It was almost 20 years ago now. We sat around a stack of pizza boxes, yellow legal pads and number number two pencils in hand, and we agonized over language that would clarify our purpose and our values as a Worship Ministry team at a church in Bloomington, MN. It was painful.
But it was fruitful. This was the brotherhood. My team of Levites. Worship leaders and lead worshipers and partners and my best friends. We wrangled and argued and refined and prayed and read the Bible and fought to find the words that would guide us in worship ministry over the next decade and a half. Further, it would come to be the guiding document for the worship ministry in a new church plant that I would join a few years later. We have co-opted these words and leaned on them as a guiding path for ministry in several capacities since, including the worship and arts ministry of the church I am serving as Pastor as of this year, St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Though I am a lead Pastor now, the first 20 years of my ministry life were spent leading worship ministry teams.
When I speak to churches about worship ministry, I strongly advocate entering into the process of developing and clarifying a team-wide biblical ministry purpose, and values that reflect the overall mission and values of your congregation. Clarifying words give the ministry team a TARGET. It’s hard to measure whether or not your ministry is accomplishing it’s goal if the ministry has no clear idea what that goal is. But the process of writing our purposes, mission statements, values… ouch. You sweat blood. So I’m not talking about banging this out in a couple hours over some delicious Papa John’s on a Friday night. Nope. It will probably take you months. And lots of frustration. And a few blessed light-bulb moments. And prayer.
But then, when you get to the end of the process, and the whole Team is on board and committed… the synergy and the unity and the depth of fellowship in that ministry is hard to put into words.
For more than 15 years I haven’t changed a word from what we started with in those pizza box sessions in Bloomington. Not a single word. Because I BELIEVED in them, and I believed God had granted us clarity, blessing, and direction. I still believe that.
However, purpose statements are only valuable to the degree that they point you to a biblical target that reflects the heart of God and is rooted in the truth. Purpose statements ought to be developed CAREFULLY, and PRAYERFULLY, so that they coalesce a ministry Team around a clear and truly God-honoring rallying cry. To the degree they reflect scripture, they will be helpful. To the degree that they misdirect away from scripture, they will be harmful.
So here we are. More than 15 years later. And we needed to make a change.
I guess this was born out of a season of looking at our theological positions under a microscope. Having just launched a new website for St. Olaf Lutheran Church, our deacons and I have been dissecting and finessing the wording on our site in the “who we are” and “what we believe” sections. As I went to post our Worship and Arts Ministry Purpose and Values, I realized something that flew under the radar for all these years.
Our original purpose for worship ministry looked like this:
“We exist to model and facilitate deeply significant worship expressions that result in transformed lives.”
My focal points in this statement have always been on (1) both modeling AND facilitating worship, and (2) transformed lives. In other words, we don’t just lead worship, we model it. And secondly, we expect God the transformer to change people into His image if His Spirit is moving as we worship.
But we need clarity when we express theological positions. And here’s the rub… I realized that in these words we had actually taken on responsibility here as a Team that we were never intended to carry. Because worship is always RESPONSE to God the initiator, “worship expressions” don’t RESULT in transformed lives at all. That is assigning power to the act of worship that it does not and can not hold.
So, lo these 15+ years hence, I have made a change. Our purpose statement now reads, “We exist to model and facilitate deeply significant worship expressions that REFLECT transformed lives.”
BOOM. The power of the GOSPEL changes people. Worship is the response.
Focus. When I write I realize that I need to work hard to get my head in the right space. I need to cut out the distractions, slow my mind down, clear the clutter. And it takes a while. There are so many competing streams of thought running through my brain, and so many outside distractions vying for my attention, that it takes discipline for me to focus my writing. To quiet myself so that I can communicate clearly the ONE THING I want to say. My goal as a communicator is to be more like a laser beam, and less like a fog lamp. Focus.
This is the principle of “irreducible minimums.” It is the process of reducing something down to its most elemental level, so that it can’t be reduced any more without being fundamentally changed into something else. In Chemistry class, we learned about molecules, for example, the smallest identifiable unit into which a pure substance can be divided and still retain the composition and chemical properties of that substance. In my high school Composition class, Mrs. O. always challenged us to “use fewer words.” Get to the point. Cut to the chase. Irreducible minimums.
The prophet-poet King David gave us a moment of clarity like that in Psalm 27. For a moment, in the midst of declaring his faith in God to carry him through a season of intense hardship and danger, David pulls back the curtain to reveal the central most focused desire of his heart.
“ONE THING I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD, and to seek him in his temple.” (27:4)
That’s focus. “In all of my heart, God, you alone enthrall me. When I clear away the clutter, and boil down my desire to its purest essence, it is YOU that I want.” David says, “If I lose everything else, but have communion with my Lord, that is enough. My soul is satisfied in Him alone.”
Paul makes a similar declaration in Philippians 3:8. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Do you see? This is Paul’s ONE THING. Knowing Jesus. Relationship with God trumps everything else.
So I examine my heart. I ask, “What is my ONE THING?”
I encourage you to spend some quiet moments with this question, too. And I can help you. It may be too easy to give the expected answer here. I mean, for those of us who go to church regularly for worship, isn’t it expected of us that our answer would be, “well, JESUS, of course. My ONE THING must be JESUS”? That’s too easy. I’m not asking you to put your finger on what you think the right answer should be. I’m asking you to consider what is actually TRUE.
Pleasure is like a gauge that measures value. So maybe instead of trying to simply name your irreducible minimum – your most important, most deeply seated desire – it may be easier to reflect on what it is that brings you the deepest pleasure. What do you enjoy most? What floods you with delight? Now we’re getting at it. The heart of your heart. Meditate on this. Clear away the distractions, and pray for clarity. All of us have our own ONE THING. Focus. What is yours?
Be honest with yourself. And with God.
David and Paul understood something about God that transformed them, emboldened them, and gave focus to their whole life. By the grace of God, they came to understand in the heart of their heart the truth of Psalm 16:11, which David wrote: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
How much joy do you want? How about a bottomless well of it? That’s fullness of joy. And how long do you want it to last? 75 years? 85? How about forever?
I know my ONE THING. I know that I know that I know. I want fullness of joy in the presence of God forever. I want to KNOW Jesus more and more, because in Him alone will all of my other desires be swallowed and satisfied and overpowered.
So today, find a quiet place to get alone with your thoughts and to talk with God. Ask yourself what brings you the greatest happiness. What is the ONE THING that you can’t imagine being without, even if it costs you every other desire and dream cluttering up your heart space?
I submit to you that David and Paul had it right. Until being at peace and in love with Jesus becomes your irreducible minimum, you will always feel the nagging tug of dissatisfaction. But when He becomes your ONE THING, you will find joyful rest for every longing of your heart.
This is a very unique time of life. Nine weeks from now I will graduate from the Association Free Lutheran Theological Seminary. If God wills it, I will soon be serving a congregation as a pastor, but today we don’t know where. Nine weeks. These seasons in the in-between are formative. They stir deep thoughts, and honest prayers in us. I’m examining what kind of pastor I hope to be. How God has wired me to serve Him.
These are my top five pastor non-negotiables:
1. I will delight in God. My ONE THING.
No matter what, I must fufill this purpose. God made me to delight in Him, to find my joy and my peace in Him. To honor Him in all things. To seek refuge in Him. To lean into His strength. To claim sonship in Him through the blood of Jesus, shed for me. And to fear Him. And love Him. Whether or not I ever pastor a church, I will delight in God. David wrote about this in Psalm 27:4. His ONE THING was close communion with God, and he wanted it forever. If I don’t live in close communion with Him, I can’t pastor. Ministry is overflow. Ministry is love, and I can’t generate that by sheer willpower. I won’t fake it. So this is first.
2. I will be the husband and dad my family needs.
Amy and the boys need me to be a husband and a dad. I will honor them, lead them well, and protect our relationships above all others. With God’s help, I will live in the tension between the needs of ministry and the needs of family with peace and freedom and joy. If my family is a wreck, my heart will be, too. So this is second.
3. I will speak the truth in love.
Preaching and teaching the Word of God. All of it. That is the life-blood of the Church. The hard words that convict, and the jaw-dropping promise of mercy and forgiveness and FREEDOM found in Jesus alone. I believe the Bible is absolutely TRUE, and inspired by God, and it lives and speaks to hearts right now, today. It is the voice of God, and it saves souls. My primary ministry priority in any congregation will be speaking the truth of God’s Word in the depth of love that He has for all who hear it. And He is shaping me; I am loving this call to PREACH and teach now more than EVER. So this is third.
4. I will love people.
God loves people. When Jesus spoke about the most important commandments, he said LOVE GOD and LOVE PEOPLE. This is the boiled-down, nut-shell, laser-beam focal point of our life’s calling as followers of Jesus. So whether or not I am ever a pastor, God asks me (and equips me) to love people. Especially then, as a pastor. How awesome is this? My job is to LOVE people. And especially those who are hard to love. And those who need it most. I can’t believe I get to do this with my life. So this is fourth.
5. I will build relationships. For years I have said “Ministry is RELATIONSHIP.” Disciple-making means proclaiming the truth of the Gospel, so that those who believe it will enter into restored relationship with God through faith in Jesus. That’s first. But we are also called to be relationship-builders with people. Both within the local church (doing life together!) and within our communities, familes, circles of influence. Anywhere we bump into PEOPLE, we are relationship-builders. Because real relationship opens doors. It reflects the love of God, and it allows for the kind of honest conversations that lead to sharing our God-story. As a pastor, I will teach, lead, and model the high priority of intentional relationships. So this is fifth.
There are a thousand ways I am willing to be flexible as a pastor someday. Someday soon, we hope! But these five I go to the mat for. These five are priority. My first things.
When you boil your goals and values and priorities down to the very core, and you strip away all the non-essentials, can you identify your ONE THING? Cut through the clutter and see what it is that you’re really living for.
>> Please follow along in Luke10:38-42. You can read it online here.
The Good Samaritan. Like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, we know the moral of this story, right? Be a GOOD neighbor! We see ourselves in the role of the Samaritan, thinking to ourselves, “I bet I would have stopped. If I saw that man on the side of the road, I would have been the one to help him.” Really? What if it cost you two month’s salary? What if you got robbed and beaten yourself during your rescue mission? What if you traded in your reputation for the safety of that stranger on the side of the road? What if you missed your dream job interview because of this dirty, bleeding nobody? This story digs deeper than our Mr. Rogers moralizing. This story makes us uncomfortable. It challenges the way we think about love.
>> I encourage you to read the short account first in Luke10:25-37. You can read it online here.
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.
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.
The primary difference between Moms and Dads, as far as I can tell, is the length of leash with which we are comfortable letting our kids run. While 99% of the time Dads know that their children can run far afield with no more than a few near misses, the occasional potential debilitating accident, and a brush with death now and again, we can all say a collective “THANK GOD” for Moms during that other 1% of the time… when it really matters.
As the father of boys – five of them – my leash is even longer than the average guy. Boys have gotta take an occasional ER run in order to experience the fullness that life has to offer. No pain, no gain, right? Boys don’t climb to the treetops because it just looks so safe up there. Boys don’t launch their bikes and skateboards off ramps, steps, and railings because they shy away from risk. Boys don’t try to light stuff on fire because they simply long for serenity. No sir. They are as addicted to adrenaline as they are to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And somewhere in the heart of every Dad is that 12 year old daredevil explorer we used to be. We understand. Climb that tree, kid. I’ll drive you to the hospital if you break an arm.
However, there are moments. We Dads know that there is a threshold. We know because we’ve had to cross it a thousand times ourselves. These are the “big boy” moments along the road that lead to growing up. We can see it in the eyes of our children, and we remember. They are the times when we wish the incline wasn’t quite so steep and the roller coaster wasn’t quite so aggressive. Sometimes the hard path is a necessary one. Sometimes the hard path may not be entirely necessary – but good, nonetheless. These are the times when we must look our boys in the eye, and with all the compassion we can muster, utter the words every child needs to hear once in awhile…
“Man up, Nancy.”
Sure, there are people out there with kids actually named Nancy. I don’t think that makes it any less effective.
Real life example: This past weekend I drove my 11 year old son Isaac to meet up with a youth group from our church on their way to a weekend retreat across the border in Wisconsin. I had to drop him off at a suburban Applebee’s where the van would pick him up about 15 minutes after I left. His bags were packed, the list was double checked, Bible securely stowed, sleeping bag and pillow in the back of the Jeep, and Ike was a bundle of energy. I could tell that his adrenaline habit was being fed right now. Heading off to a retreat away from the family, out of state, no older brother with him this time. His first “on his own” outing with the youth group. He was stoked.
But his eyes were sending mixed messages. Flashes of trepidation between the smiles. Traces of concern peeking out the corners of his eyes, betraying his “I can do this” adventurous gaze out the windshield.
“Are you nervous?”
Pause. “Nah. I’m excited.” Pause. “I mean… first time I’ve really done this.” Pause. “Seth’s not gonna be there…” Pause. “But it’ll be awesome.” He said it like a declarative statement, and then his face looked at me like he had just asked a question.
I grabbed the bill of his baseball hat and jerked it around with a grin. “You’ll do great, Ike. You’ll have a blast.”
That was it.
Sometimes the “man up, Nancy” moments – the big boy moments – don’t require many words. I knew he’d be OK. And this independent moment was both good and necessary. He knew it was worth a few butterflies. The best rides are, right?
Someday I won’t be dropping him off at Applebee’s and waving goodbye for the weekend. Someday it will be a college dorm. Then he’ll be the excited one, and the tears will be mine. Amy will likely be giving ME a much needed “Man up, Nancy,” when that day comes.
The point here, after all, is that I am not primarily seeking to shield my boys from pain. I have friends and family in the Marine Corps. who tell me “pain is just weakness leaving the body.” My boys love it when I quote the Marines.
Pain avoidance is not our job, parents. Character development is. Maturity is the goal. These objectives are long term and require stretching. Sometimes, the hard path is the best one.
Isaac and I never talked all of this through. But I knew that getting dropped off at Applebee’s with his pile of bags to wait by himself for the Youth Group van was a big boy moment for him. And when he came home, among the hugs and high-fives, I was sure to look him in those just-a-little-bit-older eyes of his and tell him, “I’m proud of you.”
Certain stories in our family have a way of finding new legs year after year at our family gatherings. One such story has its roots in my parents’ small farm town upbringing in the upper northwestern corner of Minnesota, where the North Dakota plains have invaded the landscape, and families earn their bread in the rich black soil of the Red River Valley.
My dad was in 3rd Grade. The assignment was to write and share a poem about “your favorite sport.” One of dad’s friends stepped forward and shared, with great aplomb, the following legendary verse:
When I was a little lad
I ran to meet my Dad
O’er the fields so wavy
Oh, how I love to eat gravy
There is a simple perfection in this poem. The affectionate relationship between father and son. The eagerness of the son to join the father as a prelude to feasting. The tip of the hat to the waving wheat fields, ready for harvest… a sign of provision and plenty. And then, in a glorious climactic moment, the hailing of gravy. Nay, the very pleasure of ingesting said gravy. Economy of words. Perfect.
I’m going up north today to revel in my family. And to eat gravy. I love Thanksgiving.
Not just the holiday. The act. Not just the family meal. The relationships. Not just the gravy…
But gravy is a big deal.
“Gravy” is the extra goodness that makes life sing. More than brownish meat sauce. It is the extra. The “beyond enough.” The abundance of blessing. The richness of the meal. We could subsist on dry turkey and boiled potatoes, green beans and dry bread. But why? God has blessed in abundance. When we eat gravy, we celebrate the love God has for us. We feast, and thank the Giver. The gravy is the the savory saucy goodness that signifies the fat of life. Pressed down, shaken together, running over… In America, we all are blessed with abundance. If you are at a computer reading this right now, thank God. Thank God for the warm place. Thank God for the computer. Thank God for electricity, and the ability to reason. Thank God that you can read.
We have so much to be thankful for there are not enough seconds in a lifetime to express it adequately.
I saw a quote the other day that rang my bell: “Thanksgiving is a prerequisite to joy.”
Yes and AMEN. This is one of my most important goals as a dad – to raise gratitude-filled sons. Because I also want to raise JOY-filled sons.
I believe my boys were created by God to live their lives celebrating Him in joy. Not a “ho-hum, work-a-day, give me what I got coming to me” life. LIFE TO THE FULL. Enjoying freedom from sin. Living in obedience to God as a joyful worship response to the God who gave us life and breath and heartbeats and mozzarella cheese. And gravy.
The next few days in Bemidji, we’ll be in the thick of God’s greatest gifts. Family who love us. Abundant food. Faith in God at the heart of our conversations. None of it is lost on me. God is a good God. He is GOOD. In the midst of the best times of life, and in the hardest, He is good.
When I takes that first gravy-laden bite (and the third… and the forty fifth…), I’m going to be saying a prayer. “Thank you, God, that You are so good to me, though I don’t deserve your favor. Thank you for your ABUNDANCE.”
It was like a bomb hit my office. Both scary and exhilarating.
And I know that those of you who visited my office 15 years ago at Emmaus Lutheran Church are certain I’m talking about my decorating style, what with my, um… free-form approach to filing sheet music and whatnot. But that’s not it at all.
A hundred loose threads of theological string running through my brain were suddenly were drawn tight, snapping into place to form a perfect, beautiful knot. Right then, with trembling hands and tears running down my face, I knew what I was for.
I called Amy. Which is the thing you do when your whole life has suddenly changed direction. You call your spouse.
Before I wander farther into the woods here, let’s step back and take a clear look again at the trees. I’m in the midst of a series of posts here about the foundation of Biblical beliefs that fuel my life and undergird my calling as a Pastor and proclaimer of the Gospel, and I’m categorizing all of them under the rubric “PURSUE JOY.” So far I have posted an introductory column (read it here), and have expanded upon the first two of five Biblical propositions in the series. Click on either one below to read those posts:
So far I’ve attempted to make a clear Biblical case for the fact that God’s highest purpose and most profound desire is for the ever-increasing praise of His glory. The Bible is FULL of this truth from cover to cover, but many Christians have mistakenly fallen into the misconception that what matters most to God is US. That Jesus came to earth primarily to rescue US, because of His profound love for US and His desire to bless US. While it is true that we are deeply loved and exceptionally valuable in His eyes, the Bible makes it clear that we have been called as a people of God for His glory (Isaiah 43:6-7) and that Jesus ULTIMATELY went to the cross not simply for our sake, but for the glory of His Father and His name (see Jesus’ prayer in John 17:1, for example, and what John has to say about our forgiveness in 1 John 2:12).
Then I explain from a Biblical platform why this is in no way some kind of grandiose ego-trip. Instead the God-centeredness of God stands as the most extravagantly loving basis possible for our relationship with God. As God is our heavenly Father, he seeks to give us the best possible gift (see our relationship to God clarified in Romans 8:14-17, and God’s Father heart to us in Matthew 7:11). The best, highest, most valuable gift to us in all of the universe and beyond the bounds of time is GOD HIMSELF. And so, in His supreme love, He gives us Himself to marvel at and adore for eternity – the highest and best for us is to not focus on us at all, but to fix our attention and lavish our affection on the ONE object of supreme and unfailing worth. That is why Our deepest satisfaction comes in the fulfillment of our God-wired need to WORSHIP, and when the object of our worship is God Himself, we are satisfied, and God is glorified, and the union of the two is a consummation of such beautiful genius that there are not words for it. That is why in my last post I wrote, “In praising that which is MOST praiseworthy are we most DEEPLY satisfied, and the genius of this design is that the expressing of this praise brings us the most soul-satisfying PLEASURE in the universe. In fact, the joy that both awakens and satisfies our most primal need in life finds its voice in our fervent worship of the ONE who is worthy of it.”
To pursue JOY is to WORSHIP God.
The irony is that most people pursue happiness while running away from God. Colder… colder…
Now, back into the woods…
I was there in my messy office at Emmaus, stuck somewhere between the staff meeting that had just wrapped up in Mavis’ office and getting to work on the upcoming Sunday service plans. I had been hired as a Worship Pastor, of sorts, albeit under the title of “Minister of Celebration.” So I was the Music and Arts guy on campus, with traditional and contemporary services to plan, choirs to direct, Children’s Musicals to arrange the music for, and leadership in the Worship Services. There was a lot of “stuff” to do related to my music degree – the one I was finishing up at Northwestern College with a career track in kind that would move through High School Choir directorship and on to College-level (or higher) conducting in a choral program some day.
But the “stuff” was not the “heart” of my job. I had come into this leadership role not too far outside of high-school. I had two years of Bible School under my belt, sure, and I had just a touch of worship leading experience as a drummer for the AFLC Youth FLY Convention in 1993 and again in 1995, but suddenly I was being paid to LEAD PEOPLE in worship, and I figured I better get a handle on what that meant… I mean beyond the laundry list of things that bugged me about other worship leaders.
In studying what it meant to lead worship, I learned that worship is an act of the heart… and my job was not to create an experience for people in the pews every week. It was to create “worshippers.” My job at its heart was literally to help the people of our congregation love God more deeply, more fervently, more honestly. Music and the arts were great tools for inspiring God thoughts, but they were simply a means to a greater end. The end was WORSHIP. Worship was the goal.
With my mind and heart full, on a day when I was particularly grateful that God had allowed me, for this season of my life, to enjoy such a rich job description, I pulled the Missions magazine out of my staff mailbox, along with a reminder of an upcoming deadline for my church newsletter article and a copy of the council report from last week’s meeting. Missions. Ugh.
If ever there was a reminder of my mediocrity as a follower of Jesus, the monthly “Missions” magazine that got dropped into my box was it. There they were – the REAL Christians – out there among the bush people and the teeming hordes in India and the orphans left to fend for themselves on the street in Brazil. There they were. They stood as an example of my weakness and selfishness.
I did not want to be a missionary. I knew that this meant I was not a fully mature Christian. Not a REAL disciple of Jesus. Sure, my heart beat fast when I would think of ways for our church to grow deeper in love with God. I mean, I wanted to take the church by the collar and give ’em a good shake, and with a smile in my eyes, shout about how awesome our God is, and why He’s worth our abandoned, unreserved, unselfconscious adoration. But I didn’t want to go to Ecuador. Second class. Second rate. Second choice. The missionaries… they were God’s first choice. They were the truly selfless ones.
But this looked… interesting. What is this? The monthly Missions publication was focused on… worship. Worship in the field. Worship in evangelism. Worship styles that incorporate other culture’s musical traditions. Worship, worship, worship…
Despite the innate sense of guilt that I felt even holding this magazine in my hands, I turned the cover. Within one minute, the bomb went off. I read these words, and my world changed…
This is what I’m for. This is what I’m for. To help people everywhere understand that they have been created to worship, and they’ll never be deeply fully completely satisfied until they embrace the truth… we are created to be worshippers. Tears. My career path has changed. I’m not in ministry part time as I prepare for a career in music performance. I’m not in ministry part time at all. This is what I’m for.
Missions exists because worship doesn’t.
“I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations… to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations.” (Isaiah 66:19)
We aren’t merely in the business of selling fire insurance to people all over the globe. We are in the business of helping every soul on the planet understand what they are for. Because if people don’t know Jesus, how can they worship Him? And if they can’t worship Him, how can they find true and lasting joy? And most important of all, how will God receive the GLORY He is due through their life? This is what the Church is FOR…
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging toGod, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
That was the day my life changed direction forever. Flashes of light. The scripture alive in me. My course was set. For the rest of my life, Lord, I want to spend the rest of my days helping people love you. I can do that in suburban America, or rural America, or even a wildly different culture like Canada… I want what you want – for you to receive ever increasing praise and honor. I understand. It is what we are ALL for in the first place.
That brings us out of the woods to look at our next tree in the “Pursue Joy” series. These are the truths that my life is now built upon…
(3) BECAUSE God is so passionately God-focused, He has made us and redeems us in order that we might find our ultimate fulfillment in the praise of His glory, at all times, right now and throughout eternity.
Whether I am playing drums, or at the piano, or in the pulpit, I will always be a worship leader. My pastoral ministry in caring for people and in counseling people will be a ministry of the GOSPEL… that more souls will be set free to worship. My preaching will be full of the GOSPEL… that the house of God rings with His praise more and more until Christ returns.