Staying Awake

Staying Awake

“Gravity is stronger in my bed.”   My daughter’s insight was incisive.   Certainly, there is some multiplier, some unaccounted for coefficient in the calculus of rising from bed that makes it so difficult.   As a young man, getting up was a challenge.   I had multiple alarm clocks, hidden in different places (but never the same places twice) to get me on my feet for that early morning appointment.  But all too often, even this dynamic algorithm was not enough.   Forcing yourself awake is hard.   Clearing away the fog of the dream world and breaking free of nocturnal atrophy takes a strong act of will.

But staying awake can be equally demanding.   Pulling an all-nighter seems like a bold stroke at 7:00 pm.  But at 3:00 am when the euphoria takes hold and every bad pun becomes hilarious, the wisdom of this stratagem wanes.   As a software engineer, I pulled many all-nighters.   The challenge to stay focused, stay sharp, and guard against the careless mistake or misstep grows exponentially as night plods toward dawn.   But with every passing hour, vigilance becomes more critical to success.  Especially as downtime is winding down and users are waking to work.

Staying awake, remaining on guard, staying on track is an occupational hazard of the third-shift.   The sunless, sleepless hours draw minds and bodies toward drowsy and dangerous complacency.   But falling asleep is an even great danger in our spiritual lives.   Persecution and adversity are enemies to our faith.  But complacency is equally deadly.  Yet much more subtle and common.  The Bible warns us from cover to cover to “watch out,” “take heed,” and remain vigilant. 

This is the warning to the Church in Sardis in Revelation 3.   To the world they seemed alive.   They did the things churches do.  They said the things Christians said.  They were untroubled by persecution or pressure.   But complacency was their undoing.   Despite appearances they were dead.   And Jesus warns them to “wake up.”    Their complacency was proverbial in the ancient world.  Twice the seemingly impregnable citadel of Sardis had been captured, simply by a failure to remain on guard.

Sardis had once been the jewel of the Lydian empire, ruled by Croesus, a fabulously wealthy and ambitious king.   So ambitious that he dreamed of victory over Cyrus and the Persians.   Croesus inquired of the Oracle at Delphi about his chances.  She told him that war with Cyrus would result in the “downfall of a great empire.”   But he never guessed this meant his own.    After a series of humiliating defeats, Croesus, retreated to the safety of Sardis.

High on Mt. Tmolus in western Turkey, sheer cliffs protected Sardis on three sides.   It could be easily defended by a small force.   But Cyrus always thought outside the box.   He offered a large reward to any man who could find a way into the city.  A Persian guard, Hyroeades, scanning the walls, noticed a Lydian soldier drop his helmet from the defenses then climb down to retrieve it.   Sensing an opportunity, Hyroeades led a small group of men to find and make the harrowing climb.   When they reached the battlements, they discovered them completely unguarded.  

In their complacency and overconfidence, the Lydians did not even post a guard.  Hyroeades threw open the gates and the city fell.    The story of Sardis’ fall is proverbial.   But it was a proverb they never took to heart.   This story repeated itself a few hundred years later following the conquests of Alexander the Great.   And at the time Revelation was written it repeated itself in the life of the Church in Sardis.

How careful are we to be on guard in our spiritual life?   In Gethsemane, Jesus’ disciples could not stay awake.   How crushing it must have been to hear Jesus’ lament.

And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy.

Matthew 26:40-42

What about you?  Are you spiritually asleep?  Has the relative safety and comfort of being a Christian in our culture caused you to leave your life unguarded?  How easily does the enemy of your soul exploit the unguarded areas of your thoughts, your words, your actions, your loves, and your ambitions?   Jesus commanded to the Church is Sardis is to “stay awake,” remain watchful.   For the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.  

Paul’s warning to the Corinthians is apt for us. “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” 1 Corinthians 10:12.   How watchful are you?   Are you struggling to stay awake in your spiritual life?   Join us this week as we examine Revelation 3:1-6 and consider the call to “wake up.”   

We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm at The Arkansas DreamCenter at 1116 Daisy L Gatson Bates Drive in Little Rock for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  You can also join us on Facebook Live @RiverCityARP or on YouTube.

The Third Mark

The Third Mark

Three strikes and you’re out!  Even if you are not a baseball fan you know what it means.  No more chances.   Now you must face the consequences.   As a boy, I heard this phrase often.   After all, I grew up in Atlanta listening to the Braves during the Seventies.   If you followed the Braves in the Nineties, you remember the rousing sounds of a packed Braves’ stadium, thundering with the tomahawk chant and chop.  But in the Seventies, there were no crowds, no chants, and very few sightings of Chief Noc-A-Homa (let the reader understand). 

There were a few bright spots.  Men like “Hammering” Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro labored for what must have felt like a lifetime with other legendary cellar-dwelling Braves.   But for diehard fans like my mother, there was little to celebrate.  In those days the Braves could hardly give tickets away.   My mother and I attended many games on 25 cent “knot hole” tickets.  The schools also gave away scores of tickets to students with good grades.

But my mother never gave up on her beloved Braves.  Summer evenings were spent sitting on our carport listening on the transistor radio to Ernie Johnson, Pete Van Wieren, and Skip Caray call the “balls and [mostly] strikes.”  She was a die-hard fan, ever optimistic.  You had to be to be a Braves’ fan.   I always regretted that she did not live to see the Braves in the World Series.

Three strikes and you’re out.  No more chances.   While this is the rule in baseball, it is not the rule of grace and life together in the church.   The community of grace, the body of Christ, the Church is characterized not by three strikes, but three marks.  The faithful preaching of the Word, faithful administration of the sacraments, and faithful exercise of discipline.  Three marks which are interrelated and indispensable.   These are means of grace, given so we might grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and in love, service and devotion to one another.

Many churches boast faithful preaching and teaching.  Some carefully observe the sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  But how many practice discipline?   Discipline is hard.  Hard for those who receive it.  And as our fathers assured us, hard for the ones administering it.   As in parenting, discipline is often messy and inconvenient.  It is easier to let things slide.  Easier to ignore problems, hoping everything will “just work out.”  But it never does.   Because we assume discipline only leads to division and departure, we avoid it like the plague.    But peace, purity, and prosperity in a family, especially a church family, never comes by neglecting discipline.   Quite the contrary.

This is the message to the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira in Revelation 2.   Both churches are highly praised.   The church in Pergamum held fast against intense persecution.   Pergamum was the epicenter of a hostile, Satanic culture, yet the believers there had not wavered – even in the face of martyrdom.   And the Christians of Thyatira were praised not only for their love, faith, service and patient endurance, but for growth in each of these areas.   Unlike the Ephesians, their latter works exceed the first.  

At first glance, these churches appeared solid and impregnable.   But as is often the case, the greatest threat to a church is not from the outside, but from within.   False teachers were promoting compromise with the gods of culture and commerce.   “Go along to get along” was their theme.   And the churches tolerated it.   Disguised as ‘seeker sensitivity’ and ‘cultural awareness,’ this false teaching continued unchallenged.   And the false teachers continued undisciplined.    

For all their merits, their lack of discipline was a serious demerit.  So serious that Jesus threatened to “war against them with the sword of his mouth” and “throw [false teachers] onto a sick bed and those who commit adultery with [them] … into tribulation.”  And even to strike some dead so that all the churches would know that he is the one “who searches mind and heart.”   This was the most severe threat issued yet to the Seven Churches.  

Failure to discipline is deadly.  Deadly to a church and deadly to its members.   We might think it more loving to avoid it.   But discipline is a mark of real love.  Jesus takes discipline seriously.   Do we?  Join us this week as we examine Revelation 2:12-29 and consider why the Church struggles to practice discipline but why we must.    

We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm at The Arkansas DreamCenter at 1116 Daisy L Gatson Bates Drive in Little Rock for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  You can also join us on Facebook Live @RiverCityARP or on YouTube.

Under Pressure

Under Pressure

One of creation’s great wonders is water.   The earth and its inhabitants are made of it.   Unlike most matter, water rebels against convention as it moves from liquid to solid.   While most substances become denser when they freeze, water expands.    And in a world teeming with aquatic life, that difference is crucial.  Ice floats.   If it sank, aquatic life would be forced to the surface as lakes, ponds, and rivers froze, depriving plants and creatures of warmth and oxygen.  But in God’s remarkable design, ice floats, insulating and preserving aquatic life.

This past week, however, many discovered that what is a blessing to fish, is not so great for plumbing.   Added to the sounds of children sledding and car wheels spinning, was the groaning of pipes and the rushing of water.   The pipes under our house burst.   Or rather should I say, one pipe burst.   The rupture to a single span of copper pipe was only half an inch long.   Yet the force and volume of the leak was prodigious.  The sound was like the sound of many rushing waters.   The pressure required to get water from lake to tap is immense.  And in a frozen instant, that pressure can bring unbelievable destruction.

And, so it is with the circumstances of our lives.   We live under the pressure of uncertainty.  We try to prepare, to plan, to insulate and anticipate.   Yet we can never get it quite right.  We all think want to know the future.  That is, until we do.   The older you get, the more you realize that prescience is not a panacea.   Foresight, when we get it, frustrates because we rarely have the power to alter or avert what is foreseen.   Foreknowledge without omnipotence easily leads to paralysis.    A pastor once commented that “anxiety comes from an awareness of our finitude.”   Hence, we say “ignorance is bliss.”  Or as Wendell Berry expressed it through Port William resident, Mat Feltner, “The mercy of the world is that you don’t know what’s going to happen.”   But ignorance is only mercy if you know and trust the one who is neither ignorant nor impotent regarding the future.

Jesus’ message to the Church in Smyrna in the Revelation is remarkable.   It contains neither commendation, nor condemnation.   Jesus never says, ‘nevertheless, this I have against you.’   This brief message has but one message, “hold fast!”   No matter what comes, “hold fast!”  The pressures building against Christians in Smyrna were dire and intense.   And worse, they were betrayed by those who ought to have been brothers.    Jesus words are concise and succinct.   “Be faithful unto death.”   How would you like to receive this message?   No matter what happens do not break with your faith.  Do not turn away.   Do not compromise.   Rest in the Faithful One, the first and the last, who died and came to life.

Persecution comes in all different shapes, sizes, and intensities.  We do not get to pick our cross.  We are only instructed to pick it up and carry it.   Paul wrote to Timothy, “all who live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  (2 Timothy 3:12)   Perhaps that is not what you signed up for when you gave your life to Christ.  But there it is.   We may seek compromise to avoid it.  Or seek mere relief rather than peace.   But consider the words of Ralph Erskine.  ”Some may bless themselves they were never assaulted by the devil and yet they are but sleeping, as it were, in the devil’s cradle and he is rocking them.”

What is your response to persecution?  To the intense pressure that comes with taking up a cross and following Christ?   Where will you seek rest?  In the promises of the Faithful one or the devil’s cradle?  Join us this week as we continue our survey Revelation as we examine the message to the Church in Smyrna in Revelation 2:8-11 and its encouragement to persevere in the face of extreme pressure.

We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm at The Arkansas DreamCenter at 1116 Daisy L Gatson Bates Drive in Little Rock for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  You can also join us on Facebook Live @RiverCityARP or on YouTube.

No In-Person Worship for February 21, 2021

No In-Person Worship for February 21, 2021

Please pray for our host church, St. Andrew’s Church, Little Rock and their leadership. Their Sanctuary and the Commons, where River City Reformed meets, was damaged this week by weather related flooding due to broken water lines. 

Until repairs are completed we will not be able to meet at St. Andrews.  We are looking for a temporary location for in-person worship, but WILL NOT meet in person this Lord’s Day, February 21, 2021. You can join us online at  Facebook Live @RiverCityARP or on YouTube.

Stay tuned for more details on a temporary meeting location. When repairs are completed we will resume meeting from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info. 

Falling Out of Love

Falling Out of Love

How did you celebrate Valentine’s Day?  We spent it huddled inside as Snowpocalypse 2021 descended.  Our family celebration with its hand-made cards and home-made fondue is postponed until the Winter Storm Warning expires.   But we do not need a day on the calendar, and more importantly, we must not wait for a day on the calendar to express love for loved ones.   

Roses, chocolates, and Hallmark cards are not to be despised.  That is unless that is all there is.    Our love must never be a casual thing.  We speak of “falling in love” and “falling out of love” as though it is a sickness or spontaneous whim.    But whirlwind romances lead to precipitous marriages then often to heartbreaking divorces as men and women follow only their heart’s desire.  

But love is not a thing to be fallen into or out of.  It grows out of commitment and grows into even greater commitment.   We don’t make vows to love one another so long as we both shall “feel like it.” Do you remember your wedding vows?  Perhaps you remember saying, “I do,” but do you remember what you agreed to when you said it?  As a pastor, I get to stand with couples as they make vows to live as husband and wife “for as long as [they] both shall live.”  

For newlyweds this day is a day of joy, celebration, and anticipation.  The weightiness of their vows waits for the happy couple in their future.  But as a pastor, I also walk with couples to the end of this vow through the valley the shadow of death.  As joyful as it is to hear couples recite vows at their wedding, it is a pastor’s sacred privilege to observe vows faithfully discharged on a couple’s last day as husband and wife.

Not long ago, I sat with “June” at the bedside of her husband of sixty-nine years.   As his earthly life was fading, she told me the story of their life together.  It was a hard story.  A life of challenges, setbacks, disappointments, sickness and some good times too.   “How did you make it through?” I asked.  Never looking up, she quoted without hesitation.

“For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”

RUTH 1:16-17

As she spoke, I was struck by the remarkable picture of faithfulness.   That vow, so easily spoken seven decades earlier, had been faithfully kept through poverty and plenty, sickness and health, better and a great deal of worse.   It was not merely promised.  It was lived.    She had not lost her first love.   The intensity of her love for her beloved had not waned with adversity or prosperity or familiarity.  Quite the contrary, it had grown.    Romance may wane and take new forms, but love must grow.   When it does not grow, when it declines, when love for our beloved is diminished because of a growing love for ourselves, then something is dreadfully wrong.  Even if all seems well on the surface.

The Ephesian Church was a church on the move.   They were hard workers.  They were straight as an arrow, doctrinally.   They had solid elders who knew how to spot a fake, a mile away.   They strenuously resisted the compromising theology of the progressive Nicolaitans.   Though they lived in a city and culture, unpromising for the Christian faith, by all appearances, they were prospering as a church.  But for all their theological acumen, solid eldership, and commitment to hard work, they were missing the most important ingredient to the Christian life – a growing love for Christ and for one another.  

The Risen Christ makes a shocking accusation – “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”  For all their praiseworthy attributes, Jesus’ verdict is so serious that if not remedied, they would cease to be a church – “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”

How do we measure our health as a church?  By growth in numbers?  By increased giving?  By broader ministry reach into our community?  By powerful, theologically rich teaching?   Or by proven, solid leadership?   All these things are important.   But without love – growing love for Christ and for one another, all these excellent attributes are, in the words of Paul, “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  Has the church abandoned its first love to pursue self-love?   Have you abandoned love for Christ and for one another in order to love and serve yourself?  

Jesus remarked, “love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)   Do people recognize that we are followers of Jesus Christ by the way we love Him and one another?  If not, He is coming — coming to take our lampstand.

Join us this week as we continue our survey Revelation as we examine the first of the “Letters to the Seven Churches” consider how this opening message to the Church at Ephesus is a warning to us of the danger of abandoning the love we had at first.

Please Note:  Our host church, St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, is currently closed because of weather related flooding due to broken water lines.   Until repairs are completed we will not be able to meet in-person.  But, you can join us on Facebook Live @RiverCityARP or on YouTube.

When repairs are completed we will resume meeting from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.