“In the end the heart longs not for any of God’s good gifts, but for God himself. To see Him and know Him and be in His presence is the soul’s final feast. Beyond this there is no quest.” – John Piper

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Over the past seven weeks, I have been teaching a class called “Worship in Spirit and Truth” at Greenwood community Church in Greenwood Village Colorado. Today’s blog post is born out of the thought, discussions, and teachings from that class. Primary to the class is the idea everybody worships where they know it or not. This is a biblical idea at its core but can also be seen from a philosophical, psychological, or sociological perspective.

Think for a moment about some of the definitions you may have heard for the word “worship.” You may have heard it defined as singing songs with the church context. You may have heard it defined is offering sacrifices to a god or gods. But, a simple, accurate, and biblical definition of worship is the offering of oneself to a person, persons, thing, or cause. Romans 12:1 says that our spiritual act of worship is to offer our very selves to Lord.

In other words, everyone gives their lives, their very selves to something. Whether is a person a thing or a cause everyone offers themselves to something. You could worship yourself for that matter. What do you give your life to? It could be a job. It could be a relationship. It could be money. It could be God. And so worship is something that every person on this earth engages in whether it is known or not.

All creation just by its very existence worships the creator. Psalm 19 says the heavens declare the glory of God. Day day after day they pour forth their speech. This is something that creation does just by its very existence. This is why Jesus said in Luke 14:40, if those are silent even the rocks will cry out. In this way there is a worship of the Creator that happens just by the very existence of creation.

In his book, The Worship Pastor, Zack Hicks talk about three circles of worship. The first is the one we’ve just described. Worship on a macro level. All of creation worships the creator. The second, smaller circle, is what happens when an individual offers themselves to Lord in worship. This is surrendering to the Spirit of God. This is following the voice of the Shepherd. This is aligning ones will to the will of the Father. And this is something that happens only by the freeing of the Spirit of truth.

A smaller circle within that circle is what we call corporate worship. This is what happens when God’s people gathered together corporate proclamation of God’s covenant. This is what happens on Sunday morning in churches all across the world. This is what happens in homes in small groups offer up praises and prayers to the Savior. It’s the meeting of God with his people, his children, his body. And what we do in singing songs of worship is just one small part of that small circle. It is only a portion of the great umbrella of worship, wherein everybody worships something whether they know it or not.

So what do you worship? What do you give your life to? How does that affect what you are doing this very moment? For this moment, and the moment after it, and a thousand moments, add up to a lifetime of worship. And I say, it’s worth knowing who we worship.

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” – T.S. Eliot

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Neither arrest nor movement. That phrase always troubled me, as I read Eliot for the first time. I was a student in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, in La Mirada, California. How could something not be still and not be moving at the same time? Neither arrest nor movement.

Today, as a Pastor of Worship Arts in the Denver area, Eliot’s words still ring true. Over the years, since my time as a student, I have at times oscillated from arrest to movement and back again. It’s an easy thing to do in life and an even easier thing to do in ministry.

In ministry, we often feel caught between two extremes regarding our work. On the one side of the pendulum is the goal of a fully reliant walk with God. After all, it was Paul who said, “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (see Philippians 2:13). On the other side of the pendulum, is a healthy desire to impact the world for Jesus Christ. We work hard and feel like it is our responsibility to offer all we can to the Lord in His service. As James reminds us, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (see James 2:17).

Could it be that Eliot’s riddle has a grasp on Christian living and Christian ministry that finds the sweet spot between arrest and movement?

In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson argues that the Christian life falls somewhere between the Western Paradigm of working increasing amounts of hours in order to get ahead and the Eastern Paradigm of remaining absolutely still in letting go of the world. Peterson argues that, like most things, Jesus won’t that easily be put in a box. Instead, the Christian both takes up his cross (Luke 9:23) and has a burden that is light (Matthew 11:30).

It is there, cross in hand and with an easy yoke, that we find the sweet spot of Christian ministry. The Christian jumps into the river of God and joins Jesus in the work that He is already doing. It is both reliant on the work of God and offering our firstfruits. It is, as Eliot said, neither arrest nor movement. And there, we find the dance.

There is an interesting parallel to the weekly worship services that we have at Greenwood Community Church. There are some weeks in which I enter the services feeling like we have absolutely worked our tails off preparing for what will surely be an awe-inspiring worshipful time. And some of those same weeks, the congregation comes away with a resounding “meh.” There are other weeks in which I have entered the worship services feeling as though we didn’t quite have enough time as a band together to work out all the details, or I wasn’t quite sure that the “right” songs had been selected. And some of those same weeks, I have been greatly encouraged by the ways that God has moved in the hearts and lives of the people of the church.

So what do we learn?

There is a sweet spot of Christian ministry that lies somewhere between arrest and movement. It is not reliant on self; it is reliant on the work of God. But, it offers the best of what is available and it prayerfully asks God to do what only He can do and use what “we gladly bring” to the Newborn King.

It is, as Bob Sorge has written, the pursuit of jumping the very river for which God has created His children. Of the river, Sorge says, “We have been fashioned in such as way that the river of God alone will satisfy the deep longings of the human spirit” (See Sorge’s Following the River). Let us be clear that the river flows from God Himself at His very throne (Revelation 22:1). It does not originate from us, but we are invited by God Himself to take the plunge!

May each of us today, find the sweet spot, not only of Christian ministry, but of our very lives in Christ as we offer ourselves freely to work that Jesus has already begun!

 

“In reality, all congregations are ethnic.” – Sandra Maria Van Opstal

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In her new book, The Next Worship, Sandra Maria Van Opstal challenges worshipers and worship leaders to a new understanding of how to glorify God in our diverse world. She asks the questions, “When the church invites others to the table in worship, what assumptions do we make about what is and is not normal?” and “What happens when a diverse church glorifies the global God?” These questions (and the other questions she raises) are much needed questions to be discussed, as the people of the world (and the church alike) can often seem to have grown increasingly polarized from one another. Primarly, we get stuck in a narrow perspective of who are God is and who we are as His church. We tend to think that everyone thinks and acts like we do and we even fantasize about a God who looks like us! We forget that the church down the street (let alone across the globe!) can have significantly different approaches to worship that we do and as a result, we tend to insist upon others “doing church” or “doing life” the way that we do. This problem, in itself, reveals our need for a God who is other and has created a vastly diverse Creation to reflect His image. For this reason and others, Van Opstal’s book is timely and needed.

The church where we worship, Greenwood Community Church in Greenwood Village, Colorado, is increasingly waking up to these questions, as we seek to be formed as a body of Christ-followers that invites men and women (and children and youth and the elderly) from every tongue, tribe, and nation into a unified corporate expression of the worship of Jesus Christ. This is no easy task, as the potential divisions are endless. The devil, who seeks only to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10) has been creating divisions since the beginning. And, Melkor sang a new melody of discord in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth origin, the devil has continued to sow discord in the world to this day. It is for this reason that Paul warned the church in Rome, I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.” (Romans 16:17-18). In this way, to watch out for this division is really the first step among many. 

The problem, after all, is not God’s. Instead, His children have continued to make a mess of his creation after millennia of the Good Father providing His children with gifts. As Frank Burch Brown argues, this warrants an approach that is both inclusive and discerning. (Note that discerning does not, here, mean non-inclusive). In his book, Inclusive Yet Discerning, Brown writes, “The mere fact that God’s created beings use very different languages in prayer and praise is presumably no problem for God, of course. We can safely assume that God, who is said to know all of us better than we know ourselves, has no personal need of translators. The problem is ours. The very moment we tell the whole world we want to praise God together, we must necessarily rely on our own language, culture, and concept of God. But that may be alienating rather than inviting, and it threatens to undercut the experience we are most hoping to share—the experience of being united in praise of God. How can we even know whether we are all praising the same God, given that we are speaking different languages and may have rather different ideas of God to begin with?” – Frank Burch Brown

So, how can we know if we are praising the same God? The starting (and finish) line is found in the greatest commandments ever given: loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). And, as you might recall, we are given a stern warning in Scripture of the consequences of loving God and hating our brother or sister. As we seek to remember Christ at the table in our churches and our homes, may we diligently pursue a posture of love for our Global God and His children of every tongue, tribe, and nation!

 

“Part of the sacrifice of praise is singing music that is not necessarily our heart language.” – David Clifton

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This week, I attended “Spirit and Sacrament” at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. The seminar was put together by Andy Piercy (Director of Worship Development for the Anglican Mission), with a great deal of help from John Witvliet (Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship) and Glenn Packiam (Lead Pastor of New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs, CO). Each of these men had a significant amount of insight and tools to contribute.

One of the gems of the week came from David Clifton (Director of Music and Arts at Apostles in Knoxville, TN), who said the phrase above: “Part of the sacrifice of praise is singing music that is not necessarily our heart language.”

This statement was so clear, so succinct, and carried with it such an incredible message that it has stuck with me for the days since hearing it. This is an idea that others have communicated before, especially in worship contexts that are trying to figure out how to engage multiple generations and cultures in a unified corporate worship. But, this was the first time I have heard this connected to the idea of it being a sacrifice of praise.

What Clifton references here, is the idea found in Hebrews 13:15, which says, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise-the fruit of lips that openly profess his name” (NASB). And, it only follows that as we seek to continually offer God a sacrifice of praise, we must throw off anything that can hinder this fruit. Now, if you have been around worship circles for any amount of time, you understand that the hinderances to this kind of sacrifice are numerous. What Clifton gets so right in this statement is the connection between the heart language of the worshiper with the sacrifice of praise that is to be made. This is especially true in corporate worship, where one must be willing to give up his or her own self in order to offer corporate praise to the Lord. That sounds like a sacrifice to me! Each worshiper must be willing to give up his or her own preference of heart language in order to join in the heart language of the full body as God is glorified.

In this way, “Worship leaders become language coaches for the church,” said John Witvliet. The worship leader learns how to invite the full body to engage in a sacrifice of praise, whether it is specific to their individual heart language or not.

And so, we make a joyful noise unto the Lord, unifying our hearts and our language to the glory of God the Father!

“Christian music makers have to risk new ways of praising God. Their faith must convince them that however strange a new offering may be, it cannot out-reach, out-imagine, or overwhelm God. God remains God, ready to swoop down in the most wonderful way, amidst all of the flurry and mystery of newness and repetition, to touch souls and hearts, all because faith has been exercised and Christ’s ways have been imitated. Meanwhile, a thousand tongues will never be enough.” – Harold Best

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The instructions in Psalm 96:1-3 are clear: “Sing to the LORD a new song; Sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD, bless His name; Proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day. Tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples.” But, what does it mean to sing to Him a song that is “new?” The Hebrew word used in the passage for new (transliterated “chadash”) has the connotation of something “fresh.” This means, by way of application, that the songs sung to the Lord need not be brand now. But rather, these songs should be song in a way that is fresh to the Lord. This, of course, is good news to the fans of the old songs (however you may define them). In his book, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, Harold Best, rightly notes that there are a variety of ways that one might accomplish singing a new song to the Lord. One might sing an entirely new song to Him. And today, there are fantastic songs being written in praise to the Lord. One only needs to peruse the material that has come from Keith and Kristyn Getty to know this! Best also suggests that Christians learn to sing old songs in a fresh or new way. In other words, even if you have sung “Holy, Holy, Holy” a thousand times, you recognize that this phrase will never stop being proclaimed for all of eternity (see Revelation 4-6). A third way that a new song can be sung is with a posture of the heart. The Christian responds to God’s glory with a consistent longing and desire to walk towards God. In this way, the soul takes up a posture of fresh worship on a daily basis, as even the “heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). May we, with this posture, daily sing a new song to the Lord!

“Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light is throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.” – Blaise Pascal

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In Psalm, 13 David gives great voice to the difficulty, suffering, and obstacles that tend to come up in this life. In verse 1-2, he asks, “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hid Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart all the day? How long will my enemy by exalted over me?” I am sure that you have asked this question at least once or twice in your life, perhaps in the middle of a difficult period of loss or transition.

Well, this week, W. David O. Taylor announced a project that he is working on with Bono and Eugene Peterson. The project will be a dialogue between Bono and Peterson on some of the sayings in the Psalms that have served as inspiration for Bono and his music with the enormously famous band U2.

Perhaps most popular is the song 40, that Bono and U2 based on the Scripture found in Psalm 40. Apparently, it took the band less than an hour to write this song after turning to Psalm 40 and deciding that this text would be the basis for the song’s lyrics.

Psalm 40:1-3 says, “I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, and He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God; many will see and fear and will trust in the Lord.”

This Psalm, in addition to Psalm 13, poses the question of trust in the Lord despite the difficult times faced in the life. Peterson, translator of The Message translation of the Bible, views this obedience and trust in the face of difficult as being a cornerstone of Christian discipleship. In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, Peterson says, “Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusion. It is not compelled to work away at keeping up appearances with a bogus spirituality. It is the opposite of desperate and panicky manipulations, of scurrying and worrying. And hoping is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain. It means a confident alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do.”

It is with this posture and David asks, “How Long?” There  is a confidence to say, as Psalm 13:5-6 does, “I have trusted in Your lovingkindness; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me.” In an age of instant gratification and the certainty of difficulty, may we worship Him with this type of obedience, trust, and hope!

“What worship means is the submission of the whole being to the object of worship. It is the opening of the heart to receive the love of God; it is the subjection of conscience to be directed by Him; it is the declaration of the need to be fulfilled by Him; it is the subjection of desire to be controlled by Him. And as a result of all these together, it is the surrender of the whole being. It is the total giving of self.” – William Temple

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There are times when the words of the Bible just jump off the page, leaping out to teach, correct, training, and yes, reproof. Today was such a day for me, as I read Psalm 119:20. In the New American Standard Bible, the verse says, “My soul is crushed with longing after Your ordinances at all times.” I wondered, almost out loud, whether or not I could claim the universe truth of that verse in my own life.

At once, I was met with a myriad of questions. For starters, this verse paints soul crushing as a positive effect of following God’s ordinances. In what universe is soul-crushing a good thing?! Secondly, the soul is crushed because of longing. What kind of longing is this, that it has the ability to crush the soul? Thirdly, the longing and the soul-crushing is a result of God’s ordinances. What commands, at once, have the effect of crushing the soul and producing great longing?

I can tell you, I have been a Christian since I first knew the Lord at age four. (It is true, he knew me well before that!). But, I have never, in all the years following, thought of God’s commands as being simultaneously soul-crushing and life-giving. But, that’s what the verse in Psalm 119 claims as true!

Now, here is the deal: most of the time we view God’s commands as something that grinds us into some lifeless, colorless submission. And apparently, there is some reason that we think this. God’s commands (and all commands, by nature) are designed to drive us to submission! So, submission, yes! But, that is only half of the story. God’s commands also grant us longing, passion, LIFE!

Doug Brown says that we rightly assume that coming to Christ means that we will have to give our very lives over to Him. But, we wrongly assume that doing so will rob us of the joy that this life has to offer. Remember what Jesus Himself said in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Friends, the Good News is not only that God has provided a way from sin, but also that He has given new life to you and to me. And it is Hebrew poetry like this that gets at the heart of what Christian worship actually is. We give our very selves to God so that He can, at once, crush our souls and fill us with longing for Himself.

“We should think of Christian discipleship as being similar to learning an entirely new language.” – Michael Horton

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First among words in the worship vocabulary that have been lost in recent years is the word, “ascribe.” The name of the site is Ascribe Site. This is due, in large part, to the fact that the word “ascribe” has been virtually lost from our vocabulary. Even in faith and worship circles, one will rarely hear the word and gain an understanding of what King David has in mind. 1 Chronicles 16:28-29 says, “Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name; Bring an offering and come before Him; Worship the Lord in holy array.” This hymn to the Lord, repeated virtually verbatim in Psalm 29:1-2, gives a fantastic perspective of what is going on when God’s people worship Him!

The Hebrew word for ascribe in I Chronicles 16:28-29 is יָהַב , transliterated “yahab.” The simple translation of the word is “give.” But, the better translation is this word “ascribe,” which gives a closer perspective of David’s intention in the passage. Ascribe has the connotation of giving what is already owned. When you ascribe something to something (like “glory” to the “Lord”) you are describing what the object already possesses. In other words, to ascribe glory and strength to the Lord is to give these attributes to the One who already has them. Thus, David gets at this when he says, “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name” (I Chronicles 16:28). He is saying give to God what is already His!

This is particularly important when considering the pattern of worship of God’s people. Throughout Scripture, God reveals Himself and His people respond in praise for who He is. In this way, God does not need the praises of His people, nor do the praises of His people make God who He is. Rather, God’s people ascribe to Him what is already true about Him. He is Holy! He is Love! He is Good! He is True! In ascribing these attributes to God, His people make known among the nations His great glory and in fact, His being God.

May we ascribe the glory due to God today, in our thoughts, deeds, actions, and yes, in our words!

“The faith has a basic grammar.” – J.I. Packer

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I remember the first time I heard a pastor say that they don’t use the word, “Worship,” at their church. I was a well-intentioned worship leader, trying to fit in in a church culture that had become increasingly conjoined with popular culture. This particular church was following the widely-respected and partially helpful guidelines of Andy Stanley and his book Deep and Wide. Stanley had intimated that in order to reach the culture churches must remove all potential obstructions of coming to faith. It was, as Stanley said, hard enough already for people to come to Christ. What this translated to was the removal of any of those “churchy” words that were obviously a turn-off to non-church-goers. For example, instead of “worship,” the church used “sing.” Instead of “sermon,” the church used “message.” The word “church” was removed from the church’s name. And while I appreciate the heart of the pastors in this church, as well as the intention that they have in reaching the lost, the removal of the faith’s vocabulary became a detriment to the church cause itself.

In a recent podcast titled, “Youth in Crisis,” Michael Horton spoke about the unfortunate bi-product of removing these kinds of words from our vocabulary. Horton noted that the removal of the words not only kept the words from the seeker audience, but it also kept the words (and their meanings) from the members of the church! In this way, Horton said that we were “unchurching the church itself.” In other words, by removing the words in our faith vocabulary, the church had essentially stopped teaching its members about its own faith.

As Horton and others have suggested, by the removal of its faith vocabulary, the church has largely undermined its own ability to teach its members the core doctrines of the faith. The answer? In order to clearly communicate and instruct the church regarding the Christian faith, the church must return to the biblical language surrounding the faith and worship of God.

Deuteronomy 11:18-21 says, “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.”

The New Testament records how these words in Deuteronomy can be taken to a legalistic extreme, which resulted in the Pharisaical behavior in the centuries leading up to Christ. However, in today’s culture, the pendulum has surely swung to the other side, in which the specific words of Scripture have all but lost their significance in many situations. May we take as truth the exhortation in Deuteronomy 11 to diligently recall, remember, and absorb the words of God, as we seek to worship Him in the significance of their meaning.