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There is an expression I’ve been saying a lot lately. In fact, I’ve been using it so much I’m afraid it will be inscribed on my tombstone by my surviving family:

“It is what it is.”

I suppose it’s better than some of my other popular Doug-sayings like “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” or “I need more keyboard in my monitor” (you musicians out there know what that means!)

I think the reason I’m using that phrase more often is because I’m realizing how little control I have over my life. I used to get so upset when things didn’t happen according to my plan. I guess I’m learning that whining and complaining accomplishes nothing in most cases! It is what it is.

But there are two ways to look at this expression. The first way is the perspective of resignation. That means we acquiesce to the powers-that-be (whether our human superiors, the government, corporate America, or “the fates”) because there is no other recourse. It is a “I-don’t-like-this-at-all-but-I-don’t-have-any-choice” perspective. While this perspective may help a person “cope” with the harsh realities of life, it also serves to shrink our lives and our faith. This perspective is also called “fatalism” and it is indeed “fatal” to the human soul.

The other way to look at this phrase is from the point of trust. Behind the “It is what it is” is the Great “I AM WHO I AM” (which is the translation of God’s personal name, “Yahweh” or “Jehovah”; see Exodus 3:14). In other words, God is in control even though I am not. And this Yahweh (“I AM”) is not a god who is distant and indifferent. The Holy Scriptures go out of its way to describe God as the ultimate Person – therefore, ultimately personal – who, amazingly, can and does express deep concern and care for every creature and thing of creation (see Matt. 6:23-33).

In this case, “It is what it is,” means that things happen for a purpose, for a reason. Paul sums it up best when he writes, “For I know that in all things God works together for the good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Does this mean that I simply allow things to happen to me and not do anything about it? No! (or as Paul would say, “By no means!”). But it does mean that I do not let the circumstances (good or bad) get the better of me. Instead, I bring every situation before God. My struggle is not with the disappointing event or the unmet expectation, but with God. So as I bring each thing before God, I ask Him, “What do you want me to do with this? What are you trying to tell me?” And I wait. More often than not, God’s Spirit gives me a prompting as to how I should respond. Sometimes it is as simple as “Just let it go.” Sometimes it is more involved like, “I want you to do something about this.”

One time, while in vacationing in Chicago, Letty and I had to buy 3-day transportation passes because the rail station had run out of the single day passes (had to do with a silly Cubs game or something). At first I was pretty miffed about it (they cost twice as much). But I fought back the frustration and asked God, “Ok, what do you want me to do?” I sensed that I should purchase the three day passes. And God reminded me, “After all, it is My money, not yours, right?” Conviction…

As I reflected upon it further (it’s amazing how much time you have to think when you take the train into town), I also thought, “Maybe God wanted me to buy these passes so that someone else could be blessed?” It gave me a sense of peace knowing that the Great I AM was in control of the “it is what it is.” He obviously had a plan for what happened.

Letty and I had a great day taking public transportation throughout Chicago. That was the day we rented a tandem bike and rode around Lake Michigan. When we finished our day, we arrived back at the train station. There was a local man (I think he was homeless) who needed a transportation pass. Since we had already gone through the ticket counter, we didn’t need ours anymore. So we gave him our passes. I could imagine his surprise when he realized what we gave him was not a day-pass, but three-day passes!

It is what it is.

(Starting tomorrow, our Whole Life Worship Devotionals will focus the on the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry – “The Week That Changed the World.” I hope this will draw you closer and deeper in what it means to follow Jesus)

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I’m a musician by trade and profession and, even though my blog is called “Whole Life Worship,” I’ve not written much of anything about what most people believe is what worship is about: music. There’s a reason for this. It’s a reaction to how our contemporary Christian culture has made worship all about the music to the neglect of everything else that worship is; including the central focus of honoring God with our lives. It has gotten so crazily out of proportion that I believe God has called me to make this my life aim: to call the Body of Christ back to what worship really is – the offering of our lives to God in response to His great mercies (Romans 12:1). So my blogs will always be more about what we do with our lives than what we do with our vocal cords.

That being said, I also want to make one thing perfectly clear: I love music, I love songs, I love singing to God, I love making music to His name. And I believe, like Martin Luther and Johann Sebastian Bach, that music is indeed a “glorious gift from God.”

One aspect of God’s glorious gift of music is the power of the song. The “song” is a subset of music. A song combines words with pitch and rhythm to create a powerful expression of mind and heart. If a song does not have words, it is not a song. (I still cringe when I hear well-meaning band and orchestra directors introduce their group’s next musical selection as a “song.”)

Songs are especially powerful when they declare truth. The greatest songs that last through the test of time are the ones that express profound truth with music that appropriate matches it. Whether it is “Let It Be” or “Amazing Grace” or “Auld Lang Syne” or “Ode to Joy,” songs of truth resonate soulfully in our being. Sometimes such songs move us to tears because our souls so long to express truth with heartfelt intensity.

That is why songs that declare truth about God and sung to God or to God’s people are particularly impactful. God is the ultimate truth. The story of His love for us through Christ is the most compelling, moving story of all time. When that “truth-full” story of His love seeps into our hearts on a personal, experiential level, it brings mercy, healing, freedom, empowerment, grace, and a profound sense of right-ness and goodness into our souls. And many times, those experiences come through the power of song. I was so overwhelmed this morning when I worshiped God through a new song (“Sovereign”) and a new arrangement of a hymn (“Crown Him with Many Crowns – Majesty”). The greatness of God touched my heart through these songs.

But sometimes we take such songs and such moments and make them something they weren’t meant to be: a holy shrine, or worse, something that we subtly worship. I warn my worship team members occasionally to not “worship the worship (songs).” It’s so easy to do. We want to recapture the “magic” of when that song touched us profoundly; forgetting that it was God who touched us, and that He exists outside of the song.

So God has shown me two things recently about worship songs: 

  1. Focus on what the lyrics really mean. This means slowing down enough to take a “gaze”rather than just a glimpse at what I am singing about or to God.
  1. Let the songs propel me to greater responsiveness to God. I need to think, “Ok, now that I experienced God in this song, how do I need to respond in my actions today?” I need to be alert and prepared to respond to God in the next thing.

Both Letty and I had profound experiences this morning through worship songs. God met with us through the song, “Sovereign.” When we met for lunch at Subway (I live there now … literally!), Letty saw a homeless man. She asked me if I would feed him something. At first, I balked. But my heart was already softened by the graciousness of God. So, I got up, introduced myself to the man (his name is “Duck” – “Doug, meet Duck”), and asked if we could get him a sandwich. He was surprised and said, “You would do that for me?” I smiled. Another man saw this and, almost on cue, started a conversation with Duck. It was an amazing encounter: four strangers brought together in fellowship through the giving of a Subway Club sandwich. Or was it the Bread of Life? It was truly a “sovereign” experience … that began with a song.

You’re probably thinking, “You forgot a word, Doug. It’s ‘Thank God it’s Friday.” Actually, it’s intentional. I know the popular phrase (and the restaurant bearing that name). I want us to think of Friday, not as a benchmark that we made it through another work week, but as a day where we can recollect the ways God has blessed us. I want us to make Friday a day of thanksgiving, hence: It’s “Thank God Friday!”

Actually, giving thanks to God is something we should do all the time. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to give thanks in every circumstance. This, along with prayer and rejoicing in the Lord, is what God wills us to do. So we don’t need a special day to thank God; it should be part of what we do every day and many times during each day.

But Friday is a good time to “collect” our thanksgivings. Because it’s at the end of the work week, we can look back and remember the faithfulness of God for the entire week. I don’t know about you, but when I hit the weekend it’s like pushing the “reset” button on my mind – I forget what I did during the week because I’m engaged in the weekend. So Friday is as good a time as any to remember the good things God has done.

So grab a paper and a pen and start jotting down the ways God has blessed you this week. If you’re having a hard time thinking of things – don’t fret! Maybe some of the following things will jog your memory:

  1. Did God bring someone new to you this past week? Did you deepen a relationship? Is there someone you are really thankful for?
  1. Did God give you strength to accomplish difficult tasks this week? Was there a time when you saw “fruitfulness” in your work? Did someone affirm or encourage you for something you did?
  1. Did God give you a prompting that you followed up on? Did He speak to your heart about something? Did He draw you closely to Himself through prayer or personal worship?
  1. Did God teach you something new this week? Did He speak to you through Scripture, a Christian author? Did you apply some new spiritual insight? Did following a Biblical principal this week protect you or bless you or bless someone else?
  1. Did God give you opportunities to serve and love others this week? Did you sense the joy of serving? Did you get to use your spiritual gift or special ability to bless another person or make a situation better?
  1. Did God give you a pleasant memory this week? An unexpected blessing? An email encouragement? A blog that really spoke to you? (Ok, I confess I’m guilty of manipulation!) Something that lifted your spirit when you felt down?
  1. Did God teach you something through a trial? Are you finding grace in unexpected places through a hardship? Is your soul expanding toward God and others because of difficulties you’ve endured?
  1. Is there something you normally take for granted that you realize now is a great blessing? (like breathing, eating, taking a hot shower, driving a car) Did you notice something in everyday life that is amazing (like watching a hummingbird gather nectar from a flower)?

Now that you have a list of things you are thankful for, I want you to do something with it:

Bring it with you when you go to worship with your church – and get there a little early. Before the service starts, take out your little “Thank God Friday” list and use it to give God an intentional, well-thought out sacrifice of thanksgiving. And see if that doesn’t “jump start” your worship of God!

Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him and praise His name. (Psalm 100:4)

Don’t just “Thank God it’s Friday”; but make today a “Thank God Friday”!

Last night I woke up at 3am in a panic. Something just gripped my mind and heart as I was filled with anxiety. A small, still Voice told me, “Just breathe … and pray.” So I took deep breaths. I tried praying the Jesus prayer, but it was too long. All that could come out was, “Jesus, have mercy on this sinner.” So each breath I prayed, “Jesus, have mercy on this sinner” over and over and over again. Sure enough, God showed mercy on this sinner. The anxiety lifted, perspective was granted, and peace came.

I was reminded of the power of the “Breath Prayer.” The breath prayer is a short prayer (a few words long) that fits in the moment of a breath. In some ways, breath prayer is one of the ways we can seek to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:18) as breathing is something we do all the time. You can pray it aloud or in your mind. Breath prayer is the quickest and most effective discipline to get me back “in touch” with God. It is also the most rhythmic and portable spiritual practice. It aligns with the tempo of physical inhalation and exhalation. And you can pray a breath prayer anytime, anywhere.

Depending on the situation, the breath prayer can be a desperate and immediate cry for help (like my 3am attack) or it can be a long-range desire or petition. One of my long-term breath prayers is “Lord, help me to love as You do,” as God helped me to realize my deficiency in my life (and, interestingly enough, also my deepest desire). Or if someone you know has a great need, you can do powerful intercession through a breath prayer (“Lord, grant grace to _______” or “Draw ________ with Your love” or “Give _______ wisdom”).

The power in the breath prayer is repetition. You pray it over and over and over again. You can pray a breath prayer 20 times a minute. You can engage in this prayer several times a day. You can pray it in your car or waiting in the checkout line at the store. Like the relentless prayer of the widow in Luke 18:1-3, breath prayer is a way to keep knocking on the door until something happens.

Many authors have written great stuff about the power of breath prayer. Richard Foster (“Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home”) mentions a dual-breath prayer that utilizes the power of inhalation (“Fill me, Holy Spirit”) and exhalation (“I empty _____ from my soul”). Ruth Haley Barton (“Sacred Rhythms”) advocates finding a breath prayer that captures your deepest desires and longings as revealed by the Holy Spirit. She describes this as a “gut prayer” because it is a prayer that requires little thought, but deep soulfulness.

Most of all, you don’t have to be a spiritual giant or a theological scholar to pray a breath prayer. It’s a prayer that anyone can pray at anytime. It is a prayer that God hears, certainly. Like the power of water in erosion, persistent breath prayers can dramatically change the contour of situations, hearts, and societies.

But even more important, God uses breath prayer to shape our hearts and souls. It refines our motives, desires and petitions. It helps us to practice perseverance. It brings us to the throne of God at times that we normally might not even think about God – during our everyday ordinary daytime hours or in the wee hours of the night. As the name of God is on our breath, His presence comes into our thoughts and His peace enters our hearts. Breath prayer postures us to constantly offer our lives and our desires to God. Breath prayer aligns us for Whole Life Worship.

Many Christians think that worship of God is something we have to “make happen.” Whether it is corporate worship or personal worship time, it’s so easy to believe that we or someone (like the Pastor or Worship Leader) has to “get the ball rolling.” And while it’s true that worship requires effort on our part, it’s dangerous to think that we are the ones who initiate it.

First, it’s unbiblical. True worship is always a response to the greatness of God. Worship is the second act. The revelation of God (who He is and what He does) is always the first act.

Romans 12:1, Paul’s definition of worship says:

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercies, offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to the Lord. This is your spiritual act of worship.”

Notice that Paul does not begin with our action (of offering our bodies as a living sacrifice). Rather, the act of worship is in response of what we see God doing: “in view of God’s mercies.” When we see God’s mercies, we then respond. So when the Lord does something good for us, we respond with thanksgiving and gratitude. When the Lord reveals His beauty, majesty and goodness, we respond with praise. When the Lord demonstrates the extent of his sacrifice upon the cross to save us from sin and death, we respond with offering of our lives to His service.

Second, if we think worship was something we initiate, we could easily have expectations that God should respond to us. That’s how the prophets of Baal acted in 1 Kings 18. They thought that if they initiated passionate worship (by dancing, screaming, even cutting themselves), Baal would just have to respond to them. Or course, Baal didn’t respond – mainly because he is not God. But, in my opinion, it is wrong to use worship as a way of getting God to do something for us. That’s manipulation and any God worthy enough to be worshiped would see through that.

And yet it is so easy to fall into that trap! How many times have we used our acts of devotion and worship because we think we can appease Him to do something good for us? If He could only see how spiritual we are, how devoted we are, maybe He will be merciful and gracious to us…

The fact is: He’s already merciful and gracious to us. And He will forever be merciful and gracious to us! Alleluia! Amen!

And that’s the point: Often, the problem with our worship is that we don’t view God’s mercies; we don’t see all the ways He is gracious and merciful to us. God is gracious, but we are unaware. That’s why our worship seems forced or contrived at times. We try to praise Him or thank Him or give our lives to Him, but there’s nothing happening in our souls or minds. It’s not because we don’t believe God is praiseworthy or worthy of worship; of course, we know that. But we have difficulty in centering our hearts and minds on why He is praiseworthy. We have difficulty in specifically seeing and understanding and naming the mercies of God. It escapes us. It eludes us. And, as a result, our worship of God suffers in authenticity and passion.

If we are unaware of the extent of God’s greatness in His character, in His love, and in His deeds, how can we worship Him? And if we cannot worship Him, how can we authentically offer Him our lives and be transformed? Viewing the mercies of God is the cornerstone of Whole Life Worship.

Let me end this with a prayer:

Lord, have mercy on me. I know You are great, loving, powerful, and wise. I know that You have done wonderful things for me, both in the past and in the present. But I have a hard time realizing this in my heart and mind. My heart is hard and my mind is dull. Please reveal Your great mercies to me in a way that I can grasp, revel in, and worship You wholeheartedly in response. I ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

In Mark 9:30-37 we see a very subtle but powerful vignette about Jesus and his disciples. It is an object lesson on intimacy and transparency. Jesus, now knowing full well that his path will lead him to a brutal and humiliating death but with the promise of resurrection, pulls his disciples away to a secret place; a place that with no distractions (he did not want anyone else to know where they were). This invitation to intimacy was not just for rest and recalibration, Jesus wanted his disciples to know something very important.

In this intimate setting, Jesus reveals – for the second time – that he would be delivered into the hands of people who would kill him. But after three days, he will rise. Again, as in the previous case with Simon Peter, the disciples were thoroughly confused. However, the interesting point is that they were afraid to ask him about it. Although Jesus was thoroughly transparent with his disciples about what was to come of him, his disciples did not reciprocate. They hid their fears and questions.

Perhaps they were afraid of how Jesus would answer them. Perhaps they were in denial that such a thing could happen to Jesus. Perhaps such news threatened their new found, idyllic existence where Jesus was popular, powerful, and they were on the ground floor of this great thing. Like the rest of us, the disciples didn’t want to face any bad news.

This was further precipitated a little while later when Jesus confronted them about an argument they had with each other on the road back to Capernaum. They had been arguing who was the greatest among them. But rather than being transparent and honest to Jesus, they kept silent. Maybe they were embarrassed at the levels of pride they had elevated themselves to. Maybe they were afraid of the answer Jesus might give them (that there was a greatest among them). But for whatever reason, they closed themselves off to Jesus.

We long for intimacy with God. We want God to reveal truths, insights, and knowledge of his will to us. We long to be loved by God. We long to see His awesome glory. But intimacy is a two-way street. As Jesus reveals himself to us, we need to reveal ourselves to him. It involves transparency on our part.

If there is something we face that we don’t understand, we need to ask him about it. If he confronts something within our lives, we need to be open about it. Because of Christ, we no longer have to hide our shame and incompleteness with fig leaves.

So how is your transparency and honesty before Jesus? Do you give Him permission to turn over some rocks in your life? Do you give access to those secret hall closets that have some skeletons from way back when? Do you really believe that His love for you is complete and safe, so that you can open these deep things to Him?

Honesty is the portal to intimacy. And intimacy with Jesus is the first step towards transformation.

God-in-a-Box

Worship is a response to the goodness and greatness of God. The problem is that most of the time we are unaware of how good and great God is. The way we overcome this is by improving our “view” of God. I touched on expanding our perception of God in the breadth of His character and the depth of His love. Today, I want to talk about the dimension of “height.” We need to grasp how “high” God is, how He is so far beyond what we can think or even imagine.

It’s easy to put God into a “box.” In fact, it’s so easy we do it without thinking. Whenever we get a little too familiar or cozy with God, we are doing it. Whenever we think we know how God operates or what He’s going to do, we’ve already done it. Whenever our worship of Him becomes routine or stale, it’s likely that we’ve contained “God” (meaning: our concept of God) in a box.

The second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:4) was to not to create an idol or an image of anything in heaven (including God). There are multiple reasons for this commandment, but I think one of the main reasons was to keep us from worshiping something less than Him. Making an image of Him or His context is like putting “God in a box.” Something in a box or fashioned in a man-made image can be measured, calculated, manipulated and controlled. And it is in our sinful human nature to do that to God.

Good thing for us, God is so much bigger than anything any box we try put Him in! (And He’s really good at shattering these boxes.) But it’s important to know how we tend to put God in a box. I see two main boxes God gets shoved into:

  1. Theology – theology is a big word that basically means “what we think about God.” So don’t let the word scare you: everyone who thinks about God has a theology. Usually, our theology is based on what we interpret from the Bible. However, there are a lot of other factors (more than we care to admit) that influence our theology, such as: our cultural values, our political ideals, socio-economic biases, personality, etc. Sometimes our theology puts God in a box: like “God doesn’t do this or that,” or “God always does something in a certain way,” or that God is limited or “bound” by certain things.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love theology. And, to a certain extent, we need theology. It helps us organize our thoughts and understandings about God. BUT, it’s important to know that all theology is limited. It is a “box” that puts labels and qualities on God. It is not God and I’ve seen God blow away my theology many a time. However, way too many Christians hold onto their theology too tightly, and their rigidity blinds them to the fact that God is “beyond comprehension.” More importantly, rigid theology keeps people from seeing the amazing greatness of God, and therefore, from true worship.

  1. Expectations – we have many expectations of how God responds to us. For example, if we become unemployed, we pray for God to provide for our needs. Now God may use many different ways to meet our needs, but we all have expectations on how this will happen. We may expect God to give us a job that pays more, that has better hours, that is located a mile from our house, that will be rewarding and fun, and that will pop up in less than a week’s time. Our expectations are usually nice, linear paths, with no bumps or hassles. But God might have a different idea of what your journey to provision will be. Like our theology, if we hold onto our expectations too tightly we may miss the opportunities God gives that will – not only meet our needs – but transform our character and the world around us.

Seeing the “height” of God’s ways comes only when we have a light hold on our theology and expectations. As the LORD says in Isaiah 55:9:

As high as the heavens are higher the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.

Thank God that He is so much bigger than the boxes we put him in! Sometimes we need to let Him blow our mind and give us a larger vision of who He really is.

It was the vision of the “height” of God’s surpassing greatness that caused the Apostle Paul to pen these words:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?

Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?”

For from him and through him and for him are all things.

To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)

How big is your God? The bigger your God, the greater your Whole Life Worship.