Thursday, January 14, 2016

A new spin on an old sonnet

In her Sonnet 43, famed poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning began love letter to her husband Robert Browning with these immortal words:       
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I’ve always been intrigued by those words. Call it “a love inventory,” the writer finds it helpful to make a list of the “hows” of the relationship, rather than the “whys”.   She chooses not to focus on the qualities of the object of her love, but rather the many ways she expresses her devotion.  I find that interesting.  If I’ve learned anything in nearly 45 years of marriage to the same person, it’s that what really matters is if she feels loved, not merely that I’ve made an attempt. 

To put it into the context of the Body of Christ, it is vastly more important that our love languages toward one another be both understood and mutually appreciated.  For me to think I’ve loved you by giving you a hug or a handshake instead of a listening ear might allow me to check a box for connection with you, but can leave you feeling unheard or uncared for.  So where do we start? 

How about me being a bit self-disclosing with you on just how you can love me?  Sounds a bit like good old fashioned 21st century narcissism, doesn’t it?  It’s all about me. Or, hopefully, it could be viewed more accurately as a genuine attempt to begin the discussion of how we can, as Peter writes in the New Testament, “love each other deeply.” Since I can’t speak for you, let me initiate the deepening of our relationship by letting you know how best to communicate that I matter to you.  Rather than taking a spin at a sonnet like Ms. Browning did, how ‘bout something more closely resembling a laundry list? Hopefully, some of my ideas may have a “one size fits all” quality to them, but others may just be what is helpful to me.  I like to call it, “How do you love me?”  Here goes:

You know my name.
You are present in my life.
You are for me.
You want me to succeed.
You care about what is going on in the world 
behind my public presentation.
You listen to me.
You look for Jesus in me.
You seek to protect me 
(physically, emotionally, relationally, spiritually, even my reputation).     
You really care.
You point me to Christ.
You speak truth into my life.
You forgive me when I’m wrong—even if it takes me awhile to figure it out.
What you say about me to others (in my absence) 
enlarges their view of me, rather than diminishing it.
You pray for me.

Not exactly “sonnet quality” to be sure, but I think you get the point.  To love each other deeply in the body of Christ sometimes expresses itself in encouragement, in really listening to each other, or in seeking to genuinely empathize with another’s situation or journey.  At other times, though, it moves beyond just trying to make someone feel better for a moment and actually requires speaking hard words or expressing tough love.  Proverbs 27: 6 says: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” 

As a community, let’s resolve to discovering what best communicates love and affection for one another, using as our model and source of power the ‘Friend who sticks closer than a brother.’  Jesus was the quintessential friend and could only love one way—deeply and to the uttermost.  Let’s follow Him.  Let others count the ways.        


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Let Go

In what has become (allegedly) one of the cheesiest and trite Christian slogans to adorn bumper stickers and T-shirts everywhere, “let go and let God” has, sadly, fallen on hard times.  Why?  Some would argue it’s overly simplistic, perhaps too easily applied. It is, in fact, often used to cut short someone’s litany of trials and tribulations.  Sometimes the use of such cliches can become our default or alternative to actually listening to someone intently and empathizing with them.  Phrases like “let go and let God” can feel like we’re simply applying a “one size fits all” band aid to really complex issues and problems.

But I say this phrase has fallen on hard times sadly because there is, indeed, a time for releasing an effort—an expectation, to God.  It is at the point where we have done what was ours to do and now we must “let go (of the outcome) and let God (do His thing). We are at that juncture with our Christmas preparations. Truth is, the pressure’s off.  Not for you or me to do any less than our very best.  But as it relates to any lives being changed or people coming to Christ next weekend, that’s really up to Him.  What has already occurred, though, is the transformation in us as we have been on this journey together.   Even before the first light comes up or the first note is sung of Convergence, I am convinced that the work of God has already been displayed among us in our preparation of this amazing event. 

I have said it before, and I believe it is worth repeating.  Jesus did not invade our planet over 2000 years ago so that we could do cool programs once a year.  What He did do was to restore our relationship with ‘Papa’ God, so that the act of worship would not be done couched in fear and shame.  His coming to us in human form satisfied once and for all our desire to touch and kiss the face of God.  As Spirit-filled believers, we now can do that anytime, anywhere.  Even in front of our friends and neighbors who may not know Him personally…yet.

My prayer as we enter this demanding week of rehearsals and ‘performances’ is three-fold:

  • that each of you will know how deeply loved and valued you are, and how profound is the privilege God has given you to carry on the work of that first angelic chorus on the hillside outside Bethlehem.
  • that like those first good-news bearers, you will relax in the knowledge that your role as seen planters is fulfilled. Others may add water and nourishment to that sowing in the future, but it will be God alone who provides the growth.
  • that the friends and acquaintances whom you have invited will get a glimpse of just how much you love your Savior, not just singing. In other words, be free to worship Him!

May these days mark your lives and create memories for years to come.  Savor each and every moment.  Thanks to each of you—especially those of you joining us for this special season—from the bottom of my heart for saying ‘yes’ to the call.  With the apostle Paul, I say:

I thank my God every time I remember you. 
In all my prayers for all of you, always pray with joy
because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 
being confident of this,
that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion 
until the day of Christ Jesus.

Finally, I say to all you perfectionists, “let go” may just be the hardest thing you will ever hear, because it involves loss of control.  And for any potential slackers, who resist discipline and love “just waiting on the Lord” (which often translates into “The Lord waiting on you…”), I challenge you to not “let go” prematurely.  Do your due diligence, come prepared, and THEN rest in God. But sooner or later, team, it’s time to LET GO. Let’s do it!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Looking Ahead

As we round the corner in our preparations for our Christmas concert, I am reminded of one of the strongest cautions issued to believers when embarking on any new initiative for God, whether it is a relationship, project, or even a new season or year. It’s found in Psalm 127:1. The English Standard Version (ESV) translates it:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.

Eugene Peterson uses the more modern vernacular in The Message:

If GOD doesn’t build the house, the builders only build shacks.
If GOD doesn’t guard the city, the night watchman might as well take a nap.

Either way, the point is clear. If God isn’t in it, you’re wasting your time to start it.  Rather than ask Him to “bless our mess”, better for us to seek Him on the ground floor.  Find out where He’s moving and get into the flow of that. From the outset of this project, God has been sought…in the selection of music, the prayer for singers and musicians, for a compelling theme and a unique way to retell the story, and now for God to provide a harvest from all the seeds that will be sown this season.

The best tool God gives us to discern His will, apart from His Word, is the gift of prayer.  To move forward without consulting Him for wisdom and direction, without listening for His voice, would be to waste our time and His limitless resources.  To handle what is in store for us with a high commitment to prayer is also one of our 16 values (We call them our Sweet Sixteen).  So let’s do a little reviewing of this thing called prayer.

Prayer is that act which enables the believer to express a broad range of thoughts and emotions in his response to God, including praise, thanksgiving, loving adoration, confession, lament, communion, petition, the making of a vow or commitment, and intercession.  The ultimate objective of prayer is not merely the good of the person praying but the honor of God’s name. And if we are to take our cues from the greatest pray-er who ever lived—Jesus, it’s more dialogue than monologue.  It isn’t just talking but listening. And for us fallen creatures, it must move beyond whining to worshiping.

In one of his most compelling treaties on prayers, Jesus encourages us:

"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! “ (Matt. 7:7-11).

The apostle James puts it in the negative form:

“You don’t have because you don’t ask God.  And when you [do] ask, you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”  (James 4:2,3)

In our desire to be a part of a mighty move of God this Christmas season, as we attempt to inspire the faithful and illuminate those outside the faith, let’s collectively be bathing these efforts in prayer. Begin each petition by asking God how to pray, for what to pray, and for whom to pray.  And let’s be bold in our requests, as James suggests.  Let’s pray for people to receive Christ, for lost sheep to be found, for stragglers and strugglers to become warriors, and those crippled by fear to become filled with faith.

Finally, when it’s all over, let’s not be like the nine healed lepers who forgot to return thanks to Jesus for his miraculous work on their behalf.  Instead, let’s follow up our efforts with great thanksgiving to the One from whom we sought help in the first place. To that end, let’s even reimagine our Cast Party on Dec. 17 as just that—the night we returned to give thanks for the great things that God…is about to do.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Trees Talk (revisited)

One of the clearest voices God speaks through is the tree. Here, in this one beautiful symbol of life, we have all the stages, the actual rhythm of the human experience.  And ultimately, we have the reminder that through the use of a tree, God’s redemptive plan for his fallen creation was accomplished, and we are restored, we are made right with Him.

Several years ago, one of my favorite contemporary Christian lyricists, Nicole Nordeman, wrote a song called Every Season ( If you want one of the most honest, insightful windows into the human experience, you need look no further than the songs of this gifted writer.  Read along and see if you don’t agree that God has given her wisdom into a language that is all around us, spoken almost completely in silence.
Every evening sky, an invitation to trace the patterned stars.
And early in July, a celebration for freedom is ours.
And I notice You in children’s games, in those who watch them from the shade.
Every drop of sun is full of fun and wonder.  You are summer.

As the seasons of life go, I think of the summer of our days as the best of the best.  And it’s not necessarily a confined season or stage of our life.  It’s just when life is good, when we’re hitting on all cylinders, and all seems right with the world.  This experience comes and goes, but when we’re in the middle of it, we don’t want it to end.  It’s also a time filled with discovery and awe.  We often find the drudgery and grind of the rest of our life tolerable because we anticipate summer’s arrival.

And even when the trees have just surrendered to the harvest time.
Forfeiting their leaves in late September and sending us inside,
Still I notice You.  When change begins and I am braced for colder winds,
I will offer thanks for what has been and what’s to come.  You are autumn.

Personally, autumn is my favorite season of the year.  The colors, the smells, the cooler temperatures, the activities unique to fall:  they all remind me that just because something changes does not mean it can’t be beautiful or purposeful.  And I have learned the longer I live, that something wondrous happens even in the process of dying—if I look for it. 

And ev’rything in time and under heaven fin’lly falls asleep.
Wrapped in blankets white, all creation shivers underneath.
And still I notice You when branches crack and in my breath on frosted glass.
Even now in death, You open doors for life to enter.  You are winter.

I can honestly say this is probably my least favorite season of the year and of life in general.  It is often used to describe that stage which precedes our own death, when we fall asleep and are ‘no more’.  We hear the phrase the winter of our years.  Actually, I usually greet the start of winter with enthusiasm.  Certain elements like freshly fallen snow, the warmth of a fireplace, even the beauty of dead trees and vegetation against the backdrop of a beautiful white landscape—all of these intrigue me…initially. 

But then comes the waiting, the frustration of life slowed down, the lack of freedom, the lack of life, the sameness of it all.  At times, the bitter winds and uncertain conditions actually seem to oppose me in my journey, blocking my forward momentum.   And then, it happens:

Everything that’s new has bravely surfaced, teaching us to breathe.
And what was frozen through is newly purposed, turning all things green.
So it is with You and how You make me new with ev’ry season’s change.
And so it will be as You are recreating me, summer, autumn, winter, spring.

You and I, along with all of God’s creation, are reborn, given a do-over, awakened to life as it was always intended. Solomon once wrote: “Lo, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone; flowers appear on the earth, and the time for singing has come.” It reminds us that even the bleakest of periods in our lives have an ending point.  It’s as if God hits the refresh button and voilĂ !  Reboot! 

Our Maker is always at work moving us forward.  He has made seasons to illustrate the spectrum of our human experiences. And He has made trees, including the one that was used for His own son’s death, to remind us, that in whatever stage we find ourselves, He is at work for our good.  Let the seasons speak to you. Let trees talk to you. And be reminded, God is not finished with you yet.

[Jesus] Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins,
might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.  1 Peter 2:24 NKJV

Thursday, October 22, 2015

What’s your job description?

As worship leaders, I like to think of yours and my role as primarily prophetic, not aesthetic.  If corporate worship can be viewed as entering the temple of God, the place of His dwelling, then our role is more akin to the pillars or columns supporting the structure, not the artifacts which merely provide artistic beauty.  Personally, I’d rather be a support beam than a statue or a stained glass window any day. 

And as support beams, what is it, exactly, that we are to hold up?  Three things come quickly to mind: the name of Jesus (Philippians 2:10, 11), the truth of His word (2 Timothy 2:15), the prophet’s arms (Exodus 17:10-13).  In these specific ways, we lead others into the praise of Jesus, the proclamation of His word through song, and receiving the seed sown by our preaching pastors. The writer to the Hebrews gives instruction to public gatherings with these words from chapter 10: 

“Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

This Sunday’s anthem speaks to one of the foundational roles this ministry can have in our corporate worship life—declaring truth, and more specifically—illustrating God. Who is it that we worship? What’s He like?  Is He worth worshiping?  Beginning with the first verse, we assert that He is unlike any other god. He has no equal; He has no rival. Our God is three in One—a community, whose very being calls us into shared lives entwined with specific function and distinct purposes. Before you declare these truths this week, be sure and live with the text yourself. Believe and receive the life contained in these verses.  For example, aren’t you glad that the One who is your judge is also your defender?  How amazing is that?!

Then come Sunday ready to sing the words of this anthem into the very souls of our people, proclaiming with conviction the truth of God’s word.  And all the while, remember you are pointing them to Jesus—that is the work of the Holy Spirit in you, friends.  That’s what He does. In John 15:26, Jesus says, "I will send you the Advocate--the Spirit of truth. He will come to you from the Father and will testify all about me.” So preach it, choir!

Our Father everlasting, The all creating One—God Almighty
Through Your Holy Spirit conceiving Christ the Son--Jesus our Saviour.

I believe in God our Father, I believe in Christ the Son, I believe in the Holy Spirit—Our God is three in one.
I believe in the resurrection, that we will rise again, for I believe in the Name of Jesus.

Our Judge and our Defender, suffered and crucified—forgiveness is in You
Descended into darkness, You rose in glorious life; forever seated high!  I believe in God the Father…

I believe in You; I believe You rose again. I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.  I believe in God the Father…

I believe in life eternal, I believe in the virgin birth,
I believe in the saints' communion, and in Your holy Church
I believe in the resurrection when Jesus comes again,
 for I believe in the Name of Jesus.

By doing our “job” well, we also help till the soil of the peoples’ hearts, helping to ready them, prepare them to receive the sown Word of our preaching pastors. In so doing, we are “lifting up the prophets’ arms” and aiding them in displaying the wonder and power of God.

Do you know your job description?  Do you comprehend the high calling to which you have been called?  I, for one, can’t wait to join you in fulfilling our role this weekend.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Accustomed to His Face

Remember that classic song from My Fair Lady…”I’ve grown accustomed to her face, she almost makes the day begin”? It reminds me of a tender passage from Psalm 27, in which King David writes of His relationship with God in a most intimate way:

One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek.

Imagine that—seeking the face, the presence, the expression of the Living God in prayer and worship.  Pursuing intimacy with God is just that—growing more and more accustomed to His face, His voice, His move.  If we loosely define being intimate as being relationally close to another, it becomes apparent that intimacy with God has less to do with what we know to be true about Him and more about really knowing Him…relating to Him, focusing on Him, talking and listening to Him, loving Him. 

A former pastor of mine described it like this.  Imagine, for a moment, the difference between sitting around your table on your birthday and having your closest friends and/or family members enthusiastically (sometimes humorously) singing happy birthday to you.  You are aware that beyond their singing skills and the familiar words are numerous shared experiences which over time have yielded a closeness and intimacy with them that transcend this simple tradition. 

Now imagine dining out at your favorite restaurant on your birthday and having total strangers surround you—your waiters and waitresses who have been conscripted by their boss to acknowledge your special day with some local version of Happy Birthday.  First, if you’re like me, you are feeling awkward or, worse, dying inside of embarrassment, and secondly, you are aware that these well wishers had little choice in the matter…it’s part of their job. 

Sometimes we as followers of Christ can fall into patterns of “doing our job” as the worship leaders at Hope…going through the motions, even saying and singing the right things, but feeling empty inside or at least a bit disingenuous.  I have even heard teammates confess that they feel hypocritical when they sing worship songs because their personal lives or walk with Christ have hit a rough patch or even flat-lined. 

It is at times like these that we can do a quick inventory, asking a simple question:  “If God seems far away from me right now, who moved?”  It is even in the dark and desperate times that God reminds us “Draw near to Me, and I will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)  For His part, He never stops calling, never stops wooing, never stops pursuing us.  Just move toward Him.

Also, there is an urgency to God’s invitation to stay close to Him when He warns: Seek the Lord while He may be found, call on Him while He is near. (Isaiah 55:6)  Yes, He promises to never leave us or forsake us, but there is something about delaying or postponing getting close to God for a more convenient season that becomes less likely the more time passes, and we grow comfortable with the distance.

My encouragement to each of you is to have at least one other person in your life who routinely asks you how you are doing in this area.  Close, personal brothers and sisters in the faith can help us fan the flames of our passion for God before we find ourselves running on spiritual fumes.  Fumes are more like the remnants or even memories of former days when we really walked hand in hand with our God.  Let’s make a covenant in the worship ministry to lovingly encourage and challenge each other to keep the main thing the main thing.  As worship leaders, let’s commit to growing more and more accustomed to His face before inviting others into His presence as we lead.


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.