Direct Deposit

The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22, 23 NASB)

After a terrible Friday, a busy Saturday and Sunday, and then a painful Monday, I thought Tuesday might be better. Nope, Tuesday brought its own issues to pile onto what built up on Monday.

But surely Wednesday would be different.

Yes. I woke up to the dog throwing up on our carpet, and then a baby’s leaking diaper. Problems resolved, coffee in hand, I rushed out the door to work, and all the past few day’s issues started whispering doubts and worries in my mind.

Then K-Love’s “Good Morning” song reminded me of God’s faithfulness and the freedom to start the day fresh, armed with the knowledge that His presence and power are constant even in my life’s chaos.

Each morning, we wake up to a direct deposit of fresh compassion and mercy in our bank account. We rise out of bed to face opportunity even if the challenges carry over from the previous day(s).

If you’re not a believer, there’s still a parallel here. Every day you get a deposit of 1,440 minutes to do with as you please. 86,400 “pennies” get added to your account.

What are we doing with these daily infusions of time and grace? Are we taking full advantage and spending them wisely?

Even if yesterday’s problems carry over, I remember that today I have a fresh balance of strength and time to expend, and compassion and mercy to sustain me.

And that always makes for a good morning.

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Bringing the Heat

“I’d rather have someone sold out in passionate pursuit of God who can barely hold a tune, than some concert-level professional with no spiritual intimacy.”

I’ve been writing about building the fire of worship in ministry, starting with the needed structure of technical excellence as fuel. 2nd Samuel 6 has been my source text for this topic.

The next leg of that fire triangle is the heat, or in the case of worship, the heart.

The previous post looks at 2nd Sam 6:1-10 to see what happens when we don’t have the right structure in place in worship. But structure and musicianship is not all there is to quality worship ministry, just like arranging wood in a fire pit doesn’t actually give us a fire.

Starting in 2 Sam 6:11-23, King David makes a second attempt to bring the Ark back to Jerusalem, and this time, he starts it right. The appropriate people are carrying the Ark by the poles built into its frame. No ox cart is involved. On top of that, sacrifices are offered every few steps, and the King himself steps up to lead the worship and praise.

Here we see David’s heart in a right position before God and the people. Most of my thoughts here come from what Pastor Herbie Thompson shared with the Bellevue Christian Center worship collective for June – credit where credit is due.

Herbie pointed out that David leads by example in three ways which reveal his heart for God. First off, David worships with liberty.

Technical excellence calls for us to take worship seriously, but heart excellence calls us to be liberated and willing to set aside what seems proper. We must sometimes abandon dignity for authenticity in our worship. As worshipers in the view of others – whether on stage or in every day life – our expression of what’s on our heart provides an example and permission for others to follow.

What does that look like practically?

– Many traditional churches teach dancing is bad or at least dangerous. But when I read accounts of worshipers dancing before The Lord, I realize that it’s ok to permit my body’s movements to demonstrate the emotion in my heart that words cannot fully express. It’s not about my skill in dancing, it’s the fact that my heart moves me to dance before Him even as He dances over us (Zephaniah 3:17).

– I didn’t know I could get angry with God until I read the Psalms and saw worshipers expressing anger and frustration to God. Now I can be more honest in the hard times.

– We sing songs that speak of bowing down or kneeling, of raising hands in surrender, or of jumping for joy. It may not look ‘professional’ but my heartfelt physical response matching the words I’m singing – that tells others that they can do the same in church or in their everyday life.

– We often have times in between songs where we encourage the congregation to express their heart to God using their own words. If we never show what that looks like, if we never risk stumbling over spontaneous praise for fear of how it might appear or affect our reputation for technical excellence, then we’re not giving permission for the people to express their hearts freely.

Our structure has to be in place, but we can’t be bound to what’s written in a schedule or what’s printed on a page. We have to be willing to operate in liberty, so that those we’re leading can learn how to worship liberally.

The heat we bring to worship is also expressed by using all our might. David didn’t hold back in his dance and celebration. He didn’t encumber himself with the robes of the king or the heavy crown – he put on a functional priestly garment and got footloose. His physical and nonverbal actions communicated exactly what his mouth was saying.

How often do I bring that level of heart into my worship, in private or in public? Do my gestures and movements and expressions communicate the same as the words I sing? Am I singing about joy with a strained look on my face, or playing piano gritting my teeth as I try to get every note right? Am I singing a song of humility and brokenness with a wide grin on my face?

And am I giving it my all, or am I holding something back? Our expressions of worship may be the only tool someone has to figure out what worshiping God means. Do they see me bring half-hearted effort as if I have somewhere I’d rather be? Or do they see me give everything I’ve got, shouting praise till my voice is raw, because He’s worthy?

Pouring all of ourselves into worship teaches others how to do the same.

Finally, David worships with his title. He gets up as the King and he shows the people how important worshiping God is. “If the King is doing all that, then God must be important. If the King is dancing, and offering all these sacrifices… if the King took off his robes and crown and set aside his dignity to worship God, then so should I.”

David made it all about God. David took what seemed like the most important thing about him and turned it into worship of Him. Like the elders in Revelation 4 throwing down their crowns before the Throne of God, David shows the people that it isn’t about the King of Israel, it’s about the God of Heaven and Earth.

David correctly shows that the title is not as important as the testimony. His actions will be respected by those who saw him set aside his dignity for the sake of worship.

With titles and dignity, we can go one of two ways. We can turn them into another aspect of how we worship God, or we can use them as an excuse to take away from our worship of God. Michal goes that route in vv. 16-23. She goes off on David about how “the King” has distinguished himself – her primary concern was for his title, not for his heart toward God. She becomes a spectator instead of a participant, judging instead of joining.

It challenges me because it’s so easy to watch and critique instead of engaging in worship. “I wouldn’t do it that way. I would have played this song instead, it fits better.” When I find myself in that position, I need to watch out!

So, in all of this, I reflect on three questions:

What holds me back from liberty in front of other people? (Is it fear of their reaction, is it concern for my reputation? Is it shame or perceived unworthiness?)

What do I hold back in worship that keeps me from giving all my might?

What are the titles I hold that I deem most important, and how do I turn those around into amplified expressions of worship? (i.e. father, husband, manager, coach, writer)

Technical excellence and heart excellence are what we bring – the fuel and the heat. Next I’ll look at the last leg of the triangle essential for maintaining fire: the oxygen of the Spirit.

Building the Fire

I was a bit of a pyromaniac as a kid.

I might have burned several toys over the years. I may have used a lighter and hairspray as a makeshift flamethrower to kill bugs in our basement. I possibly was involved in dousing an indestructible metal Tonka truck in gasoline, but I’m pretty sure that was my brother’s idea.

I did set a dumpster on fire, but that was purely by accident.

But at camp I learned how to build and maintain a fire. Fires need three things: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Set up the fuel correctly, and you ensure that oxygen can flow through once you get the flames started. Set it up haphazard, and you potentially smother your fire. Most importantly, if you build it right, you can keep it going.

Worship ministry is similar. It starts with fuel, a foundation of technical expertise that gives us something to build on.

In 2nd Samuel 6, we see a few pictures of worship around the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of the presence of God. And the first is about this technical expertise.

Once King David secured his throne, he turned his attention to God’s presence. David wanted the Ark in Jerusalem, and went to retrieve it. He brought 30,000 men, all of them ready to praise their hearts out. They put the Ark on a new cart, and they started a celebratory procession to bring God’s presence back to the city of the King.

But the Law was clear about the way the Ark would be moved. It had poles fitted into rings on the corners (see Exodus 25) and had to be carried by the Levites (Deut. 10:8). The use of a cart was forbidden.

So the cart is jostled, and the Ark moves, and Uzzah, one of the guys walking along next to it, reaches up to make sure it doesn’t fall over. I mean, that would be pretty embarrassing, right? If the holy Ark fell in the dirt along the road?

Uzzah dies on the spot. The celebration stops. David says, “How can this Ark come to me?” and he sends the Ark off to a nearby house instead.

David had all the passion in the world, surrounded by a crowd praising their hearts out, and it wasn’t enough without the right structure.

Last Sunday, my wife and I were discussing worship. She noted how worship ministries often seem like a pendulum, swinging from emphasis on the right heart and attitude to emphasis on impeccable performance and musicianship. I’ve heard it said, “I’d rather have a struggling musician playing with a heart after God than have a concert-quality musician who’s in it for themselves.”

But we miss the point if we look at this as a dilemma, as though you can only have either technical expertise or passion for God, not both.

We can throw some folks together on stage and go after God with abandon, and it might be a powerful moment. But it’s not a sustainable model for a worship ministry.

I could set things on fire as a kid… but I didn’t know how to build a fire that could be kept burning.

The fuel for our worship “fire” is technical excellence. It’s the structure we set up, the way we arrange and organize all the parts of the ministry.

We can call it practice, musicianship, or competence. But it goes further than notes played on instruments or words sung by voices. The sound crew, the lighting manager, audio/visual technicians, administrators who organize songbooks or communicate schedule details – any group that plays a part in the technical details has to be involved in the overall development of skill for the team. They all have to be involved in this process of growth and maturation because any one of them can create a positive or negative impact during the ministry time.

For our church, this means changes like incorporating a click track to play in our earphones so that everyone can (hopefully) stay on tempo. It means getting the different instrumentalists and vocalists (and sound crew, and A/V crew, and lighting crew, etc) together to hone each other’s skills. It takes time and effort and commitment.

I used to think heart was all that mattered. I led worship based on feeling and a sense of what I hoped was the Spirit’s leading. We might practice a set on Thursday, but by Sunday morning, I would change the set because another song felt better. Or we’d practice a song in one key, and then I’d come in on Sunday and change keys so the songs would transition together better. We had a small team of adaptable and skilled musicians who would essentially shrug and say, “If you think so, sure.” Then they’d play so well it was like we planned it that way months in advance.

We had a trumpet player join. He warned me he was getting back into playing after years, but he would try his best. And I thought he did quite well, adding in here and there to complement the band.

I didn’t learn until weeks later that he was taking the music home Thursday and painstakingly transposing all the songs to the right key for his trumpet so he could spend hours practicing what we played. When I changed things on Sunday based on “heart,” I was essentially putting him on the bench for those songs. On top of that, I was disrespecting the hours he spent honing his craft every week to be able to participate.

I thought all the structure was stifling, and the refusal of organization liberating.

But the structure makes a ministry that can burn strong and keep on burning.

Take away one side of the fire triangle, and it goes out. Take away the technical excellence, allow it to atrophy, and the fire of worship ministry is extinguished.

Next, I’ll look at the other side of that pendulum – heart excellence, the “heat” to our fire.

Living to Die

A friend of mine recently started a blog, The Face Without. Given our frequently differing views, it didn’t take long for him to get my attention.

His post concerned the idea of paradise in the afterlife and how that influences the believer’s worldview. Short version: If there is an afterlife that is eternal and better than this life, then true believers desire to get there more than they care about this life.

Strong words that on the surface seem reasonable:

    This life is finite. Heaven is eternal. Point, afterlife. Therefore, how long we live here doesn’t matter. No reason to try to extend life or worry about staying safe, no reason to fear death, no motivation to cure disease.
    This life is painful, full of suffering. Heaven is ideal, free from suffering. Afterlife two to nothing. Suffering now is a pittance compared to the joys we’ll know in eternity, so why waste time and effort alleviating suffering? Why care about others or lift someone’s burdens?
    This life matters, but what matters more is getting into the next life. Three points in a row. And since the next life matters, there is no reason to accomplish anything great in the here and now, only to do whatever might mean reward in eternity.

These premises about eternity and mortality laid out, my friend then questions how the majority of believers live:

In the real world we can see, however, that not every person acts in this manner. They profess a belief, but continue to operate as though death were something to be avoided, suffering something to be alleviated, and life something important, not inconsequential. The conclusion is very simple: they do not believe what they profess.

Let’s look at these premises and the “inevitable conclusion” about this seeming disparity.

Picture the Apostle Paul sitting in a Roman jail cell, awaiting his fate. Far away, in the city of Philippi in Greece, there’s a church, one of the first places he labored. He thinks of them, and he knows they’re thinking of him. They’ve sent a representative to care for Paul, to encourage him. And that fellow will return to tell the Philippians how Paul is holding up.

So Paul writes, and addresses his uncertain fate. He knows he may be killed, but he hasn’t been executed yet. So he speaks of his “earnest expectation and hope.”

20…that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.
21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose.
23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better;
24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.
25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, (Philippians 1:20-25 NASB)

Now consider my friend’s premise:

Is death to be avoided?

Yes and no. Paul is not afraid to die, but he knows there’s more to consider than simply dying and being with Christ. “To remain… for your sake.”

While we believe death leads us to eternity with Christ, we also know that we were called in this life for this life. We serve a purpose, and we seek to make sure our purpose is completed before we die.

Matthew 28:19-20 records Christ’s command for the church to make disciples, something we cannot do when we’re dead. Though we need not fear death, we likewise do not rush to it, because there is work to be done. In Acts 7, Stephen was able to stand boldly because of his hope in Christ. But in Acts 8, when the church is persecuted, the believers don’t line up to become martyrs. They scatter, and they continue carrying out the mission God called them to accomplish. Likewise Paul hopes to avoid death at this time so that he can do the more important work of ministry to the church, even though he freely admits that it would be great to be with Christ.

There’s no contradiction here, only a balancing of priorities. Death is not to be feared, nor to be sought, while there are more important works to do.

Is suffering something to be alleviated?

Yes and no. Paul is suffering in jail as he writes, and he is content to continue suffering if need be. That’s his choice. Elsewhere, he tells of a “thorn” in his side that he asks God to remove. God’s response is that “my strength is sufficient in your weakness.” In other words, Paul can bear that burden. And Paul challenges us to do the same. “Each one shall bear his own load” (Galatians 6:5).

And yet just above that, Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” (Gal 6:2). There’s no question. The suffering of others is the believer’s ministry responsibility. Throughout the New Testament, God’s people are commanded to minister to the suffering. James 1:27 says true religion is visiting the orphans and widows, caring for their needs. That echoes Christ’s own description of how He will separate His people from those not His in Matthew 25. Those who give water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, food to the hungry, and company to the isolated… Those are who He calls His own.

My friend pointed out verses that remind the believer that the joys of eternity outweigh the trials of this life. That thought gives me hope in hard times. But my friend is mistaken if he thinks that means we can ignore the suffering of others. He believes faith in an afterlife like that of Christianity means there is no incentive or reason to reduce the burdens of life on other men. Christ says exactly the opposite, and so does God.

[God] who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (II Corinthians 1:4 NKJV)

Suffering may be endured by the believer, but must be ministered to when seen in another, because this shows the compassion of God.

Is life inconsequential?

Yes and no, of course. My friend points out in his thoughts on belief in the afterlife that the Christian concept of heaven makes earthly accomplishments seem meaningless. Paul is a great example, who later in this very same letter writes out a list of all his qualifications and reasons to boast. Then he says those are all worthless, like dung, when compared to the prize of knowing Christ. So yes, it seems like belief in the afterlife drives Paul to throw away care for doing anything great with this life.

But that’s not the case. Instead, we see that a shift has taken place in Paul’s value system. Where before, he achieved all those special titles and trophies, now we have an apostle who repeatedly takes pride in something else: the people to whom he has ministered the love and truth of God.

He writes to church after church in the New Testament, telling them of his love and his joy at their growth. They are now his prize, their maturity his treasured achievement. Does Paul go off, so heavenly focused that he’s of no earthly use? Hardly. Instead, Paul lays the foundations of theology for this off-shoot of Judaism, and through his ministry, Paul changes the course of the Western world for almost two millennia now (for good or ill, depending on how you view the faith).

Knowing or believing that there’s an afterlife doesn’t exempt me from a responsibility to live this life to the fullest. Colossians 3:17 calls us to excellence in all we do. 2 Cor 5:15 and Gal 2:20 remind the believer that what we do in this life is of great importance to God. 1 Peter 3:15-17 tell us to live in such a way that anyone who says something bad about us will be ashamed.

Still, we see Paul claiming that to die and be with Christ is better than this life, and elsewhere stating that he gladly gives up all his accomplishments for the greater prize of knowing God.

This present life is by no means inconsequential to the Christian. But in light of the value of knowing Christ, there’s no comparison, no question of which is more important.

So, is there only one ‘inevitable’ conclusion?

My friend determines that most believers don’t truly live out what their faith claims, since they do think life is important, and suffering is meant to be alleviated, and death is best avoided.

I think it’s pretty clear that there’s more to it than just an ignorance or failure of faith. In fact, my faith informs my thoughts quite the opposite from what my friend expects, concerning the value of life and compassion for those in need.

I do believe that all of this raises some important criticisms and challenges for the church. But this response has gone on long enough, so I will save that for next time.

Dance Central

So X was about worship leaders, Y was about ‘you,’ as in all of us in the congregation as individuals, and now Z will be about God.

Ok, Z and God don’t really combine well.

But Z goes well with the prophet Zephaniah, who gives us a powerful image of God.

The Lord your God in your midst, The Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17 NKJV)

Maybe it sounds sacrilegious, but God goes nuts about you and me. The word for “rejoice” there is also translated “exult,” and it has as part of its meaning the act of dancing with joy. It means to spin around, caught up in powerful emotion.

God celebrates us. He dances over us. He rejoices, He gets wild with gladness. He belts out songs of victory.

Chris Tomlin has a new song called “God’s Great Dance Floor” that I was sure I hated at first. “What is this?” I asked. “Is the church a club now?” And then I listened to the words, and I thought about Zephaniah and the promise that God dances over His people with a love that never stops loving us, no matter how far we run, that never gives up on us and looks always to the future, not the past.

Can we see that? Do we sense The Lord our God in our midst? Do we feel the power and presence of The Mighty One? Can we glimpse God-of-the-Universe doing a jig at the thought of us?

For me, I have to admit, I rarely can picture this. I have a hard time taking hold of this love and internalizing it. I don’t always feel “dance-worthy.” I’m the ashamed wallflower at the prom, the ugly and unpopular one, on the outside of the party.

But God rushes over to those of us on the outskirts and tugs at our arms, smiling wide, eyes bright. He dances when we would not, when we can see nothing worth celebrating. We dance, because He does. We love, because He loved us first. We rejoice, because He rejoices over us and gives us reasons for joy.

Picture David in the Old Testament, dancing and celebrating the return of the Ark to the people of Israel. Everyone holds David in high regard, as a mighty man of war. “Saul has slain his thousands,” they sing, “and David his ten thousands.” This strong warrior is still able to cut loose and express joy in front of the people, even at the expense of his reputation. “I will become even more undignified than this,” he says when challenged. His God is worth celebrating.

God never calls us to do what He would not. He always gives us an example to follow, at His own expense. And so we see God Himself in this word picture, The Lord of Hosts, the Mighty Warrior – and He is willing to become undignified by dancing and rejoicing over what the world says is nothing of worth. He is willing to set aside glory and leave His honor behind in order to reach out to the nobodies and the ne’er-do-wells.

Heads down, staring at the floor, we know what we’re worth… or rather what we’re not. But God extends a hand nonetheless, tapping His foot, brimming with energy and passion, ready to explode into motion, all to express one core foundational truth:

You are My special treasure, My prize, the one that I love.

That’s worthy of a few twirls, isn’t it?

No Lone Wolves

If yesterday’s ‘theology’ post was about the vertical relationship between God above and humanity below, then today’s post on unity is about the horizontal relationship we have with the people around us.

If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also. (1 John 4:20, 21 NASB)

Throughout Scripture we are reminded that we’re all in this together. No one can claim a healthy Christian life without connection to their fellow believers. Paul makes a lengthy analogy of us all as individual parts of a body, where no part of the body can tell another “I have no need of you.” If we can’t tell parts that we don’t need them, we certainly can’t blow off the entire rest of the body. (See 1 Cor 12 for the full analogy.)

Every piece is important, because each of us brings something unique to help the greater whole.

So here’s what I want you to do. When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight.(1 Corinthians 14:26 MSG)

Formal translations often use the term “edification” as in the building up of others. In Peter’s epistle, we are likened to stones that God is using to build up His house, and so I would ask what kind of a house we would have with just one brick sitting off by itself.

We’re meant to be together. The Message paraphrase continues to say, “When we worship the right way, God doesn’t stir us up into confusion; he brings us into harmony” (v.33).

What are some practical ways to work toward this?

  • Look for the good in others, not the differences. While our differences may be many, and may be important, we can usually find something special and valuable about even those we do not like. Focusing on that helps us keep ill will in check. God called to us in the midst of sin and rebellion; we can see the value in others even when we disagree with them.
  • Consider how God sees others. If we can’t see any good, God can, because He paid the same price for that other person that He paid for us. We can be honest about how we feel, but we should also ask God to give His perspective. God sees us through Christ; we should seek to see others the same way.
  • Seek what benefits others, if not all. If it serves my own purpose, it may not be the right choice, and it probably isn’t the best way to bring harmony with others. If it serves God’s purpose, it may not always be popular, but it should be what’s necessary to build up His people. Christ gave all for us; we can give some for others.
  • Be honest and forgiving. Confrontations must sometimes take place so that a relationship can build stronger ties of trust and respect. Misunderstandings can keep us at arm’s length, not in open conflict but in cold separation. That’s not acceptable. We’re made to work together. Sometimes that means speaking the truth in love, and many times that means asking or extending forgiveness for wrongs. We’ve been forgiven much; we can forgive.
  • Be willing to be wronged. Paul writes to the Corinthians to condemn them for taking disputes to the public courts, doing disservice to the work of the church to shine as a beacon to the world around them. He tells them that their issues could have been resolved in the church walls, and then he asks them, “Wouldn’t it be better to just let yourselves be wronged, and forget it?” Sometimes we just need to choke on some pride and get past a problem instead of fighting for our rights. That doesn’t mean be a doormat, and it never ever justifies abuse or harm. But when it’s a minor snub or a silly argument about unimportant matters, why not cast aside the offense in favor of love and pursuit of God’s purpose? He’s been patient with us; we can be patient with others.
  • What do you think are some other ways to work toward unity in the body? Let me know in a comment.

    Safe Prisons

    Today, for ‘S’, I thought about the title of this blog: Wanton Disregard for Safety. That doesn’t sound sensible, so I thought it good to elaborate.

    There’s an oft-quoted line attributed to Ben Franklin, that “those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither.”

    Certain voices in America are now suggesting that perhaps the Constitution has to change, because we live in a different time than that of our forefathers. Perhaps some of the protections on certain freedoms need to be limited further, because, what else can we do in the face of unexpected and indiscriminate terror attacks on the public? The logic justifies ubiquitous security cameras and intrusive door-to-door searches like that conducted in Boston. It explains the IRS mindset that private e-mails are free sources of information, and calls to mind the recent CISPA measure that passed the House, enabling companies to share private information. Of course, the desire for security informs the gun control debate, as our society tries to balance freedom and the Second Amendment with safety, security, and good common sense about the use and proliferation of weapons.

    Franklin’s quote came up with regularity after the passage of the Patriot Act under President Bush. Those who opposed his administration’s efforts in the War on Terror used the quote to question invasive TSA searches, Guantanamo Bay, indefinite detention, and military tribunals.
    The desire for security is innate and powerful. If not for myself, I wonder how I can better protect my wife, my children, the property I care about, and the free society I love. When something challenges that safety, it’s hard to resist withdrawing behind locked doors, shutting out the dangers of the world, and finding a place of limited peace.

    There’s a spiritual parallel. I believe the opposite of Franklin’s statement is true for the Christian. Those who trade security for liberty find both.

    Many of us have built fortresses to withstand the chaos of life: financial stability, an upwardly mobile career, the all-important protective bubble around our children, the certainty of knowing what will happen next, the not too cold not too hot Goldilocks religion so common in Western Christianity.

    When troubles challenge us and we hide in those man-made places of refuge, we give up the freedom to move, to fully live, to experience the provision of God in the midst of the trial. To guard that security, we become bound to and consumed by the effort of maintaining whatever we’re trusting in. We choose safe prisons and solitary confinement over the presence and protection of the Good Shepherd.

    When we abandon those high safe walls and step out into the world, we are indeed at risk. But that’s where He is, and He’s beckoning for us to come and follow. It’s hard to follow from a fortress that doesn’t move.

    There’s a tale in King David’s time of Eleazar, one of David’s mighty men. At one battle, the people of Israel flee, and only Eleazar remains to stand against the enemy, fighting until his hand can’t even let go of his sword.

    and after him was Eleazar the son of Dodo the Ahohite, one of the three mighty men with David when they defied the Philistines who were gathered there to battle and the men of Israel had withdrawn. He arose and struck the Philistines until his hand was weary and clung to the sword, and the Lord brought about a great victory that day; and the people returned after him only to strip the slain. (2 Samuel 23:9, 10 NASB)

    The second account of the story gives crucial information: Eleazar wasn’t alone. His king stood with him against the enemy.

    After him was Eleazar the son of Dodo, the Ahohite, who was one of the three mighty men. He was with David at Pasdammim when the Philistines were gathered together there to battle, and there was a plot of ground full of barley; and the people fled before the Philistines. They took their stand in the midst of the plot and defended it, and struck down the Philistines; and the Lord saved them by a great victory. (1 Chronicles 11:12-14 NASB)

    In the midst of the confusion, in the harsh realities we face outside our carefully crafted fortresses, we can find security greater than any we can create for ourselves. We encounter “the peace of God, which surpasses comprehension” (Php 4:7). We realize that true liberty is found in the presence of the Lord (2 Cor 3:17).
    That’s why Pastor Saeed can go to a place like Iran and face cruelty and opposition. He knows a freedom that outshines any man-made refuge, one that can’t be stopped by chains or a jail cell. That’s why brave men and women throughout the last two thousand years have been able to forsake all and pour out their lives in service of others, strangers they’ve never known. Some risk all to reach into oppressive regimes in order to meet the spiritual and physical needs of the people. Some spend all they can to minister to those the world calls worthless, to break the chains of modern-day slavery. Some forsake friendships and family ties in order to pursue the life-changing liberty we casually enjoy.

    We have a choice. We can throw a heavy bar across the doors of our lives, closing ourselves off from every danger, shutting the world out and ourselves in – safely imprisoned. Or we can throw wide the doors and charge into the world around us, aware of the dangers but more aware of the opportunities and liberties found in the footsteps of the Savior.

    May we be found on the spiritual field of battle, arms sagging, taking our stand back-to-back with our King.

    Perception, Participation

    Have you ever stood in a church service and heard “Thus saith the Lord” — then realized the person speaking isn’t quoting Scripture, but instead is claiming to speak for God?

    One controversial concept in the church today is the subject of prophecy, especially among charismatic churches or those that use the term “Spirit-filled.”

    Different denominations have their own take, of course. That’s kind of the whole point of denominations, isn’t it? To have their own particular take on everything.

    Most mainline denominations claim that prophecy is not for today – as in, “Thus says the Lord: in two years’ time I will do X, Y, and Z.” They look to the Bible as perfect, the complete revelation of God for His people. And they quote 1st Corinthians 13 as their source:

    if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away… For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. (NASB)

    Other denominations, especially any that emphasize being Spirit-filled or using spiritual gifts, will declare that prophecy is alive and well as a gift of God to the church.

    11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13 NASB)

    Why, they ask, would we do away with one of the gifts God has given to equip us, to build us up, to help us attain unity and maturity?

    But the key question is, “What is prophecy?” And by answering that, perhaps we can avoid some of the denominational debates.

    Prophecy comes from a combination of Greek words “pro” – before or forward, and “phemi” – to speak one’s mind. So it can be “fore-telling” what will happen in the future known to God but revealed to man. But it can also be “forth-telling” or speaking forward the mind of God on a given matter. This latter version of “prophecy” is what I want to focus on.

    He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Rev 2:7 NASB)

    God is a communicator. We are promised that His people hear His voice and follow Him. (John 10:27-30). Certainly there’s an individual application to that, where we each seek God and He speaks to us in our relationship with Him. But there can also be a corporate aspect to it, where God provides His insights to our church leaders and members in order to guide His people in the world today.

    Paul lays out lots of specific guidance for how prophecy works in the Body in 1st Corinthians 12 and 14, and we see the concept of hearing God all throughout Scripture.

    For me, prophecy comes down to two things: perception, and participation.

    First we need to see what God is doing, to hear what He is saying, to figure out where He is moving. We can’t speak forth the mind of God on any given matter without getting in line with Him. That’s where perception comes in. “Perception is reality” is a stretch, but the fact is we respond to what we perceive. So we have to catch a glimpse of God in order to start the process of responding to Him. For example, consider this comment about the tribe of Issachar:

    the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do (1st Chronicles 12:32 NASB).

    Second, once we see where God is moving and hear what God is saying, we act. We join Him, and do His will. We participate. Maybe that means a particular brand of outreach, or a timely response to a crisis. Maybe it’s a unique solution to an ongoing problem in our community. Whatever it is, the goal of the people of God is not just to hear the voice of their Shepherd, but to act on that voice and follow Him.

    27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. (John 10:27 NASB)

    Certainly, denominations will have their debates and their differences. But as individuals and as corporate churches, we can incorporate this understanding of “prophecy” into our worship and our devotion to God. We want to perceive what He is saying, and then we want to participate in what He is doing in the world around us.

    Regardless of denomination, regardless of preferred expression of worship, we believe in a living God who speaks to His people – through the Scriptures, through personal devotion and prayer, through the songs we sing, through individual Christians and through the corporate church.

    God is speaking. As those who wish to pursue Him, we must have our eyes and ears attentive, and our feet ready to follow.

    So, I’m curious: Knowing that each of His children has a unique individual relationship to Him, how do you find it easiest to hear God? In what ways does He most often communicate to you?

    My Keep

    One of the best parts of raising kids is watching them learn to communicate. Children always have unique ways of saying things, and my daughter was no exception.

    Sometimes, they try so hard but just can’t form the word. “Snake” becomes “NAKE-ssk.”

    My two year old son loves Doctor Who and chants “DAH TOR HOO” over and over when the show comes on.

    We saw a giant stuffed Domokun in the Toys ‘R’ Us on Okinawa, and Deborah declared it was “the LION.” I waved it at her and said, “Rawr.” She waved her hands and demanded, “AGH! I HATE THAT! GIVE ME THAT!” with impeccable two year old logic.

    My wife’s favorite might have been when Deborah picked up a toy phone and declared, “Mommy, I haf to make a cone fall.”

    But I think my favorite is what she would say when she gave me a hug. She would squeeze tight and declare, “You are my keep.” In other words, I am keeping you and not letting go. You belong to me.

    Yesterday’s letter in the A to Z blog challenge was ‘K.’ So I am thinking of being someone’s keep.

    This is one of the greatest facets of our relationship with the Father, and inspires my worship of God. He declares His everlasting love and promises to never let go. He wraps His arms around us and proudly proclaims, “You are My keep.”

    A “keep” is a refuge, a place of defense.

    In Psalm 31:2 (NKJV), David writes:

    Bow down Your ear to me,
    Deliver me speedily;
    Be my rock of refuge,
    A fortress of defense to save me.

    Later he declares,

    Trust in Him at all times, you people;
    Pour out your heart before Him;
    God is a refuge for us. (Psalm 62:8 NKJV)

    But that’s more about us running to God for safety. I am even more moved when I think of how God reaches for us and promises to keep us. Consider Jude 24 (NKJV):

    Now to Him who is able to keep youfrom stumbling,
    And to present you faultless
    Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy

    Perhaps the clearest picture is that of the Good Shepherd, Jesus, and how He cares for His flock:

    27 “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28 And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. 30 I and My Father are one.” (John 10:27-30 NKJV)

    Can you imagine the God of the Universe speaking to you and expressing His love? Can you hear His promise of companionship and affection?

    “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
    I have called you by name; you are mine.
    When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
    When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
    When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you.
    For I am the Lord, your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…
    because you are precious to me.
    You are honored, and I love you.” (Isaiah 43:1-4 NLT)

    In other words, “You are My keep.”

    The Unattainable Goal

    During the A to Z, I’ve been writing here about important aspects of worshiping and pursuing God. Now we come to one of the most important – and least comfortable.

    Holiness.

    “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” Heb 12:14 NKJV

    The Message simplifies this thought to “work on getting along… with God. Otherwise you’ll never get so much as a glimpse.”

    The word here means purification, sanctification, that state of staying set apart not just from the world but also for God. We can’t merely be on the outskirts of society, weird Ned Flanders types who never participate in anything fun because “that’s of the devil.” Nor can we live two lives, one devoted to God and the other riddled with willful sin.

    We’re to be whole people, holy people, healthy and helpful to the world around us.

    “May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23 MSG

    So what’s the difficulty with this?

    First, there’s no room for compromise. There’s no leeway for blowing it. Christ calls us to an all-or-nothing relationship. For example, in Luke 9:23 we see Christ tell us that His disciples must take up their cross and follow Him. That means essentially dying to ourselves in order to live for Him (2 Cor 5:14-15). Paul tells us our act of worship is to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God. (Rom 12:1-2).

    Holiness isn’t a half-hearted thing.

    Second, we never fully measure up to the mark. We can never claim we have arrived at perfection. John writes that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Paul lays out our condition in Romans 7, how we often do what we know is wrong and fail to do what we know is right. And even our very best efforts are like filthy rags before God’s purity and holiness (Isaiah 64:6). “All have sinned and fall short” of God’s standard (Romans 3:23).

    There is no finish line in life for this journey.

    That can be a weighty realization. We must be holy if we hope to see God, yet we can never attain that goal.

    So that brings us to another ‘H’ for today:

    Hope.

    Every morning brings hope that today we will be better than we were before.

    God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
    They’re created new every morning. How great your faithfulness! (Lam 3:22-23 MSG)

    Paul writes of his worldly achievements and merits, then calls them all worthless compared to Christ. And then he makes this comment:

    “I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me.
    Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus.
    I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.” Php 3:12-14 MSG

    This is why we can never wink at sin or shrug away our failures… and yet we can rejoice with confidence in God’s great love that transcends our shortcomings. When we’ve failed today, we confess it and start off tomorrow fresh, full of hope, eager to discover and display holiness.

    So tonight you get two for the price of one: a reminder that we must be holy if we desire a glimpse of God, and the promise that there is hope every morning as we experience God’s love anew.

    What do you think? What helps you strive for holiness? How does new hope each morning affect your thoughts about God?