Category Archives: worship

Christmas Gifts

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The house is still as the sun peeks slowly over the eastern horizon. The pungent aroma of onion cooking for quiche mixes discordantly with the sweet smell of gingerbread in the oven. Packages sit under the Christmas tree – for a few more moments, at least. And I sip coffee and read from the prophets Isaiah and Micah, and from John (“the disciple whom Jesus loved,” as he was wont to describe himself, unnamed).

Yesterday I pondered the responses of Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph to their respective visits from Gabriel, the Messenger of God. Disbelief. Bewildered trust. Obedience (though undoubtedly mixed with practical questions about honor, integrity, and righteousness).

Today’s readings are filled with prophetic hope for a derided nation, honor for a forgotten village, longing for salvation and rescue from enemies. Promises of a Savior, Rescuer, Judge; of justice and the restoration of an ancient, royal city.

The baby whose birth we celebrate today may not have been exactly what people had in mind when they read the stories in the antiquated scrolls. As he grew up, as he began his work, as the work seemed to end on a brutal Roman cross… the disappointment and disillusionment only grew.

Today—Christmas Day, 2017—the likelihood of disappointment and disillusionment is just as real. The peace we heard about in yesterday’s Christmas Eve sermon is elusive not only in the nation but even in our families. The justice promised with the coming of the Messiah seems as distant now as Micah’s writings from two-and-a-half millennia ago. No wonder the gifts that ring our trees have taken center stage: they’re here, real, tangible…even if they, too, often carry a degree of disappointment.

The work for justice, righteousness, and peace that began in a stable in Bethlehem (and long before then)…; the work that reached a climax on a cross on Calvary…; the work that a ragtag band of men and women were left to carry on…; that is our work, our task, our mission.

The wise men brought the newborn King gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s said that the gold symbolized his royal lineage, frankincense represented the worship due him, and myrrh foretold his sacrificial death. Perhaps this year, we can offer gifts to Jesus, as well. Perhaps we can offer a tireless striving for justice in our communities, nation, and world; perhaps we can live lives of righteousness – not legalism, but right living on behalf of others; perhaps we can work to bring peace into our families, workplaces, schools, communities.

What gifts will you offer this Christmas?

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.

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.