Worship Together

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There is a transcendence in coming to God in his throne room, something far bigger than us—something bigger, indeed, than all of creation, all of history, all of time—because God is bigger: God himself transcends creation, history, time.

Yet there is an intimacy in worship, as well, a closeness to the father that is warm and secure and comforting. It is as if we are sitting at his very feet, or even curled up as a child in her daddy’s lap.

Corporate worship, the body of Christ coming together to worship, has the difficult task of bringing a diverse group of individuals into both a transcendent and an intimate relationship with God. Worship leaders are charged with this task, which they seek to accomplish through music, prayer, the Word, and service: heart, soul, mind, and strength. Yet these are not incongruous or even distinct elements, but each serves and enhances the others. When we make them distinct, we do a disservice to ourselves, our churches, our congregations…yes, we even do a disservice to God.

As interdependent as these elements are, however, I want to address just one of them: music. 

Music touches the heart, the emotions. But far from merely touching the heart, music actually leads the heart. And a key role of music leaders is to lead the heart—and the hearts—of the congregation either into the transcendence of God’s throne room or the intimacy of his lap … or sometimes both, for even in the closeness of an embrace we get a sense of the Father’s bigness; and in that, we gain a sense of protection and security.

And yet so often, in our culture-driven desire for bigness—big concerts, big sounds, big lights—we lose the sense of God’s transcendence which is so much bigger than anything we can manufacture. The amplified sounds of the band’s instruments and voices fills the auditorium, deafens the ears of the congregations, mutes their voices. We sing in silent syncopation with the band, unable to hear even what comes from our own lips. We are awed not by the Seraphim of Isaiah’s temple vision, but by the percussion of the bass and drum.

Even in songs of would-be intimacy with our Savior, the electronically-boosted voices of the band drown the gathered song of the worshippers. We find ourselves yelling about the quiet place of rest.


Worship in all its forms and voices should be focused on and directed to God alone. When Christ’s body comes together, no leader ought to take the place of the One whom we gather to worship. Yet all too often, those called to lead the congregation—whether in music, in prayer, in the Word, or in service—do exactly that, and so steal the rightful place of God.

Memories of a Mountain

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Recently I returned to a place I hadn’t been to in 34 years: Forest Home, a camp and conference center in the San Bernardino mountains. I’d worked there for two summers after high school, first as a groundskeeper, then as dishwasher at the high school camp.

Much has changed around FoHo in three-plus decades: the pool was moved, the teepees of “Indian Village” have been replaced with yurts in what is now simply, “The Village,” and ongoing maintenance has upgraded most of the buildings. But much is the same, too, or at least similar. The Clubhouse, Roundhouse, and dining halls are all in the same places. The lake is still full and wet and green. Black bears still wander the grounds at night, threatening any food or garbage left by unaccustomed city folk!

As I walked throughout the camp, memories flowed from rocks and buildings and the creek running down the valley. In the dining room, I recalled the day we heard that Christian musician Keith Green had died. Outside the kitchen where I washed dishes, I remembered my conversation about faith with a Catholic co-worker. Faces and names came to mind – people who spoke into my faith, challenged me, encouraged me, built me up. The leadership retreat I was part of that weekend opened the door to these memories of God at work not only in my own life, but thousands of other lives over the years.

Throughout the Bible, God tells his followers to remember:

Remember who he is (Exodus 3:15). Remember his commandments (Numbers 15:40). Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy (Exodus 20:18).

When the people of Israel finally crossed the Jordan River and into the promised land, they were to collect twelve stones from the riverbed and place them where they camped next to the river. When their children in future generations saw the stones and asked about them, they would remember how God had led them across the river on dry ground

Jesus told his disciples to remember him whenever they shared in what we now call Communion or the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist.

Sometimes life gets hard: Jobs are lost. A spouse gets sick. A child wanders. A parent dies. And in the midst of the hard, we don’t always see God at work, don’t hear his voice, don’t feel his presence. We forget.

We need help to remember. We need a friend’s eyes to give perspective. We need a counselor’s ears to hear what God is whispering. We need a spouse’s arms to feel God next to us. We need a pile of stones—or a trip back up the mountain—to help us remember what God has done in the past…and what he promises to continue doing.

Are you having a hard time remembering? Who can help you? Where can you go where God worked before? What stone can you touch?

Remember….

On the Brink of War

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All I heard was, “he called me a terrorist!“, and it was downhill from there. When the dust settled and I was able to get some answers about what had so quickly escalated into a war of words, it was really very simple: M had laughed at T’s name, so T called M a terrorist. And in the way of seventh grade boys, the words continued to fly back and forth.

Just a week earlier I’d had to step between two other middle-schoolers who were about to get physical because of similar taunts. As I began to intervene, another teacher (who just happened to be walking by?) opened the classroom door in time to see and hear enough to immediately call out M.

I asked T if M’s accusation was true; had he called M a terrorist? He readily admitted he had. I genuinely appreciated his honesty, and said so. But I also said that’s not acceptable, and sent him on his way with the other teacher and his adversary.

The exchange had a certain tragic irony, coming as it did on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US. But in this unruly middle school English class, it opened the door to a lesson in both history and current events – for when are the two ever unrelated?

I am a Cold War veteran. I served close enough to the Soviet Union that we took very seriously the threat of missile strikes. I worked less than eight miles from an ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) base being built to counter that threat. We lived and served under the ominously-named policy, “Mutual Assured Destruction.” Until….

Until two courageous leaders sat down across a table and dared each other, not to a bigger fight, but to end the escalation, to stop building missile bases, to reduce the nuclear stockpiles. While many around them chanted the political version of “fight, fight, fight, fight,” U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev shook hands and said, No. (Or nyet.) While many in both lands feared their adversaries could not be trusted, the two leaders dared to trust.

And that’s what it takes for middle schoolers to avoid fights, too: courage. The courage to risk being hurt in order to avoid a fight. The honor to not defend oneself when insulted. The humility to allow another their opinion, no matter how wrong.*

The type of exchange I’ve seen in the classroom has become the norm not only in middle school, but across the country and at nearly every level of society. We have programs and curriculum to fight bullying at school, but our kids see the bullying happen at home, in the community, on the news, in the government.

We need courageous, humble leaders for middle schoolers to learn from. We need teachers who will step in and bring perspective. We need parents and grandparents, mentors and spiritual leaders who will demonstrate the gut-wrenching love to convince kids of their value and worth. We need government leaders who will acknowledge that those on the other side of the political aisle really want the same thing: the best for our communities and nation; and then will work together to achieve unity and peace and healing within our land.

It’s not easy. Humility never is. But it is right and good and best.

 

*Please note: I am not defending indefensible speech, bigotry, hatred. I am merely stating what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., lived: the humble, often quiet fight of non-violence that can shut down hatred and move a nation. We have a long way to go, but we’ve made a start.

The Word: Written or Incarnate?

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Note: this post is more of a Bible study than most. If you are student of Scripture, then I would like your feedback on this. The perspective I present below is not the traditional evangelical view with which I grew up and in which I am trained, so I would like to hear from both my evangelical friends (who are likely to disagree) and with my friends from other theological backgrounds.

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13, ESV)

How do these oft-memorized verses about “the word of God” fit with the themes of entering His rest, of belief and obedience? And how do these verses connect those themes to the following passage about Jesus being the great high priest?

“The word” in verse 12 here is most often understood to be God’s recorded word, the Scripture; i.e., the Bible: God’s word (and words) revealed through His prophets, His Son, and the apostles; and written down and canonized.

This seems a too-limited view, however, in light of the words used and the context following. Certainly Scripture is sharp and piercing; it reveals our thoughts and intentions, shows whether we are truly obeying or merely acting. Yet this does not satisfy the descriptive words “living and active,” or the verb “discerning.” Verse 13, further, uses personal language: “sight” (can a written word see?); “him,” not it; and a personal direct object, “to whom” our account will be given.

I think verses 12-13 are speaking of the living Word of whom John wrote in his gospel: the Word-become-flesh, Jesus Christ. Certainly the writer here is not speaking exclusively of the written revelation (of which his own words would become a part).

Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, is alive and active, discerning, seeing, and waiting to receive an accounting of our belief or unbelief, our obedience or disobedience. It is Him to whom we owe our belief and obedience; Him to whom we will give account. He—not a book (even the Book of God)—is our great high priest, our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5) before God, and our salvation. It is through Jesus Christ that we may receive mercy when our hearts struggle to believe and grace when we disobey.

The Foundry

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“[Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature….” (Hebrews 1:3)

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son….” (Romans 8:29)

I never got to use the sand-cast foundry in my high school’s Industrial Arts shop. Something was wrong with it, as I recall, so we could only talk about how it works, but that foundry came to mind when I read the opening words of Hebrews.

In sand casting, a pattern is pressed into a frame of compacted sand to create a mold. After removing the pattern, molten metal is poured into the mold. When the metal has cooled, the mold is removed from the completed casting, rough edges are smoothed off, and any other finishing work is done. All told, the process is extremely detailed, requires intense heat and pressure, and can develop imperfections at any point.

Kind of like being a disciple of Jesus.

I used to think Jesus was the pattern a disciple was supposed to follow. I don’t think that’s wrong, necessarily—Paul suggests it in Romans 8—but when I read these words in Hebrews recently, I had to do some new thinking. Hebrews says Jesus is “the exact image of [God’s] nature.” In a sand-casting analogy, that suggests that God himself is the pattern and Jesus is the mold – the sand that’s pressed around the pattern.

However you look at, there are some important lessons for us as disciples:

  • We are metal that gets melted down, both to be refined (see Zechariah 13:9 and Malachi 3:2), and so that we can be poured into the mold. Melting is hot and hurts, but it’s the only way to get rid of the impurities in the metal.
  • Even after we’ve cooled down and been removed from the mold, there’s still work to do. Scrap metal must be cut, chiseled, hammered, or torched off. Rough edges need to be filed down.

All these processes, in metalwork, transform a chunk of raw metal into a strong, useful, even attractive tool. In the Christian life, the process is called sanctification, transforming a stubborn, sin-riddled chunk of humanity into a new creation, a disciple shaped into the image of Jesus Christ – who is “the exact imprint of God’s nature.”

It’s a lifelong task. Where are you in the process?