jasonbwatson

November 26, 2014

Public prayer

My entire post yesterday was the result of Max Lucado’s answer to the first question in his interview in Leadership Journal. There are other thought-provoking elements of the interview, too, though, and I want to touch here on the issue of public prayer. Lucado was asked if praying in public changes the way he prays, and he answered that it does. He elaborated on his answer though, no doubt at least in part to ensure that no one interpreted his “yes it does” as justification for the public prayers we have all heard that more closely resemble a dramatic recitation than a sincere prayer. You know what I am talking about. The voice changes to the “prayer voice” and the vocabulary changes, too, to include the “right phrases” or the Old English “thee” and “thine.” Sometimes both.

Not only is that not what Lucado had in mind, I do not think that is pleasing to the Lord. In fact, Jesus had some harsh words for the manner in which the Pharisees prayed publicly. In Matthew 6:5 Jesus said, “For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” Whatever they received from others in that situation was all they were going to receive, Jesus said. Their public prayers were performances for which they expected attention and respect. God is not interested in the least in such prayers, in no small part because He is not the audience–those watching and listening are the audience.

Lucado said that praying in public is “a huge privilege.” It is a privilege to intercede on behalf of another, he said, and it is a privilege to “model sincere prayer.” Effective and appropriate public prayer is offered in a sincere manner, often focused on different praises and requests than a private prayer might be, but otherwise containing the same elements of a private prayer. Lucado cautions against the theatrical prayers I described above, saying, “May the Lord deliver us from using those [public] prayers as a time to showcase our own spirituality.” Later, he says, “It’s always a mistake to try to impress people with your knowledge or your eloquence in prayer,” calling such behavior nothing but “self promotion.”

Lucado is talking about public prayer that is offered aloud for, and within the hearing of, an assembled audience. There is another kind of public prayer that is just as important as the sincere prayers Lucado is describing, and that is the public prayer that is offered quietly or silently in a crowd, a prayer that others can see but cannot hear. This could be as simple as a bowing of the head and closing of the eyes for a few moments or it could include speaking aloud a prayer for yourself and those in your group but not for the hearing of anyone beyond. These prayers can model sincerity and devotion, as well. Since the words are not heard by the audience it is the simple act of praying in a public setting that is the testimony. It is a quiet means of declaring to those around us that prayer is important enough to us that we will do it even when it may attract looks from others or cause us to stick out.

Prayer is a tremendously private activity and the Scripture makes it clear that that is as it should be. Perhaps for that reason, perhaps for others, I actually know someone who will not pray in public. I do not mean that he does not like to do so, I mean he will not do it. Not aloud, anyway. He will attend a prayer meeting and join in a group prayer gathering, but he will not pray aloud. I am not advocating that attitude because, like Lucado, I see public prayer as a privilege and an opportunity. I would much prefer to see someone refuse to pray publicly than to pray like the Pharisees, though.

One last thought on public prayer is that we do not need to concern ourselves with how effectively we speak or how impressive our prayer sounds. Many people are uncomfortable with public prayer. Since there may be many reasons for that I am not going to judge anyone’s motives, but I will say this: if your reluctance to pray in public is because you are not sure you will “do it right,” you need to get over that. If it the prayer is sincere, that is all that matters. Maybe your prayer will not sound as authoritative or impressive as someone else’s, but God is not comparing you with anyone else and neither should you. A public prayer is just having that honest conversation with God I described yesterday…and allowing others to listen in.

September 11, 2014

“Sloppy Sabbath”

Interestingly, on the same day in which there was an extensive discussion in an online professional networking community of which I am a member regarding the manner in which so many Christians dress today for church or chapel, I also stumbled upon, quite by accident, an article on CNN from this past April entitled “Stop dressing so tacky for church.” The article, by John Blake and appearing on CNN’s Belief Blog, includes a picture to lead the article with the caption “Remember when people used to dress up for church? Casual Friday has now morphed into Sloppy Sabbath.”

Blake introduces his readers to Rev. John DeBonville, rector at the Church of the Good Shepard in Massachusetts, who has a real concern about the overly casual approach being taken by so many today when it comes to church attire. “It’s like some people decided to stop mowing the lawn and then decided to come to church,” he said. “No one dresses up for church anymore.” Blake’s description of the matter goes like this: “They saunter into church in baggy shorts, flip-flop sandals, tennis shoes and grubby T-shirts. Some even slide into the pews carrying coffee in plastic foam containers as if they’re going to Starbucks.”

This is all part of Blake’s introduction, designed to set the stage for the question of what really is appropriate to wear to church, or does it even matter? “The answers to these questions are not as easy as they may seem. The Bible sends mixed messages about the concept of wearing your Sunday best. And when pastors, parishioners and religious scholars were asked the same questions, they couldn’t agree, either,” Blake writes. Where they did find agreement, though, was in the fact that American culture has become more comfortable with sloppy dress in just about every area of life, from the workplace to the grocery store.

Blake allows Jennifer Fulwiler to introduce one reason for this change, one that I find entirely convincing. Reflecting on the fact that her great-grandfather would put on a coat and tie to go to the grocery store and that her grandparents–and many of their generation–would wear their very best clothes to fly on an airplane, Fulwiler comments, “We dress up for what we’re grateful for. We’re such a wealthy, spoiled culture that we feel like we have a right to fly on airplanes.” This mind shift has carried over into church: “Church is like air travel now – it’s no longer a big deal because people have lost their sense of awe before God.” Fulwiler offers the same approach I have used when having this conversation; if someone were invited to meet the Queen of England (her example), it is highly unlikely they would show up in jeans and a T-shirt. Several years ago there was a mild uproar over the fact that some college athletes had attended their meeting with the President of the United States wearing flip-flops for the same reason.

Yet, Blake writes, the idea that the importance one attaches to an occasion is reflected in his or her wardrobe choice is an idea that is “hopelessly old school” in many places in the United States, including many megachurches. Interestingly, though, Blake–whether intentionally or not–proceeds to provide a reason for that that supports the point Fulwiler is making above. “[M]any of the popular megachurch pastors are middle-aged men who bound onto the stage each Sunday dressed in skinny jeans, untucked Banana Republic shirts, and backed by in-house Christian rock bands,” he writes. “They’ve perfected a ‘seeker-friendly’ approach to church that gets rid of the old formal worship style with its stuffy dress codes.” In other words, those who recognize the importance, significance and meaning for coming into the House of the Lord to worship Him have consciously decided to “dress down” so that those who do not recognize that will not fell uncomfortable. I am wholeheartedly opposed to the notion–once common in some churches–that individuals who do not arrive at church dressed in “Sunday best” should be turned away, shunned or chastised in any way. Ones attire cannot be permitted to become a stumbling block that would prevent that person from coming to know the truth of the gospel or the love of God.

Blake next turns back to the other side of the argument, quoting Constance M. Cherry, “an international lecturer on worship and a hymn writer.” She says, “Many young people and boomers judge the value of worship service based on personal satisfaction. If I get to wear flip-flops to Wal-Mart, then I get to wear flip-flops to church. If I get to carry coffee to work, I get to carry coffee to church. They’re being told that come as you are means that God wants you to be comfortable.” Therein lies the real heart of the matter, I believe; a worship service is not about “personal satisfaction.” It is also not about what anyone is wearing, of course, but the external reflects the internal, and those who approach church attendance with a casual “whatever works for me” attitude are quite possible going to approach the Bible and their relationship with God with the same attitude.

Much to my satisfaction, Blake includes in his article this statement regarding the notion that “God wants you to be comfortable”: “The Bible says that’s not true – people had to prepare themselves internally and externally for worship.” Citing Cherry again, Blake points out that in the Old Testament Jews had to be ceremonially clean before entering the temple and that both the Old and New Testaments teach that God should not be approached casually.

Blake also cites Carl Raschke, though, a professor at the University of Denver, who says that the early church did adopt a come-as-you-are approach to attend church and who points to Mark 12:38 where Jesus reproached the Pharisees for their fine clothes. The reality, though, is that Jesus was not mocking or criticizing the Pharisees’ attire. Rather, He was chastising them for focusing so much on the external and ignoring the internal. The Pharisees were masters of looking good without actually being good or doing good. They were all about the show, all about appearing impressive and above others. Jesus took them to task for that and He would do the same today if someone were to show up in church dressed to the nines but completely focused on themselves and impressing others.

Blake points out that others who espouse the come-as-you-are approach to worship point to James 2 in which James instructs the first century church not to show favoritism to those who are well-dressed, giving them preferential treatment over those who are poor or poorly dressed. Again though, James was not condemning dressing up for church; his letter cannot be interpreted to mean that God does not want us to dress well when we gather to worship Him when we are able to do so. Rather, James was condemning the practice of treating those who were well-dressed in a better or preferential manner out of a desire to impress and please the wealthy attendees. There is absolutely no place in Christianity for treating anyone different based solely on their clothing.

Therein lies the root of the issue. What anyone wears to church is not about, should not be about, what anyone else thinks. I dress up for church every Sunday. The only nod I have made to being more casual is that I seldom wear a suit jacket anymore, but it’s always dress pants, dress shirt and tie for me. I am in a very small minority in my church that dresses that way–it is not even unusual for me to be better dressed than the pastor. I often speak in other churches, and it is the exception rather than the rule for there to be anyone else in those churches wearing a tie when I am there. I do not think those in jeans and t-shirts or in khakis and polo shirts are any less holy than me or that I am any more mature in my faith than they are simply because of the difference in our dress, and I certainly hope others do not think I think that or think that I am in any way better because of my attire. I dress up to go to church because I think it’s the right thing to do. If I can wear a tie to work every day there is absolutely no reason I cannot and should not wear one to church. If I will put on my best to attend a wedding or a funeral there is absolutely no reason I should not put on my best to worship Almighty God.

The bottom line is this–I do not think that one’s attire has anything to do with their ability to worship God and I certainly do not think any church should have a dress code. I am sure that there are Sundays when those in t-shirts are more in tune with the Lord or receive more from the service than I do in my tie. So please do not interpret anything I am saying here to mean that I think you better get your act together and start dressing for church. What I do think is that you should take time to ask yourself why you dress the way you do when you go to church. If you dress up, is it because you are doing so as an act of worship and as a reflection of your attitude toward the Lord, or is it so that you can impress others? If you dress casually, is it so that you can be comfortable or because you don’t think God cares what you wear anyway, or is it because church is just one more place to go, no different than any other activity?

I’m not judging you and I hope you’re not judging me…but we should all take the time to judge ourselves and take a look at why we dress the way we do. God doesn’t really care about the clothes themselves, but He does care about the why.

February 13, 2014

Beware Appearances (Part 2)

Yesterday I looked at the danger of focusing on image enhancement at the church level, a concern raised by John MacArthur in a February Tabletalk article and by Sophia Lee in a December WORLD article. Today I want to address the danger of focusing on image at the personal level.

MacArthur writes, “Worst of all, this attitude is pervasive at the individual level. Far too many Christians live as if a pretense of righteousness were as good as the real thing.”

He goes on to point out that this was the major error of the Pharisees. So true is this, in fact, that the very words “Pharisee” or “pharisaical” are now used to describe someone who is far more concerned with the external than the internal. Dictionary.com defines “pharisaical” this way: “practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit; self-righteous; hypocritical.” Hypocrite is probably one of the most common synonyms for Pharisee in any contemporary vernacular. Not exactly anything to aspire to!

The Pharisees’ problem was that they had mastered the art of making, interpreting, creatively bending and then living by the rules. So hung up on rules were they that they greatly added to the Ten Commandments God gave Moses and generated lists of hundreds of rules. So hung up on rules were they that they condemned Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath, condemned His disciples for grinding grain on the Sabbath when they plucked a few heads of grain with their hands while walking through a field. So hung up on rules were the Pharisees that they completely missed–indeed even denied–that Jesus was the Messiah because He did not fit their idea of what/who the Messiah should/would be.

MacArthur writes, “The Pharisees’ teaching placed so much emphasis on external appearances that it was commonly believed that evil thoughts were not really sinful as long as they did not become acts. The Pharisees and their followers became utterly preoccupied with appearing righteous.” Jesus, of course, turned that manner of thinking on its head, making clear that hating someone or lusting after someone is no different than murder or adultery. In other words, thoughts matter just as much as actions! No wonder the Pharisees hated Jesus; He challenged their entire religious system and made clear that all their rule-keeping was for naught.

Few, if any, of us have the same fastidious attention to countless rules that the Pharisees did. That does not mean at all, though, that we are not just as hung up on external appearances. How comfortable we can get carrying our Bibles to church every Sunday and bowing our heads before every meal, deluding ourselves into thinking that surely means we’re doing pretty good. God doesn’t look at that stuff, though; He is far more concerned with our hearts. He made it clear way back when Samuel was anointing a king for Israel that man looks at appearances but God looks at the heart.

What we do matters; do not take anything I am saying here to mean otherwise. James, of course, makes it crystal clear that our faith must be demonstrated by our works. But faith must precede works. The Pharisees saw no need for faith; works was their means to salvation. So we should carry our Bibles and go to church on Sunday, we should tithe and give offerings, we should show love and mercy in our interactions with others, but all of those things must flow out of a heart transformed by the realization that none of that will get us to heaven or earn us anything. We must also grasp that none of those things negate any “secret” sins of the heart and mind. No one else may see or no about them but God does, and He cares about them. They matter to Him.

In MacArthur’s words, the central lesson underscored by Jesus was this: “External appearance is not what matters most.” Let us not forget that.

March 15, 2013

Lukewarm

Filed under: Biblical Worldview,Spiritual Growth — jbwatson @ 10:59 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Heads up…the basis for this post is a bodily function that most people (myself included) find disgusting. So be forewarned….

Earlier this week I was sick. I don’t mean I wasn’t feeling well or my tummy hurt; I was sick. Violently sick. And, as suggested above, it was disgusting. As I was lying in bed contemplating the reality of my situation, two things went through my mind. One, it boggles my mind to think that there are people who voluntarily and intentionally put themselves through that regularly by drinking too much. Any pleasure or good-feeling that comes from drinking a lot would surely be negated by the time spent over the toilet, in my opinion. Two, Scripture makes it clear that lukewarm Christians make God want to vomit, and that should provoke some serious thought and self-reflection.

In the early chapters of Revelation John presents his vision of the churches and the message for those churches from God. While those churches are in literal places, they are also examples, I believe, of the statuses churches today might be in, and since churches are made up of people, the messages to the churches are also messages to believers. Specifically, to the church in Laodicea, in Revelation 3:15-16, John writes, “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth'” (ESV). Most translations use the more acceptable words “spit” or “spew,” but the Holman Christian Standard Bible uses “vomit.” The Message presents it this way: “You make me want to vomit!” The Voice also uses “vomit.” The Message and The Voice, of course, are not translations; they present the ideas of Scripture in every day easy-to-understand language but are not particularly concerned with maintaining accuracy with the original wording. Young’s Literal Translation, however, also uses “vomit”: “So — because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to vomit thee out of my mouth.”

So what would cause God to want to vomit? John made it clear; being lukewarm. God does not have any tolerance for Christians who are trying to be godly and worldy. John stated clearly that God would prefer cold to lukewarm; why? Because at least those who are cold have made a commitment and are not faking it. The way I read and understand John 3 is that the church at Laodicea probably said all the right things and went through all the right motions and probably looked quite spiffy to anyone who was watching, but it was mostly just for show. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, they were white-washed sepulchers. Their religion was, as James wrote in James 1:26, “worthless.” Their services were probably well attended and well scripted and impressive. If they had a church bulletin it was probably full of all of “the right stuff.” But when they were away from the church, those Laodiceans were much like the world, doing their thing, doing what worked or was convenient or made them happy. They probably had strong words for those they encountered who were “cold” toward God, and probably considered themselves to be “hot,” at least on Sunday mornings. But the reality is, in God’s eyes they were disgusting, and they made him want to throw up.

Unfortunately, I can think of something even more disgusting than that…and that’s just how often the term “Laodicean” might be accurately be applied to me.

August 1, 2012

Seventy Times Seven

Whether you are a baseball fan or not, you have undoubtedly heard the expression “three strikes and you’re out.” It turns out, the Pharisees in Jesus’ day took the same approach to forgiveness. They taught that, when wronged, individuals were obligated to forgive an offender up to three times. After the third time, however, there was no longer the need to forgive–the offender had “maxed out” and the forgiveness would not be forthcoming.

With this background in mind, it becomes clear that Peter thought he was being quite generous when he proposed forgiving up to seven times. In Matthew 18 Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” in light of what we know about Peter it does not take a lot of imagination to picture an almost-smug look on his face as he asks this question. He may have hoped his colleagues would be impressed by his magnanimity or that Jesus would give him an “attaboy” for his generous approach to forgiveness.

Jesus, though, quickly corrected Peter by informing him that even seven times was not nearly enough. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven,” Jesus answered.

A little quick math reveals that Jesus suggested 490 times was a more appropriate limit, but the reality is that Jesus was telling Peter, the other disciples, and you and me, that there is to be no limit to our forgiveness.

In Ephesians 4:32, Paul writes, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” In Colossians 3:13 Paul writes, “[B]earing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.”

That’s where it gets really tough. For me to forgive others the same way that God has forgiven me means two things: unlimited forgiveness, and unconditional forgiveness. There can be no end to the number of times I forgive, and there can be no offense for which I will not forgive.

I have experienced hurts in my life that were painful, as I am sure you have. I have been wronged by others, and seen how the careless or self-centered or misguided actions of some can wreak havoc on the lives of others impacted by their actions. There have been offenses which still hurt to think about years after they have happened. And the truth is, there are some offenses that I cannot forgive, in my flesh. More often than not my natural inclination is to get even, not to forgive. And if I do find it in my heart to forgive, it would be once, maybe twice, but rarely three times and certainly not seven.

Truth is, though, I am incredibly thankful that God has no limit to His forgiveness. If He did, I would have exceeded it long ago, whether the limit was 490 or seven times seven thousand. God is perfect and righteous and holy, and I, in myself, am anything but.

Three strikes is a good rule for baseball. It keeps the game moving. But it’s a lousy rule when it comes to forgiving others.

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