Looking Back – Looking Ahead

clock_towerThe Christian faith is a paradox of time, possibly like nothing else. It is in this paradox of time, however, that we find great mystery and yet we also find a strong and lasting peace. We can see in Scripture the many times that God’s people have looked back at His faithfulness, and yet, we are “forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead” (Philippians 3:13b).

To really live effectively in the present, it is helpful to have a biblical understanding of the past as well as our future. As we look back, we remember God’s faithfulness, not our failures. As we look forward we press on in the faith and power of the gospel–knowing that Christ has already accomplished for us, what we could not accomplish for ourselves.

“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is a hymn that is a singable illustration of these biblical truths. Originally published as part of The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament in 1719 by Isaac Watts. It was also later published by John Wesley in his hymnal Psalms and Hymns in 1738.

It speaks of God’s faithfulness in the past as our assurance of His presence and power in the future. Take a few moments this week and write down moments of God’s faithfulness to you. As you take the time to reflect, I believe you will find that though life can often be hard, God is indeed good. No matter what state I may find myself in, I can know that through God’s faithfulness, I am so much better off than I deserve–and you are too!

A couple years ago, Tommy Walker did an arrangement of this hymn and added a chorus that really sums the whole thought up well–“O God Your are–You are our Help, You are our Helper! In all generations You will be–forever and ever–Our Shield and our eternal Hope, O Lord! You are the Ancient of Days and worthy of our praise!”.  As we sing this hymn, let’s remember the unfailing love and faithfulness of our Lord…He is good!

*An updated and tasteful arrangement of this hymn can be found at Red Tie Music (www.redtiemusic.com).

Enter the Sanctuary

photo courtesy of Lawrence OP on flickr.com

photo courtesy of Lawrence OP on flickr.com

What is your sanctuary? Have you every thought about that? We speak often of the large room where we gather in a church building as a sanctuary, and indeed it is. But what do you do on Monday when one of your work colleagues unjustly accuses you of losing that account or when your wife looks at you wondering where you will find the money for that avalanche of bills?

The truth is–we all need a sanctuary. Sometimes we need one a lot closer than the auditorium at our local church. I love reading Psalm 73 and seeing the radical change of perspective when the psalmist decides to make a conscious act of worship even when his circumstances seemed less than praiseworthy. For sixteen verses, a heart is poured out concerning the injustices in the world and those in his life, but in verse 17, something radical happens as a result of a simple, yet deliberate act of worship–“…until I entered the sanctuary of God, then I understood their end.”  After this his tune changes…BIG TIME!
Our psalmist here now realizes that the injustices and evil that he has observed in the world is not only temporary and subordinate to a sovereign God, but that he has been a contributor! He rests in God’s mercy, wisdom and power and can say from his heart “…but as for me, it is good to draw near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.” WOW!
I doubt that the writer was in the sanctuary long enough to see his circumstances change, but we can know that he saw them through an entirely new set of lenses–the lens of worship. He made the conscious decision that regardless of his circumstances he would praise God anyway. Why don’t you decide today to make your heart a sanctuary? From what I can tell, it seems to be God’s favorite kind.

How to Guarantee Success in Worship

We all love a guarantee, don’t we? It helps us to minimize the risk of otherwise vulnerable transactions or relationships. When we approach God, wouldn’t it guaranteebe nice to have a guarantee? When finite, mortal man approaches the infinite, omnipotent God of the universe, it can often feel like a “risky” endeavor, and probably, to some level it should.

However, there IS a guarantee that we can count on when we approach God with our worship. Psalm 51:17 says “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” There is one way to guarantee that when we approach God, we will be heard and delighted in. He wants to be our everything–our all in all. God finds the most pleasure in us when we find the most pleasure in Him.

So, no matter where we find ourselves, let’s put pride away, remind ourselves of how needy we really are and come to our Father like a little child, crying “Abba, Father”. When we do that we are GUARANTEED of His delight in us! Stretch out your arms wide in worship today and let’s renew our total dependence on Him!

Election Recap

Photo credit: © Some rights reserved by Stijn Vogels on Flickr

My faith has always informed my voting. There is no question about that and I believe that it should. I honestly strive to have my faith inform every decision I make, though admittedly, I’m not always successful in this endeavor. However, this last election is not so much a matter of faith for me as it was an issue of common sense. The fact is–our American churches were in as much a need of revival on November 5th as they were on November 6th. My American citizenship and my kingdom citizenship are not the same thing and I have to recognize that there is often a tension between these both within myself and within the culture at large.

Republican Revival?

While “morality”, to some extent, can be legislated, (that IS the very nature of law), revival cannot.  Revival is something that springs from the grace of God and a deep inner hunger for Him on the part of His people. I am not so naive to have believed that, somehow, a Mormon would have brought “revival” back to America. As an Evangelical, that thought should seem ludicrous. While on the surface, Mormons and Evangelicals share some of the same family values, we have to be intellectually honest and realize that “revival” was not going to come from a President, no matter how “moral” he may be. If I have believed this, it is illustrative of the fact that I have my spiritual priorities out of order. It did not, however, stop me from enthusiastically supporting a candidate because I believed that his overall values were more in line with what I believed to be the best for the common good. I was not voting for a Preacher, but a President. So this election, while faith-informed, was not a spiritual exercise for me outside of the fact that I believe it is my duty to promote justice, honor life, and work for the common good at every possible opportunity including the exercising of my right to vote.

The End of Personal Responsibility?

With that said, I am disappointed in the American people, not so much for voting for a particular candidate, but for what will most likely be an irreversible move toward greater government dependence. Many mocked Romney for his “47%” comment (I took no offense, though I have been one of them for most of my life), however, the fact is that once that number becomes 51%…it’s all over. There will be no going back to personal responsibility and fiscal sanity in regards to government spending and entitlement programs. The difficulty with this decision is that our finances today are no different than yesterday. Life feels pretty much the same (except for the 312 point dive of the DOW yesterday). And, for the most part, it will be the same because our government will try to alleviate the “pain” of our financial distress by continuing to run up more debt.  Therefore, few individuals will feel the effects of this decision until it is felt nationally, at which time it will be too late. The rest of the world will not allow us to continue fiscal insanity forever and at some point we will be called in check. In the mean time, it will be very difficult for a majority of Americans to vote money out of their own wallets.

We need a better conversation more than better candidates

Candidates are simply a reflection of the constituency from which they are elected. For example, while I believe many Christians may have voted for the President in good conscience and out of worthy motives (such as care for the poor and disadvantaged), they also had to look past the most disadvantaged (the unborn) on their way to that vote.  Personally, I find it difficult to enthusiastically support a candidate that is committed to preserving the “choice” to take another human life. I also believe, however, that we need to find a way to engage our culture regarding these issues on different terms than simply “religious preservationism.” Whether we like it or not the “moral majority” is a majority no more and the rest of the country simply could care less about me or anyone else forcing their own religious beliefs on them. We also need to avoid (like the plague) having middle-aged, wealthy white men appear to be the “authority” on this issue. I mean…really?  There has to be a better way to engage these issues on a public and common good platform in a way to which people may actually listen. I’ve hear it said that it’s difficult to ‘hate’ up close. The opposite is also true–it’s difficult to ‘love’ from far away. As Christ followers, we need to do a better job of engaging our culture in well-informed, faith-filled conversations about the most vital issues of our day. This will not happen by hiding behind “friendly” political candidates, campaigns or church walls.

The most important priorities have not changed

I am a still a kingdom citizen and no one can take that away. Also, there is still “hope” for America, but it will only be realized when the hearts of our people are challenged and changed by the gospel. I do believe that God wants to send us revival (more than we do), however, it will come to individuals and churches long before it comes to a nation. There is no Democrat or Republican that can ultimately bring the lasting change that every soul ultimately longs for. Millions of Christians around the world can testify to the fact that it is NOT necessary to have a “strong America” to be able to worship God and enjoy the fellowship of the gospel. It is MUCH bigger than that. However, in the mean time, let the church to step up, enjoy the freedom we have and get busy about the eternal Kingdom that will never fade away. No one is stopping us–no one can stop us. Let’s quit whining and go get it done.

Disclaimer: These views do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of any institutions of which I may be affiliated. Nor do they comprise an endorsement of any particular candidate. These are simply my own personal reflections concerning recent events and are not typical of the content normally found on this blog. 

Random “Linsanity”: What we can learn from Jeremy Lin’s recent media frenzy

photo © 2012 Some rights reserved by DvYang CC-NC_SA on Flickr

Ok. Yeah, I’ve caught the fever. Well, almost. As a natural contrarian, I’m typically not quick to jump on anybody’s bandwagon. But I’ve had a couple thoughts lately about Jeremy Lin and his sudden rise to the media spotlight. Just consider this my small contribution to the tidal wave of media that has fixated on this young athlete. While the future of his basketball career is still up in the air (7 wins a hall-of-famer does not make), I think his sudden rise in media attention can teach all of us something.

God is Sovereign

The past couple of years our family has had the privilege of hosting a couple of exchange students from mainland China. This has been an enriching experience for our family and has given me a sort of “insiders” view to the far east that I probably would not have had otherwise. While there have been many advances to the gospel in this region, the vast majority of the people have never heard the gospel message nor are they familiar with basic Christian doctrine. Jeremy Lin is helping to change much of that.

This past week he is reported to have been the number one search on Baidu, the Chinese (and highly censored) equivalent of Google. His profile lists his religion as “Christian” with a link to a common article on “Christianity”(a Chinese Wikipedia-type source), which based on my poor Google translation, seems to be a fair representation of the historical claims of Christianity (and its various strains–mainly, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox).

There are enough articles out there describing Lin’s background, so I won’t retell that here, but the point is this: If God wants to take an American born man of Taiwanese immigrants and make him 6’3″ tall (much taller than his parents), allow him to be Harvard educated, have him go predominantly unnoticed by NBA scouts, and then send him to the peak of media attention in the world’s largest media market in a couple short weeks, then God can do just that. And if all that comes of Lin’s career, whether it be long lived or short, is being a high-profile light of the gospel for almost 1.5 billion people that otherwise may not even consider the claims of Christ, then I believe he is hall-of-fame caliber in a different book, regardless of his long-term basketball statistics. But that’s the cool thing about this hall of fame–there is only one Member (hint: it’s not Lin), and from what I can tell at this point, Jeremy seems just fine with that.

The Gospel is for everyone

Part of what makes this story so unique is the stereotype killing that is happening as a result of the media hype. He is the first Asian-American to play in the NBA. He is Harvard educated (I guess not ALL Christians are uneducated and ignorant [smile]). AND he has “unified” China/Taiwanese relations in that they both claim him as their own. (I say this somewhat tongue in cheek and you only have to do a little historical research to know the tensions that have existed between these two countries).

If you would have asked any sports analyst half worth his salt 10 years ago if he/she thought the most talked about player in the NBA would be an Asian-American, most probably would have laughed at you in the face. So, before you laugh too hard at your prospects of considering the claims of Christ as true for yourself–don’t laugh so fast, the gospel is for you as well. [For a short explanation of what I mean by “the gospel” click here].

Every Christian has a responsibility to live “the gospel”

In a recent interview, Lin was asked about how his outlook has changed with all of this new-found fame and he said “I’m thinking…how can I bring God more glory?”. This is much different than how most of us would respond. Many at this point would be thinking “how can I cash in on my new found fame?”, or “Yeah, it’s about time everyone sees how great I really am”. But seeking God and His glory first, gives Lin a unique perspective that, though counterintuitive, actually will make him more successful–more successful in the things that really matter, anyway. Will Lin score some big endorsement deals? Probably. If people dig deep enough, will they find “dirt” on this young athlete? Probably. I don’t mean this as derogatory to Lin’s testimony, however, the beauty of the gospel is that we’re all fallen and broken in some way, and that’s why we need redemption. However, the power of the gospel makes our shortcomings and failures as blood-stained patchwork on a quilt that is infinitely valuable and already purchased by God.

Regardless of who you are or what pinnacle of “success” you may or may not have achieved at this point, we all have a responsibility to bring God glory from our lives. In his book Soulprint, Mark Batterson states “…You were created to worship God in a way that no one else can. How? By living a life no one else can—your life. You have a unique destiny to fulfill, and no one can take your place.” Ephesians 2:10 states that “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus”. We are all unique and infinitely valuable to God and to the “worlds” we live in. While my fame may never reach “Linsanity” status, I have a responsibility to live the gospel in my “world”, and in doing so, I can have eternal significance by loving those in my world, because I am loved by a King with an eternal Kingdom.

You are exceptional too

I wish the best for Lin and his basketball career. I hope he breaks all sorts of records and goes down in history as one of the best ever. But even more than that, I’m thankful that, regardless of his basketball success, he is exceptional in that he is “finding greater ways to give God glory”. I’m glad for the reminder that I am exceptional as well, because when God made me he broke the mold. He broke the mold when he made you, too. If we can find our identity in that fact and live in constant pursuit of knowing God and allowing the gospel to redeem our lives daily, we too can experience a kind of success that is unexplainable.

Vision, Values and Lowell Mason

Park Street Church

Boston is a great city. Every time I have the opportunity to visit, I’m brought face to face with its blend of remarkable history and its current relevancy and influence in the current affairs of today. I’m currently sitting in the Thinking Cup Cafe (hoping this really helps me!) across from Boston Common reviewing notes on the life of Lowell Mason, a great church musician,educator,entrepreneur and Boston native. I’m presenting some of this research as part of an intensive class I’m currently teaching at Boston Baptist College. Yesterday in class we were discussing the importance of having a working philosophy of music and worship for those in worship leadership. I came across this summary of Mason’s outlook on church music which I found to be interesting. This was compiled by Carol Pemberton based on a lecture Mason gave in 1826 at the Hanover Street Church in Boston.

  • Church music must be simple, chaste, correct, and free of ostentation.
  • The text must be handled with as much care as the music; each must enhance the other.
  • Congregational singing must be promoted.
  • Capable choirs and judiciously used instruments, particularly the organ, are indispensable aids to services.
  • A solid music education for all children is the only means of genuine reform in church music.
  • Musicianship per se is subordinate to facilitating worship.

While some of the relevancy of his thoughts above may be questioned today (though much of it is quite valid), I would also suggest that his influence continues because he took the time to write it down and share it with others. I would like to share a few thoughts for worship leaders who are currently working out their own thinking regarding corporate worship and encourage those who are not currently thinking about this to begin to work it out in their own minds and begin to incorporate it into their ministries. If the majority of evangelical churches spend close to half of our corporate worship gatherings being involved in congregational music and expression, I believe it is important that we have a sound rationale for why we behave this way. I think there are some important things we can consider regarding working out our values for corporate worship and why that matters today.

A working worship philosophy will prevent you from being forcefully bound to antiquated traditions.

If you’ve seen the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”, you can recall Tevye and his uncompromising love for “traditions….(insert Russian music)…traditions.” Like Tevye, often we find ourselves blindly bound to the way things have always been. Now, there’s nothing wrong with traditions, necessarily. They can provide us with structure and stability so that we can pour our energies into the most important things in life. There is no sense in reinventing the wheel. Occasionally, however, it doesn’t hurt to question these “wheels” and evaluate their effectiveness. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad the Wright brothers thought outside the “wheel” and found a better way to travel. As was the case with these revolutionaries, anytime you question established norms, you will have your critics and skeptics who wish you anything but the best. But based on principle, good information and determination, they pressed on and now most of those critics, if they were alive today, would gladly get on an airplane for a far away trip when given the option. When our traditions stand in the way of our core values, it’s time to rethink the tradition. Jesus, in Mark 7, had some things to say about this as well. The Pharisees had taken the Law and added their own interpretations and applications to it. While the creators of the traditions mentioned in Mark 7 may have had the best of intentions, by the time Jesus gets on the scene, these traditions were standing in the way of real life transformation. When our traditions do the same, it’s time for honest reevaluation.

A working corporate worship philosophy will keep you from being aimlessly swept around by passing fads and public opinion.

Most of us can probably hear our mother saying with that certain tone, “If the rest of your friends [insert rediculous metaphor here], would you do it too?”. You have to admit, “mamma” had some wisdom there, as annoying as it may have seemed at the time. Many of us should ask the same question of our leadership now as well. Often we make mistakes when we try to emulate others’ success in a different context and thoughtlessly apply it to our own. There are some exciting trends and advancements in the arena of corporate worship today. Using modern instrumentation, visual aids, creative planning and communication can all be excellent tools in sharing the timeless message of the gospel. The danger is often, that because prominent ministries are using certain tools and techniques, and have an appearance of “success”, without thinking, we assume that these same tools and techniques will work in our context as well. They may. They may not. Borrowing from the words of Stephen Covey it’s important that we “begin with the end in mind” and not get too quickly awestruck by the latest and greatest methods when they have little value to our own context or environment. At the same time, staying current with the latest trends and developments in your field can help you to be more informed and often more effective. Don’t be afraid to think outside the “wheel” on your own as well or you might might miss the next “flight”. Who knows, maybe you will be the next trend setter! Having a working worship philosophy will free you to be innovative while ensuring that you also remain effective.

A working corporate worship philosophy will provide purpose, freedom and direction for the future.

One of the questions I’m asked most often is “where are we going with the worship program at our church?”. This is a valid question and may indicate that I have not been as effective as I need to be in communicating the vision and principles that drive us. Having a working worship philosophy and set of values that you faithfully communicate to your team can go a long way in making sure that this question is answered for your people as well as creating better by-in for your ministry. It helps to ensure that your decisions are made on purpose and can help give some of us “creative types” better confidence in the decisions that we make by knowing that we have made decisions based on timeless principles, rather than letting our desire to be creative get in the way of being effective. In those times when your creativity makes you more effective, then by all means…create away! This does not mean that there is no room for creative expression for its own sake (and for God’s glory). It simply means that in the context of community, creativity should always be employed with the responsibility to edify the church as a whole.

Your vision and values will also help give you freedom to explore all of your creative options without the fear of nullifying your current progress. Once you have effectively identified your purpose, you have the creative freedom to explore every possible option that can help you and your church express a greater love and devotion to the Lord. Our nations founding fathers knew the value of marrying freedom and responsibility. For example, the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were held in strict secrecy and consequently, anxious citizens gathered outside Independence Hall when the proceedings ended in order to learn what had been produced behind closed doors. A certain Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Much like the implication of responsibility in Franklin’s answer, our spiritual freedom in worship is best exercised in the context of serving and edifying the church.

In the same way our nation’s founding documents help to preserve certain values, they have also helped to provide direction and vision for the future. Your vision and values can work for you in much the same way. While our nation has strayed from many of the principles that were established early on, because of the effort of these men and the providence of God, we still have a constitutional republic that is free from tyranny and stands as a beacon of freedom and opportunity for many. Even though the early founders of our country probably could have never imagined airplanes, cell phones, or the internet, the principles they laid down helped to pave the way for the freedom to innovate in the future. Your vision and values can do the same for you. I may not know exactly what corporate worship will look like 5-10 years from now for the congregation I serve, but I do know that I am committed to the core principles and vision that will help us to be intentional, effective and creative for future generations.

What are you doing to develop and communicate your core values and vision with your team? Please share your thoughts and anything that is working for you. In the next post, I will lay out the process I have used to develop these resources for myself.

The Joy of Utter “Hopelessness”

“Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable”. –Psalm 145:3

Have you ever set out on something you thought was a lost cause? Maybe it was the class ring you lost while riding on a ten mile wilderness trail, or maybe it was that time you tried to convince your father to borrow the car “one more time” only two days after you wrecked it? In any case, whatever the situation, it looked dire and almost hopeless. Well, there is another “hopeless” pursuit that we are called to as believers–one in which the full paradox of the Scriptures comes into full realization. This “hopeless” pursuit is unlike any other you’ve been on, though, because in this pursuit, the more “lost” you feel, the more “found” you realize you are; the more that you pursue in “vain”, the more meaning you actually find; the more thirsty you are, the more satisfied you become; the more persecuted and rejected you are, the more you find real acceptance—and the list could go on.

The pursuit that we’re talking about here is the never-ending pursuit of God. In Psalm 145, we see that His greatness is unsearchable.  It’s not that God cannot be found, because it is God’s very desire to have a relationship with you for He says, “…and ye shall seek me, and find [me], when ye shall search for me with all your heart” – (Jer 29:13).  The thing is, that once you are found in Him, you begin the never-ending journey of discovering how unsearchable and endless God’s love and character truly is. This one “hopeless” pursuit is the only thing in life that can actually provide real and lasting joy.

One of my favorite songs of the last couple of years is “Greatness of Our God” (track 11 on the ChurchLife Worship Band CD). In this song there is a line that says “..and no sky contains, no doubt restrains all You are, the greatness of our God”. Not only is this excellent songwriting, but this is an incredibly simple phrasing of a profound eternal truth. The God that you and I serve is greater and stronger than our most challenging trials, and whether or not we choose to believe Him, He is still the same God and still loves us just as much. The flip side is also true–there is no skeptic or doubter that can make God any less than, well, God. He is God and we are not. The end. Fine. And because of this, I plan to continue my “hopeless” pursuit today of the unsearchable riches of God. I hope you will join me, and in doing so, let us find lasting joy in the journey.

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