1456) Church is Good for You– and Your Kids

Image result for children in church images

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By Eric Metaxas and Roberto Rivera, April 5, 2017 blog at http://www.breakpoint.org

Religion is good for you: emotionally, physically, and economically. Who knew? Not the secularists.

     In 2000, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published his groundbreaking book, “Bowling Alone.”  Putnam argued that Americans’ reduced interest in civic engagement— by which he meant not only things of a political nature but also things like the PTA, Boy Scouts, groups like the Elks, and, yes, bowling leagues— had reduced the store of what is called “social capital.”

     “Social capital” is what sociologist call “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.”

     This is more than theory.  It gets to the heart of one of the pressing issues of our time: social and economic inequality.  And while Americans, as a whole, prefer to bowl alone, this solitude isn’t equally distributed.

     As Putnam documents in his most recent book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” one thing that separates children from families in the top 25 percent of households measured by income and education from their counterparts in the bottom twenty-five percent is social capital.  The well-off parents featured in “Our Kids” were, if anything, exhaustingly engaged and enmeshed in far-reaching networks that made life better for their kids.

     While we shouldn’t be surprised that good connections offer better-off kids a significant advantage over their poorer counterparts, there’s something else that provides another significant advantage:  religious participation.

     Churchgoing kids “are less prone to substance abuse (drugs, alcohol, and smoking), risky behavior (like not wearing seat belts), and delinquency (shoplifting, misbehaving in school, and being suspended or expelled).”

     But the benefits of regular church attendance do not stop there.  As Putnam tells us, “Compared to their unchurched peers, youth who are involved in a religious organization take tougher courses, get higher grades and test scores, and are less likely to drop out of high school.”

     They also “have better relations with their parents and other adults, have more friendships with high-performing peers, are more involved in sports and other extracurricular activities.”  In fact, churchgoing is so beneficial to academic performance that “a child whose parents attend church regularly is 40 to 50 percent more likely to go on to college than a matched child of non-attenders.”

     Now, this is true regardless of socioeconomic status.  The problem is that regular church attendance is increasingly tied to socioeconomic status.  According to Putnam, while “weekly church attendance” among college-educated families since the late 1970s has remained more or less the same, it has dropped by almost a third among those with a high school diploma or less.  The result is “a substantial class gap that did not exist” fifty years ago.  It’s yet another way that poorer kids are falling behind their more affluent counterparts.

     Given the benefits of regular church attendance, the insistence on minimizing the role of religion in American public life is, to put it mildly, perverse.  Society hasn’t figured out how to reliably give poor kids access to the kinds of advantages, both material and intangible, that better-off kids take for granted.

     But we, the Church, do know how to reach out to them and their families in Jesus’ name.  We have millennia of experience in ministering to the least, the last, and the lost.  And now we have evidence that this kind of ministry has benefits that few people, Christians or non-Christians, ever suspected.

     Will today’s “cultured despisers” of religion pay heed?  Probably not.  But we owe it to the kids— all kids— to ignore those naysayers and to freely give them what we have freely received.

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Psalm 34:10  —  Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.

Proverbs 22:6  —  Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.

Ephesians 6:4  —  Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

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 A PRAYER FOR THE FAMILY by Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) ( God’s Minute, 1916, alt.):
Our Father, we thank you for binding this family together by the sacred tie of common blood.  We remember with how much sacrificial love its life has been created and sustained.  We thank you for a mother’s travail and tenderness, for a father’s faithful toil.  Knit us together by our common joys and sorrows, so that even if we are far removed from one another, nothing may estrange our hearts.  When the youngest of us is old and gray-headed, may the memories of our home still be sweet and dear.  May the children’s children of this family still have the vigor and virtues of our best forefathers, and may the faith, too, of our fathers and mothers burn brightly in their hearts.  Deal graciously with our loved ones.  Give us our daily bread and strength for our daily tasks.  To you we commit the life and destiny of each; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

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1389) Important

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By Fred Craddock (1928-2015), Craddock Stories, ed. by Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, 2001, Chalice Press, pages 132.

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     The young woman, twenty-eight years old, at St. Mark’s church in Atlanta, said to me, “This is the first time I was ever in a church.”

     “Really?” I said.

     “Yeah.”

     “Well,” I said, “How was it?”

     She said, “Kind of scary.”

     I said, “Kind of scary?”

     She said, “Yeah.”

     “Why?”

     And she said, “It just seems so important.”  She said, “You know, I never go to anything important.  This just seemed so important.”

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Hebrews 12:28-29  —  Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

Deuteronomy 32:46-47a  —  (Moses) said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law.  They are not just idle words for you— they are your life.”

Hebrews 2:1  —  We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.

Hebrews 10:24-25  —  Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

II Corinthians 4:16-18  —  Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

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PRAYER FOR SUNDAY MORNING:

O God, our Father, we thank Thee for everything which brings us closer to Thee.

We thank Thee for Thy book, to tell us of Thy dealings with Thy people, and to set before us the deeds and words of our blessed Lord in the days of His flesh.

We thank Thee for the music and the poetry of the Psalms and the hymns we sing, and for all the memories they awaken.

We thank Thee for the open door of prayer which no one can ever shut.

We thank Thee for this day with its call to lay aside the things of earth and to enter into Thy house.

We thank Thee for the preaching of Thy word, to comfort our hearts and to enlighten our minds.

We thank Thee for the sacraments of Thy grace to be the channels of Thy divine love.

Open our hearts and minds today, that in it and its worship we may receive the precious things which Thou are waiting to give; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–William Barclay, The Plain Man’s Book of Prayers, 1959, page 90.

1104) Good Old Summertime

     Temperatures in the upper 70’s these last few days have Minnesotans thinking about summer, even though it is still mid-April.  The first warm days of Spring have people humming the tune of In the Good Old Summertime, which has been a favorite ever since it came out as a big hit in 1902.  Everyone can probably hum a few bars of the tune, and the phrase ‘good old summertime’ has become a cliche.  But most people do not know most of the words.  It is a pleasant little song, and since all the verses are not well known, I am including them here:

There’s a time in each year
That we always hold dear,
Good old summer time.
With the birds in the trees’es
And sweet scented breezes,
Good old summer time.

When your day’s work is over
Then you are in clover,
And life is one beautiful rhyme.
No trouble annoying,
Each one is enjoying,
The good old summer time.

Oh, to swim in the pool
You’d play hooky from school
Good old summertime
You’d play “ring-a-rosie”
With Jim, Kate and Josie
Good old summertime.

Those days full of pleasure
We now fondly treasure
When we never thought it a crime
To go stealing cherries
With faces brown as berries
In good old summertime

In the good old summertime
In the good old summertime
Strolling through a shady lane
With your baby mine
You hold her hand and she holds yours
And that’s a very good sign
That she’s your tootsie-wootsie
In the good, old summertime!

–Music by George Evans, lyrics by Ren Shields

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To hear this sung by a one-man Barbershop Quartet, go to:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKvLCwInPGA

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     There is no mistaking the message:  summer is the best part of the year and there is more time for everything.  The days are a pleasure, the breezes are sweet, and there is plenty of time for swimming, playing outside, or strolling through a shady lane with your tootsie-wootsie.

     There is more time for everything in the summer, except for worship, as Sunday morning attendance goes way down in many churches.  There seems to be two main reasons (seasons?) in Minnesota for missing church on a Sunday morning.  When the weather is bad, many people stay home because it is inconvenient to get out.  And, when the weather is good, and everyone has so many other things to do.

     Remember one thing in the ‘good old summer-time’ this year.   As you are treasuring “those days full of pleasure,” do not forget to give thanks to the One who gives you such pleasure, and who created that good old summertime in the first place–  the One who has given you your life and the days to enjoy such a wonderful time.  It happens all too often that the more God blesses us, the more likely we are to neglect him.  That is what usually happens in the summer at church.  It is in summer, that time of year that Minnesota is most richly blessed by God, that God is worshiped least of all.

     Enjoy the nice days of Spring and then the ‘good old summer-time.’  But also remember to give God your thanks and praise.

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Deuteronomy 8:10,11a  —  When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.  Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands.

Exodus 20:8  —  Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

Hebrews 10:24-25a  —  Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.

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For the beauty of the earth,
for the glory of the skies,
for the love which from our birth
over and around us lies.

Refrain: Christ, our Lord, to you we raise
this, our hymn of grateful praise.

For the wonder of each hour
of the day and of the night,
hill and vale and tree and flower,
sun and moon and stars of light.  Refrain.

For the joy of human love,
brother, sister, parent, child,
friends on earth, and friends above,
for all gentle thoughts and mild.  Refrain.

For yourself, best gift divine,
to the world so freely given,
agent of God’s grand design:
peace on earth and joy in heaven.  Refrain.

–F. S. Pierpoint  (1835-1917)

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Listen at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGt4-KyFwe4

1068) Handle With Care

“Fragile Worshipers” by Richard Beck, at: http://www.experimentaltheology.blogspot.com; posted March 7, 2016

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     I used to be a fragile worshiper.

     I’d go to church and there would always be something that set me off.  Sometimes it would be a song lyric that I found theologically problematic or overly sentimental.  Sometimes it was something someone said from the front.  And a lot of the time it would be getting upset about something I wished we’d do differently.  “I wish we would do it this way instead of that way,” I’d often remark.

     The littlest thing would get me disgruntled and annoyed.  Worship had to be perfect.  Any theological slip ups and I’d pounce.  I had to agree with and like everything.  Start to finish.

     Perhaps you’ve been a fragile worshiper, and maybe still are.  Are you overly sensitive to and emotionally triggered by anything that is said or sung in church that you don’t like or agree with?

     Over the years I’ve worked hard to become less brittle in worship, more tolerant of song lyrics or shared thoughts I don’t really like or agree with.  I got fed up with the vanity and entitlement of being a fragile worshiper, fatigued by the narcissism of making myself the measure of all things theological and liturgical.

     Yes, any given Sunday there is a bunch of stuff I wish wasn’t said or sung.  But I’m filled with a lot more grace about it all.

     I’ve given up being a fragile worshiper.

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John 4:23-24  —  (Jesus said), “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Exodus 20:8  —  Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

Luke 4:8  —   Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

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Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

–Psalm 19:14

997) Nowhere Else to Turn

Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) was a British reporter in the U.S.S.R. in the 1930’s.   Here he describes two episodes which provide contrasting insights into life after the Russian Revolution.  Muggeridge had initially admired the revolution; then he saw the results of two decades of communist rule.  The Communists promised hope to the nation, but instead brought ruin and despair and fear, along with the deaths of tens of millions of their own people.  One scene of the suffering is described in the first paragraph.  The second paragraph describes how people then turned to their only real hope.

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     I tried to describe it all— the abandoned villages, the absence of livestock, neglected fields, everywhere famished, frightened people and intimations of coercion, soldiers about the place, and hard-faced men in long overcoats.  One particularly remarkable scene I stumbled on by chance at a railway station in the gray early morning; peasants with their hands tied behind them being loaded into cattle trucks at gunpoint;… all so silent and mysterious and horrible in the half light…

     In Kiev, where I found myself on a Sunday morning, on an impulse I turned into a church where a service was in progress.  It was packed tight, but I managed to squeeze myself against a pillar whence I could survey the congregation and look up at the altar.  Young and old, peasants and townsmen parents and children even a few in uniform— it was a variegated assembly.  The bearded priests, swinging their incense, intoning their prayers, seemed very remote and far away.  Never before or since have I participated in such a worship; the sense conveyed of turning to God in great affliction was overpowering.  Though I could not, of course, follow the service (it was in Russian), I knew little bits of it; for instance, when the congregation says there is no help for them save from God.  What intense feeling they put into these words!  In their minds, I knew, as in mine, was a picture of those desolate abandoned villages, of the hunger and the hopelessness, of cattle trucks being loaded with humans in the dawn light.  Where were they to turn to for help?  Not to the Kremlin and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, certainly; nor to the forces of progress and democracy and enlightenment in the West.  Honourable and Right Honourable Members had nothing to offer, (nor did) the radical free press.  Every possible human agency was found wanting.  So only God remained, and to God they turned with a passion, a dedication, a humility impossible to convey.  They took me with them; I felt closer to God then than I ever had before, or am likely to again.

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PSALM 46:1-2a…6-7…9-11:

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear...

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress…

He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

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Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

Kyrie eleison, An important prayer in Christian liturgy from earliest times.

986) Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

     I remember the excitement of watching our children, and then our grandchildren, learn to walk.  It’s great to watch the little ones take those first few steps.  But you know what happens then, don’t you?  They are then able to get all over the place, but they do not yet know all the ‘dos and don’ts.’  So they enter that age where you can’t let them out of your sight.  It’s the same when they learn to talk.  It is not long after those first few highly anticipated words come out that you are having to teach them they are not supposed to be talking all the time.  Everyone recognizes that there is at least a little bit of truth in the old line about raising kids that says, “You spend three years teaching a child to walk and talk, and then you have to spend the next ten years teaching them to sit down and shut up.”  That overstates the case, because we certainly do want the little ones to keep walking and talking.  But children do need to learn that there is a time and a place for everything– for walking and talking, and for sitting down and being quiet.

     There is much in the Bible about getting busy and doing God’s work, and there is much about sitting still and listening.  Both parts are present in Luke chapter ten.  Get busy, Jesus says in the first thirty-seven verses, there is much work to do.   Sit down and shut up and listen, Jesus implies in his words to Martha in the last two verses of the chapter.

     The chapter begins with Jesus sending out 72 evangelists to go ahead of him into the towns that he will visit to prepare the way for him.  “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” Jesus says, and then gives the workers a long list of things to do as they enter the villages to proclaim God’s Word and announce the coming of His kingdom.  The next section of the chapter contains the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The hero of that story is a man who does something,  who stops and helps another man who had been beaten and robbed and left for dead.  Jesus then concludes the text with the words, “Go and do likewise.”  Don’t just sit there, don’t just pass by on the other side and ignore someone in need– do something to serve your neighbor who is in need.

     Immediately following that is the story of Jesus visiting at the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha.  In this story, it is Martha who seems to be doing what is right in line with what Jesus said in the previous two stories.  It was Martha, says verse 40, who was busy with all the preparations that had to be made, and that probably included getting something prepared for a meal for their guest.  Everyone has to eat, so one would think that would be a good way to serve your neighbor.  Mary, however, was just “sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to what he said” (verse 39).  Martha strongly objects to Mary’s inactivity and says to Jesus “Tell her to help me!”  Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”  Or in other words, “Sit down and be quiet, Martha.  What I am saying is important, and you need to pay attention.”

     This is the lesson little children need to learn.  There is a time and a place for everything; a time for running and loud talking and playing, and a time for sitting and being quiet and listening.  In Luke chapter ten, Jesus is applying this to our life as God’s children.  There is a time to be busy, working and serving in obedience to God’s commands; and, there is a time to be stop and be quiet and listen to Jesus, also in obedience to God’s command.  One would think a good time to stop and listen to Jesus would be if you had him right in your own home.  That would be a good time to just have a pizza delivered and not busy oneself with making a big meal.  And if you aren’t expecting a visit by Jesus in person to your home anytime soon, the next best thing is to do what the people of God have always done, and set aside a day a week to hear God’s Word and to worship.  “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it Holy,” says the third commandment, and Deuteronomy chapter five goes on to say, “Six days you should labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is to be observed as a Sabbath unto the Lord.”  There is a time to be busy, and there is a time to set aside for the Lord.

    II Peter 1:19 says, “We have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place.”  If someone believes in God at all, it would be only logical for that person to wonder what it is that God expects of us; what God wants us to do or to believe.  Well, says Peter, what God wants from us first of all is our attention.  God wants us to pay attention to Him and His word for us.  It is just like parents who have to often insist that their children pay attention, and find it extremely annoying when they do not.

     The Bible doesn’t just say, ‘Have faith!’ and leave it at that.  Peter has a word of hope for those who find faith difficult.  Just pay attention, Peter says, just find ways to pay attention to God, and, says the rest of the Bible, and the Holy Spirit will take care of the rest.  The little story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha is an illustration of how that is done.  Don’t be so busy, said Jesus, that you don’t have time for the one thing needful, that one thing that is of eternal importance.  Yes, says Jesus in the rest of the chapter, keep busy and do what needs to be done.  But do take the time, like Mary, to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to His Word.

     Don’t just do something; sometimes just sit there, be quiet, and listen.

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Ecclesiastes 3:1  —  There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…

John 9:4  —  (Jesus said), “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”

Psalm 46:10a  —  He says, “Be still, and know that I am God…”

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Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.

–I Samuel 3:10b

945) Life, Death, and the Task of Preaching

By Rev. David Lose, Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary, St.Paul, Minnesota; posted 10-23-2009 at:  www.workingpreacher.org

The following letter was posted on a website designed to assist in the weekly task of preaching.  It was written as a word of encouragement to the pastors who prepare and preach sermons, but it also, I believe, has a word of encouragement to those who listen to sermons week after week.  God has chosen the spoken word to create and sustain saving faith in our hearts, the effects of which will last for all eternity.

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Dear Working Preacher,

     What you do matters!  I know I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again.  Let me share with you one small, if personal, example.

     Recently a close friend of mine died.  And when I say “close,” I mean really close.  Blanche and her husband Art welcomed me to my first congregation and encouraged me as I learned the ropes of ministry and preaching.  Over time, they became close friends, throwing the bridal shower for my then-fiancée, participating in our wedding, celebrating the birth of our children, and remembering all of our birthdays no matter where we moved.

     So Blanche’s death to cancer was, needless to say, hard.  She had lived a long and rich life, yet it was still too soon.  We – her family and friends – miss her terribly.  But amid the sadness that attends such a loss there was also great thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving for her life and the impact she’d had on so many, of course, but also thanksgiving for the way she had faced her death.  For though she was also sad at the thought of leaving us too soon, Blanche nevertheless was not afraid.

     In a phone call a week before she died, she expressed again her great confidence that God was with her and would bring her safely through this life and death to life eternal.  “I admire your faith,” I said simply.  “I got it from you,” she replied.  Stunned, I started to protest, my Midwestern sensibilities about humility needlessly agitated.  “From you and all the other preachers in my life,” she continued.  “You all preached to me the gospel, and I believed it.”

     “It was like a deal we all had,” she said a moment later.  “You all kept preaching, and I kept believing.”  And there it is.  Our reason for being; your reason for being.  Over her lifetime, Blanche had probably heard thousands of sermons.  I don’t know if any one or two stood out to her, but I do know that, cumulatively, they kept her in faith, gave her hope and purpose, and enabled her to face all the challenges of her life – including drawing close to the end of it – with courage and confidence.

     That’s what we do.  We preach the Christian story, and by preaching it we invite our hearers into it so that it becomes their story; so that the promises the Christian story revolves around become promises they hear and believe, and through believing discover hope, meaning, and courage.

     I know preaching is difficult – wrestling with the biblical witness week in and week out, searching for words and images that help bridge the gap between these millennia-old confessions of faith and our present lives, issues and struggles.  It can get exhausting.  And I know you don’t always sense the impact of your words.

     But what you do matters.  Because there are a lot of us out here that have tacitly struck the same deal that Blanche named aloud:  you keep preaching, and we’ll keep believing.  On a day-in and day-out basis, that may not seem like much.  But to those of us who have been there, walking through the valley of the shadow of death – or illness, or depression, or joblessness, or whatever – it makes the difference between hope and despair, courage and fear, life and death.  So on behalf of all those who listen to your sermons – but on this day especially on behalf of Blanche and all of us who loved her – let me say thank you.  Even more, thank God for you!

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Romans 10:17  —  So then, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message comes through preaching Christ.

Hebrews 4:12  —  For the word of God is alive and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

Isaiah 55:11  —  “So is my word that goes out from my mouth:  It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (declares the Lord).

II Timothy 4:1-2  —   In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:  Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage— with great patience and careful instruction.

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Give us grace, O Lord, not only to hear your Word with our ears, but also to receive it into our hearts, and then to show it in our lives; for the glory of your name.  Amen.

942) Worship Where?

     “There are no atheists in the foxholes…  You’ll never be able to keep religion out of the schools– as long as there are tests, there will be prayers in school…  Many people feel closest to God when they are out in the woods, enjoying God’s creation…  Many others feel closest to God when they are alone in their room, reading God’s Word and talking with Him in silent prayer…  Still others say that they never felt so close to God as they did in the hospital room or in the wrecked car when they almost died…”

     The common theme in all of those statements is that you can reach out to God anywhere.  In the foxholes, in the classroom, in the woods, at home or in the hospital; anywhere and everywhere God is there and can hear our prayers.  God is everywhere and always with us.  Even as he dedicated the magnificent temple he had built in Jerusalem, King Solomon said, “God’s presence is not limited to the confines of the houses of worship we build for him.”  Jesus would agree.  In his last words to the disciples before returning to heaven, Jesus said, “Certainly, I am with you always, even to the very end of the age.”  Jesus did not say I’ll be with you whenever you come to church.  He said ALWAYS.

     There are many stories in the Bible of God being with people anywhere and everywhere.  God spoke to Abraham out under the stars on a clear night, telling him that his descendants will be as numerous as those stars in the sky.  God spoke to Joseph in prison, revealing to him the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams.  God spoke to Moses in a burning bush, Joshua on the battlefield, and Paul on the road to Damascus.  God was with Daniel in the lion’s den, with the three men in the blazing furnace, and with David in the valley of Elah when he challenged the giant Goliath.  And, we are told many times in the Gospels how Jesus would go off by himself, into the hills to pray.  In fact, the Bible’s best stories tell of God being with people in places outside of the walls of a church building.

     But there is in the Bible another stream of thought, also going way back to the very beginning.  Even in the earliest chapters of the book of Genesis there is the need to set up special places to worship God.  At first, these places were nothing more than rough altars, rocks piled up out in the middle of nowhere, as a reminder that God had been present in a special way in that place.  Later, instructions were given to build a tabernacle, a portable place of worship that could be taken down and carried around by a people moving to a new land.  Once settled in the new land, that larger, more permanent temple was built by Solomon, which would be the center of worship for the whole nation.  Later, synagogues were built in each city and village for weekly worship.  Jesus himself went to the synagogue to worship every week, ‘as was his custom’ Luke tells us.  

     There are those who say they can be a Christian without going to a church.  And yes, we are saved by Jesus’ death on the cross and not by going to church.  But to live a life of faith without the church is attempting to do something not even Jesus was willing to do.  Jesus Himself went to a specific place, every week, to gather with other believers and to worship.  God is with us always and everywhere, says the Bible; but we also, says the Bible, need specific places and times to worship.  In fact, that inner faith that God is always with us is taught, nurtured, and sustained by that regular worship in a specific place.

     This importance of a place to worship was illustrated to me in a cute way one time.  My wife and I went with our daughter Amy’s family to a program in another church.  As we walked into church, Amy told her daughter, then age three, that this was a church we were going into.  Immediately Courtney began to ask, “Well, where’s Jesus?  Where’s Jesus?”  Amy then explained to me that in their church they would, on the way into church, stop and look at a picture of Jesus that hung on the wall in the entryway.  So, if this was a church, Courtney thought, there must be picture of Jesus here somewhere; so we had to find a picture of Jesus to reinforce that connection.  That’s interesting, because Courtney could have just as well asked where is Thea or where is Emmett or where is Lucas or where are any of the other kids she would see at church.  But she asked, “Where is Jesus?”  She was already beginning to make that primary connection between the church building and the one we worship there.  Faith is built and sustained in many ways, and one of those ways is by having a specific time and a specific place to remember God by coming together for worship and for fellowship.

     The church building is where we gather for worship, and where God speaks to us and we speak to God each week.  This is certainly not the only place that can happen.  God being with us always and everywhere.  But we can, and do, easily forget all about God in our busy lives.  The thought of God may not even enter your mind for a whole day, or two or three, or more.  But the church building is where we come each week to be reminded of God.  This is where we hear those words of Jesus repeated over and over again, “This do in remembrance of me.”  Remembering, and not forgetting about God, is a big theme in the Bible.  God even made it one of the Ten Commandments that we “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.”  Having a place to come each week is an important part of making sure we remember.

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Exodus 33:7  —  Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.”  Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp.

Luke 4:16  —  (Jesus) went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.

Acts 17:2  —  As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.

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O Almighty God, from whom every good prayer cometh, and who pourest out the Spirit of grace on all who desire it; deliver us, when we draw nigh to thee, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind; that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections, we may worship thee in spirit and in truth, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.
–William Bright (1824-1901)

917) Worship Music

 

     The father of a man in my previous parish had immigrated to America from Russia in the early 1900’s.  After the Russian Revolution his father lost contact with his brothers that still lived in what had then become the Soviet Union.  In the 1980’s communication with and travel to the Soviet Union became easier.  The father was long dead, but his son, my friend, got back in touch his family and then traveled to the old village.  There he introduced himself to all his Russian cousins.  He was warmly received and spent several wonderful days there.

     It was a remote and primitive village.  They had no electricity and no indoor plumbing and were still farming with horses.  Life was difficult by our standards, but the people had houses and clothing and food; and, my friend said, they were happiest people he had ever seen.  They loved to laugh and loved to sing.  Every evening he was there, villagers of all ages gathered around a big fire to tell old stories and sing old songs.  They said, “We all love to sing, especially the kids.”  Think about that.  The whole village, people of every age, singing and enjoying the same kind of music.

     I was talking to my confirmation class one time about worship.  I said to them, “I hear many complaints from you about the music in our worship services.  Our youth service is coming up, and this year I’m going to let you kids pick all the music.  We’ll do whatever you want, so what kind of music shall we have?”

     “Let’s have country-western music” said one of the boys.  “There are a lot of country western songs that are religious.”

     “Oh no, not country,” said one of the girls.  “Country music is the worst.  Even those old hymns the minister picks out would be better than country.  Let’s not have country, let’s have light rock.  I’m sure we can find some appropriate songs.”

     “Not light rock, hard rock,” said another.

     “If it can be rock music, it has to be from the 60’s,” said another.  “Music has been going downhill ever since.”  (I gave him an ‘A’ for the day for knowing so much about music.)

     “Well how about the 50’s” said another.  “Didn’t Elvis have some nice religious songs?”

     “Let’s have rap music,” said a boy with his cap on backwards, but no one else was in favor of that option.

     The confirmands never did agree on what kind of music to have for the service.

     Consider the vast difference between the two stories.  In the remote Russian village, people of all ages enjoyed the same music that had been enjoyed for generations.  It was all they knew and they all loved it.  But in the confirmation class, kids of the same age living in the same small town, could not agree on a few songs for a one hour worship service.  They all had access to every kind of music ever written, and they all had their preferences.  I do enjoy the wide variety of music that is available, but that variety does pose a challenge for worship.

     When Martin Luther was working to change the worship service, one of his suggestions was to have more music, and, to use the ‘music of the people.’  Luther’s time and place would be similar to that Russian village, where there were songs that all knew and shared.  There was indeed a ‘music of the people,’ and one of the main places people sang together was in the tavern.  Luther was a gifted musician.  He would take these tavern songs, which had words you would not sing in church, and write new words, words that praised God and taught the faith.  It is said that the melody of that most popular of all Luther’s hymns, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, was from an old tavern song.  Some people objected to Luther doing this.  Luther simply replied, “Why should we let the devil have all the best tunes?” and continued to write words to whatever music he could find.

     Today there is no such ‘music of the people.’  Rather, there is an endless array of options, and everyone has their individual favorites.  Did you ever hear of a radio station that promised to play everyone’s favorite music?  Of course not, because trying to please everyone would be a sure recipe for failure.  If your favorite music was jazz, the station might play one jazz tune every two hours, and the rest of the time they would be playing one of everyone else’s favorite tunes.  Before long you would be tuning in to some other station, one that played just what you wanted all the time.  Trying to please everyone pleases no one.

     So what should we do in church?  Some churches, with great success, use a specific style of music to reach out to a specific group of people.  Some, with no success, have tried a little of everything and have merely ended up making everyone mad.  Some large churches are able to offer several different services, each with its own style of music.  Music preferences have caused much conflict in many churches.

     Most of the congregations I served had traditional worship services, and usually sang the old hymns to organ music.  But to be honest, that is not my favorite music.  During the week I listen to the classic rock from the 1960’s– the Beach Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, etc.  If I was like Martin Luther, I might try and write hymns to the tunes of songs like Proud Mary, Me and Bobby McGee, or Good Vibrations.  But even if I could do that, the songs would appeal to only a small percentage of worshipers.

     I do like the music from the 60’s, but I don’t go to church to hear to my favorite music.  I go to church to worship.  And I do prefer the old hymns in church, but I am willing to worship with whatever style of music that community of faith has decided to use for that service.  Worship is not the place to insist on our own personal preferences.  We have all week to listen to whatever kind of music we want.  Worship is the place to sing songs that thank and praise God, using whatever style of music is provided.

     Learning to live with our differences in worship provides a good opportunity to practice Christian charity and good will.  C. S. Lewis disliked organ music; he once described it as “one long roar.”  He was reluctant about even going to church at all.  But he went.  Why?  He went at first because he felt he ought to: the Scriptures that had won his reasoned assent commanded it.  He went later because he learned that it was good for him and necessary for his spiritual growth.  In an essay written many years after his conversion, Lewis recalls both his disgust at the services he attended and the grace that came through them:

When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches…  I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.  But as I went on I saw the great merit of it.  I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off.  I realized that the hymns (still sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew; and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots.  It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

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Psalm 59:17  —  You are my strength, I sing praise to you; you, God, are my fortress, my God on whom I can rely.

Psalm 96:1-2  —  Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.  Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.

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Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art! How great thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art! How great thou art!

–Carl Boberg (1859-1940)

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Just for fun:  jazz music works to gather this Wisconsin ‘congregation’:

http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/lXKDu6cdXLI?rel=0

681) Worship (part four of four)

     (…continued…)  With all that in mind, think again about what was in part one about how relationships die from lack of communication.  Much has been said about whether or not one can be a Christian without going to church, and the short answer is yes, of course, you can be a Christian without going to church.  I’ve seen some wonderful Christians who did not ever go to church.  We are not saved because we go to church, we are saved because Jesus died on the cross to forgive us of our sins, and has promised that all who believe in him shall be saved.  John 3:16 doesn’t say one word about going to church, and yet the whole Gospel is right there:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whosever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  See?  There is not a word about going to church.  But there is in John 3:16 that word about ‘believing,’ and believing implies some sort of relationship, some sort of connection, or response, or whatever you want to call it.  God’s love is freely given, but it is not forced on one who will not have it.  The danger of no worship is the same danger that is in any relationship in which there is no conversation.  In time, the relationship will die.  There are warnings in the Bible about that.  Because when people insist on paying no attention to God, in time, they will not care at all about God or His promises.  And then, faith and belief are gone, and the John 3:16 promise is lost for all eternity.

     Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota is a small school.  It was smaller still when I attended there in the 1970’s, with only 200 students.  Everybody knew everybody and I made some very good friends.  When we graduated we all said we’d keep in touch, but we didn’t.  A few of us went on to Mankato State, and we’d see each other occasionally.  I went back to homecoming the year after I graduated, and many others went back then also, and we had a great time.  But that was it.  Since then, I’ve kept in touch with only one friend, and we are now very good friends– but there is no one else.   A while back I was on the Bethany campus and ran into an old classmate– not a close friend, but a guy I knew back then.  I recognized him only because he teaches there now and gets his photo in the college newsletter occasionally.  He did not recognize me, and I did not refresh his memory.  I just asked where the bookstore was, and he told me; and that was it.  We would not have had much to say to each other anyway.  It’s been too long without any conversation. 

     Worship is what keeps the conversation going and the relationship alive.  I have known some wonderful Christians who did not go to church.  But each one had found other ways to keep the relationship alive, usually by their own disciplined life of prayer and Bible reading.  Many folks are not that disciplined, and drift into disinterest and unbelief.  God does not leave them, but they leave God.

     Worship has, for countless generations, provided the opportunity for God and his people to keep in touch.  Even Jesus went to worship on every Sabbath, ‘as was his custom,’ says Luke 4:16.  Let’s not imagine that we can get along without that which Jesus himself needed. 

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Exodus 20:8  —  Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

Luke 4:16  —  (Jesus) went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.

Hebrews 10:22a…23…25  —  Let us with confidence draw near to God with a sincere heart, in the full assurance of faith… holding to the hope we profess, for he who has promised us is faithful…  And let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another as we see the Day approaching.

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MORNING PRAYER BY JOHN STOTT:

Good morning, Heavenly Father; good morning, Lord Jesus; good morning, Holy Spirit.  Heavenly Father, I worship you, creator and sustainer of the universe.  Lord Jesus, I worship you, Savior and Lord of the world.  Holy Spirit, I worship you, sanctifier of the people of God.  Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. 

Heavenly Father, I pray that I may live this day in your presence and please you more and more.  Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.  Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three persons in one God, have mercy upon me.  Amen.

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