Monday, August 28, 2006

Do you experience God in church?

Worship ought to be an encounter with God. I envision Isaiah 6: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.” (IS 6:1 NKJ)

We know that worship can occur anywhere but how often does it happen on Sunday morning? If you conducted an exit poll after Sunday services, how do you suppose people would answer the following question?

“Did you experience God today in worship?”

People seek different things from the Sunday morning service including a good sermon, entertainment and fellowship. All of these are good but they are not worship.

Many larger churches have a worship leader to set the stage for worship. But I wonder if emotional manipulation is the same as worship. An opera can make a person cry but that’s not worship, either.

Worship services at the small desert camp where I am currently stationed are far different from the “sermon-centered” Baptist services and the “praise-music-heavy” contemporary services to which I have become accustomed. These are liturgical worship services with lots of ritual, formality and quiet reverence. The chaplain doesn’t warm you up with a few jokes at the start of the service. We sing traditional hymns (with an organ), read prayers in unison and Psalms responsively, listen to three readings from the Bible and brief sermon, and celebrate communion.

I have truly felt God’s presence in these simple services. There are no stars here; neither the preacher nor the song leader attempt to draw attention away from God. I feel more like a participant than a spectator through the singing and the responsive readings. There are no long periods where I sit and enjoy a performance.

Am I being fed? Am I being challenged? I know that my soul has been nourished and refreshed through worship and, because I have been in the presence of God, I am confronted with my sinfulness and filled with a desire to me more like Christ. Like Isaiah I cry, “Woe is me,” but then I feel God’s cleansing and I am ready to respond, “Here am I, send me!”

I am not ready to discount lively worship and challenging sermons. I, also, understand that ritual can become meaningless repetition. But an encounter with God must be the object of worship. Otherwise we have a motivational seminar, political rally or sing-a-long.

“…Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Religion at its worst

Mark 9:38-42 

One day the Apostle John reported to Jesus that they had caught a person not of their group casting out demons in Jesus’ name (Mark 9:38-41). They made him stop. After all, he had not been approved by the board. The Apostles were unsure of where this outsider stood on certain issues. Perhaps the demon-caster’s denominational affiliation was of greater importance than freeing people from Satanic domination

Jesus was not pleased. “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:38-40 NIV)

Religion is at its worst when Christians attack one another. How can one say vile things about another believer and be called a Christian?

“Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening?” (James 3:10-11 NKJV)

As a free and faithful Baptist who believes in the autonomy of the local church and soul competency, I cannot be drawn into a fight unless I choose to participate. I have been criticized and shunned but have refused to strike back. I have, instead, chosen to reach out to those around me who are in need and without the hope that Jesus offers. It has satisfied my soul and brings me peace in the midst of the storm. I will work with any group that will help me exercise the Great Commission and the Great Commandment and expand the Kingdom of God (even if they baptize infants or have a different interpretation of whatever is the current hot button issue).

Institutions and buildings will come and go. I will invest my life in people and the word of God. I will pray for my enemies and turn the other cheek to written assaults that are often displays of spiritual immaturity. I am too busy to debate side issues.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Religion at its best

When Jesus and his followers encountered a man born blind (John 9), their initial plan was to discuss the reasons why this man was blind. This is often our first instinct. We want to understand or, maybe, to place blame. Jesus showed us the most appropriate response. He healed the man.

Religion is at its best when it is seen helping people in need. This is when the church shines. It demonstrates God’s love in a concrete way. A vivid example of this is in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (an event to which I was an eye-witness). While some are still arguing about whose at fault and what could have been done, churches have stepped up by sending money and volunteers to clean up and rebuild.

Here is one of many great stories:
Church-to-family model pays dividend in Louisiana hurricane relief
“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27 NKJV)

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Waiting for rain in the desert

The author in the Arabian Desert
It is hot in the Arabian Desert: 120F (usually) to 140F (often). The midday sun bears down you relentlessly. You cannot escape it. There is little shade and clouds are a memory from another season.

“It’s a dry heat,” they say, but it’s still hot. The wind is hot, too, like the max setting on a giant hair dryer. It blows around dust as fine as talc. You breathe it; it clings to your damp skin, it forms a layer on all horizontal surfaces. You can’t escape the dust either.

When the wind kicks up, it envelops you in a cloud as thick as early morning fog. Now it chokes you and blinds you and peppers you with coarser bits of sand that stings any exposed flesh.

When there is no wind, the humidity rises. We are drenched in sweat under our body armor, laboring under the added weight of our weapons and ammunition.

How we long for rain. It will cool the land and cleanse the air. It will replenish the grass. The herdsmen will bring back the camels, goats and sheep. The desert will come to life.

“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.” (Isaiah 35:1 NIV)

As I renew myself daily in Jesus, he refreshes the dryness of my soul. He softens the hardness of my heart. He takes the barrenness of my existence and gives it purpose.

“Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” (Acts 3:19 NIV)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

This is a good time to be a Christian

This is a good time to be a Christian. I know this is contrary to popular opinion but I am convinced that it's true. Some will point to the wars and the crimes that are reported in great detail on our ever-growing media outlets but the increase in reporting doesn't necessarily correlate to an increase in these events. We have always have had crime and wars. We've just gotten better at reporting them.

In the First Century, the Roman conquest of a large part of the world brought relatively safe and speedy travel and the widespread use of a single language (Greek). We are experiencing a similar opportunity in the growth of media outlets and the their availability to a large number of people. This, combined with innovations in transportation an communication, make this an excellent time to be a Christian.

This blog is an excellent example. It has the potential to connect me to millions of people. First it was mimeographed newsletters, then it was email and cable access channels, now its blogs and podcasts. Other important ministry tools are the laptop, cellphone and, of course, the internet.

All these innovations are tools that will help Christians to exchange ideas, share messages of encouragement and hope, and provide Bibles and study material anywhere in the world. One missionary I knew was an advanced thinker. He had a computer that would help him continue his studies while in the Middle East. This was in 1988, when we had dial up speeds of 9600 and very little content. Now he could have a huge library of study material on a laptop!