June 27, 2016

Family Worship

“You shall teach them diligently to your sons”
Deuteronomy 6:7

“Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” 
Ephesians 6:4

One of the best (though surely not the only!) way to do the above is to build into your life a regular, daily habit of family worship. What is family worship? It’s simply a time when your entire household gathers together to do, in brief, many of the same things that we do as a church family on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. It’s a time for the head of the household to gather those under his care to worship the Lord together. And not just when the children are small, or when there are kids in the house. This is a habit that can and should be taken up by single people living together as roommates; by couples with no children; by empty nesters; and by any other collection of people living together!

You may do it in the morning, to start the day; or around the dinner table, once the evening meal is complete; or just before bed; or any other time of day when everyone is available and alert. But whenever you do it, I suggest that we are exceedingly wise if we make this an everyday routine … such that both parents, and children, and other household members as well, can’t imagine going through the daily routine without it. Get going for a month, and you’ll soon find that you no longer have to remind yourself to worship God together as a family, but that it will become as natural to you as eating dinner, or taking a morning shower, or brushing your teeth!

But what to actually do during these 10-15 minutes or so per day (or more, if you wish)? Well, let me just introduce you to the four items that we include in our nightly routine:

Scripture. Depending on whether there are children in the house (and their ages), the portion may be shorter or longer. You might read more of the narrative portions of scripture (gospels, Acts, OT history) when the kids are small. They’ll follow these more easily than they will Galatians or Leviticus! But whatever you read, create a plan whereby you are going to read through a particular book or portion of the Bible for several days or weeks (rather than hunting up something new every night), and then take the book or portion in bite-sized chunks, a little each day … reading aloud, and then (crucially) talking about what you read. If you’re reading longer portions, maybe stop for discussion at several appropriate points throughout the reading, rather than trying to discuss 10-15 verses or more all at once. And if you’re just getting started, may I suggest the gospel of Mark as a very good place to begin? But wherever you read … read the scriptures together as a family!

Praise. After reading and discussing the Scripture portion (and before prayer), offer a moment for any family member who wishes to share a praise concerning the Lord’s work in or for them. The praises could be as simple as God helping someone find their lost keys, or as profound as thanking the Lord for what you’ve been learning about justification and the gospel in the book of Galatians, or about the Trinity in your own reading. But, whatever the praises, it is important that we give voice to our gratitude for who God is, and for all He has done for us.

Prayer. After Scripture and praise, spend a few moments in prayer. When the children are younger, this time might be primarily led by an adult. As they get older, the prayer might be disbursed among different members of the family. But pray! Offer prayers of praise for the items just mentioned under the previous heading. Pray about what you read in the scripture portion. Pray for people and events connected with your family and church family. Pray for missionaries. Pray for specific requests that may be collected just prior to the prayer time. But, whatever the requests, pray together as a family!

Song. We close our family worship time, each evening, by singing a verse or two together. Our particular practice (since we have small children) is to sing the same song for an entire week, so that the children really have a chance to learn it. You could do it that way, or you could select a different song each night. But sing! Get a hymnal (here or here), and maybe a psalter as well, and sing together each day with your household! It will give even further voice to the kinds of prayers and praises that you’ve already lifted, and will also make you more and more familiar with solid materials of praise that may begin to fill your mouth at more spontaneous times throughout the week as well!

So that’s it! Pretty simple … and yet of profound effect on your life (and on the life of your family members) if worshiping the Lord in your home becomes as much a part of your daily routine as changing clothes before bed.

June 20, 2016

"I was sick, and you visited Me"

My pastoral visiting schedule seems to go in cycles. Sometimes I can go for a few weeks with no hospital visits at all, and then turn around have multiple visits in single week. And then sometimes I’ll have several weeks in a row where I am in the hospitals a good deal. Lately I have been in one of those busier seasons … and it occurs to me that, while I (as a pastor) am in the hospitals perhaps more often than most who will read these lines, yet the reality is that many of us, simply in our roles as Christians and church members, will have occasion to visit in the hospital, the hospice facility, or the nursing home. I hope that includes you!

But what do we do on such occasions? How do we visit effectively, and faithfully, and helpfully? Well, Brian Croft has written a highly recommended little book called Visit the Sick, which may prove especially helpful for pastors and elders who do this sort of thing more regularly. Some of you might have a look at his fuller thoughts on this subject. But below are some brief thoughts of my own, gleaned from my own experience and the advice of others.

Scripture. Always bring your Bible (or Bible phone app) with you on these visits. And always ask if you can read a portion to the sufferer. It needn’t be the first thing you do when you walk through the door. Small talk is OK, and usually good. So, often, is some brief conversation about the particular physical problems in question. But these sorts of temporal conversations alone do not make for a truly Christian visit. So bring your Bible every time, and ask if you can read a portion to the person you’ve come to see … lifting their eyes beyond their circumstances to the God who rules over them; the God whom you want to receive your friend’s soul, even when his or her body fails completely.

For many people, it may be comforting to see you reading from a paper Bible (rather than an app), because that is how they know the word of God, and it will seem just a little more real and familiar to them.

What to read? Usually something brief, since people in the hospital are usually not feeling all that energetic, and may have trouble concentrating on or remembering something longer. Often just one or two well-selected verses (that may easily stick in his or her head) can be the best medicine (e.g. Deut. 33:27, John 10:27-28, John 11:25-26, etc.). You may go longer than that, but usually I’d go no longer than a brief paragraph. For longer stays in the hospital (and regular visits), you could venture into longer portions, and maybe read something like the gospel of Mark together over several visits. But for occasional visits, brief is best, I think.

Further, it’s always good to have an idea of what you might read before you ever walk in the room. The Spirit can move you in another direction, of course. But don’t be flipping through your Bible looking for something to read, right there in front of your friend. It makes the Bible seem like an afterthought (which it probably is, on such an occasion). And you’re more likely just to go to stock verses if you are unprepared, rather than to have really thought about what word might be in season for this particular friend.

Also, let your passage, typically, be something encouraging regarding God’s mercy or promises. Let is also be evangelistic if the person whom you’ve come to see may not be a Christian. And remember that the word of God is powerful, even if you don’t know much to say about it, and even if the person whom you visit doesn’t appear to get much out of it (or even to be able to hear it). Therefore always read the scriptures, if you are given permission.

Prayer. Always read the scriptures, if given permission. And always offer to pray. Usually it’s good to hold the person’s hand, if that is possible. And certainly it’s important to pray loud enough so that they can hear what you’re praying. Also, brief prayer on such occasions is good, for the same reasons (above) why brief scripture passages are also usually good.

Pray, of course, for the illness in question, and for the procedures, tests, doctors, and nurses that accompany it. Pray also for the family members who may be in the room, giving care and suffering with their loved one. And, of course (in prayer as in Scripture reading), lift your own and your friend’s eyes heavenward, and to the spiritual help that is needed in days of trial. If the person is an unbeliever, pray that he or she will know Christ. And all of these prayers should probably be prayed, particularly, using the passage of scripture just read as your main prayer list. So that, if you read John 11:25, the prayer would include praise that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life”; prayer that your friend would “believe in [Him]”; and confidence that, if he or she does so, he or she “will live even if he [or she] dies.”

Time. Many visits to the hospital will need to be fairly brief, if you are not immediate family or a very intimate friend. When the situation is not dire, many people are happy to see familiar faces, and to be prayed with and encouraged in the Lord … but they are also tired, and need rest. And, further, their predicament (laying in a hospital bed) can feel a bit awkward for them, so that they don’t mind being alone a good bit of the time. So don’t overstay.

And yet there are situations in which we must stay – when the situation is dire, and the person and/or family needs not to be alone in this late hour; or also when the person is just lonely, and hasn’t had a lot of company. In such cases, where possible, we should carve out the time to stay for a season, and minister (if need be) by just being there and holding a hand.

Presence. Most importantly is that we simply be there. All of these other good things, and the pieces of counsel regarding them, are only meaningful if we actually make the trip down the road, through the revolving doors, up the elevator, and to the sickbed. So make this a part of your Christian ministry, brothers and sisters. May it ever be that our brothers and sisters in Christ, our co-workers, our neighbors, and so on will be able to say of us: “I was sick, and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).

June 14, 2016

"He swears to his own hurt"

Here is one of the character traits, according to Psalm 15, of the person who may “abide in [God’s] tent” and “dwell on [His] holy hill” (v.1) – “He swears to his own hurt and does not change” (v.4) – which means that a godly man keeps his promises and commitments, even when it proves costly to do so. A wonderful trait, and delightful to behold when we see it in one of our friends!

But I wonder if that is a character trait of most modern men and women, even most modern Christians. Are we people of our word? Do we pay our bills and debts like we contracted to do? Do we show up for meetings like we said we would? Do we actually pray when we tell our friends that we will do so? Are we following through on our marriage vows? Are we people of our word? Or do we demonstrate, by our vacillations, that we do not actually belong on God’s holy hill? Think about it in your own life. Do people know you as the kind of person whose word is his bond; who doesn’t back out of her commitments; who always pays up; whom they know they can trust and call upon, no matter what? Or are you the kind of person whose promises prove fairly flimsy when ‘something comes up’ – particularly when that something that comes up is the realization that following through on your word might be costly?

Or think of it like this: Which sort of friend, spouse, parent, child, co-worker, or client do you want  in your life? The one who is rock solid? Or the one whose word to you may falter when keeping it proves inconvenient? What sort of person do you want as a spouse; as a friend; as a brother or sister in Christ; to call upon when you are in a pinch? Isn’t it wonderful to have a friend, a customer, a co-worker, a deacon, an elder, or a family member on whom you know you can always count? Such people are like oak trees, are they not? You can lean on them. You can always be sure that they will be there, steady, on the horizon of your life. And, when need be, you can rest in their shade. And isn’t a comfort to know they are there? “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you” (Matthew 7:12).

Indeed, even further: Isn’t this commitment to one’s word, even when it hurts, precisely the example that Jesus Himself has left us, so that we might follow “in His steps”? The difficulty, for Jesus, was not that He made a promise which He later discovered was going to be painful to keep. No! He actually knew, when He made the commitment to be our Savior, that it would cost Him His blood, His dignity, His earthly life, and (for a season) even His fellowship with His Father. But He entered into “the eternal covenant” just the same … and kept it all the way through. “He [swore] to His own hurt and [did] not change.” Jesus knew all the times we would renege on our promises to God and to others. He knew all the other ways we’d break God’s law, too. And He knew how much it would cost Him to make payment for all these offenses. He knew that it would be “to His own hurt” – greater hurt than anyone else ever endured – to make such a payment. And yet He followed through!

And, because He did, Jesus is not only our example, but also our hope if we read these few lines from Psalm 15 and discover that we are among those who do not deserve to abide in God’s tent because we have not been men and women of our word. Christ died to cover our sins, praise God! And He also died so that, in Him, we would have the power to leave them behind, as well. So that Jesus is not only our example when it comes to keeping our word, and our hope when we realize that we have not always done so … but also our help to begin to walk with integrity as we go forward! So look to Him in all these ways, my friends – and (v.5) you “will never be shaken.”

June 7, 2016

Don't Waste Your Vacation

Several years back, John Piper wrote a wonderful little book entitled Don’t Waste Your Life (highly recommended!). And then, I suppose because there are so many aspects of this life that we ought not waste, both Piper and others have spun off that title, urging readers: ‘Don’t Waste Your Cancer’, ‘Don’t Waste Your Sports’, ‘Don’t Waste Your _______.’ Well, allow me to fill in one of those blanks, at the outset of this summer season, by urging you not to waste your vacation.

Vacation is a wonderful privilege we have in this modern, western world. It is a blessing that many of us are able to get away from the grind of work, and shopping, and laundry, and the lawnmower for a handful of days … and just relax. But I know from experience that there is a relaxation in which I am resting in God; and there is also a relaxation (sadly) in which mostly rest from Him – forgetting about Him, to the shriveling of my soul. And the latter is dangerous!

Not that vacation has to be a mission trip, or an intensive Bible study sabbatical (although it could be, sometimes). But even while we rest, let us make sure that we are resting in God and with God, instead of taking a break from Him, even while we break from all the other stuff of everyday life!

How can we do so? A few brief suggestions:

Bring along a good Christian book. Maybe something you’ve been wanting to read, or on a subject you’ve been wanting to consider. Maybe a collection of Spurgeon’s sermons, which are wonderfully readable and warm. Maybe, if you’re like me, a warm and devotional Christian biography would be just what the doctor ordered. But whatever it is, bring along a book or two that will feed your soul, and don’t waste your vacation.

Suggested resources:
Discipling (Dever)
Amy Carmichael (Murray)
 Also, for further reading suggestions, see Tim Challies’ post (which inspired this article) “What Type of Vacation Reader Are You?”

Listen while you drive. We live in an era in which hearing the word of God (and other good Christian material) is easier than ever. So while you’re burning up the highway, plug in your audio Bible app, or a few sermons, or a solid Christian book on CD, or a handful of Christian biographical messages. Listen while you drive (or fly), and don’t waste your vacation.

Suggested resources:
YouVersion (Bible app available on Android and iPhone)
The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God (book and audio CD)
 Biographical Messages by Michael Haykin, Nick Needham, and William Hughes

Attend a solid gospel church. Our time away ought never be a vacation from the Lord’s house, and the Lord’s word, and the Lord’s people. So do a little research in advance, find a solid church, and make your way there on Sunday morning. Listen as intently as you would at your home church. And linger, too. Meet a few people … so that you are reminded of the breadth of God’s gospel plan, and the richness of God’s family. Find a church when you’re out of town, and don’t waste your vacation.

How to find a church:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The fourth commandment doesn’t go on vacation when we do! And neither does it consist only of attending Sunday service … but of a whole day set apart from our normal toils and diversions (Isaiah 58:13-14), and to the Lord. And so, while the other days of vacation may be filled with theme parks, golf outings, restaurants, ballgames, and the like … let your Sundays, even on vacation, be quiet days of rest, worship, reading, prayer, quiet walks in God’s creation, and family times that enable you to exhale rather than exhaust. So “remember the sabbath day,” even while you are away, and don’t waste your vacation.

So just a few suggestions – not to make your vacation a spiritual boot camp, but to help you rest in a way that is profitable, rather than soul-numbing. Put them into practice this summer, and don’t waste your vacation.