The Heartbeat of Worship

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ

Ephesians 4:11-12

My apologies for being out of touch once again. When it comes to running places, this is the most hectic season of my life to date. My older daughter is on the homecoming court for her school, and this is HOCO week. Such events are brand-new to this recovering introvert who never so much as attended a high school dance.

And let me tell you, when you live 30 minutes from the school and 30 minutes in the opposite direction from a collection of stores with the appropriate semi-formal gear, it is no joke getting this craziness wrapped up. Especially when one of your kiddos is so small that only 1 in 100 dresses fit her, and only about a third of those meet dress code…

But you’re not here to read about the crazy. Let’s talk about the Word, shall we?

Our pastor once made mention of the weekly worship services as a sort of pulse of Christianity, and the idea has resonated with me since. It’s a beautiful picture, really – the gathering together of believers to worship and encourage one another followed by the sending out into the various arteries of the world until we are once more drawn together again and the cycle repeats.

It all came together in a profound way for me this past Sunday as the pastor spoke about our identity in Christ (an excellent message, by the way, for anyone who’s struggling with identity issues of any kind. You can access it here.)

Just as there’s a purpose to our physical heartbeat, there’s a Divine purpose for this rhythmic flux of gathering in and sending out.

The gathering of the Church is meant as a time of worship; of refreshment, equipping, burden sharing, repentance – you name it. All that “churchy” stuff is supposed to go on during our meetings.

But primarily, the worship services are for just that – worship.

It’s where the Body of Christ comes together to worship the Lord who set them free. We sing. We serve each other. We hear the Word and exposition on the Word and we internalize it. We share one another’s burdens. We confess our sin to each other and pray for each other. Or that’s how it should look, anyway.

All of these things – song, teaching, confessing, praying – serve a purpose. This is where we are equipped to do the work God sends us out into the world to do. We learn and grow in Him. We cast our burdens on him.

We leave behind our junk – confessed sin, burdens for others, sorrow, shame. We pick up a fresh insight from the Word of God, a new sense of purpose or direction, or some encouragement to strengthen us. This we take out into the world around us to share.

It’s the pulse of Christianity. The heartbeat of the Body of Christ.

We are the blood in those vessels, surging outward to bring the message of hope and grace, the insight and encouragement we’ve received from our gathering to a world starving for the Bread of Life.

From them, we acquire burdens and sorrows and are drawn back into a gathering once more, ready to share these burdens and lay them at the feet of our mighty God. Once more, we take our nourishment – the Living Water, the Bread of Life – and we are again sent outwards to those who wouldn’t hear the Gospel otherwise.

This is the rhythm of Christian life as it ought to be. The great pulse of Hope and Love. It’s the purpose of meeting together and growing and loving, working through difficulty and learning together. Our corporate heartbeat.

Let’s not neglect it, brothers and sisters. The world outside the heart of Christ needs to hear the message of hope and forgiveness in Him. Let’s be diligent to bring it to them…

Tuesday Prayer: Seasons

The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,
(Psalms 24:1)

Awesome Creator, the earth is Yours and all it contains. From the vast expanse of the heavens which declare Your glory all the way to the tiniest details like the number of hairs on our heads, You are intimately acquainted with every bit. You have also made the world and its cycles, and You have provided the sun, moon, and stars to document the signs and seasons and days and years. All of it ultimately points to You, Lord, declaring Your glory and teaching us of Your ways.

Our lives, too, are governed by seasons. There are times of frantic activity and times of rest; seasons marked by trial and turmoil and seasons of utter peace and pure joy. As we grow in Christ and deepen our walk with You, the trials and the joys begin to overlap and become one because we begin to see how You use all of it – the good and the bad – to work together for the good of we who love You. Because of this, we can honestly rejoice in our suffering.

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,
(Romans 5:3)

Not only because of our trust in You to take what our enemy intends for evil and use it for good, but we can also rejoice because we do not serve a distant and impartial God. Instead, we serve a God who became a man and endured suffering as a man. You have suffered, and so we know that every moment of pain or trial is a glimpse into what You have already done for us.

So often, Lord, we turn things upside down, wondering why our amazing God would allow suffering in the world. A better understanding of You have us marvel at the wonder of a God who loves His creation so completely that He was willing to become a part of it, to suffer and die for it, so that by His priceless blood, all of creation might be redeemed.

When our life seasons bring times of darkness or hardship, remind us of Your love. Remind us that even the darkness is not dark to You, Lord, for nothing is hidden from Your light and nothing escapes Your notice. Nothing is wasted. No season is useless in the eternal economy of Your grace. Even our suffering and our blunders, even our scars and wounds are given purpose and meaning when surrendered to You.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.
(Psalms 139:11-12)

Because You are good, we can trust You even in the dark and lonely places for if we belong to You, we are never actually alone. You have promised never to leave us nor forsake us. Teach our hearts a greater trust, a more complete devotion, and an endless sense of awe at the wonder of You, the King of Glory. May our lives be lived for Your service and our days be committed to loving obedience to Your purposes, amen.

Sufferin’ Succotash

There’s an idea I hear tossed around from time to time among well-meaning Christians which goes something like this:

Christian A is speaking (texting, emailing, whatevering) with Christian B who is in the midst of a painful ordeal, possibly looking for ways out. In a sympathetic effort to console, Christian A says something to the effect that “God wouldn’t want you to suffer like this.”

But frankly, I find this concept puzzling. Why? Well, because I don’t see it reflected in God’s Word. Quite the opposite, actually.

Now before you accuse me of thinking God is a sadist or some grumpy old lightning-bolt thrower, let me state my case clearly: I don’t.

He is, was, and always has been a loving Father who is devoted to what is best for His children. And sometimes what is best for us in the long run (ie-for the next ten zillion years) us difficult or painful right now. In short, sometimes we have to suffer to be prepared for what’s next. God also happens to be the Creator, so his definitions about what is and is not “good” kinda trump ours in every single instance imaginable, but that’s a story for another day.

If I’ve learned nothing else from living half my life for me and the other half for Him, I’ve learned that suffering serves a vital role in the life of a Christian. After all, the Christ suffered, so it follows that if we are to become more Christlike, we will follow His lead.

Or as Paul put it to a young preacher named Timothy several centuries ago:

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.
(2 Timothy 2:3, emphasis mine)

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.  (2 Timothy 3:12-13, emphasis mine)

**Note that persecution = suffering

Again, I do not view God as an angry deity just waiting to catch me in the act of doing wrong. I do, however, understand God’s perspective is so much wider and deeper than mine. Sometimes big benefits in eternity are purchased with a few drops of blood, sweat, and tears for His sake here on earth.

But please note the “for His sake” part of my little soapbox stance. If we suffer for wrongdoing, that’s merely us getting our due. But if we suffer for His Name’s sake, well… one possible solution is to embrace it. Maybe even count ourselves lucky like these guys did:

…and when they [the Sanhedrin – Jewish council] had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name.  (Acts 5:40-41, again, emphasis mine)

But what about suffering that has nothing to do with His Name’s sake nor with our wrongdoing?  There’s a topic you and I could spend hours one.

I have learned not to trust my own judgment in discerning when I’ve done wrong because I am diabolically clever at lying to myself. Thus sometimes, my suffering is disciplinary and I need to ask my Father where I erred.

Once unintentional sin is ruled out, I’m left with the raw fact that suffering is a product of living in a fallen world.

And my friends, it’s at precisely these two points where hope comes in.

You see, if disciplinary suffering is lovingly administered by our Father, we can trust that it is for our good even if we don’t understand why.  No matter what mistakes our earthly fathers may have made, God is not earthly.  He made the thing, and believe me when I say we can trust Him with all of it. Even the pain.

As for other reasons for suffering, they may not be what we call “fair” (which is really just a monosyllabic way of saying “I don’t like this”). The crucial point about suffering for a Christian is that our suffering is not purposeless. Every single thing which happens to us, good or bad, is being used by God to mold, refine, and shape us into the Image of God as we were meant to bear it.

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
(Romans 5:3-5)

Christian or not, we will all endure suffering in some measure. But for a Christian, there is a hope beyond suffering and even a reason to embrace it. This is the good news we ought to be sharing even when we are suffering. Even when we suffer for sharing it.

If you are interested in more Scripture-based thoughts about suffering (and have more time than me), feel free to select “migraine” in the drop-down box beneath the heading on the right side of the page. And let’s pray for each other, “knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” (1 Peter 5:9)

 

A Distinctive Voice

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
(Isaiah 40:3)

He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
(John 1:23)

Once again, I have been largely absent in the blogosphere. Many apologies to the fine writers I follow but whose posts I have not had time to read. Someday, my friends. Someday…

Until then, suffice to say I’m in a very lonely season, at least in my home. For now, I’ll keep the details sketchy, but for anyone who’s had three teenagers at once and a husband who works 70-80 hours on the average week, you may be able to imagine a bit.

However, I am honestly grateful.

Unlike a previous season about 17 years ago when God used my extreme isolation to bring my attention to Himself, this time I do have friends around.

But the biggest difference is this time I have Him. He is with me always, and I do not doubt it now while I was ignorant about it then.

As often happens with me, I lift up my concerns to the Almighty during these intervals of seeming solitude. We talk them over, my Father and I.

A few days ago when I lamented my inability to engage the people I love most in a discussion about the Lord, He reminded me of the above verses. I’ve been reflecting on them since.

It’s a nerdy little grammatical fact that there is some slight ambiguity in translating the  Hebrew of the time period to modern English. This is not due to ambiguity of the language so much as it is due to a lack of punctuation in the ancient tongue as well as a tremendously different syntax.

*** As an aside, none of these perceived ambiguities affect the tenets and doctrines of the Christian faith any more than the absent comma in the sentence, “Let’s eat Grandma,” refers to an actual act of cannibalism.  We see the same principles in written English when it is not meticulously worded and punctuated. The Hebrew of the day was often passed on orally for those not studying to be a rabbi, so voice tone and inflection were more useful than punctuation. 

I love how the ESV Bible reflects this ambiguity in the translation of Isaiah 40:3 and John the Baptist’s quote in every Gospel account. Is it a voice crying in the wilderness, or a voice crying out, “In the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord?”

What my Father has been reminding me lately is that it doesn’t matter. Even though at my worst moments, when a migraine or a migraine prodrome have me feeling horrid and my kids are taking offense at the mere mention of God’s Word, I am not allowed to throw my hands up in defeat.  (And for the record, I mean when I am talking about my own conviction, not beating them with Bibles).

Whether I am a voice crying in a wilderness of disinterest, or whether I am crying out for them to make a straight path for the Lord in the wilderness of their hearts doesn’t matter. I need to be that voice; to keep crying out whether anyone responds or not.

You see, the love of Christ compels me to speak. If I did not mention Him or speak His word, my very bones would burn with the fire of trying to contain it and I could not keep it in.

If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.
(Jeremiah 20:9)

Walking with my Father the other day, it hit me.

This isn’t just my job. This is our job.

Church, it is our job to be the voice of Truth. It’s irrelevant whether we cry out in a wilderness of cultural apathy, strife, confusion, conflict, racism, injustice, persecution, mockery, anger, and immorality or whether we are crying out that a straight way for the Lord be made through this wilderness.

We cannot despair. Nor can we compromise the message of the Gospel to make it more palatable or speak an altered and sanitized “gospel” which only comforts and never confronts. The consequences are too dire.

This doesn’t mean casting off discretion and berating everyone without mercy. This simply means openness about what is and is not sin according to the Creator; honesty about where we have, ourselves, been set free from slavery to sin; and genuine in our acts of mercy, our pursuit of righteousness in all aspects of our lives, and devotion to the Kingdom and Righteousness of God.

And the darker our world becomes, the more disctinctive our voices will be.

If we truly love the people we serve, we need to love them enough to tell them the truth. The Gospel Truth. The best news there ever was or ever will be.

Satiety

I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure…

…You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalms 16:8-9, 11

Not many days ago, I was talking with someone about a Bible study group, and in the course of conversation, it was lightheartedly suggested that one member would probably be happier with a beer and a movie. Immediately, I was struck by two thoughts.

First, I have been guilty of the same in my past and only by the grace of God as He has walked with me through many dark valleys of pain have I come to enjoy His presence more and more.

And secondly, how tragic. Sincerely tragic.

On one hand, we have a fermented beverage and a couple of hours’ worth of watching adults play-pretend in front of a camera. On the other hand, we are offered the very Word and Presence of the Most High God, Creator of all things including fermented beverages, adults, and the ability to make cameras. The path of life. Fullness of joy. Pleasures forevermore.

Perhaps because I have been reading in John’s gospel, I was reminded of the sixth chapter in which the Lord miraculously multiplies a few loaves and a couple of fish to feed a horde of people. The very next day, they chase Him down only to ask Him, “What sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?” (John 6:30).

On that long-ago day, a multitude of people were offered the Bread of Life and preferred to see a miraculous sign that possibly included breakfast (or so they seem to imply). Discouraged when the Lord did not perform according to their expectations, many turned away (John 6:66).

Too often, we also prefer the gifts to the Giver of all good gifts. Too often, we choose the cheap trinkets and baubles of this world to the spiritual wealth and the immense and uncountable riches of grace found in the presence of God.

Oh, Church! How desperately we need to realign our desires! For as long as we would be more content with mere entertainments instead of indulging ourselves in God and in His law, the world will never see the power of the Gospel at work in us. If our lives and choices do not reflect that our God is, in Himself, truly delightful, how can we expect anyone else to believe it?

…for I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.
Psalms 119:47-48

Adonai who sanctifies us, we borrow from David’s own prayers today as we ask that You will turn open our eyes so that we may behold wondrous things out of Your Law and turn our eyes from worthless things. Incline our hearts to Your testimonies and not to selfish pursuits. Forgive us, and deliver us from our own propensity to selfishness! Search us and know our hearts; try us and know our thoughts. If there is any offensive way in us, help us to let it go and lead us in the way everlasting! 

 

In the Furnace

Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.
Isaiah 48:10-11

I have yet to develop a desire for affliction. To this day, I can guarantee that the words, “I sure hope to be hit by a killer migraine today,” or “Boy, what I wouldn’t give to engage in battle with cancer,” have never once crossed my lips.

Affliction of any sort is unpleasant. Unpleasant, but not unprofitable.

In fact, I would venture to say that my faith in God has grown more through times of discomfort than times of ease.  That is not to say that my faith has been unshaken – far from it! In truth, my faith has been shaken, stirred, turned inside-out, boiled, numbed, seared, battered, and even left for dead.  But it has not been destroyed.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
(2 Corinthians 4:8-10)

Oh, I will admit that I have had my moments of doubt; wondering how a God who loves so deeply could stand to watch so much pain. But then… He not only watches pain, He participated in it.

With an infinite God, there is also an infinite capacity to suffer, and the agony He suffered on the cross was far more that mere physical pain. It was an agony of the soul; a tearing apart of a blessed Unity when the Man, Yeshua, took upon His human shoulders the burden of countless sins He did not commit.

When viewed from the proper perspective, my own misery seems puny in comparison.

No, true faith and trust in God is not consumed in the heat of the furnace of affliction.   Instead, it is refined; for as the blistering heat reveals weakness and impurity in all forms, they can be gradually separated and removed. Bit by bit, trial by trial, the faith I have in God is slowly but certainly becoming less about what He does for me and more about Him. 

One lesson I am learning through pain is that He will not yield His glory to another, not even if that “another” is me.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that while I have enjoyed many times of sweet and gentle communion with my God, they are often sweeter and more delightful because of the painful trials.

Yet what I am discovering is that the things my Lord allows to be devoured by fire are the very things that hinder me in my walk with Him. The cords of self-righteousness, self-importance, selfishness…. actually a whole lot of “self” is burned until there’s nothing more than ash.

And when all is said and done, what survives the flames will be whatever brings Him glory.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”
(Daniel 3:24-25)

In Need

If you have ever been moderately involved in Christian circles, I am pretty sure you have already heard Philippians 4:13:

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
(Philippians 4:13)

In my walk,  I have heard this verse quoted for encouragement or inspiration in countless situations, and it really is inspiring. It’s great to think that all things can be done through Christ, even wonderful to recognize that He is the sole source of our ability.

However, what I find a little bit funny is how I have not heard the verse used: I have never heard it used as Paul originally penned it.  As our pastor pointed out recently, the original context was about being content whether his means were meager or abundant.  Look back a couple of verses to see what I mean:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
(Philippians 4:11-13)

While I am not saying that the only thing one can accomplish through Christ is Plenty010contentment, I do think it worthy of note that contentment ought to be clearly present in the Christian life. Whether the abundance or the need in our lives is financial, situational, or something else, we who bear the Lord’s name ought to find our satisfaction in Him alone.

By our contentment, we honor Him, showing our trust for Him in all circumstances because ultimately He is what we need. As Psalm 16:11 states, it is in His presence that we find the fullness of joy, therefore we can be content.

Another passage that has been similarly stretched until it is nearly unrecognizable from its original meaning is a portion of Matthew 19:26:

… with God all things are possible.”

Also true. All things are possible with God. However I think the context of this little snippet is of utmost importance:

And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”

But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  (Matthew 19:23-26)

These days, it is not popular to talk about sin. In America in particular, rather than dealing in honest confessions of sin, many of us have soothed our consciences by talking about lifestyles or choices, by  blame-shifting or renaming (ie -calling gossip a “prayer request” complete with juicy and unnecessary details).

Rarely do we hear tearful confessions of sinful thoughts or contrition for smug self-righteousness. Even more rarely do we recognize it in ourselves.

Ironically enough, by this sort of blindness we nicely illustrate the words of Yeshua: “With man this is impossible,” because we seem to find it impossible even to notice our crimes.

My country is among the wealthiest, and so in many ways this verse applies very specifically (and uncomfortably) to us. So great is our wealth and privilege that we often fail to see our need for God in the little things, like daily meals or the grace we need to respond to others with kindness and humility. Too often, we trust in our salaries or the supermarket; too often we revel in our entertainments when we ought to be humbly finding delight the presence of the Most High.

I am no different. But for the very reason that I do see my tendency to sin and how prone I am to selfishness,, I am thankful that it with God it is possible for me to be saved. Because of His great love, offered while I was still in my sin, my strong desire is to humble myself enough to recognize and forsake sin so that I may honor the One who forsook His honor for me.

Despite our riches – and really because of them – we all need the Christ desperately. We can never enter the Kingdom of God apart from Him, for He is the Way. Certainly, we can never buy our way in. There are no first-class arrangements for the narrow path that leads to life; neither movies to pass the time nor comfortable seats. There is hardship, difficulty, sacrifice, and persecution.

But you know what? It will be worth it. And with Him, it is possible for us to let go of our riches and trust ourselves to the grace and care of the King of kings instead.

Blogger Brandon Adams also shares some insight into three other Scriptures – including my number one “Christian-ese” pet peeve. Follow this link to his article.