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Experiencing teaching as worship

teaching as worship better pic(With special thanks to my pastor, John Boulet)

For much of my Christian life, I considered the more musical portion of the service to be when real worship would take place, but the sermon, the message—whatever it was called, the “talking” by the pastor was something else. Now I realize that this time can indeed be filled with worship, and we as the congregation can reverently focus on God, encounter Him experientially, and be transformed.

Perhaps my new frame of mind is due to wonderful teaching I’ve sat under, which focuses on Scripture, relates what God has done for us in Christ, and centers on the assumption that God, not ourselves, should be the center of our attention. Sunday morning is probably not the place for tips on becoming better parents, seven ways to be more successful in life, or other similar concerns. Perhaps Oprah or Dr. Phil can tell me such things. Or maybe a TV preacher. Or even my own pastor. But not on Sunday morning.

Fine biblical teaching from the likes of Tim Keller, John Piper, and a host of others can be found online, and your pastor is probably not as good as they are, but that’s not the point. Something special happens when we physically gather as the body of Christ that isn’t duplicated by listening to podcasts.

A company of people drawn together by God hears what cannot be heard by individuals in isolation. There have been many occasions when a good teacher has presented a piece of the Bible I’ve read, perhaps a hundred times, but only through the preaching of the Word has it truly resonated, provoked me to worship, and changed me.

It’s very likely that God simply won’t allow us to get everything we need through our own study, or podcasts, or other alternatives to the actual physical assembly of his people. As writer Marilyn Robinson has said, “I go to church because there are experiences I can have nowhere else.”

 

 

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Start Your Summer Reading with Ray’s Books for the Price of a Song

All four of my books are now available on Kindle* for 99 cents, and they are free with Kindle Unlimited. Find out more at my Amazon page where paperback editions are also available. Please repost and pass the word if you feel so inclined.

https://www.amazon.com/Ray-Sikes/e/B0054QV0J0/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1526914789&sr=8-1

*You don’t need a Kindle device to read these files.

rays books for a song

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Turning Sixty

It’s good to be sixty:

To have felt older than my years for so long

And finally arrive at an age legitimately old

To marvel at having come so far

When so many have not

To consider the loss of dear ones

But find sweetness in their remembrance

To realize what’s truly important

And know so little really is

To understand that very little

Is infinitely and eternally precious

To have regrets regarding certain moments past

But to give thanks for life’s larger movements

To not deny my failures, loss, and fallenness

Yet recognize the righting tide of grace

 

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My 115th Dream (About Bob Dylan)

I dreamed I saw Bob Dylan, and he was more real than you or me. Somehow finding myself in his band, we were onstage finishing a sound check before thousands of empty seats when I unplugged my Fender Jazz bass, which looks like the one Dylan holds in a famous photograph, although he never really was a bass player. On the other hand, I am a bassist who doesn’t sing like Dylan. Only he can get away with that because when you write elusive lyrics that resonate like moonlight in a cypress swamp, you can sing however you want, and people had better listen up and pay attention.

While I consider myself as one who does indeed pay attention, I noticed Dylan only as he turned around with a Stratocaster slung across his shoulder like some kind of fascist-killing weapon. He had that crazy head of hair going grey but wild as ever and the pencil-thin mustache he adopted after shaving off his patchy rabbinical beard. Dylan propped that guitar against an amp and moved offstage, not so much walking as simply relocating without the suggestion of movement. I never noticed who else was in the band, for we were all dwarfed and rendered insignificant in Dylan’s presence.

After unstrapping my bass, I followed the others to a room where Dylan sat at a table while the rest of us gathered, caught up in a mood weighty and silent like the reverent pause in church before communion. Dylan bowed his shaggy head. Understanding that he was about to pray, I closed my eyes, thinking this former Mr. Zimmerman still believed in Jesus, just like when he made those records about the Messiah so many years ago, alienating fans and critics alike. It was a pure thrill to be there with Dylan, prostrating our hearts before the Lord, but a sudden intrusion dispersed the sanctified air, so Dylan never prayed aloud.

When I looked up, a thick-necked man in a yellow SECURITY t-shirt leaned in close to Bob and asked, “Do you have concerns about crowd control at tonight’s show?”

Dylan answered in a bent and raspy voice: “I got no concerns, just so long as people don’t drink too much. You know, a man ought to drink alcohol the way he eats rice.”

I yearned to ask, “What do you mean? While you obviously do not endorse total abstinence from booze, do you propose that we drink very little in the way Americans eat rice, just a scoop of pilaf with an occasional steak or salmon fillet? Or should we ingest libations in the Chinese manner of consuming rice, thereby making alcohol a daily staple?”

Before I could speak, I awoke from my dream beneath a broken ceiling fan with heat in my bed and the morning sun glinting across my face. Troubled in mind and full of grief, I rummaged around in my brain, seeking what Dylan had meant, and could find no answer.

But wasn’t that just like Bob?

 

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Of Mustangs and postponed gratification  

On the last day of 2016, I traded a battered Ford Taurus with high mileage for a 2003 Mustang GT with racing stripes, a hood scoop, a spoiler, and—most importantly—a V-8 engine and manual transmission.

People have asked my wife if I’m having some sort of middle-aged crisis, but she has told them, “It’s more like postponed gratification.” Very postponed, I should add.

During the summer of 1971, I bought a Car Craft magazine and became enthralled with drag racing, especially funny cars, supercharged tubular-framed racers with stretched and lowered fiberglass bodies that resembled some of the sportier street vehicles of that era. My favorite was the Blue Max funny car, and when a 1971 Mustang Mach One passed while I was walking down the street, I stared, my mouth agape, thinking it looked a lot like that famous hot rod. I wanted one in the worst kind of way, but was only a kid in junior high and way too young to drive.

In high school, I never had the money for one of those Mustangs, and in the wake of the Arab Oil embargo and subsequent oil crisis, muscle cars more or less went away. Mustangs became anemic Mustang IIs before mutating into boxy abominations that were just plain ugly.

Still, whenever one of those hot rod Mustangs appeared in traffic, an old longing returned, but practical concerns guided my financial decisions. I owned one dull car after another, and at one point, both vehicles my wife and I drove could be found on an Internet list titled “The Ten Best Cars You Can Buy for Under $5,000.”

When a new model Mustang debuted in 1999, I was captivated. Something about that version reminded me of those early 70s Mustangs. My prudent inclinations reigned, so I didn’t buy one, but I wished I could. Just about everyone knew that about me, which in retrospect, is a bit embarrassing. One of my kids even posted her college graduation pictures on Facebook with the declaration, “Dad is closer to his Mustang!”

In 2016, my wife and I downsized our home and lives. Debt free, we even had a bit of money in the bank, and I started saying that we should buy a Mustang. My friends and family agreed. By that time, one of those turn of the century Mustangs was actually quite affordable, so I started looking around on the Internet. Actually, I had been perusing used car sites all along, wistfully viewing pictures of Mustang GTs, which seems slightly pathetic to me now.

Finally, my wife and I drove the old Taurus over one-hundred miles to test drive a Mustang with all my requirements—it was even blue and had racing stripes like the venerable Blue Max. The car handled wonderfully and was in great shape for its age. My wife and I had a price in mind, but the salesman gave us a number $700 dollars higher and explained, “Well, the Kelly Blue Book on your trade is…”

“Don’t take this personally,” I said, “but I always buy used cars and am tired of salesmen telling me what my trade is worth using the Kelly figure. You see, the Bible says ‘differing weights and differing measures are an abomination to God.’ Now, you’re selling a Mustang and saying it’s $500 below NADA, which it is. But you want to only give me the Kelly price for my Taurus. Do you know what your car is worth according to Kelly?”

“No.”

“Do you know what mine is worth according to NADA?”

“No.”

“Well, go tell your manager to drop the price by $700, or I’m driving my Taurus back home, and I’m never going to think about a Mustang again.”

When he left, I felt peculiarly free, like I really would leave and cease obsessing about Mustangs.

Then he came back to congratulate me. The car was mine for the price I had offered.

On the way home, everything felt out of sorts and unreal, like, what am I doing with this car, anyway? I have to admit, though, when we took that Mustang out on the interstate, it was cool looking from behind a hood scoop at the road rushing towards us and then noticing how quickly cars became small in the rearview mirror when we passed them.

Since that day, I have listened to less music than usual, because I enjoy hearing the V-8 roar when accelerating from a stoplight, and the robust exhaust burble when downshifting is sweet to my ears as well. Simply looking at my car is a pleasure, but it still seems like that Mustang should really be in someone else’s driveway.

Quite a few people have told me how good it looks, and one day a kid stood on his bike pedals, nearly motionless as I rolled past him. My wife was riding with me and said he tracked us as we went by, turning his head and staring while he appeared to be mouthing the word “wow.”

I told her that was me, way back when I was barely thirteen.

If I ever see that kid again, I’d like to stop and show him my car, then tell him not to think about wanting one too much. After all, it’s just a thing, and while I’m grateful for my car, it hasn’t really made me happier. Sure, it’s fun to drive, but traffic often forces me to maneuver it much like the old Taurus, and when the opportunity arises to drive that Mustang like I stole it, which one should do with such a car, I have to admit that what I’m doing may be technically illegal, possibly immoral, or simply stupid. At times, it’s all three.

It probably won’t be too long before I replace the Mustang with another ride, a practical vehicle much like my former cars, which I will drive with a sense of contentment, rather than a persistent and perhaps even childish yearning for something more.

But then again, maybe I won’t.

 

 

 

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Rewards in Heaven: Baseball and benign speculations

Among those who are “justified by faith apart from works” (Romans 3:28) and find themselves in heaven, there will still be judgment. We all won’t be treated the same, for apart from salvation itself, there will be a judgment of what we actually did while we were saved. Some will find themselves in heaven by the grace of God, but the things they did while here on earth will be deemed worthless.

Those who are freely given the foundation of Christ then build upon it, and in that Day of Judgment “each man’s work will become evident…If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss, but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire” (I Corinthians 3:11-15).

This whole concept of heavenly rewards remains somewhat mysterious even when we consider everything between the covers of our Bibles because much of the language used is probably symbolic. At least I hope so, because I’ve never really wanted a crown, golden or otherwise.

Purged of our jealousy, envy, and every other sin, we will simply be glad for those who receive more of what we will be given, whatever that may be. Made perfect in Christ, we will be absolutely content in our situations, though they may well be very different from one another.

The Biblical images of heaven center on God Himself. At least part of our time will be devoted to simply worshipping, and we will enjoy sweet communion with Him. In Revelation 7:9-10, a multitude of the redeemed offer praise, so we will not be alone with God, and I’m pretty sure that we will we also have fine fellowship with one another.

I keep coming back to an incident when I was a kid that seems to be a preview of judgment for those of us who love Christ, and while it might break down in a few places, I still think it gives a little insight into this life and our rewards in the hereafter.

My father loved baseball, and I tried my best to love it, too, but I never really cared for the game at all. My sport was basketball, which he never played, and, therefore, at least in my own mind, I assumed he didn’t value it nearly as much.

For two seasons, I played baseball, but never was any good. During one game my father attended, I wanted to make him proud, but my abject lack of talent got the best of me. Even though I spent a lot of the game on the bench, I still managed to strike out twice and bungled the few plays I tried to make in right field.

After the game, my father never derided me, but I noticed other kids with their dads, laughing and sharing in their triumphs. Over the events of the game, those fathers and sons had some common ground, a joy they shared when the sons played well.

My dad and I couldn’t enjoy that experience, and I think some of our rewards in heaven will be a depth of fellowship with our Heavenly Father that those who never did much for God simply can’t know.

I am cheered, though, that our Heavenly Father imparts callings and desires for His interests, which are vast. Everyone isn’t supposed to play the same game, so to speak, but each of us has been called to unique arenas of service. Too many of us, though, sit on the bench, which may even be a church pew, and never do much of anything that will delight our Father’s heart.

Instead, let us go play the game of life in the way the Spirit leads us, and let us play it well. It will only be a preview of better blessings to come.

 

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Tears in heaven

In one insight about heaven from the book of Revelation, God wipes all tears away (7:17), but why, even temporarily, would there be tears in heaven? It could be that God will show us opportunities we missed to live like eternity mattered in our brief earthly lives. Perhaps we will realize that people we love are not with us, and if our lives had been directed by a more eternally grounded sense of purpose, they might have joined us in an unending celebration with God Himself. A revelation like that is enough to make anyone cry, and I came close to feeling just that way years ago when I realized something about the brevity of this life, the finality of death, and the certainty of judgment.

I met one of the best guitarists I have ever known while a senior in a high school music theory class, which was populated with a fair number of classically-trained band and choir-singing types, a few hack garage musicians like me, and my monster-guitarist friend. When one of the choir-singing types performed in our brand new auditorium as a requirement of our course, he sang an original composition about Jesus. We, the rock and roll contingent, sat and behaved ourselves.

I mentioned after the performance that it took a lot of guts to get up there and sing such a religious song. My guitar-playing friend agreed, but said, “I just don’t get the whole Jesus thing. I’m sure He was a good man, but I’m never going to meet Him.” Those words, even when I was still estranged from Christ, seemed ominous, and after I indeed met Jesus, that incident came back to me from time to time, and I’d pray for my friend, whom I no longer saw. The last I had heard, he was actually making a living with his guitar, had a beautiful girlfriend, and was doing well, at least in terms by which many measure such things.

One day while stuck in traffic, I looked over and noticed he was right beside me in a new car, no longer driving the ugly AMC Pacer that we had dubbed “The Aquarium,” due to its huge windows and wrap around glass hatchback. I was excited to see him and waved him down so we could pull off on a back street and talk. We had a nice exchange and caught up with some of the details in our divergent lives. Sure enough, he was doing everything I had heard about.

Even though it had been several years since we had hung around together, and I was a lowly assistant retail manager, I felt my testimony was still worth something, so I told him about what Jesus had done in my life. He listened and was very polite, but by the time we parted, it was obvious that we inhabited different worlds, and he wasn’t very interested in mine.

That was the last I ever saw of him.

Several years later, I heard that my old friend had sold or given away most of his guitar collection, bought a gun, and killed himself. The person who told me all of this, of course, made speculations. He thought there certainly must have been logical reasons for our former friend resorting to this rash action, such as his girlfriend leaving him and his music career not attaining the lofty heights he had expected. I didn’t really need any reasons because I knew this man was gone, and no explanation would change that terrible fact. I remember saying a prayer for his mom and dad, who were nice people and must have been hurt terribly by the loss of their son, and after that I thought very little about him.

Sometime later, I was driving my car and saw a man I truly thought was my dear, dead friend. He had a particular gait, a definite rock star kind of strut, and this guy’s walk was what caught my eye. In the suddenness and excitement of the moment, I pulled to the side of the road and had stopped before I realized that this man was a stranger. Worse yet, I knew that I would never see my friend again and would never have another chance to tell him about Christ.

I turned off the ignition and sat there for a while, unable to move, having within me a sense of utter hopelessness. It was despair removed from my own situation, a perception that was vicarious but nonetheless deep. I feared that my friend had reached the end of his days outside of the sprawling boundaries of God’s grace, and there was nothing I could do to change that. My friend’s words spoken in that auditorium haunted me: “I’m sure Jesus was a good man, but I’ll never meet Him.”

 

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