Friday, April 5, 2019

Some reasons we sing in corporate worship

(This slightly edited post was first published May 15, 2014, and was an excerpt from a 2012 post.)

Christianity is a singing faith, and for that -- I think -- we should all be thankful. The Bible -- which governs how we worship -- calls in both the Old and New Testaments for singing by God's people corporately.

While more could be listed, here are some reasons Scripture indicates we should sing as a church:

(1) We should sing to give God glory.

"Sing the glory of His name; make His praise glorious" (Ps. 66:2). These commands from the psalmist are to all the earth, so it certainly applies to those who belong to God as His redeemed children. We give him glory in song by declaring how glorious He is and by making our praise of Him glorious.

(2) We should sing to declare God's attributes.

The same verse, Ps. 66:2, conveys this message by speaking of "the glory of His name." God's "name" in Scripture refers to who He is -- in other words, what His nature is, what His attributes are. The psalmist says God's people should make His attributes known in their singing.

(3) We should sing to proclaim the atoning death of Christ.

"And they sang a new song, saying, 'Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth'" (Rev. 5:9-10) The apostle John's vision showed those around the throne singing about the blood sacrifice of the Lamb of God and its far-reaching impact. We will sing as one great choir about the cross-work of Jesus one day in Heaven, and we can do it now corporately on earth as the church.

(4) We should sing to instruct and encourage one another.

"Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (Col. 3:17). Singing, as the apostle Paul explains, has a discipleship function during corporate worship. As we sing, we act as teachers and encouragers to those with whom we are worshiping. We should recognize our singing is for the building up of our fellow saints, and their singing is for our building up.

(5) We should sing to express our heartfelt affection to God.

In this same verse from Col. 3, Paul says Christians in worship should sing "with thankfulness in your hearts to God." In Eph. 5:19, he says believers are to be "singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord." Singing is a means of expressing ourselves to God. As we sing together corporately, we tell Him of our gratitude for what He has accomplished on our behalf and express to Him joyful affection for who He is and what He has done.

-- Photo by Sarah Noltner on Unsplash

Friday, March 22, 2019

The goodness of lament and the God who listens

(This post has been slightly edited since its first publication March 23, 2017.)

"How long, O LORD?" It's the cry of David in Psalm 13:1. It's the cry of other biblical writers as well. It's the cry of those who continue to await God's help or see the flourishing of the wicked, among other reasons.

It's lament.

Lament is not exalted as a virtue in a Christian culture that instead magnifies Your Best Life Now and so many other unbiblical, unhelpful emphases that mark the prosperity gospel and therapeutic faith of our day. Yet, it's a biblical, virtuous practice. It's a practice it would be helpful to adopt if we would follow the example of the people of God described in Scripture.

In our small church, we have people who can lament with good cause. The reasons are manifold: The lostness of loved ones. Physical affliction. The departure from biblical faith and/or morality of family or friends. Infertility. The suffering of family members. The burdens borne by a parent or child. The crimes against humanity we are all witnesses to.

Many of the psalms of the Bible are marked by lament. As such, they provide insight into why lament is good, says David Gundersen, lead pastor of BridgePoint Bible Church in Houston and formerly associate professor of biblical counseling at Boyce College in Louisville, Ky. In a blog post in September 2016, Gundersen wrote:
If the Psalms of Israel teach us anything, they teach us that we are sinful, that life is broken, that hardship abounds, and that the greater David who’s coming (through all his travail and tribulations) to establish his everlasting kingdom is still to come. On these grounds, and many others, they teach us that it’s good — not just OK — to lament. Because if we’re singing in the rain, the melody should often match the weather.

In this way, the Psalms show us a powerful reversal of the way we typically think about lament. We often assume that lament implies doubt. But in truth, lament is actually an act of faith. The person to whom you complain is the person you trust. Sometimes we complain to people because we know they’ll listen. Sometimes we complain to people because we know they’ll care. And sometimes we complain to people because we know they can help.

If all of this is true, then our conception of lament gets turned on its head, and we must boldly acknowledge a new reality: Psalmic complaint is a form of trust, because lamenting to God implies belief in his listening ear, his fatherly care, and his sovereign power.
May we lament with the knowledge we have a Father whom we can trust.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Are you encouraging others to endure to the end?

You -- if you are a follower of Jesus -- are God's gift to others as they seek to endure to the end in the Christian faith.

It's true. Indeed, God is the One who keeps us secure for eternity after He saves us through the blood of His Son, but He also has made the encouragement we offer a gracious means to that end for our brothers and sisters. Encouragement is not flashy. It typically doesn't draw attention to itself. It doesn't seem to be highly coveted among Christians. But it is one of the most important ministries in a church. It can even be vital to finishing the race set before us.

The letter to the Hebrews carries a particular focus on the perseverance of the saints. In it, we see the significance of encouragement in that process.

For instance, the writer of Hebrews says, "[E]ncourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called 'Today,' so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (Hebrews 3:13).

In this admonition, we find we all are to encourage -- or exhort, as it also can be translated -- each other habitually ("day after day") and punctually ("as long as it is still called 'Today'"). The purpose of our encouragement is so none of us "will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Encouragement can help protect us from the effect of sin's duplicity.

Later in the letter, the writer again calls for the saints to encourage one another. Based on Christ ushering us into the presence of God and serving as our priest, we are to "consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Our encouragement is to be planned ("consider how"). We each should ask ourselves: How can I motivate others in their love and good works?

One way we do this is by gathering together with them. Corporate worship -- "not forsaking our own assembling together" -- serves as a means to encourage others. Presence produces encouragement. Absence negates encouragement, at least on that occasion and in that setting. When we meet as the church, we have the opportunity to encourage not only by our presence but by our words. Encouragement certainly takes place outside corporate worship, but we are thinking unbiblically if we minimize the encouragement that occurs in corporate worship.

In our church's corporate worship, encouragement can occur when we sing loudly enough for others to hear, when we offer praises to God aloud, when we express thanks to God aloud for the saving work of His Son.

Encouragement also can take place when we tell a brother or sister of the evidences of God's grace we see in their lives, when we identify for them the marks of Christ-likeness we recognize in them, when we write them a note affirming their growth as a disciple of Jesus.

Don't delay. Encourage a fellow pilgrim. It might help them endure to the end.

-- Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The church: The Christian remedy for isolation

(This post was first published September 21, 2017.)

Americans increasingly can live their lives without leaving their homes and without coming in contact with other human beings. And in this reality exists both a temptation and an opportunity for the church of Jesus.

Many of us in the workforce are able to do our jobs from our homes all or part of the time -- even in our pajamas. By and large, we don't have to go to the store for groceries, clothing, housing supplies, books, toys or most other items. Blue Apron and Hello Fresh will deliver meals to our door, and Amazon will send us food and nearly everything else. As consumers, we can get along just fine, thank you, with little, if any, human contact.

We don't have to go to someone's home, meet them at a coffee shop or talk to them on the phone to carry on what might be a meaningful conversation. Instead, we can communicate via desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone.

And our neighborhoods -- especially in suburbia -- often remain miniature ghost towns of empty streets, yards and porches as a result of the decades-long prevalence of air-conditioning and television.

As Christians, this culture of isolation can easily mold us into its image. It is a temptation especially enticing for the introverts among us or those who have been deeply wounded by others.

We must resist this pull toward separation from others. We are intended to have in-person relationships with other image bearers of God. After all, our Creator sent us not just a message but a Savior. God the Son came to us. His was an incarnational ministry. He grieved with the grieving. He embraced and blessed children. He touched and healed the afflicted. He spoke to individuals and massive crowds. He listened to His followers and those who were not His followers. We are to be incarnational in our ministry as well, spending time with friends, strangers and all other neighbors -- incarnating the gospel of our Servant King to others and being affected for good by them.

As followers of Jesus, we also must recognize the indispensable role of the church in responding to this challenge. It is as a church we learn what it means to be the family of God. It is as a church we grow together toward likeness to Jesus. It is as a church we agree to be held accountable and to hold others accountable -- even if it means being disfellowshipped because of a lack of repentance. It is as a church we remember Christ's death in the Lord's Supper and proclaim the gospel in believer's baptism. It is as a church we bear one another's burdens and share our burdens with others. This requires being present with others of the same fellowship.

Jesus has promised to build the church. It is unique. A community on Facebook or other social media can be good, but it is not the church. An inter-church mom's group can be good, but it is not the church. An interdenominational men's breakfast can be good, but it is not the church. A community-wide Bible study can be good, but it is not the church. A nondenominational Christian youth ministry can be good, but it is not the church.

In light of this truth about the church, what should a Christian do? Here are two steps every follower of Jesus should take:

1. Join a church. To become a member of a church is to signify I am making at least these statements: I demonstrate I love Jesus by loving His church enough to be identified with a local body of His followers. I see the other members of this church and myself as united not by our mutual interests but by our mutual Savior and Lord. I submit myself to this specific church for the benefit of my growth and ministry as a follower of Jesus. I agree with what this church says in its confession of Christian faith. I pledge to live as a member of a committed, sacrificial community according to this church's membership covenant. I agree I am willing to have others confront me graciously in my sin. I commit to help make disciples as a part of this church's fulfillment of its commission from Christ. I promise to consider others in the church as more important than myself and to look out for the interests of others and not just my own.

2. Be actively engaged in the church you join. The gathering of the church for corporate worship each Sunday is essential for a Christian. It is the weekly time we confess with one voice the truth about God and His gospel. It is the weekly time we sit under the preaching of the Word that gives life and corrects us. It is the weekly time we encourage one another in person. It is the weekly time we are together as the forever family -- hopefully from before the opening song until the closing of the last class and prayer time. Being actively engaged in the church you join also means participating in the fellowship's Bible studies, small groups and service efforts when possible, as well as spending time together as individuals and households. This may often be uncomfortable or inconvenient, but it is called for and crucial in the life of each Christian.

In these ways and more, the church can be the remedy for seclusion and loneliness in a Christian's life.

The church of Jesus has the opportunity in this increasingly isolated and fragmented society to show a watching world what it means to have deep, meaningful relationships based not upon our tribal preferences but upon an unchanging relationship with one another as children of an unchanging Father by the power of an unchanging gospel. The church of Jesus has the opportunity to show a hurting world of disenfranchised people how true grace and love are lived out. May we do so joyfully and sacrificially because God the Son became a member of the community of humanity to make us members of the community of heaven.

-- Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Friday, March 1, 2019

Daily intentionality in following Jesus

Following Jesus calls for intentionality. Following Jesus daily calls for daily intentionality.

Of course, you might say. I've got that, you might be thinking. Yet, how often do you suddenly realize hours into your day you have not been purposeful about yielding or offering yourself to your Master. It can happen to me if I'm not careful in the face of deadlines.

Or is it your habit to dive into each day without this intentionality and thereby find yourself battered back and forth by whatever comes your way? You live a life of constant reaction without any deliberate starting point of saying, "Yes," once again to Jesus.

We find the intentionality of Christian discipleship depicted in Scripture. For instance:

"And [Jesus] was saying to them all, 'If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me'" (Luke 9:23).

"Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship" (Romans 12:1).

"Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3-4).

These verses and more in God's Word demonstrate a deliberate act by God's grace is called for in following Christ. It always involves saying, "Yes," to Jesus and His claim on our lives. His claim also usually involves purposing to live with others in Christ-like ways.

These and other passages like them can guide us in intentionally submitting to Christ and His will daily. Following Jesus is not just repeating words. The words represent a reality we are to embrace, however.

It may be some days in our hectic schedules we seem to have little time. But taking this purposeful step in prayer can be done when rising, when driving, when commuting, when arriving at work, when preparing to take that first bite or drink.

Of course, following Jesus means saying, "Yes," to Him multiple times during a day in response to the thoughts and temptations that invade our minds or hearts, as well as the words and actions that come from others. But before they come our way, it is important that we take the intentional step of giving ourselves to the One who gave Himself for us.

Let's all be intentional daily from the start in following Jesus.

-- Photo by Olivia Snow on Unsplash

Friday, February 22, 2019

Neglected Christian history

February serves as a reminder of the deficiency in my education.

February is Black History Month. By failing to know black history, I not only have an inadequate understanding of American history. I also have fallen short in my knowledge of church history. My view of Christian history is more white-washed than the reality.

My personal experience demonstrates the poverty of my historical knowledge.

I grew up in a county seat town of about 15,000 people in southeast Missouri. Our community had several elementary schools, including one that was all black, Wheatley School. I am saddened and embarrassed to say only in the last year or two of my 66 years have I come to know why it was given that name.

Phillis Wheatley was a poet in the 18th Century who was a trailblazer for African-American and female writers. Only 7 or 8 years old when she was captured in West Africa and brought to Boston as a slave, she became a follower of Jesus. Though she was still a teenager, her poetic elegy to the Great Awakening evangelist George Whitefield brought her international recognition, according to the Poetry Foundation. With her poems published in New England and England, Wheatley became one of the best known poets prior to 1800.

She "applied biblical symbolism to evangelize and to comment on slavery," the Poetry Foundation reported. Her literary accomplishments motivated the early anti-slavery movement in America and later served for the abolitionists as testaments to the artistic and intellectual abilities of those bound by slavery, according to the foundation.

George Liele, whom I learned of only in recent years, provides another example of my deficiency in church history.

It is Liele -- not Adoniram Judson -- who was the first Baptist preacher to take the gospel from America to another country. Liele was the first ordained black Baptist preacher in this country and planted the first African-American Baptist church in North America, according to an International Mission Board (IMB) article.

Born into slavery in 1750 in Virginia, Liele became a Christian at the age of 23 in Georgia. Liele's owner freed him sometime after his conversion, and he began preaching to slaves in the Savannah, Ga., area before planting a church.

After an effort to re-enslave him failed, Liele and his family went to Jamaica with the help of a colonel in the British army. He preached to slaves there as well and planted a church. Liele faced persecution and imprisonment but continued to preach. He baptized 500 people in an eight-year period, and the church grew strong, according to the IMB article.

Leile's ministry affected Jamaica spiritually and socially. About 8,000 Baptists lived in Jamaica in 1814, a number that included slaves, freedmen and whites. By 1832, there were more than 20,000 believers as a result of his ministry, the IMB article reported. Liele's work as an evangelist and pastor helped produce an end to slavery in Jamaica in 1838, 10 years after his death, according to the IMB profile.

The church's history is a vibrant one not limited to the work of God in one ethnic group or skin color.

-- Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

'Lives not worth living' and the church of Jesus

The category of "lives not worth living" continues to expand to the grief of all who value human beings as image bearers of God. And its advocates seem to be expanding as well. They are at least in the openness of their intentions.

The last three weeks have demonstrated some Americans -- maybe a growing number -- believe babies who survive abortions are now included in this dehumanizing classification. At least some abortion rights proponents are committed to ensuring children who escape the lethal efforts of abortionists can be left legally to die without medical care. And a frightful number of lawmakers are devoted to protecting the right to kill until delivery any unborn child who could survive outside the womb.

For instance:

-- New York enacted a law Jan. 22 that legalizes abortion until birth for the mother’s “health,” which is not defined and has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to include essentially any reason. It also permits infanticide by eliminating protections for babies who survive an attempted abortion and by removing fetal homicide penalties, according to Americans United for Life. Of course, Jan. 22 is the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that legalized abortion nationwide.

-- Virginia Del. Kathy Tran told a House of Delegates subcommittee Jan. 28 her bill to repeal abortion restrictions in the state would allow an abortion for “mental health” reasons even when the woman’s cervix is dilating and she is preparing to give birth.

-- Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia commented on Tran's proposal by affirming what can justly be described as infanticide two days later in a radio interview. He said, "The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

While Tran's bill did not survive the subcommittee, the sanctity of human life for babies who can live outside the womb will likely not fare as well in more liberal states. Abortion rights activists are pushing legislators to eliminate even the mild restrictions permitted by the Supreme Court, which they contend is threatening to reverse Roe.

What should be the response of those who believe in the sanctity of life for all human beings from conception to natural death? Yes, we should seek to elect pro-life officeholders. Yes, we should urge lawmakers to pass pro-life legislation, such as the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act (S. 130). Yes, we should support pregnancy care centers that serve women considering abortions.

We should not, however, outsource our responsibility and opportunity as the church of Jesus. As the church created by our Lord, we have the message, the mission, the legacy and the community needed by mothers and unborn children in crisis, as well as abortionists and abortion's promoters.

As an evangelical Christian church, we have the true gospel message -- God the Son became an embryo in a virgin's womb and grew into a man who lived a righteous life, died on the cross and rose again to save the people of God. We proclaim this life-changing message to all sinners.

We have the mission given by Jesus to make disciples of all people groups, baptizing and teaching -- teaching that includes the message that every human being regardless of age, condition or location is a divine image bearer whose life is worth living.

We have the legacy of the Didache, an early document that condemned abortion and infanticide; the rescue of infants from the exposure walls in the Fourth Century; and the ending of child-killing in countries served by evangelical missionaries in the 19th Century.

We have the community -- we actually are the community -- of the redeemed, who love and serve all and are blood-bought brothers and sisters for those who are born again into the family of God.

May we faithfully follow Jesus and give ourselves for those whom our culture of death deems disposable.

-- Photo by Charles 🇵🇭 on Unsplash

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Where do we see the majesty of God?

I have reconsidered lately where God's majesty is most clearly seen.

Certainly I recognize it in the breathtaking sunsets and brilliant fall colors of Virginia, the snow-capped mountains of Montana and the magnificent waterfalls of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Scenes of such beauty in nature definitely call for offerings of praise to God.

Yet, none of those reaches the pinnacle of God's majesty in creation. That spot is reserved for every human being, because each of us -- and no other part of God's creation -- is made in His image (Genesis 1:26-27).

In my own life, I see or have seen the majesty of God in:

-- A girl born exceedingly prematurely resting in the hands of her mother as a monitor counted down her life in a neonatal unit.

-- A boy with Down syndrome in our special needs Sunday School class who called me "doofus."

-- Older African-American men who avoided raising their heads and looking at me after decades of having their "place" in the Jim Crow South hammered into them.

-- A young female friend of our family who is blind and mentally impaired.

-- A boy in our church who cannot speak or stand.

-- A woman in a nursing home who frequently told tales indicating her mind no longer functioned coherently.

-- A 96-year-old woman, my mother, who never responded as her family spoke tenderly to her and sang hymns around her bed in her final days.

And some I have been unable to see but I knew bore God's image in the womb of their mothers -- mothers who walked past my sidewalk vigil into a clinic and left childless.

Every human being I have ever encountered was an image bearer of God, and every person I see today or will see in the future is an image bearer of God -- even those who oppose the right to life of others. Some of these foes of life may even acknowledge the majesty of the Creator in the wonders of nature, but they are blind to His majesty in some of their fellow image bearers.

We, the people of God rescued by His Son who took on flesh and blood like us, are the ones who have the treasured privilege of testifying to this truth and demonstrating it in how we treat every other human being: Every human being -- no matter his or her age, ability, condition or ethnicity -- bears the image of God and should be treated with the dignity that truth requires.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash