Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Defending Church

"I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered fifth rate poetry set to sixth rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren't fit to clean those boots." 
- C.S. Lewis, on attending church after his conversion to Christianity as "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England".

We live in a generation of religious cynics. That's not altogether a bad thing - there are a lot of "religious traditions" that have been elevated to the level of inspired Scripture, and we rightly question why we should do things just because "that's the way they've always been done." For too long, religious ritual was confused with authentic faith, and a generation hungry for the real thing starting looking for more than "religious tradition".

I belong to that hungry generation. "Generation X" the scholars call us -- kids raised in a post-Watergate world where things were no longer so black and white, where we are surprised not when leaders let us down, but when they don't. We tend to eschew political and denominational labels and instead seek leaders and churches who will "walk the walk". In the "church world" this trend has resulted in an exponential growth in the number of nondenominational churches in the United States: in 1990 194,000 people identified themselves as "non-denominational Christians"; by 2008 that number had increased to over 8 million in this ARIS study. Overall, I find this encouraging. Many of these non-denominational churches (including the one I attend) teach from Scripture, are active in the community, intentionally seek unity with other churches, and in general "walk the walk".

But recently I notice a more disturbing church-related trend. Some GenX leaders and plenty of younger individuals in their teens and 20s (the "Millennial" generation they are called) are ready to toss church "under the bus" if you will. Corporate worship is considered fine, but placed on a par with enjoying God in nature, spending time socializing with other believers, or reading a book by an inspirational writer. Serious study of Scripture with other believers, developing what the Bible calls "sound doctrine" and many Christians call theology, is considered sub-par to private emotional experiences.

Please don't misunderstand. Scripture makes clear that the heavens declare the glory of God, and we miss opportunities to worship Him if we only look inside church walls. He wants us to enjoy each other, and to use our gifts to edify others as well. We should study Scripture alone as well as with others, and if our relationship with God is never emotional, then we are missing an important element.

Likewise, if we reject church and our corporate worship and fellowship and study, we will never experience Christianity the way Jesus intended. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 12, we are parts of one body. A random, missing appendage will never function as it was intended. And yes, that body goes beyond individual expressions in local churches. One local church will never achieve the fullness of what it means to be the body of Christ -- for that we need all believers, in all places, and in all eras, and all denominational backgrounds, united by one Spirit to worship one Lord.

But since a significant portion of the New Testament is comprised of epistles written to specific, local bodies of believers, with many other references to specific, local bodies of believers, I believe we can safely say that the New Testament pattern is for "the church" to find local expressions and for Christians to gather with other believers regularly for intentional worship and study of God's Word. Hebrews 10:25 is the classic command to worship with others.

However, my defense of church goes beyond the command to gather with other believers. Like C.S. Lewis in the quote above, I find "the church" a place where people from different educational and work backgrounds, from different social and cultural settings, from different ages and ethnicities and countries, come together not to be identical, but to celebrate that with all these differences, we still worship One Lord, have One Spirit indwelling us, and have One Heart to glorify the One Who saved us. Last Sunday at church, I hugged a sweet 80-something lady, swung a four-year-old in the air, discussed the situation in Eritrea with a brother from Cameroon, and lamented over the pending move of a couple from Hungary. I messed up the recording of a sermon by my pastor who works at UPS, and caught up with a friend who works a farm with her husband. On the surface I had more differences than similarities with all these people, but we had a unity that went beyond any differences. Some of my "heroes" in the faith are those people like Lewis mentioned, those saints in "old elastic side boots" - boots worn from use in kingdom purposes, with holes in the knees of their pants from hours spent in prayer.

A sweet young friend in Niger wrote of her joy at finally getting to attend a church service. She lives out in the village and sees the stars all the time. She loves nature and helps provide food by gardening. Yet her joy reached new heights when she praised God with other believers - 8 languages all together. This is the church! She didn't have to tell me that the church she went to was imperfect. I know it was - it was comprised of humans. Yet God designed it for a purpose, and just reading about it was beautiful.

One of the Scriptures that never fails to surprise me time and again is Ephesians 3:8-10:

"To me the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things; in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places." 

I always reread that verse to see if it says what I think it says. Yep, it does. God's wisdom is made known through the church to rulers and authorities in heavenly places. Something about the church shows God's wisdom to spiritual beings. I've been in a lot of churches over the years and frankly, church would not appear at the top of my list of "Ways to show wisdom to spiritual beings." It might not even break the top 100!

And yet ... the wisdom of man is foolishness to God. For in this ragtag bunch of humans trying to worship God, with all our differences and failings of the flesh, God's wisdom is revealed. I don't know how. But there is something powerful at work -- something that cannot be conquered by the gates of hell (Matt. 16:18). As "the church" moves to advance the kingdom of God, darkness is pushed back. That promise isn't made about great social organizations like Habitat for Humanity, political parties, or even nations. It's only made about the church - that messy group of people all over the world, manifested in local bodies of believers, who sometimes have little in common besides Jesus.

And that's reason enough for me to defend church.

Psalm 122
I rejoiced with those who said to me,
let us go to the house of the Lord.
Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together.
That is where the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord,
To praise the name of the Lord according to the statute given to Israel.
There the thrones for judgment stand,
the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
"May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels."
For the sake of my brothers and friends I will say,
"Peace be with you."
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God
I will seek your prosperity.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Psalm 134

Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,
Who minister by night in the house of the Lord.
Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord.
May the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion.


As we journey through life we meet fellow travellers along the way. Some journey with us for a lifetime; others for a season; still others for only a brief period of time. It doesn't matter how long we journey with another believer; our goal should be to use the gifts God has given us to impart grace to their walk with the Lord. We can encourage each other to love and good deeds and most of all, to a life of worship.

What a beautiful benediction for the journey we've been on together. Just as the travelers would end their journey with this benediction, so we who journey together can receive this as a blessing from the Lord for each other.

Thank you for walking through this Psalms of Ascent journey with me. God has been pouring into me through these Psalms this entire year, and it's not over yet. He's called me to stay in these Psalms in my quiet time for a season. They are now part of my Scripture memory file cabinet, and for the last few weeks God has "sung me to sleep" with these words, as I start at Psalm 120 and recite until I fall asleep (usually somewhere around Psalm 125 ;) ). I've enjoyed processing what I'm learning through these blog posts. But now, we each continue on our own journeys with the Lord. I'll continue blogging here, and I hope our paths cross again. In the meantime I can think of no better benediction than this Psalm and a song that takes some of its lines from the blessings in the Psalms of Ascent.

May the Lord bless you all the days of your lives -- so that you can be a tremendous blessing to many!

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Psalm 133

How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
Running down on the beard,
Running down on Aaron's beard,
Down upon the collar of his robes.
It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows His blessing, life forevermore.

Unity. It's far more important to God than we like to think. Those of us from the U.S. - one of the most individualistic countries on earth - seem to especially struggle with community. But the concept of unity isn't just a challenge for rugged individualists. Even group-oriented societies have a hard time with true unity.

I think that's one reason God gave us two very clear, undeniable passages about unity. This Psalm, together with John 17, leave followers of Jesus with no doubt about God's will. He wants us to be in unity with our fellow believers. Those who are in the community of believers should actively seek unity, within individual churches but also across the church as a whole.

Our struggle isn't with understanding what God desires. It's with living out what that means. What is unity?

I think we have to start answering that question first by defining what unity is NOT. Unity is not uniformity. We don't have to look alike, act alike, or parrot each other's opinions. Paul makes very clear in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14 that God has equipped the church with various gifts, and as a result we all play different roles. Furthermore, we see in the example of the apostles that God used each one of them with their unique personalities. Rough-around-the-edges Peter could never play the same role as highly-educated Paul ... yet God used them both. He doesn't ask us to mimic others; we are to focus on being Christlike, not cookie cutters of our leaders or famous Christians. We can learn from others, of course, but our walk with God is unique and we undermine His intentions for us when we try to become like someone else. That's not unity.

Along the same lines, unity does not mean we have to be equally excited about ministry tasks. I know I'm not called to children's ministry. I love kids, but not in the same way that the children's church leaders do - they truly get excited to teach kids about Jesus. That doesn't mean I am out of unity with my church's Vacation Bible School focus later this month or with our ongoing children's church efforts. Likewise, the rhythm of my heart leaps at the idea of expanding the Gospel to unreached people groups, raising awareness about missions, being a "good sender" in fulfilling the Great Commission, immigrants in our country, and pretty much anything global. Those in my church whose heart leaps at the thought of 50 kids coming to next week's VBS are not out of unity with me. To fulfill the Great Commission and take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, God has to give different gifts and callings to believers, and we have to work together to make it happen. We can't just each pursue our own ministry interests without regard for others; that is at least part of Paul's meaning behind the words to the church at Philippi: "Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others." (Phil. 2:4).

So what IS unity? Thankfully Scripture sheds insight here as well. Paul wrote about this to the churches at Corinth and Ephesus: 
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. - (1Cr 12:4-6 NASB)

being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. - (Eph 4:3-6 NASB)
We serve the same Lord. The same Holy Spirit works in us all. This "unity of the Spirit" is a gift that we have been given. I can rally around what He is up to, even if it isn't "my calling". I can help in practical ways, or pray, or give, or tell others who might be called to that ministry. I can trust God to put on the hearts of others what He desires them to do related to those ministries that stir the passions of my heart. I can know that above all things, God is orchestrating the work of missions. No one will ever be more interested in fulfilling the Great Commission than Him!

Bottom line: Unity recognizes how much we need each others. John Stott put it this way: "...stones need mortar in order to stick to one another....Each stone is cemented in with other stones and so is part of the building."

When it comes to working with other churches who may have different beliefs about nonessential matters, I can take a cue from Paul's words later in Ephesians 4. After addressing the unity of the Spirit which we have been granted but have to hold on to, he looks forward to a day when there will be a unity of the faith - when we have a mutual understanding of those things are not clear in Scripture. We don't have that yet, but in the meantime we can learn and grow together and see the value of gifts God has given to other church traditions. For example - Our women's Bible study group had a great discussion about how God has taught several of us to appreciate the holiness and majesty of God through some of the liturgical churches.

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. - (Eph 4:11-13 NASB)
We can also appreciate that unity will never destroy the beauty of the diversity of the global body of Christ. African drums and dancing;  slow, vocalized Scripture reading of the Cambodian church; the silent whispered hymns of the underground church in China -- all these are expressions of the church that can be fully embraced within the unity of the Spirit. God is honored by all sorts of different expressions of worship - even those that don't look like ours. When we get to the throne room, we'll enjoy the fullness of unity and diversity, as John's vision shows the ethnic distinctions intact:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, "Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." - (Rev 7:9-10 NASB)

He reigns. He wants us to walk in unity, to expand that reign throughout all the earth. That is the blessing of life forevermore - a blessing far beyond what the Psalmist could envision.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Psalm 132

Oh Lord remember David and all the hardships he endured.
He swore an oath to the Lord, and made a vow to the Mighty One of Jacob:

"I will not enter my house or go to my bed;
I will allow no sleep to my eyes, no slumber to my eyelids,
Till I find a place for the Lord,
A dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob."

We heard it in Ephrathah, we came upon it in the fields of Jaar:

"Let us go to His dwelling place,
Let us worship at His footstool.
Arise, O Lord, and come to Your resting place,
You and the ark of Your might.
May Your priests be clothed with righteousness; may Your saints sing for joy."

For the sake of David your servant, do not reject Your anointed one.
The Lord swore an oath to David, a sure oath that He will not revoke;

"One of your own descendants I will place on your throne -
if your sons keep my covenant and the statutes I teach them,
then their sons will sit on your throne forever and ever."

For the Lord has chosen Zion, He has desired it for his dwelling:

"This is my resting place forever and ever,
Here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it.
I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor will I satisfy with food.

I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her saints will ever sing for joy.
Here I will make a horn grow for David and set up a lamp for My anointed one.
I will cloth his enemies with shame, but the crown on his head will be resplendent."


God loves it when our hearts are set on worship. This Psalm recounts one of the many episodes that led to David being called "a man after God's own heart" (Acts 13:22).

The background can be found in 1 Samuel 4-7. The Philistines attacked Jerusalem and took the ark. Much to their dismay, it didn't bring them the victory the God's presence had afforded Israel; instead, their "god" Dagon fell before the ark with only his trunk remaining. Frightened, the Philistines sent the ark away and it remained at Kiriath-jearim for 20 years. Years later, as recorded in 2 Samuel 6, David desired to bring the ark back to Jerusalem. He initially erred by not bringing the ark according to God's commands, and after a three month pause, resumed the effort by following God's commands meticulously. Finally the ark is "home" - and David's worship is joyous: "And David was dancing before the Lord with all his might..." (2 Sam. 6:14). 

But it wasn't enough. David saw the ark home, and the nation could once again celebrate the fullness of the rituals God had established. Still, the heart of a worshipper desired more. David wanted to build a house for the Lord. God saw David's heart, and responded with an amazing answer:
When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. - (2Sa 7:12-13 NIV)
David the worshipper wanted to build God a house - and God says guess what, I'm building you one! Amazing.

This Psalm, written for an uncertain occasion, connects Israel with their beloved king. With a strong sense of the significance of God's covenant with David, the singers of this Psalm ask God not to reject the king, and remind themselves of His covenant promises.  Considering that one possible setting for the singing of these Psalms of Ascent was upon the return from the captivity to Babylon, the reminder of God's faithfulness is highly significant. They would have a new leader, and after 70 years in captivity they wanted to know that God was still for them. Singing about David's faithfulness to God and God's faithfulness to David, they would be reminded that yes, He was still sovereign over Israel.

Don't we need those kind of reminders at times? When we've messed up, or just faced the weakness of our flesh, or when the weight of living in a fallen world seems unbearable, we need to know that God is faithful. We need to connect our present circumstances to something beyond ourselves. We need perspective.

For those of us in Christ, the Holy Spirit is our assurance that the New Covenant promises will be fulfilled, to the letter. When we need it most, He fills our hearts with reassurance that He is working through us for His glory. He reminds us that today is not the end of the story. He lets us know that His unfailing love remains. And we are able to meet another day in His strength.

To me, Paul's words in Romans 8 are as reassuring as Psalm 132 must have been for the children of Israel. May God use them to minister to you today. Remember, you are part of something bigger than today's circumstances. He is FOR you!

Romans 8 (ESV)

Life in the Spirit

8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Heirs with Christ

12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Future Glory

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

God's Everlasting Love

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.