Category Archives: worship

Spiritual Rhythms: Fasting

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He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.” Mark 9:29

Fasting is a little-practiced discipline—certainly by me. Recently my wife and I had dinner with some long-time friends who shared their story, which has strong parallels to our own: loss of jobs, wondering where next week’s groceries will come from, wondering what God is up to. But part of their story was also about fasting, and how God clearly answered prayers in the context of those fasts.

Today’s post is written by Katherine Kehler and first appeared at the blog, Thoughts About God

Prayer became more of a discipline in my life after I yielded the control of life to Jesus Christ and began to walk in the Spirit. (Until then, I called to God in emergencies and before meals, but talking to God had not become a way of life.) Then the Bible became alive to me and I began to pray specifically, trusting in and testing God’s promises. Many, many prayers were answered.

I also began to fast. Sometimes for three days, sometimes once a week, sometimes for 10 days or two weeks. Sometimes it would be a complete fast – only water. Sometimes I would have juice. At times I would give up eating certain foods, or watching television or even wearing makeup.

When our son was in his early 20s, we discovered he was addicted to alcohol. For a while he alienated himself from us and from the rest of the family. We never saw him drunk – not once – but others had and we loved him too much to let him destroy himself.

I love coffee and our children often joked that I was addicted. So I reasoned, “If they are right, my prayers for our son are phony.” So I decided, with God’s help, I would stop drinking coffee until he quit drinking alcohol. And that is what I did. Giving up something I really enjoyed so that perhaps God would deliver our son.

God answered. As a family, we decided to have an intervention. We all told him that we loved him, but knew he was in deep trouble and wanted him to go to a treatment center to get help. Before the intervention, my husband made the arrangements for his flight and stay at the treatment center. His boss not only gave him a leave of absence, but helped pay for his treatment. There was only one thing left – he had to agree to go.

Thankfully, he did agree to go and after six weeks at the center he came home and to our knowledge has never had another drink. He was delivered from the addiction to alcohol and today has become a great husband and father.

Sometimes we have to fast and pray to have our prayers answered. If God impresses you to do so, let me encourage you to obey Him.

I’m going to take some time in the next couple weeks to fast—not as a “magic pill” or a bribe to induce God to answer our prayers, but in the hopes that he will do something transformative in me. I encourage you to do the same.

Spiritual Rhythms: The Word, part I

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Before my wife and I were married, I spent a summer in Europe while she remained in California. In those long-past days before email and cell phones, at a time when international calling was expensive and minimum wage was a fraction of what it is now, the primary way we communicated was through letters; our words would be read days, if not weeks, after they’d been written.

Growing in relationship with God demands that we read his words—his Word. 

If you want to know God, you need to read his word to his people—that is, the Bible. Seems easy enough, but considering that the Bible contains sixty-six individual books written by dozens of human authors over a period of some 1,500 years—the most recent being roughly 2,000 years old—the natural question is, where to begin?

Many people say you should start with the book of John, or perhaps one of the other four narratives of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, or Luke. But if you’re new to the Bible, then I suggest following Fräulein Maria’s advice from The Sound of Music: “Let’s start at the very beginning”—Genesis and Exodus. You see, Jesus was a Jew, and Genesis tells the story of the beginning of the Jewish people. And since Jesus came as a sacrifice to save people from sin, Exodus—the story of God saving the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt—lays the foundation for Jesus’ sacrificial life and death. Then read John. Or Matthew, which was written to a primarily Jewish audience.

But another question to ask is, how do I read the Bible? The Bible is unlike any other book you have ever read. It is an anthology of sorts, with each individual book telling a complete story; yet the collection as a whole also tells a complete story, and each book contains a part of that broader story. Perhaps the best way to answer the question, how do I read the Bible?, is this: Read it the same way you would see the country. The whole country. What country? Yours or mine, whether the United States or Nigeria or India.

If you want to see the whole country, you will need to do it in different ways at different times. At times you will fly over from one corner to another; you’ll only get 35,000-foot glimpses of most of the land, but you’ll see it from a unique perspective. Other times you’ll take a car; you’ll see more than flying—mountains and rivers, deserts and oceans, cities and vast spaces of empty land—but most will still be zooming past at sixty miles per hour.

Then there are times you will just walk. You’ll never get out of the city or the forest or the desert, or wherever you started walking, but you’ll see the details; you can sit for hours on a beach and watch the tide slowly roll in, covering the rocks and tide pools you explored earlier in the day; you’ll gaze in awestruck wonder at the intricacies of a rose just before it bursts into bloom.

Reading the Bible is like that. You’ll be reading of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, then fly back to the first Passover meal in Exodus. Or you’ll read the entire book of Romans in one sitting and you’ll see the changing topography of Paul’s treatise. And sometimes you’ll sit and soak in the creative beauty of a single verse or a paragraph, turning each word over in your mind like a rosebud between your fingers.

We’ll explore this more in future posts. For now, though, decide where and how you want to begin, then begin. If you’re just getting started, set yourself a reachable goal: read 5-10 minutes a day, three days a week.

Spiritual Rhythms

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Growth happens naturally, but healthy growth takes planning.

Once we learn to walk and feed ourselves, we can pretty much go anywhere and eat anything we want. Fortunately, God gave us parents to keep us from running away and living on Twinkies!

Like physical growth, healthy spiritual growth takes planning. Unfortunately, we don’t always have spiritual parents to help us grow into healthy, fruitful spiritual adults.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be a spiritual dad and write about the spiritual rhythms that make growth possible. Historically, these have been called spiritual disciplines. It’s a good but sometimes scary term, which is why I use the word rhythms instead. You can also think of them as predictable patterns or simple, repeatable patterns.

Spiritual rhythms fall into two broad categories: things to do and things to stop doing; add and subtract; commit and omit.

Each week, I’ll post about two rhythms. On Mondays, I’ll write about an add rhythm and on Thursdays, about a subtract rhythm. If these are new to you, then a week won’t be enough time to cement a new habit. Don’t worry about that; when you find something that works, stick with it long enough that you’ll miss it if you stop. That probably means three weeks or more.

Here’s a look at where we’re going:

Spiritual Rhythms

Be sure to sign up to get these posts emailed to you each week. If other practices come to mind, I’ll add those; if there are any that have been particularly helpful to you, let me know. Wherever possible, I’ll also offer links and recommendations to helpful resources.

Preparing to Worship

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Mount Helix

Photo copyright 2011-2015 by Randall J. Ehle

Rock music was part of my teen world. In those days before earbuds were ubiquitous, I would sometimes pull the stereo speakers down from the shelves, place them on the floor facing each other, and lay with my head between them while Led Zeppelin or the Eagles pumped into my ears like an IV. The same music filled my head on Sunday mornings, too, while I was getting dressed for church…until, that is, my dad would ask me to turn it down or even off, replacing my selections with Bach, Beethoven, or whatever he had in the way of Christian music. His reasoning: we need to prepare our hearts for worship. I grumbled about the change then, with the same type of argument my kids give me today.

As parents ourselves now, my wife and I have one-upped my own parents and talked about how preparing for worship needs to begin on Saturday nights, not just Sunday mornings. Sometimes those preparations are practical, like laying out clothes for the next day; sometimes they’re mental or even spiritual in nature—after all, how well does watching Braveheart prepare my mind to hear from God? But preparing to worship is not only about music and movies and clothes. It is about my heart, my mind, my soul… this is starting to sound like something God said on more than one occasion, and saw fit to write down for us:

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” —Mark 12:30

In fact, this command is repeated several times throughout the Bible and, for Jews, has been a centerpiece of twice-daily prayers for thousands of years. It’s also a good guide to preparing for worship. Here are some thoughts on how to do that:

Heart: Think of the heart as the seat of our emotions. We can prepare to worship God by keeping our emotions and relationships in check. This might be as simple as a pleasant morning greeting or a hug and kiss for our family members, or as difficult as intentionally avoiding a relational conflict about clothes! (That’s one reason setting out clothes on Saturday night can help so much on Sunday morning.)

Soul: The soul represents what we most often think of as the spiritual. We can point our soul toward God by listening to God-focused worship music—as my dad exhorted—or by reading a devotional book or the Bible (especially some of the Psalms). The discipline of silence is also helpful; not just refraining from speech, but blocking out the noise around. I know what you’re thinking: “But I’ve got three kids under age six—where am I supposed to find silence?!” Be creative in location and brief in duration. You may not find silence on the couch, but bathrooms—even the shower—are usually good alternatives. And if you’ve never intentionally sat silently before, then you’ll find that even thirty seconds seems long…and can do wonders.

Mind: Reading the Bible can focus the mind as well as the soul, though this is a different type of reading. If you can find out ahead of time what passage the sermon will be focused on, read that. Or if your pastor sends an email or newsletter during the week, read that. These can get your mind pointed in the direction the message will soon be taking it.

Strength: Loving God with your strength isn’t about doing push ups in the morning (though that may be good for you, too). Rather, it is about preparing your body to worship Him. That can mean anything from the clothes you wear to the breakfast you eat to the sleep you get on Saturday night. Setting out clothes the night before—especially for kids or indecisive dressers—can reduce worship-inhibiting morning stress.

All of this can be challenging enough when you’re single; add a spouse and any number of kids—from infant to teenager—and it becomes exponentially more difficult. My wife and I, for example, have opposite ways of getting ready to go to church on Sunday mornings: she prefers to wake up leisurely and relax with a cup of coffee as she slowly dresses and does makeup, then rush the drive to church. I’d rather quickly get myself all ready to leave so I can relax for ten or fifteen minutes before we get in the car, then drive casually, and have plenty of time to find parking and seats before the service starts.

Here’s the rub: going to church is easy. Preparing to worship the Creator of the universe, though, takes forethought and planning… and that can’t happen on Sunday morning. Sometime this week, take time to think through and write down how you can best prepare for worship. Include each of these areas—heart, mind, soul, and strength (body)—noting what is needed in each and what time constraints there may be. If you’re married, do this together; if you have kids, share it with them (or better yet, work with them on it). Here’s a quick sample, assuming your church service starts at 9:00am.

Saturday evening: after dinner, everyone sets out clothes—right down to underwear, socks, shoes, and jackets—and gets appropriate approvals (from mom, dad, husband, wife). Iron what needs to be ironed. Do something fun together as a family, like a board game, puzzle, or fun G or PG movie that ends by 8:30.

Sunday morning: everyone is up in time for showers, breakfast, and coffee. Get dressed, put on makeup. Mom helps younger kids with hair; Dad helps them get dressed while Mom does her makeup. Aim for everyone to be dressed, hair combed and teeth brushed, and ready to leave fifteen minutes before departure time. Relax. Be quiet. Read. Listen to worship, praise, or instrumental music. Finish coffee. Five minutes before you have to leave, get out the door. 

A word of caution: this isn’t simply about having a preset morning schedule; it may mean changing your perspective on things. It may mean that the time nazi who’s always watching the clock needs to chill out, and the one who has no concept of time needs to gracefully receive reminders. And as far as time is concerned, keep in mind that this isn’t about “being on time for church,” it is about preparing to encounter and worship God—and in that worship, we get to bless God.

Church Music

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My mother-in-law shared an article on Facebook that got me thinking about church music. What she shared was a blog post called “13 Solutions for a Church That Just Won’t Sing,” by Jonathan Aigner, the Director of Music in a United Methodist church. I’ve never heard of Jonathan before; all I know about him is what he wrote on his blog, www.theologyinworship.com, where he says he grew up Southern Baptist, has Bachelor’s and a Master’s degrees in music, as well as Master’s degrees in both theology and educational leadership. In other words, he seems to have some credentials backing what he wrote. And what he wrote was good, even if I don’t agree with some of his proposed solutions.

You really should read Jonathan’s article because I’m going to respond to some of his thoughts and there’s a good chance that something will get lost in translation going from him to me to you. I don’t want to misrepresent him; neither do I want to come across as disagreeing with everything he says. Rather, I want to use his article as a springboard for some of my own thoughts. Briefly, here are his thirteen solutions (all are direct quotes except where italicized):

  1. Teach—how, what, and why to sing.
  2. Dust off the organ console.
  3. Bring the choir back.
  4. Don’t perform.
  5. Get rid of the lead soloist.
  6. Don’t sing so much.
  7. Sing all the time.
  8. Build a resonant sanctuary.
  9. Encourage and support the arts in the community.
  10. Bring the kids back into corporate worship.
  11. Use hymnals.
  12. Make the music worth singing.
  13. Stop doing the same songs over and over and over.

For starters, I agree that churches can teach us how to sing, what to sing, and why to sing. That’s how learned: standing in church between my alto mother and my bass father, I learned to follow the little black dots as they floated up and down the clefs. Those lessons laid the foundation for my three years of clarinet, a year of high school chorus, and four years in a singing and drama club.

But learning to sing—even for the purpose of worshipping and praising God—is not what church is really about, so I’d go a step farther than Jonathan suggests and use music as a teaching tool. After all, many of the great hymns were written, at least in part, to teach about God, not only to praise him. Since music by its very nature tends to stick with us, the songs we sing on Sunday mornings have the potential to stick in our minds far longer than the words of my sermon. We need to tap into that potential.

As for choirs and organs, I agree with Jonathan’s reasoning even if I don’t think his solutions are necessarily the right or even best options. What he wants is instrumentation “able to support sustained, hearty congregational singing” and “a sizable, confident, prepared group” to lead that singing. Both of those goals can be achieved with options other than an organ and a choir, but it takes a skilled and intentional worship leader and team to do so…just as it would demand a skilled organist and choir. I’ve seen—or rather heard—the difference in singing when a well-trained and versatile person is on the piano instead of someone who simply plays the little black notes. No instrument in the world will make an average musician sound great; on the other hand, a truly exceptional musician can make an average instrument do wondrous things.

Having said that, I certainly agree with Jonathan that an organ is a uniquely adept instrument for supporting congregational singing. But that doesn’t apply to every organ; electronic organs can be little more than glamorous synthesizers. A pipe organ, though, is unbelievably versatile, especially at the hands and feet of a well-trained organist. [Full disclosure: I married into a pipe organ family; my father-in-law has been building them for longer than the half-century I have been alive, so I’m just a little biased. That said, if you are at all interested in church music—which you probably are if you have read this far—you owe it to yourself to get in on some good pipe organ concerts.]

Let me take on several of Jonathan’s points together—numbers 3, 4, 5, 11, 12, and 13—and boil them down to this: if you want the congregation to sing, then invite them and allow them to do so. Don’t drown out the congregation with amplified instruments (even a pipe organ) or worship team (even a choir). As Ed Stetzer has written, sing singable songs in singable ways. Follow these ideas and you will probably avoid having your up-front team being performers before an audience. Hymnals can help people sing…if they’re inclined to sing, know how to read music, and are familiar enough to find the song in the time they have to do that. In other words, hymnals might help church people sing. But if you’re trying to help non-church people encounter God, then projecting the words on a screen is a far better choice. (Just be sure your tech people are good enough to stay with the musicians and get the right words on the screen at the right time.)

I may write about worship again another time, but let me close with one more encouragement to read Jonathan’s blog for yourself, and not simply to either argue against or agree with, but to reflect on and impact your own thinking about corporate worship.