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First Thoughts Blog

Author: Colton Underwood, Assistant Pastor of Children, Youth and Families

Fill Your Horn with Oil, and Go

As our youth staff has a habit of doing together, we were recently studying 1 Samuel 16, one of the many passages we’ll cover with the teens this school year. This passage is well known for many reasons, not the least is that it contains the account of David’s anointing as king. However, before David was set apart and placed on that path, one phrase stuck out to us and inspired a great deal of thought: “Fill your horn with oil, and go.”
 
In the passages preceding it, we find Samuel at a low point. He’s been rejected by the people, his own sons have betrayed him, the man he felt forced to anoint as king has failed in dramatic fashion to fulfill his duty of office, and so Samuel now sits in his sorrow over lost years and feelings of uselessness. It’s at this juncture in Samuel’s life and ministry that God speaks to him in 16:1, saying, “How long will you grieve over Saul?” But after acknowledging Samuel’s darkened situation—and perhaps offering a soft rebuke—God speaks those words to his saddened heart. “Fill your horn with oil, and go.”
 
We might be left to wonder why it seems that God doesn’t seek to comfort Samuel in his grief, doesn’t invite Samuel to process his emotions in the way we might want, but instead gives him work to do. God’s intent for Samuel was seemingly to pull him out of his hole by giving him something to do, some sort of service. It was this very idea that got us talking.
 
Perhaps those of us (and many of our teens) who struggle with anxiety and intrusive thoughts don’t need something to think, say, or take. Perhaps we need something to do. God’s command to Samuel in his own grief was not a callous brushing aside of Samuel’s feelings, nor does its example condone the idea of stuffing down and ignoring those emotions. Rather, part of God’s design for us as his creatures might just be to work out those feelings through action.
 
God commanded Samuel to do something that would have been hard for him. The last man he anointed was Saul and that didn’t go well. But not only did it challenge Samuel, it forced him to change his perspective from inward-facing to outward-facing. Filling his horn with oil and going was not simply to make Samuel feel useful again. It was so that he could serve his people by anointing David to soon be their king.
 
To put it very simply, God made us to work and he made us to serve, yet we live in a world filled with inaction disguised as action and one that makes self-service and an inward-facing life more possible than ever. What difference might it make for our hearts and in the lives of others if when we next sought to face our darkness, we did so by seeking to do something productive, specifically for the sake of another?
 

Watch and Pray

Over our years together, Rachel and I have taken many 10+ hour drives over the course of a single day. On one such occasion in August of 2018, we were facing the long drive back to Jackson, MS after a hot outdoor wedding as the sun began to set against a brilliant evening sky. While driving on previous road trips, I had felt my eyes droop and my head begin to nod (telltale signs of being on the edge of sleep), so I knew my physical limits of exhaustion while driving. During that particular drive home, I used every means possible to keep awake at the wheel. I cranked the AC uncomfortably high, I blasted music that would get my blood moving, I drank an amount of caffeine that was on the edge of unwise, I engaged Rachel in conversation for hours on end, and I even came to the point of slapping myself in 
the face!
 
Why would I resort to such ridiculousness? I knew the danger. Falling asleep at the wheel is deadly serious business, as I’m sure you know well. Knowing the danger, therefore, I will take every precaution to avoid the catastrophic effects of such an action. As I’ve recently pondered and preached over the last few verses of 1 Peter, these experiences came to mind as I considered the implications of what Peter calls Christians to in verse 8 of chapter 5: “Be sober-minded; be watchful.” The Holy Spirit through Peter’s pen exhorts each of us to have our eyes open, firmly awake and aware of our surroundings, ready for whatever might come.
 
While it may not be evident immediately, I believe Peter’s command to exiled Christians provides a reflection of his on an experience with Jesus a few decades prior. It was Thursday night, the night when Jesus was to be betrayed, and as the disciples joined Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told them simply to “watch and pray” (Matthew 26: 41). Failing to do just that, the disciples fell asleep as Jesus prayed to the Father, the first step which led to their flight and abandonment of the Lord at his arrest. 
 
As with much in his life during Christ’s earthly ministry, Peter learned best from his failure. Therefore, he reminds us as Christians the importance of watching and waiting, to be sober-minded and watchful, to watch and pray. To take these imperatives to heart, we need to be aware of our tendency to spiritual drowsiness. As I am aware of my tendency to doze at the wheel while the day is dark, we ought to know what seasons of life might yield unique temptations to let down our guard. It may be in times of prosperity, times of spiritual victory, times of isolation, or times of uncertainty. Whatever the season, be aware of the temptation to let down your guard. 
 
Then, aware of our surroundings and the present danger, we ought to seek the Lord, running to him, fixing our eyes upon him, clinging to his promises, finding our strength in his. This is what is meant by Christ’s command to “watch and pray.” It calls us not only to holy diligence in watching but also holy dependence in prayer. As the watchman defends a city against attack by sounding the alarm to wake the sleeping guard, so too ought we sound the alarm of prayer before and during times of temptation. When we do so—grabbing hold by prayer and living into God’s promise to hear our cry, to never leave us nor to forsake us, to provide a way of escape when temptation does come—we are invited to find a firm place to stand, a refuge and strong tower to keep us safe. 
 
As this season of Lent progresses and we find ourselves in a heightened place of spiritual practice, don’t neglect the need for holy watchfulness. Rather, use these weeks leading up to the Lord’s passion to stand beside him, joining with him in the Garden on Thursday night, ready to watch and pray.

New Season of Youth Studies

Autumn brings a new season of youth studies and activities, and this year is no exception! In addition to the weekly Bible studies going through 1 Peter on Sunday evenings and a fresh confirmation class, we’re already a few weeks into a Biblical Sexuality Sunday school series and a new weeknight study in apologetics for both middle and high school students.
 
The world in which we live is one that is often divided over issues of sex and our teens are on the frontlines of the battle against the truth of biblical sexuality. From the issues assailing them in pornography, LGBT+ issues and much more, it’s as important now as ever that they be prepared, not only to know the truth of God’s design, but also how to fight temptation and graciously bring the truth to bear in the lives of those who have been hurt by sexual brokenness. The middle and high school boys and girls (four groups in total) have been and will continue to consider these issues openly and truthfully with an eye to grace, forgiveness and healing. Your prayers for us in this capacity are appreciated!
 
Additionally, we continue a study in apologetics that I’m writing. The “Reinforced” series covers 12 common problems or objections to the Christian faith ranging from logical questions about the Bible’s supposed “errors” and “contradictions” to moral questions addressing how Christians are often labeled as unloving and hypocritical. Both high school (Paradigm) and middle school (Pursuit) will spend the year considering these and other apologetic challenges as we continue to encourage students to speak the truth in love.
 

All Things New

How would you describe a “good life?” For the average person in the West, the life well-lived looks like the fulfillment of the American dream: career success, financial stability, raising a happy family, dying at an old age surrounded by family and friends. For most Christians in the West, if asked, the answer would likely remain the same with perhaps the tacked-on afterthought of “and when I die, I get go to be with Jesus.” Is that it? Does the good news of Jesus’ victory over sin and death in the world and in our lives matter no more than for the 5 short seconds after we breathe our last breath? This was Reverend Brian Sorgenfrei’s question on the final night of our second RYM (Reformed Youth Ministries) trip of the summer. It’s a question, not only for teens, but for us. 
 
The theme for this year’s series of RYM conferences was “All Things New” taking its primary inspiration from Isaiah 43 and 65 as well as Revelation 21; glorious promises and depictions of God’s ultimate purpose for creation and humanity — to make all things new. This is our future hope, the day that we await. But what we need to understand about this future reality is that it has present implications. It is often thought that any long contemplation of the life to come might lead one away from being useful in the here and now, but the opposite should be true. Many theologians have made note of this, understanding that only by a right meditation and contemplation on the future life — when all things are made new — can we be freed to live a good life in the present. This truly good life is a life lived in the freedom that only Christ can give, a freedom both to die and to live. 
 
As those following the path of the Cross, by fixing our eyes on our eternal destiny, we must find the freedom first to die to sin, to give up fleeting pleasure for the surpassing joy and lasting satisfaction that is in God alone. But this understanding leads not only to dying continually to sin, it ought also to lead us willingly to die to ourselves. If we truly believe that one day all will be made new, every wrong made right and every tear wiped away, it should lead us deeper and more freely into a life of selflessness, of forgoing personal satisfaction and joy in view of others, even of opening ourselves up to weep and mourn with others — something we often hold ourselves back from doing because we fear that temporary pain and discomfort will define our existence. And, what’s more, this contemplation of the future life should free us to die in an actual sense. Calvin wrote in his Institutes, “If we deem this unstable, defective, corruptible, fleeting, wasting, rotting tabernacle of our body to be so dissolved that it is soon renewed unto a firm, perfect, incorruptible, and finally, heavenly glory, will not faith compel us ardently to seek what nature dreads?” In other words, knowing that God is making all things new and that this life is only a foretaste of eternal glory, should make us free to die.
 
But not only should this grand picture of all things being made new give us freedom to die, it must grant us freedom also to live. As Reverend Sorgenfrei put it in our RYM large group sermons, it should free us to live life “holding on with open hands.” So many of us experience a profound level of self-imposed anxiety — especially in younger generations — simply because we fear that at any moment in time we might not be living our lives to the fullest, that we might have passed up “the chance of a lifetime” unknowingly by committing to just about anything. With a worldview that sees this life as all we get, such an anxiety about each passing moment would make sense. But in view of that Eternal Day, we ought to be free to live life “holding on with open hands,” enjoying the highs while they last and not turning away from the lows. All the while, being free also to live as glimpses of the New Creation, to love sacrificially, to welcome as God intends to welcome his own, to heal as those who serve the Great Physician, to listen as those who follow the one who hears the prayers of his beloved. This is true freedom to live.
 
Living as followers of Christ, therefore, is much more than just something that changes the end of this existence as we transition to the next. Again, as Brian said, “If God is making all things new, it changes our purpose. He is making all things new in you and through you.” It changes everything. 
 

Our Heritage in Hymns

At one point in the not-so-distant past, I (like many my age) looked at the old hymnal that I grew up with and considered it a relic of a bygone era, something that desperately needed to be moved past in order to remain “current.” It was something I only faintly remembered reading as a child before my home church, like so many, decided the same. Yet, as the Lord would have it, my days of cracking hymnal spines were far from finished as I was confronted with this tradition once more when the Lord led Rachel and me to worship and serve in several small PCA churches in Mississippi while I was in seminary. I remember distinctly kicking against the goads at first, refusing to appreciate the rich history preserved in these contexts. Through the quiet leadership of previous mentors and the Lord’s softening of a proud heart, slowly the joy and beauty to be found crept in, at first in trickles, and later in a flood. While I respect and appreciate the variety of traditions of praise within the Christian heritage and in numerous cultures and contexts, I’ve become more and more convinced, as time goes by, that the songs of ages past are songs to which we should return. 
 
The beauty of a hymn is more than just in its sound; admittedly, the simple tune played on a piano with a few voices to sing out its lyrics is often an underwhelming experience. Many things in life are perfectly simple, even mundane at first glance. Waking up and taking a warm shower, cooking and eating a meal, that first sip of coffee, small talk with strangers, driving home through the Baton Rouge traffic. The list endlessly goes on. These are plain things, everyday tasks and experiences, but the depth to be found in each of these is so much more than what we might first acknowledge. We take so many profound things in life for granted and the simplicity and modesty of a hymn is no different. For this reason, in addition to what many perceive as archaic language, many of us turn our noses up at songs from “grandma’s church,” yet, in doing so, we rob ourselves of honest beauty, profound faith, and substantial theology. But why?
 
What person who knows the transcendence of God is not stirred to sing to the Holy One of Israel: “Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee, though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see, only thou art holy; there is none beside thee perfect in pow’r, in love and purity”? What soul convicted of sin finds no comfort in singing, “Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy law’s demands; could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone, thou must save, and thou alone”? Or what troubled heart is not strengthened in crying with brothers and sisters: “Whate’er my God ordains is right: here shall my stand be taken; though sorrow, need, or death be mine, yet I am not forsaken. My Father’s care is 'round me there; he holds me that I shall not fall: and so to him I leave it all”?
 
I believe it’s high time that we reclaim our heritage in hymnody, an inheritance in song that has stood the test of time. If we were to take the time to sing, study and devote ourselves to these songs, we would find true treasures of our people from ages past, hymns that teach us the great truths of the gospel, hymns that we can sing on our deathbeds. 
 
My desire is not to convince you to abandon all other “worship styles,” nor do I ask that you prefer hymns and psalms over more contemporary worship music whether in corporate gatherings or at home. I merely hope to shine a light on the beauty of what these lines really are.They are the heart-poetry of Christians from age to age, prayers poured out from both joy and anguish, anthems of the people of God to strengthen us in the darkest of nights. For that reason, they ought to have a place not only in our pews, but also in our hearts.