Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Why Do We Ask Jesus To Come Into Our Hearts?

Paul prayed that Christ would dwell in our hearts through faith. Yet, there are many who mock and scorn the idea of asking Jesus to come into our hearts. I understand why the world derides us, that is to be expected, but when the ridicule comes from within the walls of the church it is necessary to stand up and say something. It is time to silence the scoffing and explain why this is such an important foundation of our faith. Ephesians 3:16-17 asks:

I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.

By Faith means that in order for Jesus to live in our hearts, we must place our trust and hope in Him and believe that He is God's Son, that He died for our sins and resurrected and we trust that He will forgive us. We have to believe His promise in order to receive it.

John 14 and 15 record Jesus comforting the disciples because He is going to have to leave them, but He promises to send His Spirit to take His place. He teaches them about God living with us and in us through His Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives us guidance, comfort and peace. Jesus tells his disciples not to let their hearts be troubled, then describes the Holy Spirit as a helper, and Spirit of Truth. He then explains that

You know him because he abides with you and will be in you....In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me and I in you....If anyone loves me, He will keep my word; and My Father will love him and we will come to him and make our abode with him.

Jesus continues on to promise to send the Holy Spirit in HIS name to teach us and He blesses us with the kind of peace that only comes from Him living with us, in our hearts. 2 Corinthians 1:22 describes God as the one:

Who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.

He gives His Spirit in our hearts as a testimony so that we know His promises are true. So, is it Biblical to ASK or INVITE Him to come into our hearts? Revelation 3:20 answers:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. IF anyone hears my voice and opens the door, THEN I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.

We have to open the door. We have to invite Jesus to come in. Just like He earnestly desired to eat the Passover meal with His disciples, He earnestly desires to have fellowship with us. But we need to welcome Him into our lives. Hebrews keeps repeating the phrase:

As has just been said: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion." (Hebrews 3:15)

Don't harden your heart and ignore the voice of God calling you. Open up, ask Him to come in, invite Him into your life. Experience a renewed heart.

Romans 8:9 and Philippians 1:19 talk about the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus being actively involved in the lives of believers.

Is it Biblical to ask Jesus to come into your heart? Absolutely Yes. How do we communicate with God? Through Prayer. His Spirit is our comforter, counselor, guide, helper and friend. I encourage you to Welcome Him into your life. If you don't know what to pray, I suggest reading all of Psalm 51. Here are some of the words of David from that Psalm that might help you get started:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your faithful love,
According to your abundant compassion, blot out my rebellion
Completely wash away my guilt and cleanse me from my sin............

You desire truth in the inner being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart (deep within)
Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean
Wash me and I will be whiter than snow...

Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me.

Sunday, July 16, 2017


For too many years, any expression of worship other than singing, such as clapping, raising hands, shouting to God and especially, wait for it.........Dancing, has been taboo in many churches, viewed by some as being too Charismatic or Pentecostal or something only "Holy Rollers" do. The Truth is that these are the normal Biblical expressions of worship for all Christians. Before we examine key texts that teach us to worship this way, let's think for a minute about why we worship.

I grew up in Missouri and I'm Baptist, which means that if you want me to believe something, you have to SHOW-ME. We live in a world full of people who are waiting for Christians to SHOW them what God is like and who He is. They need to see our Worship Expressed. We worship to proclaim God's goodness, to declare His power, to cry out for help, to thank Him for His mercy and blessings, to shout in acclamation, to tell what He has done and to teach others. Praise is how we SHOW the world what God is like. Worship is how we SHOW God our deep and heartfelt love and gratefulness. I agree with the definition that Worship is Love Expressed...and even more. Worship is Honor Expressed and Awe Expressed and Wonder and Joy and Repentance and Hope Expressed. 

One of the Hebrew words for praise is HALLELUJAH. Halal to Yahweh. Literally, it could be interpreted "Fool for God," or sometimes "to be clamorously foolish in praise." This does not mean to act silly and draw attention to oneself. It means that we are willing to be made to look foolish, so that God's name can be honored. We would rather be embarrassed and have our name mocked than to see God's name besmirched. His glory, His honor, His praise and His great name are more important than our own. Like John the Baptist realized, we must become less, so he can become more. We must humble ourselves because true worship is an act of humility. Jesus was sacrificed once for all. The only sacrifice that remains for us is to offer up the sacrifice of praise for what He has done.

Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. -Hebrews 13:15

Let's take a look at these 4, often neglected, Biblical Expressions of Worship:

We clap for everything from concerts to competitions to ceremonies. We clap to show enthusiasm and approval. We clap to give encouragement and support. Yet, we hesitate to do it in church sometimes. Isn't God more worthy than any worldly event, hero, or superstar idol? When we clap as part of our praise in church, we show enthusiasm for God, show support for the teaching in the music and show solidarity as we give encouragement to the body of Christ. Clapping in rhythm with the music is a normal part of worship expression. Applause is a Biblical way of honoring God and showing our hearty agreement and approval of the Gospel message being presented.

Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy! -Psalm 47:1

Two Hands raised up palm out is a universal sign of victory and also of surrender, how interesting. We don't hesitate to raise our hands after a touchdown or a trophy. Why not raise them to honor Jesus' victory over death, hell and the grave? Or to surrender to Him? We salute officers and those of high status. Why not salute the King of Kings with a raised hand? Reaching out a hand for help or reaching up in need are also well-recognized signs of dependence and humility. This is why we open hands, palm up, in surrender and submission as we lift our praises up to God, prepare to receive what He has for us and humbly offer ourselves to Him.

Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the LORD. -Psalm 134:2

Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or dissension. -1 Timothy 2:8

Hear the voice of my supplications when I cry to You for help, When I lift up my hands toward Your holy sanctuary. -Psalm 28:2


I will never forget the first time I heard Scripture about Dancing being proudly proclaimed by the Right Reverend.....Ren McCormack, aka Kevin Bacon. If the movie Footloose is the only time we hear Bible verses about dancing as a form of celebration or worship, then we have a real problem. Biblical, Worshipful dance will look very different from secular dance. It won't be sensual, dirty, sexual, suggestive or offensive. What it will look like is the pure expression of unrestrained joy. Have you ever just jumped for joy, or couldn't keep your feet from moving with a driving beat or felt a surge of happiness thinking about how good God is that required a physical response? One example of the type of Biblical dancing I'm talking about is what one might see at a Messianic service, where the women dance traditional dances with tambourine in hand. It is pure celebratory dance designed to honor God. One of my favorite moments in worship was Christmas a few years ago, when the children at NRHBC came into the sanctuary skipping and leaping and dancing while carrying colorful streamers and singing. It was the highlight of the evening and yes, that is what Biblical dancing looks like. This is the type of dance we find in Scripture, though it does not have to be choreographed.

Psalm 150:1 begins by telling us to Praise the LORD in His sanctuary. It then provides us with an incredible variety of instruments, ways and reasons to worship Him including:
Praise Him with timbrel and dancing -Psalm 150:4

Other Examples Include:

Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing. And Miriam answered to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously... -Exodus 15:20-21

David was dancing before the LORD with all his might, wearing a linen ephod (a priestly garment) So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting and with the sound of the horn. 2 Samuel 6:15

Let Israel be glad in his Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their King! Let them praise His name with dancing; Let them sing praises to Him with timbrel and lyre. For the LORD takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the afflicted ones with salvation. -Psalm 149:2-4

When I think about shouting God's praises, I picture the nation of Israel, gathered in Jerusalem, perhaps at a time of festival, around the temple, all shouting in unison, praising God with shouts of acclamation. I'm not sure if they always did that, but they were definitely meant to...and so are we. I would suggest we could do it like a call and response---not like a monotone responsive reading...but shouts of loud praise and declaration. Ezra 3:10-13 records the laying of the foundation to rebuild the temple. The priests would lead and the people would answer back: And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, "For He is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel," and all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord......and the sound was heard far away.

Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth; Break forth into joyous song and sing praises. -Psalm 98:4

Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous ones; shout for joy, all you upright in heart. -Psalm 32:11

My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to You; And my soul, which You have redeemed. -Psalm 71:23

You probably noticed how many of the verses above reference SINGING. What it all boils down to is this: We are meant to worship with passion. We Sing...and we clap. We sing...and we shout. We sing...and we dance. We Sing...and we lift our hands. The postures of worship are a topic unto themselves, but whether we stand, kneel, sit, bow or prostrate ourselves on our faces before God, the point is that we are meant to be passionate. We are meant to sing whole-heartedly and expressively.

The Hebrew word for the human body means to SHOW FORTH. The same word, used in a different way is the word for the Gospel, which also means to SHOW FORTH. We are meant to SHOW God what He means to us and to SHOW the world what God is like and who He is through our lives and through our Worship. We are a living demonstration, a sacrifice of praise. We need to humble ourselves and SHOW WORSHIP.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Milli Vanilli Worship: Thoughts On the Ethics of Using Tracks in Church

It used to be scandalous to get caught singing along with a track during a live performance. I remember my freshman year of college hearing a local high school choir singing "Phantom of the Opera," and it was obvious that they weren't simply using an accompaniment CD, but there was a full choir on the track. I was embarrassed for them and taken aback that a teacher would have done such a thing. At my own Christmas concert last year, the choir was singing with an accompaniment CD and some parents thought there were voices on the recording. It bothered me that they could think I would do that and of course it wasn't true. The students had improved dramatically and sounded better since the fall. But this brings us to the topic at hand. Over the last few decades, the use of enhancement tracks and technological helps has increased dramatically in churches and our view toward such things has evolved as well.

I will never forget the first time I realized a church was using a track. I noticed sometimes when the keyboard player's hands were in the air worshipping that the organ played on and that the drummers movements didn't always match the fills I was hearing. There were more voices coming through the speakers than were on the platform. It turns out they were playing along with a CD of the Brownsville Revival and trying to recreate the experience. It was the first time I had visited a Pentecostal church and it caused doubt and concern in my already question-filled mind. I had gone to visit because of the powerful worship I was hearing about and it was powerful, but then I felt like they were trying to deceive me. They only used CD recordings for about 3 songs out of an hour-long worship set, but it was enough to be a stumbling block to me.

A few years later, I was asked to play for a large church's Easter service. I was astonished at the dress rehearsal to find that they were playing the demo/practice CD along with the choir and orchestra for the full performance. It seemed incredibly obvious to me, with the canned sounds and commercial choir, and I assumed everyone attending the service would be able to tell, though it seemed they did not. I was embarrassed to play for the service and ashamed because I felt like we were either fooling people or making fools out of ourselves.

Around that same time, I visited another church doing the same thing on Sunday morning, but without an orchestra and with only a very small choir it was easy to hear the cheesy voices playing on a CD...Awkward... It isn't so obvious anymore. Today, the technology exists to go much further than simply playing a CD. There are high quality audio enhancement resources available and there are no limits on what a church can do to improve, enhance and create their music. Digital tracks allow producers and pastors to perform all sorts of soundboard wizardry and it is time we had some frank and open discussions about what is appropriate, and what is not appropriate for use in church.

Churches can now purchase Nashville recorded Audio Stems. These are recordings of each individual instrument of the orchestra such as trumpet, bass, violin, flute, guitar, etc. They can also buy each individual voice part in the choir. They can mix any instrument or voice part they wish into an enhancement track to be played along with Sunday morning worship, or they can mix in a full choir and orchestra.

I don't want to stand outside of someone's house casting stones or to sound like I'm attacking anyone, so I am only going to discuss performances that I have personally taken part in with different churches and Christian groups full of dear friends, and then offer suggestions to consider about what the appropriate and inappropriate use of tracks is.

Once, at Christmastime, I was singing in a choir that had to altar our arrangement of Handel's Messiah in order to match recordings of vocal soloists, not affiliated with our church, that had been acquired online. These professional singers were mixed into an enhancement track which was played along with us to make us sound better and cleaner during our Christmas services. Obviously, this was deceptive. Our talented choir had a short amount of rehearsal time and the track made us appear more prepared and impressive to the audience than what we really were. Clearly, it was dishonest and inappropriate to do that.

Another time, I was performing with a combined choir from several churches, singing an Oratorio called Savior with luminaries such as Twila Paris, Steve Green and Larnell Harris. We only had two rehearsals all together and were not well prepared. While our microphones were hot, there was also a full recording of a different choir being played throughout the performance at a significant volume. There was an overwhelming crowd reaction, which made me feel ashamed. I did not see any microphones on the orchestra, yet I heard an orchestra in the house speakers. It is hard to accept a standing ovation when you know it wasn't an honest performance.

I have been involved with more than one church which pre-recorded its own choir for special events. I realize this has become standard practice for many worship ministries and it is certainly much better than mixing in a professional choir or audio stems. To be honest, I have thoroughly enjoyed participating in recording sessions and I have learned a ton about how things are done in the industry. I am grateful for those experiences. But we need to think about what we CAN do verses what we SHOULD do, especially in live performance and worship. I can respect the pressure involved in live performances and especially broadcast situations. They say "Everything's Bigger In Texas," and I understand the high level of expectations that are placed on Christmas and Easter programs around here. I would suggest that if it is deemed necessary to pre-record an audio track, then the choir should record uninterrupted takes straight through the piece. I do not feel that it is ok to record only one phrase at a time, with multiple attempts to get a perfect take and then stack and edit and splice and adjust those takes. This might be an acceptable way for Hollywood or Nashville to produce an album, television event, publishing resources, or a movie, but it is not ok for the church and especially not for live services because it makes a choir sound much more prepared and perfect than what they really are and is deceiving the congregation. I also believe that using a track to make a choir sound "fuller," is wrong. If a practice compromises our integrity, then we should not use it. I do not think it is good to use such tracks for live performances. The other side of that coin is that a recorded track can never sound as good as the real thing, not even close, if a group is well rehearsed and prepared.

I will admit that there have been times in big Christmas and Easter productions that I was glad for the presence of an orchestra track in spots where I was less than confident, or less than prepared with my trombone part. But we shouldn't use tracks as a crutch to lean on.

Here Are Some Reasons to Reconsider the Use of Tracks in Worship:

1. It holds people on the platform up as idols
2. It offends/insults musicians to play or sing along with a track.
3. It covers up the true live sound and ruins the beauty and transparency
4. The more tracks that are included, the more the sound of the congregation singing is covered up
5. They complicate orchestra rehearsal
6. They stymie musical expression with rigidity and take away a sense of dynamic contrast and nuance
7. Audio Stems are really expensive and we should be better stewards of our money and resources
8. It cheapens the worship experience
9. Tracks can deceive the very people we are trying to convince to have faith in the message we are proclaiming
10. It isn't fair to smaller churches who don't have as many resources or as much money to have to compete with "enhanced" productions at larger churches
11. It would be considered cheating at any secular band or choir contest and the church should be held to a higher standard
12. "Like" sound waves cancel each other out. Sound systems can only handle so much and tracks muddy up the sound and cover up the performers
13. It leads to poor rehearsal techniques and planning because there is less of a sense of urgency to get parts learned

Some Possible Appropriate Uses for Tracks:
1. Provide practice tracks for each vocal part
2. Cover a missing instrument if someone gets sick
3. Provide practice recordings for at home rehearsal
4. Accompaniment for choir and/or congregation in the absence of instruments
5. Provide strings if your church does not have any
6. Provide a click track (metronome) and in-ear instructions in situations where musicians cannot see or hear each other well, such as a very large stage where the instrumentalists are split.
7. Enhance worship by adding instruments if you only have a few. (No one is being deceived if you see only a piano and guitar on stage, but supplement with tracks)

To simplify: I think tracks are great to practice with and fine to use as necessary accompaniment. Tracks should not be used to deceive, only to assist.

When Should Tracks NOT Be Used?

In my opinion:

Tracks should never be used to make your group seem: better prepared, more talented, more skillful, more impressive, bigger, fuller, more perfect or more well-rehearsed than they really are. Never use tracks to trick.

Tracks should not be used to make up for a lack of planning, lack of preparation or lack of musical skill, ability, rehearsal technique, competence or confidence on the part of the director or performers.

Tracks should never be given preference over musicians. For example, if a track is different than what the musicians have practiced, it would be wrong to force the musicians to change and leave them feeling awkward and unprepared. Just cut the track.

Tracks should not be used to make production easier. The craft of technical artists is to make sure that what is being heard in the house is an excellent and accurate representation of the performance. It is the director's responsibility to provide meaningful feedback and instruction to sound operators, just as they would to singers and instrumentalists.

Tracks should never be used in place of real musicians when there are people willing to serve. For example, using another keyboard player to reinforce winds or strings or to play a cool pad is preferable to using audio stems.


I have tried to address this subject based on personal experiences with several different churches, venues, musical groups and performance situations. I have had many experiences beyond those listed above, but I believe this is enough to generate discussion. There are a number of practices that have become the industry standard. But just because "Everybody's Doing It," that does not make it wise or good. I didn't name any churches or groups because the point isn't to shame anyone. I was there participating too. The point is to encourage all of us to stop and think about what we are doing and why we are doing it. The Bible teaches us that Jesus is the Truth and Satan is the father of all lies. The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Truth and Satan is called the spirit of deception. For the sake of those we are called to minister to, we need to focus on truth, transparency and putting forth the most honest worship we can. Our goal should not be to impress people, but to point them to Christ.

If you missed the 1st 3 installments of my series on worship, you can catch up by clicking the links below:

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Two Spirits: Who or What is the 2nd Spirit and Where Does It Come From?

Native American and First Nations peoples have begun referring to some LGBTQ persons using the term Two Spirits, a historical term which stems from the belief that such individuals possess both male and female spirits. In Canada, they have even adjusted to using LGBTTQ+ to describe Aboriginal people who identify as Two Spirits. It is remarkable to me that even these non-Christian belief systems have recognized an important spiritual truth. As you might expect, the Bible has much to teach us on this subject and it is important information if we wish to understand how to minister to people who self-identify this way.

Today I was reading about the time that Paul encountered a young slave girl who possessed a spirit of divination which allowed her "owners" to make a lot of money from her fortune telling. There were 2 spirits in one body, one human spirit belonging to the owner, the other an intruder. He cast the unclean spirit out of her. Native Americans were certainly no strangers to the idea of spirits. In the same way that ancient Ba'al worshippers laced wine with drugs in order to get high and have visions and communicate with their pagan gods, some Native American tribes used sweat lodges or Peyote to get high or go into a trance and communicate with their spirit guides. It is being claimed that some of the Two Spirits were Shaman and Medicine Men and that their tribes believed them to possess special wisdom because of the two spirits inside them, much the same way that the fortune teller girl Paul encountered seemed to have secret knowledge that others desired.

In John 4, we learn to be careful and discerning concerning spirits. Verse 1 warns us:

Dear Friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God.

Many of you might remember the song we sang growing up in church "Greater is He that is in me than he that is in the World." This comes from verse 5 which helps us understand that Christians are under the influence of the Holy Spirit inside of us and unbelievers are under the influence of Satan. There is a war going on for the hearts and minds of people and the role of every Christian is to protect them from harmful spiritual influences. The cruelest, most uncaring and unfeeling action a Christian can take is NO action when we encounter people who have been deceived by Satan, or even worse, to affirm and encourage them to continue in that deception. This verse actually tells us that we can overcome such spirits:

You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.

One result of the 1st Jerusalem council in Acts 15 was that the Holy Spirit and the Apostles affirmed the Biblical definition of sexual sin and required both Jewish and Gentile believers to abstain from sexual immorality. John, one of the apostles, writes the following statement in verse 6 of John Chapter 4 which we have been looking at:

We are from God. Anyone who knows God listens to us; anyone who is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we know the Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Deception.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. Satan and his spirits, which we understand to be fallen angels or demons, are the spirits of deception. As a matter of fact, John also provides a description of this deception in John 8:44:

You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

The most powerful tool in Satan's belt is his ability to deceive. He is a liar and a mocker and relentlessly endeavors to make fools out of people. When he can convince a man to think he is a woman, or a woman to think she is a man, or if he can twist a person's desires against God's will for them, he controls that person.

James, the brother of Jesus, describes the plight of a person who has not placed their faith in God. In James 1:8, He explains:

Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

In the original Greek language, the term double-minded describes someone who has 2 psyches at war within them. Sounds a lot like Two Spirits doesn't it? The word unstable specifically refers to someone torn between who will be in charge of them, who will be their ruler, in this case whether it will be God or Satan.

All of us were, at one time, deceived and disobedient to God before we came to faith. Paul explains this in chapter 2:1-5 of the letter to the Ephesians:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.

Satan is at work, relentlessly tempting, manipulating and lying to the minds of people. Any spirit that disagrees with God's Word, the Bible, is a spirit of deception. God's word says that He created us as male and female and that the only type of sexual activity that is acceptable is between one man and one woman inside of the covenant relationship of marriage. 

The only way to defeat a spirit of deception is with the Truth. Jesus said I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me. The way to kick any spirit that is deceiving you out of your life is to invite Jesus in. You need to end the war and make the choice. Which spirit will guide you, the Spirit of Truth? Or the spirit of deception?

Here are 3 Steps to escape from the devil's web of lies and get free:

1. Admit you were wrong. Yes, I know, this is the hard part. We all need to come to the point in our lives where we humble ourselves and agree with God's word that our sin is wrong. This is called repentance. We change our minds, disagree with the deceiver and agree with God.

2. Accept the truth about Jesus. Agree with God's word that Jesus died for our sins and rose again so that we could be saved and so that we could have His Spirit, the Holy Spirit, in our lives.

3. Ask Jesus to come into your life, to forgive you of your sins, to fill the emptiness with His life-giving Spirit, to be your Guide. Accept Him as your Savior. End the war for your heart and mind by making the choice. Let God be in charge, make Him the ruler of your heart and He will set you free. To live in deception is to be in bondage and slavery to sin. To live in the Truth is to be set free. 2 Corinthians 3:17 delivers the Truth of God's promise to us:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

If you are interested in learning more of what the Bible teaches about human sexuality from the One who designed and created our bodies and invented sexuality, you can read about it here:

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Second Chances

Giving a person one chance is not really giving them any chance at all. Whether it's teaching, singing, playing an instrument or whatever, everyone is super nervous the first time and you will never, ever get a valid assessment of someone's ability by giving them just one chance, and all real teachers and leaders know that.

Remember the time Paul and Barnabas got into a huge fight and parted ways over John Mark because Paul refused to give him a 2nd chance? In Acts 13:13 and 15:36-41, we learn that John Mark had walked away from them on a previous mission trip and had not finished the work, but went back home to Jerusalem. Perhaps he was afraid after the encounter with the sorcerer on Paphos? Maybe he had just been away from home for a long time because of the persecution going on in Jerusalem and grew weary and homesick? It is, of course, possible that God called him to return to Jerusalem and he was being obedient, even brave, to go back. We aren't told the reason for his departure. But Paul had given up on Mark and refused to allow the young disciple to rejoin him on his missionary journeys. Barnabas, son of encouragement, gave Mark another chance and took him along on his ministry travels. This time, the young man proved himself to be reliable and well capable of the work.

Ultimately, Mark wrote one of the 4 Gospels. John Mark was a very observant young main with a kean eye for detail and an excellent memory. The types of small and interesting details that are the hallmarks of his Gospel prove the authenticity of his eye-witness account. I suspect that Mark was probably one source of information and influence on Luke the historian as he wrote the book of Acts, also including such details that only an eye-witness could provide. Eventually, Paul realized he was wrong about him saying:

"Get Mark and bring him with you for he is very useful to me for ministry."  -2 Timothy 4:11

If you aren't interested in giving people 2nd chances, you really aren't interested in people at all, and you aren't a leader. Real leaders are disciple makers who develop people.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Christmas (planning) in July!!!

No Santa. No Frosty. No Rudolph. No Olaf--in church Christmas services. Does that make me The Grinch? After this weekend's Independence Day festivities, Worship Leaders will begin to plan Christmas programs and let's face it, we need to have a talk.

A few years ago I attended what is, perhaps, the single largest, most epic, over-the-top Church Christmas production in the nation. In addition to a 300 voice choir, phenomenal orchestra and entertaining script, the first act featured a cast of hundreds, bright, colorful costumes, intricately programmed lighting design, choreographed dances and astonishing sets including moving digital video backdrops. It was the most overwhelming production I have ever experienced full of lively fun and color and happiness, All for the Glory and the Honor and the Praise......of SANTA CLAUS........

Um, that happened. I mean, there were pyrotechnics, elves descending upon the platform by cables and zip-lining across the stage. There was a reindeer-drawn Sleigh flying (via helicopter shot digital video or CGI) over the metroplex to the church and then an ACTUAL fully functioning sleigh with live Santa flying over the congregation from the top of the highest balcony on cables down to an actual turn around landing on the stage and then back to the top again---TWICE.

Now, I have seen fictional characters used effectively to portray scenes which address issues of faith and encourage the audience to make decisions, this is not what went on here. This wasn't creative evangelism. It was a purely secular storyline without a hint of God anywhere. I get what they were doing. I understand they were going fishing and the first act was the bait, but I don't believe this is what Jesus was talking about when He promised to make His disciples fishers of men.

After intermission, the 2nd Act featured less from the orchestra, some soloists, the choir was out much of the time, no acting or story, little movement, black and gray clothing, static lighting changes. It was the "Jesus" part of the show. And if you brought children, it could have been the boring part where you might consider leaving if they got restless. Now, they did rally in the 3rd Act by ending with the incredible 20 minute Nativity Symphony. There was a gorgeous live nativity with many animals including a flock of live sheep, flying angels and an impressive parade of kings coming to pay tribute to the newborn King. They did give a clear Gospel presentation and invitation to accept Christ at the end.  God did receive WORSHIP during the 2nd half of the show. But I felt like all of the fun, energy and creativity, all of the PRAISE had gone into the Santa part of the show. I think Jesus should get it all.

For many years I did not realize the special honor, privilege and responsibility that I had in getting to plan even a public school Christmas concert. Sometimes I even included non-Christmas music. I wince at the missed opportunities. How much more should we carefully consider what we include in our church Christmas programs? 

I have personally experienced, at different churches, similar situations to the one mentioned above. Once, our choir special was cut in order to make room for children to sing songs about Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus in weekend church services. I have stood before a congregation playing music as we led them in singing about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa and Frosty...on a mission trip. I have played music accompanying children singing secular songs about mythical cartoon characters as part of a Night of Christmas event as well. Look, it is simply never appropriate to sing songs about Santa Claus, flying reindeer or other fictional characters in church. When I was a kid, if the music leader or children's choir director had led the church in singing songs about fictional, secular cartoon characters at Christmastime, I can tell you the performance would have been followed by a deafening silence--no applause--and a complete lack of the affirming "Amen" after the music ended. Stern looks would have been given and there would probably have been a deacons meeting, perhaps followed by talk of tar and feathers.

One reason I shared the story of the "big" church production above is that I have been part of productions that followed their lead and even used some of the same music. With all of these performances, there is an attempt to contrast Secular Christmas with Sacred Christmas and to show the secular as being the part for children and the sacred as being for grown-ups. It seems kind of like an excuse for including songs that don't belong in church in the first place. We have supplanted the true Gospel for a cheap psychological trick. Here is what I mean.

The word "Gospel" describes an event. When a mighty, victorious, conquering King, a good King, a King who will bring peace and blessing to your city, comes riding into town, he is to be greeted and welcomed with both praise and worship. The people of the city have a choice, to accept his leadership and receive the benefits of His Kingdom, or to reject it and be destroyed. So the right way to greet Him is to have a parade, to come out into the streets with singing and celebration, shouts of acclamation, playing instruments and dancing to invite His Presence and express gratitude that He has come. This is what we do at church when we sing joyful songs of praise and fanfares. THIS is a major part of the theological foundation for music in the church and especially Christmas music!!! This is what we are supposed to get to do at Christmas. We celebrate the reign of the Prince of Peace. We welcome Him among us and we give Him all the glory, honor and praise. If He were to show up and find us celebrating a fake, mythical figure (which is what the false gods and idols were) in HIS house, that would not be good. Think of the epic celebration that is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Who is ALWAYS the guest of honor whose presence and special season of celebration is ushered in by the parade with creatively designed floats, marching units, musical performances and dancing all bringing in the one, the only....Santa Claus. This is the type of Gospel event we are supposed to be having for JESUS, especially at Christmas when we celebrate His Birth, HIS coming to bring us the blessings of HIS Kingdom. Church should be a place where we honor and celebrate God. The Hebrew word for Gospel means to show forth. We are meant to show forth what God is really like and we cannot do that effectively if we let Santa steal his thunder in church. To worship means to ascribe worth to something. When we allot rehearsal time, practice and even service time to Santa, we are ascribing worth to him, we are worshipping an idol. All of our worship belongs to Jesus. He is the one we ascribe value to. All of our efforts should be for Him.

Next December I will watch my favorite old Christmas cartoons and enjoy a variety of seasonal specials on TV. I will decorate the tree while drinking Hot Chocolate and watching Elf and The Santa Clause. But church should be a refreshing contrast to the world. It is shocking to think that it was actually a Bishop who created the modern idea of Santa Claus by writing a story for his grandchildren. I have honestly been taken aback at the unequally yoked marriage of sacred and secular Christmas music that I have witnessed going on in churches.

We can have a wonderful time together in our Christmas services and programs. We can have fun. I will smile warmly at seasonal songs that reflect on family gatherings and beloved traditions and we can include a few of them in our celebrations at church. We can laugh together and have joy and share fond memories together as a church family. But the mythical characters have got to go. Precious children singing songs about Jesus will warm and soften hearts more than any cheap, worldly alternative. Our musical programs can be joyful and happy, inspiring and moving, emotional and encouraging, while remaining Christ-centered. There is such a rich tapestry of wonderful Christmas carols and hymns for us to draw from. These beloved melodies carry such deep meaning and bring to mind many wonderful memories. Creating our church Christmas services and programs with them will enrich and enhance the experience for all. Let's not forget that filling our churches with the praises of our Lord and the beautiful sounds of Christmas is not only our sacred responsibility, but our great joy and privilege.

Check out the other posts in my series on Worship Ministry:

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Psalm 23: Powerful Imagery and Beautiful Symbolism

Each verse of the 23rd Psalm is full of rich symbolism and beautiful illustrations to help us deepen in our understanding and relationship with God.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures.

God cares for our daily needs and has promised to provide us with food, clothing, safety and shelter. In contrast with the many desolate and desert areas of the Ancient Near East, Green pastures provide food for sheep to eat and represent a place which has received plenty of rainfall and temperate weather. To lie down means to rest and the word pasture also refers to a habitation or place to live. In the same way that a Shepherd takes sheep to safe places where they can live and rest, God will provide us with a safe place to live and the means to take care of our basic needs. He is our provider and protector. He also provides us with spiritual food, His word, and peace in our hearts. We should never forget that God often provides for people through His church and that we have a responsibility as His agents to provide for others.

He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.

Jesus is like living water to our soul. He heals our wounded hearts and darkened minds. The Psalmist also wrote: As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the Living God. Jesus is the water of life that renews and refreshes souls that are wearied and worn with the cares of this world. He has promised to give us a sound mind and to make our hearts like new through His Spirit which invigorates our soul, the way that fresh, living water revitalizes our bodies.

He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.

Jesus is the Way (the path), the Truth and the Life. He has promised to believers that His Spirit will be our Counselor and Guide to lead us through this life. Shepherd's would often sleep in the entranceway to the sheepfold or to a canyon where they had led their sheep for safety. The only way in or out was through the Shepherd. His body was the Gate. When we see references to Jesus as the way or the path, it also important to remember that no one enters in among His sheep except by coming through the gate.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me.

The phrase shadow of death was first used by Job to describe a state very near to dying. We could picture the valley of dry bones which Ezekiel brought to life, or we could envision the valley of Hinom off the southern slope of Jerusalem which was a smoldering ash heap and full of centuries worth of the bones of animals and perhaps even pagan human sacrifices. Though today this area houses a beautiful resort, in the Psalmists day it would have been a ruined and desolate place. This valley separates Mount Zion, representing God's Kingdom, from the Mountain of Evil Counsel, representing the dominion of Satan. When I read this passage, I think of us as the dry bones being brought to life because we were all once dead in our sins and transgressions and have been given new life in Christ. I think of passing through the valley as being led out of darkness and into the light, leaving our old life of sin behind and heading toward our new home in God's Kingdom. There is true evil in this world but we do not have to fear because God is our guide, leading us down the right path, watching over us like a shepherd and always right beside us. We do not even have to fear death itself.

Your rod and your staff they comfort me.

The rod is a symbol of authority. It is sometimes translated as scepter or club and usually translated as "tribe" because it was a symbol of leadership and unity. Last week I viewed a sculpture from this time period of Pharoah Amenhotep II, later adjusted to look like Ramses II, of Egypt which portrayed him with a long, straight whip with tails on the end and also with a staff with a crook on the end like that of a Shepherd, though the curved end had broken off. These were the symbols of the Pharoah's authority. The whip was used to enslave and enforce his power. The rod and staff in this passage are reminiscent of these Egyptian symbols of power, but with an important contrast. The Shepherd's crook was used to gently guide and direct sheep, even to pull them near, but never to strike them. Shepherd's might also carry a club which could be used to fight off wolves and protect the sheep. The symbolism here is that God guides us, draws us near and protects us by fighting off wolves and lions which represent both physical and spiritual enemies. I envision David with his shepherd's staff in one hand holding the sheep back under his protection while he fends off the wolves with the implement in his other hand. Or, to individualize it, Picture David hooking his crook around the neck of a sheep, pulling it toward himself and away from a wolf, while simultaneously beating the wolf back with the rod.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

The table here can refer to the King's very own table. I picture Jesus sitting down for His last supper together with his disciples and how He earnestly desired to share it together with them. God wants to have communion with us. He desires a relationship with us right here in the middle of our journey through this life. Even in the middle of battles and difficult times when we are hard pressed all around, we have the privilege of sweet communion with our Lord. There is also an aspect of this word "table" that describes being sent out as the King's men. We are God's representatives and His kids and we get to eat at His table. Each time we partake in The Lord's Supper, or Communion, we should remember the relationship with enjoy with our King.

You anoint my head with oil, my cup runs over.

Anointing with oil represents being chosen by God, the way that David was anointed as King. Like living water, oil also represents being filled with the Holy Spirit. Under the New Covenant, we are all anointed. Our bodies are described in the New Testament as being vessels. Our vessel, or cup, running over, represents the unlimited access we have to God's Presence, His work in our lives and His Spirit being poured into us so that we overflow into the lives of others.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

God will pursue us the way a Shepherd pursues a lost sheep. Once we are his own, he will follow after us, watch over us, draw us back to Himself and mercifully forgive us as long as we live.

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.

Once we are His, He will never leave us or abandon us. We are His and nothing and no one will ever snatch us away from Him.  He has promised us eternity in Heaven. Whatever difficulties this life may hold, we will ultimately see every promise fulfilled and will enter into God's rest. We are part of His household, forever.