Tuesday, August 25, 2009

This is Life

I thought I’d handle dropping my son off at college with aplomb, ready to pass the baton on to his Christian college professors and mentors, relieved that he’d made it. I was sure that I’d sail on into the sunset--perhaps with a tinge of sadness when we said goodbye--but then energetic to move on to the next phase. Instead, what I’m feeling these first days and nights home without him is something like death.

I had no idea that the sight of the front porch as we pulled into the drive—the porch where my son and I spent many hours together over the years talking—would send the tears flowing. Then there was the first walk past the open door of his bedroom…more tears. The movie reel of 18 years of memories runs in my head and there is nothing I can do to stop it. I think to myself, “I want life to feel good again, with the surety, strength and stability that we’ve experienced for the last several years. Life was in a great groove, and more than anything, I want that again!” My younger son is feeling the same way. He misses his brother terribly, and that is hard to see.

But I know that as good and wonderful and spectacular as each and every day can be, situations change. Toddlers grow up. People die. Living arrangements transform. And as confident as I am that God walks with me and blesses me in the good times, I need to be just as confident that God walks with me and blesses me in the sad times. As much as He carries the warm, fuzzy and stable moments in His hand, He carries the turbulence, sorrow and melancholy. As much as He imparts Hope for the future, He imparts comfort for when we miss the days gone by.

“This is life,” I keep telling myself. Yet as my nostalgia works its way out through tears, it pales in comparison to what my friend on the other side of town is going through. In the last two weeks, her mother underwent breast cancer surgery and her brother died of cancer. The 73-year old mother, while recovering from her surgery, had to say goodbye to her own 47-year old son. And my friend had to be there for both of them. Saved Christians all, feeling the pain nevertheless.

This is life. We can’t orchestrate all parts of it or dictate how to run time. We often can’t even prepare for events that we know are coming and have known are coming for most of our lives: like our children leaving and our parents dying and our bodies aging. Even though we can see it in the distance, we can’t know pain until we are in it.

Yes, this is life as God allows it. We’re tempted to ask Him, “Why?” and “How could You?” and to just come right out and say “Nobody in their right mind would design things this way!” And I imagine no human ever would. So thank God that God is God. When all is right with the world, thank Him. And when all is not right with the world, thank Him all the same: for His Holy Spirit Counselor, His Word that meets every season, His Son who wipes away our tears now and forever in Heaven, and His Sovereignty. Though our circumstances change, God doesn’t. Though our hearts break, His promises to us never do.

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” Psalm 43:5

“God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” Psalm 46:1-2

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Is There Hope for the American Marriage?

I picked up a July 2 copy of Time Magazine in the hair salon today, and was surprised to find an excellent—no actually quite remarkable—article on the state of marriage titled, "Is There Hope for the American Marriage?" Exceedingly well-written by Caitlin Flanagan, who doesn’t mince words, the article can be found here: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1908243-1,00.html

Here is a reporter who is more concerned, finally, with the facts regarding the state of marriage than with the wishful thinking that is often promulgated. In short, marriage, whose reason for being, in Flanagan’s words, is “to raise the next generation, to protect and teach it, to instill in it the habits of conduct and character that will ensure the generation's own safe passage into adulthood” is, for many, morphing out of that intended state. Instead, it is at risk of becoming nothing more than a self-serving institution that implodes when mommy or daddy simply are no longer happy. So the parents split up and think, since they themselves are now happy, their kids must be too. How many of us have heard people talk themselves into the lie that “the kids are happier now that we’re separated.” Right. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the research and facts do not bear that out. On the whole, kids of divorced parents are not happy and do not function as well as they would in a non-divorced home. (I am not talking about cases of physical and emotional abuse: nobody need stay in a relationship that is dangerous to themselves or the children.)

“There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage. It hurts children, it reduces mothers' financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation's underclass,” writes Flanagan.

She goes on to say how “few things hamper a child as much as not having a father at home.” This is something Barack Obama concurs with when he says, "We need fathers to step up, to realize that their job does not end at conception; that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one."

But this is the winning quote from the article: ‘"As a feminist, I didn't want to believe it," says Maria Kefalas, a sociologist who studies marriage and family issues and co-authored a seminal book on low-income mothers called Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. "Women always tell me, 'I can be a mother and a father to a child,' but it's not true." Growing up without a father has a deep psychological effect on a child. "The mom may not need that man," Kefalas says, "but her children still do."’

Of course they do, and this backs up and supports God’s design: families begin with marriage and then stay that way. But many people think they can ignore God’s design, go their own way and actually make it work. But they are often living in denial.

‘"There's a 'sleeper effect' to divorce that we are just beginning to understand," says David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values. It is an effect that pioneering scholars like McLanahan and Judith Wallerstein have devoted their careers to studying, revealing truths that many of us may find uncomfortable. It's dismissive of the human experience, says Blankenhorn, to suggest that kids don't suffer, extraordinarily, from divorce: "Children have a primal need to know who they are, to love and be loved by the two people whose physical union brought them here. To lose that connection, that sense of identity, is to experience a wound that no child-support check or fancy school can ever heal."

Of course, there is only one way to heal from anything, and that is through Jesus Christ. Although the article doesn’t get into faith, I can unequivocally say here that kids of divorce can always find a connection--the most important connection ever-- along with a sense of identity, through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

So why the mess in so many marriages and why so much divorce?

Flanagan, in very few words, pretty much hits the nail on the head.

“We recognize that it (marriage) is something of great worth, but we are increasingly less willing to put in the hard work and personal sacrifice to get there.” Yes indeed. Self-centeredness rules the day. And until that pride is dealt with, families that could thrive will wilt, and children that could themselves be learning about other-centeredness are at risk of repeating the “me” patterns of mom and dad.

As Flanagan says, “What we teach about the true meaning of marriage will determine a great deal about our fate.”

"Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. 'I hate divorce,' says the Lord God of Israel,...so guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith." Malachi 2:15-16

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Music in Worship

Sooner or later we need to admit that, for many churches, the music used in church is not the non-essential or secondary element that everybody pretends it to be. In actual practice, music, for more and more churches, is often thee focus and center of the church service. And contemporary Christian music is what Dan Lucarini talks about in this article titled: "Ex-Worship Leader: Why I Left the CCM Movement" written by Lillian Kwon of the Christian Post. Read it in its entirety at

You’ll find a lot of excellent points to test against Scripture and on which to seek the Lord.

I like this article because, through my experience and that of my son who, for a short time, played electric guitar in a praise band, I’ve come to many of the same conclusions that Lucarini has.

I’ve attended all kinds of churches that used all kinds of music. Growing up as a non-Christian in a liberal church, I sat respectfully and listened to the choir. The hymns the congregation sang out of the hymnals were sung with about as much enthusiasm as a trip to the dentist, and I often wondered why we didn’t just let the choir sing and leave it at that. You could almost hear the relief in the air every time the congregation was allowed to slide the hymnals back into their slots in the pew. I went on to attend similar liberal churches that followed the exact same format.

The church in which I first heard the Gospel offered both a traditional and contemporary service. We attended the contemporary service more out of convenience than anything: it was later in the morning enabling us to be on time with our two small children. I didn’t really care about the music, since it was Jesus I was seeking.

Our next church offered four different worship services with varying types of music. We again selected the contemporary service because it began at 10:45 a.m. This service had a regular worship band that played contemporary Christian music with pretty much the same people playing each week, along with a worship leader who also was the lead singer each Sunday. It was loud and full of guitars, amps and electrified instruments. I’ll wait until the end of this post to say what kind of service my family and I currently attend.

Now, I’ll say right up front that I love and respect many Christian rock bands out there and listen to them in my free time (Specifically Newsboys and Third Day, whose walk lines up with their talk). I always say that I can listen to Christian rock all week long, so I don’t need to hear it in church. And the reasons I don’t need to hear it in church are the same reasons that Lucarini describes in the article.

First of all, with any kind of performance, be it a soloist, choir, worship band, etc. there is always the opportunity and risk for ego to rear its ugly head. However, that being said, I never saw or heard about ego in a choir, or with a soloist who appears infrequently. It seems a choir is protected by the fact that it’s more of a team effort--a level playing field. Choir members all seem to realize that every voice is an equal contributor (not to mention they're all wearing the same choir robe).

But there’s something, just something that tends to snap in the ego department when electric guitars, drums, lead singers, a stage and lighting are introduced...It sure starts to look a bit like show business, doesn’t it? Before you know it, the guy with the loudest voice and biggest ego gets the loudest amp via the soundboard, the lead singer is always the lead singer and people start to wig out at practice sessions because they’re more concerned with how they sound in front of the congregation (the world) than with being up there for God.

I have a friend who used to be a drummer in a worship band and he will not play in a worship band ever again because of the ego involved. And he’s referring to himself! He doesn’t want to be reminded of his own ego that loomed when he put on his worship “show,” and he doesn’t want to have to fight the temptation of being a “show off” (his words) on stage again. Good for him for acknowledging the intense temptation of being a regular musician or lead singer in a worship band that plays once a week on a stage in front of an audience. It’s not supposed to be an audience, but it often is. I say this because I’ve noticed that many people stop singing all together when a worship band leads the song. The congregation listens instead. And the listeners are the ones who will comment negatively on the band if it isn’t up to par because the listener is more concerned with being entertained than on coming to God in humility and reverence.

Lucarini hits the nail on the head when he says,

"Worship, first and foremost, is a personal response to the revelation of God through Jesus Christ," he said. "And it does not involve me having a self-fulfilling experience. It’s very much a one-sided act as the scriptures teach. It’s acknowledging that God and Jesus are Lord, Master, King. I bring nothing to that equation at all."

The other common problem, and yes, I truly see it as a problem, is that some of the people in the worship bands are often not believers in Jesus Christ. My drummer friend said some of his band-mates were not Christians, yet they were up there supposedly for the glory and worship of God. A neighbor shared how a church in Vegas hires a professional band from outside to play. He said they were awesome. But, is that band worshipping God and leading others to do so or just playing a gig for money? Are worshippers in church to hear a concert or to come before God with a grateful and contrite heart? Have we come to the place that music is so important that we only want talent in church, regardless of what the person believes or stands for? What is church, anyway? A concert hall or God’s House?

The article says “when Lucarini and other like-minded Christians challenge the popular music style in church services, they're often labeled as legalistic Pharisees and dismissed because of the generation gap."

But I would submit that legalisms abound in contemporary Christian worship. One pastor of a multi-sensory worship service told me unequivocally that “we only use music that is sung directly to God.” So, that then would eliminate songs that sing about God and testify as to what God has done in our lives, such as Amazing Grace, for example? Amazing Grace--a song which has brought many folks to their knees acknowledging their need of a Savior, would not be welcome based on this legalism.

I’ve also seen a near-legalistic desire in contemporary services to have everyone raise their hands up high while singing, as if we’re not praising God correctly or aren’t experiencing a connection to God if we don’t. And then there’s the wearing of jeans and a general goal of creating a casual atmosphere; sort of an irreverent reverence, if you will, that we are all to aspire to and model. Heaven forbid anyone show up in a tie!

And don’t even get me going on how much I had to repent for falling for the green light to drink coffee during the church service. I went right along with it, until one day I realized the disgusting fact that we now cannot even sit through an hour of church without pouring coffee down our gullet. And I was even more disgusted when I realized that, since almost every one of us had already had our coffee at home, the reason most of us drink coffee during church is to be cool, hip and rebellious. We sit back, drink coffee in our jeans and rock out to the praise band. It got to where I couldn’t stand myself. I had drunk the contemporary worship Kool-Aid.

The bottom line is that contemporary church service fans who think it is only the traditionalists who have cornered the market on legalisms need to think again.

In the article we find out that “Lucarini currently attends a Baptist church in Denver where they sing hymns as well as contemporary songs (not CCM)."

After going through a contemporary Christian music/worship journey similar to Lucarini’s, I, too, am now in a Baptist church that sings hymns and an occasional contemporary Christian song (without a band or worship leader). The thing I first noticed when I began attending this church was that when the congregation lifts their hymnals to sing, they actually sing. And they sing with adoration, love and reverence. I actually looked up and around, because I heard, not only voices raised up in song together, but loudly, so you could hear it, get caught up in the fellowship of it and know that we’re all here for this reason: to worship God and praise Him for the Faith He gives us. When this church raises its voice as one body to sing, they mean it, and it is faith that is heard! That is true worship.

If you can get this with guitars, sound boards, lights and drummers throwing sticks in the air--and without performance ego--great! But if you can’t, maybe it’s time to re-think the purpose of worship music in church.

"Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." John 4:23-24