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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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“eating gravy is an act of worship :: thanksgiving precedes joy” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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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.

 

I’m wildly in love with my wife.  She’s smart, she’s quick-witted, she’s beautiful, she loves Jesus, she’s a great mom, she is discerning, she’s wise, she really loves people, she’s beautiful, she cherishes relationships, she’s not satisfied with “fine” or good enough,” she loves our kids intentionally, she’s beautiful… I can literally do this all day.

Why?  Why do lovers sing the praise of their beloved?  Because we have to, right?  We promised.  It’s our marital duty to praise our spouse.

That’s about as romantic as wet blanket.

NEVER!  I freely praise because she is worthy of it, and because my love needs to find expression.  I shout the fact that I married a miraculous woman because I take JOY in her.

This is the third post in a series.  Through a series of posts here, I want to unpack the biblical framework that undergirds my life and theology and ministry motivation.  In the first one, I established the basic proposition that we have been created to PURSUE JOY. I also laid out five key ideas that I am expanding one by one in this forum.  Then, in the second post, I discussed the first and foremost of these core ideas – namely, that God is wildly, passionately, zealously, jealously committed to the glory of His own name.  The Bible is clear that God’s highest priority is His glory, and that He alone is worthy of such adoration.  God is God-centered.  And that brings us to our second core idea, and the purpose of today’s post…

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

How can this be?  Even the Bible tells us that “God is love,” (1 John 4:8) and that “love seeks not its own.” (1 Corinthians 13:5)  And we know intuitively that self-centeredness is antithetical to love, which “seeks the good of others.” (1 Corinthians 10:24).  So how can God, who IS love, be so God-focused?  And how does this fit with our childhood songs and Sunday School lessons that all seemed to shout “Jesus loves me, this I know?”

First of all, we must be honest.  We must recognize the quiet rebellion alive in our questions.  God alone is God.  He is devastatingly magnificent, wholly righteous, sovereign in power, and incomparable in every field.  God is God.  We are not.  Who are we to question the motivation of the God who holds the breadth of the universe between His fingers?  As God reminded Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  He then spends two chapters posing a series of rhetorical questions to Job (and to us) about where we stood as he created the firey stars and the farthest reaches of the universe and knit together the largest and smallest of creatures out of nothing with sheer willpower and His mighty Word.

And so we walk humbly before this power, and we question Him with trembling.

The truth is, we ask these questions of God about the tension of love and vanity because we have reduced Him in our mind’s eye to the size of you and me.  When any other human being seeks his or her own adulation, it turns us off.  We like strength, we will celebrate valor, we showcase generosity.  But we don’t like it when we see someone blowing their own horn and calling for worship.  Why?  Because we are ALL flawed.  Humanity is a messy jumble.  No one is worthy of the kind adoration and devotion that our heart is wired to give.  No one on the planet.

Have you put God in that box?  If all the languages of the world were employed, and the sky was parchment, and everyone on earth wrote their praises to God without rest for eternity, we would not be able to adequately ascribe to God the depth of His worth and the excellencies of His great character, to say nothing of the praise of His grace and the awe-striking gift of redemption in Jesus Christ.  God actually IS WORTHY of non-stop, ever-flowing, ever-increasing praise and honor. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive honor and power and glory and praise.

We cannot and must not find in God’s pursuit of His own praise even a shred of hypocricy or a vapor of the charge vanity.  God calls for what He alone is worthy of.  God is worthy to be praised.

So… alright then.  If you were able to jump that hurdle, we may agree that God is worthy of highest honor.  But how does this translate into such great news for US?  How does God’s incessant pursuit of His own glory become “the most wildly loving foundation possible for our relationship with Him?”

John Piper’s Desiring God helped me connect the dots here.  He writes of the struggle within theologian and author C.S. Lewis to reconcile the loving nature of God with the overwhelming tide of calls to praise Him written into God’s Word… by God Himself.  And then, for Lewis, came the lightbulb moment…

The most obvious fact about praise, whether of God or anything, strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows in praise, unless sometimes we bring shyness in to check it. The world rings with praise: lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poets, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite games, praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians and scholars. My whole more general difficulty with the praise of God depended on my obsurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely valuable, what we delight to do–even what we cannot help doing–with regard to everything else we value.

And then, as Piper points out, here comes the key sentences:

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the joy is not complete until it is expressed. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are. The delight is incomplete until it is expressed.

YES!  That’s it!  I want to climb on the roof of our Seminary housing units and shout to the students walking by that my wife has captured my heart because expressing my joy in her brings my delight in her to consumation.  Delight unexpressed is incomplete.

This is truly genius Design at work.

In God’s pursuit of glory comes His demand for our praise, and our created desire to worship… something.  In Him alone is our thirst satisfied.  In praising that which is MOST praiseworthy are we most DEEPLY satisfied, and the genius of this design is that the expressing of this praise brings us the most soul-satisfying PLEASURE in the universe.  In fact, the joy that both awakens and satisfies our most primal need in life finds its voice in our fervent worship of the ONE who is worthy of it.  GENIUS.  We are satisfied in Him – He is glorified in us.  He delights in our praise – we delight in Him.  He receives glory – we find JOY.

Further, God proves the profound depths of His love for us in bringing us the most wildly extravagant gift possible.  It is not only wildly extravagant, it is truly the pinnacle gift – the best and highest possible gift to His children.

God gives us Himself.

May all honor and glory be lavished on Him.  May my life ring with it.  Even in typing this now, my heart is full – I’m full of JOY in Him, and I revel in His goodness and His love.  Less of me God, and more of you!

And thank you for Amy.  She’s so much more than I deserve.  It’s my joy to praise You for her and to praise You with her.

The primacy of God’s glory makes everything about Him… not about me.  THAT is truly the best of news, because it is a proclamation of freedom.  Profound freedom.  We’ll dive into that next time in “pursue joy part four.”  I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.  Refine my thinking.  God bless you, and may you find soul-shaking JOY in Him alone.

Click here to read part one  >>  “god wants to wreck your life”

Click here to read part two  >>  “carly simon, jesus loves me, and the supremacy of god”

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“i’m shouting from the roof :: pursue joy :: part 3” 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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When I think of parsing the world into categories, I remember the words of Bob Wiley: “There are two types of people in this world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”

Here I nod my head in affirmation.  Hard to be on the fence about Neil Diamond.

But there is a deeper division yet to be found among us – a starkly contrasted gulf separating one side from the other.  Beyond politics.  Beyond our opinions of Country Western music or our positions on relative morality vs. absolute truth…

A friend of mine wears a P.E.T.A. hat with a camouflage background, and in small print, the words “People Eating Tasty Animals.”  Thus the world is divided.

Meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters.

To all of you vegans and tofurky lovers…  You edamame snackers and soy milk chuggers…  All of you sprout eating animal huggers… the culinary gap between you and me is so vast that I will probably need to consider this post cross-cultural missions.  Even so, welcome.

To all of you bacon eating, brat grilling, pulled pork dipping, BBQ savoring, turkey roasting, elk hunting, jerkey gnawing, steak chewing meat eaters out there… welcome.  We view the world through a similar lens, you and me.  A lens through which Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is like a Mecca to which an annual pilgrimage seems the least we can do.  We are kindred spirits.

My goal in this post is to be a peacemaker.  To build bridges of understanding and unity between the “Good Earth” crowd and the “Famous Dave’s” Afficianodos.  Like Jews and Gentiles, Republicans and Democrats, Red Vines chewers and the Twizzlers-Only crowd, I believe there is common ground to be found in Romans 14.

Often in ministry life, leaders run into situations where there is tension between divided camps.  And often these tensions arise over issues of Christian freedom.  This is nothing new.  Paul experienced this from the very start of the church.

Romans 14 lays it out.  Here we see two camps, clearly divided.  The meat-eaters and the non-meat-eaters.  But this divide wasn’t so much a lifestyle choice or a philosophical hang-up about the ethical treatment of animals.  This divide was about religious freedom.

The pagan Roman culture surrounding the congregation in Rome was marked by excesses.  Food and wine were habitual indulgences in the worship of Greek gods, and there were those in the church who thought Christ-followers should safeguard themselves from such sensual self-indulgence and maintain a more marked distinction from the culture around them.  These were the non-meat-eaters and teetotalers.  Paul refers to them as “the weaker brothers,” but not as a condemnation or repudiation. Rather, it was a statement of clarification – that some within the church felt it was dangerous to reflect the culture in any way, and therefore choose to self-sensor their culinary palate.

P.E.T.A. + religious conviction.

There were others, of course, who stood by the grill, aprons donned, ready for the next church BBQ.  They claimed the freedom of 1 Timothy 4:4 (which hadn’t been written yet, but the principle was established…)

“Every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.”

And this is why I say “Thank you, Lord, for this tasty meat every time I sit down to partake in some succulent grilled beast.

But I’m off point.  The basic gist of the situation here was this:  There were some in the church in Rome who felt it was perfectly acceptable to eat meat and drink wine (not to excess, of course), and there were others who did not feel that church people should eat meat and drink wine.  Paul calls the meat-eaters more free, and the non-meat-eaters less free. And then he speaks to both camps…

Now, I don’t know about you, but it has been a long long time since I remember a bruhaha erupting over the lack of tofurky at our church BBQs.  So vegans and grillmasters alike, we can breathe a sigh of relief here, to this degree… I’m not making a case for the ingestion of meat or for the merits of upping your salad intake.  Since the meat we carnivores pick up from the butcher in Cub Foods hasn’t been sacrificed to idols – as far as we know – this post and Paul’s metaphor will be equally valid to the carnivores and herbivores alike!

Common ground!  A small victory.

So if “to meat or not to meat” isn’t the question, what’s the point of Paul’s story here?  What’s it got to do with church now?  Here? Today?

I’ll give you a real life example.  I’m a Lutheran drummer.  (There are only five or six of us, but we are mighty. Parum-pa-pum-pum.)  When I took my first ministry job as a worship leader, I served a church with multiple service styles, and a diverse congregation. Equal parts wee children and white hair.  This was the early nineties, and our conservative Association of congregations was not particularly quick to embrace contemporary worship styles.  There was a concern that the popular sound and instrumentation would become more a reflection of the popular culture than a tool in the hands of the Spirit.  There was a strong feeling among some that drums should have no place in church.  These were the non-meat eaters.  The weaker brothers – not in the validity of their faith, mind you.  This is no accusation and no condemnation.  Simply put, they did not feel the freedom to incorporate “rock and roll music” into a worship setting.

Then there were those in the congregation who were eager to worship in freedom – not just freedom of the heart, but in style as well.  The contemporary sound was to many a “new song,” a fresh expression, new life.  These were the meat eaters.  The stronger brothers.  Not better than, not more spiritual.  Simply comfortable with a higher degree of freedom.

So what does Paul say here?  God wrote this, of course, so it is alive and brilliant and wise… worthy of much study and a long exposition. But for this forum, I’ll pull out six key thoughts in the “meat-eater vs. vegetarian” debates we find ourselves in with the church.

When there is a conflict in the church regarding Christian freedom:

(1)  Don’t judge each other.  Verse 3 of Romans 14 says, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats…”  There is room for God-honoring differences of opinion in the Church.  Respect each other, keep the Gospel central, and allow for some of those differences in your church family.  We sharpen each other.

(2)  It’s OK to have conviction.  Paul reminds us in verse 5, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”  When we are dealing with the things of God, fence sitting is a cop out, and it dishonors the Lord.  Search the scriptures. Pray.  Make a decision that you belive is God honoring. And then hold to it HUMBLY.  Christian unity does not mean a lack of disagreement or differences in our convictions.

(3)  It’s not about you, it’s about US.  We die to self.  We live to serve.  Strong convictions do not override our call to love one another. Verse 7 says, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.”  For me, a carnivorous drummer in a church with a lot of white-haired saints, that meant truly caring for those friends of mine who felt the drums were abrasive – and sometimes painful in their hearing aids.  That meant limiting my volume, and bringing percussion and contemporary praise only with great sensitivity into the traditional service.

(4)  Love trumps our preferences.  If at any point our preferences or personal convictions cause spiritual distress or turmoil in the congregation… to the degree that spiritual harm is being done, it’s time to put down the steak knife and A1.  Verse 15: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.”  Meat eaters – those who feel the greater degree of freedom – the responsibility for unity in the Body rests with you.  Are you willing to forgo the fillet mignon wrapped in bacon for a torfurky burger, if only for a season, for the sake of love?

(5)  Words matter.  Spiritualizing our preferences is sin. And so is allowing people in the church family to cast strong moral judgment in areas that are clearly matters of Christian freedom and personal conviction without humble but firm pressback.  Verse 16 says this: “Do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.”  There shall be no vegetarian bashing here!  Nor shall there be any finger pointing at the wiener roasters!  In my early days, when I led worship in a contemporary form, I had absolutely NO PROBLEM with people expressing their opinions about the style, or the volume, of their preference for the great hymns of the faith over what they saw as the repetitive and shallow praise choruses we were using.  I had many great discussions about worship – and about the difference between form and essence.  But I drew the line when people spoke of the drums and contemporary worship forms as “worldly” or “carnal” or even “evil.”  No sir.  What about the loud clashing cymbals God asks us to praise Him with?? There is a stronger Biblical case to be made for playing drums unto God than for the necessity of Euro-centric muscial forms to be accompanied only by an organ or piano (strings and brass are allowed for special occasions or when played by Middle School students).  Convictions are welcome.  But pronouncements of one camp being the “God Team” and the other being “of the devil” are strictly verboten.

(6)  I have no chapter and verse to back this up, but for the love of everything holy, Tofurky is gross.  If I hadn’t just written #5 above I might even say it was of the devil.  I just might.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  (See #2…)

“I do not ask for these [disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in me, and I in You, that they also may believe in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  (John 17:21)

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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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“culturally driven worship? :: not with a fox, not wearing sox, not in a box” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Wow. This one is close to home. This one has actually set up shop in my living room and is enjoying a sandwich on my couch while wearing my slippers.  That close to home.

The truth is… church music is terrible.  And that’s not to say that it isn’t sometimes incredibly moving, effective, and inspiring.  But often… it’s kinda… bad.  Thankfully the work of the spirit and the sacrifice of worship does not require great music.  It requires an honest heart before God, and grateful submission to a personal Savior.  These are spiritual concerns, independent to some degree of the quality of the art in our local church.  Great music in church simply is not required for deeply personal worship.

But great music might help.

As a worship leader for the past 17+ years, I’ve been a part of some powerful high-level artistic experiences, and several musical expressions that should not be labeled art at all.  I’ve led with far better musicians than myself as well as rookies in the field.  Sometimes we have produced beautifully crafted art.  Sometimes we have produced something not so beautiful.  I want to keep the bar high – to either obliterate or redeem the phrase “good enough for church.”  I try to lead the MUSIC as best I can, but our focus remains primarily on the heart of the lead worshipers on our team.  I am far more interested in leading artists who are in an honest, growing love relationship with Jesus than in signing up the best local rock star.

And yet my ears are tired.

I remember reading a post not too long ago from a blogger who generates broad discussion amongst the worship leader community.  He asked us what songs were really “connecting” right now in our churches.  I read through the 100+ responses, realizing that for many of us, our playlists were almost interchangeable.

Crowder, Tomlin, Hillsong, Passion, Sovereign Grace, Maher, Brown, McMillan, Hughes, Redman, Gateway…

It was interesting.  And kind of sad.  I wondered what God must be experiencing as he hears our worship team singing “Mighty to Save” again.  I realized that at the exact same time there are probably 400 other churches in America singing that song.  I still wonder that today.  And I realize when I hear other churches leaders crank up their rhythm sections… my ears are tired.

Are God’s ears tired?

This post isn’t meant to address worship style, per se.  I just hunger for something fresh in church music  that moves my heart and inspires greater love of God. It isn’t about needing “new” songs all the time.  And it isn’t just about the technical aptitude of the players, either.  Christian radio, playing studio-polished recordings of passionate and gifted artists often has the same effect on me.  Unease. There may be some new things happening in me, or maybe a discontentment growing for what feels too familiar and too easy.  It made me think… What is about “church music” that is so… so… uninspiring sometimes?

I found a possible answer in Psalm 33:3

“Sing to Him a new song. Play skillfully on the strings with loud shouts.”

I see three important elements here.  Freshness.  Skill.  And Fervor.

Do you know when music in church is most effective for me – when it inspires God thoughts in me that lead to worship?  If you thought I was going to say, “When the music is presented with fresh language, or when it is skillfully played or led, or maybe music that is passionately honest about the truth of God…”  You’d be almost right.

Replace “or” in the statement above with “AND.” Psalm 33:3 is a command.  God wrote it.  He did not say, “Sing a new song… or play skillfully… or at least make it passionate.”

He said (my paraphrase), “Don’t just repeat the songs you like to sing because they ‘work,’ make sure you include songs that inspire people with new and surprising poetry and beautiful melodies and harmonies that reflect my creativity and my beauty.”

But God asks for more. The whole Bible is full of exhortations to bring our BEST lamb as a sacrifice, to offer the FIRST and the BEST to God, and for artists to “play skillfully, sing skillfully, craft skillfully” when our art is in service to the King.  God asks for a new song, but he doesn’t want us to bring something half-baked.  He wants us to play skillfully.  When a Worship Team plays instruments that are out of tune, or when singers miss entrances, or when the organist plays a wrong chord, our attention is on the Team, not on the Lord we are singing to or about.  Artistic skill doesn’t need to be “showy.”  In fact, the most skilled and Spirit-led musicians sweep us into the presence of God and practically disappear… our focus on the Audience of One.  Humbly wielded, artistic skill in the service of the King is a powerful tool for use by the Spirit.

And yet God asks for more. YES, we must create and present NEW songs to the Church and to the Lord.  YES, we are commanded to play skillfully – to bring our BEST lamb as an offering out of love for God.  But we are also exhorted to shout.  LOUDLY.  Of course, there is a place for quiet reverence, as well.  But I think this has more to do with our fervor than it does with volume. How often have we as Worship Leaders phoned it in?  How often have we just moved the church through our songlist, hearts disconnected from our faith?  God hates vain repetition, but looks to strongly support those whose hearts are fully devoted to him.  As artists and leaders in the church, we must have a transparent, contagious, firey love relationship with God.

Freshness.  Skill.  Fervor.

The problem with most “church music,” in my view, is that I rarely see all three of these qualities present at the same time.

I have seen passion on display without much skill, and it can be painful.  I’ve seen skillful players who seem to be more interested in their music than their Lord, and it can be distracting.  And so often Worship Teams are slow to create, slow to adopt new expressions, slow to use their imaginations.  Skill and passion can only go so far the 94th time your church sings “Open the Eyes of My Heart.”

Freshness, Skill, AND Fervor.  Three elements that would go a long way in making our artistic leadership more effective. They are not suggestions, as if two out of three are good enough. They are commands.  Remember… God wrote Psalm 33:3. Often I see one of these elements, or two at a time, but to see all three at the same time is rare.  And that’s part of why “church music” often leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  Can you relate?

If artists in the Kingdom of God would commit to bring fresh artistic creative juice to their art, to work hard at their craft and bring their BEST offering to the Lord and His church, AND to sing and play with passion, “church music” might have an entirely different connotation.

But there is something even more important to me, more soul-stirring in me, something that is a non-negotiable if art in the Church is going to move me to worship with freedom and gratitude.  Something beyond a new song played well by a passionate artist.

It is a artist who knows the Lord intimately and reflects that love relationship in their art.

The trump card.  The non-negotiable.  The single greatest factor that will help artists in their local church break hearts and usher in space for the Spirit to interact with the souls of the congregation. It is the power of a life truly devoted to Jesus.  And although many, many church musicians profess a personal faith in Jesus, it is rare to experience true depth of personal devotion to Jesus IN THEIR ART.

I’ll end this with a story.

One afternoon several years ago an elderly gent from our congregation asked if he could sing a song for the church.  He admitted he didn’t have much musical ability, and that he’d be more comfortable without an accompanist so he didn’t need to stay in one key.  Out of concern for him and for our church, I asked if I could hear him first – before we had him sing for a service.

Stan agreed, but he admitted that even just singing in front of me made his knees knock.  How would he feel in front of 300 more?  Yet he felt that he should to do this – to express his love for Jesus.  One hurdle at a time, I told him.  Stan and I wandered into the big, empty sanctuary. And I took a seat about 5 rows from the front.  We prayed together.  And Stan sang.

With a cracking voice he started in on the first line, eyes closed, hands trebling.  “I come to the garden alone…”

My heart broke. For the next three minutes tears flowed freely down my cheeks and dripped onto my collar.  It was maybe the most moving piece of church music I can remember.  Stan sang an old song badly.  But it was so honest, and so deeply rooted in his love for Jesus, it catapulted my heart before the throne, and I worshipped.

Stan played the trump card. Jesus meant everything. More than polish.  More than art.

So, artists in churches all over the world, I exhort you with the authority if the Word of God, to bring NEW expressions of worship to your congregations.  I exhort you to NEVER settle for “good enough for church” mentality, unless that means your bar is set very, very high. And I encourage you to let your music be full-throated and played with zeal.

But above all, express an honest and deeply rooted love of Jesus.  Some of you may need to stop producing art for church until your heart is overflowing.  Then, out of the over flow… Sing a new song to the Lord; Bring your BEST offering… and make it loud.

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“church music is terrible :: how to make it better” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

So you’ve been way up there on the mountaintop with God, right?  So close. Your life has changed and it’s going to be different from this point on. From this mountaintop experience forward. You promise.

Can you relate?

This week over 1,800 people have been gathered in Estes Park, CO, for the 2011 Association Free Lutheran FLY (Free Lutheran Youth) Conference to worship, hear the Word of God preached and taught, and to grow in their faith.  Friday night FLY wraps up, and 1,800 souls will descend from a literal mountaintop experience with God.

Buckle up. You’re about to re-enter life with the low altitude dwellers again.  Life among the normal people.  With all the same stresses and disappointments and temptations that seemed to be at a safe distance when you were up there – so close to Him.  And you may be worried that the glory is going to fade.

Moses had a mountain top experience with God, too.  Exodus 34.  He would go up on the mountaintop (Mt. Sinai… not Eagle Cliff) and talk to God face to face, like talking to a friend, and when he came back down from his time being so close to God, his face would literally GLOW. Totally freaked people out. But everyone knew He had been with God, and it changed him.  Moses was LITERALLY letting his light shine. Hide it under a bushel no. He was gonna let it shine.

How about you? Up there on the mountain with God.  Are you gonna let it shine?  Is your newly bolstered faith going to freak people out?  I hope so. God’s love for us is so undeserved and so mind-blowing when we understand God’s wrath and our position as an enemy of the Holy One… and in that hostile state, Jesus suffered the humiliation and pain of the cross until he was dead.  God died.  As a substitution and atonement for OUR sin.  Why do we walk around among the low-altitude dwellers as if that truth is just another facet of our complex personality?  Shouldn’t it be THE DEFINING TRUTH that animates everything else about us?

But you… sure, your face is all shiny now with the nearness of God, but you know that normal is just around the corner.  Listen, even Moses could relate.  Look at 2 Corinthians 3:13…

“Moses… would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end.”

In other words, his shiny face would eventually begin to dim at  lower altitude.  The evidence of the nearness of God would fade, and Moses didn’t want people to see it.  He didn’t want them to see His return to “normal.”  He wanted the glory.  He wanted the nearness.  He wanted to shine.

And you’re up there with God, hearing Him talk to your heart, singing to Him with newfound abandon.  And you don’t want the return to normal.  You fear the descent. You want to shine.

LISTEN UP, YOU ON THE MOUNTAIN WITH GOD! You don’t have to fear the descent.  Jesus came and established a new normal.  You can shine with a peculiar supernatural confidence that doesn’t come from you at all, but from the King of heaven Himself.  There is a new covenant in Christ.  We are image-bearers, and now LIGHT-bearers for Jesus.  Powered by the indwelling Spirit.

And this isn’t just for the FLY attenders.  I remember years ago sitting across the table from a friend at Applebee’s, trying to talk him out of filing divorce papers.  “I used to be so close to God,” he said.  He talked with his hands. “Now I’m way back down here, and I used to be way up here.  I just feel like it would take me so long to get back up there again.”

Can you relate?

Here’s the truth that we have such a hard time believing…  There is no mountain to climb. Jesus died.  It is finished.  The verse in 2 Corinthians 3 that I shared about Moses is preceded by this one, verse 12…

“Since we have such a hope we are very bold, NOT LIKE MOSES, who would put a veil over his face…”

With Jesus, everything changed forever.  Now we have confidence to enter the presence of God and to stand before Him SPOTLESS, because Jesus is our Redeemer, and now He is our Advocate.  He paid our price.  We don’t need to offer sacrifice like Moses did.  He WAS the Sacrifice.  He IS the Sacrifice.

Check out verses 16-18…

“But when one turns to the Lord the veil is removed.  Now the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.  And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same likeness from one degree of glory to another…”

WHOA!  No veil! No shame!  From one degree of glory to another… you just keep getting shinier.  Don’t fear the descent.  You have access to God RIGHT NOW in Jesus Christ.  The veil is torn.  He is the Door.  He is the Way.  Life is in Him, and it accessible to you right now.  No mountaintop required.

God bless you when you sense the very real nearness of God.  And God bless you when you can’t.  Because the truth is, the old normal has been blown away in Jesus.  The new normal is shining like the sun.

Why do we worry that God might only fuel people on the mountain top?  God isn’t only with you on the high places.  Jesus promised us, after all, “And LO, I will be with you always…” (Sorry. Couldn’t help myself there.)

You’re good to go.  Since you have such a hope, you are very bold. There is no mountain to climb.  Don’t fear the descent.  Let it shine.

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“moutain top descent :: no bushels allowed” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.