Soul Food

Photo by Shelby Miller on Unsplash

Originally published on Medium, 15 February 2019

We are at the time of the year when gym memberships soar and everyone becomes aware of the need to adopt a healthier diet — maybe due to the excesses of Christmas. Smart decisions for a healthier body. But what about the soul?

We live, in the western world, in a current church environment where discipleship (the ongoing journey of mundane apprenticeship with Jesus that leads us to become more like Him) — is a challenge. Even in the vibrant, healthier churches, the ghost of consumerism stalks us with a fierce determination. Our gatherings are often opportunities for another experience that gets reviewed according to how it best met our needs or ‘likes’.

While the subject is very extensive to tackle in a blog — at the heart of my concern is our Biblical illiteracy & our attitude towards Scripture. Without conducting a well-researched survey — I am pretty convinced that most of us struggle to maintain a healthy habit of daily Bible reading. If we do, it often becomes a legalistic ‘tick the box/job done’ instead of truly meditating on it. Because of the advent of living in a socially networked and wired world — we have become increasingly distracted — with a false sense of living busier lives. We seldom read the Word of God and almost never memorize it. A vast majority of Western believers attend one service a week with a sermon/talk/message of 30–35 minutes — and that, for many, is their only engagement with God’s word. Which leaves us with a problem…

We might say — what’s the big deal? Why is this such a problem? In 2 Timothy 3:16–17, Paul gives a brilliant summary of the benefits of reading, meditating, knowing and being led by the Scriptures: ‘All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.’

  • the Bible is important because we believe that it is God’s Word
  • the Bible helps us to discern truth from error — in the age of ‘fake news’
  • the Bible helps us to see where we go wrong & how we can get things right
  • the Bible inspires and empowers us to live good lives

Jesus tells a great story (parable) in Matthew 13 about a sower who scatters seed that has differing outcomes. God’s word is often like a seed that is sowed into our hearts and perhaps we can learn from Jesus how to provide the best growth environment for it to grow and bring fruit:

  • don’t harden your heart! That can often happen as we become cynical or apathetic about God’s grace shown to us and we lose the wonder of His wonderful character and deeds. Don’t let that happen. Fight it with prayer and worship, reminding yourself of who He is! God wants to speak to me through His Word!
  • don’t let the thieves of distraction (Netflix, social media), disorganization and discouragement rob you of your dedication and attention to reading, meditating and living by God’s word. Fight it by prioritizing and exercising grace-driven self-discipline out of a conviction that this is so good for you!

Here are some practical suggestions to refresh or restart our engagement with God’s Word:

  • Start with the New Testament, the Psalms, then the Old Testament. Read 3 chapters a day on each weekday and 5 at the weekend — that way you can cover the whole of the Bible in a year. While some passages will be more beneficial than others — reading all of the Bible will help you get the big picture and discover many new things.
  • Maybe try to keep a notebook where you can jot something down. Apply the head, heart and hands principle — highlighting how the passage you just read affects your thinking, feelings and actions.
  • Give yourself plenty of grace and prayerfully rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal to us His word and help us to apply it in our day to day lives.

For the audience of One…together

I love Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s vision of love — ‘Love is not just looking at each other, it’s looking in the same direction.’ Sung worship in the church context should do that.

I have been prompted to write some reflections regarding sung worship in our faith community. Some of them are based on questions that I have received from you — others just observations that I have. They are fairly practical in their content — and certainly not exhaustive. Oh, and I am unashamedly biased — writing as a pastor and not as a worship leader…

What’s our aim in sung worship?

Often people ask this question: who are our services aimed at? The believers or the visitors? My answer is both, but with a clarification. The main aim of our Sunday and small group gatherings is the edification (pastoral) of one another as disciples of Jesus and an encouragement to live for His renown (missional).

That is our main and primary focus. But we also want to encourage those who are non or new believers to see the beauty of who God is (evangelistic). The bulk of our songs should, therefore, focus on who He is and what He has done. Those songs should be presenting us with objective truths that the believers can declare.

There is room for response songs but they should most of the time follow the preaching and be a smaller percentage of the service. These songs will be subjective as not all of us feel the same things at the same time, even as believers — nevermind those who aren’t believers. Let’s try not to exclude people or make them sing false declarations.

The aim of our sung worship is both vertical: exalting and glorifying God and horizontal: encouraging discouraged believers or exhorting those who have grown apathetic.

Because our aim is congregational engagement as opposed to just personal encouragement — the songs should have a very singable anthemic musical line — probably similar to stadium gigs or sports events.

Maybe we also need to have musical segments (still pretty standard in the African American tradition) that we can listen to as the musicians and singers perform pieces that are musically more challenging in vocal range.

What sources can you use your songs from?

Another question, often asked is: how do we decide which theological pool is ‘kosher’ when it comes to worship songs origins? Do you use a song that comes from a church that has a different theological stance on some doctrinal issues than yours?

One can become black and white and only allow some streams and bar others. It’s simple but probably quite limiting. A healthier and preferred alternative for me is to think through each song individually, assessing its theological content and musical congregational suitability.

Should we sing more hymns or new songs?

Some of the old hymns have great theology and some are very confusing due to their archaic language. Some of the new songs have beautiful melodies but repetitive vague lyrics with utterly forgetful poetry.

It’s not an ‘either-or game’. Once again, it comes to individually assessing hymns and songs and using what is most suitable for our people, right here and right now. We want to maintain a link to our roots but also branch out into the future.

In our church, the gravitational pull will always be towards the past so in order to create a healthy tension — I would push for more new songs. There should always be the accountable willingness by the worship leaders to submit their new song proposals to the the Lead Pastor & Worship Director beforehand.

Ideally, local church communities should develop worshipful artists who write good (theologically, lyrically, musically) songs reflective of their church makeup (social, age, education) that will enrich the sense of contextualisation of worship.

How aware should we be in our worship of our non-believing guests?

While this is a healthy tension between authenticity and relevance — politeness dictates that we should be welcoming and accessible without feeling the need to cosmetically change everything for the sake of the visitor.

Always best to adopt the same thinking as when we have people visiting our homes. We don’t move rooms around but we make sure that people know where things are and that our environment is tidy, friendly and hospitable.

We need to be aware of language and concepts that are archaic, romantic, warfare referencing or, confusing, using theological concepts like ‘lamb of God’, ‘blood of the Lamb’, ‘in heavenly armour we’ll enter the land’. Some of those songs might be best retired and some need a simple, brief explanation — maybe anchored in a Biblical verse.

The foundations of sung worship ministry in a local church should have this values:

  • be God-glorifying
  • be Jesus-centered
  • be Biblical
  • be Spirit-empowered
  • be nurturing for disciples
  • be invitational to non-believers

“Worship is never a step on our way up to any other experience. It is not a door through which we pass to get anywhere. It is the end point, the goal.” John Piper

Blindsided

Often we live our daily existence in the slipstream of mundane habitual and rarely interrupted daily patterns.

For some it’s the family life, for others work routines and the slightly less predictable retired life. And so, like a deja vu, days pass by in a fairly uneventful peaceful sequence.

One of my favourite authors once quipped that a boring day is a luxury. We rarely understand that. Until we get blindsided. Then our routine gets royally disrupted. In seconds, our peace vanishes and our whole world is turned upside down.

No time for questions or reflection, just deep breaths and adrenaline rushes.

The truth is, that in spite of our illusion of being in control, this world of ours is wildly unpredictable. Political injustices, natural disasters, surprising or chronic illnesses, debilitating mental health challenges and relational breakups, all these are the background wallpapers of our human existence in a broken world.

The longer you have lived as a Stockholm syndrome prisoner to this fake news that you’re in control, the more it’s going to hurt when you get blindsided.

How do you respond? How can you cope?

You start by embracing the truth: I am not in charge. I can’t control what is happening. I realise that my current boring undisturbed daily routine might one day be interrupted. Get ready beforehand. This realistic anticipation won’t protect you from the blow, but it will certainly soften it.

The ancient words of David, the songwriter of the Scriptures, are a strong foundation for the mind and a balm for the heart: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with Me.’

In the mystery of suffering and free will, while God won’t change the rules, He is there in the midst of our suffering, a suffering He understands better than anyone else.

I always have a choice. I can be a pantomime king of my make belief kingdom of control or surrender to the King who is also the Good Shepherd that walks with me in the dark valleys of suffering.

Lean on Me

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As we journey physically, emotionally and spiritually through challenging seasons in our lives, as individuals and families, we often can get a clearer picture of the challenges and opportunities that suffering can bring to a community of faith.

I have been blessed with fantastic cross-cultural examples of rich ways of caring fur one another and while I’m grateful for that, I recognise that there’s always more to learn. Here are some ideas that might be helpful.

Open the door
If you are going through tough things, let people know straight away. Don’t assume they can read between the lines or read your mind. They need to know. Your humble vulnerability opens the door for them to play their part in supporting you. The Christian community is one of the open doors and open hearts.

If you heard it, own it
If you hear about someone struggling, get involved. Don’t assume someone else will do that because they might do the same. Better more encouragers than none. Don’t delay it as you might forget about it.

Do what you can and stop worrying about what you can’t. Often we can become paralysed by our insecure excuses and miss out on a valuable contribution. We all have something to offer. It will be different from others. Might not be much but its always significant.

Ask questions. Questions break the ice. Good questions can soften the embarrassment and open up hearts. Here are some good questions: can I help you with my time? My expertise? My connections? My money? Need a lift? Need food? Need washing clothes? Need a break? Need company?

Don’t drop it. Often there is a frenzy of attention in the early days followed by a gradual decrease of interest and involvement. It’s somehow natural. We all tire and move on. But just as we go through compassion fatigue, the suffering person and their carers can feel that in an even more intense and frustrating manner. Let’s not grow weary in doing good. Keep praying, checking and helping.

Pressures for Pastors

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This post is by no means a self-serving advertisement, an invitation for praise or a cry for help. It is dedicated to all my friends and colleagues who have embraced this wonderful vocation and hopefully inspiration to pray for us all.

We are ordinary in so many ways and the heroes of today are often elsewhere. But pastors in a time of crisis are among the few left standing in that frontline.

We are not special but we are pretty unique and here is a personal window into how this is all playing out right now for me. Maybe this will be a reminder of the familiar or an inspiring discovery. Whatever it is for you — please pray for us — along with the many who are ‘stretched’ these days.

Being wired — being online almost all the time through a myriad of means: Zoom, Messenger, Whatsapp, Facebook Groups and email — there is no hiding. People know you ARE at home and they should get hold of you.
Pray for good rest, detoxing Sabbaths and smart schedules.

Personal circumstances — some leaders have children that are being homeschooled, some are single, some are looking after elderly parents — this is tough. Extroverts long for other contact and introverts just want to hide. Pray for patience, love, and encouragement.

Future anxiety — many leaders ask the question: will I still have a job afterward as many of their congregants are unsure about their own jobs. What will the church look like after we get out of this? Will people have drifted away and lost interest? Will they engage less physically when they have their Zooms and Whatsapp groups? Pray for peace and provision.

Virtual pastoring — the inability to have a physical face to face connection is very limiting. While tech is a gift — it can never replace real-life care. Pray for effective communication of caring affection.

Competition — there is a huge temptation to put out a lot of quality content to engage people both inside and outside the church community. Being public — everyone can see what everyone is doing. It’s subtle but the comparison game is alive and kicking. And that brings pressure. Pray for deliverance from perfectionism and a competitive spirit.

Non-engagement — tech often highlights who is and isn’t engaging. The greatest love language for a pastor is intentional personal engagement that brings transformation in the churchgoers and beyond. When people don’t join in / comment/ watch — it hurts and stifles passion and creativity. Pray for encouraging engagement.

Mental health — pastors by definition are emotional people whose vocation is fuelled by compassion. The reality of the stress on the front line workers, the pressure of the difficult marriages, care for the vulnerable relatives, bereavement for the lost ones, anxiety over finances — all things that their ’sheep’ are struggling with — those break the pastor’s heart routinely. The burden is heavy, the eyes are misty and the heart often aches. Pray that they will let the Good Shepherd lead them daily.

Fresh Vision

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How constrained is our vision,
how inadequate our words,
how paltry our love for you, Lord God,
in the wake of all that you have done,
in the wake of all that you have disclosed of yourself in your Son through your Word.

Fill our hearts with joy
that we may not only be ashamed of sin and loathe it,
but also that we may be drawn to your own dear Son,
to holiness, to transparent love for one another –
all secured by Christ and his work on the cross on our behalf.

Draw us on to the new heaven and the new earth
precisely because that will also make us better stewards of your grace here.

Grant that even now we may understand in our own experience
how the Holy Spirit is the deposit of the promised inheritance,
the anticipation of what will one day be.

Grant us the power to grasp,
together with all of God’s people,
the limitless dimensions of your love for us.

Shape our lives by gratitude and adoration.

Give us courage and stamina
and with it holy joy and a love for all that is holy.

Open our eyes to see Jesus,
the cost that he bore,
the grace that he pours out upon us,
until we are ravished by his beauty,
consumed by a heart full of adoration.

For Jesus’ sake,
Amen.

D.A. Carson, The God Who Is There

The Gate of the Year

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I remember reading this poem some time ago and I stumbled upon it again in the last few days.

THE GATE OF THE YEAR (or ‘God Knows’)
by Minnie Louise Haskins

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

Selah

Photo by Jamie Morrison on Unsplash

 

Days like these and this time of the year  – they all feel like a post-marathon breather (not that I have any idea what that would feel like physically). Yes, there is a sense of relief and achievement spiked by some tiredness and regret.

It’s a time to slow down and reflect. A chance to recalibrate expectations, schedules and give our souls a chance to catch-up with our bodies perhaps.

Here are some beautifully penned words from the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter (1615-1691):

‘He can deliver me from myself
and the noise I’ve welcomed into my life.
He can bring stillness and give abiding.
He delights in his children—in who you are more
than what you could ever do for him
or have done against him.
And he does it because of his steadfast love.
Oh – that we would know it!
That the love of God would quiet our hearts
and cure us from the addiction to movement,
the want of approval
and the fear of quiet.’

 

Aftermath

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We have all been shaken by the tragic events in Manchester, a few days ago. The nearer death gets to us – the more real it becomes. We seem still vaguely immune to the distant tragedies of other places in the world, where similar events occur weekly – remember this?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-39613313

The combination of the young age of the victims, the immediacy, the senseless damage done by one individual and the long-term effect on families and communities – all bring a huge emotional turmoil to all of us.

What can we do with all of this? How do we react? How do we process this mentally? How do we address our feelings?

Here are some of my humble suggestions:

  • we stay silent: social media is such a frustrating place at times like this. People went their hatred and scapegoat indiscriminately or parade simplistic naive solutions. Better to stop and follow Job’s action: ‘I put my hand over my mouth.’ (40:4)
  • we lament: we take the time to feel the sadness, share in the pain of loss and internally express the righteous anger against injustice like David did (Psalm 55:1-30): God, listen to my prayer and do not hide from my plea for help. Pay attention to me and answer me. I am restless and in turmoil with my complaint, because of the enemy’s words,[abecause of the pressure[b] of the wicked. For they bring down disaster on me and harass me in anger.
  • we love – at times like this people use the ‘all religions are the same – they are the cause of trouble in the world’. This is the perfect time to ‘say and show’ that Christ-followers are about love (not a naive and condoning one but gracious love that doesn’t perpetuate hatred): Matthew 5:43-44 (CSB): 43 “You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy. 44 But I tell you, love your enemies[b] and pray for those who[c] persecute you.
  • we pray – we don’t broadcast boastfully about it, but we take our tearful grief to God and ask for His extraordinary comfort for those affected and for our empowering to be His messengers of hope, healing and forgiveness.
  • we reach – each action of senseless evil in our community is a silent commentary on our ineffective influence for transformation. The message of Christ can change broken lives, seduced by lies and deceit. We need to speak and show – as living adverts – about the transformation God wants to bring to in our hearts, homes and ‘hoods’. This is a picture of it: Galatians 5:22: 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentlenesses, and self-control.

Lord of all compassion
We pray for all of those caught up in the midst of tragedy or disaster.
For those who have lost life and those working to save life
For those who are worried for people they love
For those who will see their loved ones no longer
Lord Have Mercy.
For those in need of the peace that passes all understanding
For all who turn to you in the midst of turmoil
For those who cry out to you in fear and in love
Lord Have Mercy.
For those in confusion and those in despair
For those whose tears are yet to dry
For those in need of your unending love
Lord Have Mercy
Amen.

(Church of England Prayer)

Timely Reminder

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It’s ever so interesting how some special days become part of the celebrated church calendar and others not. Today, the Christian world celebrates Ascension Day – when we remember Jesus ascending into heaven. While, this day does not have the same popularity as Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Good Friday, Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday – I feel it ought to be a cause for celebration.

Here are my reasons:

Acts 1:6-11 (NLT):
6 So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” 7 He replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 After saying this, he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him. 10 As they strained to see him rising into heaven, two white-robed men suddenly stood among them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!”

  • we received a gift: Jesus had finished his earthly ministry with a sense of unexpected turn-around.  The ever-changing trajectory seemed to head towards failure at Golgotha but became the final triumph at the empty grave. He became one of us – God who moved in our neighbourhood – loving to the uttermost and inviting us to embrace salvation and sanctification. All done!
  • we have a confidence: The Ascension marks Jesus’ return to the full place of authority at the right hand of the Father – and how we need that reassuring knowledge of His powerful divine involvement in our affairs. In a world that is breaking apart – He is still King. This is a timely truth and a comforting reassurance.
  • we have a calling: His final words to an emotionally fearful question about His return – was a call to mission. When the disciples looked inwardly, He showed them an outward-looking perspective. The vision was outrageously inclusive and epic in scale. It was an invitation to continue what He had started (enabled by His authority and empowering).

PS – Maybe it’s a bargain basement Christian holiday because most of the other ones have become some hijacked by our consumer culture and became a comfortable shadow of their former selves. Maybe even more reason to celebrate an authentic Christian feast.

Hail the day that sees him rise
(Charles Wesley)

Hail the day that sees him rise, Alleluia!
to his throne above the skies; Alleluia!
Christ, the Lamb for sinners given, Alleluia!
enters now the highest heaven! Alleluia!

There for him high triumph waits; Alleluia!
lift your heads, eternal gates! Alleluia!
he hath conquered death and sin; Alleluia!
take the King of glory in! Alleluia!

Lo! the heaven its Lord receives, Alleluia!
yet he loves the earth he leaves; Alleluia!
though returning to his throne, Alleluia!
still he calls mankind his own. Alleluia!

See! he lifts his hands above; Alleluia!
See! he shows the prints of love: Alleluia!
Hark! his gracious lips bestow, Alleluia!
blessings on his Church below. Alleluia!

Still for us he intercedes, Alleluia!
his prevailing death he pleads, Alleluia!
near himself prepares our place, Alleluia!
he the first fruits of our race. Alleluia!

Lord, though parted from our sight, Alleluia!
far above the starry height, Alleluia!
grant our hearts may thither rise, Alleluia!
seeking thee above the skies. Alleluia!

There we shall with thee remain, Alleluia!
partners of thy eternal reign, Alleluia!
there thy face forever see, Alleluia!
find our heaven of heavens in thee, Alleluia!