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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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Thank God Christians are not all like me

As a Christian, I have gotten to know a wide variety of people that I wouldn’t have even met otherwise. Left to our own devices, we tend to make relationships based on rather superficial commonalties. Our reasons for gathering are sometimes downright petty. There are groups for people who like the same music, or who enjoy drinking beer and watching cars race around in circles, or who own the same brand of recreational vehicle, but when Jesus draws people together to worship and learn to live a new way, a wonderful chemistry occurs.

Opposites, when it comes to people, often really don’t attract; they fight or simply avoid one another, but this sometimes volatile mix is the only way the church has the potential for expressing the incomprehensible vastness of God’s character. Jesus’ original bunch of disciples was an odd mix who wouldn’t have naturally liked each other. Fishermen, tax collectors, egghead intellectuals, and common proletarian types all gathered around the One who called them in the first place.

If we put aside our differences and cling to Christ, we find plenty of common ground as well as a diversity that broadens our narrow lives. Some churches, perhaps by design, tend to attract the same types of people. There are churches favored by artists, intellectuals, punk rockers, professionals, old folks, and other non-spiritual preferences for being together, but I have always desired more variety in my churches.

For a while, I led a small group based on a college campus, which I found artificial and strange. I missed the babies, families, and old folks. Currently, a lot of my Christian friends are different from me, and I like it that way. Even though I’m a teacher and a bit of an intellectual goofball, my friends include engineers, contractors, carpenters, mechanics, and even an art dealer. Some of them have read very few books and watch movies that I consider lame entertainments, but I love them anyway.

Some of them are younger than I am, and they keep me energized. I especially love the older ones, though, who can look from the other side of careers and parenting and share their wisdom. I’m thankful for all the good Christian folks I have known over the years. Some have enriched my life for a season and moved on, and with others I have made it a priority to stay connected. Most of all, I thank God they were not all like me.

I can remember overhearing two guys talking about opera after a men’s meeting. Now, I admire the talent of such singers in a purely removed and academic way, but really don’t like opera in the least, and I’d almost rather be deaf than have to listen to that stuff all the time. But these two men, with whom I had shared good fellowship, they were going on and on like opera was the greatest experience in the world. It wasn’t until then that I realized how culturally different we were, and I almost wept because I knew I would never have even met them if Christ had not been so gracious in bringing us together.

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Marriage: A strong house with no back door

blog-marriage-strong-house-pictureAt this point, our kids are grown and my wife and I are closer to sixty than fifty. Not much is written about love between people like us, and we rarely see ourselves portrayed in movies.  Most of the great love stories focus on relationships before marriage, or on unrequited love that is never consummated, or on adulterous liaisons filled with intrigue and excitement. Real love like ours, though, is tough; its substance is a covenant, and it is more likely to grow into contentment rather than buzz with exhilaration.

Christian marriage is radical in its absolute commitment. We enter the relationship and promise before God to have no other lover. When I made my vows, there was no rider that exempted me from those “’till death do you part” pledges if I became bored, restless, stressed, depressed, or simply found someone I thought might be prettier or more entertaining.

At its core, the covenant of marriage is a decision to love, which runs deeper than mere emotion. This love doesn’t ask how I feel; this love demands that I act, but for me this commitment has resulted in emotion and contentment beyond simple romance that often amounts to little more than narcissism with a sense of novelty.

This married love is not always exciting, at least not like the danger and rebellion and raw emotion of young love expressed in secret rooms and backseats of cars parked in deserted places. This is love of another kind, a love that holds my spouse above all others. In a room full of people, there is everyone else, and then there is my wife.

I used to quote a line from a T-Bone Burnett song to her: “All the other girls look the same standing next to you.” This statement is true because there are the other several billion females out in the world, but she is the only one for me. All the rest are in a mutually excluded class.

At this point, my wife isn’t the same girl I married, nor do I expect her to be. She is a fully mature woman, one who has borne my children and raised them well. She has loved me, supported me, and served me for years, and she has been the recipient of my love as well. There is no one like her.

Images of beauty surround me, but I ignore their siren song and find it sad when older men leave their wives for younger women, or even that they find them overly alluring. Youthful beauty, sex, and even romantic love are transient, but God’s love is eternal, and that ultimately must be the strength of any marriage.

There have been times when my wife and I have looked at each other and wondered what we had in common, but there has always been Christ, and He has always been enough. He is our common ground regardless of our differences. Individually and together, my wife and I seek Him and desire His will, part of which involves us continuing together in love, whatever may come our way.

Real Christian marriage is a brave long shot that works its wonders all the time, even in this age of selfish desire. Two people who have said “yes” to God say “yes” to each other, and they exclude all others to celebrate this most intimate of human bonds.

Marriage is a strong house we enter that has no back door exit, and therein we learn to truly love with the unrelenting grace that God lavishly provides.

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Kids need both mercy and judgment

We need to be like God to our kids, full of love and discipline and justice and mercy. But mercy without judgment is not grace, and that’s why rules and consequences for breaking them must be in place. I can’t help but think that some kids never really come to Christ simply because they have never been held to any rules and have wrong concepts about mercy and justice. Paul wrote, “The law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).

Rules can never make us right with God, but they show us how we are wrong so we can come to Him honestly, asking for mercy from Him who is so willing to give it. If we constantly let our children off the hook, they assume God will do the same. He will, but only on His terms, and as parents we need to do our best to lead our kids to Christ, who will care for them when we no longer can.

When she was a little girl, my older daughter loved riding her bike. She and I would sometimes travel for miles, me peddling steadily on my big 26” bike, and she cranking furiously on her little 20-incher from which I’d only recently removed the training wheels. She just loved riding with her daddy, and I often rode farther than I really cared to, simply because she delighted so much in the simple joy of being with me and traveling on a bike. If I couldn’t be with her, there were very limited areas where she could ride. Of course, these rules were mostly for her safety. We didn’t want her getting hurt, and nearby were dangerous roads only to be traveled at certain times with her father.

One day, she grew bored with our restrictions and rode beyond where she was told to go. It was fun for a while, but by the time she returned, the poor girl was wracked with guilt. In tears she confessed to her mother that she had disobeyed us. Wisely, my wife forgave my daughter and did not spank her for this offense; our little girl had suffered enough and knew that she was wrong, but my wife also pointed out that she had also offended God, and my daughter describes this event as a pivotal moment when she in reality came to Christ to be forgiven for her sins. God used the rules given by her parents to bring her to Himself.

I want my kids to understand that obedience is ultimately about submission to God. If I’ve only trained them to obey me, I’ve failed miserably because I cannot always be with them, but if they understand they also have a heavenly Father who sees all they do and, more importantly, loves them and desires their obedience to His wishes and wisdom, they may well make right choices when far from me. Above all else, they must know that God loves them, enables them to be righteous, and forgives their inevitable failures.

I have frequently confessed rather than excused my faults before my children. They know I am in need of His mercy, and when I have dealt with them wrongly, caused them offense, or made them stumble because of my behavior, I have asked them for forgiveness. Parents need not worry about losing credibility if they admit their faults. Children are sharper than we think, and when they see our inconsistencies, they are not fooled.

On the other hand, when they see me as a flawed man obtaining grace, they are less likely to dismiss my religion as a crock of rules given by a hypocrite. Oftentimes, I have come alongside my children, especially as they became adolescents, and I have conceded that my own struggles are much like theirs. I have admitted freely the sins of my youth and of my later life, explained how damaging those lapses have been, and shown them the Savior who forgives and empowers me and can do the same for them as well.

 

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Parenting and protecting

kg04-cold-frame-gardening-01One of a parent’s primary roles is that of a protector. Because we wanted to limit negative input and maximize our own influence, my wife and I decided to home school our children when they were young. (Actually, my wife bore the brunt of this responsibility as she was at home while I was away at work, and I must add that she was a very fine teacher, indeed.)

While everyone may not be called to home education, too many simply farm their kids out to public, private, or even religious schools without monitoring those influences. At the minimum, we need to be aware of what is directly or indirectly shaping our children through their teachers, friends, and the overall culture to which they are subjected.

Some may argue that we are sheltering our children. I have no defense for this, for we parents must assume our role as wise protectors. It’s something like what my neighbor does when he starts his vegetable garden. He plants seeds in little trays inside his house during the dead of winter and then transfers the seedlings to a cold frame while it is still too early to plant them directly into the garden. Protected beneath glass from killing frosts, the plants grow until they are ready to be placed into the weather.

At this point the glass comes off, and soon they are transplanted to the garden where they grow strong in the sun and are tempered by the wind. If they were to remain under glass, the plants would become stunted and eventually wither and die. Similarly, there is a time to protect our children and a time to let them stand on their own.

Those transitions can be especially hard on parents as we release our children to the world, but we must equip them for diverse challenges and opportunities. My wife and I were the ones to educate our kids, in due time, about the snares of worldliness. We, not their peers or even church youth leaders, discussed sex with them, as well as the other issues they needed to confront.

When our oldest daughter finally entered a public high school, she reported back to us that she didn’t realize how sheltered she had been, but we had given her enough knowledge to stand a bit aloof of many potential pitfalls she was exposed to, and she assumed her place as a sojourner shining her light rather than being overwhelmed by the darkness.

All three of our home schooled kids eventually went to secular public colleges, and they all graduated with high GPAs and their faith still intact. I am grateful and acknowledge God’s grace and mercy in their lives because I have known many godly parents whose children have strayed.

Parents have different situations, and there is no single correct answer to most questions we face regarding our children, but it seems that by God’s grace we can both protect and prepare our children for the real world.

 

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Even if being a father isn’t really a “calling,” it is vital

fathers day

When I was younger and obsessed about what I was going to do with my life, I’d ask other guys, “What do you feel God is calling you to do?” Some spouted off grandiose notions about becoming pastors, prophets, preachers, or Christian rock stars, but most of their “leadings” never came to pass.

A few simply said, “I think God’s called me to be a father.” Well, at least those guys eventually became what they thought they would be, but stating that one was called to be a father always seemed mundane to me.

It goes without saying that we’ll be fathers. After all, most men do have kids, but I’ve come to the conclusion that while most men do become parents, far too many miss the responsibilities and opportunities that come with children.

Some men fail to spend enough time with their kids, or they refuse to discipline them, or they confuse grace with letting children do whatever they please. Or through the course of daily life, they demonstrate to their kids that success in athletics or a career, or the acquisition of possessions and prestige, is actually more important than being in right relationship to Christ.

On the other hand, children who truly embrace the faith will go on and impact many beyond whatever spheres of influence their fathers may have inhabited. I have told my own children that they could be whatever God led them to be: accountants, teachers, nurses, missionaries, auto technicians, preachers, or businesspeople—it has never mattered to me because a person sold out to God will draw people to Christ, even if he or she is not on a church payroll.

Ultimately, I have desired that my children would be a blessing to others and glorify God, and not necessarily be successful as many would measure such things. I still wish the very same for my children, and their children as well.

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Missing the point in love and romance

We tend to get the whole quest for love all wrong and look for that special someone to fulfill our deepest needs, so we date, go steady, experiment with other people, and test them to see if they work for us.

Unfortunately, the lovers we seek have the same agenda, and like sailors in a shipwreck, we cling to each other and drown. Only when we have sufficiency in Christ can we hope to really love anyone. Otherwise, we are basically using people, and that is sin in the first degree.

I never intended to use anyone, but from the start, my relationships were self-centered. The summer after seventh grade, my first “real” girlfriend met me at the local elementary school playground where we’d hang out, talk, and generally waste summer evenings.

Once we stopped walking around, looked at each other for a seemingly interminable moment, and kissed. We liked it enough to give it another try and wound up having a major make out session.

That evening I went home feeling like I had come into a new territory, a place where I was someone different. The realization that I wanted to kiss someone who also wanted to kiss me back was a major boost to my ego. No longer was I a loser without a girlfriend.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized this truth: much of what passes for love is merely our need to be affirmed by someone else. True love, however, is always focused outward because it is a gift from God in Christ, the one through whom we all can find true acceptance.

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