Is Regular Church Attendance Good for My Health?

An article on the internet this week makes reference to “hundreds if not thousands” of studies that have been done to explore connections between church attendance and health and longevity.

The findings are positive. For example, one study indicated that people who attend church regularly show lower stress in their lives and tend to live longer.

From infancy onward I was in church twice on Sunday with parents and sister. At 16 years of age, I tried to win freedom to make up my own mind about church attendance but my disciplinarian mother insisted that attending church was non-negotiable as long as I was at home.

Even after leaving home to work in another community I continued the practice into my late teens and young adulthood and then, of course, also during my years as a pastor and overseer. Throughout these years, gathering with God’s people on Sundays has been a joy.

Seven months ago, at age 91, I found myself in the hospital diagnosed with a smouldering form of leukemia. It took a few months to get back on my feet, and two setbacks interrupted my regular church attendance.

In those months I missed more Sundays than I attended. But the love to meet with God’s people in the worship of God in Christ remains unabated.

Last week, and again this week, we have reinstated our regular attendance. When our pastor begins the service with, “Let us stand for the call to worship,” I hear that call with greater intensity. I hear it as a summons to believers of diverse backgrounds, occupations, ages and ethnicities, to worship the Almighty — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — as one people.

We sang hymns and spiritual songs with fresh awareness. The prayers of the people were led by a layperson. Announcements were made to bring the congregation up to date on activities and interests; the children sang for us jubilantly; we presented our offerings, and the pastor gave a message from God on the power of Pentecost.

She had obviously spent significant time preparing it. As a pastor I had prepared fresh Sunday morning messages for many years. I knew the cost of preparation. I knew of the pastoral heart behind it. Her message was biblical. It was Christ-honoring.

There was something in it for me and I assume for others who had come to the gathering with their joys, perplexities or even sorrows. Anyone present who needed salvation would sense the call of the Spirit.

By the time the service was over, I felt in fresh touch with God my Creator and Sustainer of 91 years. The service was dismissed and there were handshakes and hugs. Worshipers showed evidence of joy as they dispersed.

Was this all really health-giving for me? For others in attendance? It appears that statisticians would say yes, and I would agree drawing on my own experience.

Jesus spoke to all people of all ages when he said, “For where two or three come together in my name there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). How inviting! How could public worship weekly giving thanks to God and shared with a company of his followers mean anything but health to both body and soul?

Photo credit: John Twohig (via flickr.com)

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How Our Worries Are to Give Way to Peace

We grieve in the night over a relationship broken irretrievably decades ago. We imagine a long-range missile flying from North Korea towards Los Angeles. We also stress about looming mortgage payment deadlines, the threat of unemployment, street shootings in a nearby city, the meaning of campus unrest, and even political corruption. Such worries rob us of the peace of God.

There is a formula in the New Testament that addresses such debilitating fretfulness and offers an assurance of God’s care and protection. It is written by a man who is in jail. He knows that even as he writes the authorities may be deciding whether he should be released — or executed. His name is Paul.

Here’s his formula and its promised result as found in the New Living Translation: 

Don’t worry about anything; instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace which is far more wonderful than the human mind can fathom. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

Consider a breakdown of his advice.

First, we take inventory of the issues that hold our minds hostage. The operative word in Paul’s instruction is “anything.” We must leave nothing out lest what we omit becomes like “rust” that keeps the prayer wheels from turning freely.

Second, turn every worry into a prayer. Tell God what is on your mind, and what you need. This can be in a quiet, worshipful way, or it can be intense as you cry out from a heart in anguish.

We can do this in our times of devotional prayer, during a bout of insomnia, or as we drive the highway to work. The more constant our prayers, the greater our reliance on God and his response to us.

Third, make sure that thanksgiving is the unifying attitude. Giving thanks tempers our anxieties. We give thanks even as we present our petitions. Thanksgiving is to be like a prayer rug that underlays all our prayers from beginning to end.

And now for the result: Paul assures us that our prayers will be followed by the peace of God, beyond our comprehension!

However, he does not promise that this peace of God will necessarily obliterate or remove what assails us. When we open our eyes the threats may still be there. But he does promise God’s peace will post a guard around us, like an army of angels. This peace will at the same time clear our thinking and calm our hearts.

Paul offers this gift of peace to us in Christ Jesus who is our Savior and Lord. It is from our blessed position in Christ that we inventory our worries, pray them out to God, and receive his peace.

Photo credit: Jason Lander (via flickr.com)

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The Fruit of Our Faith May Live on Past Our Lifetime

Hannah presenting her son Samuel to the priest Eli, ca. 1665. By Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Public Domain

Elkanah, a man in ancient Israel, had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Peninnah had sons and daughters, but Hannah, Elkanah’s favorite, lived with the intense emotional pain of childlessness.

Back then, married women were expected to produce children. Otherwise, people wondered what they might have done to invite God’s disfavor. Childlessness brought anguish and humiliation.

Peninnah, the second wife, was particularly cruel to Hannah. She scorned her to her face and made snide comments and stinging verbal jabs at every opportunity.

Elkanah tried to console Hannah. He asked her, “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” This reassurance did not ease her sadness.

Each year, Elkanah, Hannah, Peninnah, and her children would travel to a place called Shiloh, to worship. At one of their visits Peninnah’s abuse was particularly disturbing. During one mealtime Hannah wept, left her food uneaten, and went to the tabernacle nearby to pray. She would pour out her distress to Jehovah.

“Jehovah,” she prayed, “if you will look with mercy upon me and give me a son, I’ll return him to you for all the days of his life . . .”

The aged priest, Eli, sitting nearby, saw her lips moving but heard no audible voice as she prayed. He rebuked her, thinking she was drunk. She corrected him, and he blessed her.

Returning to the table she had left, she ate and her spirits lifted. She believed that the Almighty God of Israel had heard her prayers and that he would answer them.

In time, the special son, Samuel, was born. And so, in keeping with her promise, soon after little Samuel was weaned she surrendered him to the care and training of Eli for temple service “all the days of his life.”

Every Sunday School child has heard the outcome of Hannah’s vow to Jehovah: Samuel grew up and became a prophet and Israel’s last and finest judge. He served the nation with integrity and two books of the Old Testament carry his name. His long life of service was exceptional.

Hannah, on the other hand, is named in only two chapters of the Old Testament. But her story will never be forgotten. In a way that may have been little-noticed at the time, the fruit of her faith made a great contribution to the unfolding story of redemption, and for that we honor her memory. To this day, many women carry her name.

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What Makes Sunday A Special Day for Christians?

The Road to Emmaus by Robert Zünd, 1877

Last week I explained to two of my great-grandchildren why the day of rest and worship shifted from Saturday for the Jews to Sunday for Christians: Sunday was the day our Lord rose from the dead.

I then reviewed for them, and other family members around the table the following Christian certainties under-girding the Lord’s Day:

On Friday of Holy Week our Lord’s brutalized body was hastily placed in a tomb because the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday, and the work of his burial was forbidden from then until after sundown on Saturday.

Thus for a part of three days: Friday, all of Saturday and the early part of Sunday, our Lord had been entombed.

At daybreak Sunday morning the Jewish Sabbath was over and several deeply grieving and devoted women, all followers of Jesus, went to the tomb with spices, in order to finish the burial rites.

Adding to their grief and distress, they found the tomb open and empty. Two of the women rushed back to Jerusalem to report this to the disciples.

Mary Magdalene stayed behind. As she stood weeping beside the tomb, she was addressed by ‘someone’ standing near the tomb. She rebuked him, thinking he was the gardener and that perhaps he had moved the body elsewhere.

But when the Lord Himself answered back, “Mary,” she fell at his feet and cried out, “Rabboni” — Teacher!

This is why Mary was the first witness to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

After that first early morning appearance to Mary Magdalene, Jesus appeared in the afternoon to two disconsolate men walking the Emmaus road leading away from Jerusalem. At nightfall he appeared for the third time that day, this time to frightened disciples huddled within a locked room in fear for their lives.

Of course he subsequently appeared to many more before his ascension into heaven. But that first Sunday was Resurrection Day, a day unmatched by any other in history.

Our Lord’s resurrection from death on Sunday makes that day, rather than Saturday, the Lord’s Day of rest and corporate worship.

Whether in cathedrals, storefronts, sod huts, or even secret hiding places, Christians raise their voices together in song and prayer to celebrate Jesus’ living presence with his people.

That conversation with family was short but memorable. The children learned about the special reason for the Lord’s Day, perhaps for the first time, and the adults reviewed the conviction together with them.

Sunday is a day to rest from our labors, to gather for worship with a company of his people, and to say again with conviction, “The Lord is risen indeed!”

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What Two Children Learned About Sunday

At our house one Sunday recently a family gathering included two of our great-grandchildren, Jesse, 9, and Rebekah, 8.

I decided to begin our mealtime with a brief question for the children:

What makes Sunday, such a special day for Christians? And why do we call Sunday the Lord’s Day?

Jesse quickly cited the creation story of Genesis 1 explaining that God made the world in six days and on the seventh day he rested from his labors and that is what we are to do also.

Rebekah agreed — both of them reflecting teaching they had received in their home and at Sunday School.

Both children were engaged so I decided to add some building blocks to the foundation their parents and teachers had already laid down.

I noted that Saturday, the seventh day of the week, is still the Holy Day observed by devout Jews, but we Christians set aside for special observance Sunday instead, the first day of the week.

Interest around the table even for the adults was keen so I reviewed for all of us that a day of rest from our labors is still required for Christians in the Ten Commandments: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

But, I went on: for us Christians Sunday is not only a day of rest from our labors; it is also a special day to gather for the worship of our Living Lord. He rose from the grave on a Sunday! That’s why we gather and we call it the Lord’s Day.

For most Christians that is how Saturday, the original Sabbath Day of Rest, became Sunday — both a day of rest and the Lord’s Day. There are hints in the Scriptures that this shift of days was beginning even when the New Testament was coming into being (Acts 20: 6-12; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; Revelation 1:10).

The interlude with the children around our table was a memorable moment for our family gathering. We then followed the brief exchange by giving thanks for the food and enjoying lively family fellowship over our Lord’s Day evening meal.

Photo credit: Jason Lander (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: The Mother of Methodism

Susanna WesleySusanna Wesley is sometimes referred to as the Mother of Methodism. She played no active part in the movement but raised the sons, John and Charles, who led it. She was an unusually intelligent, gifted, and attractive woman. There is ample historical evidence to bear this out. While still in her teens she knew Latin, Greek and French. As a youth she had steeped herself in theology. She was also a deeply involved mother. She stands high among the women of the Eighteenth Century.

She gave birth to 19 children in 21 years, although only ten of them lived to adulthood, seven girls and three boys. Along with her husband, she raised this family in an impoverished parish in the county of Lincolnshire, on the eastern side of the England north of London. It was the Fen Country, an area that had to be repeatedly drained because it was surrounded on three sides by rivers that periodically flooded. Most people of the area were rude and illiterate and did not take well to “intruders.” Some of them were vicious in their attacks on the Wesley household, both verbally and physically. This was the environment in which the Wesley children were raised.

Susanna’s husband, Samuel, was brilliant, a serious scholar and a faithful vicar, but a man who was not skilled in avoiding conflict. Nor did he handle the family’s sparse income well. And he did not seem to have strong child rearing instincts. She herself confessed to son John that, “’tis an unhappiness peculiar to our family that your father and I seldom think alike.”

So what were Susanna’s rules for raising the ten children who lived? John asked her for them and she complied in a long letter. Years later, July 24, 1732, he incorporated the letter into his journal. Her rules are detailed and fascinating.

For example, in raising children she notes that “the first thing to be done is to conquer their will, and bring them to an obedient temper.” (Two centuries later James Dobson qualified the idea by saying children’s wills must be conquered without wounding their spirits.) Her rationale for this first principle? She writes, “religion is nothing else than doing the will of God, and not our own” and explains that “As self-will is the root of all sin and misery, so whatever cherishes this in children insures their after-wretchedness and irreligion.” That is why she was determined at the outset to insist on obedience as a first principle.

She also explains that she taught the children to be courteous in speech, to cry softly, and, at the same time, she enforced the rule that they would never get anything they cried for. She taught them to pray, and to distinguish the Sabbath from other days. (Remember that she came from devout Puritan stock). She explains that she created her own schoolroom in which the children were taught to read. She insisted that “no girl be taught to work (sewing, scrubbing, etc.) till she can read very well.” Illiteracy was widespread in the community but not in the rectory. Later the girls were taught to work with the same application and thoroughness.

Some students of the Eighteenth Century complain that children were treated as though they were no more than little adults. There may be some truth to that. Thus, they argue that Susanna’s rules are unacceptable for us today. But that is not always the response of those in our day who become acquainted with them.

Some years ago I was invited to be the speaker at a Baptist Parent-Teacher meeting. I decided I would introduce the audience to Susanna Wesley’s rules for child rearing, so I made copies as handouts. Even so, I was apprehensive that modern parents might react negatively because present ideas and practices for child-rearing are much more permissive. So I decided that I would distribute the Wesley rules, use them as the basis for my talk, and then gather them up afterwards.

The parents, mostly mothers, were fascinated and would not hear of it. They were avid about keeping their copies. My apprehension dissolved. It was as though Susanna’s words spoke to a felt need in the midst of today’s uncertainties about child-rearing.

Good child rearing practices are not a guarantee that children will make the wisest of decisions when they reach adulthood. And environment does have a bearing on how children come to their maturity. There were disappointments in the Wesley family especially among the girls. But these cannot diminish the mark Susanna Wesley left on the world through her devout and careful child-rearing practices. Her three clergymen sons, Samuel, John, and Charles, bear witness.

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Is God Everywhere?

Five-year-old Charlie sat on his father’s knee peppering him with questions. The toughest of them: How can God be at our house and at Grandma and Grandpa’s a Long drive away at the same time?

Touching Charlie’s shoulder gently his father asked, “Are you here?” “Yes,” the boy answered.

Then he touched his son’s knee, asking the same question: “Are you here?” Again, Charlie answered, “Yes.”

“If you can be everywhere in your body at the same time,” his father continued, “why can’t God be everywhere in his world at the same time?” Charlie seemed satisfied and went on to something else.

But this five year-old’s question is more challenging than at first appears. That is, in this almost immeasurably vast universe can God be where the Northern Lights shine brightly and at the same time in the semi-darkness of the rainforests in Brazil?

It’s an issue that stretches our faith, yet our Scriptures bear witness repeatedly to this “everywhereness” of God. The theological term is “omnipresence.”

For example, the Psalmist, David, prayed: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths you are there. (Psalm 139:7,8).

From the wisdom literature of the Old Testament comes another assurance: The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the evil and the good. (Proverbs 15:3).

Jeremiah speaks God’s words as his prophet: “Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the Lord. “Do not I fill heaven and earth? (Jeremiah 23:24).

Eighty years ago in Sunday School back in Saskatchewan we children were taught a little chorus that went like this:

“Be careful little hands what you do; be careful little hands what you do. There’s a Father up above, and he’s looking down in love, so be careful little hands what you do.” (also mouth what you say; etc.).

The conviction that God is everywhere is reassuring for those of us who live under the Lordship of Jesus. The Proverbs declare: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, watching the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3).

Our God is everywhere! There is nowhere he is not. So, we are never out of the range of his watchful eye and his loving care.

Believing this truth does us good in two ways: it sharpens our consciences to resist evil and enriches our faith to trust in his care wherever we may be.

Photo credit: Eduard V. Kurganov (via flickr.com)

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