February 27, 2017

Keep it Simple

A Bible. A church family. Maybe a songbook and a catechism. And plenty of time. Can you think of anything else you absolutely need in order to walk with and grow in the Lord? Other things can be beneficial, of course (like good Christian books, which would be a big bonus item on the list!). But we really don’t need all that many resources, events, activities, and plans in order to bask in the gospel and move forward in the faith, do we? Indeed, there is a tipping point at which addition eventually becomes subtraction! A kitchen, or a tool shed, can only be so full of equipment before the clutter begins to be unwieldy and inefficient. Now, with more gear, you’re actually getting less done!

The same is true with our Christian endeavors. Too many resources, activities, and irons in the fire is a recipe either for burnout, or for hop-skipping from thing to thing without ever drinking all that deeply at any of them. Either way, you end up with diminishing returns – more activity, but less fruit. Which is better – to dip your toe, week-to-week, into a dozen different books, reading plans, devotionals, studies, small groups, podcasts, and blogs? Or to drink steadily, deeply, and (sometimes) even slowly at the same life-giving streams at which the saints have found their thirst quenched for century upon century?

Many of us, of course, are hustling and bustling over things far less valuable, even, than the spiritual game of hopscotch I’ve just decried. And when we realize that we are chasing our tails, the tendency is to think that, instead of all this secular busyness, we need to get spiritually busy instead! But the solution is not to just baptize your frenzy. The solution is not to just leap onto a different and more spiritual sort of hamster wheel! Delightfully, the solution to the delirious pace of modern life is to take a deep breath and slow down; and to clear out the tool shed, so to speak – to streamline; to get back to basics!

So what are the basics? What do you really need to be doing, on a regular basis, to bask in the gospel and to grow in grace? Space forbids me elaborating, but (fitting for an article about simplicity!) how about a bullet-point list?

  • Corporate worship and teaching, weekly (Heb. 10:24-25)
  • Corporate prayer, weekly (Acts 2:42)
  • Meaningful Christian fellowship, weekly (Acts 2:46)
  • Meaningful Christian service, periodically (Eph. 4:11-12)
  • The Lord’s Supper, periodically (1 Cor. 11:23-26)
  • Family worship, daily (Deut. 6:6-9)
  • Personal worship, daily (Mark 1:25)

I hope the simplicity here is refreshing! Very few resources are required for such a regimen, right? A Bible. A church home. Maybe a songbook and a catechism. And then a few other incidentals, like maybe paper, pen, etc. Other things may be helpful. But they are not usually needful!

But what definitely is needful is time! You cannot follow through on these basic biblical commitments if your life is so frantic that you only have 5 and 10 minute windows in which to try and wedge your spiritual disciplines. You must have blocks of time – uninterrupted and unhurried! Time! This is the resource that we moderns need to stock up on most of all! All the other resources are easy enough to get our hands on. But will we carve out time for using them? Will we stop running the American rat-race, or sitting down all night in front of our American TV’s … and streamline our schedules so as to drink deeply at Christ’s well? We’d find such simplicity refreshing if we did!

And, while we’re talking about the refreshing streamlining of our lives, can I say that so much of our time and busyness problems would be solved if we would only “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” If we’d set Sunday aside – free from work, shopping, laundry, chores, ballgames, TV, and so on – we’d have all the time in the world for the first five bullet points above! Even if we hadn’t time to get together with other believers, or visit the sick, or serve the church during the week … we’d have a whole day for doing so every Sunday! We’d often have time for the ‘bonus’ resource of good Christian books, too!  And so, if the seven bullet points above seem like a lot ... the reality is that, if we just kept the sabbath, most of these blessings we would be able to provide for ourselves in a single, unhurried, restful day!  That's why the Puritans called Sunday 'the market day of the soul'!  Because, if we use it as it was intended, we will be able to garner, in one trip to market (so to speak), so much of what we need to live on for the rest of the week!  Talk about simplifying our lives!  And if we trained ourselves to say ‘no’ to the hamster wheel on Sunday, then we’d find it even all the easier to jump off of it, at the appropriate times, during the rest of the week as well … making family and personal worship not so difficult-to-find-time-for as we might currently think!

There is a rhythm to the Christian life – both daily and weekly. And it’s generally far less like the frenetic beat of techno music, and far more like the gentle, steady lapping of waves upon the seashore. I hope that’s a relief to you! Jesus’ yoke is easy, not hard-driving; and His pace is usually steady, not hurried! And so get into His steady, slow, and simple rhythm, and you will find that the Christian life is not all that complex. Difficult sometimes, yes! But not complicated! Just keep it simple.

February 20, 2017

Sing Lustily

John Wesley, the 18th century evangelist, once wrote down seven “Directions for Singing.” Considering how his Methodists were known for their singing, and how great an era of hymnody the 18th century proved to be, Wesley’s directions are worth noting.  Let me mention just one of the seven:

Fourth on his list, Wesley instructed his people as follows:
Sing lustily [heartily, we would say] and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead or half-asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sang the songs of Satan.
This is good advice! Some songs are laments, of course … and will be sung differently. But when it comes to the songs of God’s praise, they ought to be sung heartily, in such a way that it is clear that the noise we are making is a joyful one!

It may very occasionally even be that the pastor or song leader may need to stop the singing mid-song and remind folks of these things, when the congregation slips into singing as though ‘half-asleep'! Not how you’d want someone to sing Happy Birthday to you, right? And not the way, surely, that we want to sing to our Maker, Redeemer, and King! Or think of when you’re trying to teach your child how to say ‘thank you.’ You don’t let him get away with mumbling it under his breath, all while looking down at Mrs. so-and-so’s shoes, right?  Indeed, sometimes you even make him start over ,because you want him to look her in the eyes, to speak clearly, and even to actually seem glad!  Let’s be sure we show at least as much honor, attention, and enthusiasm when giving thanks to our God!

I write these things, not to scold you, but to stir you up – so that you don’t sleep-walk through the first half of Sunday worship! Let it be that visitors to your church remember the earnestness of the singing (not just the musicians, but the singing!) almost as well as they remember anything else!

To get yourself ready, give close attention to the Scripture readings that precede the singing, letting them rouse your heart to praise. And, even if your heart is not always roused, train yourself to rouse your voice, at least … and perhaps the trumpet of your voice will help awaken the rest of you as well! ‘Lift up your voice with strength,’ my friends! ‘Sing lustily and with a good courage.’ “Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth” (Psalm 100:1)!

February 15, 2017

Why I Won’t Be Seeing (or Reviewing) The Shack Movie - Tim Challies

Why I Won’t Be Seeing (or Reviewing) The Shack Movie - Tim Challies: The Shack presents God in human flesh. It makes the infinite finite, the invisible visible, the omnipotent impotent, the all-present local, the spiritual material.

February 13, 2017

The Prayer Meeting

My friend Anthony recently commented that:
True churches are sustained by prayer meetings.
Churches are strengthened by prayer meetings.
I assume, since he’s recently begun preaching on the book of Acts, that his study of that book is what prompted these observations. And they are right on! For, when one reads the book of Acts, the importance of corporate prayer is an inescapable theme. Gathered prayer is vital to the health and strength of the local church! And so, allow me to make three pleas regarding the prayer meeting:

1. Start a prayer meeting. Every church should have a prayer meeting. That may sound a little strong, me suggesting that every church should hold this particular kind of service (especially when many churches do not). But it seems an inevitable conclusion that we must draw if we believe that the book of Acts gives us a paradigm for church life. The church, as God designed it, includes regular gatherings for corporate prayer. Maybe in larger churches, that will mean having several smaller prayer meetings available throughout the week (or corporate prayer as a significant component of small group meetings). In smaller churches, church-wide prayer meetings are easily feasible, and greatly helpful (nor are they impossible in larger churches). God hears prayer! Christ is in our midst when even two or three of us are gathered! Fellowship is strengthened as we pray together! And on and on we could go, listing the benefits of a prayer meeting … such that, if you are in a position of influence in your local church, I plead with you to try and begin a prayer meeting. Not a Bible study with a little prayer tagged on somewhere, but a whole meeting (or a very significant portion of a meeting) dedicated entirely to prayer! Maybe only a few people will come at first. But all you need is “two or three”! So get going, and see what God does!

2. Attend the prayer meeting. Can I urge you to make use of the prayer meeting that your church (hopefully) provides every week? Prioritize it. Venture out to it. Give it a try! Even if you don’t say anything out loud for the first little while, you will benefit so much from hearing other saints pray; from learning on what is on your fellow believers’ hearts; and from discovering needs in their lives that you can both pray for, and sometimes that you can ask about or help meet throughout the remainder of the week. Iain Murray has said that no pastor has ever come to his death bed lamenting that he prayed too much. And no Christian, I think, will come to his dying day thinking he spent too much time praying with other believers. So prioritize the prayer meeting. You won’t be sorry!

3. Actively participate in the prayer meeting. I said, under the last heading, that you can benefit greatly from the prayer meeting even if you don’t pray aloud yourself. Just hearing the prayers is worthwhile! But let us not stay, forever, in hearing mode only. Let us also join in! We can do this in two different ways. 

One is simply that, even without praying aloud, you can add your quiet agreement by praying along with brothers and sisters silently, and ‘amen-ing’ their praises and petitions quietly in your own mind and heart. Indeed, you should do this even if you do pray aloud! Let not your out-loud prayers be the only ones you offer when the saints are gathered before God’s throne of grace! 

But then let me also urge you to participate, if you don’t already, by praying aloud, too! Bless the gathering by allowing others to hear you pray. Not for the sake of attention (Matthew 6:5-6), or because your prayers are so exemplary and awe-inspiring! But so that others can quietly ‘amen’ your humble and simple requests, and be encouraged by your heartbeat for God. Your vocal participation need not be long or eloquent – just Christ-reliant and sincere. At PRBC, it is a blessing, during the first (large-group) part of our prayer meeting, that we have a handful people who are always willing and able to participate in this way. But there are many others – who have something to contribute, and whose hearts we would all benefit from hearing – who remain almost perpetually silent during that time. If that is you, know that we want to hear you pray, and to join in quiet agreement with you! Indeed, it is to the group’s loss if we do not benefit from your prayers. So I urge you, those who often remain silent in the large group time – chime in! God delights when His people come to Him in prayer. And so do the rest of His people!

February 6, 2017

"According to the word of the Lord"

As my friend Nathaniel recently pointed out to me, the theme of the biblical books of Kings is that God always keeps His word; that God’s word always comes to pass. And few instances of that reality could be more striking than this little note, mentioned almost as if in passing, at the end of 1 Kings 16:
In his days Hiel the Bethelite built Jericho; he laid its foundations with the loss of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates with the loss of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the LORD, which He spoke by Joshua the son of Nun. (1 Kings 16:34).
No further comment is given. And indeed, none need be! It was plain and simple. When Joshua and his men destroyed Jericho, God’s solemn warning, through Joshua, had been straightforward and no-nonsense:

Cursed before the LORD is the man who rises up and builds this city Jericho; with the loss of his firstborn he shall lay its foundation, and with the loss of his youngest son he shall set up its gates. (Joshua 6:26).
God was that serious about Jericho’s remaining in ruins. And yet, along comes this man named Hiel, and flouts the curse of God. Perhaps he was simply an infidel, suggested one Scottish preacher of a day gone by. Perhaps Hiel was so atheistic, said John MacDuff, that he considered such a warning from five centuries past as a mere folktale. Or, more moderately, suggested the same preacher, perhaps Hiel believed in the one true God, but reasoned with himself, concerning this 500-year-old prophecy, something like this: “There surely could be no great sin, or risk, or danger now, in rescuing such a noble site from ruin. … The curse, binding and literal at the time, ha[s] now, surely, become obsolete.”  In other words, ‘God’s promise was very real and very serious in its day … but surely, now that all this time has passed, the parameters have changed and updated with the times.’

I wonder how many people today think this way about various warnings, commandments, and prophecies in the Bible – even people who would otherwise claim to believe in and follow the Lord. They presume that certain parts of the word may have been really serious back then, but surely God has slackened the reins a little over all these centuries: ‘Surely the commandments, warnings, and prophecies of old aren’t quite so literally binding now. I mean, we live in the 21st century after all!’

But the graves of Hiel’s two dead sons speak otherwise! It didn’t matter if the warning was five hundred years old. The word that God had spoken five centuries prior was just as binding, and just as definitely to be enforced in Hiel’s day, as it was when the smoke of Jericho had first cleared. And, by the same token, God’s words are just as true for us as they were in either Hiel or Joshua’s day! And we do well to take that to heart. God’s standards of morality, God’s promises of the wrath to come, and (yes!) God’s promises of blessing are the same today as they ever were. The times may have changed, but God’s word (and His commitment to that word) do not!

Let us not forget these things when our culture, or our own desire for expedience, tell us that these changing times mean that the Bible’s teachings are outmoded when it comes to sexual ethics, or gender roles, or the value of the unborn and elderly, or the need for Sabbath rest, or the fact of creation, or the spiritual importance of words (over against pictures), or the exclusivity of Christ, or whatever is the next thing along the pike that our culture will blow off as an obsolete way of thinking. Like Hiel, we imperil both our own happiness, and the futures of our children, if we assume that God’s words, because they are old, must not be applicable.

February 4, 2017

Sermons from Zephaniah

We recently completed a four week study of Zephaniah.  Listen in:

Zephaniah 1:1-2:3 - "Near is the great day of the LORD" - mp3
Zephaniah 2:4-3:7 - "He will starve all the gods of the earth" - mp3
Zephaniah 3:8-13 - "My worshippers" - mp3
Zephaniah 3:14-20 - "He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy" - mp3

February 2, 2017

Godly Examples

Wednesday night, in our introduction to the book of 2 Timothy, we thought about the need for endurance; the call to keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, in the ministry that God has given each of us to do. And we said that one of the resources for such endurance is the power of godly examples. “You followed my … perseverance” Paul said to Timothy (3:10) – now keep following it (3:14)! And so we talked about finding examples of godly endurance which we might follow; and I mentioned, fairly briefly, that one source of such godly examples of endurance is to read the stories of the saints of old. With that suggestion in mind, then, here are a few such good reads (the first three of which are available on the PRBC Resource Rack ):

Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson, D.A. Carson. Here is one of the most heartening books I have ever read. It’s the re-telling, as the title indicates, of the life of an ordinary pastor – a Canadian man whose ministry was never great or glamorous, who actually faced a good bit of disappointment, who eventually had to become bi-vocational, but who just kept preaching and teaching, discipling and evangelizing, visiting and praying, year after year after year. And in the end (and indeed, beyond his own life) the fruit proved marvelous. Not least is that his son, who wrote the book (sprinkled throughout with his father’s own journal entries), is perhaps the foremost New Testament scholar of our time.

Filling up the Afflictions of Christ, John Piper. This is the story of three men – William Tyndale, Adoniram Judson, and John Paton who (like Paul in 2 Timothy) suffered greatly in order to disseminate the gospel among those in darkness. But they kept going! And Piper tells their stories, briefly and marvelously, in this little book! It make for a good three-Lord’s-Day’s afternoon readings. (Piper’s bios of these men can also be read or listened to online at desiringgod.org).

Captain Allen Gardiner of Patagonia, Jesse Page. Here’s the story of a man who was not a preacher (but a ship captain!), but who labored, and labored, and labored for the gospel in spite of much difficulty. His death will sadden you, but his perseverance will inspire you. And the fruit of it was tremendous!

Singing in the Fire, Faith Cook. Cook employs her excellent writing skills to tell 14 brief stories of men and women (and one little girl) who suffered in various ways, but who kept going with and for Christ, “singing in the fire.” These brief re-tellings would work wonderfully for two weeks of nightly reading!

God Took Me By the Hand, Jerry Bridges. I just came across this title in an excellent review, by Geoff Thomas, in The Banner of Truth Magazine. It is now on my reading list! In it, the late Jerry Bridges, one of the excellent soul-physicians of our time, tells the story of his hardscrabble beginnings, growing up with health issues and exceedingly poor … and how God ‘took him by the hand,’ called him to Himself, and blessed his work of Bible teaching over many long years of ministry. What made me want to read the book, though, is Bridges’ statement that, over the course of his ministry, he experienced 25 years of definite blessing, 15 years of pain, and 16 years that “were neither particularly painful nor blessed.” That intrigues me! I want to know how he kept going through the painful years … and, especially, how he kept putting one foot in front of the other through 16 years of the mundane! I suspect you’d be helped by finding out, too!

So then … Paul instructed Timothy to continue in “perseverance” …  “knowing from whom [he had] learned” it (2 Tim 3:10-14). And now you know a few more people from whom you can learn it, too.