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Light in the Dark Ages

March 31, 2016

NASHVILLE. Many Christians look at our modern world of brutal terrorists, corrupt politicians, crumbling economies, decaying morals, compromising churches, and broken families and conclude that a new Dark Age is upon us.

Maybe they’re right and we’re living in the dawn of a modern Dark Age.

But maybe a new Dark Age is not as bad as it sounds. After all, people in the original Dark Age (roughly 500-1500 AD) were completely obsessed with light.

If you have ever visited a Gothic cathedral, you know what I am talking about. Gothic architecture had two foundational design elements: height and light. And every corner of the cathedral is a stand-alone art museum.

Beginning in the eleventh century, 600 years into the Dark Ages, hundreds of massive Gothic cathedrals were constructed all across Europe — from Scandinavia in the north to the tip of the Iberian Peninsula in the south, from Wales in the West to modern Poland in the East. In addition to the great cathedrals, thousands of huge abbey churches and tens of thousands of smaller parish churches were also constructed during this time. While not as grand in scale as the famous cathedrals, these abbey and parish churches were equally obsessed with light.

Because of the church building surge during the Dark Ages, by 1300, France and England had one church for every 200 people. In contrast, today in the Philippines, we have approximately one evangelical church for every 1,000 people, and many of those churches don’t meet in a church building. So, a return to the Dark Ages might be an upgrade.

I mentioned that the people in the original Dark Ages (a.k.a. Middle Ages or Medieval Period) had three obsessions that manifested in Gothic architecture: light, height, and art.

Light. Because of the heat and humidity of Mediterranean Europe, churches in the Roman Empire were typically built with tiny windows and thick walls constructed of stone. This was their attempt at ancient air conditioning. In contrast, Northern European cathedrals built during the Dark Ages included huge windows. These windows allowed Gothic architects to accomplish more with angles, shadows, stained glass, and sunlight than modern sound and light specialists can do with the latest high-tech million-dollar light rigs. Dark Age architects were not only obsessed with natural sun light, they were masters of light, shadows, and color.

Height. Try walking into a Gothic cathedral and looking down. I bet you can’t do it, at least not for long. Eventually, you’ll look up. No matter if you’re a worshiper or a tourist, the stained glass, pointed arches, carved vaults, flying buttresses, and beautiful art force the eye upward. The idea is to help worshipers get their eyes off of temporal earthly things and to focus, at least for a moment, on the eternity and majesty of heaven. Today’s church “architecture” forces the modern worshiper to focus on fallen finite fallible humans — singers, musicians, and preachers — on a stage.

Art. The third ubiquitous design element of Dark Age Gothic cathedrals was art. And art was everywhere in these cathedrals. Paintings, sculptures, mosaics, stained glass, and wood carvings adorned every Gothic cathedral built during the Dark Ages. In fact, when we talk about a Gothic cathedral, the whole building should be considered a work of art.

Some of the most amazing medieval cathedral art was recently discovered during renovation work on Salisbury Cathedral, an 800-year-old Gothic cathedral located 137 kilometers west of London. While doing renovation and restoration work, stonemasons discovered beautiful art hidden in parts of the cathedral that human eyes were never supposed to see. The top of the spires, the back of statues, the bottom of roof tiles, and inaccessible attic spaces all contained intricate carvings and detailed artwork that no one had seen in over eight centuries, since the original artists created it and hid it. In fact, some of the most stunning art in Salisbury Cathedral was designed and positioned so that it would never be seen my human eyes.

Why would these stonemasons, painters, woodcarvers, and sculptors spend time creating art then hiding it so no one would ever see it?

The answer to that question is profoundly simple. These people lived, worked, worshiped, and built buildings for God, not for man.

They saw work as worship, and they believed that worship was to honor God not to impress man. For us, worship means singing four songs before the sermon on Sunday morning. I think the Dark Age perspective of worship was closer to the biblical ideal than our modern Sunday morning mini-concerts.

I have nothing against the singing part of the modern church worship service. Singing those four songs on Sunday morning can be a powerful way to worship and experience God’s presence. But singing on Sunday is a small part of real worship.

Consider what Paul said about worship in Romans 12:1.

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.

Paul taught that “spiritual worship” happens not only when we sing four songs on Sunday morning before the sermon, but when we “present our bodies” to God as a living sacrifice. This means that all of life can and should be worship to God.

If we live life as a sacrifice to God, then what we do at work on Monday through Friday is valid worship just as much as those twenty minutes of singing before the sermon.

I’m not suggesting that every carpenter and stonemason who worked on a Gothic cathedral 1,000 years ago was necessarily living Romans 12, but the overall cultural idea certainly leaned toward seeing all of life as worship to God. Why else would sculptors carve the back of huge statues? Why else would stonemasons carve intricate details on the tops of spires that no one but God would ever see?

They saw their work as worship. Do you?

Blog / Discipleship / Worship

In Light of Grace, Does Obedience Matter?

October 19, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO. (I wrote this blog a couple of weeks while visiting ourEvery Nation church in NM.) Does the doctrine of grace nullify the law? Does God still expect us to at least attempt to obey His word? The way some people preach grace today makes it seem that obedience no longer matters. Maybe it doesn’t matter to some preachers. But it matters to God.

How common it is today to “relax” God’s moral, ethical, and relational standards. No matter what the culture says, sex outside of marriage is sin. Coveting, lying, and stealing are also sinful. Bitterness, unforgiveness, and hatred are common, but wrong.

Speaking about the Law, Jesus said we should not think that He came to “abolish the Law or the Prophets.” Rather, He came to “fulfill” the Law. He then said, “until heaven and earth will pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until it is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17,18)

Jesus was was the embodiment of grace, but He was not anti-Law. In fact, He gave a serious warning to those who would like to “relax” the demands of the law. “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teachers others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19) Often when I hear a radio or TV preacher, it seems they are teaching people to relax God’s commands. I guess that means our generation has produced some of the least in the kingdom.

The Gospel tells us that no matter how sinful and disobedient we are, God still loves and redeems us, by grace through faith. Our obedience does not increase God’s love for us, and our disobedience does not decrease His love for us. While we were sinners, He loved us enough to sacrifice His one and only Son for us.

If God loves us whether or not we obey, what then is the point of trying to obey His Law?

Our obedience does not increase His love for us, but it does increase our love for Him. The more we obey, the more our love for Him will grow. Jesus said it like this, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word.” (John 14:23) He did not say, If anyone keeps my word, the Father will love him. No, the Father loves us if we keep the word, and if we do not keep the word. Reading and obeying God’s word, increases our love for Him.

Summary: We cannot increase God’s love for us, but if we want our love for God to increase, we must read and obey His word.

More blogs on this topic: Grace or Truth?   Grace is Supposed to Change Us,    The Certainty of Forgiveness.

And finally, here’s a great worship song about the transformational power of grace: Grace Changes Everything.

Blog / Discipleship / Leadership / Worship

Pride

August 4, 2015

NASHVILLE. Good to be back in the office writing the final chapter of my parenting book, after ten productive days in South Africa and Nigeria. The wholehearted full volume African worship made my otherwise exuberant home churches (Victory Manila and Bethel Brentwood) feel rather Anglican in comparison.

While reading the tiny book of Obadiah this morning, I encountered a huge and terrifying truth.

The pride of your heart has deceived you.  (Obadiah 1:3 ESV)

Two simple points:

1. Pride is a heart issue. If we are proud it is not because of our accomplishments, culture, education, nationality, or family. It is because of our heart. The only way to deal with pride is to deal with the heart, not the external circumstances.

2. Pride is deceitful. It always makes us see self, others, situations, sin, anointing, and everything else in a distorted way. It tends to downplay our failures and exaggerate our accomplishments. It always tries to write self into the story and push self on center stage. But we rarely realize what pride is doing to us, because it is deceitful.

One simple (but difficult) solution: Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God. (1 Peter 5:6 ESV)

Blog / Worship

When God Seems Far Away

April 5, 2015

Sometimes the brutal honesty of prayers recorded in the Bible make my prayers seem shallow and sanitized.

Exhibit A: Psalm 22.

Verse 1. “My God, my God, why have you FORSAKEN me? Why are you so FAR
from saving me?”

There is more raw emotion than religious pretense in this prayer. Since God already knows everything, I don’t think He is particularly bothered by the psalmist’s blunt and honest prayer. And He probably won’t be bothered if we pray with a little  honesty either.

The psalmist used two intense words and two semi-accusations to describe how he felt about his relationship with God.

Why have you FORSAKEN?
Why are you so FAR?

Do you ever feel forsaken? Do you ever admit it to God? Does He ever feel far? Do you ever ask Him why?

Sometimes our temptations, failures, and circumstances are screaming that God has FORSAKEN us. Sometimes our sin, shame, and guilt make Him feel FAR far away.

If verse one describes your reality, keep reading.

Verse 2. “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.”

That didn’t help. Keep reading…

Verse 3. “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.”

When we feel FORSAKEN and when God seems FAR away, in reality he is still HOLY and He is still ENTHRONED. My feelings and my experiences do not change who He is.

If your circumstances are such that you feel forsaken and God feels far away, remind yourself that He is still HOLY and He is still on the THRONE.

And remind yourself that on the cross, Jesus was forsaken so we can be forgiven.

 

Blog / Family / Worship

Pondering the Meaning of Life

August 10, 2014

MANILA. Yesterday, at over one-hundred worship services in fifteen Victory Manila venues, we started a sermon series about the ultimate meaning of life based on the Book of Ecclesiastes. Dozens of Victory preachers asked some deep questions and hopefully provided some biblical answers.

Here’s an old story that I used to introduce the sermon. (This story was originally written for an article in Evangelicals Today magazine over ten years ago.)

While at my favorite beach in the Philippines, I overheard the following conversation.

“Come on, Daddy. Come down the slide with me.”

Splash!

“It’s fun . . . and see, the water’s not too cold . . .”

“Not now, son. I’m watching the sunset.” The overworked, stressed-out American executive mumbled to his energetic son while sipping some kind of crushed ice tropical concoction from a coconut shell.

Like any normal ten-year-old, this kid couldn’t even begin to understand how a human could choose to passively stare at a boring sunset rather than climb to the top of the slippery steps, stand in line behind a bunch of wet, shivering kids, then speed down a water slide, eventually splashing in a pool full of rowdy preteens. So he asked: “Why are you watching the sun, Dad?” The boy wanted a simple, practical explanation to this unsolved middle-age mystery.

The dad waxed eloquent: “Because it’s the meaning of life, son.”

“The what?”

“The meaning of life.” The philosopher-dad explained to his perplexed son, “When you are a ten-year-old, water slides and swimming pools are the meaning of life. But when you are forty, watching the sunset over Sombrero Island is the meaning of life. Understand?”

I don’t think junior understood at all. I’m not sure Dad understood either.

That seaside sunset conversation started my mind racing. Just what is the meaning of life? Immediately I thought about the movie City Slickers. In my favorite scene, Curly the leather-faced cowboy, pointed his index finger straight in the air and spoke of the “meaning of life.”

When the misplaced urban cowboy, Billy Crystal, wondered how one finger could be the meaning of life, Curly explained that one thing, not one finger, is the meaning of life.

“One thing. What one thing?” the city slicker inquired.

“That’s what you have to find,” Curly (Yoda on a horse) responded.

By the movie’s end, Billy’s character had found his one thing—his family.

What about you? What is your one thing? What does your life revolve around? What do you live for? What is the meaning of your life? Sunsets and vacations? Water slides and swimming pools? Family? Money? Fame? Popularity? Success? Survival?

David found his one thing. And, he did not find it in fame, fortune, family, success, survival, or sunsets. He certainly had all of these, especially fame, fortune, and family. Just what was David’s one thing? What was the meaning of his life? He left us a clue in Psalm 27:4:

One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.

David’s one thing was the presence of the Lord. He was obsessed with the glory and majesty of his God.

Paul was another guy who found his one thing. Here’s what he said about it:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord . . . one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.  (Philippians 3:7,8,13)

Paul was a brilliant and highly educated man. He had power and status in the Jewish religious system. He says he counted it all as nothing compared to knowing Jesus. He didn’t toss it all in the trash for money or for ministry, but for Jesus. His great passion in life was to know God.

According to David and Paul, the real meaning of life begins and ends with the pursuit of God. And just how does one pursue and find God? As always, Jesus is the answer: I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)

According to this Scripture, Jesus is more than the meaning of life; He is the life. Thus, any search for meaning apart from Jesus Christ is fruitless.

The Westminster Catechism summed it up as well as it could ever be summed up when it answered the question: “What is man’s chief end?” The answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

There you have it, folks. The meaning of life in a nutshell. To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever! Once you discover the real meaning of life, then the sunsets are much more spectacular and the water slides with your kids are much more fun!

Blog / Church / Missions / Worship

A Simple Explanation for Extreme Generosity

March 25, 2014

NASHVILLE. Have you ever known someone who is crazy generous? Not the guy who occasionally drops a few coins in the tip box at Starbucks. I’m talking about those people who love to give and who live to give. Are you one of those extremely rare extreme givers?

Luke recorded a story about a woman who didn’t have much, but all she had, she gave to Jesus. She gave joyfully and sacrificially. She was not a pious religious woman. She was a woman with a past. A sinful past. A shameful past. A past filled with regret. But she gave Jesus her all and her best.

The reason for her extreme generosity was simple. Here’s how Jesus explained it to his small group of Rhodes Scholars.

“Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47)

Those who have been forgiven much, love much. Those who suppose they have been forgiven little, love little.

This idea of reciprocating love is the explanation for crazy generosity. So, if we have been forgiven much, we will show much generosity, but if we have been forgiven little we will show little generosity.

Two summary thoughts about generosity from this story in Luke’s Gospel:

1. Generosity is an expression of love and gratitude.
2. Generosity is a response to being forgiven.

I have been forgiven much, therefore I should be extremely generous. What about you, have you been forgiven much, or little?

Blog / Church / Worship

Grace is Supposed to Change Us

March 1, 2014

MANILA. It seems like the doctrine of God’s grace is being preached, taught, blogged, and tweeted more than ever. That’s a good thing. But sometimes what is being preached, taught, blogged, and tweeted about grace is misunderstood, misapplied, and misinterpreted. That is not a good thing.

A couple of weeks ago Victory hosted our second Every Nation Worship Writers’ Workshop  with twenty-five worship writers from Singapore, India, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, Guam, and the Philippines. Don’t worry, I was not singing or writing. I was teaching the Bible in order to give our writers ideas for worship songs.

One topic I talked about was God’s transformational grace. I tried to communicate that grace not only forgives us, it also transforms us from the inside out. I challenged our writers to compose worship songs about the power of God’s grace to change us. They wrote some great songs that I am sure you will sing in your church and in Every Nation conferences over the next few years.

Why write songs about God’s transformational grace? It has become common to hear a “grace” preached and sung today that has little resemblance to biblical grace. Modern grace erases the guilt of sin, but does not break the power of sin. Biblical grace forgives and transforms.

Here are a couple of verses about God’s transformational grace.

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age  Titus 2:11,12

According to Paul, grace not only forgives sin, it teaches us to say NO to sin. It also teaches us to live self-controlled and godly lives. Grace is not a license to continue in sin, but a license to arrest sin.

For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!  Romans 5:17

In this passage, Paul is teaching the Romans that they can “reign in life” not by human effort and religious affiliation, but by receiving “God’s abundant provision of grace.” God’s grace is abundant and it empowers us to reign, to overcome, to be victorious.

Grace is supposed to change us. Is His grace changing you?

Blog / Worship

God is Holy, Sin is Costly, Idolatry is Offensive

April 23, 2012

I read Leviticus on my recent Manila to Nashville flight and tweeted a 140 character summary. Now, a few weeks later, I’m not sitting in the Atlanta airport about to board My Delta flight to South Africa. Here’s my quick summary of the twenty-seven chapters in Leviticus employing more that 140 characters.

1. GOD IS HOLY. Holiness is not something God does. It is not a list of religious rules. He is holy. It is his nature. What he does flows from who he is.

2. SIN IS COSTLY. It is impossible to exaggerate this point. The whole book of Leviticus, from start to finish, lays out the cost of covering sin: the blood of bulls, birds and lambs. If temporarily covering sin was that costly, what about the cost of forgiving sin forever?

3. IDOLATRY IS OFFENSIVE. Maybe not to our culture and our community, but idolatry is offensive to God.

4. WORSHIP IS AWESOME. Ultimately, the book of Leviticus is about worship. And the worship in Leviticus is not to be taken lightly. Worship is awesome because the God we worship is awesome. If our worship is anything but awesome, maybe we are not really worshipping the only true God.

Blog / Worship

Creativity and Relevance Are Way Overrated

March 3, 2012

A few days ago I tweeted the following: Creativity and relevance are way overrated. If you want a healthy church you might want to try consistency and reliability.

That one got multiple re-tweets, upping my weekly re-tweet average from one to two. For those unfamiliar with the twitterverse, a re-tweet means the author of said tweet is both profound and important. A re-tweet brings much honor to the family name.

Back to the point. I am tired of watching sincerely dedicated pastors and church planters focus on things that ultimately don't matter and on things that don't transform lives, all in the name of being creative and relevant.

Creativity is fine and good, but it does not break the power of sin. Relevance appears to be hip and cool, but it does not restore broken relationships or heal broken bodies.

I have done church for a long time. Sometimes I have been creative. Often I have not. But I have always tried my best to be consistent: to do what I say I will do, to stay faithful to the basics of the Faith.

Over the years, I'm sure there have been times when I looked relevant, and times when I did not. But I think my church is healthy today because relevant or not, I have been reliable (ie: authentic, genuine, trustworthy, dependable).

I know this is not an either/or situation. It is possible to be creative and relevant, and consistent and reliable at the same time. But too many pastors and preachers tend to go all OCD about creativity and seemingly forget that the power is in the gospel.

Question: I know you are creative and relevant, but are you consistently preaching the gospel?

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because IT IS THE POWER OF GOD for the salvation of everyone who believes… (Romans 1:16)

Blog / Worship

Are You Serving God the Old Way or the New Way?

January 21, 2012

There are basically two ways to serve God:

1. "The Old Way of the Written Code" (Human effort, good works, religious duty)

2. "The New Way of the Spirit" (Grace, faith, power of the Holy Spirit)

Paul, a very religious man, finally figured out he had spent his entire life serving God the old way, living by the written code. He then tried to explain his new revelation to the Romans. "We have been released from the law so that we serve in the NEW WAY OF THE SPIRIT, and not in the OLD WAY OF THE WRITTEN CODE." (Romans 7:6)

This is one of those either/or things, not a both/and thing. We can't do both. We can't live the old way and the new way at the same time. We either trust in God's grace or we trust in our works. We either trust in what God did for us or what we do for him. Either/or.

I know you are serving God, but are you doing it the old way or the new way?