Little things tell a big story.

Little things tell a big story.

Whenever I am going to meet someone on Craigslist to buy or sell, I ask them if they’re planning on murdering me. If they don’t laugh at all, or if they laugh way too much, I figure that’d be a cause for concern. It’s a little thing that tells me a little about the person I’m talking to.

Our congregation is like many—it isn’t very vocal. Generally if I get an “amen” it’s because there’s a visitor in the crowd. Maybe they’ve heard the cliché that “amening” is like saying “sic em!” to a dog. It’ll just encourage the preacher to keep on going…

A year or so ago, I was preaching on “Sanctity of Life Sunday” about abortion. In the sermon, I said that “voluntary abortion is nothing but murder.” I got the loudest “amen” I’ve ever heard from one of our members.

You’d think I should have been excited (or at least surprised) that someone once wanted to offer their support of something I said, but I wasn’t.

It bugged me that in several years of preaching, literally, the only time this gentleman ever felt the need to verbally express immediate agreement was when I condemned a particular sin.

When I talked about hope, there was no amen.

When I said that Jesus is the savior of the world, there was no amen.

When I said that God loved us and wants to make something of us, there was no amen.

When I described the awesome power, majesty, and might of sovereign God, there was no amen.

But when I condemned a sin that none of our people were particularly involved in committing, there was a big, bad amen.

Little things tell a big story.

We generally say “amen” when the preacher condemns someone else’s sin, but we’re usually quiet when it is our own.

One problem we all have is how much better we are at condemnation than introspection. Remember that little teaching about a beam in your eye?

I know that our amen-ing brother didn’t mean it this way—but here’s what he communicated that Sunday: the most important thing the church can possibly say is what’s wrong with “those people.” The world’s problem was worthy of more attention than the Lord’s cure. That’s heresy—whether we say it intentionally or not.

Little things tell a big story.

That incident caused me to think about myself. What do I encourage? What do I prioritize? What do I neglect? How do my biases and preferences cause me to emphasize or de-emphasize? Even my reaction to this observation is colored by my way of thinking.

My speech and my silence both communicate. The question is, what are they saying? Little things do tell a very big story!

Review: Living and Longing for the Lord: A Guide to 1-2 Thessalonians

Michael Whitworth has done it again. This volume is the third in his series of companion guides to books of the Bible, following Epic of God for Genesis and Derision of Heaven foliveandlongr Daniel. These guides meet a need in Christian writing: they are more substantive than most Sunday School guides and more accessible than most worthwhile commentaries. I can recommend these books as great reading for anyone who wants to get to know one of the Biblical books a little bit better.

Living and Longing is timely. It’s always tempting for an author to spend 300 pages chasing rabbits and 0 pages actually challenging his readers, but Michael doesn’t fall into that trap. He does indulge our curiosity and spends some time on some of the curiosities (e.g., the man of lawlessness, holy kisses, etc.), but he makes sure these side trails bring us home to the main point.

I tend to think of 1 and 2 Thessalonians as eschatological books, but Living and Longing really brings out the practical, daily living lessons from the book. He refuses to divorce the hereafter from the here-and-now.

Even when dealing with the difficult topic of God’s wrath, Michael does a good job of keeping us grounded in the lessons we each need.

My plan for Living and Longing is to spread out a few copies among our members before teaching a class or preaching a series on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and then get feedback from the readers. I then incorporate their feedback into my preaching. I’ve found that to be a helpful way to enrich my teaching on the text, and get a few more people involved in detailed study.

I’d definitely recommend Living and Longing for anyone wanting to know more about these books or who wants to deepen their faith. It is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.

Church Drop-out Warning Signs

dropouts-logoOne of the things that really concerns Christians is the problem of church drop-outs. To use the language of the parable of the sower and soils (Matthew 13), these might be the ones who are on thorny or rocky ground, the people who come to Christ but then slip out the back door.

People spend a lot of time writing about why people leave and what can be done to stop them, but the most helpful “cure” is one that can be done by any of us. If we notice that people are disengaging, we can act!

Dr. John Savage identified what he called the “drop-out” track. In his studies, he recognized five stages and warning signs that people are heading towards the back door. Take a look at these and see if they can make you a more helpful brother or sister in Christ.

  1. Differentiating. When people start to say “your” church instead of “our” church, they are already moving towards the door. If they glorify the “good ol’ days” and talk about all of your missed opportunities, they no longer see themselves as part of the family.
  2. Chilling. Did someone who used to be warm and talkative suddenly go cold? When a person only gives you the polite formalities and social niceties, they’re beginning to leave.
  3. Questioning. Some questions are real and helpful. Other times, they’re just a cover for criticism. “I wonder if I offended the elders, since none of them pay attention to me anymore.”
  4. Sabotaging. This is the stage where gossip abounds. They will “forget” to be involved or help in areas that they previously served in an attempt to make the church miss them.
  5. Terminating. They announce their plans to leave. Attendance becomes erratic.

(You can read more about this at http://www.leadplus.com/Articles.htm)

If we keep our eyes open to these signs in our brothers and sisters, we might be able to help people before they leave the family. It’s always easier to prevent someone from leaving than to help them come back. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

One more thought: in Luke 15 there are the parables of lost-and-found (coins, sheep, and sons). One of the most significant thoughts in each story is this: somebody noticed what was missing!

Book Review: Fit for the Pulpit: The Preacher & His Challenges

fitMost of our ministry training schools have a class along the lines of “Preacher and His Work.” I took it under David Powell at Freed-Hardeman. Brother Powell did a great job helping us understand some of the nuts and bolts of what daily life in church work would be like, but Fit for the Pulpit is the missing textbook that we really could have used!

Fit for the Pulpit is not a homiletics book or a how-to manual for preaching. It is an honest look the struggles that come with being a preacher. It highlights eleven areas that most ministers could use some guidance in. Time management, discouragement, family, criticism, money, and laziness are just a few of the topics. You can tell the book doesn’t pull punches! Failure in any one of these areas has been the ruin of many good works. This compilation is good preventive medicine that will help keep men serving in ministry longer and more effectively.

The contributors are all well-respected men in ministry who know what it’s like. They are direct about the real challenges ministers face, and they offer biblical, practical advice for how to meet these challenges head-on.

Church Leaders magazine ran a little article called “Ministry Isn’t For Wimps.” They are absolutely right. Fit for the Pulpit sets out to give a little bit of preparation for the obstacles, a little bit of cheerleading for guys down in the dumps, and a little bit of hope that the work is worth it and it will get better. Our brotherhood needs the encouragement these authors provide.

I definitely recommend the book for anyone considering ministry and those who are already in it. You never outgrow the fundamentals.  I’d also hope that our ministry training schools and internships would make this required reading! Kudos to Start2Finish Books for getting this tool out there!

Fit is available through Amazon and other sites.

Worship. It’s not about you, is it?

This is the outline of the thoughts I presented at Evangelism University this weekend in Savannah,TN. I began the class with the “Weekly Worship Critique” skit from the Skit Guys. We then used gift-giving as a framework to discuss worship.

Good & Bad Gifts

What is the WORST gift you’ve ever received? What made that gift so terrible?

A gift is good when there’s thought and meaning behind it. A gift is terrible when those things are missing. A thoughtless gift can be worse than no gift at all.

A bad gift…

  • Isn’t something the recipient would enjoy. It might be something the recipient hates! (Ever give an Alabama hat to an Auburn fan?)
  • Didn’t have much thought or meaning to it
  • Was shoddy, cheap, or second-best quality (Does your girlfriend want a bouquet of dead roses?)
  • Is impersonal or focused on the giver rather than the receiver (You don’t want a signed picture of me for your birthday, do you?)

Gift-giving can help us think wisely about worship.

Worship is our gift to God. God has told us what he likes and what he doesn’t like. If we are going to understand how to worship in “spirit and truth” (John 4:24) and please God, we must focus on God’s desires and not just ours. Thinking about ourselves instead of God is a recipe for “vain worship” (see Mark 7:6-13 and Isaiah 29:13-14).

“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29 ESV)

Worship Words

What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think about “worship”?

There are two main words that the New Testament when it describes God-pleasing worship:

LATREUO means to serve or work for. It’s used in Matthew 4:10, Luke 2:37, 4:8, Acts 7:7, 26:7, 27:23, Romans 1:9, 1:25, Hebrews 12:28 and more.

PROSKYNEO means to “express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure.” It’s a word picture of blowing a kiss, bowing down, and obeying someone that is mighty and loved. It’s used in Matthew 2:2, 4:9, 28:17, John 4:20-24,9:28, Acts 10:25, 24:11, 1 Corinthians 14:25 and more.

Both of these words remind us that the focus of worship must always be on the object of our worship—God.

Worship Gone Wrong

We’re always going to have trouble grasping the beauty and significance of worship if we’re focusing on ourselves instead of God. Remember that when we pray, we enter the throne room of Almighty God! How can we not be moved by such an experience?

Too often we focus on ourselves in worship. The way we talk about worship is important. The audience is not the group of people in the pews. The audience of worship is Father God. The preacher and song leader are not “performing” for the “crowd.” We all have our hearts are on display before God. The fruit of our lips is an offering to God (Hebrews 13:15).

Do any of these sound familiar?

“I didn’t get much out of worship today.”

It wasn’t for you. It was for God. And what did you put into it to begin with?

“I really want to worship like ______ do. I just like it better when…”

Are we worshipping you and your desires or God and his? My preferences can’t be the starting point for evaluating worship.

“I get so bored in church.”

This preacher will admit that not every sermon is exciting or even perfectly helpful, but the prospect of opening your heart to God is something that should always get our attention. When God’s word is read, God is speaking. Are you listening to Him, or the guy behind the pulpit?

“I don’t think God would mind if we did ____ in worship.”

If you’re sure about that, check with scripture. It will tell you what he wants!

Can you think of any examples from scripture where God is displeased with worship? (Amos 5, Exodus 20:3, Jeremiah 12:2, Genesis 4:3-5, Hebrews 11:4).

Suggestions for Worship

God is not unaware of our emotions, needs, and feelings. Worship that pleases God will encourage his people, too. So here are a few practical suggestions for making the most out of our times of corporate worship.

FIRST: Prepare for worship.
If you go to bed at 4am, it’s probably not the preacher’s fault you can’t stay awake at 10am. Get a good night’s rest. Make worship a priority. Consider the awesome task of coming before God—and anticipate it! Leave on time and get there early.

Does your preacher announce a scripture and topic in advance? Make sure you read it. Does your Sunday School teacher assign readings? Don’t neglect them. Do you sing a song with words that you don’t understand? Google “ebon pinion” or “Ebenezer” and help yourself be ready. (Paul said he was ready to sing with the spirit and with understanding in 1 Corinthians 14:15).

SECOND: Evaluate worship using God’s criteria.
It’s easy for me to use the wrong criteria to judge the quality of worship. I can get discouraged if the lady behind me sings off-key.  I can get distracted if a prayer goes long.

Evaluating worship based on these things puts me at the center of worship. Instead, I ought to remember that beautiful and obedient hearts mean more to God than perfect pitch and excitement. Some of us do well to make a “joyful noise” before the Lord! (Psalm 100)

THIRD: Remember to sacrifice.
Good gifts are sacrificial. When David was making preparations for the temple, a man offered to give him his land for the project. David wisely responded, “No, but I will buy them for the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (1 Chronicles 21:24)

I find this especially helpful if it is a service that has a lot of songs or topics that aren’t my favorites. I remind myself that it’s not about me—it’s about God! By the way, don’t forget that teens can give financially, too!

FOURTH: Take personal responsibility for worshipping.
It’s easy to blame someone else if we don’t have our hearts in the right place during worship, but a good gift-giver won’t make excuses. He will take personal responsibility for his own heart.

Final Thoughts

A famous and popular preacher was scheduled to speak for a particular church one Sunday. A huge audience had come from long distances to hear him. When the services began, the regular minister approached the pulpit and announced that something had interfered and the famous guest was unable to be there. Several began to get up and leave, disappointed that they wouldn’t be hearing the guest. The minister stood and said, “All who have come here today to worship our guest preacher may now be dismissed. All who have come to worship Almighty God, please remain seated.” Not one person left.

Don’t forget that it is a worship service, not a worship “serve-us”.

For further study, consider…

  • John 4, Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 14. You might also study the passages in the Old Testament that describe the Tabernacle and the Temple and their quality and significance. The Psalms are also the hymnbook of Israel and give you some ideas for your worship.
  • More Than a Feeling: Worship that Pleases God by Jimmy Jividen.
  • The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today by Everett Ferguson.

The Problem with Praisercize

Before you read further, I have a confession to make: I can’t stand most “Christian merchandise.”

Bumper stickers, coffee mugs, art, necklaces, bookmarks, pens. When you go to a Christian bookstore, you see all of this Oriental Trading Company stuff that goes from costing a nickel to a dime just because the word Jesus is stamped on it. Take a beautiful picture of a waterfall and it is art. Write the word “peace” on the bottom of it and it becomes “Christian art.”

I’ve never really figured out how stuff can be Christian. Did the artist baptize it? Does it come to church? Is this pen nicer than its unsaved Pilot friends? Maybe it tithes!

I was reading from Alistair Begg’s Made for His Pleasure: Ten Benchmarks of a Vital Faith and came across this thought. Christians tend to see things that become popular in culture and decide that we must have a “Christianized version.”

His example was an exercise fad. “When aerobic exercise, aided by video, grabbed center stage, Christians decided they must have their own version. So they created ‘Praisercize’ to substitute for ‘Jazzercise.’”

At first, I’m tempted to roll my eyes and just write this off as a lame copy of culture, but Begg realizes this is a bigger problem than most might realize.

“The result? Christians who had a desire to get fit neglected the opportunity to plug in with their non-Christian friends, choosing instead to form another ‘holy huddle’: bodies bouncing in time to worship songs. “

The first problem is that rather than engaging in the world around us and living in community with the good, the bad, and the ugly, this behavior causes us to withdraw. We hide, cloistering ourselves to avoid any contact with those people who aren’t like us.

The second problem might be worse. Here’s Begg:

“This allowed them to shun the secular and trivialize the sacred.

By trying to “Christianize” something, we’ve reduced Christianity from a dynamic, life-changing power to a mere label that’s slapped on merchandise. “Christian” isn’t an attribute of a workout. It’s not a label for art. It isn’t an adjective that enhances some noun.

Christians are disciples. Whole-hearted Christ followers. A relationship with Jesus that is the basis for whatever we do, in word or deed.

Let’s avoid using that term in a way that cheapens its beautiful meaning.

The Tragedy of the Commons

Are you familiar with the economic principle “the tragedy of the commons”? It basically says that most of us are pretty good at taking care of our own houses, but if there is a courtyard in the middle of the neighborhood, even though it belongs to all of us, none of us will take care of it like we take care of our own home. Economists use this term to describe vandalism and run-down parts of town.

Another way of putting it is that “no drop of rain believes it is to blame for the flood.”

When we are just one part of a larger system, it is easy for us to lower our personal standards or avoid personal responsibility. After all, somebody else, somewhere has just as much call to help as I have.

Christians understand that what helps one of us helps all of us, and what hurts any of us grieves all of us. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

Rather than viewing the common areas in our lives as a place for other people to take care of, we see them as our own personal ground to serve. I love how Paul refers to his friend Epaphroditus: his “brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier.” (Philippians 2:25) He sees him as his partner in the faith. They are in it together. In Ephesians he says that the Gentile Christians “are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:19)

Christianity speaks against the tragedy of the commons. It speaks against isolation and a John Wayne “I’ll do it myself” sort of attitude. It calls us towards fellowship, partnering with each other in living kingdom life.

Blurry Jesus?

In 1930, Elias Garcia Martinez, a professor at the School of Art in Zaragoza, spent his holidays painting a fresco for the church in north-eastern Spain. His portrait of Jesus was typical of the style common in the day. He called his work “Ecce Homo” from the Latin translation of John 19:5, “Behold the man!”

His portrait was unremarkable. It only became famous in August of 2012 when Cecilia Gimenez painted over the fresco in an attempt to restore the art. Most people consider it to be a total failure. A BBC Europe journalist wrote that her “restoration” looked more like “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic” than the savior of the world. So bad was the painting that it has even been nick-named “Ecce Mono” – a Latin/Spanish combination that means “Behold the Monkey!”

I’m not writing to criticize Gimenez and her desire to restore a fading old work of art. If I had tried to restore the piece, it wouldn’t have fared any better. (Well, maybe I would have been smart enough not to try, but that’s a different post!)

The botched restoration attempt makes a pretty good parable for the image that most modern readers have of Jesus.

Most people in America recognize Jesus by name. They are familiar with the idea that he is the “founder” of Christianity. To most, he’s a good teacher, a religious guru, and a wise man. But the image that most people have of Jesus is as far removed from the beautiful reality as the restoration is from the original.

Ecce Homo – The original and the “restoration”

We miss the compassion that was extended to the most marginalized of society. We miss the indignation aimed at those who abused their spiritual authority. We miss the audacity that caused crowds to call for his death and his coronation nearly simultaneously.

It is our goal as we begin this study to act like Secret Service agents-in-training. When cadets enter training to prepare for work in the anti-counterfeiting division, rather than focusing on all of the myriad ways of making funny money, their trainers immerse them in the original, the real deal. They study genuine currency. The more familiar that they become with the real thing, the more quickly anything phony pops out as a fraud.

The same thing happens when we learn about Jesus. The more clearly we study the original Jesus, the historical man of Galilee, the more real he becomes, and the easier it is for us to discard any fake images of the man.

Richard of Chichester had a beautiful prayer in 1253:
Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits Thou hast given me, for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me. O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly and follow thee more nearly, day by day.
If we’re serious about this Jesus stuff, we’ll want to get past the blurry copies and look for the real deal. Beginning in February, our Wednesday night studies at Burns are going to be focused completely on Jesus. In the next few weeks, I’ll have some material up to share. I’d love for you to join us!

Holidays are a pain

Holidays can be a real pain.

It takes so long to get back into the rhythm of things. There are bags to be unpacked and laundry to be cleaned. We have catching up to do at work and at home. We’re tired after expending more time and energy than we normally do. Not to mention the fact that healthy eating and exercise habits tend to go out the window!

Holidays can be a real pain, but they’re totally worth it.

Interrupting the mundane rhythm of everyday life reminds us of the important things we tend to neglect—not things, but people. Relationships. Family. Feelings.

It is interesting that God ordained a weekly Sabbath for his people. Surely that must have been inconvenient! Everybody had to gather twice as much the night before. You couldn’t take a trip that day. Your fire better have been kindled in advance. No late-night runs to Wal-Mart for the Jews!

Nobody was exempt, either. The rich couldn’t enjoy the benefit of Sabbath on the backs of the poor or the foreign. The poor had equal preference with the rich. Everybody was to participate in this weekly ritual. Six days of work, one day of rest. It wasn’t so much a cycle, but an ellipse of work interrupted by something different. Not a vacation, but a time of reflection.

God knew we humans settle into routines. Mindless repetitions that become tiresome ruts. So he provided an interruption. For the Jews it was Sabbath and the high feast days. They may come in different forms for us today, but the principle of taking some time to break the routines and appreciate the things that matter most is a gift from God. They might be difficult, but imagine life without them.

The divide.

The divide.

Lots of folks are writing about it. It’s the imaginary barrier between sacred and secular, the common practice of compartmentalizing our faith, our work, our family, and our friends. Each part of life goes in its own little box. And ne’er the twain shall meet…

The divide is one reason why our churches struggle. If what happens on Sunday has nothing to do with Monday, people are going to go looking for something that does. If Thursday is off-limits on Sunday, what do we have that’s actually helpful to do in our time together?

The sacred-secular divide.

When I first heard that term, I started thinking Leviticus—the book where Bible reading plans go to die.

Leviticus is chock full of holiness codes. Don’t mix the holy and the unholy. Don’t let the common defile the uncommon. Don’t let the secular contaminate the sacred. I started to wonder if all the talk of the sacred-secular divide was in direct contradiction with the message of a book like Leviticus.

A light-bulb went off for me when I was reading in my New Testament.

Peter tells us that we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a priestly kingdom (1 Peter 2:9). John said in his Revelation that through the blood of Jesus we all have been made into priests and kings (Revelation 5:10).

As priests, we are sanctifiers. We are people who are in the holy-making business. We bring what once was secular to the God who can make it holy. That’s what I had been missing!

Even if Leviticus was all we had, the goal of Leviticus was to bring all things into holiness. The goal was to make all things holy. Check out Leviticus 11:44, 19:2, and 20:7. They all say the same thing: be holy like God.

When Jesus got in trouble for eating with tax collectors and sinners and whatever other seedy characters you could find, it was because people didn’t understand this: the purpose of the sacred is not barricade itself in and protect itself from the influence of the secular. The saints aren’t meant to pat each other on the back for not being like those sinners over there.  The purpose of the holy is to bring the common to God and spread that holiness.

So when you and I look at the things around us that get labeled as “secular” – our jobs, our hobbies, our friends, our dentist – as priests in the Kingdom of Jesus, we have one driving question:  how do we treat this as holy?

That’s how we knock down that divide and give meaning to all 168 hours of a week. That’s how the power of Sunday comes to Monday.