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Archive for December, 2013

It takes a Team

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During this time of the year, we have lots of parties and celebrations for work and ministry. It is a good time to step back and reflect on what God has done over this past year. It is a time to appreciate the fact that we get to work with others in getting things accomplished.

I am so blessed to be on several of God’s “teams.” I love working with the men and women on our worship and tech teams. They truly love the Lord and they love to serve; and it shows. They are a tremendous blessing to the congregation. I am so privileged to be on an awesome staff team at my church. They are some of the most dedicated and pure hearted people I have ever known. And even though I am just a lowly “adjunct professor,” I am proud to be on the team of amazing professors and instructors at Azusa Pacific University Graduate School of Theology. I see how students are wonderfully equipped for ministry through their coursework; I am one of those former students.

Teamwork is how God designed to accomplish His purposes. It took a “Trinity” team to create the universe. It took Twelve Tribes to form a nation. It took a band of disciples to preach the Gospel to the known world. It takes churches working together to further the Kingdom of God.

Teams are not easy, though. It requires trust, cooperation, unity, fearless risk taking, humility (or should I say, “a lot of pride swallowing”), sacrifice, and selflessness to be a good team. There are times when it seems like “doing it myself” or “on my own” would be the more practical and effective road to take. But going solo always ends up being the worse way to go.

As we think about Christmas, it took a team: Angels, a teenage girl, a supportive aunt, a reluctant fiancé, an imaginative Inn keeper, aware Shepherds, astute Magi, and the Holy Spirit of God to make it all work. And this does not even begin to include the multitudes of godly generations that passed on a living faith to Joseph and Mary.

So let’s hear it for our teams! Give thanks for the people you serve with, the people you walk with arm in arm and side by side. When we serve the Lord as a team, we truly bring glory to the God who put us together.

He knows we are so much better together.

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The Simple Formula for JOY

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Yesterday was the third Sunday of Advent. In many churches, the JOY candle was lit – joining Hope (week one) and Love (week two). In a short devotional after our church’s children gave a delightful musical performance (starring, among others, my two grandsons, DeeJay and Aiden – I am so humble to confess this!), Pastor Rob shared a simple but profound formula for true Joy.

J = Jesus

O = Others

Y = Yourself

All three components are necessary for true Joy. People in the world try to find joy in themselves or in others. But I think we would all agree that without Jesus there is no joy. His coming defines Joy to the World.

However, there are some who consider themselves Christians who try to find joy in themselves and Jesus, but without others. Alarming numbers of people who profess Christian faith, do so outside the context of “community.” They have personal devotion to the Lord but no connection to the Church.

Their reasons for not being involved in a church sound legitimate. They have been hurt by others. Leaders have left them disillusioned. Others have felt “used” by the church; having volunteered many hours and given thousands of dollars.

Granted, “others” are hard to live with. They will hurt you. They will use you. They will disappoint you. Jesus must have felt the same way. When He came to our world, He was constantly attacked, betrayed (and not just once by Judas), disappointed, and disregarded.

But He did not give up on “others.” In fact, He loved them. He gave His life on the Cross for them. He sent His Holy Spirit to them. And He longs to come and gather them together in a loving, forever community.

And, by the way, those “others” include people like you and me. (Sometimes we don’t realize that we are also difficult to live with, that we’ve betrayed and disillusioned people, too)

Why did Jesus do this for others? Hebrews 12:2 gives us a little hint: “For the JOY set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame.” Jesus endured the cross because He saw you and me and others being saved through it. And that gave Him joy. Some scholars believe that the “joy” Jesus saw set before Him was us. We are His joy. The “others.”

There are “others” that have burned me, treated me unfairly, and made me feel overall uncomfortable. And I thank God for them. God used them to transform my life profoundly. God used them to teach me things about myself that I would have never learned from the “nice” people. God used them to teach me the unconditional part of “unconditional  love.”

I am learning to love those “others,” and it does bring me great joy. And, you know what, as I have learned to love those others, they are changing, too. They are becoming more loving, more Christ like, and more joy-full.

Jesus. Others. Yourself. All of them are necessary ingredients for the God-induced ecstasy that we call JOY.

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Why so downcast, O my Soul?

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For the past few days, I’ve been feeling a little down. Actually, it’s more than just a “little” bit. It’s quite a bit. It’s a general state of despondency, and I can’t really explain it. While there are some reasons why I should be down, I know they are not the reasons why I feel down. I know because I’ve explored those options thoroughly. Those reasons are not what have been on my mind or my heart. I can’t really locate what is disturbing me. It is a mystery.

This morning, I read Psalm 42. It was one of the readings in Fixed Hour Prayer (“The Divine Hours” compiled by Phyllis Tickle). One of the recurring phrases in this Psalm is, “Why so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” (vv. 5, 11) In one sense, the Psalmist seems to be doing some “self-talk”: “Don’t you know that God is bigger than anything you face? Why would you be downcast? C’mon, have some faith.” And that’s the way I’ve always interpreted that verse.

But could the Psalmist be expressing something similar that I’m going through? Could it be that the Psalmist cannot put his finger on why his soul is downcast? Maybe there are reasons he could name (like being oppressed [v. 9], or taunted by godless people [v. 10]), but the real reason – the true reason why his soul feels torment – is still unnamed.

I’ve been learning this past year that the soul is a mysterious thing. While the soul can sometimes be “interpreted” through the lens of emotion and thought, there are times when it seems to defy convention, logic, and understanding.

Sometimes it seems to be downcast for no apparent reason at all. Perhaps, it is picking up some vibes of darkness or despair in the world. Perhaps, it is sensing a grieving of the Holy Spirit somewhere (“Deep” does call to “deep”, as we see in v. 7). Or perhaps, it is mourning something within that our emotions and minds cannot pick up or understand.

Who knows?

God does.

And I take refuge in the fact that God knows my soul better than I do. He is the “Lover of my soul.” So I release my soul into His care. I’m not going to worry or fret over what is going on deep within. Through Silent Prayer this morning, I was able to tell God to take care of my soul.

Later this afternoon, my soul felt released of this burden. Maybe part of it was a productive staff meeting I attended. Maybe part of it was finally getting around to some lab tests for my physical condition this morning (I’ve been kind of dreading it, but I realized I need to do it regardless of how I felt about it). Or maybe God did something in the “secret” – beneath my consciousness – that lifted my soul.

Who knows? God does.

I don’t know if this blog made any sense to you. But maybe someone out there can relate to what I’m writing about. Maybe you’ve felt the same way and didn’t know what to do with it. Or maybe you will in the future. But know that God not only has your “back”; He has your soul, too. Not only does He have all of what you are aware of in His hands, He has all that you are unaware of in His hands, too.

He really does.

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The Lord is Come

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At Christmas, you get a dozen different versions of the same song. Some songs have the same words with different melodies. Other songs have the same melodies but different words. And some songs have words that are mostly the same, but with some slight variations. It makes it tough for us worship leaders, who have to make the decision on which version that will work best for the congregation.

One of those songs is “Joy to the World.” In the very first line there is a variation. Some versions go, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.” Older versions have, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” I have usually preferred “has” over “is” because it makes more sense in modern English. We just don’t use the words “is” and “come” together anymore.

However, I’ve changed my stance on this. I prefer the old “is come,” now. And the reason is more theological than it is grammatical.

The coming of the Lord is not just a past event. Certainly, Jesus Christ came historically over 2,000 years ago. But we also anticipate another coming of Jesus Christ in the future – the Second Coming. So we can also sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is coming.” The version of “has come” only tells part of the story.

But there is also the sense that Jesus is come, in the present sense. And that’s what I want to focus on today. Jesus continually comes into our lives, spiritually, as we open our hearts – day by day, moment by moment – to Him. In fact, it is the “ongoing” sense of “is come” that aptly describes the Whole Life Worship process.

Every time we notice the Lord at work around us, the Lord is come. Every time we turn to Him in prayer, the Lord is come. Every time we feel His presence, the Lord is come. Every time we surrender ourselves to His way and His will, the Lord is come. Every time we choose to love in the power of God, the Lord is come. The more we become aware of the Lord in our everyday ordinary lives, the Lord is come.

And every time the Lord is come into our lives, the more we are become as He is – transforming into His likeness.

How can you allow Jesus to come more into your life today?

I guarantee that you’ll experience a deeper “joy to the world” as the Lord “is come” more into your life.

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What’s the Rush?

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I’ve definitely noticed a change in the traffic patterns in my neck of the woods since Thanksgiving. People are driving faster. They are more impatient in traffic. They are cutting others off. They are insisting on their own way. They are running red lights and rolling past stop signs.

I know because I am one of them.

It bothers me because I have worked really hard to be more patient as a driver. It has become one of my “spiritual disciplines.” Seriously. If I can’t exhibit self-control in traffic, how will I ever be strong enough to stand up against persecution? How can I keep my faith and fortitude when I face severe calamity when I have trouble stopping at a stop sign? How can I really encourage another brother or sister to persevere in trials when I can’t control my driving habits when I’m running 5 minutes late?

As I reflect on my sins behind the wheel, two things pop up in my mind:

1. Herd mentality. I’m in a rush because I see that others are in a rush. When I see someone zipping in and out of the lanes of the freeway to get ahead, it makes me think: “Hey, I’m important, too. I need to get somewhere, too.” And so I follow along. And I’m also probably influencing someone else nearby to join in the rush by my actions. Together, we create a culture of “hurry.” Sin breeds more sin.

2. Adding holiday tasks cause us to lose margin. The reason we are in a rush during the holidays is because we’ve added more things to do without taking anything “off” our plates. We end up having more things to do in the same amount of time. So I think I can make up for it by driving faster, fudging on the traffic laws, and being more aggressive on the road. By saving two minutes on a trip, I can accomplish one more small holiday task that I’ve crammed into my already too full life.

I think about what Jesus said to Mary, “You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed” (Luke 10:41-42).

So I’ve decided to go against the herd mentality and drive more leisurely. I’m going to play worship music and meaningful Christmas music in my car. I’m going to enjoy my driving and get there when I get there. I’m going to let people whiz by me and not get caught up in the “rush” game.

I’ve also decided to downsize my holiday “to-do” list. I might not put up the house lights. I’m not going to the mall to shop. I’m not sending out Christmas cards this year. There might be a few other things I might “not do.”

But I am going to be faithful to personally worship Christ each morning. I will spend time in Scripture. I will be present and engaged with people.

With God’s help, I’m trying not to be in a rush anymore, especially during this holy season.

How about you?

What steps can you do this holiday season to prevent being caught up in the “rush”?

How can you be more present to Christ and others?

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Stepping into My Darkness

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Tonight at worship team rehearsal we went over a song we are doing this weekend, “Here I Am to Worship” by Chris Tomlin. It’s an “oldie” that we haven’t done for quite awhile. During our team time we discussed the some of the lyrics and how they are so appropriate for Advent (“Coming”). They talk about the incarnation, the humble act of God:

King of all days, O most highly exalted, glorious in heaven above,

Humbly you came to the earth you created, all for Love’s sake became poor.

But the line that always gets me is the first one:

Light of the world, You stepped down into darkness.

As we read in Scripture, the concept of true Light has nothing to do with darkness. Light is holiness, purity and perfection. Darkness is sin, evil and defilement. But Christ, the Light of the world, chose to step down into darkness. That required intention, as it is not Light’s first tendency to go toward darkness, but away from it. The Bible calls this intention, “love.”

I take it personally. Jesus did not just step into the world’s darkness. He steps into my darkness: Into my filth, my brokenness, and my evil. Into my secret pride, my seediest lusts, and my deepest fear. New York City’s sewers have nothing over the depths of my fallen humanity.

Light steps in my darkness because of love. Love says that there is something valuable in that murk and mire. Apparently, there’s something worth saving and redeeming underneath the garbage; something worth loving and transforming.

It’s incredibly humbling to realize that that “something” is me.

And you.

The miracle is that Jesus’ Light doesn’t just rescue us from darkness, He also transforms the darkness within into light. He is the Light of the World. But He also calls us “the light of the world.” (Matt. 5:14)

So that’s how it works! No wonder Paul says that we “were once darkness, but now we are Light in the Lord” (Eph 5:8). When we allow the Light to step into our darkness, we become light. Together we are a string of lights that shine (think about that when you put up Christmas lights: that’s us!) Eventually, we become a City of Light and the darkness  – that once enveloped us, dominated us, defined us and enslaved us – will become a distant memory.

Light of the world, here I am to worship!

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Anticipation

We are now in the season of Advent. Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” Many liturgical churches celebrate Advent as a re-enactment and celebration of the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. As people who live on this side of the Cross, we also look forward to Christ’s Second Coming (Advent).

However, Advent also represents the “comings” of Christ into our lives in this “in-between” time of His physical arrivals. He brings His spiritual presence to our lives in prayer, worship, and life. As Paul prays in Ephesians 3:17, “I pray that … Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,” we can experience the presence of Jesus in the here and now.

But as with any “coming,” there is a “waiting.” Advent teaches us to wait. The Jews had to wait 400 years from Malachi’s last word to the coming of the Word. During Advent we wait four weeks before Christ’s Mass comes. And in the sanctuary of our soul, we also have to wait for Christ to come and make His presence known.

As I’ve learned over the years, the Lord does not have to come to me on my beck and call. After all, He is the Lord and He makes His presence known only when He chooses. Although I am cognizant that Christ is always with me in a theological sense, my awareness of His close presence is more infrequent. Often, I have to wait; and it’s usually because my soul needs time to ready itself for His arrival.

However, the waiting for Christ is not like waiting for a fickle person. No, Christ always comes. It’s never a matter of “if,” but “when.” There is never any anxiety; only anticipation. And that’s what Advent teaches: as we wait for Christ, we wait in anticipation; with a sense of expectancy.

I have found this mindset helpful in practicing Silent/Contemplative prayer. Rather than trying to “ramp up” or fabricate the presence of Jesus (through words, emotions or thoughts), I simply wait for Jesus to “show up.” Sometimes He shows up in powerful, tangible ways; other times, I don’t sense anything on a conscious level. But later on (sometimes, much later) I see that He was there – kind of like the footprints in the sand or, better, fingerprints on my soul.

This practice of waiting with anticipation prepares me to “notice” more when Christ reveals Himself to me in ordinary life: like this morning when my grandson said, “Goodbye, Grandpa!” as I dropped him off at school. For some reason, I felt the kiss of God in that. Or when I notice a peculiar peace when I am working. Or when I feel a burden to pray for someone.

Practicing anticipation. Advent teaching us the deeper sense of Emmanuel, “God with us.”

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