This is the Thursday night service with all the men at FLY 2013, the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations Youth Convention, held every two years in Estes Park, CO. My wife Amy and I were grateful to both be asked to speak this year. Amy spoke to the girls in the Assembly Hall, and I was with the guys in the Longhouse. This is my message to the guys on July 4, 2013.
The theme of the convention was “Broken,” taken from Isaiah 53. The text we focused on for the evening was Isaiah 53: 10-12.
This July, 1,800+ souls gathered together for a week of worship and Bible study and relational bonding at the YMCA of the Rockies camp up in the mountains of Estes Park, CO. This was FLY 2013, the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations Youth Convention, held every two years. My wife Amy and I were grateful to be asked to speak this year on July 4, for the Thursday evening services. As I spoke to the men and boys in the Longhouse, Amy had an opportunity to speak to the girls in the Assembly Hall just up the hill. The theme of the convention was “Broken,” taken from Isaiah 53. The text we focused on for the evening was Isaiah 53:10-12.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
Last weekend Amy and I attended a fantastic marriage retreat weekend sponsored by FamilyLife Ministries. One of the main presenters for the weekend, a Family and Marriage Counselor and former Baptist Pastor, asked us the following question: “Do you know why Baptists are opposed to premarital sex?”
Answer: “It might lead to dancing.”
With apologies to my Baptist brothers and sisters in the Lord – that right there is funny. And believe me, as a Lutheran Seminary student, I laugh just as hard at a good Lutheran joke. We all have our denominational and generational and locational (is that a word?) idiosyncrasies that set us apart.
This joke obviously has nothing to do with dancing as an act of worship, but it still reminded me of the differences between us as evangelicals. With all of our differences in emphasis and practice, we do have one thing in common, regardless of denomination, age, or locale… the tension in our corporate worship experiences of balancing reverence and celebration, dignity and joy, obedience and freedom.
In our churches, we are inviting human beings into the presence of God. We are witnesses in our worship gatherings of a beautiful and powerful collision of the hearts of men and the holiness of God. There is confrontation, brokenness, proclamation of what is true, forgiveness of sins, reverence and FREEDOM.
We are witnesses of the supernatural when we experience the relational presence of God. The fact that we can stand in the presence of the Holy Creator God – all powerful and righteous King of Kings – and yet be honest before Him about our sin and our deep need for His grace – THAT is FREEDOM.
And sometimes, it makes me want to dance.
Yesterday in our Historical Books class, my Seminary brothers and I were walking through 2 Samuel, and the story of David, the new King of Israel. There is a great story in chapter 6, verses 12-23, about David dancing before the Lord and before all the people of Israel. The Ark of the Covenant is being returned to Israel from the Philistines. It was a powerful symbol of God’s presence and blessing. This was a moment in history of profound meaning for God’s people. And as the Ark was being brought into David’s city, verse 14 says:
“David danced before the Lord with all His might. And David was wearing a linen ephod.”
Think of a linen ephod as the official loincloth of the priests. Instead of dressing in His royal attire, representing his position of authority, David was dressed and functioning as a priest – a mediator between God’s people and the Almighty. He was unashamedly celebrating the return of God’s presence and favor with wild abandon… and he didn’t care who was watching. The dance was “before the Lord.” It was for Him.
As he danced wildly below, his wife Michal looked at the window, and saw his undignified behavior, and she despised him for it. Her husband was making a fool of himself, and it reflected badly on her. When she confronted him, David said:
“It was before the Lord… I will celebrate before the Lord.I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.”
From that day forward, verse 23 says, Michal was barren. God’s judgment rested not on David for his lack of religious decorum, but on his wife Michal for her concern with outward appearances.
I have no idea what your Sunday morning experience looks like. You might be arm raisers, victory shouters, hand clappers, and dancers for all I know. Or, you may attend a church where clapping never happens, and the order of service is structured and reverent in a quieter, more “dignified” style. To both camps and the many variations inbetween, I say God bless you! Engage your heart with Lord’s truth and respond appropriately with obedience and thanksgiving. It’s not about the form, but about the substance of our worship. I’m a drummer, and I lead worship with a contemporary rhythm section almost every week in our church. But my roots are more traditional, and singing hymns with an organ allows me great freedom to express my love to God too. It’s not about the form.
And in the end, that’s the point of this post. It is OK to have a prefered style. I think God is reminding us here that what matters is not what our worship looks like, but whether it springs from an honest heart in response to the truth. Worship happens “before the Lord.” Sure, I believe there are posers in every church – trying to make it look right. But for those who are celebrating, crying out, or humbly remaining silent before Him… it is before the Lord. It is not meant for you. Every sacrifice is the Lord’s to judge, and the Lord looks at the heart.
If you belive that your prefered style of worship is the “correct” way to worship, I’m challenging you to rethink that belief.
“David Danced – Michal Watched” by David Steele
Michal was loyal To everything royal For she was the daughter of Saul. But her husband was boorish So awfully boorish With simply no manners at all.
It was her fate To marry a mate Who had grown up with chickens and sheep How to bring charm To this boy from the farm Was causing his queen to lose sleep.
Oh, she had to confess He was a success, In the eyes of the world, Dave was famous But of how kings comport Themselves when in court He remained a complete ignoramus.
David’s heart soared And he danced to the Lord In a manner more free than refined. And his poor little wife Got the shock of her life So she gave him a piece of her mind.
“I don’t care a smidgen About your religion As long as it’s solemn and chaste But the way you’re behaving With arms wildly waving Is shockingly lacking in taste.”
“If you must raise Your spirit in praise, Please see that it’s soothing and calm. The Lord I am sure Would really prefer Something more like the 23rd Psalm.”
Then God’s anointed Became disappointed He knew he had nary a chance Of ever persuadin’ This prim, regal maiden That the Lord is a lover of dance.
Churches these days Talk a lot about praise And the Joy that accomp’nies Good News But don’t tap your feet Or get out of the seat For Michal still lurks in the pews.
I’m not linking to a hundred blog posts. I’m not starting another op-ed column. Because this post isn’t about Rob Bell. Or Hell.
If you haven’t seen for yourself what has the Christian subculture all stirred up, watch this… …
So Rob Bell’s upcoming book may or may not suggest that there’s no Hell. Or nobody is in Hell. Or they won’t be. Or not for long. We don’t know. The book comes out March 20 something. But his publisher (HarperOne) says that Rob is (among other things)… “arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.”
But this post isn’t about Rob Bell… or Hell. To the point then.
Culture shifts. It swings like a pendulum. I often find myself looking at the pendulum of cultural ideology with a mix of fascination for the psychology of it all (like watching people you don’t know in the airport) and concern for souls (like watching a family member get on a plane to fly somewhere far away… maybe for a long time). I carry a mix of modern-age cultural realism and heart-ache-inducing care for souls. Always there. Watching culture swing.
Watching Rob Bell, whom this post isn’t about, I was reminded again… and then again by the Twitter explosion last Saturday… and again and again by a dozen and a half bloggers in rapid response…
One thing this current parabolic shift in Christian evangelical sub-culture has embraced that we can be sure of is… we can’t be sure of anything.
I don’t mean to use hyperbole. We might embrace mystery. Wonder. We might say we just seek Jesus. Or we want to live like Him. But we don’t really want anyone to tell us what that means.
Relevant Magazine (giving voice to the twenty-something generation at the intersection of Christian faith and real life) just published their list of “50 ideas that changed everything.” Number 19? Yep. “Nothing says FAITH like DOUBT.” Then they sucker-punched me in my email inbox with this excellent article about “Why Doubt isn’t a Dirty Word.”
One of the many blogs that was sent to me on the whole “Hell” debate, which this post isn’t about, was from thirty-something faith-life observer and Christian sub-culture Pocket-Guide author Jason Boyett, whose latest book is titled “O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling.” (Which, by the way, I think you should buy for the cover art alone. Genius.)
In the Christian realm of conversation “relativism” is frowned upon, even by those of us who have grown up steeped in post-millennial stew. We know enough to reject “relative truth.” Right? I mean… right? I think the postmillennial babies that are now emerging (some pun intended) in the life of the Church as young adults believe that there are some things that are just unshakably true… if they are pressed. But we aren’t supposed to press, as far as I can tell.
The truth is, doubt is cool right now.
In fact, doubt is seen as a sign of true humility, honest faith, open-mindedness, reasonableness, approachability. Questions are hip. The guy this post isn’t focusing on asked 25 of them in his two and a half minute video above. But that’s OK. Questions make people think. It’s just that while questions foster exploration of the possibilities, clear statements made with conviction don’t leave that kind of creative space. Conviction communicates faith in absolutes. And absolutes are exclusive because they rule out other options. And if you’re reading this right now, and that leaves a bad taste in your mouth… exclusive, absolute, clear-cut conviction… I’m asking the question today: why is that?
Somehow, conviction has become equated with haughty self-righteousness and narrow-minded mean-spiritedness, pride, vulgar stubborn offensive… conviction is a lesser value.
My heart breaks.
Who will write the book, “My Faith is Strong, and I Know in Whom I Believe”? What has happened to the William Wallaces, crying “FREEDOM!” against the odds? Is it no longer admirable to take a stand for a belief, or is it only admirable to take a stand for somebody else? I know, that’s a false dichotomy. But it has some teeth.
I think the next generation Church would readily embrace the poor and broken and marginalized in our communities – take a stand for LOVE – and that is commendable. New passion to be Jesus-with-skin-on in a way our parents often weren’t. In a way I haven’t been. God bless those who LOVE in Jesus name.
But will this generation also take a stand for TRUTH? Is it admirable anymore to hold to ideals even when those ideals may be unpopular, or uncomfortable?
If someone you love is on a self-destructive path, what is the most loving thing to do? Comfort does not equal compassion. the Bible isn’t clear about everything. But many, many things are ringing with clarity and urgency. There is a life and death reality that follows every soul, every heartbeat. Even among the hostile and the apathetic.
Church! For Christ’s sake – decide what you believe! Stand for it. Live it out. Doubt is acceptable as a process – a pathway to further understanding. But I don’t believe it is a virtue as a perpetual excuse to substitute personal experience for higher ideals.
Doubt may be the new faith, but I have greater respect for those who can humbly, respectfully, but unflinchingly demonstrate that they believe something to their core, and they are willing to rise or fall on that conviction.
Now to the passionate, to the men and women of conviction, the the truth-tellers and safeguards of Biblical inerrancy… please love people. It is rare to see someone stand for the Word with an iron will and the patience to engage in respectful discussion. We have a responsibility to be Christ-like, which is impossible. So I ask the Holy Spirit to keep shaping me, that I can be a man of great conviction and great humility.
There is this huge part of me that wants to tell you what I think about Rob Bell. I know his book isn’t even out yet. Certainly the world will be in a better place to have that discussion freely after four hundred bazillion of us buy his book on March twenty something. Congratulations HarperOne. There’s this part of me that wants to talk about hell – about the hundreds of references to this place of darkness and pain and fire spoken of in plain language in the Bible from cover to cover – and laced through Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom like a stubborn thread… making people uncomfortable.
But this post isn’t about Rob Bell… or Hell.
It’s about the value of CONVICTION. And the necessity of HUMILITY.