July 29, 2014

Just


You are not “just” a forgiven sinner. To call yourself that cheapens the mercy extended you and the broad strokes of the story that led to such sacrifice. To continue to call yourself a sinner after you've been forgiven places no confidence in the One who forgives, does it? It is not “just” a gift; to say such a thing cheapens the gift and insults the giver, does it not? You are not “just” a leader; to call yourself that places no confidence in the One who called you in the first place, does it? You are not “just” a volunteer; to say this puts down the tasks you have taken on yourself - without pay - and the ones who desperately need your help but can’t afford to pay you, does it not? You are not “just” an artist or musician or writer; if you were, beauty would mean very little in the grand scheme of things, art would be of little worth, and if it were true, everything could be expressed in a bullet point anyway.

You are not “just” anything.

You are a leader, a child of the most High; you have been called a friend.

Stop talking or thinking or acting as though this is “just” anything.

If you aren't confident in the One who called you, it will show in the way you speak, because the rest of us can learn a lot about you by the language you choose to use. You must speak and act with intention, purpose, with the conviction of one who has been grafted into a story as bold as ours. A story that claims, not only did the Creator enact reconciliation with His creation, not only did He take on its very nature, not only are sins forgiven, but that our God has the audacity to regularly transform sinners into leaders whom people can trust and even follow.

It is a false humility to say “just” about this sort of calling. You are called to serve where you have been placed and to say “just” is to try to pass off the responsibility entrusted to you; “I’m just called” is to say “blame God when I fail and you don't like it.” It is an attempt to pass the buck in advance, to avoid owning your part. As the old saying goes, humility isn't thinking less of yourself, it's thinking and speaking of yourself less. But when you do, don't cheapen or downplay the gift and dishonor the giver; speak honestly, and if possible, modestly.

What will you do?Because that is part of what it means to be a partner in the economy of God, or, if you like, an heir of His Kingdom: responsibility for your own actions and choices. Yes, you will make mistakes, and yes, people will not always like your choices or style or even petty things like the way you look, talk, or even smell. They might not like where or who you came from. But you needn’t apologize for these things; you are still called. You were still chosen. You still have an important role to play that cannot and should not be done by anybody else. Own your mistakes, but also own your successes! And praise God for both, because in both you've learned something and God has been glorified, one way or another!

You can - and should - always live in the confidence of your calling. God does not call you to a place or circumstances He does not think you can handle. More than likely, you will require His aid (those who have come before you can attest to the truth of this), but this should not be unexpected or even inconvenient because His aid is always available and offered.

God is ahead of you, preparing the way.

God is behind you, guarding your back.

Speak intentionally.

Live boldly.

This post originally appeared on the ECC Worship Blog in July 2012, and is reposted with permission. You know, because I wrote it.

July 25, 2014

Green Onions

When my family was living in Australia we had the opportunity to visit a Karen church for a Sunday. The Karen are a displaced people group, originating in Burma, but hunted down by the current government simply for their ethnicity. The Sunday we went was a fairly typical Sunday for anyone; lots of upbeat music sung very loud in their native tongue (though they kindly translated some of the service for us since we were visiting), a sermon, and fellowship. Then, following the service, we were invited to partake in lunch.

It's a basic rule of cross-cultural etiquette that, when invited to enjoy the food of another culture, you do not turn them down, for this could be a great insult. And it seems like an easy rule to accept, until you look at the spread:

Fish soup with some rice ...

... with quail eggs ...

... and the biggest pile of green onions you've ever seen.

And that's it. No bread, no pasta, no ketchup, nothing.

I grew up a cheese pizza kind of guy. I like simple food, very American food. Burgers. Spaghetti. Peanut butter. When my mom put broccoli sautéed in onion on our pizza once, I freaked out. Gourmet, to me, was getting takeout Chinese (to be clear, not to my parents, just to me; I've grown a lot since this). Anyway, you can imagine how this went over.

But I tried it. I ate about as much as I could before my stomach started to rebel. But I ate it. See, the issue here wasn't them. They weren't trying to impose their culture on me, as if what they liked was better than what I liked or was used to. No, I was the problem. I was their guest, and they wanted to give their guests the best they had to offer. They weren’t just offering me food that I didn’t want, they were offering me a part of themselves. And so to honor them in the way they were trying to honor me, a brother in the faith, I ate something new, something scary, something that, truth be told, I would never voluntarily eat again (my stomach hurt for about a week from all the green onion). And I thanked them for an amazing morning.

Because I was grateful for their hospitality.

Marva Dawn wrote that we ought to learn to "sing the songs of 'the other.'"

I think a lot of times when we get frustrated by this. We like the kind of music that we like, and especially in church world, we think that others ought to conform to our preferences - because we pay the bills, because we volunteer more, because technically we're in charge, whatever. We justify our own narcissism in many different ways, but behind the facade, we simply do not want to learn to sing the songs of those not like us - maybe because we don't like them, maybe because we don't understand them, or maybe because we're just afraid of not looking like we have it all together.

Singing the songs of 'the other' does not mean giving up our own musical preferences. Really - it's ok if you like the organ or the drums or the banjo, God won't ask you to stop liking them. But He does ask us to also allow others to have their own preferences without judging them, and to celebrate them for their uniqueness; they too were created in the image of God. By singing the songs of the others who are not like us - but are a part of our spiritual family - is a way of honoring them, honoring their culture, and thus a way of honoring the God who made them.

Singing the songs of 'the other' is an act of worship.

It will stretch us. It will confront our fear of failure head-on. But it will also broaden our horizons and show us more about the Creator who made such wondrous variety in the world. Without learning to sing the songs of 'the other,' we start to think the world ought to be just like us, through and through. We become isolated, and our worship becomes stale. But as we learn of 'the other,' as we honor their music and culture, our community cultivates a picture of the Kingdom of God come on earth - every tribe, every tongue, every nation worshipping the Redeemer.

Together.

July 21, 2014

Mad Church Disease

True story: I was so busy and exhausted at one point that when I finally got my hands on this book, the only time I had available to read it was during breaks in construction on a mission trip in Haiti.

What was most helpful, honestly, was that it helped me name what it was that was the problem, as putting a label on something is the first step on a road to recovery. I am so excited that Mad Church Disease has been re-released, because pastoral burnout has continued to grow in the last few years and will be something that so many of us have to fight consistently. Our culture values busy-ness over healthy rhythms, products and perception over people, and so the pressure is mounting to perform at the expense of our health. Gifted pastors are leaving the ministry through recognition of their burnout - or worse, its consequences - because many don’t have the tools to build those healthy rhythms into their lives. Anne has done a fantastic job in this new, self-published edition of bringing new voices into the conversation, of giving helpful advice and practical tools (see also her companion workbook “Beating Burnout”) to combat this growing epidemic.

But most of all, the stories of others give a communal voice to this issue.

To to the tired and weary pastor, lay leader, or volunteer, know this: you are not alone. And there is a way out. Thank you, Anne, for continuing to make the holistic health of our leadership a priority.

July 17, 2014

Lina

In the mid-nineteenth century, King Karl XV of Sweden was petitioned to forbid a man named Ahnfelt from preaching and singing the gospel in Scandinavia, and so Ahnfelt was called before the King to plead his case. Ahnfelt was justifiably worried by this, but being a man of passion for telling the story of his faith, asked a friend of his named Lina to write a song for the occasion. Several days later, she handed him this:
Who is it that knocketh upon your heart’s door in peaceful eve?
Who is it that brings to the wounded and sore the balm that can heal and relieve?
Your heart is still restless, it findeth no peace in earth’s pleasures;
Your soul is still yearning, it seeketh release to rise to the heavenly treasures.
As the story goes, the King listened to this with tears in his eyes, and said to him, “You may sing as much as you like in both of my kingdoms!”

It’s not the first time a King has been brought to tears by music.

Music is one of the most powerful forms of art there is. Not a culture on earth goes without some form of music. Each is unique, created in different contexts with different instruments and voice types and environments, but all express the most raw emotions of our communities and the very core of who we are as individuals. Music is identity, told through stories.  When we share our music with others, we share ourselves with them. Music done well can bring Kings and Peasant alike to tears, to repentance, to action.

Our music will always tell at least a part of our story. Sometimes those parts are full of wonder. Other times they’re full of pain, joy, or awe. Sometimes the story we tell is one of action and commitment. Sometimes it's one of renewal, restoration, resurrection. And the best stories get told through songs over and over and over again, spanning generations and cultures and continents. See, good worship is a missional practice, and good mission is always a worshipful one. The two cannot be separated; if a Church engages God, they will engage their community. They can't not; it's natural. There is an intimate connection between the way a congregation worships together and the spread of the gospel.

A story full of good news is, after all, meant to be shared.

The way you sing this week can change the way you live out your faith. What you sing and how you sing it can change the community around you. If you let it. As the scripture says, sing to the Lord a new song. Sing the same story, tell a new chapter.

May you sing well.
Sing a new song to the Eternal; sing in one voice to the Eternal, all the earth. Sing to the Eternal of all the good things He’s done. Enlighten the nations to His splendor; describe His wondrous acts to all people. For the Eternal is great indeed and praiseworthy; feared and reverenced above all gods, the True God shall be. For all human-made, lifeless gods are worthless idols, but the Eternal plotted the vast heavens, shaped every last detail. Honor and majesty precede Him; strength and beauty infuse His holy sanctuary. Bless His name; broadcast the good news of His salvation each and every day.
[Psalm 96:1-6]

July 15, 2014

Psalm 63

“O True God, You are my God, the One whom I trust. I seek You with every fiber of my being. In this dry and weary land with no water in sight, my soul is dry and longs for You. My body aches for You, for Your presence. I have seen You in Your sanctuary and have been awed by Your power and glory.

Your steadfast love is better than life itself, so my lips will give You all my praise. I will bless You with every breath of my life; I will lift up my hands in praise to Your name. My soul overflows with satisfaction, as when I feast on foods rich in marrow and fat; with excitement in my heart and joy on my lips, I offer You praise. Often at night I lie in bed and remember You, meditating on Your greatness till morning smiles through my window.

You have been my constant helper; therefore, I sing for joy under the protection of Your wings. My soul clings to You; Your right hand reaches down and holds me up. But as for those who try to destroy my life, they will descend into eternal shadows, deep beneath the earth. They will fall by the sword, and wild dogs will feast on their corpses. But the king will find his joy in the True God; all who make pledges and invoke His name will celebrate, while the mindless prattle of cheaters and deceivers will be silenced.”
[Psalm 63, VOICE]
When you’re stuck in the middle of a desert, one does not expect to find you writing poetry. Especially not poetry like this.

When our family and friends are far away … 
When our resources have dried up … 
When we just can’t seem to get it right …
When those who oppose us press forward …
When it seems like everything that can go wrong has …
And then something else goes wrong …
When all else is lost, where is one to turn?

I can imagine David sitting, forlorn, against a rock in the Judan countryside. His own son has run him out of town in a coup. He finds himself without food or shelter or resources, without friends, without purpose. Whatever part he may have played in his current circumstances, it sure feels like it all happened TO him. Everything used to be great! I was king, I had everything I could possibly want laid before me for the taking. I ate the best food, drank the best wine, slept in a comfortable bed, had friends … You gave it all to me, God … and now it’s all gone. Why have you let it all go away, God? Why have you removed your hand of blessing from my life?

As he mulls over his situation, he looks around and sees the dry, arid land of his exile and finds it as parched as his body and as his soul. And the words come pouring out - God, I’m just as this desert, my life is ebbing away, I long for water, for life to spring anew. 

Where are You, God?

Though the desert is void of life because it lacks life-giving water, the possibility of life is always there, hidden beneath cracked earth and dusty wind. The soil can be incredibly fertile; nobody's used it yet. There are always untapped possibilities in the desert. 

And then suddenly you’re there, a child of God the Provider.

What if you’re there to bring life to that desert on behalf of the God who Sustains?

This does not have to be the end, this is an opportunity for a new beginning. The desert is the one place where life would be most welcome, and God, time and time again, shows how desperately He longs to work with us to bring life into places where there is none. And sometimes, in bringing that life to a desert through us, God revives life in us we didn’t even know we had lost. God has been by David’s side this whole time, and can restore him once again.

Though I am mocked by the desert, says David, though my enemies seek to keep me here, my enemies will eventually self-destruct on their own, I need not exact revenge. Though my enemies take everything from me, God is all I need, and they cannot take Him from me. It is that very God who gives life, He who sustains, He who I must long for above all else. 

And so I will make something of this dry and weary land and let God use me to bring life anew.