Did the Eclipse Prompt You to Reflect?

Recently, the moon totally eclipsed the sun even though the far more distant sun is 1000 times larger than the moon. It was a rare spectacle.

Advance notice of this phenomenon brought people from far and near — tens of thousands of them — to be under the total eclipse’s charted path all across America, and to witness the phenomenon.

How could it be known almost to the second where the total eclipse would manifest itself at any particular time of that day? And that the total eclipse in every case would last for two minutes?

The moon performed magnificently.

One telecaster, microphone in hand, moved among a crowd of viewers sprawled across a large area in Oregon, asking: What word describes it for you?” One after another said with enthusiasm, “Awesome.” “Awesome.” Awesome.” Awesome was the only word that seemed adequate.

Awesome: “Causing feelings of fear, or wonder, or awe.” Or “causing overwhelming feelings of reverence.”

For Christians, our awe at the mystery and magnificence of the heavenly bodies is amplified dramatically by the opening words of the Scriptures: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1).

God exists, and the universe he spoke into splendid order exists. Both sun and moon are his doing. Verse one of Genesis 1 is like the topic sentence of the Bible.

The Bible quickly takes us beyond the heavenly bodies themselves to insist that a Divine Mind creates and sustains the order of Nature and He, maker of sun and moon and everything else, is to be worshiped.

The prophet Jeremiah prays, “Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17). Think of that!

Or turning to the hymnbook of the ancient church, the Psalter, we come across these words to guide us in our reflection: “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2).

We cross into the New Testament and find the call to reflection on God’s creation becomes even more revealing. Consider, for example, a portion of the Apostle Paul’s hymn to the supremacy of Christ:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him” (Colossians 1:15,16).

The crowds that gathered all across America on August 21 of this year with their special glasses and picture-taking devices dispersed as quickly as they gathered. I assume some will reflect again and again on what they viewed. It was spectacular. Others will perhaps soon forget the wonder of the moment and go on to other things.

May those who enjoy the wonders of nature also treasure their Creator and his revelation to humankind through the coming of our Redeemer, Jesus the Christ, recalling with awe that “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3)

Photo credit: Bernd Thaller (via flickr.com)

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Learning to Prime Your Praise Pump

During Winter in the 1930’s the tap water in the Saskatchewan town where I grew up was occasionally undrinkable because it gave off an unpleasant odor. Mother had a solution and she made me a part of it.

In the center of a vacant lot two blocks from our house was a hand-operated pump that sank its pipes into a deep well. During those days of special need my mother would hand me a pail into which she had poured about a quart of hot water. I was to go to the well.

She knew that when I got there, the pump’s handle would likely be limp. It couldn’t create suction to raise water from below because when the pump was not in use a leather gasket that surrounded the piston would have dried out quickly and thus be unable to create a seal.

I would pour hot water into the top of the pump; the water would trickle down and moisten the gasket and cause it gradually to swell.

After I had poured and pumped a few times, up from the depths came a teasing spurt or two, then a slight trickle and finally with every strong thrust on the pump handle a continuous rush of cool pure water would pour forth.

The water was always available but drawing it up and into my pail took time and effort.

I consider that boyhood experience as a metaphor for the way we must sometimes prime the pump to bring forth praises to the Lord when faith seems dry and without lifting power.

All believers have such listless times. Circumstances can beat us down — unresolved family conflict, insufficient sleep, regrets over a missed opportunity, even the pain of an unpleasant relationship. Such reverses pile up, blocking the flow of praises to our Heavenly Father.

If this fits your case here are a couple of ways to prime the pump of praises.

First, concentrate your faith, however feeble, on a selected verse of Scripture. Here’s one of hundreds you could choose: But from everlasting to everlasting, the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children (Psalm 103:17).

Let your faith take hold of this passage with resolve. Repeat it again and again until it becomes centered in your consciousness. Ponder it. Turn it into a prayer. Say it when retiring at night and rising in the morning. It could make praises automatic.

Here’s a second strategy: Look carefully and you may see that what praises you offer are often offered to the Father in large pre-packaged lumps. You’re thankful for your family and your job and your friends and that’s about it. Instead, try breaking up your prayers into small units and fill them out in detail. Let your faith visit special ministries where your prayers are needed.

It may not be just your family you’re grateful for, it may be your sister and two brothers and a whole raft of cousins. Name them. Name the ministries too. Take time to give thanks. Use your God-given imagination. In all likelihood the praises you raise will prompt other praises. It’s like priming the pump.

You may be surprised at how such initially “mechanical” priming of praises can prompt the further flow of gratitude to the Lord. Outdoor pumps can flow steadily even on cold days after they’re primed, and so, too, can our God-given praise pumps.

Photo credit: Julia Maudlin (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: Of Turkey Legs and Left-Over Scraps

At a big family dinner, savory dishes began the rounds. When the platter, heavy with turkey, came to eight-year-old Luke, he took enough for himself and then pulled onto his plate a large browned turkey leg.

His mother noticed and asked, “Luke, what are you going to do with all that?” Pointing to the leg he said, “That’s for Buster.”

As his mother returned the leg to the platter she said, “You can’t take a turkey leg for your dog. Wait until after the meal and we’ll give you lots of scraps for him.”

When the meal was over, Luke was heard to say to Buster, “Here’s something for you. I thought I was going to bring you an offering but all I’ve got is a collection.”

For those who lead in the Sunday morning worship of God, it’s good to ask from time to time, are the gifts we place in the plates treated like offerings or collections?

In other words, how do we treat the time in the service when we receive the worshiper’s gifts? Is it an intermission from worship in order to collect up “leftovers” to look after mundane matters like paying the pastor and repairing the church van? That would be a collection.

Or is that time a high moment of worship in its own right? Do the worshipers think of themselves as giving not to the plate, or even the church, but to God Himself, our Heavenly Father? Are they giving it as a portion of what he has entrusted to them as his stewards? And is their participation in this part of the service as much a moment of worship as when they bow their heads to say The Lord’s Prayer or settle to hear God’s word preached? If so, that would be an offering.

I love to remember the sight of ushers receiving the Sunday morning offering at the last church I served. It took twelve ushers to receive the congregations gifts, three ushers on each side aisle and six in the middle. When it was received, the ushers gathered at the back of the center aisle, assembled the plates into four stacks, and then four ushers walked in formation to place the plates on the communion table. The congregation stood and sang the Doxology.

How the pastor frames the giving of tithes and offerings has a lot to do with how seriously the congregation, young and old, worship in the giving of their gifts. And it may determine whether a congregation gives collections or offerings.

For the pastor, it should be a theological issue of great importance. Is the worship of the Triune God what we do in a service only when we sing or pray? Or is everything we do in a service an act of worship — including announcements and offering?

What pastors teach a congregation from week to week out of their own reservoir of truth becomes what the congregation learns to hold true also. It is to be hoped that pastors often resolve on behalf of their people: “No collection mentalities around here; no more timeouts in worship to look after paying the bills.” Only offerings.

Every congregation needs to think of presenting tithes and offerings into the care of the church as a sanctifying moment. To sanctify means to set apart to God. It is an act of thanksgiving and trust – thanksgiving that God out of his provident care has made the gifts possible, and trust that the officers of the church will dispense the gifts prayerfully and with diligence.

What a clever distinction eight-year-old Luke made between collections and offerings. And how aptly the distinction can be applied to the stewardship moment in every worship service. If what we put into the offering plate is the leftover scraps from the week – what we can spare after all other needs have been met — it is a collection. If it is the first fruits, right off the top, set aside to be given with joy, it is an offering.

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Photo credit: motoyen (via flickr.com)

Re-post: The Little White Church on Third Street

(Note: This is not the actual church!)

The congregation that gathered in the little white church on Third Street in Estevan in the 1930s loved to sing. My mother had a rich contralto voice and my father a pleasant, light tenor. Elsewhere in the congregation one could pick up additional voices, sopranos carrying the tune and two or three men booming out the bass.

At one period in my childhood, once a year our minister exchanged pulpits with the Baptist preacher in town. I remember his saying to our congregation that he loved to preach at the Free Methodist church just so he could hear the people sing.

From 1910 forward there was the little black hymn book without musical notes. Later during my childhood a book with notes was added called the Worship In Song – a good collection of gospel songs. The hymn book was used for morning worship and the gospel song book was for less formal Sunday evening services.

Much simpler choruses were reserved for Sunday School. Their lyrics were generally not as good as today’s more Bible-based words, although some of the earlier choruses have been shown to have staying power. There was “Deep and Wide,” and “Wide, Wide as the Ocean” which many can still hum.

Then there was the more novel action chorus: “Dig them up, get them gone/ all the little rabbits in the fields of corn;/ envy, jealousy, malice, pride,/ and all the other sins that in my heart abide.”

There was neither organ nor piano, even though Ruth Holmgren was an excellent pianist and had her piano teacher’s certificate, from the Toronto Conservatory. There were no guitars or brass instruments or drum sets. No choirs. No public address system or microphones. Our singing was a cappella, and it was always hearty.

The absence of what was sometimes referred to humorously as “the wooden brother” (the piano), and choirs, traced back to historical realities at the time the Free Methodist Church came into being as a denomination at the mid-1800s. Choirs, the leaders saw, had become centers of pride, conflict, and formality in the mother body. The founding fathers said the new body would do better without such distractions in worship. That may have been extreme but necessary at the time.

The minister simply announced a hymn, someone “raised the tune” and the congregation was off, singing their hearts out to the glory of God. This congregation of the Prairies was made up of business people, housewives, auto mechanics, and farmers. One member, Pete Holmgren, was the mayor of Estevan for a period. His son, Cliff, was the volunteer driver of the larger of two fire trucks.

If there was “special music” a quartet might go forward, stand behind the pulpit, hum a note and sing. On occasion there was a second or even third start because the pitch wasn’t right or the lead singer had momentarily strayed from the tune, but the false start, except for a moment’s embarrassment, did not seem to be a lasting concern for anyone. And those numbers were usually excellent. It was all a part of the emphasis on simplicity in worship.

It was in this environment that I developed a strong sense of pitch and learned early to sing all four parts by reading the notes in the Worship In Song. I can still close my eyes, and hear my home congregation singing with verve in all parts that more complex gospel song, “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.” How the men loved to boom out the moving line in the chorus!

On a few occasions, my younger sister, Eunice, and I were put forward to sing together, usually in Sunday School. I was about eight and she five. She had a sweet, true soprano voice and I could sing an alto by ear. This was unusual enough that the congregation approved heartily. At that time, there were no commercial cassettes or CDs or DVDs to be measured against, and no high-fidelity public address systems to enhance the sound. We were appreciated as home grown talent.

The lack of musical instruments in the little white church on Third Street seemed only to enhance love for music. I grew up with a passion to become a gospel singer as a vocation (later revised to becoming a minister with musical ministries on the side). And my sister became a piano teacher and mothered a musically well-trained family of four.

I cherish this simple but earnest heritage. At the same time, I can see that it would not meet my current needs or those of my extended family. That heritage was for those times, those people, and that place. Life moves on and so does church culture.

I only pray that whatever the future changes in public worship, one thing will not be lost: the keen and uncomplicated sense I absorbed on the prairies of Saskatchewan, that “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” As I see it, that’s what every aspect of public worship should be about – from the opening greetings to the offertory to the number before the sermon and the closing prayer.

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The Church’s Oldest Song Book

2143980427_c96f3ee879_m“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want … ” When a minister recites these memorable words before a congregation grieving a tragedy that has struck them, that minister is repeating a psalm that has comforted God’s dear children for more than 3000 years.

Psalm 23 is attributed to David, the shepherd king, and has been recited across the centuries in public worship by those rich in faith or whispered in lonely places by the imprisoned, sick, forlorn or betrayed. The shepherd psalm has great power to inspire faith.

But it’s just one of 150 psalms, though likely the best known and most loved of them all. There are many more in this ancient collection that give renewed strength to go on. For example, “The Lord is my light and my salvation — / whom shall I fear? / The Lord is the stronghold of my life — / of whom then shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1).

You may be curious as I am to know how God used humans to bring this collection of his inspired word into existence. No one knows for sure but one possibility is that Cyrus, ruler of Persia played a role. Late in the sixth century B.C. God moved him to give permission to the exiled people of Israel to return to their native land with the weighty task of rebuilding their demolished temple and restoring their practices of worship.

Certain Jewish patriots among them must have asked from whence would the worship music come for this rebuilding. It is possible that Ezra, the priest, saw the need and set about sorting the thousands of sacred poems of the nation to arrive at the 150 finally chosen.

Another possibility is that a company of cult-prophets may have anticipated the need and set into motion the search, and it was they who did the sorting.

Whatever the case, we know the psalter has selections from many sources composed across more than 1000 years. Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses. At least 73 of the 150 psalms are attributed to David, who lived three centuries later. It is believed some psalms were even composed after the exile.

In the 16th century A.D., Martin Luther called the Psalter “The Bible in miniature.” As such, it holds a special relationship to both Old and New Testaments. For example, there are 207 verses from the Old Testament quoted in the New Testament, and 116 of these are from the Psalms.

The psalms are unmatched instruments for worship. Consider how our Lord leaned on them for strength. At the close of his last meal with his disciples, he and the eleven sang together the Hallel, Psalms 113–118. From his cross, and feeling abandoned, our Lord Jesus chose to cry out in the opening words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Despite all this history, we sometimes neglect the psalms, perhaps because they may not meet our sense of what poetry should be.

If this is the case for you, it may help you to understand that in their construction, Hebrew poems follow the major principle of parallelism. That is, a second line often repeats the sense of the first using different words: “I will extol the Lord at all times; / his praise will always be on my lips.” (Psalm 34:1). Or a second line may complete the first line: “Save me, O God, / for the waters have come up to my neck” (Psalm 69:1). There are other variations of parallelisms but this may give you a start.

The themes of the psalms are diverse, yet, diverse as they are, they are gathered together under one title. The word, “psalms” in the Hebrew language means “praises.” The psalms are meant to help us reduce to worship all of life’s experiences — the good and the bad — and in all circumstances to praise the Majesty of Heaven who is always accessible to his people.

It is always good for believers to say, “The Lord is MY Shepherd,” because the God of the psalms has declared himself a personal presence to us and has proven his trustworthiness throughout the ages. So we turn to this rich source of worship to “praise” the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whether our faith is ripe and growing, or life’s wounds have left us with situations we don’t understand.

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Photo credit: Josh (via flickr.com)

Bring Your Own Firewood

FireI once read about a church in Africa that followed Sunday morning worship with the celebratory, communal lighting of a large bonfire. The pastor explained that the members of the congregation walked long distances to get to church and they brought the firewood with them.

This is an analogy to pose the question: When we in the West go to church, do we just show up, or do we take pains even before arriving to gather up and bring with us something to support the flames?

My reflections about public worship are somewhat in phase with the picture of worshipers walking to church from a distance, carrying with them their wood for the bonfire.

How so? In our home in Saskatchewan in the late 1920s, Saturday evenings were given over to preparations for worship the next morning. We little children were scrubbed squeaky clean. Potatoes were peeled, adults’ shoes shined, Sunday clothes laid out, etc. The Lord’s Day and worship were very much anticipated by these Saturday evening preparations. Something important was in the offing and it was like gathering up symbolic firewood for next day.

In his new book, The Gift of Rest, Senator Joe Lieberman describes how he and his wife get ready to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath. Detailed preparations begin the evening before. Then, the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday, is observed as a rest from labor celebrating the completion of God’s creation – on the seventh day God’s work of creating was finished and he rested (Genesis 2:2,3).

For the Liebermans the day itself has both community and family rituals that fill the celebration with meaning. His book is not about sleeping in or catching up the unfinished chores of the week. It appears to be about a celebration which turns the thoughts away from earthly things and gives the soul a rest. It serves as a marker for the whole week.

We Christians celebrate Sunday rather than Saturday as the Lord’s Day, but Sunday is a special marker of the week for us too. We gather with other believers for worship on the Lord’s Day and these weekly gatherings are extremely important markers on the path of life. Important enough to slow the week’s pace on Saturday evening to gather up some kindling to feed the flames of devotion and joy in public worship on Sunday — Resurrection Day! Joy!

We may not light bonfires in church yards to celebrate and symbolize our faith when we gather. But there are things we can do to quicken our sense of the warmth of God’s love when we gather — like setting aside time to offer prayers Saturday night for God’s blessing on the Day’s gatherings, or moving the chores of preparation to Saturday night to reduce from Sunday morning the rush of getting ready, or even making a point to arrive at church early enough to have a quiet time of meditation before the service begins.

The Lord always awaits the gathering of his people. But how much we get by way of renewal and spiritual warmth from that meeting can be greatly affected by how much we intentionally bring to it.

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Insights From My Upcoming Book

WorshipFor many years I have had a great concern for the quality of corporate worship in evangelical churches. In my soon-to-be-published book, The Pastor’s First Love, I explore this idea from several angles. Here are a couple of paragraphs on this subject, adapted from the book:

“But what happens when an elevated vision of God no longer dominates every part of corporate worship? Worship may then become a combination of the refined and the trite – or even the utterly casual (“bring your coffee with you”). Congregations may still enjoy being together, but a serious malnutrition of the spirit sets in. The horizontal lines of human fellowship may remain intact but they will lack the bonding that grows from a humble sense of the great price Jesus Christ paid to redeem us.

“And the vertical lines of adoration and awe will weaken. Worship leaders may become verbose because the whole event is not regulated by a deep sense of reverence. Style dominates substance, and worship and entertainment become intermixed. Ultimately God’s people leave the event lacking the cleansing and renewing effect of true worship.

“The essence of worship is reflected in the cry of the Heavenly Beings in Isaiah’s temple revelation: ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory’ (Isaiah 6:3). It is reflected in the declaration of Peter when Jesus asked, ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter replied in a flash of holy insight, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ (Matthew 16:16).”

It is my opinion that if churches of many denominational origins are going to stand ready to offer hope to our culture in its current and future times of testing, they must recover a deeper sense of corporate worship when they gather. Let us pray together to that end.

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