Repenting of Heartless Worship

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin…Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. – Psalm 51

This past Sunday at Agape we considered the danger of external-only, heartless worship. We read the words of rebuke from God to His people in Psalm 50; people who were ‘doing’ all the right things, but doing them for all the wrong reasons. Their hearts had drifted from their LORD, even while they outwardly continued to bring him sacrifices. With no heart of worship present, their attitudes, thoughts and actions no longer reflected the God they claimed to serve. God rebuked His people and reminded them ‘The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me’. If our heart is filled with thankfulness to God, then it will lead us to live in a manner that glorifies Him. This is why Paul said in Romans 12 ‘I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice–the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him‘. Ultimately, our heart is the motivation of all we think, speak and do. Hearts that are submitted in thankfulness to Christ, will overflow and lead us to be submitted in action as well: living sacrifices, not mindless ones.

What does this teach us as a church, as a people who gather every week to celebrate and corporately worship our God together? I believe it teaches us to consider our motivations. Is the gathering of the church something that we attend each week as part of that ‘overflow’ of thankfulness? Do we approach that time as a gift, eager to meet with our fellow faith family and magnify the Lord in Thanksgiving together (Psalm 69:30)? Or is it something we do sleepily, out of tradition or a sense of duty? I imagine that all of us who take an honest and deep look at ourselves would at some point reach the conclusion that our worship has become routine; and our gathering with other believers has followed suit. When we reach that conclusion, the next step is repentance not condemnation. Paul teaches that there are two types of grief (or sorrow) we may find ourselves under: Godly or worldly. How do we tell the difference? By the action we are led into. If we are under worldly grief, then we will be tempted to give up; to quit trying. In this context, perhaps we will be tempted from gathering with the church; to just stay home or leave the community to find another one (assuming the issue is the church itself and not us). On the other hand, a Godly grief will lead us to repentance: a desire to keep going, but in a new direction; a direction that more appropriately resembles true, living worship.

That is why I think the verse above is so appropriate. David wrote those words at a moment in his life when he became aware of his own guilty heart. Even as he had continued in his normal sacrificial routine, his heart had drifted and his behavior had followed. When he came face to face with his condition, caught in his sin, Godly sorrow led Him to cry out for God’s restoration: a pure heart, steadfast and willing spirit, restoration and sustaining. When we test ourselves and become aware of our own drifting from a true heart of worship, may this to be our cry! Perhaps this will need to be our prayer every day; or every Sunday as we prepare to gather together. But this we know: If we pray this with a genuine desire for repentance, our great God and Savior will be faithful to answer and help. Let us therefore go to Him with expectation!

Waiting for the Lord…

‘…How long will these people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?’ – Numbers 14:11

‘Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God..’ – Deuteronomy 7:9

‘I wait for the LORD…and in his word I hope..’ – Psalm 130:5

‘I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done’ – Psalm 143:5

‘..When the son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ – Luke 18:8

‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ – Hebrews 11:1

As I write this, it is approx 7AM in the city of Hong Kong. In that city is my son, Jack. And today he turns 2 yrs old. And I will not be there to celebrate with him, although that has been my constant prayer for the past 10 months. We have all been there, in that place where after long periods of prayer – the thing that you asked for does not come, or does not come in the manner you hoped. How do you feel then? More importantly, how do you respond? What is the next step? For me, I am not angry. I am disappointed in the situation, but I am not disappointed in God. I am not bitter. But, I do wrestle with temptation. For me in-particular, when a prayer seems to go unanswered, that temptation works itself into my life in 2 ways: 1) I am tempted to be discouraged from praying consistently and passionately – even though Jesus implored us to ‘always pray and not lose heart’ (Lk 18:1)2) I am tempted to think that God’s ‘silence’ equals inaction; that somehow he is not involved in whatever I am praying over. Now, I understand the fallibility of both of those temptations. But I am sharing what I wrestle with. Yours may be different; Perhaps it is anger or bitterness; resentment or separation. Whatever those temptations are, in moments like these we must combat them with the word of God.

The people of Israel saw many miraculous signs in their wilderness experience. But there were also days of ‘silence’ when it appeared that God was not present. The people assumed God had left them, forgotten them and abandoned them to the fate of death. Yet, God was there and was trying to teach them to not just rely on signs and wondersHe wanted them to believe in HIM, not just to believe in signs. God is a faithful God, and He desires His people to KNOW that; for it to echo in their souls as truth. Because the Psalmists believed in Him, not just His signs, they had the confidence to wait on Him in the ‘silent’ times; And their confidence was based on the promises, the word, that God had spoken. Because God is faithful, His word is faithful. It can be trusted. The promises He has made to us will be fulfilled. In those quiet times, when things are not coming together as we hoped – it is critical for us to remember what God has done; what He has already said. Meditate on how good He has been to you, and remember that HE is faithful and He will not change. His voice will come again. You can wait on Him in expectation. But will we? Will we wait on Him with confident, expectant, faithful hearts? That is the question that Jesus wondered, out loud. Faith is when you are assured in your spirit – by God’s spirit – of what He has promised. You are convicted these things will come to pass, not because of what you are seeing at the moment. But because your hope is in the faithful one.

I miss my son. I will mourn not being with Him tomorrow. But I have asked God to keep my heart faithful; to keep my prayers consistent and persistent; to keep me encouraged and to help me trust in His faithfulness to us. And He has answered that prayer. Even as I type this, even as I mourn missing Jack’s 2nd birthday, I am remarkably hopeful. I know that God started this adoption process; I remember all that He has done in the past year; I have been meditating on all of His works on our behalf. He has kept this process moving. He has removed roadblocks and He has knitted our hearts toward the son that He chose for us through adoption. I believe that. I KNOW that He is faithful. And I trust in the words that He has spoken to me – over the many days of this journey. And today – I hope in those words. I am convicted of what I cannot see. And I believe that soon, very soon, by His grace – I will hold my son. And I believe He can, AND WILL, do ‘far more abundantly that all that we ask or think‘ (Eph 3:20).

We have all been in this place, and we will all come to it again – over and over in our lives. My faith family, in the silent moments: rest in the faithfulness of our great God and Savior. Guard your hearts from temptation by trusting in His word. Meditate on all He has done. Believe in Him.

 

In Every Church: Warts and Grace

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge…so that you are not lacking in any gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 1:4-7

Those of us who have spent any amount of time reading the New Testament are probably familiar with the church in Corinth and have probably formed some sort of opinion about them. Chances are, that opinion may not be favorable. Many of the warts or problems of the Corinthian church are well detailed in the pastoral letters that Paul penned and that we have read. The church was struggling with many issues such as divisions, lawsuits, purity, idolatry and even some level of disorder in their corporate gatheringsBut did you know that the church in Corinth was also filled with the grace of God? Did you know that the church there had been enriched, full of good speech and knowledge about Christ? Did you know that spiritual gifts were alive and active among the people? Paul opens up his letter to the church with just such a reminder and commendation. As a matter of fact, if you only judged the Corinthian church by the first lines of Paul’s letter, you might have the impression that the church was problem free. It is possible, if not probable, that visitors or occasional attenders to the church were unaware of its issues. The warts may have only been visible to those who were closely connected and taking part in deep fellowship with the community.

The fact is, that there are no perfect churches. Every church that belongs to Jesus will have its share of warts; problems will exist. The reason is because the church is made up of imperfect people, who are hopefully striving for Christ-likeness, but of course not yet realizing that goal in full. These problems are not always visible from a distance or even right away among newcomers. Sometimes it takes weeks or months of investment in fellowship and community before some of the warts rear their head. But eventually, they will come to the surface. They always do. At the same time we must also know this: Every church that belongs to Jesus will be filled with His grace. Christ has promised to be with His people, making His presence known when they gather in His name for His glory. So it is safe to say that every church that has an abundance of warts, also has an abundance of gifts. Just as our flesh will inevitably stir up conflicts, struggles and problems of various kinds; the Spirit of Christ is there to stir up peace, love, righteousness and an abundance of good works.

So what is our application? First, we realize that all of us – imperfect people – are ‘being joined and built together’ into a dwelling place for God (Ephesians 2:21-22). There will always be problems inside of any faith community, but we are in this together. God is doing a work on us and in us – not just as individuals, but as a collective group of His people who are in need of His grace. Second, we must ‘put on love, which binds us all together’ (Colossians 3:14). There is a reason that the bible instructs us over and over again to love one another. As we are being built together in the grace of Christ, our love for each other will help overcome the problems that our flesh causes. When a church is filled with love for the Father and a love for each other, the warts will not divide them. ‘Love is patient and kind..it does not insist on its own way…it is not irritable or resentful…it bears all things’ (1 Cor 13). And so if we have put on this kind of love for each other, then the effects of that love among a church will keep the people together as they go. Finally, ‘take delight in honoring each other’ (Romans 12:10). If indeed the grace of Christ abounds in His church, then set your mind to focus on the good gifts of a church, rather than just the problems. One great way to do that is to intentionally honor each other. Take time and effort to show people in your community how valuable they are; how much you love them, how much they mean to you; in what ways they have helped you. It is very difficult to focus on a person’s shortcomings, while at the same time genuinely honoring them from your heart. Of course this is not meant to be a formula, or an all encompassing list. But let us be reminded that the church exists on earth – in part – to display the glory of God to a watching people. So may they see that the problems that seek to divide a church, are not as great as the grace that has brought it together.

 

Praying for Miracles: Good Gifts from a Good Father

So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him! – Matthew 7:11

As many of you know, my family is praying for a miracle. We have been waiting for about 4 weeks for a judge in Hong Kong to sign a paper, giving us legal custody of our son, Jack. When the paper is signed, we can book a flight and go get him. The miracle we need, is all about the timingSince last January we have prayed to have Jack by his birthday. God has knitted our hearts to his, and the thought of not being with him on this day is gut wrenching. We have known, all these months, that this would take a move of God. The time table we were given showed that this would be improbable if not impossible. Which is why we have prayed so hard; as a family in our living room, in the van on the way to church, at the altar and around the table. And we have involved many of you in those prayers – through email, blogs, texts and fundraisers – many of you have lifted up your voices to the Father on our behalf. Even as we have entered this week, a critical week for us if we are going to receive this blessing, we have had people let us know they were praying, even fasting on our behalf. Thank You!! The time table for this part of this process is 8 to 10 weeks. We are 4 weeks in. The problem is that his birthday is before then. Very soon. Thus, the miracle.

As we have prayed for these many months, I have reflected on different verses – including this one above from Matthew 7. The verse is intriguing to me, because essentially Jesus tells parents that they can learn about their relationship with God the Father, by thinking about the relationship they have with their own children. In other words, yes we love our kids! And we know how to give good gifts out of our love for them. But we are fallen and fallible and prone to error. So as good as we can be to our kids, how much greater is the perfect, infallible Father that we have in Heaven? Meditating on this today, I thought of 3 ‘good gifts’ that I give my kids:

1) I plan and guide their lives.

My kids are all young (under 12) and right now I plan and guide their days and nights. No, they are no robots. I do not dictate to them every decision they make. They can choose to do good things, and receive rewards and blessings. They can choose to do bad things, and receive discipline and troubled circumstances. But still, as their father, I stand as the guiding force in their lives. I make plans for them – plans that will benefit them, plans that will train them, plans that will bring them good and enjoyment – and I see to it that those plans come to fruition. They don’t have to ask me to do this – I just do it; because I love them and they are mine. So – how much more does the Father do this for Hischildren?

2) I sometimes tell them no.

My kids ask me for a lot of things. Many of their requests, I grant; I grant them because I love them and I delight in giving them the desires of their heart. If they didn’t ask, they might not get it. But because they ask – I answer. But sometimes, I do tell them no. Sometimes what they ask for is not the best, it is not for their ultimate good; although it might seem best to them, I understand it is not. And when I tell them no, my hope is that they trust me; that they love me and that they know they can be confident that I am seeking their ultimate good. So – how much more does the Father do this for His children?

3) I sometimes hide gifts from my kids, and bring delays, so at the right time I can surprise them.

I love giving my kids gifts. I delight in the delight I see in them when they receive from me a good gift. Sometimes I get them a gift, but I delay in giving it right then. I save it, hidden away. And I do that so at just the right moment I can spring it on them. Sometimes I literally mold their circumstances, so that when I give the gift, it has the greatest impact on their hearts. My purpose is not to be mean – I do it to maximize their joy. So – how much more does the Father do this for His children?

We are continuing to pursue our miracle through prayer. Thank you if you are willing to pray on our behalf. This week is critical for us.We rest in the words of Jesus, even at this late hour, that ‘All things are possible for those who believe’. It is my personal hope that our good Father has been molding our circumstances, allowing delays, in order to give us this gift at this time, right on time, for our maximum joy and His deserving glory. Many of you are also pursuing a miracle. As you do, meditate on the goodness of your Father – who knows exactly when and how to give you good gifts.

Charles Spurgeon on the Joy of a Parent in the Joy of their Children

Some of you spend Christmas day surrounded by your families. Possibly you have a large family—ten or twelve are at home on that day, with a grandchild or two. I will tell you what your greatest joy is on that day: it is to see the happiness of your children and to mark how they enjoy what you provide for them. They are only little children, some of them, creeping about on the floor, but they please you because they are so pleased themselves. The crow of a little child delights your heart, for it gives us joy to behold joy in those we love.

Suppose your sons and daughters all come marching in on Christmas day in a very gloomy state of mind—cold, loveless, joyless. Suppose they do not enjoy anything, but grumble at you and at one another. You would be quite sad and wish the day to be soon over and never come again for the next seven years. Thus, in an illustration, we see that our heavenly Father delights in the delight of His children and is glad to see them grateful and happy, and acting as children should do toward such a Parent.

– Charles Spurgeon

 

Relate to Each Other by Gospel Principles

I was chosen to explain to everyone this mysterious plan that God, the Creator of all things, had kept secret from the beginning. God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was his eternal plan, which he carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord. – Ephesians 3:9-11

This past Sunday during our time in the word, I made the comment that as parents we must be careful to reflect Gospel principles to our children, rather than the prevailing ideals of our culture. Worldly principles convey the message that a person must earn their merit; prove their worthiness to be accepted. The Gospel, in response, clearly communicates that God has displayed His love for His children through Jesus; and that by grace through faith we are accepted; we are made worthy – not because of our actions but because of His mercy. You and I do not earn our position before God; Christ earned it on our behalf. And so the message that we need to hear from our Heavenly Father (and the message that our children need to receive from us) is that while from time to time He may be displeased with our actions, He is never displeased with us. His pleasure with us is based on Christ in us, and therefore it does not ebb and flow. So we need to ‘gospel’ our children in this same way.

A subsequent conversation that I had with someone in our fellowship reminded me of what a foreign idea this is to all of us – myself included. It is difficult to wrap our mind around it, while at the same time difficult to live out. How do we gospel our children? And by extension, how do gospel each other? And – should I even use the word gospel as a verb? Well, while I am not entirely sure about that one, here is why I use it as a verb: I believe the bible very clearly instructs the people who make up the Church, to relate to one another by gospel principles. As Christian families, the very core of how we operate should be based on God’s word to us. And even more importantly, as the family of God we must listen and obey when Christ teaches us how to live with each other. And we have to know going in, this will require a molding of our will and our preferences. We may have to move away from our upbringing or even reject our sense of how things should be done. Because as we have already covered, gospel principles typically find themselves in direct opposition to worldly principles. And all of us have spent our lives being inundated by the values of the surrounding culture.

What do Gospel principles look like? Well they are found throughout the word, specifically in many of the NT letters to the churches. They are too numerous to mention all of them here and too deep to dive into with any great depth. But let’s remind ourselves of a few: We should value other people in the body more than even ourselves (Phil 2:3); We should submit to on another (Eph 5:21) and speak the word to one another, teaching and even admonishing (Col 3:16). Toward one another we are commanded to be patient, gentle, kind and compassionate (Col 3:12 – really take time to think through those words, so that the meaning is not lost). We should not insist on our own way (1 Cor 13:4), we should be devoted to each other and go out of our way to honor our brothers and sisters (Romans 12:10 – honor means to ‘treat as valuable’). We are to make allowance for each other’s faults and if we get offended – quickly forgive (Col 3:13). Even when personalities collide – we are to accept each other (Romans 15:7) and go out of our way to not quarrel over disputable matters (Romans 14:1). We are not to criticize each other (James 4:11), we should listen well (James 1:19), we should not gossip at any moment (2 Cor 12:20), but rather encourage and build each other up (1 Thess 5:11).

I could go on (you all know I could) but you get the idea. Last question: What is our motivation to gospel one another? Paul gives us the answer in Ephesians: because God is building something among us – in the church – that is counter-cultural; an institution unlike any other that displays HIS wisdom, not the worlds. If we live together and relate to each other as the world does, then we do not display Christ but rather we display our culture. That is not our calling. So I urge us church, consider these words. Discuss these principles in your Gospel Communities. Consider – how do we live by Gospel principles in our families and our faith family. And strive for it – for the glory of Christ.

Coming to Agreement

I appeal to you brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement – 1 Cor 1:10

If you have ever read through the letters of Paul to the church in Corinth, then you know that the congregation there had many issues. From the opening of his first letter, it appears that one of those issues involved ‘divisions‘ (a word that means schisms) among the people. Unfortunately, most of us know by experience that divisions in churches are common and can happen on any number of issues or personality struggles. But I want us to consider how Paul responded to this problem: He was grieved and literally implored or begged the people to resolve those divisions. Going even further, Paul pointed them in the desirable destination: That they would agree with one another and be united in the same mind and same judgments. At first glance, this call from Paul seems almost too ideal. Perhaps, we are tempted to think, Paul means that these people should learn to find things that they could agree on, so as to minimize those things they were divided over. After all, that is a common cry of our culture today – perhaps it was back then: Find common ground. But a deeper dive into this passage would lead us to a different conclusion. (Credit Dr. John Piper here for some excellent work I have read of his on this passage of scripture).

The Greek word for ‘Agree‘ means to ‘say the same thing‘. Paul is asking that the church speak on issues with agreement; one voice. But this is not just a call to say the same things and not mean them. Paul wants our very thoughts to agree, being displayed through our speech. That is why He calls the church to be united in the ‘same mind and judgement’. If, of course, our very thoughts and words agree, then it stands to reason that we will make the same judgement on every issue. So – what is the summary of this brief verse? Paul is not asking the church to ignore their divisions and find points of agreement.Paul is commanding them to replace their divisions with unity, by coming into agreement of thought and speech.

Wow. What a tall order this is! This is a far cry from how we operate in the flesh. Our typical mindset – especially in this country – is to embrace and honor individualistic ideas and accomplishments. And when it comes to joint collaborations – those who can figure out how to meld their own ideas with the ideas of others for some common good are considered great leaders or negotiators. But Paul is setting before the church a very different goal: Not to come to a place of compromise; but rather come to a place of absolute unity and agreement. And immediately we are tempted to think: How is that possible? How could we possibly expect any group of people – no matter how well meaning – to come to agreement in this day and age? What makes this plausible is that the bible does not present the world as we have grown accustom: a place of different views, truths and opinions that all have equal merit. Rather, the bible expresses that there is one truth, one opinion, one view – and one Spirit that applies those truths in the heart of the local church. The good and perfect gift of agreement and unity comes down from the ‘Father of lights’ (James 1:17) and it is realized when His people are willing to stop trying to find unity on their own strength; but instead realize that agreement can only be found as they pursue and abide in the presence of their Father, together.

Of course, this may sound great, yet still leave us with the question: How do we get there from here? I mean after all, this sounds like a long and probably difficult struggle. And the truth is, yes, it will be. But the bible does not leave us without direction. Paul talks about these divisions once again toward the end of 1 Corinthians by asking: ‘that there be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another’ (1 Cor 12:25). In other words, the opposite of division here in this text is to ‘care for one another‘. How do you find agreement in thought and speech? How does a church become united in ideas and opinions? By first, looking to the Father (together in worship, prayer and the word) to provide direction and guidance, while being willing to lay down our own opinions in favor of His. And second, by just loving each other; caring for one another. Rejoicing together, crying together, taking care of each others needs. And as we do those things, more and more we will stop looking for ‘middle ground’ and rather find ourselves standing in unity on the solid rock foundation of Jesus. Amen.

Sustained Always

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus… – 1 Cor 1:1

..as you wait for the revealing of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless…God is faithful… 1 Cor 1:7-9

I am in this season where it seems I am being reminded of my character flaws every day; primarily brought to the surface by normal routine circumstances. While this is anything but an enjoyable exercise, I do know that if it is Spirit-driven, then it is ultimately for the glory of Christ, for my good and for the good of those who are in my community. With this as my background, I read through 1 Corinthians chapter 1 this week and was greatly encouraged by what I saw.

I imagine that Paul was often bewildered at the change he had experienced. One moment he was passionately working for the destruction of the Christian movement, angered at even the mention of the name Jesus. Then in an instance, everything changed: now for Paul, Christ was glorious and the growing movement of Christianity was his purpose. Not only was he changed, but he was changed into one of the great leaders of the church. How could there be any other explanation for what had happened except that God had rescued him? I also imagine that Paul was constantly tempted to fall back into his previous way of life. His heart, His passion had been changed in a moment; but he was not yet made perfect. He was bringing with him a lot of past baggage. The battle against who He was, while striving for who He wanted to be – was fought daily (Read his words in Romans 7:21-25). How could he maintain the strength and confidence to press forward? It appears that Paul reached this conclusion: if God had rescued Him to begin with, then surely it was God who would sustain Him until the end.

These are glorious truths for us, when we find ourselves in those moments where it seems we cannot get anything right; where all of our efforts and desires to ‘do good’ are burned up in a moment of weakness or stress or attack. The words from our morning devotion, the peace of an afternoon prayer or the silent determination to not make the same mistake again, are lost in a split-second reaction from our flesh. And all that is left is frustration and disappointment. So where do we go? Where is our hope in those moments of utter failure? Well, It is found in these words: ‘God is faithful’. The kingdom of God is unlike the kingdoms of earth, where your position and standing is determined by your merit; your accomplishments; your performance. No – our position in His kingdom is found in the accomplishment and performance of Jesus. Your standing is based on God’s call. Your place is held by the sustaining power of Christ, the one who loved you and the one in whom the Father is greatly pleased.

So – we try. We strive for what is right. When God reveals to us our rough edges, we allow Him to smooth them over. We repent of sin; we ask for help. We pray His word. We seek the ever present help of His Spirit. But in all of this effort we know, that ultimately we are upheld by His grace, His call, His sustaining. So in that – we can assuredly rest. Amen.