Worship When the Feelings Aren’t There

I remember walking into class that day and seeing her across the room. Something about Veronica caught my eye. Jet black hair. Big eyes. Eyes that met mine left me no way out. She knew I had glanced at her and knew I knew she knew.

It was the start of the semester and the start of something else. At break we met and talked. Talks turned into walks. Walks turned into holding hands. It wasn’t long until I took the next natural step in this progression.

I bought her a ring. I had saved up my money and painstakingly picked out a ring at the store. And then, while examining it one last time before putting it into a box to present to her, I dropped it. It fell apart. The small jewels bounced around on the floor. Settings broke in two.

At first I was near tears but then I thought, “What should I expect from a 5 and Dime store?” I gathered up the fragments, made a mixed media art piece, and gave it to her at school the next day. She was underwhelmed. And so ended my first love in second grade.

It was a great feeling while it lasted. Maybe you can remember your first love. And maybe the feeling was good enough that you wanted it again. Sometimes we can fall in love with falling in love, can’t we?

It happened in the medieval ages. Something called “courtly love” or “romantic love” developed. Here’s what happened: Married men would basically have an emotional affair with either another married woman or a single woman. This “courtly love” would not be physical. It would remain at the emotional level. The essence of courtly love was to fall in love with falling in love.

The church today might be guilty of courtly love. In writing about this phenomenon, Scot McKnight has said, “Some folks love church, and what they mean by ‘loving church’ is that they love the experience they get when they go to church.”

  • They might like the experience and feelings they get from singing songs about adoration of God or the experience of loving Jesus.
  • They might like sermons that make them feel God’s power or tell stories that entertain or insights that seem brand new.
  • If the song isn’t in the right style or the sermon is more broccoli than dessert, then we might leave rating the time spent as a disappointment. Like the segment on American Bandstand where Dick Clark would have some teenagers “Rate a Record,” we rate what we call worship on the basis of its beat and how it made us feel.

But what if the worship of the church is not supposed to be rated on the flightiness of feelings? Instead, its design might be more about building the faithfulness of fidelity to Christ? More about a mature relationship than a courtly love.

The Apostle Paul would say so. He writes: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” What happens on Sunday mornings when followers of Christ meet is worship, but it is only part of a larger framework of a life of worship.

We live a life of worship to the degree that our hearts and faces are turned toward God all the time in all of our life. The early church understood that. And so they sang. They sang when they gathered on the first day of the week but they sang at other times.

  • Paul and Silas sang in prison. Not sure what they were feeling but they worshiped.
  • Jesus and the disciples sang after the Passover meal. Jesus was on his way to the cross. I wonder what he “got” out of that time of worship?

Paul redirects our focus of worship on the idea that even the songs are to “teach and admonish.” Everything to Paul was to move our attention to Jesus. The shape of our worship is intended to shape us into the image of Christ.

When we set our eyes on Jesus we shape our lives like Jesus’.

The feelings are great when they are present. But even when they are not, keep looking at Jesus. You’ll find something better than the flightiness of courtly love.

Question: What would change about your worship experience if you “rated” it by how it taught and admonished you towards Jesus?


When a Thanksgiving Meal Can Be a Picture of the Church

The “All Church Fellowship” was the one announcement at church I looked forward to when I was a young single guy. The invitation typically went something like this: “Come enjoy a potluck lunch. Please bring an item to share. It will be a great time of food and fellowship. You won’t want to miss it!”

I really did not want to miss the food part. When you are lacking in culinary skills, these words are like music to your ears. You didn’t know what was going to be spread out on the buffet tables but you could imagine: A pot roast would be sitting next to some tamales. Fresh, fluffy dinner rolls would be next to a loaf of Mrs. Baird’s bread. A homemade cherry pie would be placed next to a container of store bought cookies.

Then there would always be some “manna.” That would be the dish that no one knew what it was and everyone was afraid to try because they didn’t know what it was. If they asked me I’d just say, “Must be manna.” The inquiring mind would then ask, “Why do you say this is ‘manna.’”

That’s when my Bible degree would pay off. I’d look them in the eyes and say, “Well, when the Israelites in the wilderness saw the frosted flakes on the ground for the first time they called it ‘manna.’ And ‘manna’ means “What is it?” Some older lady in the church would then go home with a smile on her face because she heard we were saying her dish was heavenly.

And then there would always be a large bag of Lay’s potato chips. They would be right in the middle of a table, as conspicuous as a man waiting for his wife in the lingerie department. Everyone would know where they came from. It would be my contribution to the “all church potluck fellowship.”

That was the great thing about the invitation. Everyone was invited. And everyone brought something to share. The scene was a modern day parable of the first Christians.

In their early meetings you might see another potluck. But this one is comprised of people. You see a slave. But he isn’t serving anyone. He’s sitting next to his Roman master. You see women and children. You notice a Jewish woman and a Greek man. There are Romans who lived the full Roman lifestyle but are now learning the ways of Jesus. There are Jews who still practice their Jewish ways but have embraced Jesus as their Messiah.

And there is a table spread with food for everyone. Before there were ever church buildings and pulpits and praise teams there were houses and kitchens and tables.

More importantly there was fellowship. The Greek word for “fellowship” is koinonia. It means literally “that which is shared in common.” What we traditionally call “fellowship” involves sharing some time together. But biblical koinonia encompasses more.

Koinonia is first a spiritual sharing. It existed from the beginning as the Father, Son and Spirit shared life together.

Then it is a social sharing. Jesus had koinonia with the Father, but he showed us that it was to be shared through invitation to others. Jesus was always at table with “sinners”: tax collectors, prostitutes, the immoral, the blind, lame, and diseased. Everyone was welcome at his table.

John put it this way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” If you are a “whoever” you are invited.

And then koinonia is also a financial sharing. John writes that we are not walking in light if we see a brother or sister in need and close our hearts against them. True fellowship means we will use our financial blessings to help others.

You may experience some fellowship around a Thanksgiving table this week. When you do, let it be for you a picture of the church, a place where everyone is invited to the table with Jesus. And everyone has a place to belong. That’s something for which to be thankful.

Question: Who might you invite to the “table”?



Believers Belong in Church

My earliest memories of church come from my preschool days in a little church in Memphis, Texas. I remember the songs. When the Roll is Called Up Yonder was one of my favorite. The Church of Christ-ers could belt that one out with enthusiasm.

There were two things that caught my young attention in that song. First, I thought it had something to do with dinner rolls so my mouth started watering when we’d sing that one. And second, the idea of the trumpet of the Lord sounding created vivid scenes in my mind of some big angel—like Gabriel—blowing that horn real loud.

So one Sunday as I was laying down on the church pew during the sermon and dreaming about dinner rolls, I heard it. A loud sound like a trumpet. It was brash and long. I bolted straight up. I thought, “This is it! The roll is being called up yonder, and I’m going there.” I looked around and saw my Mom and Dad. I didn’t see my older brother Scott who was sometimes mean to me so it figured that he wouldn’t be there. Just when I was getting ready to find the heavenly banquet table with bottomless dinner rolls, my Mom patted me on the back, leaned over and whispered, “It’s just a train blowing its horn. Lay back down.”

I did. But those experiences gave me my first ideas about church. You have ideas about church too, don’t you? What is it that has shaped those ideas? For some, it’s childhood. For others, it’s some church you went to at Easter or Christmas Eve. For still others, it’s some new church in the neighborhood that has popped up and gives the impression they’ve figured something new out that no one else has yet discovered.

Maybe our ideas of what the church is should come from the New Testament instead of the latest blog article or the fastest growing church in whatever part of the country we live in. Maybe we should get our ideas of church from the Apostle Paul, the one who established the churches we read about in the New Testament. When we turn to Paul we get a different picture of the church.

There we find ekklesia. Ekklesia is the Greek word for church. It is a compound word meaning to be “called out” or “called together” for a special purpose. Ekklesia is a word that was common in the first century to describe any group that assembled. It was used to describe the group of free men who could vote, the popular assembly, part of the Greek system of governance, or any gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place. The word for “church,” then, is not that “churchy” to begin with.

When Paul uses the word he has in mind the Old Testament word qahal. It was used to refer to Israel who had been called out by God to serve a special purpose. Paul connects these new churches to the old Israel, God’s people who had a purpose for their existence. When we understand “church” the way Paul did, no church is a new church.

He also connects the church to Christ. The gospel—the good news of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ—was the unifying common interest that brought them together as the church. They weren’t all alike. Men, women, slaves, free, rich and poor. They were called out of their daily routines and assembled around Christ. This kind of diversity was unprecedented among ancient associations.

Because of their diversity they needed a new identity. Paul gives them one. He says they are now family. “Family” is the predominant image for the church in the New Testament and Paul’s writings.

In 1 Thessalonians—Paul’s first letter to a church he established—he says a family: has a corporate identity, is beloved by God, is to walk in a manner worthy of God, is to be holy, are children of light, and are siblings to each other. Paul knows nothing of the individual Christian because people respond to the gospel by living in community. For Paul, to be a believer is to be in the church.

The church is a family. And its messy. The first century church was too. There was never a time when the church “did it perfectly.” You’ll never find a perfect church now. Plant yourself in a church, focus on your calling in Christ, and learn to be family.

When the “roll is called up yonder” you’ll want to be there. You won’t be alone. But you may be surprised at who else is there with you.

Question: How is church like a family to you?

When Your Candy Store Gets Ambushed

It was somewhere around my third grade year when the entrepreneurial spirit hit me and my brother. This was back in the day when a kid could walk around the neighborhood or ride a bike to the 7-Eleven store a couple of miles away and no one had cause for worry.

My brother and I would go to that corner store to fill up on candy and lemonade mix. We noticed that a number of other kids from our subdivision would do the same thing. That’s when the idea struck us: we’d start a candy stand in front of our house. We would buy the candy from the store, jack up the price a bit, and save our friends the trip. We’d throw in some lemonade to help them wash it all down. I’d like to say we did this to be kind to our friends. But honestly? We wanted to be independently wealthy.

We opened up the store and were an immediate success. Supplies were flying out of our stand quicker than you can say “Pixy Stix.” The boys were all wanting to learn our business secrets. The girls were asking for our phone numbers. We’d sell out, put out our “Be Back in an Hour” sign, and take our profits to the store to stock up again.

A couple of weeks into our gig we were outlining our first seminar on “How to Grow Your Own Business” and planning our first franchise into the next neighborhood when we heard a low roar. We looked up and saw a big guy—he must have been at least sixth grade—wearing jeans and a T-shirt with one of those candy cigarette packs rolled up in the sleeve. He was rolling up on his mini-bike and stopped with a dramatic skid in front of our store.

I watched all this from a distance. I had started back to the house to get more lemonade. My brother was watching the stand by himself. The sixth-grade-gang-guy flashed a knife and demanded our money. It was a tough decision facing me: run to my brother’s aide or run…to the house and get my Dad.

Dad was bigger than me so I ran to him. My Dad was about 5’7” but to a sixth grader he might as well have been Arnold Schwarzenegger. As soon as he appeared the boy hopped on his bike and took off like a dog with his tail between his legs. My brother and I stopped worrying.

We kept on about our business knowing our father was watching over us.

And you can keep on about your business knowing your Father is watching over you.

This election season has been tumultuous: Bickering. Fighting. Name-calling. Accusation-hurling. Slander-slinging. And sadly, much of that has been from people who claim to follow Jesus.

I get it. We think we are clicking along at a good pace with our private little stands doing what we do in the world. Then along comes someone to cast fear into our hearts and we panic. (Yes, the candy store was real but is now an analogy.) And when we panic we get anxious and we worry about our future.

Is this how followers of the Nazarene should behave? His Word tells us to not let any unwholesome talk come out of our mouths. His Word tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. (I’m not sure the debates we’ve endured count as persecution, but they may come close.) His Word reminds us that “some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.”

Do we?

  • What do the people around us think we trust in by our behavior? The “nation” or the “God” we claim to be under?
  • What do our children think when they hear our fear-based reactions? As Andy Stanley famously said, we need to “Stop scaring the children!”
  • What do our neighbors think when they watch us on Sunday sing “Our God is an Awesome God” and on Monday sing the blues because we think our world is doomed no matter who is elected?

Can I remind you of something that may help? “The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD is on his heavenly throne” (Psalm 11:4). He has not gone anywhere. Your Father has not vacated his house. And perhaps all he is waiting on is his people to call on him just as I called on my father that day at the candy stand.

Isn’t that the verse many have dusted off over the past few months?

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

It might be helpful for us to remember those words were written to the nation of Israel. To apply them today we must not apply them to America. No. Today these words would apply to the church, the New Israel. If there is humbling and praying and seeking and turning to be done, it is to be done by God’s people. His church.

So let’s do that. By the time you read this the election will have been decided. Depending on the outcome you may feel as if some bully has shown up and disrupted your world. You may be worried. You may be anxious.

If so, won’t you do what I did? Run to your Father. The heavenly one. The one who is in his holy temple. The one who is on his throne.

He’s a lot bigger than 5’7”. But the result will be the same. He’ll protect you and restore peace. He’ll heal our land. So let’s let him be our Father. And let’s do our best to look like his children.

America needs us to.

Question: What is your greatest fear this morning? Will you take it to your Father?

Learn to Travel Light Through Life

There is an art to traveling overseas for an extended time. Unfortunately, in 2008 we had not mastered that art. You see, we were going on sabbatical to Europe for five weeks. But we did not go lightly.

The biggest mistake of our trip happened in our room when we were packing. We each had a smaller suitcase and were plotting out what to take and how to pack it tightly. That’s when one of us—I will not mention who it was—but that’s when Karen said, “Why don’t we pack our things together in one suitcase?” We went from two small suitcases to one large suitcase. Same amount of stuff crammed into one container. Made sense.

Until we got to Europe and started climbing onto trains. You see, you don’t check your baggage through trains like you do on an airplane. You take your luggage onto the train with you and you put it in an overhead bin. Because Europeans travel by train and usually go for short day or weekend trips, the bins are small. Made for small suitcases. Like the two we left back home.

We had one large, heavy suitcase. Each of our sons had their suitcases. We had a guitar. We had two backpacks. And when we tried to load all of this on our first train we almost had a meltdown. We couldn’t get into our cabin. The people behind us couldn’t get on the train. They were stacked up like cars on a Houston freeway at rush hour. We felt the pressure of too much to carry and too little space for it.

Maybe life feels like that for you today. You’re carrying around more than you were designed to carry. So did the Prodigal Son. When he came home his father embraced him and kissed him. Then he said to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

His father has given him grace and he still says, “I am not worthy…” He’s carrying baggage called shame. Brene Brown has done great work in the area of understanding shame. She says shame is lethal in our lives. It keeps us from living the life God intended. It makes us live instead the life we think others want us to live.

You can detect shame in your life by your self-talk. “I am stupid. I’m a loser. I’m such a mess up.” That’s shame speaking. The focus is on self.

Counteract shame in your life by changing your self-talk from focus on self to focus on behavior. “I made a stupid decision last night.” “I wasn’t thinking.” “What I did was wrong.” We need to get clear about our self-talk and the effect of shame on our lives.

Brown says that the difference between guilt and shame is this: guilt says “I did something wrong” whereas shame says “I am wrong.”

The father in the story helps his son think differently by giving him the best robe, a ring and sandals.

  • In the ancient world the best robe in a family was the father’s robe. He covered his son with his own robe. The act said, “You are enough.”
  • A ring represented authority and power. The son came home thinking he had no future. Now his was secure.
  • And sandals were worn only by family members. Servants of the household were barefoot. The sandals placed on the son who hoped to only get the place of a hired servant told him he was accepted.

My guess is his self-talk changed. And yours can too. If you have been baptized into Christ, you have been “clothed with Christ” (Galatians 3:27). You’ve been given the covering you need. You can say, “I am a child of God” (Galatians 3:26).

By Venice we got tired of the excess baggage. We tossed the large suitcase, bought a smaller one, and traveled lighter the rest of the trip. You can too. Put your shame away. Change your self-talk. There’s a Father running to you that wants to clothe you with all you need to carry through life. And it will be enough.

Question: What shame are you carrying around that is making your journey heavy?