Merry Christmas (with Tears)


We’re told that Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and happiness, a time for family and friends.  But over the years I’ve learned that while that may sometimes be true, Christmas is, for many people, a time of deep sorrow and sadness.

For those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, the holidays can often be difficult as we more blatantly notice their absence.  In fact, the first year after suffering from the loss of a loved one is regularly referred to as the “Year of Firsts” – first Christmas, first birthday, first Thanksgiving, first anniversary… and the list goes on.

Over the past two months we’ve suffered the stillbirth of our youngest daughter.  To add insult in injury, just a couple weeks after that we lost one of our family dogs when her cancerous cyst burst open in the middle of the night.  Then just this past week we lost a puppy.  Yes, a puppy – the puppy we had purchased as a Christmas gift for our girls in an attempt to bring some joy and happiness into the midst of grief and sorry.  That puppy.

So at this point we’re fairly acquainted with grief and sorrow; three times in the past month I’ve had to give my daughters bad news that led to many shed tears, and had to answer more “why” questions that I can count.

So it is with a little trepidation that I enter into Christmas.

And yet it is Christmas that I need – that we all need – for it is Christmas that brings the hope we’re longing for. It’s because of Christmas that I have a hope – an expectation – that one day I will see my daughter again.  It is because of Christmas I know that “these light and momentary trials are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor 4:17); it’s because of Christmas I do not “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thes 4:13).

On Christmas God came down to earth as a baby – as a babyand the invasion began.  And roughly 30 years after that first Christmas God died on a cross, then he got up from the dead and forever defeated death and sin and the grave, and for those who surrender to him, we have a hope that far outshines anything this world – or this world’s master – can throw at us.

So, yes, I rejoice this Christmas.  Not because of what has happened to us over the past two months, but in spite of it.  When our dog died I looked at her through tear-stained eyes as she was laying there on the floor of the vet’s office and I said, “One day he’s going to pay.  He’s going to pay.”  Death isn’t supposed to win – death isn’t even supposed to be here.  And the hope of Christmas is not that death will one day lose, it’s that death has already lost because Jesus has already won.

Am I sad?  Yes.  Do I grieve?  Absolutely – but I do so as one who has hope that Jesus is Lord, He is sovereign, and one day I will be with him in a new heaven and a new earth where “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4).

So Merry Christmas – even if there are tears (as mine most certainly will have).  May the joy of Jesus fill your heart this season as you look back not only on when he came, but also look forward to his return when he will finally, once-and-for-all, set all things right.

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Scripture Verses for Grief & Hope


For Caroline’s Celebration of Life Ceremony I selected and arranged scripture verses; I’ve received several requests for the list of scriptures used in the service, so here is the actual script I developed.  This particular one is for two readers, but could easily be adapted for more (or done by one).  My goal here in arranging these particular scriptures was to explore and display the range of emotions present in scripture, particularly when dealing with the dual themes of grief and hope.

All scripture is taken from the ESV.  When it was read during the service the chapter & verse references were omitted, but I’ve included them here.

Reader #1: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord (Lam 3:22-26)

Reader #2: You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand (Ps 139:13-18)

Reader #1 & 2: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints (Ps 116:15)

Reader #1: Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me! You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” (Ps 27:7-8)

Reader #2: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? (Ps 42:11a)

Reader #1: The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. (Ps 116:3)

Reader #2: We do not want you to be uninformed about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.      (1 Thes 4:13-14)

Reader #1: From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth (Ps 121:1b-2) For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock. (Ps 27: 5) God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Ps 46:1a)

Reader #2: I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope (Ps 130:5) For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. (Ps 130:7b) Jesus said. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. (John 11:25-26)

Reader #1: For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor 15:21-22)

Reader #2: So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (2 Cor 4:16-5:1)

Reader #1: When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory” “O Death, where is your victory? O death, where is your string?” (1 Cor 15:54-55) Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

Reader #2: No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35, 37-39)

Reader #1: For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. (Rom 8:14-19)

Reader #2: Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:1-3, 6)

Reader #1: So if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom 8:31-33) So be still, and know that I am God. (Ps 46:10), and give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! (Ps 106:1)

Reader #2: On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces (Is 25:6-8)

Reader #1: Behold, I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:2-5)

Reader #1 & 2: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (Ps 42:11)

In Memory of Caroline Grace


Caroline Grace Feller is our fourth daughter.  Just three days before her due date we had to go to the hospital and learned that Caroline had died.  My wife delivered her on October 19, 2015 at 6:50pm; she weighed 8 pounds 3 ounces and measured 20 1/2″ long.

Many people also asked how they can help, or what they can do.  In lieu of flowers, we’ve decided to designate a memorial fund that will be used to build a living memorial by creating a butterfly garden and be used to pay for Caroline’s headstone.  If anyone would like to contribute to that memorial you can do so by visiting https://www.gofundme.com/kg6w8ufw.

Caroline’s celebration of life service was on Saturday, October 25, 2015.  I actually spoke at the service, and several people requested copies of what I said.  I typically do not script when I speak, but for this particular service I had to script it to prepare it.  Below is a copy of what I said.

Normally I don’t speak from a script – as my friend Seth will tell you – but today, well, let’s just say I’m not in the best of places, so I need a little help…

I’m not even sure what to say. Death sucks – it really does. My heart is broken, so I hope you forgive a grieving father if my language seems a little raw for a reverent ceremony in a beautiful church – but one thing I learned a long time ago is that God is big enough to handle it.

I’m standing here before you today to try and share my heart and I feel like I’m supposed to talk, but I’m not even sure who I’m talking to – is it you out there or is it to myself up here? Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children, and babies aren’t supposed to die before they are born. It’s that simple. And yet it happens. But the fact it happens doesn’t make it right.

I think maybe that’s why it hurts so much. Yes it hurts because we will miss those who are no longer here with us physically; but I think deep down inside, each of us hurts because we know it’s not supposed to be like this at all. I want to shake my fist and shout, “This is not fair!” At times like this we recognize the brokenness of our world.

Sixteen years ago I sat on the edge of my comatose sister’s bed; she was 20. I sat there and held her hand as she breathed her final breathes; I watched my parents and brothers cry over a situation that should have never happened – cancer isn’t right and it shouldn’t be here, but it was and is.

Death sucked then, and it sucks now.

So here I am again, experiencing firsthand the broken reality we live in – only this time it’s my own daughter who’s died, and this time I have to lead my own family through the pain and grief. No one should have to do this.

This world – this life is not as it is supposed to be.

Somehow on days like today that truth becomes so obvious one wonders how we could have missed it at all. We live in a fallen, broken, and sick world. Car accidents happen, people get sick, crime happens, and children die. This world is broken… Floods rise, fires burn, hurricanes and tornadoes come, droughts destroy corps – and parents bury their kids. Somehow, deep inside, we recognize the unfairness of the situation – the injustice of it all. But regardless of our technology and our money, we can’t fix it.

“Why do these things happen?” we ask. We want to know – we think we need to know – we feel we deserve to know.

But the fact is, too often we never will.

It’s easy at moments like this, when we see a baby in a casket, to recognize the brokenness around us (the Bible calls that sin); sometimes we even try to justify that brokenness with statistics (like the fact that 1 out every 160 children die of umbilical accidents), as if that makes it okay. But just because something might be happening about ½% of the time doesn’t make it right.

And the bigger lie we’ve come to believe is that sin and brokenness is just “out there” – too often we forget that it’s also “in here”. We know we’re not perfect mind you – none of us is foolish enough to think that (or if we are, we’re certainly not going to admit it to anyone). But our imperfection? It’s not sin, we reason, we’re just a little rough around the edges – nothing more, nothing less. We’re pretty good, and, for the most part, our motives are in the right place. We try to do the right thing (whatever that means), and we try to help others (but only when it’s convenient). And we live our lives.

My favorite verse and promise in all of scripture is found in Revelation 21: “Then I heard a loud voice from the throne:[a]

Look! God’s dwelling[b] is with humanity,
and He will live with them.
They will be His people,
and God Himself will be with them
and be their God.[c]
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Death will no longer exist;
grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer,
because the previous things[d] have passed away.

Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.”

I look forward to that day – the day when death will no longer exist, when grief, crying, and pain will be gone – the day when everything will be new.

But as I read this promise in scripture I realize that while it is available to everyone, it is only applicable to some; and that’s a scary thought, if you’re not in that “some”. That’s not a popular thing to say in society right now – it seems exclusive. But, here’s the deal – the gospel of Jesus is exclusive. Jesus said that He is the way – not that others are the way, or that he is one of many ways. He said it’s all about Him. So if you want to be included in that some, you’ve got to walk through the door he wants you to walk through. Now you can dismiss that and decide you don’t agree with it, but you and he can’t both be right. Either He’s it, or you are. And as for me, I’m siding with the guy who got up from dead – unless you’ve got a better “trick” up your sleeve…

So the first question one asks is, “Will this promise apply to me?” – just like Jason’s question earlier about each of us being with the Father. And the only way to be sure of that is to trust him completely. We already know we live in a fallen, broken world – today is evidence of that – and the Bible says the reason for that is sin, and we all are guilty of sin and deserve punishment by a Holy God.

So let me share two words… But God…

Yeah. “But God” We’ve heard it before, but I’m going to repeat what has been said countless times before because some of you in here may not get it. “But God” is huge – in fact, it’s the big deal. We live in a fallen world where we are separated from God, But God sent His son Jesus so that we can be restored into right relationship with Him. That verse I read a few minutes ago – it’s all about But God.

We live in a fallen, broken, sinful world – but God chose to come to earth as a man, he paid for our sin with his blood when he died on a cross, and then he rose again from the dead and defeated sin, death and the grave. And he told us that if we want to participate in that defeat with him, if we want to be restored to him, then we need to trust him with our lives – both here and now. Jesus promised eternal life to those who followed him – and he also defined when eternal life starts, and it may not be when you think…

Eternal life isn’t something that happens “someday”; it doesn’t start when you die. Eternal life, Jesus says, is to know God the Father; it starts right now. We’re told elsewhere in scripture that when we become Christians – when we accept Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and surrender ourselves to him – that we literally become new people. Christianity isn’t about behavior modification; Christianity is identity transformation. It’s not about what I do or don’t do; it’s about who I am. And who I am is determined by the fact that God now lives inside me, that he transforms my heart and my mind so that they confirm to his. And when that happens I begin to see things in a whole new light….

So let me share with you how that looks for us right now, where we are at… Even in the midst of tragedy and loss – in the middle of deep pain, sorrow, and grief – Melissa and I have seen God’s grace and his mercy. From the doctor who shared scripture with us and prayed with us at the hospital and then came back after delivery to find Melissa in the cafeteria, to the nurses and other staff who came in and prayed with and over Melissa during the labor and delivery process… The Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep photographer who stayed at the hospital until 1:30am taking pictures – some of which you saw today – to help us remember Caroline. The friends and family who came and held us when we cried, who sat and listened as we talked without trying to fix the unfixable… The family support people at the hospital who reached out to us… The doctors and nurses who went above and beyond to comfort us, gave us permission to grieve, and created some of the mementos you saw in the back to help us remember… The friends and family who came over to our house to help us pack up baby stuff, who watched the kids while Melissa and I were in the hospital, who gave so much without asking for anything – anything – in return – even though they were grieving as well. To those who sent us private Facebook messages and prayers, to those who prayed on Monday night at the prayer meeting, to those who have provided meals, to friends who brought shakes to the house or went out for a simple walk around the neighborhood or just sent text messages to say “I’m praying for you and love you” and then understood they may not get a response, but then the next day send another bible verse or prayer. God truly has shown up in ways we never expected.

I would not wish this pain or experience on my worst enemy – and I’m learning that there are many, many more people out there who have experienced similar situations – many worse than this. But I’m experiencing – even in light of tragic and deep loss – that God is present and He is here and He is good. If you’ve ever wondered about Christianity and wanted to know what it is, here it is on display for you – it’s walking with those who hurt and suffer together, with the hope that both in the present God is here and in the future He will finally defeat death and the grave (and this isn’t the type of “hope” as in “I hope the Cubs win the world series next year. It’s the hope that provides confidence and assurance that what has been said will be.) And we can have that confidence that he will defeat death and the grave because he already has. A man named Jesus got up from the dead – and that changes EVERYTHING.

People ask us what we need, so here are two things:

First, we need to know that every person here is without an excuse to know about the deep, deep love and grace of God offered through Jesus – and that you have had an opportunity to respond to and accept it. We can’t make you accept it, but we can ensure you are offered the opportunity. If you know us at all you know we aren’t perfect – we mess up plenty of times (and if you really think I’m perfect, just sit and talk with my wife or coworkers for about 30 seconds and they can cure you of that delusion). What I can tell you, though, is that without the very real presence of God in my life because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, I would not have any hope, I would not have any peace, I would not have any joy or love or grace. Because those things aren’t in me – they are from Him. If Jesus can get up from the dead, he can get us through this…

Jason spoke a few minutes ago much more eloquently than I am as I muddle through this (and I’m going to blame it on my current emotional state). But here’s what we need to do – you need an opportunity to respond to what Jason and I have. And we’re going to respond in prayer.   If you recognize your own inadequacy to fix your sin and pain and suffering, and you’ve not asked God to do it for you, I hope you’ll pray with me in a minute. And if you have confessed your inadequacy already, I’m going to ask you to say these words so that those around you that might want to pray them don’t feel alone. And it’s not about saying magic words to a geanie in the sky – it’s about a humble heart condition that says to a Holy God “I need you.”

So let’s pray (which is just a fancy way to say we’re going to talk to God).. If everyone could close their eyes and repeat after me.

Heavenly Father

This world is broken, and I’m broken, too.

And I know that I can’t fix it or me without you.

Forgive my pride in thinking I could.

I believe you died and rose again to pay what I could never pay.

Change me – inside and out; forgive my sin.

And make me your child.

Amen.

Before you open your eyes and before anyone is looking around, if you prayed that prayer and really meant it, would you just raise your hand? The only person looking around the room is me …

If you prayed that prayer – really prayed it and didn’t just say words – then the promise I read earlier now applies to you.

I said we had two needs we’re aware of, and that was the first, so let me just share the second. We need to be pursued. Please, continue to pursue us, to reach out to us, to love us and pray for us. And if you reach out and don’t get a response immediately, please do not be offended… We just physically and emotionally can’t do it right now. But we need to hear from you, and we will eventually respond. And don’t just pursue today or this week… We need you for the long haul…. Ask us for walks, invite us out to coffee (or, in my case tea) – offer to watch our kids so Melissa and I can take time to be together. We need time – both alone and also with those who are close to us, and are willing to help us carry this burden. So please, pursue us.

God is a good, good father, and it is my prayer that even in the midst of tragedy – no, especially in the midst of tragedy – that both you and I realize how true that is. He is here today; don’t let the opportunity to respond to him pass you by yet again.

 

The Irrelevant Christian


It’s been fascinating to me to see how the Christian community has responded to the release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey.  First, let me say I haven’t seen it and have no desire to see it – and this post is not about the film itself but more about what I believe our response to it represents.  Over-all many in the Christian community have decried the film’s release, I’ve heard some call for boycotts and others argue that, basically, seeing it is a way to be a missionary to the lost who will see it.

Here’s what prompted this post, though… I have in the past consulted the site Plugged In regarding movies to see if they are ones I wanted to go to or not, so I was curious whether the site would review this particular movie, given the public interest in the film in general.  I won’t say I was surprised to see they did, and I also won’t say I wasn’t disappointed to see they did.  But perhaps not for the reasons you may expect.

First, I wasn’t surprised they reviewed it because they’ve reviewed most movies over the years that seem to be highly popular.  Given that pre-release ticket sales were through the roof and that from what I heard about opening weekend sales it out-sold it’s next closest competitor by a 2:1 margin, I wasn’t surprised they reviewed it because that’s what they do.

Second, yes, I was disappointed they reviewed it.  But not necessarily because of the content of the movie in particular – let’s be honest, Christians don’t want to even talk about sex in general, yet alone what this movie apparently portrays – but more generally than that. Because of it’s emphasis on sex most Christians were expected to stand against it and say “don’t go see it”.  Yet many of those same Christians will go see plenty of other movies that portray violence and graphic sex and they don’t seem to blink an eye.  For a long time I’ve had mixed feelings about Plugged In in general – here is a Christian reviewer who will go see some of the worst movies I can imagine and literally record the number of times God’s name is said in vain, the number of swear words, the specific sexual details in the movie (amount of nudity, type of sex, etc).  And I have to wonder how beneficial that really is.

Call me crazy or old-fashioned, but isn’t that one of the purposes of the MPAA – to tell us, as a public, the contents of a movie?  Movies with lots of questionable content (drugs, drinking, graphic sex, nudity, swearing, etc) receive higher MPAA ratings, while those that are “cleaner” receive lower ratings.  So I decided to give this a little test… I pulled the historical ratings of Plugged In to see how he rated all the “R” rated movies over the years.  As could probably be expected, they all are rated poorly – most have only 1 or 2 stars, and only one had 3 stars ever.

Yeah, that’s right…  Movies that I would expect to be questionable for me as a believer to see based on the MPAA rating were, in fact, questionable for me to see based on Plugged In’s rating as well.

Which gets me to the point of this post…  Perhaps the reason the world finds so many Christians irrelevant is that we aren’t different enough from the culture around us; perhaps the reason the world finds so many Christians irrelevant is that they see us condemn movies like Fifty Shades of Grey because of it’s content but then we’ll turn around and praise another movie which, according to Plugged In (since I didn’t see it), has over 100 uses of the “F” word, over a dozen uses of “God” and “damn” together, and “Someone [who] removes his ring when trying to score at a bar [and contains]  one-off jokes about incest, masturbation, oral sex, anatomical sizes and talking dirty on the phone.” (yes, that’s a direct quote).  How is it that Fifty Shades is wrong to watch but the movie American Sniper isn’t (which is what that review is referring to)?

Plugged In even had to release an explanation of why they were reviewing Fifty Shades, given how controversial the decision was.  Obviously, I’m in the camp of commentators who would have preferred Plugged In not review the movie, but apparently I’m in the minority that feels Plugged In (and Christians in general) really don’t need to review any movie with an R rating.  I gave up on those movies long ago.  And I’ve learned that even Plugged In hasn’t given a positive review to any R rated film that I could find, which tells me that, by and large, I can actually trust the MPAA to correctly inform me whether I want to consider seeing a movie or not.  In my opinion, Plugged In could just review G, PG, and PG13 films if they feel the need to, because apparently they haven’t seen a decent R-rated film in the last 5 years (that’s as far back as the records on the site go).

See, part of our problem as followers of Jesus is that we too often don’t take God at his word.  My pastor when I lived in Florida (and who married Melissa and I) released on his blog a post entitled Protect Your Mind! Guard Your Heart! and in it he shared a couple of Bible verses I think are wonderful verses.  Take Psalm 101:3, for example, where David wrote, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless,” or Philippians 4:8 where Paul admonishes “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”

But we don’t really act that way – not really.  We put all sorts of conditions on them..  If I were to use the two movies already mentioned I would have to reword Psalm 101 to say, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless unless it is a great patriotic movie” while Philippians would have to be reworded to say, “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable, unless you’re watching a movie (listing to music/reading a book) that clearly differentiates between good and evil or is extra patriotic and tells a true story.

It seems to me that Christians are the only ones who identify levels of sin – and, ironically, we are the ones who should be move giving of grace.  We are willing to say, “sex on screen in a movie like 50 Shades is sin” but “I can watch Titanic because it only has one scene with nudity.”  Or we justify seeing a movie with “over 100 ‘F’ words” because it’s “patriotic” and “inspirational”.

I watch very little TV, but sometimes I even have to ask myself if sitting and watching a show like Bones on Netflix is any less “fixing my thoughts on what is true” than would be watching 50 Shades.  What about other shows that have people engaging in extra-marital affairs, homosexual relationships, using God’s name in vain, or killing people?  When did watching those shows somehow become “acceptable”?  Why is watching those shows appropriate but 50 Shades not?

The release of Fifty Shades of Grey should cause us as Christians to re-examine what it is we are watching, how we are living, and what it is we say when we tacitly endorse by our words and actions certain movies/shows/books/music over others.

Words Matter


We often talk about how words have the power of life or death, but I’m not sure we actually believe that the words we say really matter all that much, at least when it comes to worship.  For if we did I think we’d say (and sing) very different things than we often do.

I’m often bothered by what I call the “me” focus focus in worship  While it’s not something I’ve written on lately – actually, in a very long time – it is still something that I spend much time contemplating and praying about.  I struggle with trying to change people’s focus and help them to see that while they may feel like they are worshiping God because they are having a very real emotional experience, their words would suggest otherwise.

Take, for example, a popular worship song I hear on the radio and in churches: Healer.  Now before I make it sound as if I hate the song or if the song should never be sung in a church let me assure you I don’t hold to either of those beliefs – I’m simply going to use this song as an illustration to a larger point I want to make (specifically, that words matter). If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a video of it so you can watch (and listen to) it.


Did you catch the chorus?

I believe you’re my healer, I believe you are all I need, I believe.

I believe you’re my portion, I believe you’re more than enough for me.  Jesus you’re all I need.

What could I possibly have wrong with those words?  It’s really quite simple: it’s the first two words “I believe.”  Go back and listen to the song again – it starts as a direct proclamation to Jesus (“You hold my every moment…”), but then instead of proclaiming truth we start talking about what we believe.  Too bad in our society and culture what we “believe” doesn’t seem to hold much water anymore – it’s understood by most as nothing more than an intellectual ascent to an idea, but whether that idea (or ideal) has any impact in our everyday lives is pretty much up for grabs.  Do you think I’m over-stating this?  Tell me, what would your spouse (parent, child, friend) say if you looked at them and said, “I believe I love you.”  What kind of statement is that?  You believe you love me?  Why not just tell me you love me?

And I have to wonder if that’s what Jesus thinks and feels when he hears us utter these words of “belief”.  Why can’t we just say to him, “You are my healer.  You are my portion.  You are enough for me.” rather than infect them with the words “I believe”?  I understand the intent here is probably to make it personal so that we perhaps “own” the words and internalize them.  But the fact is that’s now how our minds work – in our culture to say “I believe” is a way to distance ourselves from the idea and weaken it; it’s a way to say say that what we are talking about is really just our perception of reality while acknowledging that our perception may be false.  Let’s get political for a moment to illustrate the point: which is more offensive in today’s culture – to say, “Gay marriage is wrong” or to say “I believe gay marriage is wrong”?  It’s the former – because it makes a claim as fact, while the latter is simply my own belief, or preference, or interpretation.   Or let’s flip it around…  “Gay marriage is right and should be allowed legally” versus “I believe gay marriage is okay and that we should allow it legally”.

Are you starting to see the difference?  One allows for argument because it claims a truth while another simply subscribes to a personal opinion.

Ironically, even the secular world realizes this.  Check out the following advertisement about the power of words:
A friend of mine recently told me of a blog post with the title, Stop Singing Oceans which reinforces this idea that our words matter.  And I can’t disagree with him (or the author of the post)!

So how does this words matter stuff related to what I’ve called the “me” culture in worship?  Simple.  The focus of the words in the song Healer I quoted above have a very clear focus: the person singing.  The lyrics themselves do not point to the healer (well, at least not for all but the last phrase of the chorus), they focus on the one holding the belief.  And that, dear friends, is a huge difference.  If our focus should be on Jesus – who he is and what he has done – then why would we allow it be infected with any hint of us?  The Bible has a very clear definition of anything that we place before God – it’s called idolatry.  Call me a cranky old-timer if you want (though I’m certainly not old :)), but I just get so tired of listening to Christian radio and singing songs in worship services that seem more focused on us than they do on God.

Words matter – they literally matter.  Not just because they are both a reflection of what we are thinking but also because they direct our thoughts.  But even more than that, words matter because they have a spiritual life to them.  Must I remind you that Jesus was called The Word?  Must I remind you that God created the entire universe by speaking it into existence?  Or that the Bible is called God’s Word?  Or that we are told that “The Lord gave the word“?

And just in case you’re still doubting me, I challenge you to try something.  For the next week when you talk to other people – whether Christians or not – instead of using the universal (and often less-offensive) term “God” try actually using the name “Jesus”.  What you’ll most likely find is that if you don’t speak Jesus’ name verbally very often but rather default to “God”, “Lord,” or some other generic term, that saying the word “Jesus” is uncomfortable and feels strange.  Why?  Because there is power in the name of Jesus, because our words matter – the literal, individual words we choose.  And our enemy knows this.  He knows that as long as we don’t use the name “Jesus” there is ambiguity in our speech.  He knows that when he convinces us to talk about “our beliefs” that he has disarmed us because we no longer claim The Truth but rather A Truth.

And that, my friends, is not a place I want to be.

Me-Centered Worship


I have just finished reading the story of the Exodus – where God takes on Pharaoh and miraculously delivers his people from Egypt by performing 10 wonders (or plagues, depending on which end you are on!), culminating in the awe-inspiring parting of the Red Sea.  Having been working through this for a couple of weeks now, the drama has continually been building up to the point where the people finally experience the full salvation of God from the hands of Egypt and get to watch as the Lord destroys the Egyptian army in the blink of an eye when they find themselves at the bottom of the sea.  And then we arrive at chapter 15 of Exodus:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said:

I will sing to the Lord,
for He is highly exalted;

This seems so simple, and I’ve written about it before, but for some reason it jumped off the page at me today.  Here in Exodus we have the first recorded song in scripture, and I want to spend a minute looking at just the first line.  Do you notice why the people sing?  It’s because “He” is highly exalted.  Other translations say it’s because “He has won a great victory” or “He has triumphed gloriously”, but what is important is to notice that it’s because of Him.

Seems simple enough, yet as I thought about this I reflected on how backwards we have it in our culture.  Our culture is so self-focused and me-centered, that we really think worship is about us.  Not just in our songs (I’d be curious to take modern worship songs and even old hymns to count the number of times “I” or “Me” is mentioned rather than “Him”, “He”, or “You”), but in our attitudes.  Why don’t we sing in church?  Here are some reasons I’ve heard and continue to hear:

  • I don’t like the style
  • I don’t feel like it
  • I can’t sing very well
  • I can’t hear myself (it’s too loud)
  • I hear the person next to me (who can’t carry a tune and distracts me)
  • I don’t like the song
  • I don’t know the song
  • I can’t sing this song – it’s too hard
  • I _________________ <fill in the blank>

It’s me-centered worship.  Two years ago I wrote specifically about men singing in worship services, and it still irks me.  Our worship shouldn’t be dictated, determined, or driven by us (preference, emotional state, etc).  Our worship is to be dictated, determined, and driven by the God we serve.  Look back at Exodus 15:1 – the people sang to the Lord for the sole purpose because he deserved it.

Not convinced yet?  Think it’s easy because they had just experienced the miracle of the Red Sea crossing?  Take a look at these verses (which I also read today):

Psalm 61:3, “for You have been a refuge for me, a strong tower in the face of the enemy.”

Psalm 62:1-2, “I am at rest in God alone, my salvation comes from Him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I will never be shaken.”

And then look at Psalm 63:1-8

God, You are my God; I eagerly seek You.
I thirst for You;
my body faints for You
in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water.
So I gaze on You in the sanctuary
to see Your strength and Your glory.

My lips will glorify You
because Your faithful love is better than life.
So I will praise You as long as I live;
at Your name, I will lift up my hands.
You satisfy me as with rich food;[a]
my mouth will praise You with joyful lips.

When I think of You as I lie on my bed,
I meditate on You during the night watches
because You are my helper;
I will rejoice in the shadow of Your wings.
I follow close to You;
Your right hand holds on to me.

Look again at verse 4…. David says he lifts his hands why?  Because he feels like it?  Because the key change in the music demands it?  No, he lifts his hands because of God’s name.  In other words, because of God.

Worship isn’t for us, it’s for Him.  And it’s not for Him because we feel like it, but because he deserves it (and he deserves it whether we feel like it or not).  Recently I listened to a sermon by a former pastor of mine who now serves at A2 Church in Birmingham, Alabama and was so profoundly challenged and encouraged by it I forwarded the link on to the band leadership and the general leadership at my church (groups of which I’m involved).  Of particular interest to me was the 2.5 minute excerpt between about 3:25-6:05 where the pastor starts talking about the importance of Sunday.

And here’s my conclusion based of my reading and as I reflect on the sermon linked above (which I encourage everyone to listen to): until we can see for God for who he is, until we can set aside ourselves in worship, until we can deeply and truthfully begin to comprehend that the resurrection of Jesus means something beyond ourselves and our personal salvation then our “worship” will always be me-focused and me-centered.  Until we walk into church and realize that we don’t sing because we want to or because we feel like it but rather because God deserves it then worship in our churches will always be driven by performance-ism and have a self-centered focus.  In short, if you can listen to just the first 6 minutes of the sermon linked above and NOT have an overwhelming, emotional, and fully human response leading to awe and amazement, then you need to examine and reflect on who you think God is and what your relationship to him is like.  Worship isn’t driven by us and who we are, it’s driven by God and who he is.

We don’t worship for any other reason that because God deserves it.  To not worship for any reason is to suggest that God is undeserving and our feelings, thoughts, and attitudes are higher than he is.  And the word used in scripture for considering something higher than God (giving worship to anything but him) is idolatry.