Friday, January 30, 2015

You Can't Get There From Here

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." - Inigo Montoya (the Princess Bride)

Putting words into their proper context -- or conversely, taking statements out of context -- has been a Really Big Deal (RBD) in all walks of life, for a long, long time.

Proper context can make all the difference in communication for marriages, friendships, politics, businesses, and yes, theology.

(Lack of attention to context, much like failing to read primary sources, can lead to regrettable theological face-palm moments of biblical proportions.) recently posted an article about the use of smartphones by parishioners to check on the legitimacy of what their pastors are preaching, in real time. If this article is legit, it makes me want to stand on a chair and applaud (I promise not to do this during a church service).
People taking responsibility to double-check how others are using/misusing Scripture? Bring it on! Go Bereans! (Acts 17:11)
Recently, I've been working my way through the Old Testament, revisiting the history of the Israelites, and then reading the various OT prophets lining up with the history part. (Hardly a new approach, I know, but it's been fascinating nonetheless.)

Currently, I'm in Isaiah, and as a worship leader, I was fascinated by the context of a brief passage found in chapter 30:
"Every stroke the Lord lays on them with his punishing club will be to the music of timbrels and harps, as he fights them in battle with the blows of his arm." (Isaiah 30:32 NIV)
The reason this verse caught my attention was that I've heard it used to explain that worship is a form of spiritual warfare, and when we use percussion instruments in our worship, we are pounding on the devil's head. And that stringed instruments defeat demons simply by being played. Furthermore, this is why every church that is truly serious about worship and warfare must have a tambourine (timbrel) team.

You don't need to know ancient Hebrew here; all you need to do is read the larger context. God is promising the oppressed Israelites that He will rescue them from captivity, and will punish their captors.

The music comes from the people, as they rejoice over God delivering them from their enemies.
The music is not the weapon of warfare; it is the Isrealites' joyful response to God for fighting on their behalf.
Isaiah's prophetic words are that the Israelites will be filled with joy when God delivers them, and they will celebrate musically when they see it happen. Arbitrarily assigning so-called "prophetic significance" to the role of tambourines or stringed instruments misses the whole point of the passage (and gives the illusion of legitimacy to decidedly non-biblical teachings and practices).
(Do I believe that worship can be a part of spiritual warfare? That's a topic for another time, but the short answer is "yes".)
Paying attention to context is a great safeguard against all kinds of loopy ideas and erroneous uses of Scripture. And, if you or I are the preacher in question, we can avoid looking like idiots when alert Bereans pull out their smartphones.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Read This First

My author icon at ThinkTheology.
Cool or dorky, you decide.
I am a regular contributor to Thinktheology, which has been challenging, encouraging, and frankly, a whole lot of fun.

The email and video conversations between all of us can get pretty lively at times, because we represent something of a spectrum of thoughts and opinions, but I enjoy the friendship and camaraderie, and the push to think deeper and more reflectively.

One of our regular writers, A.J. Baker, challenged the rest of us to compile a "must-have" book list -- books that serve as resources in our writing (and preaching, for those among us who are pastors), and in some way have shaped, encouraged, challenged, and sharpened our understanding of the faith.

My list is more skewed towards "books I'd love every pastor/leader -- young or old, veteran or newbie --  to invest in".
  1. The Presence of the Future, by G. E. Ladd. This is the best resource for a thorough understanding of the Kingdom of God as "already and not yet" (inaugurated eschatology).
  2. A Theology of the New Testament, by G. E. Ladd. You will be reading a classic that demonstrates why Biblical Theology is such an important field.
  3. A History of Christian Thought, by Justo Gonzalez. The formerly three-volume set has been condensed into a single volume, and is invaluable for tracing how theology has grown and developed over the centuries.
  4. Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective, by Charles Kraft. When we seek to faithfully contextualize the gospel into our post-modern culture, our best resource -- and approach -- should be that of missiologists. (Kraft's Anthropology for Christian Witness is another excellent resource.)
  5. Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. A classic that not only has stood the test of time, but speaks to the issues of our century in almost prophetic fashion.
  6. The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. Brilliant insights into the topic of spiritual warfare without all the gobbledy-gook.
  7. Signs, Wonders & the Kingdom of God, by Don Williams. One of the best "hidden gems" on Kingdom theology to address what the late John Wimber called "power evangelism".
  8. How to Read the Bible for All its Worth, by Gordon Fee. The best single source for preachers, teachers, bloggers and authors on reading the Bible in context, with attention to genre, audience, and all the things that make for solid, biblical communication.
  9. Paul, the Spirit, & the People of God, by Gordon Fee. An excellent, and invigorating exploration of the role of the Holy Spirit in the already/not yet of the Kingdom. I couldn't recommend this one more highly.
  10. Listening to the Spirit in the Text, by Gordon Fee. If you've ever thought that the term "charismatic scholar" was an oxymoron, you need to read this book. An excellent and invigorating resource on being Spirit-led and Biblically-literate.
  11. The Knowledge of the Holy, by A.W. Tozer. A brilliant book on the attributes of God, which -- like Mere Christianity -- actually deserves and lives up to the descriptor: timeless.
  12. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (formerly titled "Christian Counter-Culture"), by John R.R. Stott. Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount have often been referred to as "the ethics of the Kingdom of God". Stott does a masterful job of unpacking and applying the Sermon to today's culture.
  13. Much as I typically loathe blatant self-promotion, if you're in any way involved with, leading in, recovering from, or interested in pursuing a more "Spirit-filled"  life and ministry (sorry, I know that term sounds obnoxious to some), then please read Post-Charismatic 2.0: Rekindle the Smoldering Wick, by yours truly. Think Theology's own Kenny Burchard wrote a great review/overview, and across the Pond in the UK, Thomas Creedy adds his own review.
So, there you have it. It was surprisingly hard to choose which books I'd recommend most, but I'd start here.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Worship & the Intentional Ham

"He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk."

This old proverb has been quoted many times, in many places. It's a great one because it makes a very profound point, and does so in a wryly humorous way.

But when it comes to worship leading, and especially pastoring worship leaders and musicians, that wise saying could be mis-interpreted and mis-applied at times (even unintentionally).

I have written earlier about the primary necessity of having a sense of expectation in our worship gatherings, which also helps to safeguard against the zombie-apocalypse dynamics of worship that merely goes through the motions (even high energy, exciting motions).

But let's take another look at the worship leaders, particularly those in a position to influence others.

If it's true that, "He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk", then how might that be mis-applied to worship leaders?

  1. If you have followers, that doesn't necessary mean that the direction you're leading them in, is automatically a good one. (for an extra-extreme over-the-top example, consider Jim Jones & the Peoples' Temple)
  2. If you have followers, do they understand the why behind what you do, or do you just assume that they do?

I want to take a closer look at the second item, because it speaks to intentionality in discipleship. Specifically, communicating The Why.

There exists an old tale about a cook preparing the Christmas ham for the family dinner. She faithfully prepared it, as she always did, slicing off one end before putting the ham into the oven.

"Why do you always cut that piece off?" queried her husband (as the story goes).

"Because that's how my mother always did it," was the slightly indignant response. "That's how we've always done it." But she became intrigued, and phoned her mother to find out why it was so important to slice off the end of the ham before cooking it.
Turns out, her mother only sliced off the end of the ham because her oven was really small, and a full ham just didn't fit.
For worship leaders who are influencers of others, there is a lesson here: don't assume that people know The Why behind what you do or how you lead. Tell them (the best education involves repetition anyway).

For example, I know some worship leaders who are trying to avoid the mentality that says: "unless we get our worship just right, the Holy Spirit won't bless it". I share their concerns. To that end, they don't make a big deal of pre-service prayer times. (And let's face it, in some circles, pre-service prayer sometimes looks a wee bit like the prophets of Baal doing their thing -- as if God won't "show up" unless we prove our frenzied sincerity.)

So, on one hand, they were modelling a good thing: God responds to His people out of His grace and compassion, not contingent on any spiritual gymnastics that the pre-service prayer generated.

But on the other hand, what was (unintentionally) passed on to the younger worship musicians was that prayer didn't matter, period. They came to view any form of prayer before worship as "religiosity" or "Christian superstition". Truth be told: they became quite religious about not praying before worship.*

They had been discipled by the example, but had no understanding of The Why. Just like the cook who kept cutting off the end of the ham.

To be intentional in discipleship, including among worship teams, those with influence need to be aware that passing on The Why is equally important to living as an example.

*For the record: Never stop praying.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Art of Pondering

"But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart." (Luke 2:19, 51)

We are all familiar with the story of Jesus' birth (yes, we can still talk about it after Christmas), and so we have heard before how Mary -- more than once -- is noted to have 'treasured' and 'pondered' the astounding events surrounding the birth of her first Child.

And looking up the dictionary definition of 'ponder' doesn't produce any surprises, either:

But I'll be the first to admit: as a 21st century culture, we aren't typically the pondering type. Like many others, I tend to be impatient and prefer answers that are instantaneous. Or at the very minimum, they should take no more time than the average google-search.

But what if we're missing some of the very answers we're so earnestly looking for? Simply because we're too impatient to not only wait, but to ponder what we've already seen and experienced.

Can we learn to thoughtfully -- over time -- consider the things that have been treasured in our hearts for some time already?

How much of God's leading has already been shown to us, if we'd just take the time to slow down and take a reflective look at all the pieces of the puzzle that we've already been given?

The art of pondering -- the ability to be reflective and evaluative, at an unhurried pace -- is something I'd like to get much better at in 2015. (Is a year enough time, or am I still trying to run through the drive-thru?)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015: It's About Time

Time. It's all about time.

The future starts today, and unfolds one day at a time. As simple a thought as that may be, there is a profundity in its being said.
"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."   -- Gandalf the Grey
2015: It's about time.