Monday, November 26, 2012

The Frolic Sanctity of Advent

Last year during the Advent season my wife, Anna, and I attempted to teach our children the story of Christ’s birth through song. We would all gather, rather haphazardly, around the couch or sprawled out on the living room floor. The intention was to teach the kids one hymn each Advent week until Christmas. We truly attempted to teach them more than one hymn, but our fatal (and fantastic) flaw was that our first hymn was “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. When we tried to move on to a new hymn the children would have none of it. My feeble efforts in teaching “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “Away in a Manger” were met with resistant yawns. So I gave in. It was an O Come, O Come Emmanuel-athon.

Our eldest, Adison, from the moment she heard it, was determined to learn every word to the song. She soaked up every haunting note, carefully watching our mouths as we sang the words. Watching her sing it is infectious. Every now and then I still spot her off in a pew by herself before worship flipping through the hymnbook to find “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and then, with a studious finger-pointing technique, she traces the lines, singing softly to herself. She was seriously devoted to learning the song because her heart had it memorized the first time she heard it.

My son, Noah, on the other hand, was seriously devoted to flipping across the room while we tried to teach this hymn. He had no time for anyone mourning in lonely exile. He was ready to disperse them gloomy clouds and get to the good stuff. As we sang our way through those solemn, expectant verses, he was gearing up for the refrain, ready to unfurl a noise that would make a trumpet curse. “REEEJOICE! REEEJOICE!” Every little particle of that little boy’s body united as one biological choir striving towards this one purpose. “REEEJOICE! REEEJOICE!” His voice only gave credence to what the rest of his body was already saying. His face, with eyes wide and wild, screamed, “Rejoice!” His arms rocketed to the sky and his legs sprung him upwards faster than a spooked cat; together they cried, “Rejoice!” Had it not been for the ceiling, the Heavenly Host would’ve undoubtedly mistaken him for one of their own.

And so we sang. I held the hymnbook and carried the tune. My wife held onto Arwen, our third child, and carried our fourth, Willow, in her womb. Adison, like an anchor, delving the depths of the soul of the song, singing the ancient words as if it were the first time they had ever been sung. And we needed that weightiness, because the second our lips stopped moving we would’ve been hurled into the heavens—zipping through the Aurora Borealis and bypassing the Pleiades—borne on the wings of a little boy’s praise.

During that time I experienced, what Chesterton off-handedly calls, deep levity. The seriousness and gravity of the birth of God as Man dancing on the lips of children. Children who have yet to scratch the surface of the amazing implications of what it means for God to become Man, yet with a shriek and a laugh seem to understand it better and with more intimacy than the most learned theological scholar. C.S. Lewis described his Eve-like Green Lady in Perelandra as one who possessed ‘frolic sanctity’. As I think back on it, no better words could define such a moment. A family searching together the depths of the riches and the wisdom and knowledge of God, not through textbooks and chalk dust, but through singing, laughing, and children jumping off of couches.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Key to Successful, God-Pleasing Worship

I’m going to come straight out and give you the answer. The key to successful, God-pleasing worship is obedience. But wait. There’s more to this than meets the eye. Buckle up. Let’s jump in like this:

Throughout the Old Testament we see that right worship practices, while commanded by God, are not enough to please God. Worship actions, in and of themselves, weren’t enough. God, as we know, looks at the heart. The sacrifice of bulls wasn’t pleasing until the worshipper’s heart was broken and contrite. (Psalm 51). So often we see worshippers in the Old Testament perform the actions and rituals of worship perfectly, thinking this is enough to please God (after all, he commanded it, right?), but at the same time hates his neighbor. God saw this and called them out on it, saying essentially that their disobedience outside of worship negated their obedience in worship. This is precisely what Jesus was talking about when he said “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” The worship practices were right on the outside, but the heart was rotten on the inside. “In vain do they worship me.”

On the flip side (and on a much neglected topic that, alas! will remain neglected here), God also condemns worship practices that have veered from His commands. God commanded that sacrifices be unblemished. Yet we find the priests in Malachi’s day (for instance) offering marred and blind sheep. God was not pleased with this worship either. But if we look closely we’ll see that the root for God’s displeasure is the same. Worshipping God in a way that he has not directed is a problem because at its root, it is also a heart problem.

So if there is one thing we could conclude about successful worship after briefly looking through the Old Testament it is that full obedience is the key to God’s pleasure in worship. Who can ascend to the hill of the Lord? He who has clean hands and a pure heart. The worshipper must be pure and clean outside the Temple to assure successful worship inside the Temple.

This is extremely bad news for us. Wait. What? Bad news? But we just figured out the key to successful worship! Let me explain.

All Bible-believing Christians come to the same conclusion: The biblical key to successful, God-pleasing worship is our obedience. However, once this is discovered and a church tries to implement it, the results are devastating (sexy for a season…but in the end, devastating). Once it is conveyed that our worship will not ‘work’ until we are obedient, we immediately begin to see two things (among others); Guilt and Pride.

Guilt creeps in when we realize we don’t know if we’ve been obedient enough for our worship to achieve success. Our sin is too blatant. We look to others in the church who obviously have it all together. We can’t even compete with their standard, let alone God’s standard. This leads to unending anxiety and/or despair. We live in never ending worry, always trying and realizing our failure to worship, or we simply just give up. What’s the point?

Pride creeps in when we’ve figured out just how obedient we need to be to achieve success in worship. God-pleasing worship becomes a formula. Do this, don’t do that, and worship becomes a success. Our sin isn’t as big a deal because it isn’t blatant (unlike those people). Over time, the standard we’ve been able to meet becomes our standard, the standard. (But of course, we maintain with confidence that it’s really God’s standard). We live in never ending false-assurance and judgmentalism. And the only thing that threatens our stability is when someone challenges our standard (how dare they challenge God’s standard!).

There is nothing new under the sun. This is exactly what the Israelites were doing in the Old Testament. This is what people were doing in Jesus’ day. The prideful Pharisees and the guilty tax collectors. And this is exactly why it is bad news for us that obedience is the key to successful, God pleasing worship. But it’s God’s plan, right? How can God’s plan be bad news? Well, God’s plan is actually good. Perfect actually. Holy. The problem isn’t God’s plan, the problem is us, and a holy plan is bad news for unholy people.

When it comes to successful worship, we simply cannot turn the ‘key’ to achieve anything. We can’t even put the key in the key hole. Our dirty hands work like a resisting magnet when we come close to the key. As much as we want it and as hard as we try the key will always be just outside of our reach. The guilty know this and freak out. The prideful are too busy looking through the key hole and gloating over their vantage point. Big whoop. They’re all still outside. No one is pleasing God with their worship. Bad news.

But the good news is this; Jesus was obedient for you.

God is the same. He never changes. He is holy. His plan is always good. This means that the key to successful, God-pleasing worship is still the same: obedience. But now we no longer need to be dependent on our own obedience, on our own righteousness, to please God! This is why Jesus came; to do for us what we were helpless to do. So worship is still dependent on obedience, but now it’s flipped. God provides obedience, through Christ, on our behalf. This obliterates pride. I didn’t do it, Jesus did. It annihilates guilt. Jesus has given hope to the hopeless and rest for the weary.

Now when we enter into the presence of God, because of, and through Jesus, God is pleased with our worship! This does not mean we ought to fall into immorality because Jesus will pick up the slack. This cannot be the case. The reason? Because now that Jesus has accomplished full obedience on our behalf, and we are given access to the Father who is pleased with our worship, we will be transformed in His presence. Like Isaiah, an encounter with the living God is a life changing, life cleansing experience. Our hearts are changed because true, God-pleasing worship always leads to sanctification.

Now that Jesus has turned the key and opened the door, giving us access to God in worship it certainly doesn’t mean that we revert back to our own standards of righteousness. That would be like thanking Jesus for letting us in and then leaving him at the door. Then we’re left wondering why our worship is bland, boring, lifeless, ugly, and ineffective. We sense that God is not pleased, so we return to the Bible, like the good Protestants we are, rediscover the key to God-pleasing worship is obedience and because we assume Jesus is cool just being the gatekeeper we try to jumpstart our worship with more of our own obedience, fueled by our perceived ‘righteousness’. But God is still holy and without Jesus all of your obedience is like filthy rags in his sight. If God sees that you left Jesus at the door to get your own groove on in worship he’ll boot you the hell out. Door slammed in your face. Flaming sword. Scary angles. All that jazz.

In my estimation this Leaving-Jesus-At-The-Door type of thinking has largely infected much of modern Evangelical thought and worship. I recall attending a worship conference and listening to a rock solid, well known preacher speaking about the subject of how worship is linked to obedience and moral living. He had every opportunity but he said nothing about Jesus’ obedience on our behalf! His reasoning is far too common: “The Bible says obedience is required for God-pleasing worship so…let’s all obey!” It makes you want to weep in sadness. That, or smash your head through a plate glass window out of frustration. To separate from Jesus, and begin operating by way of your own righteousness and obedience, well, we’re back to where we started at the very beginning. No need to call your friends, Pride and Guilt, and invite them back to the party. They already came in through the bathroom window. But God is gracious through Christ, even to dunderheads who leave Jesus at the door. The point is, don’t leave Jesus. Without him, worship is vain.

The key to successful, God-pleasing worship is obedience, just not our obedience. It’s Jesus’ obedience on our behalf.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Gloriously Unnecessary: Stars

When Man deems, in his own estimation, that a thing is no longer practical, necessary, or convenient he will, at all costs, do his best to rid the world of it.

Evidence for this can be seen in the continual assault on the stars. Of course, no one is intentionally (as far as I can tell) trying to blot out the starry sky, but it is an assault nonetheless because Man has deemed that stars are no longer practical. What purpose do they serve for our ever increasing techno-industrialized society? We no longer need the stars for navigation; there are all manner of gadgets at our disposal for that (maps, GPS, etc). Stars are of no use as a source of light. Street lamps now light the way.

At one time the stars were heralds proclaiming the glory of God. At their haughtiest they were even considered gods. Legends are the stuff of stars. But science has demystified all of that hasn’t it? The ancients wrapped the stars in a cloak of mythology. Tales of epic proportions came from the sky. Now nerds in white coats drone on about “dead light” and balls of gas and in the name of discovery and advancement have achieved a greater evil than any primal pagan; they have stripped the sky of Awe. Though the pagan was wrong in worshipping the stars, he was more right than the scientist. At least when the pagan looked up his breath was taken away. Modern Man yawns, or squints, since he’s been raised in a land that attempts to wash away the starry host, night after night, with all of the practical, necessary, and convenient things like street lamps, billboards, and sky scrapers.  C.S. Lewis was on to something when he condemned modern man for rejecting the word “heavens” and replacing it with “space”.

But to say that an impractical thing is good doesn’t mean that the practical thing that replaced it is bad. In fact, our practical inventions like navigation systems have freed the stars from their ignoble task of “directions”. If stars are only viewed as “directions” then they are being enslaved to practicalism (rather than assaulted as an enemy as they are now; when the beast is no longer useful, put it out of its misery). I for one, prefer Mapquest over the stars. However, just because a practical invention negates the use of stars in a particular way, rendering it “unnecessary” does not mean Man should war against it (though he will). Stars are unnecessary to Modern Man, but they are gloriously unnecessary.

In this sense the stars have been liberated, set free from their task masters. They have been released from bondage and precisely because they are unnecessary to Modern Man, they are now in the greatest position to fulfill their God-given mission; to proclaim the glory of God. And now that the stars have regained their rightful place, Man’s assault on the stars is all the more telling. The attempt to blot out the heavenly bodies is really an attempt to blot out the Heavenly altogether. The stars are screaming out the beauty, the glory, and the wonder of God and in response Man is holding his ears firmly shut shouting, “I can’t hear you!” So the faint, seldom seen stars glimpsed above the city lights pronounce “Woe!” (which is still the glory of God).

I work in the city and live in the country. Each night after work around eleven o’clock, as I’m heading to my car I look up and see a dark hazy sky, tinged with yellow city lights. One or two stars have been crafty enough to shine through. As I make the journey home the sky gradually begins to expand and grow darker. And mile after mile the stars multiply and shine brighter. Somewhere at the tail-end of the suburbs, just a few miles past the electric madness of the car dealerships, I take a right and the sky explodes. The trek from urban to rural is a cosmic experience.

The Gloriously Unnecessary has just punched me in the gut and sucked the air from my lungs. I’m forced to look up. I have no choice. I’ve even pulled the car over just to look. The jungle of street lamps and illumined advertisements I just drove through cannot rightly be called ‘light’ anymore. They’re cheap knockoffs. They point me in the wrong direction. They point me to the glory of Man. The stars, though—the rightful light—have drawn me in. As they led the ancient ships in ages past they will not fail in pointing me in the right direction. They point me to the glory of God. It is in moments such as this when Man tastes that which is truly necessary.

Monday, April 30, 2012

April: Amazing Grace

"'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home."
Amazing Grace is undoubtedly the most recognizable hymn of our day. Some might wonder why such a well known hymn would be included for memorization. Doesn’t everyone already know the song? The first verse perhaps, but what about the 4th verse? No, not the one that starts, "When we've been there ten thousand years", I'm talking about the original 4th verse (and 5th and 6th verses for that matter). Most people have never sung the remaining original verses to the well known tune. But more than just singing unfamiliar verses, this song was selected because of the profoundly simple, yet powerful way it conveys the overwhelming reality of God's grace in the life of a believer.

From this hymn we see just how dependent we are on the grace of God. In verse one we see that it is grace that saves us. In the second verse we see that it was grace that brought us to our realization that we are under judgment (it taught our hearts to fear) and yet grace is the very thing that releases us from that judgment which makes it so very precious. The third verse shows us that God’s grace has carried us through every hard time and it will continue to lead us; grace has been, and is, enough. The following three verses then focus on how grace affects the remainder of our lives. We are amazed by God’s perfect protection and provision, we are amazed how, even in the face of death grace gives us the ability to live it in joy and peace, and we are amazed that even though the world as we know it will pass away, God’s promise of grace will still remain. Amazing grace, indeed!

Find more information about "Amazing Grace" and John Newton at:


Amazing Grace

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.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!

John Newton
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The LORD has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But GOD, who called me here below,
Will be for ever mine.
Words: John Newton (1725-1807)
Music: American Folk Tune

For 10 months in 2012 our church will be memorizing hymns together. For more information about this click here.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

March: In Christ Alone

"Here in the death of Christ I live"

There is no doubt, "In Christ Alone" is perhaps the best hymn written in the last few decades. No other modern song comes close to the clarity and imagery in telling of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ while at the same time masterfully weaving the impact and implications of what God has done for us. The beautiful tune fits the lyrics like a glove. It's simple and soaring.

Because of the deep resonating truth contained in the lyrics one can sing this song in any season of life. The main reason is because nearly every line is a giant arrow pointing away from ourselves and towards Jesus.

Find more information about "In Christ Alone" and the hymnwriters at:

In Christ Alone by Rich Tuttle

In Christ Alone

In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev'ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain;
Then bursting forth in glorious day,
Up from the grave He rose again!
And as He stands in victory,
Sin's curse has lost its grip on me;
For I am His and He is mine—
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the pow'r of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow'r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the pow'r of Christ I'll stand.

"In Christ Alone"
Words and Music by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend
Copyright © 2001 Kingsway Thankyou Music

For 10 months in 2012 our church will be memorizing hymns together. For more information about this click here.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

February: Praise to The Lord, The Almighty

“O let all that is in me adore Him!” 
"This hymn was written by Joachim Neander, born in 1650, whose father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather--all Joachim Neanders--had been preachers of the gospel. But as a student, Joachim was wild and rebellious. At 20, he joined a group of students who descended on St. Martin's Church in Bremen to ridicule and scoff the worshipers. But the sermon that day by Rev. Theodore Under-Eyck arrested him and led to his conversion. A few years later, he was the assistant preacher at that very church.

Joachim often took long walks near his home in Hochdal, Germany. They were worship walks, and he frequently composed hymns as he strolled, singing them to the Lord. He was the first hymnwriter from the Calvinist branch of Protestantism. When he was 30—the year he died—he wrote this while battling tuberculosis:

Praise Ye The Lord, The Almighty, the King of Creation.
O my soul praise Him, for He is Thy health and Salvation.

One of Joachim's favorite walking spots was a beautiful gorge a few miles from Dusseldorf. The Dussel River flowed through the valley, and Joachim Neander so loved this spot that it eventually was named for him—Neander Valley. The Old German word for 'valley' was 'tal' or 'thal' with a silent 'h'.

Two hundred years later Herr von Beckersdorf owned the valley, which was a source for limestone, used to manufacture cement. In 1856, miners discovered caves which contained human bones. Beckersdorf took the bones to a local science teacher who speculated they belonged to one who died in the Flood.

But when William King, an Irish professor of anatomy, saw the bones, he claimed they were proof of evolution's famous 'missing link.' Other Neanderthal fossils were found, and for many years they were used to 'prove' Darwin's theory of evolution. Today we know the Neanderthal was fully human, an extinct people group of great strength.

But, as one expert [Marvin L. Lubenow] put it, 'when Joachim Neander walked in his beautiful valley so many years ago, he could not know that hundreds of years later his name would become world famous, not for his hymns celebrating creation, but for a concept that he would have totally rejected: human evolution.'"
The above passage was taken from the book "Then Sings My Soul" by Robert J. Morgan, (page 27)

How often do we consider singing to ourselves for encouragement? This hymn not only drips with Biblical substance it also replicates the Biblical style of the Book of Psalms. In fact it is a paraphrase of Psalm 103:1-6. The Psalms are bursting with songs aimed at reminding the soul to praise and bless the Lord. Our souls need constant reminders to turn our attention to God, to praise Him, to find our joy and satisfaction in Him.

Find more information about "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" at:
Cyberhymnal | Cyberhymnal (German) | Wikipedia | Hymnsheet from Covenant Life Church

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty by Rich Tuttle

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

Praise to the Lord,
The Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him,
For He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear,
Joachim Neander
Now to His temple draw near;
Praise Him in glad adoration.

Praise to the Lord,
Who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings,
Yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen
How thy desires e’er have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?

Praise to the Lord,
Who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;
Surely His goodness
And mercy here daily attend thee.
Ponder anew
What the Almighty can do,
If with His love He befriend thee.

Praise to the Lord,
O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath,
Come now with praises before Him.
Let the Amen
Sound from His people again,
Gladly for aye we adore Him.

Text: Joachim Neander, 1680. Based on Psalm 103
Translated by Catherine Winkworth, 1863
Tune: LOBE DEN HERREN, Stralsund Gesangbuch, 1665

For 10 months in 2012 our church will be memorizing hymns together. For more information about this click here.