A peep into life in Africa, through the eyes of an African Reformed Baptist pastor.

Water, water, water, everywhere. What else do you expect? I am a Baptist, and I live in the land of the mighty Victoria Falls!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

We have lost the sense of God

After my last blog post in which I addressed the issue of believers abandoning going to church on a Sunday in preference for watching a football match, I tossed and turned most of the night. I kept asking myself how believers could do this. I could not understand how even pastors are now joining in this revelry with a clear conscience. I mean, how?

I was sure that the football craze that had engulfed this generation is only a symptom of a greater disease. But what was that disease? That is the question I was wrestling with. By the time the sun rose, I think that I had an answer. The best way to phrase it is by the title of this blog post: We have lost the sense of God. I know that this sounds like an outlandish accusation but that is because we are comparing ourselves with ourselves. Hear me out.

There is an experiential knowledge of God that profoundly changes a person from the inside out. God is known in the soul in such an overwhelming way that it affects a person’s entire perception of life. It is perhaps what the hymn writer meant when he wrote, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the things of this earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” The things of this earth growing strangely dim.

A Christian can never rise higher than his experience of God. God is infinitely profound. As one hymn writer has written, he is an immeasurable sea without a shore, a blazing sun without a sphere. When engulfed in his presence, whom thousand and tens of thousands of angels worship day and night, the soul can only lie in the dust in adoring wonder. This profound knowledge brings eternity to bear on the soul of a believer so that everything in his life is judged from eternity’s perspective. How one spends his time and money, how one enjoys his recreation, how one relates to believers and unbelievers, how one handles his work—all these are subjected to eternity. The great Day of Judgment is never far from mind.

There is, therefore, a godly gravity upon the brow of such a believer. Perhaps it would be better to call it a solemn dignity. You cannot miss it when you are in the presence of such a person. You sense that there is a depth of spiritual experience that is not disturbed by what often excites the worldly mind. It is the difference between the stillness of a deep river and the noisy current of a shallow stream. This cannot be manufactured overnight. It comes from regular close dealings with God. The sense of God leaves an indelible mark upon the soul.

In 1875, Fanny J Crosby wrote these words in her hymn (notice the chorus in italics),

O the pure delight of a single hour
That before Thy throne I spend
When I kneel in prayer and with Thee my God
I commune as friend with friend

Draw me nearer, nearer blessed Lord
To the cross where Thou hast died
Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lord
To Thy precious bleeding side

Deep thinking and meditating upon the cross of Christ is what produces spiritual giants. To begin with, you are melted to tears when you have drunk in how your God has quenched your hell by taking your place on the cruel cross. Such love is too overwhelming. You want to give to God everything you have in response. You do not want to hold anything back. There is a peace and a joy that radiates in your soul that the people of this world know nothing of. Theirs is the cracklings of twigs in the fire. You feel sorry for them rather than join in their empty mirth. Your joy defies disease, disaster and death. As John Newton wrote in 1779,

Saviour, since of Zion’s city,
I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in Thy name.
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know.

I am sorry to say that as I mingle with the younger generation today, I cannot help feeling that this culture of deep meditation on God has been largely lost. There is too much noise. Noise from the television, noise from the radio, noise from the internet, noise from the smartphone, noise from the computer, noise from the sports stadium—noise, noise, noise. The injunction of Scripture seems to be largely missing that says, “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10). Our young people always want to be with the bawling crowds and where the music is loudest. The result has been a tragic loss of this weighty sense of the living and majestic God.

Even when it comes to church…there is very little pausing for a moment of silence to prepare the soul to meet with the living God. You have a band that is already playing as people chat. The worship leader starts with jokes to get the atmosphere exciting. The songs are painfully repetitious of next to nothing—“God brought me from here and has taken me there,” over and over again! The preaching is also deliberately calculated to bring people back next week rather than to bring them face to face with the living God. Hence the preacher behaves more like a superstar than a prophet from God. Can such gimmicks surely give us a sense of God?

I recall my own formative days that were spent mostly in the pew than in the pulpit. There were many Sundays when all I wanted was to shut out the world after worship at church and close myself up with the God. Glorious hymns had extolled the immensities of sovereign grace. I had heard God’s voice, especially through the faithful exposition of his word. I had been moved to the very depth of my being. I had seen the heinous ugliness of sin and the magnificent beauty of my Saviour. The powers of the coming age had overwhelmed me. I had been transported, as it were, into the third heavens and back. I felt as if I would burst at the seams if I did not go away from everyone to worship and pour my heart out to God—to the living God. Tell me. Please tell me. How can a person experience this and then shoot off to the stadium and join the rowdy crowd shouting at people chasing a ball? I mean, how?

O for a generation of young people who will once again have the atmosphere of eternity upon their souls. O for a band of young adults who will have a profound sense of God that will make them to cry as Isaiah cried, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” O for authentic biblical Christianity to once again permeate our churches. When God raises up such a generation, we will rest assured that the future of the church militant is in good hands, for the people who know their God will do exploits for him. Until then we should weep in prayer and refuse to be comforted. We have lost the sense of God!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

To go to church or watch football?

This is an almost embarrassing question to ask but I am sure this weekend many Zambian Christians asked themselves this question and even concluded that they would skip church and go to watch football instead—with a clear conscience. It is sad but true.

For those who are regular readers of my blog and live outside Africa I will need to explain. Zambia, like most African countries, is a one–sport nation and it is football (what Americans call “soccer”). It is the main game that is played in villages with balls made from clothing and plastic materials. It is also the main game played in our stadiums with leather balls.

When the Zambian national football team is playing, that becomes the chief talking point for the whole nation. The adrenaline of the entire nation rises. Social media is abuzz with excitement as goals are scored. The goal scorers literally become the heroes of the nation. If the national football team wins a regional or continental cup, the whole nation goes agog. When our entire national football team perished in an airplane accident, the whole nation came to a stand still and mourned. That is how attached Zambia is to football.

Here is the catch. Every so often, the big matches are played on Sunday and Christians miss church in order to watch the games on television or out in stadiums. This is what bothers me. How can Christians fail to see that this is wrong from every conceivable angle?

Desecrating the Lord’s Day

The greatest tragedy is a failure to keep the Lord’s Day. The God whom Christians worship says in the Ten Commandments, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex. 20:8–11).

Once upon a time, when Christianity was stronger than it is now and believers were taking their faith seriously, this is how they interpreted this command. I quote from the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly of the 17th century.

Q. 57. Which is the fourth commandment?
A. The fourth commandment is, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God: in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor the stranger that is within your gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.”

Q. 58. What is required in the fourth commandment?
A. The fourth commandment requires the keeping holy to God such set times as he has appointed in his word; expressly one whole day in seven, to be a holy Sabbath to himself.

Q. 59. Which day of the seven has God appointed to be the weekly Sabbath?
A. From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly Sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian Sabbath.

Q. 60. How is the Sabbath to be sanctified?
A. The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.

Q. 61. What is forbidden in the fourth commandment?
A. The fourth commandment forbids the omission or careless performance of the duties required, and the profaning the day by idleness, or doing that which is in itself sinful, or by unnecessary thoughts, words or works, about our worldly employments or recreations.

Nothing can be clearer than that. In the book of Isaiah, God made this promise to his people, “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13–14).

Sadly, we have lost all this. It is very clear as I read postings by Christians and church pastors on social media that there is not the foggiest sense of guilt that God’s people have desecrated the Lord’s Day. I would not be surprised if some churches cancelled their worship services because of the football match today. What I know for a fact is that many churches end up with skeleton congregations and haphazard preparations for worship when the Zambian national team is playing a major match on the Lord’s Day. Sadly, pastors accept this.

I have never forgotten, one Sunday in the early years of Kabwata Baptist Church when we were still meeting in the Kabwata Community Hall, the Zambian national football team was playing a decisive match at world level. When I got to church, nothing was ready. The building was open but the place had not been swept and the pews had not been arranged. By the time the church service was supposed to start, even the hymnbooks had not yet been brought. We started the service very late. By the time I got into the pulpit to preach, I failed to preach and started crying. I wept because my own church members had voted with their feet. Football was more important than the worship of the living God. How could I simply continue with the sermon that I had prepared to preach? I could not. I could only weep.

A form of idolatry?

Zambian Christians need to ask themselves a heart-searching question: “Could it be that football has become our idol?” An idol is not necessarily a carving made of wood or an object of metal. Whatever competes with God’s place in our hearts is an idol. When we spend a whole week anticipating a football match instead of the worship of God on the Lord’s Day and then when the day comes we abandon the worship of God in order to shout and jump and scream in a stadium (or at home in front of a television set) with the energy that would make the makers of Red Bull feel their product was redundant, is this not a form of idolatry? I opine that we have merely exchanged a carved idol with one that is made of leather and air!

What breaks my heart is when I think of the price that was paid by God to bring us our salvation. As Dottie Rambo sang: “[Jesus] left the splendour of heaven / Knowing his destiny / Was the lonely hill of Golgotha / There to lay down his life for me.” More than that, God moved men and women to leave the comfort of their developed countries in the West to come to our dark continent when it was infested with untreatable malaria and ferocious wild beasts at great cost to their lives and their families so that they could bring us the Christian faith. Many of them never saw their relatives and friends again. Many died in their prime. Now that the baton has been passed on to us, we are willing to abandon the worship of the true God because twenty-two men are kicking a piece of leather across a field for ninety minutes. This is heart breaking. Our pioneer missionaries should be shifting in their graves—to use a well-known expression. Is this what Christ died for? Is this the gratitude we show those who sacrificed their lives? Or, as the apostle Paul would argue, did football die for you? Sadly, it is a well-known sin of the fourth and fifth generation. They take their religious inheritance for granted and will not sacrifice anything for it—not even football on the Lord’s Day.

I know that someone will charge me with being legalistic. I only ask those who want to do this to show me anywhere in history where believers have gone sport-crazy and the cause of Christ has gone from strength to strength. It is the cause of Christ I am concerned about. Is it glorifying to God when a congregation that is normally 100-strong suddenly reduces to half its size when there is a football match in town? Or are we supposed to “look elsewhere” and pretend this did not happen in places where God, our universal Benefactor, is worshipped?

To my fellow pastors

I have much more to say about this but let me end with a word to my fellow pastors. We are the ones who grieve God the most because we ought to know better and we ought to guide God’s people. In the book of Malachi, God was displeased with the priests. He said to them, “A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honour? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favour? says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 1:6–8).

If we who are pastors do not stand up and warn our generation that the abandoning of the true worship of God whenever there is a “major” football match being played on the Lord’s Day is sinful, God will hold it against us when he brings judgment upon the church. Sadly, on social media the only denunciation I am hearing from the lips of pastors is against the Senegalese team for its alleged use of witchcraft in the game. Even pastors whose church doctrinal statements categorically speak about keeping the Lord’s Day holy are mute about the sinfulness of the trend that has engulfed us. The silence is a betrayal of Christ! Are we afraid of upsetting our paymasters? God forbid! We must be a prophetic voice in our day even if our message is rejected. God will honour us for our courage on the day he rewards his own. On the other hand, if we are the very ones leading the pack into the stadiums to desecrate the Lord’s Day, what hope will there be for today and tomorrow’s church? None!