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Singing and the Presence of God

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The other day, I ran across a blog post online entitled, “Is Your Church Worship More Pagan Than Christian?” I said to myself, “Hmm.  That sounds like the sort of thing I might agree with,” so I clicked on it.  I did not agree with it.

The thesis of the post, to quote the author, is that “Music is viewed as a means to facilitate an encounter with God; it will move us closer to God. In this schema, music becomes a means of mediation between God and man. But this idea is closer to ecstatic pagan practices than to Christian worship.”  In other words, if we regard singing as a way to experience the presence of God, we’re thinking unbiblically.

I disagree.  There are many Scriptural texts that link worship and encountering God.  As Psalm 100 urges, “Come into His presence with singing! . . . Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise!”  Certainly, this refers in part to entering the grounds of the physical temple in Jerusalem.  However, the Israelites knew very well that God didn’t live in a box.  They regarded the temple as a special point of access to His actual presence in heaven, and they worshiped in order to come into that presence.

Today, we worship God neither on Jerusalem nor on Mt. Gerizim.  Instead, we worship in spirit and truth.  God’s attention is no longer focused on the temple.  Instead, wherever His people gather, He is in their midst.  Our song worship is supposed to be a celebration of His presence.  If we aren’t emotionally moved by the knowledge that God is with us and is accepting our worship, we aren’t doing it right.

Now, I do agree that many of the harms that the author lists are problems.  No, we shouldn’t marginalize the Bible in favor of worship.  No, we shouldn’t base our relationship with Him on emotion rather than truth.  No, we shouldn’t exalt our worship leaders above their brethren.  No, we shouldn’t divide over worship styles.

All of those things are wrong, but none of them are a result of desiring to encounter God through song worship.  They’re the result of other spiritual problems that are contaminating worship too.  If we try to make worship something other than a way to encounter God, we won’t solve those problems.  Instead, we’ll create new ones.

Indeed, I believe that such problems are prominently on display in churches around the country.  Every congregation that numbly goes through the motions on Sunday morning, every congregation that approaches song worship with the enthusiasm appropriate to a trip to the dentist, is a congregation that has forgotten the reality of the presence of God.  Such churches may comfort themselves with the conviction that they have “done the right thing” (“Act of Worship #2—check!”), but in truth, they’ve only offered a Malachi 1 counterfeit.

The last thing that they need is increased suspicion of emotion in worship!  Rather, what all of us need to increase is our willingness to pour ourselves out before the Lord, to rejoice in the knowledge that He is with us.  Certainly, emotional worship can be wrong, but emotionless worship can’t be right.

Gene Editing and God

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

While most of us have been paying attention to sports and the political drama in Washington, a quiet medical revolution has been taking place.  Since the sequencing of the human genome about 20 years ago, medical researchers have been using this newfound understanding to develop treatments for genetic disorders.  These treatments employ what is known as gene editing.  Gene editing involves the use of a virus or some other vector to remove a harmful mutation from a patient’s DNA and replace it with genes that will function correctly.

As abstract as this sounds, its consequences have been profound.  This year alone, the FDA has approved genetic therapies for spinal muscular atrophy and cystic fibrosis.  I know Christians whose children suffer from these afflictions.  They are burdened both with the care of a medically fragile child (which is far more time-consuming and expensive than most of us can imagine) and, often, with the knowledge that their child’s disorder will lead to premature death.  For those in such a position, the appearance of these transformative therapies must seem like a miraculous dawn of hope.

However, some brethren are uneasy with the moral and spiritual implications of genetic editing.  Once we start monkeying around with DNA, haven’t we trespassed into areas that properly belong to God?  Aren’t we defying His will?  Also, how do we draw the line between genetic editing for these reasons and genetic editing for any reason?  What’s the difference between curing SMA and creating a future NBA All-Star?

To answer these questions, I think we must consider the events of the first three chapters of Genesis.  When God created Adam, he held within his seed the potential to give the vast diversity of mankind that we see across the globe.  Every race, every individual difference, all of those things were part of God’s original intent.  He saw all of them and pronounced them good.  I will never be an NBA All-Star, but I still reflect God’s plan for mankind.

However, genetic disorders appear on the scene not in Genesis 1, but in Genesis 3.  They are part of the curse that Adam’s sin invited.  We die not because our deaths please Him and fulfill His will, but because our rebellion left Him with no other choice.  If the wickedness of Adam’s first, long-lived, descendants was so great that God had to destroy the world with water, how wicked would we become with an eternity to perfect our wickedness?

I am skeptical of efforts to do a better job with God’s creation than He did, but I see no problem with fighting against sickness.  Ultimately, such efforts will prove vain.  Even children who have been relieved from the burden of genetic illness will someday die.  However, if resisting the great enemy of humankind is wrong, then Jesus Himself was wrong.  How many hopeless people did He heal?

Certainly, the technology used in genetic therapy can be abused, but I believe that the therapies themselves are something to celebrate.  In this fallen world, even the innocent often suffer, but when we use understanding and skill to relieve their suffering, it is a godly act.  I rejoice in the hope that genetic therapy offers to Jayden and Abigail and Sam and their families, as well as to many others whom I do not know.  This is a new kind of healing, but it still comes from the One who gives all healing.

Summaries, Psalm 119:113-Psalm 120

Monday, November 18, 2019

Psalm 119:113-120 (Samekh) shows more concern for the antics of evildoers.  They anger the psalmist and he wants them to go away because he knows they also anger God.  By contrast, the psalmist fears God’s word and trusts His promises.

Psalm 119:121-128 (Ayin) again reflects the psalmist’s concern for what is going to happen to him.  He asks for protection from his enemies, the fulfillment of God’s promises, God’s love, greater understanding, and vindication.  He compares the crookedness of the wicked to the uprightness of God’s law.

Psalm 119:129-136 (Pe) describes the glories of the word and the psalmist’s longing for them.  He yearns for the commandments, and he wants God to be gracious to him because of his commitment to the law.  To him, God’s word and God’s blessing go hand in hand.

Psalm 119:137-144 (Tsadhe) returns to the theme of the word’s perfection.  God’s statutes have been established by Him, His promises have been tested and found to be true, and His law will always reveal what is righteous.  Because of this, the psalmist is confident that through understanding them, he will live.

Psalm 119:145-152 (Qoph) reveals the psalmist’s behavior in trouble.  He calls to God to rescue him, even rising before dawn to do so.  Through the night, he continues to reflect on the word.  As a result, he asks God to protect him from the wicked (who are far from the law), because of God’s nearness to the righteous.

Psalm 119:153-160 (Resh) reports the psalmist’s attitude toward God’s law and those who violate it.  He remembers the law and God’s promise.  Despite his many enemies, he continues to hold to it, and he regards those who do not with contempt.  Ultimately, his hope is in the word.

Psalm 119:161-168 (Sin and Shin) presents the psalmist’s focus on the law.  Even though powerful people are persecuting him, he gives it his attention.  He rejoices at it and praises God for it.  Because of his love for God’s testimonies, he obeys them.

Psalm 119:169-176 (Taw) contains the psalmist’s promise of faithfulness if God rescues him.  He wants both deliverance from his enemies and greater understanding of the word.  Because of his faithfulness, he asks God’s help, and he promises to praise Him and to continue to remember His commandments if he receives that help.

Psalm 120 is written from the perspective of an exile.  He begins by praising God for His past help, and he then asks God to rescue him from people who are lying about him.  He expresses the wish that the tongues of the liars will be pierced with arrows and burned with hot coals.  In the meantime, the psalmist is stuck in Meshech, amid the tents of Kedar (basically, in the deserts of modern-day Iraq).  Even though he wants peace, he’s surrounded by warmongers.

Authenticity and Following the Rules

Friday, November 15, 2019

We live in an age that values authenticity above all else.  It’s perfectly OK to practice whatever sin, so long as you’re Really You while you’re practicing it.  Conversely, through the years I’ve heard a number of indictments of brethren as being Not Really Authentic.  Supposedly, members of churches of Christ are the spiritual heirs of the Pharisees.  They’re so focused on following the rules that they forget about loving God.

That’s never sat quite right with me, so I decided to put it to the test on that impartial arbiter of wisdom, Facebook.  Is this actually a Scripturally intelligible concept?  Anywhere in the Bible, do we see people who follow God’s rules without caring about Him?

When I posed this question on Facebook, it generated a great deal of discussion, but nobody could come up with a clear Biblical example.  The Pharisees weren’t heartfelt followers of God, but they weren’t obedient either.  Instead, they were hypocritical lovers of money who won their reputation through self-promotion.  The church in Ephesus had left their first love despite having all sorts of good works, but the cure to their disease was still repenting and doing the works that they had done at first.  And so on.  It seems to be universally true in Scripture that everybody who has a heart problem has an obedience problem too.

On the other hand, being on fire for God, passionately sure that you’re doing what is right, showing everybody how much you care, does not appear to be a guarantee of righteousness.  Saul of Tarsus thought he was doing good by zealously persecuting Christians.  Apollos thought he was doing the right thing by preaching the baptism of John.  Both learned that they had some changes to make.

It seems to me, then, that the cultural idol of authenticity isn’t actually a very good way to evaluate somebody’s spirituality, whether our own or somebody else’s.  Saul was a really authentic enemy of God.  Somebody else can spend all day long gushing about God’s goodness, yet be at best misled and at worst a hypocrite.  We ourselves can be 100 percent convinced that our feet are on the path to heaven, yet be 100 percent wrong.

Instead, if we want to learn the truth, we have to turn to the time-honored pastime of fruit inspection.  We learn who people are by what they do.  Somebody who loves God will keep His commandments, and nothing but love can provide the motivation for an obedient life.  Faithfulness reveals the truth, both without and within.

You want to indict Christians or churches for hypocrisy?  Fine.  You want to criticize them for loving tradition more than the Bible?  Go ahead.  You want to condemn them for Malachi 1 apathy?  Sure.  However, recognize that all of these are fundamentally obedience problems, and they are measured by the word.

On the other hand, saying that somebody cares more about the rules than they do about God is logically incoherent.  Failure to emote appropriately is not a spiritual problem.  Some people simply aren’t emoters.  I preached both of my parents’ funerals without a single catch in my voice or a single tear.  If you want to conclude that I didn’t love my parents, you’re at liberty to do so, I guess.

Rather than pointing to a spiritual weakness, concern with obedience points to a spiritual strength.  People who truly do want to get everything right in their service to God are people who care about God and are committed to Him.  That might not read as authentic, but it’s as real as godliness gets.

Abortion: A Biblical Perspective

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Another week, another requested sermon!  This one comes from Charlie, who suggested in an elder-evangelist meeting a couple of months ago that I ought to preach a sermon on abortion.  He observed, and I think correctly, that nearly every Christian has heard and believes that abortion is wrong, but also that few of us have worked through the Biblical logic for ourselves.

It’s important for us to do that.  Certainly, abortion is a politically significant issue in our country, but I’m not presenting this lesson because I think it’s my place to tell Christians how to vote.  Instead, my role is to tell Christians how to look at the world through God’s eyes.  This isn’t primarily a voting-booth issue.  It’s a real-life issue.  Is abortion an option for women of God?  How do we discuss this topic with others?  How should the Scriptures inform the way we treat women who may be considering an abortion or even who have had one?  These are critical questions.  Let’s see how we should answer them as we consider abortion from a Biblical perspective.

The first Biblical principle that should inform our understanding is that EVERY LIFE MATTERS.  Let’s begin here by considering the creation account of Genesis 1:26-27.  This, brethren, is the foundation of everything the Bible says about how we should treat others.  God is a being of infinite worth, every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, so every human being is a being of infinite worth too.  Really, the whole New Testament is nothing more than the working out of this great truth.  Being a Christian means being committed to the idea that everybody matters.

This includes not only people outside of the womb, but people inside it.  The Scriptures make clear that people have identity and personhood before they are born.  Look, for instance, at what God tells Jeremiah in Jeremiah 1:4-5.  Even before he was born, Jeremiah was still Jeremiah.  Even before any of us were born, we were still us, and all of us were and are precious image-bearers of God.

One of the great big moral problems with abortion is that it doesn’t treat people equally.  Babies whom the mother wants to carry to term are precious image-bearers.  In fact, if you kill a pregnant woman in Tennessee, they will charge you with double murder.  However, if the mother doesn’t want to carry that baby to term, suddenly it doesn’t have value.  It becomes the mother, rather than God, who assigns worth to that baby.

Worldwide, this has had horrific consequences.  For instance, did you know that in Iceland these days, no more babies are being born with Down’s Syndrome?  That’s because all of them are being detected during pregnancy screening and aborted.  I think that’s horrible!  Sure, people with Down’s Syndrome are often not as capable in some ways, but all of them whom I have known have had a kind, gracious spirit that would do credit to any Christian.  Even more fundamentally, every one of them is created in the image of God too, and nobody should have the right to judge them as being unworthy.

Second, the Bible should call us to, for lack of a better way of expressing it, HUMILITY WITH LIFE.  Consider what the Scriptures report about God in Psalm 90:1-4.  God is so much greater than we are, and when it comes to matters of life and death, His decisions are so much greater than we are too. 

This is something that I really got for the first time after my daughter Macy died.  As I’m sure you can imagine, I spent years thinking long and deeply about it, trying to figure out what it all meant.  On the one hand, losing a child was a horrendous experience, but on the other, that horrendous experience also equipped me to comfort others. 

I think that for most people, having one of your children die is unimaginable.  For me, I don’t even have to imagine.  Others don’t know how it feels or what to say.  I do.  And so, for the past 10 years, as I’ve had opportunity, I’ve been saying it.  Most notably, that helped me to reach out to a brother named Dennis and literally talk him out of killing himself.  The tragic center of his tragic life was that he had lost a child too, and because we could meet each other there, I think I could help him find some peace.

As a human being, how do you deal with that?  How do you balance your daughter’s life against being able to save somebody else’s life?  When I confront that question, every time, I’m forced to turn away.  I’m not big enough to answer it.  However, I believe that God is big enough to answer it.  In His greatness, He can judge in matters of life and death, and His judgments are always right. 

This understanding is really at the heart of my objections to abortion.  Abortion is wrong because it takes the power of life and death and arrogates that to ourselves.  Even in cases where God expressly delegates that power to humankind, as with capital punishment, I think most of us would agree that we don’t do a great job making those decisions.  We aren’t built for it.  How much more, then, is making that decision about an unborn child beyond any of us?

However, we must balance that moral realization with COMPASSION FOR OTHERS.  Here, let’s begin with what the Hebrews writer says about priests under the Law of Moses in Hebrews 5:1-2.  I love this passage because it shows us that when we address the frailties of others, the first step must be to consider our own frailty.

It is awfully easy to demonize women who have abortions, but that is the very thing that a Christian must never do.  There’s this portrait floating around out there of trashy women who have abortions because pregnancy is an inconvenience to their love lives, but I think that portrait bears almost no resemblance to reality. 

Instead, I think that 99 percent of the time, women who have abortions, have them because they are afraid, in fact, because they’re terrified.  They’re afraid of not being able to keep the job they depend on to live.  They’re afraid that their boyfriend is going to leave them once he finds out they’re pregnant.  They’re afraid that their church is going to find out and spend the next 50 years gossiping about them.

I sympathize with the brethren who are politically active because they want to see Roe v. Wade overturned.  I think that their hearts are right, but I am less certain that their actions will have the effect that they want.  Even if abortion is totally outlawed in our country (and I’m skeptical that will ever happen, honestly), all that will accomplish is to drive it underground again.  Women who are afraid enough to abort their babies are also afraid enough to break the law to do it. 

Instead, if we want to attack abortion, we must attack the fear that underlies it.  Be somebody who is willing to care for a child not your own, so that women know they have options.  Be somebody who will support and encourage single moms in a life that is very difficult instead of sneering at them and blaming them for their predicament. 

For that matter, be somebody who is gentle with sinners rather than gossipy and harsh.  Yes, they need to repent, but that’s for their sake, not ours.  We need to make sure that everybody knows this church is a home for forgiven sinners, because that’s all any of us are.   

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