August 26, 2014

Ice Bucket UPDATE!

A friend of mine brought to my attention another concern that should be mentioned as we think about the "ice bucket challenge" (which supports ALS research).  It should be noted that not all medical research is created ethically equal. The Family Research Council points out that money being donated to ALS research raises a concern because some ALS researchers use embryonic stem cells (derived from aborted fetuses) in their work. For a word about this, and links to groups that are researching ALS using adult stem cells, click here.

August 25, 2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge (Living Water Style)

Are you into social media? If so, then you are surely well aware of the “ice bucket challenge” that is sweeping the nation. Have you seen it? All sorts of people – celebrities and mere mortals alike – are filming themselves getting a bucket full of ice water dumped over their heads, and then posting the videos on Twitter, Facebook, and so on. It’s a good thing it’s all happening in summer, huh?

The point? To raise awareness of and money toward the research of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). The deal is you dump the ice water on yourself, send out the footage via social media … and, at the end of your video, you challenge someone else in your circle to do the same. The person challenged can either dump the ice water over their own head, or make a monetary donation to ALS research (or, in the ideal scenario, do both!).

So have you done it? Has anyone challenged you yet? Alas, I am not on Facebook or Twitter … and so I’ve not been put to the test! And I must confess that I have mixed feelings about it. Raising money to help those with a disease like ALS fits quite well with the Christian command to love our neighbors, and to care for their needs (although see my cautionary footnote* re: embryonic stem cell research). And having fun with it is not necessarily a bad thing either. One article I saw, though, called the whole thing “self-promotion.” And that got me thinking. I am sure that, in some cases, the accusation is true. In others, it may be a little bit of a harsh generalization. But it reminded me to remember well Jesus’ command not to toot our own horns when we give charitably (Matthew 6.1-4). You’ll have to think it out for yourself. Maybe there is a way to do the ice bucket challenge and still obey Jesus’ command about giving discretely. But if you can’t figure one out, there’s certainly nothing wrong with giving to charity without participating in the social media aspect of it!

But, as I think about the ice bucket challenge, it also makes me want to issue another challenge, along similar lines. Isn’t it amazing how so many people will go out of their way to promote something like ALS research? I have no doubt that the number includes Christians and Atheists, Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Mormons, and every stripe of person in between. And I’m glad for this! But I must also say to my Christian brothers and sisters that, if the world can be so intentional about ALS research … shouldn’t we who know the Great Physician of souls be even more intentional about making people aware of Him? And if we are on social media – and have dozens (some of us maybe hundreds) of people looking at our various posts – shouldn’t we take advantage?

So here’s my challenge to all of you who are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on: Will you make the effort, at least once a week, to put some clear gospel testimony out for all your friends and followers to see? Maybe it will be a poignant verse of scripture. Maybe a link to a particularly helpful online sermon or article. Maybe a great quote from a Christian book you are reading. Maybe even a video of you speaking for 2-3 minutes about why you love and trust Jesus! After all, if people will spend 45 seconds watching someone get a bucket of ice poured over their head … maybe they’ll watch you as you speak passionately about what matters to you most!

So there’s my challenge. Get on social media and make much of the living water … which is the cure for what ails mankind the most!

(And if you’re not on social media, old fashioned cards, letters, tracts, books, and personal conversations are still acceptable forms of gospel witness, too!)

*It should be noted that not all medical research is created ethically equal.  The Family Research Council points out that money being donated to ALS research raises a concern because some ALS researchers use embryonic stem cells (derived from aborted fetuses) in their work.  For a word about this, and links to groups that are researching ALS using adult stem cells, click here.

August 19, 2014

Family Worship, Re-Booted

For parents with children still at home, summer time inevitably brings a bit of upheaval with it. Schedules change dramatically – or, in many cases, they end up going mostly out the window. Bed-times are different, vacations are on the calendar, family is in town, and yard work has to be done. And then there all softball games, swim lessons, Bible clubs, and so on. And so there just seems to be a good bit less normalcy in the summer time.

And, between the trips, and the company, and the fuller evening schedules, one of the routines that may lag behind is that of family worship. Perhaps you’ve seen it happen in your own house over the last 2-3 months. With the sun in the sky until late on into the evenings, it has perhaps been a challenge getting everyone gathered around the table or on the sofa to praise the Lord together before bed. But now that school is beginning again, and life settles back into its more familiar rhythms, let me encourage you to make sure that you make family worship among the most important rhythms of all!

Begin, this fall semester, gathering the family again for praise, and prayer, and scripture each evening. Or, if you’ve never yet begun, now is a good time to start a brand new habit! You don’t have to be a great bible scholar, or have some profound plan, in order to do this moms and dads. Just:
  • Pick a book of the Bible (Mark is a great place to begin, or to begin again).
  • And read a brief portion each evening (based on your children’s attention span!).
  • Then talk briefly about what you read (especially what it teaches us about Jesus).
  • Then pray briefly together about what you read, and about any other concerns that seem pertinent (family needs, lost friends, missionaries, etc.).
  • Then sing a hymn, or psalm, or chorus together (perhaps learning the same one for an entire week).
All in all, this should take about 15 minutes, give or take. Maybe a little less when the tots are tiny, and a little more as they get older and increase in their capacity to discuss the passage with you. But however long it takes, these minutes will be invaluable – perhaps the most important block of time in the entire day. You will be communicating to your kids, every day of their lives, where your family priorities lie. And that will probably rub off! If you do this all the years your children are at home, there’s a really good chance that they’ll just think it normal … and never think twice about whether or not they should continue the practice when they have families of their own! And furthermore, if you truly want to see your children know and follow Jesus, then there is nothing better that you can do for them than to make sure that they are exposed to the word of God every day of their lives! You cannot open their eyes to believe on Christ. But the Holy Spirit can! And the instrument He uses to cause people to be “born again” is “the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1.23).

So crack it open each evening as a family … and pray and sing together, too! Re-boot your family worship routine, if it has gone the way of many other habits during the commotion of summer. Or boot it up for the very first time, if you’ve never tried it before. And don’t give up! Don’t let little ones with bad attitudes stop you from doing what is best for their souls. Don’t let three or four missed days turn into two weeks or a month. And don’t allow life to become so busy – summer or not – that you squeeze God out of the family routine in favor of something more ‘exciting’, but far less permanent. Worship God together as a family … every. single. day.

And then … when your kids are grown, keep it going, even in the empty nest. After all, you need the Bible, and the gospel, and prayer, and praise just as much as ever your little ones did!

August 13, 2014

So what's the singing like?

This is a frequent question for many people as we discuss various local churches. And it is not an unimportant one! God has commanded us to sing – and so how we do it is an important consideration. Do we actually sing, or just murmur? Are the singing and music done reasonably well? Even questions of style, while not fundamental, contain a layer of importance. Singing is a big part of what the church does when she gathers to worship her King Sunday by Sunday. And so it’s not wrong to ask: What’s the singing like? And if we are going to ask the question, we should not only want to know what the answer is in a given local church … but also what the answer should be! What should the singing be like? And, boy, are there some good answers in Colossians 3.16:
“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.”
Looking at that verse (and a couple of others), let me piece together a brief philosophy of singing in the local church. (Note: Italicized emphases within scriptural quotations are mine, and not original to the biblical text).

So then, our singing should be:

Biblical: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you … singing.” That is to say that the content of what we sing ought to be word-driven – not based so much in the sensory perceptions of the song-writer, but seeking to put into poetic language the truths and emotions and ways of thinking and praising that we find on the pages of “the word” (including the “psalms”, Paul says)!

Christ-Centered: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you … singing.” Not every song needs to be directly about the gospel and the cross of Christ. But we do well to be sure that we do sing of these matters consistently. Christ crucified, risen, and reigning – these are the high water marks of biblical revelation, and ought to be so in our singing as well.

Vertical: “Singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Our chief goal in singing praise to God is to sing praise to God – not merely to gratify our own desires. That’s not to say that our singing and music should be deliberately unappealing to the human ear! It should be beautiful – but primarily as a gift to God, and a reflection of His own beauty; not for the sake of entertainment.

Edifying: While we sing primarily to God, we should also sing in such a way that, by our very singing, we are “teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” This is where, once again, scriptural lyrics are important; and where beautiful singing can help us remind each other of our beautiful God!

Simple: It seems to me that New Testament worship did not come with very many accoutrements – the human heart and voice being the instruments of praise upon which Paul places his emphasis in Colossians 3 (and Eph. 5.19!).

Congregational: “Singing with thankfulness in your hearts [plural] to God.” Paul’s emphasis seems to be on singing together … not merely listening to the singers on the stage, but joining our hearts and voices in one song.

Reverent: “God is in heaven and you are on the earth” (Ecclesiastes 5.2). So let us beware of flippancy or gimmicks, but approach the throne with reverence and humility. As A.W. Tozer has said, you don’t go into "the presence of the Queen of England" and start "telling jokes about queens"! How much less, he says, in the presence of the King of kings!

Joyful: After having spoken of reverence, let us also say very clearly that reverence is not the same thing as formality or tedium! Let us sing with gusto and passion and joy! “Shout joyfully to the LORD all the earth” (Psalm 100.1).

May the Lord bless us as we sing is praises together from week to week!

August 8, 2014

"His commandments are not burdensome"

When I was a boy, I was big into baseball. I couldn’t get enough of it, really. But around age 11, I injured my right arm pretty severely. And the surgeon told me that, if I wanted to keep playing ball, I was going to have to learn how to throw left-handed! What? Have you ever tried to throw a ball with your off hand? Try it out in your back yard some time. It’s really awkward, and somewhat embarrassing … and it seems pretty near impossible! But my parents knew that I loved baseball, and probably that there were some positive benefits to me playing it … and so, onto my list of household chores, my mother added a check-box that required me to regularly practice throwing a ball left-handed. Required me, I repeat! A few months before, I would have been thrilled to have seen the word ‘baseball’ on my list of chores. But now, it didn’t quite have the same ring to it. Throwing the ball was not so easy any more … and it was often frustrating! But mom enforced the rule anyway – knowing that, if I’d obey her, my long term joy would be increased exponentially. And it was! Those early days of requiring me to throw left-handed set me on a road back to ball-throwing proficiency that eventually allowed me to play on our high school team (under a Christian coach who greatly influenced my spiritual well-being), and which is still enabling me to enjoy Monday night softball to this day! And I may have never have had those joys if my mother had not laid down for me a commandment: ‘You shall throw a ball for 15 minutes today!’

And I want to say to you that – on an even more important, and profound, and lasting (and joyful!) level – this is how God’s commandments work, too! “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5.3)! Yes, they are sometimes difficult, especially if you suddenly find yourself trying to obey a command you’ve rarely, if ever, obeyed before. It’s like throwing a ball with your off hand. And we all were born with two off hands, spiritually! But if we’ll simply begin to obey, God will strengthen our hands to the task. And if we’ll keep at it, we will discover that His commandments really do lead us to places of contentment, and purity, and blessing, and joy that never would have been in our lives if God had not come to us and said “You shall” do this!  His laws are not meant to suppress joy, but to give it birth! “His commandments are not burdensome.”

And, O, how some of us have tasted and seen that this is true! We might once have thought that to return to the Lord 10% of our income would be a real problem, but when we tried it out, we found it a blessing! We may at one time have thought it unfathomable, impractical, and wholly unnecessary to set aside one whole day for worship and rest and spiritual edification – to the exclusion of unnecessary work and entertainment. But then we gave it a try, and Sunday became our favorite day of the week! And so our stories could go on – we didn’t think biblical sexuality could actually be satisfying, but it was; we didn’t believe we could do without our religious talismans, but we found the biblical Jesus better than all the artist’s renderings; we didn’t know that telling the plain, bald truth about ourselves could be so refreshing, but when we did so, we finally felt free; we didn’t think we could live without that unbiblical relationship, but we finally let it go and God was good.

Should we be surprised? God is good! And His ways are good! His laws are not meant to suppress joy, but to give it birth! His yoke is easy! “His commandments are not burdensome.”