The Good Life

This week Monday was my 46th birthday. Birthdays are a great time to reflect on all the ways that God has blessed. Psalm 119:1-16 is a great Psalm to start to the week. Had you ever thought before about what is a blessed life? When I woke up on Monday morning to my wife’s sweet birthday greeting, when I got to spend relaxing time with my family, and with each text, card, and comment I received, I was reminded of God’s good graces in my life. As I sit and write this, I feel overwhelmed by the good life God has given to me. At 46 I’ve lived long enough to know that every day won’t feel like this one. There will be plenty of days that don’t feel good. There will be days when although I know God won’t be any less good, my active awareness of his goodness will be veiled. In those moments I won’t be able to trust my senses. In the darkness faith must be my sight. 

Psalm 119 reminds us not only of how to conceive of the good life, but how to live the good life. We all need instructions we need a pattern. Our heroes are those that we perceive as living the good life—the blessed life.  The blessed life is a life that is at peace with God and others and only in God’s Word do we find God’s instructions on how to live that life. Psalm 119 is a reminder that we need to let the Word of God become our treasure and delight so that we can know it, love it, and live it. God’s Word teaches us about God, his world, and our place in this world. But not only did God give us the Bible, he gave us a living breathing example. He gave us a hero to follow. God’s Word is the instruction manual and Jesus Christ himself, the Word made flesh, is the pattern for us as Christians.

As we grow in Christ our heroes change because we grow in our understanding of what the good life really is. As you read this you may be thinking of others in the body of Christ who help you follow Christ through their faithful example. Someone might be looking at you as an example right now. This is our joy and our obligation to one another. The fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-26) will grow at different rates in each of us and at different seasons in our life. God uses our church family to celebrate with us in the easy times, but also to keep us going during those dark times when we can’t see God’s hand as clearly. That is one reason why we need each other, so that together we can be conformed to the image of Christ and live the life that God intended for us to live.

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Daily Worship

Psalm 147:1 “Praise the Lord. How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him!”

One of my favorite fairy tales (or faerie tales if you want to seem olde timey) is the Princes and the Goblin by George MacDonald. The hero of the story is a boy named Curdie who uncovers a plot by an underground kingdom of goblins to kidnap the princess and destroy Curdie’s village.  The goblins are fearsome creatures with only two weaknesses: sensitive feet and a strong aversion to singing. I love the mental image of young Curdie bouncing through the night, turning back the hordes of darkness by smashing feet and singing at the top of his lungs.

Nothing pushes back the darkness like the cry of halleluiah. Praise calms our minds, lifts our spirits, and encourages our brothers and sisters. Why is that? Because when we sing praise to the Lord our heads, our hearts, and our emotions are lifted in the same direction. 

Sometimes our heads betray us. We start thinking about all that could go wrong. We start imagining worst case scenarios. We begin to doubt in the dark what we saw clearly in the light. Sometimes our hearts betray us.  We find ourselves loving the wrong things. Our affections get tangled up in the empty issues of this world. We lose our first love and wonder if we can ever recover it again. Sometimes it is our emotions that betray us. We feel dead inside. Our sorrow blocks out the light. The feeling of faith doesn’t match what we know or love and that unsettles us. 

So what do we do when shadows fall? Where can we turn when worry worms its way into the recesses of our minds and won’t get out? What would God have us do when our heads, hearts, and emotions are misaligned? Force your mouth to sing. Sing songs of praise to the Lord. Sing songs that drive you deep into the depths of who God is. Sing songs that remind you of God’s might acts. Shout to the Lord with a loud Halleluiah! 

Here are some practical suggestions for how you can incorporate worship into your Monday-Saturday week:

  1. Take the bulletin home and sing through the songs at home. The songs we sing on Sunday can also be found on the Redeemer Church Spotify playlist so you can sing along at home throughout the week.
  2. Get a hymnal and sing some of the old hymns of the faith as part of your regular time of daily worship. 
  3. Read the Psalms and sing them! Maybe you’re like me and like to make up your own tunes or if you are less inventive there are collections of Psalms set to tunes that can be sung. The 1650 Psalter App is one helpful tool. There are also a number of Christian recording artists such as Shane and ShaneThe Corner Room, and Sons of Korah who have recorded many Psalms in contemporary styles. 
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Passing it Down

Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.”

I love to joke around with little kids by asking them ridiculous questions and listen to their responses. Sometimes when a little one is shy, I’ll respond with shock when they talk and tease them playfully, “Wow you can talk? Who taught you to talk?” Often, they’ll respond with some answer like, “My mom.” The truth is while it may be hard to pinpoint who exactly taught us things like talking or walking, almost everything we know how to do, we learned from somewhere. This is actually the way that God designed it. One generation is to pass knowledge and wisdom down to the next generation. 

Psalm 145:4 declares, “One generation shall praise Your works to another,

And shall declare Your mighty acts.” This elaborates on what was instructed in Deuteronomy 6:6-7, “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Love for God and love for his commands are both caught and taught. The heart of faith is passed down through praise, but the content of faith is passed down through instruction. So what are some practical ways that parents, grandparents, and the broader spiritual family “impress” a love for God onto the hearts of our children? 

0-3 Years 

  • Pray audibly over your children. From the very earliest days, let your children hear your prayers to God on their behalf. 
  • Play and sing Christian music and Scripture to them. When our kids were little, we played an album of Scripture passages set to soft music in their rooms. Let the Scriptures be associated with comfort and peace in their lives. 
  • Read good Christian storybooks to them. Books like the Jesus Storybook Bible, and the Big Picture Story Bible contain gospel truths in simple language with bold, colorful pictures. 
  • Bring them to church. Let meeting with God’s people be part of their earliest memories. 

3-6 Years

  • Start training them to be still listen to God’s Word. Listening is a learned behavior. Have them sit still and listen for a minute at a time and then increase it. It’s ok to “practice church” at home.
  • Memorize Scripture and catechisms. We used My 1st Book of Questions and Answers by Carine MacKenzie, but the New City Catechism our church uses has a free app and versions for kids and adults. Kids have incredible memories at this age—take full advantage. At this age you are helping create little hooks in their brains that more critical ideas will hang on later. 
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The Box and the Instructions

My wife loves shopping at Ikea. For reasons I’ve yet to fully comprehend, I do not. The Ikea store is laid out like a series of showrooms with fully appointed bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, and offices laid out in perfect fashion. An unimaginative shopper can go in and buy everything one would need to set up a room exactly as Ikea has laid it out—that’s not the part I hate. Unlike a traditional furniture store you don’t buy the models on the floor. Instead, you have to write down the bin number and then head to the warehouse where all of the furniture is boxed and in bins. You don’t simply buy a couch. You buy a bunch of boxes that contain everything you need to build the couch yourself. This is the part my wife loves, and I hate. I get overwhelmed seeing all the separate pieces and knowing that I have to figure out how it all goes together. The vision of the couch is beautiful, the process to get there is not. 

Thankfully, every box comes with a guide. The little piece of paper that tells you what part goes where and when, is indispensable. Without the instructions the contents of the box are nothing more than bits of wood, cloth, and metal. Armed with the instructions and some patience those same contents are transformed into something good and even beautiful. The furniture functions properly when each piece is put together the way the designer intended. 

Our lives can sometimes feel like the contents of those Ikea boxes. Psalm 119 celebrates God’s Word, because it reveals the character of God himself to us. His Law is not meant to restrict us from the good life, but to help us makes sense of this life and order it according to God’s good design for us. Once we come to realize this, we will respond to the Bible the way the Psalmist does. We will rejoice in its freedom (v 45), we will delight in its commands (v 47), we will find comfort in it (v 50), we will grow to love it (v 97), and we will devote our lives to understanding it and seeking to live according to it (v 104).

Take away the instructions from the Ikea box and you have a mess, take away the Word from your life and you will have a catastrophe. What are you doing tfhis week to seek to grow deeper in your understanding of God and his Word? Start by meditating on what you learned on Sunday, but don’t stop there. Read God’s Word, meditate on God’s Word, repent of ways you are out of step with God’s Word, and then pray for grace to consistently follow God’s Word. You will find that the Christian life is not the easy life, but it is the good and beautiful life that your heart is longing for. 

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Hindsight is 20/20

You have probably heard the phrase that hindsight is 20/20. Things are always clearer when we are can look back with perspective. When we are in the middle of a messy situation, it is the pain of the moment that captures our attention. C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Many of you are facing challenging circumstances such as chronic pain, grief over the death of a loved one, the loss of a dream, a painful transition, financial stress, the dissolution of a relationship, consequences of past sin, or simply the stress of life in a broken world. When we are in the midst of a painful situation, we are forced to address the pain. God is at work even in your pain. God will not waste your pain, but is redeeming it to produce what is good, gracious, and beautiful in our lives. I love the reminder from Romans 5, “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

Psalm 114 teaches us that the moments of our life are not merely isolated and disconnected events.  They are part of God’s good design both for us individually but also for the world. For the Israelite family that was dying of thirst in the wilderness, God’s provision of water was merciful and life giving, but as we zoom out from that event, we see that it was also serving an even greater purpose. God was teaching Moses something through that event of which the average Israelite probably wasn’t even aware. The individual focused on quenching her immediate thirst, might have missed what God was teaching her about his character. God was preparing that very story to point to an even greater need that we all have for salvation—salvation through the living water of Christ. He is the ultimate Rock that was struck to give us life. These are all truths that were probably hidden from the dad who just wanted to make sure his baby didn’t perish from dehydration. 

I love the illustration of this concept of perspective in the Perceptual Art of Michael Murphy. Up close his artwork appears to be a collection of junk—individual items suspended in isolation. But when you stand in the right spot, the beautiful appears. The individual pieces don’t change, but a transformation of meaning takes place. Our lives are like that. One day with the perspective of Heaven we will look back to see how every piece made sense. Our church is also like that. Up close we are just a collection of individuals with a lot of brokenness and personal strengths and weaknesses, but from God’s perspective we show the face of Christ. The church is the Body of Christ. Just as God called Judah his sanctuary, God is transforming us together as his church into the place where his presence dwells. Our individual lives are being built up and brought together by Christ to be his holy temple. The Apostle Peter called us “God’s special possession that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” So be encouraged brothers and sisters, God is showing his promise keeping faithfulness even in the middle of your mess. 

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I Can’t Live if Living is Without You

The deeper we know something the more we are able to enjoy it. A few weeks ago I took my wife to an Air Supply concert for her birthday. I grew up listening to my parent’s music which didn’t include Air Supply, but my wife grew up on her older sisters’ music which obviously did. Because I wanted to enjoy the concert and more importantly, because I wanted to enjoy it with my wife, I did my research. I listened to the hits before we went, I dug a little bit into their story, I tried to find out who wrote the songs and why. All of this made for better concert experience. We had a blast belting out “I can’t live, if living is without you,” together. 

When God invites us into deeper intimacy with him through worship, he’s inviting us to know him more and to enjoy him more. Psalm 100 is not only an open invitation to worship God, but it is an invitation into the joy and gladness that the Father, Son, and Spirit share. We are invited (v.3) to know God, but also to be known by God. There is more than a merely intellectual knowledge implied by this word translated “know.” We are invited to know God deeply through experience and relationship. The more we know him, the more we will want to praise him. The deeper we know him, the deeper our joy will be. 

Not only are we able to know God, but we find that God already knows us. He knows us as our Creator, but he also knows us as his special chosen people—his family. This Psalm goes on to say he knows us like a shepherd knows the sheep of his pasture. Jesus picks up this metaphor in John 10. The Shepherd knows the sheep, and the sheep know him. He calls the sheep, and the sheep follow his voice. Jesus goes so far as to say, “They will never follow a stranger; in fact they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”

As you grow in your knowledge of God, you will also grow in your discernment about what is not of God. A couple of days ago I heard a song on the radio and a friend said, “that’s Air Supply.” Because of my crash course on the band weeks earlier, I was skeptical. It didn’t sound like the band, but I wasn’t sure. The more you know the real thing, the faster you can spot the fake. The same thing is true with God. As you get to know his goodness, his love, and his faithfulness through his revealed Word in the Bible you will be able to discern truth from error. As you live your life in obedience to God, you will be able to discern the prompting of the Holy Spirit in your life. As you follow your Shepherd, Jesus Christ, you will grow to hear his voice even in the howling storms of life; and as you draw close to God, you will experience the joy and gladness of a relationship with the Triune God. Why do Christians sing? We sing because we can’t help it. We have found something truly worth singing about. 

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Righteousness and Peace Kiss

The more I meditate on Psalm 85 the more the beauty and the grandeur of God’s salvation moves me. Is there a more beautiful line in all the Scriptures than verse 10, “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other”? These beautiful expressions of God’s character come together for our benefit. 

In the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ these attributes enter into the story of humanity. When Jesus takes the man tormented by demonic oppression in Mark 5 and frees his mind and his soul from torment, he replaces this man’s living nightmare with true peace. The rage that made this man a terror to society was replaced with a shalom that moved him to share the good news with his neighbors that were once terrorized by him. 

When Jesus entered the home of Zacchaeus, the Roman tax collector was transformed from one who perverted justice through government sponsored extortion, to one who experienced Christ’s righteousness.  After only one meal with the Lord, he was moved to away half of his wealth to the poor and give back four times what he had stolen to anyone he had cheated. 

Jesus met under the cloak of darkness with Nicodemus—a religious man with all the answers. In one meeting this holy teacher of Israel was left with the realization that despite all his good deeds and religious studies, he himself was unrighteous before a holy God. He needed the new birth that only Jesus could offer. 

After three years of living, eating, and ministering with Jesus, Peter denied that he even knew Jesus. Peter watched in shame as Jesus was led away to the cross. And yet, on a quiet beach in Galilee, the resurrected Jesus approached Peter and restored him with a type of steadfast love that would change everything about Peter. 

It has been said that there are two types of Christians, those that admire Jesus and those that follow Jesus. When we truly experience the salvation of Christ, we cannot stay the same. We call ourselves Redeemer Church because we want to be a people that demonstrates the redeeming love of our Savior. As you analyze your life, how is Christ turning you? What is it that you need to turn away from as you follow King Jesus? As you keep turning toward Christ you will see that you cannot stay the same. We don’t believe in a social gospel—one that simply focuses on external change, but the gospel always has a social impact. How are you showing the transformation of Christ in your life this week? How will you be a different neighbor because of Jesus Christ? How will your workplace be different because the love of Christ is there? How will this city be transformed little by little because we live and serve here? How will your family feel the impact of your life being transformed by the power of the gospel? 

Spend some time this week meditating on Psalm 85 and take moments throughout the week to ask God how you can show the salvation of God in your place this week. 

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Genuine Fellowship

Following Christ is not a solo journey. When we are saved, we are baptized into a body of believers. We respond to Christ by faith as individuals, but we grow in Christ alongside a community of faith. Paul’s letter to Philemon highlights the importance of koinonia in our walk with Christ. This koinonia is the word translated partnership here in verse six, “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Another way of translating this word is fellowship. This how the word is used in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” There is a very real sense in which my relationship with Christ is a shared relationship.

So how does my partnership or fellowship in the church help me to grow in Christlikeness? The church creates the culture in which faith can thrive. When my wife and I were young in our marriage we watched our family grow from two to six in a short amount of time. There were certainly challenges with having four kids six and under, but there were also real advantages. With our first child, everything had to be taught by us. In our home, my wife and I had to give all the instruction and we had to provide all the correction. The family culture had to be set and monitored by us. As our family grew however, we had to do less and less of that. The kids monitored the family culture as much as we, the parents, did. The honor of the family has a strong effect on the behavior of the members of the family for both good and ill. 

This is seen profoundly in Paul’s letter to Philemon. It is a very personal letter asking Philemon to do a very personal thing in the forgiving and freeing of his slave Onesimus. So why does Paul include not only Apphia and Archippus, but also the entire church in this letter? I think it is because Paul understood the incredible sanctifying power of the community. Philemon was a godly and generous man, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t still areas of his life that were being unduly influenced by the world. Slavery was as common in the ancient world as the cell phone is in ours, but that did not make it right. Rather than publicly shaming Philemon, Paul gives him the opportunity to be both shaped by the gospel culture of the church and to reinforce its gospel culture through this very public request. He asks Philemon to not only free Onesimus, but to forgive him and to treat him not as a slave, but as a fellow man and a brother. Instead of Philemon being shamed, Philemon received the honor of modeling Christlikeness for the church and the joy of receiving Onesimus. 

Paul was confident of Philemon’s obedience because he knew the character of man. He was godly, but he wasn’t without his cultural blind spots. God graciously provides the otherworldly culture of the church as a check against our own individualism. As we live and worship in community with other Spirit-filled brothers and sisters, God uses those interactions to encourage and correct us. It is my hope that Holy Spirit will shape us through the Word of God both as individuals and as a congregation into the image of Jesus Christ. That together we would not only have friendship, but genuine koinonia in the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

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Advent Conversations

Isaiah 35:3-6 “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, 

‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.’ Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.”

A few years ago Christians were upset about people saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” While I suppose that we could be a little sad that Christmas isn’t universally celebrated, the truth is that for many, “Merry Christmas” were just empty words anyway. We can rejoice however in the many opportunities we have to talk about our hope in Christ this Advent season. In our neighborhood we tend to see our neighbors a little more often with all the comings and goings of the Holidays. We give small gifts to our neighbors and they give them to us and we have moments to talk about things a little deeper than the normal conversations about the weather or our dying lawns. 

Christmas time is pregnant with opportunities for those Advent conversations. Even our secular society can’t help itself as stores are playing songs that explicitly declare the gospel message. Think about these lyrics from Mariah Carey’s “Jesus Born on This Day.”

Today, a child is born on earth 

(Today, a child is born on earth) 

Today the glory of God shines everywhere
For all the world
Oh, Jesus born on this day
He is our light and salvation
Oh Jesus born on this day
He is the King of all nations

Or Carrie Underwood singing,

Yes Lord, we greet thee

Born this happy morning

O Jesus, to Thee be all glory given

Word of the Father,

Now in flesh appearing

O come, let us adore him!

These are songs you might hear in the grocery store or at the mall declaring that Christ the King has come save! But even more, Advent is a time for us to be ready to speak. We in fact are commanded to speak. As we talk with our neighbors and share in their distress at the state of the world we have opportunity to “strengthen feeble hands, and steady the knees that give way.” As we talk to people who are afraid, we can be bold to say “Be strong, do not fear; God HAS come.” When it seems like the wicked thrive and no one will check them, we can say, “he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” And then we must be faithful to point them to the reason God has come. He came to die to save mankind from our sin and to reconcile us back to God.

While it may feel like the night is winning, the light is still shining. In fact the light is only getting brighter. Open your eyes to the grace all around you, and then open your mouth and share it. Sing it, hum it, whistle it, play it, repeat it, but don’t be quiet about it. 

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Stubborn Roots

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1).

There is a war raging in my backyard and I am losing. A couple of years ago we cut down a huge sweetgum tree in the backyard. I was happy to see it and its spike-ball seed pods gone. We cut it down and ground down the stump below the grass line. To all appearances that tree was dead and gone. But after some time had passed, and after the rains had come, from below the surface of the ground, the roots still survived. That dead and buried stump was not as dead as it seemed for from it continues to sprout new shoots from that sweetgum tree. Those sprouts remind me of Isaiah 11. 

On Sunday, Pastor Royce commented on how this passage almost seems like it’s describing a fairy tale: the lost battle is not as lost as it seems, the dead kingdom is only mostly dead, the promised prince will return as king and set wrongs to right, and everything sad will be made untrue. The reason it sounds like a fairy tale is because all the best stories have their roots in the truth. Advent is about longing and anticipation. Advent is about the groaning before the birth. Advent is about the waiting that precedes the fulfillment. Advent is about what Romans 5:5 calls “hope that does not disappoint.”

As Christians we look back at the bleakness of Isaiah’s situation with the hindsight of knowing that God wasn’t done with the line of Jesse and that the branch that would bear fruit is Jesus. Believers that lived in Isaiah’s day did not have that benefit. They had hope and faith. But we need hope and faith too as we wait for the Second Coming of Christ into this world. Things may seem dark and hopeless, but we wait in hope for Christ to return and finish what he started. 

So let’s wait in hope and flourish our waiting with joy. Let us mock the night with Christmas lights and carols. Let us rejoice with laughter and song at the absurdity of God taking on human flesh and being born of a version. Let’s hang ornaments on evergreens to remind ourselves that God’s promises never die, and his goodness never fails. Let’s look up into the dark winter sky and see God’s promises shining in the stars and know that one day the fairy tale will be a reality. The not yet will become the already, and every tear will be wiped away from our eyes. Maranatha. Amen. 

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