The Tender Tears Of The Timeworn Travelers

Neal Pollard

I suppose I have met more than a few elderly people, including some professing to be Christians, who could be described as “crusty,” “crotchety,” “contrary,” and “curmudgeonly.” These no doubt spent decades developing such a winning personality. But one of the greatest blessings I have received as a member of the church and minister of the gospel is my association and friendship with “senior saints.” Through the years, I have discussed with them the subject of worship. The most frequent topic of that is how precious that public time of communing is to them.

A godly widow recently told me she has spent the last two years focusing more intently on concentrating more on the song service, reflecting on the words and their meaning. Songs she has sung for decades, through this exercise, have become almost like new songs to her. Another older woman, married to an elder, talked about how she finds herself much more apt to be tearful in worship these days. She’s almost embarrassed at how emotional the experience of worship is making her. An elderly man who was a longtime elder and recently passed on to paradise, struggled to pray, sing, or publicly speak in worship without being choked with emotion. I could fill pages of writing about other godly Golden Agers who treasure assembling to worship God. Their hearts are full and their emotions engaged. Their voices may be softened and broken by age, but their spirits are stronger than ever.

When I think of these faithful, aged Christians, I am reminded of Paul’s words: “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).  Sometimes, the elderly are made scapegoats of alleged “lifeless” or habitual, but heartless worship. No doubt, there are likely Christians in that age range who struggle with and even fall prey to such (as there is in every other age category). But on the whole, these Christians have walked longer with God, know Him better, and value Him more than their younger counterparts. They are closer on the journey to the Father’s house and are anxious to see His face.

We are heirs of a heartfelt heritage handed to us by these holy hoary heads. To our seasoned brothers and sisters, we thank you for showing us how to walk with and love God as years turns into decades and the shadow of the grave looms larger. As we narrow the gap between our age and yours, we want worship and life in Christ to grow more precious to us, too. Thank you for your trembling lips, your tear-stained cheeks, and your tender hearts. They look great on you!

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The Gift That Jesus Gave

Neal Pollard

Often, during this time of year, there is an emphasis placed upon the gifts brought by the magi to Jesus—“gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Mat. 2:11).  They understood how Jesus was worthy of worship (2:2,11) and celebration (2:10).  Their giving flowed from that recognition.

The book of Hebrews turns the tables and reveals the Jesus who is the gift-giver. The same Greek word used to describe the wise men’s gifts to Jesus is used twice by the writer of the epistle to talk about Jesus’ gift. He does so in the context of Jesus’ work as a High Priest, as contrasted with the gifts offered by priests under the Law of Moses. In Hebrews 5:1, the writer talks about the qualifications necessary to serve in that role—taken from among men, working on behalf of men in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sin. Chapter five deals more with His qualification to serve and offer, but the writer does deal with the gift itself later on. Later on turns out to be chapter eight. The writer uses that same word for “gifts” in Hebrews 8:3-4 to talk about what Jesus offered. His gift is contrasted with those that cannot make the worshiper “perfect in conscience” (9:9). He gave His own blood (9:10) and with it obtained eternal redemption which will “cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (9:14). The writer summarizes that gift, “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10), as the gift that sanctifies us to God.

But what do we give in return? We cannot repay His priceless gift. But God presupposes that we will be motivated to give. Jesus does, referring to worship in Matthew 5:23-24. He does again, referring to the monetary gifts of the wealthy and the sacrificial (Luke 21:1-4). The Hebrews writer will use Abel as an example of faith-fueled giving (11:4). But our most generous gifts to Christ, however moved by sincere love and unwavering commitment, is but a shadow and reflection of His gift. We give Him money, honor, time, energy, heart, and everything else we can, because He is the greatest giver of all. May we take the time, every day, to honor and give freely, to the Gift-Giver!

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Audience Analysis

Neal Pollard

People, in talking about public speaking, will sometimes speak of “audience analysis.” What they mean is that you need to know your audience or you run the risk of being irrelevant, disconnected, and even possibly offensive. You may assume too much of them or sell them way short. Neither extreme is effective.

A wonderful sign for any congregation is the presence of especially non-Christian visitors, especially those from our community. Hopefully, we are doing something right when these visitors make repeat visits to our assemblies. However, too often, I fear that we have not done sufficient “worship neighbor analysis” or, equally, “Bible class neighbor” analysis. I recently was in a class when a teacher made a remark about how poorly a specific religious group scored on a Bible comprehension quiz. The remark itself was poignant and effective, but the cackling laughter from a few near the front of the class was easily heard throughout the classroom. I’m sure it was heard by two students sitting near them whose background is in that religious group. One is a brand new Christian and the other is a non-Christian visiting with him. Not only was the members’ reaction unnecessary, it displayed a lack of awareness of who else was present.

At times, we select songs from a century when “thees” and “thous” were commonplace and whose vocabulary was drastically different from how we speak today (“guerdon,” “cassia,” “pinion,” “dross,” and “hoary”). Even songs I have long been fond of read in ways that seem almost foreign to us today. Preparation for worship leadership should include a cognizance of how new Christians, young people, non-Christians, and the like will process or even if they can process such.

Specifically biblical or theological terms which we know people like our neighbors, coworkers, and classmates do not understand should not be uttered undefined. Making assumptions in an age marked by a growing lack of biblical literacy can undermine our effectiveness. It can make the most relevant message of all seem irrelevant and incomprehensible.

Of course, most fundamentally, one of the most unforgivable sins in the eyes of the typical visitor is to be ignored or made to feel invisible. We may hesitate to engage someone because we lack awareness of their “status” (visitor or member). Instead of risking embarrassment, scorn, or an expenditure of time, we walk past them or speak to someone we know we know. Perhaps, in believing that true seekers find, we let ourselves off the hook despite Jesus’ call for us to sympathetically consider others (Lk. 6:31; 1 Pet. 3:8).  Common sense should move us to see that we can attract or detract, depending on how we react.

Spiritual maturity will steer us to be mature, kind, patient, and self-aware. Basic thoughtfulness will help us prepare, speak, and act in ways that make us magnets for the Messiah rather than repellant from the Redeemer. The effort will be appreciated and, I truly believe, rewarded. If we need to, let’s break out of our bubbles of isolation and seek to see things through the eyes of others—especially “the little” (Mat. 10:42; 18:6-14) and “the least” (Mat. 25:40).

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“It’s Meant To Be”

Neal Pollard

Sometimes a person wants so desperately to do something that they rationalize their decision to do so by crediting God with “sending a sign” or by concluding that “it’s meant to be.” In an age where God communicates to man, neither by voice nor directly through His Spirit but by His Word, this can prove dangerous thinking. The dilemma often is when we pray for something having multiple choices or outcomes, and then we have to make a decision. Most of us have been in this position. We want God’s will to be done, and we cannot be 100% sure we did the right or best thing at the time.

The danger comes in confusing our own will with God’s will. We can be certain that we are making the wrong decision if what we seek to do is blatantly unwise or clearly in violation of what Scripture says. Congregations have claimed Spirit-guidance for unauthorized changes in worship or their women’s roles within the church, and they have even claimed feeling God’s working among them or receiving a sign indicating God led them to such innovation. Men and women have dissolved their marriages, having blamed God for the move by saying they felt, or were even led to the conclusion, that such a move (and subsequent involvement in a new relationship) was His will. This simply cannot stand the test of scrutiny.

A famous example of the folly of such thinking comes from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. In 1938-39, Hitler brilliantly and bloodlessly divided his enemies through economic and political strategy. On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s troops occupied Poland and took it over. Incidentally, that day was the anniversary of one of their biggest military victories. On September 1, 1870, they overran Sedan in a day of war and strategy that long stood as a symbol of Germany’s military might. Throughout Germany, the populous lined up behind Hitler, optimistically concluding that a new world order led by Germany–no matter how achieved–“was meant to be.” Hindsight now shows how mistaken a notion this was. On May 2, 1945, Hitler committed suicide. the next day at 2:41 A.M. in a Reims’ schoolhouse, General Gustav Jody signed Germany’s unconditional surrender…five years, eight months, and two days after the occupation of Poland. Of course, world supremacy by a country led by a murderous madman was not “meant to be” nor was it “divine guidance.” Yet, many Germans in the late ’30s and early ’40’s thought so (For more information, follow this link.

Let us be careful not to confuse what we want with what God wants. May we never transpose selfish desires with divine guidance. Otherwise, we may stand to lose more than our nation and freedom (cf. Prov. 14:12). By shaping our mind and hearts through faithful, unprejudiced Bible study and constant prayer, we will be in a better position to recognize–when faced with tough choices–which one better glorifies God and achieves His purpose in this world.

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Polish citizens being overrun on the day Germany occupied in 1939.

Do You Want A Better Life?

Neal Pollard

Who would answer “no” to that question? Who wants a worse life or a life that never gets better? But the better question is, “How do you get a better life?” Advertisers have so many answers to that, involving their currency or investment tool, their pill, diet, or workout routine, their travel agency or vacation destination, or product for your home, transportation, business, and the like. So many put so much into these promising plans, but still find their life wanting.

In religious matters, there is no room for subjective thought when it comes to what it takes to have a better life. We find ourselves often bobbing in a sea of religious confusion. Many groups claim to be the best religion and point to their ingredients as reasons for such claims. They point to their numeric size, number of programs they have, or how socially active they are. Our religious attitude ought to be one of humility, not boasting of our achievements or comparing ourselves with others (cf. 2 Cor. 10:12). Genesis 4:1-16 points us to the first recorded version where more than one kind of worship was offered to God and how God rated them. But this chapter also paints a picture of two ways of living life.

Cain is mentioned by three Bible writers after Moses writes about him in this chapter. The writer of Hebrews calls Abel’s offering more excellent than his (Heb. 11:4). John calls his works evil and his allegiance “of the wicked one” (1 John 3:12). Jude implies that the way of Cain is the wrong way to go (11). It seems that Genesis four shows us the better ingredients for a better way of living today.

  • Better living isn’t determined by age (1-2). Cain was the firstborn, a place of honor and privilege especially throughout the Old Testament.  But under the New Covenent, there is no spiritual advantage because of birth order. It is not a matter of firstborn, but a matter of being born again (John 3:1-7). Growing older should mean growing wiser, but reaching a milestone on a calendar does not equate to better living.
  • Better living isn’t determined by occupation (2).  Growing up, we might be tempted to see our occupation as the gateway to happiness and satisfaction, financial freedom and security, independence, and privilege.  When we look at Cain and Abel, what they did for a living wasn’t the determiner of the quality of their lives. Some occupations can stand in the way of better living, whether the nature of the job or the quality of the people one works with. Some can let their jobs stand between them and their relationship with God and His church. But, one can do right in unfavorable work circumstances, staying faithful to God.
  • Better living is determined by worship (3-4). That statement may be offensive to our multicultural world that says there are no absolute rights or wrongs. Contrast our culture’s thinking on this matter with what we read in Genesis four. Both Cain and Abel brought an offering to the Lord. God responded to both offerings, but He accepted one while rejecting the other. While many make worship nothing more than taste, preference, and personal, we learn here that not all worship is equal. God “had regard for” Abel’s, but not for Cain’s. It does not say if Cain was sincere. It doesn’t seem to matter. We learn here that the worshipper and the worship offered rise and fall together. God regarded Abel and his offering, but rejected Cain and his offering. Can one offer God vain worship, and have God reject it but accept him? Apparently not.
  • Better living is determined by attitude (5-7). Cain reacts to having himself and his worship rejected by God. He was very angry. His insides burned! His countenance fell. He took on an ugly look. We’re not told how old he was, but it almost sounds like a temper tantrum. Whether home training, lack of discipline, poor stress management, pride, jealousy, or anything else leads us to lose our tempers, all of them are matters only we can control. When we don’t control them, we’re responsible! Ill-tempered people are not living the better life! A positive life doesn’t require prospering, education, or earthly success. But you can’t have a positive attitude without mastering self.
  • Better living is determined by action (8-16). The word “sin” is first used in Genesis 4:7, but God was looking ahead with perfect foresight to what Cain was going to do to his brother (cf. 1 John 3:11-15). Bible writers speak of his deeds, offering, and way. These are all action words. After his sin, he is rebuked and punished by God and separated from God. Sin will not deliver what it promises. All actions have consequences (Gal. 6:7-9).

Someone said, “The line of Cain gives us murder, cities, polygamy, musicians, metal workers, and poetry, but not one who walked with God.  In fact, Cain’s legacy led to a repeat of his violent ways by a descendant (cf. 4:23). Abel leaves no physical lineage, but he leaves a great spiritual heritage (Heb. 11:4). We each get to choose what kind of life we’ll pursue. It matters which way we decide.

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Desire That Bubbles From The Heart And Falls From The Lips

“To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.” This quotation was from a man who observed lethargy and unenthusiastic engagement in congregational singing. He decried a lack of apparent passion and zeal for God and spiritual things in this act of worship that is meant to be profound and transforming. The observer, as far as is known, was not a New Testament Christian, but he was responsible for giving us “Joy to the World,” “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” and over 500 more hymns. He complained about the lifeless hymns being sung in his day, and his father, who would be jailed for dissenting from the Church of England, challenged him to come up with a solution. All those hymns, which he started writing in adolescence, was his answer. Isaac Watts can be considered an expert on religious hymns, and he revolutionized congregational singing for especially English speakers. The fact that we still sing some of his hymns demonstrates that.

But, his observation in later life about indifference, negligence, and thoughtlessness from  those presumably worshipping is a fair challenge to each of us. Especially when we are singing songs so familiar to us, which we know by heart, we must guard against lips that say one thing and hearts which do not necessarily reflect those words. Is it possible to sing about Jesus’ death on the cross or God’s great love or the amazing hope of heaven or an examination of my Christian life and commitment without reflecting and contemplating? Could I be thinking about something while singing something else? The gamut might run from empty religion to understandable distraction, but we must challenge ourselves to keep our hearts and minds on the words and meaning of those psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (cf. Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19).  Let us cultivate desire in the heart that bubbles from the lips as we praise God and encourage one another in our song service.

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Andy Baker leading a group in singing (photo credit: John Moore)

A Small Portion Does Not Mean Small Proportion

Neal Pollard

Those who address us prior to our giving often make a statement like this, that we are giving back but a small portion of what God has blessed us with. In other words, if you could owned and could contribute all the world’s wealth, week after week, how would that compare to the sacrificial gift of Christ (cf. Mat. 16:26)? In fact, how could it compare with the many additional blessings besides atonement—a body equipped with the ability to perform involuntary actions (breathing, blood flow, cell regeneration, etc.), an environment conducive to life (air to breathe, photosynthesis, etc.), a planet in harmony with sun and moon making life possible, and the list is endless. It is not only impossible to out-give God, it is impossible to come anywhere close.

The Bible does not dictate a percentage for the New Testament Christian giver. The inferior covenant (cf. Heb. 8:7-8) required a tenth of all (Heb. 7:5), a pretty good benchmark for those of us having access to the better covenant established upon better promises. It is impossible to know what anyone might be thinking who hears the well-intended, if well-worn, statement, “We have the opportunity to give back a small portion of the many blessings we have received…” It does not mean, “A small proportion.” Nowhere does the Bible sanction stingy, leftover-style giving. In fact, it condemns such (read Malachi). Instead, Paul writes, “Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:6-7).

Giving involves a monetary, financial exercise, but it is a distinctly spiritual activity. It is an act of trust, a faith that the God who has provided will continue to provide and bless the one who bountifully shares what he has been given. When we, like the Macedonians, give beyond what we believe is beyond our ability (2 Cor. 8:1-5), we open up an exciting door in our walk with Christ.

If you are one who gives a small proportion of your income, may I challenge you to increase it? See what happens in your life. You are not giving to manipulate or coerce God, but you will experience a growth not possible on the “small proportion” side of generous giving. Trust Him! He has never broken a promise yet (read Mal. 3:10 and Luke 6:38).

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Meeting The Needs Of Newcomers

Neal Pollard

It has been said that visitors make up their mind about a church in the first ten minutes of their visit. Before they’ll even discern the doctrine we teach or form an impression about the distinctiveness of our worship, they’ve already decided. If you will walk through the first ten minutes of each time you come to services, you can discern the needs visitors have when they “enter” (cf. 1 Cor. 14:23-24) our midst. Consider these needs.

  • Where to park. Designating visitor parking and having members park as far from the main entrance is thoughtfulness. Having a greeter or greeters in the parking lot who can make contact quickly and facilitate with friendliness makes a positive impression.
  • Where the restrooms are. Good hospitality ought to drive us to be thoughtful and even proactive (i.e., when greeting, point out the nearest facilities). Along with this is showing them where the nursery is. If they have infants, toddlers, or small children, they are likely to have needs during their time in attendance.
  • Where to sit. An obvious practical help here is not to crowd the seats at the rear of the auditorium. It’s less awkward to be seated without parading past rows and rows of people. If there’s a full crowd, have designated personnel, pleasant, friendly, and considerate, to help them find a seat. Never, ever, never have a designated pew! “Pew-itis” is a disease that should be eradicated from every congregation.
  • What to expect. This is something worship leaders can do, explaining periodically why we do what we do in a “user-friendly” (as opposed to browbeating) way. Door greeters and those at a welcome center can help, as can visitor packets that cogently explain things. Such packets can include not just activities we do, but a map of where we do them.
  • How to find out more. Have a “new member orientation class” or a “Church 101” class available for those who are “seeking.” It can include an annual church calendar of events, ministries, church leadership (complete with pictures and bios), ways to be involved, and the like to orient newcomers.

At first, it may seem hard to identify book, chapter, and verse for the foregoing suggestions. But consider these principles. There’s the Golden Rule (Mat. 7:12; Luke 6:31). There’s the principle of the Law of Moses, which says, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:34). Colossians 4:5 urges wisdom with outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Being Christians, we should be ever increasing in the mentality that puts others before self (Phil. 2:3-4). How do we best serve Jesus? By serving others, including our visitors and newcomers.

Singing Hymns in Church

Learning About Worship From Children

Neal Pollard

Thom Vaught gave the “elders remarks” last night after the Young Lions participated in their annual program of Scripture reading, song leading, prayer, and preaching. The fourteen first through six graders obviously listened well and learned much. Thom noted how we look at the Christian life as a marathon, but these boys (and the seventeen God’s Precious Daughters who hosted a tea in the fellowship hall at 4:00 PM yesterday afternoon for 80 Christian women!) were actually the next leg in a relay race.  Everybody seemed to leave the assembly last night so spiritually full and energized. Perhaps that was because of what we had seen (and learned) throughout last evening’s service.

…That genuine enthusiasm is infectious.
…That worship should be characterized by purity.
…That you cannot easily fake sincerity.
…That sometimes truth gets told most poignantly and effectively from such an innocent heart.
…That it is encouraging to see someone overcome their fears to lead.
…That we appreciate seeing those who lead us unashamedly show us their hearts.
…That worship should be joyful.
…That we should carry the experience of worship out the door with us into our lives.

When Thom asked those present last night who had formerly been through Young Lions and God’s Precious Daughters to stand along with the 31 children involved this year, it was overwhelmingly encouraging to see so many scattered among our healthy crowd last night who had received this wonderful training. The leadership training they have received through the years has contributed to the teenagers and young adults they have become, serving Christ and others. Some of them are married now. Others have graduated from preacher training schools or are students there. Others have gone on to Christian Colleges. They lead us in every phase of our worship regularly and effectively. We appreciate the men and women who came up with this program and all those who have served through the years. All of us are the better for it. Last night was a reminder of something Trent Woolley, who helped lead this year’s program, said to us, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 18:3).  I pray we will carry these lessons learned into worship with us next week and the weeks beyond that!

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NOT JUST A PROBLEM FOR THOSE WHO FAVOR INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC

Neal Pollard

People who have rejected the teaching that singing in worship must be without the addition of mechanical instrumental music have appealed to culture, to the permission of silence, to aesthetics, to emotion, to tradition, to preference, and the like. As we examine Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5, seeing the imperatives in each place (“let the word of Christ richly dwell within you”—Col. 3:16; “be filled with the Spirit”—Eph. 5:18) and the participles that reveal how to obey the imperatives (Eph.: “speaking…singing…making melody…giving thanks”; Col.: “teaching…admonishing…singing”), we rightly say that God specifies what He wants and through such excludes what does not fall within these categories. No one will successfully build a case for Divine authorization or approval, and church history will have turned centuries of pages before it is even found introduced in Christian worship.

Having said that, we have at times failed to step back and look at some of our own attitudes toward the music portion of our worship that may reveal some deficiency in our musical offering to God. As a musical instrument may drown out, overshadow, or become the central feature of worship music, so may our own minds and attitudes. How?

  • Being distracted by the age of the song (it’s too old or too new)
  • Being distracted by the pitch of the song (it’s too high or too low)
  • Being distracted by the pace of the song (it’s too fast or too slow)
  • Being distracted by the notes of the song (the song leader is leading it wrong)
  • Being distracted by who the song leader is or his appearance
  • Being distracted by how many verses are sung (too many or too few)
  • Being distracted by the aesthetics of the song (thinking about how it sounds more than what it says)
  • Being distracted by our own ability (proud of how good we sound or so embarrassed at how we think we sound that we keep quiet or fail to speak, teach, etc.)
  • Being distracted by the person/people next to us (concerned about what they think of us rather than what the message of the song is)
  • Being distracted by our familiarity with a song (frustrated that we don’t know it or knowing it so well that we sing from memory without engaging the heart)
  • Being distracted by matters outside the song (people-watching, thinking of other things, etc.)

Though I’ve never heard it said, have we constructed a theology that believes the only sin in our worship in song is adding an instrument to it? If we refuse to sing, sing with improper attitude, sing without heart and mind engaged, and the like, do we believe we are OK since we did not add to what God authorized.

In Matthew 15:9, Jesus condemned the Pharisees and scribes for worshipping God in vain due to their “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Context reveals the specifics of their wrongdoing. But that word vain means “pertaining to being without any result; to no avail” (Louw-Nida; “to no end,” BDAG). Review the examples of distraction above. Can those render worship in song with no result, avail, or end? Absolutely! Perhaps we need to emphasize within our own assemblies how equally necessary it is to be worshipping God “in spirit” as it is “in truth” (cf. John 4:24). The bottom line of this whole matter of church music is striving to please God in our worship. That is not limited to a single issue or somebody else’s issue. It is as individual and personal as each of our own relationship with God.

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