The Good Samaritan. Like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, we know the moral of this story, right? Be a GOOD neighbor! We see ourselves in the role of the Samaritan, thinking to ourselves, “I bet I would have stopped. If I saw that man on the side of the road, I would have been the one to help him.” Really? What if it cost you two month’s salary? What if you got robbed and beaten yourself during your rescue mission? What if you traded in your reputation for the safety of that stranger on the side of the road? What if you missed your dream job interview because of this dirty, bleeding nobody? This story digs deeper than our Mr. Rogers moralizing. This story makes us uncomfortable. It challenges the way we think about love.
>> I encourage you to read the short account first in Luke10:25-37. You can read it online here.
Pastor Monseth has been the dean of our AFLC Seminary for 42 years. He was my Systematic Theology professor and my good friend. He was also the father of some of the best friends I have ever had. When you love much, you grieve hard, and so his absence is felt deeply by our families and by our whole church Association. Fran Monseth died on Good Friday. Late at night, following an emotionally tangled Easter, my brother-in-law, Adam, sent the following tweet:
There it is. GOSPEL! HOPE! The exact minute we concede our loved ones are gone, the power of hope floods in.
For those of us who loved Fran so deeply, we grieve his passing with many tears. I hate it. He was like a second (or third) dad to me, he loved my wife and kiddos like family. And he let us know. His absence will be felt for the rest of our lives. My grief spills down my face, and it has for a week, and it shows no signs of stopping. But then, in every conversation, and in every story… Jesus. The Gospel. HOPE.
I’m straining at the keyboard to shout it to you. Whether you go to church or not. I feel this one to my toes. Jesus makes all the difference. On one side stands anger/confusion/hopelessness/defeat/despair/eventual cynicism and apathy. On the other stands HOPE. With hope comes forgiveness, freedom, purpose, and much joy. God is in the business of proclaiming HOPE in the darkest of places, in the darkest of moments, to the darkest of hearts. I want to be a part of His great story. Like Fran.
Those who ever had a chance to meet Pastor Monseth – or had the great privilege of knowing him well – will speak with conviction that he reflected the character of his greatest love. I’ve heard people say that we become like what we love most. It is natural to worship what we love most. It is natural for a student to become like their teacher. For boys to grow up to be like the dads they love. In this regard Fran reflected the love and character and values of his father, Pastor Fritjof Monseth. Even more, we saw JESUS in him.
I’m struggling to shake off the “churchy” language here – I don’t want my words to blend into the evangelical beige. To say we saw JESUS in Fran has some TEETH. It means real-world lives were changed, because Fran lived DIFFERENTLY than most people – even churchy people. Fran’s faith was bold. He was resolute. He loved God fiercely, and his family joyfully, and his friends deeply. He was full of the truth. He had huge swaths of God’s Word memorized, and his conversations were saturated with scripture. When I had the pressures of life weighing me down, I would talk to Fran, and he cared about it. He cared about our stuff like it was HIS stuff. He would pray with me, asking God to bless and protect and provide for us, with every understanding that his prayers would be answered, because His God is my God. And our God is trustworthy. Without Jesus, I would carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. With Jesus, I can rest. Fran reminded me of that a hundred times.
I was talking to one of the maintenance men on the Seminary campus where I live (and where Fran worked everyday as Professor of Systematic Theology and Seminary Dean), and we noted the consistency with which Fran loved people. I mean ALL people. Recognize the rarity in this. We don’t live like this, even if we believe we should… Or maybe I should just speak for me. I don’t love people the same – with Jesus’ kind of love – regardless of their stature or intellect or smell. I know I shouldn’t, but I tend to categorize people. Lord forgive me.
Fran looked everybody in the eye. His countenance and his words communicated “You matter to me and you matter to God.” This was true for the academicians he could call peers, and it was true for the everyday Joes, and even for the Seminary students who sometimes thought we knew better. Notably, it was just as true for the awkward and the offensive and the marginal people. Fran supernaturally loved people. He was like Jesus.
Do you get this? How remarkable and important this is? Pastor Monseth breathed out Jesus to everybody he had contact with. He affirmed the learned and the weirdos. I want to be that kind of man.
But then he died. He just died. It was a Friday morning. And then by lunch time, no heartbeat.
This is a spark that grows. This is the unique thing that Jesus-lovers experience that the rest of the world doesn’t believe truly exists. This is HOPE: God’s PROVEN power on full display in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it is the future of those who believe. Like Fran. Jesus promised us in Romans 6 that our sins were put to death with Him on the cross, and in His resurrection WE who believe are (and will be) resurrected to new life in Him.
As Fran’s death approached he was preparing us – those who love him much – in the HOPE that we would need in days like today, the day of his funeral.
On the Sunday before Easter, Palm Sunday, the Monseth family gathered at the family farm in Rogers, MN, to celebrate Easter together. Grandpa Monseth spoke that afternoon to the family about the hope of resurrection. He talked about the death of his dad, Fritjof, and how he grieved it. “But,” he said, “we do not grieve as those who have no hope.” Quoting 1 Thessalonians 4:13, he prepared his family. “When I go to heaven on Friday, I know you will be sad. But the sovereign God loves us. Remember the HOPE we have in Jesus. We’ll spend FOREVER together with Him. You’ll see.” Jesus makes all the difference.
He was preparing us, too, his students at AFLTS. In his last lecture of his 42 year career teaching at our Seminary, Dr. Monseth spoke to us about death and the nature of our transition to heaven as disciples of Jesus. In a profoundly fitting turn, Pastor Monseth ended class on Wednesday, March 27, with Job 19:25-27, which is likely the oldest statement in the Bible about the hope of the resurrection.
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
This matters! HOPE! No other religion offers HOPE like the assurance of freedom and life that Jesus gives us. His promises are so clear. I agree with the Apostle Paul, who wrote about this hope in Romans 1:16.
“I have complete confidence in the gospel; it is God’s power to save all who believe…”
ALL who believe. Jesus made all the difference to Fran. This confidence in the Gospel fueled his passion to share it. With everyone. With Doctors and weirdos. Because the smartest and the slowest, the kindest and the cruelest, the polished and the ragamuffins ALL fall short of God’s perfect standard. Every soul needs Jesus. Fran lived the Gospel message – the unshakable HOPE that is stronger than death: JESUS died and rose again to forgive everyone. Salvation and freedom and purpose and meaning and HOPE are universally available to EVERYONE who believes.
So today we gather in the chapel on the beloved campus where Dr. Monseth poured out his Jesus to thousands of students. Not just religious ideology. He gave us Jesus. Through the Spirit and the Word, Pastor Monseth helped usher in the Kingdom of God among us. And I know we will never be able to accommodate all the traffic. And I know the spaces of this campus will be filled to overflowing. But I know this is right, to be right here together to mourn as a family. And I think of the last time we gathered with Pastor Monseth as a family in this chapel, not too many days ago.
We gathered here for Ben and Dre’s new daughter – Fran’s latest grandchild. It was her baptism day. I had the great privilege of holding this new 8 pound life, and welcoming her into the family of God with the water and the Word. Everybody huddled around, and the kids had the best seats, right up in front. Blessings were read over her. And Grandpa Fran’s rich voice, full of love and conviction, rang out his blessing, calling upon Jesus to keep her and strengthen her and use her life for His glory. And in this little girl I see his legacy. Like I do in the family picture above.
Only when I look at these pictures, I see thousands of other souls leaning into the frame. Lives changed forever because Fran lived with the courage and conviction to tell them how they mattered to God, and how their sick souls and selfish hearts needed Jesus. And more than that… how Jesus was available to them. Today. Right now. How many souls will be with Fran in heaven because he loved the somebodies and the nobodies with equal compassion? I imagine a stadium full. Only they’re not cheering for Fran. They’re shouting their praise to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – Fran’s first love. The One he sees today face to face.
I think again of this little girl that Fran loved so dearly. I see her daddy hold her close with such joy and protective, crazy love. And I understand again the metaphor that God has given us. “I love you like that. I hold you close like that. I am your father, and you are my adopted sons and daughters whom I chose to be my own. When you love much, you will grieve hard, and so I will comfort you today.”
Jesus makes all the difference. Without Him we wail into the wind. But Fran knew Jesus. Peace. Purpose. Forgiveness. Freedom. Wholeness. Resurrection. LIFE.
I marvel at the grace of God. I think of Fran’s new granddaughter, and I see how His hand of blessing was surely upon Ben and Dre as they continued his family line. I imagine her growing in her faith, with the tender heart for Jesus that we see in her dad, and the beautiful boldness of her momma, furthering the exponential reach of her Grandpa’s Gospel legacy.
And I think what a wonder it is that in this season of deep grief, in the midst of deep faith, they named her HOPE.
Last night I watched “Blue Like Jazz” for the first time. It would be accurate to say I am a fan of Donald Miller, although I have to qualify that statement. I appreciate the ART of Donald Miller because it is honest and insightful. I do not look to Donald Miller for theological profundity. Likewise I found “Blue Like Jazz” the movie to be beautiful in some ways, because it was honest and insightful, but not because it was theologically profound.
So people are asking me what I thought. I’m conflicted.
Here’s what I like…
“Blue Like Jazz” tells the truth. “Christian” art (a label I am rapidly liking less and less) doesn’t always do that. In fact, much art slapped with a “Christian Art” label tries to paint a picture (in some case, I mean this quite literally) representing a sanitized world, safe for church people to enter without feeling too threatened or having their feathers ruffled out of alignment. Thomas Kinkade is perhaps the poster-boy for this kind of art, which looks one the one hand to be deemed “safe” for Christian consumption, but on the other hand, is actually very dangerous in its “sanitization” of our condition. In a brilliant critique of Kinkade’s work (read the whole article here), Daniel A. Siedell writes:
“The Edenic world Kinkade projects is pretty much the fallen world without the dirtiness of the city and the inconvenience of other people, a weekend getaway in the country. All we need to do to return to Eden is get our lives in order. Kinkade’s much ballyhooed ‘light’ merely adds atmosphere and glow, a pleasant touch to an already charming scene. And because it makes us so comfortable, it is a very dark light indeed.
Kinkade’s work is the meticulously painted smile on the Joker’s disfigured face. It refuses to deal with the fallenness, brokenness, sinfulness of the world. And more troubling, it enables his clientele to escape into an imaginary world where things can be pretty good, as long as we have our faith, our family values, and a visual imagery that re-affirms all this at the office and at home.”
This is a problem. Art has power to disrupt and challenge, but the Christian marketplace comes with its own set of rules designed to protect us from offense. Therefore, “Christian” art is almost never provocative to the degree that it might lead to actual life-change. It sooner leads us to be comfortable, while reaffirming our faith. And we need encouragement, us church people.
But don’t we also need to be disturbed and broken-hearted? God is in the business of redemption through the ongoing process of death and resurrection. The death part… it doesn’t look like a Kinkade painting.
Neither does “Blue Like Jazz” the movie.
In fact, “Blue Like Jazz” shows us the yucky side of churchiness without the transformative power of a life rooted and abiding in Jesus Christ. It shows the carnality and brokenness and narcissism of young adult lives given over to the pursuit of pleasure and identity and meaning when God has been rejected wholesale. The movie is dark and sad and tragic if you consider the eternal ramifications of the sea of lives surrounding young Don Miller. If you are planning to see this and expect it to have the feel-good (albeit disquietingly “safe”) vibe of “Facing the Giants” or “Soul-Surfer,” you might find “Blue Like Jazz” disturbing. Reed College is full of substance abuse and profanity and emptiness and sex. Lots of it. “Blue Like Jazz” isn’t unnecessarily graphic, but neither does it pull many punches.
I’m sick of Kincade. In this, “Blue Like Jazz” was a refreshing change. It shows brokenness. It made me hurt for the broken people, and hunger to be bolder as an image-bearer for Jesus. Broken people need Jesus. I have Jesus.
“Blue Like Jazz” wasn’t written for the “Church” market, so if you are looking for a movie that is, consider yourself warned. Instead, Taylor and Miller seem to be telling a story for spiritually curious people who want to know if God is real when the world is such a mess and the churches in many neighborhoods look more like social clubs for hypocrites than beacons of light and hope.
Here’s what I didn’t like…
“Blue Like Jazz” embraces a metaphor, woven throughout the narrative. “My dad says jazz is like life, because it doesn’t resolve…” Like much of Donald Miller’s theo-philosophical ponderings, neither does “Blue Like Jazz.” And I understand that we are works in process, and that art is often more effective when it leaves some questions unanswered. This leaves room for the consumer to wonder, and think, and search. But it is unsatisfying in a movie that asks out loud, “Where do we find meaning and purpose in life?”
There ARE clear answers to many of the questions Miller and Taylor are asking, but it is cooler to leave them unanswered. It is cooler to leave us to ponder on our own.
** MINOR SPOILER ALERT **
Sure, by the end of the film the young, restless Don Miller comes to some kind of ambiguous belief that God is probably real, and this Jesus stuff… he buys it. But there is little power in his transformation, because it is very hard to see what this transformation actually looks like. Except, of course, for a compulsion not only to ask forgiveness for his own hypocrisy and lack of courage, but also for the many failings of the Church, writ large. That may be cool, and more palatable to the jaded (or wounded) spiritually-curious viewers. But my heart aches for them to hear a better story.
A better story starts with an all-powerful and very present God Almighty, who is not only Sovereign and perfectly Holy, but full of mind-bending LOVE that obliterates our best attempts to understand it. That perfectly pure One created every soul who ever lived to be in a mutually joy-giving relationship with Him. But we, the creatures, spat in His face because we thought we knew better what would satisfy. We died that day. And every day since, man clamors to find identity and meaning and lasting pleasure, but none of it really satisfies us. Reed College exhausts us, and we feel the shame of it.
A better story would speak the truth of the Bible, that JESUS CHRIST came to save SINNERS, even the very worst. That He offers HOPE and JOY that really is lasting and satisfies our longing for identity, meaning, and pleasure free from guilt. This is THE true story the world needs to hear.
I don’t mean to saddle “Blue Like Jazz” the movie with the calling of the Church. God did not call Steve Taylor and Donald Miller to use this movie to make disciples. He calls me to do that, and you, too, if you love Jesus. But I sense a missed opportunity here. That’s all I’m saying.
“Blue Like Jazz” is smartly written, well acted, and cleverly rendered. It works. I see the need for movies and more art in general to explore faith while looking honestly at brokenness, although I remember the words of Paul to focus our minds and hearts on “whatever is true, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) In order to focus on what is true – on the life-transforming power of the GOSPEL – allow “Blue Like Jazz” to do the work it is intended to do. Let it disturb you and stir compassion in you for the brokenness we live in.
Then get in the Word, read the Gospel, and do something.
June 24, 2012.Living Hope Church in St. Michael-Albertville, MN. Sunday night service. This message follows the death and funeral earlier in the week of our congregation’s dear friend Jeremy Erickson. Many in our church prayed hard for Jeremy’s recovery. We asked for a miraculous healing, but Jeremy left us for heaven even so. The death of a loved one raises many questions…
Does God exist? If so, can he hear our prayers? Is He simply so HUGE that He doesn’t bother with our little lives? And who is to blame for this loss? Didn’t we pray hard enough, or correct enough? Was it sin in Jeremy’s life that caused him to suffer and die? Or was that God’s plan? And if he can do anything, but he didn’t choose to heal Jeremy, how can he be good? Even more to the point… is his heart good towards me?
So many questions. This message wades into the deeper water, where our theology is tested in a sea of grieving. In the deep water, God comes to us.
Click on the tab below to stream the audio…
Jeremy Erickson. Entered heaven on June 10, 2012. Thank you, God, for his life and friendship. Jer, I’m looking forward to seeing you again.
This fall I began a long walk through a series of posts called “Pursue Joy.” You can read the introductory post (“God wants to wreck your life”) here. It’s what I believe about life and theology – in a nutshell. So far I’ve hit three out of five pillar ideas in past posts.
First this. God is wildly, passionately, zealously, jealously committed to the glory of His own name. This stands in contrast to the misconception we have growing up in church believing that God’s love and Jesus’ ministry is focused primarily on US.
And then this. Far from being a hyperbolic cosmic ego trip, this truth is the most wildly loving foundation possible for our relationship with Him.
And that leads to this. BECAUSE God is so passionately God-focused, He has made us and redeems us in order that we might find our ultimate fulfillment in the the praise of His glory, at all times, right now and thoughout eternity.
Good times. You are now up to speed.
So God is GOD-focused rather than US focused. And we were created by God to be GOD-focused rather than US-focused. And whether you realize it or not at first blush, this is very very VERY good news for schleps like you and me. Schleps with a ME-focused nature. Wildly better news, in fact, that our little minds can absorb. Today I want to answer the question… “WHY?”
Point #4 in my “pursue joy” framework is this: This is the greatest possible news. This is pure gospel. That we have been created to and saved not unto begrudging servitude, but unto the passionate pursuit of JOY. Not mere pleasure, or happiness which is fleeting, but a pursuit of soul-thrilling JOY that deepens and expands forever into the infinite glory of God.
I talk about JOY a lot. One of the most common press-backs I get from brothers in Christ is what I call the “take up your cross” argument. Their concern is that I am so focused on the “good stuff” (i.e. the JOY stuff) that I am missing the forest for the tree. The cross, in particular. After all wasn’t Jesus a “suffering servant” (ala Isaiah), well acquainted with grief? If we are called to emmulate His life and ministry, isn’t our faith going to be forged in the furnace of suffering?
Yes, it is.
Jesus said we would suffer. We will grieve. We may live with little. We may be called to give up the little we have. We may give up home, comfort, security, and family for the sake of the Gospel. We may die.
But even Jesus endured the cross “for the joy set before Him.” (Hebrews 12:2) And to think that lack of comfort or earthly security or even loss of our loved ones equates to lack of JOY is to misunderstand JOY. Joy is bedrock. It is God-given. It grows in tandem with faith, as God proves His love again and again. The path to deep and lasting JOY is often THROUGH the valley of suffering and hardship and uncertainty and sacrifice.
So don’t confuse JOY with comfort or pleasure or even happiness. It is deeper. It is stronger. It is better. It is of greater value.
We should be eager to give up comfort, pleasure, security… if the path of obedience always leads us to deeper joy. And it does. It always does.
John Piper, whom I love, clarified this even more for me today. Watch this…
In one of the greatest stories in our family lore is the tale of “Bob’s Beans.”
My wife’s mom, Gloria, has for years and years made a delicious baked bean, hamburger, and bacon concoction that redefines savory goodness. It’s like Bush’s Baked Beans on steroids. As far as I can tell, the family has been savoring said bean concoction for decades.
One year, as I understand the story, my Father-in-Law had made a batch of fresh salsa from tomatoes and peppers in his garden. The details are a bit fuzzy, but it seems that some of said salsa was added to said bean concoction, and… well, it was a flavor combination made in heaven. Apparently, these beans have ever since been lauded under the new moniker, “Bob’s Beans,” much to the chagrin of his wife. In fact, I have no idea if there is any salsa left in the modern day rendering of this baked bean recipe, but we still call them “Bob’s Beans.”
I tell you this story because it has happened a million times. A hundred million. One idea merges with another idea and another and what comes out the other end is something new, different, and sometimes better. For this reason if you flip through our recipe book in the Skogerboe kitchen, you will find index cards with labels that read “Joshua’s Buttermilk Pancakes,” “Joshua’s Chocolate Chip Cookies,” and my favorite, “Joshua’s Hot Fudge.” Truth be told, I may or may not have basically ripped off my mother and made minor alterations to her best recipes and then given myself credit. I’ll never tell.
GREAT ideas are often the result of bootlegging good ideas. To quote the great Pablo Picasso once again, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”
Post-It Notes were developed when one 3M employee created a low-tack adhesive that wasn’t able to capture anyone’s attention in the company. Then one of his co-workers thought, “Hmmm… I bet I could make myself a nice non-stick bookmark for my hymnal.” I know. Unbelievable that they didn’t go with “Plan A” and corner the cut-throat Hymnal bookmark market. Just think where 3M might be today.
But ideas evolve. Thanks to 3m’s “permitted bootlegging” policy, allowing their employees to spend 10% of their time on pet projects, the world is far more organized. Sticky note by sticky note at a time. Now several other major corporations (such as Google) have similar policies.
Ideas are canvas. They are seeds. Don’t be quick to throw them away if your “Plan A” fails. Write them down. Let them stew. Add some salsa.
I could give a million examples. A hundred million. But I am inspired this week by one song that I can’t get out of my head. See three very different and equally compelling renditions below. The first video is by the original artist. The next two are variations on the theme. These guys make me want to write. And maybe steal someone’s good ideas, and make them better, and label them with my name on a Post-It Note. Or maybe I’ll work on creating something altogether NEW that you will make brilliant one day. It’s all creativity, all part of the process. When we create, we reflect our Creator. Long live good ideas. And long live bootlegging those good ideas to make even better ones. Long live Bob’s Beans.
The primary difference between Moms and Dads, as far as I can tell, is the length of leash with which we are comfortable letting our kids run. While 99% of the time Dads know that their children can run far afield with no more than a few near misses, the occasional potential debilitating accident, and a brush with death now and again, we can all say a collective “THANK GOD” for Moms during that other 1% of the time… when it really matters.
As the father of boys – five of them – my leash is even longer than the average guy. Boys have gotta take an occasional ER run in order to experience the fullness that life has to offer. No pain, no gain, right? Boys don’t climb to the treetops because it just looks so safe up there. Boys don’t launch their bikes and skateboards off ramps, steps, and railings because they shy away from risk. Boys don’t try to light stuff on fire because they simply long for serenity. No sir. They are as addicted to adrenaline as they are to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And somewhere in the heart of every Dad is that 12 year old daredevil explorer we used to be. We understand. Climb that tree, kid. I’ll drive you to the hospital if you break an arm.
However, there are moments. We Dads know that there is a threshold. We know because we’ve had to cross it a thousand times ourselves. These are the “big boy” moments along the road that lead to growing up. We can see it in the eyes of our children, and we remember. They are the times when we wish the incline wasn’t quite so steep and the roller coaster wasn’t quite so aggressive. Sometimes the hard path is a necessary one. Sometimes the hard path may not be entirely necessary – but good, nonetheless. These are the times when we must look our boys in the eye, and with all the compassion we can muster, utter the words every child needs to hear once in awhile…
“Man up, Nancy.”
Sure, there are people out there with kids actually named Nancy. I don’t think that makes it any less effective.
Real life example: This past weekend I drove my 11 year old son Isaac to meet up with a youth group from our church on their way to a weekend retreat across the border in Wisconsin. I had to drop him off at a suburban Applebee’s where the van would pick him up about 15 minutes after I left. His bags were packed, the list was double checked, Bible securely stowed, sleeping bag and pillow in the back of the Jeep, and Ike was a bundle of energy. I could tell that his adrenaline habit was being fed right now. Heading off to a retreat away from the family, out of state, no older brother with him this time. His first “on his own” outing with the youth group. He was stoked.
But his eyes were sending mixed messages. Flashes of trepidation between the smiles. Traces of concern peeking out the corners of his eyes, betraying his “I can do this” adventurous gaze out the windshield.
“Are you nervous?”
Pause. “Nah. I’m excited.” Pause. “I mean… first time I’ve really done this.” Pause. “Seth’s not gonna be there…” Pause. “But it’ll be awesome.” He said it like a declarative statement, and then his face looked at me like he had just asked a question.
I grabbed the bill of his baseball hat and jerked it around with a grin. “You’ll do great, Ike. You’ll have a blast.”
That was it.
Sometimes the “man up, Nancy” moments – the big boy moments – don’t require many words. I knew he’d be OK. And this independent moment was both good and necessary. He knew it was worth a few butterflies. The best rides are, right?
Someday I won’t be dropping him off at Applebee’s and waving goodbye for the weekend. Someday it will be a college dorm. Then he’ll be the excited one, and the tears will be mine. Amy will likely be giving ME a much needed “Man up, Nancy,” when that day comes.
The point here, after all, is that I am not primarily seeking to shield my boys from pain. I have friends and family in the Marine Corps. who tell me “pain is just weakness leaving the body.” My boys love it when I quote the Marines.
Pain avoidance is not our job, parents. Character development is. Maturity is the goal. These objectives are long term and require stretching. Sometimes, the hard path is the best one.
Isaac and I never talked all of this through. But I knew that getting dropped off at Applebee’s with his pile of bags to wait by himself for the Youth Group van was a big boy moment for him. And when he came home, among the hugs and high-fives, I was sure to look him in those just-a-little-bit-older eyes of his and tell him, “I’m proud of you.”
Certain stories in our family have a way of finding new legs year after year at our family gatherings. One such story has its roots in my parents’ small farm town upbringing in the upper northwestern corner of Minnesota, where the North Dakota plains have invaded the landscape, and families earn their bread in the rich black soil of the Red River Valley.
My dad was in 3rd Grade. The assignment was to write and share a poem about “your favorite sport.” One of dad’s friends stepped forward and shared, with great aplomb, the following legendary verse:
When I was a little lad
I ran to meet my Dad
O’er the fields so wavy
Oh, how I love to eat gravy
There is a simple perfection in this poem. The affectionate relationship between father and son. The eagerness of the son to join the father as a prelude to feasting. The tip of the hat to the waving wheat fields, ready for harvest… a sign of provision and plenty. And then, in a glorious climactic moment, the hailing of gravy. Nay, the very pleasure of ingesting said gravy. Economy of words. Perfect.
I’m going up north today to revel in my family. And to eat gravy. I love Thanksgiving.
Not just the holiday. The act. Not just the family meal. The relationships. Not just the gravy…
But gravy is a big deal.
“Gravy” is the extra goodness that makes life sing. More than brownish meat sauce. It is the extra. The “beyond enough.” The abundance of blessing. The richness of the meal. We could subsist on dry turkey and boiled potatoes, green beans and dry bread. But why? God has blessed in abundance. When we eat gravy, we celebrate the love God has for us. We feast, and thank the Giver. The gravy is the the savory saucy goodness that signifies the fat of life. Pressed down, shaken together, running over… In America, we all are blessed with abundance. If you are at a computer reading this right now, thank God. Thank God for the warm place. Thank God for the computer. Thank God for electricity, and the ability to reason. Thank God that you can read.
We have so much to be thankful for there are not enough seconds in a lifetime to express it adequately.
I saw a quote the other day that rang my bell: “Thanksgiving is a prerequisite to joy.”
Yes and AMEN. This is one of my most important goals as a dad – to raise gratitude-filled sons. Because I also want to raise JOY-filled sons.
I believe my boys were created by God to live their lives celebrating Him in joy. Not a “ho-hum, work-a-day, give me what I got coming to me” life. LIFE TO THE FULL. Enjoying freedom from sin. Living in obedience to God as a joyful worship response to the God who gave us life and breath and heartbeats and mozzarella cheese. And gravy.
The next few days in Bemidji, we’ll be in the thick of God’s greatest gifts. Family who love us. Abundant food. Faith in God at the heart of our conversations. None of it is lost on me. God is a good God. He is GOOD. In the midst of the best times of life, and in the hardest, He is good.
When I takes that first gravy-laden bite (and the third… and the forty fifth…), I’m going to be saying a prayer. “Thank you, God, that You are so good to me, though I don’t deserve your favor. Thank you for your ABUNDANCE.”
It was like a bomb hit my office. Both scary and exhilarating.
And I know that those of you who visited my office 15 years ago at Emmaus Lutheran Church are certain I’m talking about my decorating style, what with my, um… free-form approach to filing sheet music and whatnot. But that’s not it at all.
A hundred loose threads of theological string running through my brain were suddenly were drawn tight, snapping into place to form a perfect, beautiful knot. Right then, with trembling hands and tears running down my face, I knew what I was for.
I called Amy. Which is the thing you do when your whole life has suddenly changed direction. You call your spouse.
Before I wander farther into the woods here, let’s step back and take a clear look again at the trees. I’m in the midst of a series of posts here about the foundation of Biblical beliefs that fuel my life and undergird my calling as a Pastor and proclaimer of the Gospel, and I’m categorizing all of them under the rubric “PURSUE JOY.” So far I have posted an introductory column (read it here), and have expanded upon the first two of five Biblical propositions in the series. Click on either one below to read those posts:
So far I’ve attempted to make a clear Biblical case for the fact that God’s highest purpose and most profound desire is for the ever-increasing praise of His glory. The Bible is FULL of this truth from cover to cover, but many Christians have mistakenly fallen into the misconception that what matters most to God is US. That Jesus came to earth primarily to rescue US, because of His profound love for US and His desire to bless US. While it is true that we are deeply loved and exceptionally valuable in His eyes, the Bible makes it clear that we have been called as a people of God for His glory (Isaiah 43:6-7) and that Jesus ULTIMATELY went to the cross not simply for our sake, but for the glory of His Father and His name (see Jesus’ prayer in John 17:1, for example, and what John has to say about our forgiveness in 1 John 2:12).
Then I explain from a Biblical platform why this is in no way some kind of grandiose ego-trip. Instead the God-centeredness of God stands as the most extravagantly loving basis possible for our relationship with God. As God is our heavenly Father, he seeks to give us the best possible gift (see our relationship to God clarified in Romans 8:14-17, and God’s Father heart to us in Matthew 7:11). The best, highest, most valuable gift to us in all of the universe and beyond the bounds of time is GOD HIMSELF. And so, in His supreme love, He gives us Himself to marvel at and adore for eternity – the highest and best for us is to not focus on us at all, but to fix our attention and lavish our affection on the ONE object of supreme and unfailing worth. That is why Our deepest satisfaction comes in the fulfillment of our God-wired need to WORSHIP, and when the object of our worship is God Himself, we are satisfied, and God is glorified, and the union of the two is a consummation of such beautiful genius that there are not words for it. That is why in my last post I wrote, “In praising that which is MOST praiseworthy are we most DEEPLY satisfied, and the genius of this design is that the expressing of this praise brings us the most soul-satisfying PLEASURE in the universe. In fact, the joy that both awakens and satisfies our most primal need in life finds its voice in our fervent worship of the ONE who is worthy of it.”
To pursue JOY is to WORSHIP God.
The irony is that most people pursue happiness while running away from God. Colder… colder…
Now, back into the woods…
I was there in my messy office at Emmaus, stuck somewhere between the staff meeting that had just wrapped up in Mavis’ office and getting to work on the upcoming Sunday service plans. I had been hired as a Worship Pastor, of sorts, albeit under the title of “Minister of Celebration.” So I was the Music and Arts guy on campus, with traditional and contemporary services to plan, choirs to direct, Children’s Musicals to arrange the music for, and leadership in the Worship Services. There was a lot of “stuff” to do related to my music degree – the one I was finishing up at Northwestern College with a career track in kind that would move through High School Choir directorship and on to College-level (or higher) conducting in a choral program some day.
But the “stuff” was not the “heart” of my job. I had come into this leadership role not too far outside of high-school. I had two years of Bible School under my belt, sure, and I had just a touch of worship leading experience as a drummer for the AFLC Youth FLY Convention in 1993 and again in 1995, but suddenly I was being paid to LEAD PEOPLE in worship, and I figured I better get a handle on what that meant… I mean beyond the laundry list of things that bugged me about other worship leaders.
In studying what it meant to lead worship, I learned that worship is an act of the heart… and my job was not to create an experience for people in the pews every week. It was to create “worshippers.” My job at its heart was literally to help the people of our congregation love God more deeply, more fervently, more honestly. Music and the arts were great tools for inspiring God thoughts, but they were simply a means to a greater end. The end was WORSHIP. Worship was the goal.
With my mind and heart full, on a day when I was particularly grateful that God had allowed me, for this season of my life, to enjoy such a rich job description, I pulled the Missions magazine out of my staff mailbox, along with a reminder of an upcoming deadline for my church newsletter article and a copy of the council report from last week’s meeting. Missions. Ugh.
If ever there was a reminder of my mediocrity as a follower of Jesus, the monthly “Missions” magazine that got dropped into my box was it. There they were – the REAL Christians – out there among the bush people and the teeming hordes in India and the orphans left to fend for themselves on the street in Brazil. There they were. They stood as an example of my weakness and selfishness.
I did not want to be a missionary. I knew that this meant I was not a fully mature Christian. Not a REAL disciple of Jesus. Sure, my heart beat fast when I would think of ways for our church to grow deeper in love with God. I mean, I wanted to take the church by the collar and give ’em a good shake, and with a smile in my eyes, shout about how awesome our God is, and why He’s worth our abandoned, unreserved, unselfconscious adoration. But I didn’t want to go to Ecuador. Second class. Second rate. Second choice. The missionaries… they were God’s first choice. They were the truly selfless ones.
But this looked… interesting. What is this? The monthly Missions publication was focused on… worship. Worship in the field. Worship in evangelism. Worship styles that incorporate other culture’s musical traditions. Worship, worship, worship…
Despite the innate sense of guilt that I felt even holding this magazine in my hands, I turned the cover. Within one minute, the bomb went off. I read these words, and my world changed…
This is what I’m for. This is what I’m for. To help people everywhere understand that they have been created to worship, and they’ll never be deeply fully completely satisfied until they embrace the truth… we are created to be worshippers. Tears. My career path has changed. I’m not in ministry part time as I prepare for a career in music performance. I’m not in ministry part time at all. This is what I’m for.
Missions exists because worship doesn’t.
“I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations… to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations.” (Isaiah 66:19)
We aren’t merely in the business of selling fire insurance to people all over the globe. We are in the business of helping every soul on the planet understand what they are for. Because if people don’t know Jesus, how can they worship Him? And if they can’t worship Him, how can they find true and lasting joy? And most important of all, how will God receive the GLORY He is due through their life? This is what the Church is FOR…
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging toGod, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
That was the day my life changed direction forever. Flashes of light. The scripture alive in me. My course was set. For the rest of my life, Lord, I want to spend the rest of my days helping people love you. I can do that in suburban America, or rural America, or even a wildly different culture like Canada… I want what you want – for you to receive ever increasing praise and honor. I understand. It is what we are ALL for in the first place.
That brings us out of the woods to look at our next tree in the “Pursue Joy” series. These are the truths that my life is now built upon…
(3) BECAUSE God is so passionately God-focused, He has made us and redeems us in order that we might find our ultimate fulfillment in the praise of His glory, at all times, right now and throughout eternity.
Whether I am playing drums, or at the piano, or in the pulpit, I will always be a worship leader. My pastoral ministry in caring for people and in counseling people will be a ministry of the GOSPEL… that more souls will be set free to worship. My preaching will be full of the GOSPEL… that the house of God rings with His praise more and more until Christ returns.
October 30, 2011.Living Hope Church in St. Michael-Albertville, MN. Sunday night service. This message is taken from Isaiah 43:1-7. It’s a message to Christ followers who are going through extremely difficult circumstances… times the old testament writers would refer to in poetic, idiomatic language… “going through water and fire.” In these desperate times, Isaiah 43 brings us this encouragement:
Don’t be afraid, because God is with you!
VIDEO NOTES: The video here begins a few minutes into my message after I had talked about my dear friends Jeremy and Jenny Erickson. You can see their picture on the screen behind me as the video starts. Jeremy was in the hospital awaiting news of a bone marrow scan that would eventually reveal a pre-leukemia disorder, and Jenny had just received word that her dad had died in a car accident. That is going through water and fire. I had the Ericksons in my mind as I prepared and delivered this message. Ongoing prayers for their family are deeply appreciated.
Also on this video, we decided to include some of our closing song. If you are interested in finding it for use in your own church, it is called “Covenant Song,” written by Aaron Senseman, copyright 2000 Stuntman Music (Admin. by Music Services, Inc.)
We ended our service Sunday night in a prayer huddle around Pastor Bob’s son, Joshua Halvorson, who is a Marine being deployed to Afghanistan this week… through water and fire. We will keep Joshua in our prayers, too.