When Worship Is Great

This morning I led worship alongside Laura Sully at our home church, Christ Church Suwanee. Normally we tend to have very full worship teams with electric guitars, drums, and the works. We have an amazing amount of musical talent at our church and it’s always wonderful to have the opportunity to worship with all of our many gifts, but this morning was a little bit different. It was just the two of us with our piano and guitar . . . and the people of God. It was fantastic and I’m so thankful I was a part of it. The intimacy and ability to respond to the congregation was special. As a worship leader, my primary goal is to be a “lead worshiper” more than a “director of worship”, and this morning that was so easy to do.

Something like that, for me, is like the “mountain top”. Worship is always honoring to God, but sometimes we “feel” it more than other times. These are the weeks we stand around after the service and talk about how great it was, always making sure to point out it was a work of God, not of us. But there’s a temptation when that happens, and this is where we need to be careful. We can look at these special moments, moments that are gifts from God, and try to re-create them. We can seek the spiritual “high” and try to program it. It’s easy for people to say “Remember that week with just piano and guitar?- It was so amazing I don’t see why we need the other instruments” or “I loved it when we sang ‘Our God’ we should do that song every week”.  I suppose that is the result of the problem solving gene (at least in me), but we can easily run astray here and turn a gift into bondage, or something even more dangerous.

Because really, you don’t program “great moments”. If you do, you end up seeking these great moments more than God. We always have to remember, we enter for him, not us. Even if we feel nothing or something is a little off, if our hearts are sincere and we are there to give God honor and glory, worship is great no matter how it seems to us.

There is an oft discussed passage in Leviticus concerning worship, and it’s an important warning:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.(Leviticus 10:1-2, ESV)

People debate what all of the implications of this scripture are, but I think one thing is very clear. When we come to worship, we are not there because it is fun, cool, and exciting; we come because God has told us we are to worship him. While worship can be fun/cool/exciting, our primary purpose is to respond to God for who he is in our lives and we can never forget that.

I believe the great sin of Nadab and Abihu lies in their purpose for offering “strange fire” (yes, we DO have a song about this, thanks for asking!). They did something different from what God had asked for because they were so impressed by what happened in the closing passages of Leviticus 9 that they wanted to capture and re-create it. But they wanted to do so on their terms for their joy and happiness.

Leviticus 9 ends this way:

And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:24, ESV)

People were very impressed and affected when “fire came out from the Lord”, as well they should be. They fell on their faces with a holy reverent fear. And this, I think, is what our response ought to be when worship is “great”. When we feel God powerfully and he moves in a special way, we ought to remember who we are dealing with and who we are before him. We should, at least emotionally, be prostrate before him, reverent and humble. Saying “Thank you Lord for meeting with us this way”.

You can’t program fire from heaven. You can’t re-create it, and you don’t want to try. I’m not saying we don’t try to bring our best every week in terms of preparation. We certainly do. But at the end of the day, real worship is beyond instruments, format, and style. It is about God and how he chooses for us to experience him. And if we just blast on ahead without reflection, we can miss it. We can miss the reverent fear we ought to have in light of the work he’s done for us.

So my challenge to myself this week is to reflect on God with reverence and give him thanks; thanks for being worthy of worship, for accepting my worship, and for meeting with me in a special way I could never attain on my own.

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Why I Love Being A Musician

I’ve always had music in my soul. Some of my earliest memories involve making up random melodies while I did whatever children do. In middle school I started with French Horn (at which I was terrible) and finally got around to guitar and bass in High School. At the time I thought I wanted to write more orchestral music, but I was always messing around on my acoustic guitar and making up songs. Ah, there were some truly bad songs that came out of my teenage angst and “deep” thoughts. In college I started of as a theory/composition major, but after two years (that I really enjoyed), I realized I could turn my other hobby, writing software, into a much more lucrative, and family friendly, career. So I switched majors and never looked back. But I never stopped playing music either.

The thing about writing software and writing music is that they have very similar skill sets. In both cases you accomplish the goal by assembling small pieces into something bigger, yet coherent. Abstract thinking, problem solving, and vision all play a part in writing both software and music, which is why I enjoy both so much. But there is one unique aspect to writing music that is not present in writing software: emotion. Music really is the synthesis between emotional and non-emotional creativity. A songwriter wants to convey a message, and a successful attempt not only conveys a meaning intellectually, but also emotionally by how it feels.

One of my not-so-secret personality traits is that I tend to be a pretty logical guy. Just sit down with me and talk theology or deconstruct Lord of the Rings and you’ll see what I mean. Whether this is exciting or frustrating depends on your own personality. I’ve certainly run into my fair share of folks who accuse me of “overthinking”. Whatever- I LOVE to dig deep and wrestle with ideas. That’s FUN for me. But this is where music comes in: it’s not just a way to convey ideas and logic; it’s a way of conveying the way an idea feels, which is something I don’t do enough in other areas of my life. So when you see me on stage leading worship or hear a CD I’ve recorded, there’s a part of me that only comes alive in those places. In a sense, music is an opportunity to be the whole person that God has created me to be.

I think this is part of the reason that music is wrapped up in the idea of worship in scripture. Certainly there are lots of examples of worship that don’t have any musical component, so we should resist the temptation to label music as the only form of worship, but music is certainly there. The psalms speak of the many instruments used in worship, and we are commanded to sing a “new song” to the Lord. I don’t know what that means in the lives of others, but for me when I sing it’s a chance to give God every part of me, even the emotional parts that sometimes have trouble surfacing at other times.

When I tell my stories, it’s amazing to be able to use more than just words. Whether it’s the aggressive guitars on Return to Eden completing the picture of the darkness of The Fall, or the light Hammond on “I Run” peaking through the music like a ray of light, every bit of it is designed to paint a more brilliant picture than words alone. The music is the vulnerable part of me you don’t see when I write blogs or speak, and I’m so glad that God has given me that.

No, I’m not a professional, and I’ve never once regretted the decision to focus my career in software development. I enjoy that job very much; but I enjoy even more the chance to share with people the emotional part of me, and I still get that opportunity even if I’m not touring around the world living out of a suitcase. Because for me, the fulfillment I get is not legions of fans adoring my music (though I won’t lie, if that happened I’d be pretty stoked!), but to know that I’ve connected to someone, even if it’s just a handful of folks, in a way through music I could never achieve otherwise.

love being a musician, even if I’m not a professional. I love it because nothing I can do comes close to what music can do in my life and the lives of those around me. It allows me to communicate the best way I can, this side of heaven, the ideas I have about life, love, and my Creator.

Dealing With Tough Cultural Issues

In light of last weeks post, and in particular responding to Hester’s comments about course language and such, I started thinking about how Christians deal with clashes between the Christian ethic and the cultural ethic. How do we come across? How are we supposed to come across?

Invariably I hear “outsiders” constantly complain that Christians are “judgmental”. The passage they generally have in mind is Matthew 7, when Jesus says “Judge Not”:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (Matthew 7:1-6, ESV)

They will say that Christian judgement is full of hypocrisy, and frankly they don’t understand our blatant contradiction of Jesus teaching.

Most Christians understand this passage a little differently and do not see it is a blanket prohibition on judging, but rather that we must not judge without first understanding, accepting, and dealing with our own sin. In fact, in another passage, Paul is quite clear that Christians are to judge:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13, ESV)

But oh, there’s a big rub here: are we supposed to be judging the world? There is no ambiguity here, we are not. Our judgement is for within the church: those who identify as believers and are involved in big scandalous sin (in the first verse of 1 Corinthians 5, Paul describes the person he’s talking about as being involved in sexual immortality “of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans”). But outside the walls of the church, we can, and should, let God handle it.

In fact, I think looking at the life of Jesus we see this lived out perfectly (no surprise there!). If you read the Gospels with close attention to who Jesus treats gently and who he treats harshly, his harshness is always used for the hypocritical religious leadership, not the unrighteous outsiders. Yes, Jesus got angry enough to wield a whip, but it was within the temple he did so, not in the market. This aspect of Jesus life was the inspiration for the song Nothing Less– that we in the evangelical church would not distort the truth by living devoid of love:

Tell me when did we become

So confident that we are strong

Upholding every law but that of love?

When did we accept the lie

That compassion can be pushed aside

When the truth demands we give both light and love

Nothing less could ever be enough

As the church, our mission is to bring light to the world. We cannot let this light be marred by such grievous sin that our message becomes distorted.  When scandals like sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church or Sovereign Grace Ministries occur, we need to be open about judging and dealing with the sin in our own ranks. If we do not, we risk being seen as a threat of darkness rather than a hope of light.

So given that we are to judge within the church but not the world, how are we to interact when it comes to difficult issues, especially when we are convinced that the values of the world do not line up with scripture? Should we withdraw away, slink into the shadows, and give up? Is this consistent with the Great Commission?

There isn’t a lot of scripture showing the clash between Christians and non-religious. Usually the emphasis in the New Testament is on dealing with corrupt religious leadership. However, there is one place where we have an account of Paul clearly dealing with unbelievers: his sermon at Mars Hill in Athens:

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. (Acts 17:22-34, ESV)

I find this evangelism by Paul very interesting, almost more for what he doesn’t say than what he does. Paul is addressing a culture completely ignorant of Jesus and the Gospel. They are involved in all manner of sinful lifestyle, sensuous and idolatrous. American culture has nothing on these folks. But while he clearly identifies that they are in rebellion against God and need to repent, he doesn’t spend his time enumerating and publicly lambasting their individual sinful behaviors; instead he shows understanding of their philosophy and search for meaning, and then provides an answer in the Gospel. In fact, he shows them that they already had part of the truth, but that he could complete the picture for them. In one of the most sinful epicenters in history, he didn’t spend time trying to convince them of their sinfulness, but rather showing them the answer to the true yearning of their hearts. Many rejected him, but some wanted to know more.

Many people will say we have to be absolutely clear on issues like homosexuality so that people know their sin and therefore how to repent, but this is where I must differ. I think the issue behind all sin is where our hearts lie: in idolatry against God. I believe Paul didn’t explain to the Athenians their sins because  he assumed their deceitful hearts already knew. He didn’t show sick people their sickness, but rather the cure. And no, not everyone responded. People mocked him. But some believed. I think the same is true in modern culture. Deep down, people are aware that they are sick and need a healer. They may not be willing to admit it, but that is beyond our mission. Our job is to identify and present the healer.

I understand that when issues become political to the point where we are forced to behave in ways that are against our beliefs (for example, being coerced by law to participate in a homosexual wedding), we end up having to take a stand. When we are asked a direct question, we may have to be clear about exactly what we believe (though there are times that Jesus avoided direct questions because it was not yet an appropriate time to answer; we do not always have to answer). But we must keep in mind that the world is not ours to judge: our mission there is to make disciples. The more we can focus on identifying hope to the world and how to receive that hope, the better. And to be clear, the hope for a person entrapped by any sin is not to perform better and sin less, but to earnestly seek Jesus and turn from an idolatry of self.

My friend Jenny Hintze on Facebook recently wrote these words, and I think they have incredible wisdom:

If we saved whatever tough conversations or difficult thoughts that we have for face to face conversations with those whom we have earned the right to speak freely with, we would have a lot less thoughts to share.

I imagine that Paul in Athens had to have a lot of “tough conversations” with folks who came seeking Jesus. Maybe there were those who wanted to respond, but had a lot of sinful habits and idols accumulated over the years. Those tough conversations do have to happen, and I know they aren’t easy, but at the least they can take into consideration the real person, who has an identity, hurt, pain, and hope, and not end up devolving into vitriolic soundbites hurled across ideological walls.

So my answer to dealing with tough cultural issue is to follow Jenny’s advice: let’s be very open about hope and what it takes to grab hold of it, not feeling that we have to be ashamed of our beliefs, but focusing as much as we can on earning the right to have face to face conversations. I think that’s what Paul did on Mars Hill, and I think it’s the pattern for most effectively dealing with culture clash between God’s ethic and the ethic of the world.

The Evangelical Attack On Self

On the new album there is a song entitled “Who I Am”. It’s a very personal song (aren’t they all!) about a sensitive subject. The opening lines are:

Does it matter who I am?

They told me it was OK

That the way that I was made to be

Should all be wiped away

When I was going through my divorce, I struggled mightily with my sense of self. You see, from my church I understood that I was supposed to ignore hope, pain, or really anything that felt good or bad. I was supposed to put off myself and take on Christ, and if I was doing that then it wouldn’t matter what happened in this life. So for the longest time my goal was to rid myself of anything that was ME and “replace it with Christ”, whatever that meant. This is a popular construct in many evangelical churches, where the concept of “self” and “selfishness” are often implied to be one in the same.

I’ll admit, I swallowed that lie for a long time— that what it really meant to be a “living sacrifice” was to rid myself of anything that was Jeff and replace it with Jesus. If I was in pain, this was because I was too focused on self, and I need to rise above it and focus on God. There’s a certain beauty about the idea . . . and simplicity. Jeff is completely evil, Jesus is completely good, therefore Jeff needs to go away and become Christ. The problem is, this is NOT Christianity.

The first problem is how we think about ourselves as evil. Any good evangelical will quickly quote Romans 3:23 (“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”), and I’m among them. But what we can miss is the notion that all people, Christian or non-Christian, have been created to be the image bearers of God. We have a stamp of Him on and in us, and The Fall did not wipe that stamp away. Beyond THAT, though, is that in Christ I am a new Creation, as are all Christians. I am not the man I was once, hopelessly beset by sin. I am a man being improved by the Holy Spirit, joining with God in the work of my sanctification. So what am I fighting against in this life? Am I fighting against Jeff, to make him go away? I don’t think that’s what Paul had in mind:

So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:17-20, ESV)

Yes, we still struggle and we still sin. We still do evil. We do not posses the ability to do the good that we desire. But what is the source of evil? Is it “Jeff” or is it “the flesh”? It seems pretty clear that it is the latter— for Jeff, the new creation, does not WANT to sin. I HAVE sin, and I DO sin, but I am NOT sin.

I think the second problem is how believers view what it means to be a “living sacrifice”. What exactly are we supposed to be sacrificing? Here is what Paul writes:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.(Romans 12:1-2, ESV)

What is in view here is not saying the “self” is bad, but that all that we are and all that we have must be devoted to God. So it’s not that Jeff must be gone and replaced with Jesus, but that Jeff must take all that he’s been given and use it for Jesus. That’s a big difference. And honestly, I think most Christians would agree with this distinction. There may be many scratching their heads wonder just who it is teaching that we should be emptying ourselves of our identity.

Few people explicitly teach that we empty ourselves of our identities, but the implication is all over modern evangelical Christianity. Christian pastors take a certain sense of pride about how bad they can portray themselves (“I’m the worst sinner I know!”) and our songs constantly emphasize this point (“You are good, you are good, when there’s nothing good in me” or “Rid me of myself, I belong to you”). The line is thin (and dangerous) between dealing with our sin and just accepting the sin and moving on with spiritual sounding words about how we are depending on Jesus. With this constant message in the evangelical church, it’s easy to walk away from a worship service thinking that the things that make up ME are bad, and only God is good. And this echos the ancient heresy of Gnosticism that matter is evil and only spiritual is good. The things that make up me— my hopes and dreams, they should go away so that I can truly follow Christ.

But this is not the way the God of the Bible views humanity. God loves individuals and who they are so much that he used their unique voices to tell the story of Redemption. The Bible is written by many different authors with different skills, outlooks, and styles, each book bearing its writer’s individuality while being inspired by the Holy Spirit. And what’s more, God is personally involved with creating each individual person:

For you formed my inward parts;

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well. (Psalm 139:13-14, ESV)

These are not the words of God who wants us to lose our identities, but rather to embrace how we’ve been made and use ourselves for His Glory.

This attack on self is not just found in our theology, but is also practiced in our modern worship. Many services are built around the idea of getting people to a heightened emotional and mystical state where they are no longer focused on themselves, but only on God. This sounds pretty good, right? If we are truly worshiping then we should be focused only on God— doesn’t that make sense? It does, but I think the kind of worship I’m describing here is more like an eastern mystical concept of “joining the over-soul” than it is what Christian worship looks like in the Bible. A worshiping Christian is responding to God by bringing who he or she is and devoting it all to God. He or she hasn’t forgotten self, but rather is applying self wholly in an act of worship. Look at Isaiah— he is aware of who he is and he responds to God’s calling very clearly.

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” (Isaiah 6:1-8, ESV)

We need to tread very carefully, church. VERY. We need to confess sin and be repentant. We need to turn from sin and depend on God. But what we must not do is try to take ourselves out of the equation. We each have a “self” and we are stuck with it. We can respond by trying to get away from that self, or to be like Isaiah and say “Here I am! Send me”. The latter is the pattern of scripture.

Selfishness is bad. Taking stock of who we are, understanding why we feel the way we do, and  figuring out which of our hopes and dreams are God honoring and which are just the products of sin— those are not bad things. These activities are what a Christian who is concerned with the Kingdom does. This is what a Christian who wants to bring himself as a living scarifies does. Sometimes in our pain and suffering we are to flee like Paul and Jesus both did on numerous occasions. Or sometimes the pain and suffering will bring Glory to God and we are to submit to it with confidence in his plan. But what we must not do is ignore what our sense of self tells us about the goodness of something. If something being done to us feels evil, our answer should not be to disengage and search for a higher spiritual plane away from self, but to understand how our “self” and all that God has put in it is to respond for the glory of his Kingdom. It might not look the same for every individual, for we are all different with different paths.

I’ll finish this post with some more lines from the song “Who I Am”, because ultimately this all comes back to God. What he has created in me IS good, and everything good I have is because of him. I don’t want to lose that, I want to embrace it:

Your voice is growing stronger and I hear you speak to me

As you tell me that I always was your plan

So I lift up all that I have to worship and adore

And thank you for who I am