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.

Echoes of Eden | 11.14.16

Have you ever had the sense of something so much bigger than yourself, maybe catching a glimpse of something so beautiful, something strange or exciting, and yet peaceful? Like, that overwhelming feeling of awe at the birth of your child, or the lump that comes into your throat at a poignant moment in a movie; a piece of music that taps into something deep inside, a warm sense of “rightness” when you give of yourself sacrificially, or that sense of deep mystery and beauty watching a sunset over the ocean. NT Wright describes this as “echoes of a voice that points beyond itself.”

So what are these echoes pointing to?

For years, I didn’t really get how the Bible stories from centuries ago had anything to do with my life now, or what the long litany of the people of Israel had to do with Jesus. But, slowly I’ve begun to understand that the Bible is telling an on-going epic story that isn’t over yet – a drama that we are now experiencing. This story is full of adventure, romance, danger, and betrayal, with a hero/lover and a evil villain. Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that we have eternity written in our hearts, planted there by God – a Story (with a capital “S”) that we just can’t escape; somehow we just know there has to be more to our existence.

The Bible stories of the people of Israel are not just random stories, but are pieces of the saga that tell of God’s long-term plan to rescue and redeem the hearts of people and restore things back to the way they were meant to be – before evil entered the Story. The circumstances of your life are not just random events, but are interactive scenes in which you have an important role to play – one full of adventure, intrigue, sacrifice, danger, love, regret, and hope.

I believe the echoes are whispers from the One who loves us and will do whatever it takes to win our hearts back to Him. The voice is calling to us of a world set right again, a foretaste of what living life with God at the center will be like, pointing to the ending of the Story – which has already been written. Like all great stories, the villain is disposed of, the hero rescues the heroine, and they all live happily ever after – the kind of ending our hearts long for.

“There is far more going on around us than meets the eye. We live in a world with two halves, one part that we can see and another part that we cannot. We must live as though the unseen world (the rest of reality) is more weighty and more real and more dangerous than the part of reality we can see.” ~John Eldredge, Epic

How would you live differently if you believed this Story to be true?

God With Us | 11.7.16

For me personally, I think one of the hardest things about having faith in God and following Jesus is the simple fact that God is invisible. We can’t see Him physically or talk with Him face to face, the way we do with other people. We talk about spending time with God, but honestly, this can seem a pretty nebulous and unrealistic activity; in my most doubt-filled moments, I wonder if the Emperor has no clothes on, after all. You know what I mean? And yet, even in the middle of all the questions, somehow we persevere. Like the man who said to Jesus, “I believe, but…help me in my unbelief!”

Ancient Biblical characters struggled with maintaining their faith and obedience to an invisible God, just as we do. I’d like to think that had I been around for God’s miraculous rescue of the people of Israel from Pharaoh, or been fed by manna every day, getting visual travel directions from a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, I for sure would never have doubted that God was real and present. Or, if only I’d been around to see Jesus in the flesh and watched the miracles He did, I’d never doubt again.

HA! Probably not.

Although God hasn’t changed at all, the way He reveals Himself to people has progressively developed over human history. We have the benefit of hindsight, the written Word of God, and the presence of the Holy Spirit; we know that eventually, God came to be with us by becoming human. Although the people of Israel had the tabernacle as evidence that God was with them, we now know that the blood of Jesus made the blood sacrifices of approaching a holy God unnecessary – a much more perfect way for God to be with us than tabernacle worship rituals. And, we also know that the presence of the invisible God is with us through the Holy Spirit living in us, promised to all who believe.

Even though the people of Israel had stunning and physical evidences of God’s presence with them, the whole chapter of Hebrews 11 is a list of how even they had to live by faith, waiting in hope for what God had promised. Just like we do.

And just what is that promise? The one thing we were created for: to be in God’s presence and speak with Him face to face – to fully know Him as He knows us, and to enjoy Him forever. Until then, by faith we stumble on and continue to live in His invisible presence, waiting and hoping.

Do you have trouble really believing that God is with you?

Watchman Nee says, “I must first have the sense of God’s possession of me before I can have the sense of His presence with me.”

Falling Grace | 10.31.16

I wandered outside for a quick break last week, and was instantly caught up by the sound and sight of leaves falling like snow in the woods behind our house. The rustling of the breeze in the treetops and the actual sound of dry leaves rustling as they fell was totally mesmerizing; the woods were magically alive! Thinking about the leaves falling, this idea came to mind : All summer long the leaves withstand strong winds, heat, pouring rain – and they mostly stay put. But when fall arrives, down they come with a slight breeze, or just let go for no reason. We don’t make it happen. Something much bigger than us, outside of our control, triggers this letting go of the leaves. The phrase “grace like rain” came into my head as I watched.

That got me thinking about God’s grace. A short definition I’ve heard is: undeserved favor. You also might have heard of something called “common grace”: common because its benefits are experienced by the whole human race, and grace because it is undeserved and sovereignly given by God. Just like the leaves in fall, common grace falls on everyone everywhere, and is initiated by God’s action, not ours. But, I find Dallas Willard’s definition most helpful; he explains grace as being God’s actions toward us. Everything in life is weaved together by God so that, as Acts 17: 27 says, we “might seek after God and perhaps feel our way toward him and find him.” He initiates, we respond.

In fact, the entire Bible is the story of God’s action to redeem His creation, doing whatever it takes to win hearts back to him, to be in relationship the way He intended. God graced the people of Israel with the Law, showing them how to live in unbroken relationship with Himself and each other, but as the story goes on, God’s redeeming grace – love in action – went even further. He gave nothing less than Himself; again, not because of anything we’ve done to deserve this.

Why does this distinction matter? Because God’s redeeming grace, unlike His common grace, asks that we recognize and accept His action towards us in order to live with Him. “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. (Romans 5:1-2)

Grace is most needed and best understood in the midst of sin, suffering, and brokenness. We live in a world of earning, deserving, and merit, and these result in judgment. That is why everyone wants and needs grace. Judgment kills. Only grace makes alive.” Justin Holcomb

Always and forever the gift of life that showers down on us by the grace of God.