Sunday, March 31, 2013

GET YOUR PRAISE ON!

   One of the greatest joys of my life is to worship.  It is a time when a lot changes for me, especially inside my head and my heart.  I am glad to stop thinking about myself, glad to stop thinking of what bothers me, or about my needs and desires.  It is good to think about God, good to think about being forgiven, good to think about God's love, and good to rejoice.
    I believe that the Scriptures teach us how to worship while at the same time giving us a great deal of freedom, within the boundaries of what is taught in the Word of God.  We are the most in trouble when we stray outside those boundaries, and sometimes our cultures not only take us outside the boundaries of Scripture but then institutionalize a practice that should never have existed in the first place.  It is good to constantly reexamine our practices of worship to make sure they are pleasing to God, and not just what we have become used to doing.
    It is interesting how we can become off target either with tradition or with innovation.  All traditions were once innovative, and some may even be within the scope of Scriptural teaching, but then we made them mandatory (even though Scripture does not prescribe them to be done routinely) and made people feel that if this element wasn't in the worship service we haven't worshipped and God isn't pleased.  So we ask ourselves if we really are worshipping God, or our traditions?  This is how good things can become bad.
    I don't see anything wrong with a communion table, but once I had a lady rebuke me for putting my Bible (it said "Holy Bible" right on the cover) down on the communion table (this during a non-communion Sunday).  I figure we can have communion even without a communion table, since I don't really see anything about it in the Bible.  Nor do I see anything in Scripture about what side of it I should stand when I serve communion.  I don't see anything wrong with taking the offering, nor with ushers bringing the plates up to the Pastor.  I don't see it necessary for the Pastor to take them up to the altar (whatever and wherever that is) and elevate the plates to God, but if he wants to do it I think that is fine, but I don't see that anywhere in Scripture.  As long as the people of God bring their gifts I don't really see any Scriptural instruction about how to do it.  In some ways I see lifting up money as sending entirely the wrong message.
    I am not sure where "options" came from for communion.  Is it a bow to consumerism or to health or conscience?  People lining up to take their choice of wine, juice, common cup, gluten free, etc.  Then in certain churches where they give you no choice but that you have to take some of it from a woman (and I don't find anything wrong from taking the tray from a woman), who proceeds to give a priestly type  comment about what she is giving you.  I am always a little bothered to be invited to celebrate communion and have my mind taken off Christ and realize someone is trying to make some kind of point.  I love the Gospel, I love the invitation to broken sinners to come and receive the bread and wine, but wonder why I too often hear the administration of the supper with no warnings attached when there is more of that in Scripture than there is invitation.  The elements reveal and demonstrate the Gospel, and that should be celebrated and done with thanksgiving, but the holiness of it and its consequent danger is often frivolously discarded.  I love almost more than anything in worship the Lord's table served well.
        Cultures tend to like certain kinds of music, and someone having come to love a certain kind of music can really feel uncomfortable when having to experience worship in another cultural setting.  Uncomfortable is probably a fairly common experience when crossing culture, the danger is when the worshipper stops worshipping and becomes judgmental and censorious, condemning what they are not used to hearing or seeing and despising brothers and sisters. Always the question has to be, "is this of God, is this according to His Word?"  If it is, then the problem lies with me and not the practice.  It doesn't mean that I necessarily have to force myself to try and like what is uncomfortable, but it does mean I have to humble myself and not cause anyone else to stumble because they know I am not pleased.
    One of the worst kind of worship services (to me) is one that is insipid and safe.  It would be better to have no singing or music at all if is not only bad music but sentimental and syrupy words without connection to Truth.  I have heard the phrase "vain repetition" used to condemn (black) Gospel music that stays a long time on one phrase, and heard it used to condemn Reformed hymns that attempt to spell out every theological doctrine (in one hymn) with innumerable stanzas that most everyone has stopped thinking about after becoming brain numb.  People think in different ways at different times, so it is usually best not to be too quick to condemn what one isn't used to hearing.
    I have heard Pastors condemn clapping, even when used in praise or thanksgiving, while ignoring the Scriptural admonition to "clap your hands all you people."  I have walked into church seeing Scripture used to keep me quiet, "Let all the earth be silent before him," while ignoring the more relevant worship command to "make a joyful noise all you people."  I understand and sympathize with a cerebral people who frown and grunt when in agreement but fail to say "amen!" when they should, and I can understand and sympathize with people who don't think about what why they saying "amen!"  Such as when the congregation says "amen!" all through the announcements.  I sympathize but I don't necessarily "amen" the practice.  I wish people would think more about how Scripture tells us to worship then just do what we have become accustomed to doing.
    Some of my greatest joys have been in worship, some of my greatest emotional moments.  A few times I have worshipped so much that I was exhausted physically, emotionally, and mentally but exhilarated spiritually.   I realized that I was not yet ready for heaven, where finally we will have the capacity to give glory to God with everything we've got.  It will be Sunday everyday, and we'll never grow tired.  Down here there are far too many worship services where I'm tired just as things are beginning, but not from involvement or joy, but rather from boredom and mediocrity.
    What I am advocating is worship that makes sense to the worshippers, so that enter it with understanding and not confusion.  I am advocating "explaining" things to the people.  I am advocating for Pastors and Worship Leaders to think about the what and why of the service and how it leads or distracts us from God.  Use the candles to burn the vestments, organs, bells, hymn books, overhead projector and the microphones if any of those things are more important than the moment with God.  Tell the writer of Responsive Readings to shut up if the mumbling of the congregations is without thought or sincerity.  Tell the impulsive and spontaneous prayer warrior to sit down and be quiet if their prayers are simply verbal fireworks and fluff without theological thought or humility of heart.  Give us joy in our praise, understanding and meaning in ritual, simplicity and sincerity, and the presence and power of God in our midst.
    God forgive us for making what we have been made to do repulsive to so many, and often irrelevant to ourselves.   God forgive us when we have lost our children because of our own selfish and ignorant opinions and cultural captivity.  God forgive us for the wasted time when we could have been carried to greater heights, moments of serenity and ecstasy, moments of awe, moments of heart crushing conviction and repentance, moments of incredible deliverance and the lifting of horrible burdens.  "One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple." (Psalm 27:4) ESV.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Holy Week Is Right on Time!

    Its Holy Week and I am suffering from the realization that I'm not.  I'm not holy.  I am trying to find the "cheer up, you are worse than you know" cheer up part.  If you have been through Sonship you know to that which I refer.  It is that statement that tries to help put in perspective the reality that our old nature is really bad, and never gets any better.  Yet, there is a second phase that tells us we are loved (by God) more than we can imagine. 
   I am glad I am loved by God but sometimes the reality of my wretched heart just depresses me.  I think I know some good theology.  I know that the righteousness of Christ has been imputed to me, that active righteousness which he had has been reckoned, counted, or imputed to me.  I know that the blood of Jesus has atoned for me, that passive righteousness in which he suffered and died for me, and the payment of my debt has been imputed to me.  I didn't and couldn't earn any of this for myself, I came to believe in Jesus, and he became the propitiation for my sin. 
    I still don't like the reality of my sinfulness.  Sometimes I have sinned so that I feel ashamed, and shame is what seems to wear on me, and I feel worthless and embarrassed by my sin.  Sometimes I just feel whipped and beaten down with the reality of evil in my heart, almost unable to stop the dark feelings and thoughts that swirl through my brain.  Self-pity, anger, bitterness, feelings of revenge, and the realization that it is all pride.
   I don't feel shame this week, for which I am grateful.  I am so thankful for the times that when I did feel shame I was able to believe that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses me from all sin.  I have been blessed in those moments when I took hold of the great liberation of Romans 8:1 and realized I was not condemned, but rather I was safe in Christ, forgiven, loved, and taken in.  Sometimes believing the Gospel feels like I just took a shower, and that is one great feeling.
    Some folks have not liked it when I have confessed or preached that I believe I am still a sinner, still sinful.  They have felt I was not taking the high road and claiming the reality of my sainthood, my union with Christ.  I guess they don't feel as rotten as I do at times, when the pattern of my thinking and my heart are too suffocating with the reality of how evil I want to be, could be, and would be if it were not for the restraining work of the Holy Spirit. 
    If you knew me you wouldn't accuse me of "worm theology" or putting myself down, I am a little too positive and confident for that.  I don't grovel in my self loathing.  Maybe I should though because I do loathe what my heart is capable of , I do loathe the voice of Satan and his explanation of my reality and my eager desire to believe that my unhappiness is everyone else's fault.  It is hard for me to accept Romans 7 as anything else than the struggle of all believers, and not the quest to become one, since every once in a while I realize what a wretched man I am.  Maybe the problem is not seeing it clearly and often enough.
    My theology tells me I am not going to make up for this wretchedness on my own.  It also tells me it will not be by will power that I "crucify my flesh."  I don't think I can pay for my own sins, nor deliver myself from them.  I am glad it is Holy Week, and I think this year it is coming just in time for me to see some light on the subject.  That's what usually comes, the light from the Word of God, the light of life in the face of Christ, and the lifting of the gloom about my mess.
    God sends his light, and in his light I see light.  Remembering, seeing things new, maybe with fresh insights I get to believe again that he loves me.  I am glad Holy Week begins, and the drama unfolds, and through the heartbreak of a betrayed Jesus, a crucified Savior, a risen and glorified Christ, I realize once again that Jesus is Lord.  He is Lord over my darkness, conqueror of my rebellion, deliverer from my weakness, helper of my unbelief.  I hear him cry, "it is finished."  I say with the congregation, "he is risen indeed."  And I know I have a friend greater than my fallen-ness, greater than my wicked heart, stronger than my flesh, and the giver of every grace I need to not only understand an accomplished holiness though his Holy work, but his grace powered working of holiness in a soul that bears stains and scars but resumes again the smile of victory. 
  Praise God for the cross, praise God for the sanctifying Holy Spirit, praise God for the coming redemption of our bodies and the safe at home holiness of heaven.
   

Monday, March 18, 2013

TIPS FOR PREACHERS (24 of them)


1.     Your aim is to have people see more of Christ and less of you.

2.    Make sure you love Christ more than you love preaching.  You should love to preach, but it is only a means to talk about the One worth loving.

3.    Try to make sure your life is at all times qualified to represent God, your character worthy to stand at the holy desk at a sudden moment.  It is better to give the responsibility to someone else, even for the moment, than to hurt your conscience by pretending to be something you are not.

4.    Don’t wait for perfection before you preach. The only perfect man who preached was also God.  Holiness is a covering we have of the righteousness of Christ as well as the faith to pursue it, along with an honest and broken heart.

5.    Prepare to preach by marinating in the Word of God.  Beware the pale substitute of commentaries.

6.    Read the text, translate the text, think through the text, dream the text, read the text.

7.    Pray for the text to minister to your own heart, hear the sermon for yourself, but remember your task is more important than waiting for your own blessing before you preach.

8.    While you are preaching, if you feel you are failing, pray in your heart for God to uphold you.  If you feel you are doing well, pray that you will not preach in your own strength.  Pray even as you speak.

9.    Beware of ruts, hobby horses, and anything that seems to regularly appear in your preaching that is in competition with the Gospel of grace and the glory of God.  Anything, especially good things, can be a poor substitute for preaching Jesus.  We are not called to preach theology but Christ, and all good theology leads to Him.

10. If you preach the Old Testament without seeing Jesus or grace in it you don’t yet understand it.

11. You have not been called to be intellectually esoteric, erudite, funny, or even comprehensive in your explanation of the text.  All of those things have their place, but if people can’t see Christ you have failed.

12. Illustrations should lead to something, don’t presume on abstract reasoning from the congregation, connect the dots.

13. Be careful with your introduction.  Don’t let it be too long, raise the issue (the main direction, question, or argument of your sermon) fairly soon.  Don’t wander too far from your text, or simply read it at the beginning and fail to preach it.  To not preach the text which you yourself have chosen is like telling the people that your ideas are more important than the Bible.

14. Application is essential, simply reading and even explaining the text is not preaching.

15. Self-disclose, confess your own faults, and use your life as an illustration with wisdom and a measure of restraint.  Too little and you are hiding, too much and you are an exhibitionist.

16. If you make a mistake in preaching (misinterpret, forgot the balance, were too flippant, too angry, insulted someone(s)), apologize publicly the next time you are up.  Humility will win you favor.

17. Never belittle, ridicule, or embarrass your wife and children as illustrations in your sermons. The congregation will take their side and miss the spiritual point you were trying to make. Once your daughter(s) reach middle school avoid mentioning them like the plague. 

18. Listen to your wife’s reactions, watch her face, she is probably the most loyal critic you will have.

19. Sermon criticism is a good thing if you seek it from those who want to help you but don’t indulge in it immediately after you preach; let your ego heal from its vulnerability.

20. Avoid arguments or being defensive right after a sermon, give yourself and others time to think things over.

21. Don’t believe all the compliments nor all the complaints, though it is impossible to ignore them.  So, try to learn from them in order to do better and not simply use them for your pride or your self-pity.  Preaching is and ought to be a spiritual event, but it is also a craft that can be improved with skill.

22. Get over it quickly, both euphoria and despair.  Fire and forget, leave the results to God, and remount the horse to ride again.

23. Attribute, cite, and give credit where you can or at least admit it is not original with you if it isn’t.  Borrow and steal ideas ruthlessly, just admit it.

24. As to the length of sermons, as my friend John Perkins said, (and he was quoting from someone else); “when you are done preaching, stop talking!”

Saturday, March 16, 2013

I'm Trying to Get Through This Life Without Killing Anybody.

Violence got a little too close to our family the other day.  My daughter was driving home from our apartment up to the house where she lives.  She was driving through the neighborhood where she grew up and had never experienced any violence first hand.  Suddenly the car in front of her seemed to move over to the left, closer to the sidewalk.  She saw the flashes and heard the gunshots as someone inside the car fired at a young man on the sidewalk, hitting him several times.
   My daughter pulled up, got out of the car and went over to the man on the ground.  A lady from a house nearby ran out and my daughter told her to call 911 as she tried to put pressure on the man's wounds to stop the bleeding.  She then called 911 herself.  Waiting on the police she held the man's hand.  Fortunately the ambulance arrived quickly and he was carried off still alive with multiple gunshot wounds.
   Later as the police were investigating the crime scene several young women told the police that when they heard the gunshots they locked themselves in their bathroom.  My daughter has been struggling with the emotions that have lingered from the event, but I couldn't be prouder of her, and very thankful to God that the shooter kept on going.
    We have been struggling in our city with a tit for tat gang war, where almost every week someone from the blue side gets shot, and then the next week someone from the red side gets shot in retaliation.  Last week someone shot a policeman as he responded to a call.  The paper said the shooter turned himself in the next day.  He had already received two different suspended sentences for carrying a weapon as a convicted felon. Some judge had convicted him of carrying a weapon as a felon, and let him go, twice!  Thankfully the officer did not die.
   This is not my war.  I can move and find some better neighborhood, although the one I live in is not really that bad, but this could be sign of deterioration and a trend.  Now, if my daughter has been shot I suppose I might make it my war, and that would not be good at all.  I don't even like to think of the temptation such anger would bring me. So far it seems citizens dismiss this as just ghetto stuff, the inner city boiling, and maybe the police have to deal with it but not the rest of us middle class and mostly white folks.  It is usually just a part of the news, so common and frequent no one really pays attention any more.  Usually just an irritating sound in the background.  I refuse to accept gunfire around my daughter as background music.
    I hesitate to call for more law, as it seems that inevitably somebody is going to be beaten or shot by the police, and it will be caught on video and seen to be unjust and brutal.   I do not call for brutality but I do call for more law, but it should be justly and wisely applied.  I call for more love, aggressively and intentionally brought upon the perpetrators so they can hear the Gospel, and have a chance at repentance and rebirth.    I call for law that is consistent and efficient, that doesn't play around for months, years, and the ins and outs of plea bargains, suspended sentences, and dropped charges.  I call for law and courts, and law officers, that are not cruel or brutal or unjust, but are good at what they do.  I call for the Church to come where the sin and suffering happen to be.
     As a preacher I call for morality, justice, and peace.  As a Christian I act for the spread of the Gospel that changes lives, that loves the wicked, that comforts the wounded.  I'm convinced being a Christian in this world does not mean I just sit back and accept the destruction of our culture and act as a medic to its victims, which is what those who don't believe in absolutes about morality wish for us.  The restraint of evil must go hand in hand with a love for sinners and mercy to victims.
      

Saturday, March 2, 2013

I'm Just Asking For A Little Relief From the Injustice.

  I just read the cover article for Time Magazine about medical costs.  It confirmed for me what I have thought for sometime and that what we have been experiencing is a new wave of Robber Barons who have created a false market.  In the name of capitalism the medical industry seems to have killed free enterprise.
    Some seem to think the solution lies in socialized medicine, in government control of insurance and medical practice.  If the present climate continues that may well be the destination of our present direction.
    I would prefer government intervention in a more traditional American way, and that is by defining and declaring monopolies, breaking them up, preventing them, and allowing transparency in the medical industry. Without doing this I am afraid government will only temporize some costs and create the illusion that they are actually solving the problem.
    Who are the villains? If we could only find them we might be able to see where the trouble comes from, but that is hard to define in the medical industry.  In my opinion there is no doubt that some of the rich are robbing some of the poor in our present American world of medicine.  We especially take the working class, wait for them to have some catastrophic medical problem, bill them unimaginable amounts of money, turn them over to bill collectors fairly quickly, force them into bankruptcy, and pay the hospital managers huge bonuses.
    The irony is that the people who are in the robbing business can seem to be altruistic people (at least a good many of them).  They don't see themselves as thieves and practitioners of injustice.  They moan and groan with the rest of us about seemingly unstoppable rates of climb for medical care and coverage.  Part of the difficulty of identifying things as a monopoly is failing to see where the collusion takes place, where the intentional choking off of competition takes place.  Most people use the concept of "market forces" to justify policies that are ruinous to helpless consumers.  My point is that this is not an open market, not a fair one, and the only competition is between huge corporations, insurance companies, and individual managers who think they are worth more money.    My rant here is not against profit, it is not against people deserving reward for accomplishment.  What we have created is a justification of hiring rapacious managers who are the new Robber Barons of the industry.  As they acquire stock options they become the owners. 
    If the consumer was not helpless we could chalk it up to bad choices and decision making, but in the field of medicine most consumers are helpless.  They are ignorant of what they will be charged, they are not given the chance to negotiate, and they are merged into a system of insurance and inflated charges that gives them little or no voice in their purchase.
    There are at least a few things we can do until we acquire national political leadership that will be intelligent and purposeful enough to expose the monopolistic practices of this industry which is literally impoverishing some Americans and draining off resources from the rest of us.  Any medical manager or hospital manger of a non-profit hospital or system should never be rewarded for losing money (which seems to be a fairly consistent American practice based on what seems to be idiotic manager contracts) , but neither should they be rewarded when the institution that has been given non-profit status provides very little indigent care, or bullies up on inadequately insured individuals and families.  Their continued non-profit status should be tied to a percentage of help to the poor or working poor, and their salaries (where the profit is really being made)  should rather be taxed if they fail to reach a certain percentage of that kind of mercy.  Hospitals will moan about how much they have to write off, but how many consumers and patients have been financially ruined on the way to that, how many have failed to be given any deliverance from the legal or collection agency harassment?  Would it not have been better to make that kind of easement at the beginning and earn the right to say the institution is really charitable, rather than to earn the title by default?
    All costs should be published to show mark ups in supplies, equipment, and services.  National averages and basic cost to the institution should be published as well as the proposed billing so consumers can see what they are actually being charged.  All of us should react against a national practice that makes us victims rather than patients.