Comprehensive Praise: some reflections on worship from Psalm 150

sunshine-dust-motesThe psalms are the prayerbook of the Bible, prayer-songs that were often used within the corporate and private worship of the people of Israel. They are also one of our strongest biblical resources for shaping our life of worship today within the Christian church. The entire psalter concludes with a summary psalm of worship, Psalm 150, and I would like to share some thoughts that leap out to me about worship from this psalm.

Worship is God-Centered
The beginning word of Psalm 150 is simple: Hallelujah, which means, “praise the Lord.” The theme and tone of this psalm, something which sums up the entire book of psalms, is God-directed praise. This word, hallelujah, sets our spiritual compass to true north in God. Here at the beginning of this psalm, yet at the end of the entire psalter, we remember that God is the center-point of attention for our worship and rooted anchor for our lives. An oft-repeated phrase about worship is: “its’ not about me.” Hallelujah is the personal and communal exclamation of that reality. When we conclude the final word in the psalms with an introductory word, “praise the Lord,” we are forced to remember that worship and life is not about me but about God.

The Intersection of the Mundane and the Holy
In the next verses of Psalm 150, we find location in worship within God’s sanctuary or tabernacle even as our imagination stretches up to the heavens or the firmament of the sky. The psalmist reminds us that worship simultaneously draws us near to God in a Read More »

Choosing to Become Thankful

thankful

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story. (Psalm 107:1-2)

Thankfulness begins with our attention on the right sort of object. The object presented to us in Psalm 107 is God Himself. We read that God is Yahweh – the Savior, that God is good, that God is steadfastly loving and faithful.

When we turn our attention appropriately to God, things change. Perhaps our outward circumstances do not change, but we gain perspective on where we stand. And that shift in perspective brings a change in the way that we engage with our circumstances.

The message of the Bible is that Jesus Christ has not only shown us what God is like but has invited us into real relationship with God – where all the riches found in God are ours. That’s why Paul says in Ephesians 1:3, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” If this isn’t a reason to be thankful, I don’t know what is.

You see, thankfulness begins when our attention is on the right sort of object. However, we often become overwhelmed and our attention turns to the things that frustrate or pain us. We could make a list of them sometimes: losing loved ones, job challenges or loss, broken relationships, financial troubles, the difficulties in our neighborhood or the world around us, and much more. At certain times we could start to recount and pile up all the things that have gone wrong. We start to recite them and cling to those terrible things as if they are the sweetest candy. We suck on them and feed on them to our own destruction. We practice the presence of our problems instead of practicing the presence of the Lord.

Now, there is an old song that says:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God hath done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.

The encouragement of the verses in that song are really good advice. We should count our blessings.  It is far easier to notice what is wrong – what is foul – what is lacking – than it is to count our blessings.

George Buttrick, a powerful preacher in early 20th century New York, spoke to this very topic. He tells this story:

A lecturer to a group of businessmen [who] displayed a sheet of white paper in which was one dark blot. He asked what they saw. All answered, a blot.’ The test was unfair; it invited the wrong answer. Nevertheless, there is an ingratitude in human nature by which we notice the…disfigurement and forget the widespread mercy. We need to deliberately call to mind the joys of our journey. Perhaps we should try to write down the blessings of one day. We might begin: we could never end: there are not pens or paper enough in all the world. The attempt would remind us of our ‘vast treasure of content.’[1]

As Buttrick said, we need to “deliberately” call to mind the goodness of God. We need to count our blessings. Like the psalmist, we need to remember God’s good help and deliverance when we cry out to Him. Most of all, we need to remember the salvation offered to us in Jesus Christ. When we count our blessings, and put our attention on the abundant goodness of God, something begins to change as we choose to become thankful.

Ann Voskamp, in her beautiful memoir, One Thousand Gifts, writes: “the first sin of all humanity [is] the sin of ingratitude.”[2]

May we be those who respond differently. May we look to God – His character, His power, His abundance – and be thankful.

 


[1] Quoted in James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 67-68.

[2] Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 15.

A Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 6)

This is my final post in a series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

As he concludes his letter to the Philippians, Paul offers some final ‘secrets’ to living well for God.

The first is to “rejoice in the Lord always” (4:4). This echoes Paul’s theme of thankfulness from chapter one, that there is a grateful joy we can have in life. The secret behind such rejoicing is to turn our anxiety in to prayer, presenting God with our requests and living in His peace (4:6-7).

The second ‘secret’ to living well is to fill our minds with the right sort of things. Paul knows the power that inner thoughts have to shape the life of a person. Because of this, he encourages the Philippian believers to think on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” (4:8).  What we think about impacts our lives through our attitude, words, and desires. Thoughts have power.

A third ‘secret’ Paul mentions from his own life is contentment. He writes: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or want” (4:12). Obviously, we know from Paul’s life that he has been in a variety of situations. Even now, he is writing from prison. In it all, however, Paul is content. The secret to Paul’s contentment is knowing God’s strength living in him: “I can do all this through Him who gives me  strength” (4:13). Paul points these words toward the Philippians’ situation later: “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus” (4:19).

As he begins, Paul concludes by rejoicing in God’s good gifts, thinking on excellent things that God does, and content because of all God provides.

How are you doing at living into these spiritual ‘secrets’ Paul outlines at the end of his letter to the Philippians?

[If you want to explore Philippians further, consider viewing the 2018 preaching series, “Unshackled: Joy Beyond Circumstances,” beginning with the message, “The Joy of Faith.”]

A Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 5)

This is the fifth in a series of posts on Paul’s letter to the Philippians. These posts are written from devotional reflections on the Scripture.

Paul is driven by an all-consuming desire to know Christ. In one sense, Paul already knows Christ, as he writes: “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ” (3:8).

Because of this saving knowledge of Christ, Paul has set aside all earthly accomplishments or religious means of proving himself. He even counts those things as rubbish – or dung – so that he can “gain Christ” and a righteousness of Christ by faith. Paul has a focused perspective on Christ’s impact on his standing before God.

But, in another sense, Paul has more to know of Christ. He says immediately after this: “I want to know Christ” (3:10). There is a sense that something needs to be filled in with Paul’s knowledge of Christ. Paul outlines i this way: “I want to know the power of the resurrection and participation in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection of the dead” (3:10-11).

Paul wants to know Jesus’ death and resurrection, His suffering and His glory. This all seems to point toward an experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ that is far beyond what Paul knows now. He has not yet fully experienced this sort of knowledge of Christ (3:12).

How are you growing in your experiential knowledge of Christ these days?

[If you want to explore Philippians further, consider viewing the 2018 preaching series, “Unshackled: Joy Beyond Circumstances,” beginning with the message, “The Joy of Faith.”]

Re-speaking God’s Good Words

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If blessing means “to speak good words over something or someone,” what a powerful message of blessing comes to us from Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:3-14. He tells us that God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (1:3). Every spiritual blessing. Just that one word sets the tone of this entire letter. God has not held anything back but pours out the full extent of all His blessings upon believers. So, God speaks good words to the full extent possible upon us. Paul enumerates those blessings one after another:

  • chosen before creation
  • predestined to adoption to sonship
  • redeemed through Christ’s blood
  • forgiveness of sins
  • lavished with God’s grace
  • knowledge of God’s will
  • sealed with the Holy Spirit

It seems not that Paul has run out of blessings to mention, but rather that he has run out of room in the sentence he is writing to contain any more blessings. God speaks all these good realities into us through Christ.

If God speaks so many good words – so many blessings – over our lives, why is it that we speak so many bad words over our lives and the lives of others? Why is it that we fill our moths, our ears, and our lives with all so many negative messages? Why do we erode the abundance of God’s blessings through the poisonous waters of human cursing and negativity?

If God speaks so many good words over our lives, what might it mean to know those good words and to echo them into our lives by recounting them and speaking them forth daily? The old hymns says, “Count your blessings, name them one by one.” Counting our blessings first of all means knowing those blessings, some of which Paul listed for us in Ephesians 1. We need to know the content and significance of the good words that God has spoken over our lives. Secondly, it means speaking those good words over our lives again and again. Maybe today we just pick up those words of blessing and say, “I have been lavished with God’s grace. I’ve been forgiven. I’ve been redeemed in Christ.” When we re-speak God’s good words over our lives it keeps us centered in what is true. Thirdly, counting our blessings means giving God praise with our mouths for the blessings He has given to us. God blesses us and we bless Him back. God speaks good words over us and we speak good words over Him in return.

When we not only hear the blessings of God but re-speak them over our lives, our outlook changes. We are not limited by our circumstances but are transformed through the truth of God’s blessings. Even if many things do not change, we know who we are and whose we are in God through Christ.

A Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 4)

This post continues a series of posts with thoughts from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. These posts are personal reflections taken from devotional reading of the book.

Paul mentions Timothy and Epaphroditus to the Philippians when writing to them. From Paul’s laudatory words, we see that both of these men are examples to the believers then and us today.

Paul describes Timothy as:

  • “I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare” (2:20)
  • “Timothy has proved himself” by serving with Paul “as a son with his father” in the work of the gospel; apparently being one who looks out for the interests of Christ Jesus, not just himself (2:21-22)
  • he will faithfully report back to Paul (2:19)

Paul describes Epaphroditus as:

  • “my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier” (2:25)
  • “your messenger” sent to take care of Paul’s needs (2:25)
  • became sick while with Paul, almost died, but is now well (2:26-27) by God’s mercy
  • “risked his life” for the gospel work by caring for Paul (2:30)

These two believers were examples that Paul could hold up for the church in Phillipi. We all need examples of faithfulness to God toward whom we look in our daily lives. Those examples help us as we try to continue to pursue God and work for Him in this world.

How have examples of faith been an encouragement to you in your faith?

[If you want to explore Philippians further, consider viewing the 2018 preaching series, “Unshackled: Joy Beyond Circumstances,” beginning with the message, “The Joy of Faith.”]

A Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 3)

This is the third in a series of posts with thoughts from Paul’s letter to the PhilippiansA Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 1). These posts are personal reflections taken from devotional reading of the book.

I have always been captured by Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:12-13:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His good pleasure.

These two short verses provide what I see as the best description of the mysterious tension that exists in our lives between God’s power and our effort. Paul is challenging his readers to obey God – and his teaching about God – even though he is geographically apart from them and in prison. He offers a kind, yet challenging, word to the believers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

In essence, Paul is telling us that we need to put in hard work to work this all out. It will not just ‘happen’ without energy expended and effort given to the work. I cannot help but think of Paul’s encouragement to his young pastoral trainee, Timothy, to “train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7). His comparison in that passage to physical training seems to echo through the current words to the Philippian believers. ‘Get to it! Don’t stop working at it!’ Paul says.

But the other half of the equation is the reality that “it is God who works in you.” This working out of our salvation is not something based in human effort alone. Our own efforts find strength and their source in the truth that God is at work within us. This should encourage us, but also give us that “fear and trembling” Paul references here. Right now and right here in our lives, the Living God is at work. He will do His work in our lives. That’s why Paul said that God will “fulfill His good purpose” in us or, as he wrote earlier in this same letter, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Philippians 1:6).

So, we find ourselves resting in this mysterious tension that we are to work out our salvation, while knowing that anything that comes worth talking about is fully from God’s gracious work in us. We cannot wait for God to do something without putting some effort into it. Yet, we cannot believe our efforts will do a thing apart from the powerful working of God in our lives.

[If you want to explore Philippians further, consider viewing the 2018 preaching series, “Unshackled: Joy Beyond Circumstances,” beginning with the message, “The Joy of Faith.”]