Five Songs and a Sermon | 1.25.17

I’ve seen it over and over: Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, non-denominational, both adult and youth gatherings. Everywhere, the same recipe for corporate worship.

Recently, my husband and I moved across the country, and began the search to find our next Christian community. Some of the churches that we visited were just starting up in a school gym, some were established churches with various worship style offerings, and others were completely established and high-tech, young and hip.

I appreciated the quality of the music and production, and the obviously well-thought-out message and intentionality of all that was communicated from the front about the vision and ministry of the churches. I would occasionally be moved by a certain lyric in a song, often reflected on a new insight about God or myself during the message, and was always glad that I had spent that time worshiping with other believers. But, in all these settings, one thing was always the same:

Five songs and a sermon.

Evidently, today’s church leaders all went to the same school to learn all about what should be included in a relevant worship service. Good-bye choir and organ, hello guitars and drums. There are many small variations on the theme—such as, the age of group, how hip and tech-based the programming of the service is, or the denominational worship requirements, etc. But always – five songs and a sermon. And, everyone has to stand through all the singing.

So here’s my full and sad confession: I found myself wanting to arrive late, so that I didn’t have to go through all the music. I would keep track of how many songs were completed: “Only one more to go.” And then, ugh, time for the awkward turn around to shake someone’s hand and say hello. I felt guilty; what is wrong with my heart? Why do I feel cool, kind of disconnected, and somewhat impatient?

I would look around the room, and in general (with some exceptions) here is what I saw: people standing in rows and facing the stage, some singing, at least part of the time, but mostly watching the band and listening through 4-5 praise songs. Like me.

All right, I’ll just say it: I am bored with singing 30-40 minutes of contemporary praise songs. (And why does everyone have to stand the whole time?) It seems to me that in today’s churches, expressions of adoration and worship to our infinitely creative God have been reduced primarily to a set list of contemporary praise music. Those who don’t particularly love to sing are limited to watching and listening, and often remain disconnected from the people around them (other than that awkward forced greeting as you finally sit down.)

Don’t get me wrong; I like music; I am a musician. In fact, while I served for many years as a contemporary worship leader, I was very involved in the movement to bring about changes in worship style that had become rote and irrelevant. We wanted authenticity and participation, and part of that had to be the music. Now I’m wondering if anything has really changed after all? One template exchanged for another. Watching a choir, or watching a band. Excellent performance from the front, yet little engagement of those gathered to worship God.

People of all ages want meaningful connection with God and to be a part of an authentic community. I think we can do better.

Real Needs | 10.24.16

Just a month after God powerfully delivered the people of Israel from Pharaoh, they were back to complaining, and quite dramatically at that: “If only the Lord had killed us back in Egypt,” they moaned. “There we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the bread we wanted. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death.” (Exodus 16:3) To quote the late great B.B. King, the thrill was clearly gone!

I want to get all judgmental about their poor behavior: How could they be so forgetful and ungrateful? How could they dare to complain like that to the Lord God Almighty, who had just shown them what He was capable of doing on their behalf? Evidently, their deliverance didn’t mean that they actually arrived, and they were not happy campers! Turns out that God’s purposes were more than to give them a comfortable existence—they did not yet know and trust God. Grumpy, hungry, cranky, disgruntled people – wait, that sounds a lot like me when I get troubled, tired, and out of my comfort zone. Perfect conditions for God to train, correct, discipline, and teach obedience, right?

Ooh, I really don’t like those words much. I don’t like being told what to do, and I am more than a bit stubborn and independent. I much prefer to focus on God’s love, peace, and joy, and would rather gloss over words like discipline, test, training, submit, obey. But, believe me – those words and concepts pop up all over Scripture, and I’m learning that my dislike of them says a lot more about my stubborn heart than about God’s love and goodness.

In the continuing story of Israel, God clearly set about testing their faithfulness to Him, and expected them to obey His commands. He miraculously sent them the food they needed, along with specific instructions as to how to get the food, with a clearly stated purpose: “By evening you will realize it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt. In the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because He has heard your complaints…” When some didn’t obey the instructions, God explained further: “How long will these people refuse to obey my commands and instructions? They must realize that the Sabbath is the Lord’s gift to you. That is why He gives you a two-day supply on the sixth day, so there will be enough for two days.” (Exodus 16:28-29) Provision for their needs along with an unexpected gift…but with instructions to be obeyed.

Why do we always think our plan is better than His?

What if obedience is not about being coerced by someone exerting their position, power, and authority, but is a freely given response to evident superiority, knowledge, and ability? What if God knows far more about what we need than we do? Like a good parent, He loves us by training, discipline, and correction to mold our character. He teaches us through both good and bad experiences that we can depend on Him – that He is faithful and trustworthy. We learn to see more and more clearly just who He is – a good and loving Father.

Our Lord never insists on having authority over us. He never says, “You will submit to me.” No, He leaves us perfectly free to choose He never insists on obedience, but when we truly see Him we will instantly obey Him. Then He is easily Lord of our life, and we live in adoration of Him from morning till night. The level of my growth in grace is revealed by the way I look at obedience.  

~Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest July 19

God Almighty | 10.10.16

Did you ever wonder why God made the people of Israel go through the plagues, right after He had promised He was going to deliver them? What kind of loving God would allow this, much less actually even cause it? In their misery, and of course not knowing how the story was going to end, they couldn’t even begin to picture the good ending that God promised through Moses.

As I was reading through this story in Exodus, I was struck by how very clear God was about His purpose for this whole adventure. Over and over, different variations of the same reasons are spelled out: “…so that you may know that I am the Lord” and “the Egyptians will know that there is no one like me in all the earth.”

I noticed an interesting turn halfway through the story. God allowed the Israelites to experience the first few plagues along with all of Egypt. Imagine how confused and angry they were toward God at that point. But then, God started exempting them from the increasingly horrific plagues that kept on coming, but now only on the Egyptians. The story doesn’t tell how the Israelites responded, but I’m guessing their view of God was shifting. Maybe they were just a little bit more ready to trust that He really was working on their behalf, a bit closer to recognizing Him as sovereign and powerful Lord God Almighty—more so than if they had just been allowed to walk away on the first try.

God was working on a much bigger plan than the people of Israel could see. He did, in fact, keep His promise to them, and in such a big way that the story is still being told today. He did, in fact, bring relief and hope in the middle of the plagues, growing their ability to trust that He really was God Almighty and was working toward their rescue.

When things are going smoothly and life seems easy, our natural response seems to be that we forget God. But, we call out for Him when we are in pain. In our need and powerlessness we begin to experience the ways that He is working for good – and not just for us, but weaving our lives together with seemingly random and often painful circumstances, and other people, for His purposes.

Is it possible that God allows hard times to come to us so that we might turn to Him and be more able to recognize Him as our loving, good, and all-powerful Lord God Almighty? He is God, and we are not.