Posted in Different Thoughts, Uncategorized

on worship & music.

Growing up, I remember standing and enjoying a good extended refrain of “Victory in Jesus” with our old Nazarene worship pastor Calvin Kring.  His joyful countenance, and excitement to lift the name of Jesus were infectious.  I didn’t know everything God wanted to do in my life, but I knew if I could infect others with a love for God like his, that’d be a good start.

Throughout high school and into college, worship in song happened both in church through hymns and worship chorus, and in concert-type atmospheres of “youth gathering” type events.  In college, my love for music and gifts for singing gave me privilege to lead thousands in worship, travelling the Midwest in a couple different bands.  I loved the sounds of music that could fill a room, and creatively express God’s beauty in increasingly new ways.  But even in the midst of this, I encountered many who equated “new ways” with “better/more genuine ways”.  I’ll admit, there were even moments where I believed them.

Fast forward many years.  I’m serving as a pastor of a church in an area with hundreds of churches.   There are as many musical styles in our various “sanctuaries” as there are musicians.  Even within a congregation, there will be seasons of styles, based on who or what instruments are available to assist in the music that week.  I’ve seen people drawn to the love of Christ as they’ve connected with music in His presence.  I know it can be a powerful draw to new attenders, and some pastors feel the urge to put a large emphasis on it for that reason.  I also know many of us are returning from “COVID-induced” breaks from in-person gatherings with singing – and we’ve missed it.  I believe we are shaped in important ways, as we join in song together.

In his book, “Life Together”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives us his 2 cents on singing:  “Why do Christians sing when they are together?  The reason is, quite simply, because in singing together it is possible for them to speak and pray the same Word at the same time; in other words, because here they can unite in the Word.  All devotion, all attention should be concentrated upon the Word in the hymn.  The fact that we do not speak it but sing it only expresses the fact that our spoken words are inadequate to express what we want to say, that the burden of the song goes far beyond all human words…..

..The purity of unison singing, unaffected by alien motives of musical techniques, the clarity, unspoiled by the attempt to give musical art an autonomy of its own apart from the words, the simplicity and frugality, the humaneness and warmth of this way of singing is the essence of all congregational singing…..

..There are some destroyers of unison singing in the fellowship that must be rigorously eliminated.  There is no place in the service of worship where vanity and bad taste can so intrude as in the singing.  There is, first, the improvised second part which one hears almost everywhere.  It attempts to give the necessary background, the missing fullness to the soaring unison tone, and thus kills both the word and tone.  There is the bass or the alto who must call everybody’s attention to his astonishing range and therefore sings every hymn an octave lower.  There is the solo voice that goes swaggering, swelling, blaring, and tremulant from a full chest and drowns out everything else for the glory of its own fine organ.  There are less dangerous foes of congregational singing, the “unmusical”, who cannot sing, of whom there are far fewer than we are led to believe, and finally, there are often those also who because of some mood will not join in the singing and thus disturb the fellowship.”

Long ago, I would’ve considered Bonhoeffer’s words here ancient.   Obviously he was limited, and way too conservative with his views on worship through music.  Even still today, I’d counter that there are some beautiful things that a gifted instrumentalist or vocalist can add to the experience of a song.  But I can’t help but find some important truths in what he’s saying there.  He had been raised in an aristocratic family with a deep love for music.  They would spend a large portion of their family time learning or performing instruments, and offering these gifts in honor of God.  Dietrich himself was a highly skilled pianist and lute player, and his family thought he might go into music performance as a profession.

All of this to say, I’d much rather join in genuine unison singing on a Sunday morning with no-part-harmony, and no instruments playing with my family of believers wanting to praise the name of God in words beyond words, than a world-renowned worship band that was focused more on presentation and polished emotional manipulation.  Thankfully, I think many of our “normal churches” have something pretty genuine going on.  I pray we never get so amazing at worship that people begin the pack the pews because of our talented musicians (or great preaching, for that matter).  But I also pray we never get so comfortable in our humbly sung Words that we stop allowing them to impact our heart and life.

May we continue to be a people who worship “..in Spirit and in Truth.”

Posted in Different Scriptures, Uncategorized

Your Kingdom Come (a long post)

Matthew 6:10 “Your Kingdom Come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (NRSV)

I remember praying the Lords’ Prayer when I was young, and really enjoying this verse.  Of course, I learned it in King James, so it was “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done.”  It was poetic that way.   I’m not sure I ever spent much time wondering what it meant though, because everyone around me wasn’t too worried about the Kingdom of God Coming – even thought that was what Jesus had taught us to pray.   Instead, everyone seemed more focused on “Thy Kingdom is where I’m going to arrive”.

The focus, then, was less on the Kingdom – and more about me.

It’s interesting for us to note, that nowhere in the Lord’s prayer does it say, “And Jesus, let me get into Heaven someday.”  The emphasis here is not on an individuals’ eternal security and destination.  The emphasis is on a restored and healed relationship here and now.  The emphasis is not about where we will go “someday”.  The emphasis is on how we join together in praying God’s Kingdom arrives “on earth as it is in heaven.”

So what does this mean?

There’s a story I remember hearing around the campfire many times growing up.  It seemed to be a favorite, and I’ve changed it a little…but I think it gives us a great way…a parable…of thinking about the Kingdom of God.

Many years ago in a world similar to ours, there were no humans yet.  The world was filled with animals and creatures of every kind and size.  They couldn’t get along, and constantly fought over who was the greatest creature in the land.  The bear argued that he was the greatest, because he was huge and strong, and could defeat anyone in battle.  This led to huge arguments and chaos, and God couldn’t take all the noise.  So God decided to throw a blanket over the entire sky, making it completely dark for all the animals.  The fighting continued.

Finally the bear who had been bragging about how tough and strong he was, decided he could climb up to the sky and rip the blanket off.  He commanded the snakes to weave themselves together tightly and rigidly, in order to form a tall ladder he could climb.  Sure enough, they formed a giant ladder, and up he began to ascend, one rung at a time.  As he reached the top of the highest rung, he took a gianst SWIPE across the night sky.  As he did this, he lost his balance and fell down, down, down…SMASH onto the ground.  They say his snout used to be long, and when he fell he landed face first, which is why his snout is so much smaller today.

Next the elephant and the moose began to fight about who would try next.  They both felt like they were the obvious next choice, and as they fought, they rolled right over the beaver’s tail – which is why it’s still flat today.

The fighting continued until the Jaguar was able to get everyone’s attention.  Now in those days, the Jaguar was one of the prettiest, dazzling, filled with color animals in Gods’ creation.  He felt pretty sure of himself and his ability to draw attention from both creation and the blanket.  He felt like he could simply climb the ladder and command the blanket to fall, and down it would come.   The other animals thought this option at least stood out as unique, so they voted on trying it.  As the Jaguar climbed, he took his time.   He smiled to the left, making sure all the animals were looking up at him, admiring his colorful coat and his bravery.   He looked to the right, making sure the animals were all appreciating the way he skillfully climbed, and the way his eyes glowed with such an adventure.  As he slowly made his way up the ladder, he was taking so long that the snakes began to lose their hold.  They shook and trembled at the confidence of the Jaguar, and eventually lost their hold – and the Jaguar tumbled down, down, down, WHAM!!  As the Jaguar hit the ground, his colors fell off in every direction, bringing color to what we call the wildflowers today…and leaving the Jaguar completely black.

Next, the voice of the vulture rang out above the others.  He reminded them of how incredible a flier he was.  He offered to fly up and tear down the blanket.  Without waiting for other to agree, he pushed off and began to flap his wings.  WHOOOSH, WHOOOSH, WHOOOSH – he was flying so hard and so fast, he didn’t even realize how close he was getting.  Finally POP!  The vulture’s head burst right through the blanket.  The animals below could only see the vultures body, and could see he was struggling, because all the heat from the sun was concentrated on his head and neck.  He was pushing hard as he could to get his head back through the blanket, and finally he freed himself and fell down, down, down, BOOM.   The animals gasped when they realized the vulture had lost his beautiful long head feathers, and from then forward the vulture has only a red bald wrinkly head.

The animals complained, “We’re going to live in darkness forever!!”  As the cries quieted down, they finally heard the soft, timid voice of the hummingbird.  He was offering, “Um….hey everyone. I know I’m not the biggest, or the strongest, or the wisest…and I’m not sure I could tear down that giant blanket.  But I think I could do something.”

The hummingbird flew up and poked one small hole in the blanket, and light began to shine through.   He flew over a bit, and POP, poked another hole….then another, and another, and another.    As the light began to shine through, all the other animals were silent.  Slowly they began to talk, and be thankful for the light.   They began to laugh, and smile, and see the value in each other.  As God saw they were beginning to get along again, he removed the blanket.  But he knew they might forget what had happened, so every night he replaced it as they rested, so they might look up and remember what had happened that night.  The bears’ swipe still exists, we call it the milky way.  The hole from the vultures’ head, we call the moon.  The first hole poked by the hummingbird was the biggest, and we call that the north star.

It’s a silly story, although it’s whimsical and filled with imagination. We know scientifically, it’s not true, and yet it helps give an illustration to the words from our scripture.  We join Jesus in praying, “Your Kingdom Come”.

We know that God’s Kingdom that Jesus talks about here is not something we’re “waiting for”.  Even within this prayer, Jesus says, “On earth as it is in heaven.”  That means God’s Kingdom IS, RIGHT NOW, fully in heaven.   So when we pray for the Kingdom of God to come, we’re not praying for a point on a timeline to arrive.

We’re not praying for a traditional “KINGDOM” the way that we think, with all our Disney Movies, and Braveheart, and Game of Thrones.  We’re not praying for a giant walled city to plop down on earth.    When the word “Kingdom of God” is used in scripture, it often means where the “REIGN AND RULE of GOD” exists effectively.  Those places where the dominion of God is made manifest.

We are just like those animals.   We look at the world that exists around us.  We see the darkness that has come because of sin.  We know that just on the other side of what is visible – is the realm where God is fully present and Lord over all things.  We join with God in the mission of proclaiming the Reign and Rule of God in and through our lives.

We use phrases sometimes to get each other excited about what is happening for the sake of the Kingdom.  Our family was excited to join the Kingdom work in Hungary.  We may even say things like “Break new ground.”  or “Take new ground.”  or “Gain new ground for the Kingdom”.  But in reality – we know that by his death and resurrection, Jesus has become Lord over all things seen and unseen.  Listen to the words from Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (1:15-20)

So here’s the truth: The Kingdom of God has arrived.  Jesus knew everything was about to change, and was announcing the Kingdom was “at hand”. It’s just on the other side of the veil, and the veil is thinner than you and I might expect.

The only problem is – the world has spent so much time living under the blanket of darkness, and figuring out ways to become “okay” with it.  How do we respond?

It’s not about being filled with pride about the strength of our movement or numbers.  It’s not about planning an event that climbs the ladder and takes a giant SWIPE on our own abilities to remove the darkness.

It’s not about getting distracted, figuring out the best ways and strongest ways to make the biggest impact, all while accidentally stepping on others underfoot – as the elephant and the moose, to the suffering of the beaver.

It’s not about becoming so focused on one person and their amazing gifts at attracting attention, or making Jesus “look good” so that everything becomes built on their abilities…like the Jaguar.

It’s not even about “aiming high” and trying to fly higher than anyone has ever gone before – and sticking our necks into places where we might get burned – based on our own desires – really healthy desires, to remove the blanket.  We may just find ourselves burned out, like the vulture.

Instead, humbly, Jesus calls us to be people who pray.  People who, like the hummingbird – recognize the Kingdom is already there, just beyond the veil.   It’s not my job to remove the entire veil.  But it’s within what God has empowered me to do – to join God in the Kingdom arriving in many small ways, shaped just the way God has created me.

So how do we join God in doing so?  Empowered by the Holy Spirit, living as the presence of Jesus on earth still today, looking to the Father as Jesus did – we join in acts of Love, offering grace, and inviting others to know the Love of God not just as theory or theological fact – but as tangible and transforming presence.  Proclaiming by our very lives, that there is a reality just beyond the world we’re presented with.  There is a system of power, and a way of life built on love that goes deeper than any pattern or system our world is familiar with.  It’s not about us transforming reality, but about us helping the TRUE reality to arrive as we offer ourselves to God fully.

It’s not about you starting a Bible study, planting a church in your neighborhood, or volunteering 20 more hours a week in what happens at church.

It’s about you seeing your neighbor, your enemy, or that person you walk by every day and usually pretend not to make eye contact – but this time, actually seeing them with the eyes and heart of Jesus.  Proclaiming in that moment by the way that you respond, that the Reign and Rule of God’s Love is more important than any other system, any other social influence, any political correctness, or even more important than what is expected of you as an evangelical Christian in America.

It’s about the Reign and Rule of God being more important than any other identifier we claim.  It’s about the Kingdom of God becoming more important than our nationality, more important than our brokenness, more important than our egos, or our bank accounts, or anything else we might be tempted to make decisions according to.

Yielding all of these things, we submit ourselves to make decisions according to the Kingdom of God.

This sounds mysterious.   It sounds so mysterious, we might even be tempted to use it as an excuse.  Well….shucks….how am I supposed to know what GOD would do in this situation?  God is so mysterious and otherly.  You know what I’ll do for now?  I’ll pray about it.

Unfortunately, “I’ll Pray About It” has often become our way of saying “I’d rather not do anything sacrificial or uncomfortable about it right now.”

Thankfully, we aren’t left in the darkness when it comes to how the Reign and Rule of God are proclaimed and arriving in our visible reality today.  It’s the next phrase of Matthew 6:10 – YOUR WILL BE DONE.

It’s a command, an imperative statement.  It’s simple and humble, and completely different than the ways people were used to praying to their Gentile Gods.  There were plenty of Jews, who’d been taught forms of prayer to God.  There were also many Gentiles in the crowd, who were used to attempting to “bend the ear” of their god that this prayer was worth hearing.   They’d swear upon this or that, or make great sacrifices and declarations.

In contrast, the prayer Jesus teaches his followers…not only to pray, but to live lives shaped by – is this: “Let your will be done.”

We know that God’s will is not mysterious and unknowable.  We have that promise in Romans 12:1-2.  “Therefore I urge you, my dear brothers and sisters, 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 renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

So even though there may be moments of discovering how God’s will is to be worked out in our individual lives, homes, families, churches, and situations – we know the overall will of God.  We know what God desires, and the ways of the Kingdom – because we’ve seen it revealed in the life and words of Jesus Christ.  We read just a few moments ago – Jesus – “in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”.  We have the words of Jesus himself – “the Son can only do what he sees the Father doing.”  So if we want to be involved in doing the things that Jesus would do, it’s important to pay attention to what His Love looks like – both in the days recorded in scripture – and as the body of Christ works to reveal His Love through the Church today.  Not to mention, simply to serve “The Least of these”, whom Jesus has said “whatever you’ve done for the least of these, you’ve done for me”.

This is the will of God.  It doesn’t have to be a GIANT SWIPE across the sky.  It doesn’t have to be, becoming political or social medial leaders or influencers in order to shape public policy, or get a million likes on a status update.  It doesn’t mean we have the most popular church in town that all the (fill in the blanks with whatever the current target audience is) want to go to.

It simply means….who are we, and what can we use to proclaim the Kingdom of God’s Love today?   Not on our own strength, but humbly stepping forward and saying – “I know there’s an unseen reality here that is much more substantial than the reality we see and perceive, and I’m going to live according to it.”

But that’s hard sometimes.

We live in a world of Bears, and Moose, and Elephants, and Jaguars, and Vultures.  When Jesus stepped up to live in a way that proclaimed “Thy will be done”….he spoke those words in a prayer of tears….asking the Father if there was another way besides submitting to a long, anguishing death on the cross.  When we humbly offer ourselves to God….and say God, allow my life to be shaped by this prayer…..we offer ALL of ourselves.   Our goals, our desires, our pride, our comforts…..ALL.

We bring it to the altar, and say…..God….I’m not the strongest.  I’m not the wisest. I’m not the (whatever)-ist.  But I can do something.  I know your will as revealed in Jesus, and I know your Kingdom is right here….right now.  Use all of me, to help make that visible.  Use all of me, to proclaim your Lordship here.  Use all of my family, my resources, and everything I previously thought was mine…..to make one more place where the light of your Lordship can shine through.

Your Kingdom come….on earth, as it is in Heaven.

And we have a promise that one day, the veil between earth and God’s full Kingdom presence will be worn so thin, nothing will hold it back as God completes what He has already started.

Remember – we’re not waiting for His Lordship to become a reality – He IS ALREADY Lord of all things.  What we’re waiting for….and what we’re actively involved in participating with every moment of our lives – is making that Lordship known, proclaimed, and visible as His Love transforms lives and communities even now.

Will we offer Him everything toward that end?   Will we pray this prayer…and allow it to shape our lives, as we’re called to “pray continually”?

Posted in Spoken Word, Uncategorized

Mark 4:26-34

Lord, of Your Kingdom, You invite
Us to join You in harvest and sowing
You empower my life to join You today
You nurture the seeds I am throwing

Guide me in each seeded moment
May Your Love triumph over all others
May the world notice all You reveal
And worship at what they discover

May I humbly approach each moment
Whether mine is to harvest or till
May I always receive Your direction
And seek not mine, but Your will

If I find a great place to be planting
If I notice some fruit on the vine
May I always be quick to give glory
To Your Labor and Love, not to mine

Lord, I’m thankful at some earlier moment
You saw the soil of my life
You saw potential for nurturing seeds
Planting Your Love in all my strife

You’ve saved me and brought me Your healing
From seeds that by others You’d sown
I join You today, as mere mustard seed
Knowing from it grows Kingdom and Throne