Genuine Worship

This past weekend was Youth Sunday at our church, so our youth group put on the entire service for three services (except the blessing of the Communion, that they wisely left to the pros). Our youth group has slowly grown and has slowly been retaining more and more high schoolers, which has been a blessing to see.

The kids did an amazing job. Two girls (including my daughter) played guitar while five others sang contemporary Christian praise, my son and one other boy were lay leaders, and another girl preached a great sermon about “Cleaning Jesus’ Bathroom.” She used the example of how she and others had cleaned a communal bathroom at an orphanage, and how their team leader had told them that “because you had done thus to the least of these, you had done it unto” Jesus.

I have to say, this was the most honest, genuine bit of worship I’d had the privilege to experience in awhile. Absolutely everything was heartfelt, from the enthusiasm of the music to the soloists’ singing, to the message to the little oopses of people not familiar with having to do these things but yet doing their absolute best to bring worship. It did my heart good, as a dad, to see my two teens publicly sharing their faith, and they had a great impact on all us old folks in the pews–I had several comments about how we need to do this more often, to let the youth bring their message.

I am reminded of Revelation 5, where all of creation joins in full-throated, no-holds-barred, wide-open, entire-hearted worship of God in heaven. The kids brought a taste of that to us last weekend, and it was beautiful.

It also leads me to reflect on what happens when worship becomes routine; when it’s not enthusiastic, when it’s just going through the motions. We get stale, we get bored, we start to slack in our attendance and we start to fall away. It’s when we get to experience genuine worship, a smidgen of a taste of what we’ll get to enjoy in eternity, that our hearts quicken and our souls gladden. Thank you, SUMC youth, for bringing a taste of full worship to us, and may we work to bring that more often!

It Really Is God’s Story: We’re Just Living In It

That feels so…grating, doesn’t it somehow? Aren’t I the author of my own story? Don’t I have free will, making my own way? Well, yes. But our brief moment on earth is just a fleeting instant in the great arc of the Story we’re all a part of.

The Bible tells of that arc so well. God created the earth and everything in it, including humanity. We then almost immediately turned our backs on him. He was offering such closeness, an intimacy even, that we can’t even imagine: Genesis 3:8 describes how God was walking in the Garden…the same God, walking through the same Garden we had the privilege briefly to inhabit with him. Instead we chose to disobey, to listen to our other passions. The entire rest of the Bible is the story of God trying to rebuild the relationship we severed in our sin in the Garden.

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Think about it: we struggle to make it outside the Garden, and eventually sin so much that God hits Reset and saves only Noah and his family in the flood. Trying again, we have righteous people like Abraham and Joseph, who try to walk in God’s path, but still remain unable to approach. God gives us the Law through Moses, then, as a way to help shape us into his people, but we overdo it: we take it too literally, and become a people of nitpicking and lose the forest for the trees. Finally, God sends his Son, Jesus, who is able to demonstrate the way to draw close to God once more, and whose death and resurrection opened the door to us to follow.

A massive epic like that transcends any one of us. We’re bit players in this drama! We don’t rate top billing. We’re onstage for a moment, and our role is to help draw attention to the main actors, not to upstage them and hog the spotlight. Once we come to acknowledge that we’re here not because of anything amazing that we’ve done, or anything amazing about us, but because we’re to return to God and to help bring others’ attention to him, then so much more of life falls into place.

To play our part, we have to acknowledge the lead actor. That’s worship. We have to focus our attention on him, so that the others–the audience, if you will–are able to focus on him too, to hear what he has to say.

In God’s story, there’s a battle, and it’s the same for us. We’re born into a world at war, between good and evil, as Act III of the play is unfolding. We’re not yet at the glorious climax, but rather at the point of the play when it feels like it could go in any of a number of directions. But the cool thing is, we know how the play will turn out: with God’s ultimate victory. We celebrated that at Easter this weekend, and we celebrate it in our hearts every day that we remember our role in God’s larger story.

“It’s MY Life!” (…Isn’t It?)

Stereotypically, the Christian youth grows up in some connection to the church, then falls away as a teenager, and somewhere in the early/mid twenties begins to feel a tug back to Christ. In part, I think, that returning is sparked by the realization that I think we all come across in our twenties–that the life we thought we were guaranteed as kids is hard, and maybe isn’t guaranteed to turn out the way we thought it should. We wanted to go to This College, and were turned down. We wanted to get a job in a certain career path, couldn’t even get on the first rung of that ladder, and find ourselves doing something else we hate just to pay the bills. Or we do get started on that career, only to find it’s not what we thought it would be, and we’re foundering, frustrated, looking for solutions.

At the heart of that frustration is the conviction that perhaps every teenager yelled at a parent at some time: “It’s MY life!” And of course to some extent it is: once we’re on our own, we make our own path, and our parents aren’t there to hold our hands in quite the same way. But fundamentally, as teens and young adults we cling to that certainty that the life we lead is our own, nobody else’s, and therefore we’re the star of it–and when things go wrong, it’s unsettling.

It’s unsettling because we realize we’re not in control. There’s so much that goes on in our lives that we cannot control, and when those forces veer off the script we’ve written for ourselves, we get frustrated. It’s my life! Why can’t I control all these things? Why are these things happening to me? We look around for the pause button, we want to yell “Cut!” and reposition the actors and try that scene again. But unfortunately, as Anna Nalick sang in Breathe (2 AM), “No one can find the rewind button, girl.”

Let me offer another perspective: Perhaps it’s not entirely all about you after all. If we consider the possibility that instead of being the center of the universe, that we’re not, then that frustration can be dramatically reduced if not eliminated. Perhaps, then, we’re supporting actors in a larger epic adventure–we’re not the star, God is–and we’re part of his story instead.

What a relief to not have to be in control of everything! I remember driving with my son one time when he was perhaps four, and being just so frustrated by traffic and running late and fuming…from his carseat in the back, I heard him try to calm me down: “It’s OK, Daddy. You’re not in charge of the traffic. Are you in charge of the trees, or the sky?”

Whoa. MAJOR moment where the Word came to me through my child. No, little man, I’m not in charge. Someone else is, and when I surrendered to that truth, I opened up a world of relief and change. It’s not my story, it’s God’s, and I can hand it all over to him.

But what does God’s story look like, and what’s my role then? More on that next time.

Why “The Force Awakens” Didn’t Awaken Me

I’ve just come back from the mega-multiplex from having seen this hot new movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Yes, for the first time. Yes, I know I’m the last in civilization to have done so. Can we move on now?

Anyway: I found it to be a good movie, but not a great one–and fundamentally, because it felt like the original movie from 1977 all over again. Desert planet, unsuspecting young person discovers Jedi powers, a secret message in a cute (and marketable) droid, a pursuit by the forces of darkness, a climactic battle aboard a giant planet-destroying machine that gets destroyed, a father figure dies…it’s the same movie, folks! At one point, when the rebels are comparing the Death Star to the Starkiller Base, Han Solo observes, “OK, so it’s bigger.” Yep, that’s about all the difference there is!

I know there are arguments that suggest Star Wars is meant to have Christian overtones, but I don’t buy it. But all the more, I think I don’t resonate with it because the story didn’t feel genuine. We’ve literally seen this movie before, and we know how it’s going to turn out.

In our real-world experiences, we sometimes feel the same way: we’ve seen this movie before. We’ve seen how our family will act at Thanksgiving (the arguments, the pettiness), we’ve seen how the winner-take-all culture at our offices corrodes people, and because we have, we lose hope that anything different can come of it. Our hearts falter, because we feel we’re trapped in a bad remake of a movie that just won’t change.

There is one element of truth in comparing our lives to a movie: we are all living in a larger story. And the larger story we live in is one we’re not the headline star of–God is–and we’re supporting actors. But the key difference is, our experiences here aren’t the end, and the movie will have a different ending this time. Let’s explore that more next time.

All About Heart

At the office, the big boss sponsors a twice-yearly book club in which we read current business/leadership books and then discuss lessons for us all. I’m in the middle of reading the current assignment, which appears to be a book aligned with the current fad of Silicon Valley–“fail fast”–and urges us to come to terms with our failures so we can move on to better things.

There’s a lot of pop-psych in it so far, but one thing struck me about the first set of advice. The author says that when we fail, we feel lots of difficult emotions–fear, shame, anger, resentment–but in our culture, it’s not widely acceptable to address those emotions. We’re taught as youngsters to downplay our feelings–shake it off, get back in the game–and her point in the book is that we can’t experience “wholeheartedness” until we at least acknowledge what’s going on in our emotional lives.

That phrase, “wholeheartedness,” captured me. In large measure that’s been the story of my own spiritual quest for the last couple decades. Intellectually I’ve always grasped Christianity; I can read all about the early church and the various schisms and heresies and I can grasp what it all means. But it’s been a slow lesson over the ages to learn that until I give my heart to Christ, I can understand what it means, but I’ll never understand What It All Means.

Proverbs 23:26 says, “O my son, give me your heart, may your eyes take delight in following my ways.” And in Matthew 22:37, Jesus answers the Pharisee who asked about the greatest commandment by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” It’s taken me the better part of a lifetime to learn, God’s not after my logical assent to his philosophical argument. He’s after my heart, and as long as I guard that and downplay, deny, minimize what he’s trying to do in my heart, I’ll never experience wholeheartedness. Indeed, I’ll never really experience God.

And so one of the ways I’m trying to grow towards God this Lenten season is by understanding more of what it means to be wholehearted. Fill me afresh, Lord Jesus, fill my heart and let there be nothing but you there. Take all my fear, my shame, my anger, my resentment, and come, live in my heart and fill it with your grace instead. Not just at Lent, but in every day!

Giving Up “Lent” for Lent

Here we are in the midst of the 40 days of the Lenten season before Easter, and the most common question people ask is, “What did you give up for Lent this year?”

In years past I’ve done that practice: I’ve variously sworn off fried foods, alcohol, and even doughnuts in some years. Each year I also tell people that I’ve given up smoking; I’ve never smoked, which makes that particular abstinence an easy one to keep.

I’ve come to appreciate, though, that the point of Lent isn’t necessarily to give something up, it’s to draw closer to God. If there’s something in my life that’s more important to me than God, then yes, I’m supposed to replace that with God–hence the abstaining from any of a number of habits for 40 days.

However, since the point is to get closer to God over this time, perhaps we need instead to pick something up. Pick up a Bible and read each night. Pick up a prayer habit each morning over coffee. Pick up a friend, reach out and lift her spirits during a dark time. All of these are more meaningful in building a better, more lasting relationship with God than seeing if you can make it 40 days without chocolate.

So this year I’m giving up “Lent”  for Lent–giving up the mindless giving up, and instead being more mindful of my relationship with God. I’m taking an online class on belief and grace during Lent, and that’s helped keep me framed and focused during this time. I’m being more intentional in my prayer life as well. My hope is these allow me to draw closer to God in a more significant way than ever.

Oh, and I gave up doughnuts too. Because, well, my waistline suggests that’s probably needed also. But that’s another story.

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W. C. Fields Was Partly Right

“Everybody has to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.”

–W. C. Fields

W. C. Fields had a point: we all do believe in something. There’s something each person has to which he or she will hold fast as the most vital, the most cherished aspect of life. Perhaps it’s family and being surrounded by them; perhaps it’s work, striving to achieve and do more. Perhaps it’s money, especially when we’re just starting out and bills are everywhere.

Whatever it is, there’s something we prize above anything else. And so skeptics and disbelievers who say they don’t believe in any god are kidding themselves, in a way. When we’re honest with ourselves, we each have a god, we each have something we have set up in our life that is central, around which we will structure our whole world.

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The challenge of Christianity, when fully embraced and fully realized, is to not choose any of those “gods” of the world–no, not even family (see Matthew 10:37-39!)–but instead to put God at the center of our life. That’s hard! At least it can be for me. If where I put my time, my money, and my effort truly reflects my priorities, then…how many times can I actually admit I’ve put God first?

The Christian doesn’t have to embrace a monastic life, though, to be fully Christian. Over the course of our discussions here, we’ll explore some of how to keep God at the center despite having to live in the world.