23 April 2012

The Worship Lifestyle [Pt. 1]

As a worship leader, one of the passages which I've spent a lot of time studying is John 4, the gospel account of Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the village of Sychar. There are a lot of important components within this passage, but the most notable is Jesus' statement of what defines true worship. In verse 23, John records Jesus' words:
“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”
It wasn't until this morning that I finally took notice of the immediate context of Jesus' statement, which contains an often overlooked implication for modern-day believers.

There are some differing perspectives on this verse, like many passages of Scripture. Some people think that when Jesus describes true worshipers as worshiping “in spirit,” He is referring to the coming of the Holy Spirit, and that the worship of a true follower of God is confirmed or made genuine by the unique spiritual communion with the Father which the Holy Spirit makes possible. This isn't necessarily a wrong interpretation, because we do worship with the guidance of the Spirit, but that reading of this particular passage is slightly off-base. Remember, Jesus said in verse 23 that “the hour is coming, and is now here,” but the giving of the Holy Spirit would not take place until the Day of Pentecost, after His ascension to heaven. The word for “spirit” used in this passage is the Greek word “pneuma,” which is used throughout Scripture to define both “rational soul, vital principle, and mental disposition” and “God, Christ's spirit, the Holy Spirit” (compare John 4.23 with 2 Cor 3.17, and Phil 3.3). However, the term typically used for the Holy Spirit in describing His divine office (the comforter, helper) is the word “parakletos,” literally “come beside,” which may be translated as “comforter” or “advocate” (see John 14.15-17; 14.25-26; 16.7). John 4, however, uses the primary definition of pneuma to denote the “vital principle and mental disposition” of the worshiper – in other words, the state of his or her heart.

But although the heart or spirit is crucial to this passage, it is not the immediate context.

When worship leaders discuss this passage, we talk about the appropriate approach to worship services, picking songs that are grounded in biblical truth, inspiring within the congregation attitudes of reverence, celebration, thanksgiving. And while these things are all bundled into the description of worshiping “in spirit” and certainly defining of true worship, there is another qualifier that is missing.

What Jesus is talking about deals specifically with location. The dividing issue between the Samaritans and Jews (blood heritage aside) was the place of worship: the Jews called Jerusalem the place of worship, and the Samaritans considered Mount Gerizim the sacred location. That is why the woman, abruptly changing the subject away from her adulterous lifestyle, says to Jesus, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (4.19-20). This, in turn, prompts Jesus' warm reply: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (4.21-24). Jesus says that neither Gerizim nor Jerusalem would be the singular location of true worship.

So the obvious question which follows is, “Where is the appropriate place of worship for us as believers?”

MacArthur's study Bible contains the following footnote for this passage: “Jesus' point is that in light of His coming as Messiah and Savior, worshipers will be identified, not by a particular shrine or location, but by their worship of the Father through the Son. With Christ's coming, previous distinctions between true and false worshipers based on locations disappeared. True worshipers are all those everywhere who worship god through the Son, from the heart.”

Therefore, the (hopefully) obvious answer is, “Anywhere and everywhere.”

We can't consider worship just singing any more than we can consider it restricted to one particular locale: Jesus negated both Mount Gerizim and Jerusalem as the “appropriate” place of worship. He said, simply, that true worshipers will worship in spirit and in truth. This implies a lack of specific location, or an all-inclusive one. What Jesus is saying is that worship is no longer tied to the physical realm, no longer solely an act of obeying the law and making sacrifices at the temple. It now primarily incorporates the spiritual realm.

In other words, worship takes place in the heart.

Unfortunately, there are people who take this idea that worship shouldn't be restricted to a church building and begin to run too far in the opposite direction. Their idea is that worship services should be socially relative and accessible to the common man, so they meet in bars, coffee houses, and libraries instead of pews and sanctuaries. This Emergent Church movement, which may begin with great intentions, suffers from the domino effect: they misinterpret one of the three pillars of true worship (spirit, truth, location – or lack thereof) and the rest begin to crumble. Because they desire less structure and more accessibility, they remove the location pillar. Because they desire to reach culture, they soften ideas of Biblical judgment and accept and encourage all walks of life within their congregation, and so the next pillar – truth in worship – begins to slide downhill. Gradually, they begin to question the comprehensive nature of the Bible and move away from belief in its infallibility. When truth in worship becomes compromised, whats left is a purely philosophical, opinion-based, emotion-driven “faith” which has divorced itself from true belief in Jesus Christ. It becomes a road to inter-spirituality through mysticism, a blending of religions and morals to suit the desires of the congregants.

In other words, that's not what I'm trying to communicate.

As a member of a church which began in a school, and a volunteer worship leader at another which rents out a bar while waiting on their permanent location, I know for a fact that true worship can take place beneath a steeple or otherwise. The point of this post is not to say that we should or shouldn't meet in a church building on Sundays to worship: the point is that worship should be our continual state, present with the body of Christ or apart.

So if worship is characterized by heart motive and truth, and is no longer dependent upon location, then our understanding of worship should be that it is not simply an activity which needs to take place in church on Sunday – or even an activity at all, for that matter. To the contrary, worship is a lifestyle, necessarily incorporating our daily thoughts and actions. Worship is proper, loving interaction with brothers and sisters in Christ. Worship is service – true and undefiled religion which cares for the orphans and widows without expecting reciprocation (Jas 1.27). In that regard, worship is very much like love. It involves action, sure, but that action is an expression of the heart. Just like faith cannot exist without the verification of works (Jas 2.26), and love is nonexistent without sacrifice, so worship is a condition of the heart which demands external expression. But the inverse is also true: works profit nothing without the foundation of faith, actions done “in love” do not always reflect the genuine sentiment of the heart, and simply going through the motions in worship does not mean we are truly celebrating the Lord.

There is one more defining characteristic of worship that I want to tease out of John 4.

Near the beginning of their conversation, Jesus had told the Samaritan woman, “Everyone who drinks of this [well's] water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4.13-14). Similarly, in Luke's account of the Beatitudes, Christ blessed the ones “who are hungry now, for [they] shall be satisfied” (6.21). In both passages, what Jesus was trying to teach is that satisfaction is found only in worshipping God. Therefore, genuine worship done in spirit and in truth is soul-satisfying.  When we are consumed with Him, the distractions of this empty world lose their ability to draw us away from the truth.  Therefore, worshipping the Father is predicated upon dissatisfaction with this life and longing for intimacy with Him.   It is recognition of the fact that only He is worthy of our worship, and that only He can satisfy our thirst and our hunger.  Jesus often cautioned the one who is rich in this life that he has “already received consolation” (Luke 6.24).  In other words, the one who has invested all his time and passion in worldly things has already received his earnings.  True worshipers are not fooled by the material, however.  They worship God because He alone brings satisfaction.

The sum total of our lives should be a testament of worship -- the type of living sacrifice which continuously glorifies God on a day-to-day, hour-by-hour basis (Rom. 12.1).  Worship does not take place solely in singing any more than it is restricted to a church building on a Sunday morning.  It is an active, abiding expression of love and adoration for our heavenly Father which must encompass every facet of our lives -- in spirit, truth, and any locale.  In fact, our lifestyles should be so full of worship that we are clearly identifiable as Christ-followers -- so that the expression of our faith through words is merely a confirmation of the observer's pre-existing assumption.

21 April 2012

We all fall down and fall apart for love

This age is carousel
I remember all the horses
I forget all of their names

"Ladders" – Lovedrug (Wild Blood, 2012)


It was cool in our apartment and I'd only just gotten home from work.  My wife was out, working in her family's farm market until late, so I shuffled Lovedrug albums on my iPod before sitting down at my computer to get some work done on my senior thesis.  I became distracted, however, when "Ladders" came on, and I found myself sitting back in my seat, pondering the delusions of men and the temporality of reputation (instead of the integrity of art and the ever-present threat of commercialism, which I should have been writing about for my final paper of the semester).

The guys in my band and I have an interesting relationship with Lovedrug. Three of us, including myself, were contributors to the I AM LOVEDRUG campaign, a simple pledge drive which the band began way back in November of 2010 to fund their fourth studio release.  We know their songs by heart, wear their t-shirts, and we almost had the opportunity to play with them for an unplugged show.

Purporting themselves as "purveyors of cloud rock," a genre of their own creation, Lovedrug's first two albums (Everything Starts Where it Ends, 2004; Pretend You're Alive, 2007) are guitar-driven art-rock, full of pervasive and haunting beauty, augmented by poetic lyrics of considerable metaphoric depth.  The first time I heard "Down Towards the Healing" and "It Won't Last," I was enamored with the way the band approached their material, the way they let the tension of the storm always boil below the surface of the lilting guitar melodies.  I think what I love the most is that, while the musicianship is clearly there, Shepard, Owen, and Ladd were far more concerned with the layered beauty of the album's haunting melodies than exhibiting their musical prowess.  Instead of showing off, they created music.

Unfortunately, the band's third and fourth releases (Sucker Punch Show, 2009; Wild Blood, 2012) are significantly more pop-influenced, comprised of material much more akin to that of their fellow touring acts (Juliana Theory, Copeland, Kings of Leon to name a few) than the sound they developed on their first two projects.  It is over these latter two albums that the opinions within the Synaesthesia family diverge.  Some of us like Sucker Punch less than others, and our opinions on which of the trio of EPs released prior to Wild Blood is truest to the original Lovedrug sound differ as well.  However, we all agree that something changed after Pretend - something that may have to do with lineup changes (the loss of Ladd and Owen) or with working with a different producer.  As loyal fans, we all supported the Wild Blood project, but if we were hoping for a return to the Everything Starts Where it Ends era, we were to be somewhat disappointed.  "Premonition" (originally spelled "Premunition" on EP I, and with a drastically different chorus), "Ladders," and the album's title track all have elements of the early Lovedrug sound in them, and the album is certainly more cohesive than Sucker Punch was, but overall, both project feels somewhat over-produced, nowhere near the timbre of the band's early material.  Although they did use songs from the EPs, there were definitely other tracks with more potential that the band decided not to include in the final product.  I suppose that's the danger of releasing demos to the general public: we all have our own opinions, so someone out there is going to be disappointed that "Dead in the Water" from EP II didn't make the final cut.  Or maybe that's just me.

However, I didn't begin writing this simply to ramble about the band (or to escape from writing my paper).

The lines from "Ladders" which I quoted to begin this post reminded me of an expression I'd heard, probably something the pastor of my church once used in a sermon, a paraphrase of Galatians 1.10 and a reference to Max Lucado: "Don't seek the applause of men; seek the applause of heaven."  On the surface, it's a simple statement: man's praise is fleeting, seeking to be told "well done, good and faithful servant" is ultimately more rewarding (Matt 25.20).  However, I don't think that the admonition should be taken to mean that our lives should be anything close to pursuing our own celebration.  In fact, Scripture would teach the exact opposite - that our humility should be such that we put others before ourselves (Mark 9.35, John 13.14) and ultimately strive to make much of God, His attributes, and His redemptive work, not our own profitless good works (Gal 2.16, Eph 2.8, 2 Tim 1.9, Titus 3.2-7).  However, the life lived in the pursuit of righteousness, calling daily upon the name of the Lord and walking in the Spirit, will result in the "applause of heaven."  This is not necessarily a reward, but a measure of our existence.

Are we pursuing the only life worth living?

God delights in His children, those of us who do His will (Psa 147.11).  He desires relationship with us, which is why He sent His Son: so that we can be with Him eternally.  Consider the gospel in simplest terms: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3.16).  God's love for us was so great, so vast, and so deep that He planned from all eternity to pour out His just wrath upon His Son instead of upon those of us who so righteously deserved nothing more than to be separate from Him for all eternity.  When Max Lucado's editor read portions of the Applause of Heaven manuscript to the executives of his publishing company, one of the men present became emotional at Lucado's descriptions of "God's hunger to have his children home, about how he longs to welcome us and may even applaud when we enter the gates."  Lucado goes on to share that while it's easy to imagine certain things about God, such as His "creating the world and suspending the stars" and the fact that he is "almighty, all-powerful, and in control," it is much more difficult to image a God who is "in love with me...  who is crazy for me... who cheers for me."  While it is certainly the truth that God, being all-powerful and all-sufficient does not need us, it is also true that He still desires us, despite all of our flaws.  Our Father is "relentlessly in pursuit of his children.  He has called us home with his word, paved the path with his blood and is longing for our arrival."

That is absolutely overwhelming.

The point I want to make is this: despite our affinity for this world, which we only temporarily call "home," it does not celebrate us the way God does.  Like Michael Shepard says in "Ladders," this cyclical world remembers all its horses but forgets all their names.  Though individuals rise into the spotlights of society, entertainment, and government, despite the fact that they are loved and celebrated (some certainly more than others), that type of adoration is nothing compared to that which the Father has for us.  On their first album, Caedmon's Call released a song called "This World," in which they joyously proclaim: "this world has nothing for me / And this world has everything."  It's the truth: all our world can offer is breakable toys, temporary fame, weary ambition.  There is nothing which can bring satisfaction the way God does. 

Just to be clear, this isn't intended to be a "feel good about yourself" post or even a pick-me-up for a bad day.  What it is intended to be is an encouragement to worship God for who He, for what He's done, and for what He's promised to do.  Neal Morse has a song called "Sing it High" on Testimony in which he proclaims, "He's [Jesus] the way / He's the goal / He's the song in your soul."  Jesus is the reward God offers: Himself, not the mere applause of heaven.  The chorus to "Ladders" concludes with the following line: "I cannot bring you back / From these ladders that you're climbing on."  The problem with searching for happiness is the same problem that plagues the religions of this world: meanwhile, while pilgrims have been climbing mountains (and ladders) to seek God, God came down to seek them.  Maybe Michael couldn't reach his audience, but I'm going to try with mine anyway: get off your ladder, because it's only going to lead you to a plateau far short of what you were looking for.  Jesus is the only way, and He is the only goal.  Take comfort, strength, and joy in that understanding alone.

Also, if you form an art-rock band at any time in the future...  Stick to your original sound.

19 April 2012

The Fullness of God

Here is the angel of the world's desire
Placed on trial
To hide in shrouded alley silhouettes
With cigarette coiled
To strike at passing voices
Dark and suspect
Here is the howling ire

- King Crimson, "The Howler" (Beat, 1982)


As the story goes, during the recording of the King Crimson's 9th studio album, Robert Fripp gave Adrian Belew a copy of Jack Kerouac's On the Road and a handful of other works from the Beat movement to read for lyrical inspiration.  One of those works in particular, Allan Ginsberg's "Howl," became the direct influence for "The Howler," the second to last track on the album.

In the fashion of the Beat movement, "Howl" is a building rage against oppression and the treatment of the downtrodden.  As Ginsberg put it in "Notes Written on Finally Recording 'Howl,'" the poem was a lament for the youthful "Lamb in America," sacrificed to ravenous society - a society which Ginsberg likened to the pagan god of the Old Testament, Moloch.  The Beat Generation was a post-World War II movement notably characterized by its experimentation with drugs, alternative forms of sexuality, interest in Eastern religions (especially Buddhism), and exuberant means of self-expression.  As a result of their radical philosophy and overall conduct, the Beat poets essentially became the subject of their own works -- the ones downtrodden by mainstream society.  Twenty-five years later, King Crimson's Beat commemorated Kerouac's On the Road and referenced a number of other Beat-era writings, in celebration of the artists' passion, vision, and vitality.

Interestingly, while Belew's lyrics can be understood to sympathize with the plight of the outcasts Ginsberg glorified in "Howl" (even assuming the guise of the angel on trial in the final lines of the song), there is intentional distance between singer and subject -- perhaps in recognition of coming judgment, perhaps out of a sympathy that can understand but not fully empathize.  Either way, "The Howler" concludes with the following lines: "Here is the sacred face of rendezvous / In subway sour / Whose grand delusions prey like intellect / In lunatic minds / Intent and focused on / The long thin matches / To light the howling fire / No, no, not me / Burn, I don't wanna burn."

I think there is an interesting parallel between the lyrics of "The Howler" and Paul's letter to the church at Colosso (here we go -- spiritual application from progressive rock).  In the larger context of discussing the new life of the believer, Paul encouraged his readers to "put to death what is earthly in you" - or "put on trial," as Belew put it - in order to put on righteousness (Col 3.5).  While the aims of the Beat Generation were perhaps admirable, their pursuits were unquestionably driven by the carnal type of knowledge which Scripture regards as "earthly, unspiritual, and demonic" (Jas 3.15).  Their lifestyles were unfortunately more Romans 1 material than Galatians 5.  King Crimson's Beat walks the neutral path as far as Kerouac and Ginsberg's lifestyles are concerned, simply seeking to convey the message they began.  Modern generations are increasingly interested in the plight of the oppressed.  The mantle which Ginsburg donned in "Howl" -- purporting himself as the voice of the voiceless, the "great minds of my generation destroyed by madness" -- certainly finds similarities in Belew's echoed sentiment.

To a Christian, the type of depravity which characterized the personal lives of the Beat Generation poets is idolatry in its most obvious form: idolatry of the self, idolatry of one's own sinful passions.  It is glorification of the lusts of the flesh to their fullest realization.  While their desires to create new and unique poetry and to speak out for the marginalized are certainly worthy ambitions, the Beat Generation's godless approach reveals the condition of their hearts.  It's an easy diagnosis.

Sadly, while it is always easy to spot sinfulness in the world, it can be comparatively difficult to recognize the pet sins in our own lives -- those things which we simply don't want to give up, which keep us shackled to this world and hinder us from fully realizing our role as God's new creations (2 Cor 5.17).  Even as believers, we can still cower in the "shrouded alley silhouettes" and "strike at passing voices" whenever they come close to uncovering our hidden wickedness.  This is why Paul, desiring completeness for all believers, insisted that we put to death the passions of the flesh and be filled with the Spirit instead (Eph 5.18).  If we want to know that satisfaction, we need to forsake our sinful desire to remain in our old nature, to which we are no longer enslaved, so that we may be "rooted and grounded" in the love of God instead (Eph 3.17).  But the only way to be firmly planted in this love is to uproot one's self from the world first.

Therefore, the question I want to pose is this: what "angel of the world's desire" do you still harbor?  What idol do you need to put on trial (and ultimately condemn) in order to fully embrace Jesus the way He intended?  As modern-day believers in Christ, do we "know the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge" so that we may be "filled with all the fullness of God?" (Eph 3.19)

American Christianity has fragmented the love of God into less of a pursuit than a compromise.  Instead of seeking, we settle.  Instead of achieving, we accept.  Our focus of joy and pleasure should be God Himself, and were that true, our worship would reflect it.  But instead, we settle for the lesser, temporal pleasures of this world, augmented only by an optimism-raising acquaintance with Jesus.  As John Piper puts it in his book, Desiring God, the problem besetting Christians is not that we are unsatisfied, but "far too easily pleased.  The enemy of worship is not that our desire for pleasure is too strong, but too weak... We have accustomed ourselves to such meager, short-lived pleasures that our capacity for joy has shriveled. And so our worship has shriveled."

During the abolitionist movement in pre-Civil War America, William Lloyd Garrison founded his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, a weekly circulation that -- over the course of its thirty-three years of circulation -- would earn nationwide notoriety for its uncompromising advocacy of "immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves."  In the publication's first issue, Garrison famously wrote, "I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice... I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - AND I WILL BE HEARD.  The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead."  Partially in response to criticisms he'd received for being so vocal on the issue of slavery, the passion with which Garrison delivered this creed was further fueled by the fact that the people around him who also shared his anti-slavery sympathies were not doing anything to support the abolitionists.  Whether for fear of their own reputations or simply out of halfhearted devotion, Garrison's contemporaries were reluctant to throw their weight so heavily on the side of emancipation.

Not coincidentally, Jesus had said something to the same effect some 1800 years earlier.  During the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Pharisees -- probably fearing Roman intervention -- demanded that Jesus silence his followers from praising Him so uproariously in the streets.  Probably with a sad smile at their ignorance, our Messiah replied, "If they were to hold their tongues, the rocks would take up the cry instead" (Luke 19.40).  Our God will be glorified, whether we praise Him or not.  Nature proclaims His handiwork even when we are preoccupied with our own.  The point is this: when we tolerate our sinful habits and allow them to callous our hearts, we are effectively silencing ourselves.  We are no longer overcome with joy at the coming of the Messiah the way the disciples were.  Lest we forget, sinful habits are not simply acts of commission -- swearing, stealing, getting angry; sin is also omission -- laziness, poor stewardship, selfishness.  Perhaps we desire to accomplish good things the way Ginsberg did.  Yet, if we also practice wanton living, mentally or physically, our lives cannot be testaments of God's love.  Our ambitions have become worthless, our worship has indeed "shriveled," and the rocks and statues are mumbling as a result.

The sad thing is that, in so doing, we completely miss the greatest blessing God offers: Himself.  We become distracted by other things we think will satisfy, and our passion for righteousness becomes secondary to our passion for entertainment, emotional fulfillment, success.  The enemy of love is not hate, as is popularly understood.  The enemy of love is apathy, because it is the lack of passion.  When we grow apathetic in our Christianity, we fail to truly understand the promise God gives in the Scriptures -- that He alone is our source of completeness.

When Jesus told the rich young ruler in Mark 10 to sell everything he had and follow, He was telling the man to get rid of everything which could potentially come between him and his relationship with God.  In other words, Jesus was telling him to lay down his idols -- to pull them out of the "shrouded alley silhouettes" and put them on trial.  But instead, hanging his head, the man walked away.  Clearly, his desire for God was swallowed by his desire for his possessions and his status.  He was too easily satisfied with what the world had to offer him.

Again, it is very easy to point out the man's problem -- after all, his story in the Bible is a perfect object lesson for spiritual priorities.  But are we really doing any better?  Instead of earnestly seeking after righteousness, we compartmentalize our faith in order to allow ourselves the American freedom of pursuing earthly ambition.  As Derek Webb put it, we need to repent of our "pursuit of America's dream," of "confusing peace and idolatry" by craving our own comfort and our own preferences ("I Repent," I See Things Upside Down).  We certainly make room for easy ministry and Sunday attendance, but our day-to-day lives are lacking in true heart-worship.  We like to feel comfortable, content, and safe in our spirituality, and so we justify and give the minimum effort.  We think we're doing well if we pray before meals and display our optimistic smile to the strangers we pass, but in reality, we are only cheapening the love of Christ by not letting it consume our lives.  When our lives revolve around our schedules and not around Him, we take God's love for granted and consider it less of a treasure than it truly is.

In his book, Radical, David Platt argues that in so compromising the nature of our Savior's love, we are "molding Jesus into our image," or conforming Him to our expectations -- as Webb termed it, "domesticating You until You look just like me."  Albeit unintentionally, we make Him look exactly like us because "that is whom we are most comfortable with," Platt continues, "and the danger now is that when we gather in our church buildings to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshiping the Jesus of the Bible.  Instead, we may be worshiping ourselves."  This is the type of idolatry that is hardest to recognize -- especially when we ourselves are the perpetrators.  By reducing Jesus to a white, middle-class American who only requires a regular tithe and kind gestures, we are worshipping our own halfhearted ideal of what our faith should represent, and not the Jesus who would ask us to do hard things -- certainly not Savior who brings us completion.

Let's return to the story of the rich young ruler.  In regards to this passage, Platt writes: "Jesus was not trying to strip this man [the rich young ruler] of all his pleasure.  Instead he was offering him the satisfaction of eternal treasure" - a better, fuller treasure, with intrinsic and everlasting joy!  The second half of Jesus' invitation is that, after selling all he had to the poor, the young man would have "treasure in heaven."  Unfortunately, not unlike the rich man, we want immediate gratification -- not the promise of future reward.  What we fail to recognize is that fulfillment is not something we have to wait for until we get to Heaven.  God, in His infinite wisdom, has blessed us now with "every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" through the person of His Son (Eph 1.3).  This directly correlates to the parable Jesus told the disciples of the treasure hidden in a field.  When the man in the parable stumbles upon it, he immediately sells all he has in order to purchase that field, just so that he can obtain the treasure -- a treasure which was worth more to him than everything else he owned (Matt 13.44).

That is Jesus to us.  He is something worth losing everything for.

For a mature believer, the love of God will naturally become the chief goal and the only treasure of his life.  Idolatry is a sin which takes place within the heart (Ezekiel 14.3, 4, 7Jas 4.2-32 Cor 10.5), and we do it when we value anything more highly than we value our Savior.  After all, it is impossible to serve two masters, because we will inevitably love one and hate the other (Matt 6.24).  But seeking after lesser things can only be temporarily invigorating (Ecc 2.10, 11).  Newton's Second Law of Thermodynamics (the law of entropy) doesn't just apply to the physical things in this world: it also applies to our ambitions -- love, success, reputation.  These things will die and fail us, and if we pursue anything less than to be constantly filled with the love of Christ, the fullness of God, we are merely striving after the wind (Ecc 5.16).  But on the other hand, if we are passionately seeking the love of God, we will never be empty.  We have been given the same "living water" which Christ offered the Samaritan woman in John 4, after all.  Instead of keeping it corked in a bottle, to horde (via head knowledge), we should drink and be full (via heart application).  As the Psalmist wrote, "Taste and see that the Lord is good.  Fear Him, you His holy people, for those who fear Him lack nothing" (34.8, 9).  This is more than just a statement of God's provision.  This is a statement about true enjoyment.

Barnes' commentary on the New Testament records the following: "We may aspire to being filled with all the fulness [sic] of God. We may long for it; pant for it; strive for it; pray for it--and we shall not strive in vain. Though we shall not attain all we wish; though there will be an infinity beyond what we can understand in this world, yet there will be enough attained to reward all our efforts, and to fill us with love and joy and peace. The love of God our Saviour is indeed an illimitable ocean; but we may see enough of it in this world to lead us to adore and praise God with overflowing hearts."  Nothing else but the love of God can truly fill our hearts to the point where they overflow.  Nothing else but God's love is big enough, and nothing else can satisfy.

How about you?  Do you insatiably desire more of Him or are you allowing yourself to settle for lesser things?  Do you truly want to be satisfied, or are you content with the things that will pass away?  For the Beat poets, life became a study in wanton living, dissatisfaction, and endless searching.  But for the believer, the treasure which will bring our lives meaning is fully at hand.  However, we can't simply take hold of it: it must take hold of us.  It must consume our entire beings, our hearts, souls, and minds (Matt 22.37).  Only then are we able to be joyful, thankful, wholehearted worshippers of the Father.

15 April 2012

Tempter-Sent or Tempest-Tossed

Praying for God to remove the pain of affliction is asking for a quick–fix solution.  It's looking to jump through the fire without being singed, only to be completely unprepared for the next trial which looms on the other side, brighter and hotter than the one previous.  A lesson is worthless if it has no application, after all.  As Bono put it in Yaweh, “There's always pain before a child is born.”  Perhaps not the most astute observation he's ever made, but the idea is sound: pain is always attached to beauty.  In fact, in the context of that particular song, beauty is the end result of pain.  In the same vein, the Scriptures would teach that it is through suffering that followers of Christ are grown, tested, and transformed.  Although painful experiences certainly aren't fun by any estimation, we are still encouraged to “count it all joy” when we encounter them, because the end result of any affliction is the fruit of patience (Jas 1.2).

As I sit writing this, the thought running through my head is probably similar to what you, reading it, will also be thinking: “Right.  Easier said than done.”  And if that isn’t the truth, I don’t know what is.  Christians (myself included) like to talk a lot about the appropriate Biblical responses to situations and circumstances which beset us, but when the rubber actually meets the road, we are often caught up in our own wants and emotions and stumble as a result.  Purely by the grace of God, however, it is always possible to regain our footing and look to our Father for the guidance and the strength we need to carry on.

So, temptation and suffering.  What distinguishes them, and – more importantly – how do we deal with them?

I think it's safe to assume that most people have read or are at least familiar with Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” a dark and poem about lost love.  The Alan Parsons Project even wrote a concept album around it and other memorable works of Poe.  While it is not absolutely clear in the text what has happened to Lenore, the woman for whom the narrator pines, but knowledge of the losses in Poe’s personal life and the tragic fates which typically befell the personas in his writings make it safe to assume that she has succumbed to death.  Late one night, “dark and dreary,” the narrator of the poem finds himself unable to sleep and is idly flipping through old books of literature to distract himself from his misery when he is confronted by the raven, a supernatural harbinger of doom.  Desperately, the narrator pleads with the specter to identify itself or simply to give reason for its unscheduled visitation, even though he seems to already knows the answer.  However, the raven, be it a tempter–sent demon or a tempest–tossed prophet, offers no answers with his repeated reply: “Nevermore.”

There is a line toward the conclusion of the poem when the narrator, beginning to grow frantic, beseeches the Raven, “Is there – is there balm in Gilead? – tell me – tell me, I implore!”  His question is an echo of God's own words in Jeremiah 8.22: “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?”  Gilead is a mountainous area east of the Jordan River between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, and plenteous evergreens growing there were a source of medicinal resins in Biblical times.  By asking for “balm in Gilead,” the narrator of “The Raven” is desperately seeking some type of cure for his omnipresent misery, some reassurance that he will see his lost Lenore again.  Descending further into hysteria, he demands in the following stanza, “Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn / It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore – / Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”  The raven's only reply is his horrible croak: “Nevermore!”

"Balm of Gilead" is a popular literary metaphor for the 
divine alleviation of pain and sorrow.
This brings me to my first point: we are constantly seeking alleviation of pain.  We all enjoy comfort and peace, we all want our “balm in Gilead” when life requires bandages.  No one in their right mind desires to be constantly tormented, no matter what the reason behind it.  However, as I’ve already stated above, such a desire for easy living is counter–productive to the point of the Christian lifestyle.  Every trial God allows us to face is there for a specific reason.  Matthew Henry’s commentary on the first chapter of James states, “Christianity teaches men to be joyful under troubles: such exercises are sent from God’s love; and trials in the way of duty will brighten our graces now, and our crown at last.”  How beautiful is it that God is working to bless us both now and eternally?  He does not allow suffering for no reason.  He does not simply enjoy watching us squirm.  There is a purpose for every trial we must undergo in life, and the believer should “count it all joy” because it means God is actively working in his or her life.

In his daily devotionals, C. H. Spurgeon wrote, “When he [the Christian] is burdened with troubles so pressing and so peculiar, that he cannot tell them to any but his God, he may be thankful for them; for he will learn more of his Lord then than at any other time.  Oh, tempest-tossed believer, it is a happy trouble that drives thee to thy Father!  Now that thou hast only thy God to trust to, see that thou puttest [sic] thy full confidence in him.”  Here is the other reason for our trials: we need to be repeatedly shaken of our self–dependence.  Not only do we want comfortable and easy lives, but we also want to be in control, to be autonomous.  When things are going smoothly, we feel safe and we grow prideful.  However, when everything begins to unwind at the seams, that is the moment we realize our need, and the trouble drives us to our Father – our Father who was in control the whole time.  Trials and suffering help us to see our need for God more clearly.

That being said, it is often difficult to draw a line between what is “tempest–tossed” and what is “tempter–sent” – in other words, what is the discipline or instruction of God in our lives and what is the attack of Satan.  The problem is that there can be no definitive answer, and trying to interpret the situation in which you find yourself can often be detrimental to simply focusing on living righteously through that situation.  There's a lot of reading material out there dealing with delineation between temptations and trials, and even between divine correction and punishment, but such studies aren't nearly as pertinent as understanding our response to suffering.  Our responsibility is to “count it all joy” and magnify the Lord, because we trust in His perfect plan, and because we depend upon His provision alone.  As Christians, it is far more important to understand what our appropriate response to suffering should be and put it into practice rather than to waste time trying to identify where our pain is coming from (2 Cor 4:7-188.1–15).

There are some things that we need to remember when we find ourselves buffeted.  The first is that God does not tempt anyone to sin (Jas 1.13).  He does not tantalize or deceive, and he certainly does not nudge us toward a sinful decision just to see if we love Him enough to say no.  It is also clear through Scriptures that God sometimes allows the believer to come under significant attack by Satan in order that he or she might grow to trust God more (see the story of Job).  Clearly, God tests us for the purpose of growing our faith, refining it through fire.  That can look like the loss of a loved one or a failed relationship, or even the spiritual oppression by a prominent person in your life.  Regardless of the means, God will challenge us to grow, and allow us to be tempted, because it will conform us more and more to the image of His son.

People, Christians or otherwise, typically don't like this idea.  I've heard the angry rejections (“If God really loved me, He wouldn't do this to me”) and the distorted understandings of God's hand of discipline (“God took my child because I didn't pray enough”).  I certainly can't slap a definitive label on your circumstances, but I can tell you that God is not heartless, and He does not act without reason.  He is not a sultry, jealous lover whose self–love drives Him to make sure we really really love Him – as Max Jacob (a French Poet) characterized Him in his Symposium poems.  While God certainly chastises us for the purpose of correction, He does not punish – He corrects, and He does so lovingly, not out of anger.  He is motivated by His own glorification and His love for us, and therefore He holds our best interests at heart.  This road we walk is about two things: firstly, God's glory, and secondly, our sanctification.  Both will be accomplished, and both will require a measure of pain – the kind which strips away our callouses and makes us soft to the impression of the Spirit.

Angry people do not grow in their faith.  It is not “okay” to be angry at or “have it out” with God.  The audacity that comes with the territory of airing one's grievances to God literally fills me with a sense of fear.  We are so ungrateful to our merciful, loving Father, who is constantly caring and providing for us as His children.  We accuse and we grow miserable, and without even batting an eye, we criticize the One who, in His infinite mercy and wisdom, has brought us to the hard points in our lives for very specific and ultimately love–driven reasons.  As the Lord demanded of Job out of the whirlwind, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me” – as though a mere man could instruct the creator of the universe (Job 38.2-3).  The Lord then proceeds, for the next two chapters, to list His works of creation and other acts of power, and Job can do nothing but bow his face to the earth in fear of the Lord's holiness, ashamed at his own pride for questioning the Almighty.

In his book, Irresistible Invitation (not a book I recommend, though it does contain some useful insight), Maxie Dunnam writes: “The providential care of God does not protect us from the bumps and bruises of life, nor from the struggle – and sometimes tragedy – of living.  Brothers betray brothers.  Husbands desert wives.  Good people lose their jobs…Hurricanes devastate cities.  Tornadoes destroy trailer parks and rivers flood towns.  An earthquake in the middle of the ocean causes a tsunami a thousand miles away.  As such, it may not always seem apparent that every part of God’s creation is good.  But we can be confident that God is always working out His magnificent plan of redemption.” What we often fail to recognize is that calling God's providence His “plan” for our lives does not insinuate protection from pain.  However, it does incorporate God's loving care for His children.  Isaiah 43.2 records for us the fact that when Israel passed through the fire, God was with them, and the same is true of us as well.  “I will be with you,” our Father promises in this passage.  He doesn't say, “You go and I'll watch from a distance.”

Therefore, we have no justifiable grounds to be angry with our God.  He is in control, and He has a plan for our lives.  It is easy to slip into anger and frustration when our emotions run high, and even then our Father is merciful and understanding.  But we must learn to recognize that these types of reactions to less–than–ideal circumstances are the tools of Satan.  The last thing he wants is for us to look at suffering the proper way and grow in our faith as a result of the experience.

If, on the other hand, you are comfortable in your Christianity and have been for some time, that should also send up warning flags of another nature in your heart.  Comfort is a good indicator that you have become lukewarm, content to go to church and maybe read the Bible, but the passionate love of God is absent from your heart.  The mission of Satan also includes a flanking strategy to distract believers from truly living out their faith.  There is no better way to accomplish this than to place images in front of them which will distract them from the bigger picture – images of Forbes–style American living and B–grade, watered–down Christianity.

Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle is a book largely influenced by Marxist theory, but his critique of capitalist societies may be perhaps more pertinent to Christian living than expected.  Debord defines “the spectacle” as autonomous entity, sustained by society itself, because it renders within the people a desire for passivity through a mediated bombardment of desirable images.  The spectacle is obsession with making money, where the commodity has not only “attained the total occupation of social life,” but also become the means of interaction, the only connection for relationships, and a substitute for life itself.  The point is this: as American Christians, we like to give the minimum possible effort so that we can get back to our various forms of entertainment and relaxation.  Additionally, many of us make money our idol, not in the sense that we make burnt offerings in honor of Mammon, but in the sense that it dominates our time and our thinking: “Gotta work to afford my kids, gotta work to afford my bills.  Here's my tithe – not that I can afford it.  Gotta work overtime this week.”  By Debord's definition, glorification of the spectacle is desiring capital to “such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image,” but idolatry begins long before we find ourselves sitting in front of our flat–screens while our interest accumulates.

As stated, God brings suffering into our lives is to make us more dependent upon Him.  He intentionally interrupts our daydreams of bigger homes and even our honorable desires to be good providers for our families to re–orient our focus.  “It is a happy trouble that drives thee to thy Father!” Spurgeon wrote, reminding us of the wonderful mercies of our Father's open arms.  Because we have a tendency to drift away from Him in the easy times, intentionally or otherwise trusting our own capacities rather than His, our loving Father allows trials into our lives both to strengthen us and to bring us running back to Him from wherever it is that we have wandered.  His arms are always open to receive us, no matter how many times we stray.  The promise in John's first epistle is not just for the repentant sinner coming to Christ for the first time: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1.9).

Related to the themes in Debord's social critique, there is another incorrect perspective on suffering that haunts churches in America, and that is the idea that suffering is always a direct result of personal sin. Largely, this is the propaganda of the Prosperity Doctrine, or the Word of Faith movement – the idea that God wants everyone to be a believer so they can live happily on the earth, at peace with one another.  Granted, the movement's theology is significantly more skewed from a Biblical perspective than in this area alone (a general synopsis can be found here), but proponents of the Prosperity Doctrine would say that God wants his followers to be rich, to own thirty acres of land and five Jaguars apiece, and that if you don’t make six figures every year, it is because there is some sin in your life and God is punishing you by withholding material blessings.  In other words, if you find yourself beset by suffering while the rest of the congregation around you is rejoicing and content, it is because you are in sin.  According to this doctrine, God does not want believers to suffer.  He wants them to be happy.  This is the very rosy picture of Christianity that unfortunately infiltrates many presentations of the gospel and common perceptions of what Christianity itself represents.

Obviously this philosophy flies directly in the face of the inspired Word of God.  The story in John 9 of the man born blind is a clear discussion of the fact that suffering will exist in our lives regardless of the sins we’ve committed.  Additionally, Paul instructs the believer to count earthly gains as loss (Phil 3.7), and both Matthew and Mark speak into the fact that we as believers are called to give up earthly comfort because they are nothing more than distractions to our faith.  In Matthew 5.12 Jesus said, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  This passage connects ideas of blessing and suffering to specific locales: blessings are stored for us in heaven, and suffering is a certainty of the believer's life on earth.   Granted, God has blessed us abundantly already through the work of His Son, and continues to renew our strength through the Spirit which indwells us, but these blessings are not tied to physical possessions or wealth (Eph 1:3, 4).  We are to store up treasures in Heaven, not on earth, because our servitude is to God alone – not to the American god of money (Matt 6.19-24).

I've been talking a whole lot.  Let me tie these things together.

The point I really want to get across is this: if we as believers are unable to rejoice in suffering and grow in the challenging times, then there is no possible way we can be useful to God.  This is the discussion about being salt and light to the world, and it immediately follows Jesus' admonition to expect persecution (Matt 5.13–16).  The testing of our faith produces patience, a characteristic which not only identifies us as followers of Christ but also enables us to love and serve one another (Gal 5.22–25).  God desires followers who are swift to hear and slow to speak (Jas 1.19), who can bridle their tongues and control their whole bodies (Jas 3.2), and who can use gentle words to dispel wrath (Prov 15.1).  If we cannot patiently and joyfully accept suffering for what it is and grow in our understanding of the tremendous purposes it serves, then all we value is our own physical, emotional, and social comfort.  We become like the narrator of “The Raven,” vainly pleading for respite from grief instead of capitalizing on the situation through the direction of the Holy Spirit.  In that state of mind, we fail to recognize that suffering is always a blessing in disguise, and certainly not something we should go out of our way to avoid (Phil 1.12 – 2.11).

It is also important to remember that, just as suffering is a recurring aspect of the believer’s life, so also resisting temptation is an active, lifelong struggle, and not a one–time vaccination.  This is illustrated through the famous “Armor of God” passage in Ephesians 6.  We are not taught how to arm ourselves against the “wiles of the devil” for one battle.  We will struggle against sin and temptation throughout our lives. Similarly, Peter's admonition to be sober and vigilant because our “adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” serves as both warning and encouragement (1 Peter 5:8).  It's a warning because the attack is imminent, but it's also an encouragement, because verse 9 goes on to say, Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.  We are not alone in temptation or suffering.  Our brothers and sisters around the world are enduring the same temptations and the same sufferings, perhaps with different circumstances, but in the same war in which we all engage.  In other words, it is neither fair nor justified for us to sink into self–pity and think that no one understands our predicament.  The fact of the matter is that someone, somewhere has gone through the same experience.

Furthermore, we should be encouraged by the knowledge that Christ Himself endured all suffering and all temptation during His walk on the earth, more than just to simply provide an example for us to follow.  As the author of Hebrews recorded, Christ endured all the suffering and all the temptations that we as humans do, and is therefore able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses (Heb 2.18; 4.15).  As the result of our Father's perfect will, Christ is able to identify with us in our sufferings and the Holy Spirit guides us through them.  Matthew's account of Jesus' 40–day trial in the wilderness begins, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”  The parallel stories in the other gospels also use similar phrasing to illustrate the fact that Jesus was following the direct leading of the Holy Spirit (Matt 4.1–11Mark 1.12,13Luke 4.1–13).  If you trace those same Greek words for “led up” through the New Testament, you'll find them again in Galatians 5.18, which says, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law,” and again in verse 25, which builds upon that foundation: “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.”  In in the context of Jesus' temptation, the Scriptures leave no doubt that if we are actively allowing the Spirit to lead us in our lives, then it is a guarantee that we will be brought into places of emotional drought and periods of suffering in the same way our Savior was.  Therefore, when we come upon the hard times and places of temptation, we should immediately remember that if anyone understands our pain and struggles, it is our Lord and Savior.

This understanding alone should bring incredible confidence to us as believers, recognizing that the God we love and serve is consistent and unchanging, flawless, and ultimately with us throughout our times of trials.  He does not fail, no matter how often we do.  In his most reputable work, The Confessions, St. Augustine wrote, “The vessels which are full of you do not lend you stability, because even if they break you will not be spilt.”  It may come as a bit of a shock to our human pride to recognize the fact that we do not support God, because He does not need us – even though He chooses us.  Yet at the same time, how comforting it is to know that the God who is with us in the times of suffering will never fail!  If we choose to let Him govern our lives, He holds us together from the inside out.

I don't know where your heart is as you sit reading this.  Maybe you're in a drought or maybe there is simply someone you have in mind who needs encouragement.  Regardless, remember the admonition of Moses to Joshua upon giving him leadership the people of Israel: “Be strong and courageous.  Do not be terrified or discouraged, for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you.  He will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut 31:6).   This was true for Joshua and the Israelites, and it remains true for God's people today.

So avoid being like the narrator of “The Raven.”  Don't simply look for respite from suffering.  Look for the optimal path through the challenges, trusting the Lord's guidance, and be on the alert for the temptations encompassing you.  Pursue righteousness.  Recognize the providential care of our Savior, and the fact that He has a plan for your life.  Don't give in to stress or panic even though the world seems to be falling down around you.  The answer is “yes” – things could be a whole lot worse.  However, thankfully, our Father is the one who is in control, and He will faithfully carry both you and me through to the other side.  As believers, we can rest assured that everything the Lord does, is ultimately for His glory and for the good of those who love Him (Rom 8.28).  He Himself will be our balm in Gilead, because we are promised that, one day, He will wipe away every last tear from our eyes, our sorrow will be no more, and our journey will finally be at an end (Rev 21.3, 4).


“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil!–
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted –
On this home by Horror haunted – tell me truly, I implore –
Is there – is there balm in Gilead? – tell me – tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

from "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe (1845)

10 April 2012

Hearts for Ministry

Jesus set the perfect example for the way after which Christians should model their lives. Reduced to simplest terms, He came to serve, not to be served (Matt 20.26-28, Luke 22.27), a distinction which speaks not only to His perfect love and humility but also to the priorities of God. From Jesus' example, it is abundantly clear that our responsibility as His followers is to share our Savior's priority of ministry.

In this vein, we too often tend to view ministry as something we have to do.  While it is absolutely true that we do need to participate in this way, our sense of required service should not override our desire to perform those tasks.  A willing heart attitude is what is pleasing to the Lord, not an empty action that is devoid of true desire or purpose.  A willing heart obeys the truth and expresses sincere love for each other which comes from the heart (1 Peter 1.22).  Our service to one another should come from heart-felt devotion to our Savior, and subsequent love for our neighbors.

This issue of heart-worship ties into the discussion in James concerning faith in relation to works. The brother of Jesus states bluntly, Faith without works is dead, being by itself (Jas 2.17).  Quite simply, James calls upon the fruit and service of Christian lifestyle as evidence of genuine faith.  If we claim to be Christians, then our lives should be devoted to ministry.  We cannot claim faith and not use it.  If we desire to truly worship the Father, then we will glorify Him through worshipful service to one another.

That's not convicting at all.

Unfortunately, it is simply a fact that we will not always feel like worshiping or serving one another.  We will be too tired, too stressed, too upset.  However, we should not predicate our service to God and/or others upon how we feel, because emotions are an unstable foundation.  As a new husband, I am learning this concept more and more every day.  Loving my wife the way Jesus loves her is not dependent upon how she makes me feel, or how much she appreciates my attempts to meet her needs.  I need to love her in every season of the soul.  Therefore, my strong emotions for her should only spur me to serve her more and not simply bask in a warm sense of self-worth.  In the same way, my frustrations should not prove an obstacle to demonstrating Biblical humility and selflessness.

As Christians, we need to learn to worship/serve because of what we feel and in spite of what we feel.  Are you joyful?  Then use that emotion as a tool to glorify God in praise and thanksgiving, both in your heart and with your voice  so that others can share in magnifying Him!  Are you sorrowful?  Then remember your trust in the One who is sovereign, the only One who has the power to heal and to restore.  Are you exhausted?  Don't forget Paul's admonition that we should not grow weary in well-doing, regardless of failures, setbacks, or resistance, for in due season, we will reap, if we do not give up (Gal 6.9).  Lean upon the One who does not require rest, but constantly restores our strength.  I submit that the only true cure for a burdened, exhausted, or broken heart is worship and service to the Lord.  Nothing else brings us closer to the Father.  Worship/serve in spite of what you feel, and because of it.

When Jesus sent out the seventy-two in Luke 10, He commissioned them with the following: The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.  Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest (Luke 10.2).  From this passage, we learn that we never need to pray for opportunities to serve or chances to reach the lost.  Those opportunities surround us.  The problem is that not enough of us truly respond to them.  There is more work to be done than worshipers to fulfill the task.  What we should pray for is willingness to embrace the opportunities we see and hearts that are less preoccupied with personal comfort than loving the ones whom God loves.  That starts with our own hearts, by the way  not with our friends' or family members'.

As American Christians, we reduce the biblical definitions of ministry and service to specific roles.  My ministry to God is (fill in the blank), at (specific time) on (specific day[s] of the week).  That is not the correct way to understand the responsibility which God has given His children, a responsibility which should involve every aspect of our lives.  But we like to compartmentalize in order to feel good about our lives.  We check the box in order to remind ourselves that we're still doing the Lord's will, so we're doing well.  Furthermore, we have a tendency to hide in our home-front, tailored roles of service – e.g. handing out bulletins on Sunday mornings, holding doors for the elderly, maintaining the church announcement bulletin board.  Don't get me wrong: no act of service is too small or unimportant.  However, we should not limit ourselves to types of service which require a minimum of interaction with other people and consider that our reasonable service to Him.

What God truly requires for service is complete renewal of our hearts and minds, the type of renewal which spurs us to action (Rom 12.1).  Paul's admonition is that our lives evidence the work of Christ within.  Our ongoing sanctification should lead us to desire to reach out to the individuals with whom we come into contact, fellow believers or otherwise, and in so doing demonstrate the love of Christ to them.  THAT is ministry, and that is what our entire lives should be about.

In sum, our approach to ministry should not be out of a religious sense of obligation, but a desire to worship God through a heartfelt act of service.  If this is truly the case, then we may be confident in the fact that we are following the admonition of Paul to the Colossians: And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col 3.17).  This type of service is truly synonymous with worship, because our lives have become living testaments to the grace of God at work within our hearts.