Tuesday, October 15, 2013

What is love?

At Good Shepherd we try to live out the biblical idea that life is about relationships.  Jesus articulated this belief when he said that the greatest command that God gave us is "to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul and with all your strength."  And he said there is actually a second most important command as well:  "Love your neighbor as yourself."  All of God's commands that He gave us in the Scripture can be summed up by those two.

So, love is the most important thing.  Hardly anyone would disagree with that! Indeed, the idea that love "makes the world go round," that "love is all you need" or that love is a "many-splendored thing" permeates our culture.

But what is love?  And how do we love God and our neighbor? Much of the answer to this question is contained in the Ten Commandments, and this blog will contain a treatment of that later.  However, even if we were to talk about the Ten Commandments as specific categories that love falls into, we would still be left wondering what attitude and what internal battles involve living out these specifics.  We would still wonder how it "works" to live these commands out in daily life.

C.S Lewis's explanation of love in his book Mere Christianity, gives us a very clear picture of what needs to happen in our hearts and minds in order to love our neighbor well.  He reminds us that love is not an emotion (though it may be emotional), but that it is an act of the will.  Love is a choice that, with God's help, can become habit.  (And it can be a habit that, with God's help, can become who we are).

So, let me encourage you to take a few minutes and read Lewis's thoughts on love.  (Note:  He uses the term "charity" for love... read on to see why.):

... Charity was partly dealt with in Chapter 7, but there I concentrated on that part of Charity which is called Forgiveness. I now want to add a little more.

First, as to the meaning of the word. 'Charity' now means simply what used to be called 'alms' — that is, giving to the poor. Originally it had a much wider meaning. (You can see how it got the modern sense. If a man has 'charity', giving to the poor is one of the most obvious things he does, and so people came to talk as if that were the whole of charity. In the same way, 'rhyme' is the most obvious thing about poetry, and so people come to mean by 'poetry' simply rhyme and nothing more.) Charity means 'Love, in the Christian sense'. But Love, in the Christian sense, does not mean an emotion. It is a state not of the feelings but of the will; that state of the will which we have naturally about ourselves, and must learn to have about other people.

I pointed out in the chapter on Forgiveness that our love for ourselves does not mean that we like ourselves. It means that we wish our own good. In the same was Christian Love (or Charity) for our neighbors is quite a different thing from liking or affection. We 'like' or are 'fond of' some people, and not of others. It is important to understand that this natural 'liking' is neither a sin nor a virtue, any more than your likes and dislikes in food are a sin or a virtue. It is just a fact. But, of course, what we do about it is either sinful or virtuous.

Natural liking or affection for people makes it easier to be 'charitable' towards them. It is, therefore, normally a duty to encourage our affections — to 'like' people as much as we can (just as it is often our duty to encourage our liking for exercise or wholesome food) — not because this liking is itself the virtue of charity, but because it is a help to it. On the other hand, it is also necessary to keep a very sharp lookout for fear our liking for some one person makes us uncharitable, or even unfair, to someone else. There are even cases where our liking conflicts with our charity towards the person we like. For example, a doting mother may be tempted by natural affectionate impulses at the expense of the child's real happiness later on.

But though natural likings should normally be encouraged, it would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings. Some people are 'cold' by temperament; that may be a misfortune for them, but it is no more a sin than having a bad digestion is a sin; and it does not cut them out from the chance, or excuse them from the duty, of learning charity. The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less. There is, indeed, one exception. If you do him a good turn, not to please God and obey the law of charity, but to show him what a fine forgiving chap you are, and to put him in your debt, and then sit down to wait for his 'gratitude', you will probably be disappointed. (People are not fools: they have a very quick eye for anything like showing off, or patronage.) But whenever we do good to another self, just because it is a self, made (like us) by God, and desiring its own happiness as we desire ours, we shall have learned to love it a little more or, at least, to dislike it less.

Consequently, though Christian charity sounds a very cold thing to people whose heads are full of sentimentality, and though it is quite distinct from affection, yet it leads to affection. The difference between a Christian and a worldly man is not that the worldly man has only affections or 'likings' and the Christian has only 'charity'. The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he 'likes' them: the Christian, trying to treat every one kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on — including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning.

This same spiritual law works terribly in the opposite direction. The Germans, perhaps, at first ill-treated the Jews because they hated them: afterwards they hated them much more because they had ill-treated them. The more cruel you are, the more you will hate; and the more you hate, the more cruel you will become — and so on in a vicious circle for ever.

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.

Some writers use the word charity to describe not only Christian love between human beings, but also God's love for man and man's love for God. About the second of these two, people are often worried. They are told they ought to love God. They cannot find any such feeling in themselves. What are they to do? Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, 'If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?' When you have found the answer, go and do it.

On the whole, God's love for us is a much safer subject to think about than our love for Him. Nobody can always have devout feelings: and even if we could, feelings are not what God principally cares about. Christian Love, either towards God or towards man, is an affair of the will. If we are trying to do His will we are obeying the commandment, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.' He will give us feelings of love if He pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right. But the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference; and, therefore, it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

How the Liturgy Helps Us

In a previous post, we saw how our greatest hindrance in worship, idolatry, is so prevalent in our society and in our own hearts.  This post will be a discussion on how the way in which we worship in the Anglican Church helps weed out the common idols that most of us have.   The reality is that we walk into worship every Sunday with many distractions we can't get rid of and many sins we love just too much. In our services on Sunday, we have some things "built-in" to the service every week that help take the Word of God and apply it to our distractions and sins like a medicine for our souls.

Before we dive into this post, let me recommend two resources that will cover much of what I don't cover here.  First is Mark Galli's article on how the liturgy is the most relevant way to worship out there today.  Mark's book Beyond Smells and Bells is a great introduction to the meaning of the liturgy for those who are curious, and I highly recommend his short little book (and steal from it frequently).  Second, let me refer you to a sermon I preached a while back on worship and how God leads us into worship.  The reality is that without God's help by his Holy Spirit, we can never rightly worship Him.  That sermon brings out the need for cooperation with God in worship and the way God gives us strength when we can't seem to get our act together.

So how does the liturgy help us worship God?  How does it lead us into biblical ways of removing our idols in our hearts and taking away distractions we bring with us? Here's just a few ways:

- Priming the pump:  The first we do in our service is gather sing to God.  We are beginning with praise to God and "easing into" the full service of worship.  Even just gathering into one place can remind us of who we are: the Church (which in Greek is the "ekklesia," roughly translated "called out ones") those who have been called out of other kingdoms into the Kingdom of God.  The opening song we sing reminds us of the reality that God has called us to be his people so that we can worship him, and as we sing this first song, a big cross is carried up to the front of the church (called a processional cross) to remind us that the only reason we can gather here and be called God's people is because of Jesus Christ.  All this makes us ready for the whole service.

- Putting first things first:  The service opens with a declaration: "Blessed be God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit!  And blessed be his Kingdom now and forever!" Though we all want things be about us, the reality is that God is the most important Person.  Until we realize that, nothing in life will make sense or work (Matt 6:33).  And so, in order to reflect this truth, our service begins by declaring what is most important (most "blessed"): the Triune God and his Kingdom.  In our desire to make an idol out of ourselves, this part of the liturgy sets us right.

- Asking for help every week: The next thing we do in our service is ask for God's help!  Since we are often very distracted and even still burdened by sins from the previous week, we begin our service with a prayer whose basic message is: "God, help us worship you!  We are so messed up!"  Here's that prayer: Almighty God, to you all hearts are open and to you all desires are known.  Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.  

- Reading lots of Scripture:  Wouldn't it be great if we could hear from God?  Well, Christians believe the Bible is the primary way God speaks to us, and so, in our service, we read four passages of Scripture each week (Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, & Gospel), getting through most of the Bible every three years.  And though we have a serious sermon, we let the readings speak for themselves, often with the sermon only coming from one of the passages.  We hear so many voices throughout the week which seek to tell us how to live and what is most important in life.  I just makes sense to sit and listen to God's Word as much as we can to remind us of God's voice.

- Robust preaching:  It has been said that "sermonettes make Christianettes."  And so, our service includes some serious and thoughtful teaching explaining the Bible and how it applies to our lives today.  Even our preachers "sit under" the sermon, that is, we all need to submit to God's Word as it is preached... and this delivers us from being wise in our own eyes.

- Making sure we cover the Important Stuff Every Week: So, what happens is the sermon is about marriage or family or money or how to run a good business? Well, in order to make sure we don't forget the most important and central truths of the Christian faith, we include them in every service.  Every week we say the Nicene Creed.  This Creed contains all the essential doctrines of the faith, and includes teachings that all Christians agree on.   But not only do we say the Creed each week, but we take Communion each week, which (amongst other things) reminds us of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the very center of the gospel!

- We actually pray in church: I know this sounds crazy, but we actually pray for things in church.  We pray for our country, for the sick, the poor, those in prison.  We pray for each other, for the world, for other churches.  Lest we come to the service and think it is all about us "getting," we also give in offering up other people in prayer.

- Confessing sin:  Every person who goes to church is a sinner.  And when we worship, we are worshipping a holy God, One who hates sin.  Thankfully, God has promised to forgive us because Jesus paid the price for our sin with his death on the cross (1 John 1:9-2:2).  Even so, our sins that we commit throughout the week hinder our relationship with God, and it is necessary for us to receive forgiveness each week (maybe even each day!).  That is why we spend some time confessing our sins to God.  Doesn't that just make sense?  Coming to God without admitting I'm a sinner just seems hypocritical doesn't it?

- Simply receiving...  Sometime we get to Church and we are so tired that all we can do is receive.  Other times we may be so confident in ourselves that we forget that everything we have we have been received.  In our service we are reminded each week that God is the Giver, and we merely are the recipients of all his good gifts, including salvation through Jesus.  And so, we come to the Lord's Table each week, taking Communion.  The bread is placed in our hands and we are given a cup to drink from.  This is just giving to us.  Even if our minds are pulled in a thousand different directions and all we can do is just be there, we can receive God's grace.

- Sending each week: One thing that Christians often do is make their worship service into an idol.  In order to counteract this, we have a prayer at then end of every service that reminds us that we are not only a "called" people, but also a "sent" people.  We are sent from our time together into the world to spread God's truth and love!

These are just a FEW ways in which our liturgy helps us to worship God, helps to remove our idols in our hearts.  I'm sure you can come up with more and leave them in the comments section!

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Where to Go When Your Heart is Cold

I've been reading Paul Tripp's book A Dangerous Calling, and I would heartily recommend it for all pastors or anyone who does a lot of ministry.  It has been for me a call back to the gospel, deliverance from making ministry about me, from making it an idol.  Here, Tripp reminds his readers of the remedy of this tendency to make ministry about building the kingdom of self:

"... The biggest protection against the kingdom of the self is not a set of self-reformative defensive strategies.  It's a heart that is blown away by the right-here, right-now glories of the grace of Jesus Christ that we're not easily seduced by the lesser temporary glories of that claustrophobic kingdom of one, the kingdom of self."  (Tripp, A Dangerous Calling, p. 102)

So, this leads me to the question:  how do I point my heart (as much as I can) to the glories of the grace of Jesus Christ?  How do I "behold" these things? (2 Cor 3:18)

John Piper, in his honest book When I Don't Desire God, tells us what we should already know.  The key to hearing from God, to seeing him, is not what many of us would expect.   Sometimes, we are like Naaman in 2 Kings 5: We are willing to do something extraordinary to encounter God, but we are not willing to do the simple things he asks.  (Sometimes, the more basic steps require us to have more faith in Him.)   The cure for our hardness of heart is not flashy.

When our heart is cold, we go to the places where God has promised to meet us:  his Church, his Word, his Table, in prayer.

Every Sunday there is a feast for our souls in these things, and every day God is ready to meet us in the following ways.  Christians in the past called these "the means of grace":

  • His Church reminds us that beholding the glories of Christ is not something we do alone.  His Church puts the goodness of God on display through love, through devotion, through the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to each of us, through the image of God being renewed in the Church.  (2 Cor 3:18; Eph 4:1ff)
  • His Word speaks to us in ways we cannot quite understand.  God uses his Scriptures to teach us, to rebuke us when we've lost our way, to show us how to life (2 Tim 3:16-17).  God uses his Scriptures to reveal himself to us, to show us how life really is, contrary to the version of how the world works that we hear in our own hearts and in the world around us (John 17:17).  
  • His Table on Sunday mornings is where we are fed by him with spiritual food (beyond our understanding) and where we have an experience of his presence by faith (1 Cor 10:3; 10:16; John 6).  
  • Prayer is a great mystery where we meet God and talk to him.  It takes faith to believe God hears.  So, we come to Him with faith, and we speak.... to God Himself. 
So, pastor and Christian, do you need to find yourself need to be "blown away" by the grace of God? Have you turned the Church, the Bible, the Lord's Table and prayer into a daily "to-do" or a means to get lesson plans or a way to minister to others?  Have you forgotten that in these things the Living God is made manifest?  

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we thine unworthy servants 
do give thee most humble and hearty thanks
for all thy goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all men.
We bless thee for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for thine inestimable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we beseech thee,
give us that due sense of all thy mercies,
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful;
and that we show forth thy praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to thy service,
and by walking before thee
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with thee and the Holy Spirit,
be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.