focus on God

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God[a]; believe also in me.

John 14:1

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

John 16:33

I’ve been enjoying the new hymnbook entitled Voices Together. Reading through new hymns and new songs (to me), as well as familiar hymns. And readings in the back, including morning, evening, and night liturgy, with prayers. Other than a Bible, this is the book I have in hand now every day.

What I’ve found is that it helps me get my focus on God, the same way Scripture does. Well, it’s meant to do that, as we raise our voice in songs, hymns and spiritual songs. With helpful readings and prayers in the back. The present day liturgy of the denominations Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA.

On the eve of his crucifixion Jesus was telling his disciples some quite heavy things, not only more than they could wrap their heads around, but more than their hearts could bear. But he told them to believe in God, to believe in him. And to realize that in the midst of their troubles, he had overcome the world.

Scripture is replete with this theme. Trouble real and imagined. There is no end to that. But God wants us to lift our eyes up, off our troubles and onto God and God’s promises. We’re to be transfixed there. We can be either looking at our problems, or at God, one of the two, not both. I am speaking of focus here. It’s not like we’re oblivious to reality. But that’s not where we’re to live. We’re instead to live in God.

God will take care of it. Christ has won. What that means for us is that God wants us to learn to live above circumstances, so to speak. Still owning proper responsibility, but doing so in a way which puts God front and center. A matter of both perspective and expectation. Seeing everything more as God does, and finding God’s priority as well as God’s help. Learning to live in that. In and through Jesus.

the dangers and possibilities of each new day

Listen to my words, Lord,
consider my lament.
Hear my cry for help,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray.

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly.

Psalm 5:1-3

Listen, God! Please, pay attention!
Can you make sense of these ramblings,
my groans and cries?
King-God, I need your help.
Every morning
you’ll hear me at it again.
Every morning
I lay out the pieces of my life
on your altar
and watch for fire to descend.

Psalm 5:1-3; MSG

We as humans are very experiential creatures. And the psalms are lock stocked with the language and sentiment of experience. We often go from lows to highs and then back to lows. Some of us experience this quite pronounced, others of us not that much variation, and probably most of the rest of us somewhere in between.

Psalm 5 is a good passage to remind us how to start each day. I think both the evening before we go to sleep, and the morning when we arise are important in how we do this. To read Scripture, maybe a liturgical prayer book for night (Compline) is good. To arise and be in Scripture and prayer, morning prayer and reading is good. We can’t take for granted that a good day at least in how it worked out will carry over into the next day.

It’s not about us having a good time, and that’s it. Instead it’s about living in God’s grace and all that means in terms of forgiveness of sins and new life, and having the vision to see what God might have us do, or be pleased to help us do in the new day. And even if it’s just filled with the routines of what we have to do, to do that in the breath and love of God.

At any rate, for some of us this is a matter almost of survival, at least of experiencing and living out this salvation from God well. Growing in that. So we have to take this seriously. Every day is God’s and for us that’s a good and ultimately happy prospect. We bring ourselves to God each new day, and look to God for his answer and help to us. In and through Jesus.

Holy Week upon us

We have been taking attending a church which does not practice the church calendar, except for the highest of holy days such as Easter, so that we neither had an Ash Wednesday service, nor is Lent on our radar. I think that’s a loss myself, though I appreciate the church, just the same.

Now Holy Week is upon us, beginning tomorrow with what is traditionally known as Palm Sunday. We remember the Passion, meaning Suffering of our Lord, the way to the cross which was coming to its culmination, followed by the resurrection.

For me it is the most special week of the year. Christmas is just as special in its own way, as we remember the incarnation and birth of our Lord. And actually the entire year is important with reference to the church calendar, just as all in the gospels is important, our Lord’s life and teachings complementing and fulfilling God’s call to Israel as the light of the world. So in a sense there are no non-holy days. And yet there are special times when we remember certain key events that took place, like the Passover followed by the crossing of the children of Israel across the Red Sea.

So today for me will be a preparation for tomorrow, the beginning of Holy Week. We intend to go to a Good Friday service within the tradition we are now a part of. I do miss the traditional liturgy and regular partaking of the Lord’s body and blood. I appreciate the strengths of the church we now attend, but miss the ceremonial aspect of things. And yet, by faith we can enter into a kind of watching and listening, as we meditate from the text of scripture, from the gospel accounts on our Lord’s suffering. And as we pray for ourselves and for those around us, for the world, that we might know this great grace from God in and through Jesus, our Savior and Lord.

the place of the inscripturated word

As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
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.

Isaiah 55:10-11

In Christian creeds, Christians don’t say they believe in the word of God, in scripture. That’s a given. The heart of the Christian message is the gospel, the good news in and through Jesus, which brings in the kingdom of God in the new creation, and begins now through faith and baptism, and in the church.

I believe in more of a sacramental understanding than what I was raised with, which I think is clear enough from scripture, and is at least the dominant position of the tradition of the church, of Christianity through the centuries. However I also identify with a strong emphasis on the word, on scripture, and in teaching the word.

It’s interesting at this point in our lives, we pulled up stakes from the new Anglican church plant in our area, regretfully so for myself, but for good reason, I think. Prompted by my sisters, and encouraged by others, we are now taking our oldest granddaughter to an evangelical church not far from where she lives, which has a good program for the kids year round, teaching them the gospel and from scripture week in and week out.

I have to remember to take my earplugs, but at least the songs present a certain liturgy in themselves in pointing us to God in Jesus. And the church excels in teaching from scripture, even if at this point I’m not (yet) entirely convinced their teaching is Christ and gospel-centered enough. It likely is more than what I might think. Churches with traditionally liturgy by that alone keep the worshiper centered in Jesus and the gospel, pointed as well to the Triune God.

So for the foreseeable future, we are embarked in this new way, which, by the way is in sync with where I work, at Our Daily Bread Ministries. And that is rather fitting in that this is where I’ve lived and grown for years even into decades, and where I largely live now. With a bent toward the gospel in everything, and all that means (not that I understand that, but working toward that), in and through the inscripturated word.

the body and the blood

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Whether we see it as only a memorial, or in some sense an actual participation in the body and blood of our Lord (1 Corinthians 10:16), this is a practice which the church made central for centuries, and I would argue ought to be practiced in some form, weekly in our churches. Due to a needed (I think) emphasis on scripture, and an interpretation which denied anything of the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and the wine, one of the unnecessary, even unfortunate (in my opinion) outcomes of the Reformation, especially so later was to decentralize the Lord’s Table, so that the preaching of the word became central.

The proclamation of the word, and always so in relation to the gospel ought to be central in our church gatherings, as well as in our lives and witness. We are people of God, under God’s authority through the word given through and to the church. The word is essential for our life in God and in this world.

But the point of the word is what must always be kept front and center. The church has been led by God, I believe, or at least has wisely chosen to make the gospel front and center through the Lord’s Table being the climactic end of each service, after which the church is given it’s mission: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Good liturgy helps keep the gospel/good news of God in Jesus central, and that is why I can appreciate a liturgy driven service. The sermon contributes to that, but is not the centerpiece itself. We need to hear the word proclaimed and taught, of course. And its context is always the gospel, as well as our response to the gospel in faith, hope and love.

And so this institution which the Lord established on the night he was betrayed, is to go on until he returns, as a proclamation of his death, as well as a participation in his life. At the heart of our faith and witness.

when we’re tired and worn down

Sometimes we either feel on the edge or pushed over the edge at least a bit. The pressures of life can seem relentless with little or no place to turn. That is when we probably need to slow down, to stop, to be still and quiet. To know that God is God.

Also to read. For me reading scripture and meditating on it, and remaining in it is so key. But just as key is the weekly service of liturgy which includes the scripture readings along with prayers, including corporate confession of sin along with the priest’s absolution, confession of the creed, and together partaking of the Lord’s body and blood in the Eucharist.

Sometimes we simply need that extra physical rest. Maybe a break from normal activities to sleep. We always like those occasional, or in the case of some of us, periodic, but not often enough for most of us get aways. And we need to learn how to do it when the normal routine is still pressing up against us. Not easy, but we do need to find our bearings, our strength in the Lord, learning to wait on him so that we are both strengthened and ennobled. To not only go on, but go on well in and through Jesus.

the need for a greater place in Christendom for Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount

I know this is a tall claim and order, one put out by a person who is not steeped enough in the knowledge of Christendom. In this case what I mean by Christendom is wherever there’s an organized church or group of churches which confess the faith that is in Jesus, the gospel. I think there are exceptions to my complaint here. One such might be the Franciscan Order within the Roman Catholic Church. And of course the Mennonites and Amish along with some other groups like them have done much better in this.

My complaint is that the Sermon on the Mount ought to have a much greater place in our liturgy and thinking. Instead we exalt the psalms, and I’m all for that. I read them once a month. But I’m saying to myself, shouldn’t I be reading Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7); also note Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49) just as much? It is central according to Jesus in how the old covenant is fulfilled in terms of how one lives because of Jesus.

I don’t think this sermon is much on our radar in our thinking. Ever since the church was taken up into worldly power (think, Constantine), at least some of these words, as I read (or heard) somewhere recently, don’t resonate or make sense at all. And so we’re at a great loss. Of course there’s much more to the Sermon on the Mount than its push against worldly power. And I say we need all of scripture along with it. But I would argue that it ought to be front and center in our thinking. And to go over it once a year at best, just doesn’t do.

doing the same thing (day after day)

Life does call for some changes at times, and there are seasons of rest, relaxation and recreation, or at least spots of that in the summer on vacations. But by and large life consists of everyday things, doing much the same thing day after day. The escape of course is weekends, when you can at least do something different, even if you are still busy.

It has been said that the reason the Beatles were so good when they were discovered at least outside of Great Britain is that they had played music together, and played and played again (some 1,200 live performances). And by the time they reached arguably their creative peak, they had likely practiced for 10,000 hours which is said to be the amount of time needed for one to master their craft.

I think there’s a lot of strength in the same liturgy Sunday after Sunday in church. Every church does have its liturgy, even if that consists primarily only in the songs and hymns which are sung, but I refer here to churches which are liturgically oriented, whose service is scripted in accordance with and from scripture as well as tradition. And I also think there’s strength in doing the same thing day after day. For some it’s to do the morning and evening reading from the Book of Common Prayer. I think this can be a great benefit and I would like to do that someday myself. For others of us it is to regularly be in the word of God and prayer. What we do shapes us and in a way what we do is what we become. If we sit and take in inane entertainment day after day, we might even get good at it, but that is what we become in some way, shape or form.

I am a believer in doing the same things day after day, year after year, perhaps making some helpful modifications along the way, but doing those things regardless of how we feel or what our circumstances are. And for me, going through scripture, both the Old and New Testaments both through reading and meditation are essentials. From that practice I pray. And more and more I appreciate tradition and prayers of the church.

Many in the evangelical tradition have their “personal devotions.” A quiet time with the Lord every day, usually the morning or whenever it suits or works best for someone. It is vitally important that what we do in terms of the faith is centered on God himself, and God’s will for us in Jesus by the Spirit. Such a practice should never replace the reading of all of scripture. . We need to read and keep reading and then read again. We have to work at not drifting away from this on weekends or during vacations, when we are free from our everyday routines, the things we have to do. We have to figure out how we can carry on during those times, perhaps in a modified form.

That is who we are and why we keep doing those things. From the fact that we became that in large part from doing them regularly in the first place. All in the grace of our God in and through Jesus.

Lent and the breaking of old habits and establishing of new

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. And the emphasis during Lent is on repentance and sacrifice. If you’re serious about Lent, then you should be serious about following the Lord in the way of the cross, even somehow becoming like him in his death. Except of course we need ongoing forgiveness of sins and mortification, the putting to death of the flesh or sinful nature. So that our following of our Lord, while akin to him in some ways, is more in terms of what it means for a disciple to follow him as did his disciples of old.

Lent therefore can be a precursor or season to facilitate change in our lives. Helping us break old habits and establish new ones.

After Lent on the church calendar is Easter season toward Ascension day, then Pentecost and something like normal or regular time. Each season has its place in keeping the gospel front and center, keeping us grounded in that through prayer and the reading of scripture. It is good to have a 40 day period we call Lent in which we look to the cross, to our Lord’s journey to Jerusalem with his disciples following, to his suffering and death and what that means for us in our salvation, not only forgiveness, but change and a new way of life in the newness of life that Jesus brings.

keeping the gospel front and center (in our experience in an Anglican church plant)

Deb and I are involved in an Anglican church plant where we live, in the heart of the city of Grand Rapids. It has been an interesting experience, although I hope the experience continues on and grows exponentially over time in seeing a church established and disciples or true followers of Jesus made. The Anglican Church has ties, one might say even roots into both Protestantism and Catholicism. So that depending on the church, it can more of less take on the flavor of either. What is distinctive in Anglicanism from evangelicalism, it seems to me, is that through liturgy (the service is liturgical) and the Lord’s Table (or the Eucharist, Holy Communion) the gospel of God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus is always front and center, or at least not far removed from the service. The priest/pastor preaching the word is important, perhaps equally important along with the rest. But again the liturgy rooted in the Book of Common Prayer and in or under the influence of the Great Tradition along with “Holy Eucharist” keeps the redemptive work of King Jesus front and center.

Our last evangelical church actually did that probably more than any other church I’ve been a part of. And my experience in evangelical churches has been good. The word has been faithfully preached, the churches being true to the gospel. The difference in where we are now is that this is at the heart of each service, so that it is hopefully the heart beat. We are both confronted with the truth and claims of the gospel and we are also blessed with its promises. All as part of the service. So that the preaching or teaching of the word is no longer front and center, but rather part of the whole, having its place, indeed an important place in the service. While the service is vitally important, of equal importance is the common life that is to follow. We are the people of God not just as individuals, but together as a whole. We are family in and through our Brother Jesus. And in Jesus we are on mission, each of us having our part in this world as witnesses of Jesus, as those who live with the goal of keeping the gospel front and center in all of life.