Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Lord, Teach Us To Pray

The Good Samaritan by He Qi
In light of recent events, it is good to remember that we should be "slow to speak and slow to become angry" (James 1:19) and quick to lift up our voices in prayer. Here are a few prayers to guide our words and meditations.

"For Social Justice" Book of Common Prayer
Grant, O God,
that your holy and life-giving Spirit
may so move every human heart
and especially the hearts of the people of this land,
that barriers which divide us may crumble,
suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease;
that our divisions be healed,
we may live in justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

"For A Death in the Neighborhood" commonprayer.net
Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us.
Grant us peace.

For the unbearable toil of our sinful world,
We plead for remission.
For the terror of absence from our beloved,
We plead for your comfort.
For the scandalous presence of death in your Creation,
We pleased for the resurrection.

Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us.
Grant us peace.


"Prayer for Renewal" The Worship Sourcebook
Father, as we remember how our Lord Jesus was identified by baptism 
with John’s message of repentance and renewal, 
we pray for the renewal of humanity today
and for the church as a means of renewal.

We pray for the welfare of nations and the wisdom of governments, 
for social justice and for racial harmony.
May laws and policies dignify, not degrade,
and may the arrival of your kingdom in Jesus
be attested by the witness of Christians in every walk of life.

We pray for all who suffer loss and who are diminished by illness, 
by disappointment, or by the attitude of others.
Support and strengthen these and all who are in the wilderness 
facing the testing of what they believe in.

We pray also for all who must die soon—
both those who know it and those who do not.
Confirm in every one of us that it is not for this life only
that we have hope in Christ,
and in the communion of all your baptized people
may we find bonds forged between us that endure to all eternity. 
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Isaiah 64: Lost in the Clothes Racks



Do you remember getting separated from your mom or dad in a department store? I remember being pretty little—under 7—and going to K-Mart with my mom. She was doing some shopping for herself, which of course did not include spending copious amounts of time in the toy aisle like I had specifically requested. Instead we meandered through the women’s section, a complete bore-fest to any semi-normal child. To entertain my semi-normal self I was ducking in and out of the circular clothes racks, attempting to see how long it would take before Mom would forget about me. For a while Mom tried to pay attention to me, asking me to stop, to stay close by. But eventually I hid in a clothes rack for a little too long, she got a little too distracted by some article of clothing, and we were separated.

What’s funny about that experience is that I remember being the angry one. I had refused to stick close to my parent, I had literally hid myself from her, and yet I was angry that she would just leave me, abandon me to my fate in K-Mart of all God-forsaken places. I did the things that a lost child does—look around frantically, cry, look around some more, and eventually get asked by some employee if I was lost. In a moment lived-out by hundreds of families, we were joyfully reunited at the customer service desk after a call for “the mother of Anthony” rang out over the PA system.

Isaiah 64, the first Scripture of the first week of Advent, has Israel in much the same position as a lost child—but with the stakes much higher. Israel’s countryside has been burnt, it’s cities torn down, it’s civilization in ruins. And despite recognizing that they have sinned, that they have transgressed, that they have ran away from God, they still want to blame God for what has happened to them: “You have hidden your face from us” (64:7).

But the most forceful message of Isaiah 64 is the recognition that things are completely messed up, the world is totally screwed—but if God would “tear open the heavens and come down,” if God would make the earth shake in His presence, if God would baptize the world with fire and release His flames upon Israel’s adversaries, then all would be made right once more.

But we should pause before we join in too eagerly with these cries for vengeance. Because God did answer Israel’s prayer. God did come down, He did act decisively in Israel’s favor…but in a way totally unexpected, in a way absent of flame and earthquake and fear. God and His people were indeed reunited, brought into each other’s presence again, by way of God-in-the-flesh, the Divine-Made-Incarnate, Son of God and Son of Man: Jesus.

This Advent, we are right to cry out to God for Him to make things right in the world. We are right to recognize how lost we are without Him and how desperate things are without His presence. But let’s be slow to blame God for humanity’s mistakes. And let’s be slow to ask for God’s vengeance and anger and punishment. Rather let us anticipate together the presence of God made real in the unexpected: not in the earthquake or fire or storm, but in the still and in the quiet and in the recognition that God is with us, even when we’re hiding in the clothes racks.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Three Cues That An Invitation to Church Would Be Welcome

CC Image courtesy of Rodney Campbell on Flickr
When's the last time you've invited someone to one of your church's services? I know it's been a while for myself. And for a socially awkward introvert like me, it can be hard to know when it's appropriate or not to bring it up with someone.

I recently heard* three cues of when to invite someone to come to a church service with you. These cues are something that you may hear in a conversation that serve as a clue that it might be appropriate to bring up going to church:

  1. "Things are not going well..." When you hear someone say this - perhaps in the context of a job, a relationship, a life-transition - that's a great opportunity to say, "Why don't you come to church with me this Sunday?"
  2. "I'm not from here..." When people move to town, it can be hard to find a system of relationships and friends to rely on. Hopefully your church is a place where people can find relationships of trust and loving acceptance.
  3. "I'm not prepared for..." Sometimes things in folks' lives are going fine - new job, kids getting married, new opportunities - but they just weren't prepared for the newness of it all. A place where you can hear teaching or receive mentoring could be exactly what a person is needing in their life. 
The ultimate goal of the church is not to make friends or just get help for tricky life-situations. The goal is to become more like Jesus. But when we invite someone to a church service, we may be helping someone in their next step in knowing God transformationally. 


* From the "Keystone Habits" episode of the very excellent Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The One Who Can Destroy Your Soul and Body In Hell (Part 1)


Culture deeply impacts the way that we read Scripture. Some of these impacts are very subtle, requiring someone from outside our culture to point them out. And some of these ways are much more obvious, causing us to shake our head in regret once we see where we went wrong.

Leonard Sweet once explained the ways that different cultures understand the parable of the prodigal son. If you were to ask people from a variety of cultures the simple question, "What is the primary sin of this story?" you would get a multitude of answers. The U.S.'s sexually obsessed culture tends to narrow in on the phrase, "And squandered his wealth in wild living," filling in the details on what that means. Honor-based societies in Asia focus on the phrase, "Father, give me my share," angry that a son could dishonor his father in such a way. Community-based societies in Africa are outraged that when there was a famine the community sent the prodigal out into fields with the pigs. 

Sometimes the cultural issue can be merely that of translation. The ancient Hebrews used to use the phrase “cleanness of teeth” as an idiom. Can you guess for what? It sounds like a good thing, but it was generally a thing that God would curse people with.

Cleanness of teeth meant famine. No food. No cavities.

A way that I recently woke up to some cultural conditional in my reading of Scripture was in Matthew 10. Here Jesus is sending His disciples out into the world on mission. Unsurprisingly—considering the religious and political implications of what they were to proclaim—Jesus is warning them about near-certain persecution. But He offers this advice to them:

“Do not fear those who kill the body 
but cannot kill the soul; 
rather fear him who can destroy 
both soul and body in hell.” 

So the question I found myself asking in this verse is, “Who is the one who can destroy me in hell?”

This is where my cultural conditioning sprung to action. According to the culture I grew up in, the one in charge of hell, throwing big parties for all the big baddies down there—it’s Satan is of course. He’s the one down there, large and in charge, envisioning new and wonderful ways to torment people just for the fun of it. These cultural memes have found their way into my imagination, changing the way that I read Scripture. Thanks to Dante’s Inferno, medieval art, and probably too many cartoons as a kid, I imagine hell as Satan’s playground, and him as it’s CEO.

But the Bible never says anything like this. Not even close. Our Adversary, the Devil we are never told to fear. In fact we are told to resist him, stand fast against him, to—in the power of God—fight opposed to him (1 Peter 5:8-9; Ephesians 6:12). Hell is not where Satan goes to enjoy his own twisted version of bliss. No, “the lake of fire” in Revelation is the final resting place of Satan; and he’s definitely not in charge of it and he definitely does not enjoy it.

This idea though—to fear Satan—has ingrained itself into the Christian culture I come into contact with. I know those who won’t even say his name because he might perk up, pay attention to us, and come get us.

While, of course, I’m not suggesting that we don’t take the devil or the demonic seriously (we should) or that we ought to pretend they don't exist (we shouldn’t), what I am saying is that Satan is not the one who can destroy our soul and body in hell. He can’t.

So who is? Well, God is. And that fact can make us very uncomfortable, can’t it? How on earth is that comfort for the disciples that Jesus is sending out to the world? We’ll address that in Part 2.

What do you think? How were you taught to think about Satan? Was he the one in charge of hell? Was his name taboo for fear of him coming to get you? Let me know in the comments below.

Monday, April 21, 2014

4 Ways to Keep the Resurrection Alive After Easter


Most of us just got done with this 40-day season called Lent. It concluded gloriously with Easter  - Resurrection Day - itself. Big church services with big attendance and -  typically - shorter, to-the-point sermons. Many of us had big meals with families, enjoyed some spring sunshine, and perhaps even spent some extra time thanking God today for Jesus, His sacrifice, and His resurrection.

But now what? Now that the big lead-up to Easter is over, what are we supposed to do as a church and as Christians? Certainly the truths that we heard about resurrection and new life should have some continuing resonance. And certainly the fasting we did over Lent doesn't suddenly lose all its significance until next February or something. Right?

Right. But how do we keep these concepts going? Well, here are 4 ideas on how to keep the concepts of Easter alive as we move forward into the year.

ONE: Add a spiritual discipline.
Lent was an opportunity to recognize our sin and depravity, and to - in small ways - join Jesus in His 40-day fast in the wilderness. People give up all sorts of things - sweets, social media, negative comments, you name it. 

Now that Lent has come and gone, this season of Eastertide (that it's official name) can be a great opportunity to add a discipline. Now for many of us, that "adding" should be something like silence, solitude, meditation, a continued fast...something that actually helps de-clutter your life. For others, it could be more action-oriented, such as prayer, hospitality, or giving. 

If you need a list of possible spiritual disciplines, head here. You could also...

TWO: Read the book of Acts.
The literal, historical resurrection of Jesus makes the most sense out of what happened afterward: the birth and unprecedented expansion of the early church. People tend not to give up their lives for made-up stories about the dead coming back to life or failed messiahs being crucified. It makes the most sense that Jesus really, truly came back to life and empowered His disciples to make disciples of the world.

For a glimpse of just how convinced, dedicated and empowered the early church was by Jesus' resurrection and His call to make disciples, read the book of Acts. You will be amazed by the faith, courage, and audacity that these early church-planters had. Look specifically for the word "resurrection" and the effect it had on people (hint: it's used 11 times).


THREE: Bring something to life.
Easter has to do with new life and new creation. Jesus, as the "firstfruits of the resurrection" (1 Cor. 15:20), is the start of the world being re-made and re-created, without the fall, reconciled with God. And, nearly just as excitingly, God has made us agents of that reconciliation! We get to help put the world back to order; we get to be agents of God's resurrection power!

There are all sorts of simple ways to do that. But one of the most simple is by getting our hands dirty and planting some flowers, a tree, even some vegetables and herbs (which Emily and I hope to do this spring...we love basil!). When we help something grow and live, we are joining with God in His sustaining of creation, obeying our original commandment to "work the the ground, and take care of it" (Genesis 2:15).

FOUR: Remember that every Sunday is a mini-Easter.
Christian worship moved from Saturday to Sunday because it was "the Lord's Day" (Revelation 1:10); that is, it was the day when Jesus was resurrected from the dead. This was the pivotal point on which Christianity stood. Without Christ's resurrection, Christianity was worthless (1 Cor. 15:17). Because of the magnitude of this event, we see evidence from the earliest records of the first-century church that they worshiped on "the first day of the week," i.e. Sunday (1 Cor 16:2; Acts 20:7; Didache 14:1 [mid-late 1st cent.]).

So, when the church gathers together each Sunday, think of not just as a nice way to end the weekend; think of it as a weekly celebration that Christ is alive and is making us alive in Him! Every Sunday is Resurrection Sunday, a day to remember this glorious truth: 
Romans 6:4-11. We were...buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. 
8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 
11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Favorite Albums of 2013

December is always a good time to look back on things that have made an impact on you over the past 12 months. Since music is such an integral part of my life, I thought I'd see what my "most played" albums were and share them with you.


Best New Artist: The Lone Bellow
I have never been a country fan, but I grew up listening to it quite a bit (thanks, Dad!). I still avoid your typical country artists as much as possible, but I am a fan of the new folk movement, as well as some of the more interesting and artistic country artists.

The Lone Bellow bills itself as "Brooklyn country," and it somehow fits. Their tight harmonies and steel-y instrumentation are fantastic...nearly as good as their lyrics. Frontman Zach Williams wrote many of the songs based off his wife's near-fatal horseback riding accident, scribbling thoughts and lines into a journal throughout the ordeal. The music that has come from those songs makes for soulful, honest, and yet-somehow-hopeful lyrics.

Favorite track: "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold."



Best New Worship
Obviously, as a worship leader, I listen to a lot of worship music. When you've been doing this for a while, it shouldn't surprise you to know that it takes something special to impress an old, cynical church musician like me. Though the bands below don't exhaust all the decent worship music that came out this year, these three stand out.


The Digital Age
The first concert I paid to go to with my own money was a David Crowder*Band concert. I've spent my own money on many more DC*B shows after that. So to say that I was seriously bummed out when I heard that they were "breaking up" would be an understatement.

Fortunately, although David Crowder and the band were going separate ways, it didn't mean that they were done making music. Crowder's new album comes out in 2014, but the rest of the *Band formed The Digital Age. Their first outing is a concept album around the themes of "Evening and Morning," i.e. the liturgical day. They are one of the few bands that can we re-do an already popular song - such as All Sons and Daughters' "All the Poor and Powerless" - and do it in such a way that's both familiar and interesting.

Favorite track: "Believe."


Hillsong Young and Free
I've said for a few years that the next trend in modern worship music is going to be the dance-pop sound that you hear on the radio so often. Soaring synths, four-on-the-floor digital bass drum thumps, obnoxiously-catchy lyrical licks. A couple of churches and worship bands have tried to pull this off with mixed success (I'm looking at you Newsboys).

The youth group of the uber-successful Hillsong Church has their own worship team (of course) and they have at last released their first album that absolutely nails dance-pop worship. They create a soundscape that at once accurately follows the musical zeitgeist as well as avoids an easy rip-off of actual pop artists.

The question of "attainability" for typical, average churches always comes up with albums like these. But for once that necessarily wasn't Hillsong's intent nor should it have been. This album proved that Christian artists can make music with the best of them. It may have taken years to prove that point, but the point remains.

Favorite track: "Alive."


Honorable Mentions: Dustin Kensrue; Hillsong United "Zion: Acoustic Sessions."

Favorite Soundtrack: Broadchurch, Olafur Arnalds
When you write as much as I do, you have to invest in some good "background music" without lyrics, that doesn't cry for attention, and isn't interesting enough to draw you away from the work at hand.

Arnald's soundtrack to the iTV miniseries Broadchurch fits none of those requirements. His soundtrack is so unique from anything else in film and television that it stands on its own as a musical achievement. It's brooding instead of in-your-face; it uses motifs without using them to death (John Williams, you could use this lesson); its haunting without being creepy.

Favorite Track: "Suspects."


Honorable Mentions: Hans Zimmer, "Man of Steel"; Murray Gold, "Doctor Who Series 7."

Overall New Favorite: Sleeping at Last - The Atlas EPs
I'm not entirely sure how I even came across Sleeping at Last; I'm less sure how I missed it for so long. 

Sleeping at Last is made up of one member, Ryan O'Neal. The genre is best defined as "indie rock," though this really does little justice to everything Sleeping at Last achieves. A mix of orchestral, folk, and ambient sounds combine to produce soul-lifting melodies that just make you feel good. O'Neal's voice is unique without being overly novel; soaring without being cloying.

This past year he has been releasing a series of concept EPs called Atlas, each one focusing on themes of light, darkness, and space. It's in these albums that his lyrical skills truly shine. I don't know anyone who wouldn't have a better day by waking up to "You Are Enough":
“You are enough.”
These little words, somehow they’re changing us.
“You are enough,”
So we let our shadows fall away like dust.
“You are enough.”
These little words, somehow they’re changing us.
Let it go, let it go, “You are enough.”
So we let our shadows fall away like dust.
Favorite Track: "Light."

So these are the albums that I kept putting on repeat this year. What about you? What music moved you to tears, to dance, to worship this year? Let me know in the comments!


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Niceness Isn't Everything

From Storylineblog, by Allison Vesterfelt

When you can’t tell the truth about yourself, you cease to exist as a person. 
Being “nice” kept me from doing what I was made to do. 
Trying to manage my “nice girl” image kept me trapped, working to control other’s opinions of me, rather than doing what I knew was right. I couldn’t send an e-mail or even a tweet without hours of deliberation. I stayed on the margins of my life, scared to get into the thick of things, terrified that I was going to hurt someone, or offend someone, or mess everything up. 
I avoided jobs I wanted, parties I wished I could attend, and friendships I longed for, with the excuse that they could be the wrong job, wrong party, wrong relationship, or that I would make a mess of them. 
If I didn’t do anything, I couldn’t do anything wrong. Right? 
I’m starting to see how doing nothing is sometimes the worst thing you can do.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Holes and Transplants

CC Image Courtesy of Stephen Poff on Flickr
Most of you know that I was born with a hole in my heart (a congenital condition called Tetralogy of Fallot) that, due to the conditions that I grew up in, went untreated until I was 6 or 7 years old. This hole prevented blood from receiving oxygen; therefore this unoxygenated blood would flow through my body, unable to give my body's cells the nutrients they needed.

Clearly this is a problem.

Eventually, I was put into the care of an aunt and uncle who cared for me properly, ensuring that I received open heart surgery and had a healthy recovery process. The surgery was an all-day event that required surgeons to crack open my chest, sew up one hole and patch up another. And these holes were no small divots. One was the size of a quarter. In a 7-year-old heart. This was a big deal.

It was such a big deal, in fact, that I remember being a young Christian using this surgery as an analogy for what Jesus did to our spiritual hearts. "Just like I had a hole in my heart that needed to be closed, I had a hole in my life that needed to be filled with Jesus." Which, I admit, as a pious 12 year old, that sounds like a pretty neat analogy. Especially when I have scars on my chest to help give my point some more punch.

But this isn't how God works.

The prophet Ezekiel is given a message from God to pass on to Israel:
I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God (Ezekiel 11:19-20, NRSV).
From an early age, I made the mistake of thinking that all God wanted to do with me was stitch up some issues with my personality (my spiritual, emotional, soulish heart, the seat of my impulses and desires) and send me on my way. 

But God doesn't mess around with stitches and patches.

Our God is the God of heart transplants.

It would be nice if we could reduce God's work in our lives to that of a finger against a leak, a plug in a hole. It would make the Divine work in our lives a lot easier to manage. Shuffle some issues over here, move over some problems over there, make some time every once in a while on a Sunday, and voila, a Life Improved By God.™

But God is not really into life improvement. God desires - demands - much more of us than this. And not just because He is a needy or demanding God. The fact of the matter is that our hearts are far more screwed up than a few holes or some blockage or a little too much cholesterol. No, our hearts have turned to stone. They can't pump blood at all. Which means, in spiritual terms, they can't even begin to be aware of God's presence and work in our lives, much less respond to His presence.* Remember, it was Jesus who said we had to born all over again (John 3).

What must happen is not just a plug-the-hole kind of spirituality that has just enough room for God. It calls for a complete transplant, a removal of the old, and a replacement with the new.


*This is the theological idea of total depravity. We'll talk about that soon.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Thoughtful Inaction

There was one these ancient things in the apartment
 I lived in from a very early age.
Recently I have spent entirely too much time thinking about writing more than actually writing more. I suppose that this is a touchstone of the human experience. We spend exponentially more time thinking - dreaming, wishing - about the things we'd like to do - experience, achieve - than we actually spend time doing those things.

Is that all bad? I would argue that, up to a point, no, it's not all bad. I think we're all well aware that if we acted on each impulse or "great idea" we came up with, then we'd all be in heaps more trouble than we already are. Ideas take processing. Thoughts need chewing. Sometimes the wisest action we can take is a well planned moment of inaction.

But - and I'm preaching to myself here - "thoughtful inaction" can soon become an excuse for well-pondered lack of effort. I've enjoyed writing for as long as I can remember. I have journals that I started keeping from second grade. As my brother reminded me today, I began writing science fiction since fifth grade (ripping off character names and plot ideas from someone else's creativity; Hollywood calls it a "reboot"; my critics called it "lack of imagination"). 

When I was fourteen or so I bought "The Writer's Guide to the Christian Publishing Market" and began submitting unsolicited articles to magazines. Boy, I was pretentious back then. (But not now, no, of course not, don't be silly). 

I've been published exactly once and it was a great feeling; a really great feeling in fact. But pretty much ever since then I've stopped writing for anything but what has been assigned to me ("Write this paper"; "Turn in this this assignment;" "Craft this sermon"; "Sign this birthday card"). And while that has only further helped craft my skills (my birthday card signature is awesome), it is not always the most life-giving thing to write only because someone else has asked you too. 

Even brownies, when forced to eat them, lose their sweetness.

And so I think it's time to put a little sweetness back into this whole writing thing. To attempt to write well, not because a grade demands it, but because it's what I would like to do.

Enough thoughtful inaction. It's time for thoughtful action; action in the form of well-crafted words. 

Here goes.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Lions, Dragons, and Reading Your Bible.



“Stop doing spiritual disciplines.”

Oh gosh, did I really just say that when preaching last Sunday? I think I did. I didn’t intend to say that, but I'm pretty sure that’s what came stumbling out of my mouth as I tried to articulate that you don’t need to convince God to love you, like you, or accept you. What I really meant, though, was “stop doing spiritual disciplines for all the wrong reasons.”

Because there are wrong reasons and right ones. 

Convincing God to give you something you want? Wrong reason. 

Trying to impress God with how spiritual and mature you are? You just proved otherwise with that very thought.

However that doesn’t mean the disciplines are all for naught. For those of you who were at church on Sunday, you heard me read a passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader about the story of Eustace, the spiteful boy whose insides became his outsides - he turned into a dragon. Then Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure, invites Eustace to unclothe himself of his dragon skin and bathe.

To push Lewis’s analogy far beyond its intention, this is what I would like to suggest about spiritual disciplines. The act of Eustace trying to scratch and peel his own dragon skin off is much like performing spiritual disciplines with the idea that you are going to somehow make yourself better, make yourself clean, remove sin from your own soul. You can keep on scratching, you can keep on peeling, but that old dragon skin just ain’t gonna budge.

But when Eustace sees the Lion call to him and then Eustace follows....when Aslan says “let me remove the dragon skin from you” and Eustace puts himself under the Lion’s care…those are what spiritual disciplines are meant to be like. They are an act of submission to God. When we pick up our Bibles, or go to our prayer closets, or fast from food, we aren’t doing these things to clean up our own act or to somehow impress God with how holy we already are. Rather, we do those things to put ourselves under God’s loving—but penetrating—scalpel; God is the one making us holy; God is the one removing the dragon skin once and for all.

The disciplines are about putting ourselves in a posture of obedience, in a place where we are allowing God to do His work in us, on us, and through us. The disciplines are an active posture of submission.  Not to make God love us—that was never the issue. Not to make ourselves holy—that was never an option. But to let God wash us clean—as only He can do.