Monday, September 28, 2015

Public Worship Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

One of my favorite teachers on the subject of worship is Pastor Jack Hayford, former senior pastor of Church on the Way in Van Nuys, CA.  This week I am excerpting a portion from “A Man’s Worship and Witness” where Jack gives his own unique spin on one the very first worshiping communities—Cain & Abel (see Genesis 4).

Soiled hands placed vegetables in a tidy arrangement on the rock altar. Cain felt proud of his display. His brother, Abel, had begun assembling his own offering hours ago and still wasn’t done.  Cain was. All Cain did was walk into his garden and pull up the fine specimens out of the ground. They had grown all by themselves. And the garden was close by. It all seemed so easy.

A smug smile curled Cain’s lips. His brother- still searching out in the fields for an offering- was laboring for nothing, Cain mused. He looked again upon the grand, colorful altar. There it was. Vegetables. On the altar. Easy. This being one of his first offerings, Cain wondered what exactly was to happen next. Pondering this, he sat on a nearby stone and waited. He looked over at this brother’s altar just as Abel came through the bushes carrying several ewe lambs. It wasn’t long before the lambs were mounted on Abel’s altar and slain.

Cain noticed that Abel’s altar was smaller than his. Good. Having sacrificed the animals on the altar, Abel walked several paces back and knelt in prayer. Cain felt uneasy. He hadn’t done that. But comforted himself by observing that Abel’s altar was blood-stained and dirty, while his was neat, tidy and colorful: orange and red and yellow and green and – just then: Whoosh! Brilliant flames from out of nowhere- from another realm- licked up all of Abel’s sacrifice! All of it! Cain jumped to his feet. A few ashes drifted in the breeze. The colorful harvest on Cain’s altar remained defiantly the same-unchanged. Nothing happened to his.

Cain stormed off, angered and pouting. And it was later, as his tormented mind seethed with hatred and jealousy, that the Lord met him near a tall palm tree: “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it” (Genesis 4:6,7).

Shortly, Cain’s competitive jealousy grew to such intolerable levels that he rose in fury to kill his brother, Abel. And thus, the record teaches us: the first murder was born in the heart of a man who resisted God’s ways of worship. The first victim of violence was a man who worshiped God physically, openly, and freely.

Personally I am challenged by this story…not only from the original text, but also by the way Hayford has drawn applications for us as a worshiping community.  From this, I have come up with a list of takeaways:  
  • As we bring an offering to God (ourselves), He wants all of us, not what is comfortable or convenient.
  • Nothing less than our very best is really worthy of God.
  • He doesn’t require what He does not provide.
  • Man looks at the outside—God looks at the heart.
  • No true act of worship can be separated from the need for the shedding of blood.  Either we return to the old animal sacrificial system or we adopt God’s new covenant offer of the life of His son. (Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. - Hebrews 9:22)
  • Uncontested spiritual warfare can be deadly.  For the time being, Cain, an enemy of true worship, succeeded in quelling the sacrifice of praise offered by his brother. But unlike Abel, we are not left alone to be victimized by the Enemy in an effort to silence our praise.  This is why we often pray that God would “bind the enemy” (Mark 3:27) prior to our worship experiences.  We believe the One in us is greater than the one who is “in the world.”)
  • If we allow our worship to go public, it will impact others.  Some might be blessed and encouraged. Others will begin to pull away from us or, worse, try to discredit us.
  • As Abel learned, worshiping freely with abandon in public places can be hazardous to your health!  At the very least it can result in you being judged, ridiculed, less popular.  Kind of like Jesus.
  • In the end, warring over whose worship is more Christian or appropriate or godly still misses the mark. As wrong as Cain was, he still was not beyond redemption.  The writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel.”
  • Sincere and God-focused worship touches His very heart!  (“The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering...” 4:4) 
Bottom line?  May our ultimate goal be to bring pleasure to the One who alone is worthy, no matter what the personal cost. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Easier Sang than Done

Welcome again to each and every one of you who have joined us this fall!  I hope you have had a refreshing break and are raring to go.  To you veterans, you have been missed!  To you rookies, we are glad you are here and hope you still feel the same in a few months!!  As we start another choir season, let’s dive into the Word together for a few moments and see what it might say to us about our worship community.  Let’s focus on three little verses from an Old Testament prophet—Micah, found in chapter 6:6-8.  On one level, it satisfies because of its simple Q & A formula.  If only all of scripture was as clear and indisputable!  But on another level, it could be the source of the old adage: “easier said than done.” 

Q:  With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? 
He has showed you, O man, what is good.  And what does the LORD require of you? 
A:  To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

As worship leaders, we know that the very question Micah poses is critical to understanding the nature of worship. It's not about us. It's attitude before action.  It is giving before getting.  What can I bring? What can I offer…to the One who has everything, who owns everything? The apostle Paul reiterates this in Romans 12 when he calls offering ourselves to God as the reasonable thing, the spiritual act of worship.  It’s not the goal, it’s the starting point. 

Much of what we as a choir do in corporate worship involves words, speech, song lyrics, prayers.  But Micah suggests in this passage that offering ourselves to God in worship doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what we say (sing). His three prescribed action steps are just that…actions.  In some sense, our corporate gatherings are more about stated intentions than the fleshing out of what we vow to God.  It is here we declare before Him and one another what we desire to see become reality in our lives.  To put it another way, singing about the awesomeness of God, that He is holy, sufficient, above all gods, is quite different than demonstrating those beliefs with our lives. 

To act justly is one thing when hanging out with other Christians on a Sunday morning; quite another thing come Monday morning (or even Sunday afternoon).  It’s easy to love mercy when we corporately pray for the needs of the Body.  But what does it look like when others hurt us, devalue us, even oppose us?  And walking humbly?  That wasn’t even easy in heaven, when Lucifer lost his place and was cast out.  (Isaiah 14:12ff) The reason: He found it hard to be so gifted, so beautiful, etc., and to walk humbly at the same time.

Gathering around the common task of leading people in worship as a community provides us an excellent lab experience to practice these very principles.  Acting justly in the context of this ministry implies simply doing the right thing: keeping commitments (who was it who said 90% of life is showing up?), being punctual, honing your craft, giving your personal best, etc.  As teammates, it is important that we not only worship together regularly but also prepare together regularly.  We will not maintain a consistent momentum towards excellence if we allow issues of comfort or convenience to rule us as it relates to the grunt work of our task—practice. 

As a community, we love mercy when we foster a grace atmosphere...create a safe place for others to grow and be accepted. It means we treat others as we wish to be treated, assume the best motives, even when the behavior is different than expected or what you yourself would do, and be quick to forgive when behavior or motive falls short.  Loving mercy is intensely active and passionate, not passive and wishy-washy. 

And finally, we walk humbly with our God when we demonstrate the attitudes Paul writes about in Romans 12 and Philippians 2:  

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, 
but rather think of yourself with sober judgment,
In accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, 
but in humility consider others better than yourselves.
 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, 
but also to the interests of others.

So, again, welcome to this choir season!  Welcome to what I believe will be an exciting year of service, outreach and fun. But also welcome to the grand lab experiment we call Christian community, where we learn how to worship with more than words.  

I hope and pray each of you comes to discover your unique and valuable role in this family.  It might be your voice.  It might be your smile.  Maybe it is your ability to listen and care.  It could even be your ability to trust God in prayer.  Whatever it is, you are God’s treasure and have been placed here by His design.  The fact is that concepts like acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God are not all that difficult to discuss. But becoming a community of worshipers who experience that regularly in action?  Well that would be something to sing about.


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What Not To Wear

You may recognize the phrase “What Not to Wear” as the name of a popular cable TV show which finds seemingly ugly ducklings with frumpy dressing habits and transforms them into chic swans. It happens to be one of my wife’s favorite indulgences. The premise is simple: take one ‘lucky’ candidate (selected, by the way, by close friends and/or family members), put ‘em through fashion boot camp, give them a $5,000 credit card, and turn them loose on a shopping spree, and voila! —they are transformed into a more acceptable, less embarrassing part of mainstream society.

One of the criticisms leveled at this “helpful” show is that it spends the first 10 minutes dismantling the self esteem of its chosen “project” before attempting to reconstruct her. They mock their clothes, shoes, hairstyle, etc., even while trying to affirm the inner or essential beauty of these fashion failures. To be fair, they do spend much of the rest of the show trying to build up their client, focusing their attention on the root cause of the person’s less-than-appealing “presentation.” But by connecting one’s wardrobe, hairdo and makeup to their personal worth or value (even the approval of their friends and family), the viewer is left with the conclusion that it really is important to know what not to wear.

So does what we wear really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things? One ancient proverb states: “A pretty face and fine clothes do not make character.” On the other hand, a very quotable ancient Latin proverb contends: “clothes make the man.” The great humorist Mark Twain later modified that statement a bit, writing: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

Sadly, this is not how God intended it to be. He made His creation to live unashamed, wearing nothing at all but their ‘birthday suit’. Still, ever since our first parents lost their innocence through the fall, we have been trying to find just the right clothes to cover our bodies. I say right clothes, because what Adam quickly learned was that clothes may make the man, but not just any clothes will do. He discovered all too soon what not to wear—namely, leaves—even big fig ones. They have a habit of drying up, shriveling up and eventually giving up any secrets they initially might hide. (The prophet Isaiah, writing to God’s prideful people, observed that “we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” Isaiah 64:6b) It wasn’t until God himself fashioned skins for our first family that mankind began to understand that not all clothes are created equal. Those first ‘outfits’ were anything but cheap either, having been acquired at the price of some poor animal’s life, by the shedding of blood.

But those first skins were but a foretaste of a much more miraculous makeover that God had in store for us. He knew in advance that our wardrobe required something more permanent than garments labeled wash and wear. Out sin and shame demanded something more holistic than mere window dressing. The prophet Isaiah discovered this hundreds of years before the birth of Christ when he wrote:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, My soul shall be joyful in my God; 
For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, 
He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, 
As a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments, 
And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
{Isaiah 61:10 - NKJV}

This passage, as one guest preacher recently referred to it, is a legal statement for the Christian, for those who throw themselves completely on the mercy of Jesus for their salvation. The garment of salvation is put on us by God himself, not something we design, that we sew, or put on ourselves. So it is with the robe of righteousness. We are declared righteous because God has punished all our sin when Jesus became sin for us. It, too, is custom designed, purchased, and put on us by our loving Heavenly Father when we trust Christ. We are declared saved...righteous.

But out God-given wardrobe doesn't just have legal implications. We also wrestle with the practical side of this life every day, every moment. And for that, we are also provided a wonderful wardrobe, which we ourselves get to choose. It’s like having that $5,000 credit card to buy that which we could never afford or supply ourselves. Ponder this makeover:

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, 
clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. 
Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, 
which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
{Colossians 3:12-14}

Are you and I compassionate, kind, humble, gentle and patient by nature? No, but through the Spirit we can put on these divine qualities. Can you and I produce agape (unconditional) love on our own? We don’t have to. Put it on.

So, I guess knowing what not to wear is actually pretty important. For instance, don’t wear leaves (self-made attempts to hide your sin and shame). Don’t wear your own self-determined value system (all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment—Isaiah 64:6a-ESV). But from this point on, determine to enjoy the garment bought for you with the very blood of Christ (yours legally) and the clothes made possible for you through the work of the Holy Spirit (yours practically). It may not get you on a cable TV show, but you can sleep well at night knowing God’s got you covered.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Two negatives equal a positive

Sitting here listening to a new song from one of my favorite contemporary song writers, Nicole Nordeman, entitled Not to Us (from her new CD The Unmaking) To listen, click here. It references and embellishes another one of my favorites, Psalm 115, which begins…

Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory,
because of your love and faithfulness.
…our God is in the heavens; He does whatever pleases Him.

It is rare for the psalmist to begin with a negative, much less a double negative.  Not to us…not to us, O Lord. Truth is not all the psalms come out of the gate with praise or thanks.  Some start with questioning, others appear to be rants, still others suggest that David (and other musicians responsible for these 150 poems) could be a bit of a whiner.  Imagine that…a whining artist!  And yet God allowed these musings to be penned and recorded for billions to use as tools for worship.

I think David was so convinced that we are never to be the subject or object of worship that he chose to emphasize what it is not.  It is not about us, though it is essentially for us, for our edification.  And it is certainly not to us, and David gives us the reason why.  “Our God is in heaven; He does whatever pleases Him.”  Period.  As one prof once told me, “Whatever God does is right, because He is God.  When I become God, I can challenge His wisdom for doing whatever He does.” 

Now it is no small thing that we believe, and scriptures clearly teach, that God is good, and mighty, slow to get angry, rich in mercy, etc.  But often we find ourselves in the midst of pain, suffering, or confusion, actually placing God on trial, demanding that He make it perfectly clear what exactly He is up to.  It’s often out of our pain or rebellion that we begin to question His character or motives.

David seems to conclude that the only things we need to know about concerning the worthiness of God are that He is love, and that He is absolutely trustworthy.  Since no one ever created or yet to be created will ever exhibit these two traits perfectly: contest is over.  And since He is God, He gets to make the “glory” call—who deserves it, who doesn’t. Consider a related passage from Isaiah 48:

I am the first and I am the last. 
My own hand laid the foundations of the earth,
and my right hand spread out the heavens; 
when I summon them, they all stand up together.
From now on I will tell you of new things, 
of hidden things unknown to you.

For my own name’s sake I delay my wrath; 
for the sake of my praise I hold it back from you,
See, I have refined you, though not as silver;
 I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this.  
How can I let myself be defamed?
I will not yield my glory to another.

Our God is a jealous, zealous God, remember?  He alone has earned the right to be the focus of any worship uttered by His creation.  In her rendition of Psalm 115, Nicole Nordeman reminds all Christians, but particularly those who lead worship, not to be tempted to hog the spotlight belonging only to our God.

Let us not imagine
that we might have a hand in
where the wind blows,
where grace goes.

Let not any passion
 be for kingdoms we have fashioned
in our own name,
for our own fame.

As we begin another season in the ministry of leading corporate worship, let us be reminded that we are called to bring glory to Christ through our music. Every picture frame has its place, but it is not in the center. Not to us, Lord; not to us but to Your name…  I told you two negatives equal a positive.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015


If you’re like me, you love sweets.  One of the very first jokes I ever heard was about the guy who came home late from work, but handed his wife a box of chocolates.  “Sweets for the sweet,” he offered, and was promptly handed a bag of nuts. I thought it was funny anyway.  We usually reserve the word “sweets” for something we taste. But it also applies to other senses.  An early praise chorus, “I Love You, Lord” concluded with the phrase: “Take joy, my King, in what you hear. May it be a sweet, sweet sound to Your ear.”

Want to hear something else that’s sweet? Try digesting this from John 8:36: “If the Son sets you free, you are truly free.”  Pretty sweet, huh?  Becoming a child of God releases us from every chain and form of bondage we can imagine. That process begins with re-learning who we are.  A relationship with Christ frees us to pursue our true identity and to shed the need to be conformed to others around us.  This goes for our personal life and our life as part of His body, the Church.  We all know how strong the world’s collective voices can be in defining success and value for us.  And even in the local church, we can often fall victim to a cloning process which attempts to make all Christians think, talk and act alike. 

For starters, consider our corporate worship experiences. Formally or informally, every local congregation determines what is appropriate and valuable when they come together. Certainly, some non-negotiables come into play here, when we use clear passages of scripture to hedge certain speech, conduct, and practices.  We don’t, for instance, find much value in barking like dogs, crowd surfing, or bringing one of our favorite pets to be sacrificed.  But to be honest, scripture is fairly non-specific in laying out what is and is not to be allowed in corporate worship.  Even so, that does not deter many from trying to institutionalize behaviors which are really nothing more than cultural preferences, or worse, simply the will of the most powerful influences in the local church.  Unfortunately, these are often presented as biblical mandates demanding universal acceptance. 

We hear phrases like, “we don’t do (allow) that in our church,” or “that’s what they do in such and such a church.” As a child, I learned this lesson first hand when I observed a worship posture which felt “foreign” to me and not widely practiced in my conservative Lutheran church.  It was really rather simple, and certainly within the bounds of scripture.  A highly respected man (actually one of my godparents and the choir director of our church) returned from communion (we came forward back then) and simply knelt by his pew to offer a whispered prayer of thanks.  Had our church had “kneelers” in front of the pews as do many other more formal churches, it probably would not have even caught my notice.  Since we did not have such devices, you can correctly deduce that we were never on our knees—at least not on Sunday morning. 

And yet here was Mr. Reinschmidt, kneeling right on the floor…and praying.  By himself.  I waited for the floor to part and for him to be swallowed up.  Surprisingly, he is still alive today!  It never even occurred to me that maybe he was just responding to a move of the Holy Spirit in that moment.  And if that had been the case, he simply would have been one of many in a long line throughout history who have felt the freedom to express with their bodies what was going on in their souls.

Later at lunch that day, I asked my dad (the pastor) what that was all about.  I’ll never forget his answer.  He shook his head and said simply, “O, that’s what Catholics do.”  And his body language was anything but positive.  When I pressed him about what he meant by that, he said ‘Lutherans try to avoid showy, even pharisaical postures.’ (Had that conversation happened today, it probably would have included the condemnation of other expressions, such as hand-clapping, hand-raising, shouting, whistling, even, God-forbid, dancing!)  Wow! Without even realizing it, I had received a cultural explanation for why our church dismissed (even criticized) a very valid, scriptural act of worship. 

My question is this: “Who determines these boundaries or limits we place on the work of the Holy Spirit, especially when we usually begin our services in Jesus’ name and invite the Spirit to work among us?”  Paul says in Galatians 5 that [since] Christ has set you free, make sure that you stay free and don’t get tied up again to the law (man’s rules and rituals). Obviously, this is not merely an issue with the contemporary church.

Consider this gem from the earliest local congregation.  Acts 3:8 records that a man who was lame from birth and spent his days outside the temple begging, responded to his miraculous healing by “walking, leaping and praising God, and then “went into the temple with them”(the disciples who prayed over him).  Are we to conclude that the celebration stopped the moment he went inside?  Well, if this incident were to have happened in 21st century America, it probably would depend on which church he went into. Paul exhorts us, however, to resist the cloning process in our local churches, to not quench the Spirit’s work among us, and reminds us: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” 
(2 Corinthians 3:17)

I find that most Christian churches are so far away from the “out of control” freedom of expression which they fear in public worship that it makes me suspicious the Deceiver is more at work in this than we think.  My suggestion:  let’s begin to encourage, even expect freedom of expression which can be orchestrated by the Holy Spirit in our public gatherings and see if we don’t experience more conversions, healings, power for daily living, and transformed churches. I bet the acts of worship that reach the heart of God are as diverse as His very creation. Now that’s sweet.  


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Think about His love.

One of my favorite praise songs from yesteryear was entitled Think about His Love.  Written by Walt Harrah, it spoke of the pursuing, relentless love of God.  The part that always grabbed me was the final line of the chorus…great is the measure of our Father’s love.  It reflects one of my favorite passages from the Old Testament as well:  Lamentations 3:22, 23—

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

The verse is intriguing, to say the least. Most of us cannot imagine why we would ever be in danger of being consumed.  We see the benevolence of God as almost a birthright, an entitlement.  That is because we often choose to only relate to one aspect of His nature—His kindness, His charity.  Jeremiah had come face to face with the holy fury of God as well and realized that apart from God’s compassion, we would all be toast—literally!

We know from the scriptures that God’s spirit can be grieved, so let’s assume our Father God experienced profound pain, grief and loss over the slaughter of His Son at the hands of sinful men.  This was, of course, despite the fact that He orchestrated it.  Isaiah 53 says; “Yet it was the Lord’s [Father’s] will to crush him [Jesus] and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the [Father] will prosper in his [Jesus’] hand.”  Jesus had to be a willing Isaac, but the Father had to be an equally willing Abraham, so to speak. 

I once passed a church during the season of Lent which had a crude, wooden cross near the curb with a sign below quoting Lamentations 1:12.  It read simply:  Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?   As I drove by, the words began to impact me immediately.  Why have I grown so casual about this symbol of God’s love for me?  What kind of sacrificial act was this? 

For a moment, my mind flashed back to the days of the Vietnam war.  Vivid in my memory were the images from TV reports showing fathers of slain soldiers as they watched protests and 
flag-burnings.  Think about it: even as they were burying their sons and daughters, who had been killed while trying to preserve those very freedoms, their children’s heroic acts were being despised.  I was aware that I knew little of this kind of love.  Soon after, I heard a story that helped me understand a little better.  I can’t prove that it really happened.  I only know it helped me get in touch with the measure of my Father’s love.

There once lived a man called “Big John” whose job it was to operate a mechanical drawbridge. Several times a day a train sped across this bridge carrying passengers safely across a deep and potentially deadly river.  Big John’s job was crucial, of course, as the slightest delay in lowering the bridge to accommodate the oncoming train could mean certain derailment, hurling the train and its occupants to their death.

On one particular sunny afternoon, Big John decided it would be a delight to bring his young son, Little John, to the jobsite and allow him the thrill of watching him work.  Sure enough, the boy could not contain his excitement witnessing his dad in action, lifting and pushing levers which engaged the mighty gears as they empowered the bridge to open and close at Pop’s command.  It was not difficult for Little John to realize that the fate of many lives lay in his father’s hands, and the lad was filled with pride.  Someday, perhaps, he could be so important.  Someday, he thought, people’s lives could depend on him.  How exciting it all was!

About noon that day Big John and the boy sat down to lunch and talked about the possibility of the Little John actually trying out the levers later that day.  As they talked, time seemed to slip away, and only the loud piercing whistle of the oncoming 1:05 train jarred Big John back to reality.  Realizing that the bridge remained in its UP position, he had only a matter of seconds to react to engage the gears, which could lower the tracks in time to greet the speeding train.  As he quickly maneuvered the levers, he assured himself that, in fact, there would be enough time to ready the bridge. 

Just then he heard Little John scream.  The boy had apparently lost his balance on the walkway above the gear mechanism, causing him to plunge headlong into the grinding, steel machine.  In a split second, the father torturously considered his alternatives: stop the whole process with a pull of a lever, thereby saving his son, while watching hundreds of innocent passengers plunge to their death--or allow the gears to continue engaging the bridge.  Big John knew the latter option would provide safe passage for the train’s occupants while at the same time tearing his hapless child into pieces. 

In his heart of hearts, he knew he had only one choice.  With tears streaming down his face accompanied by the loud cry of a man gone mad, he held his hand steady, watching as the bridge slowly came into perfect alignment just seconds before the roaring train zoomed by, its passengers casually unaware of the sacrifice just made on their behalf.  Some were sleeping, some played cards--others just gazed out the window as if nothing had happened.  John could not bring himself to look downward at what had become of his precious boy, but instead stared intently at the blank faces in front of him.  Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by? 

Understandably, this story is not an attempt to accurately reflect the Christian gospel, on a number of fronts. Firstly, God the Father didn’t sacrifice His Son because He was forced into a real tight spot, as Isaiah 53 clearly teaches. “It was the Lord’s [Father’s] will to crush him [Jesus]”. Secondly, unlike the hapless boy in the story, the scriptures clearly teach that Jesus offered himself willingly, voluntarily. Thirdly, the people on the train were completely unaware of what was going on. They weren’t to blame for the accident, unlike you and me…and everyman. Isaiah continues, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way.” Still, this illustration reminds us that the Amighty One so loved us that at a point in time He allowed Himself to experience profound grief and loss as His beloved son was slaughtered for the sake of others.  Is there any debate? Great is the measure of our Father’s love.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

I wouldn’t be caught dead…

You’ve certainly heard the phrase before.  Perhaps you’ve even used it in conversation.  I wouldn’t be caught dead…  In reality, unless the Lord comes first, each and every one of us will be caught dead doing something.  I had a college buddy who got a letter from his mom informing him that their church organist had literally died in the middle of the service that Sunday.  Fell on the organ.  Imagine the sound of that last chord.  Needless to say, it was not a joyful noise. 

As a retired pastor, my own grandfather, William Frederick Dommer, died instantly of a heart attack administering communion to a woman in a hospital. That’s the thing about death—no matter when it happens, there is always a where.

In these two cases, both men died doing what they loved to do. But this phrase, I wouldn’t be caught dead is usually heard in the context of some despicable job or life situation in which we could never imagine ourselves.  Years ago, I served a church in the Chicago area as a minister of music and full time teacher in their Christian school.  Once, while taking my eighth grade students on a field trip to a factory in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I actually made the unfortunate and arrogant statement that “I wouldn’t be caught dead” working on an assembly line doing something menial and boring like that.  Almost a year to the day later, I was standing in a paper mill, counting notebooks and packaging them for shipment…eight hours a day, six days a week. 

It followed a fateful decision to leave that church position in Chicago and embark on a consulting ministry with a pastor friend of mine.  Long story short, the free-lance ministry never gained traction, and I found myself jobless with a wife and three young kids in Appleton, Wisconsin.  The factory job was my last resort.  In fact, I wasn’t found dead in that paper mill, but for close to nine months I found myself slowly dying inside. 

How could I have so misheard God?  How could I have been so presumptuous as to leave one job without securing another?  How could I take such a risk with my wife and family involved?  And what good was I now to God, when all my education and training was for “ministry?”  I’m making no music.  I’m not teaching young minds the things of God.  I’m not leading people in worship.  And to add insult to injury, any attempt at rational Christian thought was drowned out by the noise of high-speed machinery and worse, the loud blaring rock music over the factory PA system. 

Among the many decadent and depressing lyrics to which I was subjected was a song repeated several times daily by the rock band Pink Floyd.  Into my already dwindling self-esteem rang out this mantra…           

We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave those kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave those kids alone!
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.

Well I was no longer a teacher, but that is exactly how I began to feel.  In the kingdom of God, I had become just another brick in the wall.  So I cried out to God, admitting my sense of worthlessness, repenting of squandered opportunities and wasting His time in this God-forsaken place. 

It was then that God spoke to me in a way I had not heard before and have treasured ever since.  It went something like this: Tim, your value to me is not in what you do…in how much ministry you accomplish.  Your value to me is simply that you are my son.  I pictured, for a moment, those words ringing over Jesus after His baptism…this is My Son, in whom I am well pleased.  At the beginning of…not the end of…His public ministry.  God’s pleasure in Jesus was rooted in relationship, not behavior.  If that were not the case, God could not be pleased with any of us.  As the Psalmist says in Psalm 130:  If you should [keep track of] iniquities, who could stand?  God’s introduction of Jesus to the world was not “TAH-DAH! Meet the Savior of the world!” but rather, “Here’s my Boy, in whom I am well pleased.”  The Father delighted in His Son—first and foremost—because He was His Son. 

We have been bought with a price, not with silver or gold, but with Jesus’ very own blood, to secure that relationship.  It was, after all, while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us.  That’s how much we matter to Him.  Do you believe that on a deep level?  I know for me personally, it took me ending up in a place “I wouldn’t be caught dead” to really discover my true value to God.