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Monday, June 27, 2016

Song thoughts: "Friend of God"



I am a friend of God!
I am a friend of God!
I am a friend of God! He calls me "friend"!
-lyrics to Friend of God by Michael Gungor & Israel Houghton
When this song was new to most people, a worship leader friend of mine told me something that surprised me. It seemed that she was getting pushback from members of the congregation who didn't like the almost chummy way the phrase "friend of God" feels. Presumably they felt that God was their Lord, their King, their Father... but never just their plain old "friend."

The problem is that the Bible itself says otherwise. The inspiration for the song was James 2:23, which says "...and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God."

"But that's Abraham," you might say. "He's a special case. He's like THE father of faith!" Well, I would disagree with you that Abraham is a special case, but let's talk about a group of people who essentially started the body we now call the Church. Jesus' twelve disciples are the "us" in the Gospels. They were just people who loved Jesus, like us, and Jesus said to them, "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you." (John 15:15)

Guess what? In those very same Gospels, Jesus revealed to us that same information that qualified His first 12 disciples as "friends." God called Abraham his "friend" and He called His disciples "friends"... and He calls you His "friend" too!

Who am I that You are mindful of me, that You hear me when I call?
Is it true that You are thinking of me, how You love me? It's amazing!

I am a friend of God!
I am a friend of God!
I am a friend of God! He calls me "friend"!

God Almighty, Lord of Glory, You have called me friend!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

I Can Do It!

Despite clear evidence in the Word of God to the contrary, we Christians seem to think that we need to do a bunch of good stuff to be right with God. How much clearer can it be than Romans 5:1: "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ"? It's almost a no-brainer! And there's no Christian that will try to tell a nonbeliever that they have to "clean up their act" to become a Christian.

And yet somehow there is this idea in the back of our minds that we are not doing what we are supposed to be doing so that we and God will be on good terms. I'm not just talking about sin, either. Am I supposed to be on the mission field but I'm not? GUILT. Was the Holy Spirit telling me to give that panhandler five dollars bu I didn't? GUILT. Did I stay home from Sunday School last weekend? GUILT GUILT GUILT!

Those are not things that come between you and God... not unless you let them. If you do something that you know or think wasn't right, and then you hide from God like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, well then yes, your actions have come between you and God. But it's not really your actions that are the problem; it's your refusal to be with God because you think they did! You might not have even done anything wrong - maybe the Holy Spirit wasn't instructing you to do this or that thing. In that case, all that is coming between you and God is your own ignorance.

But let's talk about sin for a second. As a Christian, does sin come between you and God? Well, that's up for debate on one level - I am of the school of thought that says that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all of our sin, past and future, once and for all when we make Jesus our Lord. Others feel otherwise. But if we are eternally secure in Him, then that means that not even blatant sin is a barrier between us and God. (Lack of repentance is, though, so repent for crying out loud!)

Now, the flip side of this whole discussion is that you cannot do anything that will get you closer to God in any way that is meaningful to Him. You can do actions that help you to focus better on Him, so you might feel closer, but it's not because you are more righteous in any way. Again, the blood of Jesus instantly provided you and me with all of the righteousness that will ever be available to or needed by any of us. Your good works are not currency with God.

I have a family member who used to own a restaurant. The first time I went there to eat, I placed my order with him and then pulled out my wallet. "Your money's no good here," he told me. It's not that I didn't have any money, and it's not that the money itself had no value - it's just that the meal was not for sale. It was a free gift.

So, why do we get the idea that anything we do has any relevance to the way God sees us? I have some thoughts about that, but they'll have to wait for next time. Stay tuned!



Monday, June 20, 2016

Song thoughts: "Fierce"



Like a tidal wave crashing over me, rushing in to meet me here,
Your love is fierce!
Like a hurricane that I can't escape, tearing through the atmosphere,
Your love is fierce!
- Jesus Culture
"This phrase, 'Yet once more,' indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire."
- Hebrews 12:27–29 ESV
The first time I heard the song Fierce, I instantly thought of friends back home. I'm from Louisiana, where hurricanes and tidal waves aren't things that happen to people "somewhere else." I was living in Tulsa when Katrina hit, but I have family and friends who have been personally effected by Katrina and by other hurricanes over the years. My first thought when I first heard the chorus of this song was not, "That's a beautiful expression of how strong God's love is for us!" My first thought was, "This is a song that will really upset people who have been through an actual hurricane!"

It seems strange to describe the love of God as a destructive force - we usually think of love as something that does good things, not destructive things. But according to the Word, God's very presence does indeed contain destructive power. Which frankly seems a little scary!

The key fact here is this: the thing that is destroyed by God's presence is impurity. Sin. Fortunately for us, because Jesus decoupled us from our sinfulness on the Cross, our sinful actions do not cause us to be destroyed. Any sin in the area when God arrives is destroyed, but His people are not.

If we cannot be destroyed by the nature of God's love, but our sin can be destroyed by it, then that means that anything that tries to stand between us and God cannot stand! There is nothing that can withstand the force of a tsunami or a hurricane, and there is nothing that can withstand the force of God's love. It breaks down every barrier! God's love is on the way in a hurry, and there is no escape! (But why would we want to?)

Before I call, before I ever cry, You answer me from where the thunder hides.
I can't outrun this heart I'm tethered to, when every step, I collide with You!

Like a tidal wave crashing over me, rushing in to meet me here,
Your love is fierce!
Like a hurricane that I can't escape, tearing through the atmosphere,
Your love is fierce!

You cannot fail! The only thing I've found is, through it all, You never let me down.
You don't hold back, relentless in pursuit. At every turn I come face to face with You!

You chase me down!
You seek me out!
How could I be lost when You have called me found?

Friday, June 17, 2016

Attitude

I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.

Philippians 3:8–14

Lately I've been thinking about my life. I have a 16-year-old son, and I work in a university environment around college students. Those people essentially have their whole lives ahead of them, nothing but open doors. But now that I'm well into my 40s, there are certain doors that are forever closed for me. I will never, for example, be an NFL linebacker. Not that there was ever any chance of that happening, of course! But at this point my age alone means I am forever excluded from that club. Additionally, I'm not going to ever be a member of anybody's boy's choir. By law I cannot enlist in the military. And I will not be winning any gold medals in the Olympics.

Okay, so maybe most of that is pretty silly stuff, and those aren't really things I aspired to anyway. But looking back, there are things I wish I had accomplished at certain times of my life that I just never got around to. Some of them, maybe I'll never get the chance to again. Some of them are things I thought I was called by God to do. What do you do when you feel you had a call on your life, you had the opportunity to fill it, and you failed to complete something that may have been God's plan for you? (You don't have to be in your 40s to feel that way, by the way.)

Once upon a time, Paul (then called Saul) was pretty confident that he was smack in the middle of God's will for him. In some ways, maybe he was; although later he was persecuting Christians, before that he had completed a thorough religious education, and was an expert at all things Jewish. Even later as a Christian, he seems to have been quite proud of those accomplishments. Paul didn't have my problem: he had completed the things he wanted to do with his life.

But in the passage above, Paul tells us that as far as he is concerned, all of that is worthless garbage. He threw it all away and set a new goal for himself: to get to truly know Jesus; to know Him so well that he could experience what Jesus experienced through His death and resurrection. He had obtained his goals, but now he had a different goal: to fully experience the life provided by Jesus! So Paul decided to completely turn his back on his past, treat it like it had never existed, and run as hard as he could toward something much more important.

Now. If Paul can treat his successes like that, doesn't it stand to reason that I can treat my failures like that? If Paul can say "All of that stuff in the past is in the past. What is in the present is Jesus!" then can't I say the same thing? It doesn't matter whether you or I were valedictorian or grade-school drop-out... millionaire or on welfare... lifelong Christian or got saved five minutes ago. Our successes are in the past, and our failures are in the past. What matters now is that there is a greater prize to reach for! There is a more important race to run. Let's head that way starting right now, shall we?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Song thoughts: "Joy of the Lord"



When I cannot see You with my eyes, let faith arise to You.
When I cannot feel Your hand in mine, let faith arise to You.
God of mercy and love, I will praise You, Lord!
-Rend Collective
"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." - Hebrews 11:10 ESV
I think the word "faith" tends to be misunderstood more often than it is understood. That's probably because in the English language, we use it to mean a bunch of different things. There is your "Faith" which basically means your set of religious beliefs. The phrase "keep the faith" is often used to mean "keep doing what you're doing because it's the right thing to do." And of course, in some circles "faith" is seen as a tool to get things to happen - almost like a currency that is spent to purchase something.

I think Bible faith is something else entirely. Bible "faith" is simply you and me trusting that God is Who He says He is, and that because He has said so in the Word, He will act on our behalf. Faith is not a means to an end, like repeating something over and over in order to memorize it. Faith is a lifestyle of trust toward God - whether God ever does what you think He should do or not. Sometimes God's best looks like a Bad Idea to the person it is happening to... just ask Job, or Abraham, or Moses, or any other Bible character who jumped the gun on God's plan. Faith is trusting God anyway.

So as the song says, sometimes we don't understand what's going on. We think we know a good plan, but for some reason God doesn't seem to be doing things that way. In fact, things may seem bleak to us. There may be tears, there may be anxiety. But faith says, "I don't know what's going on, but I do know that God loves me, and I'm going to praise Him!" It's a choice that we have to make - it doesn't usually just wash over you. But when you make it, it's the right choice! It's the path to joy!
Though tears may fall, my song will rise, my song will rise to You.
Though my heart may fail, my song will rise, my song will rise to You.
While there’s breath in my lungs, I will praise You, Lord!
In the dead of night I’ll lift my eyes, I’ll lift my eyes to You.
When the waters rise, I’ll lift my eyes, I’ll lift my eyes to You.
While there’s hope in this heart, I will praise You, Lord!

The joy of the Lord is my strength!
The joy of the Lord is my strength!
In the darkness I’ll dance, in the shadows I’ll sing!
The joy of the Lord is my strength!

When I cannot see You with my eyes, let faith arise to You.
When I cannot feel Your hand in mine, let faith arise to You.
God of mercy and love, I will praise You, Lord! 
Oh, You shine with glory, Lord of light! I feel alive with You!
In Your presence now I come alive! I am alive with You!
There is strength when I say, "I will praise You, Lord!"

When sorrow comes my way, You are the shield around me;
Always You remain, like courage in the fight.
I hear You call my name!
Jesus, I am coming, walking on the waves, reaching for Your light!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Song thoughts: "Your Love Awakens Me"

I'm writing up a series of short devotionals for the worship team at my church, based on the songs we do during the service, and I thought it would be cool to share them here too. Here's the first one!



“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:4-5 ESV
I love how this song uses the images of death/darkness interchangeably, and life/light interchangeably. In our culture when we think of light, we tend to think of knowledge – which is a totally valid way of looking at it, and when Jesus brings “light” to our lives by saving us, spiritual understanding is certainly a part of it. But to ancient peoples, light was synonymous with life itself. With no sunshine, your crops will die, and eventually so will you. The light that Jesus brings is more than a source of knowing stuff about God… it is a source of life itself!

I also love the way the first verse uses words that relate to being imprisoned, but then in the pre-chorus we realize that the prison we were released from was actually death! How vivid is that idea of being in a cold, dark, deathly prison – but then suddenly God bursts in, kicking down walls and tearing off chains, and leading us into bright sunshine and light!

Did you notice that the first verse and pre-chorus are in past tense – things Jesus has done – and the chorus and second verse are in present tense? God did something for humanity on the Cross, and the effects continue to be felt and to cause things to happen. None of us is perfect – there are things in each of our lives that still haven’t found their way into the light of God’s life. Jesus continues to draw us out, wake us up, bring those parts of us back to life! Everything in creation sings “We’re alive ‘cause You’re alive!”, and we shout it out too!
There were walls between us,
By the cross you came and broke them down – You broke them down!
There were chains around us,
By Your grace we are no longer bound, no longer bound!
You called me out from the grave, You called me into the light!
You called my name and then my heart came alive!
Your love is greater!
Your love is stronger!
Your love awakens, awakens, awakens me!
Feel the darkness shaking!
All the dead are coming back to life, oh, back to life!
Hear the song awaken, 
All creation singing “We’re alive ‘cause You’re alive!”
You called me out from the grave, You called me into the light!
You called my name and then my heart came alive!
Your love is greater!
Your love is stronger!
Your love awakens, awakens, awakens me!
What a love we found!
Death can’t hold us down!
We shout it out, “We’re alive ‘cause You’re alive!”
Your love is greater!
Your love is stronger!
Your love awakens, awakens, awakens me!


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Reasons

Bless the Lord, oh my soul - oh my soul
Worship His Holy name
Sing like never before, oh my soul
I'll worship Your Holy name
Two years ago today, my phone rang. It was my mom, and she said to me, "Your daddy died."

Instinctively I clicked into "do what needs to be done" mode, and I said into the phone, "I'll be right over." But then it sank in what she had said, and in a voice that even as it came out of my mouth sounded to me like the voice of a little kid, I squeaked, "He died?"

Yes he had. He and my mom had had a nice evening together, talked and enjoyed each other's company, and then they went to sleep. My dad woke up with Jesus.

At his memorial service, my wife and I sang "10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)" for the crowd. I had sung it at a men's breakfast a month or two earlier and Dad had been present, and I wanted to share with the crowd the last song he had heard me sing. Apparently our performance was memorable, at least for our family; several of them have told me since that they can't hear the song without thinking of that day. It bothers me that I've turned this beautiful, meaningful song into something painful for all of us — something that reminds us of the pain of Dad's death instead of what I intended. I wanted to take this opportunity to explain why I thought the song was an appropriate memorial, and hopefully in the process, re-frame it a bit for the family. Maybe even bring a bit of healing.
The sun comes up; it's a new day dawning.
It's time to sing Your song again.
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me,
Let me be singing when the evening comes.
I had heard it before, but I first fell in love with this song when I heard a delicate, intimate acoustic version recorded by Rend Collective. At the time my son was in junior high school, and I was driving him to school every day. The school is on the east side of town, so often we were driving straight into a beautiful sunrise. One morning he and I listened to this song on the way; it's quite a great way to focus on Jesus first thing.

I think it's important to understand that worship is not a melody and lyrics. Worship is something that is inside your heart. It's your attitude of adoration and thankfulness to God that is the real worship. Sure, making music is a great way to express your worship, but you can also express your worship through prayer, or showing love to someone who needs it, or just through choosing to live your life in the way you know in your heart pleases God. You can't literally sing all day, any more than you can literally "pray without ceasing". "Singing" in the context of this song is on one level referring to making actual music, but on another level it is a metaphor for living your life for Christ.
You're rich in love, and You're slow to anger;
Your name is great, and Your heart is kind.
For all Your goodness I will keep on singing —
Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find.
My dad was a good man. But he wasn't a perfect man. In the two years since he passed I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about him and his life; in sorting out some of his stuff my brother and I learned details about him that we never knew. I think there were things on his heart to do with his life that he simply never got around to doing. But the one thing that he did do, all the time and every day, was believe that God is good, and had good things in mind for him and for his family. He had frustrations and things that upset him and setbacks and I know he had plenty of times when he felt pretty unhappy, but through my whole childhood he never gave up on God. He took us to church, we had Bibles and books about God around the house, we listened to Christian music. Despite what sometimes looked like evidence to the contrary, Dad never gave up believing that God loved him... loved us... and that it was worth it, living for Jesus. My dad could sing a bit, but he didn't much; his worship was lived out every day.
And on that day when my strength is failing,
The end draws near and my time has come,
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending...
Ten thousand years and then forevermore.
Forevermore!
My dad was still worshiping with his life up until the night he moved away from Earth in favor of a much better location. The night before he went to be with Jesus was spent loving his wife, whom he had stuck with through thick and thin in 45 years of marriage. He was still going to church, taking classes about the Bible, and seeking God's will for his life. What I love about this song is that it starts at sunrise and goes to sunset — from beginning of life to end of life — and communicates a very simple message: God is wonderful, and it's worth it to spend your whole life, "everything you have" so to speak, in order to gain His kingdom.

One day, unless Jesus comes back first, it will be my turn to leave this world and enter Heaven. When that happens, I hope that I've followed my dad's example of seeking after Jesus every day of my life on Earth. It's a goal worth following. I hope my family members, when they read this, will be able to see this song in a new light. The song is about you and me and our response to God. I don't want this song to be about our sorrow that Dad was gone. But I think it's okay if we think of him when we hear this song, because I think his life illustrates what this song is reminding us to do. He made mistakes, but he "sang" with his actions a song of worship to God from sunrise to his final sunset. I hope that from now on, hearing this song will inspire us to try as hard as my dad did to live a life that is pleasing to the Lord.
Bless the Lord, oh my soul - oh my soul
Worship His Holy name
Sing like never before, oh my soul
I'll worship Your Holy name!
I'll worship Your Holy name!
I'll worship Your Holy name!