Where I Am Right Now (a life journey update)

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Thanks to Jared Anderson for that phrase, “Where I Am Right Now.” His song by that same title blesses me. It’s all about trusting God where you are instead of looking ahead to someplace you aren’t:

“I’m called to be where I am right now,
In the middle of a storm but I have no doubt
That you are here with me.”

I’m guilty of that, living with an obsessively future-oriented outlook. The truth is, HERE is all we have. I’m not waiting for some future place to “arrive,” I’m not afraid of missing my “big chance,” I want to live content, trusting, and abiding in peace.

It occurred to me recently (as most things do – thanks to my wife) that many of you (my blog-following friends out there) might not know about some of the crazy stuff that has happened in the Vinke’s world in the past year or so. If you don’t really care, you can stop reading now. For those of you with a soul (and some patience – this is a long one), here’s a little update on “the big three” major events of this season of life that have rocked our world (in a good way).

IMG_0654New baby. We welcomed our son Levi Emil to the family on January eighth of this year. We didn’t have as tough a time as many friends, but it was quite a ride getting him here! He has been very healthy and very happy and we are very thankful to God for the precious gift!

New homeIMG_0655We are homeowners! After lots of looking (the Jacksonville market is HOT!), God secured for us a perfect home in a perfect spot for us. Even in the midst of struggle and challenge, he cleared the way for us to get into our own home and we are loving it!


New job.
This is the big one…so a little backstory is required. In July of 2014, we stepped out in faith and moved from Atlanta to Jacksonville to work at a great church on the southeast side of town. The move was a result of a lot of stirring and searching, and was big jump to say the least. We left family, friends, and really the place we called home for most of our lives in order to step out in search of what God has for us.

As you probably know, any move to a new city brings challenges. We didn’t know many people, we didn’t know the area, and the church was…VERY different than we were used to. We were welcomed and loved from the start but the learning curve was steep. The denomination and style of the church were at the opposite end of the spectrum from where we had been in the past.

In my theoretical/theological brain, I could see lots of value to the tradition and preferences that were priorities in this tradition; my wife, who wired quite different, struggled quite a bit. To say we had a lot of “discussions” about this would be an understatement. We wrestled through a lot together and are better as a couple because of the experience. I worked hard to bring positive change in the church and add as much value as I could. Even so, after about fourteen months we knew it wasn’t the right fit for our family.

It’s hard to accurately (or briefly) summarize what our life was like in that season. It was multifaceted and complex as life often is. There were so many blessings that are hard to quantify. You won’t find a more generous, loving and hospitable group of people; I was given an incredible amount of opportunity to learn, grow and express my gifts (for which I’m forever grateful); we formed some new friendships that, Lord willing, will be lifelong. It was a gift!

In the midst of all of this blessing, there were some undeniable and inescapable realities that I had to face. The culture just wasn’t a fit for our family long term. As hard as my wife worked to get “into it,” the priorities of that particular style of worship just weren’t resonating with her. We needed room to run fast, be really challenged, and be around like-minded people. It was a hard and painful decision, as transition decisions almost always are. But I knew the right thing to do.

Image-1In the fall of last year, I had no idea what God was going to do. We knew we needed to step out once again and felt pretty open to going just about anywhere.  But God had other plans. In a way that only God can do, I got a “random” call from a friend I about a church here in Jacksonville called the Church of Eleven22. I reluctantly agreed to have lunch and hear about God was doing.

To say I was skeptical is a slight understatement; at every step, I thought, “there’s no way this is going to work out.” But (easy to see now) it did work out. Every meeting with every leader was encouraging, intriguing, and led me to take another step forward. It was like the door just swung wide open, and the timing was perfect. Perfect timing…that sounds like someone I know…

It’s hard to describe the sweetness of stepping into a season that feels as natural as a birthday. After you are ten, you turn eleven. That’s just the way it goes. I love it when God takes us into seasons like that, when we get to see that every step we have taken before has led us to this point. Like finding random keys in your garage over a series of years, only to find that they open the door to the house down the street you didn’t know was yours.

In case you haven’t noticed, those three events are top of the list of big-time stresses on people–and we experienced all three within a period of six months! We need your prayers!

But God has been so good. I’m so grateful for his hand on our lives, that he cares enough to lead us through every season with such great care. He is lovingly preparing us for each next step, even in the midst of seasons where the greatest thing we can do is be ok with where we are. I want to be the kind of person who can say,

“I am yours and you are mine,
You can move me any time,
I’m resting in your perfect peace,
Where I am right now.”

 

Warring Desires and Self-Denial

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In the season of Lent, many Christians (myself included) choose to fast from some type of food, drink, or activity as an exercise in spiritual discipline as a preparation for Easter.

Historically in the church, Lent has been a season of preparation for baptism–the final push for catechumenates (Christian converts in training) was a fast that ended in an all-night vigil and a glorious baptism service on Easter morning. Christians who had fallen out of fellowship with God or the church would also fast during Lent and were re-admitted into the fellowship of believers at Easter.

Today many churches don’t usually restrict baptism (or repentance) exclusively to Lent, but it is still a great time to practice self-denial as we prepare for the highlight of Christian celebrations (Resurrection Sunday). These practices have tremendous spiritual benefit. Self-denial helps us remember that Christ is Lord and we are not slaves to anything, especially to those things that we so naturally go to for comfort. We remember that we are weak and that we desperately need the help of God’s Spirit to walk this Christian journey–a power that Christ’s Resurrection has purchased for us. It is an act of war against our flesh, that sly and sticky force within us that wants so desperately to rule our lives.

But this aggression seldom goes unanswered. I find that when I fast, no matter what I fast from, the desires in my heart rebel with great force. This always surprises me (although it shouldn’t). Whether I’m denying myself sweets or television or social media, I invariably start to notice the restlessness of my heart rear its ugly head. I didn’t think I cared so much about the thing I gave up…until I started to say “no” to its beckoning cries. The things that seek to take first place in my heart begin to bare down with white-knuckled desperation. Then I remember I’m fasting…this is Lent…and it all starts to make sense.

This is the nature of many spiritual battles in our lives. We don’t notice them until we are right in the thick of things. Without disciplines like fasting we are all like the frog in the pot, slowly and ignorantly boiling to death in our own desires. When we say no to the things that seek to rule us, we are remembering that Christ actually rules our lives (and the universe). Spiritual disciplines snap us awake and help us see reality.

This is one of the reasons I love worship. Worship orients us to reality, as the psalmist writes about in Psalm 73. He, like so many of us, gets fed up with the (apparent) effortless and consistent success of wicked people (v. 4). The voice of arrogant scoffers is overwhelming at times…especially in an election year. The psalmist almost gets lost in his frustration until he goes into God’s house and sees the truth: they are destroyed in a moment (v. 19) and those who are far from God will perish (v. 27). What was the turning point? Worship. Drawing near to God broke the cycle of bitterness and frustration and helped the psalmist remember that the highest good is to be near to God (v. 28). It doesn’t get any better than that.

So a word of encouragement: If you are (trying to) practice self-denial and are finding some surprising thoughts, desires, or habits rearing their ugly head this Lent season, take heart: Christ has won the battle! Saying no to little gods can be a challenge, but nearness to God is worth the fight.

 

 

Image credit: Getty Images, http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/sport-spare-time-boys-at-a-tug-of-war-1933-vintage-property-news-photo/542940737

The Why of Worship

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I believe that no matter who you are, your personality, age, disposition, preferences, circumstances or situation, worship is what you were made for.
Worship is the highest goal and noblest purpose of every created thing in the universe.
Worship produces the highest level of life satisfaction and reward possible.
There is no situation which cannot be redeemed through worship.
All things can and must be enjoyed as worship. The choice is worship or idolatry.

I’m reading a fascinating book by Simon Sinek about the power of why. He argues that it isn’t the thing you do that inspires people to act or to follow, it is the reason you do it — your belief, your value, your core motivating force that draws people to you.

It isn’t enough to just tell people what they should do, people need to know why. In business this principle is powerful: don’t just tell me you manufacture a nice car, tell me why I must have it. What will it say about me? Why will it change my life? Why has far more power to motivate that what.

So why worship? Why spend all your waking hours obsessing about one subject that most of the world seems to dismiss? I’m glad you asked.

You know what I love about my life? I get to live for the best cause imaginable. I believe that worship is the greatest central value of all of life, that all of reality revolves around the principle of worship. Everything exists for something, and that reason is worship. Things exist to tell us something about the One who made them. Worship is fundamental to existence, just as matter and protons and wavelengths are the nuts and bolts of the physical world.

All things worship, some by default and design, others by decision. Asteroids and ants worship by design. They were made to express the pleasure and greatness of God in their uniqueness, detail and magnitude (or lack thereof). The interesting thing about humans is that we worship by design and by decision. As the crowning glory of the creation of God, human beings express God’s incredible power as the Maker and Master of all life. The body and brain still baffle scientists with their capacity and capability to connect and conceive. But the human heart and will can choose, we can express our praise and worship to God through our choices, through all that we do and think.

I believe that when we are made alive in Christ and surrender our lives to putting God first, we step into the thing we were put on this earth to do: worship. How much time, effort and energy is spent trying to find “our purpose”? Here it is: put God first (worship).

You don’t have to be a good singer, a sappy poet, or a deep theologian to be a good worshiper. Worshipers put God first. Period. I believe that the experience of worship is surpassingly greater than any other experience. To worship is to be in the presence of God Almighty, the One who created me (and the universe) and receive his love, lay my burdens down and his feet and get peace, wisdom, insight and encouragement. Nothing compares to that. It can happen anywhere and at any time. It’s what I’m made for, and I’ll spend eternity doing it. We worship because it is right, but also because it is rewarding. I enjoy worship, and I enjoy everything in life more when everything is done as worship.

The worship experience can take many forms. For some, worship may be experienced best through song. For others, prayer or quiet meditation. The balanced ledger or the swish of the ball in the net strike a chord of the rightness of what God has made. The power and presence of God that I feel at times when I read his word are overwhelming. So it doesn’t matter if you are artsy, young, old, rich or poor. You were made for worship, you were made to put God first. You were made for a constant, mindful, thankful communion with God. The worship mandate isn’t a stifling command to somehow stop enjoying accounting or writing or flowers or whiskey. It is an invitation to see the hand of the Maker in all of life, to delight in him in all things.

So yes, I lead worship on Sundays in a church. I play guitar and lead rehearsals and go to meetings and write blogs. But that is what I do, not why. I love my life because worship is what we are all made for. I get to spend my time finding ways to express to others how everything in life is better when it is worship. It just so happens that I do this in a ministry context, but the why motivates an infinite number of whats and hows. Would you like to join me?

Worship and Leadership

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I have three passions in my life apart from my faith and family, summed up in the phrase that has become my life purpose mantra: Teaching worship leadership. 

I am a teacher because I am a learner. My personality makes me gravitate toward a constant influx of new information, researching and seeking to understand things that surround me or interest me. Because I love to learn, I love to teach. Teaching the things that I have learned not only helps me further absorb them, it gets me more excited about learning. I’ll admit this sometimes gets me into trouble. Not everyone likes learning the way I do, and not everyone would like me to be their teacher. Also, the phrase “nerd alert” comes to mind…

Worship has been a passion of mine since my early teens. A profound experience in prayer led me to pursuing a ministry path and ultimately career in worship leading, one that I plan to follow until I can’t anymore. At first I thought that a calling in worship meant that I’d constantly be in front of people with a guitar in my hands, but that has only been partially true. Education and experience has deepened (and widened) my understanding of what worship is. Worship is much broader than music, singing or a Sunday activity. When we see worship as a way of life, a perspective-orienting posture before God, it changes everything from our thinking, our work, our relationships and our priorities.

I owe the focus on leadership to some years spent in an incredibly rich leadership culture. My time on staff at 12Stone Church has made a tremendous impact on how I see my life and various roles, helping me to understand the importance of skilled, intentional leadership over myself and others under my care. Leadership skills are some of the most fundamentally important skills one can ever learn, and they have the power to change your life completely.

Lately I have been searching for ways to articulate the connection between worship and leadership, two of my biggest passions. At first it seemed incredibly difficult. What could Good to Great and Engaging With God possibly have in common? I thought, maybe I just have two things that I’m passionate about that are basically unrelated. It wouldn’t be the first time!

But more reflection has shown me I was wrong. There is, in fact, a very strong connection between worship and leadership if you take a closer look.

Worship is essentially about glory. God is glorious, THE only being in the universe whose essence and character are so magnificent we could spend eternity (literally) captivated by all he is. Even attempting to write a description of God’s glory seems feeble at best. In corporate worship, we gather as the people of God to celebrate and proclaim God’s glory in prayer, songs, preaching and proclaiming the scriptures, and by participating in the sacred acts of the Christian church (baptism and eucharist). Worship reenacts the Story of God’s creation, our fall into sin, God’s redemption, and re-creation of all things. These activities are both participation and proclamation that God is glorious, the Greatest and most Beautiful One of all.

Human beings were made for God’s glory (see 1 Cor. 10:31, Col. 3:17, CS. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory) and thus made for worship. It is a self-verifying truth that glory is of paramount importance to the human soul. Humans everywhere are drawn to the ocean, the mountains, spectacular sporting events and feats of human skill and achievement. Why? Glory. When we worship God, we experience his glory by experiencing him and experiencing what we were made for.

Leadership is essentially the right ordering of ourselves and our relationships. It is intentional stewardship of who we are and how we interact with the world around us. God has created a right order for our lives and for our relationships, made clear in the Bible. Leadership teaching (well, let’s say good leadership teaching) is the distillation of the principles of self-leadership and right relationships that God has designed.

This brings us to the connection point between worship and leadership: righteousnessRighteousness simply means “right-ness,” the proper order of things in the world. God sits on a throne of righteousness and justice (Ps. 89:14) because he makes things right and just. When I live my life to God’s glory, I am essentially living a righteous life, living the way that God intended me to live according to his design. He has designed me to behold his glory, and as I gather with his people and sing and pray and kneel, my eyes are opened. He has also designed me to be disciplined, to be honest, and to live in right relationship with others. If my life is meant to be lived to the glory of God, then my leadership of self and of others will be expressions of worship. Leadership as worship takes worship from the church building and puts it in my calendar and my conversations.

I love to be out in nature. There’s nothing quite like climbing to a higher altitude and looking out across the space below. There’s nothing quite like a sunset, a clear starry sky or the pounding surf of the ocean at high tide. These sights remind me that God is glorious and powerful and has made a world that is very good. In the same way, seeing a man or woman seeking to live life to God’s glory, working hard to make the best use of the time, talent and treasure they have been given, reminds me that God is glorious and his creation of humankind is very good. He has made humans to be the crowning glory of his creation, and we have the chance to display his glory when we live in righteousness.

“Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!”
Ps. 150:6

 

Image: http://www.twanight.org/newTWAN/guests_photos/5001422.jpg

 

Worship and the Glory of God

Image credit http://www.vallejointl.com/ponderings/hands-lifted/

I am forever indebted to Pastor John Piper for relentlessly repeating his life’s mission in his books and sermons, so much so that this phrase still sticks in my head and heart:

“God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him.” 

What a statement. What a goal for life! If I could sum up what I believe to be my life mission, it would be somewhat related to that. I love worship, but not because I love music or work in vocational ministry. My deepest desire is to see (and delight in) God’s glory and to see (and help) others do likewise.

What is God’s glory?
Glory may be confusing to some. My favorite definition of God’s glory, while I can’t recall the source, is “the public display of his holiness.” God is holy. Holy means “set apart,” “other” or “above.” God exists on a completely different plane, above and beyond any other being in the universe. His “above-ness” is ontological (related to the essence of his being), not (necessarily) spatial. In other words, it’s not that God exists at a higher altitude than anything we could reach with our best rocket or space shuttle. His very essence is of a superior quality and purity than anything else, ever.

God’s glory can also be thought of as his fame or his renown, the ever-increasing revelation of his greatness and uniqueness as God. He displays his holiness (God-ness) through his word and his works, most specifically in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ continued in the ongoing work of the church. As people grasp who God is and what he has done (albeit in a very superficial way this side of heaven), God is shown to be great. His fame spreads, his glory is revealed.

What is Worship?
Worship must be understood as a total life orientation, not as a single act (i.e., singing) or as a group of acts (i.e., a church service). Worship is about the “first-ness” of God in all things, as my friend Chris likes to say. Bob Webber has famously written, “Worship does God’s story,” meaning that worship is both a remembrance/celebration of and participation in God’s saving acts throughout history. Worship glorifies God because it puts us in proper alignment with the greatest Being in the universe: He is first in all things.

A lot of us get confused when we fail to delineate personal worship from corporate worship. Worship, broadly defined, includes all of life and in fact all of history, summed up perfectly in Jesus. Are you in Christ? Then you are, theologically speaking, “in worship.”

In much of its use today however, the word “worship” tends to refer to a specifically corporate activity (church), or, even more specifically, a type of song that could potentially be sung in a corporate activity (“worship music”). We need to re-train our use of this word. To think of “worship” as meaning only singing or only a genre of music is akin to thinking of the word “food” as meaning only a hot dog or only a piece of pizza.

What do we need?
The greatest need of every person (and the eternal purpose of all creation) is to see God’s glory. The goal of corporate worship and the fight of the Christian life are the same: to see and to believe. Jesus said that the work of God is believe in him (John 6:29). Paul wrote that when we behold the glory of God with the hazy veil of sin and death removed, we are changed into his likeness (2 Cor. 3:18). Acts of worship like songs, prayers, sermons, and communion are all ways in which we grasp at telling our selves, each other and the world around us to behold and delight in the glorious Creator above all else.

That’s what I want to see as a leader in the church. Corporate worship should be a gathering around the public display of God’s glory, a group celebration of the greatness and works of our God. The celebration ought to be enthusiastic (joyful) because there is nothing greater than God and there is no greater purpose for our lives. Daily living should be filled with seeing God at work, seeing his way as best, and believing in him through obedience. Worship should produce in us, above all else, joy. Joy is the rest and unshakable inner happiness of the soul, and true joy is only found by being satisfied in God.

I love Piper’s statement because it is the mission statement of worship: to put God first in all things, in my heart and in that most precious of all group activities, corporate worship. My prayer is that in all of our lives and in our weekly gatherings we would do just that, joyfully celebrate the glory of God.

 

Metaphor: Hillsong vs. Hymns

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Despite what the title implies, this post is not an “epic battle of hymnody.” I was talking to a young worship leader recently about how I choose songs for my worship repertoire, and thought I’d share my answer to his question here. There are many ways in which leaders choose songs. Some use very detailed and helpful tools for evaluating songs, such as this handbook and rating system that helps identify the theological, lyrical, and musical strength of particular songs. Some use hymnals or the CCLI “top” lists to choose songs. Others just go with their gut.

Whatever method you use, at some point every leader has to decide what to include and what to exclude, based on certain factors. One very prevalent consideration is the use of metaphor.

You may remember from high school English class that a metaphor makes a comparison without using “like” or “as.” Metaphor can be used in a single line of text or can be the central idea around which a song is built (more on this later). When we sing that God is our rock, we aren’t saying that we literally worship a geological formation of minerals, but that God is as strong and secure and steady as a rock. You get it.

The Bible is rich with metaphor and we should not be shy about using this tool. However, there are some cautions to keep in mind. First, we need to be aware of the context in which we are using metaphor. To use the above example, I would probably not use a rock metaphor for God if, say, I were on a mission trip ministering to people who worship rocks and trees. The use of that metaphor for God might be confusing.

Second, we want to be careful not to assume too much about how our hearers are understanding our metaphor. This goes back to context. When Jesus is identified as the perfect Lamb of God, ancient Jews would have immediately understood this to connect with the religious sacrificial system of their time. Today, however, the metaphor of the Lamb probably needs a bit more explanation for it to make sense to people. So we need to look for ways to make metaphor more effective by helping people understand what we mean.

In my conversation with my young worship leader friend I compared two songs and the strengths and weaknesses of each. I’ll share some of those thoughts and let you decide who wins. Begin!

Oceans” by Hillsong United is one of the most popular songs in recent years. Masterfully melodic and beautifully performed (usually), this song rivals the best that Coldplay has to offer in taking listeners on an intuitive, emotional journey from start to finish. As the title suggests, the song is built around the metaphor of an ocean (or oceans). The metaphor is used in a negative sense, with the oceans being obstacles and oppositions to overcome and rise above:

I will call upon your name

And keep my eyes above the waves

When oceans rise, my soul will rest in your embrace

For I am yours and you are mine.

The strengths of this song are undoubtedly its artistic creativity, aesthetic beauty and dynamic builds and crescendos. In the right context, the song is a powerful exhortation to keep our eyes fixed on the Lord and embrace the challenges we face as opportunities to grow (one instance stands out when this song was sung at a funeral for a dear friend. I couldn’t sing through the tears). However, when considering how we might use this song for corporate worship I would suggest that there are a couple weaknesses. In the first line of the song the lyrics speak of being called out upon the waters, walking “where feet may fail:”

You call me out upon the waters

The great unknown

Where feet may fail

And there I find you in the mystery

In oceans deep my faith will stand

This hearkens back to Peter’s “get out of the boat” episode in Matthew 14. But this is a somewhat incomplete comparison to Peter’s experience, thus assuming that listeners will fill in the details. The song lyrics do not specify why we would walk on the waves, except that perhaps we want to overcome our challenges (who wouldn’t want that?). In the Matthew 14 account, Peter steps out of the boat because he sees that Jesus is walking on the water. He is able to walk on the waves only as long as he keeps his eyes on Jesus rather than “above the waves.” So the song is a little confusing. If I’m a completely ignorant listener (I don’t know the story of Peter), I probably think that determination is what keeps me above the waves, not keeping my eyes on Jesus. I also probably think that I, the ever-present subject of so many songs these days, am the most important part of the equation. This lack of clarity, along with the vague references to who it is we are singing to/about, make the metaphor a little less effective (I won’t mention the fact that this song tends to feel really good emotionally but is in fact a prayer asking God to lead us into challenge and difficulty with our eyes on him, which doesn’t usually feel good).

Let’s compare “Oceans” to a redux of a classic hymn “Oh the Deep Deep Love of Jesus,” recorded by the folks at Sovereign Grace music. This song also uses an ocean metaphor, but in the positive sense. Instead of being a formidable obstacle to overcome, the ocean represents the incomprehensible scope of the love that Jesus has for us:

Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus

Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free

Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!

Underneath me, all around me, is the current of your love

Leading onward, leading homeward, to your glorious rest above.

The strengths of this song are the lyrically beautiful and comprehensive description of the story of Jesus’ love for his people (the gospel). The song celebrates not only the fact that Jesus loves us, but goes on to explain the why and the how of that love:

Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus

Spread his praise from shore to shore

How he came to pay our ransom

With the saving cross he bore

How does (or did) Jesus love? The cross, a definitive past reality that affects us in eternity. But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus’ work didn’t end at the cross, but he continues to stand as our intercessor and advocate:

How he watches o’er his loved ones

Those he died to make his own

How for them he’s interceding

Pleading now before the throne

While this song is strong melodically, it probably doesn’t earn as many points as “Oceans” in musical dynamics (but more complicated isn’t always better). Some may point out another potential weakness as the somewhat archaic “hymnish” language and some complex theological concepts that are presented and will need more explanation. While I’m at it, I personally like when songs reference the Trinity, the beautiful gospel reality that the Father sent Jesus and we participate in and experience his deep love by the Holy Spirit. This song focuses mainly on Jesus without much mention of other members of the trinity.

Now these are just some thoughts, and I reminded my friend that no song is perfect. Every song (and style) has strengths and weaknesses. If you try to fit everything important in a single song you would either end up with a really long song or one that no one would want to listen to (not to mention sing). There are so many great songs out there that you will probably, like me, have a harder time choosing which ones to leave out.

The point is we need to think about what we are singing and try our best to mean it when we sing it and teach it when we need to (which is most of the time). Choose well!

 

 

(image credit: http://benmulligan.com/the-bay-in-black-and-white/)

The New Clericalism

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I’d like to follow up my previous post with some more thoughts on where we find ourselves in history as North American Christians. I believe that our time closely resembles the time of the reformers, and because of that the church is in need of some prophetic voices. Thankfully, they’re out there if we know where to look (and listen) for them.

James White, one of the most prolific and respected scholars of Christian history, notes that in the middle ages monastic life was the center of social stability (James White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, 77). In the medieval period, the church experienced an explosion of growth for several reasons. Crusades, conquests, and colonization caused the spread of western civilization to farther reaches of the known world. In these newly formed communities, to use White’s language, the monastery was the center of society. Monasteries were guardians not only of faith and devotion to God, but of education and learning itself.

The positive side of monastic life was that monks had one occupation: worship. Their lives were spent in constant prayer, meditation, and devotion to God. The monk’s average day would be dominated by prayer and study, with monastic orders assembling for prayer at all hours of the day and night (times decided by the monastic prayer “offices”). This lifestyle produced a wonderful devotion to God but was unrealistic for most people outside the monastery.

The monastic life developed into the founding many cathedral schools and universities. Again, White sums it up well: “The thirteenth century saw major contributions of scholastic theologians in helping the church to make up their minds about what Christians experienced in worship” (White, 77). White continues by saying that, despite the development of doctrines concerning Christian faith and sacraments, the negative side was an emphasis on the intellect in Christian and sacramental practice. The way was being paved for the coming age of Enlightenment, where Reason and Intellect reigned supreme.

Note here the schism that is created by a society of people who have nothing to do but study the scriptures, pray, meditate and think about all things theological. Add to that schism the gap between the educated and the uneducated, a gap that was wide indeed in the middle ages. You can see why worship became a spectacle to be observed rather than an event to participate in.

Before I get too far into criticizing modern education as we know it, let me point out the obvious: I wouldn’t be writing this (and you wouldn’t be reading it) if these developments in education and literacy hadn’t occurred. So for that we must be grateful. Further, the contemporary equivalent to medieval monks might just be scholars and ministers, people who, in the eyes of the general public, have “nothing better to do” than to “sit around” and pray, meditate, and study. If so, I’m part of that group.

So I am by no means condemning education or a religious devotional life. I would simply like to call into the question the gap that this creates between “us” and “them,” the ones who “get it” and the ones who “don’t.” The constant flow of the gospel is inward to our devotional and educational life, and then outward to the cultures in which we live.

The heart behind the reformation was to close this gap between the educated (and religious) “elite” and the “common” person. Thus Luther and others argued for a worship service (mass) in the common language, for songs in the language (and well-known tunes) of the people, and most importantly for the scriptures in the language of the people.

The reason I believe this is needed once again in our time is because of what I’m calling “new clericalism” happening in the church today, gaps between the “religious elite” and the “common” person. This happens on two levels. One level is the Christian subculture of “Christian-eze,” language and products that are meant only for consumption by people on the “inside” of that subculture (Christians). Perhaps at a certain point in our history the Christian story was pervasive enough for this not to be divisive, but that time is passing. Christendom (the widespread acceptance of/knowledge of/practice of Christianity) is ending in America, and many would say it has already ended. We need to restore the lingua franca that helps real people know what the real God is really saying to them.

The second level of this clerical divide happens within the church itself, with the proliferation of so many “professional” pastors, speakers and musicians. Again, I want to be careful here because I am a huge fan of excellence and quality. Let me be clear: We should work our tails off to sound great when we sing and play and to communicate effectively and powerfully when we preach. But isn’t there a point when the divide becomes so great it becomes unreachable? If our sermons, sound or music is so polished, precise and sterile is seems more robotic than human, isn’t there a disconnect? Consider the difference between putting a quarter in one of those antique self-playing pianos and hearing someone play a piece using their developed skill. Mistakes? Maybe. Heart? Definitely. Despite the latest (or oldest) “robot with a soul” film, robots can’t be people. Unreachable runs the risk of being unreal to people’s real lives.

So what I’m arguing for is a way of being Christian that models the incarnation. Jesus came and “took on flesh,” wrapping himself up in the language and way of life of people. I want to see a restoration of these “common” preachers, speakers and musicians. This means working hard to reverse the all-too-natural human tendency to create a divide between “the stage” and “the people.” Singing in church isn’t a concert, so we ought not work so hard (or spend so much money) to make it one. Preaching isn’t a spectacle of your skill as a scholar or speaker, it is in fact worship. Bob Webber writes, “Preaching, of course, is what we do in worship. We proclaim God’s story, remembering his mighty deeds of salvation” (Webber, Ancient-Future Worship, 177). I think we need more men and women who represent God with excellence but with authenticity and a closeness you can feel and touch. Isn’t this what was said of the disciples when they stood before council in Acts 4, that they were common men touched with the power of the Holy Spirit? By the Spirit’s power, let’s close the gap.

The Flame of Sacred Love

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I had the chance to preach a sermon recently on some of the important aspects of biblical worship taken from Eph. 1:3-10. I closed with a prayer (hymn text) written by Charles Wesley that is very special to me.

I have actually never heard this hymn, “O Thou Who Camest From Above,” set to music. I heard it years ago quoted by another preacher and it made such an impact on me that I decided to memorize it so that I could pray it regularly. It has been a very stabilizing and encouraging part of my prayer life and has given me much-needed encouragement in some difficult seasons.

Now maybe you’re not the kind of person who likes old hymns or Shakespeare; maybe “thee” and “thou” aren’t words you typically use or like. But in case you’re interested, here’s a short editorial walkthrough of the hymn that goes a little further in explaining why these two short stanzas mean so much to me.

O Thou Who camest from above,
The pure celestial fire to impart,

Jesus, sent from heaven by God, came to make his salvation known to real people like us. The fire of holy love that is shared by the godhead gets ignited in us through the indwelling Holy Spirit. We share in God’s love and have access to God’s power for life.

Kindle a flame of sacred love
Upon the mean altar of my heart.

Fire wanes and needs fuel to burn with strength. In prayer and worship we need God to breathe on that flame to kindle it to burn brightly. The “mean” or humble altar of my heart is the place that this fire burns. Undeserving as we are, with hearts full of wickedness and deceit (Jer. 17:9), God chooses to indwell us with the fire of his love and grace.

There let it for Thy glory burn
With inextinguishable blaze,
And trembling to its source return,
In humble prayer and fervent praise.

I resonate with the prayer asking God to keep my heart’s flame burning brightly, a flame that won’t be extinguished by the winds and rain of doubt or difficulty. This isn’t a source of pride or boasting, but it is a testimony to God’s glory. God is glorified by an acknowledgement of, and ultimately a returning of, his gifts back to him. As we approach God in humble prayer and passionate praise, the flames rise higher and higher from the heart-altar and return to their source—God himself.

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work and speak and think for Thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up Thy gift in me.

I love this part of the prayer. It’s asking Jesus to make possible the redeemed heart’s deepest desire: doing everything for his glory. In my working, in my speaking, and in all of my thinking, I want to have the praise and glory of Jesus as my ultimate goal. The fire needs to be guarded vigilantly and protected so that it continues to grow and develop.

Ready for all Thy perfect will,
My acts of faith and love repeat,
Till death Thy endless mercies seal,
And make my sacrifice complete.

I am reminded here of Isaiah 6, when the prophet answered God’s inquiry with “Here I am, send me!” When we stand at the ready for God’s will, we are submitted to him and ready to be commanded to go, to stay and/or to do what he wants. But I don’t sit idly by and wait for “thunder from the sky” to direct me. I’ve heard it said, “Do what you know, not what you don’t know.” We repeat the acts of faith and love that we know to do—prayer, studying, Christian fellowship, acts of service, and many more. We continue this life of expressing love to God until the time to die has come. And death is not a defeat, but a promotion into God’s presence, a full realization of the mercies that have been guaranteed to us in this life (2 Cor. 1:22).

Maybe you could adopt this hymn as part of your prayer life and see what happens. You may find the “flame of sacred love” growing in heat and intensity as God’s Spirit responds to our earnest prayer.

 

-JV

 

Here’s the text in its entirety:

 

O Thou Who camest from above,

The pure celestial fire to impart,

Kindle a flame of sacred love

Upon the mean altar of my heart.

There let it for Thy glory burn

With inextinguishable blaze,

And trembling to its source return,

In humble prayer and fervent praise.

 

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire

To work and speak and think for Thee;

Still let me guard the holy fire,

And still stir up Thy gift in me.

Ready for all Thy perfect will,

My acts of faith and love repeat,

Till death Thy endless mercies seal,

And make my sacrifice complete.

 

God Loves A Full House

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There’s a parable that Jesus told about a great wedding feast. The man throwing the party invited all of these people to come and celebrate with him, but they made a bunch of excuses as to why it wasn’t a convenient time for them to come. So the master told his servants, “‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” (Luke 14:23)

There are lots of things in that parable worth talking about, but the thought struck me recently: God loves a full house!

I don’t want to over-emphasize (no pun intended) the importance of the size of any group gathering in Jesus’ name. Jesus said that two or more can gather and he will be there. But as a leader of groups of people (i.e. church services) I have this problem of looking at the numbers. If lots of people come to worship it makes me happy, and if fewer people show up I tend to be less happy.

There are lots of things at play here and I have to admit that my motivation for wanting a full house isn’t always a noble one. I sometimes want to feel more justified in my preparation, or perhaps I just like the way that it sounds when I full room sings.

But regardless of the selfishness tainting this desire, I really do think that at its core it is a godly one.
Jesus wants his house to be full! This is true in heavenly sense and I think it also applies to worship.

One of my favorite quotes is by archbishop William Temple:

“Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His Beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to His purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.”

Worship really is the thing that we were created for, the thing that God wants us to be occupied with for eternity! And of course I don’t mean singing or sitting through an eternal church service, but worship, the submission of all that we are to God and finding in him our deepest joy and satisfaction.

So let me encourage you with this: When you find yourself wishing God’s house was full, use it as fuel for the fire of prayer instead of just dismissing it. When we are motivated by a jealously for God’s house, by zeal for his glory and a conviction that he is the greatest, the desire for people far and wide to come and experience him is a really good desire.

Keep praying, keep working, and don’t give up. There are LOTS of people out there who need to find a place in God’s house!

JV

The Art of Celebration

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We’re doing a study this fall at our church based on Richard Foster’s book The Celebration of Discipline. I have enjoyed taking a fresh look at some of the ancient pathways to becoming more intimate with Christ. These are challenging and helpful reflections on what it means to live the Christian life.

I had forgotten that one of the disciplines is actually celebration, something that I could definitely use a refresher course in…regularly.

The problem with celebration is that it isn’t practical. I have a very practical mind and I can’t justify doing things just for fun.
Fun, if you really think about it, doesn’t accomplish much. But it is very necessary for our health and well-being, so much so that God makes a big deal of it.

This thought of course brings me back to the fact that worship is meant to be a celebration. I don’t mean that we have to sing happy songs and clap all the time, but rather that it is the nature of worship to be celebratory. Let me tell you what I mean.

According to “Grandpa Bob” (Bob Webber), celebration has three distinct qualities: (1) it is rooted in a past event, (2) it makes that event contemporaneous (brings it from the past into the living present), and (3) it is memorialized with stories, songs, ritual actions and feasting.

I think this is an extremely helpful way to think about celebration. Think about it: what do we do at Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays with family? We remember an event, we bring the essence of that event into our moments together, and we celebrate through telling stories, performing rituals (singing certain songs, making certain types of food or giving gifts) and we have special above-average quality (and quantity) of food. This is what it means to celebrate.

Worship, then, qualifies as a true celebratory act because it meets all of these criteria. In worship we remember a specific event, namely Christ’s salvation and victory accomplished in his death, burial and resurrection. Worship is always rooted in an event, whether it be deliverance from slavery in Egypt (Old Testament worship) or deliverance from slavery to sin (New Testament worship).

In worship we tell the story again of Redemption in various ways: through song, personal testimony (story) and the proclamation of the Word of God. This telling of the story brings the reality of God’s actions into the present once again, making his story a part of our experience not just our intellectual knowledge. “Worship does God’s story” as Webber put it, and we celebrate God’s story in worship.

Finally, worship is memorialized through rituals. It isn’t by accident that we partake of the Lord’s Supper together in worship, because it is one of the actions that Christ has given to reenact the drama of the gospel. We celebrate the gift of Jesus when we feast with him at his table, not only in memory of his sacrifice but in anticipation of his heavenly Kingdom and the wedding feast of the Lamb in the age to come.

As I reflect on these things, it helps me to appreciate what worship is meant to be and do in my heart and in my life. But it also helps to bring a different perspective into the other celebrations in my life. As humans we need celebration, we need laughter and we need ritual and we need to be bonded together in a community that remembers. When we gather to celebrate life, birth, death, or anniversaries, or just our bond of friendship it’s more than just an excuse to eat cake or have a drink or buy someone a present. It is part of the fabric of who we are, an essential component of what it means to live life as God intended. Together.

As you reflect on thee things, I hope you will worship with an attitude of celebration and celebrate with an attitude of worship, knowing that God has made us to worship and thus has made us to celebrate – that our joy may be full and his glory may be displayed.

 

Peace,
JV