June 30, 2014

Substance [REPOST]

It's Throwback Thursday ... on a Monday!

Yeah, I'm exhausted from this weekend and today is my daughter's birthday, so I'm going to re-post something I wrote back in May of 2011 instead of trying to write something new in a time crunch. With some edits, of course; I can't resist improving my work every time I look at it again, so feel free to try and spot the improvements. New post again Thursday or Friday this week. Enjoy!


"If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." [The Apostle Paul, in Philippians 2:1-4]
The church in the West has a fragmented, worn look about it these days. We find ourselves all over the spectrum on every conceivable issue, and while that's to be expected, it seems that every day another scandal finds its way into the media about some Christian getting angry at some other Christian over some theological or doctrinal or political or practical issue that they don't quite agree on. Like oil and water, members of what are supposed to be the body of Christ just can't seem to mix.

And it begs the question, whatever happened to Jesus' call for unity?

In John 17, Jesus prays that his followers would be, above all, united together as Jesus is united with the Father. The early church had a word for this likeness: homoousios, meaning of the same substance.

I dare you to try and weave that one into conversation today.

God the Father and Jesus are of the same stuff; if you see one, you see the other. But as you read through the Bible, sometimes it feels like God the Father (especially in the Old Testament) and God the Son (Jesus, in the New Testament) aren't really that related; one burns Sodom and Gomorra, the other heals beggars and lepers. But when you look more closely, you start to see that God the Father really is generous, loving, and actually likes his creation, and that Jesus sometimes gets upset and turns over tables. The more you read, the more you see that they are made of the same stuff:

God the Father and God the Son are both servants.

God began the restoration of His world by rescuing Israel from slavery, something none of the other religions of the day would claim. Jesus, over and over again, healed people physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually everywhere He went. It makes me think that unity in our body, as diverse as we are, as seemingly different as we are in our theology, in our expression, in our worship, means that we need to all be of the same character, of the same stuff.


We need to be united because we take on the character of God, and the best way to do that is to love each other. And the best way to love each other is not at first a head thing, and not even at first a heart thing, but is at first an action thing: to serve. Serving others is at the very core of God's character, and is thus at the very heart of what it means to be a united body.

That is why we are called the Body of Christ.

I've never seen people who serve together angry at one another for very long. When we serve others with others, we can put our differences aside because it's no longer about our own agendas, preferences, or opinions; it's about following The One who invited us with Him on a mission of restoration. When our self-obsession dies and we give ourselves to the mission, our obsession with analyzing and judging the differences between ourselves and others will start to dissipate. It always seems that where disunity is found, people are too focused on loving themselves instead of others.

Disunity, at its heart, is about selfishness.

Unity, at its heart, is selfless and humble.

And so may we be a people of one substance, of one character, of one mission, in one Church.

Of one God.
"The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'" [Jesus, in Matthew 28:16-20]

June 27, 2014


Compliments are awesome.

There’s nothing quite like being told you’re doing a good job at something, particularly if it’s something that you love doing. I love it when people give compliments, not just when I’m the one who gets them (everyone does), but especially those times people can be really funny as they give them.

About six months ago I was coiling mic cables after a particularly powerful worship gathering, and someone from our congregation came up to me and said “hey man, that one song was really great, I really enjoyed it! it really fit the moment and I felt like God spoke to me during that song.” I was glad they liked it, and as is my custom, I simply said “thank you" and, since I’d been in the middle of something, started turning back to keep putting gear away. But then he just stood there. While that was apparently his only reason for coming to talk to me, he was expecting a conversation. Not having much to say other than accepting the compliment, there was suddenly this awkward pause while we both wondered what to say next. I’m wondering why he’s not going away, and he was probably wondering why I didn’t have something deep and meaningful to say (pastors, as you know, are supposed to always have something deep and inspirational to say in any moment of silence).

After a pause that was probably longer than anybody could stand, he said "I mean, not to say that the rest were bad - you did fine, really great even - but that one song, that was so great.” Another pause, as I try to digest what that meant. “But the others were good too." And he shifted from one foot to the other as he realized how this was making it weird. And then I started to feel about as awkward as a giraffe on waterskis and panicked, so I said, "well ... thanks." Again. And he abruptly turned and walked away. I kept coiling cables wondering what had just happened.

We who serve by leading worship from the front can often feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. Most often, we’re not playing our own music - in that regard, we’re a bit like a glorified cover band. We can be creative as we arrange music to fit our context and our team’s particular gifting, but in the end, the melody and basic music structure needs to stay the same. Furthermore, we also know that when music is powerful, it’s ultimately because of God making Himself known through it, not just how well we played. [side note: please don’t ever use the phrase “God really showed up this time!” because it’s bad theology; God was already there, you just finally noticed what He was up to.]

So when we get compliments about the music, or when we get critiqued, it only goes so far. We can certainly figure out what we did well and where we need work in the execution of the music, or our planning, but in the end, success and failure for us need to hinge on something else. Yes, it’s important to do our best, and yes, it’s important to plan. But in the end, the successful outcome of a worship gathering is not measured by how many mistakes we made while playing, or how smooth our tone was, or how together the band was.

What matters is whether or not people were able to engage with God.

Because that is why we are there.

For all the awkwardness of the conversation, he gave me the highest compliment a worship pastor can get. At the end of our time together, if people have been able to gather as one, if they have been able to use the space we provide to speak to God and to hear from God, to sing with and to and about God, and are then sent out to live what they’ve learned for another week, then we can call it a success. Which means, if in our planning, in our leading, and in our execution, we must first keep in mind one thing: what is God doing in this time, in this place, for and through these people?

And how can we point our people towards that?

June 23, 2014


The tricky thing about peoples' gifts is how hard they are to nail down.

There's no manual, particularly for the arts, that says "this now qualifies as good enough to serve" and then gives a sliding scale with measurable metrics. To say it another way, there is no way to be sure immediately that a person has "the gift," be it hospitality, administration, or musicianship. After watching someone sing on a worship team, for example, we can start to guess at whether they're gifted, but only time will show one way or the other. The scriptures encourage us to make sure everyone uses their gifts to build God's Kingdom here on earth (the “priesthood of all believers”), and part of that is serving the gathered community of God's people.

At which we're called to do our best. To lead our congregation in worship means singing lyrics and melodies that are in sync with the scriptures and with the language of our culture, creating appropriate environments, and curating a gathering that creates space for God to work. However, it also means the avoiding distractions. Good worship artists work hard to make sure they don't distract congregations from the ultimate focus of engaging God. We can distract by talking too much or too little (but let's be real, it's usually too much), by creating unhelpful noise. Sometimes we distract by not being intentional, by not being hospitable, by wearing clothes that call too much attention to ourselves (always a sensitive subject), by not being practiced ... the list is endless. In short, we can be distracting when we are not excellent at using the gifts we have been given.

Excellence is a good value, a biblical value, because it rightly behaves as though God is honored by giving our first fruits, the best of what we have. But sometimes, churches seek excellence over all else, and they can end up being pretty inhospitable. For example, auditions are not in themselves bad (it is good to make sure that the gifts of a volunteer match up with the ministry in which they want to serve), when removed from a discipleship pathway it can communicate that a church values only what the volunteer can contribute, not who that person is (a child of God). The focus becomes making the presentation excellent, rather than the spiritual lives of the faith community and the host community around them. Rules and standards become more important than people, who become objects. Predictability squelches out any chaos. Eventually, the standards become so harsh that creativity is no longer possible; the possibility of failure is required to have innovation.

And so the church will die, its life gradually drained away by bureaucracy and over-planning. This is why worship, children’s, and youth ministries are the first to die, in that order. These are the places of innovation and chaos within a church, and families who value these things will leave when it’s clear that nobody in leadership finds them important. Since these ministries are often messy and not always predictable (let’s be honest, if they’re not, you’re not really doing them right), a church with life will always contain an element of chaos. 

Clearly, excellence alone cannot rule.

God’s people are also called to serve as a family, and so other communities prioritize inclusion of as many of the priesthood as possible. This is a noble value, one that draws people together. Jesus called us friends, Paul said we were adopted into God’s family. To prioritize the radical inclusion of people into the Kingdom is how we are called to live.

But not everybody can sing.

There’s a difference between radical inclusion into the Kingdom and radical inclusion into areas of service. The scriptures celebrate the fact that there is great diversity in the world, but we have a tendency to think some gifts are better than others. In the worship world, for example, so many people thank the preacher or singers after a gathering, but nobody goes to the greeters or the tech booth or the people who fold the bulletins to thank them. Being up front, in our culture, is sexy and cool; serving behind the scenes is not. We think that one is leadership and the other is not. We think wrong. Lots of people think they can sing, but not everyone is gifted at leading a congregation via microphone (and when you really are tone-deaf, you still won't know you can't sing).

We cannot use notions of "including everyone" to justify putting just anybody up in front of others, and we can’t use them to put just anyone behind the scenes. Though one seems more important to us than the other, both must be celebrated, and both must be done by those with the gifting. The music, for example, could become distracting because nobody can follow a leader who can't sing or a band that can’t play; the people become an unfortunate focus. But it is just as distracting when the tech team doesn't know what they're doing. This ends up dishonoring the gifts given to the people; people who are gifted in one way but think they're gifted in another will never flourish until they are able to confess* who they've been created to be, and serve in the way that honors who God created them to be.

*confess (v): to agree with God

The irony is that both extremes hold something in common: both prioritize making someone feel good - either the people who want quality (be it congregants or artists), or the people who want to feel special on stage (the people who can't sing). One church would rather put up with bad singers or artists or greeters than help them find their true gifts but risk offending them (after all, nobody likes being told "maybe you should only sing in the shower”). Other churches would rather have such predictability that nobody can possibly live up to their standards. In both cases, an idol is made; the priority isn't really to glorify God through His people (though it often comes in at a close second), but rather, to either make God look good, or to avoid making people feel bad.

And that is an impossible task, a nightmare to sustain, and frankly, nobody's got time for that.

Especially since God does what He wants anyway, which doesn't always make sense to us.

God does not desire a life for us of emotional comfort, free from bad feelings, but rather a life of meaning and purpose. Andy Stanley often says that when faced with a problem that keeps rearing its head, we should look to see if it's not a problem to be solved, but rather, a tension to be managed or maintained. In other words, it's a both/and. It's not "either" excellence or inclusion, it's "both" excellence and inclusion. To be our best means both honoring the gifts of our community \and honoring their diversity. True relationships are ok with struggle and challenge, and our priority needs to be investment in people rather than exploiting their gifts for a product.

And above all, remember that the point is not amazing music, amazing drama, or amazing services (though they help).

The point is the amazing God to whom they are meant to direct our attention.

June 19, 2014


“Why is it that you see the dust in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but you can’t see what is in your own eye? Don’t ignore the wooden plank in your eye, while you criticize the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eyelashes. That type of criticism and judgment is a sham! Remove the plank from your own eye, and then perhaps you will be able to see clearly how to help your brother flush out his sawdust.” (Jesus, Mt. 7:3-5 VOICE)

A doctor doesn’t do surgery when she can’t see her hands or her instruments or the patient clearly. A chef doesn’t cook blindfolded. A carpenter won’t use a power saw without eye protection that keeps his eyes safe and his vision unobscured.

The plank is obscuring your vision. So don’t try to delicately remove a tiny speck from the eye of your neighbor.


But how often do we behave as though our plank-filled vision is totally clear? We get so used to the plank being there that it’s almost like it’s always been there, like that’s actually part of our character and not something to be removed. We start to act like plank-eye is a normal part of our biology. Some of us even start celebrating our planks (“diversity!”). And then, we try to remove specks from the eyes of those around us as if they can’t see properly, even though our plank-eyed extension does far more damage as it swings into the face of the person in front of us (despite the fact that until now they’ve generously refrained from pointing out our planks; we seem so proud of them).

The first step to recovery is actually admitting the presence of a plank and the necessity of its removal.

Fast-forward to the moment the plank is gone, your vision clear. Think of all the things you learned along the way about plank removal. You’ve learned about yourself, the anatomy of planks and eyes, the way planks get into eyes (maybe they start as specks and then grow), surgical techniques that take time with careful, precise movements. Recovery techniques from surgery and healing balms for plank-removal scars. Maybe you practiced on a lot of dummy-eyes, because you wanted to get it just right when you did it on your own, irreplaceable eye. And then you succeeded! The plank was liberated, its weight gone from your head, leaving a freedom you hadn’t imagined possible! 

Now imagine, if you have learned all that about how to remove that plank from your own eye, how much humility have you learned through the experience of removing the plank from your eye? How much more empathy do you have for those with a speck in theirs?

And could it mean that you could now teach another person how to remove the speck from his eye for real?

June 15, 2014


Christians who speak only with their wallets are called consumers. 

Christians who speak with their service are called disciples. 

The places you show up are the places you value. While you can write a check from a distance, the minute you start showing up regularly in person is the minute you start showing what is important to you. If you invest your time in a place, chances are you’ve already invested your money there anyway; ask any teacher, any pastor, any entrepreneur, any grandparent. When you build something with your hands, when you invest your time with people, when you spend time serving somewhere, that says more about you and your priorities than your signature on a check or any plaque on a donation. You could write a huge check to a church but spend every sunday at a sports stadium or a country club or a concert hall; trust me, we’ll know what’s more important to you. You only have so much time and so you can only have so much that's important to you. You must prioritize.

Your presence speaks volumes. Use it wisely.