Sunday, July 29, 2012

Get a Grip on God's Grace, Part 4: Works of Service

Location: Bagram Airfield, Bagram, Afghanistan
Previous installment:  Part 3: Worship
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10)
I stated in my previous post that worship is at core of our purpose:  We are made to glorify our Creator, King and Savior. Worship lies at the center of our very reason for being.  Good works lie directly beside worship at that core, as is made clear by Paul's admonition above.  While the previous verses make it clear that our works do not save us, it is equally plain that our natural response to God's grace is to get to work for our Savior!  He's prepared works in advance for us to accomplish in His name and by His strength, so that we glorify God as much by our works as by our worship.  In fact, Paul also makes it clear that devoting our bodies to His work constitutes a vital form of worship:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (Romans 12:1)
Returning to the account of King Josiah which has served to tie this series together, we notice that it was Josiah's zealous work for God that opened the door to a deeper devotion and obedience:
Now in the eighteenth year of his reign, when he had cleansed the land and the house, he sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah, and Maaseiah the governor of the city, and Joah the son of Joahaz, the recorder, to repair the house of the LORD his God ... While they were bringing out the money that had been taken into the temple of the Lord, Hilkiah the priest found the Book of the Law of the Lord that had been given through Moses. (2 Chronicles 34:8,14)
King Josiah's obedience in carrying the work of cleansing the land and the temple opened the door to increased blessing ... in this case, the rediscovery of the Law of God.  The neglect of this work by his father and grandfather had resulted in God's Word being lost from the life of God's people.  Yet obedience begat blessing, and the Word was rediscovered by the faithful laborer Josiah.  Thus does each element of the faithful life support the others.  Getting a grip takes all five fingers!

I can recall periods of my Christian walk in which I have said to myself, "I need a break.  I'm going to sit in the back pews for a while."  I justified this laziness (for that is what it was) by telling myself I needed to sit back and "learn".  This would seem like wisdom, but it is in fact a lot like saying, "I need to stop exercising for a while so I can sit back and eat."  Just as nutrition and exercise are mutually supporting, so personal growth and faithful labor are inseparable in the life of the believer.

In other words, if you are to be a spiritually fit Christian, get off your fanny and get busy on the works God has prepared in advance for you to accomplish!  What works are those?  Please, take it from me, or from your pastor, or from the 10% of those in your church who do 90% of the work:  there is no shortage of work to be done in God's Kingdom, just a shortage of willing and reliable laborers.

"But I don't know what my spiritual gifts are!"  Hint:  You won't find out sitting on your couch.  God will reveal your gifts in the context of your labor.  Obedience is a wonderful teacher.

If you can't find any work to be done, it's probably because you've isolated yourself from your fellow workers in the Body of Christ.  I'm talking about the church, which I will discuss in the next and final installment of this series.

Next installment:  Part 5: The People of God

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Get a Grip on God's Grace, Part 3: Worship

Location: Bagram Airfield, Bagram, Afghanistan
Previous installment:  Part 2:  The Word of God
So all the service of the LORD was prepared that day, to keep the Passover and to offer burnt offerings on the altar of the LORD, according to the command of King Josiah. And the people of Israel who were present kept the Passover at that time, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days. No Passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet. None of the kings of Israel had kept such a Passover as was kept by Josiah, and the priests and the Levites, and all Judah and Israel who were present, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. In the eighteenth year of the reign of Josiah this Passover was kept. (2 Chronicles 35:16-19)
King Josiah's zeal for reform and restoration of Israel as God's people culminated in worship. He recognized that, at its core, Israel's most basic sin was rooted in its failure to keep the First and Second Commandments.  They no longer truly followed or worshiped the God they claimed to serve, having placed other, false gods (and their graven images) before Him.  Cleansing the temple and the land of this garbage was absolutely necessary, so that there might be single-minded exaltation of the only true God. Israel needed to be clean so that it could truly "worship the LORD in the splendor of His holiness."

Worship is crucial to maintain our "grip", because it is at the very core of our purpose.  The so-called Christian who does not worship Christ is a contradiction in terms.  He is like a pen with no ink.  It may look like a pen, but it is useless.  You may as well throw it away, because it fails in its reason for existence.  We are made to glorify our Creator, King and Savior.  Worship lies at the center of our very reason for being.

It's not just that worship must occur, but that the God whom we worship must be clearly recognized as God when we do so.  We worship the King--infinite, eternal and almighty.  He is the very same King before whom David danced before with all his strength; before whom Isaiah despaired of his life; before whom Ezekiel fell on his face.  We should clearly discern His holy attributes in our worship.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28-29)
Much of what passes for corporate worship defies this description.  It is irreverent and profane, and is therefore unacceptable.  "Worship" services often resemble concerts:  those on stage (the preacher and the musicians) are viewed as the performers, while the congregation behaves as the audience.  God Himself is treated like a mere stage hand, while we act as though He's present primarily for our benefit--to deepen our "worship experience."

This is upside-down and backwards!  As I have said before:  What if our worship works great for us, but God hates it, because when he scratches down below the surface, he recognizes it's all about us?

True corporate worship takes place only when the members of the congregation recognize that it is they who are the performers before God, the only audience who truly matters!  It is the dual task of those in front to be both performers and stage hands--that is, to engage in worship themselves, as well as to guide and assist the congregation.  Authentic corporate worship does not happen because the "praise team" puts on a good show, or because the preacher artfully weaves together funny, clever illustrations that "keep it real" so that the congregation goes home feeling "fed".  Authentic worship occurs when the people of God gather together with a singularity of focus:  God's glory.

To again shamelessly quote myself:
Worship has intrinsic value, which is often lost in the context of our methods.  For example, [worship is lost when]:
  • Music is chosen with a mind to entertain. 
  • Sermons are constructed with a mind to provide tips for "victorious Christian living."
  • Services are geared primarily to bring people forward at the altar call.
  • Events are planned for maximum turnout.
  • ... and prayer is structured around requests.
The theme is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being entertained, or living successful lives, or (of course) making public decisions, or having great turnout.  There is certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with praying for our needs or those of others.  The issue is identifying how corporate worship can get lost in the noise. By the time we're done, what's left of our "worship" is that activity that occurs between the first and last praise song during the "worship time" of the weekly service ... and even that may be undercut by the temptation to entertain or be entertained.
Moreover, true worship must be both public and private.  Jesus clearly recognized that a fake, preening public religiosity is proved when our private prayer lives are lacking:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6).
God clearly intends us to worship Him daily, in the solitude of our quiet prayers before Him, as well as regularly in the company of other believers, as they did during Josiah's Passover.  He intends us to worship Him sincerely and appropriately, as befits His holy character and marvelous works.

These are the elements of a healthy life of worship, and absolutely required to maintain a firm grip on God's grace.

Next:  Part 4, The Works of Service

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Get a Grip on God's Grace 2: The Word of God

Location: Bagram Airfield, Bagram, Afghanistan

Previous installment:  Part 1:  The "Thumb" of the Holy Spirit
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.  (Hebrews 4:12-13)
God's Word makes up the first of the 3 "Ws" of the Get a Grip framework introduced in my previous post.  This is convenient from a teaching perspective, because the three middle fingers are held up together in American Sign Language to form the letter "W".

Given the clear priority Biblical understanding is given throughout Scripture as well as in the various teaching and discipleship programs I've encountered throughout my Christian walk, I continue to find it astonishing how little we actually heed our own advice.  As I observed over three years ago in response to a depressing Pew Forum Poll on Religion and Public Life, "... people who identify themselves as Christians (including those who call themselves 'evangelicals') overwhelmingly hold to a host of unbiblical beliefs."

It's not hard to guess why this is true.  The Bible is an inconvenient book!  Taken seriously, it forces us to live like we don't feel like living, as well as to hold unpopular views on a range of topics.  It generally puts us at odds with the society around us.  Of course, this is the program we sign up for when we follow Christ, but we easily get tired of it and long to settle into a comfortable accommodation.  Of course, if we actually spend time in the Word, we find that (groan) God isn't primarily interested in our worldly comforts.

King Josiah knew something was amiss in Judah from the time he began to seek God's face as a teenager.  He began his bold program of reforms early in his reign, tearing down the places of idol worship and restoring God's temple.  But it wasn't until his secretary Shaphan read him the words of the Law of God, which had been lost for so long in the temple's cluttered storerooms, that Josiah saw with clarity the gravity of Judah's sin and the decisions that lay before him:
When the king heard the words of the Law, he tore his robes.  He gave these orders to Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan , Abdon son of Micah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant:  “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the remnant in Israel and Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that is poured out on us because those who have gone before us have not kept the word of the Lord; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written in this book.”  (2 Chronicles 34:19-21)
Then Josiah did a remarkable thing ... he assembled his people and delivered what we would today consider to be a long and tedious sermon:
Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem.  He went up to the temple of the Lord with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the Levites—all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the Lord.  The king stood by his pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, and to obey the words of the covenant written in this book.  (2 Chronicles 34:29-31)
Oh, Josiah!  Give us a break!  This is sooo outdated!  Nobody's paid any attention to this stuff since King Hezekiah (whoever he was).  We're so much more enlightened now!  Why can't you preach on something fresh and relevant to today's society?  You made us miss the Joel Osteen show over at the amphitheater ...

The fact is, in a society so divorced from Biblical principles, what could be more fresh and relevant than the truth?  Will some be offended?  Absolutely!  Will some walk away and not come back?  Almost certainly!  News flash ... that too is Biblical!  As I observed not long ago in another context:
This was foretold by the Apostle Paul: "For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (2 Timothy 4:3) We need to be very careful, and recognize that when the church becomes like the world (i.e., when we sacrifice obedience to “relevance”), we cease to be change agents. We lose our “saltiness” and are “no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)
As my introductory verse makes clear, the living and active Word of God is a primary instrument of God's Spirit in judging the "thoughts and intentions of the heart."  When we choose to neglect it, we choose to neglect God Himself.  We will most certainly lose our grip, just as did the people of Judah.  We become ripe for Satan's picking, for he will offer us no shortage of easier, more contemporary and worldly answers.

Let us instead heed Josiah's message and example, and renew our covenant to make God's Word integral to our lives.

Next:  Part 3:  Worship

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Get a Grip on God's Grace, Part 1: The "Thumb" of the Holy Spirit

Location: Bagram Airfield, Bagram, Afghanistan
Getting a Grip on God's Grace.  
It takes all five fingers.
"If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit."  (Galatians 5:25)

Over the past decade or so, I have employed an illustration in teaching that I call "Get a Grip", which seems to have worked pretty well in communicating certain foundational attributes of the healthy Christian life.  It's a highly visual device, the point of which is to demonstrate how neglecting crucial, God-ordained enablers of grace is, at best, an invitation to a life of spiritual weakness.

At worst such a life may be an indication of a false Christianity--a mere profession of faith without true possession of faith.  As our Lord warned us:
"Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’"  (Matthew 7:22-23)
As is clear from Jesus' words, fooling ourselves can be relatively easy, and surely there is no illustration which will overcome my stubborn resistance to the truth if I am dead in my sins and determined to live a lie.  Still, for those followers of Christ who find it helpful to have a framework for gauging the heath of their spiritual walks, a simple illustration can be a useful tool for getting us back on track.

I'm hardly the first to come up with such an illustration.  I recall being introduced to the Navigators' "wheel" back in 1988.  This simple model has remained one of the most popular and effective tools for communicating the disciplines of the Christ-centered life for over 50 years.

The Navigators' "Wheel" illustration
Of course, there's no such thing as a "perfect" illustration--every analogy breaks down at some point by definition.  But "Get a Grip" has been effective and practical in my teaching experience, and may be something to consider for your toolkit.  The core idea is that a strong grip takes all five fingers, and when we neglect any one of them, our spiritual grip is likely to slip.

Just this year I began to incorporate the life and reign of King Josiah into my lessons as a touchstone for this study, beginning with the thumb:
"For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was yet a boy, he began to seek the God of David his father ..." (2 Chronicles 34:3a)
Josiah's kingly success begins with his commitment to seek God's face, for his redemption and status as a child of God gave him access to the resources provided only by God Himself.  This is important to point out off the top, because living the Christian life is ultimately and inextricably a spiritual activity--it is powered by God through the supernatural work of His Holy Spirit.

Without the "thumb" of the Spirit, we can easily fall into the trap of believing following Christ is all about self-discipline and will power.  In other words, it becomes just another man-made religion about us.

Rather, the authentic Christian life begins with, and is entirely enabled by, God's Holy Spirit.  It has God's glory as its supreme objective.  Just as a grip is virtually impossible without a thumb, the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit is the essential enabler of the entire Christian life.  Hence Jesus' challenge to abide in Him:
"I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5)
It is important to begin any conversation about Christian life disciplines with this discussion, because of how easy it is to behave as if only our salvation is spirit-generated (indeed, some will not even absorb that basic truth).  It has often been called "practical atheism", claiming Christ's power but living by our own.  Spurning God's spiritual resources is both arrogant and foolish.  It is an invitation to spiritual weakness ... like the refusal to use your thumb.

Next:  Part 2:  The Word of God