Asking the wrong witnesses

(or, What if the people Jesus had healed had been called to testify at His trial?)

 Ask those freed from unclean spirits, the blind who saw, the dead who came to life again, and, what is greater than all, the fools who were made wise, and let them answer whether Jesus was a malefactor. But they spoke, of whom he had himself prophesied in the psalms, “They rewarded me evil for good” Augustine[1] .

Having spent the last three months preaching through the Gospel of John, these words from St. Augustine strike me immediately as true.  Those who judged Jesus, the ruling officials and the Roman representatives, came to the trial with prejudices against Jesus and political legitimacy to protect, so it’s no wonder that Jesus was found guilty (well, not “guilty,” but “guilty because we say so”) and executed.

Imagine, though, what would have happened if the witnesses called to testify had been all those left in the wake of Jesus’ gracious Kingdom work – those ‘freed from unclean spirits,’ ‘the blind who saw’ and ‘the dead and the foolish.’  What a powerful witness to the goodness of God that would have been.  In the interest of giving them a voice, here is my best guess at what they might say.

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Nicodemus (John 3) – I was a man of great power and prestige, well respected by the powers that be and a teacher to all of Israel.  And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe we were missing something, that although we searched the Scriptures to honor God and recognize His Anointed One, we were missing the point.  Then I heard of this Rabbi, doing the sort of thing that ‘the Anointed One’ would do, so I had to see for myself.  I went to Him, to hear from Him, and He changed everything.  We were trying to reach up to God and here God was reaching down to us – He was going to do all that we could never do – He Himself would sprinkle us with cleansing water and give us a new spirit,[2] to enable us to follow the Law we were trying to keep in our own strength.  I kept my mouth shut for a while, but when my peers started outwardly opposing Jesus, not even hearing from Him themselves, I knew I had to make a stand.[3]  Jesus took a stony, old religious moralist, and made me into a generous, grateful follower of God.

The Samaritan woman (John 4) – My experience with Jesus couldn’t be any more different from Nicodemus’s.  He was a great rabbi, well-respected, well-versed in the promises of God to His people; I was a social outcast, unable to hold onto a husband, unaware of the truth about God.  Jesus found me at a well – it was noon and I was there in the heat of the day to avoid the accusing stares of the local ladies – and He asked me for a drink.  I could see that He was hot and worn out from travelling; I knew how that water would refresh Him, but He opened my eyes to see that in fact God was offering that very experience of refreshing to me!  He knew my ignorance, He knew my sin, He knew my past and yet He treated me with gentleness and respect and for the first time in my life, I recognized that God could love someone like me.  I had to tell everyone, and after they heard from Him, He stayed with us and showed us that He truly was the Saviour of the world.

The paralyzed man (John 5) – Yeah, I met Jesus.  He’s the one that healed me on the Sabbath.  I told you about that already, remember?[4]  I’d been lame for thirty-eight years and I’d gotten into the habit of dragging myself over to the pool at Bethesda – I heard that if you could get into the water when it stirred, you could get healed.  But I never could.  But then one day, this man came along – never told me His name, at least, not ‘til later – and He said ‘Get up!  Pick up your mat and walk’ and all of a sudden I felt something in my legs that I hadn’t in years – strength.  I got up and walked.  I carried my mat even!  Of course, that just got me into trouble with the authorities because it was the Sabbath, but Jesus found me later and said something about stopping sinning, but I told you about that already, remember?  Can I go now?

The blind man (John 9) – I remember the day I met Jesus – clear as if it were yesterday.  I was born blind and so as was my custom, I sat by the roadside to beg, barely scraping together enough to live.  I was blind, so that was a real hardship, but the thing that really stung was the social stigma.  Sure, people would toss me a coin or two, but as they walked away I could hear them whispering to one another “I wonder what he did, or what his mother did, to deserve that blindness” – translation – “he messed up, so he deserves God’s punishment.”  But then one day I heard something new – it’s not fault.  And then suddenly, this man was putting mud on my eyes; He sent me to the pool at Siloam to wash and… I could see!  I could see!  I had never been able to see in my life and He let me see!  He changed everything!  He let me see the world but He let me see even more – that God had sent this man Jesus, His Son, to open the world’s eyes, to give life!  You keep asking me, I know, but the story’s never going to change – you just need to go ahead and believe too!

Lazarus (John 11) – Those were days I will never forget.  I was dead, but Jesus made me alive.  What more can I say?  I could see how my death had destroyed my sisters, and yet in that moment, Jesus made me alive and mourning turned into utter joy.  He raised me from the dead.  What more can I say?

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Looking back on these accounts, I see an incredible picture of Jesus – a man who sought out all sorts of people – men, women, sinners, “saints,” those who would follow Him and those who were ambivalent – and changed their lives by introducing them to the real power of God.  And He not only healed them (physically, socially or spiritually), He gave each of them something to think about – with Jesus, a physical thing was never just a physical thing – His every act became a spiritual object lesson – ‘you must be born again,’ ‘living water within you will give you life,’ ‘I give you eyes to truly see,’ ‘everyone who believes in me will never die, but live eternally.’  It’s a shame they never got to testify in court.

But then again, if they had, Jesus would never have died and that would have prevented the greatest act of all, the ultimate ‘good’ to borrow from Augustine, the supreme sacrifice of atonement– the sinless Lamb of God dying in the place of God’s sinful people, so that we sinners could be restored to God forever.  That was God’s will – God Himself handed Jesus over[5] - so no testimony, however moving, would have stopped this incredible outpouring of grace, mercy and justice.  “Heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”

It remains though for all of these witnesses, the freed, those given sight, those raised from the dead, to point us to Jesus, that we might recognize who He truly is, that we might give our lives rightly in response as the ruling authorities should have – in His service and worship.

 

[1] Augustine, “Tractates on the Gospel of John 114.3.”, in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: John:11-21, commenting on John 18:29.

[2] See Ezekiel 36:25-27.

[3] See John 7:45-52.

[4] See John 5:15.

[5] See Acts 2:23. 

Worship in the shadow of death

Eight months ago I transitioned from worship ministry to become the pastor of a small community church in Southwestern Ontario.  In that time, I have conducted funeral services for three different people and those experiences, draining as they were, have had a powerful and formative impact on my life and ministry.  I have gained insights that I wish I had known while doing worship ministry, so I offer them to you now in the hope that it will help you as you shepherd at all points in their Christian walk.

Worship in the shadow of death:

…will be more (or less) powerful than usual

While it's moving to sing 'from life's first cry to final breath / Jesus commands my destiny' at any time, the power of that affirmation is amplified exponentially when you are singing it with a group of people gathered to celebrate the life of a loved one who has taken their final breath.

While that's true, it's also possible that your sung worship time will be even less emotionally and spiritually exhilarating than usual (and that’s ok).  The mix of sorrow and fatigue can very naturally cause a numbness that limits your ability to really engage.  I led a small Christmas Scripture and Carol service in the hospice with a now departed member of our community and while I loved and affirmed the truths that we sang, I didn't feel moved the way I had expected to.  In that case, though, I celebrated the fact that the sung worship was not the only worship happening – by gathering together to recount and respond to the truths of the Gospel, we were building one another up, exactly the way worship in  1 Corinthians 14 is described.

…will drive you back to the Bible

When talking with people who are dying and people who have lost loved ones, you quickly discover that pat answers will not suffice.  You need to speak with comfort and authority and the only authority capable of addressing questions like 'How do I know God accepted me?' and 'What will I experience one minute after my final breath?' is the Bible.  Going to Scripture takes the pressure off the pastor - you don't have to marshal impressive rhetoric to give people confidence - you just need to show what God has already said.  And God has already said some powerful things.  For example:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:35-39 NIV).

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed--in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.  When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."  “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1Cor 15:51-57 NIV).

In addition to those powerful assurances, Scripture gives us permission to really wrestle with the circumstances.  God doesn't want people to stuff their feelings as they die or mourn a loved one; He invites us to bring those heart wrenching experiences to Him, even with raw and messy words.  I found great strength being able to pray Psalm 31 along with one brother:

Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak. (Psalm 31:9-10 NIV).

Those sentences captured the pain of the moment, and God's Word itself was inviting us to pray with brutal honesty and confidence.

…will increase your lyrical sensitivity

Given that the Bible talks very freely about life and death, worship songs of every generation have picked up the same themes.  While these are meaningful and important, some songs say it better than others.  Sitting with those who are mourning will give you greater sensitivity as you choose songs.  For example, Jared Anderson's Great I am begins: ‘I wanna to be close close to your side / So heaven is real and death is a lie.’

The average worshiper will understand 'death is a lie' as a poetic eschatological expression – ‘at the end of the age, death will be non-existent, so a lie’ - but mourners are feeling the exact opposite - death is a terrible truth that has irrevocably torn their loved one away from them.  I have found myself becoming more sensitive to how life and death are talked about in worship songs, with a real conviction that we do nonetheless need to present the objective truths of God regarding life, death and resurrection regardless of the circumstances.  In Christ alone and Christ is risen from the dead (Maher) are a couple examples of songs that do this well – still not so sure about the ‘death’s dew’ bit in verse three of My Jesus I love Thee. ;)

If you are a worship leader or worship pastor in a large church, it may not fall naturally to you to be a part of end-of-life pastoral care, but if you have or can make the opportunity, engage in it.  It will strengthen your ability to serve your congregation, whatever their circumstances, and deepen your relationship with God, pushing you to rely more on His endless strength and love, when your personal resources run dry. 

 

 

Comfort zones: Getting out or growing bigger?

Posted simultaneously at Worship Leader

According to the wisdom of the day, one of the most important things a Christian can do is to 'get outside of their comfort zone.'  'If only we would step outside of our comfort zones, we would experience the fullness of God that He intends for us.'  While there are certainly times when our dull hearts will need a little shove, I've come to wonder if from a leadership perspective, it's more important to grow people's comfort zones than to attempt to push them out of them.  Here's why.

What's a comfort zone?

Admittedly, the Bible doesn’t explicitly talk about a ‘comfort zone.’  Frankly, I'm not even sure that it is a concept that people in biblical times would have recognized (the Merriam-Webster dictionary indicates that the phrase was first used in 1923).  'Comfort zone' implies a degree of routine, certainty and leisure that is in many ways unique to the modern and developed world.

Nonetheless, as a concept, ‘comfort zone’ makes some sense.  When we experience a low level of anxiety and discomfort, we are able to live and perform effectively and comfortably.  In our comfort zones, we do things without much hesitation, with very little prodding.  The risk of course is that it is all too easy to become complacent in our comfort zones, hence the call to step out and be ever more obedient to God.

 Why our comfort zones aren’t so bad

 My concern with the concept is that having stepped outside of our comfort zones, we will gradually work our way (or sprint!) back into our comfort zone - after all, it's comfy in there!  In a powerful spiritual moment, we ‘break through’ our barriers and feel as if we have done something awesome for God! And then gradually revert back to the old way, thinking that maybe it was just a one-time, Spirit-enabled thing.

 

I've been learning though that even more important than getting out of our comfort zones is growing our comfort zones.  Here's the logic: we perform more naturally, effectively and reliably when we experience a degree of familiarity and order; why not work through teaching and baby steps to expand our comfort zones so that what would have caused anxiety 'outside' of a comfort zone a year ago becomes a natural and permanent part of our comfort zones now?

I suspect that this was behind Jesus' strategy of teaching: time after time He would reiterate the same concepts in different ways in order to get people used to the life changing walk He was calling them to. 

Paul's writing ministry also shows him expanding people’s comfort zones by teaching them - recall that Paul's first letter to the Corinthians broaches the notion of giving (1 Corinthians 16), then his second letter repeats the call, along with an extended teaching on why it's an appropriate action – ‘Jesus was rich but became poor for us!’ (2 Corinthians 8-9).  Even the word that I immediately thought of when thinking about ‘getting outside your comfort zone’ – parakaleo (‘to summon, exhort, implore’) – also includes nuances of growth (it can also be translated ‘to encourage, comfort’ [NIDNTTE][1]).

Growth in action

Here's a couple of examples of places where I've experienced this.  The idea of giving ten percent of my income has always been a scary thought and certainly an action outside of my comfort zone.  Push me out of that comfort zone and I would have tried to rush back in.  Over time though, God grew my comfort zone - careful Bible study and preaching helped me to see that given God's tremendous generosity towards me and His unfailing faithfulness, I had nothing to worry about in tithing.  It was in fact a very natural, tangible way for me to express my gratitude.  I made that commitment and now it's just a normal, everyday part of life. 

I’ve also seen my comfort zone grow in the area of youth missions.  Our church supports a street youth drop in center and the idea of helping out would have scared me years ago.  Gradually though, teaching on the equality of all people as God's image bearers, even if they're different from us and the generous mercy of God, even to me when I didn't deserve it, has pushed me to value serving people that years ago I would have said 'didn't deserve my time.’

I expect that this sort of perspective would be helpful in music ministries too; I've heard of a worship pastor introducing PowerPoint to a congregation by taking out all the hymnals; not a great way to gradually expand peoples’ comfort zones or to teach the value inherent in the change.

While it will always be important for ministers of the Gospel to sporadically call people out of their comfort zones, a more sustainable way ahead is to expand those comfort zones through gentle teaching and discipleship.

[1] New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis

Learning about Lent

This was first published at jbdomusic.com and Worship Leader magazine online.

I’ve never really known what to do with Lent.  I have memories of ‘giving something up for Lent’ stretching from childhood to university but they all have a common subconscious thread: ‘give something up for Lent, and don’t stumble… OR ELSE!’  If I’m honest with myself, I suspect that that comes from my old nature – the one that wants to ‘be good enough’ and ‘make myself worthy of God.’ 

What’s more, ‘Lent’ doesn’t appear in the God’s authoritative Word to us, the Bible, so there’s no reason that we should feel compelled to have to ‘do Lent.’ 

For me, this begs the question: “Is Lent a helpful pastoral tradition that we can inherit from history, or is it an impediment to the proclamation and living out of the Gospel of grace?”  To help you to answer that question in your own context, let me explore some of the history behind the practice of Lent.

1. The Lord’s Supper – At the Last Supper, Jesus instituted THE authoritative memorial of His death and resurrection: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes” (1Co 11:26 NIV).  Jesus commanded it, so we are compelled to do it.  As Bobby Gilles’ Every Sunday is a little Easter pointed out, this is why Sundays were exempt from fasting in the early Church – when you celebrate the death and resurrection, you do it with a backward-forward feast (recalling the Last Supper, anticipating the Lamb’s Supper (Rev 19).

2. A pre-Easter fast – While Sunday and the Lord’s Supper provided a weekly celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection, there arose a desire to mark that great event on a yearly basis.  Early believers borrowed the fast period connected to the Jewish Passover (after all, Jesus is the ultimate Passover Lamb - 1 Cor 5:7, Heb 9:24-26) and over time it evolved into a week-long, pre-Easter fast (Bradshaw, 85-86).

3. A pre-baptismal fast – Given the death and resurrection imagery inherent in baptism (“…having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him … who raised [Jesus] from the dead…” Col 2:12 NIV), Easter became a preferred time for the baptism of new believers (Talley, 167, 195).  A period of fasting and teaching was established as people prepared for their pre-Easter baptism.  As Christianity became legal and widespread, fewer adults were baptised and by the fourth or fifth century, the pre-Easter season was linked to the rite of penance and reconciliation, which included a forty day fast (Talley, 190 & 223).

4. Forty days in the desert – Some parts of the early church recalled Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness by participating in a forty day fast, but this was not connected to Easter.  Believers would celebrate Jesus’ appearance and baptism together at Epiphany (January 6) and then following Mark’s Gospel chronology, begin a forty day fast in imitation of Jesus on the following day (January 7) (Talley, 193).

5. The fusing of traditions – After the Council of Nicaea, these three fast periods slowly began to merge into one practice of Lent, with a great deal of local variation spread across the centuries-long process of evolution (Talley, 216).

Some observations:

1. We have one authoritative action for celebrating Christ’s death and resurrection – the Lord’s Supper.  We need to give it the forefront because it reminds us that this life of faith is not about what we do, but about what Jesus did for us.  He died as our Passover Lamb, to deliver us from bondage to sin so our life now and in eternity is fueled only and entirely by His grace – the Lord’s Supper is our God-given way of recognizing that.

2. Our hope for salvation is Christ alone.  The history of Lent shows pastors just trying to help their congregations to better appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice, but the Pharisees in each of us are tempted to turn ‘giving something up’ into something that saves us.  If your church participates in Lent, it might be helpful to remind your people that ‘giving something up’ doesn’t make God love you more, but it is intended to help you love Him more. 

3. Notice the evolution from ‘fasting’ to ‘giving something up.’  Maybe I’m splitting hairs but there seems to a subtle difference – fasting is a practice undertaken in community to learn that [we] do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deu 8:3 NIV); ‘giving something up’ is a solitary activity that skews towards self-denial.  To put it another way, ‘fasting’ is getting more of God, ‘giving something up’ is having less of whatever you give up.  Lent isn’t really about having less of something; it’s about having more of God. 

4. On that front, I’m especially intrigued by the pre-baptismal fast periods because they combined fasting and teaching – giving up food, yes, but also savoring God’s Word and presence.  I wonder if it would be helpful to celebrate Lent this way: don’t give up anything but commit yourself to reading the Bible every day.  This may still mean you give up something – twenty minutes less sleep here, fifteen minutes less social media there – but you’d be gaining something life-giving as that time would be spent getting to know the God who loves you more.

Given that there is no authoritative biblical call to practice Lent, we have freedom to choose how (and if) we do Lent in our churches and homes.  That’s why I prefaced this discussion with the question: “Is Lent a helpful pastoral tradition, or is it an impediment to grace?”  My feeling is this: if we help our people to practice Lent in a way that gives God all the credit and helps us to better love Him and appreciate Easter, we will have accomplished all that the ancient Church sought to do through Lent. 

Quotations are from:

Paul Bradshaw, “The Origins of Easter,” in Passover and Easter, edited by Paul Bradshaw and Lawrence Hoffman, 2002.

Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 1986.

Word clouds in worship

As our culture becomes increasingly visual, it’s helpful for worship leaders to have visual tools available to them in communicating effectively with people who are used to celebrity memes and Instagram feeds.  I’ve recently been using word clouds in worship to help people to engage visually with the textual truths of the Bible.  While there are word cloud generators that allow you to place words in particular places to achieve ‘a look’ that you’re going for, I’m particularly drawn to word cloud generators that graphically represent the frequency of word usage in a particular group of words.  Using portions of the Bible as raw data presents useful insights into God’s Word and visually striking images to communicate those insights.

Useful insights and images

Good Bible study habits are important for worship leaders seeking to carefully root their services in God’s Word and word clouds can offer some neat insights into the key ideas in a given text.  Since word clouds are really just pictures that indicate how often certain words appear, the biggest words represent the most frequent (and often most important) ideas. 

For example, this is a visual representation of Genesis 1.

Who’s the star of the Creation story?  Who’s front and centre?  Preachers will often make the point by saying - ‘In the beginning… God.’ - to indicate the centrality and pre-eminence of God in Creation; this word cloud, created using the text of Genesis 1, powerfully makes that very point.

The opening verses of John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18) serve as an overture to the whole Gospel, introducing themes and ideas that John will explore and develop through the rest of his Gospel.  Worship leaders can easily present this glorious constellation of ideas by showing this word cloud:

As a piece of poetry, Psalm 148 urges its reader to ‘Praise the Lord’ by repeating those words over and again.  As a word cloud, Psalm 148 makes the same point by causing the various created things, which are called to praise God, to orbit around the call to praise:

Making word clouds

To make your own word clouds, you need two things – a word cloud generator and a digital version of the biblical text you intend to use. 

Searching for ‘word cloud generator’ in your browser will bring up many results, all with different features.  For the Genesis 1 and Psalm 148 clouds, I used abcya.com (http://www.abcya.com/word_clouds.htm) which allows you to save your word clouds directly as image files.  John 1 was made using Jason Davies’s word cloud generator (https://www.jasondavies.com/wordcloud/). 

In order to make the generator work, you need a big section of text, so while you could type out the Bible verses, I have found it much easier to copy and paste from your favourite Bible software or website.  Biblegateway.com or translation specific websites would work; I use BibleWorks and OliveTree so I simply copy and paste from there. 

Once you have copied the text, paste it into the text field in the word cloud generator.  Most generators allow you to edit the text, so you could remove the verse numbers (I didn’t in mine, hence the numbers tucked into the images). 

 

Words clouds are a neat way of visually presenting to the congregation the ideas inherent in a biblical text.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, a word cloud is that, plus a visual commentary.

The Christmas stillness

Every year, around this time of year, people love to take shots at 'Away in a manger.'  'No crying He makes.'  Yeah right.  Jesus was a healthy, human baby - of course He cried!

While I refuse to wade into the 'did He cry or didn't He?' debate, it strikes me that this artistic depiction of the tone of Jesus' birth reflects a theological reality that sits quietly behind the Christmas story - the stillness of Christmas.

Many of our favorite carols use imagery of silence and stillness to describe the night of Jesus' birth.

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by

The world in solemn stillness lay,
to hear the angels sing

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright

Even Sovereign Grace's recent song 'Who would have dreamed' gets in on the action:

Slowly, David’s city drifted off to sleep

What's going on here?  Why are the hymnwriters uniform in their conviction that the night that Jesus was born was a 'silent night'?

On one level, this 'Christmas stillness' is probably an effort to explore the notion that these events are marked by a tremendous solemnity - the whole created order subconsciously in awe of the mighty work of God unfolding in its midst.

On another level though, there is something tremendously unremarkable about Jesus' birth.  As far as the world was concerned, nothing impressive happened that night.  It was a silent night.  If they had had newscasts back then, the news would have been all about Caesar Augustus and Governor Quirinius, not 'this just in - two unassuming taxpayers couldn't find a place to stay and she had a baby.'

There is something incredible about this stillness.

This is the birth of the King we are talking about!  This is the long awaited Messiah!  The hope of the world has just arrived!

Think about the triumphant entry on Palm Sunday - why was there no fanfare and exuberant mob cheering Jesus' arrival on Christmas Eve?

(OK, admittedly the angel choir broke the silence - those heavenly beings tore the roof off to celebrate Jesus' birth).

But from an earthly point of view, the night of Jesus' night was silent and calm.

This ought to tell us something about the nature and ways of God.

He is gentle - He speaks in still, small voices and condescended to save His people graciously.  The fact that He came, not as a conquering general, but as a helpless baby, unnoticed by most of the world, should tell us that God is not concerned with the flash and awe that much of the world is enamored by - God works quietly, behind the scenes, in the margins of His Kingdom, to redeem His people and accomplish His purposes.  It takes God-given eyes of faith and ears to hear God at work in the stillness of Christmas.

I think this is ultimately what the writer of ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ was getting at with his third verse.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

May you be enabled to ‘be still and know that He is God’ this Christmas Eve.

 

This is not how it should be - 4 weeks of readings

As promised in my previous post, here are my Advent readings which we are using to work out the 'This is not the way it should be' idea.

Advent I

2015 Christmases ago, the world was a very different place.  They didn't have _____ or ______; they certainly didn't have ______.   (Your family fills in the blanks).

But they did have violence and conflict, just like we do.  Just weeks ago, we saw terrorist attacks, people hurt and killed, families scarred by violence.

This is not the way it should be.

Jesus came once, that first Christmas, to forgive our sins and to give us hope for the future, when God will reign in His good and just Kingdom.  When people would no longer fight each other, putting each other in danger. 

Isaiah 2:2-4 says:

In the last days, the mountain of the LORD's house will be the highest of all-- the most important place on earth. It will be raised above the other hills, and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.

 3 People from many nations will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob's God. There he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths." For the LORD's teaching will go out from Zion; his word will go out from Jerusalem.

 4 The LORD will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.  (Isa 2:2-4 NLT)

That will happen once Jesus has come again.  (Light one candle).

Jesus came once and He will come again to put things the way they should be, in line with God's perfect and gracious will.  Let's pray.

Come, Lord Jesus.  Prepare our hearts for when You come, and make us instruments of your peace until your return.

 

  Advent II

2015 Christmases ago, the world was a very different place.  They didn't have _____ or ______; they certainly didn't have ______.

But they did have sickness and pain just like we do.  We suffer when our bodies get sick and ache when we get tired.

This is not the way it should be.

Jesus came once, that first Christmas, to forgive our sins, and to give us hope for the future, when God will reign in His good and just Kingdom.  When people will no longer suffer illness and pain.

Revelation 21:1-5 says this:

Then, I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone.

 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

 3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, "Look, God's home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.

 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever."

 5 And the one sitting on the throne said, "Look, I am making everything new!"  (Rev 21:1-5 NLT)

That will happen once Jesus has come again.  (Light two candles).

Jesus came once and He will come again to put things the way they should be, in line with God's perfect and gracious will.  Let's pray.

Come, Lord Jesus.  Prepare our hearts for when You come, and make us instruments of your comfort until your return.

 

Advent III

2015 Christmases ago, the world was a very different place.  They didn't have _____ or ______; they certainly didn't have ______.

But they did have bullies, just like we do.

People pick on other people; they do only what makes them happy, even if it hurts people.

This is not the way it should be.

Jesus came once, that first Christmas, to forgive our sins, and to give us hope for the future, when God will reign in His good and just Kingdom.  When people will no longer selfishly pick on other people, but work to help and care for each other.

Isaiah 11:2-9 says this:

Out of the stump of David's family will grow a shoot-- yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root. 2 And the Spirit of the LORD will rest on him-- … 4 He will give justice to the poor and make fair decisions for the exploited… 6 In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all. 7 The cow will graze near the bear. The cub and the calf will lie down together. The lion will eat hay like a cow… 9 Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for as the waters fill the sea, so the earth will be filled with people who know the LORD (Isa 11:2-9 NLT).

That will happen once Jesus has come again.  (Light three candles).

Jesus came once and He will come again to put things the way they should be, in line with God's perfect and gracious will.  Let's pray.

Come, Lord Jesus.  Prepare our hearts for when You come, and make us instruments of your harmony until your return.

 

Advent IV

2015 Christmases ago, the world was a very different place.  They didn't have _____ or ______; they certainly didn't have ______.

But they did have sorrow and death just like we do.  We know that people reach the end of their lives and it makes us sad.

This is not the way it should be.

Jesus came once, that first Christmas, to forgive our sins, and to give us hope for the future, when God will reign in His good and just Kingdom.  When all God’s people will live forever, in the presence of God, free from violence, sickness and conflict.

Isaiah 25:6-9 says this:

The LORD will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat.

 7 There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth.

 8 He will swallow up death forever!

"Death has been swallowed up in victory."

 The Sovereign LORD will wipe away all tears. He will remove forever all insults and mockery against his land and people. The LORD has spoken!

 9 In that day the people will proclaim, "This is our God! We trusted in him, and he saved us! This is the LORD, in whom we trusted. Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!" (Isa 25:6-9 NLT)

That will happen once Jesus has come again.  (Light four candles).

Jesus came once and He will come again to put things the way they should be, in line with God's perfect and gracious will.  Let's pray.

Come, Lord Jesus.  Prepare our hearts for when You come, and make us instruments of your perfect Kingdom until your return.

 

TEMPLATE-

2015 Christmases ago, the world was a very different place.  They didn't have _____ or ______; they certainly didn't have ______.

But they did have ______, just like we do.  ______ (Sentence reflecting on that issue).

This is not the way it should be.

Jesus came once, that first Christmas, to forgive our sins, and to give us hope for the future, when God will reign in His good and just Kingdom.  (When people would no longer _______).

Bible verse

That will happen once Jesus has come again.

Jesus came once and He will come again to put things the way they should be, in line with God's perfect and gracious will.  Let's pray.

Come, Lord Jesus.  Prepare our hearts for when You come, and make us instruments of your _______ until your return.

This is not how it should be - Advent readings

One year ago I wrote an article entitled “This is not how it should be.”  The basic idea is this: the world, as we know it, is not the way it should be.  Violence, conflict and injustice are painfully widespread, and there seems to be no end in sight.  Some people are content to say ‘that’s just how the world is.’  My contention is that from God’s perspective ‘this is NOT how it should be.’

 In my article, I argue that we should understand Advent as an act of protest, insisting that this violence, conflict and injustice is not just ‘how things are’ – they are not what God intends for His world.  God created us and intended for us to live in harmony and selfless service of His Kingdom but the Fall introduced these evils into our world.  Advent is an opportunity to say ‘this is not how it should be’ and as surely as Jesus came once as a baby, He will come again to set things right, to restore the paradise conditions that God intended for the world.

This year, I am attempting to work this into my congregation’s worship by structuring our Advent readings around the idea.  For those unfamiliar with the Advent wreath tradition, some churches light a candle each week for Advent, to mark time according to God’s timing, to symbolize our ‘waiting.’  Often times, the focus gravitates towards ‘waiting for Christmas’ (the first Advent – Advent = coming); I’m attempting readings that will focus our hearts on the second Advent – when Jesus returns to make things right – ‘the way they should be.’

 The readings

In order to create some sense of consistency in the readings, I have attempted to establish a template that will allow us to reflect on the various realities in our world.  I have chosen in our four weeks to reflect on interpersonal conflict (bullying), sickness, violence and death as those that will most likely resonate with our particular congregation.  Given the needs of your congregation, you could sub in other themes – that’s the beauty of the template.  I could see value in churches addressing racial tension, hunger, mental illness, any number of themes really – simply by reflecting on ‘what is not as it should be?’

The template

The following is my template, which could be adapted to address the needs of your congregation.

---

2015 Christmases ago, the world was a very different place.  They didn't have _____ or ______; they certainly didn't have ______.

But they did have ______, just like we do.  ______ (Sentence reflecting on that issue).

This is not the way it should be.

Jesus came once, that first Christmas, to forgive our sins, and to give us hope for the future, when God will reign in His good and just Kingdom.  (When people would no longer _______).

Bible verse

That will happen once Jesus has come again.

Jesus came once and He will come again to put things the way they should be, in line with God's perfect and gracious will.  Let's pray.

Come, Lord Jesus.  Prepare our hearts for when You come, and make us instruments of your _______ until your return.

---

An example

To give you some idea of how this would look in our church, here is my ‘filled in’ reading of the first week of Advent.

---

2015 Christmases ago, the world was a very different place.  They didn't have _____ or ______; they certainly didn't have ______.   (I’m leaving it to the families to come up with some ideas together).

But they did have violence and conflict, just like we do.  Just weeks ago, we saw terrorist attacks, people hurt and killed, families scarred by violence.

This is not the way it should be.

Jesus came once, that first Christmas, to forgive our sins, and to give us hope for the future, when God will reign in His good and just Kingdom.  When people would no longer fight each other, putting each other in danger. 

In the last days, the mountain of the LORD's house will be the highest of all-- the most important place on earth. It will be raised above the other hills, and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.   3 People from many nations will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob's God. There he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths." For the LORD's teaching will go out from Zion; his word will go out from Jerusalem. 4 The LORD will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.

 (Isa 2:2-4 NLT)

That will happen once Jesus has come again.

Jesus came once and He will come again to put things the way they should be, in line with God's perfect and gracious will.  Let's pray.

Come, Lord Jesus.  Prepare our hearts for when You come, and make us instruments of your peace until your return.

---

In practice

While the practice of Advent and Advent candles may be foreign to some churches, those churches that do practice it realize the various pastoral benefits it provides.

·         Parents and children can be asked to do the readings and light the candles together – you can have three (or more?) generations all together doing ministry for the benefit of the church.

·         It also prevents the lead-up to Christmas from becoming ‘four little Christmases.’  Advent is really for ‘anticipating Jesus’ coming’ – the first time AND the second time.  We need to have a future orientation if we are to faithfully engage with this world as citizens of the next.

·         A further benefit of this particular set of Advent readings is that they call people into God’s Kingdom work at a time when it is so easy to get distracted by the busy-ness of the Christmas season.  Coming face to face with the reality that ‘this is not how it should be’ is a good prompt that we are to be the hands and feet of God in the world.

Once I have finalized all four readings, I will post them again here at gwgladstone.ca in the Worship Blog for anyone interested in reading or using them.

This is not how it should be

I originally published this last year at jbdomusic.com and it is also available at worshipleader.com.

As I write, the United States is gripped by protests as people call for justice in the face of black fatalities involving police.  Others call for justice in light of the unruly element that committed looting and other crimes during those same protests.

Closer to home, in Ontario, we have heard of the recent death of a mother and her two children and there is some suggestion that domestic violence is to blame.

The posture of the news media is to report it, to be objective, to hope that calm heads prevail.  The sad truth is, these stories will likely unfold again, a hundred times over, with different people, in different places.  “That’s just the way the world works.”

At the same time, I’m preparing for worship in this Advent season – ‘peace,’ ‘hope,’ ‘joy’ – and somehow my mind defaults to this picture of the privileged, enjoying ‘peace’ and ‘hope’ in warm, nicely decorated church sanctuaries.

But that’s not what Advent is.  Advent is not a religious countdown towards Christmas.  Advent is not four weeks of ‘mini-Christmas.’  Advent is not a cloistered huddle disconnected from the real world.

Advent is the Church’s way of saying ‘this is not how it should be.’ 

Racial inequality, domestic violence, abusive authority – this is not how it should be. 

Advent is the Church’s way of lifting the veil of the status quo and saying ‘this way of life, struggling to make your own way, regardless of the cost’ is insufficient.

Advent is the Church’s way of saying ‘there is a Kingdom coming, one of righteousness and justice, where fairness and equity are everywhere:’ 

6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

 7 Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this (Isaiah 9:6-7 NIV).

This isn’t just a nice verse to have printed inside Christmas cards.  This is God’s promise, fulfilled in Jesus.  His rule is ever extending and there will be no end to the peace inherent in His reign.  His Kingdom will be characterized by justice and righteousness forever. 

And just as surely as He came once, as a baby in Bethlehem, He will come again, to rule with fairness and equality. 

Advent is the Church’s way of saying ‘this will happen – Jesus will come again – and His coming again means endless peace and incorruptible justice.’ 

And not only that, Advent is also the Church’s way of saying ‘we don’t need to wait.’  In a very real sense, the Kingdom is here!  We can live our lives in light of the Kingdom right now, reflecting with our very being the values of the Kingdom.  ‘That is how it should be!’  Justice!  Righteousness!  The weak made strong in the Saviour’s love!

As we live Advent lives, are we as believers heralding the Kingdom?  Do we show the world by our lives of justice and selflessness that this is the better way of living?  Do we go to our King as the source of our hope, our peace, our joy? 

As we look outwards, can we see the world and recognize ‘this is not how it should be?’  Let us with our lives proclaim ‘the ideal is coming’ and live in light of it and let us offer true hope and true peace to those struggling in this world.

When the Word leads worship

In his recent article 'Is your ministry based on personal preference?' Greg Jones offers an insightful and crucial reflection on how to protect worship ministry from the subjective whims of leaders and congregation members.  You don't want your worship ministry to become a glorified “by-request DJ service.”  So how DO we establish our ministry on a firm footing?  Greg offers some great suggestions; I'd like to share a further answer - allow the Word to lead worship - or to be more practical - make sure your preaching and worship ministries both flow out of the Bible.

How to do it

Allowing the Word to lead worship means in a very practical and concrete way giving God's Word the central place in your service planning.

To start, take the preaching text that your pastor will be working from for that given Sunday.  If he's doing his job well, he'll be asking of that text 'What is God saying to us through this portion of His Word and how do I communicate this so these people will get it?'  Your job is to take that same text and ask 'what is God saying to us through this text and how do I help these people to respond to it?'  If you and your pastor can talk in advance about the first part - what God is saying - all the better.

From there, you might want to ask yourself some questions to explore the implications.

What does this teach us about God and His character? 

Does the text call for a specific response?

What themes underlie the text?

Here’s an example using Psalm 51.

What does this teach us about God and His character?  God forgives sinners because of His unfailing love (v. 2)

Does the text call for a response of some sort?  Yes – an attitude of contrition and humility before God’s all-surpassing righteousness (v. 17).  This calls for confession in the face of sin (vss. 1-5) and dependence on God in everything else (vss. 12-15). 

What themes underlie the text?  God’s righteousness, God’s intolerance of sin, the basis upon which God can hide His face from sin and blot out iniquity (Jesus’ sacrifice) (v. 9).

From there and focusing on the first two questions, choose music (and prayers and readings and drama) that will help you to develop and explore and respond to God as He is revealed in that text.  In our example, the first points about God’s forgiving love and righteousness would probably dominate the first part of the service, with songs of confession and dependence serving as good responses after the sermon.

The benefits

1. God's Word sets the agenda - When the Word leads worship, God sets the agenda.  We all know that certain preachers and worship leaders tend to favour certain aspects of His character (His love, His holiness, His presence) while neglecting others (for example, His concern for the poor, His jealous commitment to His own glory).  Assuming you have a robust preaching schedule that makes a serious effort to move carefully through Scripture, this method gives God meaningful authority to lead your service, as your choices will be dictated by what He has already said in the Bible. 

2. God’s voice outweighs competing voices - When the Word leads worship, it guards itself against people saying ‘I didn’t like that song’ or ‘why don’t we sing such-and-such a song?’  If that happens, you can kindly point out to people that what they’ve suggested wouldn’t have helped the congregation to appreciate or respond to that aspect of God’s character and saving action that was revealed in the text/message.  ‘Such-and-such’ a song may be useful down the line, but the guiding factor is not ‘how liked it will be’ but ‘how helpful it is in allowing the congregation to respond to what God has spoken.’ 

3. God’s purposes become your rubric in choosing songs – When the Word leads worship, you find yourself evaluating songs by different criteria.  You will find yourself asking questions like ‘Are these lyrics faithful to the mood and message of Scripture?’ and ‘Does this help us to explore new aspects of God’s character?’ more than ‘do I like this music?’ and ‘is it up-to-date (hip? fresh?) enough?’ 

The goal is really to allow God to speak, and His people to hear and to listen, so what better way to accomplish that than to let the Word take the lead in worship.

 

 

 

Lest we forget

With Remembrance Day approaching, I found myself thinking about the phrase "Lest we forget."  Specifically, I began to wonder where it came from.  To my surprise, I discovered that a very early usage of the phrase is in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, which is itself a contemporary meditation on biblical themes.

Kipling's "Recessional"

God of our fathers, known of old,  

   Lord of our far-flung battle-line,  

Beneath whose awful Hand we hold

   Dominion over palm and pine—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,  

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

 

The tumult and the shouting dies;

   The Captains and the Kings depart:  

Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

   An humble and a contrite heart.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,  

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

 

Far-called, our navies melt away;

   On dune and headland sinks the fire:  

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

   Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!  

Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,  

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

 

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose  

   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,  

Such boastings as the Gentiles use,

   Or lesser breeds without the Law—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

 

For heathen heart that puts her trust  

   In reeking tube and iron shard,

All valiant dust that builds on dust,

   And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,  

For frantic boast and foolish word—

Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

 

The poem

When Kipling wrote "Recessional," the British Empire was at the peak of its power.  Military victories the world over gave the British populace a tempting reason to glory in their own military might.

Against this backdrop, Kipling juxtaposed the transient nature of human power with the everlasting omnipotence of God – “the shooting and the tumult end / the captains and the kings depart / still stands thine ancient sacrifice... Lord God be with us yet.”  When the dust from all human wars settles, human armies will be forgotten, but God will stand, unscathed, unchanged, as He has for all eternity.  HE is our hope.  There's a neat piece of irony that may be lost on us - behind the saying ‘Lord of hosts’ is a Hebrew military expression that means ‘Lord of the heavenly army,’ so Kipling is really calling his audience to trust God’s eternal heavenly strength, not a mortal army.

The poem really boils down to a prayer – ‘Lest we forget, God, amidst the excitement of military victory and human accomplishment that You are sovereign and unchanging and we are not, be with us and have mercy on us.”  As a prayer, it calls on God to do that; as a poem, it warns its audience not to think too highly of their military progress and strength and to instead trust God, whose way of victory is actually through sacrifice – “an humble and contrite heart.”

Biblical themes

Kipling is giving voice to two biblical ideas – ‘Don't put all your trust in human strength’ and ‘Don't forget that all you have is from God.’

The first is a central concept in the narratives of David (and sons)'s kingship.  Psalm 33 sums it up nicely:

16 The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.

 17 The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.

 18 Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love,

 19 that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine.

 20 Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.

  (Psalm 33:16-21 ESV)

 

The second theme has its roots in Deuteronomy 6:

"10 And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you--with great and good cities that you did not build,

 11 and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant--and when you eat and are full,

 12 then take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Deuteronomy 6:10-12 ESV).

God directed Moses to teach His people to remember God’s goodness, lest they forget that their blessings are all from Him; Kipling borrows the language to make the same point.

For us

In an age of significant wealth and ease, it would be all too easy for us to fall into the same trap as the Israelites and Kipling's audience before us.  Our culture gets so wrapped up in our own achievements that we are tempted to forget that God is there, and that all we do is unfolding within His wise and gracious sovereignty.  As we consider our well-being, let us treasure above all God's unchanging and merciful character, ‘lest we forget’ that it is God who has seen fit to bless us so.

If you followed this link hoping for practical Remembrance Day ideas, my apologies.  The best that I can offer you is the thought behind Kipling's poem and this prayer:

 

God, You are above all things: all powers, all rulers, all authorities.  

Help us to celebrate Your omnipotence, Your graciousness, Your faithful provision

lest we forget how good and trustworthy You truly are!

Lest we forget,

God of Hosts be with us yet.

 

 

Making your work worship

As worship leaders, we know that true worship involves being a living sacrifice: daily offering our whole beings for the service of the God who showed us great mercy.  We want to help our congregations to realize that and engage with it, but I'm concerned that there is often a disconnect between our worship lives and our work lives - as if Sunday was worship time and 9-5 Mon-Fri was work time.  Here's how I've encouraged my congregation to let their work be worship.

Your work can be worship.

No, you might say: work is drudgery!  You put up with it until the weekend.   Sure, it may feel like that but that's only because the Fall twisted what God had intended for us. 

We are made in the image of God; God was hard at work at the very start of the Bible - He created and rested from His work of creation (Genesis 2:3).  He made us to work and to find fulfillment in work - we were placed into the Garden to work it and to keep it, that is, to steward God's creation (Genesis 2:15).  With the Fall came thorns and thistles, but that doesn't change the fact that being made in God's image, we find fulfillment in work. 

Not only that, but being redeemed by God, we are called to respond to His mercy by giving every waking moment to Him for the service of His Kingdom.  Just because we're not paid by a church doesn't mean that what we do for work isn't valuable to God's kingdom.  In fact, whoever you are, whatever you do, God is pleased when you work faithfully.

How do we know that work can be worship?

"Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.  Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving" (Colossians 3:22-23 NIV).

Obviously there are huge differences between your work circumstances and the experience of slaves in first century Colossae, but the underlying rationale remains the same.  Even if you are doing the most menial labour possible, you can (and are actually called to) do it as worship - "do it out of reverence for the Lord" - ie., worship.

What does work as worship look like?

Work hard - Paul is clear - when you make your work worship, you will work hard - "with all your heart."  1Thessalonians 4:12 makes a similar point - work hard so that you won't be a mooch and in so doing bring disrepute on the Christian community.

Work honest - Honouring the Lord with your work requires honorable actions - working with integrity - not only when you're being supervised or for the sake of promotion (Colossians 3:22).  When you let your work be worship, you do it for the simple reason that you love God and want to thank Him with the whole of your being.

How do you do it?

1. Pray.  Daniel is a great example of devotional work.  He worked hard - you don't get to be the head over a foreign country by slacking off. And he clearly worked honest - Daniel 6 tells us through those seeking to discredit him that Daniel was trustworthy and neither corrupt not negligent (v. 4).  He also spent a lot of time in prayer.  We too can offer our day’s work to God, saying “God, today I will run into cranky people, unfair situations, physical difficulties, temptations to pride and selfishness; through it all, God, use me, help me to offer my work to you, as a reflection of your character, in all that I do.”

2. Make it your ambition.  Commit yourself to it.  There are times when fatigue and interpersonal conflict will make you want to give up and slack off; just remind yourself: “I’m doing this for God who, because He showed me great mercy, deserves the very best, so: work hard, work honest.”

3. Serve Jesus.  While it's true that you have responsibilities and obligations to your earthly boss, it's also true that when you became a follower of Jesus, you became a servant of Jesus.  We are all, in terms of our work, 'under new management': we do the same work, but for a new manager whose vision and foresight are perfect.  Consciously work for Jesus and you will find yourself working honest and working hard - honouring the Lord with your work.

Meaning what we sing

Have you ever found yourself in the awkward position of desperately wanting to sing and affirm the words of a powerful worship song while secretly, honestly wondering if you can really do what the song says you will do?

This was the experience of the author of a piece I recently read (http://ow.ly/QfUhT).  In it, she reflects on singing (among others) Chris Tomlin's 'I will follow' ('as long as it's not too far and close to a clean flush toilet') and concludes that it would probably be more realistic to sing 'I surrender 10%'.

This has prompted me to wonder - to what degree should our worship songs reflect our best aspirations for our capacity for faith and to what degree should we strive for more ‘everyday’ worship songs?  Should we eagerly make bold claims about how we will respond in faith in worship or should that give us pause, especially in the face of biblical narratives that dampen human good intentions?  For example:

* After Joshua's noble declaration "as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord," the people eagerly answered, “Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God” (see Joshua 24:15-24).

* Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same (Matthew 26:34-35).  We all know how that turned out.

I know that I’m not the only one thinking about these things; Nick Page writes in his book And now let’s move into a time of nonsense:

“‘When I became a Christian I stopped telling lies and started singing them.’  We make much more outrageous statements in song than we would in speech.  Who among us has not vowed to make history? … I can’t help thinking if we were asked to say [these statements], rather than sing them, we might think a little more carefully about what we were actually promising.”[1]

I don’t have a final answer on this, but here are some arguments for and against ‘extravagent commitments' in worship; maybe we can continue the conversation in the comments below.

In favour:

They encourage growth - when 'I surrender all' is played, it prompts me to re-evaluate my priorities.  After all, Jesus did say that His followers needed to deny themselves, in some cases literally surrendering all.  Singing 'I surrender all' puts my actual faith life face to face with Jesus’ call and pushes me to rely on the Spirit to actually make good on the vow.

They are theoretically true - I would like to think that if I felt an unmistakably divine push, I would eagerly and willingly follow God anywhere, whatever the cost.  And while I fall short of it, it IS my desire that in ‘every breath that I take / every moment I’m awake’ I want the Lord to have His way in my life.

The Psalms make them (sort of) – My assumption when I started writing this was that the book of psalms was full of huge statements that promised utter surrender and commitment.  When I got into it though, I discovered a pretty common trend.[2]  There are many instances where the psalmist commits to doing something, but those commitments are consistently in the context of acknowledging that God had already acted. 

“And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD” (Ps 27:6 ESV).

“I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul” (Ps 31:7 ESV).

“With a freewill offering I will sacrifice to you; I will give thanks to your name, O LORD, for it is good.  For he has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies” (Ps 54:6-7 ESV).

“I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will perform my vows to you, that which my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble” (Ps 66:13-14 ESV).

That ‘burnt offering’ and ‘freewill offering’ language is probably as close as the psalmists get to ‘I surrender all,’ but notice, ‘big commitment’ is always tied in the next sentence to God’s deliverance – the reason for the commitment.  ‘I will follow’s’ ‘All Your ways are good/All Your ways are sure’ gets at this, but to really reflect the pattern of the Psalms, ‘I will follow’ would have benefitted from explicit reference to our redemption by Jesus’ death.

Against:

They disconnect Sunday worship and daily discipleship - This is big.  On Sunday morning, we often find ourselves making extravagant commitments, pledging to accomplish radical tasks in order to appropriately respond to God's gracious gifts.  In reality though, Monday morning rarely brings a trip to a far off country to preach the Gospel; more often than not, Monday means 'back to the grind' and frankly a mission field that is at least as important as those implied extravagant destinations.  What if we had songs that would allow us to commit ourselves to faithfully representing Jesus in our workplaces, using our break times to show what it means to be a child of God.  It's not nearly as romantic or poetic, but it's much closer to many of our life situations.  Maybe songs like that would help us in the pursuit of faithful living sacrifice worship on a daily basis.

Conclusions:

Having worked through these ideas, permit me to present to you two takeaways for worship planners and song writers.

1. Insofar as they push us to re-evaluate the degree of our faith commitment, ‘aspirational, extravagant commitment’ worship songs are helpful.  To really reflect the biblical trend though, those commitments should be clearly rooted in and made in response to the Cross, as that is the motivating and compelling power to act on the commitments.

2. Our current ‘canon’ includes songs with produce a breath-taking reflection of God’s infinite mercy towards us and includes songs which help us to approach God committing ourselves to loving Him as limitlessly as He has loved us. I submit though that it would be helpful to add to that canon songs which help us to commit to responding to the infinite grace of God in the finite nitty-gritty of daily work-commute-play-sleep.  In that living is after all where true, spiritual, reasonable worship happens.

 

[1] Nick Page, And now let’s move into a time of nonsense: Why worship songs are failing the Church, (Authentic Media, 2011), 25-26.

[2] Methodology – Using BibleWorks, I searched within the Psalms for Hebrew imperfect verbs with a cohortative sense in the 1st person common singular form.  (That’s the grammatical description of ‘I will follow’).

A letter to my pastor

Last week, Ed Stetzer posted a very helpful two part ‘Letter to my worship leaders.’  In that letter, Ed encourages worship leaders to serve their specific congregations by embracing a contextually appropriate repertoire of sing-able, thoroughly Scriptural songs which will enable the people of that specific church to truly worship God.  I’m glad that he has written this letter, because he says some things that we as worship leaders need to hear and that preaching pastors don’t always think to say.

I have benefited greatly from this letter and from comments like it that pastors have spoken to me.  I realized that perhaps a letter going the opposite way would be equally edifying.  Here then are things I want to say to my preaching pastor, that I hope will strengthen our ministry together. 

I humbly submit to you my letter to senior pastors, written from a worship leader’s perspective.  May we strengthen each other for the glory of God and the building up of His Church.

Dear pastor,

Thank you for your ministry.  Week after week you stand up in front of a large group of people and talk about sin and forgiveness and submission and God - all glorious truths, but things our culture would like to ignore.  You have a great burden and responsibility and I want wholeheartedly to live in line with Hebrews 13:17:

17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (ESV).

Thank you (Pastor Stetzer) for your letter to us.  You have no idea how important it is for me to hear you say "We the leadership have your back.”  The truth is, we feel the subjective nature of our leadership - young Jaden thinks we should have more of this, Aunt Agnes thinks her generation is entitled to more of that, the worship music industry suggests that worship should look like what's on those worship DVDs - sometimes I wish I could just stand up and read scripture for half an hour – who’s going to argue with that?! – instead of navigating a musical minefield every Sunday.

That being said, there are some ways that you could help me (And here I'll try to speak broadly to reflect the varying experiences of worship leaders).

1. Complement my circumstances.  There are a lot of differences between you and me.  When you get up to preach on a Sunday morning, it’s just you.  I on the other hand am dependent upon the performance of at least a handful of other people.  And I need to disciple them along the way and frankly, artists aren't always the most reasonable people.  Further to that, I don't (necessarily) have theological or pastoral training, so I don't necessarily know how to build into them.  And what's more, I'm not (necessarily) paid to do this work, so I'm trying to do it while also being faithful to my family and work responsibilities. 

You can help me by cultivating relationships with the artists in the worship ministry.  You can help me by mentoring me in how to lead small Bible studies.  And you can help me with the theology part.  Especially regarding Sundays...

2. Build the service with me.  Tell me what you are preaching on.  There have been so many times that I've made stuff up because I had no idea what you were going to say.  It seems to me that the whole service should revolve around the preaching text - you telling us from that text who God is and what He had done and me helping our people to respond to that picture or truth expressed by the preaching text.  Maybe we could even sit down and study the text together- that would be a great way for you to mentor me on how to lead my people in Bible study.

Know too that sometimes I'll send you song choices or questions about the order of service.  I really want your feedback because you can predict better than I based on your sermon and experience the mood and condition of the congregation.  If you think this is my job and I should just butt out, tell me; otherwise, respond so that I don't feel like I'm wasting your time.  I truly value your insight!

 3. Be predictable.  This one has more to do with Sunday mornings.  Sometimes you preach for 35 minutes.  Sometimes it’s 45.  That's a big difference.  Absolutely – you have the right to vary a little, but please recognize that if you are impossible to predict, it makes it difficult for me to linger in a time of corporate prayer or Spirit led silence.  If I'm never sure if I'll have to cut a song, I'll never really feel free to spontaneously follow the Spirit ('cause if I go long, the kids’ ministry will be emailing me Monday morning) ;-)

Pastor, when it comes down to it, I appreciate you.  I appreciate your letter and counsel to me.  You're helping me to see that I don't have to reproduce those worship DVDs to have meaningful worship and you’re helping me to think about how to serve the people – God’s people! – that He has put in our congregation.  Let's continue this conversation so that God gets the glory He deserves!

Youth led services

As the lone pastor of a small church, I double as the youth pastor for all of the teens in our congregation.  In addition to ministering to their needs as youth, I also have a vision for the youth as fully functioning, self-sacrificing members of the church community.

To that end, I've gotten into coordinating 'youth-led worship services.'  These differ from ‘youth services,’ where the music and message are meant to cater to the preferences of youth; ‘youth-led services’ put the youth in charge of the whole service, giving them the responsibility of balancing worship in a way that will make it meaningful for all members of the church of all ages.

Here's the process that I follow; maybe it will be useful to you in your context.

1. Prepare for worship as usual, but prepare more choices than you need.  For me, this means studying the preaching text, establishing a 'worship idea' (a one sentence statement of what the text teaches us about God) and then choosing songs, prayers, calls to worship, etc. that would help us to explore, develop and respond to the worship idea.  Just choose three times more options than you usually would.  I also gave the youth three new songs ahead of the time and we chose a new song that we would then introduce to the congregation.  Services with youth involved are a nice way to introduce new music – the youth then have meaningful input into your repertoire and the older folks tend to be extra gracious.

2. Meet with your youth (at least a month out) and talk with them about the corporate implications of worship.  I develop for them the flow of 1Corinthians 14 – ‘everyone brings something; let all things be done for building up’ (v. 26) - then work out the implications - as we plan the service, we need to think not just about what songs we like but what combination of worship responses will make worship meaningful for the whole congregation.

3.  Study the preaching text with them, then lead them to the 'worship idea.'  Once you are confident that the youth have a good understanding of what your text reveals about God, His character and saving action, present to them the pool of choices you have already prepared (I give each youth their own package of lyrics and readings).  Ask them which songs and readings will help us together respond to who God is, as revealed in the preaching text.  This can be time consuming; most recently, I sang through a verse and chorus of each song to make sure they knew it, then everyone picked their top four songs.  We went through and chose the most popular.  This gave rise to a nice teachable moment - we discovered that the most popular choices were all less than ten years old; when there was a tie for the last song (two newer tunes and a hymn), I stepped in to remind the youth that to meaningfully engage the whole congregation, we should really include at least one hymn - so a very traditional ‘Be Thou my vision’ became the final response song for our service.

4.  At this point, it’s important to point out the various gifts that God gives each them and then invite youth to consider how they might use those gifts for the congregation’s benefit.  This could involve being a part of the music or drama, doing readings, taking pictures for the lyric slides, creating a video, crafting visual art - give your youth the opportunity to serve according to the gifts God has given them.  One of the youth pulled a handout from their Bible that they had recently used in Youth Sunday school, so a part of that became a reading and handout for the whole congregation to benefit from.

5.  From there, begin practicing for the service.  You'll need to give your youth more time to prepare than you would your usual worship team.  Give them extra time to practice so that they feel confident leading the congregation in worship.  On the plus side, you can remind that they are not performing, but helping the congregation to engage with God. 

6. When the big day comes, you'll need to be there early to run through the whole service with the youth.  One of the best spontaneous moments for me was when one of the grandparents came just as we prayed pre-service and he prayed for the youth – a great opportunity for multi-generational interaction.

For me, youth led services have been a great way to minister to youth, to encourage them to work together, and to appreciate the part they can play in serving God.  The service will likely be less polished than usual, but what it lacks in finesse, it will more than make up for in heart.  Many of the older believers will appreciate seeing the youth involved and leading them in worship and it’s a real encouragement to me when youth look me right in the eye to say thank you for organizing them and building into them.  Above all, it gives the whole church a great chance to apply the self-sacrificial posture that we are called to adopt in worship. 

Youth led worship services will continue to be an important part of our church’s ministry; I'm considering now doing 'Seniors-led services' too.  It might be very fulfilling for them to raise their voices and plan a service as our modern culture rushes forward, but it will also give me a chance to say ‘OK, that's lots of great hymns, but to build up everybody, remember, we need something from the past ten years too!’

What arms-crossed guy is thinking

Ok.  We're here. I can't believe what a fuss those kids made getting out of the house.  Sometimes I wonder if it's really worth getting here in time for all the music; I'd be just as happy being here for the sermon - feed me and get me outta here.  Oh well, I know my wife likes it when we're here on time.  Although I could do without the fashion police routine - just because my pants hang on a hanger all week doesn't necessarily mean that I HAVE to iron them, does it?

 I wonder who's leaving worship this morning?  I hope it's... oh no, its her.  I know she means well but oh man, her intros are always SOO long.  Focus!  No rabbit trails.  Just write something out and read it!  I must be getting old.  I remember when we used to read Scripture at the beginning of the service?  Wow.  She's still going. Really long this morning.  I hope the sermon’s not too long. 

 OK, here we go.  Singing.  Is it just me or is it quiet in here?  Why is the sound system turned down so low this morning?  I hate hearing myself sing.  Awkward.  At least it's not like last week.  It was so loud; funny though seeing everybody cranking down their hearing aids at the same time. 

 Uh-oh.  High note.  Here we go.  Ugh.  I can't believe they expect people to sing that high.  I mean, the congregation just goes quiet right then every time.  Well, except for the granny warblers.  Ok, second time through the chorus, still can't hit that high note.  Having my mouth open like this make me want to yawn.  Huh, at least it's not just me - the pastors sipping his water too. That's funny.

 Prayer time.  Oh right, that guy always prays.  "Father, we just thank You Jesus for...". Do these people even listen to themselves as they pray?  I mean, we don't have to say God or Jesus at the beginning and end of every phrase.  I should try that with my wife sometime - 'honey, I just want to thank you dear for making such a good supper tonight love.  And dear, I want you to know... '. Gotta focus... 'Mr. Sanders, I just want to thank you for employing me sir and giving me a job Mr. Sanders and always coming through with a paycheck Mr. Sanders.'.  LOL.  Wait, can I LOL myself?  I’ll have to ask my kids.

 Singing again.  Although, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to sing.  It’s just him singing – he’s got a good voice so maybe this is a solo?  Looking around.  Some people are singing.  Some people are just looking confused.  Well, approaching critical mass.  And, ok.  Now I think I better sing.  Oh but this song drives me crazy.  I thought I recognized it.  Who decides what we sing anyways?   I get that we have an intimate relationship with God but this is going a little too far.  I just don't think that I can feel honest about singing those words to God. 

 ***

 You know the guy.  The guy with his arms crossed, staring at you as you lead worship, sometimes singing.  This is my guess at what he might be thinking, although, I sincerely hope that he wasn’t thinking all of those things on any given Sunday.  And really, there are some maturity issues within that running monologue that need to be addressed.  ‘Feed me and get me outta here?’  ‘I hope it’s so and so leading worship?’  Those ideas really flow from a self-centred view of worship – I come to get out of it what I want.  That misses out of the 1 Corinthians 14 truth that the worship service is about everyone being built up as God is glorified and maybe that’s an issue needs to be addressed by church teaching.

 Admittedly though, this guy makes some good points.  While trying to be a little funny and for sure over dramatic to make the point, I tried to maintain the assumption that this guy was a faithful, born-again believer, or at least someone open to the faith who sincerely (whether or not his macho appearance would communicate it) desired to have a meaningful meeting with God.  And he’s right – if we as worship leaders forget the ‘everyone being built up as God is glorified’ part, we risk alienating the people we are meant to lead. 

 ‘Everyone being built up as God is glorified’ means that we need to be intentional about helping our congregation to worship, helping them to see what’s happening and what’s happening next.  Focused calls to worship, good volume level, singable keys, prayer both with the mind and with the spirit, clear indicators when to sit and stand and sing; these things will help people to approach God meaningfully no matter what their background or personality. 

 And hopefully with prayer and teaching and intentional effort to serve the congregation, you’ll see that guy’s arms go from across his chest, into the air to praise our gracious God, who deserves our absolute and unobstructed worship.