Racism and Worship

My home state of Alabama has a marked history of racial lines and discrimination. On September 15th, 1963, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls and injuring countless others. This was the pinnacle act of hatred that placed a gruesome exclamation point on a year of racial shift in Alabama’s communities. The bombing had been preceded, just a few months prior, by the Civil Rights movement spilling into the streets of Birmingham causing Sheriff Bull Connor to attack the protesters with dogs and firehoses in a stunning scene of racism and horror. In that same year schools would be desegregated in the state, only after the National Guard was called in to shut down Governor George Wallace’s attempt to keep the racial status quo. 1963 is recent history. For those who are young it may seem as if it is a contemporary to every other historical event in school. George Washington crossed the Delaware; George Wallace tried to keep schools segregated. The reality is that our society is still filled with those who were alive and present during those dark days of American History. The lightning shift in our racial sensibilities since 1963 is something of a historical wonder. We have since elected a black president and seen many black Americans rise to the highest roles in society and government. Because of these achievements many in our country would like to act like all that was done before is atoned for and should be forgotten.

In 1993 I was a fifteen year old homeschool kid with pimples; a winning combo on all accounts. I was not unaware of the racial tension that existed in the country or in my community, it just felt distant and incapable of reaching me. The year before, in 1992, the country had watched spellbound as an almost all white jury had acquitted four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of a black man named Rodney King. The beating itself had been captured on camera (a precursor to modern America) but even with the overwhelming evidence of injustice the men were found innocent. The ensuing riots gave a face to the tension that had been boiling in the shadows for decades. Still, in the midst of the national turmoil I felt safe in the midst of my white high school suburban existence. My father was on staff at a First Baptist Church, in a small town in Alabama, and was responsible, as is always the case in small churches, for a large range of things. One of his major responsibilities, in the heat of the Alabama summer, was running the church’s annual Vacation Bible School, a week long event that was part Bible Study, part snack time, and part local carnival. This week was a huge outreach moment into the community, and the church always sought to leverage it to encourage new families and faces to join. There was a home for children in our small town that housed kids who were wards of the state and my father saw this as a perfect opportunity to bring people into our church who may have never heard the gospel. He reached out to the home’s leadership and invited the resident children to be a part of VBS that year. Many of the children were black. Throughout the week of VBS child after child made professions of faith in Jesus, including several black children from the group home. The Sunday morning after VBS a handful came down to the front indicating, along with the home church white kids, that they had been changed by Christ and wanted to be baptized. My father was fired from the church that week.

I heard the news of my Father’s firing on the way to basketball practice at the local Recreation Center. I was crying bitterly as practice began. My coach, a black man from the community, put his arm around me and told me that things would work out in the end. The beauty of a black man consoling a middle class white kid in small town Alabama over the ugliness of racism is still not lost on me. Later on in life I would scrape the details together in bits and pieces from my parents. Dad was called into an emergency deacons meeting where he was ordered to “fix this” problem he had created. The deacons rallied around the idea that, “no nigger has ever been baptized in our church and never will be.” My Father refused to bend and was fired immediately.

I had never felt racism before on a personal level. The sting of my Father’s firing was immediate and deep. Because we lived in the church parsonage, that literally shared a driveway with the church, we were forced to move immediately. We were graciously taken in by friends who ran a local Baptist conference center and were allowed to live there for the following few months while my family figured out what to do.

It is not an understatement to say that the rest of my life was formed by this experience. While our housing was a Godsend it was also small. I slept on the floor for months. As the oldest of 8 children it fell to me and my brother Bret to work full time to help support the rest of the family in our day to day expenses. My father, still bruised from the experience, did not want to jump right back into a church position so he took the first job he could find driving an 18 wheeler on long hauls coast to coast. We would not see him for days at a time. Any sense of security that I had been accustomed to was forever replaced with a constant sense of the unknown. Beyond the physical realities of our new situation, the heart damage that I had acquired burned with the emotional fire of a knife wound. Men whom I had trusted, men who had taught me in Sunday School, had proved to be the worst of humanity. It is hard for a young heart to process the reality of hypocrisy. The stinging reality of racism had pulled back the veil, more than any other thing, into the darkness of the human heart.

It seems that, in spite of all our progress of the past 50 years, we have again hit a wall in race relations in America. Whatever conversation had been started has seemingly been replaced with sound bites and slogans that can be easily tweeted or spun on cable news. Cable news sells advertising with eyeballs and nothing can grab eyeballs like stories on racism. The media is making millions by stoking the flames of our distrust. We retweet and share these sound bites and slogans because we feel they give us something solid to hope in. Slogans will not heal our divides. Presidents and racial figureheads will not mend the bones that have been broken. It will take something that is outside of what we can create.

I am a now a Pastor in a church. I lead the people of God in worship on a regular basis. It is ironic that this is who I am now because after my Father was fired in 1993 I swore that I would never work within the church. Just as the brokenness represented in the church had reached out and wounded my young heart, it would be the true mission of the church that Jesus would use to reach out and mend it. The church is God’s plan to bring us back to reconciliation. Worship is our only road back to unity.

In John 4 Jesus meets a woman at a well. It is well documented that he meets her in the heat of the day because she is seeking solitude from those who would deride her for her past sexual indiscretions. He asks her for a drink of water. She asks for clarity on racial divisions. She is a Samaritan, he is a Jew. Perceiving that Jesus is a prophet, she asks him a question about worship and racial tension.

The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”

Her question is physical in nature. Years of prejudice and distrust between her people and the Jews had led to alterations that frequently ended in physical violence. The Samaritans were the offspring of Jews who had married Gentiles. Halfbreeds. Unclean. Unworthy. Less than because of their DNA.  This woman associates worship with a place, a people, a culture. She associates worship with division. These are the realities of those who focus on the physical. If the physical is the determining factor in who we are then it will also become the determining factor on where and how we worship and who we worship with. Those who focus on the physical prove that they have not felt the life giving engine of the Spirit. I love how Jesus answers her question. A physical question is answered with a spiritual reality.

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”        (John 4:19-24 ESV)

The physical is temporal. The spiritual is eternal. Worship, fueled by the Spirit of God, is the door toward our racial healing. When a people worship God in spirit and and in truth the flesh is stripped away. Spirit is absent of color. Truth is absent of race. Jesus moves beyond his Jewishness and slaps away any ideal of Samaria’s inferiority. The invitation into the kingdom and into eternity, will have nothing to do with skin color or geography. When we find ourselves looking at the Father through the eyes of those bought by Jesus the only thing that remains is spirit and truth. The only thing that remains is that we are brothers and sisters in Jesus. When you see another human do you see a race or do you see eternity? Do you see a cultural reality or do you see spirit?

I recently sat with a black friend, who pastors an amazing church here in Knoxville, and we talked about the fear that his congregation was battling because of the results of the last election. He is wise in his response to their fears. Rather than defending or supporting our new leader he is pointing them toward something better. He is pointing them toward the eternal. He is inviting them to see and savor Jesus. Leaders will rise and fall, as will the governments and freedoms afforded by them. These things must not define how we interact with one another. The cross reveals that we are all the same. We are not our culture. We are not our race. We are not our gender. If we are in Christ we are simply that and nothing else. Or as Paul says...

for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.                                         (Galatians 3:26-28 ESV)

There will come a day when the Church of Jesus will forever live in this reality. Revelation says…

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12 ESV)

Here is the eternal cure to our distrust, misunderstanding, and division. We will worship. But, according to Jesus, this is not to be some future reality alone. Jesus burst onto the scene in Mark chapter one declaring that, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” The unity we display, and the story we are telling as we worship will reveal or disprove kingdom reality in our churches and communities. We must learn to worship Jesus as one. Not simply cheering each other on from a distance. Not just leaning on conversations in neutral locations to get “a plan together”. We must approach God’s glory, through the access provided by Jesus, and standing side by side, our spirits joined in worship. This is the way to unity. This is the means of reconciliation.  The world needs the power of the gospel and the mission of the church more than ever. Let us embrace one another and become now who we will be in eternity.

It is fascinating to me that the Bible ends with the hope of racial healing…

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2 ESV)

Of all the sins and brokenness represented by the human heart, it is our propensity for hatred and disunity that is spoken of in the end. I believe it is a perfect picture of why we need redemption. In the end we will not have hearts guarded and broken by the fall. We will not be defined by our differences. We will be united by the salvation of Jesus...and we will worship.

Worship Will Kill You

In Exodus 19, Mount Sinai is the place where God formally introduces himself to his newly released and redeemed people. Israel had been enslaved for hundreds of years, and through Moses God had brought them out of the hand of Pharaoh. Sinai is the stage for proper introductions. Moses tells the people to wash their garments and prepare themselves to meet with God. Like a child bathing and putting on fresh clothes for a meeting with an important adult, the nation of Israel takes three days to make sure they are spiritually ready to be introduced to Yahweh. Lines are drawn around the mountain and warnings are given not to get too close, because to haphazardly come into the presence of God would bring certain death.  When God comes to the people they are terrified. Exodus says that they “tremble”. They have spoken and longed for this moment for hundreds of years, and now that it is here they cannot wait for it to be over. God is more than they had expected him to be. Israel immediately understands that they are not worthy of standing in the same zip code with this God. They tremble because they lack. They tremble because they are weak. They tremble because this God seems too holy for them to deserve an audience.

What is God’s purpose for this meeting? What does he want the people to know? What is he trying to accomplish by showing up and terrifying the people simply by showing his existence? Thankfully God gives his purpose statement in Exodus 19 when he says,

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6 ESV)

God’s revelation of himself is followed by his stated intention to change them into something else. When God invites a people into his presence to worship and behold him it is a glorious invitation that is extended for a singular purpose...to change those invited into something that they are not. A holy nation. A kingdom of priests. This is God’s purpose statement for Israel. It has not changed for us. The invitation by God to come and worship him has never been an invitation to simply come into a room and sing general niceties about him in three part harmony. It is not an invitation to simply come and “feel” something of the divine. Worship does not conjure God into our presence, it is the invitation to come into his.

What was to be done for Israel in this equation of holiness and need? God begins to provide a way to make this transition happen in his chosen people. Moses is called up on the mountain and God begins to give the law, a law that will seek to change a common people into one that follows after the heart of God. Israel, however, has other plans. As Moses hears from God, Israel begins to craft worship by different means. They contribute their gold and form a calf. They engage in “revelries” and declare their allegiance to gods made by their own hands, fashioned from their own sense of virtue and beauty. Just as in the Garden of Eden, God’s newly formed people abandon him and seek out their own way. They desire to worship, but they will be the ones to establish the means and the results of that worship. God has once again been abandoned.

What follows is tragic. God tells Moses that he will wipe this people off the face of the earth and start over through him. Moses, having already been changed in the presence of God, begins to intercede on behalf of the people.

So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” (Exodus 32:31-32 ESV)

Moses is becoming the priest that God had desired his entire people to become. He is offering his life in the place of the people. He has heard the voice of the Lord, he has become an intercessor on behalf of the people, and he will be the one to point them back to Yahweh. He has responded to God’s invitation to come up on the mountain to worship and has been changed into something different. Moses has been transformed.

We are called to be transformed as well, but I am afraid that in our modern context we are dangerously close, and in some instances already dancing around calves of gold. For many, worship is no longer an invitation to come and be changed, it is a gathering of those who wish to remain the same. It is filled with those who equate the gospel with words of affirmation and acceptance for their sinfulness and not in spite of it. Worship has become the shouts and emotions of those who have decided what holiness should look like and are now inviting God into the midst of their creation.

Worship does not exist so that God can make us feel better about our brokenness. God is not seeking to give us comfort in spite of our imperfections. The love of God we sing about over and over again is not a love that simply accepts who we are or who we desire to be. We have changed love into an affirmation of personal choice. Sexuality and morality now depend on how the individual feels, not on what God has demanded, and now, even for some in the church, to love is to let a person remain as they are with arms wide open. God does not accept our sin because of his love, his love is the force that is seeking to crush it. Worship reveals sin by inviting the worshipper to behold the perfection of God. The grace extended by that invitation is our means of escape and victory over it. Our hope lies in our deliverance, not in our desire to remain. We must be changed.

I love Luke 24. Jesus, on the road to Emmaus, reveals to two men that he is the fulfillment of all that was spoken of through Moses and the prophets. Just as Moses had led the people to the mountain, through Jesus, God was again inviting a people to the mountain to worship, but this time not to the edge, he was inviting them all the way to the top, giving them full access to his life altering glory. Hebrews 12 says it beautifully.

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God ACCEPTABLE WORSHIP, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:18-29 ESV)

Are we offering acceptable worship? We are invited into his presence to be changed into a people that are set apart in holiness to proclaim his excellencies as a kingdom of priests. The purpose of the invitation has never changed. The means of the invitation (Jesus making a way for us to come with boldness before God) has been gloriously altered.

The cross of Jesus did not give God an excuse to sweep our sin under the rug. God cannot simply look the other way from sin...it must be dealt with and we must be changed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “When God calls a man he bids him to come and die”. This statement is a summation of Paul’s words in Romans 12 where he writes,

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2 ESV)

And so there it is. Worship will kill you. It is self sacrifice. To truly worship in holiness the self must die and the mind must be transformed. Are you being changed? Through Jesus, are you accepting the invitation to come into the presence of God to be made into his image, or are you looking from afar, making him into your own? Those who truly seek to worship the divine will be altered and pressed into his holiness, those who do not will remain the same. Eternity will resound with the former, death will forever silence the latter. Hebrews again speaks to us,

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26-31 ESV)

May we worship in holiness. May we worship in truth. May the love of God and the grace of God bring us to the knowledge of God. May we accept his invitation to come and worship and be forever changed into his image. Amen.

Holes, Hearts, Eternity

I lead worship in the summer for an organization called Student Life. Teenagers from all over the country meet in different locations for week long sessions to hear the gospel preached, and to see God elevated and glorified. June 22, 2015 was the start of one of these weeks. I was in Ruston, Louisiana at Louisiana Tech University, participating in our first student pastor meeting of the week. Student pastor meetings at camp are an amazing time where all the different leaders who have brought students to camp get together and share prayer requests and expectations for the week. One request at this first meeting stood out to me that night. One pastor shared that one of his students had been looking forward to camp all year but had received news, the week of camp, that a hole in her heart had gotten to the point where immediate surgery was required. He said she was in Houston that very night, scared and very sad. He also said, that along with her parents, she had been joined by her grandparents who were not believers. He was praying that God would use her surgery to show his power.

 

After the meeting I pulled the pastor aside and asked if we could pray for her in our session that night, that I didn’t want to embarrass her or make a spectacle out of it but, if she was willing, I felt like we were supposed to rally the body of Christ around her situation. After getting in touch with her and her parents we received the green light. That night, via Facetime, over 1,000 students lifted their hands toward a face, on a tiny iPhone, and prayed on behalf of a girl they had never met. It was unbelievably beautiful. Leading the people of God that night to sing his praises was effortless. We wanted to sing. We wanted to praise the name of the one who could move mountains and defeat enemies. We wanted to see Jesus.

The following afternoon the student pastor who had shared the request pulled me aside with amazing news. That morning the doctors had done one final check before surgery and were stunned to find the hole, that had been there the week and months prior, was gone. No surgery was needed; she was going home. That night I shared the news with everyone present, and again worship was fueled by the mighty working of God. That week was filled with students being freed from addictions, turning from sin, and committing their lives to the kingdom of God. God had moved, by showing himself strong in a situation hundreds of miles away, and those who had seen it responded to the hope of his gospel.

 

Fast forward to 2017...this past week. I am now the father of a beautiful little girl from China who we have named Josie Rose. She was born with a hole in her heart. We have prayed, since the day we met her on a piece of paper sent to us by our adoption agency, for her healing. We have also prayed that God would advance his kingdom through her story and ours. This past week, on March 28th, we handed Josie off to a team at Vanderbilt hospital, who took her to the operating room and began the long, ten hour process of attempting to repair her broken heart. That day was the longest day of my life. My wife Emily and I had no idea if the surgery would be a success. For hours and hours we waited to hear the news. Finally the surgeon came out and told us that she had repaired the many issues in her heart and that, in a couple of hours, we could see her in PICU. It goes without saying here that our hearts were overwhelmed with emotion. Our little girl had made it through surgery, and now had a repaired heart beating in her chest.

 

We were told to expect a hospital stay of 2-3 weeks after surgery. Josie progressed so fast in her recovery that we were discharged exactly one week after her procedure. God was doing what we had asked him to do. One week after open heart surgery found us packing our bags and waiting for our final consult with the hospital cardiologist. Because everything had gone so smoothly we honestly thought the final consult would be smiles, pats on the back and ‘hope we never see you around here agains’. Instead we heard some different news. Josie’s final echocardiogram, given that morning, had revealed severe leakage in her newly formed mitral valve...the hole was not all the way closed. Our complete repair was incomplete. Josie was still in need of intervention. We drove home stunned. We tried so hard to see the victories of the past week but could only seem to think on a tiny hole still present in a tiny heart. Smiles and joy had once again turned to tears. That was two days ago.

This morning God reminded me of that night almost two years ago at a camp in Louisiana. I honestly had not thought about it in a while. He asked me to ponder the question, “Why did I heal that little girl in that way and not yours?” The answer came with ease. Because you are using Josie’s story in a different way. I began to think back on our whirlwind week in the hospital. I cannot begin to tell you about all the gospel encounters we had there. We shared lunch with a family who were suffering with a child who had a severe brain injury. We shared a brownie with grandparents who had been watching their 8 year old grandson fight for his life on the heart and lung bypass machine since January.  We talked over and over again about Josie’s story and the gospel of Jesus with doctors and nurses as they came into our room. We told the story again to the people who changed out the trash and mopped the floor. Josie’s story and her presence at Vanderbilt, were doing what we had asked God to do. He was revealing his kingdom through a little girl, who like Moses, had been abandoned in a box and taken into a culture that was not the one of her birth.

 

When you look at the whys and hows of Jesus’ miracles, it becomes clear that Jesus always did them for a purpose. We are surrounded by a culture that elevates miracles as a magic trick or a test of individual faith. Jesus did miracles to reveal the kingdom of God. In Luke 4 he tells a paralyzed man to take up his mat and walk, only after saying that reason He was doing it was so that those present would know that he had the power to forgive sins. He wept at the funeral of his friend Lazarus, and commanded the stone be pulled back. His voice spoke into the darkness and thundered, “Lazarus come forth,” so that those present would understand that his voice could even command death to release the dead. Jesus also understood that sometimes things have to be hard in order for the kingdom to shine. He would pray, with blood running down his face in the place of sweat, that God would remove the cup of the cross from him. He would end that prayer by saying, “Not my will Father, but yours be done.” The pain of the cross, leading to the power of the resurrection, would become our hope of glory.

 

Jesus is speaking Josie’s story in the exact way that it is meant to be told. He is answering our prayer to use it to advance his kingdom. Last night I stood in her room and prayed, hot tears running down my face and off my beard, that God would use her life and mine for the glory of his name. When we received her file, all those months ago, the agency had named her Jo. Jo is the female iteration of Joseph. Joseph lived a life of suffering and rejoicing. He lived a life that would impact an entire nation and history itself. His name means “May Jehovah give increase.” Josie’s name now bears that same promise. No one knows when Josie was born. The only thing she had with her when she was found in that cardboard box was a note that read, “We are very poor, her mother has a very bad cancer, and we hope someone can save her life.” I am adding to that note, and am asking that in addition to honoring that request for her life to be saved, that Jesus will use her life to point the way to his Kingdom, and in doing so, use her life to bring other lives to salvation. The birthday the Chinese government assigned her was June 10, 2015. I will not be surprised at all, when I enter eternity, to find out that her actual birthday was June 22, 2015, the day God healed a little girl, to his glory, at a camp in south Louisiana.

Art and the Self

Some quick thoughts from this morning. I am reading book titled, “From Dawn To Decadence,” by Jacques Barzun. It is history of western cultural life from 1500 to the present. If you are a history buff like me I recommend it. This morning the section on Renaissance art and how it was shaped has me fascinated with the kind of artists we have become today. Here is a quote from the book defining the mission of Renaissance art and artists.

 

“The Renaissance treatises declare that apart from his moral mission, the artist’s duty (and thereby his intention) is to imitate nature. He must minutely observe “God’s footstool”; it is a way to worship Him. This discipline parallels the scientist’s, and more than one artist of the period thinks of himself as a ‘natural philosopher.’”

 

In simpler terms the Renaissance artist’s mission was to study the created order and reveal the nature of what it truly was. The artist saw the mission of art as a quest to reveal the nature of God as an act of worship. In general art follows the feeling of the greater culture, and this idea represented the Renaissance feeling about everything. Art, Science, and Learning all existed so that one could have a greater understanding of who God was and is. Every occupation existed to reveal the eternal. In even simpler terms, art existed to express God.

 

Fast forwarding through the events that have led us past modernity and into postmodernity it has been well documented that the starting point of reason and learning is no longer God but the self. We no longer value what is to be known apart from how it affects us personally. Our starting point of art is no longer to reveal the eternal, it is to reveal the self. Artists speak about how their art is an extension of themselves. It is a way to express themselves more fully to the culture at large. No longer is the goal of art to express what is eternal and outside of the self, in order to understand it, the goal of art in the present is only to express the self so that the self may be understood. This idea in general carries connotations about how we view everything including art and love. Love is no longer a story that is given from the divine to express the eternal, it has become something that originates in the self, existing to express our desires and our stories. Instead of creating art that seeks to understand God, we create art that wonders why God does not understand us, and instead of seeking love that resonates with the heart of God, we demand that his heart resonates with ours. In love and in art we have become God.

 

This has found its way into the church and our postmodern worship culture. The hymns of the Reformation sought to teach the singer about the nature of God and the gospel. The hymn writers were theologians first and musicians second. In order to love God you must know who he is, and to the reformers all of life was a tool to seek truth about the eternal.

 

In the present, many of our songs are devoid of anything but self expression, mirroring the culture at large. Many of our worship leaders are artist and musicians first and theologians on the side. We are prone to sing at length about how God loves us, knows us, cares for us, works miracles for us, never leaves us, and how we feel about these promises in return. We have built a culture in worship that hinges on our ability to emote our heart to God rather than seeking to understand his. Our songs must tell the story of God. Jesus is looking for those who will worship in Spirit and in truth and the search for truth comes through hard work and study. You cannot feel your way to truth, in most cases you will probably feel your way in the opposite direction.

 

Our worship must start with God and a desire to understand him, it cannot start with us and a desire to be understood. Because we have not done this well our churches are filled with people who do not know the doctrines of God. Sin, wrath, repentance, and atonement have been reduced, in many cases,  to vague phrases about how God loves us no matter what we do, with no mention of grace that leads to repentance. We cannot see God starting from the self, we must see God first and then we will be informed about how little the self can actually be trusted. This is the call of the Gospel itself, leave the self and follow Jesus. If we are to see our people truly engage God in Christian worship the litmus test will not be how it felt, it will be whether or not it caused repentance and a life moved toward the gospel. There is more to be said here, and more implications for how we lead, but for now I will leave it here.

Rockstars and Worship Leaders

For ages within the church, and even dating back to the nation of Israel, the goal of her leadership has been to reveal to the world the nature and promises of God so that the world, through the power of the Holy Spirit, might repent and believe resulting in true worship. While the means of doing this has remained static through the ages (Bible, prayer, worship, communion, service, gospel community), the style of communication has changed as culture itself has morphed and moved into its various forms. What I am about to say is not an attack on modern culture or even modernity itself. Neither am I saying that the use of modern means and methods of communication are to be anathema within the church today. I am not proposing a move toward the Amish tradition of cart and buggy in order to achieve some sort of aesthetical spirituality that has no bearing on the soul itself. If someone is reading this on my blog you will see the use of modern media to deliver songs and ideas to the church and world at large. These things are tools that are morally neutral in my view. I am also not attempting to shout from the rooftops that everyone is doing it wrong. There are many dear brothers and sisters that are chasing Jesus with everything that they are and attempting to reveal his nature through the gift of song and storytelling. These things are an amazing gift to the church. With that said as introduction, I wish to take aim at one aspect of modern Christian culture.

 

We are a culture obsessed with celebrity. The Oscars, The Grammys, TMZ, and any magazine cover will provide ample evidence of this reality. It is also an increasing reality that the church has embraced this part of the culture with open arms. Self promotion has become synonymous with gospel promotion. Examples of this abound. Just this week I have seen a Groupon for a night of worship with a major Christian “superstar”, a flyer for a women’s conference led by a current Christian celebrity, and tickets being sold for a Christian Bonnaroo type experience. All the promotion for these events revolve around the personalities that are the “main events”. The Groupon is a hip black and white photo of the artist, the flyer is a picture of the speaker, and the Christian Bonnaroo is a backlit photo of a singer surrounded by thousands of hands and smartphone cameras stretched heavenward. The simple question has to be; what and who are we promoting? I am not questioning the content of these events, rather I am questioning the push and elevation of celebrity status in order to sell tickets and gain a hearing. The content of the Groupon artist’s songs are gospel filled as are the conference speakers books. The issue is not the what, it is the who. God is clear in Isaiah 48:11 that he will not share his glory with anyone, and on the surface of things it seems like a lot of glory is being sought after and shared in the modern church.  

 

I imagine that for some the push back against this will be to say that these people love Jesus and are trying to gain as large of an audience as they can in order to deliver the truth of the Gospel. However, if the means of drawing that crowd are in opposition to the message of the Kingdom itself, is this not self defeating from the start?  A phrase that is often thrown around is “God has given me this platform” as if God is in the business of making people great so that they are more qualified to speak on his behalf. This seems to go against the very core of the Gospel message itself. The Kingdom does not seek to elevate the individual so God can use them, it seeks to humble them so that God himself is elevated through their weakness. The message of celebrity is self elevation and attention. The message of the Kingdom is inclusion and equality in the cross. The message of celebrity is artist circle and backstage passes. The heart of Christ is found in service and self sacrifice leading to his body being elevated on the cross. Paul knew this to be the truth. He battled the “Super Apostles” of his day as they came into the church preaching the gospel with an air of professionalism and superiority. They were the smooth talkers and smooth dressers of the day. Paul pleads with the Corinthian church to reject these men not based on their content but on their self aggrandizement. Speaking about these men he writes...

 

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. (1 Corinthians 4:9-10 ESV)

 

Paul understood that the power of the gospel was not revealed by flash and awe on the conference circuit but through the work of the Holy Spirit through the average person. God makes sure to point out to Israel over and over again that he chose her not because she was strong and beautiful (meaning that he could really leverage that strength and beauty to get himself noticed), he chose her because she was the weakest among the nations so that his strength could be made evident in that weakness. God is not looking for superstars, he is looking for paupers. Paul himself did not speak with eloquence but lived in the power of the Spirit. Again Paul writes…

 

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:17 ESV)

 

Here is where the rubber meets the road. God always seeks to use the average and lowly to display his power. Israel was small and weak. A poor teenage girl was chosen to carry and be called mother by the Messiah. His birth was announced to lowly shepherds in lieu of kings. Jesus called fishermen not rockstars. If we embrace wholesale the elevation of individual superstars among us are we not preaching a different gospel simply by buying the ticket? God is not looking to advance his kingdom with faces on posters, he is advancing it with those who are on their knees. In the economy of heaven weakness is power and humility is strength.

 

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10 ESV)

 

I am painfully aware that the plank may be in my own eye here. My face been displayed on posters and I have led worship for events based on the personalities that would be leading them. I am struggling through these thoughts for myself as much as anyone else, and I cannot simply use the metrics of ticket sales and popularity as the measuring stick for what is good and holy. It was the multitude that danced around the golden calf convinced that they were worshiping Yahweh, when in reality they were at that moment being sentenced to death because of their idolatry. Jesus was irate when he turned over tables in the temple because of the monetization of God’s work of atonement. It is life and death to worship God on his terms and not our own.

 

I should be careful to point out that I am not speaking about those people whom God has raised up to preach the Gospel with such power and humility that the world takes notice. These do not need booking agents or Groupons to draw a crowd, the faithful preaching of the Gospel is enough. Also, please hear me say that I am not questioning anyone’s love or devotion to the Gospel. Those with their faces printed on glossy posters are not all evil people just looking to make a buck on the back of Jesus. It is possible that they are frustrated with the seeming lack of power that all of this shock and awe type ministry really seems to produce. This is not an attempt to throw a bomb or to accuse anyone of anything, it is a plea for us to look at what we have built and become. It is a begging of the question, is this what we were sent out to be? Is this what Jesus had in mind when he sent us out to do his work? Are we working in humility and service? Are we elevating our weakness or pointing to our strength? Are people leaving our conferences and concerts wanting to lay down their life in service, or thinking how cool it would be if they were on that stage next time? Our hearts are hard wired toward idolatry. We find comfort in praising that which we hope to be. Church leaders must model death to the self and humility in order to see the church reject the need for self exaltation. When we are weak Jesus will shine as strong. Public gatherings are vital to the health of the church. The answer is not to retreat into the shadows, rather the answer is to work as hard as we can to thrust the gospel of Jesus into the light. This cannot happen in concert with our own agenda being pushed into that same light. We must fade into the shadows so that Jesus is the only thing that remains. The content of our speech will not matter if the conduct of our lives does not resonate the same.



 

The Gospel and Social Media

“Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said, ‘Caesar's.’ Then he said to them, ‘Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.’ When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away” (Matthew 22:15-22).

The social reality of Jesus’ day was as brutal as it was complex. Rome had been the occupying force inside Israel for generations and had brought with their occupation the iron rule that provided Rome’s political stability and sprawling footprint throughout the world. In the Jewish context, this amounted to a rich and prideful culture being shamed into the role of peasants and servitude. Israel’s history before Jesus had been filled with multiple political uprisings and insurrections as Jewish hero after hero sought to rid the land of Rome by force. All these attempts were met with swift Roman justice, and many found the roadways in and out of Jerusalem littered with the dead bodies of men suspended between heaven and earth on crosses as a symbol and warning for those who dared defy Roman authority in the future. 

In Matthew 22, the Pharisees were attempting to lure Jesus into a political discourse on taxation, in order to trap Him between political factions. If Jesus were to answer that taxation was unjust, He would put himself at odds with Rome and be charged with treason. If He said the tax was appropriate, He risked alienating the Jewish audience that He, by His own admission, had come to serve and save. In His answer to the question, Jesus gives His church a blueprint for our existence in and around a troubling and changing political landscape. Jesus simply refuses to enter into the conversation. In His response, Jesus makes a clear distinction between the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of Rome. There will be no discussion about Rome, because Rome was not the kingdom Jesus had come to represent. 

We live in a perilous time for the influence of the church in America. Unity, in the bond of the gospel, stands shaking on a ground that’s being eroded by an intense focus on the temporal shaping of world events. Over the past several months, we’ve seen brothers and sisters excoriate each other over political leanings and opinions without considering whether their quest to be “right” about matters of the present are worth damaging the Kingdom that’s eternal. If we were to ask Jesus if America’s politics were moral, He would answer by speaking about the Kingdom. If we were to grill Him about fair tax code for businesses and the poor, He would talk about the economy of heaven. If we were to beg Him to speak ill of our leadership and give credence to our deep disdain and concern over their moral failings, He would remind us, as He did Pilate, that leaders have power because He has willed it and that His Kingdom is not of this world. 

If the recent political season has done anything, it has shown us that new power of our social voice has consequence. What we say no longer just reaches across the table; it now has the power to reach across the world. With this power comes great opportunity, along with dangerous repercussions. 

In many ways, the church is failing. So, what are we to do? We believe the New Testament gives us the answer. It is fascinating that Paul never spoke ill of the Roman government in his letters. Many were written as he was unjustly imprisoned, and yet his energy is solely spent on communicating the gospel and unifying the church. One of those moments occurs at the first of his letter to the Philippians, where he actually rejoices that he is in prison, because God had used it to bring some of his captors to faith. Paul’s mission was not to change Rome; his mission was to bring people into the Kingdom of God by faithfully preaching the gospel. 

Our mission should be the same. How tragic, in the light of eternity, would it have been if Paul had spent his life trying to get people to agree with his politics? Will the Kingdom of God be strengthened if you spend your life trying to get people to agree with yours? What if, instead, God is calling you to be a unifying voice in the gospel by pointing people to our common need that is remedied in the blood of Jesus? Instead of trying to bring “Hope and Change” or “Make America Great Again,” what if your vision extended so far into eternity, all the way to the place where America is not even a memory anymore—that you could see people standing beside you, extolling the glory of Jesus, because you brought them near to Jesus rather than sending them away with opinion? What if, instead of posting and screaming about the injustice of a president, you reminded people that your hope was built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness—that if Satan himself were elected president, it really wouldn’t matter, because the Kingdom of God, of which you are a part, is still moving and inviting? 

So, how should we, as Christians, use our power and influence on social media? Before you post and update or a response, ask yourself if what you are about to post has implications for eternity. If you only had one chance to speak to someone about what’s most important to you, ask yourself if what you are about to say is worth being the last thing they ever hear from you. If you offend and lose the attention of someone who desperately needs to hear the gospel, just so that you can air your opinion on the president, is it worth it? If someone’s eternity is impacted by your immediate need to feel better, has the Kingdom of God been served? Are we willing to relinquish our American right to express our personal commentary on social issues of the day for the ongoing unity of the eternal Kingdom of God? We must trade in our American rights for Kingdom purpose.

The world has always been and always will be broken. Roman oppression did, indeed, end on this earth, but oppression itself did not die with Rome. Those who spent their lives trying to rid the world of Rome’s oppressive force were too shortsighted and foolish to understand that there will always be those ready to step in and fill the vacuum left by defeated oppressors. The flags may change, but the brokenness of Genesis 3 will remain until Jesus’ return. Is your life being spent for the eternal? Is your message one of hope and unity under the banner of Christ? If America were to be overrun by Communist foes next week, and we found ourselves, like Israel, under the thumb of absolute oppression, would your social media messaging change? If the answer is yes, you are not preaching the gospel. The gospel rings the same in any circumstance, in any culture, and under any political system. Jesus’ temporary opinions about Rome were irrelevant, because in the landscape of human history, Rome itself was eventually rendered irrelevant. His Kingdom remains and will remain for eternity. May our hearts beat with this vision, and may our lips be moved to proclaim His Kingdom alone.

Common Sense Rules for Social Media

  • If I am to offend, let me offend with the gospel alone.
  • If there’s a chance I lose the opportunity to speak about Jesus because of what I am about to post, do not proceed.
  • Always seek the unity of the Body of Christ.
  • Realize that what I say is attached to my local church, the church universal, and the Kingdom of God.
  • Be certain you are truly informed on issues before you voice your opinion.
  • Be cautious of sources from which you are drawing your opinions.
  • Evaluate whether your voice on social media misrepresents what matters to you most. 
  • Don’t say to everyone publicly what you really just need to say to someone personally.

Shepherds.

(Notes taken from above sermon preached at Shoreline Church on December 11 2016)

It is interesting that when we first meet shepherds in the Bible they are a respected group. Jacob, who God would rename Israel, was a shepherd. David, the greatest king Israel would ever know, tended the sheep. In the Old Testament God calls a nomadic, small, insignificant people to bless and call his own. A nation of shepherds and farmers. The small nation would flourish. They would thrive. They became rich. In spite of their blessing they ignored and spurned God and because of this they lost it all. They went from power to slavery. In the midst of Israel’s captivities the nomadic people of the country became an enslaved people that knew the city. In particular the rulers of the Jews became quite accustomed to city life. To be a shepherd was now to be an outcast from the city. In the midst of this new city life the Pharisees would expand the law so much that Shepherds were no longer even able to enter the temple of God to make atonement for their sins because of what they did for a living. They were not able to keep the rituals of washing or cleanness established for them by the religious elite thus making it impossible for them to get close to the place where the Spirit of God took up residence in the temple. The irony of this was that they were responsible for raising the sheep that would be used by the people to make sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin but they themselves were not welcome to do the same. They were poor. They were uneducated. They were dirty. They were not trusted by the middle and upper class of society. To be a shepherd would be the modern day equivalent of a homeless person selling newspapers to make a few dollars in order to eat. We would not invite them to our Christmas parties. They would not have made the A list in anything. They were the forgotten people. In this rejection is the mystery of their role in the story of Jesus birth.

The Bible reads...

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

(Luke 2:8-20 ESV)

Who is invited to Jesus?

Have you seen the golden elevators at Trump Plaza? For the last several weeks we have seen this image pretty much everywhere. There is apparently even a live camera so that any moment of the day you can watch those doors to see who may have been invited up to the top floor to meet with the Donald. There have been world leaders, financial leaders, political leaders, all kinds of leaders that have made the climb to the top of Trump Tower. Important people get invited up the gold elevators to meet the president elect. The elites of our world have access to the next President of the United States. This is the way the world functions. Important people hang out with other important people and make important decisions. Rich people hang out with other rich people and the circle goes and on and on. We are aligned with those that we are the most like whether its status, or race, or power. Since we understand that this is the case we begin to make decisions in our life that will alter and mold and shift who we are in order to give us access to the perceived next level up on the rung. Celebrities even do this. The famous among our culture are not all created equal. Are you an A list, B list, or heaven forbid you are a C list celebrity and are relegated to Dancing With the Stars?  This knowledge of how the world works starts early. Middle School can be brutal on this front. We find kids learning to alter who they are and what they are willing to do in order to gain the approval of people that they don’t really even like but that can give them status and attention that they think they really want. We want to be the ones who have the power to exclude not the ones who are being excluded. Exclusion of those who are less than is the currency of being elite. It is the balm that we think will heal the parts in our hearts that we know all too well feel empty. This is who we are. We all want in some way to be the ones who can ride whatever golden elevators we are seeking.

Because this is the scale that our broken hearts have created we place the same ideas upon our relationship with God. Our hearts tell us over and over again that the kind of person God would use must be something very different than what we know ourselves to be. The only kind of people who will get invited up the gold elevators of heaven must be the rich, the smart, the powerful. We feel hopeless and helpless at times because we know ourselves well enough to know that there is no possible way that we could be on the short list of those God wants to enable for his kingdom. Sin is the language of defeat in the human heart, it is the voice that tells us that God does not love us anymore and our answer to this is to strive and work to become someone that God would love. When that effort falls short we give up altogether on believing that God could love us so we just try to become the kind of person that someone would love. We sleep with the boy, we take the pills, we drink a little more and laugh a little louder. We make more money and wield more power, we build all these towers and castles to the sky to make the brokenness we hold inside fade to the background…

And then we see the shepherds.

In God’s story, and that includes God’s story in your life and mine, no part of the narrative is wasted. There is no stroke of the pen or punctuation that is a mistake. The shepherds did not kneel at the manger because God couldn’t find anyone else in a pinch. The men divinely appointed to kneel at the infant newborn feet of the King were handpicked from the beginning of time to be humanity’s representative at the manger. The shepherds themselves are a picture of the kind of people the kingdom of God will be for. God does not invite the Kings of the world to adore his son, he invites the homeless poor. We should not be surprised at this reality but we always are. We are convinced that God love for us is magnified in our accomplishments and yet the very voice of Jesus three decades after his birth will tell a different story. It’s almost like he is tipping his hat to the very shepherds that attended his birth when he says in Luke 6..

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

 “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

 “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.

(Luke 6:20-23 ESV)

We said earlier that exclusion is the currency of the elite. The kingdom of heaven deals in different currency. Where the elite’s seek to exclude the kingdom of heaven always invites.

Who will be bedrock of Jesus ministry...tax collectors and sinners. Who will anoint his feet with oil and wash them with her tears as a precursor of his death and sacrifice for sin...a prostitute. Who will write the majority of the New Testament...a murderer. The Bible starts and ends with the weak proclaiming and revealing the strength of God. Moses the murdering stammering failure will lead the nation. Rahab the prostitute will be in the lineage of Jesus as God uses her to deliver Jericho. David is the youngest of Jesse’s sons, not even called to meet the prophet Samuel when he is looking for Israel’s next king (on a side note he was out tending the sheep) and he would become the greatest king Israel would ever know.  Do you see it. God does not pick winners and losers the way we do. If you plan on seeing Jesus and kneeling at his feet it will not be based on what you have built or what you have done, as a matter of fact you will be required to leave all of that behind to join the throng of those who will bow at the feet of Jesus. Only sinners and paupers will find themselves invited to wedding feast of the Lamb. The only accolades that will be sung in heaven will be those of Jesus Christ. The shepherds were the perfect candidates to come to the manger because they could just sit and marvel at what God had done. Their humility of their situation could translate into wonder.

The good news of the question “Who is invited to Jesus”, is that everyone is invited. However not everyone will accept the invitation on the inviters terms. Can you hear the voice of the Rich young ruler as he boldly declares his desire for eternal life and the Kingdom of God to Jesus. Do you remember what Jesus says to him? He first reveals his pride when he says, “follow the commandments,” and the young man replies in pride, “I have.” Jesus then speaks to his position, “sell all that you have, come follow me.” In other words find your everything in me, leave what you have built and find what I will build within you. The young man leaves sad because he didn’t want that kind of invitation. Jesus will say it’s hard for important rich people to have the kingdom because of this. They want the kingdom on their terms. The shepherds had no kingdom, money, or prestige to check at the door. An invitation to the stable was the best offer they had had in years, and so they came.

How must we come to Jesus?

The lowly shepherds answer this question for us beautifully. Their coming to the manger is a template for all who would come after them. They come exactly as they are. They do not throw on a fresh set of clothes. They don’t wipe the smells and grime of the sheep off of themselves. Luke says they went with haste. They ran to the manger. They ran to the manger as poor men, as outcasts, as unclean, they ran to the manger as shepherds.

Do you realize that in this country we spend over 62 billion dollars a year on cosmetics? We are obsessed with how we look, how people perceive us. Elective plastic surgery in our country takes in over 12 billion dollars a year. We are working so hard to present a version of us to the world that is beautiful, that is perfect. Some of us find our worth in it. We spend countless amounts of time getting that perfect Instagram post, or that perfect selfie. We long to be seen as who we know we are not. We are so fearful that if people really knew us they would not love us and yet the opposite is true with Jesus. He is not looking to meet your Instagram self, he spent his blood on the cross to meet face to face with the actual you with all your warts and imperfections.

You cannot come to Jesus as you wish that you are or that you have fooled the people around you into thinking that you are. Your persona and prestige cannot make its way to the manger. The only way you can come to Jesus is as you really are. Stripped completely bare. No masks, no makeup, no titles, no prestige, just you and your brokenness standing in rags before the king of the Universe. You must run to Jesus like the Shepherds.

For some this should be amazing news. You are the one who has lost the ability to fake out the people around you. People know about you. They know you are the addict. They know you are the unfaithful wife or husband. They know you are the prostitute. They know you are the sinner. And you have been convinced by your sin, by your broken heart, or even by all the whitewashed Christianity around you that the only people Jesus wants are the good smelling buttoned up kind. How amazing is it to realize that the opposite is true. The buttoned up whitewashed among us cannot have any part of Christ, but the broken sinners can. You can kneel along with the Shepherds at the feet of Jesus. Don’t stop for a fresh set of clothes or to clean some of that dirt off. Run to Jesus with the shepherds.

The kings and queens of heaven are all around us but they are not who we think that they are. Many will be surprised to see who finds their way into heaven to rule with Jesus for eternity. The kings and queens of heaven are the poor in the slums of Haiti. They are the forgotten in the poorest places in America. They are the orphan. They are the weak. Those who will rule in eternity will not beat their chest and work with all their being to rule in this place. The kings and queens of heaven will not seek to ride a golden elevator, rather they will find their everything in the resurrection and power of Jesus.

What is our response to Jesus?

The shepherds went home glorifying and praising God for what he had done. That is our response to Jesus. There will always be two options for us. We can look at what we have built and what we have done and spend our minutes, hours, and days trying to proclaim those things to the world or we can look at what Jesus has built and what he has done and spend our minutes, hours, and days proclaiming those things to the world. The kingdom of heaven will welcome that proclamation, the other will end abruptly and eternally when we breathe our last.

The kingdom of heaven is inviting all to the feet of Jesus. The shepherds could run because they had no kingdom of value to leave behind. May God give us the grace to do the same.

 

A Love Letter From one Broken Heart to Another

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Brave little one, 

Today our broken hearts collided. Today I found out that I am your mommy. Today you are not growing in my tummy, but you are growing in my heart at a pace I didn’t even know was possible. I heard that you have a heart that is very fragile and in need of some fixing. Let me let you in on a secret little one. Me and you are two peas in one pod. My heart is in need of some repair too. Your condition has a fancy and impressive name. Mine, not so much. They told me yours is pretty severe…and well, I’m not the bragging type, but you got pretty stiff competition with this heart over here. It's one that has been bruised by a fallen world, chipped at by insecurity, is tired from a constant fight with selfishness, and is fairly damaged from encounters with fake loves masquerading as heart healers..only to leave it more empty than before. 

It’s funny that today is the day I found out you were mine. It was a huge day for America (not your current homeland so no need to be embarrassed), but there was so much turmoil here little one. When I heard about you I wanted to show them all this new perspective about how you and me, with our broken hearts, were knit together across the globe. I wanted to let them in on our secret and throw out some perspective. The simple truth is this. You have not been sustained by fancy doctors and machines or because of savy technological advances..but there you are, holding on. And I have not been sustained because I happened to have a formula for how to clean out and grow a new heart from a fairly disgusting one, but by God’s grace I too am holding on. God has been our sole sustainer, you and me. We are held together by the one who is bigger than any election, any situation, relationship or physical condition. Through His great mercy alone, our broken hearts continue to beat. He knows the exact number of beats our hearts will take in this blink of a life. He controls the beating of every heart in every human being under this blazing sun (including world leaders who rise and fall like blades of grass). 

...And He alone is the healer of our hearts. 

Today we got one step closer to all kinds of healing, when He brought together the unlikely love of two broken hearts. Here, you will be a candidate for a surgical repair. And you, little one, will no doubt be bringing with you the gift of repair to hearts all around you. In all the unknowns I know this to be absolutely certain. This is the love we were created for; the love that heals our hearts. 

It is a love bigger than ourselves. It is a love that requires sacrifice, a love that is vulnerable to potential heartache, a love that requires grace to think of oneself less and of others more, a love that transcends family genetics to a greater view of what family means, and a love that will stretch our hearts to newer and greater lengths, heights and depths.

…It is the love of Christ. 

So I thank you in advance little one, for how your broken heart will help mend others, including your mommys’. Thank you for reminding us that it is God who numbers our days, God who speaks into being every beat of our hearts, and God who takes our broken hearts of stone and replaces them with a heart of flesh. And to all the broken hearted, we are all candidates for repair, made whole and healed by the love and grace of Jesus Christ. 

 ...the first of many letters from one broken heart to another. I love you little one.

      -Your mommy

How To Tell A Story

(Part 2 following the post from Monday, "Can You Hear Me Now?")

For some of us the idea of God wanting to speak to us, wanting to paint us a picture of his care and love is an idea that is as foreign as hot ice. We have thought at times that God might be speaking, but what we feel like he is saying is, “read that Bible of yours and make sure you are following all those rules.” We imagine his gaze as a tightly drawn scowl peering out over a pair of cosmic readers that are pulled down low on his heavenly nose. The problem with all of this is that the laws of God are not some playground line drawn in the sand that he is daring us to cross so he can punch us in the jaw. The heartache of sin is not a heavenly haymaker waiting to happen. The heartache comes because we have messed up the story, we have ruined the metaphor. We were created to mimic and point to the character of God to the world around us. When we break his laws we have become renegade storytellers, giving truths about the kingdom and person of God that are not true and do not represent who he is at all. We become the kid in the choir singing out of tune, or the t-ball kid running to third instead of first. The song sounds terrible and our team may lose the game. It has nothing to do with imaginary lines and everything to do with our responsibility to get the story right.

A few years ago I recorded a song that needed to have some gang style vocals on it (not gang as in street gang, gang as in a lot of people singing the same thing really loud). I was leading worship weekly for an amazing group of students in Birmingham Alabama and thought it would be cool to use them for the gang vocal section. After our service one night I asked if those who were willing would stick around to sing on the song. We all crammed into a classroom where we had already set up some microphones and the gear necessary to capture the sound. I stood up before my new recording buddies and gave them the simple plan. Sing with volume and sing with passion. There was only one very important rule. If you were tone deaf please don’t sing. I asked them to either step out of the room or, to avoid embarrassment, mouth the words with no sound, just do not shout out your wrong notes on the recording.  I love tone deaf people singing at the top of their lungs to Jesus (I grew up listening to my Dad do this very thing on a regular basis) I just didn’t want that sound recorded on the song. We recorded the section a few times and it was done. The funny moment came later that night when I listened back to the recording. I still don’t know who, but someone had stood in that room, right in front of one of the microphones and shouted with passion and volume all of the wrong notes. Tone deaf on another level. The take was ruined. It took something that was meant to be beautiful and moved it to the realm of a Saturday Night Live skit.

Singing and playing the right notes in music is important. An orchestra cannot seek out their own truth as they play Beethoven. They cannot speak their own mind when trying to represent the ideas of Bach. The will of the composer is represented with black ink on the white pages of the score. If the violins decide to “do their own thing,” or “find their own way” the performance is ruined. The magic of the symphony is dependant on the players submitting their efforts and their will to the creation and story of another. Something magical happens when people join their lives to do this. If you have never been to the symphony you need to GO! It is a powerful and emotional thing. It is a beautiful picture of storytelling and an earthly reflection of the mind of God.

Some may find this idea restricting, as if God is trying to stifle and cram them into a boring mold or box. However, just because we have been given a specific part to play does not take away from our creativity within that role. A lot of people these days view greatness and achievement only through the lens of individualism and a disconnect from the expectations of others. Creativity has been hijacked into the realm of only those things that are new or different. King Solomon chased this idea for a long time until he exclaimed in Ecclesiastes that, “there is nothing new under the sun,” chasing the next new thing left him saying that everything was meaningless. That is a pretty glum view of things until you understand that fulfilment isn’t found in finding the new, it is found in revealing the truth of the timeless. What if we are so busy trying to get people to accept and understand who we perceive ourselves to be that we are missing our mission to proclaim to others who God actually is.

I am not anti creativity. Creativity itself is a representation of who God is. God is honored in those who seek to expand the bounds of how we can see and experience the truth of God. However, if we only focus on the delivery method of the story; celebrating the sound, ambiance, or feel of a thing instead of what that thing is seeking to reveal, we have moved from creatively expressing the timeless into idolatry. For example are we moved by the God the song is singing about or are we moved simply by the feeling of the song itself? As we see creativity in action are we overwhelmed by the greatness of God or only by the imagined greatness of the artist? If you are in the American Church you have probably sensed that we live in a perilous time. Our culture is shaped by famous preachers, communicators, and artists. We are in love with that which is new and fresh. We give our money and affection to people and creations that speak of God but point to the individual. Even in the church, in the form of a song or a sermon, we can be in danger of hijacking God’s story in our insatiable need to tell our own. Sometimes we sing, blog, paint, or write only to the glory of our story and creativity. Our skill is meant to point to something outside of ourselves. Our skill is a gift from God to be used in the worship of God. The Psalmist understood this balance when he wrote,

    Give thanks to the LORD with the lyre;
        make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
    Sing to him a new song;
        play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
    (Psalm 33:2-3 ESV)

This playing and shouting was to reveal the majesty of God and not the shouter. God is the one who has spoken and continues to speak. He is the storyteller, our voices simply seek to point to what he is already speaking and has spoken. In that same Psalm listen to what the Psalmist is trying to get us to see,

    By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
        and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
    He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;
        he puts the deeps in storehouses.
    (Psalm 33:6-7 ESV)

If the storytelling becomes the end and not the means we have stolen the spotlight in a script that was not meant for us to play the lead. We are singing out of tune. We are not communicating our part with skill. God has chosen a people for himself for a specific purpose. If you are in the family of God you have been given a vital role in the script, a unique part in the symphony. Are you playing it? Do you know what your part is. Peter writes,

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
(1 Peter 2:9 ESV)

We are meant to declare the excellencies of Jesus. Your life and voice have been given purpose in the story of God.

A crazy thing happens when the players in the symphony strive to play their part with skill and precision. When they are selfless in their expression of another person’s idea and creativity, people are actually drawn into their individual skill and storytelling. To reject the story would bring shame and chaos, accepting it brings appreciation and accolades. They are known not for their rejection of the status quo but their ability to communicate with passion something bigger than themselves. God wants to do the same. We are not meant to fade into the shadows, we are meant to shine. Our accolades however are not found in the applause of men, we are seeking the applause of the master storyteller himself. The old song I’d Rather Have Jesus captures this beautifully

I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause

I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause

I’d rather have Jesus than worldwide fame

I’d rather be true to His holy name

This goes hand in hand with Paul when he writes,

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,
(1 Peter 5:6 ESV)

As we play our part with skill, submitting our desire to tell a different story or sing a different note to the story and score that has already been written, we find our purpose and our place in God’s design. We do not throw up our hands in despair that all is “meaningless” rather we have found meaning in the grand narrative of the eternal God.

We are a part of something bigger than a symphony. The story God is telling is infinitely more complex than a song. Why he has chosen us to be the players in his creation is a mystery. We are imperfect contributors on a good day. Our voices are often out of tune. Our sense of timing and rhythm is tragic at times, but the song goes on. We must learn to “play skillfully” with the instrument of our lives, our speech, and our conduct. This is not reserved for certain moments of our day, we have been chosen to play a part and tell the story in every aspect of our being. The book of Colossians says,

  So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
(1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV)

Every aspect of our existence is subject to the story of God. Whatever we do is written into the script. No breath is to be wasted. No taste to be discarded. No tactile sensation is outside the narrative. No second is a throw away. The way we eat tells it, our sexuality tells it, our family tells it, how we treat one another tells it, how we speak tells it, the whole of our experience here is meant to reveal the mind of God. Because of this, food is no longer simply for our enjoyment, sex is not a means to happiness or fulfilment, and art is not simply a means of self expression. They are meant to express God. We are no longer a people striving to find ourselves, we are a people striving to reflect the one who has found us. Again Paul writes,

  Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
(1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV)

Let us play our parts with skill.