Grateful Praise

“Enter His gates with thanksgiving,

And His courts with praise;

Give thanks to Him, bless His name,

For the Lord is good,

His steadfast love endures forever,

And His faithfulness to all generations.”

—Psalm 100:4–5

 

In his introduction to the psalms, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann observes, “Israel’s usual way of giving thanks is by telling: reciting a narrative about a situation of need or desperation, and then reporting on the wondrous way in which God rescued, delivered, or restored.” This type of thanksgiving is concrete and specific. It’s rooted in the story of God’s action on our behalf. It looks back on the past faithfulness of God in particular situations, embraces the future with confidence that His faithfulness will continue, and saturates the presence in praise for both.

 

So this week, as we tune our hearts for worship—particularly, the worship of thanksgiving offered from grateful hearts—let’s reflect on the story that our thanksgiving is rooted in, and the specific and countless reasons we have to give thanks.

 

 

This song reminds us that God is our help and salvation, that His goodness and mercy are shown to us every day. What is a way that His mercy has been demonstrated to you today? Take a moment and write a few down. Be specific and concrete. Consider doing this right before you leave for church on Sunday, to remind yourself of some of the reasons we have to praise the Lord.

 

 

“Remember how His mercy reached,

And we cried out to Him;

He lifted us to solid ground,

To freedom from our sin.”

 

If there’s one source of thanksgiving that never runs dry, it’s the fact that God rescued us from our sins. Take a moment to think about the way that you came to know Jesus as your savior. Think of all the people, all the influences, all the moments in your life that brought you to faith. Then take a moment and thank God for reaching down into your life with His mercy, to free you from your sin.

 

 

“The God who made the world and everything that is in it, He who is Lord of  heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands. Nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to mortals life and breath and all things.”

—Acts 17:24–25

 

Say what? Every single breath is a gift directly from the hand of God? Talk about something we take for granted.

 

Take a moment and focus on your breathing—really be aware of it, of how it fills your body, of how constant it is. Think about how much trouble you would be in if it wasn’t for each and every breath you receive. Now spend a moment in “breath prayer.” As you breathe in, pray in your heart, “Creator of all things…” Then, as you breathe out, pray in your heart, “Thank you for giving me this breath.” If your day gets crazy, if you can’t think of anything to be thankful for…take a minute and pray like this. It’s a reminder that we are never far from a reason for thanks.

 

 

“I will give thanks to You, O Lord,

For though you were angry with me

Your anger turned away,

And You comforted me.

Surely God is my salvation;

I will trust, and will not be afraid

For the Lord God is my strength and my might;

He has become my salvation.”

—Isaiah 12:1b–2

 

At the end of the day, we all have our individual stories. Stories of deliverance from situations in our lives, stories of rescue from loneliness or poverty or sickness or despair.

 

But there’s one story that serves as the wellspring of thanksgiving for every follower of Jesus Christ. The story of how, while we were yet enemies of God, He took on flesh and gave His life to ransom us. The God whose wrath we rightly deserved has become our salvation. For that, we can never thank Him enough.

 

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him in spirit and truth, and may you never find yourself lacking in reasons to sing your thanks to Him.

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My Story, Our Story, Their Story

As we tune our hearts for worship this week, I want to do something a little different.

 

I’m currently participating in a seminary course on the practices that form and constitute Christian community. This week, we were requested to reflect on our own Christian community autobiography. I could have fulfilled that assignment elsewhere, but instead, I’m doing it here… 

 

…because the more I reflected, the more I realized this was the perfect place to do it.

 

Intrigued? You’re in for a longer post than usual this week, but I hope you’ll find it was worth it. Step with me down memory lane—my memory lane, at least—as I reflect on my story. I think you’ll find that, in many ways, it’s your story as well.

 

My Story

 

My story is a tale of two churches—First Christian Church of Monticello, and the Gibson City Bible Church.

 

As a child, First Christian was my home away from home. In so many ways, my childhood was shaped by the church’s practice of hospitality. The hospitality of the church was demonstrated through the open doors of the building itself. How many afternoons and evenings were the halls and classrooms of that church a castle or a spaceship, a conference room or a secret hideout for my friends and I while my parents modeled service and sacrifice by participating in the ministries of the church? Through the hospitality of the church, I learned what it meant to have a space where I was welcomed, even in a world that so often resents the inconvenience of children whose serious concerns of play and adventure aren’t serious enough for the somber world of adults.

 

Through this church, I was also shaped by the hospitality of its people. Week after week, as the hosts of my parents’ small group invited us into their homes, I learned what it meant to be part of a community bound together by something that reaches beyond the walls of a church building, or the limits of a Sunday morning sacred time. Of course, I learned this not through prayer and Bible study, but through playing computer games in the basement, or having lightsaber duels in the backyard. These were sacraments of my childhood, holy rituals of a faith that brought the grace of God into the concrete reality of my life in ways I would not recognize until years later.

 

And how concrete that reality became, through the church’s practice of generosity. During those months when my dad was searching for a job, and groceries would appear on our doorstep on the very days when money had run out. It was as if the stories of manna from heaven weren’t some abstract tale from centuries long past, but were still the way God provides for His people to this very day.

 

Of course, as many of you can already guess, the other Christian practice which truly shaped my experience at First Christian was the practice of worship. Did I understand all the words I was singing? Of course not. Did I fully appreciate the deep symbolism of communion of baptism? I doubt I ever will. But I can still remember the voices of the saints dancing off the rafters, stirring my soul with what I knew was the sound of heaven on earth. I can still remember tears in my father’s eyes as we sang, teaching me that it is ok, and even right, to be moved by the grace of God that goes beyond intellectual expression. I can still remember hearing this extended family singing, “It Is Well With My Soul” as I walked the red-carpeted aisle to publicly profess my faith in Christ and be plunged beneath the waters of baptism.

 

This was the story of my childhood. A story which, in many ways, ended when we moved to Gibson City. I was just entering middle school, and in many ways the Bible Church was the home of the adolescence of my faith, just as First Christian was the home of its childhood.

 

Here I experienced community through the practices of Bible study and prayer as I learned to go deeper in my faith with a community of saints. Here I became part of community through service, as I learned that my own gifts as a musician could be returned to the Lord for the good of His people. I learned that community isn’t just what you receive, but what you give as well. Practices of hospitality and worship continued to shape my understanding of Christian community; the hospitality of a church who caused us to feel welcome in a new place and a difficult time; the deepening appreciation for worship as I began to sense the first stirrings of God’s call on my life for ministry.

 

It was also at this church that I entered vocational ministry, and learned to see Christian community through a new lens—the lens of one tasked to invest in this community not only as one of its members, but one of its leaders. I learned the joys of serving alongside people whose faithful hearts and joyous spirits are a constant source of encouragement and conviction. I learned the terrible pain of pouring yourself into ministry, only to have someone slash your efforts apart with the razor-sharp claws of critical words and an inflexible spirit. Yet even through these trials, I learned the joys of reconciliation, the power of sitting at a table with someone who could be your enemy, and finding that in Christ, all the differences become something to be examined but not to be bowed to, that the grievances become something to be weighed, measured, and healed but not something to be chained by.

 

One last practice that shaped my experience at both churches, serving as an interesting parallel between my experiences, was the practice of promise-keeping. At both churches, I saw the local body responding to the faithfulness of God by committing to expand their facilities. I watched as this promise was kept, not by some instantaneous miracle, but by the hard work, financial faithfulness, and dedicated service of the church. And, looking back, I can see how in both cases, the celebration of the new buildings’ completion was really a celebration, not of our promises kept to God, but of His enduring faithfulness to us.

 

Our Story

 

I said at the beginning of this post that my story is, in many ways, our story. But perhaps you read it, and it sounds nothing like your experience. How then can I say this is our story?

 

Consider the words we will sing this Sunday as we gather for worship. Consider these songs of testimony that tell our story as the body of Christ, and seek to take that story to others.

 

 

 

 

Isn’t our story as the body a story of hospitality? Of God creating a space where we are welcomed and valued, like I felt as a child in the halls of First Christian?

 

Isn’t our story a story of grace being made manifest in the concrete reality of our lives—not just in lightsaber duels in the back yard, but in a God who took on flesh and dwelled among us, and in a God who still dwells among us by His Spirit?

 

Isn’t our story the story of generosity—of a God who lavishly pours out the provision for all our needs with the same passionate abandon with which He poured out His blood for us?

 

Isn’t our story the story of worship, as the veil is inch by inch pulled back from our eyes, and the revealed glory of God compels us to ever-increasing emptying of ourselves in humble and reverent love of Him?

 

Isn’t our story the story of reconciliation, as we realize that we were the ones who inflicted terrible wounds, not with the razor claws of cruel words but with the cruel nails of crucifying sin? And where we learn that our God is the one who calls us to a table where we can be called not enemies, but beloved friends?

 

Isn’t our story ultimately the story of a God who keeps His promises?

 

Their Story

 

This Sunday, our church will be focusing specifically on local outreach. On sharing our story with those around us.

 

Because ultimately, my story is a story of gaping holes being filled by the one thing that could fill them—the concrete, manifest grace of God made real in and through the family into which He called me. Ultimately, however different they may be in the particulars, all of our stories are that way.

 

And there are countless people in our lives whose stories are still in the first act of that grand narrative. Whose stories are stories of longing for welcome; of thirsting for generosity; of worshipping idols that never satisfy; of desperately desiring promises that will not be broken.

 

Listen one more time to the songs we will sing this Sunday. Sing the words to yourself. 

 

These words are your story. These words are our story.

 

“Remember how His mercy reached

And we cried out to Him

He lifted us to solid ground

To freedom from our sin.”

 

“May our every breath retell the grace

That broke into our strife

With boundless love and deepest joy

With endless life.”

 

“This our holy privilege, to declare

Your praises and your name

To every nation, tribe, and tongue,

Your church proclaims…”

 

“I love to tell the story

Of Jesus and His love.”

 

Will we tell our story to them? Will we invite them to make our story their story?

 

May our worship this Sunday, and every day, be the fuel that reminds us of our story, and that motivates us to invite others to make it theirs, as well. Amen.

Risky Business

When we next gather for worship, I want it to be risky.

 

I’m not talking about risk of bodily harm—I’ll leave that to the churches where the lead pastor jumps onto the stage on a dirt bike, or where the drummer is given control of the pyrotechnics (talk about a bad idea).

 

I’m not talking about risk of catching a cold or the flu, though if you really want to avoid that risk you might want to come to church in a hermetically sealed bubble, given the number of small children running around, and the warmth and friendliness of folks who really want to shake your hand, hug your neck, and show you the love of Jesus up close and personal.

 

No, I have another type of risk in mind.

 

What if when we sing, “Remember how His mercy reached, and we cried out to Him…O sing, my soul, and tell all He’s done…”

 

 

…we really remember the magnitude of the grace and mercy of Jesus? If we do, there’s a real risk that we won’t be able to help but go tell everyone we meet about it. We could turn into those weird people who only ever talk about Jesus, and how wonderful He is, and how much our lives have been changed by Him.

 

And what if when we sing “Jesus, let your Kingdom come here, let Your will be done here in us…let Your glory reign, shining like the day…”

 

 

…we really do catch a new insight into the infinite glory of our King? After all, the Bible says that as we gaze on Him, we are transformed more into His likeness. If we really want to focus on His glory, we run a real risk of turning into the kind of people who are willing to die to themselves, step into the hurt and pain of others, and lay their own egos aside for the sake of showing the Father’s love.

 

What if when we sing “Be Thou my vision…be Thou my wisdom…Be Thou exalted, always…”

 

 

…we really do look to Him to be the one who guides us on paths that are ultimately submitted to, and pointed toward, His glory and not our own? We run the very real risk of seeing all of our petty passions and worldly ambitions crumble as God leads us along the path of the cross to demonstrate the immense glory of His loving kindness.

 

And what if when we sing, “Come set Your rule, and reign in our hearts again…we lay down our lives for Heaven’s cause…build Your kingdom here, we pray…”

 

 

…we are actually propelled to be the ones who lay down our lives to see the hurt, the sick, the poor at peace? What if we realize that the way He builds His kingdom here is by building it in and through us not just as we sing songs together on Sunday, but in every moment of every day outside the walls of the church building?

 

Well, then we run the risk of being the sort of people that God finds well-suited to serve as building blocks for His kingdom.

 

So let us take a risk together this Lord’s Day. Let us meet God on His terms, and expect Him to do something in and through our worship that is bigger, and better, and farther-reaching than we could ever expect or imagine.

 

I promise, it’s a risk worth taking.

The Noise

This week, those of us in America come to worship with a lot of noise distracting us. Stories of allegations and investigations buzz in our ears. The only people weaving narratives faster than the politicians and reporters are our Facebook friends. The blaring of a presidential alert (no less noisy for only being a test) was in some ways a pleasant reprieve from the constant images of devastated homes in North Carolina, stories of police officers killed in standoffs, reports on trade wars and rumors of trade wars, and a hundred other distractions that our phones and televisions ceaselessly provide.

 

And of course, we’re part of the noise, too. Some of us are angry at one political party or the other. Some of us feel personally attacked by those who believe certain people’s testimony, and others of us feel attacked by those who question it. Some of us are watching the world go mad around us with sick fascination, and others are hiding our faces, trying to keep the news of the present from re-opening old traumatic injuries.

 

Yes, we come to worship with a lot of noise this week.

 

But it’s not just this week, is it?

 

After all, if it’s not sexual assault allegations against a Supreme Court nominee, it’s football players kneeling for the national anthem, or tech companies mis-managing our data, or natural disasters ravaging island nations, or our neighbors falling victim to senseless violence, or our bodies falling prey to cruel diseases.

 

If ever our hearts are to enter God’s presence ready to experience His goodness and respond accordingly, we need to find moments in which we can shut out the noise. We need moments when God can search our hearts and expose our idols. We need the light of the Word of God to pierce through the curtain of noise that surrounds us so that we can hear the still, small voice of the Spirit who calls us to worship.

 

So before you enter the company of the redeemed people of God and approach Him in worship this weekend, I urge you to take a few minutes to prepare. In a spirit of prayer and openness, asking God to speak to your very heart, read the passages of scripture linked below and listen to the songs we will sing together. Reflect on the summary thoughts that I have included at the end. Pray that God would cut through the noise of our lives as individuals, so that the noise of our worship as a body drowns out any other sound.

 

 

 

As we worship, let us remember how deeply flawed we are. That we are people of dust, very much prone to wander. But let us also remember that the Lord is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. That His patience toward us manifests in extravagant love that we could never measure, nor ever deserve.

 

As we worship, let us seek to dwell in the truth that God delivered us out of bondage and death. Let us seek to retell the story of His deliverance until all the earth is filled with His glory.

 

As we worship, let us fix our attention on the One who left behind His glory to enter this noisy, messy, broken world of ours to save us. Let us fix our hearts on having the same humility that He had, and let us fix our lives on joining with all creation with confessing that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 

And let us pray the words of this last song as we seek to be shaped by God into the type of worshippers He desires. Not those who can’t hear Him through the noise, but those who drown out the noise with the volume and sincerity of our worship.

 

Not Just Deep

“Deep and [mmm]

Deep and [mmm]

There’s a fountain flowing deep and [mmm]…”

 

If you know the children’s song, you know that every verse, you replace a word with “Mmm.” I don’t know why. Someone a long time ago decided that it was a good way to keep kids engaged, I guess. And anyone who’s led music for a bunch of kids has certainly been grateful for the extra minute or two of music those repeated verses provide.

 

But while the song may be cute, I think sometimes we stray into a theology that is anything but. A theology that remembers God’s love is deep, but forgets that it’s wide.

 

How often do we stop to consider how radically far-reaching God’s love is? The people in Jesus’ day had a very clearly defined idea of who was “in” with God…and guess what? Most of you reading this would not fit in that box.

 

In this week’s sermon text, we see Jesus ministering among people who His contemporary Jews didn’t think were included in God’s family. People like you and I. It’s a good thing that God’s purposes reached far beyond what His people had expected, or we would still be on the outside looking in.

 

But God’s love was wide. God had plans to glorify His name far beyond the borders of ethnic Israel, and to show His love to far more people than the genetic descendants of Abraham. David wrote, “All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, Lord; they will bring glory to Your name” (Psalm 87:9).

 

And guess what? As we gather to worship Him together, we get to be part of that prophecy’s fulfillment. After all, when David was writing about Gentile nations coming to worship the God of Israel, he was writing about people like you and me.

 

So as we tune our hearts for worship this week, let’s consider the words we will sing and pray together, and think about how they remind us of the far-reaching embrace of the grace of God. After all, if God’s love wasn’t so wide, we never would have had the chance to come and worship Him.

 

 

Take a moment to consider that we are part of the “chosen seed of Israel’s race” that this song calls to worship Jesus. God could have kept things literal, with Israel’s race being defined by, you know, race. But His love was so extravagant, and His zeal for His own glory so passionate, that He invited “every kindred, every tribe on this terrestrial ball” (aka everybody on earth) to join in the chorus. Is that really an invitation we want to refuse this Sunday?

 

 

The writer of this song says that Jesus brought good news for the captive, the shamed, the one who walked away, the doubter, the one religion failed, the blind man, the poor, the one the world ignores, the weary, the one who strives…any of this sounding close to home? If it’s not, it’s only because we forget that when Jesus said He came “to proclaim good news to the poor…freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18b), he was talking about people like us. The more we remember that we were people in need of good news, the better the news of Jesus seems.

Now take a moment to ask: if someone hears our singing this coming Sunday, would they believe that the gospel really is good news? Let’s get more personal: if someone heard your singing, would they believe the gospel is good news? If a blind man received his sight, or a deaf man his hearing, do you think he’d keep it to himself? (Read the end of the sermon text linked above if you want to give away the answer…spoiler: he doesn’t keep it to himself). The better the news, the more exuberant the response. When we sing out together this Sunday, exactly how good will we be saying the news is?

 

 

I love the boldness of the Syrophoenician woman in this week’s sermon text. She asks Jesus to heal her daughter, and Jesus pretty much tells her “You’re a dog, now wait your turn.” But she won’t be dissuaded…and guess what? Jesus honors that.

 

After all, God has always responded positively to His people speaking to Him boldly in faith—take Abraham, Moses, and Job as just a few examples. When we approach God with proper respect and humility, but boldly take Him at His word about who He is, He is pleased. And now we are told that we have confidence to enter the presence of God through the blood and body of Christ (Hebrews 10:19–20). This is even more amazing when we remember how far-reaching God’s love had to be to include us into this new and living way. Are we really about to pass up that opportunity by wimping out in our worship? Take a moment and ask God’s Spirit to help give us all the boldness we need to worship Him without reservation—both as we gather together this weekend, and as we live our lives to His glory.

 

 

At the end of the day, worship here and now is a dress rehearsal. I can’t sing about crowning Jesus with many crowns without thinking of the many descriptions of Jesus being crowned with glory and honor and praise in Revelation. In those descriptions, the crowd gathered to worship Jesus is pulled from every tongue, tribe, and nation imaginable. The radical inclusiveness of God’s love is on full display at last.

 

But if our gathered worship this Sunday is a preview of that heavenly worship, shouldn’t the breadth of His love here be on display as well? If there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female in Christ (Galatians 3:28), what other distinctions are being torn down? Rich or poor? Republican or Democrat? Black or white? Citizen or immigrant? Take a moment to ask God’s Spirit to help us demonstrate the kind of unity in our worship that truly honors Christ, and to help us individually repent of the ways in which we fracture that unity.

 

May the love of God that reached farther than anyone could imagine, to every tribe and nation—yes, even to people like you and I, who were farther than His grace could ever have been expected to reach—be the fuel that feeds our worship of Father, Son, and Spirit as we gather. May the worship we offer be a proportionate response to such far-reaching love. And may the same love that fuels our worship drive lives that reach as far with love for others as He reached for us.

Pure Worship

I’ll just say this up front: yes, I know it’s been a while. About 15 months, in fact. But given the current popularity of sequels, revivals, and reboots, breathing some new life into this blog seems like just the thing to do.

 

More to the point, I recently attended a conference which, among other things, reminded me of the importance of how we prepare for worship. If we just show up to church unprepared, and expect God to flip a switch in our hearts and our minds, we risk missing out on so much that he has in store for us as individuals, and as congregations.

 

That’s why I started Tuning Our Hearts—to help our local body of believers prepare for worship on a weekly basis, and to help readers go deeper in their own practice of worship. If you’re reading this blog for the first time, or if the 15-month gap has helped you forget everything it was about, check out this introductory post for a more detailed explanation of why I think this is worth doing, and why it’s worth reading.

 

Now that’s out of the way, on to this week’s tuning session…

 

“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord,

And who shall stand in His holy place?

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts…”

—Psalm 24:3–4a, NRSV

 

As we’ve just been reminded, this blog is all about “ascending the hill”—approaching the time and place where God’s redeemed people gather to worship Him. This quote from Psalm 24 sums up a theme of Scripture that tells us that purity is an important ingredient of worship. Let’s take a tour through the songs we’re going to sing together this week, and think about three truths about purity and worship…

 

God’s Invitation

 

When we read that only those with pure hearts can enter God’s place of worship, we have a problem. We know too well how far from pure our hearts are. This would be a problem, if we were intruding on God uninvited.

 

The good news is that God invites us to worship Him.* The psalms in particular are full of summons to worship. Why would such a God as this invite such people as us into His presence? Surely he knows the condition of our hearts even better than we do (Jer. 17:10).

 

Could it be that God is so zealous for worship that He invites us, impure as we are, to gaze on His glory, knowing that as we focus our hearts and minds on Him, the impurities of our hearts will be burned away by the very holiness of the one who calls us? Could it be that God’s invitation to worship is an invitation to be purified through our very act of worshipping Him? Listen to the song that will serve as our call to worship, and note all the ways it acknowledges that, by answering God’s call to worship, we are entering a time and place where we might be made more holy.

 

 

Now, take some time to pray that God would use our time of worship this Sunday to purify our hearts and minds, as we seek to offer Him acceptable worship.

 

“He will sit like a refiner of silver, burning away the dross; He will purify the Levites, refining them like gold and silver, so that they may once again offer acceptable sacrifices to the Lord.”—Mal. 3:4 (NLT)

 

Our Response

 

Of course, there is another solution to the problem of purity in worship: the fact that our sins have been washed away once and for all by the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Do we come to the presence of God with residual heart issues? Of course we do. But just as the veil that separated unclean humanity from the symbolic presence of the holy God was torn when Christ drew His final breath (Mt. 27:51), so the veil that prevents us from entering His presence today has been forever removed.

 

So, God purifies us so that we can worship Him. In response, we offer Him praise because of what He has done for us. We recognize that nothing exceeds the worth of knowing Christ (Phil. 3:8), so the more we know Him, the more we thank God for allowing us a way to know Him. Listen to this song, and reflect on how the washing of the blood of Christ both enables, and motivates, our worship.

 

 

Now take a few minutes to pray a prayer of thanksgiving for the way that God has purified us through the blood of Christ, allowing us to know and worship Him.

 

“‘Come now, and let’s settle this,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.’”—Is. 1:18a (CEB)

 

Our Desire

 

God invites us to worship Him. He makes a way for us to enter His presence, by the blood of Christ. We respond in gratitude, gazing on His beauty. As we do so, our hearts and minds are transformed. Then what?

 

The cycle repeats. Only this time, He invites us to worship Him by leaving the church building and living lives that honor Him and display His glory (Rom. 12:1). For the follower of Christ, Sunday morning worship is part of an ongoing pattern. The transformation we experience as we worship equips and propels us; we live out that transformation until we gather again; then, we return to celebrate what God has done, and to once again be made even more suitable for His work.

 

But for this pattern to persist, we must desire to experience this transformation and motivation, and to put it into practice. God offers, through the act of worship, a chance for our hearts and lives to be purified—but the end goal isn’t just a cleaner, shinier you. It’s a you that goes out into the world and is a better reflection of the glory of Christ. As we gather to worship Him, do we bring a desire for Him to provide the transforming purity He offers?

Take a moment to pray the words of this last song. As you gather with the saints for worship this weekend, keep praying these words, and trust God to be faithful to His promise, as even the desires of our hearts are purified in the presence of His holiness.

 

 

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another.”—2 Cor. 3:17–18a

 

P.S. – Matt Boswell has written a great devotional on the idea of God calling us to worship Him. You can read it here. Imagine my surprise to find that he rifled on the same “Tuning our hearts” idea as me. I promise, I didn’t read his post before naming my blog…either way, it’s worth reading.

Try to Remember

My wife and I recently watched the movie Kubo and the Two Strings (which I highly recommend, by the way—it’s a remarkable movie in some ways). Fairly early on, the main character (Kubo) is told that “a memory is a powerful thing.” Without giving too much away, I can say that Kubo finds out how true this statement is as the movie goes on. In fact, while there’s a lot going on in this movie, one of the major themes is the power and beauty of memory.

 

As Christians, we need to celebrate the importance of memory for our worship. So much of the worship described in the Bible involves calling to memory what God has done in the past, and flows out of that memory. Take a few minutes to read Psalm 105—it’s a little long, but once you’ve read it, hopefully you’ll see what I mean.

 

It is essential that we do not lose this practice of memory. So this week, I want to offer an exercise that might help us participate in the psalmist’s model of remembering God’s mighty deeds, and letting those memories feed and form our worship.

 

So here’s what I need you to do. Grab a piece of paper, a few index cards, a napkin—something to jot down your thoughts on. Oh—a pen or pencil would help, too. I’ll wait.

 

Got it? That’s ok, I’m really not in a hurry.

 

Ok, now that we have that taken care of…

 

Below, you’ll find a few prompts. Each begins with the words, “Try to remember…” If you’re able to come up with a memory, jot it down on whatever you found to write on.

 

But first, take a few minutes to listen to these songs we’ll be singing on Sunday. They all involve calling to memory what God has done, and hopefully they’ll help you get in the right frame of mind. Or you can listen to them while you write. Whatever suits you best. Here we go…

 

  1. Try to remember the first time you felt God softening your heart and opening your eyes to the grace found in Jesus Christ. Or even something before that point, which the Lord used to plant a seed that would later blossom into faith.
  2. Try to remember a time in your life when God’s presence was so near that no words could possibly explain it, and no argument could possibly convince you that He wasn’t present.
  3. Try to remember a time when you didn’t feel God’s presence at all, but as you look back, you can see His hand upon the situation.
  4. Try to remember something just this last week that demonstrated that God loves you—you specifically, personally, and uniquely.

 

I hope you were able to jot some memories down. If you’re willing, keep the note cards, or napkin, or whatever you wrote on and bring them with you as you gather with other believers this Sunday. Look them over as we get ready to sing. It might just make it that much more meaningful when we voice the words, “Jesus, I sing for all that You’ve done for me.”

 

First Things First

Let’s talk about priorities. No, I’m not going to yell at you. Quite the opposite—this is sort of a confession.

 

For those who follow this blog, you may have noticed a conspicuous silence the last couple of weeks. It’s not for lack of trying (I have the unfinished drafts of blog posts to prove it). It’s just that both of the last two weeks, I’ve failed to get the blog published in a timely fashion. Why? Simple: something else always came up that took priority.

 

It got me thinking that I really need to prioritize better when it comes to my time.

 

And that got me thinking that sometimes we all need to prioritize better when it comes to our worship. So, to get back into the swing of things, here are four ways this week’s worship set might help us keep first things first as we worship together…

 

  1. .. Prioritizing Our Desires

 

Most Broadway musicals have what’s called an “I Want” song. It’s where the main character gets up and sings about—you guessed it—what they want (Think “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid).

 

Well, sometimes our worship can sound like a “Greatest Hits” playlist of “I want” songs. We’re like the kid on Santa’s lap, barely able to catch a breath as we rattle off our litany of things we want. And all the while, we forget to turn our focus onto the object of our worship.

 

Well, this song by Meredith Andrews is definitely an “I want” song. But this time, what we’re saying we want is to catch a glimpse of God’s glory, to be filled with a desire to give Him the praises He deserves. What we want is to want Him. It’s like what Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 4:4–18—we want to fix our eyes on Christ, in the hopes of catching a glimpse of His glory, and being transformed on it. Paul says that this ability to see something of Christ’s glory is a gift given exclusively to believers—we shouldn’t take it for granted. A desire to see, know, and love Him better should always be a priority as we gather to worship.

 

 

2. Prioritizing Our Reasons

 

This one may sound a little weird, but stick with me. When we walk into a worship service, we do so for a lot of reasons. Some of us come out of cultural obligation. Some to catch up with dear friends. Some to enjoy good music, or to hear a thought-provoking sermon. Some of these are fine reasons, but there should be one reason above all that drives us to gather together with other believers and sing the praises of Jesus whenever we get the chance. Here it is:

 

“After this, Jesus, realizing that everything was now completed, said (fulfilling the saying of scripture), “I am thirsty.” There was a bowl of sour wine standing there. So they soaked a sponge in the wine, put it on a spear, and pushed it up towards his mouth. When Jesus had taken it, he cried, “It is finished!” His head fell forward, and he died.”—John 19:28–30 (Phillips)

 

It is finished. A lot of scholarly ink has been spilled over those words, and one of my favorite tidbits is the fact that the Greek word translated “It is finished” (tetelestai) would be stamped on loans or other financial documents to indicate that they had been paid in full. The debt for everything you and I have done to earn the wrath of the Holy God has been paid in full—there is no bill left to pay. Gratitude for that fact should be first among our reasons for praising His name as often as we possibly can.

 

 

3. Prioritizing Our Allegiance

 

Take a minute before going on and read Philippians 2:6–11.

 

Done? It’s okay to read it again—it’s a pretty awesome text.

 

 

The name of Jesus has been exalted to the place of ultimate honor and authority. It is the name at which every knee will bow, and He exercises an exclusive claim on our allegiance. If we prioritize His name above any other, there is no room in our worship for self-service, or indeed service of any other agenda. It’s for Him, and Him alone.

 

4. Prioritizing Our Purpose

 

I don’t have a recording for this song—maybe someday the GCBC praise team will get in a recording studio and crank one out. For now, just read over these lyrics…

 

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow

Praise Him, all creatures here below

Praise Him above, ye heavenly host

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

Praise Christ who died and rose on high

Who lives that we no more may die

Now seated on the Judgment Throne

All praise to Him and Him alone!

Praise Him who triumphed over death

Praise Jesus Christ with every breath

His love and lordship now proclaim

All glory to His awesome name!

Praise Christ, victorious o’er the grave

His name and His alone can save

With endless praise, before Him fall

Praise Christ, exalted over all!

Praise God the Father, God the Son

Praise God the Spirit, Three in One

Praise God above who dwelt below

Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

 

Yes, I know that the word “praise” appears fifteen times in these five verses. Yes, I know that people say contemporary church music is too repetitive. But I make no apologies, because this is the ultimate calling of the body of Christ. When we read about the type of praise we can expect to take part in before the Throne (see Revelation 5:11–14) I daresay we could use all the practice we can get.

 

So when we next gather to worship, I hope one purpose will be first among all others. It’s fine if we come expecting to be blessed, or taught, or encouraged, or refreshed. But above all, I hope we come so that we can praise God, for what He has done in Jesus Christ. If that is our number one priority, I truly believe everything else will fall into place.

I’m Not a Heretic

Well, this bodes well. If I have to go out of my way to convince you of my orthodoxy in the title, just imagine what’s going to happen in the post. Now that you’ve been warned, answer something for me:

 

Do you ever think of God as a mother?

 

Ok, now refer back to the title, and stick with me a little bit longer. The language of “God the Father” and the predominantly masculine imagery used in the Bible can sometimes result in that being the only metaphoric lens we see God through. But for the writers of Scripture, no single metaphor would suffice to describe God. Occasionally, they even used motherhood metaphors to talk about our Heavenly Father.

 

So since this Sunday is Mothers’ Day, I thought it would be interesting (if not a little controversial) to look at some of the mother-language used to describe God. These three examples all connect to why God is worthy of our worship, and resonate with the songs we use to express that worship. And if we believe that Scripture is God’s inspired Word, we also believe that nothing could better describe these aspects of God’s person than the metaphor of motherhood. Let’s see what that metaphor reveals…

 

A God Like a Guiding Mother

 

Eagles are cool—it’s an undisputed fact. Part of what makes them cool is that they learn to fly by being pushed out of their nest and plummeting toward the ground. But they don’t always get it on the first try—and that’s why a mother eagle is always ready to catch her little ones and lift them up on her own wings.

 

And isn’t that what being led by God looks like? Sometimes He shelters us in the next, but other times He pushes us off the cliff, because it’s the only way we can learn to fly. And for those times that we don’t handle the drop very gracefully, this passage reminds us that God is always ready to lift us up and carry us to safety.

 

A God Like a Comforting Mother

 

We’ve all been there: whether it’s a skinned knee from running into a tree (don’t judge), the heartbreak of a bad break-up, or the kind of pain we couldn’t imagine as children if we tried, nobody can offer comfort quite like a mother. What’s cool about this text, is that the writer could have limited the maternal imagery to descriptions of Jerusalem; then, when it came to God, He could have said, “I will protect you like a father protects His children,” or “I will tend you like a shepherd tends His sheep.” But by saying through the prophet, “I will comfort you as a mother comforts her children,” God is clearly showing that we can’t fully understand the kind of love with which God loves us if we don’t compare it to the particular tenderness of a mother comforting her child. I don’t know about you, but when I turn to God in those times I’m in desperate need of comfort, I’m glad to know that’s the kind of love that meets me.

 

A God Beyond Comparison

 

This time, the mother metaphor isn’t applied to God. Instead, it stands as the pinnacle of human love—the kind of love which we could never imagine being broken or violated. Yet even that love cannot adequately describe the steadfast, faithful, abundant love of God.

 

And that’s the whole point. That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised that the Bible uses maternal metaphors to talk about God—because we could use every metaphor imaginable, and we still wouldn’t scratch the surface of God’s infinite goodness.

 

So if we want to be well-rounded worshippers, we can’t afford to limit the language we use to talk and think about God. Scripture gives us a rich catalogue of metaphors and images, and we need to celebrate the truth of every last one. So as we gather to worship on this Mothers’ Day, maybe we can start by thinking about the ways our Heavenly Father is like a mother.

Putting the “Service” in “Worship Service”

Ready for a language lesson? In church world, there’s a phrase we use: “the worship service.” We use it to refer to that time (traditionally on Sunday morning) when the church gathers together to worship.

 

But this week, I want to think about a different kind of worship service. Ready for another language lesson?

 

One of the words most often translated as “worship” in the Bible is the Greek word latreuo. But the base meaning of the word doesn’t exclusively refer to worship. It refers to service. In other words, when the Bible talks about people worshipping God and commands us to do the same, a good portion of the time it is literally talking about serving Him.

 

So this week we’re going to tune our hearts to be sensitive to the relationship between worship in the conventional singing-praises sense, and latreuo worship—worship that takes the form of service.

 

“Build Your Kingdom Here”

 

You may have noticed that this text keeps cropping up. That’s because in many ways, this is the heart prayer of the worshipping community. Worship starts with an acknowledgment that God is holy, and moves inexorably to an active living out of His kingship and submission to His will. In this text, and in worship, the move from “hallowed be Thy name” to “Thy will be done” is not incidental—it is inevitable.

 

“The Stand”

 

In this stirring doxology, Paul gives us every reason to worship through service. After all, he reminds us, all things were created by God, for God. So whatever purpose He has for our lives, it is not only our fitting response to who He is, it is literally the reason we exist.

 

“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”

 

Following on the heels of the doxology we just read, Paul now points to the grand narrative of God’s mercy and tells us that, in response to such mercy, the only reasonable response is worship. Not just worship that sings songs on Sunday, of course, but worship that consumes everything we say and do with the single purpose of bringing glory to God. This is one of the intended results of the praises we sing together; after all, the more we meditate on the mercy shown to us in the mystery of the crucifixion, the more we become convinced that love so amazing and divine really does demand our soul, our life, our all.

 

“Take My Life and Let It Be”

 

Sometimes our worship looks like ascribing praise to God—saying, “You are.” But sometimes it looks like acting in response to Him—saying, “I will.” In the eight verses of this psalm, David uses the phrase “I will” eleven times. If we expand our criteria to include other declarations of intent (i.e. “My eyes will be on the faithful in the land”), the total comes to fifteen. That’s almost two for every verse.

 

So my question is: this Sunday, as we gather to worship, might we prepare our hearts to say not only “You are”, but also “I will”? May the Spirit of God continue to work in the hearts of His people and cause us to live lives of service, and therefore lives that more fully, properly, and constantly worship Him.