There’s nothing like a children’s program to …

kidschoir01I have had the opportunity throughout the years to speak at summer camps and conferences, and almost without exception there is the inevitable end- of- the- week program put on by the children showing what they have learned about Jesus. The children gather in the front to say some memory verses and to sing some special songs they have learned. The average person would probably take a Dramamine at this point if they didn’t have a kid in the program.

However, being an old psychology major in college, I have noticed that the same personality types and behaviors are present no matter what group of kids is performing. There is always the little boy who has no idea what is going on; who is just looking around like he’s a walk-on never having seen any of these people before. There is also the little girl (and it usually is a girl) who knows every verse and every word to the songs, and is singing at the top of her lungs like she is trying out for American Idol. Finally, there is the kid (boy or girl) who while singing, is waving frantically to his/her folks as if they are about ready to go home and leave her/him at camp for the rest of the summer. I love it! Check me out on this the next time you witness a children’s program. These kids are just being who they are; they can’t help it!

John Miller, in his book The Contentious Community, compares the church to a children’s choir singing about Jesus. “Innocence and guile are perched on the edge of the platform, waiting to burst forth in song or shove some unsuspecting freckle-faced being to an ignominious landing three feet below. And it isn’t that Bonnie is innocent and Bobby is full of guile; it is that innocence and guile, the ideal and the real, are coursing through the veins of each.”

My friend Marshall Shelley, in Ministering to Problem People in Your Church (highly recommended), writes “The church, indeed every Christian, is an odd combination of self-sacrificing saint and self-serving sinner. And the church, unlike some social organizations, doesn’t have the luxury of choosing its members; the church is an assembly of all who profess themselves believers. Within that gathering is found a full range of sinner/saint combinations. Ministry is a commitment to care for all members of the body, even those whose breath is tainted with dragon smoke.”

As a pastor, I have learned that much of the unsettledness and criticism that people have of their church come from the issues they are facing in their own lives. The anger we have because we’ve been passed over for that job or because of what’s happening at home often gets redirected at the church. Our feelings of frustration or increasing insignificance due to where we are in life often flashes out when we feel we are not heard or our preferences not honored at church. All this is not to say that the church is perfect, but to hallmark the fact that the church is made up of imperfect people; “innocence and guile, the ideal and the real, are coursing through the veins of each.”

How do I know all this amazing stuff? It is because I too am a unique combo of sinner/saint with the faint odor of dragon breath (ok, maybe not so faint). We pastors need to recognize this and not to play the victim by thinking that we’d be better pastors if we just had better people. George MacLeod said, “I’ve never met a man who wanted to be bad.” This is who we are; this why we have needed the grace of the gospel to save us as well as to sanctify us. It is also why we need one another, though thrown together in an unlikely children’s choir, to help each other sing praises to Jesus and to keep his Word in our hearts.

The Power of Benediction…

tame the tongueA benediction is a pronouncement of divine blessing and encouragement. It is a short, concise statement which gives assurance or promise. It is from the Latin bene (good) dicere (to say). Every time I say a benediction over my congregation, I am not leading them in prayer, but blessing them with a good word for their spiritual encouragement.

One of the most famous benedictions in the Bible is one that God gave to Moses to tell Aaron to speak to Israel (follow that?). It was given to be a general encouragement to the nation as the Law of God was being explained and the Tabernacle of the Lord was being dedicated: “The Lord bless you, and keep you: The Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you: The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26).

My personal favorite biblical benediction is found at the end of Jude and spoken to people who were being called to persevere in their faith: “Now unto him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen” (Jude 1:24, 25).

I have heard some use Genesis 31:49 as a benediction; “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are parted from each other.” However, if you check the context, you will find that this was a covenant warning made between Laban and Jacob who did not trust each other; calling for God to be a witness so that they would not continue to harm each other. Therefore, don’t use that one, but check out and meditate on some of these: 2 Corinthians 13:14; Hebrews 13:20, 21; 2 Peter 1:2, 3; 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13, 5:23; Romans 15:5, 6, and 13.

There is one more use of benediction we don’t often hear about because it is mostly spoken outside a church service. It is a benediction used in our personal relationships. “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad” (Proverbs 12:25). We know the power of hurtful words. “Rash words are like sword thrusts” (Prov. 12:18) and yet a good word has healing power. “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Prov. 16:24). Many of us were raised with hurtful words, which have wounded us and made our words hurtful to others. Many of us have experienced being the target of cutting and spiteful words, which have weighed us down and discouraged us beyond measure. O for just one good word spoken in truth! “To make and appropriate answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23)

This week someone hurt me with their words, but on the same day someone else spoke an appropriate word that brought great encouragement to me. We all need to experience the power of benediction; a good word that is truthful, sincere, and with no ulterior motive other than to encourage. What a great ministry! Try it, and start in your own household.

Gladly for Aye…

gladly-we-adore-him-1One of my dear brothers asked me what my favorite hymn was, and I said “Praise to the Lord the Almighty” written by Joakim Neander. You may not have heard of him before, but I am sure you have heard of the hymn. The only Joakim we know in these parts is a guy who plays for the Chicago Bulls.

Neander was a German poet and hymn writer who lived after the Reformation (16th century). He was also a pastor in the Reformed Church. He wrote 60 hymns and loved to wander among the caves and ravines of a certain valley by the Dussel River. Like many, he was most creative when he was out in God’s creation. The valley eventually was named after him—Neander-thal (valley). Sound familiar? This was the very place where the fossilized remains of an early human was found whom they called Neanderthal Man.

Joakim had been shaped not only by the theology of the Reformation, but also by Pietism and its emphasis on the heart. You can sense the impact of these two influences in his hymns: the majesty of a Sovereign God who plans, controls, and guides; the compassionate of a God who loves and cares and is worthy of our continual adoration. Joakim left us a significant legacy even though he died at the age of 30 from tuberculosis.

The original hymn had six verses, though only four show up in most hymnals. You can check them out for yourself, but let me point out just a few that have blessed me:

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near;
Praise Him in glad adoration.

Some hear Psalm 150 in this verse. I hear Psalm 139; “Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me, bless his holy name … Who forgives all your iniquities and heals all your diseases.” Neander wrote “praise him, for he is thy health and salvation.” It makes me wonder how much he struggled with sickness before he eventually succumbed. What a beautiful thought: God is my health.

Praise to the Lord, who, when tempests their warfare are waging,
Who, when the elements madly around thee are raging,
Biddeth them cease, turneth their fury to peace,
Whirlwinds and waters assuaging.

Praise to the Lord, who, when darkness of sin is abounding,
Who, when the godless do triumph, all virtue confounding,
Sheddeth His light, chaseth the horrors of night,
Saints with His mercy surrounding.

These two verses are not usually in the hymnal. What a great hope they give in the face of the darkness and madness raging around us because of human sin. God is in control. He not only restrains evil, but surrounds his saints with mercy. Though we feel overwhelmed, he will chase the darkness away. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you…” (Isa 43:2).

The last verse is incredible. Imagine a huge pipe organ the size of Texas playing an introduction to this and the voices of million angels and humans singing this into the darkness of this crappy world:

Praise to the Lord, O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him.
Let the Amen sound from His people again,
Gladly for aye we adore Him.

Note the very last phrase, “gladly for aye.” The word is pronounced “I” and can mean “yes” or “yes sir” (aye aye). As an adverb, however, it also means “always, continually, and forever.” This is the use of the word here: “Gladly (delightfully, enthusiastically, willingly, joyfully, passionately) let us forever and always adore HIM.” Amen.

(There are so many music videos of this hymn on the web, but you need to find one with an organ. Open the following link and sing along with the lyrics.)

Is it “luv” or is it love?

BTS - Boy In LuvWhen I was high school, I remember having a “crush” on a girl. She was a cheerleader (from an opposing team) whom I met after a football game we had just played. I was all grubby and muddy in my uniform and as I was walking off the field she came up to me and told me what a great game I had played. We had mutual friends that went to her church and just seemed to have a lot in common, including our faith. She got my attention; she was so cute and she was talking with me! Now, I was not a shaker and mover when it came to women, but I also wasn’t stupid. I got her number and told her I would call her so we could “finish our conversation.” Not bad, heh?

She was all I could think about; I couldn’t eat, sleep, and time seemed to stand still until we could talk again on the phone. (Yes, we did have phones in my day, but they were attached to the wall.) Man, I was in love! It was a match made in heaven! I found my “soul mate!” OK all you counselors out there; was it love? It was real, but it was really a classic case of infatuation or what I call “luv” (pronounced “loove,” that’s what the word sounds like in country and western songs). It was a neurological condition that was totally involuntary (BLAM), difficult to control, and temporary. I will spare you the details of how things played out, although I bet you are dying to hear. Suffice it to say it did not last. Thank God that we have not been made to sustain that level of luv for very long because the whole world would grind to a halt, everyone would starve, and no one would be able to sleep.

My brain would not allow me to process any information other than trying figure out how I could be with her and how I could keep other guys away from her. When the fog of luv lifted, my brain was able to evaluate her as a person (and vice versa) and to see who she really was. I often hear people say after a break up, “S/He wasn’t the girl/guy I thought they were.” Those are the words are true and spoken either when you come out of denial or out of the coma of luv.

Gary Thomas in his terrific book “The Sacred Search” says that the nature of infatuation is the very reason we need to wait (he says at least two years) to get to know someone before we marry them. We need to overcome the desire to look for a “soul mate” by a search for a “sole mate.” He says, “A sole mate is someone who walks out with us (the “sole” of a shoe) the biblical command to seek first the kingdom of God. This is all about the shoe-leather application of biblical love… This isn’t a love based on feelings; it’s based on sacrifice (John 15:13). The Bible calls men to act like martyrs toward their wives, laying down their own lives on their wives’ behalf (Eph 5:25). Titus says that older women should train younger women how to love their husbands (Titus 2:4)… Martyrdom on behalf of your wife? Being trained… to love your husband? These passages alone are enough to tell us that within marriage, love is not an emotion; it’s a policy and a commitment that we choose to keep in the harshest of circumstances.”

Using an image borrowed from CS Lewis: luv may be the explosion that starts the engine of marriage, but biblical love is the fuel that keeps the marriage running so that it accomplishes something for the Kingdom of God.