Dying to Live

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Phil. 3:8-10.

The closer we come to Christ, the closer we experience life and death. Sounds a bit strange worded like that, but let’s talk about it. We experience life in the abundant life of the Spirit and we experience death in the areas of our lives that still yield to the flesh. Some things in our lives do not yield life and must be put to death to be recreated as something different. This paradox of life and death could be seen in Triumphal Entry celebrated just weeks ago before Easter. Life, liberty, and victory are so near. But so are death, pain and agony. Should we expect to bypass such sufferings in our own spiritual journey? I do not think so. The way to life is the way of the cross.

You may remember experiencing a growth spurt as a young child. The aches and pains in your legs may have woken you up in the middle of the night, as they did for me. At the end of such pain, we grow. My towering stature of 5’7 experienced many such spurts. Or maybe not enough, I can’t be sure. Think about an area of spiritual growth in your own life. How did you learn humility? By being humbled. How did you learn patience? By having to wait. While these sufferings do not compare to the cross, the elemental principle of the resurrection is shown in that death must precede life for life to be victorious over death. When we suffer, we become like Christ in his death. But in being raised to life, we also become like Christ and experience resurrection.

Our spiritual journey must continually experience death in order to proceed to new areas of life. This is the power of the resurrection. My pride must die and be resurrected as humility. My greed must be put to death and raised to life again as generosity. If there is no death of such things, there will be no resurrected life from them. We become stagnant and cease to grow.

It is so fitting for Easter to be celebrated in the Spring. The barren cold of winter yields to the natural progression of blossoming and nature’s yearly miracles. In nature we see a glimpse of our own resurrection, both in the new life Christ has given us and in the new life to come. It is as if creation affirms this, proclaiming, “Christ is Risen!” And our own hearts have risen from the grave and we’ve become a new creation. In becoming resurrected people, we have a new existence for a divine purpose.

In the words of poet-farmer-author Wendell Berry, “Practice resurrection.”

Documenting Church Life, Musically.

A few weekends ago, Church at Charlotte hosted a baby dedication service that was a new way for families to celebrate their little ones and dedicate them to the Lord in the company of friends and family as well as other parents. This seemed to be a more purposeful way to dedicate the children instead of having it during a Sunday service where it is only a part of what’s going on during a busy service. So this was a way to honor the families as well as give them time to pray for the parents and the children and it gave the parents the opportunity to share some about their own dedication to bring up the child in the way of the Lord.

In many ways, music can help document what is going on in the life of a church. If you listen to a church’s original music, you should have a feel for what season they are in or what particular theme is stirring in the hearts of members as captured by a songwriter. We wanted to help remember this moment in time by having a song played during the service specifically about child dedication.

Which was a bit of a problem. At first.

Maybe I’m just unaware, but there aren’t too many child dedication songs out there. There certainly are some, but they were not stylistically fitting with our church and what we wanted to do. However, Kevin (Worship Pastor at CAC) and I came up with a solution. Find a hymn text, and match it to a hymn tune that people recognize, thereby abiding by the classic rules of hymnody.

So we found a hymn text called “This Child We Dedicate to Thee.” It happens to be 8.8.8.8. which is fairly common. We then chose the tune from “Behold the Throne of God Above” which is a song that our church knows well. We did two stanzas from “This Child” in the lower melody, and then went back to the first verse and went to the higher melody for some dynamic build. It didn’t need to be long, as its only about a minute and a half. But it served as a musical prayer and aided in documenting a piece of the church’s worship life.

This is a neat way to give the church something tangible to help remember the event. And it doesn’t have to be perfectly produced and sound just as good as the Ray LaMontagne album that comes out in May (stoked). The purpose is to document, not impress people. Quality should be as good as you can possibly make it and competing with culture is always a losing battle if that’s the motivation.

The church should always be a place of artistic expression. My challenge to you, and myself, is to seek out ways to document God’s story as we play our part and as it unfolds in our communities with any and all artistic expression and even in ways that seem a bit different or uncommon. Try something. Mix things up. Create. Fail, even.

I thought I’d share the music and the video here. Feel free to use our arrangement if it would serve your ministry well.

Grace and peace,

SHF

Rebelling from Rest

Quiet

Stillness

Silence

Solitude

 

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In our fast-paced culture of instant satisfaction and the breakneck speed of change, we often neglect working towards quietness and having a stillness of heart that looks in the face of noise and says, “I am at peace.” The words listed above are often foreign to us; uncomfortable, even. As we become more and more accustomed to noise, silence becomes even more foreign. 

We can not escape the noise and busyness that surrounds us. As appealing as it may be at times, we do not live in a monastery where silence is sacred and solitude is praised. So our challenge is to embrace a lifestyle of peace and quiet from within and impose it on our surroundings, rather than allowing the noise of external forces to dictate the attitude of our hearts. Stillness becomes a lens through which we view and live in the world and it directs how we respond to life’s challenges and struggles. 

It is safe to say that I’ve been wrestling with peace. When the Bible talks of peace, what does it mean? I’m finding the writings of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Frederick Beuchner helpful, but the practical consequences have yet to yield fruit. Nonetheless, I will share some thoughts I’ve gleaned along with questions I’ve yet to answer. 

Solitude is not as concerned with physical seclusion as it would appear. The most effective and the most biblical kind of solitude comes not from our surroundings but from a Spirit-empowered, Christ-like peace that is countercultural and against the desires of our earthly bodies. Merton writes that it is “not an absence of men or of sound around you; it is an abyss opening up in the center of your own soul. And this abyss of interior solitude is a hunger that will never be satisfied with any created thing.” Simply escaping noise is not the solution. If it were, the only way to quiet our hearts would be to live in some form of isolation or a lifelong retreat from noise. Therefore, this peaceful contentment is not dependent on external silence. Rather our quietness is the same in interruption as it is when left undisturbed. 

Which brings me to my first practical dilemma. How earnestly I seek this solitude but how quickly it leaves when my “silence” is interrupted! How impatient I become when I am disturbed from my thoughts! When something intrudes on “my time” I respond as one who is grieving the loss of precious quiet instead of one who carries peace from within. What this reveals is that my solitude is not inner-solitude but still dependent on external environmental factors to produce inner-silence. I have yet to learn that quietness comes from within. Beuchner writes in Whistling in the Dark that “Silence can’t be anything but silent. Quiet chooses to be silent. It holds its breath to listen. It waits and is still.” When my hearts is quieted, I begin to hear things we would have never heard before, even in the midst of others and surrounded by noise. This is the goal of solitude: to be and to be still. What I mean by this is that our existence is defined by stillness in all that we do. We live our lives as all people do, but we do them with a kind of stillness that is unique. Otherworldly, even. 

I believe at our core, we are resistant to rest. We rebel against it. Some of this may be cultural and environmental conditioning, but I believe it is an issue of the heart as well. When a heart is at rest, it is on the verge of spiritual cultivation and that may not be the most comfortable season to begin. It is not natural to be still. 

In Isaiah 30, the prophet describes the Lord’s displeasure at the rebellious nature of his people. The basic issue was that the people were making plans that did not come from God and they were relying on their own wisdom, power and directives to carry out their own purposes. That sounds a bit like you and I, if we are honest with ourselves. In Isaiah 30:15, the Lord states:

In returning and rest you shall be saved;

in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.

Quietness and trust proceed and interact together. I believe one of the reasons why we rebel from rest and quietness is because it requires trusting something other than ourselves and we do not like to admit that. We rebel from quietness because it will force us to reflect, to be still and to acknowledge our own weakness and brokenness. There have been times in my life where I have deliberately and adamantly avoided quieting my heart because I knew the consequential discomfort that would follow. When this happens, I’m clinging to my own powers rather than Christ. My trust is placed in something unstable, and there is no way to rest in that.

Israel’s issue with rest was wandering trust. It is our issue as well. 

Peace, then, can not be passive. For peace to occur, there must be some heart-directed action towards the True Peace. With this engagement comes a trusting of his power, a reliance on his might, and a violent surrender of all that is burdensome, wearying and cause of worry. I use the term violent to communicate that there must be a death warrant placed on fear and anxiety in the face of the peace of Christ that guards our hearts and minds (Phil 4:7). Peace and stillness can be disruptive and uncomfortable at first because it is a shifting of reliances. 

Seek peace and stillness of heart. Fight the rebellion from within that says, “Embrace noise” and “Keep up the pace.” Slow down. Listen. Learn. Be comfortable with the sound of silence, the stillness of a moment, the peace in all circumstances. This is the only way to find peace and rest, for our peace comes from Christ and his victory over death and the hope of his coming to make all things right. 

 

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col. 3:15-17).

 

 

To Be For the People, Be With the People.

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Being involved with music in church is a blessing that comes with a few challenges. I won’t list them here, for that’s a task for another day. I believe one of the most important challenges is realizing that worship ministry is pastoral ministry primarily, and music and arts ministry secondly. What I mean by this is simply that it is an act of pastoral leadership and pastoral care. It is about people first, and music and arts second.

It should be pretty obvious that in order to have an impact on people, you have to be with them. I have been combing through Arthur Mann’s reader entitled Immigrants in American Life and he describes the mid-19th Century political climate that immigrants found themselves. George Washington Plunkitt was a politician in the 1850′s in New York City. He held the title of what was know as a ward boss. Plunkitt capitalized on the increasingly important people group by adopting a brilliant political strategy of avoiding mailers and biased literature. He opted to simply spend time being with the people he represented. Because of this, the immigrants looked to him boss as a friend, adviser and protector. The knew he was on their side, at least politically. In exchange, they gave him their vote when election time came. Plunkitt breaks the system down quite simply:

To learn real human nature you have to go be among the people, see them and be seen. I know every man, woman, and child in the Fifteenth District, except those born this summer — and I know some of them, too. I know what they like and what they don’t like, what they are strong at and what they are weak in, and I reach them by approaching at the right side.

There’s only one way to hold a district: you must study human nature and act accordingly.

I believe there is some profound wisdom there. Obviously, Plunkitt’s reasons for being among the people are politically motivated and Plunkitt was guilty of graft and other dodgy political activity. But he understood how unify people toward his goal of election: be among them. Know them as neighbors and friends. Live with them. Mourn with them. Rejoice with them. Walk and sit with them. To use his words, approach them by being right there beside them. Sounds like a definition of community to me, actually. And it precisely describes how Jesus ministered to people.

Maybe it is just me, but one of the most difficult challenges in worship ministry is remembering people. Individual people. It is easy to look at a group of people and see them as a congregation. But it is much different to view them as a collective of individuals, making up the body of Christ. These individuals have hurts. They have worries. They have needs and celebrations. They have stories to tell and questions to ask.

The stage, therefore, is not a separation of leader and people. It is an avenue of engagement. It is a door of opportunity. The most important personal interactions will happen before or after the service and these interactions are of the utmost importance and should not be neglected, forgotten or avoided. I believe this changes how we lead worship during a service, as well.  It is a body of people gathered, not just a room full of people.  It is a communal act of hearing God, and responding. It is a beautiful act of adoration and praise coming from people we know and love. When we know our congregation, there is natural movement towards a unified song of praise. If my congregation is only a sea of faces, I’m spending much of the service trying to “read” them and gauge their reaction. When I am alongside them, the dynamic changes.

So my question to you (and mostly myself) is:

How close are you getting to the people you lead?

Dr. Mike Mitchell says that “ministry happens in proximity.” This comes directly from the way the Jesus’ was among people. He certainly when off alone to pray, but when he encountered crowds, he had compassion on them like sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36).  Look at Jesus interaction with a leper in Luke 5:12-13. Lepers were to be avoided, not touched. But Jesus was comfortable being with them, and he healed them. He came alongside them and treated them as they were: Image bearers of God, handcrafted by the Creator. 

When we see the people sitting in the chairs in this light, worship ministry becomes so much more exciting. It is not simply putting together a set list of Biblical songs that tell a story to communicate the Gospel (though that is important!). It is doing all that alongside the Body of Christ. This is the privilege and the challenge. It is not all roses and rainbows. People are not easy to deal with, but they are our family. And it is the pastoral duty of the worship team to lead while being alongside. 

-SHF

Mann, Arthur. Immigrants in American Life. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Mitchell, Michael. Leading, Teaching and Making Disciples. Bloomington, IL: CrossBooks, 2010.

Seeing and Washing the Slime.

I am one of those people that will genuinely overlook a piece of trash on the floor and not see it for hours. Then when I notice it, I’ll forget to deal with it and it will remain on the ground. But I’ll notice if the books on my desk have been moved or rearranged. If I really look inward, what I focus on externally is what I value internally. Do I care about the trash on the floor? Certainly. But not as much as I care for the books on my desk. It is quite simple, really. 

This got me thinking: What else do I overlook?

 

So I’ve been thinking about that for a few weeks, and most likely overlooking other things in the process. Here are a few honest conclusions:

1.) I overlook the poor by worrying far more about my own finances. 

2.) I overlook my own sins while judging others for doing the same thing.

3.) I overlook people for the sake of “ministry.”

4.) I overlook my family for something that is “for their benefit.”

5.) I overlook ways I waste time but want others to carve out time for me.

The short stories Flannery O’Connor have been nurturing my soul lately. In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” O’Connor tells the story of a swindler named Tom Shiftlet who meets Mrs. Crater and her deaf daughter Lucynell while wandering in the countryside. She convinces Mr. Shiftlet to marry her innocent daughter and as a wedding present, Mrs. Crater grants Mr. Shiftlet the keys to the car along with some money for a honeymoon. Driving away on their trip, Lucynell and Tom stop in a restaurant. When Lucynell falls asleep on the counter, Tom sees his opportunity and leaves her there. He leaves with the money Mrs. Crater gave him for their honeymoon and in her dead husband’s car. 

After picking up a hitchhiker and having an argument turn south leading to the hitchhiker jumping out of the car, Tom revels in his self-righteousness:

Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him. He raised his arm and let it fall again to his breast. ‘O, Lord,’ he prayed. ‘Break forth and wash the slime from the earth!’

 

Here is a man who has done a terrible thing, but feels no remorse. Rather, he overlooks his own sin and sees the sins of everyone around him, further expounding on his earlier rants about how bad the world is now.

I’m sure you know where this is going. This reminds me of a story in Luke 18 when a Pharisee and a tax collector both go to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee sees the tax collector and says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). And the tax collector, standing far from the fold, beats his breast saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (18:13).  The Pharisee was not really praying, he was using prayer as a means to puff himself up in front of others. We can easily identify this for what it is.

Slime.

We love to read stories in the Bible and imagine ourselves as the ones doing what pleases the Lord. I believe this is further evidence that we are often unwilling to admit how broken we actually are. I think we are often completely blind to the state of our spiritual health. Or decidedly blind, take your pick. The effects of the Fall are all around us and they within us as well. But I would contend we act more like the Pharisee than the tax collector on most occasions. This is the battle that wages within us. There comes a point in time where we must admit that, to borrow O’Connor’s phrase, our slime is what needs washing.  And this particular point in times because a continued practice of spiritual discipline. We can overlook it and even ignore it, but when we come to a place of honesty and vulnerability, we see what we are. However, it is far easier to look at others and think of what they must do, what they are doing wrong or what they should have done. When we investigate our own hearts, we see that everything they do, we do the same. 

This seems a bit depressing, quite honestly. But I do believe there is a silver lining to this. The more actualized our perception is, the more we see and come to understand even a little more of the depths of grace and mercy. How can we dwell on the grace of God if we do not think we need it? When we see that we need it, it is beautifully mysterious and changes the way we live and forms us to be as God intended. How can we experience the love of God if we truly believe that sinners need it far more than we do? When we live in this place of conviction, of living as one who is loved and redeemed, Christ takes his rightful place as priest and king of our hearts, the Spirit continues His work within us and the Father is glorified. 

This is why I think one of the greatest prayers to pray is:

Jesus, have mercy on me.

 

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Jesus, have mercy on me. 

 

-SHF

 

 

The Story or the Event? Being Intentionally Christocentric.

People love stories. We have and we always will. One of the reasons I love reading fiction is that it tells me a story I haven’t heard before. Reading history also quenches our thirst for learning how a story unfolded. I believe this is why movies that tell great stories impact us so deeply. Even the greatest production and special effects can’t mask the fact that a story is weak and full of holes. It may get people in the door of the theater, but they may leave unmoved by the story told. In those cases, the movie is simply a source of entertainment to leave reality for a few hours. But the story of the movie did nothing for them.

It is not the church’s role to entertain, but to proclaim.

We are to tell a story, not create an event.

Entertainment is centered on ourselves – our likes, our preferences. It implies that we are the recipients and we are the reason for the gathering. Now there is some transactional activity that occurs in worship, but this is not the purpose. For instance, sitting in the presence of the Lord moves me emotionally and spiritually in a seemingly mystical way that is beyond my comprehension. But again, this is not the purpose. If this was the purpose, worship would be, as James K. A. Smith calls it, a “refueling event.” We do receive something, for being in the presence of God is transforming and life-giving. If worship is perceived as a refueling event, it is not about Christ. It is about me.

But we must be careful not to overemphasize the fact that we are receiving. Worship must always begin with glorifying God, praising Him for who he is, all he has done, all he is doing and all he will do. By worshipping Christ, we proclaim that his death, resurrection and his eventual coming again are the reason we gather. And in doing so, we tell the marvelous story of salvation and invite others to join in this wonderful story of life and freedom.

All of this may seem very simple and you may be thinking, “I know this already!” If you are like me and you spend a good portion of your time planning services and worship sets, I pray you will think a little deeper about the origin of some service elements or song choices. Regardless of whether we realize it or not, we are telling a story in each service. So we must ask, “How am I telling this story?” Is the story telling the beautiful story of the Gospel or is it designed to meet entertainment needs? I believe doing both is missing the point, in a way.

The other day I was reading Glenn Packiam’s blog and he was describing the first time he went to an Eastern Orthodox Church. In this blog he writes that Eastern Orthodox services (along with many other traditions) are planned by theologians, not creative directors or production managers. Does this mean we have to go to seminary and be Bible scholars to plan a service? I don’t believe so. But what we can learn from this is the intentionality behind everything. We must know the why behind the what.

I call this being Intentionally Christocentric. 

(I found this blog about Christocentric Worship straightforward and clear.)

Put inquisitively and poignantly: Is everything we do pointing to Christ or is it putting on an event? Am I telling the story of the Gospel or simply putting songs together?

Intentionally telling a story communicates the story’s importance. Being intentional about every part of each service communicates that the Gospel is the central reason of our gathering and that Christ is the reason we sing.

The story we tell is greater than any other story we could create or imagine. If we settle for a “story of earth” we settle for something powerless and lifeless. We use what is from the earth to tell the story of what is beyond earth. Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote, “The only ultimate disaster that can befall us, I have come to realise, is to feel ourselves to be at home here on earth.” The story we tell should be beyond what is here on earth, but it should be told in a way that is accessible and understandable. 

I must admit, sometimes my own “version” of the story takes precedence. I struggle with the thought that I may get in the way of the greater story, by my own preferences and disposition. At the beginning of each service, a bit of fear creeps over me. Not because I am playing music in front of people, but the thought that I would somehow miscommunicate the foundational truths of the faith or that something would be unclear. But I must also realize that I am not the reason people gather. God will be God. He will use what He will use. May I simply be intentionally Christocentric in my planning, and simply get out of the way, letting the Spirit of the Living God move and work as the story is told and believed.

Singing Together

Have you ever tried to something alone that was designed to be done with others? The other day I was at the beach with my family and I went down early to put up the big tent so we could have some shade while sitting and relaxing. But as hard as I tried, I found it very difficult to put this large tent up by myself. It would have taken only a few minutes with another person, but for one person it was quite a struggle. Putting up a tent that large was meant to be done with a few people, not just one person alone.

I believe singing in church is meant to be done together. Surely there are some with mics and some without, but we are gathered to sing together not to simply listen to others sing. Some people have the gift of singing, but that should not stop people from lifting a joyful noise. Our singing does not have to be perfect for it to honor God. In the church I grew up in, there was a little lady that sat behind us every Sunday who could not carry a tune to save her life. But the genuineness and sincerity of her praise was moving.

I love the language Psalm 100 and it mentions the communal activity of gathering and singing praise:

1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
2 Serve the Lord with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
3 Know that the Lord, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
5 For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

A few thoughts. First, the Psalm implies that people are already singing before they come into His presence. Singing praise to God is something that defines our life, not simply something done at church. We enter his presence already praising God. And secondly, the response for being His people (those He cares for and protects) is to sing together in praise as one people joining in one voice. There is no better way to thank him than to praise him. Entering his gates with thanksgiving is something we do together as a singing people.

There is some science behind the value and power of singing together. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and music producer, has spent years studying the impact of music on the brain. He found that when people sing together, the brain releases oxytocin, which could be called the “trust” hormone. We develop a sense of community when we sing with others. If one of the goals of your worship ministry is to create a community of worshippers, this is good knowledge to keep in mind. When people sing together, they feel connected with one another.

So a few questions to ask:

1.) Do you sing songs that the average congregant can sing?

2.) Are songs in keys that only a professional singers could sing?

3.) If your church does not sing in the way you would like, why do you think that is?

Praying for the Pope.

Regardless of your views or opinions of the Catholic Church, the Pope is the spiritual leader of over one billion Catholics and has an incredible amount of influence among Christians worldwide. The election today was not simply for the Catholic church, but it has a great and lasting impact for all believers. To say the least, he needs prayer and that was one of the first things Jorge Mario Bergoglio asked for in his opening statements after being elected as the new pope. Choosing the name Francis is a testament of his humility and concern for the poor as has been displayed throughout his life prior to election. 

Even though this prayer can not be traced precisely to St. Francis, I found it fitting to post the “Prayer of St. Francis” which is a beautiful prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Amen
Also check out the prayer beautifully set to music in the form of a beloved British hymn.
-SHF

 

New Years Resolutions and Their Shortcomings

Every year around this time, people look back on the previous year and evaluate the perceived successes and failures. For some it was a great year. For others it was one of the worst. Regardless of the previous year, many look to the upcoming year with hope. New Years Resolutions add to this hope. We think, “If I work harder this year, it will be a better year” or “If I just lose those 20 pounds the year will be much better.”

Well I’m here to say I think New Years Resolutions (NYRs) rely too heavily on human effort and therefore I think they are a waste of time. Sorry if I come across harsh. If you want to work harder, declaring it at the beginning of the year is a great idea, but you need something greater than yourself to sustain you in your day-to-day existence. This is why most people’s resolutions make no real impact on their lives. But another problem with NYRs is the importance placed on the single day of the new year. There is nothing magical or special about January 1. However there is something special about today.

Paul talks about the time to receive God’s grace:

Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2 emphasis added).

Why wait for tomorrow for something that can be received today? Today is the day, not tomorrow. And the time to continually receive that grace will be each new day, not a day in the past or a day in the future. The individual day is the time to receive the power of God and be renewed and transformed by his grace. NYRs claim that if you will it to happen and keep it on the forefront of your mind you can change. We do not have the power to make ourselves “new creations” where “the old has passed away and the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:16).

The emphasis placed on the individual’s power and the importance of one day seems to be unproductive. The grace of God tells a different story. The opportunity for new beginning happens every single morning. But these new beginnings have nothing to do with our initiative. They only happen by the grace of God. If it wasn’t we would still be operating in a Yom Kippur-like system, where one day a year a priest made an offering to atone for our sins. We do not rely on one single day to be changed. It is his grace that changes us and his grace that sustains us. We do have to resolve to make changes, but it is the grace of God that allows such transformation to happen and I believe it is the work of the Spirit that brings about the thought of the change in the first place. Therefore, we need both discipline and grace. The problem with these resolutions is that they rely on the discipline and work of man and neglect the power of God. In discipline we faithfully try; but in grace He gloriously succeeds.

Here’s a practical suggestion: Resolve to give each day to the Lord at the very beginning of each day. Our days do not belong to ourselves. Each new day is a gift from God. If you want to be sustained throughout the day, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16). Therefore, as much as it is possible, give the first part of your day to prayer and reading the Bible. In this you will be strengthened and nourished for the difficulties of the day. Bonhoeffer states in Life Together, “For Christians the beginning of the day should not be burdened and oppressed with besetting concerns for the day’s work.” Do not rely on yourself to get through the day but do as Psalm 63:8 says, “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”

My only New Years Resolution is to try to make the first thought of my day be of praise to God, thanking Him for his grace and spending time reading His Word and communing with Him in prayer. In that, I will be continually transformed by His grace and grow and change in the ways he leads.

Am I the Focus of my Faith?

Personal Lord and Savior

I find it interesting that such a common phrase in Christian-speak is found no where in the Bible. It seems as if it would be because of how often it is used. Lord and Savior are used throughout, but the personal has been added. There is nothing inherently wrong with the statement, but it leaves out a key part of what it means to be a child of God: I am a child among many children. Professing faith in Christ is an invitation to a royal family. I understand the phrase’s meaning of the lordship of Christ and the fact that we know him and he knows us. But I believe our understanding of the redemption story must go beyond ourselves so we can see the big picture clearly. If not, the object of faith can become something other than what it should be.

I may be totally wrong in my thinking, I’m still working it out in my mind. I’ve been thinking about it in this analogy:

Suppose an aging, loving father has recently come into a large amount of money and has decided to spread the wealth among his 4 children. He has one million dollars and splits it evenly four ways so that each child receives a quarter of a million dollars. He loves them equally, how could he give more inheritance to one?

The old man sits his children down and tells them the news. They are excited, to say the least. When he explains that each child is getting a quarter of the share, there was some confusion and bitterness.

“Your oldest child does not come around here anymore. How is he worthy?”

“This youngest child is not responsible. How can you give him so great a gift?”

You get the picture. But the father is giving each one an equal share in the inheritance. It is not based on merit nor is it concerned with his favorites (he does not actually have any). No matter how close their relationship, each child received the same share. Surely some are in fact closer to him than the others, but he loves them all the same. Their proximity to the father can not raise their inheritance. This gift is personal in the sense that he has a relationship with each of them and loves them dearly. However it is not only a personal gift because it is given to the group. The monetary gift was not about an individual, it was about a family of individual members. If one child is trying to convince themselves the gift was really given because the father loved them the most, they have formed a strange concept of nepotism that does not seem to align with the wishes of the father.

The gift is personal to each child, but the focus should be on the giver of the gift; not the recipient. This is why I am much more comfortable with the terms Lord and Savior because it describes his Lordship in our lives as well as the salvation he alone provides. God is a relational God, but He is not only relational to me. He is relational to all.

Sometimes it is easy to view salvation as something I possess rather than the new creation I become and the new faith community I join. If I do this, I have effectually made salvation about me, not about God’s grace and mercy. This can be a dangerous road to travel. This is not to say that I don’t personally know Christ, because I do. But I know Christ in the context of all others who know Him as well. The salvation story thankfully includes me, but it is not centered on me. Nor should it be. Any thinking about salvation that is more centered on ourselves rather than God is missing the point.

However, I’m not saying God does not care about us as individuals. He created us and He knows us more than anyone else. He cares about the little details of our lives. Seeing salvation in the big picture gives us an even bigger picture of God. If he knows me this intimately then He knows everyone else on earth in the same way. What an amazing testament of his wisdom, power and sovereignty.