Carols, Conga Lines and Condemnation

Don’t you just love Christmas Eve services? Don’t you just love the quiet carols, the sound of the organ, the smell of candle wax? Don’t you just love the boisterous singing, the sound of drumming hands beating on a cooking pan, the smell of curry? Don’t you just love the Mexican mariachi band, the German hymns and the West African conga line as it winds through the pews of the church amidst great rejoicing? When one is blessed to attend a Christmas Eve service in another country, it is easy to see how God is glorified when He is worshipped in many languages and many cultures. We still often prefer our own way, but we rejoice that the diverse people God created can worship Him in diverse ways.

Too bad we don’t extend this same grace to those from our own culture. In our own culture, there is only one right way to conduct a worship service and while there may be slight variations, any major changes in style are worthy to be condemned. Sometimes they are condemned by serious people trying to show how a certain worship style is unbiblical, (and sometimes they graciously prove their point). More often than not, however, too many Christians just feel the right to mock other believers. We Christians have a whole vocabulary that is reserved for mocking the worship styles of other Christians. Smells and Bells. Happy Clappy. Frozen Chosen. White, hipster music. Slick. Cheesy. Is God really looking down on sincere worshipers and saying, “That was really cheesy”?

Why do we have this double standard? I once met a woman who attended a church that believed guitars and drums could not possibly honor God. She surprised me, however, when she told me that her son was attending a Spanish-speaking church that had drums, but that it was fine because the Christians were from Mexico. Why did she feel that she couldn’t judge her Mexican brothers and sisters, but Christians from America were fair game?

I think that we make great allowances for Christians from other cultures because they are obviously different from us so it makes sense that their worship styles would also be different. Unlike “foreigners”, however, those from our own country must think just like us and so they must have the same worship style as us. We all know that this is not true, though, and that people from the same country are often as different from each other as people from different countries. I know someone who says that she cannot really “worship in the Spirit” (Rev 1:10), until she sings a chorus seven or eight times. I know many others who have confessed that they refuse to sing a chorus more than two times because it is “mindless repetition”. I know people who are attracted to the liturgy of traditional churches because that style of worship shows respect for Almighty God that they think it missing in churches with worship bands and pastors who wear jeans. I know others who left traditional churches and who find their worship services bereft of a personal connection with a personal Savior. All of these people have legitimate reasons to prefer a worship style based on their personality and background.

We all have preferences and, to be honest, I get very distracted by loud drums and electric guitars and usually try to go to the traditional worship service at our church. That is my preference, but I do not condemn those who prefer different styles of worship. Their worship service may have unbiblical motives, it may be manipulative, it may be mindless repetition, (either singing a song 10 time mindlessly or singing a familiar hymn one time mindlessly), but since I cannot see into the hearts of the worshippers or those who are leading, I cannot know. When I see a worship style that I do not like I can either live with it, choose another church or humbly approach the church leadership and state my concerns. I can also show how a specific style may be unbiblical or how the lyrics of certain songs are theologically incorrect. What I cannot do is start a revolt in my church through a campaign of gossip and complaining because I do not like (fill in the blank). What I cannot do is think that I am more spiritually mature than people who prefer another worship style. What I cannot do is mock other believers.

It can be very frustrating to be in a church where you walk out the door every Sunday frustrated because you don’t like the worship style. Maybe this is important enough that you would have God’s blessing to find another church. If not, however, just think of it as practice for heaven where the saints may be worshipping God with conga lines and mariachi bands.

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Jonah, Hepatitis and Me

How many sermons do you actually remember? I have listened to thousands of sermons in my lifetime and while many of them have helped to shaped my understanding of God and His Word, I can actually only remember a few. One in particular stands out. It was at Holy Trinity Church, in Murree, Pakistan in 1998. The congregation was made up primarily of western missionaries who were spending at least part of their summer in this mountainous city in order to escape the 110 degree heat (with no air-conditioning) of the plains, to take their children out of boarding school for a few months and, in my case, to attend language school. It was in this context that I heard the most convicting sermon that I have ever heard, entitled “Jonah: the Reluctant Prophet, or, the Gift of Hepatitis.”

I can’t remember the name of the British man who gave the sermon, but I will always remember his story. Earlier in the year he became very ill with hepatitis, but rather than complaining, he felt like this period of sickness was a gift. If he was sick, at least he didn’t have to talk to people for a few weeks. If he was sick, at least he could stop dealing with other people’s problems and had a good excuse for not going out and sharing the gospel for a while. While he obviously had issues of burnout, he admitted that his primary problem was that he was tired of doing the job that God called him to do. He would rather take a nap than help other people for a while. Like Jonah, he knew that he was called by God to do a job, but he just didn’t want to do it. Like Jonah, obedience would eventually come, but at that moment he was a reluctant prophet.

One thing that impressed me as much as the honesty of the sermon was the response of the congregation. The majority of the adults sitting in the pews were in full-time ministry and had already taken great steps of obedience and sacrifice, and yet by the nervous laughter coming from around me, I could tell that they could relate to what he was saying. We were a congregation of people who, at one time or another, had been reluctant prophets. We were people who sometimes longed for excuses, like hepatitis, so that we wouldn’t have to do what God called us to do for a while.

The reason that this sermon stuck with me all these years is because I am not very disciplined and deal with this issue frequently. While I get very excited about new projects and new friends, I can get bored and lazy with routine and easily find excuses for not doing what I know God wants me to do. I know that I should go and visit my friend from Afghanistan, but I succumb to laziness and watch an episode of “Inspector Lewis” instead. My friend’s mother just came back from hajj, (Mecca), and I need to go see her, but my garden really needs to be weeded – now. Sometimes I am excited to go spend time with my friends and share words of life, but other times I just don’t feel like it. I am a reluctant prophet. This is not an issue of taking needed breaks and making sure I avoid burnout, most of the time I am just being selfish with my time and I know it. Since in the kind of ministry I am engaged in now I have no supervisor, no schedule and no regular meetings where my absence will be obvious, no one will know if I am being lazy and selfish. No one except God Himself, that is.

On those days when I run away from God and tell Him, “No, I won’t go to that person and tell them about Jesus today – I would rather watch TV,” I am just like Jonah. I am not being disobedient because I hate the people God has called me to, but my selfishness shows that I don’t love them or God nearly as much as I love myself. Thankfully, God gave Jonah a second chance at obedience and continually forgives me as well. I am also thankful that God used a sermon about hepatitis, rather than the actual illness, to get my attention.

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The Bible for Old People

Today is my 40th birthday which makes me officially old. It is important to do something big on this momentous occasion and although I do plan on going to Chuck-E-Cheese with my kids this evening, I thought it would also be good to engage in an activity a little more spiritual as well. In light of that, I took a friend’s suggestion and read the Bible in 40 days. 40 days until I turned 40. Although I initially shunned the idea of reading the Bible so quickly because I was afraid that it would turn my time with God simply into a task to be completed, I thought that it could be beneficial for 40 days to focus on the forest, rather than the trees. I was wrong. Reading the entire Bible quickly did not give me an overall view of the forest, but was rather like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon when the sun is setting and one is robbed of speech because of the awesome grandeur of a view that can only be created by an Almighty God.

What does this have to do with turning 40? As I read the Bible, I was overwhelmed with the fact that I am part of something very big and very important and that at age 40 I am right in the middle of my part in this grand plan on earth. The Bible tells the story of God creating people, revealing Himself to them and saving them over and over again so that we could worship Him in heaven for all eternity. For some reason, He chose to not do all the work Himself, but called imperfect people to be a part of His plan. Adam. Noah. Abraham. Ruth. David. Jeremiah. Mary. Peter. Paul. Me. God has placed me right there in the thick of things and this makes my life very significant. Turning 40 is no big deal in light of the fact that God has chosen sinful old me to be a part of His great work on earth. This has been true since I trusted Him at age 3, but I am more impressed with that fact now that I am officially old.

On the other hand, I was also impressed with all the seemingly unimportant times in the Bible. There are many verses that say “40 years later”, or “after 2 years”, and we are not told that anything spectacular happened during those times. God was still at work, but since there were no miracles or victorious battles, His people simply needed to go about their daily lives and faithfully and uneventfully serve Him. Since God is in charge of this grand plan, and not me, my daily assignments may seem unimportant on those days that are dominated by laundry and dirty dishes, rather than drinking tea in a North African medina with a woman who has not yet heard about Jesus. These “normal” times are also part of God’s plan, however, and if I become discouraged because I seem to be spending too much time folding socks and not enough time having adventures, then I am showing a lack of faith that God really knows what my part in His plan should be.

Finally, while I have been impressed with the idea of how significant God’s children are in His plan, I have also been impressed with how insignificant earthly worries are in light of eternity. The American government shutdown is just a blip on the timeline of history and less than a blip in eternity. Fears of having our religious freedoms taken away are put in perspective when we read about those who have gone before us. It is hard for me to get worked up about not having prayer in schools when I read Daniel, Hebrews 11 or all the New Testament passages that show persecution as a promise, rather than something to be avoided at all costs. Tragic events, like the war in Syria, the church bombing in Pakistan or the mass shooting in Washington DC, have been happening for centuries and will increase in frequency as we wait for the Lord’s return. These should cause us to grieve, pray and act, but not to fret, since God knew they would happen. It is so easy to get caught up in the worries of the moment and not only forget God’s promises, but forget His story and how He has saved His people over and over again, either physically or spiritually. Looking at the big picture can calm our fears and put things into perspective.

God’s word is a great gift and I am so thankful that I was able to have the experience of reading it quickly and be amazed by God’s grand plan. My thankfulness does not wipe out my desire to have chocolate cake on my birthday, though. I will just be very thankful that as part of God’s plan for creation, He made chocolate!

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A Time to Be Silent

“A time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7)

This verse has come to my mind lately as I have stopped writing this blog for a while.  God never tells us that there is a time to stop thinking, stop learning, but He does say that there is a time when we need to keep our opinions to ourselves and simply listen to others.   This goes against everything that we are taught in this digital age when our opinions can be broadcast to the world with a click of a button and the worth of those opinions is measured by how many “likes” one gets on Facebook. 

While God has called us to proclaim the truth, I do not believe that this means we are called to boldly tell the world our opinions on every topic that pops into our head.  When we do this, we no longer have time to listen – to others or to God.  This is especially true for chatty people like me who are constantly communicating with others in one way or another.  For folks like me, being still and listening to God is much harder than telling people my opinion about immigration policy or the wastefulness of having an emerald green lawn in Texas.  How can we really know God’s will when we are so busy talking, (or writing), that we aren’t spending significant time away from the opinions of men and simply listening to God through His Word?

I appreciate the wisdom I have gleaned from articles and blogs that I have read on the internet and realize that there are a lot of good blogs that are already talking about the things on my heart.  In light of this, while I hope to continue writing and improving my skills, I will no longer be doing it on a blog.  I thank all of you who have read this blog and shared your comments.

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What Reality TV Taught Me About Short-Term Trips

My favorite reality TV show, “The Amazing Race”, will be starting up again in less than 2 weeks and I am excited!  In this show, contestants travel around the world, participate in fascinating cultural experiences and compete for one million dollars.  Although I would have no idea what to do with one million dollars, I am completely jealous of the places where these contestants travel.  Tanzania!  Azerbaijan!  Bangladesh!  If I was ten years younger, had twice as much stamina and could get over the guilt of leaving my family for a month, I would sign up for this show in an instant.  Over the years, this show has not only provided slight satisfaction for my wander lust, (even when I was watching it on-line in North Africa and was still wishing that I could visit a place more exotic), but it has taught me a few things about what happens when people visit drastically different cultures. 

One of the most eye-opening episodes of “The Amazing Race” happened several years ago when the contestants visited India.  They were required to take an early morning train and so in order to ensure that they would be in the front of the ticket line, they all chose to spend the night in the train station.  Along with this group of Americans, Indian men, children and entire families also spent the night at the train station.  The difference was that these people had no other home and experienced such extreme poverty that they spent their entire lives on the streets.  Rather than driving quickly by homeless people in a taxi, like tourists usually do, all of these contestants spent the night rubbing shoulders with children who would never be able to go to school and their mothers who could only feed them by begging.  Even though every contestant witnessed the same thing, their reactions to this up-close exposure to extreme poverty fell into two categories.  Half of the contestants were obviously heart-broken, gave the people as much money as they could spare and vowed that if they won the one million dollars that they would return and help the poor of India.  Some of this group stayed awake much of the night trying to bring joy to the children by juggling and doing simple magic tricks.  The other half literally turned their backs on the poor, muttered about how much they wanted to leave India and tried to ignore them so that they could sleep.  The difference in their reactions was shocking to me and gave me insight into false goals that we may have for short-term missions.

One of the reasons that compassionate, missions-minded people are so enthusiastic about sending young people to poor countries for mission trips is that we want them to experience the benefits of being exposed to extreme poverty.  We want them to realize that the majority of families in this world do not own two cars, a big house with a yard and the knowledge that there will always be food in the refrigerator.  We want them to realize how privileged they are to live in the west, to stop whining about what they don’t have and to instantly grow in compassion for those who are less fortunate than themselves.  Along with many others, I have been guilty of thinking that the only thing we need to do is to expose Christians to extreme poverty and they will automatically experience compassion and want to help the poor.  What is missing in this theory, though, is what was displayed on “The Amazing Race” – that the attitude of a person’s heart is more important than what they experience in order for them to be transformed for the better.

Just like other areas of spiritual growth, there is no formula for ensuring that Christians will grow in their concern for the world and for the poor.  I have seen high school students return from mission trips to Latin America and while some want to return as soon as they can and help orphan babies, others just complain about how hot it was and how glad they are to be back in the land where they can buy Dr. Pepper.   Same trip, same experiences, but some people have a heart that is ready to be changed by God and others find it more comfortable to turn their backs on what God is trying to teach them.  Not everyone who sees poverty up close will be called to work with the poor, but if a person is completely unchanged by these experiences then something is wrong. 

While these lessons should cause us to be cautious about who we allow to go on short-term mission trips and how we train them before they go, it is also a reminder for all of us to check the attitude of our heart.  God may not want to teach me compassion by causing me to run into a homeless family tomorrow, but He has something to teach me.  Do I have a heart that is ready to learn from the experiences God brings into my life, or is it more comfortable to turn my back, remain unchanged and focus on whatever task seems so important at the time?  Being transformed into Christ’s likeness is much more valuable than winning one million dollars.  I learned this from the Bible and reality TV.

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