Music Monday: Keith Green “Dear John Letter (to the Devil)”

Keith Green live at the Daisy Club in Los Angeles, 1982.  Enjoy!

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What’s the Goal of Gathering for Worship?

Mike Cosper’s book, Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel is proving to be a helpful book not just for pastor and worship leader, but also for all worshipers hoping to understand the role of our gatherings together.  After taking time to look at various passages the who and why of church (Colossians 2:19-22; Ephesians 4:11-16; Hebrews 10:23-25), Cosper outlines the goal of our gathering.

These passages, taken together, show us a church that gathers in the midst of the world’s pressures, under the hopeful warning of Christ’s return, encouraging one another and building each other up through the presence of God’s Spirit by immersing itself in God’s Word, singing and proclaiming the gospel. The fruit of the gathering is not just a strong individual, but a strong church, united in faith.

In this sense, the gathering is unique not as an encounter with God (it is that, though God’s presence is a constantly available comfort and help to the Christian); rather it’s unique because it is an encounter with the people of God, filled with the Spirit of God, spurring one another along in the mission of God. Christ in me meets Christ in you.

It’s not just a family reunion, either. We gather because we have work to do—to remember the gospel and hold fast to our confession. The Greek word for the gathered church offers some insight into how the apostles saw their gatherings. Though the language offered a variety of options for words to describe the gathering church, the authors of the New Testament chose ekklēsia. According to scholar Larry Hurtado, it was an odd choice: “In its historic Greek usage, ekklesia designated the gathering of citizens of a city to conduct civic business. Such events always had a religious character and would be commenced with offerings to the gods, but the ekklesia was not precisely a gathering to conduct worship.”4

We gather because we have work to do. Ekklēsia emphasizes the work of the people. We gather to do our work, which is to say, we gather to remember, to encourage, and to spur one another on.”

Indeed.  We gather “because we have work to do.”  Remember, encourage, spur on!

Get a copy Cosper’s Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel .  Well worth the read!

Do ALL THINGS Without Grumbling or Complaining?

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“Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Philippians 2:14).  Here, Paul indicates that this is part and parcel of working out our salvation with fear and trembling.  We live a life of reverence toward God (fear) and out of trembling over the nature of sin.  And let me say this: the moment that sin no longer causes us to tremble, no longer convicts, then we are not working out our sanctification, we are working out our self-love.  We work out what God works in.  Reverently.  With conviction!

Notice the comprehensive command here:  do all things without grumbling or disputing.  Everything you as a follower of Christ do without grumbling or disputing.  Can you imagine this?   Now, we might not always use the words grumbling and disputing, but we have other words such as griping, complaining, arguing.  Of late, there’s a word that sounds so innocent, and even therapeutic:  venting.  We call up a friend, get on social media, or couch it as a prayer request and unload all the anger and bitterness they have regarding others.   

But let’s dig deeper.  The word ‘grumbling’ in the NT comes from the word that is used to describe how the people of Israel grumbled against God in the wilderness.  It was a general pattern with God’s people.  They grumbled when they didn’t have the food or water they wanted.  They grumbled when they came to the Promised Land and saw the inhabitants and said, “They are too big, and we’re too small!”  In Numbers 16, Korah led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, the leaders. 

Do you see the pattern?  You may say, “Well, they just grumbled at what they had or didn’t have.  They grumbled against the leaders’ direction.”  That’s true, but deep down, do you know who they really were grumbling against?  God Himself.   And it’s that way for all sin.  In Psalm 51, a confession of sin after King David committed adultery with the wife of one of his soldiers, he said something interesting:  “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”  All sin that’s against God’s imagebearers is also against God Himself. 

Let’s not forget about what disputing means.  The Greek dictionary (BDAG) defines this word as one where ‘verbal exchange … takes place when conflicting ideas are expressed.’  It deals with an attitude that must challenge and resist rather than submit.   And this isn’t just about outward expression, but also inward thinking as well.  So, while outward obedience is good, if we go about outwardly doing the right things, but inwardly we grumble and dispute, we miss.   What do we do when this happens?  Let’s put that on a shelf and look at some other things, such as:

The why:  “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (15a).  Interesting pivot here.  If you do all things without grumbling or disputing, you’ll be blameless and innocent?  Blameless?  Do we mean sinless?  No!  It means that you would not be accused of wrongdoing.  Innocent is right along with this: it means ‘still in its original state of intactness, totality, or moral innocence.’  In essence, it means that no charge of wrongdoing in word, thought, or action would stick. 

He goes on:  “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.”  This echoes a verse Deuteronomy 32:5:

  “They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.

Again, even with God’s faithfulness and provision, they grumbled and disputed—and would do so again in their history.  But the only way we can be children of God is not through Adam, for he was blemished.  Not through David, for he fell as well.  But through Christ, we can be called sons of God – faithful in Him!  Not crooked or twisted in their rebellion.  And thus, grumbling and rebelling among the people of God is more in keeping with the crooked and twisted, identifies us with rebellion against God. 

Do we grumble and dispute?  How do we react when things do not go the way we want or think they should? 

Extended Childhood for Men?

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In Eric Mason’s book Manhood Restored, he explores with being called extended childhood. This is dealing with how boys are putting off manhood as long as possible. God has called us as a church to help develop godly men. Below are some problems that come with extending childhood.

But what we’re finding now, both through study and mere observation, is that “childhood” is growing longer and longer. Boys are not only failing to become responsible and godly men; they aren’t becoming men at all. The problems with this extended childhood are many:

Compromised maturity. Men may have adult bodies, but they remain spiritual infants. Fathers who are only friends. Men in extended childhood seek to identify with their children as opposed to raise their children. Their efforts at parenting are like their efforts in high school—to be liked and accepted rather than to influence and guide.

Subsidized pictorial of manhood. When a younger male sees a man living like this, the problem is heightened because extended childhood becomes the picture of what a man should be.

Unmarried women. As the pool of men is already quite slim for women, it will get even more challenging as they are faced with men who are unfit for marriage.

Un-hirable men. Men in this stage can work at a job that requires physical maturity but will be incapable of functioning in a professional environment that demands maturity and responsibility.

Life lived in fantasy. This might be most frightening of all. Men in extended childhood treat their lives like one, big fantasy world. They engage others through artificial means like pornography, social media, and video games instead of real life. In their fantasy world, everything revolves around them, so they are incapable of contributing to a family, church, or community because all of them require sacrifice.

May God help us in helping men be godly men through the gospel. In what ways could you see churches helping in this area?

Music Monday: Wynton Marsalis Visits Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

Some of you may know that I’m a musician, having played piano since I was six. Now that I’m in the pastorate, I don’t have as much time to play and practice as I used to, but I still enjoy playing–and hearing good music. So, Music Mondays will pull out some of my favorites, and hopefully you’ll enjoy it, too!

Below is a clip from the 1980’s when trumpeter extraordinaire Wynton Marsalis (in his 20s!) appeared on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. What I did not realize until much, much later was that the illustrious jazz pianist Johnny Costa was the music leader for the Neighborhood. No wonder jazz got in my blood so early–between Costa and Vince Guaraldi on the Peanuts’ specials, how could it not happen.

Enjoy!

Why I’m Passionate About Church Replanting—And You Should Be, Too!

Replant National Gathering, June 11-12, 2016 | St. LouisThis past September, I was asked by Mark Hallock, Regional Replanting Coach of the Rocky Mountain Region of the North American Missions Board, to serve on his replanting team.  I remember the first conversation well—it was over a late dinner at the Black-Eyed Pea in Englewood, Colorado.  It was there that I was once again acquainted with the expression: “We’re building the plane as we’re flying it.”

What is replanting? More than 70 percent of Southern Baptist churches are either plateaued or declining in number.  Fifteen percent of all churches are within two years of shutting their doors.  In fact, over 900 SBC churches close their doors every year (approximately 17 per Sunday).  Replanting seeks to reverse the trend to keep us losing any more gospel presences in North America.  Replanting seeks to start a process to see if churches are willing to face the leadership challenges and changes necessary to turn things around and go from surviving to sound to thriving.

John Mark Clifton, the head of the replanting initiative at NAMB, tells us more about what this is all about:

We are in the process now of identifying and calling on churches ready to replant, starting the process of assessing those interested and called to replant (assessments, internships, sending), and beginning in the Fall holding one-day conferences on the subject of replanting and revitalization here in the West.

At the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, MO, NAMB will hold a National Replant Gathering June 11-12.  I would encourage all of you interested in learning more about this ministry or about your direct involvement to attend.  You’ll see the great lineup of speakers, but more importantly, you’ll network with those who have a passion for this and (like you) hate to see any more churches and gospel presences close.

I am thrilled at what God is doing—not just with church planting, but church replanting.  Visit the NAMB Replant blog at http://www.namb.net/replant.

Shattering Those Containers: Conforming to Christ, or Others to Us?

Ancient pot“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12, ESV).

When Paul said, “Therefore,” that connects us with the previous passage of how every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  As followers of Christ, we have already bowed the knee in allegiance to Christ and have already confessed that He is our Master and Lord.  Some of you may be here this morning singing the songs and hearing the Word, but you have never sworn your allegiance to Christ alone, confessing your sins and asking Christ to forgive your sins and to take them.  When we say, Christ is Lord, we’re not just punching a ticket to heaven.  We are surrendering, making a commitment.  God has us and takes us and makes us into something.

Sanctification is being conformed to the image of Christ.  Christianity is not just a good feeling or about attending an event once a week.  We must realizing how significant this is.  Os Guinness in his recent book called Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion spends a chapter dealing with the anatomy of unbelief.  Guinness brings up a great point:

The Bible uses many strong terms to describe unbelief, including hardening, twisting, blindness, deafness, unnaturalness, lies, deception, lies, deception, folly, rebellion and madness, but none repays reflection more than Paul’s phrase in Romans.  At the heart of sin disobedience, Paul says, is a flagrantly deliberate and continuing act of violence to truth.[1]

Guinness faithfully shows us the God has to say about our nature.  Outside of Christ, our aim is to suppress the truth either by ignoring the dilemma of our choice, or by distracting ourselves in looking elsewhere for truth.

And he makes a good point.  Think of it like this: if you’ve been to a flower shop (and guys, I hope you have with it being Valentine’s Day), you may notice all sorts of vases, which are containers for the water and the flowers.  But every container, if you put water or any pliable property in there, it takes the shape of that container.

We all walk around with those containers.  Not literally, but in our hearts, minds, and will.  And we expect everything around us to conform to the pattern of that container.  You may have done it today.  Instead of coming in ready for God to shape you, you’ve come in with your container wanting to shape everyone else.  And if they don’t fit your mold, then something’s wrong.  “Why did they pick that music—it doesn’t fit my container!”  “Why did that prayer go so long?  My container can only hold a 30 second prayer.”  “Why wasn’t this or that said?  My container wants this and that said.”  And you’ve worked hard on that contained, but the problem is that container is not working for you!

In Romans 8:28-29, Paul writes,

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

Christ comes to shatter our container into bits, and giving us a new container to where we are conformed to His image–not others being conformed into ours.  He is Lord, not us!  We bow the knee to Him, not others to us!

What containers are you carrying to which you expect others to conform?  Are you ready for Christ to shatter those containers so we will conform to Him?  After all…

Jesus is enough!

[1]Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 85.

Dressing for Church: Which Way Does One Go?

pinstripe-bow-tieI cannot tell you how much time I have spent wondering how to dress for church, especially as a pastor.  Casual or no?  Suit or no? Tie or no? Khakis?  It’s maddening. In my 20s and 30s, my dress would depend on the context.  A Southern Southern Baptist Church would usually mean a suit and tie.  A church that just started and was looking to reach a younger demographic?  No tie, no suit, no how!

Have you ever wondered about this?  Churches usually slide one way or the other.  I remember going into a church plant with a coat and tie, and felt the peer pressure to take off the coat and tie.  Others wonder if they can come to an established church with anything else–even talking themselves out of coming because they don’t have “Sunday clothes.”

See the dilemma?

In Denver, I know the majority of pastors and church attenders usually wear a button down shirt or polo with khakis or jeans.  Some who have the build for it, wear T-shirts with logos that connect with a subset of our culture.  Yet, when I went back to Kentucky, I preached in the button down shirt with khakis, but at the restaurant, the majority of church folks who flooded the restaurant wore a suit and tie.  So very different from where I live, but not very different from how I grew up.

Now, I had the draft of the previous paragraphs in my draft folder for about two weeks, when lo and behold Joe McKeever, an insightful retired pastor who lives in New Orleans, put out a comment of Facebook that led to a lengthy article on his blog titled, “Does it matter how the preacher dresses?”  While many may dismiss McKeever as out of line and out of touch due to the whiteness of his hair or his advanced years, he brings much-needed wisdom to the table.  And maybe since I’m not in my 20s or 30s anymore–and this year will bring me closer to 50 than to 40–maybe I’ve mellowed as well.   But we would do well to read this if for nothing else than to interact with the topic.

Here’s McKeever’s point for pastors/leaders:  Staying dressed one step ahead of the dress of your average congregant inspires confidence in your leadership.

Let that soak in. First of all, he’s not saying coat and tie are mandatory across the board.  He’s not saying it–nor should he. Too many different contexts exist for such a blanket statement.

Second of all, he’s not saying that the way a pastor dresses will cover up other issues regarding character, care, preparedness, etc. It won’t take long for the average church attender or member to see through the charade.

My church have a few in a certain demographic that like their preacher in a suit and tie. Others in a younger demographic frankly don’t care.  They want me clean and dressed, which would be good for everyone!

Now let me stop and tell you what I’m doing: I’m spending a lot of time on this blog post, and a lot of time in my personal life over the years concerned about how my dress affects ministry.  Will my dress help connect with visitors? Will my dress be received well among our members?

It’s maddening!  And exhausting!

Over the last three weeks, I have found myself enjoying the feel of a bow tie.  I am in the process of learning how to tie an actual bow tie, but I’m wearing the pre-tied one at this point.  And the comments have come: some have told me, “Wow, you pull that off really well,” while others react as if you say, “You need to pull that off… like now!” (It’s probably about 80/20 for/against).

But it goes down to a fundamental question: what are the rules in wearing clothes to church?  And even for pastors?  Does McKeever have a point?

I think he does, and I’ll tell you why.

  1. There’s no way you will please everyone in the room.  If we have 200 people in our sanctuary, the chances of everyone of them being happy with any given thing are minimal to non-existent.  My goodness, I won’t please everyone reading this blog post even now.  My implication is not for us to stop trying, but to not make it the #1 reason for anything you do.
  2. If you’re not sure what to do, follow McKeever’s advice and dress one step ahead.  You don’t want to be the sloppiest guy in the room, but you don’t want to be two to three steps ahead.  Own your context, lean into it, and don’t apologize or worry.  I love wearing a suit and bow tie.  I can’t quantify why, I just do. I’ve almost gotten to where I can actually tie one.
  3. Whatever we do, be neat and clean.  Iron clothes, wash hair, and don’t let your attire distract.  I visited a church up the road where the pastor wore the pastor plaid and jeans (or was it khakis).  See? I can’t remember–because it didn’t distract.  Granted, some will be distracted regardless.  One couple came to our church who’d just moved up from Texas.  I had my suit and white shirt–but no tie.  They knew in their hearts it wasn’t that big a deal, but they couldn’t get past a pastor or any of the men now wearing a suit and tie when preaching.  Do I put on a tie just to keep them?  No–we’re back at square one in people pleasing.  Someone may object to my bowtie.  Do I yank it off?  No.  You just be faithful and own where you are.

The difficulty in discussing this matter is you can slide into a legalistic mindset very easily.

What do you think?  Does dress really matter?  If it does, what’s your go-to standards and practices?

 

A Few More Words About Cremation

worldlysaintsI found out the hard way last summer as I preached on the topic of cremation versus a bodily burial that it is a topic of contention. In his book Becoming Worldly Saints, Michael Wittmer adds more to the topic. Please read this, along with the few remarks that I’ll have afterward. This is an important topic that I really believe we need to sort through and think through before we make any conclusions.

Whenever I speak on death and resurrection, someone usually asks whether it is okay to use cremation. I say it depends. We’re not making God’s job impossibly difficult when we choose cremation, because we know he will resurrect millions of people who have died in fires, been digested by animals, or decomposed all the way to nothing. It depends on our motive. We might choose cremation to honor the person. The proper way to dispose of an old flag is not to throw it in the trash but to burn it. Just so, we might cremate our loved one as the ultimate sign of respect. We might also do it to save space (as is common in China) or money (as is common in West Michigan), and this is fine too.

However, we should never choose cremation because we think the body of our loved one is unimportant. Their dead body is not merely the shell that once housed their true self. This is a Platonic, pagan view that I have argued against throughout this book. That body in the casket matters enough to God that he has centered the entire Christian hope upon its resurrection. That body is a vital part of our loved one, and we should handle it as those who plan to see it again.

We should also keep the ashes of our loved one together. When we scatter them across their favorite lake or patch of grass, we are unwisely depicting a pantheistic worldview in which humans are one with nature. We’re not. We are uniquely made in the image of God, and we must preserve that honor even in death. When we place their urn in a cemetery or columbarium, we treat our beloved with the dignity that humans deserve. And that place becomes resurrection ground (pp. 170-71).

Wittmer makes a strong point.  Yes, I know that cremation saves land and costs less, but let’s make sure that we see some value in the body even after the soul has departed. And as I said in the sermon linked to above, should someone come and tell me that they’ve thought long and prayed hard and that cremation is their option, I will walk with them through that decision and chapter as their pastor, honoring their decision. My aim as always been to help every decision be as biblically and prayerfully informed as possible.

The body is important, even in death.

Our Position in Christ Fuels our Obedience to Christ

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Everyone needs someone they look up to.  Think about that person that you emulated, that you idolized.   Someone who has a characteristic or a lifestyle that you wish you had.   The difficulty is that you run the risk of them letting you down or disappointing you.   A baseball player you wanted to be like, but found out they were using steroids.  A pastor that you thought was as holy as he preached, but found out he had a secret, hypocritical life.  A family member (father, brother, sister, mother) that you always wanted to please, but could just never rise to a level of a compliment, a hug, or an ‘I love you.’    Thankfully God has provided those people around us (somewhere) they can look up to.

But even if you don’t, you do have one example of one who has followed through on putting others above Himself.   In the previous verses (2:1-4), you see how our joy may be complete.  Money, power, fame, and even unbelief do not bring the joy needed.  Our joy does not come with thinking more of self, but thinking less of self and more of Christ and your brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Everything from the previous verses are emulated and exemplified in Christ.  When Paul exhorts the Philippian church to, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant that yourselves.  Let each of look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).  This is a thread all through the New Testament.  The Apostle Paul, prior to speaking about the roles and goals of husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:21 says that, in Christ, we are “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  In the tiny letter of 3 John in verse 9, we encounter a man named Diotrephes whose contribution to the church was that he “likes to put himself first”(3 John 9), polar opposite of what John the Baptist declared to those around him when Christ showed up on the scene when he said, “He must increase, while I must decrease” (John 3:30).  Even Jesus Himself prayed to the Father on the eve of his crucifixion, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

So, after last week, we had a lot of imperatives—commands, if you will.  Complete my joy!  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit.  Count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look to others’ interests, not just your own.  There’s nothing really new here from much else in the Bible, but here’s the issue if we stop there: you’re relying on your own strength and stamina to do this.  And you grow frustrated because you can’t do this all the time. So let’s take this a step further.

We have an example before us, but not just any example—the ultimate example is Jesus Christ, the topic not just of every sermon and the point of our lives as believers, but also directly the point of the text we just read. So preachers like me could come before you and say, “If you can’t do it, get more strength and courage by looking at what Jesus did.” But this can lead to frustration as well.  We are exclusively humans who are made in the image of God.  Christ is the God-Man, fully both!   The key here is found in verse 5:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”   As Christ dwells in believers, we may also have the mindset of Christ because Christ is in us!  So instead of exhausted by trying to imitate the unimitatable, we are exhilarated and enthusiastic that through Christ and in Christ this is possible.  Remember what He did, He can have us do through Him!