Rocks and Caves and the Arc of Everything

It was good to be back in the saddle again — this past Sunday I was afforded the opportunity to guest worship lead at a church Alyssa and I visited a few weeks back. When we visited we were both impressed by how enthusiastically the congregation sang. So I was quite excited to be invited to offer some songs for us to sing together.

By the time my tenure at New Song ended the Inland Hills band had grown to a huge number, larger than any other team I’ve led before, but this past Sunday it was just my keyboard and I and the congregation singing some of my favorite songs. I’m a bit allergic to putting on a show, it makes me break out in a particularly itchy rash of pride, so it was nice being so low-key.

We sang some hymns I’ve not sung in a long time and we sang “We Will Feast in the House of Zion”. It was particularly nice to sing “We Will Feast…” as it was a song that I sang to the NSIH band as a gift at our last rehearsal and then again sang it at my last communion service at New Song. Singing it with a new congregation reminded me of the beautiful promise that one day we in Christ will all feast together at the table prepared for us in the house of God. Time and space and distance cannot break the bind of Christ’s body and blood as we gather to eat the bread and drink the wine.

This weekend at Doxa Fellowship in Woodstock, Illinois we sang the following songs:

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty – German Hymn
We Will Feast in the House of Zion – Sandra McCracken
Rock of Ages – Hymn, Augustus Toplady
How Great is Our God – Chris Tomlin
The Doxology – Hymn

Attached is a Spotify playlist with several different versions of these songs. Chance the Rapper included a version of “How Great” on his new mix-tape which I’ve added to this playlist and my arrangement of “Rock of Ages” favors the Brooks Ritter version included on the playlist.

If you enjoy any of these songs please support the artists and purchase the songs.

 

Both “Praise to the Lord,…” and “Rock of Ages” are favorite hymns and so I thought I’d share a few thoughts on both:

Rock of Ages

In Numbers 20 the Israelites, having no water because — you know — they’re taking a casual forty-year hike in the desert, bring their complaints to Moses and his brother, Aaron, “If only we had died! Why did you bring us out of Egypt where we were slaves?!?! It was so much better then!!!” And God in His lovingkindness heard their complaint and told Moses to take his staff from the presence of God and to “ask this rock to give water and it will.” But Moses in his frustration with the people and in his sin took the staff and instead of speaking to the rock, strikes it twice.

Water gushed.

The Apostle Paul in 1st Corinthians 10 says that rock struck was Christ:

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.  Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

1st Corinthians 10.1-5 NIV

And David, as we read his story in the books of Samuel, was twice pursued by his enemies. First King Saul, fearing for his own power and wanting to maintain political prominence, chased David into the hills where he hid in the caves. And after his affair with Bathsheba, King David was again chased into the hills by his son Absalom who was attempting to usurp his father because of the damage wrought by David’s sin. David writes regularly in the psalms of God as a rock and his hiding place:

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;

my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.

I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”

And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
you will protect me from trouble
and surround me with songs of deliverance.

Psalm 32.3-7 NIV

“Rock of Ages” is a harrowing tune, my arrangement has some well placed minor chords to accentuate the lyrics. In it we sing of our inability to rescue ourselves, our helplessness, our nakedness and frailty. In singing this classic hymn by Augusts Toplady we join our cries for help to David’s in the caves as we’re each pursued by our shared enemy of sin and we join our complaints to those of the impatient Israelites wandering in the desert.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed
be of sin, the double cure,
save from wrath and make me pure.

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

The church has been singing this hymn for good portion of the last millennium, it was written about four hundred years ago in Germany and was translated into English about two hundred years after that. With the opening verse singing, “All who hear now to his temple draw near, gladly forever adore Him” this song serves as a classic call to worship though ironically is largely based on the final psalm, Psalm 150 (and 103 — but we’re gonna ignore that for the sake of the argument I’m about to make because I’m a real serious scholar).

I’ve spent that past few years majoring in the psalms, at one point reading the whole psalter every month, and as I’ve mentioned before there’s no experience or emotion left out of the Psalms. The Psalms give voice to every cry and bandages every wound.

Beyond that though the Psalms reveal to us the arc of human experience with all of its achy joints and sleepy afternoons. If you take the thousand foot view of the book you’ll see that it is divided in to five difference books (significantly not unlike the Torah’s five books) and each of those books ends with exhortation to “Praise!” And the final book in the larger book of Psalms ends with, not insignificantly, five psalms of praise. Psalm 150 existing as the praise exclamation point.

By opening with “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” we begin with a call to praise and remember Psalm 150. The Psalms include of all our cave complaints, desert grumblings, our brokenness, our frailty, our nakedness, our helplessness and yet they end in praise. The Psalms teach us that the arc of humanity is not pain to pain but praise to praise.

Praise the Lord.

Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord.

Psalm 150 NIV

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Zion National Park 017 Rock of Ages 2pan. June 8, 2007. Peter. Some Rights Reserved.
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Rocks and Caves and the Arc of Everything

Where I’ve Been Hiding, Is God Dead? (No, 2! And Seven Stanzas!), Punching Hitler, and Other Miscellany

With gearing up for the move, Holy Week, and more preaching dates than usual for a worship pastor I’ve not had as much time to write here as I would’ve liked. Maybe April will be more fruitful. Here’s a picture of a scary Easter Bunny.

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1) Today is the first day of National Poetry Month. If you’re like, “Naw thanks. Poetry ain’t my bag, broooooo” you’re wrong. Or, maybe not. Who can say? Poetry isn’t for everybody but I say if there’s ever a time to give it a shot why not National Poetry Month?

If you need help getting started with reading poetry The Atlantic is here to help: Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies

And here’s 30 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month.

2) On Palm Sunday, Mach 20th, I preached on how God owns everything and made mention of what I call “Put A Bird On It Theology!” Though I wasn’t exactly kind in my take down of Christian Sub-Culture I did try and pull my punches. I get it, we Evangelicals like kitsch (even if we don’t realize it as such). Since that sermon, which you can listen to here, two articles have been published about Christian Movies (maybe the worst offender currently of “Put A Bird On It Theology!”) from two different sources.

Over at the A.V. Club, critic Randall Colburn, posed the question: Can the new wave of faith-based filmmaking transcend propaganda? He asks from a “secular” point of view and I think it is prudent to listen as an Evangelical because so often we just assume we already know everything there is to know about those we want to share the gospel with. Which is the stated point of these movies, yeah? But our assumptions are more often than not straw men we’re waiting to burn in effigy. I’ve had atheist professors at my liberal arts college who wouldn’t be persuaded with the cheap deus ex machina prostelyzation tracts from God’s Not Dead and who are among the smartest and kindest people I know. But, golly gee, Kevin Sorbo (Hercules?!) sure did suck – good thing he died.

Film-wise, it feels like it’s the evangelical community that’s distancing itself from secular audiences. God’s Not Dead had a taunting quality to it—one of its secular characters dies, the other is diagnosed with cancer—and the forthcoming God’s Not Dead 2 exudes the same kind of know-it-all hysteria that Cameron’s Saving Christmas did a couple years ago. Attitudes like that will only draw derision from the other side, and it most certainly has.

…more than a good story, evangelical audiences want to see their values reflected and reinforced on screen. They want their films to tell them they’re right. They want what is, for all intents and purposes, propaganda.

Colburn more fully addresses what he assumes (and I tend to agree with him) the motivations of the Christian filmmakers are and the merits these movies have as art. It is well worth a read, especially if you’re a Christian who enjoys these types of film but have not considered what may be going on below the surface.

From a Christian perspective, the lead film critic at Christianity Today and King’s College professor Alissa Wilkinson, wrote at Thrillist this week: I’m a Christian and I hate Christian movies. I more than enjoy her film criticism in general, especially as an Evangelical who wants something different from a movie than a “secular” audience. Her treatment here is just as critical but maybe more sympathetic. Several choice quotes:

A lot of these are basically well-intentioned kitsch, innocuous in the manner of a lousy conventional rom-com or inept indie drama. But they can be worse than that. I can excuse (or ignore) a poorly made movie. But some of the most popular faith-based movies today aren’t just sub-par entertainment — they’re anti-Christian.

As onlookers laugh these movies off, I stand in the Internet’s corner, wincing and trying not to rail. I can’t just brush it off like others. Christian theology is rich and creative and full of imagination, that’s broad enough to take up residence among all kinds of human cultures. It contains within itself the idea that art exists as a good unto itself, not just a utilitarian vehicle for messages. (In the Greek, the Bible calls humans “poems” — I love that.) There is no reason Christian movies can’t take the time to become good art. Each one that fails leaves me furious.

I once was commended for making music in the church because what point does art have other than being propaganda for the Church? No joke. A respected friend once told me that art has no point other than to be a preaching tool. Ouch. Wilkinson writes,

The part that leaves me angry, and why I’m more frustrated with any bad Christian movie than the commercial manipulation of sour blockbusters like Batman v Superman or Jurassic World, is that Christians live within a system of belief and practice that is meant primarily to be a blessing to people outside the church walls. It is a basic article of Christian belief that all people bear God’s image. We are to exercise the same boundless imagination and creativity that he does. Christians, of all people, ought to push hard against people who try to sell a fear-mongering, illogical, politically driven version of Christianity, where the goal is for your team to win, to prove you’re right.

And Christians ought to especially value exploration and truth-seeking, wherever it’s found. We ought to be making fabulous movies that raise religious questions: who are we? Why are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What should we do while we’re here? And since Christians believe in God’s very aliveness — since our theology suggests that people don’t save others’ souls, God does — and since we don’t have anything to lose, we shouldn’t think we have to swoop in and answer the question before the credits roll.

3) Speaking of film criticism, I tried that hat on to middling results this week with some thoughts regarding Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice over at my good friend Sam Jeet’s blog and it got me thinking about the nature of superhero stories. These are not new thoughts, or particularly deep, these are just scattered thoughts I’d like to explore in more detail later but for the past week I’ve been struck by how the American Superhero is an icon of a generation’s social mores.

In his miracle of a novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay Michael Chabon chronicles a fictionalized version of the Golden Age of Comic Books through the lens of two cousins and their superhero, The Escapist. There’s an affecting scene where the cousin who draws and paints the comic, Joe Kavalier, explains his motivation:

The shaping of a golem, to [Joe] was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something– one poor, dumb, powerful thing– exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape. To slip, like the Escapist, free of the entangling chain of reality and the straitjacket of physical laws.

cap-punching-hitler-630x387.jpgSo when comic books and superhero stories took off during World War Two you’d not have to look far for some colorful strongman punching Hitler in the face or at least a pastiche of Hitler.

580d6ac441fd37d2b0bcd7f2b7f406dd.jpgAfter the war and as comics progressed the culture was perceived to be better and at peace with itself and thus comics became child’s fare. Consider Batman and Robin’s adventures from the 50’s and 60’s.

As the dream of the Baby Boomers gave way to Generation X in the late 70’s and 80’s comic books took a turn to the dark and gritty. All of a sudden the very silly Green Arrow sidekick character Speedy was a drug addict and Alan Moore was writing epic takedowns of the superhero trope with graphic novels like Watchmen.Green_lantern_85.jpg

Skipping over the x-treme 90’s with its pouches and mullets and the 00’s “Hollywoodization” of comics and we’ve come to the ubiquitous Comic Book Movie/TV Show.

You can watch classic DC and Marvel characters on primetime every weeknight on the CW, CBS, Fox, and Netflix. And it seems that every weekend there’s another movie coming out with a flying guy in spandex. 2016 is unique in the amount of infighting the heroes seem to be doing. I’ve seen The Flash and Green Arrow punch Hawkman over on the CW, Daredevil avoid being shot and killed by The Punisher on Netflix. In the cinema, Superman and Batman throw each other through walls and still to come is Captain America attacking Iron Man as Tony Stark says pitifully, “I thought we were friends.”watchmen-2.jpg

I’ve been wondering what our superheroes are trying to tell us with all these grimdark stories of heroes fighting heroes. In a contentious political season, economic collapse seemingly always on the horizon, the threat of ISIS, FaceBook meme wars, YouTube comments one has to wonder if our comic books are illustrating (pun intended) the collapse of our civility. Maybe our superheroes are asking, “Why can’t we all get along? Isn’t that better?” Or, maybe I’m reading too much into it and it’s mostly just cool watching Batman punch Superman.

Batman-vs-Superman-Delayed-to-2016.jpgEverybody knows that Superman would win in that fight even if the movie doesn’t get around to it.

4) Happy National Poetry Month and  belated Easter! I read the following poem by John Updike (“Seven Stanzas at Easter”) to the worship team before service on Easter.

Seven Stanzas at Easter
John Updike

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

The hope of resurrection is not simply that (metaphorically) sad stories will have (metaophorically) happy endings but that (physically) dead and rotting people will be (physically) alive again.

And another scary Easter Bunny.

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Where I’ve Been Hiding, Is God Dead? (No, 2! And Seven Stanzas!), Punching Hitler, and Other Miscellany

Lord Just Lord Don’t Destroy Us Ummm Thanks (How To Pray, Part 1)

I remember the first time I prayed aloud in a group. Pious it was not. There was a girl in the youth group, I was in high school. Nothing is sexier to 16-year-olds than piety? Lucky for this poor girl I grew up in church so I knew exactly how to pray:

Dear God, Lord, I just, Lord, ummm… You are so awesome, Lord, I just ummm… not my will but, Lord, I just ummm… want to, Lord, bless us. Lord, we need your blessing, Lord. I just ummm… want to thank you, Lord. … Lord, I pray for all those who are hurting. Ummm… Help my mom pass law school. Thanks? In Jesus name we pray, (aggressively squeezed the hand of the student next to me because Thank-God-that’s-over-I-hope-she-noticed-and-it’s-your-turn).

Lord, the only honest prayer was for my mom. She graduated top of her class. Correlation does not imply causation but… The girl and I were never more than just umm friends.

There’s an awkwardness to prayer. To an outside observer I can imagine the whole thing is kind of crazy looking. Just some goofy goofs talking to their imaginary sky friend. Even to the initiated prayer is – to put it lightly – audacious. What do any of us have to say to the King of the Universe? Creator of Every Thing, Counter of Every Atom, Igniter of Every Star, Spinner of Every Galaxy – I have some thoughts. Here, I’ll just list them off for you. It’ll be easier that way. Oh, and bless me. Thanks in advance, bro. 

What is man that God is mindful of us? Is it no wonder his followers ask Jesus how to pray? It’s not really the kind of thing you want to get wrong LEST YOU BE DESTROYED! 

The ancient person, and any modern person who has ever asked a friend to pray for them, recognizes that we’re not really qualified to talk to divinity. We feel a certain priestly need. We sense that we need someone more qualified than ourselves to talk to God. Lest we be destroyed and all that.

So the agnostic asks her faithful friend to talk to the Big Guy Upstairs in their time of need and the temple priest sacrifices a virgin to the Volcano monster so it doesn’t spit its lava saliva on the village below.

Forgive me but I’ve watched the Pixar short film Lava with Atticus more than once, I know how this works. We need somebody more confident than we dare be. We need a priest.

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FEEEEEEEEEEEEED ME!!!!!

A priest has two jobs. They talk to the gods for the people and in turn talks to the people for the gods. Lest theyyou know – be destroyed! A holy buffer of sorts. Or, like the friend in middle school who passes back and forth notes with the person you’re to scared to ask to the Spring Formal. Future generations are going to have awful metaphors.

But the problem with most priests is that they’re only human. Regardless of their qualifications most priests are just as jacked up as the rest of us. And most of them eventually die.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4.14-16 NIV 

Those who profess faith in Jesus have a better priest than the ones we resort to. Jesus is the great high priest we long for. Jesus isn’t only human. Jesus isn’t as jacked up as us but he totally gets it. He knows just how frail and dumb we are and loves us anyway. He is both like us in that he has been tempted in every way. And Jesus is nothing like us in that he’s not succumbed to the temptation. And like no other priest death couldn’t keep Jesus down.

Jesus sits right next to God and prays for us. We can approach the throne of God without being destroyed so let us approach with confidence that we may receive mercy in our times of need.

When we don’t know what to say let us approach the throne with confidence that we may receive mercy. When we ask for the wrong things let us approach the throne with confidence that we may receive mercy. When we’re not worthy let us approach the throne with confidence that we may receive mercy. When we stumble and fall let us approach the throne with confidence that we may receive mercy. When we don’t know how to pray let us approach the throne with confidence that we may receive mercy.

Every embarrassing and mumbled Lord just umm…, every selfish request, every loss of words is turned to grace in the prayers of Jesus. In Jesus name we pray means we pray with and through Jesus. Jesus says for us what we could never say, our best and worst words are heard by God in the voice of Jesus.

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

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Grace (Colorized). Eric Enstrom

This weekend we sang the following songs:

  • Manifesto by The City Harmonic
  • Good, Good Father by House Fires (arr. Zealand Worship)
  • Your Love is Strong by Jon Foreman
  • How Deep the Father’s Love For Us by Stuart Townend
  • Father, You Are All We Need by Citizens & Saints
  • Grace Alone by The Modern Post (arr. Kings Kaleidoscope)

Now go buy these songs.

Lord Just Lord Don’t Destroy Us Ummm Thanks (How To Pray, Part 1)

10 Steps to having a Perfect Marriage (or, Whatever)

Per usual, any time after I preach I like to share ten things that helped to inspire, inform, or encourage further discussion on that morning’s topic/scripture. So look no further:

TEN STEPS TO HAVING A PERFECT MARRIAGE
(or, whatever)

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1. As I was preparing this sermon I listened to the following playlist. It’s full of some of my favorite love songs (“Your Song” by Elton John, “What is Life?” by George Harrison, “I’m In Love With a Girl” by Big Star), songs that are not technically love songs but have a lot of sentimental value, and every song from our wedding ceremony.

A few short anecdotes on some of the songs:

“Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol – Alyssa is a big fan of the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy” and now I am too. If you’ve ever seen the show you’re familiar with the song. While we were dating I told Alyssa I was going to make her a mix-tape with only “Chasing Cars” on it. It’s a running joke in our house.

“When I Fall In Love” by Sam Cooke – Before we told each other we loved one another but we both knew it privately we would drive around and listen to music. I’ve always enjoyed jazz aplenty so I used that as a cover to play just about every version of this tune I could find. Because I’m subtle.

“These Days” by Mates of State – After getting lunch one Sunday before we were dating Alyssa and I were driving to meet some friends at the beach. This song came on my playlist and it got us to talking about the films of Wes Anderson (the original version of this song was featured in The Royal Tenebaums) which led to her finding times to his most recent film and to me asking her out on first date.

The following songs are from our wedding:

  • “Messiah/You’re Beautiful” by Phil Wickham for when the bridesmaids entered
  • “Holy (Wedding Day)” by the City Harmonic for the processional
  • “He’s Always Been Faithful” by Sara Groves for communion
  • “We Are One” by Wilder Adkins for the recessional
  • “The Nearness of You” by Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong was our first dance

Anyways! I really love – pun absolutely, 100% intended – this playlist. Enjoy!

2. The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller

I’ve mentioned this book several times. It’s the book that convinced me to buy a ring and propose. Everybody, married or otherwise, must read this book. It is incredible. Tim and Kathy Keller are beyond wise. Some choice quotes:

That gospel message should both humble and lift the believer up at the same time. It teaches us that we are indeed self-centered sinners. It perforates our illusions about our goodness and superiority. But the gospel also fills us with more love and affirmation than we could ever imagine. It means we don’t need to earn our self-worth through incessant service and work. It means also that we don’t mind so much when we are deprived of some comfort, compliment, or reward. We don’t have to keep records and accounts anymore. We can feely give and freely receive.

“Fear” in the Bible means to be overwhelmed, to be controlled by something. To fear the Lord is to be overwhelmed with wonder before the greatness of God and his love. It means that, because of his bright holiness and magnificent love, you find him “fearfully beautiful.” That is why the more we experience God’s grace and forgiveness, the more we experience a trembling awe and wonder before the greatness of all that he is and has done for us. Fearing him means bowing before him out of amazement at this glory and beauty.

… when the Bible speaks of love, it measures it primarily not by how much you want to receive but by how much you are willing to give of yoursef to someone. How much are you willing to lose for the sake of this person? How much freedom are you willing to forsake? How much of your precious time, emotion, and resources are you willing to invest in this person? And for that, the marriage vow is not just helpful but it is even a test.

…the Bible sees God as the supreme good – not the individual or the family – and that gives us a view of marriage that intimately unites feeling and duty, passion and promise.

3. In the sermon I said that: “Christ is the foundation on which God, the Father, is building His home and the Spirit is calling to us, ‘Come in! Come in! Come home!'” After saying this I toyed with the idea of reading the following poem. I had read this to Atticus before bed this past Saturday. Alyssa, in her great wisdom, advised against it because it disrupted the flow of the sermon and I agreed with her. But! It is a great poem. Perhaps the Spirit is nudging you now as I share it here:

Invitation
Shel Silverstein

If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!

4. What Romance Really Means After 10 Years of MarriageNew York Magazine, Heather Havrilesky

There’s strong language if that kind of thing bothers you but I found this article just absolutely fantastic. Some more choice quotes:

But once you’ve been married for a long time (my tenth anniversary is in a few months!), a whole new kind of romance takes over. It’s not the romance of rom-coms, which are predicated on the question of “Will he/she really love me (which seems impossible), or does he/she actually hate me (which seems far more likely and even a little more sporting)?” Long-married romance is not the romance of watching someone’s every move like a stalker, and wanting to lick his face but trying to restrain yourself. It’s not even the romance of “Whoa, you bought me flowers, you must REALLY love me!” or “Wow, look at us here, as the sun sets, your lips on mine, we REALLY ARE DOING THIS LOVE THING, RIGHT HERE.” That’s dating romance, newlywed romance. You’re still pinching yourself. You’re still fixated on whether it’s really happening. You’re still kind of sort of looking for proof. The little bits of proof bring the romance. The question of whether you’ll get the proof you require brings the romance. (The looking for proof also brings lots of fights, but that’s a subject for another day.)

After a decade of marriage, if things go well, you don’t need any more proof. What you have instead — and what I would argue is the most deeply romantic thing of all — is this palpable, reassuring sense that it’s okay to be a human being.

Now let’s tackle something even darker and more unpleasant, the seeming antithesis of our modern notion of romance: Someone is dying in their own bed, and someone’s spouse is sitting at the bedside, holding the dying person’s hand, and also handling all kinds of unspeakable things that people who aren’t drowning in gigantic piles of cash sometimes have to handle all by themselves. To me, that’s romance. Romance is surviving and then not surviving anymore, without being ashamed of any of it.

Because survival is ugly. Survival means sometimes smelling and sounding the wrong way. It’s one thing for a person to buy you flowers, to purchase a nice dinner, to PROVE that they truly, deeply want to have some good sweet-talky time and some touching time alone with you, and maybe they’d like to do that whole routine forever and ever and ever.

True romance, though, is … Two deluded, lazy people face a bewildering sea of filth and blood and gore together, but they make it through somehow, some way, without losing their minds completely.

You are not better than you are, though, and neither is your partner. That’s romance. Laughing at how beaten-down you sometimes are, in your tireless quest to survive, is romance. It’s sexy to feel less than totally sexy and still feel like you’re sexy to one person, no matter what.

5. When Almena was sharing how she and OJ met she had mentioned that he had been reading poetry in their school’s courtyard. Then she said it was the 70’s as if poetry stopped being hip post-’79 but I think poetry is still great. Here’s a famous love sonnet from a long time ago:

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.
Elizabeth Barret Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

6. Every CS Lewis book is my favorite CS Lewis book. But for the sake of this post The Four Loves is my favorite CS Lewis book. Two more choice quotes:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable

God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing – or should we say “seeing”? there are no tenses in God – the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a “host” who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and “take advantage of” Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.

7.I’ve suggested it before, I’ll suggest it again: Go watch Parenthood. Netflix has every season now. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. Etc. Etc. Etc.

At one point when one of her daughter’s marriage is on the rocks something fierce the family matriarch, Camille Braverman, explains the essence of marriage: “You know what marriage is sweetie? You know what it’s about? Forgiveness.”

Yep. Go watch the show and cry your tears.

8. St. Paul says marriage is “…a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.” Throughout the scriptures God’s relationship to his people is often described amorously. You see it in Ephesians, Hosea, Revelation… But one book is especially rich (and uncomfortable): Song of Songs

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.

9. Twenty YearsThe Rabbit Room, Russ Ramesy 

There is only one human relationship we come know in this life that is meant by God to be intimate in affection, proximity, and purpose until death itself separates us—the marriage relationship. In marriage God gives a gift of incalculable worth—a sworn partner for life.

This is a short and lovely reflections on twenty years of marriage. Loaded into this piece is the idea I brought up about never ceasing getting to know your spouse. Which OJ so wonderfully illustrated when he told us that after 38 years of marriage he just recently learned Almena enjoys buying and using power tools.

10. With This Ring, I Am Dead. Mockingbird, Stephanie Phillips.

This sacred covenant we’ve entered appears constantly threatened by the desecrating forces of my own sin and inadequacies. But it’s not. The union holds; the institution remains; the vows are intact–and none of it is made less beautiful in the end, only more real. This is a battleground where the distinction between my efforts to obtain approval through the law (armed with a toothbrush and expectations) and the “it is finished already” truth of the Gospel are writ large and daily. There are failures; oh so many. There are wounds. At the end of every day, there are two people lying in a home that often doubles as a battlefield, casualties of our own characters.

But there’s also this: the waking to each other, still here. Nobody disappeared in the night. (Yet.) And, to be mildly spoilery, the awareness of the gift we give each other, echoed in that TV narrative:

You stayed?!

Which echoes the gift given to us on the cross, at Christmas, and throughout the history of grace: He stays.

 

10 Steps to having a Perfect Marriage (or, Whatever)

You’re My Home

It was like Billy Joel was haunting me from New Jersey this past week. Everywhere I went there was a Billy Joel song playing – once while sitting at a piano I was asked to play “Piano Man” because of course I was, I always am. Which even for a Billy Joel fan like myself is a very particular kind of hell. But nobody wants to be surprised with Billy Joel, that’s cruel. A pleasant Billy Joel listening experience is one you’ve chosen for yourself and not one that has been forced upon you while you sit waiting for your beer or otherwise. Like every good pop-music artist Billy Joel wrote songs – he’s mostly stopped writing pop music since his 1993 album River of Dreams – that stick in your head like a brain parasite eating away at the gray matter. But today I’ve chosen to listen to Billy Joel.

Though preferring albums like Streetlife Serenade, Glass Houses, or The Nylon Curtain today I’ve been listening to Joel’s sophomore album Piano Man. Why not? And there’s this tune “You’re My Home” that’s been playing on repeat in consideration of yesterday’s service.

The song opens:

When you look into my eyes and see the crazy gypsy in my soul it always comes as surprise. When I feel my withered roots begin to grow… well I never had a place that I could call my very own but that’s alright, my love, ’cause you’re my home.

First off, let’s all agree that “crazy gypsy in my soul” is just great. Now, let us get on to the point. The idea isn’t anything fresh, lover as home, considering the first love poem ever written (This is now bone of my bone / and flesh of my flesh) was followed with the admonishment that this is why a man leaves his home and is united with his wife – to form a new home. Wherever I go on God’s green earth if Alyssa is with me there I’m home.

This past weekend we sang two songs that were essentially different Psalms set to music. Mackenzie introduced an Audrey Assad tune called “Lead Me On” based on Psalm 23 which we then followed by singing Matt Redman’s 1995 classic “Better is One Day” paraphrased from Psalm 84.

I’m not going to say that the theme of our singing was necessarily home but, yeah, it was.

Psalm 23 and 84 feel related in their reading, like they’re cousins. Both, from different vantage points, speak of the comfort of the House of the Lord and they follow a similar form. Psalm 23, maybe the most beloved liteary achievement in history, talks of being actively led to the House of the Lord. Psalm 84 about the blessing in having already been led to His dwelling place.

With our impending move back to my hometown I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be home. In some sense I’m plagued with nostalgia – an ailment Alyssa knows all too well that I suffer from. I look forward to writing poems and reading novels at Café Domani on Highland Ave just east of the Fox River, spending lazy Sunday afternoon with cousins watching our kids play in the park, taking Alyssa out to all of my favorite places, spending warm summer evenings with old friends around the fire out in the country. I’ve mentioned before that I’m hobbit, yeah?

Last month an article from PBS popped up in my FaceBook newsfeed: “Can You Really Move Back To Your Hometown?” If I believed God spoke through obtuse signs and internet algorithms I’d think it timely. But, I don’t. I prefer the Spirit’s methods of leading through His word, the counsel of Godly people, and wisdom found only through prayer and listening for when I make big decisions. Anyways, in the article Larry Jacobson, a retirement navigator with Buoy Coaching in San Francisco, is quoted:

Nostalgia is one big reason [why people move back to their hometown]. It’s like a comfort food. For people who left when they’re young, it may be a strong draw to recapture something. I have a client whose eyes almost glass over when he talks about the tiny town he grew up in in Connecticut.

Home is where we’re safe, protected, and provided for. Where we’re brought in from the cold and warmed by the fire. Where our “wounds get dressed” as Josh Garrels sings on his most recent album. Home is where we’re healed. Where we’re named and known.

But still we’re restless. There’s a longing for home we all experience. We desire to “recapture something” as quoted earlier. Fantasy author Lev Grossman in a 2011 blog post titled “What Is Fantasy About?” writes:

We can lay claim to a certain amount of longing.

Longing for what exactly? A different kind of world. A world that makes more sense – not logical sense, but psychological sense. We’re surrounded by objects that we don’t understand. Like iPods — they’re typical. They’re gorgeous, but they’re also really alienating. You can’t open them. You can’t hack them. You don’t even really know how they work, or how they’re made, or who made them. Their form is abstractly beautiful, but it has nothing to do with their function. We really like them, but it’s somehow not a liking that makes us feel especially good.

The worlds that fantasy depicts are very different from that. They tend to be rural and low-tech. The people in a fantasy world tend to be connected to it — they understand it, they belong in it. People in Narnia don’t long for some other world (except when they long for Aslan’s Land, which I always found unsettling). They’re in sync with it. (iPods and Macs kind of mock us, don’t they, the way they’re always sync-ing with each other but never with us.)

This longing for a world to which we’re connected – and not connected Zuckerberg-style, but really connected, like a dryad with its tree – surfaces in a lot of places these days, not just in fantasy.

We’re longing for a different kind of world. “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come,” the author of Hebrews writes. In his Confessions Augustine asserts, paraphrased, that “You, O Lord, have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”

And thus we’ve found our way back to Billy Joel. The final verse of “You’re My Home” concludes that if I travel all my life and I never get to stop and settle down [as] long as I have you by my side there’s a roof above and good walls all around. Our restless, crazy gypsy souls are wandering around looking for a city that is yet to come where our withered roots can begin to grow. In our travels we’re led through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and the desert Valley of Grief to the table prepared before our enemies in the courts of the LORD.

Where we wander we long for a home that is not a place but a Person. And in Him, we’re safe, protected, and provided for. We’re brought in from the cold and warmed by the fire. Our wounds are dressed and we’re healed. We’re named and known.

Better is one day in your courts
    than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
    than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
    the Lord bestows favor and honor;
no good thing does he withhold
    from those whose walk is blameless.

Lord Almighty,
    blessed is the one who trusts in you.

Psalm 84.10-12

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The Heavens. August 11, 2013. Rich, Flickr. Some Rights Reserved.
We sang this weekend the following songs:
  • God is Great by Hillsong
  • Lead Me On by Audrey Assad
  • Better is One Day by Matt Redman
  • Lord I Need You by Matt Maher
  • This I Believe by Hillsong

Per usual – here’s a playlist with Sunday’s songs with some of the tunes mentioned in this post and more because why not? Go buy them:

You’re My Home

Hallelujah! Oh What a Savior!

Walking off the platform after we were done singing in Sunday’s service my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. There was much joy in the room.

There was an attempt to write a nice devotional review with thoughts about theology and scripture and all that but it wasn’t any good. So instead I’d like to to confess some sin, no joke, and give you a sneak peek into what goes on in the heart of this worship pastor, particularly this past weekend. Don’t continue reading if you’d rather not see me at one of my many worsts. Remember this is basically my diary. Except manlier. Much manlier. I have a beard.

There’s been a lot on my mind lately and a frenetic sort of anxiety behind the scenes so coming to Sunday morning I was not totally spiritually or emotionally ready. The service felt prepared in haste and though Thursday’s rehearsal went well and the tunes that were picked were enjoyable I wasn’t expecting much of the service. It had fallen to the periphery.

So showing up to church to set up and rehearse Sunday morning I was unprepared for what would happen. I was a bit curmudgeonly as we practiced and we worked our way through the tunes quickly. “It’ll be a good service if not a bit forgettable,” I figured. When there are 52 services a year they can kind of blur together. The biggies stick out – Christmas Eve, Easter, Baptism Sundays, etc. – but typical weeks can be a bit rote. Not that there’s a problem with that, one can appreciate a good routine. But, God’s surprising grace – and isn’t grace always surprising? – took me this past week.

We read the first five verses of Psalm 105 to begin our time singing:

Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
    make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
    tell of all his wonderful acts.
Glory in his holy name;
    let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
    seek his face always.

Remember the wonders he has done,
    his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,

Psalm 105.1-5

Let those who seek the Lord rejoice. In all the frenzy and worry I’ve not done well seeking the Lord. The work that needs to be done, the calls that need to be made, the plans that need to be executed, the meetings attended have crowded out what God has been doing in our midsts.

But, trusting the band this week eased some worry about how the team sounded. Usual worry quenches the Spirit’s work faster than a speeding bullet on Sunday mornings. Playing music and leading a band is an incredible task. If I can whine for a moment: At any given moment my hands are doing opposing tasks at the same time akin to rubbing you stomach and patting your head, my feet are as well – one is keeping me balanced so I don’t fall over and the other my pedal work – it’s a bit like hopping on one foot for 20 minutes; I’m reading music while reading lyrics while reading the crowd; I’m singing – which means not only am I thinking about what notes I’m playing and when I’m playing them I’m also thinking about what notes and words I’m singing and when I’m singing them and I’m thinking about what each band member and vocalist is doing and cuing them telepathically; all the while I’m supposed to be thinking about just how swell Jesus is.

Sorry for complaining, really sorry, all that is to say that a worship leader can be like a duck kicking my legs beneath the water. When I let my prideful heart take over – which is 99.99999999% of the time – I get consumed by the physical and mental task. And it is sinful love of Self doing that. I think the success of any given Sunday is dependant not on the finished work of the cross and the Spirit ministering to us through song, word, and deed but on mine and the band’s musical performance. And that our performance as a team is dependant on my musical and leadership skills. It’s not, but my heart is so addicted to the sin of Self that I think it is.

But like what was mentioned earlier I gave into trusting the band and not worrying so much this Sunday. It wasn’t a noble trust, more just a distracted giving up. So – still sinful. But in giving up my worry we played excellently. Not that the music ultimately matters. What matters is that in our singing we were able to remember God’s wonders, miracles, and judgements as Psalm 105.5 directs us to.

Before each service the band gathers on the stage to pray and because I like routine we pray some version of the following:

Father, thank you for the gifts you given this band. Let the work of our hands not be to our glory but to the glory of Your Son. Open our eyes and lift our heads to behold your glory.

Something like that.

And this past week – like He does every week, even though I may not be paying attention – He did just that.

The Holy Spirit took shocking advantage of my inattentivness to Self. He took what was unintentionally meant for ill and used it for His good. He answered that usual prayer loudly. He yelled in my ear – God is so good! God is so good! God is so good! Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always and He pried open my eyes that I would look on His wonderous deeds and rejoice.

And it was perplexing. Flummoxing. In light of who God is and what He’s done little is left to say. The songs we sang this weekend gave life to this flabbergasted amazement that is best expressed simply – Grace, what have you done? Too much to make sense of it all! ‘Man of Sorrows’ What a name! Hallelujah! What a savior! Hallelujah! What a Savior! Thank you, God, for saving me! THANK YOU GOD FOR SAVING ME! THANK YOU GOD! THANK YOU GOD!

There is great joy in Self-forgetfulness especially when the object that replaces Self is God. It’s too much to make sense of it all. It’s overwhelming. Like that first kiss at the altar it leaves you breathless. In His grace and kindness is inexplicable joy. There duty and work become play and dance. It makes you smile. So what left is there to say?

Hallelujah! Oh what a savior!

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[073/365] Joy. August 25, 2009. Leland Francisco. Some Rights Reserved.
If you’d like to keep singing, and who could blame you, here’s the songs we sang this weekend: 

  • Say the Word by Hillsong
  • Scandal of Grace also by Hillsong
  • Man of Sorrows by David Potter
  • Thank You, God, For Saving Me by Chris Tomlin and Phil Wickham
  • Glory is Yours by Elevation Worship

Now go buy the songs and may God cause His face to shine upon you.

Hallelujah! Oh What a Savior!

It’s Just A Flesh Wound

There’s a story about Martin Luther that has meant much to me over the years. It may be apocryphal, I don’t know, but…

One day after a rousing Sunday sermon he was approached by the congregation and was asked, “Pastor, why is it that week after week after week you continue to preach the gospel? Can we please move on from the gospel? We get it, Broooooooo…

Or, something like that.

Luther answered, “Because week after week you forget it. Because week after week you walk in here looking like a people who look like they don’t believe the gospel.” Tonight before I fall asleep I too will have forgotten the liberating power of the gospel.

It is easy to use the gospel exclusively as the mechanism by which salvation is secured. The gospel saves us and we’ll take it from there. We treat the gospel like a tool to create converts: If you were to get hit by a bus – and I’m not saying that I’m going to run you over with a bus but who can really know for sure – would you know that you’d absoultely go to Heaven? No, okay, would you like to accept the gospel?

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May the odds ever be in your favor. // School buses. July 8, 2011. JohnPickenPhoto. Some Rights Reserved. 

If you’re anything like me once you’ve raised your hand after the preacherman’s heartfelt plea and accepted “the gospel” you get on with your DIY self-improvement projects. I did ten sins last week, this week I’ll aim for just nine. Like the Wizard of Oz, we project a mighty image to onlookers: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. There’s those certain sins – gluttony, pride, irritability at pesky people – that are easy to confess so we admit those but keep the real ugly stuff hidden, guarding ourselves from any vulnerability and itimacy with God and neighbor.

And we belittle God. We think we’re fooling Him. And know that when I say “we” it’s self-protection, I’m not writing this for you. We try and fix ourselves. “It’s just a flesh wound,” we say and bandy about our swords.

But, the problem is deeper than we could ever imagine. Let me tell you a story.

Once, in the spring when Kings go to war, King David sat that one out. Not being where he was supposed to David spied with his little eye something he shouldn’t have. David slept with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his best friends, and she conceived a child. Trying his best to cover his tracks David brought his friend, Uriah, home from war to sleep with Bathsheba to throw supiscion off of himself. But Uriah was too noble to enjoy a night with his wife while his fellow soldiers were still at battle so King David had him sent back to the frontlines to be slaughtered. David. What a guy?

Though he tried to hide his sin and remain righteous in his own and in the kingdom’s eyes David was confronted by the prophet Nathan. And all his dirtly laundry was hung up on the line to dry. With his ugliest moment on display for all the world to see – the shame, the dastardliness, the complete destruction of his and Bathsheba’s character – David penned Psalm 51. In this confession he admits that the problem is worse than he could have ever imagine:

For I know my transgressions, my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight;… Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Psalm 51.3-4a, 5

Though I try and hide it something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Deep down in the dark recesses of me something’s decaying.

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Because “Yourself” isn’t who got you in this mess to begin with and you’re a fierce tiger. Grr.

So today, even more than yesterday, I need the gospel. And tomorrow? All the more.

To clarify, the gospel is the grand mystery that God took on frail flesh and died. God was murdered on a tree for scoundrels like me. And, more so, was raised to life. Rising on the third day Christ defeated Death. As the poet, John Donne, wrote: “death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die.”

Good news! You and me? We’re off the hook. That thing we’re not telling anybody? That thing hidden in the caverns of our soul where nobody can find it? Jesus knows it already.

And He’s not surprised.

He loves us anyways.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5.17-21

All our self-improvement projects, resolutions, good behavior, hiding, believing in ourselves has left us bleeding out in the gutter but God has come searching for us to bind up our self-inflicted wounds. God sent his son, who knew no sin, to become sin so that we might become the rigtheousness of God. This is good news! No longer are we judged on our efforts but on the efforts of the One by which, and for which, through which the universe and everything was created.

His grace is sufficient. Full stop.

We’ve been forgiven. Let us go and sin no more.


In the new song that was introduced this weekend – Lord, I Need You by Matt Maher – we sang this: “Holiness is Christ in me” which says in five words what I tried to say in a thousand.

Attached is a playlist where you can preview the songs we sang this past Sunday before you buy them because you like supporting artists who bless the church. But of course, this is old hat by now:

  • Grace Alone by Dustin Kensrue
  • Lord, I Need You by Matt Maher
  • Give Me Faith by Elevation Worship
  • This I Believe (The Creed) by Hillsong

 

It’s Just A Flesh Wound