Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Praise Me.

We can all think of someone who is constantly telling you how great they are, or fishing for compliments, wanting people to fawn all over them. It’s not an attractive personality trait and we cringe when we see it.  (If you can’t think of someone…maybe it’s you!)

A young CS Lewis thought of God this way, annoyed by God’s constant demands for praise, especially in the Psalms. Lewis describes his discomfort, “I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should ‘praise’ God; still more in the suggestion that God himself demanded it. We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people around every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand.” (Reflections on the Psalms).

Lewis isn’t wrong; God does demand praise. It’s is everywhere in Psalm 144-150 (the reading for today). The phrase ‘Praise the Lord’ appears repeatedly throughout these chapters. Sometimes it is actually the word Hallelujah – not a command, but an interjection of praise. Other times, however, it is an imperative, a command (hallal). This command, ‘Praise the Lord’ appears twenty-five times in the Psalms alone. In addition, there are many more related commands, like ‘extol the Lord’, ‘worship the Lord’ (5x), ‘glorify Him’, and ‘sing to the Lord’ (10x).

As Lewis wrestles with this, he considers what we mean when we say God ‘deserves’ praise or a painting ‘deserves’ admiration. We certainly mean more than it is admired – people with bad taste admire ugly stuff.  Nor do we mean ‘deserves’ in the sense that some injustice has been done if the painting is not admired. What we mean, in Lewis’ words, is that “admiration is the correct, adequate or appropriate, response to it…that if we do not admire we shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers, we shall have missed something.”

Lewis eventually understood that God demands praise not out of insecurity or need, but out of a desire for his creation to enjoy the supreme goodness and beauty that is God. It is in worship that God “communicates his presence to men” and we can best appreciate the “fair beauty of the Lord.”  Lewis takes note that all enjoyment “spontaneously overflows into praise” unless stifled. This is true of a good book, a good meal, a landscape, etc. Our praise, Lewis rightly concludes, is actually the completion of our enjoyment, “its appointed consummation.”  It brings our enjoyment to its fullness.

In other words, God commands our worship because allows us to more fully enjoy Him. Let me encourage you to take time to worship and praise God this week. It can be in song – Sing to the Lord!
It can be in prayer. Probably we don’t spend enough time in praise as we pray; petitions tend to crowd out praise. It is good for you; according to Lewis “praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A Liturgy for Those Flooded with Too Much Information

In a world so wired an interconnected,
our anxious hearts are pummeled by
an endless barrage of troubling news.
We are daily aware of more grief, O Lord,
than we can rightly consider,
or more suffering and scandal
than we can respond to, or more
hostility, hatred, horror, and injustice
than we can engage with compassion.

But you, Jesus, are not disquieted
by such news of cruelty and terror and war.
You are neither anxious nor overwhelmed.
You carried the full weight of the suffering
of a broken world when you hung upon
the cross, and you carry it still.

When the cacophony of universal distress
unsettles us, remind us that we are but small
and finite creatures, never designed to carry
the vast abstractions of great burdens,
for our arms are too short and our strength
is too small. Justice and mercy, healing and
redemption, are your great labors

And yes, it is your good pleasure to accomplish
such works through your people,
but you have never asked any one of us
to undertake more than your grace
will enable us to fulfill.

Guard us then from shutting down our empathy
or walling off our hearts because of the glut of
unactionable misery that floods our awareness.
You have many children in many places
around the globe. Move each of our hearts
to compassionately respond to those needs
that intersect our actual lives, that in all places
your body might be actively addressing
the pain and brokenness of this world,
each of us liberated and empowered by
your Spirit to fulfill the small part
of your redemptive work assigned to us.

Give us discernment
     in the face of troubling news reports.
Give us discernment
     to know when to pray,
     when to speak out,
     when to act,
     and when to simply
     shut off our screens
     and our devices,
     and to sit quietly
     in your presence,

casting the burdens of this world
upon the strong shoulders
of the one who
is able to bear them up.


- "A Liturgy for Those Flooded with Too Much Information," Every Moment Holy, Vol 1, Douglas K. McKelvey.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Why are we Shocked?

Don't forget, we live in Babylon. And Babylon isn't Jerusalem - never has been, never will be (in fact, earthly Jerusalem ain't no Jerusalem either).
In two stages, Israel was taken into exile. First, the Northern Kingdom was conquered carried into exile to the Assyrian empire in 722BC. The Southern Kingdom of Judah help off exile for more than a century, but finally fell to the Babylonians in 586BC when Jerusalem was sacked and the temple destroyed. For roughly a generation, the people of Israel had to learn how to live as faithful Jews in Babylon. Babylon wasn't Jerusalem - there were other gods, other laws, other peoples, other priorities, and sins that were appalling in Jerusalem were celebrated in Babylon. It was in this context that men like Shadrach Meshach and Abednego, with Daniel and later Esther and uncle Mordechai (in Persia) lived faithfully and served nobly. 

As believers, we share more contextual connectedness with these exiles living in foreign lands than we do with Israelites who lived in the Promised Land. As Peter tells us, we are 'elect exiles of the Dispersion' (1 Peter 1:1). We aren't natural-born residence of this world, our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and we are 'strangers and aliens' or 'sojourners and exiles' in this world (1 Peter 2:11).  This is a truth we tend to forget, or maybe a truth we never fully embraced. There were times when we may have been fooled into thinking we lived in a spiritual city - a Jerusalem - because the mores and norms were superficially Judeo-Christian. But, it was a mirage only.

Let me be clear. We aren't aliens and strangers in America because of cultural decline or unfavorable court decisions. We aren't aliens and strangers because America is a post-Christian society. We are aliens because America (and England, and France, and China, and Yemen, and every other country) is Babylon. This applies to all civilizations through all time (save one). So Calvin, "For, if heaven is our homeland, what else is the earth but our place of exile."

American is no more, no less, Babylon now than it was in the 1950s or the 1770s. The US is no more, no less, Babylon than the UK or China. 

No earthly city corresponds to the heavenly Jerusalem, not even the earthly Jerusalem. All cities, all nations, all powers, are a part of the temporal, temporary, and corrupted Babylon. 

And in Babylon we reside, though only as pilgrims - exiles waiting to go home.

The picture of Babylon is negative, but not wholly so. There are still good things to enjoy and be grateful for. Here in Babylon we, like Israel in its exile, we can
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:5-7, ESV).
But, we recognize these good things for what they are - temporary.

And, we recognize the city we live in for what it is - temporary and corrupted. Babylon will never be Jerusalem and we should never expect it to conduct itself like Jerusalem. We shouldn't be shocked or dismayed when sin is celebrated. Sin is the way of the world. Sometimes my social media feeds are flooded with friends expressing outrage over some new manifestation of Babylon being Babylon. Why surprised? It's what we should expect (we expect two-year-olds to get grumpy when they're tired, teenagers to be sleepy in the morning and leopards to have spots).

Expecting it, maybe we can be less shrill - as though our way of life was being threatened. It isn't, because our life is elsewhere. We reside here, but we shouldn't expect Babylon to conform to our mores and norms or be shocked or bitter when it doesn't. It won't, it never has (and when it appeared to, it was superficial at best).

On the other hand, seeking the good of the city means we grieve sin and we want those who are impacted by its devastation to experience the fullness of redemption and restoration. And working for the good of the city might mean we use the tools of the city to better the city (like Joseph, or Daniel) - working with governments to restrain the most egregious evils, to mitigate against the worst of sins effects, alleviate injustice, remedy hurt and pain. 

So, maybe a bit less whining and a bit more hoping and working would serve the evangelical church well. Just sayin.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Faith vs Decision

I was recently in a conversation with someone I respect immensely. They reported something they heard a pastor say that troubled them. Via the grapevine, it was reported that this pastor taught that his kids didn't need to be saved because they already were, by virtue of him being a pastor.

I suspect, knowing something of this pastor, it was a slight misunderstanding. I suspect, though I don't know for sure, that the pastor probably said something like "my kids don't need to become Christians, they already are," or "my kids don't need to 'make a decision' for Christ', they already trust him."  If that's what was stated, I agree.

FYI, not a picture of Caleb or any of my sons
Eight to ten years ago my son Caleb went through a "Dig Session" at church. Dig sessions at ECC are designed to help kids prepare to participate in the sacraments of baptism and communion. One of the questions the worksheet guided me to ask Caleb was something like "when did you become a Christian?"  He looked at me with wounded eyes - "Dad, I've always been a Christian."  He was right. He had never been a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Rastafarian or an atheist. He'd always been a Christian.

Oh, but someone will object, "He needs to make a decision to trust Christ!"

But does he? I asked, "are you trusting Christ to forgive your sins and are you committed to following the rest of your life" and he replied, simply and forcefully, "Yes!" Does he need to have a point where he decided to trust Jesus? I'd say no.

Let me use a favorite illustration for us evangelicals to make the point. We often say, correctly, that head knowledge is not the same as faith. You might know, so the illustration goes, that this chair will hold you. But, when you sit in it, you're exercising faith.

Ok, but in your childhood home did you decide you'd trust the Lazy-Boy. Or, did you just trust it because every day, everyone around you sat in it?  I don't ever remember deciding to trust a chair, but I do trust them (with the occasional exception of ones in my office I've tried repairing, but remain sketchy).  Many who grew up in the church with godly parents were taught of God's faithfulness, of Christ's love and kindness. They trust Jesus because they've always, as far back as they remember, trusted Jesus. If I had asked Caleb, "When did you decide to trust Jesus?" he would have said, "Dad, don't be an idiot, I've always trusted Jesus!"

Similarly, when did you decide to love your grandma?  Or, have you loved her from before you can remember. She was always in your life. She was always there and kind (I know, not all are, but I'm speaking from my experience).  Loving grandma wasn't a decision, it was and is just a fact of life from as far back as I remember.  I could have asked Caleb, "When did you start loving Jesus?" and he would have said "Ok Dad, I'm tired of this line of questioning. I have always loved Jesus."

 There are situations when the above isn't true. Someone who's never seen a chair before may need to decide to trust a chair. Someone who meets their grandmother for the first time as a teenager may need to decide how they will respond to this new person in their life.  Someone who hasn't grown up in the faith, or only nominally in the faith, may need to decide to love and trust Jesus and become a Christian (with the irresistible aide of the Holy Spirit - my inner Calvinist can't write "decide" without due clarification).

But, for those raised in the church and/or a home saturated in faith, trust in Jesus and love for him is part of the air they have breathed from the beginning. "Deciding" isn't necessarily necessary. Deciding does not equal faith.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Evangelicals, we don't want prayer in schools (or why we shouldn't)

Several months ago, sitting in the Indiana Memorial Union with my friend Adam deWeber,  two students approached us and asked if we'd do a quick survey for a class project. We agreed and were given sheets with twenty-five or so questions. One of the questions was 'do you support prayer in schools?'  I asked what they meant by that, but they said the couldn't/wouldn't explain more. As it stood, that's an impossible question for me to answer.

If you mean, should we allow students time to pray privately (emergency prayers before finals will always be needed), or to voluntarily gather in groups to pray together (i.e. See You at the Pole), then yes, I support this.

But I suspect they mean officially sanctioned prayers led by a teacher/administrator with student participation expected or encouraged. This is what most from older generations bemoan losing when Madalyn Murray O'Hair won her lawsuit and school prayers were no more (the historical timeline of prayers in public schools is more complicated than this, I know).

If it is this type of officially sanctioned prayers led by a school official, then I DO NOT WANT PRAYER IN MY KIDS' SCHOOL. That's right, I would oppose this type of prayer in our local public schools. Why? Two big reasons:

First, I don't want my kids learning how to pray in school because it isn't the job of a school official to teach my children how to pray.  It's mine and the church's responsibility. Would I get to choose who leads them in prayer in day and thus teaches them to pray? If so, I'd find a faithful Presbyterian or Evangelical to teach them (if not, then a Lutheran or Catholic could be fine). But I doubt I'll get to choose. What if it's a crazy "health-and-wealth-prosperity-gospel" teacher? What if it's a Mormon or Jehovah's Witness? What if it's some crazy liberal who prays to Mother God or something like that? What kind of prayers would be offered - vague general prayers that are innocuous and unChristian?  I'd rather my kids not pray like that. I don't want civil religion types prayers - I'd rather have no prayer.

Second, if we insist the prayers are truly Christian prayers, in the name of Christ and informed by core Christian doctrines, then what of the sizeable minorities who do not claim to be Christians. What of the Jews in our schools, the Muslims, the atheists. Should we force their children to pray to in Christ's name? What about regions where Christianity is the minority, like Hamtrack, MI or in Jewish neighborhoods in NYC?  Is it the majority that chooses what kind of prayers are offered?  What of the Christian students in these areas - should they be forced to pray to in a Muslim way?

We live in a pluralistic culture. The job of the schools is not to promote religion; they wouldn't be good at it.

J. Gresham Machen, the staunch opponent of liberalism at Princenton who went on to found Westminster Theological Seminary, likewise opposed Bible readings and prayers in school...back in  1933!