-workout warmups so as to prevent injury.  But alas, it was not to be.

Anyway, after about a month off now, I feel ready to get back on the horse, so to speak.  I thought that my time at camp would be a great way for me to get back in the swing of things, at least as far as walking was concerned.  So this afternoon I made a point of taking a walk down the long gravel road that leads out of the camp.  I determined to gauge the length of my walk by time, and not by distance.  In other words, by noting the time when I left, I would know when I needed to turn back in order to be back at the camp for any relevant activities.

I took off at about 1:40 in the afternoon and just started walking.  Every once in a while I would stop to pick up an agate off the road, or look at some interesting wildlife (such as a huge caterpillar I found, and a fearless butterfly that would not move an inch out of my way, and even some guinea hens that a local farmer was raising).  At about 2:35 I figured it was time to turn around, as I needed to be back at the camp in plenty of time for supper (priorities, right?).

About half the way back, I noticed that my left foot was just a little soar, but I didn't think much of it.  After all, I was walking on a gravel road that was rather uneven, so my feet were coming down on the ground at different heights.  To correct for the discomfort, I moved to the other side of the road so that my right foot would bear most of the burden of the extended reach required to walk the road.

But this didn't help much.  As I kept going, the pain got worse, and worse, until I finally got back to camp.  When I did so, I hopped in my car and retraced my steps in my vehicle in order to determine just how long my walk was.  By the time I had driven to the point where I stopped walking, I had gone 2.4 miles.  This meant that my entire walk was 4.8 miles.  I was quite pleased with myself.  But my foot still hurt.

It felt good to be sitting down in my car after such a long walk, so I decided to sneak back to my room and take a short nap before supper, which I did.  By the time I woke from the nap and put my feet on the ground to go to the dining hall, my left foot was screaming in pain.  From just below my ankle all the way to my pinky tow, the pain on the side of my foot was excruciating - bad enough to cause me to limp as I walked.  I thought about it, and couldn't figure out what could be causing such discomfort.  I didn't twist my foot or walk in an peculiar way that would cause this kind of pain.  And my shoes were the ones that I have worn time and again without any discomfort.  What was causing this?  Even now, as I lay in bed typing this post at 10:00 at night, the pain still lingers and I haven't the slightest clue as to why my foot hurts.

Oh well.  Such is life when you're at camp!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Thus & Such, Vol. 29

This edition of Thus & Such is rather long, as I haven't posted to this category in a while.  Enjoy.

1. We begin with what might be the most poignant and convicting article that I've read so far this year, by the great Tim Challies.  In it, Tim ponders out loud the reality that he affirms God's sovereignty in difficult situations, and notes that most of the time these difficult situations are happening to other people and and not to him.  He wonders if he would be so quick to affirm his love for God's sovereignty if the tables were turned.  This article was a punch in the gut for me, but a good punch in the gut that I need on a regular basis.  Thanks for penning it, Tim.

2. "As the religious character of our society changes, so do our assumptions about religious freedom."  Ain't that the truth.  As we begin to think differently about the influence of religion, we will naturally think differently about how we are free to exercise our religion.  This is a long but good and important read.  

3. A common - and very uninformed - objection to the authority of the Bible by non-beleivers is that the Bible was copied over and over again to give us the text we have today.  People will assert that, because the copyists were flawed human beings, they no doubt made errors in their copying.  I say that this view is uninformed because some smart Christian people have realized this problem, and have done some thinking in order to address it, and it's actually quite an easily reconciled problem.  Take a look.

4. Here's an article that unintentionally (I think) exposes several facets of the homosexual conversation. But the point of the article is to coach Christians on how engage homosexual arguments in the market place of ideas with the gospel.  It's a good and informative read.  Check it out.

5. "After realizing all of what I would have to give up, I said to God, 'I cannot let these things or people go on my own.  I love them too much.  But I know you are good and strong enough to help me.'"  Check out this love letter to a lesbian.

6. "The simple act of going to church...is in and of itself a declaration of war."  Read about why this is true here.  

7. One of my favorite quotes is by a guy named Nicolaus Zinzendorf.  It reads thusly: "Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten."  I googled that quote and came across this blogpost.  It's a good one.  The author says, "When I die, don't read my obituary to see the meager things I did.  Instead, read the Bible and see what the God of the universe has done."  Amen to that.  Also, I think I found what I want for my epitaph (scroll down to the end).  Take a look.

8. This article brings up an important question that our society needs to have: how do we define what discrimination really is?  There are many Christians, including myself, who believe that the table of discrimination has turned toward Christians, and that we are now being unfairly judged and unfairly characterized.  How do we know when this turns into discrimination?  It's a good question that we need to think about.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Yo, Adrian

Warning: Having re-read this post, it's rather sexual in nature.  Readers be aware.

A couple weeks ago, Adrian Peterson, star running back for the local footballers made some public statements on gay marriage.  Peterson said that gay marriage was something he couldn't endorse, but that he holds no animosity toward homosexuals.

Peterson's comments came in the context of being asked by media members to address the release of Chris Kluwe from the Vikings, the punter who was vehemently and disgustingly pro gay (I say disgustingly because Kluwe wrote several pieces that were so lined with filth and vulgarity, and so full of vitriol and hatred toward anyone who dared disagree with him, that I refuse to link to them here).

When Peterson made his comments, there were several reactions in the sports media.  Some did not approve; others said they respected him for sharing his opinion.

And then this week Adrian was asked some follow up questions regarding his previous comments.  Peterson elaborated by saying that he wouldn't have a problem with having an openly gay teammate.  He says he'd still high-five him, pat him on the rear, and go about playing the game.  He did mention, however, that he'd feel uncomfortable showering with a gay teammate.  You can read about all of his comments here.

When Kluwe came out with his over-the-top, hateful comments endorsing the homosexual lifestyle and damning all those who dared disagree, one of my many reactions to his sentiment was that he should just shut up and play football (some people think the Vikings thought this as well, as it is rumored that some of the higher-ups in the organization questioned Kluwe's ability to be so involved in the gay marriage debate and remain focused on his job on the field).  You're a football player.  Just play football.  I had somewhat of the same reaction with Peterson, even though he comes down more on my side of the issue.  He's a football player.  We don't need to know what he thinks about gay marriage in order for him to play football, or for us to enjoy watching him play the game.  Hey pro athletes: just stick to what you know.

But what has intrigued me the most about this latest hubub has been the reaction of the local sports media.  Once in a while, when I'm not listening to Wretched Radio podcasts, I tune into ESPN 1500 on the AM dial and listen to Reusse and Mackey.  Patrick Reusse is the seasoned curmudgeon, while Phil Mackey is the young punk sports reporter.  The two usually play off each other really well, and it can be very entertaining sports radio.

This afternoon they were talking about this situation with Peterson, and Mackey said that his problem with Peterson's statements was that it seemed as though Peterson was trying to go out of his way to assure everyone that he didn't have a problem with gay people, when he actually did.  In short, Mackey was implying that Peterson's comments were a sort of bigotry-light, or like trying to sugar-coat discrimination.

For example, argued Mackey, what if, instead of being gay, a person had a head cold?  It would be odd to say that you would still high-five or pat someone on the rear who had a head cold.  Of course you would!  Why wouldn't you?  Of course you would shower with someone who had a head cold.  To refuse to shower with someone just because they had a head cold would be ridiculous.

Granted, all analogies break down eventually, but Phil's never even makes it out of the gate.  He's equating playing with an openly homosexual player with playing with someone who has a head cold.  The two situations are not even close to analogous.

A more apt analogy would be, perhaps, what it would be like for a man to play a professional sport with a woman.  Would you high-five her?  Sure.  Pat her on the rear end when she makes a good play? Whoa.  Now we've just crossed a boundary, haven't we?  Why would it be inappropriate for a man to slap a woman on the behind after a good play?  Because men are attracted to women and vice versa, and the gluteus maximus is considered to be off limits when it comes to congratulatory slaps between genders, giving a congratulatory tap on the cheeks would definitely be off limits.  A man slapping a woman on the bottom - even in congratulatory fashion - would, by nature, be a sexual act.

But when it comes to a gay man who is attracted to other men, shouldn't the same rules apply?  I would think so.  Personally, I wouldn't slap a gay man on the behind for the same reasons I wouldn't slap a woman on the rear, because it is a sexual act.  This is why straight men slapping other straight men on the butt is not a sexual act - because they are all men and there is no sexual attraction between them.  But with gay men there is a difference.  Although they are also men, their sexual attraction is toward men which would make touching their rear end in any way a sexual act.  In fact, slapping a woman on the rear end could constitute sexual harassment, or even assault.  Would it not be the same for a gay man?

But then we go beyond butt-slapping.  What about showering?  Would a man feel uncomfortable showering with a woman who is not his wife?  Definitely.  Why?  Again, because men and women are attracted to one another, and showering while naked is an intimate act that is not shared between common acquaintances.  So then, if gay men are attracted to men, then wouldn't gay men showering with other men be an act with an underlying sexual nature?  Again, I would think so.  I wouldn't shower with a woman who was not my wife, nor would I shower with a gay man, because both actions would be sexual in nature.

This is not to say that gay men are women, but they share a similarity with women in that they are physically attracted to the male gender.  Having a head cold does not make you attracted to naked men - it simply makes your nose stuffy and runny.

That's a bit different from a head cold, Phil.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Choosing Worship Songs Well

As a volunteer worship leader at my church, it’s my job to pick new songs for our worship team to play and for our congregation to learn.  In the past we have set somewhat of a precedent of trying to learn and introduce one song to the congregation per month.  If all goes well, this of course means that we learn and introduce 12 new songs each year.  It doesn’t always go that way, however.  There are some months when the worship schedule is just too busy to be introducing a new song.  There are other months when we do introduce a new song, but it quickly becomes evident that the song will not work with our congregation for whatever reason.

Our worship team is having its usual meeting tonight to look at the schedule for the upcoming summer season, and this is the time when I usually roll out new songs for the team members to be thinking about and listening to, as we will gradually be introducing these songs into our repertoire.  It’s been more of a struggle this season than most for me to find good, quality worship songs for our team to sing/play.  I'm not a huge fan of contemporary Christian radio, so I don't get many ideas from there.  So when I go looking for new worship songs for our church, I usually frequent the CCLI list, songs that are trending on iTunes, and my old stand byes like Sovereign Grace Music.  Usually from these sources I can piece together some songs for us to do.  It's actually quite an involved process and I spend a lot of time on it.  

From time to time people have recommended songs to me that they suggest we sing in the worship service, but when I check them out it seems to me that they would not be conducive for corporate worship at our church.  How do I determine that?  In order for us to introduce a song to our congregation, a worship song has to meet four different standards.  Here they are, in brief:

1. Content.  Is the content of the song good?  Is it biblical?  Does it use the words of scripture as lyrics?  Are the lyrics God-centered?  This is the most important criteria, in my opinion.  If a song has good, theologically solid lyrics, I'm willing to give on the style of it for the sake of communicating the message of the song.  Plus the other elements of the song can be tweaked and changed to fit our congregation more, such as style, rhythm, speed, etc.  If I find a song with good lyrical content, chances are I'm going to try to use it in some way.  Unfortunately, these days in contemporary Christian music, songs with home run quality content are few and far between.  But there are some good exceptions, like this song we recently introduced. and groups like Sovereign Grace Music always make a point of ensuring that their songs have good, biblical, God-focused content.  Kudos to them.  The best words to use in order to sing about God, are God's own words.  The closer we can stick to the message of scripture in our singing, the better.

2. Corporate Appeal.  Does the song lend itself to being sung by 250 people at the same time?  This is important, because in my opinion it's not right for a group of people to be singing songs that were meant to be sung by an individual.  Moreover, there are many worship songs that talk about an individual's (the songwriter's) experiences.  Well, his experiences are not necessarily mine, or that of the other 250 people who attend my church.  I try to look for songs that can be sung meaningfully by the whole body of Christ, not just one member.  Furthermore, there are some songs with intricate melodies that a person could sing by himself or herself, but it would could not be done by a larger group.  I try to avoid these types of songs in corporate settings.  There are some songs with fantastic content, but because of the intricate melody, simply can't be sung by a congregation.  But beyond these reasons, there is a theological reason for choosing songs that can be sung by a congregation, and that is that we are the church.  We join together to sing praise to God and offer him our worship.  Worship leaders should be choosing songs that make singing in large groups as easy as possible so as to accommodate this reality.  

3. Staying Power.  Does the song have the potential to be sung by the church in a hundred years from now?  Think of your most-loved hymn.  Chances are it's at least 100 years old.  We should be looking for songs that we can sing today and a hundred years from now.  This doesn't mean that we never include songs that are more particular to a time or setting, but those are rarities.  Some songs are written in such a way that the time it was written in is very evident.  There's nothing necessarily wrong with this, but when you sing that song it's going to take you back to the time when it was written, such as this song, or this song.  Just something to be aware of.  We want to shoot for songs that we can always be singing and using in worship, no matter the time or setting.  And why do some songs last longer than others?  I would argue it is because the truth they communicate is more clear, biblical, and timeless.  So we should not only be looking for songs that have stylistic staying power, but also songs with content that can stand the test of time (see point 1).

4. Quality.  What is the quality of the songwriting that went into the song?  This criteria is probably the most subjective of the four.  It's quite simple, really: there are some songs that are products of bad, unimaginative, and un-creative songwriting.  How do I know which songs those are?  Well, I guess I'm the judge of that, at least for my church.  I probably have a different standard than you do.  But for instance, I tend to think of songs that are made up of just one verse and one chorus as being bad quality.  Is it too much to ask to put in another verse?  Or if the chorus of a song is the same phrase or words just repeated over and over.  These are what's known as "7-11 Songs."  You sing the same seven words eleven times in a row.  For example, I know two year old children who could write a better chorus than the one in this song.  We can do better.  We can write good and deep songs, and lots of them, because God gave us brains and talents to use in this process.  We do him and ourselves a disservice when we don't engage our God-given talents, abilities, and brains in the process of creating worship music.  

So there you have it, in brief.  Those are the four things I'm looking for when I look at new songs.  And to be fair, songs will meet these criteria to varying degrees.  Some songs are home runs, and some songs are stand-up doubles.

You might notice that none of my criteria include any notes about the style of worship songs.  That's because I don't really care too much about style.  The way I see it, if a song fits these criteria, then we can work with the style.  Plus style is such a fluid thing that changes all the time.  It would be foolish to judge a worship song on its musical style, and a song would never pass the test of having staying power if it were judged by itse musical style.  Plus the body is made up of all different kinds of people with all different kinds of taste.  A change in style is probably for the better most times.  That doesn't mean I'm insensitive to stylistic preferences, but to me it is of secondary importance.

It dawned on me that I don't think I've ever shared this process with anyone before, and there are undoubtedly people wondering how I make decisions about which songs to sing in worship, and even some who think that I'm terrible at selecting worship songs.  Well, for better or for worse, you can at least take comfort in the fact that I'm not just arbitrarily coming up with whatever strikes my fancy.  In fact, a lot of times we're doing songs that absolutely do not strike my fancy, but because I think they would be beneficial to the body of the church, we do them.  After all, it's not about me and what I like.  It's about what God likes.  And whatever I can do to lead the congregation toward pleasing God as a group on Sunday mornings is what I'm going to do.  

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cameroonian Connection

I had a fun experience today.

Since September I've been working on losing weight, and have been moderately successful in the endeavor.  This has precipitated a need for newer, smaller clothes, and has rendered my older, bigger clothes somewhat obsolete.  Since clothes for bigger (read: fat) people are, well, bigger than normal sized people clothes, they tend to be more expensive.  Significantly more expensive.  After all, there's more of us to cover, so more raw materials are needed.

Because of the expensive nature of my clothes, I figured I'd try to sell some of the ones I'm not using anymore on Craigslist, and kind of have my very own fat guy's online garage sale.  So I posted an ad with several pieces of clothes that I don't can't wear anymore.

A couple of days ago, I got a bite.  I connected with a gentleman through email and then by phone.  We made arrangements to meet together at my home today.  As I spoke with him on the phone, I noticed he had an accent, but I couldn't place it.  When he came to my door this afternoon, it was obvious that he was some sort of native African.  He was an older gentleman who walked with a cane and a limp, and had a great voice to go with his accent, and an overall very friendly disposition.

After he came in and started to look at the clothes I had for sale, and as the conversation flowed between the two of us, he shared that he was originally from Cameroon.  This tidbit led me to share with him that there were several people in my denomination who either had served as missionaries to Cameroon in the past, or were currently serving there.  We were able to talk a lot about it: why he left his native country, what he did there, his kids, his wife, his desire to some day return to his homeland, the cultural challenges he and his wife face in the U.S., and basically his whole life story.

It turns out that his reason for leaving Cameroon and his limp were related.  He was a journalist by trade in Cameroon, but got caught up in some scrapes with the current governmental regime in the country.  This led to some violence that was perpetrated against him, and in the process he injured his hip and would eventually need a replacement.  Immediately after this incident he left the country and never looked back.  His love for his homeland was evident, and he talked quite a bit about wanting to go back...someday.

As he talked some more about his native country, I relayed a bit of information that I had learned about Cameroon from some of our NAB missionaries when they have visited our church.  I told him about Dennis and Nancy Palmer, and their work at the Banso Baptist Hospital in Mbingo, Cameroon.

When I said "Mbingo" his eyes lit up, and he exclaimed, "You know Cameroon!"  It turns out that he knows all about the hospital and had a lot of positive things to say about it.  It was fun to talk about Cameroonian missions with this guy whom I've never met, who lived half a world away, but was now finding something in common with me in my living room.  It was fun.

As he left, he said, "I hope we meet again someday," and I said the same to him.  It was a fun meeting, and to think, it was brought about by nothing more than fat clothes and Craigslist!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Preschool Problems

Something happened today at my son's preschool that didn't sit well with me, and it's still not settling this evening, almost 12 hours later.

A few weeks ago we received a flyer in Ferg's backpack inviting our family to a preschool picnic after class one day.  All the students were invited to go to the local park with their parent(s), have an outdoor meal, and then play on the playground.  The Mrs. determined to take the day off from work so we could all attend.  Before the event, she told me to ask the teachers if siblings were allowed to come to the picnic too, in which case we would bring Hanburger too if it was OK.

The next time I picked up Ferg from class, I asked his lead teacher if it was OK that Hannah come to the picnic.  She looked at me with a blank stare, as though she had no idea what I was talking about.  "Uh, the picnic?" I said.  "We received a flyer in Jamie's backpack saying that there was a picnic scheduled for this Thursday."

"Oh!" she said, as though the light finally clicked on in her head.  "That's not a school function.  One of the mom's from the class decided to schedule a picnic with the kids, so she sent home the flyer."

"Oh, OK," said I, knowing then that Hannah could go to the picnic too.

Now cut to a week or so ago.  For the past few years my family has hosted a Backyard Bible Club (ByBC) in our home for a week in the summer.  We try to invite as many neighborhood kids as we can to hang out at our house, do some fun stuff, and learn about Jesus.  This year, since Jamie was in preschool, we decided it might be good for him to take some ByBC invitations to school and pass them out to his friends.

This, we thought, would be OK since something of a precedent was set by the mom sending home flyers for the picnic.  But we knew that it would most likely be inappropriate to ask the teachers to insert an invitation into each child's backpack.  So we made sure to stress with the Ferguson that he should pass out the invitations himself to his friends.  We were not asking the school to pass them out - he should pass them out himself.  That way, even though it is a religious event sponsored by a church, the school would not be endorsing it, and it would be completely student-led and initiated.

We planned for Jamie to pass the invitations out earlier this week, but the day he was going to do it he forgot the invitations in the car.  So we had to wait until today, Thursday, which also happens to be his last day of school for the year.  This morning, as I dropped Jamie off at school and put his backpack in his locker, I made sure to point out to him that the invitations were in there, and that when class was over he should pull them out and give them to his friends.  He was all set to do it, and he was excited to do it.

At the time for pickup, I was standing outside the classroom doors, waiting for Jamie to be excused.  The way they excuse the kids from class is to get them all ready (coats on, backpacks on, etc.) and then call them out one by one when their parents arrive to receive them.  I was standing outside the room, looking at all the kids through the window in the doors.  Then I saw Jamie with his backpack.  He looked inside and picked out the invitations, holding them up for one of his co-teachers to see.  He handed them to her, and she looked them, and then handed them off to the lead teacher.  The lead teacher then looked at the invitations, and proceeded to make a phone call to someone, presumably regarding the invitations that Jamie had produced.  After a few second call, the lead teacher handed the invitations back to the co-teacher, who proceeded to come out of the classroom and gave the invitations to me, saying, "He can't pass these out in the classroom, but he can pass them out when the kids have left class."

This was strange, I thought.  Why?  What's the difference?  "Oh well," I thought, "no reason to make a big deal out of it.  I'm sure they will let Jamie out first so he can stand by the door and hand the invitations out to the other kids as they exit the room."

But this was not the case.  Jamie was not the first to be excused.  Nor was he the second, or third, or fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh.  I didn't keep an exact count, but there were at least seven kids to leave the room before him.  By the time he got out of the room and I gave the invitations to him, more than half of the kids in the class had left.

But the bigger problem was that, by this time, he had become so frazzled by all of the drama surrounding the invitations, that he had completely lost all of his gumption for handing them out.  In fact, he refused to do so.  He wanted me to hand them out.

By this time, I was starting to get perturbed - not at Jamie, but at how the whole situation was unfolding.  Here was a kid who was excited to invite his friends to his Backyard Bible Club - of his own volition - and he was being thwarted and discouraged from doing so at every turn.  By the time we left, I was an unhappy pappy.

As I have reflected on the situation throughout the day, I have some questions regarding the situation.

First, was I wrong to assume that my child could independently hand out invitations to something at his house?  I know that some school districts don't allow any children to distribute any literature for any event or reason.  This could clearly not be the case at our school, though, since we were invited to a picnic by a mom from the class.  And more than that, that invitation came in our child's take-home folder.  Why is it OK to invite kids to a picnic via the take-home folder, but it's not OK for a kid to independently (not via the take-home folder) give out invitations to a Backyard Bible Club?  I would submit to you it is that the invitations Jamie was handing out contained four peculiar words: "Bible," "Jesus Christ," and "God."

Second, who did the lead teacher call?  And why did she feel the need to consult the higher ups?  I don't know.  I'd like to assume the best in this situation, but that's getting harder to do the more I think about how all this went down.

Third, why is it OK for Jamie to hand out the invitations outside the classroom but not inside, as the co-teacher told me?  How does a change of 10 feet make it permissible to invite people to a private religious function?

Fourth, how does a father explain this to his child?  This is a particularly tough situation, because Jamie really wanted to pass out the invitations, and he is wondering why his marvelous teachers (really, they are great) wouldn't let him pass out his invitations.  It's a sticky wicket that I'm still working through.  I'm sure we'll end up talking about it for a couple more days.

It would appear that my experience was not peculiar, as a quick internet search reveals several news stories and forums that talk about this same issue.  Take this one, for example, and be sure to read the comments.  It would seem that the majority of those commenting believe that as long as a religious flyer is distributed by the student and not by the school then there's no issue.  Hence the reason we told Jamie that he should be the one distributing the invitations and not giving them to his teachers to stuff into backpacks.

But it was not to be for us.  What a shame.  I feel bad for my son.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Those Who Mourn

I had the chance to fill the Riverview pulpit this past week and expound upon Matthew 5.4: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."  You can catch the sermon audio here.

Coming up on 8 years ago - and it's strange to say that, because it doesn't seem that long ago - my wife's father ended a long battle with various illnesses and infections that had plagued his body for years.  He had been in and out of the hospital for years, and had even had several brushes with death, but he was always able to pull through.  But not this time.  An infection took his life in his mid 50's.

The Mrs. and I had only been married for about two years at the time, and we were living with her parents and helping them to manage the house, so we were especially close to them.  I'm not sure if I knew how to handle it at the time, let alone lead my young wife through the grieving process of losing her father.  But those are situations that you don't really get practice for, and there are no do-overs after they are over.  You're just thrust into those situations.  You're not prepared for it, and it's hard.

This is something like what I think Jesus is talking about when he says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."  There are all kinds of things that cause people to mourn: death, unexpected and early death, disease, terminal illnesses, accidents, and so on and so forth.  All of these things cause us to grieve.

But Jesus says that in our grief is blessedness.  That's somewhat of a paradox.  We would prefer to have the blessedness without the mourning, but that's not what Jesus says.  When we mourn, our mourning can lead to comfort, and in this process we experience blessing.

Jesus would know.  He experienced all kinds of suffering in his life that caused  him to mourn.  In fact, Isaiah 53 describes him as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.  When Jesus arrived at the graveside of his friend Lazarus, the Bible says that "Jesus wept."  Ecclesiastes 3 says that there is "a time to mourn."  Life is hard.  Things happen, people die, accidents happen, terminal illnesses are diagnosed; relationships are severed, children rebel, kids have terrible debilitating diseases, etc.  All of this is suffering, which causes us grief.

But one thing that we need to remember when we think about suffering and grief is that the Bible links all of the things listed above to the existence of sin in the world.  Adam and Eve sinned, thereby transmitting their sin nature to all subsequent generations of human beings.  The world is a broken place full of broken people doing sinful things.  It's a recipe for someone to get hurt, and people do.  Ever since then, all suffering and disease has been either the direct or indirect consequence of sin.  People die because of sin, indirectly, because sin brought about death.  And some people die as a direct consequence of sin.  We sin, and the consequence of the sin is damaging, sometimes even to the point of death.

People die because of sin; accidents happen because of sin; we become discouraged and lonely because of sin; we experience illness and disease because of sin; relationships are severed because of sin; there is unrighteousness in the world that causes suffering and grief because of sin.  Sin exists, and the effects of sin are real.  Sin is why we mourn.

But Christians do not mourn as the world mourns.  No, we do not grieve as those who have no hope because we believe that Jesus Christ died and rose again.  This is the comfort that Jesus promises in Matthew 5.4.  If sin is the root cause of our suffering and our grief, then the comfort that we must receive must deal with sin.  There is a gospel of hope that tempers our mourning, and in this hope is true satisfaction and joy - the blessedness that Jesus says will come to those who mourn.

Why can we have hope in the midst of grief?  Not because of a naturally cheerful disposition; not because time heals all wounds; not because someone empathized with me and said some kind words.  No, we are comforted because we have a risen Savior who has defeated death and conquered the grave, and the same power that accomplished that is at work in those who believe.

Seriously, read 1 Corinthians 15.55-57 and Romans 6.6-11 for yourself.  2 Corinthians 7.10 says "godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death."  Why does godly grief lead one to salvation?  Because it points you to Jesus!  The one who can deal with your sin and eliminate its eternal affect on you.

When we mourn the effects of sin in the world, our grief is tempered by the knowledge that we have a Savior who has overcome the power of sin.  Sin can no longer have a permanent effect on us.  It can still hurt us in this life and give us reason to be sorrowful and weep.  But it cannot damage us eternally.  We do not escape the effects of sin in this life when we trust the Savior, but the reach of sin is limited.  There will come a day when it will all be done away with and there will be no more suffering, no more tears.  There will be no accidents; there will be no disease or terminal illnesses; no one will ever be given a window of time in which to live; people won't get hurt; there will be no pain, no suffering, and no mourning.  That knowledge alone should bring comfort to those who mourn.

A family at the church discovered several weeks ago that their youngest child had Leukemia.  Understandably, this news rocked their world, and many tears were shed.  The young boy's prognosis is good and hopeful, but he has a three year treatment plan ahead of him, much will be unpleasant.

So how does this beatitude speak to them?  It is good and right for them to mourn, and they have a hard road ahead of them.  They mourn the reality that they live in a fallen and broken world that has sickness and disease in it.  They mourn the pain that will be brought about by this disease; they mourn the pain that will be brought about by the remedy for the disease.  But they also have faith in a risen Savior who has power over all sickness and disease, because he has the power over the sin that brought the disease into the world in the first place.  And the affect that this disease has on their family can only go as far as God lets it.  Moreover, God has ordained that there will come a day where all sickness and disease will be wiped out.  It will be done away with.  There will be no more leukemia, no more cancer.  No more tears, no more diagnoses or treatments.

Do you think that knowledge brings this family a measure of hope?  Imagine going through something like this without know that Jesus has defeated death and sin, and that he is sovereign over disease.  That is hopelessness.  But we know that Jesus is who he says he is, and that he can do what he has said he can do, and so we are blessed even when we are grieving.