Wednesday, January 22, 2014

I'm glad she didn't listen to me

Last Sunday afternoon, my wife took a nap. Okay, so that may not sound like much to you, but my wife is NOT a "napper" (me? I don't get many, but I'm all for 'em). She has been on antibiotics several times this year for different things, and she has shingles. She has missed the better part of 2 weeks' work in the meantime. 

Infomercial alert: "But wait, there's more!"

As if this weren't enough, a frozen water pipe burst in our upstairs bathroom on January 8, flooding our boys' bedroom (adjacent to the upstairs bathroom), destroying our living room ceiling, the laminate flooring in two rooms, and hardwood floors in another. Our house has been in chaos, needless to say. 

Currently, there are air movers, dehumidifiers, and air purifiers sitting all over the house, running 24/7, making it very loud and annoying us to pieces. The kids have practically nowhere to sit or move around, school is at a standstill, and laundry was backed up so bad we had to take it all to the coin laundry the other day to catch up (and it took, like, a lot of coins). 

At this point, we'd all like to take a nap...and wake up when it's over. 

She didn't listen to me
So last Sunday, when she took a nap, I knew she was really wiped out. When it came time for our church's evening services, I did something I don't often do: I encouraged her to stay home. 

But against my counsel, she dragged herself out of bed, and came to worship with the saints, children in tow, anyway. 

That evening, long waxed the preacher (yours truly) about the Golden Rule, and loving others as yourself. The flow was good. The progression of points, natural and even. I didn't make too many noticeable mistakes. And for a sermon I had prepped less than usual (see above), as it drew to a close, I was just glad to have survived it. 

As always, I invited any who would to respond to the Lord, or who might need a special season of prayer. What I didn't expect was to see my wife responding. 

Wait. It wasn't my wife. Well, it wasn't just my wife. It was my wife...with one of the children in tow. Our nine year-old daughter, tears in her eyes. 

My immediate thought was, "What's this? Is something wrong? Why are they moving up front?" Then, it hit me. 

None of them alike
As of last Sunday afternoon, 3 of our 6 children have obeyed the gospel. Our oldest three, age order. Not one of them ever responded during a worship service. All of them came to their decision  at some other time. And all of them spent several days giving signs, initiating conversations, talking about possibilities. 

Hannah (then 6), Emma (then 2)
But Emma was so different (okay, so that shouldn't have shocked us!). Although there were signs of unrest lately (that are even more clear looking back), they were not as visible as the other children's had been.
But Sunday night, it was too much for her to bear, and it became immediately visible to us all. 

After I talked with her on the front pew for a few minutes, it was obvious she was ready. She knew exactly what she was doing and why. It took a bit, and I happened to notice our song leader take an extra verse (maybe 2?) to give us a little time (boy, conscientious song leaders are worth their weight in gold!).

So I finally got up to address the congregation. I was speechless. 

I started to talk, and almost had no idea what to say. This is what I do! This is my livelihood - and I couldn't arrange a single coherent thought to put into words. 

So I finally gathered my wits enough to ask her to affirm her faith in the Lord, which she readily did. And with that, our fourth child, was baptized into Christ. 

Some things that have struck me since then
One thing that struck me almost immediately that night was that our daughter was doing exactly what we had prepared her for since before she was born.

Let me assure you, I have had plenty of moments of being downright pitiful as a father. I have lost my temper, been egotistical, too sensitive, not sensitive at all - you name it. I have had days where I swung for the fences and missed every pitch. 

But we have always kept our focus in the same place: heaven. We have painstakingly chosen to emphasize spiritual things in the lives of our children. The Bible describes children as arrows in the hands of a mighty warrior (Psa. 127), so we believe that parents have a tremendous responsibility to chart the trajectory of their children's spiritual lives.

So when my daughter responded to the gospel, part of me was not surprised at all. 

However, the other part of me realizes that we are only servants who have the privilege of making her familiar with God's drawing power through the gospel

Neither this daughter nor any of our other children who have already obeyed the gospel were coerced into doing so. They were given the freedom to understand it and ask questions, and make their own choice, which they have done. And we could not be more grateful to God for giving them the opportunity to do so. 

And about my wife's nap
Of course, the other thought that occurred to me later that evening, was, "What if my wife had stayed home like I had encouraged her to do?

While I was preaching, for the most part, my wife wasn't listening (hey, no punch lines). She was answering questions and quieting the concerns of our daughter's tender heart. She was offering encouragement and guidance to her as she struggled with her sense of the eternal, and her place in it. 

Not long ago, I was called upon by someone who needs to obey the Lord. At the end of our discussion, this person was certain what they needed to do, but chose to put it off until the church's next meeting, much to my dismay. I encouraged this person that the devil would almost certainly find away to intervene between that night and the next opportunity of our meeting, and not to put it off. But they would not. 

To this day, the season has not come again. 

You may be tempted to think I'm going to offer this up as a parable about bringing your family faithfully to the assembly of the church. Let me answer that this way: I'm certainly not going to argue against it. 

To this day, I've never once heard an elderly Christian say, "You know, we just spent way too much time attending worship and Bible classes." 

But I have heard many parents say, "I wish I had emphasized our children's spiritual life more while they were growing up. I wish I had attended more regularly. I wish we would have prioritized differently." 

That's one regret we decided long ago that we'd never have, if we could help it.

My wife didn't listen to me that night. And I am so thankful for that. She listened to the Lord. And by doing so, she was able to listen to our daughter, who had been listening to Him, too. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Vain Repetitions

"And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words" (Mt. 6:7, ESV).

If you attend the worship of the church very long, you will hear certain phrases repeated in public prayers.

Here are some of those phrases:

Closing worship petition: 

  • "Guide, guard and direct..."
  • "Till the next appointed time..."
Lord's Supper: 
  • "Bless it, and those about to partake of it..."
  • "May they do so in a manner well-pleasing..."

I could go on, but that'll do for now. You could add to that list easily. I have heard, and read, several criticisms that use the above passage as a proof-text against repeating such phrases.

As Christians, we are ever at risk of falling into the lull of ritual. We fear that our motions will become emotion-less, and that our worship will lack spirit (cf. Jn. 4:24). So we are ever on-guard for anything that reeks of routine - and rightly so.

But I don't believe the above phrases are overt violations of Jesus' warning. If you are like me, you know the men who lead public prayers in your congregation. You have heard them use these phrases. Do you really believe they are empty? superficial? pretentious?

I don't know the heart of any man - at least not the way God does - but I do believe they are giving their very best for God. I doubt very seriously they are pretentious as Jesus' described above, "...they think that they will be heard for their many words."

It seems to me that there is an important distinction to be made. There is a huge difference between using a phrase that is comfortable and helpful to a man who is leading public prayers, and a man who thinks that perpetual repetition and lengthy prayers are the key to God's heart. I believe they are a world apart.

I have yet to hear a man in public prayer use any of the above phrases - and some of them I hear regularly - and consider him to be pretentious in any way. Doing something over and over doesn't automatically assume pretense, does it?

If so, then our order of worship is also "vain repetition." Why don't we change our order of worship every week (maybe some do, but most don't)? Because we are comfortable with it. It works. Sometimes the boat has no need of being rocked. It gives people a sense of comfort, and it aids the heart in offering worship. The routine of assembly clears a path for the spirit to grow and learn. Routine and "vain repetition" are not identical.

So also with these prayerful phrases. They help a man to lead. They make him feel safe and comfortable when performing the difficult task of opening his heart and soul before the congregation, and on behalf of the congregation. Why does he do it? Because it works for him, it is not sinful, and he can say those words with all sincerity.

Every man should want to grow in his prayer life, in his ability to speak from the heart when addressing God - in the public assembly, and in private. But I believe criticisms I've heard and read on this matter to be generally unjust. Repeating a familiar phrase does not automatically indicate the kind of pretense Jesus condemned. In fact, it is quite likely nothing akin to it at all.

Any thoughts to add to the discussion?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Verily, I Say

Red-Letter Monday
"Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power" - (Mark 9:1)

When Jesus says, "verily," or "most assuredly," He is about to state something He knows will be hard to hear. Not necessarily hard to understand, but to hear, digest, apply

For example, three times in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used this terminology when condemning hypocritical attitudes surrounding charity (Mt. 6:2), fasting (Mt. 6:5), and prayer (Mt. 6:16). We don't like these self-exalting tendencies exposed, do we? Hard words indeed, but truly needed.

In Mark 9:1, Jesus says verily the kingdom is coming with power. But when? Consider this: 

  • He told these disciples it would happen in their lifetime. 
  • John the Baptist claimed it was close at-hand (Mt. 3:2).
  • He sent His disciples out to proclaim the same message (Mt. 10:7).
It's true that Jesus refused to be crowned king by an ecstatic following who were convinced He was their king (Jn. 6:15), but that wasn't because He wasn't a king, or that His kingdom wasn't at hand, but because He was about to redefine the meaning of kingdom. 

  1. His kingdom was not observable in the conventional sense (cf. Lk. 17:20-21). 
  2. His kingdom was "not of this world" (John 18:36). 
  3. His kingdom was entered into by a re-birth through water and the Spirit (cf. John 3:3-5, note that Nicodemas got a few "verilys" in this passage as well). 
Furthermore, New Testament writers understood themselves to be in that kingdom. Paul claimed that all saints are citizens of it (Col. 1:14). John witnessed the Revelation while in it (Rev. 1:9). Philip preached the things concerning it, and the Samaritans were converted to Christ by it (Acts 8:12). 

So let's review: the kingdom was promised for centuries by God's prophets. The kingdom was proclaimed as "at-hand" by John, Jesus and all early preachers of the gospel. 

Additionally, Jesus went out of His way before He died to explain that this kingdom would defy convention, and fall short of human expectation - verily, you couldn't even find it on a map. 

Finally, the apostles and prophets (after the resurrection) preached it, wrote about it, and wholeheartedly believed they were in it.

Without doubt - verily - the kingdom came. But it was not what people expected. The Jews expected national independence. The Romans only cared about power. The King, Jesus, offered none of this. Yet, the kingdom came. Like the Who's Christmas - which came without packages, boxes or bags - it came just the same. 

And, back to our reading, it came in the lifetime of some of those present with Jesus. Come to think of it, maybe Jesus wasn't saying that, verily, just for them. 

Many people today do not believe the kingdom came at all. They are still waiting for it to be "set up" by "Jesus the politician," or "Jesus the military commando," some time in the future. 

Verily, they will be disappointed. He already warned us about thinking that way.   

"The kingdom" was promised, yet "the church" came - and not as a substitute or stop-gap for what should have come, but truly, as the fulfillment of God's promise. 

So, to borrow another phrase of Jesus, if you have ears to hear: "the church" is the kingdom Jesus promised. Consider:

  • The church of the Lord is the kingdom one that consumed all other kingdoms of men and filled the earth (re: Dan. 2:31-45). 
  • The church is the kingdom that men must must repent of their sins to enter (Mt. 3:2). 
  • The church is the kingdom that was so close to fulfillment in Jesus' day (Mk. 1:15). 
  • The church is the kingdom the apostles and prophets preached and wrote about, and believed they had entered by virtue of being "born again" of water and the Spirit (cf. Col. 1:14; Rev. 1:9; John 3:3-5; Acts 2:36-38). 
  • And the church is the kingdom, about which, Jesus said some of His disciples would not die before they saw (Mk. 9:1). 

Verily, those who await a future kingdom - a reign of Christ on earth among men - wait in vain. When He comes again, it will be to retrieve His bride, the church. And He will be taking her (the kingdom/the church) back home to the Father (cf. 1 Cor. 15:23-28).