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?
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.
When it comes to getting what we want:
We like speed,
We like access,
and its expectancy.
We demand now,
but not later.
We love here,
but want to be there.
We love the event,
We want it all,
not one thing less.
I’m learning that sometimes the process is where beauty resides. Being a disciple of Christ is not an event to which I suddenly arrive. It is a process. It is no secret that some of the best things take time. Some things have a quantifiable end or reward. In those cases the reward and journey are equally the prize. Think of a football team who recently won the Super Bowl. Surely the hard work of the season was rewarding, but winning the championship is an amazing reward as well. If you diminish the value of either the reward or the journey, you miss out on the glory of the entire story. However, many matters of spirituality and spiritual growth are not as easily quantifiable and are much more of a gradual process rather than something that is accomplished overnight or even over a few years.
One of my favorite things about making coffee or tea is the process I go through to prepare my drink. The process of making coffee in a French press is one of my favorite things about making coffee in the first place. My wife recently bought me a nice teapot and the same principle applies there. If I want good coffee or tea, I must submit to the process. Boil water. Grind beans. Pour into press. Pour water into press. Stir. Wait four minutes. Stir again. Pour.
And I’m beginning to see the value in learning to enjoy this ritualistic process of following the steps and seeing the beauty in each passing moment. In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton suggests that every moment is an opportunity to reflect on something about the Kingdom or against it. The same is true with our actions. We can work towards advancing the Kingdom or remain comfortable and likely do more damage than good. I believe God is a God of movement. Even when we are “still” there is work to be done. Sometimes the work is abiding and resting and other times it is tilling the fields or collecting the harvest. The work is simply one stage in the process.
I believe our processes are the same way. With the French Press, if I decide to speed up the process, the rich and bold flavor of the coffee will be lost and replaced with something bland, watered-down and only a fraction of what it could have been. If I see each passing step as an opportunity for Kingdom work rather than “a step to get through” I will see the glory in each moment. It is a temptation to make the process self-centered and perceive the progress through the lens of my own thoughts and feelings. This is the tragic fallacy in following God: creating a followership of God that still manages to be centered on ourselves.
Process also implies forward motion. If I stay in one stage of the process for too long, that greatly affects the outcome as well. Let’s just stay with the coffee analogy. If I pour the water in the press with the grinds and let it steep for hours and hours, the water becomes cold, the grinds become over brewed and the taste is terrible. When I see the opportunity to take a step in progress, I must take it. I realize this isn’t a perfect analogy because sometimes you stay in the same “step” for years or maybe decades. However, I think it speaks to the importance of our need to be aware of that next step and take it when it comes. But before that next step presents itself, sometimes the best thing you can do is simply see the beauty in the current stage.
How am I ruining the process?
Am I missing the beauty of today by anticipating the glories of tomorrow?
What must I do to slow down to not only recognize the process around me but learn to respect and enjoy it?
I recently listened to a radio interview with Steven Johnson who is the author of the book Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age. In the book, he discusses what can happen when political movements and technological advancements begin at the individual and small group level rather than starting at the top and trickling down. In short, it’s much more effective. I have not read the book, but heard him discuss some of the topics with the radio host as well as engaging with some callers.
What was interesting was that Johnson was talking about this like it was something brand new. Maybe in the book he explains that it is not, but the interview proved otherwise. I immediately jumped to Jesus’ discipleship methods and his sending of his disciples to change the world. He wasn’t going to stick around and do all the work himself. Rather, he would equip his closest followers to accomplish his purposes on earth after he ascended into heaven. But he promised he would always be with us through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is nothing new, but it made me think about how great things can happen when the people of God living with purpose and working in their communities, neighborhoods, and families.
Then I had this simple thought.
It’s not my pastor’s job to change my neighborhood.
It’s my job.
Seems pretty simple. What I mean by this is that sometimes I delegate the “hard” jobs to the “professionals” thereby granting myself the excuse to remain comfortable. It makes no logical sense to expect Pastor Greg or anyone else to come speak to my neighbors and preach the Gospel to them. The Lord has placed leadership in their current position to equip, encourage and inspire their flock to be agents in the Kingdom wherever they go. But this doesn’t mean they are the only ones responsible for doing Kingdom work. It is extremely lazy and against the teachings of Jesus to expect someone else to engage people you know with the Gospel.
I live where I live for a reason. I drink coffee where I drink coffee for a reason. Recognizing and acting on these divine placements is what it means to live missionally.
I seem to often write about culture and how the church should respond to cultural shifts. Clearly, the Church must not be an isolated club, but an living body that engages with culture in a way that represents the teachings of Christ.
James K.A. Smith posted recently on Twitter that the church needs to move past simply acknowledging that the church cares about culture and move further towards to the question of how we do that. Pragmatically, this is quite challenging. Many churches are doing a great job. I love hearing about the amazing work that goes on at the Dream Center here in North Charleston. Living Bread is another fantastic ministry planting churches among the global poor. It is my firm belief that one of the best ways to accomplish the task of caring for culture is simply to find ways to serve our communities in the name of Christ. I also believe that looking at some cases in history could be quite revealing in the way we are to engage (and hopefully change) culture and avoid some mistakes that have been made in the past. I love researching and it didn’t take long to find a good example.
One case is the Catholic church’s presence in Mexico after a series of political changes that took place during the middle of the 19th Century involving Mexico and the US. The religious and political climate in Mexico was changing drastically, and the Catholic authorities from Rome sent many new ministers from the East to assist in the expansion process. The previous generation of priests had great concerns for the poor and often chose to live amoung the poor in order to best serve them. The newer generation did things a bit differently. Where the church went wrong was that the newer generation of priests sought to impose Eastern ways of doing church onto the Mexican people. As Justo Gonzalez stated, “the new [priests] brought from the East…mostly settled among the English-speaking settlers and were content with saying mass for the deprived Mexicans.” That doesn’t sound like the Gospel being lived out in our lives: serving the poor, giving to the needy, caring for the widows, orphans and least of these, etc. It sounds like having a church service on Sunday morning and being content with that being the extent of the church’s involvement in the community.
What can we learn from this account in history? 5 things:
1.) We must never place our own comfort or preferences above people we are trying to impact with the Gospel.
2.) In the honest attempt to administer the Truth, we must continually be aware of physical needs of people in the congregation. Then find ways to meet that physical need. This is administering the gospel by deed.
3.) What works with one congregation will not work with all. And that’s okay. But we need to be flexible in realizing something may not be working and find a better way that fits the cultural context more appropriately.
4.) Cultural change may not always come from the top and move downward in the hierarchal chain. Sometimes change happens from the ground up. (The rest of the story in Mexico involves the excommunication of Father Antonio Jose Martinez by the Catholic Church for his refusal to take unnecessary funds from the poor in his area. He continued serving the poor, regardless of his excommunication.)
5.) When the Church is separated from the poor, it is no longer acting like the Church.
While caring for the poor may not always be the most popular decision, it is one that must not be overlooked if communities are going to be changed, lives are to be impacted, and more and more families come into knowledge of the saving grace of Christ from the witness of His Church in the world. It also takes individuals who are willing to step out and be the hands and feet of Christ for a hurting and desperate world.
If you are interested in reading more about this portion of Christian history, check out The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to Present Day by Justo Gonzalez, especially chapters 27 and 29.