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.
I’m pausing briefly in my series on the pursuit of joy (check out part one, two, and three) to make this important announcement:
Seth is out of the family. Man, I loved that kid, too. It will be hard to lose him, sure, but he did, after all, leave the dishes half finished. Levi is out, too. He talked back twice yesterday. It’s hard to kick a seven year old out of the house in Autumn, but Seth is going, too, and he’s a pretty resourceful kid. They’ll probably cobble together lunch money with some kind of street performance involving music and dance. They’ll do alright. Too bad they can’t be Skogerboes anymore. If only they had followed the rules…
This is so ridiculous that it hardly works as a metaphor… and that’s exactly why it works as a metaphor. Let me explain…
Today in my Christian Ethics class we confronted a conceptual stumbling block that I’ve had for years concerning Christ’s imputed righteousness. That’s fancy pants seminarian talk for “the righteousness Jesus credits to me because he has forgiven my sins.” I have struggled to correctly understand what this means in relation to my “split personality…” I’m a sinner. And I’m a saint. I’m wretched. And I’m righteous.
This is a mystery. But it is a stone cold reality. Believers in Jesus – followers of Christ – ARE righteous in God’s eyes, because of the finished work of Jesus on the cross on our behalf. In church-ese, he has been made the propitiation for our sins, and his sacrifice on the cross 2000 years ago was the substitutionary atonement for us, redeeming us to relationship with God, and we have been clothed with Christ’s righteousness. That means that HIS righteousness has been imputed (given) to us. WE ARE RIGHTEOUS.
At the same time we live corrupted by sin, and like Paul, we who love the Lord are frustrated and horrified that the things we want to do we can’t do, and the things we DON’T want to do we can’t seem to let go of. WE ARE SINNERS.
For years I have wondered how all of this works together. I have read the passages that explain how Jesus is my Mediator (again with the church talk… so sorry) literally translated my “advocate,” like a defense attorney. Only he’s NEVER LOST a case. He only has ONE LINE OF DEFENSE, and it works every single time. He stands before His Father, the Righteous Judge, and He shows the nail holes in his hands and feet. His blood is the payment. The debt is accounted for. The sin is erased. “And when God looks at me,” I’ve been told, “He doesn’t see my sin at all. He sees Jesus’ righteousness.”
So after He saved me, Jesus is basically my Elmore Smith.
Elmore Smith was a 7’0″ center from Kentucky State University. He played in the National Basketball Association from 1971 to 1979 as a member of the Buffalo Braves, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. While racking up an impressive stack of stats as a point-maker and rebounder, what Smith is best remembered for his shot-blocking, earning him the nickname “Elmore the Rejector”. He led the league in total blocked shots in both 1974 and 1975, and holds the NBA record for most blocked shots in a game since 1973, with 17.
This is how I have seen the work of the Trinity in regards to my sin and in view of Christ’s imputed righteousness in my life: When I sin, I grieve the Holy Spirit (my Counselor) who lives in me and continually reminds me of God’s Word, the refining Law that points me to the cross. In heaven, I have imagined the Father (Righteous Judge), ruling in holiness and unapproachable light, sitting on His throne in perfection and purity, the unattainable standard by which I will be measured in order to gain access to heaven some day.
And then there, before the Throne of the Judge, stands “Jesus the Rejector,” my spiritual Elmore Smith, shot blocking my sins with 100% accuracy, so that the Judge behind Him will never see my imperfection.
It kinda works, right?
But there’s a problem… My sins really do matter. And The Trinity is in perfect communion. And the God-head is ONE. And the Godhead is omniscient (which is church-speak for “KNOWS EVERYTHING, past present, and future.”)
If God the Father knows all that God the Son and God the Spirit know, then it isn’t possible that my sins are “unknown” to Him. So yes, I am righteous… the Bible says that I am. My sins are covered by Jesus’ righteousness imputed to me. But God knows all, and He sees that I sin. How can I sin… and be perfectly righteous?
What really helped clarify this conundrum for me today was the understanding that this imputed righteousness is a righteousness of POSITION. In other words, as a Christ-child, I still sin. I need the cross everyday, and I need to turn to Jesus in repentance daily. He is my Advocate, and His blood has covered my sin… but they are not unknown to the Father. And yet my sins don’t affect my POSITION as a child of God. That is Jesus’ work, not mine.
Just like my kids’ rule-breaking is not unknown to me. Although they may think they get away with it now and again, I know. I always know. And I want them to do what is right. I want them to follow the rules out of love and respect for me… out a a belief that they know I have the BEST in mind for them. But they mess up. They break the rules. They sin.
Do I ask them to take responsibility when they sin? Yes. Do I expect them to turn and go the other way? Yes. But I don’t kick them out of the family.
They are still my beloved kiddos. I will fight for them and direct them and raise them to live healthy, fulfilled lives, and when they mess up, I will forgive. But they will always be my kids.
So it is with the righteousness of Jesus. It is a righteousness of position. It is placement within the family of God. We are His beloved children. When we mess up, He will forgive. Does our sin matter? You bet. Jesus is not my Elmore Smith. God knows it all. But our position is not dependant upon our striving hard enough. Our position is secure in the work Jesus has already done in our place.
Does this smack of “eternal security” to you… or to decipher for the non-church crowd… Does that mean once we’re saved we’re ALWAYS saved no matter how we live? Absolutely not. The Bible is clear that if we rebel hard enough, long enough, our heart for God will become a heart of stone, and we can fall away from the faith that saves. Even children can rebel long enough – hard enough – that they become “dead to the family.” Sometimes legal action is taken to sever family ties. But even without any formal ceremony, family ties can be cut if the child wants out. Sin is a dangerous flirtation with death and darkness. Sin matters. But if we want to be God’s children, and we live in daily repentance for our corrupt nature and misguided behavior, the righteousness of Jesus is ours. Our standing in God’s family remains secure in Him.
Imputed righteousness. There’s your daily dose of “church-ese” decoded for real life.
I’m wildly in love with my wife. She’s smart, she’s quick-witted, she’s beautiful, she loves Jesus, she’s a great mom, she is discerning, she’s wise, she really loves people, she’s beautiful, she cherishes relationships, she’s not satisfied with “fine” or good enough,” she loves our kids intentionally, she’s beautiful… I can literally do this all day.
Why? Why do lovers sing the praise of their beloved? Because we have to, right? We promised. It’s our marital duty to praise our spouse.
That’s about as romantic as wet blanket.
NEVER! I freely praise because she is worthy of it, and because my love needs to find expression. I shout the fact that I married a miraculous woman because I take JOY in her.
This is the third post in a series. Through a series of posts here, I want to unpack the biblical framework that undergirds my life and theology and ministry motivation. In the first one, I established the basic proposition that we have been created to PURSUE JOY. I also laid out five key ideas that I am expanding one by one in this forum. Then, in thesecond post, I discussed the first and foremost of these core ideas – namely, that God is wildly, passionately, zealously, jealously committed to the glory of His own name. The Bible is clear that God’s highest priority is His glory, and that He alone is worthy of such adoration. God is God-centered. And that brings us to our second core idea, and the purpose of today’s post…
Far from being a hyperbolic cosmic ego trip,this truth is the most wildlylovingfoundationpossible for our relationship with Him.
How can this be? Even the Bible tells us that “God is love,” (1 John 4:8) and that “love seeks not its own.” (1 Corinthians 13:5) And we know intuitively that self-centeredness is antithetical to love, which “seeks the good of others.” (1 Corinthians 10:24). So how can God, who IS love, be so God-focused? And how does this fit with our childhood songs and Sunday School lessons that all seemed to shout “Jesus loves me, this I know?”
First of all, we must be honest. We must recognize the quiet rebellion alive in our questions. God alone is God. He is devastatingly magnificent, wholly righteous, sovereign in power, and incomparable in every field. God is God. We are not. Who are we to question the motivation of the God who holds the breadth of the universe between His fingers? As God reminded Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” He then spends two chapters posing a series of rhetorical questions to Job (and to us) about where we stood as he created the firey stars and the farthest reaches of the universe and knit together the largest and smallest of creatures out of nothing with sheer willpower and His mighty Word.
And so we walk humbly before this power, and we question Him with trembling.
The truth is, we ask these questions of God about the tension of love and vanity because we have reduced Him in our mind’s eye to the size of you and me. When any other human being seeks his or her own adulation, it turns us off. We like strength, we will celebrate valor, we showcase generosity. But we don’t like it when we see someone blowing their own horn and calling for worship. Why? Because we are ALL flawed. Humanity is a messy jumble. No one is worthy of the kind adoration and devotion that our heart is wired to give. No one on the planet.
Have you put God in that box? If all the languages of the world were employed, and the sky was parchment, and everyone on earth wrote their praises to God without rest for eternity, we would not be able to adequately ascribe to God the depth of His worth and the excellencies of His great character, to say nothing of the praise of His grace and the awe-striking gift of redemption in Jesus Christ. God actually IS WORTHY of non-stop, ever-flowing, ever-increasing praise and honor. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive honor and power and glory and praise.
We cannot and must not find in God’s pursuit of His own praise even a shred of hypocricy or a vapor of the charge vanity. God calls for what He alone is worthy of. God is worthy to be praised.
So… alright then. If you were able to jump that hurdle, we may agree that God is worthy of highest honor. But how does this translate into such great news for US? How does God’s incessant pursuit of His own glory become “the most wildly loving foundation possible for our relationship with Him?”
John Piper’s Desiring God helped me connect the dots here. He writes of the struggle within theologian and author C.S. Lewis to reconcile the loving nature of God with the overwhelming tide of calls to praise Him written into God’s Word… by God Himself. And then, for Lewis, came the lightbulb moment…
The most obvious fact about praise, whether of God or anything, strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows in praise, unless sometimes we bring shyness in to check it. The world rings with praise: lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poets, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite games, praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians and scholars. My whole more general difficulty with the praise of God depended on my obsurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely valuable, what we delight to do–even what we cannot help doing–with regard to everything else we value.
And then, as Piper points out, here comes the key sentences:
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the joy is not complete until it is expressed. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are. The delight is incomplete until it is expressed.
YES! That’s it! I want to climb on the roof of our Seminary housing units and shout to the students walking by that my wife has captured my heart because expressing my joy in her brings my delight in her to consumation. Delight unexpressed is incomplete.
This is truly genius Design at work.
In God’s pursuit of glory comes His demand for our praise, and our created desire to worship… something. In Him alone is our thirst satisfied. 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. GENIUS. We are satisfied in Him – He is glorified in us. He delights in our praise – we delight in Him. He receives glory – we find JOY.
Further, God proves the profound depths of His love for us in bringing us the most wildly extravagant gift possible. It is not only wildly extravagant, it is truly the pinnacle gift – the best and highest possible gift to His children.
God gives us Himself.
May all honor and glory be lavished on Him. May my life ring with it. Even in typing this now, my heart is full – I’m full of JOY in Him, and I revel in His goodness and His love. Less of me God, and more of you!
And thank you for Amy. She’s so much more than I deserve. It’s my joy to praise You for her and to praise You with her.
The primacy of God’s glory makes everything about Him… not about me. THAT is truly the best of news, because it is a proclamation of freedom. Profound freedom. We’ll dive into that next time in “pursue joy part four.” I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Refine my thinking. God bless you, and may you find soul-shaking JOY in Him alone.
You know what drives me nuts? I mean just frothy lipped, make-it-stop, face twitching crazy?
Carly Simon’s 1972 hit, “You’re so Vain.”
Yes. I recognize it has been thirty years. What’s that you say? Let it go?
I can’t go for that. No how. No can do.
Lo, these thirty years later I am still plagued by an inner dialogue that will not let me rest. And yet somehow, inexplicably, the rest of the world seems to allow “You’re So Vain” to stand at #72 on the Billboard “best songs of all time” list. How can this be? Carly, why do you vex me so?
Does no one realize that her chorus foists a premise into pop culture that is nonsensical?? I want to tear my ears off. Go with me here…
“You’re so vain… I bet you think this song is about you. You’re so vain… I bet you think this song is about you. Don’t you? Don’t you? Don’t you?”
DOES THIS NOT BOTHER YOU GOOD PEOPLE? If the dude thinks the song is about him… which CLEARLY it IS… does that not make him factually correct?? Not so much vain as just… RIGHT? Are you with me here?!
You’re so vain… *insert deep soul-weary sigh here* I can’t handle it.
Why on earth am I bringing up Carly Simon you ask?
Because we need a reboot. The Church needs a do-over. (In the circles I run in we call this repentance.) We somehow have become enslaved by the idea that the point of all this Christianity business is to get us reconnected to God… to get us saved… to give our life meaning. And it is… but it’s not.
“You’re so vain… I bet you think this faith is about you. Don’t you? Don’t you? Don’t you?”
Don’t answer that. Yet. Because you may be picking up my vibe here. (It’s kinda hard to miss my vibe, let’s be honest.) You probably know that the “right answer” here is something like… “No. It’s not ALL about me. Or US, I mean. I’m supposed to say it’s not about us – it’s all about Him, right? God wants us to praise Him, too, right? He wants us to thank Him… because He died for us – to save us. He came to give us life to the full, right? Because God is love, and He loves us SO MUCH, right? Jesus loves me, this I know…”
So we should definitely say “thank you.” Because He has done so much for us. For us. For us.
You know what? I believe all of that is true, too. “Greater love has no one than this: that He lay down his life for his friends.” At night, when little Ezra is curled up in his blankets and I’m laying on His bunk in the dark I hear his little voice say… “Jesus?” I know what he wants. And then I sing with him just like my Mom and Dad sang with me… “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so…”
Kids need to know that in their very core. JESUS LOVES US. This we KNOW. But there is even better news… News that becomes foundational in a spiritual life spent in the pursuit of JOY. We never get to the stanza that fleshes out the deepest love and highest pursuit of God. And it’s not us… We get stuck sometimes in a Carly Simon world somehow where the highest and deepest and most profound message to the lost and the curious is “Jesus loves you.” And He does… but maybe at some point we need to write a new stanza. Graduate from the tippy cup to theological meat. How about this…
“Jesus loves God more than me, so He died to set me free, dead in sin I could not praise, brought to life this hymn I’ll raise: God loves His great name! We’re made for His fame! We bow and He reigns! The Bible tells me soooo…”
Last week I began this exploration of a theological construct that affirms (even demands) that we revel in a shameless pursuit of JOY. Read part one here. Far from being a selfish pursuit, I’m building a scriptural case that the pursuit of JOY is ultimately the most selfless… the only truly selfless option. Moreover, God wired you do long for JOY, and He commands you to go hard after it.
As we began I listed a series of interconnected precepts, all of which I believe are soundly backed by the truth of God’s Word. After all, if I’m just making this stuff up, it will have no lasting impact. It will be a giant pep fest… a waste of time. But our faith is built upon ONE normative standard: the truth of the inerrant inspired Word of God. So these propositions build upon each other and resonate together because they are true to the Word. If you think my understanding needs shaping, I’ll heartily welcome correction along the way. But I promised to unpack these ideas one post at a time, so today we begin with number one… with the assertion of primary importance… with the assertion that at the HEART of the heart of God is His desire to be GLORIFIED. To know what faith is all about and answer the “why am I here?” questions of life, it makes sense to start with the One who IS, and who always has been, before we were, and will always be.
The rest of this post will simply be a list of verses that point to the primacy of GOD’S GLORY as the motivation for GOD’S STORY. His story of redemption is all about HIM. My next post will talk about what great news this is. But I need to make the case first. If you’re skeptical, that’s OK. Maybe you’re thinking “God is love, and love is selfless, and this sounds like a ginormous EGO TRIP and that doesn’t sound like the God I know…” I’m just asking you to pray, and then read this list. And then see what God is revealing about His first love. I think this is an accurate place to start:
(1) God is wildly, passionately, zealously, jealously committed to the glory of His own name.
Scriptural Basis for the Supreme Value of God
“I am the LORD: that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.”
This is what the LORD says — Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: “I am the first and the last; apart from me there is no God.”
“I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God.”
For this is what the LORD says — He who created the heavens, He is God; He who fashioned and made the earth, He founded it; He did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited — He says: “I am the LORD, and there is no other.”
The LORD does whatever pleases Him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths.
Before there were people:
Lord, You have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
God’s purpose for creation:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord…
God’s reason for creating people:
“Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made,”
“I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.”
God’s purpose in delivering His people from bondage in Egypt:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.'”
Where is He who brought them through the sea, with the shepherd of his flock? Where is He who set His Holy Spirit among them, who sent His glorious arm of power to be at Moses’ right hand, who divided the waters before them, to gain for Himself everlasting renown, who led them through the depths? …they were given rest by the Spirit of the LORD. This is how you guided Your people to make for Yourself a glorious name.
When our fathers were in Egypt, they gave no thought to Your miracles; they did not remember Your many kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea. Yet He saved them for His name’s sake, to make His mighty power known.
The purpose of God’s mercy (in light of Israel’s repeated rebellion):
And whenever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, ‘These are the LORD’s people, and yet they leave His land.’ I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone. Therefore say to the House of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes.
Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of Your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for Your name’s sake.
Although our sins testify against us, O LORD, do something for the sake of Your name. For our backsliding is great; we have sinned against You.
I Samuel 12:22
For the sake of His great name the LORD will not reject His people, because the LORD was pleased to make you his own.
God’s purpose in Jesus’ birth:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.”
Jesus’ primary reason for coming to earth:
“…Christ became a servant to the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the Patriarchs, so that the Gentiles may glorify God for His mercy…”
Jesus’ decision to go to the cross:
Jesus… Looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the time has come. Glorify You Son, that Your Son may glorify You.”
God’s reason for sending His son to the cross:
“God presented Him (Jesus) as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished…”
Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and ascension to heaven:
Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus will come again in power to consummate His mission on earth:
II Thessalonians 2:9-10
Those who do not obey the gospel will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might, when He comes on that day to be glorified in His saints and to be marveled at in all who have believed…
The Church exists for God’s glory:
I Peter 2:9
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.
God’s glory is the point of missions:
“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.”
This is the God-ordained destiny of every nation:
All the nations You have made will come and worship before You, O Lord; they will bring glory to Your name.
We have a purpose for living:
(Jesus said) “Let your light so shine before men that they will see your good deeds and praise (glorify) your Father in heaven.”
In our praying:
(Jesus said) This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”
The reason we are forgiven:
I John 2:12
I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of His name.
At the end of time:
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them singing : “To Him who sits on throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and ever!” The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshipped.
In summary, Paul wrote:
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.
I Corinthians 10:31
“…whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
This becomes the heart of the Church:
Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of Your love and faithfulness.
The first precept under-girding this call to pursue JOY is this: God is wildly, passionately, zealously, jealously committed to the glory of His own name.
Now we’re getting at the heart of it. The heart of ALL of it. This is what I believe to be true of God in the deepest corners of my heart. Scripture screams it out. My life rings with it. This is what I believe.
God wants us to passionately pursue JOY.
What? Wait… the church has always told me I need to take up my cross, count the cost, follow the rules, I surrender all… right? Loving God requires letting go of what I want so that I can do what God wants… right?
Right. God wants your life to ring with joy.
A relationship with Jesus is not about what we sacrifice for Him, or a new set of rules that rob us of freedom. JOY! Christian faith and life is about being set free to pursue the deepest joy imaginable. THAT IS GOSPEL. That is why I want to be a Pastor. It is my heartbeat.
I’m in a seminary class right now on Christian Ethics, which has been pointing us again and again to the sovereign authority of the God’s Word as our moral construct. Depending on your life story, that statement might either make you do a little internal cheer and fist-pump for Jesus, or it may totally make you squirm… like I’m going to get my rulebook all up in your business. Fist-pumpers and skeptics alike can take a breath, because I’m not going into “why my morals are better than yours” mode.
We have been discussing alternatives to Biblical morality… hedonism, for example. The pursuit of pleasure as the determiner of what is right and wrong. I think hedonism devoid of Christ is just empty staggering toward regret and isolation and death. Pleasure is a gift of God, sure… but it’s fleeting. The moral construct of the Bible is rooted in something far deeper. But again, this isn’t a post about right and wrong, per se. It’s about why we ARE in the first place. Why we exist, and the reason for Jesus’ coming to earth. This is the deep down stuff of life… not just the rulebook.
To my heathen friends (insert winky face here), you non-churchy ones out there, my guess is this post most likely won’t ruffle your feathers too badly. As long as I’m not too pushy on whole right and wrong thing, you’ll probably be able to ignore this one. You’d be missing out… but the choice is yours.
On the other hand, it’s my solidly entrenched churchy friends who may take me to task today. I think I’m going to say some things here in the next few days that buck against the way Christians think. So give me a minute here while I pull my bulls-eye t-shirt out of storage. You can load up. Putting it on now. And here we go…
(1) 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.
(2) Far from being a hyperbolic cosmic ego trip, this truth is the most wildly loving foundation possible for our relationship with Him.
(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 the praise of His glory, at all times, right now and thoughout eternity.
(4) 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.
(5) Far from making Christianity all about US, this truth reveals that the polar opposite is true… God receives greater glory as we find greater JOY in Him. The intrinsic purpose of God and the created purpose of man find their mutual fulfillment in our making much of God. Our joy is found in His glory!
My heart is beating fast for this. Do you see that this changes EVERYTHING? Maybe if you are skeptical about religion this just sound like a bunch of church-speak hoo-haw. I get that. Let me break it down for you…
It’s true… God wants to wreck your life. He’s up front about that. This is no bait and switch. If you’re not pursuing ever-deepening joy in Him alone, you’re missing out. God wants to wreck your life to give you a better one. He literally wants you to experience life-changing joy forever.
These are truths that are repeated again and again and again throughout the Bible, and the five points above work together to create a latticework of interdependant truths that help me understand the foundation of my faith and ministry passion. They are simply too profoundly significant for me to adequately cover in one blog post. Or in a hundred blog posts. Or in a hundred books.
But over the next several days, I’ll take a look at these truths point by point. This Christian life is a joyful adventure, not begrudging service in order to secure an eternity outside of hell.
God wants you to pursue JOY. I believe that as deeply as I believe anything in my life. Maybe you needed to hear that today. Maybe your whole life is about to change…
When I think of parsing the world into categories, I remember the words of Bob Wiley: “There are two types of people in this world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”
Here I nod my head in affirmation. Hard to be on the fence about Neil Diamond.
But there is a deeper division yet to be found among us – a starkly contrasted gulf separating one side from the other. Beyond politics. Beyond our opinions of Country Western music or our positions on relative morality vs. absolute truth…
A friend of mine wears a P.E.T.A. hat with a camouflage background, and in small print, the words “People Eating Tasty Animals.” Thus the world is divided.
Meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters.
To all of you vegans and tofurky lovers… You edamame snackers and soy milk chuggers… All of you sprout eating animal huggers… the culinary gap between you and me is so vast that I will probably need to consider this post cross-cultural missions. Even so, welcome.
To all of you bacon eating, brat grilling, pulled pork dipping, BBQ savoring, turkey roasting, elk hunting, jerkey gnawing, steak chewing meat eaters out there… welcome. We view the world through a similar lens, you and me. A lens through which Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is like a Mecca to which an annual pilgrimage seems the least we can do. We are kindred spirits.
My goal in this post is to be a peacemaker. To build bridges of understanding and unity between the “Good Earth” crowd and the “Famous Dave’s” Afficianodos. Like Jews and Gentiles, Republicans and Democrats, Red Vines chewers and the Twizzlers-Only crowd, I believe there is common ground to be found in Romans 14.
Often in ministry life, leaders run into situations where there is tension between divided camps. And often these tensions arise over issues of Christian freedom. This is nothing new. Paul experienced this from the very start of the church.
Romans 14 lays it out. Here we see two camps, clearly divided. The meat-eaters and the non-meat-eaters. But this divide wasn’t so much a lifestyle choice or a philosophical hang-up about the ethical treatment of animals. This divide was about religious freedom.
The pagan Roman culture surrounding the congregation in Rome was marked by excesses. Food and wine were habitual indulgences in the worship of Greek gods, and there were those in the church who thought Christ-followers should safeguard themselves from such sensual self-indulgence and maintain a more marked distinction from the culture around them. These were the non-meat-eaters and teetotalers. Paul refers to them as “the weaker brothers,” but not as a condemnation or repudiation. Rather, it was a statement of clarification – that some within the church felt it was dangerous to reflect the culture in any way, and therefore choose to self-sensor their culinary palate.
P.E.T.A. + religious conviction.
There were others, of course, who stood by the grill, aprons donned, ready for the next church BBQ. They claimed the freedom of 1 Timothy 4:4 (which hadn’t been written yet, but the principle was established…)
“Every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.”
And this is why I say “Thank you, Lord, for this tasty meat“ every time I sit down to partake in some succulent grilled beast.
But I’m off point. The basic gist of the situation here was this: There were some in the church in Rome who felt it was perfectly acceptable to eat meat and drink wine (not to excess, of course), and there were others who did not feel that church people should eat meat and drink wine. Paul calls the meat-eaters more free, and the non-meat-eaters less free. And then he speaks to both camps…
Now, I don’t know about you, but it has been a long long time since I remember a bruhaha erupting over the lack of tofurky at our church BBQs. So vegans and grillmasters alike, we can breathe a sigh of relief here, to this degree… I’m not making a case for the ingestion of meat or for the merits of upping your salad intake. Since the meat we carnivores pick up from the butcher in Cub Foods hasn’t been sacrificed to idols – as far as we know – this post and Paul’s metaphor will be equally valid to the carnivores and herbivores alike!
Common ground! A small victory.
So if “to meat or not to meat” isn’t the question, what’s the point of Paul’s story here? What’s it got to do with church now? Here? Today?
I’ll give you a real life example. I’m a Lutheran drummer. (There are only five or six of us, but we are mighty. Parum-pa-pum-pum.) When I took my first ministry job as a worship leader, I served a church with multiple service styles, and a diverse congregation. Equal parts wee children and white hair. This was the early nineties, and our conservative Association of congregations was not particularly quick to embrace contemporary worship styles. There was a concern that the popular sound and instrumentation would become more a reflection of the popular culture than a tool in the hands of the Spirit. There was a strong feeling among some that drums should have no place in church. These were the non-meat eaters. The weaker brothers – not in the validity of their faith, mind you. This is no accusation and no condemnation. Simply put, they did not feel the freedom to incorporate “rock and roll music” into a worship setting.
Then there were those in the congregation who were eager to worship in freedom – not just freedom of the heart, but in style as well. The contemporary sound was to many a “new song,” a fresh expression, new life. These were the meat eaters. The stronger brothers. Not better than, not more spiritual. Simply comfortable with a higher degree of freedom.
So what does Paul say here? God wrote this, of course, so it is alive and brilliant and wise… worthy of much study and a long exposition. But for this forum, I’ll pull out six key thoughts in the “meat-eater vs. vegetarian” debates we find ourselves in with the church.
When there is a conflict in the church regarding Christian freedom:
(1) Don’t judge each other. Verse 3 of Romans 14 says, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats…” There is room for God-honoring differences of opinion in the Church. Respect each other, keep the Gospel central, and allow for some of those differences in your church family. We sharpen each other.
(2) It’s OK to have conviction. Paul reminds us in verse 5, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” When we are dealing with the things of God, fence sitting is a cop out, and it dishonors the Lord. Search the scriptures. Pray. Make a decision that you belive is God honoring. And then hold to it HUMBLY. Christian unity does not mean a lack of disagreement or differences in our convictions.
(3) It’s not about you, it’s about US. We die to self. We live to serve. Strong convictions do not override our call to love one another. Verse 7 says, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.” For me, a carnivorous drummer in a church with a lot of white-haired saints, that meant truly caring for those friends of mine who felt the drums were abrasive – and sometimes painful in their hearing aids. That meant limiting my volume, and bringing percussion and contemporary praise only with great sensitivity into the traditional service.
(4) Love trumps our preferences. If at any point our preferences or personal convictions cause spiritual distress or turmoil in the congregation… to the degree that spiritual harm is being done, it’s time to put down the steak knife and A1. Verse 15: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” Meat eaters – those who feel the greater degree of freedom – the responsibility for unity in the Body rests with you. Are you willing to forgo the fillet mignon wrapped in bacon for a torfurky burger, if only for a season, for the sake of love?
(5) Words matter. Spiritualizing our preferences is sin. And so is allowing people in the church family to cast strong moral judgment in areas that are clearly matters of Christian freedom and personal conviction without humble but firm pressback. Verse 16 says this: “Do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.” There shall be no vegetarian bashing here! Nor shall there be any finger pointing at the wiener roasters! In my early days, when I led worship in a contemporary form, I had absolutely NO PROBLEM with people expressing their opinions about the style, or the volume, of their preference for the great hymns of the faith over what they saw as the repetitive and shallow praise choruses we were using. I had many great discussions about worship – and about the difference between form and essence. But I drew the line when people spoke of the drums and contemporary worship forms as “worldly” or “carnal” or even “evil.” No sir. What about the loud clashing cymbals God asks us to praise Him with?? There is a stronger Biblical case to be made for playing drums unto God than for the necessity of Euro-centric muscial forms to be accompanied only by an organ or piano (strings and brass are allowed for special occasions or when played by Middle School students). Convictions are welcome. But pronouncements of one camp being the “God Team” and the other being “of the devil” are strictly verboten.
(6) I have no chapter and verse to back this up, but for the love of everything holy, Tofurky is gross. If I hadn’t just written #5 above I might even say it was of the devil. I just might. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. (See #2…)
“I do not ask for these [disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in me, and I in You, that they also may believe in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)
That being said, AWANA shouldn’t have tried so hard to break me. I was only 10. I wasn’t cut out for this.
We did some cool stuff, for sure. There was the day we broke the world’s record for the longest banana split, laid out in the church fellowship hall like a long snake made out of PVC pipe halves and aluminum foil. Hundreds of gallons of ice cream. A truck full of bananas. Hershey’s syrup in gallon jugs. Whipped cream and cherries. Good times.
I also remember the relay race where we were given straws, and told to run the full length of the gym to a 2 liter bottle of A&W Root Beer sitting at the other end. We were supposed to drink it as fast as we could through the straw we had been given, and then sprint back to our sweaty, belching elementary school aged teammates at the other end. Do you know what happens when you sprint 94 feet, slam a bottle of A&W in 14 seconds of frenzied frothy sucking, and then run BACK across those 94 feet? Three things are a certainty… (1) You will have root beer in your sinuses. It has to go somewhere. This will make you sneeze, which will hose anyone in the vicinity with a sharp spray of carbonated snot. (2) You will belch. Long, sonorous, resonant belches that will echo off the walls of said gymnasium with an echoey fortitude that should garner the respect of any 7th grade boy. Unfortunately, you will be surrounded by 74 other elementary students of both genders whose own fortuituos uncontrolled belching will drown out the magnificence of your own. Add to that the sound of all the 3rd and 4th grade girls who are crying because they have root beer in their sinuses, and you have a cacophony through which the most violent of belches has trouble being singled out. (3) Bloating. Enough said.
So that was awesome. High fives all around to the dudes who thought up that relay race. Good times.
But the bulk of my memories from my days in AWANA are more sinister in nature. I still break a cold sweat when I hear a coach’s whistle blow. Sure, they sold it to us as a “game.” Sure, it was supposed to be “fun.” But it was genius in its calculated simplicity. Profound in its energy-quelling capability. Rendering us limp and compliant, it became the favorite “warm-up activity” for all of our bible coaches. Perhaps you, too, have been subjected to its soul-crushing efficiency? Many of you former Puggles and Cubbies and Sparks know EXACTLY what I’m talking about…
The Circle. *ominous tones here*
Basically, four students are fitted with flags hanging from a belt around their waist. They are squared off at a co-equal distance from one another at four points around a large circle on the floor. There they wait. Breathing heavily. Dreading the sharp blast of the coach’s whistle that will signal the start of their Ordeal. The running of the proverbial gauntlet.
A clock ticks. Somewhere overhead, the distant screech of a bird of prey. Muscles quiver. A whistle pieces the silence. It has begun.
What follows is basically 12 minutes of sprinting. The goal is simple… be the last guy with a flag still attached to your belt. We set off at a dead run, counterclockwise, scrambling and striving to grab the flag of the poor victim in front of us. Meanwhile, we are being chased from behind from the captain of the track team. I mean, if there were 3rd and 4th grade track teams… that’s who is behind you. This is not a game of wolves chasing geese. Oh no. This is a game of wolves chasing more wolves. Carnivorous, snarling, hungry wolves. Wolves scraping and clawing at that little red flag hanging from your belt, like the last vestige of your dignity. The physical manifestation of your athletic prowess.
I hated the circle.
We played this game for 45 minutes. Set. Breathe. Whistle. RUN! Fail. Set. Breathe. Whistle. RUN! Fail. All roads leading to fail.
So this is coming to mind now as I start my Seminary year because I’ve been reminded again of a core, absolute, life-changing truth about the Gospel that I will give my life for.
Jesus comes to us.
Let’s make the AWANA Circle of Pain a picture of spiritual well-being. It’s a giant circle, with all of your friends and family and preachers and teachers and youth group leaders and your brother who is agnostic. They are all lined up around that circle ready to run – to prove their worth in the spiritual arena. Except for your agnostic brother, of course. He’s just siting there in the path – he’ll probably trip up a number of those who try to run by. But everyone is there. Breathing hard. Clock ticking. Waiting for Jesus to blow His whistle. Ready to run to protect their flags – the true measure of our spiritual wellness in America. The flag that shows everyone that we’re just as spiritual as the next guy. We try just as hard as the guy in front of us. At least we’re not like that guy behind us, struggling to catch up. Everyone is getting tired, sure. We’re exhausted. But we can’t lose our flag. We can’t show everyone our weakness. Got to run a little harder. Catch the guy ahead. Try harder. Strive. More.
Hear this. If you don’t know Jesus yet – really know Him – then don’t think this is what the Christian life is all about. As if we all are measured against the morality norm of the church culture. As if we have to run the race like we’re trying to beat the saints alongside of us. As if its all about us doing this thing we have to do.
And if you DO know Jesus, you may need to remember this… it’s time to give up. Get out of the circle. The standard is not whether or not you maintain your flag anymore. You have no flag. Jesus took your flag with him to the cross. In this race, you don’t compete against men. Your standard is perfection. The goal is unattainable perfect holiness. You can’t win. It’s too hard. It’s actually impossible.
Jesus comes to us.
The measure of our worthiness has nothing – nothing – NOTHING to do with how fast we run the race. We don’t need to try to catch up to the spiritual superstars running ahead. We don’t need to fear the jaws snapping from behind.
Jesus brings rest. Jesus brings life. Jesus gives you an identity, a hope, a future. Jesus ran the gauntlet in your place. By His stripes – not your striving – you are healed.
AWANA leaders, hear me now. You have my sincere thanks for the Bible lessons. Thanks for the ice cream. Thanks, too, for the uncontrollable belching and sinus headache. But you did not break me. You and your circle of shame. A substitute has stepped forward to take my place. I see him over there walking the circle – talking to everyone by name – collecting their flags. The scramble is over. I’m not running anymore, always struggling to maintain position, and never reaching the goal. It’s over.
Should the culture around our church influence the culture inside our church? And if so, how much is too much?
The late, great Robert E. Webber, in his book Ancient-Future Worship, says the following:
Anyone who travels and visits churches will see that “program,” “theme,” and “creative” are the most dominant words of worship planning that force leaders toward designing culturally driven worship. My concern is that culturally driven worship will nurture a culturally formed spiritual life.
Whoa doggie. That right there is loaded. I agree with Robert Webber.And I don’t. Let me es’splain…
Culturally driven worship? What does that mean?
This reminds me of the false dichotomy that has often been leveled against “seeker sensitive” churches that are simply trying to remove unnecessary “churchy” barriers for people who don’t usually attend church. Calling those churches “seeker-driven” ministries insinuates that thinking about how an outsider might feel coming into church equates to making the comfort and retention of the non-church-goer the HIGHEST priority. Perhaps Dr. Webber intended to word this as strongly as he did, but I think describing the approach of most contemporary evangelical churches as “culturally sensitive” worship may be closer to the mark.
While I wouldn’t ever condone a ministry model that put people-pleasing above Biblical truth, I think the criticism of “seeker-sensitivity” often is unfair and counterproductive. In its truest sense, I believe EVERY SINGE CHURCH should be “seeker-sensitive,” or in Webberian terminology, “culturally sensitive,” to the degree that we make our churches a place that welcomes sinners to hear the whole truth of God’s Word. (1) God loves us and He created us to enjoy relationship with Him. (2) Our sin has broken that relationship and we deserve eternal punishment and separation from Him. (3) Jesus died on the cross to pay our penalty so that we could enjoy that redeemed relationship with God He created us for in the first place. And (4) He’s coming again in victory to judge all of mankind and establish a new heaven and a new earth. All to His glory.
I want people – anybody – who is willing to walk through the doors of our church to hear that message. I don’t want unnecessary churchiness to shot block the Gospel. I’ll encourage every church I serve to be unashamedly “culturally sensitive…” But that isn’t what Webber is warning us of. He’s warning of a worship ministry model that is “culturally driven.”
Dr. Webber says that a focus on program (service planning), theme (communication strategy) and creativity (artistic storytelling and response) will inevitably lead to “culturally driven worship.” And that in turn, our worship services/experiences will inevitably lead to a “culturally driven spiritual life.”
Robert Webber is wise. There is great danger in letting the culture drive worship service planning (i.e. “programming”) to the degree that we out-plan the Holy Spirit or creatively mask the simple and pure teaching of the Word of God with creative storytelling and culturally relevant analogies.
To that degree, I agree with Dr. Webber. It is possible for contemporary churches to reflect our culture to the degree that there is hardly any difference between a “church event” and any given Thursday night at Buffalo Wild Wings. Maybe less swearing…
If the contemporary church leans into contemporary communication models and reflects cultural trends totheneglect of clear preaching of the Word of God and the traditional pillars of the local church (prayer, confession of sin, confession of faith, reverence, etc.), people’s spiritual lives WILL be shaped in the image of the culture, where religion is personal and relative, compartmentalized, comfortable.
Not with a fox… One example: Some contemporary ministries seem to have been called to reach out to the “hot young and trendy” mission field. Sunday morning and evening worship events are led by Ambercrombie and Fitch. And I understand that the 20-something hottiesneed to hear the Gospel, too, so we ought to present a foxy female vocalist and guitar playing Zac Efron with skinny jeans to reach them. Makes sense. But what if someone came in to our church dirty, broken and smelling bad? How quick would we be – any of us – to befriend them and warmly welcome them to come again… or to come over for dinner? Culture is about image. The Church is about love.
Not wearing sox… I remember the day one of my great friends and fellow worship team members came to the evening service at our national youth convention to play guitar wearing a t-shirt sporting the old-timey image of a service attendant holding a fuel spout with a smile and a dialogue bubble proudly displaying the words, “I’ve got gas!” While his choice of apparel certainly reflected the Junior High culture we were steeped in that week, it was perhaps not the best choice to promote the deep reverence we hoped to model as we led the students into the throne room of the King of Angels. My point has little to do with fashion. It’s about reverence. Depending on your culture, worship leading in shorts, flip-flops and print T’s may fit like a glove. But remember that what we do is a high and holy calling. We usher the local body of Christ into His presence, to be transformed by the renewing of their mind, and to interact with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Word. Too many casual references to pop culture, edgy jokes, coarse language (and yes, some ministries use off-color language to reflect their “authenticity” and “cultural relevance”), movie clips, or fill-in-the-blank can keep people comfortably “stuck” in the cultural paradigm they walked out of when they entered our church. Culture is about looking like we fit in. Church is about becoming set apart.
Not in a box… Some churches are admittedly “variety junkies” when it comes to worship programming. As they run with a theme each week, they pour their best creative juice into the planning bucket and mix it up until something attention-grabbing, something arresting, something MEMORABLE rises to the top. I’ll admit… I love it. In my perfect ministry world, I would forever work with a team of creative programmers who would craft memorable, God-honoring worship-inspiring moments that teach God’s truth and allow room for the church to respond. This leaves a congregation with a “what will church be like THIS week?” intrigue, and if it is handled well – and led by the Spirit – this can help keep people from “rote religious hoop jumping.”
The down-side, or danger, of a free-flowing “out of the box” worship planning paradigm is that congregations lose the many benefits of liturgy and the life-grounding repetition of the truth communicated through the corporate worship structure. Important traditional elements of the service, such as corporate confession of faith or time for personal confession, can get lost in the creative flow. Variety for entertainment’s sake has limited value. We mustn’t sacrifice age-old core functions of God’s church in our thirst to do something new. Culture is all about variety for the sake of entertainment. When the Church embraces variety, it must be for the sake of more potent communication (or celebration) of God’s truth.
So should I worry that so many churches want to program their services creatively around a theme… or not?
Again, I agree with Robert Webber… and I don’t. Look at his quote again. In his estimation, the words “programming,” “theme,” and “creative” were the most dominant words in worship planning for many churches. In a ministry where that is truly the case, I may agree with him. There is danger in that ministry stepping past cultural sensitivity into culture-driven worship models… and that does run the grave danger of promoting spiritual life shaped more by cultural norms than by the transforming power of the counter-cultural Word of God.
Perhaps the most dominant words shaping our local church worship experiences ought to be JESUS, love, sin, forgiveness, brokenness, healing, wrath, grace, truth, and surrender. It is the SUBSTANCE of our worship that must be dominant, not the METHOD. It is the essence, not the form.
However, this is a babies and bathwater situation. I plead with the Church to THINK as they program services. To communicate truth with a thought-through focus that will resonate after the benediction. To unleash their deepest and most beautiful creative efforts to speak the truth and celebrate the story of God.
Let’s look at the culture, but not look like it. Let’s invite the culture in and redeem it. Let’s creatively program services around a theme in a culturally sensitive paradigm that is driven not by cultural trends, but by the call of Jesus to go and make disciples… led by the Word and the Spirit.
Tears are running down my face now. My sides hurt. Make it stop!
“Brace yourself! It’s coooommmminnggg!”
I’m sucking air. I haven’t laughed like this forever. It feels good. It’s therapy.
“I couldn’t help it man. I went down. The dude in front of me weighed, like, 250. I didn’t wanna do it. I’m so ashamed…”
My cousin is in storytelling mode. He’s recounting the time he and his brother-in-law went to a Benny Hinn event. Live. For them it was more like a trip to the circus than a trip to church. Benny was in rare form. Waving his arms and knocking down the crowd in waves of the, um, Spirit. They were determined to remain standing as the crowds of devotees around them were “slain in the Spirit” or “blown away by the wind of the Spirit” or “succumbed to the onslaught of hot air coming in waves from the platform” or whathaveyou. It was all going so well, too, until the six foot four linebacker directly in front of them surrendered to the bologna and went down. On top of them. Alas, try as they might to literally stand their ground on behalf of rational believers the world over, it was to no avail. They were slain in the Spirit. Forcibly.
See, that there is funny.
My question du jour is this… When it comes to all things religious, does having a sense of humor diminish our reverence in some way? In other words, if we laugh at the charlatans and jesters, instead of responding with somber judgement, are we making light of the faith we claim – or worse… are we treating the reputation of Jesus and His church with irreverence? It’s a serious question.
When charlatans and jesters dabble in the arena of religion, and if said charlatans and jesters are truly funny…is it OK to laugh? Or is it playing with fire?
Today is one of those days when I don’t necessarily have a hard answer. I’m curious to see what you think about all of this. I’m trying to find that nebulous middle ground… in the place where freedom and license mingle. I’m open to correction, or at least to refining, because you guys might have a perspective I haven’t thought of yet.
Two people have prompted this post. First of all, Benny Hinn, the TV “evangelist” from the dark side. Second, Niko Alm, the Austrian “Pastafarian” who recently won the right to take his driver’s license photo wearing a pasta strainer on his head as a religious head covering. We’ll get back to Niko and his dual-purpose head gear in short order. But first…
Benny Hinn. It is appropriate to write this post today immediately after writing about my distaste for snark in the Church, because it allows me an important clarification. I stand by my conviction that sharp, pointed, sarcastic characterization of other people is almost always ugly and unnecessary. Nine times out of ten, I think Christians should err on the side of kindness. And yet, I don’t feel any contradiction in calling out wolves among the sheep… if they really are wolves. I’m not talking about character assassination – and often that happens between brothers who disagree on some point of doctrine or methodology. But this is something else, I believe. There is a time to call out the phonies who use the name of Jesus for personal gain. There is a time to call a fool a fool.
Benny Hinn is no brother in the Lord. Benny Hinn is a dangerous charlatan who has HARMED the cause of the Gospel of Jesus, using His name to bilk people of their money, providing staged “healings” and ridiculous false “Holy Spirit power” to literally knock people over… for what reason I don’t know. So I have no problem calling him out. I do think he may actually wield some spiritual power… just not God’s power.
With that in mind, please enjoy the following. This makes me laugh every time…
Good times. Now, a great friend of mind posted this video clip on Facebook earlier this year and the response was… surprising. Really surprising, to be honest. He was raked over the coals for “mockery” and an unkind spirit toward Benny Hinn. The comment thread was LONG and pointed. My response… “That is funny. It’s OK to laugh at funny. Benny Hinn is a baffoon, and he does not speak for Jesus or His Bride. I have no problem laughing at that.”
I’m curious. Does that put a bad taste in your mouth? I’m not judging the laughers or the non-laughers among us. But I’m curious. Are there some of you who feel the same as those who criticized my friend? Is this kind of humor below the holy standard of the children of the King?
For those of you who are unaware of the growing Pastafarian movement, here’s the 411… Although the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (a.k.a. “Pastafarianism”) claims to have existed underground for hundreds of years, it really came to the forefront with the publication ofthis letter to the Kansas School Board by one Bobby Henderson in 1995. In response to their inclusion of Intelligent Design theory into the public schools as an alternative to Darwinian theory, Bobby proposed inclusion of the Pastafarian theory of creation, involving the Noodley Appendage of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and of course, propagation of the inverse relationship between the number of Pirates and global warming.
Of course, it’s full blown mockery of the one true God. So when Niko Alm, a devoted follower of FSM (that’s code for “Flying Spaghetti Monster”) was victorious in the Austrian court system and won the right to sport kitchenware on his cranium for his driver’s license photo, I felt a twinge of inner conflict.
But, truth be told, I laughed. Out loud. I lol’ed. ‘Cause that right there is funny.
So here I am, a voice to the Church for freedom and joy. I really believe that in the eyes of the world, it doesn’t do the message of the Gospel any good when His followers refuse to acknowledge the funny amidst the irreverent. Funny is funny.
Or am I off base here? Part of me wonders, literally, what would Jesus do? Forgive the cliche… but I honestly wonder. Would Jesus laugh at Benny Hinn using the force? Would He see the humor in the straight face of Niko the strainer-adorned Pastafarian?
There was a time Jesus wept for the lost souls of Jerusalem. I’ve honestly wondered how, knowing with perfect clarity the eternal fate of those around Him who chose not to believe – not to follow… How could Jesus have walked among them without weeping all the time?
And yet, he didn’t. He mourned the consequences of sin at the grave of his friend Lazarus. He got frustrated with the stubborn hearts of the people he taught. He grieved. But he also sang hymns and shared jokes with his disciples and he laughed.
God is the author of humor. He wired us to recognize it – to respond to it. He created us to laugh. In fact, I’m walking proof of His sense of humor. My foibles are epic-making, and He’s still trying to use my life. So I look to Him as a Father I can trust to be good and who will respond to me in love.
And I fear Him as a Father who is not to be taken lightly. He is a Father to be revered. To be loved and adored, yes. But respected and revered as the Holy One.
I walk in balance here. Joy and freedom, yes. And reverence. They are not mutually exclusive. But they do live in tension sometimes.
The truth is, seeing anyone choose to align themselves with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, hoping to be “touched by his Noodley Apendage” is two things at the same time… tragic… and funny. They are clever in their irreverence. They do not hurl venomous insults at the Church. Instead they subvert Christianity (and all organized religion, I suppose) with parody. But it’s funny. I’m torn.
Benny Hinn – especially Benny Hinn with a light saber – is two things… tragic… and funny. He is a wolf, not a brother, as far as I can tell. And the staggering cost of his perverse “ministry” is hard to calculate. But watching him flail around like a clown and shoot people with lightning bolts… I find it hard not to laugh.
God will be the judge of Benny. God will be the judge of Niko. One day every knee will bow and acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Both the sinners and the forgiven sinners. Benny and Niko and yours truly all need Jesus. I’ve prayed for the three of us. Unless my life situation somehow puts me direct contact with either of these two men, I don’t see how my laughing at their antics has one iota of impact on their eternity.
But for the sake of the name of Jesus, should I be laughing at all?
Today, for the sake of transparency, I’ll own it. I rever the Lord of Heaven, and I am passionate about His reputation. But I’ve been redeemed for freedom, and He knows my heart. And doggoneit… I feel free to laugh.
Wow. This one is close to home. This one has actually set up shop in my living room and is enjoying a sandwich on my couch while wearing my slippers. That close to home.
The truth is… church music is terrible. And that’s not to say that it isn’t sometimes incredibly moving, effective, and inspiring. But often… it’s kinda… bad. Thankfully the work of the spirit and the sacrifice of worship does not require great music. It requires an honest heart before God, and grateful submission to a personal Savior. These are spiritual concerns, independent to some degree of the quality of the art in our local church. Great music in church simply is not required for deeply personal worship.
But great music might help.
As a worship leader for the past 17+ years, I’ve been a part of some powerful high-level artistic experiences, and several musical expressions that should not be labeled art at all. I’ve led with far better musicians than myself as well as rookies in the field. Sometimes we have produced beautifully crafted art. Sometimes we have produced something not so beautiful. I want to keep the bar high – to either obliterate or redeem the phrase “good enough for church.” I try to lead the MUSIC as best I can, but our focus remains primarily on the heart of the lead worshipers on our team. I am far more interested in leading artists who are in an honest, growing love relationship with Jesus than in signing up the best local rock star.
And yet my ears are tired.
I remember reading a post not too long ago from a blogger who generates broad discussion amongst the worship leader community. He asked us what songs were really “connecting” right now in our churches. I read through the 100+ responses, realizing that for many of us, our playlists were almost interchangeable.
It was interesting. And kind of sad. I wondered what God must be experiencing as he hears our worship team singing “Mighty to Save” again. I realized that at the exact same time there are probably 400 other churches in America singing that song. I still wonder that today. And I realize when I hear other churches leaders crank up their rhythm sections… my ears are tired.
Are God’s ears tired?
This post isn’t meant to address worship style, per se. I just hunger for something fresh in church music that moves my heart and inspires greater love of God. It isn’t about needing “new” songs all the time. And it isn’t just about the technical aptitude of the players, either. Christian radio, playing studio-polished recordings of passionate and gifted artists often has the same effect on me. Unease. There may be some new things happening in me, or maybe a discontentment growing for what feels too familiar and too easy. It made me think… What is about “church music” that is so… so… uninspiring sometimes?
I found a possible answer in Psalm 33:3
“Sing to Him a new song. Play skillfully on the strings with loud shouts.”
I see three important elements here. Freshness. Skill. And Fervor.
Do you know when music in church is most effective for me – when it inspires God thoughts in me that lead to worship? If you thought I was going to say, “When the music is presented with fresh language, or when it is skillfully played or led, or maybe music that is passionately honest about the truth of God…” You’d be almost right.
Replace “or” in the statement above with “AND.” Psalm 33:3 is a command. God wrote it. He did not say, “Sing a new song… or play skillfully… or at least make it passionate.”
He said (my paraphrase), “Don’t just repeat the songs you like to sing because they ‘work,’ make sure you include songs that inspire people with new and surprising poetry and beautiful melodies and harmonies that reflect my creativity and my beauty.”
But God asks for more. The whole Bible is full of exhortations to bring our BEST lamb as a sacrifice, to offer the FIRST and the BEST to God, and for artists to “play skillfully, sing skillfully, craft skillfully” when our art is in service to the King. God asks for a new song, but he doesn’t want us to bring something half-baked. He wants us to play skillfully. When a Worship Team plays instruments that are out of tune, or when singers miss entrances, or when the organist plays a wrong chord, our attention is on the Team, not on the Lord we are singing to or about. Artistic skill doesn’t need to be “showy.” In fact, the most skilled and Spirit-led musicians sweep us into the presence of God and practically disappear… our focus on the Audience of One. Humbly wielded, artistic skill in the service of the King is a powerful tool for use by the Spirit.
And yet God asks for more. YES, we must create and present NEW songs to the Church and to the Lord. YES, we are commanded to play skillfully – to bring our BEST lamb as an offering out of love for God. But we are also exhorted to shout. LOUDLY. Of course, there is a place for quiet reverence, as well. But I think this has more to do with our fervor than it does with volume. How often have we as Worship Leaders phoned it in? How often have we just moved the church through our songlist, hearts disconnected from our faith? God hates vain repetition, but looks to strongly support those whose hearts are fully devoted to him. As artists and leaders in the church, we must have a transparent, contagious, firey love relationship with God.
Freshness. Skill. Fervor.
The problem with most “church music,” in my view, is that I rarely see all three of these qualities present at the same time.
I have seen passion on display without much skill, and it can be painful. I’ve seen skillful players who seem to be more interested in their music than their Lord, and it can be distracting. And so often Worship Teams are slow to create, slow to adopt new expressions, slow to use their imaginations. Skill and passion can only go so far the 94th time your church sings “Open the Eyes of My Heart.”
Freshness, Skill, AND Fervor. Three elements that would go a long way in making our artistic leadership more effective. They are not suggestions, as if two out of three are good enough. They are commands. Remember… God wrote Psalm 33:3. Often I see one of these elements, or two at a time, but to see all three at the same time is rare. And that’s part of why “church music” often leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Can you relate?
If artists in the Kingdom of God would commit to bring fresh artistic creative juice to their art, to work hard at their craft and bring their BEST offering to the Lord and His church, AND to sing and play with passion, “church music” might have an entirely different connotation.
But there is something even more important to me, more soul-stirring in me, something that is a non-negotiable if art in the Church is going to move me to worship with freedom and gratitude. Something beyond a new song played well by a passionate artist.
It is a artist who knows the Lord intimately and reflects that love relationship in their art.
The trump card. The non-negotiable. The single greatest factor that will help artists in their local church break hearts and usher in space for the Spirit to interact with the souls of the congregation. It is the power of a life truly devoted to Jesus. And although many, many church musicians profess a personal faith in Jesus, it is rare to experience true depth of personal devotion to Jesus IN THEIR ART.
I’ll end this with a story.
One afternoon several years ago an elderly gent from our congregation asked if he could sing a song for the church. He admitted he didn’t have much musical ability, and that he’d be more comfortable without an accompanist so he didn’t need to stay in one key. Out of concern for him and for our church, I asked if I could hear him first – before we had him sing for a service.
Stan agreed, but he admitted that even just singing in front of me made his knees knock. How would he feel in front of 300 more? Yet he felt that he should to do this – to express his love for Jesus. One hurdle at a time, I told him. Stan and I wandered into the big, empty sanctuary. And I took a seat about 5 rows from the front. We prayed together. And Stan sang.
With a cracking voice he started in on the first line, eyes closed, hands trebling. “I come to the garden alone…”
My heart broke. For the next three minutes tears flowed freely down my cheeks and dripped onto my collar. It was maybe the most moving piece of church music I can remember. Stan sang an old song badly. But it was so honest, and so deeply rooted in his love for Jesus, it catapulted my heart before the throne, and I worshipped.
Stan played the trump card. Jesus meant everything. More than polish. More than art.
So, artists in churches all over the world, I exhort you with the authority if the Word of God, to bring NEW expressions of worship to your congregations. I exhort you to NEVER settle for “good enough for church” mentality, unless that means your bar is set very, very high. And I encourage you to let your music be full-throated and played with zeal.
But above all, express an honest and deeply rooted love of Jesus. Some of you may need to stop producing art for church until your heart is overflowing. Then, out of the over flow… Sing a new song to the Lord; Bring your BEST offering… and make it loud.