Lord's Day Liturgy

Focus on Rejoicing

The shortest verse in the Bible is not John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” Counting letters in the original language, there are 16 characters in three words. But the Greek text of 1 Thessalonians 5:16 includes only 14 characters in two words, typically translated, “Rejoice always” (ESV, NAS, NKJV, NIV, NRSV). The variations are not really that diverse: “Rejoice evermore” (KJV) and “Always rejoice ye” (YLT). Though it’s the shortest, it may be the second most difficult command to obey in Scripture after loving Him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

This command comes in the final chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians and near the middle of 17 different exhortations. We ought not separate it from its context but we can focus on it. Rejoice. Always.

How have you done rejoicing in 2014? What percentage of proactive rejoicing have you done? Are you faithful to schedule (and practice) rejoicing with God’s people on the Lord’s Day? Do you make rejoicing the agenda at your meal times and holiday get-togethers? What percentage of reactive rejoicing have you done? Do you rejoice with others when they receive good news, or is envy a more likely response? Do you mix rejoicing in with your burdens or reports of bad news? Paul said he was “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Rejoicing does not eliminate heaviness (see 1 Peter 1:6), but it does flavor, lighten, and transpose that heaviness.

You may or may not use the changing of the year to take stock of your sanctification. But you absolutely must hear the will of God as revealed in His Word and measure your walk accordingly. Are you the grinch, the grouch, the grumbler? Or are you the glad, grateful, again and again rejoicer?

Lord's Day Liturgy

Trimming the Fat

We are at the threshold of a new year, a customary and fitting time to evaluate if we were worshipping any idols over the last twelve months that should be dethroned. Call it resolutions, call it repentance, we should examine if we are seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.

Many new year pledges seek to unseat the gods of gluttony and lethargy. So many July garage sales will be stocked with treadmills and stationary bikes onto which so many January hopes were placed. And, if you have been laying around like the cows of Bashan that the prophet Amos addressed, then you probably should trim the fat, sure. Let’s just not get carried away considering where the cow came from.

Paul addressed some Roman Christians who were divided over food, over what was clean and unclean. They were concerned whether they were eating food offered under the shadows of altars to false gods. We have taken on a similar concern in our culture. We want our food (coffee) grown under shadows, and we didn’t even have to cut down or carve the tree into an alter or totem pole first. How convenient for us, and how pleased Terra Godessa is with us.

But Paul said, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). This isn’t to say that eating and drinking, what or when or how, is amoral; we can glorify God in it or not, just as in whatever we do. But we glorify God or not based on what is in our heart, not based on what we put in our mouths.

So whether you need to cut down on the sweets or drink more wine or take a couple laps around your neighborhood or whatever you repent from and resolve to pursue, do it for righteousness more than your waste line. Do it for peace’s sake, not because you’re ashamed of harvesting practices. Do it for joy, because that will show whether your new year plans pursue His kingdom or yours.

Enjoying the Process

The Year of the Unexpected

I don’t mind the New Year’s resolution-making process. Reviewing the last year helps me to rehearse God’s gracious gifts and often brings His gracious conviction over things that still need work. Rather than make resolutions “proper” last year, I answered Ten Questions by Don Whitney. The following is my assessment.

Last night as I was talking with Mo, she asked if we could have less unexpected things happen in 2011. The idea still rings in my mind the morning after, so much so that I’m ready to pronounce 2010 The Year of the Unexpected. I realize none of us know what a day may bring forth, at least not exactly or with inerrancy. Nevertheless, things are much different at the end of this year than we expected.

The two most notable unexpecteds were our adoption and my resignation. Not ironically, our final court hearing and our final Sunday were the same weekend, the first in December. Both events culminated long processes. I could count the hours invested pursuing one and trying to avoid the other. I could also count every blade of grass in our yard, but the information wouldn’t be useful. Suffice it to say, much time was spent on both, time we expected to spend on other things.

I’ll blame some of my failure on the unexpected. The rest of the blame falls squarely on my undisciplined shoulders. You may want to [reread the original questions and answers][ten] for context’s sake.

1. Fail. I did think regularly about 1 Peter 1:13. I did not do any extra study on eschatology; the end times walls are still weak. It really seems like I wrote about this a few weeks ago, not 52 weeks ago, so the desire is still strong. See also fail for #5. Hmmm…does it bode better for a dispensationalist world-view if my eschatology study is getting worse?

2. Depends. I prayed much for “the most humanly impossible thing” I wanted God to do this year. I believe He answered, but it wasn’t what I asked for in terms of outcome, though it was what I asked for in terms of clarity.

3. Inconsistent. It also seems unreal that an entire year has passed since formulating this desire. I did “explore” Sabbath dinner liturgy for sake of our family worship, but I definitely did not “establish” it. We’ll keep moving forward on this and it should mature.

4. Miss. Again. At least in terms of the journaling. Instead of three times a week, maybe I wrote a sentence or five a couple times a week, some weeks. I wasn’t consistent and it wasn’t what I had in mind. I did, however, complete the Chronological Bible reading plan. I prolly won’t be using that plan again.

5. Ding. As in, a ding in the diet. They say diets don’t usually work, at least not for long. I practically gave up on this near the end of August and will be rethinking digital intake.

6. Not applicable. I prayed every Tuesday for eleven months regarding a new missionary for our church to support. And I did a fair amount of thinking about it, including reading the probably two dozen emails I received from various friends with suggestions. So, I did do research, but I did not help the board decide on a new missionary before I left.

7. Ongoing.

8. Behind. I wrote that “I came late to the celebration table” and that I had much rejoicing to do based on how many reasons God has given us to rejoice. I keep learning, but it’s probably more accurate to say I keep fighting.

9. Improvement. I did read A Praying Life and appreciated it. With changes in circumstances and ministry circles, my daily prayer lists now need some adds and edits.

10. Hallelujah! As I wrote, Keelah is now a Higgins! Sometimes it’s hard to remember that it may, in fact, be the “single thing” that “will matter most in ten years” and perhaps even in eternity.

In this year of the unexpected, we tried to see God’s mighty acts in the world, fear Him, and laugh with Him (Psalm 52). I expect 2011 will include more opportunities to do the same.

Every Thumb's Width

Ten for Ten

This year, rather than making resolutions proper, I’m going to answer Don Whitney’s Ten Questions to Ask at the Start of a New Year. It’s free, it’s fresh (to me), and should be spiritually fruitful.

1. What’s one thing you could do this year to increase your enjoyment of God?

Taking my cue from 1 Peter 1:13, I want to build up my “hope on the grace that will brought to [us] at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The blueprint has two pages. First, I intend to “gird up the loins of my mind” by my answer/approach to #5 below. Second, I plan to put up walls over in the eschatology district so that hope can play happily.

2. What’s the most humanly impossible thing you will ask God to do this year?

Prudence advises that I keep this answer in my prayers and out of the post.

3. What’s the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your family life this year?

Maybe it isn’t “the single most important thing,” but in order to improve the quality of our family (worship) life, I’m going to explore and establish our sabbath dinner liturgy. If that isn’t enough, see also #10.

4. In which spiritual discipline do you most want to make progress this year, and what will you do about it?

Journaling has always been more miss than hit for me. Though it isn’t as crucial as Bible reading and prayer, most books on spiritual disciplines include it, and I’ve benefited from doing it. So to make progress in this discipline I’ll give it shot at least three times a week in 2010. I have also decided to read the Bible chronologically for my first time.

5. What is the single biggest time-waster in your life, and what will you do about it this year?

The Internet.

In order to lay aside every weight, not get entangled in civilian pursuits, and [gird up the loins of my mind][1pe1], I’m going on an Internet diet for the year. I will imbibe from the Internet only three days a week (Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday). That includes all email, tweets, news, and blogs. On the other four days I will send (update, post, etc.), but won’t receive. With email, I’ll triage twice a day in case of emergencies, but otherwise it’s days with less dings for me.

I already removed Safari and Tweetie from my Dock, and I’m thinking about changing the shortcuts on my iPhone’s home page.

Also, to kick start the diet, and for more focused preparation for snow retreat, I’m taking another total Google Reader fast until January 30.

6. What is the most helpful new way you could strengthen your church?

This isn’t only up to me, but GBC has the opportunity to start supporting a new missionary this year, and I’ve been given the go ahead to begin that research.

7. For whose salvation will you pray most fervently this year?

I figure she reads my blog. That’s great; I want her to know. I have been praying for my sister’s salvation for a while, but I’ve arranged to keep it near the center of my prayer radar this year.

8. What’s the most important way you will, by God’s grace, try to make this year different from last year?

I came late to the celebration table in 2009. It’s taken quite a while for me to realize how dishonoring I’ve been to the good Giver, so I hope to make 2010 an entire year of knowing the time to mourn and time to dance. Sometimes fearing is learned in feasting (Deuteronomy 14), and to whom much has been given, much rejoicing is required.

9. What one thing could you do to improve your prayer life this year?

My prayer program is as tight as ever. I even taught a seminar on prayer last year, and tried some new things myself. But there is always room to excel still more. I’ve heard excellent things about A Praying Life, so I Amazoned a copy and will start reading in February.

10. What single thing that you plan to do this year will matter most in ten years? In eternity?

Paperwork. We don’t have an abundance of free moments at our end of the cul-de-sac, but taking time to fill in these blanks may matter more than many other things. Mo and I have in hand the initial go-round of forms to get the adoption process started through Antioch Adoptions.

Enjoying the Process

A Spectacular Something

The annual resolutions review is good. And humbling. And heartening. And yes, both at the same time.

My two 2009 resolutions were very much related to two teaching series that occupied my mind: a verse by verse study through Genesis and a retreat on Repentance.

Articulate something six days a week.

This resolution was spectacular, a spectacular fail. It was my “most specific resolution ever,” and though the wheels rolled, they never left the ground. The pilot of my mind was either too lazy, too undisciplined, or too slow to leave the torpor tarmac.

Now, I did do a little light journaling, tweeted a tad, made a few offerings to the Void, sent 52 Weekly emails to our youth staff (probably my most gratifying effort), and answered a plethora of electronic and handwritten correspondence. I also figure I preached between 90-100 times in 2009, many of those messages required new prep. But I know the authorial intent behind my resolution, and spinning the story still won’t make it fly.

On the bright side, this resolution to write was originally charted due to my study of God’s creating men as His image-bearers. As far as that goes–meaning my understanding of His mandate and my perspective on being made for responsibility and relationship–my life, marriage, and ministry have never been more Trinitarian.

Tangentially, I have also taken long strides in my interest in, and capacity for, celebration. The Persons of the Trinity could not be more happy, and my happinesslessness reflected wrongly on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’ve repented of running only on the commiserating leg, and that leads to the second resolution.

Initiate individual and interpersonal repentance.

By God’s grace, repentance was back on my heart’s radar week by week. I neglected regular confession in private prayers less, and I did better at including confession in times when leading corporate prayer. I saw (some) sins more clearly and tasted sweeter delights by turning from them. Though it was humbling, a bellyful of knotted-stomach grief came out as I sought forgiveness from others, especially from some who are close, those for whom the flesh prefers to save face. Speaking about repentance at the snow retreat wasn’t done from a platform of perfection, but neither was it done from pretense.

It’s certainly possible that someone reading this may feel like I missed one, with them. If that’s the case, there is no statute of limitations, and let’s get some gospel on it. Otherwise, repentance is one of those resolutions that I hope to have less need for, but am quicker to do, for a lifetime of sanctification.

A Shot of Encouragement

Questions for a New Year

From Don Whitney: Ten Questions to Ask at the Start of a New Year

The beginning of a new year is an ideal time to stop, look up, and get our bearings. To that end, here are some questions to ask prayerfully in the presence of God.

1. What’s one thing you could do this year to increase your enjoyment of God?

2. What’s the most humanly impossible thing you will ask God to do this year?

3. What’s the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your family life this year?

4. In which spiritual discipline do you most want to make progress this year, and what will you do about it?

5. What is the single biggest time-waster in your life, and what will you do about it this year?

6. What is the most helpful new way you could strengthen your church?

7. For whose salvation will you pray most fervently this year?

8. What’s the most important way you will, by God’s grace, try to make this year different from last year?

9. What one thing could you do to improve your prayer life this year?

10. What single thing that you plan to do this year will matter most in ten years? In eternity?

Enjoying the Process

My 2009 Resolutions

I’ve been marinating much in 1 Timothy 4:11-16 since Eric Alexander took it as his text at the 2003 Shepherds’ Conference. My recent ordination also put the passage back on my mental front burner. Verse 16 strikes at the core of my responsibility: “pay close attention to yourself and to the teaching”; I do desire for my “progress to be evident to all” (verse 15).

My flock benefits most when I grow personally, and according to Paul, my salvation and the salvation of those who hear me depends on it. There may be few things as demoralizing, or as dangerous, as a stagnant spiritual leader. And I’ve found over the last few years that a year-end review and resolution-making helps keeps me in check and provides accountability for future progress.

There are any number of things I would do well to examine this year. I need to continue thinking through how to best apply the sabbath principle. I want to keep praying more and more and more. I want to learn how to appreciate the “narrative.” Mo might add that I should make a commitment to be nice to my wife all the time.

But in light of ordination to the gospel ministry, and in light of being an image-bearer, here are my two 2009 resolutions.

Articulate something six days a week.

As an image-bearer of God, I am responsible to use the skills and desires He has given me. As a pastor, I am required to pay close attention to “the teaching.” Writing until I’m clear fulfills (at least parts of) both.

Of course, articulating something doesn’t require writing it out. Articulating simply means to express, to put in words, or to communicate. But I specifically have in mind writing out or annotating something all the work days of the week. Writing is a good discipline, beyond the physical, and more mental and possibly spiritual (cf. 1 Timothy 4:8) depending on the topic.

This is my most specific resolution ever. It is not a commitment to post to the Void six days a week. But whether I handwrite a sermon, post to the Void, dash off a rough draft, tweet a paragraph summary, or journal various thoughts, putting down more words on paper is my desire. It’s time to work and produce, even if it isn’t much. When I began running on the treadmill, I wasn’t stumbling over as many revolutions of the belt as I do now. I took it step by step. Now I’ll work sentence by sentence.

Initiate individual and interpersonal repentance.

As an image-bearer, I am made for relationship. Nothing disrupts community like sin, and the first step toward reconciliation is repentance. Likewise, in light of ordination, I must pay close attention to myself. I know it is easy for me, as a leader, to be defensive rather than humble when I’ve wronged someone else.

Repentance is the starting point of the Christian life, let alone a new year. While certainly not every problem under the sun comes from sin, most of them do. Sin is the dominant human problem, not personality flaws, not a genetic defects, not adolescent hormones, not difficult environments. Simply ignoring sin won’t make it go away. Rationalizing sin won’t overcome it. Medicating sin won’t pacify it. Repenting from it is the only proper course of treatment.

The fact that sin is our fundamental problem turns out to be good news in a way. If sin isn’t the problem then we are really stuck. There is no hope if the diagnosis is something other than spiritual. God doesn’t make any guarantees to get us out of a particular situation, to help us get organized, to increase our metabolism, to change our academic ability, or even to alter our emotional or mental make-up per se.

But He does have extraordinary news if the problem is sin. There is a Substitute Sacrifice who takes the guilt of our sin. There is a Spirit who frees us from slavery to sin. There are promises revealed in His Book about the impotence of sin for those united with Christ, along with detailed instructions on how to kill remaining sin. We can make all the resolutions we want, but unless those resolutions tackle our sin problem we are going to be fighting at the wrong front.

Nothing stunts personal spiritual growth like sin. Nothing cripple’s a leader’s influence like sin. I want to grow. I want to influence. So I want to be a person and a pastor whose default response is to consider my own sin, not another’s. When we sin for what it is and repent, we increase our influence rather than loose it. That certainly was the case for Augustine. Reading his Confessions, as well as his biography by Peter Brown, has been a great example to me of changing the world by confessing, not covering, sin.

I should have plenty of opportunities to put this particular resolution into practice since plenty of sin remains for me to mortify. Building this commitment to initiate repentance into my response paradigm is hopefully a good start.

Enjoying the Process

Image-Bearing Resolutions

The making of New Year’s resolutions can be a complete waste of time. Some goals are cheap or petty, while goals that are worthwhile may be ruined by selfish motives. It seems like many don’t follow through on their commitments much past the first few weeks of January, if they make it that far.

Nevertheless, I make resolutions. At the end of 2006, I wrote:

While the making and breaking of New Year’s Resolutions can be the epitome of vanity and meaninglessness, and even though most resolutions are typically temporal and banal, I think there is something constructive for Christians in considering the progress of their faith and then making commitments to pursue Christ in specific ways.

Spiritual transformation and progress is essential–not optional–for Christ-followers. It is not only beneficial to consider our failures, weaknesses, and sin and address them, it is NEEDFUL! And it is needful not only on a yearly basis, but on a weekly basis, a daily basis, and even sometimes on a moment-by-moment basis. Examining our lives once a year is like examining our course from 30,000 feet–we get a good view but we’re too far away to change much. Of course, from the five foot view we can deal with a lot of things, but we can’t always recognize past patterns and potential pitfalls.

So I connect resolution-making with that 30,000 foot course evaluation, viewing a new year as another opportunity to consider personal growth in Christlikeness. Again, the new year is one possible time for this kind of examination, but certainly not the only time. This post, for example, comes more than a week into 2009, which I’m going say, only adds to my point.

As we prepared for the ’07 Snow Retreat, titled “Looking Only to Christ,” I listed four identifiers of Christlike resolutions. Then, while we were nearing the end of our study of Ecclesiastes in 2008, I suggested three ways to make Solomonic resolutions. I created these lists primarily to help shape my own pursuit of spiritual progress, and perhaps they’ve also been beneficial for helping some of the students and staff in our ministry.

This year we’ve started at the beginning of Genesis. In light of the massive implications of answering What is man? in Genesis 1:26-28, I’d like to propose two objectives of image-bearing resolutions.

1. Image-bearers make resolutions to maximize their calling.

God commanded men to subdue the earth and have dominion over the animals, thereby establishing divine cause to explore and to study the earth, and then to use that knowledge to develop it. In other words, God commissioned men to change the world.

To our shame, we have largely ignored our human calling to “to order, develop, and embellish God’s splendid creation, to realize the multifarious potentialities which were embedded within it.” (David Hageman, Ploughing in Hope, 29). Christian young people are often the worst culprits of laziness and low aspirations. I find that more pagan young people seem to have vision for achieving their goals, even though their motivation may be nothing but pride. Christians–in the OT, God-fearers–should be the most eager, motivated, and well-educated workers. We recognize that changing the world isn’t a burden; it’s a privilege. We should train and be the best teachers, the best scientists, the best artists, the best widget-makers because we have the proper perspective on what it means to be human.

The Cultural Mandate involves making and shaping everything on earth as God’s image-bearers.

In her book, Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey puts it this way.

In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The first phrase, “be fruitful and multiply” means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, “subdue the earth,” means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations-nothing less.

To that end, God has given each one of us different desires and talents to be used; He has given each person a “calling.” No matter what our skill or skill level, we are to reflect God as we go, invent, build, and organize. Sometimes it is said that the only thing we can do on earth that we can’t do in heaven is evangelize. Not true. Man was given a purpose on the planet before the need to evangelize even existed.

Image-bearers recognize their calling and make resolutions to change their community, their culture, and their world. Of course, success in “changing the world” depends entirely on God’s grace. Men are responsible to work with all their might (Ecclesiastes 9:10), but God’s plan always stands (Proverbs 16:9; 19:21). Even if things don’t work out exactly as we intended, we can still find enjoyment in our toil (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26).

2. Image-bearers make resolutions to strengthen their relationships.

Our God was (and still is) a personal God before He created; the three Persons enjoy eternal relationships with each other. Each Person is different, yet the Three are One. The relationships among the Godhead are the foundation of, and pattern for, human relationships. “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Men and women bear the image of a relational God.

The first thing in creation that God identifies as “not good” is man’s solitary condition, and teaches man that it isn’t good for him to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Loners are incomplete. Loners may work and produce like nobody’s business. Adam may have named a few hundred, or even thousand, animals in Genesis 2:19-20. After God created Eve, Adam didn’t celebrate that he had a co-worker, he celebrated because he had a companion. Life is more than doing stuff, it is doing stuff with someone(s). Resolutions made by image-bearers must be about more than tasks and projects, they should revolve around people.

The biggest problem with maximizing our calling, as well as strengthening our relationships, is sin. Sin makes us lazy, not responsible. Sin makes us selfish and self-centered, not relational. Adam wasn’t enslaved to sin in chapter two. But we live in a Genesis three world. We need help outside ourselves to fulfill our image-bearing responsibilities. Thanks to the gospel, God’s Son, God’s Spirit, and God’s Word, we can be restored to reflect God through our resolutions better this year than last.

Enjoying the Process

My 2008 Resolutions in Review

Having reached 2009 (Happy New Year!), I need to lay down my 2008 resolutions so I can build new ones on top.

My first resolution for last year was to build more structure into my supplication struggle. (You can read here to see why I’m calling prayer a struggle). I desired to be more devoted to scheduled, private prayer times and more diligent during those hours. I also made a renewed commitment to corporate prayer (whether in [one28][3] or with family or with the Thursday Friday morning guys).

Part of my plan was to pray for a class of students per day. Starting with the seniors on Monday and finishing with the freshmen on Saturday, I committed to pray for each student by name every week this year. The only thing greater than my excitement to embrace this supplication system was my shame at not being busy with it already. I stuck with this exercise program for the most part and intend to continue it in the new year.

My second resolution was to cultivate three life adjectives: flexible, fun, and fanatical. It was a three pronged mental paradigm aimed to increase my joy, eating my own dog food by Enjoying the Process. Admittedly, some days were better than others; substantial happy-heartedness really is elusive in world of emptiness (Ecclesiastes 1:2-11) and sin. But this kind of personal culture is always worth pursuing, both for sake of God-fearing gladness and also for the influencing aroma it leaves on others. For that reason, I’ll keep striving by His Spirit to do even less apart from Him (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26) in 2009.

Enjoying the Process

My (Solomonic) 2008 Resolutions

I’ve had more than ten days to think about resolutions for 2008 and if I put it off any longer the year will no longer be new. I’m only making two, but both are aimed at long-term life approach rather than short-term accomplishments.

Build more structure into my supplication struggle.

In assessing 2007 I mentioned my lackluster labor in scheduled, systematic prayer. To vitalize that discipline I have begun my first ever prayer journal (better at 33 than never). Though I won’t itemize my entire plan here, I have created specific daily lists in order to bathe more individuals and responsibilities in supplication. I’m already surprised (though I know I shouldn’t be) at how much longer I can sustain focus by following even a sketchy list. This is a habit I intend to keep building long after 2008 is over.

Cultivate three life adjectives: flexible, fun, and fanatical.

Some might consider this resolution too vague or unquantifiable to be of realistic profit. But it’s my aim at a Solomonic resolution and I surmise this three pronged mental paradigm will help increase my joy by minutes and hours.

In my experience these three adjectives typically like to punch each other in the throat; I’d like them to live in harmony. It is natural for me to seek out opportunities and work hard and play to win. Yet that leaves me less flexible when interrupted and less fun when involved in something I don’t see as immediately advantageous. So by striving to consciously submit to God moment by moment I hope my attitude will bend, not break. And by thinking about joy in the process I want to muster more spiritual merrymaking.

In light of the previous paragraph it may not seem like I need to whip up any additional fanaticism, but I know I’ll be more flexible and fun when redeeming every other private moment to work (reading, writing, praying, running, etc.). One modest effort to save sapped seconds will be abstaining from Google Reader until after dinner. Breaking this time frittering routine and turning attention back to toil is certain to be profitable.