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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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Rust and sweat: Making money and the slavery of things

My father always told me that work wasn’t about having fun or making money; it was about being of service to people. That’s a very godly perspective to have, and I try to keep that attitude, but my dad actually made good money doing what he did, and I, well, I have always made enough, but never much more.

Possibly because of my horribly misspent youth, or maybe there were other mysteries at play, it took me quite a while to find a viable career path, as they say in books about such things. Through experiences, the suggestions of others, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, I finally concluded that I should be a teacher.

In order to do that, I reluctantly entered graduate school. By God’s grace and through the unfailing support of my wife and parents, I obtained the education needed to become a certified teacher.

An instructor’s pay isn’t great, but it’s not bad either. At this point in my career, I make a fairly respectable income, though not as much as some who are my age with my level of education.

Unfortunately, I was almost a decade older than the typical graduate when I became a first-year teacher, near the bottom of the pay scale with a pregnant wife and facing responsibilities beyond those of most beginning educators.

My wife was content to live in a very used trailer that first year, and she did an amazing job stretching my salary to meet our needs. To quote Bob Dylan, Linda’s “a God-fearing woman I can easily afford.”

During my second year of teaching, we managed to buy a small but brand new house in a development. About 80 residences on one-acre lots were built in the midst of cornfields and woods, and living there has been something like being in the country without the isolation, or maybe it has been more like living in the suburbs without as much convenience.

Up and down our street, families moved in, and they obviously spent money. Neighbors showed us their ongoing projects: finished basements, upgraded flooring, sunrooms, professional landscaping, and other improvements.

My wife and I did what we could afford and didn’t really worry about it much because we had our priorities in mind: I was teaching, and my wife was staying at home to raise our daughter. We also planned to have more children.

After supper, Linda and I would chat while pushing our daughter in a stroller, passing our neighbors and waving, sometimes stopping to talk. When we first met one couple, they had a little one in a stroller, just like we did, so conversation came easily. Eventually, the woman asked my wife what she did, and with some veiled embarrassment, Linda revealed that she stayed with our daughter and wasn’t working outside of the home.

The woman sighed, one of those genuine, protracted, groans of remorse. “I wish I could do that,” she said. “But we just can’t afford it.”

I felt sad for her, but by then we were in front of their home, which was the same model as mine, only they had a completely finished basement. Mine was nothing more than bare cinderblock walls and a cement floor, waiting for the time when we really needed to finish the space.

Two new cars were parked in their freshly paved driveway. We did have a fairly decent little Ford Escort wagon parked on our gravel, but I was driving a rusty Dodge Colt to work every day.

I felt sad for that woman because she desired the freedom to do what she really wanted to do, but she apparently hadn’t discovered that our belongings have a way of enslaving us and cutting back our options. There was no way I could have become a teacher, and my wife couldn’t have stayed home with our kids if we had been paying off cars and a hefty mortgage.

Everything we own requires labor to acquire and even more to maintain, and that takes up our precious time. We can always make more money, but we can never make more time. Consequently, I’m not a big fan of things.

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Trump, the Falwells, and culture wars

Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the largest evangelical college in the world, Liberty University, has not only endorsed Donald Trump in the presidential primaries, but has also actively campaigned for him. I can understand that some of my brothers and sisters in the faith see Trump as an alternative to something worse, though I beg to differ with their views.

What I can’t fathom, though, is enthusiasm for a man who seems the Sermon on the Mount’s antithesis. Trump is brash, arrogant, and at times downright crude. His speech regarding migrants, refugees, immigrants, the poor, and the downtrodden in general has been spiked with contempt.

Of course, he is a successful businessman, and maybe that gives him some credentials for leadership, but much of his money was made in ways that don’t exactly resonate with Christian virtue. The man is best known for his reality television shows and casinos that feature not only gambling, but strip clubs, too. Dig a little deeper, and one finds his business style is marked by an uncharitable degree of egotism, bullying, and ruthlessness.

Unfortunately, American Christians are easily manipulated. Way back when Jerry Falwell Jr’s father was first coming to national prominence, touting something called the Moral Majority, American Christians were led into a culture war. Many believed that our country was falling away from its Christian roots, and the “majority” needed to stand up and make its voice heard.

Reclaiming our alleged spiritual heritage and gaining political clout was supposed to bring revival to this depraved land. We backed candidates who gave lip service to ending abortion and other moral causes, and too many Christians became single-issue voters in an increasing complex political world.

We wound up losing the culture war anyway. Not only has abortion continued to be legal, but gay marriage is now the law of the land. In the meantime, our own churches are rife with sexual immorality, divorce, scandal, materialism, and greed. America doesn’t need a new type of politician to implement reform from the top down; our country needs average Christians who truly believe Jesus is Lord and live their lives accordingly, which could transform society from the bottom up.

Back in the 80s when the Moral Majority was flexing its muscle, I was part of a campus ministry at the University of Maryland. When I tried to share the gospel of Christ with a particular student, he completely dismissed the message, vehemently proclaiming that the church was a hypocritical institution with a political agenda.

I told a brother who was with me at the time, that if real persecution came to Christians in America, it wouldn’t be because of our faith in Jesus, but because of our political allegiances.

I hope I wasn’t right about that.

 

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The unreality of music and media

Most music and other media is mere “product” that  we consume, disposable and serving no function except to entertain us. There is a place for entertainment because God does give us all kinds of good things to enjoy, but entertainment is primarily an escape from reality that gives us no real benefits or insights. Most novels, virtually all television shows and movies, and music as well, present us with non-reality, absurdly idealized versions of life.

In the little worlds created by these art forms, life is rarely dull. Violence is engagingly brutal, romance—or at least sex–is abundant, and virtually no one is seen actually working a real job, changing a child’s diapers, or doing the other myriad and mundane tasks that are part of reality.

Such an overload of unreality can distort our thinking. A lot of us aren’t beautiful like the people on the big screen. We don’t all live in big houses and drive cool cars. Love doesn’t always feel the way it is portrayed in a song. Life simply doesn’t resolve like television episodes.

Worst of all, most of what we see and hear is godless. By this, I don’t mean it’s necessarily immoral or heathenish or overtly gross, but the microcosms we enter in popular media do not acknowledge the existence of God. He is simply not part of that world.

I can remember sitting in my parent’s house as a young man, terribly challenged by the example of the young, zealous Christians I was meeting, and as I watched a sitcom, I had a distinct thought: “These people aren’t fanatical about God, and they’re normal.” I was no dummy. I knew I was watching TV, and the people were actors spouting lines by writers, yet I considered this God-vacant representation as “normal.”

Christians have reacted to all this godlessness by producing their own media, and the world therein is not exactly real, either. Often, it is just as escapist as anything produced in Hollywood, a distortion of reality where there is no ambiguity or mystery and everything fits neatly within our theologies. Highly speculative dramas about the end of the world, quaint little neighborhood narratives where parishioners seek the wise clergyman’s advise, prairie epics where settlers are monolithically brave and pure and virtuous—the unrealistic scenarios go on and on.

Even worse than being escapist, some cross another line and are unvarnished propaganda that seeks to persuade an audience that their rather skewed and simplified views of God and man and religion are the truth. But they aren’t.

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