Monday, August 01, 2016

Add to the Beauty

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before my affinity for an album by singer-songwriter Sara Groves called Add to the Beauty. The first song I heard from the album—over 10 years ago now—was “You Are the Sun.” It presented the allegory that Jesus is the source of all light, beauty and warmth, and that we are the moon, cold and lifeless until we reflect the light of Jesus.

Listening to it reminds me of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” I love the colors that swirl and move among the heavenly bodies, a tapestry of light over the village at night. The stillness of the town below the dance of the heavens reminds me that there is a place where the worship of God continues eternally, unabated by the darkness that sometimes worries or even frightens us. It gives me hope.

The steeple in the village of that painting makes me think of two churches I’ve stood before in Nebraska. One is south of Lincoln, near Holland, I think. The other is in central Nebraska in a small town I can’t even find on a map. Both are in the middle of wide open spaces, pointing toward heaven, visible for miles.

Which reminds me of a song called “Stand on a Steeple.” Which reminds me of a mountaintop in Colorado. Which reminds me of laughter and friends at a Young Life camp. On and on, memory upon memory… music, color, architecture, language, poetry, lyric, drama, experience, light. All of it: art. It is powerful, and it speaks in a way that words alone can not.

We worship a God who is a Creator. In Genesis 1 God’s story opens with six days of God’s voice singing forth all that we know. His magnum opus is humanity, which God makes “in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27). We are endowed with the ability to create and be creative. 

We are artists. Whether or not you believe yourself to be artistic in practice, it’s right there in black and white: you are made in the image of the Creator. Your identity, your DNA, is imprinted with the desire and ability to bring forth something new, unique, beautiful. You are reflective of the God who made stars and starfish, galaxies and grapevines, each hair on your head and every mountain height.

How will you add to the beauty? What has God made you to do? Your answer is your worship.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Worship as Evangelism

A couple weeks ago I was reading through Ezra, and I came to a passage that caught my attention. If you’re unfamiliar with Ezra, he was a priest in the 5th century BC who gives an account of the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its Temple, following the Babylonian exile of the Israelites. In one particularly dramatic chapter, the builders lay the foundation to rebuild the temple, resulting in a time of worship and praise. Here’s how Ezra describes the moment:

With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: 

“He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.”

And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away. (3:11-13. Read the passage in context here.)

Two things amaze me in this passage. First, you have lament and praise happening simultaneously. Those in the older generation remembered the glory of the former temple. They wept for what had been. Those in the younger generation were thrilled at the prospect of the new temple. They rejoiced for what was coming. Both responses were raw and heartfelt, and both were important expressions. And they were indistinguishable from each other.

Second, the lament-praise was heard far away. Imagine the sound heard by those living in the nearby wilderness. When I’m home in southeast Lincoln on a Saturday in the fall, I can sometimes hear the roar of Memorial Stadium. I can’t tell if it’s a sound of joy or of frustration, but I know it represents a real moment of response.

Worship unites generations. It provides a moment where lament and joyful exuberance can coexist and be indistinguishable from one another because both are authentic responses to God. When we respond to God in a way that is real and heartfelt, worship also bears witness to the reality of God’s presence in our midst. Those attending for the first time might have their eyes opened to a God Who loves them enough to rescue them from sin and death. In this way worship is evangelistic: it shares the truth of the gospel with those around us.

Is your worship authentic on Sunday mornings? Does your corporate expression of worship allow for you to be authentic before God? Why or why not? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

Have you ever met someone from another place and timed how quickly the conversation moves to talking about the weather? Not just the weather: I notice that there’s a sort of “one-upmanship” that happens. 

“You have storms? Well, we have tornadoes.” 

“You think that’s cold? Well, you should try winter in my part of the country.” 

We move quickly to talking about how bad we’ve got it. 

I think the same thing would happen talking with someone from another time and place. Not just talking about the weather, but comparing our eras in terms of all the things that make life hard: discrimination, political corruption, oppression, fear of the future. And invariably, we’d think and say we’ve got it the worst. I bet there’s no time in history when people didn’t think the end was near, and we were better off yesterday. This kind of lament for the failing of one’s culture, one’s society, is so prevalent today, even among Christians, that I wonder if we’ve forgotten that Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33).

This isn’t the kind of life or worldview God has given us. Search your bible for “do not be afraid” or “do not fear.” Over and over, God speaks peace to his people and reminds us that we have nothing to fear. Romans 8:18-39 is a powerful statement of courage and hope. Nothing can separate us from the love and power of God shown in Jesus Christ.

I think we find ourselves in trouble when we let the voices of this world crowd out the proclamation of the resurrection. We listen to the chaos around us to the point that we stop listening to the still small voice reminding us of His presence (1 Kings 19:12).

There’s a great hymn called “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” And it’s all about the voices we allow to shape the reality around us:

O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face.
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

We need to keep our eyes on Jesus. We need to meet for worship. We need to spend moments in prayer. We need to read God’s word and meditate on his story. Not for our salvation: this is not legalism. We need to do these things because if we don’t we will be weary and troubled by the things of earth.

And then, with eyes on Jesus, we need not hide from the injustice we see around us. Instead, we can run toward it, bringing the hope and peace of Jesus Christ. 

Because the world needs us to tell Jesus’ story. It’s a story that overcomes.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

What I Am Learning...

Almost seven years ago, I was at a worship conference in Kansas City. The conference was a sort of “choose your own agenda,” so I was looking through the optional breakout sessions when one caught my eye. It was about early church worship practices, and the instructor was with a school called The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies (IWS). I decided to attend the breakout. And thus began a very important season in my life.

See, I didn’t go to seminary. I went to UNL for a BA in Music and a BSBA in Marketing. I felt called into worship ministry a couple years after college, and was encouraged to put my resumé out there. Before I knew it, I was five years into full time worship ministry with no real sense of what that meant. I yearned for a deeper understanding of worship.

Fast forward to today. I’ve spent six years reading, studying, writing and praying. I’ve been instructed and encouraged by a diverse faculty of wise men and women on a variety of topics related to worship. I’ve attained a new title as of April 13: Doctor of Worship Studies. And while I don’t feel much different today than I did on April 12, I know the past six years have forever changed me. And I know I’m not done. Here’s some of what I learned, and what I am continuing to learn…

We need each other. At IWS I was part of a cohort: we were together from orientation day to graduation day. The exchanges I’ve shared with my classmates—who come from many denominations from around the world—over the years were sometimes eye-opening. I’ve seen my own faults, and learned to speak with love and grace, and to listen. This was a tremendous time of growth for me. I ended up writing my doctoral thesis on unity. We need others to speak wisdom into our lives.

Worship looks around as much as it looks up. Half of worship is inviting others to know God the way we know God: through Jesus. The minute we put ourselves ahead of our neighbor in worship, we start to miss the point entirely (Isaiah 58:1-11; Amos 5:21-24). Worship isn’t for me; worship is for we. How do we worship in Christ? How are we being invited into God’s story? How do we respond to the story?

God is bigger. When I started learning about the history of the church, the variegation of worship around the world, and the depth of meaning behind symbols that we tend to take for granted, I realized how limiting my view of God has been. It’s like I’ve been looking backwards through a telescope at God: He looked further away, and small. Now I see God is bigger than anything that can come my way, and He is closer than I imagined, and I have to sweep my telescope back and forth to take Him into view. Until He comes again, I will never be able to fully comprehend or appreciate God’s greatness. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.

We all have these seasons where God stretches us, changing us forever. Are you in one now? Or has God just led you through a season? Or do you feel a yearning that might lead you into a time of change? How will you respond in worship? Who will you invite along?

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Pray, Then, In This Way

Perhaps the simplest form of worship is prayer. Every expression of worship that I can think of has an element of prayer to it because every expression of worship carries a message. We sing (action) songs of praise (message). We tithe (action) to show trust and gratitude (message). Prayer can also be both action and message. It doesn’t require memorizing lines, or a formal space, but it can include those things if we want. Prayer can be as simple as a quick, “Thank You, God!” or “Help me, Lord!” Or it can be a dedicated time of speaking and listening to the Creator, petitioning Him with the desires or the praises of our hearts.

So prayer is simple. But it’s not easy for many of us (myself included). Why is that? I think partly, we have formalized prayer into an activity that only takes place on Sunday morning and before meals. It’s usually led by someone else, and maybe it’s something we just listen to. If you feel that way about prayer, you’re not alone. And I’d venture that over centuries, church has taught us to pray like this: bow your head, close your eyes, and listen to the person praying. Many of us have slid into this view of prayer gradually.

When I look at how Jesus prayed, and how He taught us to pray, I see something entirely different. Jesus says pray when no one is looking. He lays out a simple prayer in Matthew 6 that praises God and asks Him for help. And when Jesus prays (John 17, e.g.), it is with an intimacy that is available to us thanks to Jesus’ death and Resurrection.

That’s how I want to pray. A lot of times I feel like I don’t know how, and I feel awkward doing it. But I’m taking steps to make it feel less awkward, because I think it’s important. Too many times, I’ve felt a tug to ask someone, “Can I pray for you?” but I’ve ignored that tug because I feel too embarrassed to pray in front of them. So here are some steps I’m trying out, that you might want to try, too:

Praying out loud. I like praying silently, but my mind tends to wander, or I get tired if I’m praying before bed.

Praying passages from the Psalms. The Psalms express a lot of emotions: joy, pain, fear, anxiety, peace, contentedness, hope. Sometimes I’ll come across a passage and I’ll just read it out loud, because the Psalmist gives words to something I’m feeling. So I’ll say it out loud.

Try a prayer book. You don’t have to memorize prayers. Actually I’d advise you to memorize scripture, like the Psalms, first. But prayer books give us another lexicon of prayer language, which can be helpful if you feel like you don’t know what to say.

Say “Amen.” When someone else is praying, listen, but then actively say, “I agree, and I pray this, too,” by saying “Amen” aloud.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The Mark of the Cross

“All God's plans have the mark of the cross on them and all His plans have death to self in them.” - E.M. Bounds (1835-1913)

At the end of March we will celebrate an unprecedented event. It forever changed the course of humanity for good. Though it happened over 2,000 years ago, its impact has stretched through time and continues to grow. Jesus of Nazareth—who was fully God and fully man, faultless yet convicted, perfect yet despised, free to walk away yet resolved to show his love for humanity—took up a cross and carried it to a place known for death. Beaten, bleeding, crowned with thorns and mocked by his oppressors, Jesus took his last breath at what looked like the end. And the symbol of that sacrifice was the cross.

Consider the cross… It’s not to be revered in place of Jesus, and it’s not the only symbol we have of God’s love for us. But it is a paradox, both terrifying and beautiful. It shows us great pain, suffering and death. But it also shows us great love, hope and life.

Consider the cross… On Ash Wednesday crosses of ash are drawn on foreheads as a reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But our brokenness is not the end of the story, because Jesus made a way for us. Though our bodies will rest for a time, they will be resurrected again as Jesus was resurrected.

Consider the cross… It’s not the end of the story. It’s the beginning of a new story. It was intended for death but it made way for life. Not just then, but even now. What does it look like for us to take up our own cross? If God’s plans have death to self in them, then how will we follow Jesus to Golgotha today? How can we pour out our lives as Jesus did?

As we journey through Lent toward Easter, consider the cross. And on Easter Sunday, let’s consider the life we have been given. Let’s raise a loud shout of joy to Jesus, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame.” 

Let’s praise Him, and let’s consider how we can take up our own cross, to transform our world through Jesus for the glory of God!

Monday, February 01, 2016

How Do You Define Worship?

“Hey, worship sounded great yesterday!”

“Thanks,” I enthusiastically replied, and felt that familiar wrestling in my gut. For years now, I’ve tried to figure out how to best respond to similar compliments. To be honest, I appreciate the kind words. Who doesn’t enjoy a pat on the back from time to time? But what about when it doesn’t sound great? Sometimes I wonder if we need to expand our understanding of worship. Here are some principles I’d love for you to ponder and hopefully embrace.

Worship is not… just music. The words we use matter. I’ve found that sometimes when we talk about “the worship,” we really are talking about “the music.” Worship is so much more. What about prayer? Or listening (actively) to God’s word? Giving our offerings? Communion? And those are just the things we typically do on Sunday mornings! Keep reading…

Worship is not… a performance (and we are not the audience). Sometimes we seem to think worship is a performance we attend. “How was worship today?” “It was amazing!” If this sounds familiar and worship has become something to watch and hear, then I apologize, because some Sundays I’m a terrible performer! I miss chords, I forget words. The good news is, worship is a product: it’s an offering. Worship is what you bring. Maybe that’s singing and praying along on Sunday mornings. But maybe for you it’s helping your neighbor, or encouraging a friend, or mentoring a young person, or leading a small group, or giving an offering… worship can be anything that you bring to give glory to God!

Worship is… “the work of the people.” This is the biblical definition of worship. It’s what happens when God’s people gather and declare together that Jesus is Lord in all areas of our corporate life! So I’d encourage you to sing along. Get involved. Say “amen.” Show kindness to others. Join a small group. Serve, in and out of the church. See Sunday morning as a recap of your worship life for the past week, and as a prelude of your worship life for the next week. I’d love for every one of us to leave your church on Sundays with a prayer in our hearts, “God, that was for you. Thanks for your love. And this week: it’s for You, too. Thanks for speaking to me today!”

Worship is… a transformed life. Wouldn’t it be awesome if when someone said, “Tell me about your church,” you responded by telling them how Jesus has transformed you, and how you see Jesus transforming those around you at your church? Don’t get them interested with “the music is awesome” or “the message is the best.” Tell them—and show them—how your church has changed you, and invite them to come along.