Daily Devotionals

With the New Year around the corner, and Advent upon us, we pastors begin to field more questions about good devotional material. Since the answers don’t change very often I thought I would put my thoughts down here and point our parishioners to this post in the future. From year to year I will try to update it as new materials become available.

When it comes to devotional literature, I always recommend first the Psalms and Proverbs. Reading and meditating on a Psalm each day is a wonderful exercise and one that is trustworthy. So many devotional books are either weak or even full of bad theology. But the Psalter will not steer you wrong. If you read one a day you will read the Psalter twice in the year with plenty of time left over. If you read five Psalms a day you will read the Psalter through every month. Familiarity with and a love for the Psalms will lead you to more consistent prayer and provide you with strong language with which to pray. Likewise, the Proverbs are excellent material to meditate upon. One chapter a morning will take you through the Proverbs in a month. Repeat this for a year and you will find that you are, without even trying, able to recite many of the Proverbs from memory. I do not believe there is any better devotional literature in the entire canon of human writings. And they have God as their author.

Having said that, it is with a little bit of a grudge that I turn to recommend anything else. But there are some good options out there. The first I would recommend are our doctrinal standards. Read a chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith each day. Or read a question from the Larger Catechism or several from the Shorter Catechism. They are beautifully written, theologically rich, and worthy of meditation. Though we are Westminsterian, our Dutch brothers and sisters have a wonderful set of standards as well that we appreciate very much: The Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. Read the Heidelberger, a question each day, and meditate upon the question and answer. It begins, “Christian, what is your only comfort in life and death?” The answer, carefully considered, will bring tears of joy to your eyes! You will be encouraged, inspired, and grow in the knowledge of God by using these materials devotionally. All are easily obtained online or at Logos Bookstore in Green Hills.

One source of devotional material that folks rarely think of is biographical material. Fox’s Book of Martyrs, though hardly without error, can be quite an inspiration as you consider the faithfulness that God has worked in His saints throughout modern history. William Barker has written a single volume entitled Puritan Profiles that is wonderful. Each Puritan is profiled in about two pages, making for a brief read. Another is Sketches from Church History by SM Houghton, which tells you about historical events in the church in brief sections of about  two pages each. The subtitle gives you some idea of how well it serves as a devotional work: An Illustrated Account of 20 Centuries of Christ’s Power. This material is wonderfully inspirational. More than that, though, reading Christian history and biographical sketches will slowly change your perspective, teaching you that you are not the first generation of Christians, but are part of a larger and historical stream of faithful saints. It will humble you.

The final category I want to highlight are classic works. When it comes to what we’ll call “straight devotional literature”, there are two reasons to stick with the classics. First, they are classics because they are excellent. Otherwise they would have been forgotten. Second, with so much excellent material available among the classic works, there is simply no reason to reach for the recent stuff. Let the new works prove themselves first and you can pick them up in a few decades. CS Lewis said you should at least read one classic for every contemporary book. I think he’s right. That said, among the classics I especially like a series that, though the series is not a classic series, it puts classic writings together into devotional size bites. It is the Day by Day series published by Hendrickson. There is a volume of the English Puritans, another of the Early Church Fathers, and another for John Calvin. Each volume is 365 days of single page devotions excerpted from the writings of the Fathers, etc. They can be hard to find, but if you’ll call Logos Bookstore I’m confident they can find what you want quickly and reasonably. Also in this category (though not usually considered so) is our Trinity Hymnal. Choose a hymn each day, especially one we have sung or will soon sing or sing often, and read them thoughtfully. This will contribute to your ability to worship well on Sundays. Our church website will tell you which hymns we are singing on the coming Sunday.

I know there are other classics, but I haven’t used them myself, so I’m hesitant to recommend them until I have. If you have favorites you’d like to recommend, send me the titles and I’ll do my best to check into them and post them here.

I hope your devotional time will be used by God to strengthen your faith, increase your love, and ground your hope in Christ!

Posted in Biography, Book Recommendations, Catechizing, Christian Living, Church History, Devotional, John Calvin, Pastoral Care, Prayer

Where do I start with my new reading habit?

In previous posts I’ve written about how to choose a good book to read. We discussed reading everything on the front and back cover as well as the inside covers and the front matter. Really try to get a sense for who the author is and where he or she is coming from, as well as how they handle the material. It’s a learned habit, but one that will pay off in the long run. Reading is, after all, a diet.

If you aren’t used to reading Christian literature, though, or are accustomed to reading poor Christian literature, where do you start to improve your reading? Here are a couple of categories of Christian books that you might find helpful…

Biography

There are some great Christian biographies out there! Christian biography can be inspiring. It can remind you that other saints struggle with sin and difficult circumstances and find themselves oppressed. Among my favorites are those published by P&R in a series titled, American Reformed Biographies. They have volumes on Van Til, Dabney, Nevin, Hodge, and Boyce. You may or may not recognize these names, but as Presbyterians, you owe them a great debt. They are among those who have handed down the faith as it is being handed to you. You ought to get to know them.

P&R has also published several biographies outside this series, such as D.G. Hart’s book, Defending the Faith, a biography of J. Gresham Machen and Stephen Nichols great little book, Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought (Nichols has also done one in this series on Machen). Speaking of Edwards, two other wonderful biographies on him include A Shorter Life of Jonathan Edwards by George Marsden and Marriage to a Difficult Man by Elisabeth Dodds.

Although it’s not a biography, Seeking a Better Country tells the story of Presbyterianism in America and does so in a very easy to read narrative. And finally, I love the very short biography on John Calvin by Robert Reymond titled, John Calvin: His Life and Influence.

None of these is very long and all are deeply edifying.

Christian Living

Of course, this is the kind of reading many Christians do, but it is precisely this category that is the most filled with junk. I recommend you approach your pastors and ask for help in this category. I have a whole host of titles that I recommend often in this category. On knowing God’s will I like Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung. On trying to come to terms with the Sabbath and how to observe it biblically I enjoy The Lord’s Day by Joseph Pipa. I think every Christian should read What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert – maybe even annually – along with a great book on the church by Gilbert and DeYoung titled, What is the Mission of the Church? For parenting I recommend Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp.

There’s a lot of bad stuff out there, but the good stuff is worth every minute spent reading it. Added to a regular diet of Scripture and even the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, you will find it encourages you and instructs you and brings light to the dark places.

In the next installment, we’ll consider books that will help you understand the Bible better as well as some basic theology books.

Posted in Uncategorized

How do I read a book?

I know. This sounds a little silly. When I arrived on campus to begin seminary a book with a similar title was assigned by one of my professors. I thought it was a bit odd as well. But it turns out that despite being an avid reader all my life, there were a few things I still had to learn about reading. And in this current American culture, I suspect there are many folks out there that could stand to pause long enough to consider their reading habits. So here are a few basic suggestions for your consideration.

First, reading is an appetite. When I hear people say they don’t like to read I usually tell them (or at least think it in my head), “You just haven’t been reading the right stuff.” Either they haven’t hit on the right subject, or they haven’t been reading the best material in a given genre. Likewise, many people are often enthusiastic about reading pulp fiction, but anything else puts them to sleep. You may not be aware of this, but if you read a consistent diet of the same sort of literature (particularly if that literature requires very little of you intellectually), you sort of spoil your appetite. You’ll find it hard to read anything else or books that ask anything of your brain at all. So make sure you are reading a balanced diet. Save the pulp fiction for bedtime.

Second, speaking of bedtime, did you know that if you always read in bed until you fall asleep that you actually train your brain to go to sleep when you read? This doesn’t mean you should never read in bed. It just means that you shouldn’t do most of your reading in bed to fall asleep. If this is already you, I’d try to avoid it for awhile until you’ve retrained your brain.

Third, always keep a pencil with you when you’re reading anything that is thought provoking or important. Make notes in the margins. Don’t be in such a rush. Slow down. Stop and think about something that you just read that was new to you. Do you think it is true? Does it make sense? How does it fit in with what you thought you knew? Make some notes in the margin so you can find it again more easily and remember what your initial reaction was.

Fourth, find great places to read. I love the outdoors. Unfortunately I find it hard to get comfortable to read outdoors except for a few times a year. It always seems too cold or too hot or too wet or too bug infested or I can’t find a comfortable reading position. But when everything comes together it makes for a wonderful reading environment that helps me focus and enjoy reading all the more. So obviously I don’t have many outdoor spots. But I think I work near the best Starbucks in the world. It’s larger than most I’ve been in. Despite being crowded there are usually open seats – the large leather comfortable kind. It’s warm and smells like coffee and I can get a tall peppermint mocha in the winter. I run into church members often and I’m on a first name basis with the staff. I will sometimes read there for an entire morning or afternoon. It’s hard to beat. Do you enjoy a fireplace and have one at home? Do you have a great chair to sit in next to the fire with plenty of light to read by? Those make great spots as well. In the Fall and Spring cafes with outdoor tables and good food are great places too. Finding the right spot can make reading something you can’t wait to do.

Fifth, don’t be afraid to reread great books. I have a short list of books I try to read every year. You will gain some new insight with almost every reading. And the familiarity will make it even easier to read than the first time. And somewhat similar to the effect of a great reading spot, anticipating sitting down with a favorite book is something that will make the idea of reading much more enjoyable.

Sixth, discuss what you’ve read. Reading groups are popular and are one option. When it comes to reading theology or books on the Christian life, find someone to interact with that will be able to challenge you. As a pastor, I love reading books with folks in our church. But we pastors aren’t the only ones in the church who can do this. We have a few ruling elders who are well-read theologically. We also have members who are seminary graduates and have the advantage of having read a lot of the theological books out there under the tutelage of seminary professors (sometimes the very author you’re reading!). Talking about what you’ve read out loud with someone else helps you synthesize your reading and sift through the good ideas and the bad ideas.

These are just a few ideas. We worship God with our bodies as we sing and serve and confess our sin and our faith and we pray. We serve God with our finances as we tithe and give to gospel causes. Do you think we ought to serve God with our minds? Paul says in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Check out these other verses in which Christ and the Apostles make it clear that Christians must engage their minds:Matt 16:23; 22:37; Mark 8:33; 12:30; Luke 10:27; Rom 8:6-7; 1 Cor 14:14-19; 2 Thes 2:2; 2 Tim 3:8; 2 Pet 3:1; Rev 17:9).

So please give some serious thought to mixing thoughtful biblical and theological reading in with whatever else you normally read. If you need help getting started  – finding the right book is the biggest initial challenge – please don’t hesitate to contact me! I’m going to do a post on this very subject very soon. I also have a couple of series on this blog recommending books. One is “Books Every Lay Person Should Read” and the other is “Commentaries for Lay People”.

Posted in Book Recommendations, Christian Living

A Basic Guide to Reformed Worship

[This was originally posted on the Covenant Presbyterian Church, Nashville blog on 2 September 2011]

For many joining us in worship on Sunday morning the form can be a bit unusual. I know I wasn’t raised worshiping God according to this order of worship, and at first it can be confusing. I was reminded of this when my own parents, being of perfectly sound mind, worshiped with us one Sunday and expressed some confusion afterward about “what comes next” in the order of worship. With that in mind, I would like to take my next few opportunities on the blog to explain some of the basic principles that guide our worship.

A Conversation

Although there are some theological foundations we will have to address in the next couple of articles, one of the most helpful points that can be made about our worship is that it is a conversation, or a dialogue. We refer to this as the dialogical principle. It is quite simple: God speaks and we respond. In each part of the service this is the nature of that element of worship. The service begins with God speaking in the call to worship and ends with God speaking in the Benediction, His “good word” or blessing on His people as they go out. He also speaks to us in the sacrament of baptism, in the reading of the Word and the call to confession of sin as well as in the assurance of pardon,  the call for the tithe and offering, the preaching of the Word, and the sacrament of the Lord’s Table. We respond throughout in song, in prayer, in thoughtful engagement with the reading and preaching of the Word, in confession of sin and of faith, in obediently bringing our children to the font for baptism and in joyfully being brought to the table for the Supper.

God Speaks

What is God saying in His half of the conversation? Out of His grace toward us in Christ, He gives us commands and declares the promises of the gospel. In each exchange in the dialogue we are taught, reminded of and encouraged by some element of gospel truth. It is the part of the ordained ministers of the Word to speak the part of God in worship. This is why it is so essential for us as pastors to find our “lines” in Scripture. Our authority is derived ultimately from the Word of God alone. In this way you will notice that our worship is drenched in the Word of God. You hear it in every element from the Call to Worship to the Benediction.

His People Respond

And what is our response to the Gospel? We respond in faith with praise! We proclaim throughout, in all our responses, that He is great and worthy to be praised. That He has declared the truth about us. That we love and adore Him and are in need of all that He provides. That He is faithful and that we trust Him. We celebrate our Savior and the great salvation He has accomplished for His people. And we seek to do this with biblical language, following the examples provided by worshipers throughout the Scripture. And we do it predominantly in unison, because we are the one people of God.

What This Means

It is for this reason that we seek to arrive at worship on time, prepared to hear our gracious God call us to worship so that we may respond in joy. It is also for this reason that we remain to the end, coveting the blessing which our Lord bestows upon us in the benediction. Understanding that we are in dialogue with our Savior and Lord also informs the manner in which we respond, allowing the knowledge of God to fill our worship with reverence and awe, deep respect, humility, and joy.

Posted in Ecclesiology, Liturgy and Worship, Sabbath

Reformed Worship, Part 2

[This was originally posted on the Covenant Presbyterian Church, Nashville blog on 18 November 2011]

Sometimes our form of worship can be hard to understand and follow. I was reminded of this again recently when I sat next to a woman visiting for the baptism of her friend’s little boy. She often seemed caught off guard that we were all standing up, then noticed too late that we were all opening our hymnals, to which page she wasn’t sure. Throughout the service I ended up handing her my hymnal and opening another. The problem was not with our worship,, but simply that it was new to her.

The form of our worship may not be new to you, but do you understand what we are doing and why it matters? Last time we discussed the format of the service. It is a conversation between God and us, His people. The conversation consists of his declaration of the gospel to us and our songs and prayers and confessions in joyful response. In this post I want to turn our attention to the fact that worship requires our participation.

This may seem obvious. After all, it’s called “worship”, which is ours to do. However, there is more to it than simply going through the motions. Here are three ways that we participate meaningfully.

With Our Voices

Throughout the service there are plenty of spoken parts for the congregation. We sing, confess sin, read responsively, recite creeds and even pray as we recite the Lord’s Prayer corporately. It’s important that we all participate in this:  men, women, and children. All our voices should be lifted up. These elements are nothing less than a declaration of praise to our God! And because we are not gnostics – that is, we believe that God has created us body and soul and is redeeming us body and soul – we worship with both body and soul. This is why posture matters in worship: standing, sitting, kneeling, hands held out to receive the benediction. This is why worship appeals to all five senses – especially during the Supper when smell and taste and touch are included. In this same way, engaging in the worship of our God through the lifting up of our voices matters. And even more so, since it is by our voices that the Word of God goes forth.

With Our Minds

Even as we speak we are to be engaged thoughtfully. Do you ever think carefully about the words of the hymns we sing and what they mean? Do you ever listen to the amazing gospel as it is declared in the Apostles’ Creed? Does it ever humble you profoundly when you open your mouth and address the Creator and Judge of all things as “Our Father”? But it is not merely when we speak that we are to be thoughtfully engaged. It is true even when we listen. Does the pronunciation of the assurance of pardon ever give you great relief? Are you actively listening during the sermon to hear the indicatives of the gospel and the imperatives of the kingdom so that the Spirit may apply them to your heart? If you come into worship prepared, both conscious of your sin and your need of a Savior, and ready to be reminded that Christ is the salvation of God, then you will find yourself weeping for joy and relief.

With Our Hearts

And it is when we experience the shame of our sin and the thrills, and relief, and joy of the gospel, moved to shout and to sing ever louder and, yes, even to weep, that our worship moves from the ear, through the mind, to the heart. True worship is emotional. It does not start with emotion, as if emotion was the point of worship. And it is not a contrived emotion, caused by a direct appeal to the heart which bypasses the mind. It is the effect of the gospel rightly understood and experienced. And this emotion properly sourced in the knowledge of God elevates our worship to even greater heights, as we cannot help but shout for joy to the Lord.

It is when we actively participate in worship that we not only worship well, but we are transformed in the process, conforming more and more to the image of Christ. And greater and greater participation resounds to the glory of God, fulfilling our created purpose: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Posted in Ecclesiology, Liturgy and Worship, Sabbath