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?

Within Us

One of the phrases I heard so often on worship teams and at churches was “We have to get into the presence of God.”

The impression I got was that God’s presence was a difficult place to attain, a challenging state to achieve, where all the music goes right and everyone is caught up in worship. That experience was the goal, and apparently it was rare, but we were going to try for it anyway.

For the “W” entry in the A to Z challenge, I want to talk about the term within.

This understanding of worship that I mention above seems to follow the Holy of Holies model.

If we look into the Old Testament and the laws about the setup and rituals of the Tabernacle of God, we find that there were three main sections to the place of worship. The Outer Court was the largest, where most people could go. It was where the average Israelites brought their sacrifices.

Then there was the Holy Place, the sort-of makeshift Temple in the middle of the Outer Court. That housed a number of key elements, and there was a much more strict set of rules about who could enter, when they could enter, and what duties they would perform.

Inside the Holy Place was the Holy of Holies or Most Holy Place – the spot where God’s presence dwelt. Only the high priest could enter, and that only once a year. It was a significant duty that could result in death if the rituals were not performed properly.

We sometimes treat worship like this, as though there are levels we have to reach, areas we have to go through, to progress from the start of the Sunday service as far as we can get toward the presence of God. Some Sundays, we feel like we almost made it. Some Sundays, everything comes apart. And some few Sundays, we feel like we really did it; we really entered into God’s presence through our worship.

Older songs convey this understanding… the chorus “Take Me In” uses the picture of the Tabernacle to describe the desire to draw near to God.

Take me past the outer courts, into the Holy Place
Past the brazen altar, Lord I want to see Your face
Pass me by the crowds of people, the priests who sing Your praise
I hunger and thirst for Your righteousness, and it’s only found one place:
Take me in to the Holy of Holies, take me in by the blood of the Lamb
Take me in to the Holy of Holies, take the coal, touch my lips, here I am

Nothing against the heart of the song, but I don’t believe that’s how worship works for us as New Testament believers.

“The Kingdom of God is in your midst” (also translated as “the Kingdom of God is within you.”  – Jesus, in Luke 17:21

A while back, a movie called Stigmata came out using religious symbolism and a thriller plot to call attention to a “Gospel” not included in the traditional Bible. The Gospel of Thomas, in the movie, contained a powerful truth the church would rather keep secret: the idea that the kingdom of God isn’t a church building or religious institution, but that the kingdom is actually within you and me.

I was dumbfounded by this movie’s attempt to convey this as a “new” truth that the Church would fear. It’s quite biblical (though I’d say the Gospel of Thomas is not, for good reason).

Consider the implications of these verses:

19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.  – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NASB

and

For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said,
“I will dwell in them and walk among them;
And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
17 “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord.
“And do not touch what is unclean;
And I will welcome you.
18 “And I will be a father to you,
And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,”
Says the Lord Almighty. – 2 Corinthians 6:16-18  NASB

and

the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, 27 …which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.  Colossians 1:26-27  NASB

oh, and also

20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. – Galatians 2:20

So the point is, God in us is really not a new concept. (To be fair, the Old Testament has its share of verses that point to the same truth. The passage from 2 Cor 6:16-18 quotes from Leviticus, Ezekiel, and Isaiah.)

Long story short, the movie was a silly attempt to make a big deal out of a Gnostic “gospel” by calling attention to a particular line that is already established Christian doctrine.

What does this have to do with worship?

When we realize that God is with us everywhere we go, it changes our understanding of “getting into the presence of God.” He’s not far off, waiting for me to get there, if only I can jump through the right hoops and hit the right notes and somehow bring the congregation with me. He’s here, inside me, inside you if you’re a believer, inside each of us in the church building as we gather together. It’s not about getting us into His presence at all.

It’s about opening our eyes to the fact that He is already there with us, within us.

Here’s an analogy: My heart is full of love for my wife and my children. In a sense, I carry them everywhere I go, because they hold a special place in my affections. It’s not something I have to work up or fake. There’s no complicated ritual about it. My love for them simply is, and it is within me.

I can be distracted, or I can let frustrations steal my focus, or I can allow problems in the relationship to keep me distant. But the love for them is there, and all it takes is for me to stop and think about them.

How much more so with God who lives within us?

What do you think? Do we often try to work our way into God’s presence? Or do we recognize He’s there already, and work to fix our gaze on Him? What does it mean that God is within us?

Strong Language

Continuing the A to Z blog challenge, we come to ‘T’ for which I have chosen theology.

As worshipers seeking God, we must have an understanding of Who He is and what He says. We need words for how He interacts with us and the qualities He displays. Theology provides us with that language, and gives us a much-needed standard (as near to a standard as one can get with matters of faith) which keeps us going straight.

We are to be people of truth – another strong contender for the T blog – since Jesus declared that those who worship the Father must worship in spirit and in truth.

Theology is the active study of that truth, the search and observation of God’s interactions with humanity, the organization and classification of thoughts and concepts about God. It’s the ‘science’ of religion, supplying clear vocabulary, enabling in-depth discussion and further study.

Research by people like George Barna and David Kinneman show a Western Christianity that is dreadful in its lack of theological foundation. There are far too many of our brothers and sisters running around proclaiming maturity after years in church pews, but with little to no grasp of core biblical truths. People would claim to follow Christ and yet hold to teachings that directly contradict Scripture.

It’s like kindergarteners playing house, trying to imitate the grown-ups around them.

I’m talking about myself in so many ways here. If I think I’m above all that, and I have such better understanding, all I’m doing is making myself the spiritual emo kid standing off to the side watching everyone else with contempt while remaining completely uninvolved in anything productive or beneficial to the kingdom. So I’m no better, nor am I claiming to be.

Disciplined efforts to learn more about God – not just through personal experience but through systematic study of the established truths of Scripture – this is part of what I believe it means to worship in truth.

We don’t just rely on haphazard encounters with God. We also benefit from intentionally engaging God’s Word with the perspective of teachers in the Body and the works of spiritual giants in the past. That way, we’re not learning every so often as we go about playing church, we’re building our understanding in the same way that 2nd grade material builds on 1st, and 3rd grade lessons require a grasp of the 2nd grade teachings.

The writer of Hebrews speaks to his audience about their need for basic teachings, and indicates that a discipline of practice will help believers mature properly:

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14 NASB)

In the same way, Paul talks about taking full advantage of the gifts provided to the church:

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, (Ephesians 4:14, 15 NASB)

Strong theology gives us powerful words that fuel our worship. As we realize more and more who God is and what He has done for us, we find more reasons to draw nearer, more cause to praise Him, more passion to help us chase after Him.

And when we find Him, overwhelmed by the reality of His love, we worship in response to the truth.

Quality Time

Catching back up to the A to Z blog challenge… I took too much time over the weekend and failed to get Q and R posted. It’s amazing how fast stuff piles up.

If I don’t make the time for writing, I find I won’t get much done. It’s intentional, a choice, a setting of priorities that I must then carry out.

Otherwise I find myself scrambling to keep up, or looking back on missed opportunities.

My daughter turns 14 in June, and my wife and I aren’t quite sure how we feel about that. On the one hand, she has often been so helpful and mature, and on the other hand, we worry she may not be fully prepared for adult life. And of course there’s the fact that as parents, it’s hard to let go.

Our children grow so fast, but the distractions and trials of life often keep us from noticing the passage of time until it’s too late. Especially when they’re young, but even when they’re older, parents often worry about their relationship with their kids.

Are we spending enough time with them? Are we getting quality time? Do they know how much we love them?

One of the hard lessons as a parent is that we can’t make quality time without quantity time. We don’t get to flip the switch and say, “I’ve got ten minutes right now, let’s make it awesome, okay GO. Instant quality.”

Quality moments happen here and there as we spend a significant amount of time and put forth significant effort to make it as good as it can be.

The same is true of our relationship with our Father in heaven, isn’t it? I never feel like I’ve really connected when I take five minutes in the morning to glance through a devotion and whisper a prayer. I hardly feel close to God when I forget Him in the daily shuffle and only remember just before bed.

And just like with kids, greater quantity doesn’t ensure quality unless we put forth effort. I’ve been to prayer meetings and worship services where I come in exhausted. Sitting there half asleep listening to the prayers and songs of others, maybe mumbling an Amen or Yes, Lord… that doesn’t grow my relationship to God.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that just like with fitness, the collection of little things we do all day is more important than some arbitrary measure of ‘devotion.’ Keeping God in mind, staying true to our beliefs, maintaining frequent prayer, and meditating on His Word is – in my experience – more beneficial than trying to read five chapters of the Bible a day or hitting an hour-long prayer goal.

But there should also be those special moments, as with any relationship, where we take extra time to be together, to grow closer, to learn more about the other party. And that will often only happen when we set aside time.

We are called upon to seek the Lord, to draw near to Him. He’s taken several steps to reach out to us, hand extended. How we respond determines the quality of our relationship to God.

We make time for what is important. Our kids see that. Our friends see that. Our spouses or significant others understand it. God is no different in this respect.

I have to make a quantity of time available, and as I do so, I’m sure to discover a better quality of time. That’s not just my opinion, not just a hope or common sense. It’s His promise.

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” – James 4:8

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.”

Me Time

There’s a great blog post going around about the iPhone mom, the one at the park looking at her mobile phone and missing her girl dancing around or climbing the monkey bars, her son doing cartwheels or swinging high in the sky. The point is that those moments may be that stay-at-home mom’s only opportunity to converse with an adult during the course of a busy day. I know my wife and I have talked about the difficulties she faces when she gets almost no interaction with adults until I get home after work, let alone any quiet moments to herself.

There’s a Baby Blues joke about a Valentine’s Day gift the husband presents to the wife, purchased from the hardware store. She looks unimpressed, until he reveals that it is a titanium bathroom deadbolt so that the children cannot interrupt her privacy. Suddenly, it’s the most romantic gift ever.

Sometimes we need a quiet place where we can shut out all the distractions and just be alone.

This is where worship ties in. There’s a parallel here that worshipers would be wise to follow.

The worshiping church body hopefully has a team of worshipers that do all they can to remind the congregation of God’s presence and goodness. That worship team is hopefully made up of passionate individuals – the ‘I’ for the day’s A to Z blog challenge entry.

“There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team.'” Or so goes the prevailing logic. But the truth is, there are several ‘I’s on any team, and those individuals need to be at their best in order for the team to succeed at its best. That involves time spent in the presence of God, not just corporately with the congregation, or even as a worship team. It means that I need to have an active worship life of my own.

Multiple times in the Gospels we see Jesus go off to be alone, early in the morning, late in the evening, spending time in prayer. There’s a reason. We read that Jesus discerned what was in men’s hearts, and did not entrust himself to any man, but solely relied on and followed what He saw from the Father.

Where do we think Jesus got this revelation of what the Father was doing? How did He develop the skill and intimacy with the Father to see where He was meant to go, what He was meant to do, what He was meant to say and to whom?

“Well, Jesus was God in the flesh, so of course He knew what the Father wanted Him to do.”

But Jesus was also fully man, and our example to follow. He was limited in His knowledge while He walked on the earth – how would anyone’s faith surprise Him, and how would anyone’s lack of faith spontaneously frustrate Him? He temporarily gave up that equality with God in order to come as a Man (see Philippians 2).

There are other examples throughout Scripture. Consider Daniel’s habit of private prayer, something he would not give up for any reason even on threat of death. Peter is in prayer, alone, when he has his vision in Acts 10. David had many opportunities to worship in solitude, and we read his songs throughout the book of Psalms. Job had a daily worship routine. Hannah goes to the Tabernacle alone to pray for God’s mercy.

Life is full of distractions, both good and bad. Everything vies for our time and attention.

But worshipers cannot point the way to a place they have not been, an intimacy they have not known or seen.

We often say we need to find time, but the fact is time comes to everyone in exactly the same quantity every day. We must make time, by locking out all other voices and distractions, throwing that titanium deadbolt on the door, and spending a few moments alone with God.

What ways do you find most helpful for blocking out the busy world to focus on the Lord?

Three Words

Repetition is sometimes the bane of the worship musician. You probably know the stereotype, the service where the leader and the team are lost in space singing the same chorus over and over.

Let's sing that one more time... I mean four more times... and one more...

Let’s sing that one more time… I mean four more times… and one more…

“I could sing of Your love forever… I could sing of Your love forever…”

No, really, I guess we’re going to sing of Your love forever, because here we go again singing of Your love forever, and now I’m not sure I can sing of Your love forever, we keep singing this line forever…

There are moments of powerful worship where we sense the presence of God and get lost there. And then, maybe one line is enough to capture our attention and express our heart. Maybe a few words are enough. Maybe no words at all.

I was thinking about this as I considered what to choose for ‘G’ in this A to Z challenge. It’s perhaps the shortest worship song ever, centered on God’s goodness.

There’s a key phrase in the Bible for the worship of God. In 2nd Chronicles 6 and 7, King Solomon and the people of God have completed the work of building the Temple, and they hold a massive service to dedicate it to God. They’ve offered sacrifices, and then Solomon prays, inviting God’s presence. Fire comes down, consuming the offerings. The glory of the Lord fills the Temple; His presence falls with such heaviness that the priests can’t even minister or enter. Everyone falls face-down and begins to sing.

“You are good, and Your love endures forever.”

Tobe khehsed o-lawm in transliterated Hebrew.

Three words. That’s it. “Goodness, kindness, forever.” Over and over.

There’s a verse I’ve often heard used to condemn or criticize the repetition that sometimes occurs in praise and worship.

And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Matt 6:7 NKJV.

They point to the prophets of Baal, dancing around, repeating cries for their god to act, going so far as to cut themselves to beg his favor. “How are we any different,” they ask, “if we sing the same words over and over, as though our many words will get God to act?”

But we don’t see people in Scripture praising to make something happen. They praised because God is good and His love endures. And God moved in their midst.

Paul and Silas don’t sing to break the prison walls and loose their chains. They sing because God is good in spite of circumstances.

The psalmists didn’t sing in the midst of their trials and tribulations in order to work some kind of Christian magic. They sang because they trusted in God’s kindness which knows no end.

Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn after the Last Supper (Matt 26:30). The early church had psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Col 3:16). There were often worshipers on the fields of battle leading God’s people – sometimes at His direction, sometimes simply because He is good and His love endures. King Jehoshaphat was promised protection from two enemies that worked together against his kingdom. In light of the promise, he appointed people to worship God, singing four words – “Praise God, kindness forever.” God caused the two armies to turn against each other, and His people did not have to lift a hand. They just lifted their voices.

Praise and worship is part of the spiritual life. But it isn’t about conjuring up emotions or supernatural experiences. It is not about formulas or manipulation. There are no magic words to repeat, no rituals that earn us the presence of God or His power on display.

Worship is about One thing – God. It is in response to one thing – His goodness toward us. It’s a relationship, not an equation.

In relationship, sometimes saying just three words can be enough.

Good Morning

Waking up this morning, getting ready for work and today’s challenges… And Chris Tomlin’s song God’s Great Dance Floor off the newest Passion album Let the Future Begin is filling my ears, my mind, and my heart.

You’ll never stop loving us
No matter how far we run
You’ll never give up on us,
All of Heaven shouts, “Let the future begin!”

I feel alive! I come alive!
I am alive on God’s great dance floor!

With God there is forgiveness and mercy, sins and failures washed away. God’s not looking back at our yesterdays to remind us where we messed up. He’s looking forward, His grace a constant driving rhythm all around us, compelling us to forward motion.

What a great thought for the morning, when you breathe deep of the new mercies and look ahead to your day’s challenges: let the future begin, steeped and saturated in the grace of God.

Nothing A to Z related here, just some thoughts I’m having this morning.

Do you hear the beat? Let’s come alive in the goodness of God today.