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Last night I watched “Blue Like Jazz” for the first time.  It would be accurate to say I am a fan of Donald Miller, although I have to qualify that statement.  I appreciate the ART of Donald Miller because it is honest and insightful.  I do not look to Donald Miller for theological profundity.  Likewise I found “Blue Like Jazz” the movie to be beautiful in some ways, because it was honest and insightful, but not because it was theologically profound.

So people are asking me what I thought.  I’m conflicted.

Here’s what I like…

“Blue Like Jazz” tells the truth.  “Christian” art (a label I am rapidly liking less and less) doesn’t always do that.  In fact, much art slapped with a “Christian Art” label tries to paint a picture (in some case, I mean this quite literally) representing a sanitized world, safe for church people to enter without feeling too threatened or having their feathers ruffled out of alignment.  Thomas Kinkade is perhaps the poster-boy for this kind of art, which looks one the one hand to be deemed “safe” for Christian consumption, but on the other hand, is actually very dangerous in its “sanitization” of our condition.  In a brilliant critique of Kinkade’s work (read the whole article here), Daniel A. Siedell writes:

“The Edenic world Kinkade projects is pretty much the fallen world without the dirtiness of the city and the inconvenience of other people, a weekend getaway in the country. All we need to do to return to Eden is get our lives in order. Kinkade’s much ballyhooed ‘light’ merely adds atmosphere and glow, a pleasant touch to an already charming scene. And because it makes us so comfortable, it is a very dark light indeed.

Kinkade’s work is the meticulously painted smile on the Joker’s disfigured face. It refuses to deal with the fallenness, brokenness, sinfulness of the world. And more troubling, it enables his clientele to escape into an imaginary world where things can be pretty good, as long as we have our faith, our family values, and a visual imagery that re-affirms all this at the office and at home.”

This is a problem.  Art has power to disrupt and challenge, but the Christian marketplace comes with its own set of rules designed to protect us from offense.  Therefore, “Christian” art is almost never provocative to the degree that it might lead to actual life-change.  It sooner leads us to be comfortable, while reaffirming our faith.  And we need encouragement, us church people.

But don’t we also need to be disturbed and broken-hearted?  God is in the business of redemption through the ongoing process of death and resurrection.  The death part… it doesn’t look like a Kinkade painting.

Neither does “Blue Like Jazz” the movie.

In fact, “Blue Like Jazz” shows us the yucky side of churchiness without the transformative power of a life rooted and abiding in Jesus Christ.  It shows the carnality and brokenness and narcissism of young adult lives given over to the pursuit of pleasure and identity and meaning when God has been rejected wholesale.  The movie is dark and sad and tragic if you consider the eternal ramifications of the sea of lives surrounding young Don Miller.  If you are planning to see this and expect it to have the feel-good (albeit disquietingly “safe”) vibe of “Facing the Giants” or “Soul-Surfer,” you might find “Blue Like Jazz” disturbing.  Reed College is full of substance abuse and profanity and emptiness and sex.  Lots of it.  “Blue Like Jazz” isn’t unnecessarily graphic, but neither does it pull many punches.

I’m sick of Kincade.  In this, “Blue Like Jazz” was a refreshing change.  It shows brokenness.  It made me hurt for the broken people, and hunger to be bolder as an image-bearer for Jesus.  Broken people need Jesus.  I have Jesus.

“Blue Like Jazz” wasn’t written for the “Church” market, so if you are looking for a movie that is, consider yourself warned.  Instead, Taylor and Miller seem to be telling a story for spiritually curious people who want to know if God is real when the world is such a mess and the churches in many neighborhoods look more like social clubs for hypocrites than beacons of light and hope.

Here’s what I didn’t like…

“Blue Like Jazz” embraces a metaphor, woven throughout the narrative.  “My dad says jazz is like life, because it doesn’t resolve…”  Like much of Donald Miller’s theo-philosophical ponderings, neither does “Blue Like Jazz.”  And I understand that we are works in process, and that art is often more effective when it leaves some questions unanswered.  This leaves room for the consumer to wonder, and think, and search.  But it is unsatisfying in a movie that asks out loud, “Where do we find meaning and purpose in life?”

There ARE clear answers to many of the questions Miller and Taylor are asking, but it is cooler to leave them unanswered.  It is cooler to leave us to ponder on our own.

** MINOR SPOILER ALERT **

Sure, by the end of the film the young, restless Don Miller comes to some kind of ambiguous belief that God is probably real, and this Jesus stuff… he buys it. But there is little power in his transformation, because it is very hard to see what this transformation actually looks like.  Except, of course, for a compulsion not only to ask forgiveness for his own hypocrisy and lack of courage, but also for the many failings of the Church, writ large.  That may be cool, and more palatable to the jaded (or wounded) spiritually-curious viewers.  But my heart aches for them to hear a better story.

A better story starts with an all-powerful and very present God Almighty, who is not only Sovereign and perfectly Holy, but full of mind-bending LOVE that obliterates our best attempts to understand it.  That perfectly pure One created every soul who ever lived to be in a mutually joy-giving relationship with Him.  But we, the creatures, spat in His face because we thought we knew better what would satisfy.  We died that day.  And every day since, man clamors to find identity and meaning and lasting pleasure, but none of it really satisfies us.  Reed College exhausts us, and we feel the shame of it.

A better story would speak the truth of the Bible, that JESUS CHRIST came to save SINNERS, even the very worst.  That He offers HOPE and JOY that really is lasting and satisfies our longing for identity, meaning, and pleasure free from guilt.  This is THE true story the world needs to hear.

I don’t mean to saddle “Blue Like Jazz” the movie with the calling of the Church.  God did not call Steve Taylor and Donald Miller to use this movie to make disciples.  He calls me to do that, and you, too, if you love Jesus.  But I sense a missed opportunity here.  That’s all I’m saying.

“Blue Like Jazz” is smartly written, well acted, and cleverly rendered.  It works.  I see the need for movies and more art in general to explore faith while looking honestly at brokenness, although I remember the words of Paul to focus our minds and hearts on “whatever is true, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)  In order to focus on what is true – on the life-transforming power of the GOSPEL – allow “Blue Like Jazz” to do the work it is intended to do.  Let it disturb you and stir compassion in you for the brokenness we live in.

Then get in the Word, read the Gospel, and do something.

Watch the trailer here…

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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…

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“piper, obedience, suffering, and the hard path to deeper joy :: pursue joy :: part 5” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Certain stories in our family have a way of finding new legs year after year at our family gatherings.  One such story has its roots in my parents’ small farm town upbringing in the upper northwestern corner of Minnesota, where the North Dakota plains have invaded the landscape, and families earn their bread in the  rich black soil of the Red River Valley.

My dad was in 3rd Grade.  The assignment was to write and share a poem about “your favorite sport.”  One of dad’s friends stepped forward and shared, with great aplomb, the following legendary verse:

When I was a little lad

I ran to meet my Dad

O’er the fields so wavy

Oh, how I love to eat gravy

There is a simple perfection in this poem.  The affectionate relationship between father and son.  The eagerness of the son to join the father as a prelude to feasting.   The tip of the hat to the waving wheat fields, ready for harvest… a sign of provision and plenty.  And then, in a glorious climactic moment, the hailing of gravy.  Nay, the very pleasure of ingesting said gravy.  Economy of words.  Perfect.

I’m going up north today to revel in my family.  And to eat gravy.  I love Thanksgiving.

Not just the holiday.  The act.  Not just the family meal.  The relationships.  Not just the gravy…

But gravy is a big deal.

“Gravy” is the extra goodness that makes life sing.  More than brownish meat sauce.  It is the extra. The “beyond enough.”  The abundance of blessing.  The richness of the meal.  We could subsist on dry turkey and boiled potatoes, green beans and dry bread.  But why?  God has blessed in abundance.  When we eat gravy, we celebrate the love God has for us.  We feast, and thank the Giver.  The gravy is the the savory saucy goodness that signifies the fat of life.  Pressed down, shaken together, running over…  In America, we all are blessed with abundance.  If you are at a computer reading this right now, thank God.  Thank God for the warm place.  Thank God for the computer.  Thank God for electricity, and the ability to reason.  Thank God that you can read.

We have so much to be thankful for there are not enough seconds in a lifetime to express it adequately.

I saw a quote the other day that rang my bell:  “Thanksgiving is a prerequisite to joy.”

Yes and AMEN.  This is one of my most important goals as a dad – to raise gratitude-filled sons.  Because I also want to raise JOY-filled sons.

I believe my boys were created by God to live their lives celebrating Him in joy. Not a “ho-hum, work-a-day, give me what I got coming to me” life.  LIFE TO THE FULL.  Enjoying freedom from sin. Living in obedience to God as a joyful worship response to the God who gave us life and breath and heartbeats and mozzarella cheese.  And gravy.

The next few days in Bemidji, we’ll be in the thick of God’s greatest gifts.  Family who love us.  Abundant food.  Faith in God at the heart of our conversations.  None of it is lost on me.  God is a good God.  He is GOOD.  In the midst of the best times of life, and in the hardest, He is good.

When I takes that first gravy-laden bite (and the third… and the forty fifth…), I’m going to be saying a prayer.  “Thank you, God, that You are so good to me, though I don’t deserve your favor.  Thank you for your ABUNDANCE.”

Oh, how I love to eat gravy.


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It was like a bomb hit my office.  Both scary and exhilarating.

And I know that those of you who visited my office 15 years ago at Emmaus Lutheran Church are certain I’m talking about my decorating style, what with my, um… free-form approach to filing sheet music and whatnot. But that’s not it at all.

A hundred loose threads of theological string running through my brain were suddenly were drawn tight, snapping into place to form a perfect, beautiful knot.  Right then, with trembling hands and tears running down my face, I knew what I was for.

I called Amy.  Which is the thing you do when your whole life has suddenly changed direction.  You call your spouse.

Before I wander farther into the woods here, let’s step back and take a clear look again at the trees.  I’m in the midst of a series of posts here about the foundation of Biblical beliefs that fuel my life and undergird my calling as a Pastor and proclaimer of the Gospel, and I’m categorizing all of them under the rubric “PURSUE JOY.”  So far I have posted an introductory column (read it here), and have expanded upon the first two of five Biblical propositions in the series.  Click on either one below to read those posts:

(1)  God is wildly, passionately, zealously, jealously committed to the glory of His own name.

(2)  Far from being a hyperbolic cosmic ego trip, this truth is the most wildly loving foundation possible for our relationship with Him.

So far I’ve attempted to make a clear Biblical case for the fact that God’s highest purpose and most profound desire is for the ever-increasing praise of His glory.  The Bible is FULL of this truth from cover to cover, but many Christians have mistakenly fallen into the misconception that what matters most to God is US.  That Jesus came to earth primarily to rescue US, because of His profound love for US and His desire to bless US.  While it is true that we are deeply loved and exceptionally valuable in His eyes, the Bible makes it clear that we have been called as a people of God for His glory (Isaiah 43:6-7) and that Jesus ULTIMATELY went to the cross not simply for our sake, but for the glory of His Father and His name (see Jesus’ prayer in John 17:1, for example, and what John has to say about our forgiveness in 1 John 2:12).

Then I explain from a Biblical platform why this is in no way some kind of grandiose ego-trip.  Instead the God-centeredness of God stands as the most extravagantly loving basis possible for our relationship with God.  As God is our heavenly Father, he seeks to give us the best possible gift (see our relationship to God clarified in Romans 8:14-17, and God’s Father heart to us in Matthew 7:11).  The best, highest, most valuable gift to us in all of the universe and beyond the bounds of time is GOD HIMSELF.  And so, in His supreme love, He gives us Himself to marvel at and adore for eternity – the highest and best for us is to not focus on us at all, but to fix our attention and lavish our affection on the ONE object of supreme and unfailing worth.  That is why Our deepest satisfaction comes in the fulfillment of our God-wired need to WORSHIP, and when the object of our worship is God Himself, we are satisfied, and God is glorified, and the union of the two is a consummation of such beautiful genius that there are not words for it.  That is why in my last post I wrote, “In praising that which is MOST praiseworthy are we most DEEPLY satisfied, and the genius of this design is that the expressing of this praise brings us the most soul-satisfying PLEASURE in the universe.  In fact, the joy that both awakens and satisfies our most primal need in life finds its voice in our fervent worship of the ONE who is worthy of it.”

To pursue JOY is to WORSHIP God.

The irony is that most people pursue happiness while running away from God.  Colder… colder…

Now, back into the woods…

I was there in my messy office at Emmaus, stuck somewhere between the staff meeting that had just wrapped up in Mavis’ office and getting to work on the upcoming Sunday service plans.  I had been hired as a Worship Pastor, of sorts, albeit under the title of “Minister of Celebration.”  So I was the Music and Arts guy on campus, with traditional and contemporary services to plan, choirs to direct, Children’s Musicals to arrange the music for, and leadership in the Worship Services.  There was a lot of “stuff” to do related to my music degree – the one I was finishing up at Northwestern College with a career track in kind that would move through High School Choir directorship and on to College-level (or higher) conducting in a choral program some day.

But the “stuff” was not the “heart” of my job.  I had come into this leadership role not too far outside of high-school.  I had two years of Bible School under my belt, sure, and I had just a touch of worship leading experience as a drummer for the AFLC Youth FLY Convention in 1993 and again in 1995, but suddenly I was being paid to LEAD PEOPLE in worship, and I figured I better get a handle on what that meant… I mean beyond the laundry list of things that bugged me about other worship leaders.

In studying what it meant to lead worship, I learned that worship is an act of the heart… and my job was not to create an experience for people in the pews every week.  It was to create “worshippers.”  My job at its heart was literally to help the people of our congregation love God more deeply, more fervently, more honestly.  Music and the arts were great tools for inspiring God thoughts, but they were simply a means to a greater end.  The end was WORSHIP.  Worship was the goal.

With my mind and heart full, on a day when I was particularly grateful that God had allowed me, for this season of my life, to enjoy such a rich job description, I pulled the Missions magazine out of my staff mailbox, along with a reminder of an upcoming deadline for my church newsletter article and a copy of the council report from last week’s meeting.  Missions.  Ugh.

If ever there was a reminder of my mediocrity as a follower of Jesus, the monthly “Missions” magazine that got dropped into my box was it.  There they were – the REAL Christians – out there among the bush people and the teeming hordes in India and the orphans left to fend for themselves on the street in Brazil.  There they were.  They stood as an example of my weakness and selfishness.

I did not want to be a missionary.  I knew that this meant I was not a fully mature Christian.  Not a REAL disciple of Jesus.  Sure, my heart beat fast when I would think of ways for our church to grow deeper in love with God.  I mean, I wanted to take the church by the collar and give ’em a good shake, and with a smile in my eyes, shout about how awesome our God is, and why He’s worth our abandoned, unreserved, unselfconscious adoration.  But I didn’t want to go to Ecuador.  Second class.  Second rate.  Second choice.  The missionaries… they were God’s first choice.  They were the truly selfless ones.

But this looked… interesting.  What is this?  The monthly Missions publication was focused on… worship.  Worship in the field.  Worship in evangelism.  Worship styles that incorporate other culture’s musical traditions.  Worship, worship, worship…

Despite the innate sense of guilt that I felt even holding this magazine in my hands, I turned the cover.  Within one minute, the bomb went off.  I read these words, and my world changed…

“Missions exists because WORSHIP doesn’t.”

Wait… (light-bulb flickering)   Wait… (flashing lights. epiphany.)  I… I think… (FUSE MEETS POWDER, WORLDVIEW ROCKED)

This is what I’m for.  This is what I’m for.  To help people everywhere understand that they have been created to worship, and they’ll never be deeply fully completely satisfied until they embrace the truth… we are created to be worshippers.  Tears.  My career path has changed.  I’m not in ministry part time as I prepare for a career in music performance.  I’m not in ministry part time at all.  This is what I’m for.

Missions exists because worship doesn’t.

“I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations… to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my gloryThey will proclaim my glory among the nations.” (Isaiah 66:19)

We aren’t merely in the business of selling fire insurance to people all over the globe.  We are in the business of helping every soul on the planet understand what they are for.  Because if people don’t know Jesus, how can they worship Him?  And if they can’t worship Him, how can they find true and lasting joy?  And most important of all, how will God receive the GLORY He is due through their life?  This is what the Church is FOR…

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.”  (1 Peter 2:9)

That was the day my life changed direction forever.  Flashes of light.  The scripture alive in me.  My course was set.  For the rest of my life, Lord, I want to spend the rest of my days helping people love you.  I can do that in suburban America, or rural America, or even a wildly different culture like Canada…  I want what you want – for you to receive ever increasing praise and honor.  I understand.  It is what we are ALL for in the first place.

That brings us out of the woods to look at our next tree in the “Pursue Joy” series.  These are the truths that my life is now built upon…

(3) BECAUSE God is so passionately God-focused, He has made us and redeems us in order that we might find our ultimate fulfillment in the praise of His glory, at all times, right now and throughout eternity.

Whether I am playing drums, or at the piano, or in the pulpit, I will always be a worship leader.  My pastoral ministry in caring for people and in counseling people will be a ministry of the GOSPEL… that more souls will be set free to worship.  My preaching will be full of the GOSPEL… that the house of God rings with His praise more and more until Christ returns.

This is what I’m for.  Praise Jesus.


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“the day i knew what i was for :: pursue joy :: part 4” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

through water and fire

November 1, 2011 — Leave a comment

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.



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“through water and fire” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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?”

[pause]

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

 

Isaiah 42:8

“I am the LORD:  that is my name!  I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.”

 

Isaiah 44:6

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.”

 

Isaiah 45:5

“I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God.”

 

Isaiah 45:18

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.”

 

Psalm 135:6

The LORD does whatever pleases Him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths.

 

Before there were people:

 Psalm 90:1-2

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:

 Psalm 19:1

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.

 

Psalm 96:11

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:

Isaiah 43:6-7

“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,”

 

Isaiah 43:20-21

“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:

 Exodus 8:1

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.'”

 

Isaiah 63:11-14

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.

 

Psalm 106:7-8

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):

Ezekiel 36:20-23

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.

 

Psalm 79:9

Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of Your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for Your name’s sake.

 

Jeremiah 14:7

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:

 Luke 2:14

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.”

 

Jesus’ primary reason for coming to earth:

Romans 15:8-9

“…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:

Luke 17:1

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:

Romans 3:25

“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:

Philippians 2:9-11

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:

Isaiah 66:19

“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:

Psalm 86:9

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:

Matthew 5:16

(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:

Matthew 6:9

(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:

 Revelation 5:11-13

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:

Colossians 3:17

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:

Psalm 115:1

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.

Discuss… 


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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…

Click here to go on to part two…

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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 to the neglect 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.


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“Hustle! Hustle! Hustle! Hustle!”

I was 11.  I heard this word more than any other word during my Little League days under the summer sun in Bemidji, MN.  Coach Whitey Anderson could say HUSTLE more times in a minute than anyone I’ve ever known.  I loved baseball.  Still do.  In large part, thanks to Coach Whitey.

“Skogerboe, you’re a ball player, son.  You’re a ball player.  You can play this game right here.  Yessir.  Skogerboe’s a ball player.”

Coach Whitey was like encouragement on steroids for a young second baseman who otherwise wouldn’t have considered himself much of a ballplayer.  I was moderately athletic, but overshadowed by the up-and-coming superstars.  I could hold my own in the field and maintained a somewhat below average track record in the batting box, but I kept in the game year after year, growing better in my skill-set and deeper in love with the game.  Coach Whitey fueled me to keep getting better, to learn why “hustle” had more to do with a healthy competitive attitude than just physical “hurry-up,” and he helped build into me a deep love of baseball that has never gone away.

Now I have a 10-year-old out there under the lights.  I see his coach picking up the mantle from Coach Whitey for the next generation.  I see him FEEDING encouragement and high expectations to the young men under his charge.  And the boys are thriving.  When Isaac talks about baseball, his eyes flash.  Coach Haberlie is not just getting the bases covered, and he’s not just getting results…  he’s building baseball lovers.

I just got an email from Coach last night, asking me to encourage Isaac, that he was so proud to have Isaac on the Team, and he is consistent in saying, “He is made for this game.”  I hear echoes of Coach Whitey… “You’re a ball player, son.  Skogerboe’s a ball player.”

These guys are both great leaders, and I hold them both in high regard.

The consistent ingredient in great leadership isn’t enthusiasm.  It isn’t deeper, better, higher knowledge.  It isn’t the ability to control outcomes.

The consistent ingredient in great leadership is this:  INFLUENCE.

Coach Whitey literally changed my life.  My childhood years are full of great memories, and I was a ball player.  I believed it to my core.  And now I see Isaac out there making plays, wrecking the knees of his baseball pants, and it’s better than the Twins.  He’s hungry for baseball.  Isaac’s gone from casual to passionate.  THAT is INFLUENCE.  And Coach Haberlie has been clear from the beginning:  His goal is to help shape these boys into young men of character first, great athletes second.  He’s not only influencing the boys… he’s influencing their dads.  That’s great leadership.

All kinds of people read this blog.  Friends and family, Pastors, Ministry leaders, Worship leaders…  All kinds of people in all kinds of leadership roles.  Here’s where ball meets bat, rubber meets road, hammer meets nail on the head…  LEADERSHIP = INFLUENCE.

This has implications for two groups today.

First of all, if you don’t consider yourself a “leader,” you are WRONG.  Think about your circle of relationships.  Certainly among those relationships are a handful over whom you have some kind of influence.  If you have influence, you have leadership.  You may lead badly, of course, and influence those around you to make bad choices, to turn away from God or from wise counsel.  But make no mistake:  if you have influence, you are a leader.  Lead well.

Secondly, if you THINK you are a leader, or if you are a leader by position, this is a good measuring stick for you.  Are you herding a group, or are you leading?  Are you steering outcomes, or are you leading?  In other words, are you truly INFLUENCING the lives of those you lead?  If you are in a position of authority, take a cue from Coach Whitey and Coach Haberlie… don’t just steer.  LEAD.  Don’t just point people.  INFLUENCE people.  Stop, pray, and think about how you can not just get the job done, but how can your influence lead to changed lives.  If you are a leader, then LEAD WELL.

The consistent ingredient in great leadership is INFLUENCE.  If you don’t have influence, you’re not really leading.  And if you think you don’t have a role as a leader, invest in those you have influence over.

We only get one life.  Wield some influence and change some lives, because time is short.  And in the spirit of Coach Whitey… HUSTLE.


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It was like a punch in the gut.

I couldn’t breathe.  I just sat in the pew next to her with my jaw clenched.  There were eternal consequences here, I thought.  I couldn’t belive this was happening.  I could feel her retreating from the church – retreating from Jesus.

He was a potential candidate for the now vacant Senior Pastor position in the church where I served as the Worship and Arts director.  He was being seriously considered for a call, and this was his day to preach.

She was a relative of a relative.  Visiting our church.  She NEVER went to church.  But this was her day. Prayers, the Spirit, and circumstance brought her here.  Could have been the most important day in her life, and she didn’t even know it.  She was wounded, hurting, lost.  She needed Jesus.  She needed “Come to me, all who are weary…”

He was a jerk.

It is one thing to preach the Law in all of it’s sterness to awaken the souls of the complacent and pierce the hearts of the defiant IN ORDER THAT they might receive the life-giving Gospel truth: Jesus has already paid our penalty, we have hope, it is finished.  It is another thing to revel in the preaching of the Law.  To wield it like a clumsy weapon, clubbing the saints and the searching alike.  As if guilt were a better indicator of healthy spiritual life than love.

I realized early in the message she would never come here again.  Truth be told, I had decided early in the message that if he took the call, I would not come here again, either.  But now I felt hope slipping away and angry walls being built, brick by brick.  He was railing. Railing against those who would defile their body with tattoos. Spit in the face of God by piercing their bodies, His temple.  Those who would wear their sin proudly like a badge of honor in their dark clothing and Doc Martin boots and heavy eye make-up.  How shameful they were. How disgusting their vanity and rebellion must look to God.

She shifted uncomfortably, uncrossing her legs to lower her Doc Martins under the pew.  Her plaid flannel sleeves weren’t long enough to cover the ink spilling down her forearm and onto her wrist.  She was ashamed.  Then she was angry. Then she was gone.

I have never – NEVER – forgotten the lesson of that day, but I’ve never written about it.  Here I am in a Lutheran Seminary, learning how to divide all of scripture into two distinct categories:  LAW and GOSPEL.  God has given us the Law to kill our self-reliance and to point us to the cross.  And as a fifth (sixth… more than that?) generation Lutheran, I’ve been taught that the Gospel without the Law is cheap grace.  People need to be confronted with their sin before they are ready to receive the Gospel.  True conversion involves repentance. We die to self before we are reborn.

But…

That “but” has big implications.  I have feared pushing against centuries of Lutheran orthodoxy and thousands of Spirit-led theologians who would warn me that in this regard, there are no “buts.”  Law, then Gospel.  LAW, then Gospel.

But…

Sometimes, people already know they are broken. Sometimes, people are aware that they don’t measure up. Sometimes people come to church expecting God to view them the way this clumsy, angry, mean-spirited preacher viewed them.  And to them Jesus says, “Come…”

Why is this? It is because He created us to be in a relationship with Himself, for His glory and our enjoyment.  It is not unholy or selfish to seek to enjoy God.  He crafted us with a longing to be satisfied.  And NOTHING satisfies like the enjoyment of God Himself.  As we express that enjoyment in worship, thanksgiving, service, obedience, and praise, God gets glory.  And the two great longings in the universe are simultaneously met.  Man hungers to be satisfied, God desires to be glorified.  And God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.

So I look at the great God-story of the Bible.  And I see how it all points to Jesus.  And I believe it is the GREATEST truth in all of time – and that people everywhere need to hear it.  And I look at the beginning of the story.  And I see God there, “In the beginning…”  And I see the beginning of man.  And I notice something important…

Adam was created in God’s image, bearing His likeness in a personality and a desire for relationship… and God said it was very good. They walked together in the garden and had face-to-face relationship.  It was very good.  And this is the relationship mankind was created to have with God.  This was God’s intent from the start, and it is His desire now.

And all of this is solidified before Genesis chapter 3.

Why is it we start out as preachers and street evangelists, wielding our bullhorns and pointing our fingers from the pulpits, and we start at Genesis chapter 3?

“She took of its fruit and ate, and she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”

Tragedy.  Horror.  Shame.  Separation.  Judgment.  Brokenness.  Pain.  Death.

It is true.  Because of that day, and because of all of the days between then and now that man has spent serving himself instead of our gracious creator God, everybody takes their first breath on earth as a sinner.  Disconnected from that “walk in the Garden… and it was very good” relationship.  We are hopelessly broken and unable to make our way back to God.  And that is why Jesus’ death on the cross is the centerpoint of history.  And that is why people need Jesus – to be rescued from themselves.  And that is why well-meaning evangelicals swing their clubs of condemnation.  They want people who don’t even realize they need saving to be saved. So the Law must do its heart-breaking work.  To break up the hard-packed earth of the hearts of men, so that the Gospel seed might take root and grow and bear much fruit.

But…

Sometimes people are broken and they know it already.  Must we always skip over the first two chapters of Genesis?  Must it always be LAW, then Gospel?

The message I have heard for so many years often sounds like this… (1)  You are a sinner. Your sin is ugly, and it separates you from God.  There is nothing you can do to avoid eternal judgment.  You are condemned by your sin. (2)  Jesus came to pay the price for that sin. On the cross, your sin was crucified with Him.  When he rose from the dead, He announced once and for all that forgiveness has triumphed.  Because of Jesus, we are forgiven, and we can be with Him in heaven forever.

You know what?  This isn’t the whole story. I submit that when we LEAD with the LAW, we beat up already wounded souls.  Not every time.  But often. Way too often.  I propose proclaiming a message, over a lifetime of biblical preaching, that looks more like this:

(1)  God loves you.  He created you for a purpose. God is zealously pursuing a relationship with you, and He will rejoice over you when you turn to Him.  This is what we are here for.  To enjoy the love of God.  God is a pursuing God, and you are made in His image.  He wants to restore you to your created purpose.

(2)  Sin mucked it all up. God is Holy and can’t be around sin.  He is righteousness, and He cannot tolerate sin.  Therefore, your sin separates you from Him, and nothing you can do can change that.  You will never be “good enough” for God.

(3) In light of Genesis 1 & 2 – in light of your created purpose – God made a way to redeem your soul.  Jesus death on the cross was payment for your sin.  Repent of your selfishness and self-reliance.  God has been pursuing you because He longs to be in relationship with you.  Jesus is the answer.  There is hope for even you.

Evangelicals will face judgment for the souls they have driven away from God with their clumsy handling of the Law.

Yes, the proud need to be broken.  But not by us.  By the truth of the Word and the work of the Holy Spirit.  And not all who hear us preach believe they don’t need God in their life.  Some come to hear because they simply have no idea how to find Him.  Some come to hear because they already consider themselves a screw-up.  Those people need to hear Jesus call, “Come, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest…”  And they need to know God is pursuing them.

Some of you are clenching your jaw right now.  You feel this is dangerous ground, and that I stand at the precipice of a slippery slope.  We cannot soften the full weight of the Law.  We cannot compromise. We cannot settle for “gospel-light” just because it’s what people want to hear.

I submit that your uncomfortability may come from the evangelical culture you have been steeped in.  What I am saying is rooted in scripture. God created us as deeply valued sons, born with a purpose first.  THEN sin broke the ideal.  First God created and it was very good.  THEN sin separated us from Him.  Some people will reject God because the church FIRST reflects His judgment rather than His love.  I believe more souls will be willing to hear the truth of their sin and their need for Jesus if they FIRST hear the truth that God loves them, considers them deeply valuable, and that he is pursuing a restored relationship with them out of his zealous love for us.

It’s not all about us.  It’s about Him. And when more souls are saved, and more hearts are set free and restored to their created purpose, God receives more glory.  He loved first.  It has been this way since Genesis 1 and 2.  Not just since the 3rd chapter, when we stood condemned by our sin.

So back to that day in the church pew, with my jaw clenched, and the tat-covered, lip-pierced girl sitting next to me…

I wonder what would have happened that day if the message surprised her, instead of confirming her suspicions.  “Yep, I am rotten.  Yep, the church is all about making sure I know that.  Yep, I thought this would be uncomfortable.  No way am I coming back to hear this stuff again.”

What would have happened if she would have heard how valuable she is to God?  That there is hope for her, and that she has been created by a God who knows her personally with all of her failings and rebellion, and still pursues her.

Tomorrow (Friday, May 13), a number of Christians on Twitter will be using the hashtag #4Giveness to connect with those outside of the church who have been pushed away from God by His people.  If this post resonnates with you, read this from my friend Chris Goforth, and join us tomorrow.

Too often the people of God have beaten people up with the Law as if WE don’t need it anymore, and it is meant to be applied as judgment to the sinners “out there.”  Too often we have stiff-armed people, making the gospel difficult to reach by way of a long trail of guilt and shame.  Jesus says “Come…” It is simple.  It is very good.

It is time to tell people that God is loving God who is pursuing them.

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‘we don’t need to beat up the broken and stiff arm sinners :: can i still be a lutheran?” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.