Tag Archives: love

Outlasting the Blues

As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, and Ontario enters its second full lockdown, with new government directives that leave many questions unanswered, all of us are getting a little battle-weary. Couple this with the political turmoil south of the border and you have more than enough discouragement to fatigue even the most stalwart soul.

When we are in the midst of a battle, one important key to victory is perspective. If we can see the enemy and the battleground, we can fight much more effectively. This morning as I was waking up, a dream fragment told me my God was trying to get my attention. With three simple words He gave me that precious gift of renewed perspective. The words came from a 1979 Arlo Guthrie album title – one I used to love but had not listened to for years.

Outlasting the Blues.

I had been asking the Lord to help me understand why we seem so powerless against this pandemic. Didn’t he bestow upon His apostles the gift of the Holy Spirit, including the power to heal diseases?

He patiently reminded me that the gifts of the Holy Spirit don’t guarantee that we will have no more troubles in this age. To the contrary, Jesus made it clear to His apostles that in this world they would have trouble.  In the midst of troubled times, times of great need, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is a great blessing and source of comfort. But the gifts He gives are signs of the Age to Come – a deposit on our inheritance. They are given to empower us, to give us hope and resources with which we can help others.  They are not given to exempt us from trouble.

We who live in North America have been so used to relative peace and prosperity that we have developed an entire theology to tell us that what God really wants for us is a comfortable life here and now.  I like my comforts as much as the next person, but I know my Bible and my God well enough to know there’s something wrong with that theology. And I know it even better now than I did before COVID.

We are in a time when God is shaking many things. We are experiencing birth pangs. There will be more birth pangs. I have never given birth, but I did accompany my wife through the birth of all four of our children, and  all her labours were long ones. Even the shortest was about ten hours long. I can tell you two things about that experience. First, it was hard and long and painful and messy, and she wanted it to be over long before it was.  Second, after each child was born she had absolutely no regrets about the experience. It had all been worth the struggle.

The Bible tells us that God’s plan is to make all things new. He is preparing a glorious bride for his Son, and looking for those who will persevere in prayer and faith, hold on to hope, and seek to grow in love as they wait for God to finish his work.

I don’t want to just escape into distractions while I wait for the pandemic to be over. That would be a waste of a good test. Tests are given for a reason. I want to be one of the ones who don’t quit, who keep their eyes on the prize and share in the glories of the new heaven and earth in the age to come.

By the grace of God I am determined to outlast the blues. How about you?

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Nuggets of Hope 29 – Living Flame of Love

We live in troubled times. As if the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t present enough of a challenge, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has placed a spotlight on the reality of white privilege and the pain of the black community. Meanwhile, anti-Semitism is once again rearing its ugly head. A Montreal synagogue was recently torched, and fully 20% of Britons surveyed blame a Jewish conspiracy for COVID-19. And this is only a partial list.

In the midst of all this turmoil comes the Biblical feast of Pentecost (Shavuot in Hebrew), celebrated by Christians today and by Jews three days earlier. Originally a harvest festival, Shavuot was one of three festivals (the others being Tabernacles and Passover) for which Jews were expected to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The Book of Acts records that after Jesus had ascended into heaven ten days earlier, the community of about 120 disciples had gathered and were holding an extended prayer meeting. Meanwhile the city was filling up with Jewish pilgrims who had come from various places in the Roman empire to celebrate Shavuot. On the feast day, as the apostles were praying – probably on a rooftop terrace – the Holy Spirit was poured out in power, a crowd gathered because they heard God being praised and proclaimed in their various languages, the apostle Simon Peter preached a bold and powerful message, and three thousand Jews turned from their sins on that day, received Jesus as Messiah, and joined the community of His followers. While a nucleus stayed in Jerusalem, many of the pilgrims would have eventually returned to their homes, taking the new faith with them.

The new community of disciples was marked by several powerful features. They were full of joy by the power of the Holy Spirit. They stood in awe of God’s power and holiness. They lived together, shared their goods, walked in humility, loved their enemies and prayed for those who opposed them. Miracles of healing were common. Before long, persecution began to flare up as the new faith was a challenge to the established order.  Yet many were drawn to the new faith because of the undeniable sense that God was with these lovers of Jesus.

Two millennia have passed since those early days. The new movement, which began as a persecuted minority among Jews, soon spread to Gentiles as well and after a couple of generations had rejected its Jewish origins as it began to penetrate Roman society. Within three centuries, the church had become an established institution, supported by the state. Its history is a mixture of good and evil. The list of wrongs perpetrated in the name of Christ is too long for this blog. Yet many of the best features of our Western society are also directly attributed by secular historians to the influence of Christianity. By God’s grace, the same Holy Spirit who fell on the eagerly waiting fellowship on that first Pentecost has continued to bring repentance and renewal, and the number of those who truly love Jesus and His ways, and seek to follow Him in sincerity, has continued to grow.

In these troubled times, when many things are being shaken and stripped away, I believe it’s time for God’s people to return to basics – to our first love. The Holy Spirit was given to empower His people to proclaim the good news. He has given us many gifts of power. But His first assignment – His very nature – is to draw our attention to Jesus himself. I’m very grateful for the gifts of the Spirit. But I am even more grateful that He gives us the power to grow in love for Jesus and His ways. He is the living flame of God’s love, poured into our hearts. Whatever good we do – whether preaching the gospel, giving to the poor or caring for the sick – it counts for nothing with God unless it springs from love. But consistent love for God and His ways – which Jesus called the first commandment – is the one thing we are incapable of without the power of the Spirit. I can’t even love my own wife consistently without His help. We need the Holy Spirit.

In these times of growing turmoil and trouble, it’s increasingly evident that no-one has a solution to the challenges we are facing. There is only one leader capable of bringing peace, justice and healing to the earth – King Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, who will bring in His Kingdom when He returns. But He has given His people a deposit on our inheritance – the blessed Holy Spirit. In the chaos of our times – in the midst of adversity, when everything within us is crying out to God to change our circumstances – the Spirit empowers us to love and choose the Lamb and His ways. He is coming for a people who have learned to persevere and grow in love. In the end, that is how we will be evaluated.

Come, Holy Spirit.

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Raise a Yuletide glass?

Christmas is coming, and with it the inevitable holiday parties where food and drink of all sorts will be offered.

I love eating and drinking! Food and drink are among the chief pleasures of this life. Our capacity to enjoy food and drink is a wonderful blessing from our generous Creator. But, like all good things, these blessings can be abused.

In this short reflection, I want to consider the topic of alcohol use. My frame of reference in this post is that of a Christian believer. If you call yourself a Christian, I’m hoping this post will prompt some sober reflection on how we ought to look at this issue.

I grew up in a Dutch immigrant family. In my family growing up, it was considered normal to drink wine at celebrations. Alcohol was offered to adults, but drunkenness was frowned upon. Since surrendering my life to Christ at the age of thirty-four, I’ve given quite a bit of thought to this matter. As a new believer in the late 1980s, I soon learned that many of my new evangelical Christian friends saw alcohol use as totally off-limits for any genuine Christian. So I had some thinking to do. This post is the fruit of those reflections.

I have friends – brothers and sisters in Christ – who are recovering alcoholics, or who are married to recovering alcoholics. For them, alcohol is dangerous. It’s a no-go zone.

I have other friends – brothers and sisters in Christ – who have never touched a drop of alcohol, and who believe and teach that no Christian should ever do so. This conviction stems from their awareness of the potentially destructive power of alcohol.

I have yet other friends – brothers and sisters in Christ – who believe that moderate alcohol use adds to their enjoyment of social gatherings and does no harm.

My friends in the third group would probably see this as a matter of Christian liberty of conscience, much as the apostle Paul did in regard to the matter of clean and unclean foods (Romans 14), which was a divisive issue in the first century community of believers. His position was that as a believer you are free in Christ to follow your conscience in these matters.

But he also said something else, and to me this is the crux of the matter. None of us lives for ourselves alone.

Having given this matter careful consideration, I don’t see any Scriptural basis for forbidding alcohol use. It’s clear to me that wine was a common part of life in the Hebrew scriptures, in the Jewish community from which the first church sprang, and in the New Testament world in general. The use of wine was considered to be normal. I’ve heard the arguments that the wine used in the Bible was alcohol free, but I don’t think this conviction holds water.

Drunkenness, however, was and is absolutely forbidden for followers of Jesus. To live a life that’s led by the Holy Spirit, we need to keep ourselves free from other influences. This means that for a disciple, alcohol use needs to be restrained and moderate. And when in doubt, we need to follow the most important and simple rule of all. Are we walking in love? In other words – is our conduct helping others live well, or does it have the potential to cause harm to another? Is what we are doing aiding or hindering in our primary calling – to display the goodness of Jesus to a needy world?

So, to my friends who exercise their liberty to enjoy a glass of wine or a bottle of beer in moderation, I have a question for you to consider. When you make the decision that it’s OK for you to enjoy a glass of your favourite brew or vintage, can you honestly say that you honour God as the Creator of all good things? If so, good on you. But if you drink to excess, and lose control of your ability to govern your own behaviour, how is this glorifying to God? And even if you’re very careful to stay sober, do you choose to draw attention to your exercise of your liberty, maybe by posting a pic online, or mocking those whose conscience won’t let them join you? If you do, whose good are you thinking of? Is this in any way doing good to your brother or sister? Or is it potentially causing division in the Body of Jesus, and doing harm to someone who can’t handle alcohol at all, and might be influenced by your choice?

And to my friends who never touch a drop of alcohol, I have a question for you to consider as well. Are you mature enough to see your abstinence as a personal choice, an expression of your own obedience to God? If so, good on you. Or are you using it as a measuring stick by which you assess who’s “in” and who’s “out” of God’s favour, presence and Kingdom? If so, be careful. It’s not up to you and me to exclude people that God doesn’t exclude. From what I can tell by my reading of the gospels, Jesus ate food and drank wine with some people that were counted as “unclean” by the religious rule-makers of the day. Their salvation was more important to him than someone else’s external rules about who was in and who was out.

I was trying to think of a good way to end this, but I can’t really find a better way than by quoting, once again, from the words of Paul. Love does no harm to a neighbor (brother, sister). Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. When you get right down to it, it’s not about us. When we think it is, we get messed up. When we keep our focus on giving delight to God and loving those around us, we do well.

Happy Holidays! And may your celebrations make Jesus smile.

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What I want for my grandchildren – and for you

This morning, Marion and I got to see Sophie, Livie and Maddie Rose – our three Kansas City cuties – opening the Christmas gifts that we had ordered for them. The wonder of video technology made it possible for us to share this moment with them. It was a joy to our hearts to see each of them respond with delight to the presents we had picked out for them (with a bit of helpful advice from their Mom).  Sophie was thrilled by her new art set. Livie was excited about her dot to dot books and markers. Maddie was pumped about the Paw Patrol books and stuffed toy.

Last night at a family Christmas Eve gathering at my sister’s home here in Ottawa, I delighted to see the awe and wonder in the eyes of my granddaughter Maddie Joy as we read the Christmas story and sang well-loved carols. Her almost-two-year-old heart was captivated by the lights on the tree and the beauty of the music. We have some gifts for her as well, which she hasn’t seen yet, but of course we are looking forward to watching her open them.

Yes, we love our granddaughters to bits. Most grandparents love their grandkids. It’s a pleasure for us to give them gifts. The gifts we buy for them are an expression of our love for them.

But what do we really want for these four delightful little girls?  Mostly things money can’t buy.

We want them to know they are loved – by us, by their parents, but ultimately by the God who made them.

We want them to know that they are made for beauty, truth and significance.

We want them to know that they are more than just accidental blips on the screen of life, that their lives have eternal value and purpose.

We want them to know that despite whatever pain or suffering they may encounter in their lives in this world, God’s glorious plan is to make all things new, that Jesus is coming to rule over a Kingdom that will never end, and that they belong in that Kingdom with Him.

This is the path of hope that was opened up for us by the child of Bethlehem – a child who was destined to die for the redemption of the whole earth, a child who is coming as King to rule the world in righteousness.

We live in troubled, confusing, dangerous times. We need a light for our pathway, and Jesus is that light. What I want for my granddaughters is what I also pray for you – that the True Light of the World will shine in your life and guide your steps into His eternal Kingdom.

Merry Christmas.

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One Day in Your Courts

Love is at the core of every special day. Think back to some of the best days of your life—days marked by joy and excitement. If you scratch beneath the surface of those days, you will find love at…

Source: One Day in Your Courts

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The Bridal Seal of Love

For the past several weeks I have been making Song of Songs a major focus of my devotional life and as part of that focus, I have just finished listening to a wonderful 12-part teaching series by Mike Bickle (of International House of Prayer) on the Song of Songs.

Although this is not my first time devoting a season of my life to the Song, this time around I found it so motivating that I wanted to encourage you all to consider giving some time to contemplating the message of the Song (which really is the message of the First Commandment, in poetic form).

Because the Song of Songs is poetry, and because it is set in a culture very different from ours, some parts of it may seem strange to us. For this reason a guide may be helpful. I have been greatly helped by Mike Bickle’s teaching on the song – as well as his testimony of how God overcame his reluctance and taught him to love the Song. So, for any who would appreciate some help, here is a link to the final teaching in the series, to give you a taste and get you started.

I debated whether to share this with you all, because I don’t want to just promote my own agenda. But I don’t think it is just my agenda. Teaching the Bride to love the Bridegroom is central to God’s purposes in the Last Days. Nor is this at odds with focusing on the Great Commission. Rather, it’s the fuel for carrying out that commission without burning out.

Often we pray in a task-oriented or results-oriented mode. We pray for this need or that need. There is nothing wrong with this – Jesus told us to bring our requests to the Father – but the highest goal of our life, and what Jesus is returning for, is to be a Bride that is fully in love with Him, so that whatever we do is fuelled by our love for Him which in turn is fuelled by His love for us.

Increasingly, this is the mandate that the Lord is bringing to the forefront of my attention – to go deeper in knowledge of His love, and then to let everything else I do be motivated, shaped and fuelled by that love. Although I fall far short of this, it is my vision and my heart’s desire, and I believe it is also the call of God, the reason He created us and the reason Jesus came to earth – that He would have a people who know the fulness of His love.

In Jesus

Peter

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One thing remains

Marion and I were married in 1976. Our wedding – which we planned ourselves – was full of prophetic themes although I barely understood them at the time.

Like many church weddings, our wedding featured these well-known verses from 1 Corinthians 13:8-13.

Love never fails …
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror;
then we shall see face to face.
Now I know in part;
then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.
But the greatest of these is love.

As a young man, I thought I knew so much. I realize now that I understood almost nothing of the ways of God. But I did know that I wanted to follow Jesus, and I knew that his way was a way of love.

Within a few years, Marion and I were raising children while seeking to pastor a flock. Although I loved my children dearly, I was a very imperfect Dad and an equally imperfect husband. I was a broken man seeking to teach others the ways of wholeness. This paradox brought many pressures into my life. But in the midst of all these pressures, I was learning to seek the Lord.

In April 1987 I surrendered my life to Jesus and Marion and I were baptized in the Holy Spirit. Joe was five years old at the time. It was a fresh start for us. We were learning to live life with Jesus instead of following him from a distance.

One thing was established in our marriage from those early years of walking with Jesus. Marion and I always prayed for our children. We so wanted them to know that Jesus was alive and that His promises were real. We wanted them to learn and walk in the ways of God’s love.

Fast forward twenty-eight years to April 2015. Marion and I had lived in seven different houses in those twenty-eight years. We had served in a wide range of different types of churches, and had experimented with many different aspects of ministry, business and teaching. We had learned to know Jesus as our Beloved and our friend. Despite our very imperfect parenting, somehow our children had done well. Our family had grown up, our three sons were married and were making their way in life, and our baby girl – now almost 23 years old – was looking forward to her wedding day.

Then the unthinkable happened. Our daughter-in-law Carmen, who had brought so much joy into our son Joe’s life, and had blessed us with a beautiful granddaughter, visited the emergency room of a local hospital because she wasn’t feeling well. Little did she know that her small intestine had become pinched and was dying. She became the victim of a misdiagnosis that cost her her small intestine and almost cost her her life. You can read her story here. Suddenly, this young, healthy, happy couple with the three month old baby entered a nightmare scenario that threatened to consume them.

In the midst of all this, we were also trying to prepare for a wedding.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

We cried out to God; we were humbled; we were overwhelmed with gratitude as hundreds of people rallied to provide practical help and pray for Joe and Carmen; our own family was knit more closely together; we saw the best and the worst of Canada’s medical system; we saw the Body of Christ at work.

Today, ten weeks later, many prayers have been answered, though some still await their fulfillment. After two critical surgeries, Carmen has been back home for a month, and is doing well. Bethany and Dunovan are married and enjoying their honeymoon.

The wedding was wonderful. Simeon and Heather and their girls were able to join us from Kansas City. We had some great family times. I got to walk my daughter down the aisle, and speak words of blessing over her and her new husband. Joe, Carmen and Maddie were able to be with us and join the celebration.

We are very grateful, but also more aware than ever of our own weakness and our dependency on the Mighty One.

Our life in this age continues. Simeon and Heather are back home with their girls, and Reuben and Jess are in France. Joe and Carmen are at the cottage with Maddie, Bethany and Dunovan are honeymooning in Nova Scotia. I am back at work, and serving in the House of Prayer. But even as I enjoy each day, my children are never far from my thoughts, and most of my thoughts towards them are prayers. I am more deeply aware than ever before that our lives are in the hands of a merciful God. I am looking for a City that is to come, and I long for the day of the King’s appearing.

When you set out to raise a family, you truly have no idea what life will bring your way.

Many things were important to me when I was a young Dad all those years ago. There were so many things that I wanted to teach my children, so many things I wanted for them.

Of all those hopes, dreams and visions, some have changed, some never came about, but as the song says, One thing remains. This one thing will remain for all eternity. Without it, I have nothing of any lasting value. With it, I have everything I need.

Jesus loves me, this I know.

 

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The wedding feast

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Last Saturday my oldest son, Joe, married the love of his life, Carmen. For me this was cause for great joy.

I was delighted for Joe. He looked so thrilled as he waited for Carmen to walk down the aisle. He has married a good woman and he will be an excellent husband and father. He has waited a long time for this day, and his patience has been rewarded.

I have enjoyed getting to know Carmen and it was most satisfying to be able to welcome her into our family. She spoke her wedding vows with thoughtfulness and conviction. It was good to meet Carmen’s parents and her brothers, who evidently care so much about her.

I was so pleased for Marion. She and Joe have always had a special bond, and it was good to see the love and pride in her eyes as she watched her son get married and as she shared a special dance with him during the party that followed.

It was lots of fun to have Simeon, Heather and their girls staying in our home for the week leading up to the wedding. I loved playing with the girls, reading them stories, going to the park with them, watching “shows” with them, and talking with Sophie about the big picture of Jesus in our living room. Bethany and her boyfriend Dunovan also spent hours playing with the girls, much to their delight. I see the makings of a favourite aunt and uncle there (though there may be some competition for the title).

On the wedding day I was thrilled to see my two beautiful little granddaughters walking down the aisle in their pretty dresses, Sophie bearing the wedding rings, and Alivia carrying rose petals. Heather, despite feeling miserable due to a nasty cold, was a great sport and made sure the girls were up for their special role.

I was blessed to see again how many truly good friends Joe and Carmen have. Joe and his team worked long and hard to pull off a wedding on a farm under less than ideal circumstances (pouring rain). After having planned and hoped for an outdoor wedding, they adjusted admirably to the wet weather, spending several hours on the wedding day itself shovelling and raking crushed rock so that the rest of us would be dry (relatively speaking) inside the wedding tent. Others spent hours preparing and serving food. Carmen’s friends added to the joy of the day with their gifts of music, service and presence. Special mention goes to Caleb and Julie; Jon; Dave; Margaret, Maggie and Katrina; Nick and Alex; Patrick and Sarah.

At the reception, Joe’s brother Simeon, the best man, spoke with affection and pride of his respect for his big brother. Their younger brother, Reuben, took extra good care of Grandma and Grandpa with the help of his ever-supportive wife Jess, making sure that they were comfortable. Marion and I were so grateful for the help and support of Earl and Debbie Davidson who so generously made their house and property available. It was wonderful to reconnect with them as well as with other good friends from our Russell and City Church days.

All in all, my cup was full. My oldest son was seeing a dream of his heart fulfilled, my wife was happy, and my children and grandchildren were laughing together, serving each other and enjoying each other’s company in the presence of much-loved friends.

Yet during a week filled with such great joy, there were some troubling notes. In Barrhaven, an OC Transpo bus collided with a train, and several people were killed. In Washington DC, a number of people were shot by an assailant at the Navy Yard. In Nairobi, Kenya, Al-Shabaab terrorists attacked a mall, targetting non-Muslims and killing over sixty. On a more personal level, our good friend Lynne is facing chemotherapy in the wake of cancer surgery.

How can we make sense of all this? How do you enjoy a wedding and a family celebration in the face of such pain?

These are really questions of life and death. Why is there suffering? Why is there grief? Why is there death? Why is there evil? What is God’s answer?

Though these questions are not easy for our hearts, the Bible does have clear answers. I find it so helpful to be reminded that Jesus, who has suffered for us and with us, is the real Bridegroom, and the Marriage of the Lamb is the real Wedding Feast. He is alive, He lives and reigns now in the heavens, and soon he will return to claim his bride and rule openly as King. The joy of Joe and Carmen’s wedding points forward to the far greater joy of that great day when every tear will be wiped away.

During his earthly ministry He did many miracles to encourage our hearts, and similar miracles are still happening today. To cite just one example, my good friend Gola Tiruneh has seen many works of great power as he reaches out to Muslims in Indonesia with the good news that Jesus is Lord. These are signs of His Kingdom that is coming, and they are wonderful indeed. It is good to have reminders that ultimately the darkness will be defeated, and the Bridegroom will be acknowledged by all as King.

But in the meantime, even when the Holy Spirit is poured out and people are saved, healed and delivered, even when hearts are healed and relationships are restored, even when we enjoy wonderful times of celebration with family and friends, this does not mean that there will be no more trouble. Jesus told us that until His return He would always be near, but He also said that his followers should be prepared for sorrows as well as joys, and warned us not to be dismayed by the one or distracted by the other, but to stay alert and fix our hope on His coming Kingdom.

I am very happy for Joe and Carmen, and wish them many years of happiness and much growth in love. I’m similarly happy when any of my children – or anyone else that I love and care about – finds true joy in life. But my heart’s desire for my children, and for all those God has called me to serve and love and pray for, is that they would fix their eyes on Jesus, the crucified and risen One who is coming to reign. He is the one who can anchor our hearts so that we are not dismayed by the troubles that are part of living in a dying world. The good news is that He has a plan to restore the earth and bring everlasting joy to those who have put their hope in Him. Every wedding, rightly understood, points forward to that glorious day when the Messiah will claim His bride and the earth will be restored.

I want to end this post with a link to a beautiful song by Matt Gilman that expresses the cry in our hearts for that day when the Bride will marry the Lamb. Blessings.

 

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Why we worship

A few months ago, I began to get that restless feeling in my spirit that I have come to recognize as preparation for a significant change – usually a new ministry assignment. As I talked with Marion and sought to discern the Lord’s leading, we eventually realized that we were being reassigned to a little neighbourhood church here in Vanier known as The Village.

The Village is pastored by a wonderful couple who live just one block from our house, and our initial assignment was simply to come alongside them and provide friendship, encouragement and prayer support. However, as this relationship has developed, Marion and I have also been invited to assist in strengthening the Village’s ministry of sung worship.

This is an excellent fit for us on a musical level. As a worship leader my style is very simple and unsophisticated. I play my acoustic guitar and sing. No band; no lights; no smoke machines; no mosh pit; no screaming fans; no gear beyond a very basic sound system with a microphone and a pickup to amplify my guitar. Not that I’m against any of that other stuff, but for me they have never seemed necessary (although I have to admit, having a bass player would be a great blessing). I’ve always led worship in very small settings – small groups and home churches. The Village is not a home church, but it is a very simple church, so a simple approach to sung worship fits right in.

As for Marion, the simplicity of the musical culture at the Village has provided a perfect context for the djembe (African hand drum) that I gave her a few years ago, and it has been a delight to see her gaining confidence as a hand drummer. Acoustic guitar and djembe make a very good combo, and her playing helps to keep me anchored with a solid rhythmic base that adds some punch to our musical offering.

The simplicity of music and worship at this new place of assignment is also a good fit on another level. It is a constant reminder that worship is not a show, but an offering of love.

I’ve had seven years to re-learn this lesson. From the spring of 2006 until this recent shift to The Village, Marion and I had been part of two mid-size churches. Both these churches were blessed with plenty of talented musicians, and despite my love for worshipping the Lord in song, I knew that the Holy Spirit was restraining me from joining the praise and worship team at either church. At the time, I didn’t think of it as a sabbatical, but I now realize that the time span of seven years was no accident.

The lack of involvement in worship ministry was a big change for me, as prior to this I had been the main worship leader as well as the pastor and teacher in our house church for many years. But with the subtle pressure of the Holy Spirit keeping me from joining the public worship ministry of either City Church or All Nations, I played my guitar and sang my songs of worship in my basement, in my small group, at prayer meetings with a handful of intercessors. It felt strange at first to be restricted to using my gift in such a limited way, but I knew that God was pruning me, testing my heart to see if I would still choose to be a worshipper when He was the only one watching or listening.

About two years into this seven-year sabbatical, I was introduced to the worship coming out of International House of Prayer in Kansas City, and spent many hours letting my heart be changed  in the fragrant atmosphere of devotion that flows from the IHOP Global Prayer Room.

Now that I am stepping back into a more public role as a worship leader at The Village, I am constantly reminded that this is a priestly function. When I am leading worship, I am not serving myself or my own need for attention. My entire focus needs to be on helping the people of God to be true worshippers who bring a pleasing offering to God. To do this, I need to first of all be a true worshipper myself. And so, I have been asking myself some old questions, and finding that the answers to those questions – though I have known them for many years – are reaching my heart in a fresh way.

Why worship? What is the point? Why does God value worship? Specifically, why do we worship with songs?

Those are very big questions, and a single blog post is far too short for adequate answers, but here are a few thoughts.

We don’t worship to entertain God, to impress him. Though the simple worship songs offered by a tiny church in Vanier may seem unimpressive even by human standards, the best worship band on earth pales in comparison to the worship offered in the heavens. Nothing we bring could ever compete with the sights, sounds and smells of the worship in the heavenly throne room. And so, humility is called for. We need to get over ourselves. Even with the most skilled singers and musicians, the latest and most anointed songs, a world-class sound system, lights, smoke, and thousands of people – we’re not that impressive. Beloved, yes – amazing, yes – but only because we are the handiwork of an amazing God. He is the one who is truly impressive.

Nor do we worship to make God like us, or to convince him of how devoted we are. God has no illusions about us, and His love for us isn’t dependent on how well we sing our songs or play our instruments. Our hearts are transparent to Him – he sees right through to the core of who we are. He sees our love for Him and our sincere desire to please him, but he also sees our fears, our pride, our judgments, our preoccupation with ourselves, and much else besides. Nothing we do in worship can change that, nor should we even try. After all, God hates pretense. His favour is attracted only by a broken and contrite heart with no deceit.

So why do we worship?

God is worthy
First, we worship because God is worthy. He is before all things, all things come from Him, and everything exists for His pleasure and glory. Any created thing that we consider to be beautiful or good or true is only good because it comes from His hand. True worship is not about us but about God. It is a declaration of His supreme worth, a declaration that He is the reason why we live. In the words of the apostle Paul, in Him we live and move and have our being.

But God is not only worthy of praise because He created us. He is worthy of praise because of His self-giving, sacrificial love. We bow in wonder before the One who took on human form and allowed himself to be broken and crushed on the cross. We are in awe of the One who took away our guilt, washed us clean and gave us a new heart so that we could stand before Him without fear in His presence as beloved sons and daughters. We are amazed at the prospect of sharing in resurrection life with Him forever in His Kingdom that will have no end.

Love
And so we worship not only because God is worthy. We worship God because we love Him. His amazing generosity towards us causes love to flow from our hearts in response. We love because He first loved us. Love for God is the first and greatest commandment.

Now, if we are honest, we would have to admit that we don’t always feel love towards God. Although we have passed from death to life and from darkness to light, our minds and hearts are still in the process of being renewed, and much of our life in this age is still preoccupied with our own concerns. It’s only by the Holy Spirit’s power that we are able to love God at all.

Invited into intimacy
God is better to us than we know. He is fully aware that we are not capable of loving him with our whole being. And that is precisely why He has given us the Holy Spirit, and commanded us to worship him with songs. When we sing songs of praise and thanks and adoration towards God, the Holy Spirit takes our own words and uses them to change our hearts, and we find that our thoughts towards God begin to line up with the words we are singing. The Holy Spirit reminds us of how much He loves us, and our hearts begin to engage with God’s heart, and we find that we are once again in awe of His goodness.

And so, although worship is first of all for God – it is a way of honouring Him and expressing His worth – it is also very much for us. It is a gift that God in His mercy has given us so that we can draw near to Him and our hearts can be transformed in His presence.

One of the most wonderful truths about God’s character is that He delights in our love for Him. The King sees us, He is moved by our love for Him, He invites us into His chambers. This intimacy with the Holy God is one of the amazing paradoxes of worship. Though the Lord is on high, yet he looks with affectionate love on those who humble themselves and seek Him with sincerity.

Why do we worship? Because God has commanded it; because He is worthy; but also because He loves us, and we are invited into intimacy with Him. What an amazing privilege, to come into the experienced presence of the King of Kings for an advance taste of the glories that will be ours forever when His Kingdom comes fully on earth as it is in heaven.

And so, as a worship leader, I want to be careful to keep my focus on Jesus; to remember His goodness and mercy and His supreme worth; and to remember the price He paid and the value He sets on the precious ones whom it is my privilege to lead into His presence every time I offer my songs of worship before God’s throne in the presence of His people. What an amazing and humbling privilege. To God be the glory.

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The power of hospitality

Most Christians, if asked to list five of the attributes of God, would probably come up with words like loving, powerful, forgiving,  just, holy, and so forth.

These are all important descriptors of God’s character as it is revealed to us in the Bible and supremely in Jesus Christ.  But today I am thinking of another word that powerfully sums up how God deals with sinful, weak, needy people.

The word is hospitality.  I was reminded of this attribute of God’s character by a recent post on Richard Long’s excellent blog at Together Canada.  Hospitality is a trait that I would normally associate with people, not with God.  Yet, when we understand Him as He is described in Scripture and portrayed by Jesus, we see that our God is amazingly hospitable.

Looking at the gospels, we see that in one of his parables, Jesus depicted God as a concerned father welcoming his runaway son home to his household and throwing a party for him.  Jesus tells us elsewhere that in his Father’s household there is room for all his children to find a home.  Jesus himself is depicted in Scripture as the coming Bridegroom who welcomes all who place their hope in Him to His wedding banquet.  Our God longs to welcome people in, that they may find their home in Him.

When we look at the qualifications for elders in the New Testament, we discover that the New Testament church placed high value on hospitality as a trait for leaders.   Evidently, the first century apostles understood that Jesus’ sheep need leaders who reflect His generous, hospitable heart.

Last night Marion and I watched Harvey, a movie from an earlier era of cinematography.  Harvey was originally filmed in 1950, and I found it interesting to see how movie making has changed in 60 years.  But beyond the technical aspects, what struck me most in this movie was the generous and hospitable nature of the film’s lead character, Elwood P. Dowd, played by Jimmy Stewart.  Dowd is portrayed as a middle-aged eccentric who has inherited a fortune and does not have to work for a living.   Rather than pursuing the business opportunities that would have been wide open to someone of his means, Dowd goes through life talking to an invisible 6 foot 3 inch rabbit.  He spends most of his time at the local bar (where his invisible friend is quite welcome), listening to people that no-one else except the bartender has time for, and frequently inviting them to his home for dinner.  This exasperates his sister and niece, who share his home.  To be truthful, almost any normal person would find it difficult to live with someone as impractical, unpredictable and eccentric as Elwood P.  Dowd.  That said, he is an uncommonly likeable character, who excels in kindness and generosity.

When I woke up this morning, I realized that God was speaking to me through this aspect of the film.  He showed me again the power of a hospitable life to communicate the good news of Jesus to people who are hungry for spiritual reality.

When we open our homes and our lives to people who are hungry and thirsty for true life, and become their friends, our understanding of what it means to share the gospel of Jesus undergoes a radical transformation.  Instead of being a project, evangelism truly becomes a way of life.  It is no longer just a matter of verbally communicating spiritual truth, or even praying with people for them to receive Jesus or for the Holy Spirit to touch their lives – although both of these aspects remain important.  When we open our homes and our hearts to people, trust is fostered in the people we befriend, and over time, God uses this atmosphere of acceptance and friendship to prepare their hearts for genuine conversion.  This, of course, requires that we be transparent with those we are reaching out to, so that they can see us as we really are.  That’s how disciples are made – through relationships of honesty and trust, in which the good news of Jesus is communicated on many levels.

Marion and I have been rediscovering the transforming power of hospitality over the past several weeks as the Holy Spirit has opened the door to a friendship with our next-door neighbours.  It all started this past summer when Orlando Suarez, a church-planter from Cuba, visited our life group on several occasions this past summer.  Orlando spoke to us of his passion for sharing the good news of Jesus with the people in his neighbourhood.  As I listened to him, I realized that the Spirit of God was speaking to me and telling me to become more active in reaching out to our neighbourhood.  Marion and I invited several people to our home to watch the Alpha videos and talk about the true meaning of life.  The couple next door accepted our invitation, and it has been a delightful experience getting to know them better.  We had already been on good terms before beginning this process.  But now, the relationship is changing from cordial to intimate.  As we talk about the Alpha videos and their growing realization that Jesus is alive, we are becoming spiritual friends.  In this atmosphere of friendship, lives are being changed.

This, it seems to me, is what happened over and over again in the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles.  I once did a survey of pivotal or life-changing events in the gospels and the Book of Acts, and discovered that a great many of them took place in someone’s home.   When Jesus dropped in to Zaccheus’ house for dinner, someone’s life was changed because Jesus took time to accept hospitality from a man that any self-respecting religious teacher wouldn’t go near.  Jesus knew Zaccheus needed to repent.  By inviting himself to Zaccheus’ home for a meal, Jesus honoured this man whom others rejected, and offered an atmosphere of acceptance that made it easy for Zaccheus to turn away from his self-focussed life and make things right with God.

So – how are you doing with hospitality?  It’s not really about how nice a home you have.  That doesn’t matter.  Your home doesn’t have to be spotless or elegant.  Hospitality is not entertainment.   And you don’t have to be limited to offering hospitality in your home.  You can also offer hospitality in a friend’s house or apartment, a restaurant, a bar, a hospital, a workplace, a prison, or even on a street corner.  It’s really about making time for relationship and having an open heart.

To be truthful, I’m not very good at this.  I’m still learning.  But Jesus is very good at it, and he is teaching me how to let my life be a vehicle for His ministry of hospitality.  It’s all about learning to rest in the Father’s goodness, and invite others to come into His household and discover His delightfully generous love.

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