Monday, April 30, 2012

The Gospel and the New Spirituality

"I do not consider myself 'religious.' In fact, I have never wanted to be thought of as religious. Nor do I think it would be accurate to say that I am 'spiritual.' Those are two labels that I tend to resist. Instead, I would simply ask that you classify me - if you must - as a Christian."

Confused? If so, rest assured that this is a fairly typical response to the preceding statements. I know this firsthand, because I have made those statements in the context of many conversations about faith, only to receive a quizzical look from the other person. Typically, a much-needed distinction between these three terms quickly follows, as they are not, in fact, synonyms. There are millions of "spiritual" people who do not yet know Christ. Some people are deeply "religious" about their attendance at sporting events. You get the idea.

For many, however, a confession of Jesus as the Christ and Lord over all creation - and over one's life in particular - automatically carries with it the labels "religious" and/or "spiritual." But as Charles Strohmer takes pains to point out in his book, The Gospel and the New Spirituality, there is very often much work to be done in defining our terms prior to having any meaningful conversation about personal faith, and this is especially true when approaching someone who carries with them either remnants of "New Age" belief systems or a full-blown lifestyle that gladly accepts traditions, thoughts and practices from sources clearly outside those of traditional, orthodox Christianity.

It's no secret that we live in the age of Deepak, Oprah and Shirley. And there are countless other self-anointed prophets and priests of the new spirituality, so it is not at all surprising that much confusion has crept in and served to corrupt the meaning of several words we may have previously used to convey what we would call "traditional, Christian orthodoxy." These days it takes more effort to paint for someone an accurate picture of what it means to be hopelessly lost in sin - without any possible means of self-redemption - and yet saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Many faithful Christians, in fact, might be surprised to find that they have unknowingly adopted some beliefs borrowed, for example, from Eastern pantheism, only to attempt to unsuccessfully graft them into their view of salvation.

I found Strohmer's book to be a tremendous resource for anyone who grapples with a friend or loved one caught up in belief systems that are decidedly "New Age," though Strohmer dislikes that label and its associated baggage, preferring "New Spirituality" instead. A former astrologer and transcendental meditator himself, Strohmer was converted to Christianity after the weight of his own sin relentlessly pressed in upon him. Convicted by the Holy Spirit that nothing he was doing would wipe away his sins and make him righteous before God, he ultimately gave his life to Christ after a cross-country road trip, on his knees and soaking a hotel room bedspread with his tears: "God, please forgive me...God, please forgive me."

Read as part of the curriculum for a Covenant class I'm finishing up on evangelism, Strohmer's book is a powerful tool for those seeking to potentially introduce Christ to an unbeliever caught up in astrology, numerology, reincarnation beliefs and so on. This is predominantly because Strohmer writes from the vantage point of having been a former adherent of New Age beliefs. Reading the account of his own conversion served as a much-needed reminder to me that it is the Holy Spirit alone Who is able to bring sinners to their knees and confront them with the Person of Jesus Christ. It is telling, for example, that his conversion did not take place after a series of debates with another person as they drove across the States. Instead, it was Strohmer alone, reflecting on his life and his past teachings, giving God time and space to speak to his heart, that brought about repentance. Words spoken to him about Jesus years ago, long "forgotten," resurfaced and brought forth new life.

So what does effective evangelism look like when contending with differing belief systems?

According to Strohmer, as we seek to evangelize to those who are caught up in the new spirituality, we would do well to heed his admonitions against condemnation, and keep several other key points in the forefront of our thoughts: 1) steer clear of using Christian jargon; 2) remember that our primary job is to build bridges to the heart of the person; 3) truth is not meant to be kept closed up behind the "Christian castle" wall; and 4) learn to ask good questions. In particular, it was very helpful to me to have Strohmer point out those places in typical evangelistic efforts where the person on the other side of the conversation, especially if they do hold to some New Age belief systems, would be all too likely to shut down and simply stop listening.

Strohmer tells the story of a family of satanists who attended one of his sermons at the Fairlight Christian Centre in Tooting, London. His non-judgmental response to their all-black clothing and ritualistic jewelry helped drive home the point that one of the "traditional" Christian approaches to people who hold to radically opposing points of view is to shoo them away and encourage them to "clean up their act," thereby conveying a strong message of condemnation and contempt. As Strohmer describes their acceptance of his invitation to lunch, I found that I was looking inward and honestly asking how I really might have behaved confronted with the exact same situation. Are certain people "not worth the obvious amount of effort" it will take? Obviously, Jesus never thought along these lines.

In that same vein, I was glad that Strohmer chose to discuss at some length the concept of "Personal Inreach." As someone whose personal faith was shaky in the months and years immediately following my conversion, I find that I reacted to my own fragility by casting out anything and everything that did not end with a positive declaration of faith in Jesus Christ as the one and only true Son of God. In short, I was very dismissive of other belief systems, failing to find those aspects of personal belief that were good, right and God-affirming. As a result, I find that today I really don't have any friends or associates who would claim to be adherents of any sort of New Age thinking or belief systems.

In other words, I've found that I've effectively eliminated relationships that would have given me an opportunity to put Strohmer's advice to good use and share Christ with those who do not yet know Him.

My obvious need to spend more time outside "the castle walls" notwithstanding, I found much of value in this text and plan to hold onto it should my own faith mature to the point that God will entrust me with some new friendships and relationships. Also, I fully recognize that many of the folks circulating around me in church and ministry life (often unbeknownst to them) actually do carry with them several "remnants" of New Age thinking, even as they claim faith and allegiance to Christ. Again, the text was helpful in bringing this to light and will be useful should I find myself engaging in conversations around the origins of yoga, Zen, crystal therapy, and so on.

Coincidentally, then, I find myself lingering over two questions that Strohmer would ask any would-be evangelist; "How much are we cooperating with the inreach of the Truth into our own lives? How fully are we allowing Christ to transform us?" I suppose that it is the natural man who feels the need to vilify anything that does not immediately agree with one's own belief system, and again I find Strohmer's emphasis on all of us being "works in progress" immensely helpful. (The comment that God has not ever once chosen to deposit the sum total of His Truth into any particular Christian denomination was perhaps a much-needed antidote to the "castle wall" phenomena as well!)

As a final commendation for this book, I'll share that I have dog-eared pages 198 to 207, a section Strohmer dedicates to the power of prayer. I came away from this text more convinced than ever that our most effective "weapon" in the battle for the souls of all unbelievers - "New Age" adherent or otherwise - is "Effectual Prayer." As much as Strohmer's prayer recommendations are more or less common sense, they nevertheless serve well, I think, to help us recall that our primary obligation is to pray for the other person to come to see Truth as it really is, and to assist us in praying for someone right on the heels of what may well have been a confusing/disorienting encounter.

While keeping in mind that it is God Who ultimately saves souls, there is much that He - by His grace - has given us to do. Our cooperation with God matters, of course. So does our ongoing commitment to the unbelievers in our midst, coupled with patience and a willingness to "allow" God to work out the desired result in His own timeframe. In and amongst all of this, though, it is helpful (I think) to forever be aware that it will not be our brilliance or our deep-seated knowledge of New Age belief systems that will "win the day," but only God, Who may be well pleased to use our research, commitments and perhaps most importantly, openness...or not. I find myself exceedingly grateful that God chose to call Strohmer out of the darkness of his New Age beliefs. Now if I just had a few New Age friends to share him with!

2 Corinthians 10:3-5
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Songs and Scenes from April 29, 2012


This weeks Song and Scenes features photos courtesy of Lana Eklund. You'll find links in the song titles to help you purchase recorded versions of the songs when available.

All Hail the Power of Jesus Name - Words by Edward Perronet (1780), Contemporary chorus by Judah Groveman (based on a arrangement by Jaron and Katherine Kamon)

All hail the power of Jesus’ Name!
Let angels prostrate fall;
Bring forth the royal diadem,
and crown Him Lord of all.
Bring forth the royal diadem,
and crown Him Lord of all.


He Holds All Things
 by David A. Cover and Patrick Miller

From kingdom dark to kingdom's light,
Your blood has made a way.
The death of sin and hope of life,
Your mighty cross proclaims.
From Him, to Him, salvation is sustained.
Through Him, for Him, all things remade.


We read a confessional prayer adapted from The Open Gate: Celtic Prayers for Growing Spiritually by David Adam.

Jesus, Saviour,
Lamb of God who takes away
the sins of the world.

We come to you, Lord,
for you alone can make us whole.

We are not able to heal ourselves.
We are not able to forgive ourselves.
We are not able to restore ourselves.
We are not able to sanctify ourselves.
We are not able to satisfy ourselves.

Jesus, Saviour,
wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities,

We come to you for you alone can make us whole.


Rock of Ages - Words: Augustus M. Toplady (1776), Additional chorus: Page CXVI

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy Cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.


Nothing But the Blood Words and Music by Robert Lowry

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

How precious is the flow
that makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
nothing but the blood of Jesus.


We heard the assurance of our forgiveness in a reading based on Colossians 2:13-14.

When we were dead in our sins..., God made us alive with Christ.

He forgave us all our sins, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands; He took it away, nailing it to the cross.

Though our sins overwhelm us, the grace and mercy of God far surpasses them.

In Christ, God brings us new life and sets us free! In Christ, we are forgiven!
Thanks be to God.


O My Soul, Arise - Words: Charles Wesley (1742), Music and additional words: Eric McAllister
This new song from Sovereign Grace Music enabled us to sing of Christ's soul restoring and life transforming power in our lives. Eric McAllister, who retuned this hymn had this to say about the song:

"I set the song in a minor key, aware that the battle to remember the scriptural truths contained in these verses is a battle! But how sweet it is to contend with our souls knowing that the object of our trust is Jesus Christ. He is our unique and perfectly qualified Great High Priest, and our assurance that we do not fight alone."

He ever lives above
For me to intercede
His all redeeming love
His precious blood to plead
His blood atoned for every race
His blood atoned for every race
And sprinkles now the throne of grace

O my soul, arise
Behold the risen Christ
Your Great High Priest
Your spotless sacrifice


O Help My Unbelief - Words: Isaac Watts, Music: Justin Smith

How sad our state by nature is!
our sin, how deep it stains!
and Satan binds our captive minds
Fast in his slavish chains.
But there's a voice of sov'reign grace,
sounds from the sacred word:
"O, ye despairing sinners come,
and trust upon the Lord."


Music and Tech Team for April 29, 2012:

Andrew Camp - vocals, electric and acoustic guitar
Kristen Camp - vocals
Rhett Johnson - electric guitar, percussion
Scott Johnson - vocals, piano, electric piano
Andrew Luley - drums
Ryan Ponder - bass
Emily Reisen - vocals

Kameron Bong - tech assistant
Barrett Knox - tech assistant
Amy Lamm - music media; asst. stage manager
Jamie Stephens - music media
Jake Wandel - production manager
Tim Worstell - audio

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Divorced, But Still Married

Last week, The Crossing finished its seventh session of DivorceCare. My husband and I, both previously divorced, have been facilitating this class for over three years now, and have begun to see familiar patterns in the way people deal with the break-up of their marriages, and the common mistakes we all can make as a result of unclear thinking.

One of those common mistakes is that two people will decide they can't possibly stay married to each other - or at least one person makes this decision - and so they go through the painful process of divorcing.

And then they remain married to each other.


Here's what I mean. After making the decision to divorce, former husbands and wives very often - more than you might guess - continue to live out their divorces completely entangled in one another's lives, often in increasingly unhealthy ways. Though legally divorced, they are nonetheless still emotionally tied to each other in ways that can lead to big problems for both the adults and children involved.

How about an example? One man tells the story of receiving a call at work one day - long after his divorce was final - only to find that it was his ex-wife on the line. She was calling to let him know that there was a dead cat in her back yard, and that their two young children were frightened. The unspoken expectation was that this man would come over in the middle of his work day and remove the dead animal from the yard.

So what did he do? Concerned that his two young children not be unnecessarily traumatized, the man promptly left his desk, drove over to her house and removed the carcass...effectively playing the role as what we would call her "de facto husband," and this despite the reality of their divorce and their mutual agreement that their broken marriage would never be reconciled.

You may be thinking, "Okay, so what's the big deal? He just did her a favor, right?"

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that doing a favor for an ex-spouse is never okay. Instead, what I'm trying to point to is a "habitual tendency" to lean on an ex-spouse for help, or to include them as a part of life in ways that are not appropriate after a divorce. This repetitive "leaning" on an ex-spouse can quickly become an unhealthy lack of boundaries that, while certainly not present in every situation, is pretty common. Women continue to call their ex-husbands for repairs around the house, help with the lawn and assistance making financial decisions. Spouses continue to lean on each other financially, one asking for money from the other. Divorced couples spend holidays and birthdays together, even traveling together, "for the sake of the children."

Every example I've given so far is a real-life story that we've heard (from multiple people) over the few short years we've been working in divorce ministry. Far from unique to one given situation, this kind of reality is lived out time and time again. I believe at least one reason is because marriage - whether the couple accepts this truth or not - is created by God (Genesis 2:24), and brings about a spiritual bonding of two people at the level of the soul. So even after two flawed human beings decide that it's time to dissolve their one-flesh bond, it's incredibly difficult to do. God designed the marital union to be permanent, and breaking this bond is rarely (if ever) "clean."

Another underlying reason, I think, stems from the deeply ingrained "child-centered" thinking within our culture. In the examples I've given above - and nearly every other one I've seen - the logic articulated as the reason divorced couples choose to stay entangled in each other's lives at a high level has to do with their children. They want to do whatever they believe will be in their children's best interest. Oftentimes, "in the children's best interest" is defined as "whatever will hurt them the least." And this is precisely where a lot of unclear thinking can begin.

I can certainly relate to the desire to protect one's children from trauma. It's common for us to believe, at least initially, that we've already brought enough pain into our children's young lives by divorcing their other parent, so we find ourselves striving to protect them from any more pain. In this spirit, we may find ourselves bending over backwards to make their lives look "as normal as possible" by spending time around our ex-spouses in ways that make it "feel" to the children like they still have an intact family.

This desire to prevent our children from feeling additional emotional pain is a good and right desire; often, though, how we put this desire into play may have short-term gains, but with long-term negative consequences, however unintended. For instance, far from preventing additional pain from entering your children's lives, this mistake only delays their acceptance of the reality that their parents are divorcing, at best, and can even increase the pain if the children, seeing the parents interacting frequently in a cordial way, begin hoping for reconciliation. (Don't be fooled, either; kids always hold out hope for the reconciliation of their parents, even after one of their parents remarries, and even as those "kids" move into young adulthood.)

And so what happens when one divorced parent eventually meets someone else? A few things can (and very often do) happen.

The new relationship may fail, at least in part because the new person on the scene will often have the ability to see what the divorced couple is blind to - that the ex-spouses are still "attached" to each other in unhealthy, entangled ways. A wise third party will not want to get involved in that. The other outcome may be that one spouse remarries and, as a newly married couple, the two begin to make necessary changes in the dynamic that was being lived out between the exes. In this situation, it is the new husband or wife who is blamed for the upheaval, and the spouse "left behind" can find themselves grieving the loss of their spouse all over again, even when the divorce is years or even decades old.

Ultimately, a lack of boundaries creates an unhealthy emotional dynamic that ends up potentially hurting everyone involved, and hurting them more than would have been the case had the marriage visibly and unequivocally ended. To help people going through divorce avoid this common mistake, we have often recommended that they read Cloud and Townsend's book on Boundaries. A quote from the book:
The driving force behind boundaries has to be desire. We usually know what is the right thing to do in life, but we are rarely motivated to do it unless there's a good reason. That we should be obedient to God, who tells us to set and maintain boundaries, is certainly the best reason. But sometimes we need a more compelling reason than obedience. We need to see that what is right is also good for us. And we usually only see these good reasons when we're in pain. Our pain motivates us to act.
Those of us who facilitate DivorceCare at The Crossing strongly encourage those who find themselves in the already-difficult place of facing the death of their marriages to do the hard work of developing that new, healthy, appropriate framework for their relationship with their ex-spouse now, before they or their children suffer yet more pain. Initially, the practice of setting appropriate boundaries may well "feel" unloving - those lingering "one flesh" ties asserting themselves again! - but please consider the larger truth that bringing emotional clarity to the reality of a broken situation will only help everyone grieve appropriately, and then move into their next stage of life with realistic expectations.

Psalm 16:1-8 (NIV)

Keep me safe, my God,
  for in you I take refuge.

I say to the Lord, "You are my Lord;
  apart from you I have no good thing."
I say of the holy people who are in the land,
  "They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight."
Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
  I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
  or take up their names on my lips.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
  you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
  surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
  even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
  With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Technology and Relationships Part 1

On a recent trip I needed to borrow my 16 year old son's phone. We'd been rear ended by another car and after the traditional exchange of insurance information, I needed to fill my wife in on what had happened. My iPhone had been unreliable of late so I asked to use his. When he handed it to me I naturally looked to the bottom of the home screen where I expected to see the phone app that would allow me to make the call.

I was surprised to find that the bottom screen had only 3 of the 4 spots filled but none of the 3 was the phone app. Knowing that some people have their own strategic placement for their oft used apps, I glanced at the other icons on the main screen but still didn't see the phone. Handing it back to him, I asked him where it was. He flipped through the screens till he came to the right folder which he opened and brought the phone out for me to use.

I asked him why in the world, with a space available on the main bar, did he not have his phone there but instead hidden away in a folder? His response was enlightening: "I never use the phone cause I never call anyone." When I shared that story with my daughter who's only a year younger, she didn't see anything unusual about that because she never calls anyone either.

That's when it hit me that my two teenagers have expensive phones and use them gratuitously but hardly ever to actually speak to another person. Don't misunderstand. They use their phone to communicate (think: Twitter, Facebook, texting, etc...) but just not to talk to people. This brings to mind the quote by J. B. Priestly who died in 1984: "The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate."

Enter Sherry Turkle whose new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, has prompted an important conversation. As the title suggests Turkle, an MIT professor, has new research that shows what we already intuitively know mainly that while we are always connected we are more lonely than ever before.

In the article "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" Stephen Marche cites studies showing that close friendships have dramatically decreased over the past 25 years. Between 1985 and 2004 the average size of personal confidants shrank from 2.94 to 2.08. In 1985 only 10% of Americans said that they had no one with whom they could discuss important matters. By 2004, 25% had no one to talk to.

I would like to think about this topic over the next few Thursdays here at ESI. With that in mind, I'd like to leave you with a few questions to think about, and if the urge strikes you, answer in the comments.

1. When you are with other people, how often do you find yourself checking your email, sending or receiving texts or tweets, checking FB, etc...? Have you established any device free zones or times such as a walk with your spouse or dinner with friends or family?

2. How many close friends do you have? When you have important personal matters to discuss, who do you sit down with and open up to?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Charles Colson, 1931-2012: A Life of Amazing Grace

It’s probably safe to say that Charles Colson was once one of the most hated individuals in America.  As special counsel to President Richard Nixon, Colson was a powerful and ruthless political operative. To get the president reelected, he once remarked, “I would walk over my own grandmother if necessary.”  His zeal led him to compile an infamous “enemies list” of Nixon’s political opponents and eventually embroiled him in the Watergate affair, perhaps our country’s most deeply scarring political scandal. 

Shortly before pleading guilty to obstruction of justice charges and serving seven months in prison, Colson read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and was, to use the term his subsequent memoir did much to popularize, “born again” as an evangelical Christian.  Many met his profession of faith with skepticism—the man that was so calculating in his White House role was surely positioning himself for sympathy and leniency. 

The remainder of Colson’s life, however, belied the critics’ estimation.  He went on to found Prison Fellowship, what is now the nation’s largest ministry for prisoners and their families.  A few years later, he started another, complimentary ministry, Justice Fellowship, dedicated to the reform of the criminal justice system to reflect the principles of restorative justice. 

Influenced by men like Abraham Kuyper (from whom comes the name of this blog) and Francis Schaeffer, Colson remained committed to the spread of the gospel and the application of a biblically shaped worldview to all of life.  And his was an influential voice.  His books sold 25 million copies and his Breakpoint radio commentary was carried by 1,300 stations.  He won the $ 1 million Templeton Prize for progress in religion in 1993.  He donated it, along his book royalties and speaking fees, to Prison Fellowship.  

Colson also devoted considerable effort to develop meaningful ecumenical dialog and collaboration.  Along with prominent Catholic intellectual Richard John Neuhaus, Colson was a driving force behind Evangelicals and Catholics Together, an initiative to emphasizing the common beliefs and encouraging the common witness of the two groups.  He was also involved with the Manhattan Declaration, which called evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians to defend traditional marriage, the sanctity of life, and religious liberty. 

Fittingly, Colson’s death last week of complications resulting from a brain hemorrhage has sparked a great deal of reflection on and thanksgiving for a life well lived.  In that vein, Peter Wehner, himself a former presidential aide and the co-author of The City of Man, offered some of the best I read:
Mr. Colson…was among the most consequential Christians of the last 35 years. He was a prolific writer, a sought-after speaker, and a tireless advocate for unborn children. Having once been a prisoner, he started a ministry for lawbreakers. Having been touched by grace, he never felt anyone was beyond its reach. 
He also warned about decadence and decline in the West and did everything in his power to reverse it. And he constantly argued for the importance of a proper worldview, challenging Christians to live as members of the kingdom of God and to be the people of God. 
In my encounters with him over the years, I found Colson to be candid, encouraging, principled, a source of wisdom, a person of enormous integrity, and something of a touchstone. He understood the inherent tensions of being a Christian in politics and seemed to get the balance as close to right as anyone. 
But most of all, Mr. Colson struck me as a man who fell in love and stayed in love with the Lord. He touched countless lives during his pilgrimage.
Executive Director of Summit Ministries, John Stonestreet, added this (quoted here):
Quantifying his [Colson's] impact would be impossible. I meet those who have been impacted by him all the time—they read his books, or they listen to BreakPoint, or maybe their children were loved by Angel Tree volunteers while they were incarcerated, or they found Jesus Christ after hearing his story of redemption. …Chuck was doing social justice before it was cool. He went from prisoner, to prison minister, to prison reformer. …Chuck taught us that social justice, and any cultural work, must be undergirded by Truth, Truth with a capital T. For Chuck, Biblical worldview is more than theoretical posturing, it's embracing and living out Truth with courage. And that Truth sets us free.
Not long ago I was reminded of the life of John Newton, the former slave trader turned pastor who wrote one of Christianity’s most beloved hymns, Amazing Grace.  The words of that hymn are no doubt familiar to many: “I was once was lost, but now am found/ Was blind but now I see.” Charles Colson would no doubt be the first to acknowledge that his life, both before and after his conversion, was not perfect. Likewise, his ideas and efforts sometimes occasioned criticism from fellow Christians. Even so, it strikes me that he will remain, along with Newton and so many others throughout history, as a sparkling testament to the amazing grace of God.

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Songs and Scenes from Sunday, April 22, 2012

This week's worship service was planned and led by David Cover. You'll find links in the song titles that will allow you to purchase recorded versions of the songs where available.

Gathering Instrumental: Steps Forward - by Andrew Camp

Doxology - Words: Thom­as Ken (1674), Music: Old 100th, Ge­ne­van Psalt­er (1551), Additional lyrics and Music by David A. Cover and Christine Cover

Praise the Father, praise the Son,
praise the Spirit, Three-in-One.
Praise the Father, praise the Son,
praise the Spirit, Three-in-One.
All creation sings your praise.

The Mystery of Faith - Words: Traditional english liturgy, Music by Scott Johnson and David Wilton
Christ has died, Christ has risen,
Christ will come again.
Emmanuel, Emmanuel
Christ will come again.

O Help My Unbelief - Words: Isaac Watts, Music: Justin Smith

How sad our state by nature is!
our sin, how deep it stains!
and Satan binds our captive minds
Fast in his slavish chains.
But there's a voice of sov'reign grace,
sounds from the sacred word:
"O, ye despairing sinners come,
and trust upon the Lord."

You Alone Can Rescue by Matt Redman and Jonas Myrin

Who, O Lord could save themselves
their own soul could heal?
Our shame was deeper than the sea.
Your grace is deeperer still.

You alone can rescue, You alone can save.
You alone can lift us from the grave.
You came down to find us, led us out of death.
To You alone be longs the highest praise.

On Jordan's Stormy Banks - Words by Samuel Stennett (1787) and contemporary music by Christopher Miner.

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.
I am bound, I am bound,
I am bound for the Promised land.

Hallelujah! What A Savior - Words and Music: Phillip P. Bliss (1875), Additional Chorus: Leonard Cohen (based on the song Hallelujah)

Lifted up was He to die;
“It is finished!” was His cry;
Now in Heav’n exalted high.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

How Deep the Father's Love For Us by Stuart Townend, Arrangement: King's Kaleidoscope

How deep the Father's love for us,
how vast beyond all measure
that He should give His only Son
to make a wretch His treasure.
How great the pain of searing loss,
the Father turns His face away
as wounds which mar the chosen One
bring many sons to glory.

Jesus, All For Jesus by Robin Mark and Jennifer Atkinson

Jesus, all for Jesus,
All I am and have and ever hope to be.
All of my ambitions, hopes and plans
I surrender these into Your hands.
For it's only in Your will that I am free.

Music and Tech Team for April 22, 2012:

Kenny Ashton - vocals, acoustic guitar, percussion, bass
Andrew Camp - vocals, ukelele, six-string banjo
David Cover - vocals, bass, percussion, acoustic guitar
Sadie Currey - violin
Scott Johnson - vocals, piano, organ, glockenspiel, harmonium, six-string banjo
Andrew Luley - drums
Joel Schirmer - vocals, percussion

Justin Backman - lightboard operator
Ray Batt - sermon media
Kameron Bong - tech assistant
Addison Hawkins - audio
Barrett Knox -  tech assistant
Amy Lamm - music media; asst. stage manager
Jake Wandel - production manager
Brandon Wright - camera operator

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Friday, April 20, 2012

The Top Five Regrets of the Dying

Our small group is currently working through the book of Ecclesiastes. I never imagined I would enjoy the study as much as I have. There is something truly refreshing and calming to know that the struggles we all deal with have been repeated throughout the course of human history (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10). It is almost as though wisdom is pleading with us to just listen this one time so we don’t keep making the same mistake over and over.

What does it take for you to make a decision based on someone else’s experiences? Unfortunately, it seems like we as a people tend to have a pattern of rejecting the instruction of the wise and dismissing the influence of those who have walked before us on the path of life. I am unsure if it is a general lack of respect for the elderly or a fierce defense of individualism, but it just seems wisdom is not considered a modern day commodity.

I ran across a recent article about a hospice nurse named Bronnie Ware who compiled a list of the most common regrets her patients described to her during their final days on earth. The following is the list she generated and developed into a book titled The Top Five Regrets of the Dying

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

"This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it."

2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.

"This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

"Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result."

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

"Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

"This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."

I don’t know about you, but the thing that stands out to me the most is that all of these struggles could be worked out in the context of accountability and community. We set ourselves up for the same list of regrets when we refuse to listen to anything but our own justification.

"Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning" - Ecclesiastes 4:13

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Marriage vs. Cohabitation

Would you buy a pair of shoes before trying them on or a car without a test drive? If your answer is no, then why would you get married to another person without first living together? So goes the cultural logic. In a 2001 nationwide survey almost 50% of those in their 20’s agreed with the statement: “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.”

And yet the hard data is showing the cultural logic is full of faulty reasoning and flawed thinking.

Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, wrote an article that appeared in last Sunday’s edition of the New York Times called “The Downside of Cohabitating Before Marriage.” In the article she cites studies that indicate that couples who live together before marriage are less satisfied with their marriages and more likely to divorce than those who don’t.

In an August 2005 cover story in Psychology Today Nancy Wartik says that the research shows that “Couples who move in together before marriage have up to two times the odds of divorce, as compared with couples who marry before living together. Moreover, married couples who have lived together before exchanging vows tend to have poorer quality marriages than couples who moved in after the wedding. Those who cohabited first report less satisfaction, more arguing, poorer communication and lower levels of commitment.”

These negative outcomes, commonly known as the cohabitation effect, are explained in two different ways.

1. People who cohabit have less traditional views of marriage and therefore are more open to divorce.

2. “Inertia Hypothesis.” Wartik says that this theory suggests “that many of us slide into marriage without every making an explicit decision to commit. We move in together, we get comfortable, and pretty soon marriage starts to seem like the path of least resistance. Even if the relationship is only tolerable, the next stage seems to be inevitable.”

In the Times Jay tells the story of Jennifer who lived with her boyfriend for four years and then was married for less than year before seeking a divorce. In the context of a counseling relationship Jennifer was trying to answer the question, “How did this happen?”
“We were sleeping over at each other’s place all the time,” she said. “We liked to be together, so it was cheaper and more convenient. It was a quick decision but if it didn’t work out there was a quick exit.”
The author goes on to describe Jennifer’s answer as “sliding, not deciding.”
“Moving from sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.
How Should Christians Think About This New Data?
1. When sex is removed from the context of marriage, one of the unseen implications is that the importance of marriage is minimized. This has a negative effect on people’s lives leading to greater unhappiness.

2. In an article in The Christian Post Albert Mohler points to a quote by Wartik in which she says that people “have different standards for living partners than for life partners.” The biblical view, of course, is that that our living partner should be our life partner. No one should be surprised that separating those two roles leads to more unhappy relationships and even divorces.

3. It should increase our confidence in the Bible. For decades now the Bible’s view of sex and marriage has been ridiculed as hopelessly outdated. But here is sociological research confirming what the Bible has told us for centuries.

4. Jay concludes her article with a line by an old mentor of hers: “The best time to work on someone’s marriage is before he or she has one.” Let’s put the emphasis back on becoming the right person rather than finding the right person.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"I Am Not the Christ"

In his sermon this past Sunday, Keith mentioned John the Baptist’s clear declaration that he was in fact not the long-promised Messiah.  Another John, the apostle and gospel writer, recorded it this way: “And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ’” (John 1:19-20).

As Keith pointed out, John might have been tempted otherwise.  After all, his own birth had been miraculous.  What’s more, it was announced by an angel, who told his father that John would be “great before the Lord” and “filled with the Holy Spirit,” enabling him “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (see Luke 1:5-17).  Of course this proved to be true.  John’s ministry was met with large crowds desiring to hear his message and receive a baptism of repentance.  Jesus himself would eventually state that “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Mat. 11:11).

And yet, John steadfastly refused to identify himself with the one that God had promised would deliver his people.  Instead, his entire ministry was geared in what amounts to the opposite direction: to prepare for and point to the real Savior.  

All this brings me to an indelible memory I have from my time in seminary.  It didn’t actually take place in the midst of a lecture or while completing an assignment, but rather during a short devotional given by one of my professors, Jay Sklar, at the beginning of a class period.  Citing the passage from John quoted above,  Dr. Sklar made the point to a class of mostly aspiring pastors that learning from John’s attitude is crucial for our ministries.  Being the right kind of pastor absolutely requires we direct people away from ourselves and toward Jesus. 

It doesn’t take a great deal of thought to realize why this is so.  Left to his own devices, no pastor can convince people of the truth of the gospel.  No pastor can pay the debt of another sins or grant new and eternal life.  No pastor can be the foundation of a faith capable of weathering life’s storms or give the grace that is sufficient for literally every need.  No pastor’s words are so powerful and illuminating that he may be identified with truth itself.  No pastor qualifies as the greatest need and joy of every human heart. 

But Jesus actually fits that description, and more.  Perfectly. 

I mention this not simply to give you insight on my own aspirations as a pastor (which of course I routinely fall well short of) or to help you have the right kind of expectations for your spiritual leaders.  Rather, I bring it up because all of us, whether we realize it or not, have a ministry.  We may not minister professionally, but all of us are called to minister in some way.  That calling no doubt works itself out in any number of different situations.  We might have kids that we desire to know and follow Christ.  Or desire to have an influence with coworkers and otherwise make an impact in our professions.  We have friends and acquaintances that don’t yet believe the gospel, or have problems that can only be addressed by the love and grace of God.  We’re faced with what can be overwhelming social ills in our communities. 

But wherever we find ourselves trying to make an impact in the service of God’s kingdom, it’s imperative that each of us remember, “I am not the Christ.”  No matter our intelligence, skills, material resources, etc., none of us qualifies for the job of Savior. And when all is said and done, any positive development in any of the situations I just mentioned will be his doing and not our own.  Like John, we’ll need to keep a proper perspective regarding our own role and do what we can to point people to Jesus. 

This, I suspect, has any number of practical implications.  The one that might be most relevant in my own life is the need to place less trust in myself to say or do the right thing in my various ministry responsibilities.  Being the parent of three young kids has driving this point home repeatedly.  On my own steam, I can’t “fix” them, or anyone else for that matter.  Whatever supply of wisdom or persuasiveness I possess, whatever paltry example I can muster, however hard I try—none of it is sufficient to produce God-pleasing results.  Consequently, I’m left with falling on my knees, metaphorically if not literally, and praying that God would draw my kids (or my friends, other family, people in the church, etc.) to believing in and following Jesus.  

This isn’t to say that God doesn’t ever use me or you in the process.  He surely does.  And we should both desire and work toward that end.  But when he does, it will most likely be when our words and actions—wait for it—point others to Christ.  To that end, are prayers might again take a cue from the attitude of John the Baptist, asking that, even within our own lives, we would decrease that Jesus might increase (John 3:30).

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Movie Review: 'The Descendants'

Over the weekend I had the increasingly-rare opportunity to watch a film that 1) had only recently become available via Redbox, 2) was driven primarily by the development of the characters in the story, 3) did not feature animated chipmunks, and 4) contained - at least as far as I could tell - almost zero in the realm of explosions and/or special effects. Instead, the primary strengths of the film were tied to the quality of the writing, the spot-on portrayals of real people living in a broken world and a generous helping of snappy dialogue. One of the unintended side-effects of renting The Descendants was to force me to realize that I hadn't seen a film like this in quite a long time.

Everyone seems to have their own personal opinion of George Clooney, of course, but it has been my observation that he is actually a fairly talented actor, more than able to set aside whatever "Clooney the Celebrity" persona he carries with him in service of smaller, more tightly-focused films. I find him somewhat harder to accept as authentic in "big" films such as the Oceans Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen series, for example, but whatever cultural cachet he carries into those larger films pretty much disappears in The Descendants. In short, he does such a superb job with the character of Matt King that I was able to forget entirely about Clooney the Big Movie Star. It is his character Matt King - not Clooney - that sticks in the heart and mind after the end credits roll.

I have seen a few other films by writer/director Alexander Payne, most memorably About Schmidt, and I have always thought enough of him as an auteur that I confidently decided to watch this latest offering without reading any plot summaries, reviews or Facebook postings. All that to say that the three of us - me, my wife and our daughter - went into the film completely "blind," knowing only the most basic facts about the plotline. While stopping short of recommending this film to everyone - it is rated R, and legitimately so - my immediate response was overwhelmingly positive, a strong thumbs-up for the ways in which Payne so carefully peels back the facade of the modern American family to reveal the ugly creepy-crawlies scurrying around in the inmost cavern of the typical human heart.

The film, as I said, is relatively new to the rental market, so I will not be offering up anything in the way of "spoilers," but then again the film depends less on momentous events and increasingly shows us more of what's really going on within the souls of those trapped in a situation that all but guarantees that both the uglier and the more humane sides of all involved will be forced, against their will, into the spotlight of the examination room.

Payne, in my opinion, does a fantastic job of putting several real people in front of us, with the maddening effect of forcing us to waffle on our emotions. Just when we think we have decided that one character is "the bad guy," we are confounded over and over by an authentic act of human kindness. A harsh, true word left mercifully unspoken. Pity toward someone who has inflicted great emotional damage. A refusal to give up on a really dumb guy who has a knack for saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. On and on it goes, even as the characters systematically uncover hearts of relentless self-focus in their loved ones.

At a key moment in the film, three family members are sitting at a patio table on a perfect day in paradise, enjoying drinks, relishing each other's company and anticipating a lifetime of ease, a work-free existence that will soon be fueled by millions upon millions of real estate dollars. It was in that very specific moment that I thought The Descendants did a tremendous job of exposing the depravity of the human heart, along with (perhaps more importantly) the surface-thick veneer that passes for love in our modern age. Where previous generations were prone to forge soul-deep relationships with family members as they mutually struggled against the elements, hostile conditions and the capricious whims of Fate, family relationships in the 21st century have morphed into thin, sickly and often-resented ties that vanish at the first sign of disagreement. As one character puts it so memorably, "We're going to come after you, Matty! All of us. And we don't even care that you're a (expletive) attorney." (Pause.) "But hey, we're family! We don't want to do that. And we won't need to...if you'll just play ball here."

"Family of origin" issues run deep with me. Maybe this is true, at some level, for everyone. The Descendants is not a movie well-suited to anyone who is looking to throw over everything that is going on around them for some brain-dead entertainment. I suspect that watching it will call to mind several real people, names and faces, that occupy a place in your own heart, whether past or present.

For his part, Payne has put his finger squarely on that singular topic that I find so hard to deal with in an age of paper-thin commitments to one another, namely the increased tendency we all seem to have to "cut and run" from relationships at the first sign of difficulty. I realize that this is definitely not the case for everyone, though; I personally know several committed Christians who have hung tough and stayed in various relationships even as one or more of the people involved had come completely loose of their emotional and spiritual moorings. Still, it seems as though the rugged individualism that makes up a huge part of the uniquely-American psyche has indeed spun out of control to the point that everyone is "playing the game" for whatever might be in it for them personally; self-sacrifice has become something of a lost art, a truth that Matt King spends 115 minutes of screen time trying to figure out: How do I behave honorably in the midst of tragedy, multiple personal betrayals and a deepening realization that I myself have contributed significantly to bringing all of this about?

As a previously divorced, now remarried, former alcoholic man in his early 50's, I found multiple points of contact with the character of Matt King, though the surface qualities of our lives could hardly be more different. Perhaps a viewer needs to be "of a certain age" and have accumulated an array of impressive life disappointments to fully appreciate what Payne has wrought in The Descendants. There were, for example, several points at which Clooney's silences conveyed more than the dialogue; attempts at heart-level communication are met with a casual indifference, and Matt King is left to fend for himself, at least on an emotional level. Forced by circumstance to convey difficult information to his kids, his relatives and multiple individuals who are all in their own way seeking to tear Matt's family apart, the best that can be offered is a knowing stare, a look that essentially says, "'re really not getting it, are you?"

Family life can be hard. Relationships are tested. Loyalties can shift in an instant. Betrayals are depressingly commonplace. The true heart is often revealed in tragedy. These themes are so masterfully presented in Payne's work that I would not hesitate to recommend it to the vast majority of my friends, though I might hold back for those that have only recently experienced a family tragedy of some sort. The film opens in a hospital room, and does not flinch at presenting the harsh realities of life, death, and the mess we make of things in the meantime.

I found the final few minutes of the film to be redemptive, if only in a limited fashion. For the besieged King family of Hawaii, the sharing of simple pleasures is the best possible form of redemption available to them in that moment. Filling in the blanks left open by Payne, I want to believe that a small-scale reconciliation was only the beginning. Unexpected tragedy has forced Matt King to begin living his life redemptively, though as yet he has no larger framework to explain why he has this desire; certainly no one around him shares that selfless worldview, and Matt himself had lived his life in precisely the same manner...up until now. Having lived much of my own life in an ungodly fashion, I share Matt's confusion over why he has been suddenly drawn out to live life differently. I see the final frames of the film as beautiful in their own way, an indicator that Matt's purposeful life has only just begun.
2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (ESV)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

2 Corinthians 5:16-20 (ESV)
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Songs and Scenes from Sunday, April 15, 2012


Today's Songs and Scenes review features photos provided by Lana Eklund. You'll find links in the song titles to help you purchase recorded versions of the songs when available.

Holy (Jesus, You Are) by Jason Ingram, Matt Redman, Jonas Myrin

What heart could hold the weight of Your love
and know the heights of Your great worth?
What eyes could look on Your glorious face
shining like the sun? Who is like you God?

You are holy, holy, holy
God most high and God most worthy.
You are holy, holy, holy
Jesus, You are. Jesus, You are.


Behold Our God by Jonathan Baird, Meghan Baird and Stephen Altrogge

Who has felt the nails upon His hands,
bearing all the guilt of sinful man?
God eternal, humbled to the grave.
Jesus, Savior, risen now to reign.
Behold our God, seated on His throne.
Come, let us adore Him.


We spent some time praying through Luke 4:16-21 (where Jesus quotes Isaiah 61) with a reflection by Keith Scherer.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.


He Rescued Me - Traditional, Arrangement: Red Mountain Music

I never wanted to follow Jesus.
I never wanted to follow Jesus.
I never wanted to follow Jesus.
He rescued me. He rescued me.


Mighty is the Power of the Cross by Chris Tomlin, Jesse Reeves and Shawn Craig

What can take a dying man
and raise him up to life again?
What can heal the wounded soul,
what can make us white as snow?
What can fill the emptiness,
what can mend our brokenness?

Mighty, awesome, wonderful is the holy cross
where the lamb laid down His life
to lift us from the fall.


Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) - Words by John Newton (1779), Music by Virginia Harmony (1831), Arrangement and contemporary chorus by Chris Tomlin and Louie Giglio

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind but now I see.

My chains are gone, I've been set free.
My God, my Savior has ransomed me.
And like a flood his mercy reigns
amazing love, amazing grace.


Revelation Song by Jennie Lee Riddle

Filled with wonder, awestruck wonder
at the mention of Your Name.
Jesus, Your Name is Power,
breath, and Living Water
such a marvelous mystery.

Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord, God Almighty
Who was, and is, and is to come.


Music and Tech Team for April 15, 2012:

Andrew Camp - vocals, acoustic guitar
Kristen Camp - vocals
David Cover - electric guitar
Sadie Currey - violin
Scott Johnson - vocals, piano
Andrew Luley - drums
Ryan Ponder - bass
Benedict Sin - violin

Becky Ashbaugh - sermon media
Kameron Bong - tech assistant
Josh Burrell - stage and media coordinator
Barret Knox - tech assistant
Jake Wandel - music media
Tim Worstell - sound

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Friday, April 13, 2012

Rare Silence

I am always writing my blogs late at night, it seems, finding space in my day only after my entire family is tucked between the sheets. My daily work routine starts early and is filled with short, noisy people whose personal schedules collectively work to prevent any kind of agenda of my own, and my evenings are not much quieter. A few weeks ago I tried to take my husband's persistent advice to plan ahead and schedule time to write. So I went to a Starbucks to get away from the activity at the house and give myself mental space to write something even remotely worth reading.

At Starbucks, however, I was surrounded by people; the employees serving their customers and calling to each other as they filled orders; discussions all around me as people met and connected with each other at this coffee shop.
  • "Do you want pumpkin spice with that?"
  • "How's the wedding planning going?"
  • "Do you need room in the cup for cream?"
  • "Have your girlfriend come over so we can meet her."
  • "Tall hot chocolate! Here you go!"
  • "I'm a butterfly! Yes!" (I don't even know what this last statement meant, but it's definitely interesting.)
I found myself wondering why on earth I thought it was a good idea to come to this noisy location in order to give myself a chance to think.

Finding a truly quiet place is a real challenge these days. Had you noticed? Even if I came to this coffee shop at a less-busy time, there would be the background music. Designed, I suppose, to fill in those "awkward silences." Nowadays I can't even fill up the gas tank of my car without listening to the music piped outside or - even better! - whatever happens to be playing on the flat-screen televisions that are now installed at every pump.

OK, come on, now. Are we really so afraid of being alone with our thoughts that we need to watch TV for those few minutes when we're forced to stand outside our cars and monitor the gas pump?

Another example. At the mall recently, I was shopping at a store where the music was so loud that I literally could not hear my daughter as we talked about whether or not the item we were looking at was a keeper. When one of the store employees shouted over at me, asking me how I was doing, I indicated that perhaps the music was a tad loud. I had to use hand gestures and lots of body motion to try to get my point across because - after all - she couldn't hear me over the piped-in music, either. She smiled at me, nodded, and returned to folding shirts. She hadn't heard a word I'd said.

But it's not just the malls, either. The grocery store where I shop has music playing, or the radio play-by-play of the Mizzou game; anything to prevent me from having to pick up the items on my grocery list in dreaded silence.

Or have you gone to a movie recently? If you arrive at the theater early, thinking you might get a good seat and sit in the cool, dark silence for a bit, collecting your thoughts or maybe enjoying a quiet conversation with whoever you're with, you'll be sadly disappointed. To entertain you before the real entertainment, there is - yep, you guessed it! - music as well as video entertainment flashing up on the screen. Riddles and games, trivia and advertisements.

So this is where I will probably end up sounding like your Grandma railing on about "the good old days before television," but I wonder if we are so hopelessly distracted by all of our various forms of entertainment wherever we go for a purpose? Could it be that the god of this world is delightfully using all this wonderful technology to prevent us from hearing God's voice?

In times past, other generations obviously did not have the mobile technology that we now have. Far from having to sit in front of the television or radio at a certain time to hear the news, for instance, we can find whatever entertainment we want, whenever we want it, and we can just grab our iPods, plug in our ear buds, and off we go with our own personal distractions piped right into our heads.

This seems to me to be a bit of a danger, at least. I'm so surrounded by options for my own personal entertainment that I have to work hard to find a silent space in which to write, or pray, or even just think through some issue in my life. (And I have plenty of issues to work through.)

And even when I do find that silent space, I soon realize that my mind is so full of unfinished lines of thought, concerns about people never quite expressed or addressed, and to-do's that never got onto a list that, even in silence, my mind is still "noisy."

It takes me awhile to quiet the noise in my head, even when the noise outside of it has blessedly ceased. That's when focusing on God's Word can help me quiet the internal and external distractions long enough to direct my heart and mind in one place, giving me space to "Selah."

One of my favorite verses comes from Psalm 46. Verse 10 exhorts us, "Be still, and know that I am God." In this relatively-short Psalm, the word "Selah" is also used three times. My best understanding of this word is that it is used as an exhortation to weigh the preceding words of God and wisely consider them, to give thoughtful reflection to what was just read. In order to do this, we need to slow down, ponder, meditate and consider. So to me, Psalm 46, while saying much about God's sovereignty, power and protection for those who seek Him, also urges us over and over to slow down and consider what God is saying to us.

How can we properly consider what God is saying, when we can barely hear ourselves think? How can I follow Him if I can't even hear Him?

I know our lives are all busy - mine certainly is - and we can't always get away from the piped-in music and strategically-placed flat-screen entertainment going on all around us. But we can, and should, respond to the noise around us by being more intentional about finding a quiet space to sit with God's Word and to "Selah" - allowing Him to speak to our hearts in the quiet.
Psalm 46
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the
earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling. (Selah)

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.

The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. (Selah)

Come behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.

Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!"

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. (Selah)

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Music, My Mom, and Our Brains

Last month I visited my 85-year-old mother in a nursing home in Ohio. For the past ten years or so, she has suffered from some form of dementia (perhaps Alzheimer’s; it’s hard to diagnose). Each time I visit, less and less of my “mom” is there. Up until this last visit, I could eventually get her to recognize who I am to some degree. But this time she never really clicked with any memories of me—she just sort of accepted it when I told her I was her son. She is almost blind. She sits slumped over in a kind of lethargic daze most of the time. She cannot really speak in sentences anymore. It seems that she can’t quite remember how to pronounce words. She speaks in slurred, quick, mini-phrase bursts. It’s always a difficult visit on so many levels. Deterioration and Death and Decay are horrendous enemies that have invaded the human glory.

My sister and her husband flew in from Florida to join me for the visit. These kinds of experiences are so much better in family clusters I think. We were all trying to connect with her in some way. But there’s just not much “there” to connect with anymore. Yes or no questions are the best at this stage, but even then, there is not much cognitive engagement. So silent and so heart-wrenching.

But then my sister (she is SO much better at this than me!) started singing a Christmas carol, “Silent Night.” My mom’s head lifted up, her eyes brightened, and she started singing with her. Loudly. Every word. Every verse. Perfect pitch. And when the song was over, she asked in surprising clarity, “How’d I do that?” As if she amazed even herself.

With a newfound vigor, my sister then started singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Again, my mom belted out every word in perfect memory, clarity and pitch. Then the second chorus. A third. What? There’s a third? She was remembering and singing verses I couldn’t possibly remember. Not a word or stanza missing. Incredible! And I sat there weeping.

There is something about music that hits a part of us that goes far deeper than mere words can touch. How could she not remember me but remember all those songs? Brain scans show that when people listen to music, virtually every area of their brain becomes more active. Music is represented in many areas of the brain, while just two brain regions process language. Philip Ball, a British science writer and an avid music enthusiast, says that music is ingrained in our auditory, cognitive and motor functions. We have a music instinct as much as a language instinct. Music also tends to dig deeper, more well-worn pathways between neurons in the brain.

Michael De Georgia, director of the Center for Music and Medicine at Case Western Reserve University's University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, says,

“In the last 10 years, we've just started to understand how broad and diffuse the effect of music is on all parts of the brain,” he added. “We are just starting to understand how powerful music can be. We don't know what the limits are” (Discovery News).

No doubt music is something of what it means to be created in the image of God. God, the Creator of music, created us in a way that loves music. This is why he calls us to sing and make music in our worship of him (see Ps 33:1-3; Ps 98:4-6; Ps 108:1-2; Ps 150:3-5). It’s why music is such an important part of a worship service rather than just the preamble to what’s really important—the sermon.

Today a six-minute YouTube video is going viral. It shows the power of music upon our brain and our heart and soul. Watch it for yourself and you’ll see something of what I saw with my own mother last month. And remember this whenever you’re tempted to think that the music/singing part of church is just a filler around the sermon.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Newsweek's "Christianity in Crisis"

It goes without saying that the Easter season is an opportunity for Christians to celebrate and reflect on the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Almost inevitably, however, it’s also the occasion for a major media outlet to offer a provocative piece somehow related to Jesus and Christianity.  This year, Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover story, (I've seen it titled both "Christianity and Crisis" and "Forget the Church, Follow Jesus") certainly fits the bill. 

To be candid, I’ve gotten used to being disappointed with Newsweek’s reflections on Christianity (see, for example, here).  Unfortunately, the present article doesn’t do much to change that.  To his credit, Sullivan does attempt to address the relationship of the Christian faith with power, politics, and material wealth, as well as the often-apparent gap between belief and practice.  But in so doing, he makes a number of questionable assertions and, in the end, seemingly misidentifies the heart and character of Christianity itself. 

Rather than pedantically go through the article point by point, I’ll offer a couple of examples.  First, referencing Thomas Jefferson’s well known attempt to selectively edit his New Testament, Sullivan writes:
And what he grasped in his sacrilegious mutilation of a sacred text was the core simplicity of Jesus’ message of renunciation. He believed that stripped of the doctrines of the Incarnation, Resurrection, and the various miracles, the message of Jesus was the deepest miracle. And that it was radically simple. It was explained in stories, parables, and metaphors—not theological doctrines of immense complexity. It was proven by his willingness to submit himself to an unjustified execution. The cross itself was not the point; nor was the intense physical suffering he endured. The point was how he conducted himself through it all—calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God.
As best as I can tell, Sullivan is treating these sentiments of Jefferson as something that will inspire needed reform.  But they reflect a serious misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission and, consequently, the unique character of Christianity. 

Only with the greatest difficulty can someone read the gospels and suggest that Jesus’ message could be separated from his incarnation, miracles, death, and resurrection.  Each very much informed the other.  Moreover, divorced from the death and resurrection that offer payment for our sin and new, eternal life with him, it’s difficult to see how Jesus’ life and teaching can, in the end, be good news for us.  After all, who among us can live up to his standard?  No one should deny that Jesus is a good example for us.  But if he’s only a good example for us—if imitating him is our means “to truly transcend our world and be with God"—then surely we’re in trouble. 

That’s why, contrary to Jefferson and Sullivan, the cross, when coupled with the empty tomb, is exactly the point.  Without these historical realities and the grace they demonstrate, Christianity is reduced to simple moralism. 

Sullivan then follows the quote mentioned above almost immediately with this:
I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world. But I do know it won’t happen by even more furious denunciations of others, by focusing on politics rather than prayer, by concerning ourselves with the sex lives and heretical thoughts of others rather than with the constant struggle to liberate ourselves from what keeps us from God.
A few things come to mind in response.  To begin with, one might legitimately ask if the supposed crisis of which Sullivan speaks is really any different than that of every generation of Christianity.  After all, there’s never been a time in which Christians haven’t had to wrestle with distractions, temptations, and “enmeshment with the things of this world.” 

More important, however, is again the picture of the Christian faith that Sullivan paints.  Here, he urges us to pay less attention to the beliefs and practices of others and more to liberating ourselves to what keeps us from God. 

But what if certain beliefs actually hide who God is and what he’s done on our behalf?  What if they distort how we’re to relate to him?  Both Jesus and his early followers spoke of this as a very real danger.  One needs only to read, say, Jesus’ conversations with the scribes and Pharisees or Paul’s letter to the Galatians to demonstrate the point.  Likewise, what if, by acting in certain ways—not only in the bedroom, but also in our family lives, our workplaces, and everywhere else, including our politics—we actually drive ourselves and others further from God, running against the grain of his will in the process?  Therefore shouldn’t Christians be concerned with beliefs as well as the ways in which we live them out?

To be sure, Jesus did have some strong words to those who would judge others in a condemning fashion (see Mat. 7:1-5).  But it’s a distortion of the Bible to maintain that Christians, with the humility that reflects their own profound sin, aren’t to exercise moral judgments or carefully discern and commend truth as opposed to falsehood.  In fact, some measure of this is necessary for us to appreciate the need for the gospel and the grace it offers.  It’s also instrumental in helping us shape the institutions and culture that best reflect our Creator’s purposes and, therefore, best promote human welfare. 

Yes, we're to do all of this with love and respect even for those who disagree with us.  And certainly we're bound to make mistakes in the enterprise (which only argues for our continuing need of God's grace).  But to abdicate this responsibility is to act contrary to the example of Jesus that Sullivan elsewhere praises so highly.

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Revisiting the Children's Wing

I've been a Christian for about 15 years now, and yet it never ceases to astonish me how hardened my heart can get to the "good news" that we have been reconciled to God - repeat, reconciled to God - through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I mean...that message is "Christianity 101," right? This is the kind of stuff that the preschool kids are learning over in the Children's Ministry classrooms! Time for the "more mature Christians" in our midst to move on to far more esoteric matters, one would think.

However, after even just a small amount of reflection, the phrase "good news" hardly seems big enough to contain the story of our reconciliation with God. Unbelievable or amazing news might get somewhat closer to describing Christ's miraculous - and scandalous - intervention on our behalf. It seems to me that if we really understood what God has done for us in Christ, then we should all be leaping for joy and singing His praises 24/7/365, right? After all, our single biggest problem - that we are condemned sinners in the eyes of a just and holy God - has been solved, once and for all. We need not fear death (1 Corinthians 15:54-57), we have no concerns about facing God's judgment or wrath (Hebrews 4:16), and our place in eternity has been prepared for us already (John 14:2-3). The preparations to receive us will not happen "some day soon," but it's all past tense on this side of the cross. A place for us has already been "prepared." It's been done.

And yet I find it is my own disheartening tendency to "misplace" many of the Christian truths I have settled once and for all in my heart and mind. It's somewhat maddening to consider how often I have to be "taken back to the Children's Ministry wing" to be reminded yet again of some core biblical truths.

Just yesterday, for example, Dave Cover preached on the topic, "Why Easter Changes Everything," and I was amazed by how the repetition of a settled conviction of heart gave rise to a rather surprising "Oh, yeah, that's right!" response in my soul. Of course, I had not really forgotten the truth that Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the resurrection, e.g. "If Jesus did not walk out of the tomb, there is absolutely no need to read your Bible or continue to attend church. It's all rubbish and you should treat it a such." (1 Corinthians 15:14-17) I did not "forget" it so much as I found I had "laid it aside" during the day-to-day routine of my life. My internal response to hearing that truth yet again revealed to me just how far aside I had placed this critical truth.

My own slowness of heart makes me exceedingly grateful for the many accounts in Scripture wherein the disciples also are slow to believe, even in the face of the clearly-miraculous and otherwise-unexplainable. It defies explanation, for example, that Judas Iscariot could have witnessed Lazarus being raised from the dead after four days (John 11:38-44) and yet make plans shortly thereafter to betray the Son of God. Had Judas "forgottten" that the Lord had performed this and many other miracles as he was negotiating terms with the Jewish elders for the betrayal of Christ? Seems unlikely, and unexplainable apart from soul-destroying hardness of heart.

Perhaps my favorite of the slow-to-believe disciple stories is the one recorded by Luke in chapter 24 of his eyewitness account. Whenever I read of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, I always like to recall that in their three years of ministry together, Jesus had specifically instructed them over and over again that He must suffer and die, in accordance with the prophecies of the Old Testament (Isaiah 53:3-12; Psalm 35:19; Zechariah 12:10; Psalm 22:7-8; Psalm 69:21). These lessons had all taken place before He was handed over to the ruling Jewish elders and Pontius Pilate. Why, one has to wonder, did their hearts not immediately accept the more difficult lessons that Jesus had for them?

You can read the Road to Emmaus account for yourself in Luke 24:13-35. As you do, though, I think it helps to consider a few pertinent questions.

Why is it that in the first several days after His crucifixion, not one of the disciples seemed able to recall Jesus' own predictions of His death? Could it have been, perhaps, that the truths Jesus spoke to them during His earthly ministry were entirely overshadowed by their own needs and desires (verse 21)? As modern readers, don't we all view this story with some level of incredulity, e.g. "Had I been one of those guys, I would certainly have recalled all the things Jesus said about His death...or at least some of it!" Surely our own "unclouded" view of Christ would have prevailed over our doubts. Right?

I doubt it. Whenever I have failed to discern what Jesus is doing in my own life, I have always been particularly drawn to these verses depicting what happened on the road to Emmaus. Having experienced the ministry of Jesus, the Christ, firsthand for three years, these guys still didn't get it. "I had really hoped that Jesus was going to be the guy who was finally going to overthrow the Romans, free us and restore the kingdom of Israel to its previous glory."

In the post-crucifixion letdown on display in this particular story, though, I all too often see myself. I've been walking with Christ, as I said, for well over a decade, and yet when things don't go as I expected they would - "I had really hoped that Jesus would have been the guy to solve this problem for me...heal this relationship in the timeframe I wanted...prevent me from suffering this loss" - I will often come to my senses only to find my heart commiserating with these disciples as they continue along in their ill-informed, bummed-out journey together.

So as I find myself "revived" by core gospel truths from time to time, the account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus gives me hope, especially as I find myself convicted by a biblical truth that I had not necessarily forgotten, but perhaps carelessly misplaced for a bit. After all, there are few things more central to the truth of Who Jesus is than His resurrection from the dead, and yet I often find that a sermon crafted primarily for unbelievers (Dave's Easter sermon, for example) finds a more-than-suitable target in my own heart. We all need to hear the gospel preached, over and over, or our hearts inevitably wander.

Thank God that He has provided us with these accounts of frightened, fractious, unbelieving disciples, hopelessly slow to believe and so often dull of spirit. In these accounts I find myself, my own misgivings, and - thankfully - the patient answer of a Father God Who does not tire of "beginning with Moses and all the Prophets" (verse 27) and helping us find ourselves back where we belong, as beloved children in a far greater story.

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