Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Are You A Worshiper?

Dear Friends,

She sits quietly, listening to the relaxing smooth sounds of her favorite worship music. Eyes closed, head nodding in time with the rhythm, a sweet smile on her face. The resplendence of the music is bringing warm, pleasant thoughts and feelings of love for her Holy Father and she weeps. She is feeling connected with God. The music has taken her into the holy of holies. She sits reverently in the Presence of God. But is she actually “worshiping” Him?

The pastor stands on the stage partially hidden by the drum-set as he scans the mega-congregation during the opening songs. His praise and worship band just released their third album and every Sunday the church is packed with a young and excited crowd. Only a few of them are singing. All are drawn to the charismatic lead singer and the band’s rock sound – the guitar riffs and the drum solos. They love the music! It’s like going to a Christian concert every Sunday! Is this church worshiping?

At the cathedral-sized church, the congregation reverently listens as the 100 member choir flawlessly sings sacred music from the 12th century. In church jargon, these are known as “performance choirs.” The music is ethereal, elegant and exquisite. Is this church worshiping?

A mainline congregation opens their service by singing “contemporary” praise songs from the 70's. Some people are quietly singing while others are greeting each other and talking. A woman turns to the back of the bulletin to find something to read. Some of the older people are shifting restlessly in the pews – they only sing the hymns. Some younger people are playing video games on their phone. Is this church worshiping?

We can self-define “worship” to be whatever we want it to be, but if we’re relying on our Bible to define authentic worship and allow scripture to provide the framework for a worship service, then the answer to the above scenarios may surprise you.

It might help to separate what is worshipful from what is Biblical worship. “WORSHIPFUL” is a feeling of reverence and adoration. Listening to worship music may engage your senses and take you into a worshipful place in your spirit. So may reading scripture, burning incense, lighting candles, walking into an old California Mission or seeing a spectacular sunrise. Biblical “WORSHIP” is something entirely different. 

In the Bible, worship is always
something you physically do.
It’s participative.
It is never passive. 

It’s not a performance or a programming element in a church service. It’s not singing a couple of songs to warm people up for the service that follows. Worship is not seeking a feeling or experience but is expressive, authentic, heart-felt worship directed to God that takes you into His presence.

In the Bible, “worship” is always an action verb. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “Shachah” translated as “worship” is used over one hundred times. In the New Testament, the Greek word “Proskuneo” translated as “worship” is used fifty-nine times. Both words mean the same thing: to bow down, raise hands, kneel or prostrate oneself before a Superior Being while verbally expressing our reverence to Him. Remember, by definition, Biblical worship is always participative. Look at the four scenarios again and ask yourself, “Is this person/church ‘worshiping’?”

Worship is not our good thoughts, warm feelings or groovin’ to a guitar riff. Worship is using our voice and our posture to express the worthiness of our triune God. “Make a joyful shout to the Lord.. Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise!” Psalm 100 is not an instruction to the priests but to the people. Singing out loud, verbally praising Him, bowing, kneeling, shouting, standing with hands raised – that’s worship! And when we worship, the glory of the Lord will fill the house of God! 2 Chronicles 5:12-14.

Some traditions teach that proper worship can only take place in a clergy-led church service with other believers. So we hire worship leaders, choir directors, priests, pastors and praise bands and then sit back to enjoy the service. In doing so, we have, in essence, “out-sourced” our worship which was never God’s plan for you. God created you for worship. “This people I have formed for Myself; They shall declare My praise.” Isaiah 43:21 You were created to worship God and praise Him in church, out of church, in your home, your car, your backyard and on your morning walk.

What happens when we praise God and worship Him? An early church father said our relationship with God, “through desire we already possess the object of our longing.” How much this rings true for us when we express our heart’s desire for the Lord in our worship. We long for Him and reach out and touch Him as we speak forth His worthiness to Him. And in that moment of intimate worship, as we possess the gift of His love, He reaches out to touch and possess us. We are owned by Him. We belong to Him. We are His.  Amen?

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Your Safe Place!

Dear Friends,

Heavy rain pounds the roof. Lightning strikes are hitting the ridge on the hills just a half mile away and my wood-frame house shakes and shudders with each resounding percussive blast of thunder. Now the lightning and thunder occur at the same moment. It’s directly overhead and so violent I wonder if my windows will shatter. 

My three cats have gathered together under my bed. They’ve set aside their petty territorial battles over litter boxes and the ownership of catnip-filled “mice” and they now huddle together in safety. There’s a direct lightning strike a half block away and the sound of an explosion. It feels like a giant fist is pounding the house with each thunderclap. But the three lads have found a safe place under the bed – a place where the fiercest, scariest storms cannot reach them. A few minutes before, the first explosive thunderclap had sent them frantically tearing around the house in a panic, but now in the sanctuary beneath the bed, all three are calming down as they stretch out to relax and wait out the storm.

We saw last week that one of the secrets to successfully negotiating this journey we call “life” is to expect the unexpected. To expect to be lost. Expect to encounter hardship and tribulation. The storms of life, like our recent winter storms, are guaranteed to happen. Expect them. Prepare for them. For the winter storms, you may need tarps or sand bags. For the storms of life, you need God. 

Where do you go when the storms of life hit? When you’re experiencing anxiety, uncertainty and fear that may seem overwhelming at times? When it seems like all hell is breaking loose in your personal world and misfortune or evil is raining down on you, where do you find your sanctuary? Where is your safe place?

Several years ago, during a church service, everyone was given a blank 3x5 card and asked to write down their favorite praise and worship songs that we sing on Sunday. We had a church list of nearly two hundred songs so I thought everyone’s personal list would be completely different. I was surprised to see that the majority of those in our congregation had named “HERE IN THE SHADOW” as their top favorite. If you never went to our church, you’ve probably not heard this song. It was written by a songwriter-worship leader, Shannon Wexelberg, is based on Psalm 17:6-8 and some of the lyrics are: Here in the shadow.. Here in the shadow of Your wings.. Here in the shadow.. I will rest here Father.. I won’t fear tomorrow.. I will rest here Father.. You are my peace. 

I shouldn’t have been surprised that this had become one of the most beloved songs in our church because it so well describes our own sanctuary during the storms of life.

In the Old Testament, we read that Saul had loved David like a son, but when God rejected Saul and chose David to be the king, Saul flew into a jealous rage and vowed to kill David. Fleeing in fear of losing his life, David hid in a cave and wrote these words: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy! I look to You for protection. I will hide beneath the shadow of Your wings until the danger passes by. I cry out to God Most High, to God who will fulfill His purpose for me. He will send help from heaven to rescue me, disgracing those who hound me. My God will send forth His unfailing love and faithfulness.” Psalm 57:1-3 NLT One translation says, “in the shadow of Your wings I will make my refuge until the ruinous storm passes by."

When the storms of life will hit, we need to run to our own safe place. We may not fit under the bed, but we fit under the shadow of His wings. “Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty. This I declare about the LORD: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; He is my God, and I trust Him. For He will rescue you from every trap.. He will cover you with His feathers. He will shelter you with His wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection...” Psalm 91:1-6 NLT 

Here in the shadow.. Here in the shadow of Your wings..
Here in the shadow.. I will rest here Father..
I won’t fear tomorrow..
I will rest here Father..
You are my peace.

Our Bible tells us that when we run to God, we will find sanctuary in the shelter of His wings. Psalm 61:4 NLT He invites us to rest there trusting in Him and we know that no matter how hard life’s circumstances rain down upon us, it will pass. It’s guaranteed that we will encounter the storms of life. It is also guaranteed that they will come to an end. You have survived every misfortune in your life – perhaps some terrifying or heart-breaking ones. And no matter what circumstances and calamities you may encounter in 2023, God will provide shelter from your storms and He will also bring them to an end. In every storm I’ve ever been in, the rain eventually stopped. I’m thinking that’s true for you also.

Three hours after my house was battered by that morning thunderstorm, the skies were calm. The sun was shining through patches of white clouds and rain drops on the olive tree leaves sparkled in the sunlight. Sean was now contentedly chowing down his missed breakfast while Cody and Luke were arguing over a catnip mouse. The thunderstorm was over. All was well again. God is good.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Find Your Way Through 2023!

Kalmiopsis Wilderness

Dear Friends,

When I was much younger, stronger and far more reckless than I am today, my yearly vacation from a stress-filled job as a law office administrator was to go backpacking in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in Oregon. Kalmiopsis was the most rugged and remote wilderness area I could find on the West Coast. It had deep rushing rivers, steep rocky canyons, extreme elevation changes, mountain lions and it was known for its abundance of rattlesnakes. I would go in alone one for a week and never meet another backpacker. Backpacker Magazine had deemed the southern portion of Kalmiopsis too rugged and dangerous for backpackers. That made it the perfect place for me because I wanted to be alone. In the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, every day was a victory of survival. Where I pushed myself to the breaking point to discover my limitations and do some deep soul searching. And yes.. maybe it was foolish of me to take those risks, but as my grandmother used to say, “The good Lord looks after the foolhardy and the devil takes care of his own.”

Back at the office I would be asked, “Did you ever get lost?” Of course I did! When you are finding your way through a wilderness area using unmarked trails, animal trails and sometimes your own “shortcuts,” you will get lost. You frequently don't know where you are! There is disorientation and confusion but never fear. There’s no fear because an experienced backpacker expects to get lost and he or she is prepared.

Civilian GPS (global positioning system) devices had not been developed and my only navigational tools were a topographical map and a compass. But when your survival is at stake, you don't rely on what can be lost or broken. So you study the sun – always knowing its position in the sky at every time of the day. When you get lost, the position of the sun will help you to become reoriented and headed in the right direction. I carried a seventy pound pack, but my canteen held only enough water for one day. 

From the high places, you study the terrain to determine the likely places where a stream would be and you look for animal tracks, knowing that well-traveled animal trails often lead to water. You know that the North Star points north. You have faith that no matter how lost you find yourself at any moment, you will have the ability to reorient yourself. And I was without human companions, but I never traveled alone. Like the early Christian monks who found God in the desert, I too found God in the wilderness and walked every step in His Presence.

In life transitions we can also sometimes feel lost and disoriented. We don't know where we are at the moment and may not even know where we need to be. We may be confused and uncertain about which direction to go in. We may even feel a little frightened and fearful about our future. Both big and little upsets in life are all so.. well.. unexpected!

But in a journey through the wilderness or your journey through life, when you expect to be lost, you won't panic when you are. When you have prepared to be lost and have equipped yourself with tools for survival, you’re never lost for long. When you’re prepared, you have the confidence that you’ll never become so disoriented that you'll stumble off a “cliff” or wander in the “wilderness” forever. You fully trust that no matter how lost you get, you'll always find your way again.

In 2023, expect to be lost!  Expect there will be times when you will be disoriented and uncertain about your future. Expect a life transition. Expect times victoriously dancing in unrestrained joy! Expect times of tribulation, John 16:33 discontent and despair. Expect a serious situation you’ve not planned for. Expect the Enemy of this world to throw you a curve. Expect perhaps even a crisis of faith: Is God really here with me now? Life happens. Expect it. Prepare for it.

Prepare yourself with the right navigational tools. Your Bible is the “compass and map” that shows you where you are, where you need to be and how to get there. Know what the leading of the Holy Spirit feels like. Look for and follow in the tracks of godly men and women that lead to the Living Water. And study the Son. Know where He is at all times in your life. Know what His “voice” sounds like. No matter how lost you become, when you’ve studied the Son, He will always help you to become reoriented and headed in the right direction.

The wilderness of life is rugged. Expect to get lost. But if you’re a Christian believer you have a built-in “GPS.” That’s “God’s Positioning System” and His GPS will always help you find your way again. That’s why no matter what challenging circumstances you may find yourself in during 2023, you will have the ability, through the help of God, to recover and flourish again. Always expect victory! For He is with you when you're lost in the valley and He's there when you're dancing once again on the top of the mountain!  Amen?

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Getting There From Here!

Dear Friends,

Please don’t feel bad if you’ve already broken the New Year’s Resolutions you made only a few days ago! A Gallup poll revealed that 71% of people who make resolutions keep them for less than two weeks. And only 8% will actually keep them for a full year. The same poll also listed the most common resolutions that people make. Number one was to lose weight and number two was to exercise more. No surprise there. But the third most popular resolution people make was to “be a better person” and the sixth most popular one was to “get closer to God.” Those two stood out for me because they go hand in hand. The way to be a better person is to get closer to God. That’s because the more of God we have in our life, the more like Christ we become and the changes in our thoughts, words and behaviors take place without effort on our part. The Holy Spirit is the One doing the “work” on us. 

When we held services at the assisted living home, we’d end every service singing “Day By Day.” That’s an 18th century Anglican prayer put to music for the musical “Godspell” and goes:

Day by Day.. Day by Day.. 
Oh dear Lord, Three things I pray.
To see Thee more clearly.
Love Thee more dearly.
Follow Thee more nearly.
Day by Day! 

That’s how we get closer to God; that’s the “resolution” that is guaranteed for you to keep, because that’s been God’s desire for you from the time that He hand-formed you in your mother’s womb. Mark 12:30; John 14:23; Psalm 139:13 And my prayer for all who made a resolution to get closer to God is that they will yield to the calling of the Holy Spirit who will enable and empower them to love God more and become more like Him in this new year than ever before!

On this journey toward knowing God, loving Him more than ever and following Him more closely, there may be things He wants us to leave behind. Things that may “sinful” and things that may not be sins but are just not helpful for us.  1 Corinthians 6:12 And that can change our whole idea of what a “New Years Resolution” should be. Resolutions are our commitment to change. We have a new year. New opportunities. New possibilities. A new season. There is a freshness of new beginnings. God wants to do new things in your life and so we say “yes and amen” and resolve to do better and then...nothing changes. 

We’re still stuck in the sameness and the problem is not God. The problem is that we’re holding onto the old so tightly that we don’t have room in our lives for anything new. Perhaps the secret to bringing about the changes we desire is not what we resolve to do but more about what we resolve to stop doing. It is so often our human tendency to cling to our past that prevents us from stepping out into our future, and yet it’s what we leave behind that will result in a changed life.

This is exactly what God was telling the Israelites when they were in captivity. “Do not remember the former things, Nor consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing..!” Isaiah 43:18-19 The people of Israel were at their lowest point. Israel is focused on their past transgressions; they are possessed by those failures. God gave them the Temple and instead of worshiping God, the faithless Israelites worshiped idols. God gave them commandments and they lived as if they were optional suggestions. God gave them Himself and they rejected Him over and over again. And God in His goodness, says to them, “Do not remember the former things, Nor consider the things of old.  Forget about your mess-ups. Don't obsess about your past mistakes and poor decisions, I am giving you an opportunity to start over. I will do a new thing..” (my expanded translation)

We speak of our Christian faith as “walking with Jesus.” We don’t talk about “standing around with Jesus.” Standing means we're still. Stagnant. Not moving. Walking means a forward motion. Walking with Jesus means moving forward with Him on the journey we call “life.” But Jesus gave us a warning about following Him. Jesus and His disciples were walking down the road when someone said to Him, “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62 Jesus was saying that to follow Him we need to let go of the things that anchor us to our past and instead we must focus fully on Him. We need to be looking ahead at the One we are following.

Life is a journey and every new year God gives us a fresh start – a new beginning. His promise to the Israelites and His Son’s warning to the disciple, applies to you and me because God is still the Creator of all things new and all things good. He is unchanging – the same yesterday, today and forever. If your resolution this year is to become a better person by being closer to God, “To see Thee more clearly. Love Thee more dearly. Follow Thee more nearly” here’s how that works. 

God is sovereign (all-powerful) and He can do anything He wants, but He has given us willpower and allows us to make choices. That means that you can’t do it without God and He won’t do it without you. Before He will do something new in your relationship with Him is there something(s) you must choose to give up? Something that comes between you and Him? Priorities? Habits? Lifestyles? People tell me they have no time to read the Bible or pray and I have to watch their discomfort when I ask them how many hours they watch TV or spend online. 

What are the things that distance you from God? Be willing to let go of those old things to make a little more room for Him in your life! Become closer to God in 2023 and watch Him do the new things and make the changes that you've been struggling to make in your life!