January 16, 2017

Chipping Away

183,300 men! That is the tally of laborers employed in cutting timber, hewing stone, and hauling materials for the building of the temple of the Lord in the days of King Solomon. 183,300 according to 1 Kings 5:13-16! That’s a lot of men … and thus a lot of timber and stone that they were cutting and hauling! Which gets me thinking …

What must it have been like to be one of those men? They must have known what the project was to which they were contributing. They must have known it was going to be grand, that it was going to be beautiful, and that it was going to be for the Lord. And I am sure that, on many days, these facts made the work all the more fulfilling. And yet, if I can put myself in their sandals for a few moments … Though I might have some idea of the grandeur and value of the project, at the end of the day, I am still just planing boards all day; or maybe chipping away on the same piece of stone, for days on end, to form it into the right shape and size. And the job of carrying all that stuff must have been even all the more tedious! So that – while these men knew they were working for the Lord, and building what would be the most important building that ever was built – some days it probably didn’t seem all that grand, or exciting, or moving, or maybe even fulfilling. Many days it must have been hard to see the splendor of the big picture, and much easier just to focus on this giant rock sitting in front of me, or on this tree trunk that has to be planed today. And that doesn’t light the fire the same way as does being on some big ‘adventure’ for God. And yet, whether they realized it or not, each of these 183,300 men (and their repetitive daily labor in the forests and quarries) was vital to the great project!

And it occurs to me that this is how the life of faith works, still today. We, in Christ’s church, are working on a grand project, too (even far grander than Solomon’s temple)! We are Christ’s hands and feet as He builds a kingdom that "will have no end"! Surely it is the most glorious project that was ever undertaken! And, like the 183,300, we know this! And, on our better days, we are glad to be a part of it! But, though we know the big picture, most of our actual work is done on the small picture. Most of our kingdom work is less like being the architect of the temple, and more like cutting away on the same block of stone day after day. Which means that many a time – when keeping the church nursery, or reviewing the catechism with our kids, or handing out bulletins on Sunday morning, or praying for some prayer request on a Wednesday night, or teaching a lesson, or paying a pastoral visit – many a time we may just be doing what is right in front of us, without any great thought about how it all fits in the grand architecture of the kingdom. Sometimes we may even feel rather humdrum about the work that God has given us to do. And, while I do not say that that is good … I also don’t know that it is all that uncommon. We are hewers of stone, cutters of timber, haulers of rock. And, while we ought to realize what privileges these are, the reality is that, even when we don’t set our sights as high as we ought, God is still working through our hands and feet, and the kingdom is still being built! And it will be grand! And when we see it in its completion, we will be so glad for the little bit of sweat and muscle that God allowed us to put in!

So be glad, you servants of the Lord! While you work on your little projects, and chip away at what is right in front of you … God, in Christ, is doing far more than you can yet see. And your part is important. And you’ll be glad, in the end, that you stuck with it!

January 11, 2017

Rain, Rain Go Away?

This past Sunday evening, I looked at the weather app on my phone and, after clouds on Monday, it showed eight consecutive days of rain! And when the little weather icons on a phone app look so depressing, how much more might the actual weather?! And so, even as I type, the clouds are thick, the ground is saturated, and the days have been exceedingly gray. Such is often winter in Cincinnati, I suppose. And I don’t doubt that it can have a dampening effect on our minds. Maybe that’s even by God’s wise design. Maybe the rainy, cloudy days help us appreciate the sun all the more (both literally, and in a spiritual sense … see 2 Samuel 23:3-4). But if so, that still makes the gray days … well, gray.

But it occurs to me that I shouldn’t be too quick to sing ‘Rain, rain, go away, come again another day.’ For God has good purposes for the rain (does He not?) even outside the purpose of making us appreciate the sun when the rain finally goes away! Rain is so often spoken of, in Scripture, as being the blessing of God. Rain was one of the examples Paul marshalled, when preaching to a group of pagans in Acts 14, to demonstrate to them the reality of the Creator God! And rain was one of the blessings God promised to Israel, in Deuteronomy 28, if they carefully obeyed His word!

So rain is a good thing! And of course, when we are thinking big picture, we understand these things. Much as we may not personally like the rain falling down, day after day, in the winter time … we’d not trade it for a drought, I can promise you! We need rain … not only for the lawns and flowers and trees to be beautiful around our homes, but (all the more) for the crops to grow which provide us (and the animals we eat) with grains, vegetables, fruits, and so on! The rain, says Isaiah, makes the earth “bear and sprout … furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater” (Isaiah 55:10).

And, if you know well that passage in Isaiah 55:10-11, you’ll remember that, embedded in it, is yet another reason to be thankful for the rain.  And that is the way the rain (along with the snow!) reminds us of the blessing of God’s word – not in the grayness that accompanies the rain, but in its fruitfulness!

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
And do not return there without watering the earth
And making it bear and sprout,
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”

Think of that, when the rain falls, day after day! Think of the blessing that the farmers, and grocers, and consumers (like us) will reap from it in the weeks and months ahead. And then thank God that His word works like that as well – even when (like the rain) you may not always realize or even appreciate it, at first! It will produce its fruit. And you will be glad, when the blossoms begin to open, for the rain!

January 3, 2017

"Much closer attention"

“We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2:1)

A Christian, just like anyone else, can become distracted, drowsy, even bored. Sad to say, we can even slip into these ruts when it comes to our attention to the word of God. Some of our lapses, no doubt, are related to physical weaknesses (sometimes self-inflicted, sometimes not). Some distraction also has to do with the ever shortening attention spans that modern technology daily ingrains in us. And a good bit of our spiritual inattentiveness can have to do, alas, with the state of our souls. But we must fight against every sort of weakness and distraction that would keep us from really hearing the word of God, and thus drifting from it (Hebrews 2:1)! “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard” and to what we are hearing! And so, in the lines below, allow me to make a few practical suggestions as to how we can do so (especially as it relates to hearing God’s word preached) – whether our weaknesses be physical, spiritual, or related to the modern lack of attention span.

1. Get adequate rest. Someone has said that a good Sunday begins on Saturday night. How true! It is very difficult to pay careful attention in the morning when you have stayed up too late the previous night. So know your body. Figure out how much sleep you need. And go to bed on Saturday night well in time to receive it! Your body will thank you on Sunday morning, and your soul will do so throughout all eternity!

2. Avoid being a distraction. We’ve all been there – coming to after about 20-30 seconds, and realizing we have lost track of what the preacher was talking about. Because our eyes were following someone who got up and took a bathroom break, or because of a child (maybe even the preachers’ kid!) being rambunctious, or because of someone nearby fidgeting with a cell phone, or nodding off. And of course, we could all stand to force ourselves to focus, even in spite of these things. But we can also do one another a favor by doing all we can to set ourselves up to be unobtrusive during the service. Some distractions are minor, of course. And others can’t be helped – there are bathroom emergencies, and surprises with the children, and other hiccups that can’t be avoided (and so don't feel guilty when they happen!). But if we can go to the bathroom before the service, and quickly take our children out when they begin to be a distraction (and sit near the back if we think they might be), and keep ourselves from fidgeting, and so on … we can, in many instances, avoid unnecessary distractions, and help those around us “pay much closer attention.”

3. Cultivate a lengthening attention span. One reason some of us may struggle to follow a sermon is not always because the preacher is too long, but because our attention spans are too short – not by nature, but by cultivation. We spend a lot of time watching TV, which breaks every 8 minutes; and maybe even more time staring at tablets and phones, whose screens we can flip, change, and refresh every few seconds (count me as guilty here, too). And so we often have more difficulty than our forebears following words (as opposed to pictures). It can be challenging for us to follow that which lasts more than a few minutes, and does not come with moving pictures.*  But if we are to hear the word of God, we must be able to give attention to an extended series of words! For “faith comes from hearing” (Romans 10:17). And thus we must cultivate longer attention spans … and the ability to hear and think and stay focused even without pictures! And so I charge you: turn off the television. Curtail your time on tablets and phones. And increase the time you spend in books (which use the same medium as the book) and in face-to-face conversation with real people. Learn to listen, and to focus on words in the day-to-day, and you’ll be helped to do it, with matters of the soul at stake, on the Lord’s Day.

4. Cultivate an anticipation for Sunday meeting. I wonder if some our distractedness in worship might have its root in a low view of the Lord’s Day itself. Are Sunday services merely one of many 2-3 hour time blocks that we look forward to in the week? Or is our time together around the word the centerpiece and fulcrum of the entire week’s rhythm? Is your weekly rhythm built around the Lord’s Day, or is the Lord’s Day just one piece of the puzzle? To put it simply: Is Sunday the most important day of the week to you? And are Sunday services the most vital event? Your answer will go a long way toward determining if you are really eager to be in the worship, and eager for the spiritual meal that will be served to you there. For if Sunday meeting is the high point of the week, attention will much more easily follow!

5. Pray for the preaching. If a survey was taken of your church, what would the percentage of people be who actually pray for the preacher and the preaching each and every week? More directly, what would you have to answer to such a question? Iain Murray has said that it is not only true that preachers make congregations, but also that the congregation makes the preacher in the way that they pray for and support his ministry of the word! And so, if you’re having trouble staying with the preacher on Sundays (and even if you are not!), pray for him and his preaching each and every week – for the Holy Spirit’s power in his heart, in his preparation, in the actual preaching moment, and in the hearts of his hearers! And, as you pray (and as God answers!), it will come about both that the preacher himself will do a better job, and that you (the hearer) will be more invested in (and thus more attentive to) what he is bringing forth out of God’s book!

“We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” And these have been just a few practical ways in which we may go about it. May they prove a blessing to you.

*Read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death for more on this phenomenon. My observations on this subject are always indebted to Postman’s excellent analysis!

December 27, 2016

"The race that is set before us"

“Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Every day, of course, is ‘the first day of the rest of your life.’ And thus, every day is an opportunity to consider again, and address ourselves afresh, to “the race that is set before us.” But New Year’s Day has a peculiar effect on us – pushing us, by some (perhaps God-given) inner clock, to take stock, and to re-up, and to resolve afresh, and to thoughtfully look out over the next 365 days’ worth of “the race that is set before us” and think it all through. And this yearly calendrical reminder of the need for self-assessment, planning, and goals is a good thing – one that we are wise to make use of in service to our own souls! And I trust many of you are already taking the opportunity in hand … and that a few more of you might, after reading this article.

And as you do so, I do want to urge you to think of 2017 as ‘the first year of the rest of your life;’ the first year of the rest of your Christian race. And I urge you, from our text above, to ask three questions as you consider this next leg of that race:

1. What sin must I lay aside this year? What was the sin, in 2016, “which so easily entangle[d]” me? And how must I, by God’s grace, lay it aside in the year 2017? Indeed, how might I begin that process today, on this first day of the rest of my race?

2. How might I “run with endurance” this year? What slackening of my spiritual pace have I fallen prey to in recent weeks or months? What temptations might there be to pull off to one side of the track in 2017? And how am I going, by God’s grace, to keep from being like Aesop’s hare, or like Bunyan’s pilgrim, and laying down in the middle of the Christian race?

3. How am I going to fix my eyes on Jesus this year? Here is the key to both running with endurance and laying aside our sin – “fixing our eyes on Jesus.” And so how will I do that in 2017? What plans do I have for Scripture reading, meditation, prayer, and Sunday worship … all of which are not merely boxes to check off, but active ways to keep my eyes on Christ, toward whom I am to continually run?

Answer these questions well – and do what your answers say you should do – and 2017 will be a year of great progress and faithfulness. May the Lord direct our steps!

December 19, 2016

Of Oboes and Bagpipes

He is born, the holy Child;
Play the oboe and bagpipes merrily!

So says the traditional French Christmas Carol, and so we will sing (with gusto) this Christmas morning – although accompanied by a piano, rather than an oboe or bagpipes! I don’t think we have any oboe players, actually. Or bagpipes, either. But you get the idea, I think! The birth of Christ, the long awaited Messiah, is worth a little merry-making! Indeed, it’s worth a good deal of merry-making! For here is the Son of God, come into our world as the bearer of God’s light, joy, freedom, and peace (Isaiah 9:1-7). And that’s worth singing about, dancing a jig over, and holding feasts of celebration. It's worthy of oboes, bagpipes, pianos, and whatever other ways we can make merry! Christmas is the announcement of the happiest event that ever yet was – and is worthy of being celebrated accordingly!

How will you celebrate?

Well, one way to celebrate is to join with others who are doing the same! And so I hope you'll find your way to the house of God this coming Sunday morning – there where the people are gathered to rejoice: aloud in their singing, interpersonally as they visit together, and in the depths of the soul as they think (in sermon time) about the “good news of great joy” in the birth of the Savior. They'll be glad you came. And my hope is that you will leave the gathered celebration even merrier than you already were when you went in!  If you're local, here's our Sunday info.  We'd love to make merry with you!

Another way to celebrate is through the exchange of gifts, which many of you will do in the next few days. If we can remember that the reason for gift-giving is not merely because of American convention, or out of sheer familial obligation, but as a way of showing our joy in the birth of the Savior … then even gift-giving itself can be a show of our delight in Christ! In warning us not to let our piety about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ turn us into scrooges, Douglas Wilson has memorably written: “If you’re godliness won’t imprint on fudge, then it is not true godliness.” Amen. For again, Christmas is a time of celebration – of oboes, bagpipes, and all manner of chocolate, too! After all, the Savior has been born!

And then we should remind ourselves that Christmas isn’t the only day for oboes and bagpipes! If you have, like the shepherds of old, found your way to the place where Jesus is … then, also like the shepherds of old, you will have reason to go on your way (Luke 2:20), still rejoicing even when the birthday is spent and you go back to your daily routine. Because Christ doesn’t stay behind in the manger, and in the latter weeks of December. But, for those who know Him by faith, His promise is: “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20, emphasis added). And that means that every day is a good day for breaking out the bagpipes, and singing glad songs, and doing good to others for Jesus’ sake! So play your oboes, my friends – today, and all the year round. May you make merry this Christmas! And may Christ make you merry every day hence.