I Reek of My Father

This fourth devotional I wrote a few years back focused on humanity’s bearing what theologians refer to as the Imago Dei, or the image of God.  It’s a powerful concept, one that should give those of us in leadership pause now and again, especially when we encounter recalcitrant members of various worship committees, boards of deacons, or diaconates.  My hope in writing this particular reflection was that the students going overseas might broaden their understanding of what it means to be a child of God.

“You Are Very Much Like Dad!”

Genesis 1: 27 – “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  (NIV)

I’ve got news for you, my friends.  You are becoming, little by little, day by day, sometimes perceptibly and sometimes not but nevertheless very really and truly . . . your same-sex parent.  It hits us at different times, and, depending on the relationship that we have (or had) with our parents, this realization can provoke thoughts that range from mildly annoying to downright dreadful.  Regardless, you have no control over this steady morphing.  Like the ominous “da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da” which signaled the arrival of the shark in the Jaws soundtrack, the doom is inevitable.  Death and taxes have nothing on the inevitability of your turning into your mom, ladies, or your dad, gentlemen.  Although I look nothing like my father, I emulate his personality to such an extent that my brother, several years ago, upon hearing me parrot something that could have come straight from my father’s mouth, was moved to exclaim, “You reek of Dad.”

Psychologists (and not just Freud) have been hip to this for awhile, and the concept has become so pervasive that it has seeped into the mainstream.  Twenty-five years ago, author Nancy Friday wrote the best-seller My Mother/Myself, in which she both lamented and celebrated that her identity was so wrapped up in that of her mother.  My sister, who read the book, fought off the encroaching behavioral proof for years but has recently come to embrace it, to the point where her mantra has become “I’ve given up fighting.”

Thank God that we don’t need ambivalent feelings when it comes to the fact that we are becoming, little by little, day by day, sometimes perceptibly and sometimes not but nevertheless very really and truly . . . more and more like our heavenly Father.  That’s what sanctification is all about.  As James MacDonald has said, “Christianity is a process . . . with progress.”  But what’s true for us as Christians is not completely untrue for non-believers.  Granted, without salvation they will not experience sanctification, but they are, each and every one of them, nevertheless made in the image of God.  And hence there is hope for them.  As Fanny Crosby, the great hymnwriter, reminds us, “The vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

As you serve the people of India, may you view them, even the most obviously sinful of them, as reflections of God, created in His image.  Try that at the onset of your trip, and see if it doesn’t make a difference in your attitude and behavior.

Prayer for today:

Creator God, who molded and shaped each and every one of us in Your image, cause us to view each other and all we will meet on this trip as Your reflections, that we might afford them the respect and dignity belonging to Your creations, for the sake of Your Son, who died for us all that we all might live.  Amen.

The Lord be with you!

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How’s Your Soul Today?

Any time I can bring my formal training in English to bear on anything related to worship and/or the Christian walk, I enjoy doing so–all truth being God’s truth.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson when I was taking various American literature surveys in high school and college, but his arresting metaphor (or its equivalent attributed to Shakespeare and others) about the eyes being the window to the soul always resonated with me, and I used it as a springboard for the following devotional, the third in a series of reflections on reflections given to Judson students for their use during a missions trip to India several years ago.

“Windows to the Soul”

Matthew 6:22-23: “Your eyes are windows into your body.  If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. . . . If you pull the blinds of your windows, what a dark life you will have!”  (The Message)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great essayist and poet, once said that our eyes are the windows to our souls.  What a concept—that we can gaze into people’s eyes and get a glimmer into what’s going on in their souls.  Or, to put it another way, our eyes reflect our souls.  Lest this sound a bit New-Agey, let me put it into practical terms that American Christians can appreciate.  Periodically I will quote Emerson to my volunteer church choir regarding this very thing; when they’re up in front of the congregation singing, they are communicating, not only with their voices, but also with their eyes.  Communication theorists tell us that communication transpires through two channels, sound and light.  In the case of my choir, they communicate via sound—the words themselves that they are singing, the way in which they articulate certain phrases and emphasize certain key words—but also via light—their non-verbal cues: their posture, their body language, their facial expressions, and, especially, their eye contact.

I have always taken the scripture passage above (and most translators have, as well) to refer to keeping myself from regular viewing of harmful material, and I think Christ probably had that in mind, at least to an extent, when he gave this exhortation during the Sermon on the Mount.  But I also like the broader application that Eugene Peterson gives it in The Message.  Part of what Christ is getting at here, I think, is attitudinal.  It’s about the very way that you approach life.

The late Mike Yaconelli, co-founder of Youth Specialties and a personal hero of mine, once said this:

The more pagan a society becomes, the more boring its people become.  The sign that Jesus is in our hearts, the evidence of the truth of the Gospel is . . . we still have a light on in our souls.  We still have a gleam in our eyes. . . . The light in our souls is not some pietistic somberness; it is the spontaneous, unpredictable love of life. . . . Christians not only know how to practice piety, we also know how to party.

May all those that come in contact with you on this trip see the reflection of your Christ-imbued souls in your eyes, eyes filled with wonder and belief.

Prayer for today:

Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, who bid playful children to come to Yourself and chastised those who would hinder them, cause us to be childlike in our faith—always, but especially on this trip—that we might reflect in all our nonverbal communication Your light in our souls, so that others might glorify Your Father, and our Father, in heaven.  Amen.

The Lord be with you!

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A Word for the Anxious

Today I offer the second of seven devotionals written several years ago for Judson students about to embark on a missions trip to India.  The “80 wooded acres” is a phrase often used in the early days of Judson College to describe its scenic beauty–and, truly, if you haven’t been on campus at this time of the year, God’s handiwork is evident all around.  Were I to update this for today’s reader, I would mention white-noise apps for smart phones instead of white-noise machines in hotel rooms, but the basic message would be the same.  I pray this blesses anyone needing a word of encouragement to be strong and courageous today (Joshua 1:9).

♫  “I’ve Got Peace Like a River”  ♫

Isaiah 26: 3 – “He will keep in perfect peace all those who trust in him, whose thoughts turn often to the Lord!” (TLB)

When my family and I lived on campus, first in Ohio Hall and then in the campus apartments, we would enjoy walking around the “80 wooded acres” during the summertime—when, sadly for most of our students, who don’t hang around Judson at that time of the year, the grounds are at their most gorgeous.  One time my daughter Amie, who must have been all of two at the time, was walking with me over the bridge that covers Tyler Creek, when she noticed her reflection in the water.  “Look,” she exclaimed with glee. “Two Amies!” pointing to herself and to her image in the creek.

There’s something calming about bodies of water.  Have you ever seen one of those white-noise machines—so popular among too-busy business folks traveling too many nights and staying in too many hotels?  Several of the soothing sounds that emanate from the machinery when you plug it in have to do with water: the sound of ebbing-and-flowing waves on the beach, a gentle waterfall, raindrops periodically cascading onto a windowpane.  Christian hymn- and chorus-writers have tapped into this concept for centuries.  “Like a river glorious is God’s perfect peace.”  “I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.”

Change gears here for a second, and think about the wisest, most profound, most intellectual professor you’ve ever encountered here at Judson, the one whose wisdom causes you to marvel on a regular basis.  Got one in mind?  Now, with all due respect, consider that person an ignoramus . . . at least where God’s peace is concerned.  Paul tells us in Philippians 4:7 that “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  In other words, the most brilliant among us will never get a handle on this peace thing.  Earlier in that same chapter Paul tells his readers not to be anxious about anything, but through prayer and with thanksgiving, to present the desires of their hearts to God.

Most of you will experience a little bit of anxiety at some point in this trip.  Perhaps you’re afraid of flying.  Perhaps you’ll end up getting sick.  Perhaps there are issues at home that you’re leaving behind, and though they will be out of sight for a few weeks, they will very much not be out of mind.  In those moments when the enemy endeavors to steal their joy through worry and anxiety, remember that God will keep His children in perfect peace, when they keep their minds fixed on Him.

Prayer for today:

Prince of Peace, who spoke, “Peace, be still,” and calmed the raging storm, calm the raging storms of our lives on and throughout this trip, that we might not be hindered due to worry or anxiety, so that we might fulfill with confidence the mission to which you have called us.  Amen.

The Lord be with you!

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On Spiritual Mirrors

JU Choir in JamaicaMay is often the season in which college students serve on teams doing various ministry work both domestically and internationally.  At roughly this time last year, I was in Jamaica with the Judson University Choir, a life-changing experience for many of us.  We had such a moving time of ministry there that we hope to go back again next May.

The other day I came across a series of devotionals I was asked to write for one such missions trip Judson students took to India about eight or nine years ago.  They were to read them at various points during the trip, one every other day or so, as I recall.  I was asked to address the topic of reflections–what they are, where we encounter them, what they mean (and don’t mean), etc.  As I read through the pieces, I thought to myself, “These aren’t half bad,” and so I plan to share one per week for the next seven weeks, as I get back into the habit/discipline of trying to offer in this blog, well, some reflections on the Christian life, filtered, as often as not, through the lens of worship.  Here’s the first, which focuses on mirrors.

“Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall”

Psalm 139:23-24 – “Investigate my life, O God, find out everything about me; cross-examine and test me, get a clear picture of what I’m about; see for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—then guide me on the road to eternal life.” (The Message)

The most obvious word that comes to mind when you talk about the concept of reflection is mirror.  And in our materialistic and self-obsessed culture, we place a high value on mirrors, don’t we?  We stop in front of them to check for all kinds of things: straightened ties, coiffured hair, erupting zits.  We become so obsessed that sometimes one mirror won’t do.  We need three mirrors to make sure that the new outfit we are thinking about purchasing doesn’t make certain parts of us look too big or other parts look too small; when my family moved into our new home, the thing I missed most about our old digs was the three-way mirror above the sink in the bathroom, which came in handy when I tried, as best I could, to comb my thinning hair back so as to accentuate the bald spot as little as possible.

Nathan the prophet was a spiritual mirror for King David, in the aftermath of the latter’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband Uriah.  In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan confronts David by holding up a mirror, of sorts, to the king, showing him the offensive ways in him, as the NIV renders the scripture verse for today above.  When David expressed outrage that the rich man in the story stole the lamb from the poor man and served it as a meal for a fellow traveler, Nathan uttered what must be one of the most horrific indictments ever: “You are the man!” (verse 7).  David, to his credit, doesn’t try to make excuses for himself and doesn’t foist the blame anywhere other than where it belongs: “I have sinned against the Lord” (verse 12).  Read David’s sincere and contrite plea for forgiveness and cleansing in Psalm 51.

Your trip is going to be filled with opportunities for self-examination.  Why am I really here?  What are my real motivations?  What good can a bunch of wealthy Americans do here in India?  And, no doubt, some of your innate—thanks to the Fall—prejudices will rise to the surface at some point on this trip.  (Those of you who think you’re not at all prejudiced, that you’re above such pettiness, be sure to check in with your advisors soon, to alert them of this miracle.  They will want to disabuse you of your folly ahead of time.)  When those and other un-Christian thoughts tempt you, remember Nathan’s rhetorical mirror.  It’s a lot less painful to do the spiritual mirror-gazing yourself (in the spirit of Ps. 139 above) than to have it done for you.

Prayer for today:

Omniscient-yet-gracious God, Who knows our hearts and our motives and our thoughts and everything about us, grant us the courage to engage in regular—daily, hourly—self-reflection, that we might have clean hands and pure hearts to bring to You and those whom we will serve on this trip, for the glory of Your Kingdom.  Amen.

The Lord be with you!

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Brennan Manning on Resting in God

For those of us who follow academic calendars, summer comes to us–at least partially, at least potentially, at least initially–as a period of rest.  The fact that I follow an academic calendar and see that I haven’t written a blog post–an activity I find very enjoyable and soul-nurturing–in almost two months probably attests to how desperately I need a little rest in my own life.

brennan-manningI know of few authors who speak to matters like this with any more clarity and grace than the late Brennan Manning, who died a couple of years ago after a significant speaking ministry on college campuses, among other venues.  For over 20 years, I directed the chapel ministry at Judson University, and Manning’s Spiritual Enrichment Week addresses in the late 1990’s at Judson (then) College were profound, and alums who were Judson students during that time still talk about how profoundly Manning rearranged their notions of grace and their identity in Christ.

In lieu of my own thoughts on this subject, here is Manning, in classic Manning fashion, providing marvelous reflections on resting in God.  This excerpt comes from his well-known The Ragamuffin Gospel:

If a random sample of one thousand American Christians were taken today, the majority would define faith as belief in the existence of God.  In earlier times it did not take faith to believe that God existed—almost everyone took that for granted.  Rather, faith had to do with one’s relationship to God—whether one trusted in God.  The difference between faith as “belief in something that may or may not exist” and faith as “trusting in God” is enormous.  The first is a matter of the head, the second a matter of the heart.  The first can leave us unchanged; the second intrinsically brings change.

Such is the faith described by Paul Tillich in his famous work The Shaking of the Foundations:

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness.  It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. . . . It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.  Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying, “You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know.  Do not ask the name now; perhaps you will find it later.  Do not try anything now; perhaps later you will do much.  Do not seek anything, do not perform anything, do not intend anything.  Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.”  If that happens to us, we experience grace.

And Grace calls out: you are not just a disillusioned old man who may die soon, a middle-aged woman stuck in a job and desperately wanting to get out, a young person feeling the fire in the belly begin to grow cold.  You may be insecure, inadequate, mistaken, or potbellied.  Death, panic, depression, and disillusionment may be near you.  But you are not just that.  You are accepted.  Never confuse your perception of yourself with the mystery that you really are accepted.

Paul writes: “The Lord said, ‘My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness.’  So I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast so that the power of Christ may stay over me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).  Whatever our failings may be, we need not lower our eyes in the presence of Jesus.  Unlike Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, we need not hide all that is ugly and repulsive in us.  Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together, and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazin’ grace.  As we glance up, we are astonished to find the eyes of Jesus open with wonder, deep with understanding, and gentle with compassion.

May that grace–to which we all are, in the words of the hymn writer, “how great a debtor”–wash over you today in profound ways, and may the rest of our God be yours today.

The Lord be with you!

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Good Reminders for Worship Leaders from a Night at the Cabaret

One of my nieces, an accomplished singer who has sung in Cincinnati’s renowned May Festival Chorus, this past weekend coordinated a night of small-group Cabaret singing as a fundraising event for the world-premiere production of Morning Star by the Cincinnati Opera this summer.  As my wife and I sat listening to the wonderful music, it occurred to me that the evening was producing some good reminders for worship leaders, even though the event was not held in a church, and we were not gathered for expressly religious purposes.  (For more advice for worship leaders from unlikely sources, consider this excellent post from Willow Creek worship leader Aaron Niequist: Aaron Niequist on Bono as a worship leader.)

1. We were greeted hospitably.  Uniformed personnel opened doors for us, asked us if they could take our coats, and gave explicit directions for how to find the room where the event was taking place.  How often, I wondered, do folks walk into our churches without the faintest idea of what to do, where to go, or how to find what they’re looking for?  I bet more of our churches would retain more of our visitors if those of us in leadership reminded ourselves more regularly what it felt like when we were visitors once ourselves.

2. The room was decorated beautifully.  We entered a performance space that could best be described as “industrial chic,” with tastefully accented lighting and other décor that obviously had been given much consideration.  Someone on the leadership team had been assigned the task of paying significant attention to details that, technically, had nothing to do with the making of good music.  And yet, of course, they did, as the beauty of the environment made us even more receptive to the music than we otherwise would have been.  How often, I wondered, do our churches, in well-intended efforts to focus on the majors and to make sure we don’t distract worshipers, miss opportunities to allow sacred space to inform our worship services–to point people to, rather than distract people from, God?

3. The meal was prepared with excellence.  We were served a four-course meal that was fabulous.  Everything was tasty and presented beautifully.  How often, I wondered, do our churches adopt a penny-wise mindset that ends up being pound-foolish where things like coffee, donuts, and even communion bread are concerned?  In a church staff meetingBob Webber today, one of our associate pastors cited Ps. 34:8, “O taste and see that the Lord is good,” as a rationale for serving extra-tasty bread for this year’s Good Friday service, and I think he has a point (for Good Friday and for any observance of the Eucharist, for that matter).  Near the end of his life, Robert Webber began articulating the strong connection between worship and hospitality.  I suspect many of our churches could focus a bit more energy here.

4. The outline for the evening was made very clear at the onset.  Once the meal had been completed, the emcee for the evening laid out the plan for the rest of the festivities.  Those of us in attendance knew exactly what to expect going forward.  How often, I wondered, do worship leaders fail to “connect the dots” for the congregation during worship?  I fear we sometimes forget that although we have been thinking about this particular worship service for a week or more, although we have been in prayer about all the details (song keys, arrangements, transitional comments) for several days, although we have a significant emotional investment in the goings-on, none of the above usually has been/is in place for our parishioners, many of whom are just finishing up socializing or concluding church business while we launch into our call to worship.  Helping our congregations understand why we are doing what we’re doing can enrich the overall experience significantly.

5. The songs sung were predominantly familiar.  The opera for which funds were being raised that evening concerns early 20th-century American immigrant experiences, and so the songs sung that night came from that era of popular music.  We heard Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” and Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” among many famous others.  Of the 12 songs sung that evening, I was familiar with 10 of them.  And because I knew most of what I heard that night, I could better enjoy being introduced to two new songs.  How often, I wondered, do we miss opportunities to introduce new songs well because we haven’t allowed our congregations to experience old favorites first?

To extend this analogy much further would cause it to break down, I know, but I appreciated the Holy Spirit’s opening my eyes last weekend to see Truth in areas where I might not have expected it.  How often, I wonder, do I miss other times He speaks to me with insight about the Church when I am in arenas outside the church?

The Lord be with you!

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A Prayer for Moving from Brokenness to Healing

 

A few weeks ago, Judson University featured one of my all-time favorite chapel speakers, simkinsRev. Ian Simkins, in a Spiritual Enrichment Week series of messages titled Beauty in the Common, with the word common taking on connotations related both to the ordinary and to that which we do together in community.  (If Ian were the pastor of a megachurch, he’d be an A-lister for youth conferences the world over; he communicates that well.  Connect with him here, if you’re interested: Ian Simkins.)  Ian took four different and seemingly dichotomous word pairings and showed how God brings beauty in each.

I was asked to provide a call to worship for the chapel message addressing both beauty in brokenness and beauty in healing.  I introduced it by noting the fortuitous grammatical inconsistency between the two words.  (Other chapel messages that week featured comparisons between two grammatically similar words: stillness and chaos, both nouns, for instance.)  Brokenness is a noun, while healing can take many forms.  It can be a noun (“I am grateful for the healing God brought to my life”), an adjective (“I want to wade in the healing waters”), or a verb (“Jesus often was found healing the sick”).  I then argued that most of the time, we tend to think of healing as a verb.

So what?  So when healing is used in this manner, it is a present participle, employed most commonly in the present progressive tense, which we use when we wish to articulate that something is ongoing and not finished.  Hence, if there’s beauty in healing, it’s beauty in an incomplete work.  In other words, we are broken people and God, in His grace and mercy, is in the process of healing us, but that work will not be complete this side of eternity.  Thus, whereas we can draw a pretty firm line that separates stillness from chaos, the line between brokenness and healing is quite a bit more porous for Christians.  Embracing this truth allows us to extend grace and mercy to ourselves and, especially, to others along our common journeys as disciples of Christ.

All that acknowledged, there can be a tendency among the young people with whom I work to focus a bit too intently on our common brokenness and miss that the gospel (the “good news”) proclaims our common healing–incomplete, to be sure, but ongoing in God’s perfect timing.  And so for the call to worship, I composed a corporate prayer with responses that reinforced this important understanding of God’s work in our lives.  Recently I was asked to share the prayer as a blog post, and so here it is:

Sovereign God, Great Physician, and Giver of Life,

When the sins committed against us in our childhood—physical abuse, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, bullying, neglect, abandonment, and many others—when those sins stir up painful memories and cause our souls to grieve, Lord, in Your mercy,

Move us, in Your perfect time, from brokenness to healing.

When the sins that we committed in our youth—lying, stealing, bullying, sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, and many others—when those sins come flooding to our minds, when the enemy tempts us to let the past remind us of what we are not now, Lord, in Your mercy,

Move us, in Your perfect time, from brokenness to healing.

 When we agonize over our current lot in life, when we don’t feel as if we have anywhere near the strength we need for today, and we can’t even begin to fathom that You will provide bright hope for tomorrow, Lord, in Your mercy,

Move us, in Your perfect time, from brokenness to healing.

When our burdens feel too heavy to bear, when we sense no one else has ever experienced the depths of despair that we feel, when Your promise to be with us always feels, at best, empty, and, at worst, like a flat-out lie, Lord, in Your mercy,

Move us, in Your perfect time, from brokenness to healing.

When instead of resisting the devil, so he will flee, we invite him into our lives with open arms, believing his lies, entertaining his deceitful manipulations, lending an ear—or two, or even more, when we drag weaker brothers and sisters into our mess—when we lend an ear to the enemy’s destructive falsehoods and nurse and feed his evil thoughts, words, or behaviors, Lord, in Your mercy,

Move us, in Your perfect time, from brokenness to healing.

And finally, when we have, like Job, reached rock bottom, so beaten up—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—that no logical explanation remains for our misery, that we begin to question Your essence and Your character, that we even are tempted to curse You and die, Lord, in Your mercy,

Move us, in Your perfect time, from brokenness to healing.

Sovereign God, Great Physician, and Giver of Life,

Impress upon us Your grace, give us, even this morning, an ever more accurate picture of who You are and an ever more accurate picture of who we are in You, that our responses to those ever more accurate pictures will bring glory and honor to You and Your Kingdom.  We pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

The Lord be with you!

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