Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Run Your Race Well: Part 1

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
Steve Prefontaine

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Hebrews 12:1-3 (NIV)

            There’s something affirming about the atmosphere of a long distance race. There is a certain camaraderie among the participants that is rare in other sports. Although each participant wants to do his or her best, there isn’t any antagonism between runners. Because of the distance covered much of the race is usually run out of sight of most spectators. The real action comes at the finish line. Cheering spectators line the course as the runners head for the chute. Even the last runners to cross the finish line receive cheers and applause from the crowd. As each runner finishes the race and emerges from the chute, one of the very first questions that a teammate will ask is “What was your time?” or “Did you get a P.R. (personal record)?” or “How well did you run the race?”  It isn’t “Did you win?” 

            Only one person can ever win the race, but everyone can do his or her best.  I helped out at a cross-country meet at our High School. I was stationed at the end of the chute where the runners finish the race.  Before each race began, we were given a total number of runners in the race.  We needed to know exactly how many runners were out on the course so we knew when the race was over, because the race is not complete until the final runner crosses the finish line.  With each race the officials and parents who were standing along the chute gazed out over the field waiting for the final runner to come.  I love that about cross-country. When that final runner comes into view everyone cheers.  It doesn’t matter what their time was or what team they represent.  What matters is that they ran and finished the race.  They did their best and everyone cheers as they cross the line.

            In the Christian life, it’s not so important where we place – that’s not what really matters.  What really matters is how we run the race.  We tend to judge ourselves against other people.  We tend to judge church against church and individual against individual.  God doesn’t do that.  He judges us based on how well we run the race.  What have we done with the assets, resources and talents that He’s given us?  How well did we run the race He set before us?

            We are running a race for Christ and His kingdom.  It matters to Christ what we do with our time, our talents and money.  We aren’t here by mistake.  We’re not here to mark time until some future opportunity materializes.  God has placed us here to make a difference for His kingdom now, in the present.  The gun has sounded, the race has begun, and it’s time to run.

            What can we do to run the race well? To start with we can run like it matters.  Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

            When my son Adam was considering where he wanted to attend college we took a trip down to Chicago to visit Wheaton College.  It just happens to be my alma mater. At the center of Wheaton College sits Blanchard Hall.  Blanchard Hall is a magnificent limestone building patterned after the buildings at Oxford, England. It looks like a small castle nestled on the top of a knoll.  This magnificent hall was built back in the 1850s.  It is the symbol for Wheaton.  Standing on front campus looking up at Blanchard Hall is awe-inspiring. What is more awe-inspiring is to go into the building and ascend to the second floor.  On the second floor of Blanchard Hall is a long hallway that is lined with several large plaques engraved with the names of individuals who have given their lives to world missions from Wheaton College.  Among those names are Jim Elliot, Nate Saint and Ed McCully. You may recognize those names from the movie “The End of the Spear”.  All three of these men were martyred for their faith. Their deaths sparked an unprecedented mission’s movement in America in the late 1950’s. There are many other names on those plaques; less well-known but not less significant. Some of those names are people I went to school with.  I’m always inspired to stand before that list and see the heritage of all those who have gone before and have run the race well.

            Hebrews 12:1 reminds us that we have a great spiritual heritage.  There are many who have gone before us, who have run the race well.  They form a great cloud of witnesses who inspire us and cheer us on in our race. The image is of a great stadium just before a race. The stands are filled, not with spectators but with champions; with those who have already run the race and know what it means to strain toward the goal.  They are cheering for the runners. They are shouting words of encouragement.  These are the faithful servants who have run the race before us, who stand as a testimony to encourage us in our race.

            Hebrews 11 gives us a glimpse into this great cloud of witnesses.  This chapter has been called God’s hall of faith.  It lists the champions of the faith. These are the pioneers who cut the trail in the spiritual wilderness; who ran the race before us and laid out the course that we might follow.  That little phrase, a great cloud of witnesses, reminds us that we have the privilege and obligation to carry on their work in our world. 

            Every year near the end of track season Mankato East High School holds something called the Cougar Relays.  It is a unique event because everything is run as a relay.  Even events that aren’t intended to be relays are run as relays! In a relay race it’s very important that each runner run his or her leg of the race well. The performance of each runner affects the others. As each runner finishes their leg they pass off the baton to the next runner. A bad handoff or a poorly run leg can spell defeat for the whole team. In a relay race each runner must do his best. 

            We are engaged in a great spiritual relay race.  It doesn’t last for 3 or 4 or 8 times around the track.  It lasts for a lifetime.  As we run this race, we receive the baton from those who have gone before us. We have been given the responsibility to continue the race; to run the best leg we can. Some day we will pass the baton on to those who come after us. Hebrews 11:39 summarizes this spiritual race. “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.  God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”  Did you get that?  They can’t finish the race without us.  They have passed on the baton, but the race isn’t over.  It isn’t complete until we take our turn, grab the baton and run our leg of the race.  We have an obligation to run for them and for Christ.  God has called us to something of great significance.  If we choose to focus only on our needs, wants and desires we will hurt the whole team. Many gifted athletes have ultimately failed because they forgot that they were part of a team.

            We can never forget all of those who have run the race before us; those who sacrificed so much so that we could join the team. They endured many hardships so that we could be a part of God’s team today.  They have handed the baton to us to continue the race for the next generation. How we run our leg of the race matters!  It matters for now and it matters for the future. We don’t know how much longer the race will last. What we do know is that how we run the race is going to make a difference to those people who come after us.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Man in the Orange Tank Top

I ran in the Athletes in Action 5K this morning. This was my third time to compete in this race. I finished the race in 28:21, 30 seconds better than last year. As most runner know, it helps to play mind games with yourself when you run. Set small goals along the way helps to keep you motivated. The following is a reflection on what was going on for me during the race.

The gun went off and the runners surged forward. The fastest runners were quickly out in front; the rest of us funneled into our places. I was determined not to go out too fast so I settled into a comfortable pace. He passed me about a half mile into the race; the man in the orange tank top. He looked to be middle-aged, with an orange headband and his iPod strapped to his right arm. He moved past me with ease and I soon lost sight of him.

As we approached the first mile the runners had begun to spread out. I worked to maintain an even stride. A few more runners passed me and I passed a couple. I looked up and there he was in the distance; the man in the orange tank top. At that moment I set my sights on finishing ahead of him.

For some time I didn’t seem to be closing the gap. He remained an orange spot way out in front. Then another runner came up beside me. I tucked in behind him and matched his stride. My pace quickened and the gap between me and the man in the orange tank top began to shrink. After a few minutes my pacer pulled away but my target was now closer. Another runner passed me and I allowed her to pull me along. The gap continued to diminish.

With less than a half mile to go I was within striking distance to the man in the orange tank top. With each stride I closed the gap. Then just before the turn into the final stretch I glided by him on his left. He never knew that he had been my target. With the finish line in sight I sprinted ahead. The lead runners had long before crossed the line, but as I crossed I knew I had won. I finished ahead of the man in the orange tank top. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Wonder About Worship: Part 5

I want to wrap up my thoughts about worship by suggesting that we can worship by celebrating the works of God’s creation. 

When my children were in elementary school I volunteered to teach a simple art class. It was called Masterpiece Art. Once a month I would come to the classroom and teach about some artist or style of art. I found it fun and enlightening. I learned much about art and about children. I was given posters of the art to show the children. On one occasion we were visiting an art gallery as a family and we encountered one of the originals of the art we had studied. My daughter got all excited because she recognized the painting. What was a two by four poster in a classroom was really a gigantic painting that took up the whole wall of the gallery. We both stood in awe as we took in the real thing.

God has painted his own masterpieces and made them available to all who will take the time to see. Often we content ourselves with reproductions until we actually encounter the real thing. No painting of a sunset can match actually watching the sun set over the horizon. No picture of the Rocky Mountains can hold a candle to encountering them yourself. No snapshot of Lake Superior can do justice to the experience of sitting on the rocky shore and listening to the waves crashing against the rocks.

There is something worse than being content with a copy of God’s handiwork. That is failing to recognize it at all. In our busy, technologically saturated world we can easily go through life blind to the wonders all around us. We are so plugged into the artificial and the made-made that we fail to see and experience the real thing. We substitute amusement parks and video games for hiking in the woods or canoeing down a river. We put on our blinders to our own detriment.

God invites us into a celebration of his creation. Psalm 19 says it this way. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

One of the simplest and most profound acts of worship we can offer to God is to stand in awe of his handiwork and give Him praise. When we take the time to encounter God’s masterpieces a spark of worship is kindled in our hearts. In the presence of such beauty and creativity we long to pour forth praise. We want to applaud the artist, celebrate the author, and honor the Creator who so masterfully put it all together.

There is an important place in our lives for corporate times of worship. God designed us to take time regularly to gather in His presence to honor Him. But we cannot limit our worship to one hour on Sunday morning. That should only be the beginning of a week-long celebration of our Savior and King. Let us daily offer to God a sacrifice of praise through our work and our creativity and our wonder at the world He as created for us to enjoy. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Wonder About Worship: Part 4

Before I share with you my next installment on worship I want to share a poem that I wrote some years ago. Maybe you feel this way some times.


I wear this mask so I can be
The person others want to see
I wear this mask to play the game
The best position I can claim.

I am afraid to take it off
I fear the voices that would scoff
For others to see me plain and clear
That is what fills my heart with fear.

I wear this mask to hide my face
To shield my heart from some disgrace.
I wear this mask ‘cause I’m afraid
To be the person God has made.

Oh Lord remove this mask from me
That I can live life truly free.
And give me courage to open up
And with your grace Lord fill my cup.

Now some more thoughts on worship. 

Closely related to worshipping God with our creativity is worshipping God with our work. This is one of the most frequently overlooked acts of worship. Most of us see work as a necessary evil. Although everyone has dreams of work that will be fulfilling and exciting, too often the reality is that work is drudgery. We do what we have to do to get a pay check. More times than not, when we speak of work, it is in the form of complaints. Work is to be endured. Rarely do we view our work as an act of worship.

Contrary to popular thinking, work is not a curse, it is a gift. When God created humanity he assigned them the task of caring for His creation. Genesis 1:26 illustrates God’s design. “Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." Then in Genesis 2: 15 we see again that God intended to give to humanity the gift of work. “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Both God’s intent and God’s instructions to the man came before “The Fall”. God gave to man the gift of purposeful labor. After “The Fall” work became hard and demanding, but it retained its positive quality of giving purpose to a person’s existence.  

When we disconnect work from God and His original intent it becomes just toil. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that without God work is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. This is the sad reality for so many people, including many believers.

There is a better way to approach work, as an act of worship. Paul instructed the workers of his day to offer their work as a sacrifice to God. “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Colossians 3:22-24 (NIV)

Let us get very practical at this point. If our work is going to be a genuine act of worship we need to carefully evaluate two critical areas: our attitude and our effort.  Let’s first look at our attitude.

Our attitude shapes our environment. If we have a negative attitude then we will have a negative work environment. It is so common is our society today for people to complain about work. It has become the norm in most places. Work is seen as drudgery. Those in authority are viewed as the enemy. A spirit of antagonism prevails. The Bible clearly tells believers to put off those attitudes, which lead to strife and not peace.

On the other hand, if we have a positive attitude we will have a positive work environment. I recently listened to a talk from an employee of Google. He talked about Google as being a compassionate company that fostered a sense of well-being in their employees. People who have a positive attitude toward their work take more ownership. They enjoy tackling the challenges or accomplishing the task. Instead of seeing work as drudgery they see it as an adventure.

For the believer is Christ we need to take this one step farther. Instead of settling for just having a positive attitude we need to develop a worshipful attitude. Not all work is fun or fulfilling. But all work can be done to the glory of God. Brother Lawrence in his little book “The Practice of the Presence of God” talked about worshipping God in and through the mundane tasks of life. Brother Lawrence was a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery in Paris in the late 1600s. His main job was working in the kitchen. He stated that he never felt closer to God than when he was among his pots and pans. This clearly reflects the teaching of Paul from Colossians quoted above.

It is not enough to think good thoughts we need to couple that with good actions. The mindset of many today is to give the minimum effort necessary to get by. That is not the mindset of the follower of Christ. We are called to give our maximum effort in all that we do. We are called to be the best we can be in whatever task we are given. It is by giving our best, without regard for earthly rewards, that we turn work into worship.

Matthew’s gospel records Jesus’ parable about the faithful and unfaithful servants. We know it as the parable of the talents. In the parable the master entrusted different amounts of money to his servants according to their abilities. Their task was to make the best use of those resources as they could. Two of the servants did just that and earned the favor of the master. The third servant did the bare minimum. He returned to the master exactly what the master had given him; no more, no less. For his lack of effort he earned the master’s anger.

God has entrusted to each of us a set of talents, which he intends for us to use for his glory. When we use those talents to their fullest we bring glory to God. When we fail to use those talents we displease Him. For the vast majority of us we use those talents in our work. This does not mean that our talents are limited to our work, but work is the avenue through which we exercise and develop our talents normally. Therefore if God has given to you the ability to fix cars, then fix cars to the best of your ability. If God has entrusted to you the task of running a farm, then be the very best farmer you can be. If God has given you the privilege of working in the church, then be the best pastor, Sunday School teacher, worship team member you can be. When we intentionally give our best for His glory we are worshiping.  

It has become assumed in the Church that certain activities are worshipful and others are not. We identify singing praise songs as an act of worship but you don’t see tending a vegetable garden as an act of worship. We see teaching Sunday School as service for God, but we don’t see teaching 3rd grade in the same way. God does not make a distinction between secular work and sacred work. It is all the same to Him. I can worship God through any wholesome activity as long as I do it with an attitude of praise. I don’t have to be sitting in a church to worship, for the whole world is God’s sanctuary. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Wonder About Worship: Part 3

Another way we can expand our concept of worship is by being creative. The book of Genesis tells us that humanity was created in the image of God. This means many things. One of the qualities that God placed within us was the ability to be creative. In the strictest sense of the word only God can create, which means to make something out of nothing. But God has given to humanity the ability to manipulate what is available in such a way as to “create” something new and different. This ability to create has been widely celebrated in the fields of music and art. It has also produced such things as automobiles, airplanes, computers, cell phones and microchips. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien have masterfully demonstrated our capacity to create whole new worlds through literature. The field of science has led the way in creating new understanding of how our world works and how we can use that information to our advantage. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Unfortunately we often miss the worship aspect of creativity.

It is not just in the end product that worship occurs, but in the creative process itself. For example we are quick to identify certain songs as “worship songs” yet we fail to see that the creation of the song itself is an act of worship. If we will intentionally do it, this can be applied to any creative act. When a painter takes an empty canvas and transforms it into a beautify piece of art, that can be an act of worship. When a carpenter takes some rough pieces of wood and fashions them into a table or chair, that can be an act of worship. When a scientist explores the complexities of our physical world, that too can be an act of worship.

Lest you think that this is just fanciful thinking, let me remind you of the creation of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament. In order to give the people of Israel a tangible focus for their worship, God gave Moses instructions for creating the Tabernacle; a movable place of worship. As a part of this task God gave certain people specific practical abilities. He gave some the ability to weave and some the ability to work in metals and some the ability to work with wood. Each of these craftsmen was given a specific part of the Tabernacle to create. By using these creative talents they were worshipping God long before the Tabernacle took on its final form.

What makes a creative act an act of worship is the attitude of the person’s heart. Three bricklayers were working side by side on a wall. A stranger walked up to the first worker and inquired about what he was doing. I’m laying brick was the gruff response. Moving to the second man the stranger again asked his question. I’m building a wall, came the reply. Finally he asked the third man what he was doing. I’m building a great cathedral to the glory of God.

God has given to all of humanity the ability to be creative. We are not all creative in the same way, but we are all creative. God has also given us the freedom to use our creativity in whatever way we like. Many use their creativity to bring glory to themselves or to further some cause. Those who understand the true nature of worship use their creativity to bring glory to God. It is our attitude that makes the different. Paul puts it clearly in Colossians 3:17. “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” To do something in Jesus name is to submit it to his authority. It requires that we offer our action to Jesus to do with it as he pleases. We are to do this not grudgingly, like slaves who have no choice, but willingly as grateful servants who celebrate the goodness of God in our lives.

Worshiping God with our creativity does not mean that everything we do is religious. Just putting a Bible verse on something or adding God to the lyrics does not make something a worthy offering of worship. A great piece of art may be a more worthy offering than a thousand religious paintings of poor quality. A great piece of literature may be a more worthy offering of worship than a thousand trite religious novels. It is not my intention to say what constitutes great art or music or literature. My point is that making something religious does not automatically make it good. In fact God is not pleased with religious window dressing. He is far more concerned about the condition of the heart. “The Lord says: "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” Isaiah 29:13 (NIV)  

In what creative way can you worship Christ today?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Wonder About Worship: Part 2

As we begin to push the boundaries of our understanding of worship we need to consider study of God’s word as an essential piece of the puzzle. Throughout the Scriptures devotion to the word of God is seen as a primary act of worship. This means far more than just listening to a sermon on Sunday morning or reading short passages in the Bible before we head out for work. True devotion to the word of God is making it a top priority in our lives. This begins with our attitude toward the Bible, God’s word. Is it just a book of nice stories and helpful advice or is it the living word of God? The true starting place of worship is our heart attitude toward God’s word.

God stressed the importance of His word to Joshua as he prepared to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land. “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” Joshua 1:8 (NIV)  

Many years later King David expressed the kind of attitude God desires from those who would genuinely worship Him.

How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.
I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.
I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.
Praise be to you, O LORD; teach me your decrees.
With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth.
I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches.
I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.
I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.
Psalm 119:9-16

The centrality of the word of God is carried throughout the New Testament as well. When Paul was writing to his apprentice Timothy he stressed the importance of God’s word. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:14-17 (NIV)

Later James, the brother of Jesus, echoed Paul’s words with even greater force. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does.” James 1:22-25 (NIV)

Let me draw some practical application from these passages. One of the primary ways that we worship God is by taking the Bible seriously. This lays the foundation for everything else that we do. Unless we are regularly interacting with God’s Word we cannot know what it means to please God. So how do we demonstrate this primary act of worship?

First we must be regularly exposed to God’s Word. In Deuteronomy 6 God gave these instructions to Israel. They are still applicable today.  Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (NIV)  God was stressing to Israel and to us the importance of keeping His word before us. We cannot do this by a half hour sermon on Sunday morning. God’s desire is that we would expose ourselves daily to his word. The more that we are exposed to the Word the greater impact it will have on our lives.

This leads us to the second step, which is to digest God’s Word. We have all had the experience of listening to a lecture or a conversation only to awaken to the reality that we haven’t heard anything that was being said. The words had been flowing over and around us but we had failed to absorb them. Too often this is our experience with God’s word. We quickly read a passage of scripture, close our Bible and forget what we have read. If we truly want to worship God we need to make the effort to listen and understand what God is saying to us. This takes real effort on our part. We cannot settle for a quick read. Instead we need to engage the Word. Rarely does this happen automatically. We need to give God’s word the time and space to sink into our souls. Paul made a point of this in Philippians 4:8. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.” The word Paul uses to “think about” is the word for ruminate or chew on. It is like a cow chewing its cud. A cow brings its cud back again and again until it is fully digested. Paul is telling us that we should process God’s word in the same way.

The third step in this act of worship is to put God’s Word into practice. Information that is not translated into action is useless, no matter how important or lofty it might be. Jesus made it clear that our primary act of worship is to obey what He has commanded us to do. Like James says, it is not enough to be hearers of the word. We must be doers of the word. Each time that we chose to actively live out what we have learned in God’s Word we are committing an act of worship. When I choose to love someone who is hard to love, that is an act of worship to God. When I chose to seek God’s glory instead of my own, that is an act of worship. When I respond to some offense with grace and kindness I am expressing worship to God. 

Whatever form our worship takes it must be shaped and guided by God's Word. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wonder about Worship: Part 1

Worship is one aspect of the Christian life that is intended to create awe and wonder yet too often it causes confusion and even conflict. What is worship? What does it mean to worship God? How is Christian worship different from other forms of religious worship?

Often today, within the evangelical Church, worship is equated with singing hymns or praise songs. We even speak of singing as the worship part of the service, which proceeds the preaching. We call certain people worship leaders and have designated certain musicians as worship teams.  But is worship really just singing? What of those who have no musical talent? Can they not worship? I have often heard “worship leaders” expound how great it will be when all we do is sing and make music before God for all of eternity. I must confess that such comments leave me cold. I love to sing and play my guitar, but, if that is the extent of worship, eternity is going to be very long and I’m afraid boring. I can already hear the objections being loudly raised. Singing praise to God can never be boring. My point is that we have made worship very one dimensional. Matt Redman's song "The Heart of Worship" highlights our need to take a second look at how we define worship. 

I believe that worship is much more than just singing a few worship songs. The English word worship comes from the old English word worth-ship, which means to ascribe worth to something. For example when a person praises the qualities of a piece of art or admires the beauty of some natural wonder they are demonstrating worship.

The primary Hebrew word for worship is Shachah, which means to bow down to or show reverence for something or someone. In the ancient world the way someone showed respect for some important person was to bow down before them. We still see a vestige of this in the oriental custom of bowing to a guest.

The Greek New Testament uses three different words for worship. Each word gives a slightly different aspect of the concept. The most commonly used word is Proskuneo, which means to kiss or show homage to. The idea is of a person bowing down before the king to kiss the ground or his feet in an act of submission and honor. The second most commonly used word is Latreuo, which means to render religious service of homage. Being an offering to the Temple is an example of an act of worship to God. The third word is Sebomai, which means to show reverence or awe. It is an act of worship to stand in awe of the glory of God.

We can see from these simple definitions that worship is far more than what we have limited it to today. We need to explore how we might expand the boundaries of worship in our everyday lives. In the days ahead I will share some of my thoughts on  gaining a fuller understanding of worship. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Be Still?!

I climbed into my car a little after 4:00AM. The air was cool and the sky was clear, bursting with stars. I was on my way to the airport in the Twin Cities to catch a flight to Chicago. As I pulled out of my driveway the road was empty. I reflected on how much I like driving in the early morning when the world is asleep. I enjoy the feeling of solitude. Heading into town I encountered a couple of cars. I always wonder what people are doing driving around at 4:00 AM. I'm sure they were wondering the same thing about me.

For the first hour of my trip I had the road mostly to myself. Occasionally I met an on-coming car, but there was no traffic to speak of. Then about 5:00AM I hit the freeway. Immediately I was aware that things had changed. I was no longer alone. There was a constant stream of cars and trucks heading south as I headed north. Soon I was into traffic, surrounded by other cars all going somewhere. The closer I got to the Cities the heavier the traffic got.

As I maneuvered my way through the traffic I thought about how we have become a culture that doesn't rest. We are constantly on the move. Our factories operate around the clock. A person can buy groceries at midnight or shop for school supplies at 2:00AM. With all of the advances in technology people never seen to shut down. Cell phones dominate our lives; they have replaced the security blanket for many people. When my plane landed I was amused at how quickly the cell phones emerged. Our environment is filled with noise. It is almost impossible to find a quiet place. I had about an hour to wait in the airport for my return flight. I pulled out a book to read but I had a hard time. The waiting area was dominated by a TV screen that blared CNN from multiple places in the ceiling.

It takes real effort for us to stop and be still. Everything in our environment is working against us. All of us need to unplug regularly so that we can experience the presence of God in our lives. The Psalm 46:10 tells us,  "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth." God rarely shouts above the noise and activity of life. Instead He patiently waits for us to stop and notice that He is present.

We have been programmed to fill our lives with distractions. I saw an ad the other day for a particular cell phone that allows you to play games, listen to music and access 5000 apps. Oh and it makes phone calls as well. It is no wonder that we live frantic lives. We need to find ways to be still and listen to God. For many people to be quiet and still is a frightening experience. God invites us to overcome our fear; to be still and know that He is God.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Transformed by Christ's Love

            TRANSFORM, vb: To change in composition or structure, to change the outward form or appearance of, to change in character or condition.
            I have been reading Dallas Willard’s book Renovation of the Heart. He masterfully makes the case that to be a follower of Jesus is to be transformed from the inside out. My heart resonates with what he is saying. I desire to be transformed by the love of Christ. Not only that but I desire to see others transformed as well. Our church has committed itself to being a place where lives are transformed by the love of Christ. I believe in that vision. I desire to see that become a reality. But I must confess that I am a little discouraged. The majority of what I am reading paints a less than rosy picture of the church. Instead of seeing lives transformed in significant ways we see all of the problems of the world resident in the church. How do we turn this around? What does it mean to be people whose lives are transformed?
            God has been challenging me with several thoughts about living a transformed life. I offer them to you not as the end of the conversation but as the beginning of a dialogue.

            First, true transformation is an act of God and not the product of our efforts. I have always been one who wanted to do it myself. I have struggled with the false idea that I had to somehow change myself so that I would be acceptable to God. The bad news is that I will never make it. The good news is that I don’t have to. God, by His grace and mercy, has done all that needs to be done for me to be transformed.

            In Romans 12:2 Paul tells us to stop trying to measure up to external standards. Instead he tells us to yield to the transforming power of God from the inside.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.

            So how do we put ourselves in the place where this transformation can happen? Paul gives us the answer in Philippians 4:8-9. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me--put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
            Paul tells us that there are two things we can do to access the transforming power of God’s grace. We can fill our minds with the right things and we can fill our lives with the right actions. As we meditate on the right things our whole way of thinking is changed. As we consciously act on what we are learning the way we live is changed.
            The second thought I have about transformation is that it takes place in community not isolation. As Americans we have been trained to think and live independently. We are “rugged individualists.” This kind of thinking is foreign to scripture and hinders us from experiencing the transforming power of God. The Gospel is an invitation into a community of faith. Colossians 3:15-16 helps us see that being a part of a community is at the heart of our spiritual transformation.
            Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
            Genuine transformation takes place through relationships. First we enter into the life-giving relationship with God through Jesus Christ. That relationship empowers us to develop new relationships with others. God uses the community of faith to be the agent of transformation.
            The third thought I have is that genuine transformation means submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In Romans 12:1 Paul calls us to give our all for Christ.
            Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship.
            If we are going to experience the transforming power of the Gospel we must yield completely to Christ. Jesus said we are to take up our cross daily and follow Him.
            The last thought I have is that transformation is a process and not a product. Although I firmly believe there is a point in time when we cross from death to life through faith in Jesus that is not the end of the story. We are always in process spiritually. The transforming work of Christ is a long term commitment on his part to restore the image of God in us. Paul clearly states this in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18.
            Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
            Many people are staying away from the church today because they do not see the transforming power of the Gospel in the lives of Christians. We can change that if we are willing to humble ourselves before God and let him do his work in us. We are the light of the world. It is time to shine. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Give Yourself Away

                Do you like free things? I do. I confess I am a sucker for free things. Each year our family makes a trip to the Minnesota State Fair. As I meander through the different buildings and displays I am always on the lookout for free stuff; pens, pencils, bags, whatever. Free stuff has a way of grabbing our attention.
                For many years I have been gripped by Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:24-26. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?
                I am convinced that Jesus is calling us to give ourselves away for Him. If we would freely give ourselves away for Christ we would change our world. So how do we do that? After all a person can be a martyr only once. There are many ways that we can give ourselves away without making the “ultimate sacrifice.”
                First and most importantly we must give ourselves completely to Christ. We have to give up our desire to be in control and let Jesus direct every aspect of our lives. Most of us give Christ parts of our lives but not everything. We give Christ Sunday morning, maybe a Bible study during the week, and even five minutes each morning before we go to work. We retain control over how we will conduct ourselves at work and when we are having fun and how we act at home. We compartmentalize our lives; offering some parts to Christ and hanging on to others. Jesus said that if we are going to be his disciples we have to die to ourselves and live for Him.
                About now you might be getting nervous, thinking that to give yourself away you have to sell everything and live in poverty in some third world country. Maybe, but probably not. The more that we yield the control of our lives to Christ the more we are free to actually give ourselves away in practical ways. These will seem simple yet they can be very powerful and life changing. Here are a few areas of your life that you can begin giving away right now.
                Give away your time. Someone has observed that time is the new currency of the 21st century. Today people are far more willing to part with their cash than with their time. One of the greatest gifts that you can give to another person is your time. Look for opportunities every day to give someone the gift of uninterrupted time.
                Give away your attention. We live distracted lives. We are addicted to our cell phones, blackberries, computers, IPods, IPads, and all manner of electronic devises. It is a rare occasion today when people enter into conversation and are not interrupted by the demanding cry of a cell phone.  If you want to make a difference in your world give other people the gift of your undivided attention. Turn off the TV and the cell phone and focus completely on the other person.
                Give away your expertise. We guard our skills and knowledge almost as much as we guard our time. Many people believe that if they freely share their expertise with others they will be at a disadvantage. God gave each of us gifts and talents to share with others, not to keep to ourselves. The more we give away our skills and talents the more refined they will become.
                Give away your stuff. Most of us have more stuff than we need. Everything we have is temporary and will soon pass away. The best way to use our stuff is to share it with others. This may mean literally giving it to someone else. It can also mean leading it to others. Either way, the more loosely we hold onto our stuff the less hold our stuff has on us.
                Every day there are a number of simple ways we can give ourselves away for Christ. I want to challenge you to intentionally give yourself away at least once every day. Lose your life, even for a moment, and see what God will do with it. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Here we go!

I sat in the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit today and was challenged to just do something. I have been working on a couple of writing projects for some time. I decided today that I would begin to share some of my writing and see what happens. I know there are thousands of would-be writers out there, but I decided to take the plunge anyway.

There are three things I want to share through this blog. I want to share my writing in small chunks and invite any feedback. I want to share some poetry I have written. I want to share random thoughts and insights.

This has been a difficult two weeks. I have had to walk with two families who each lost a child. One was a late term stillbirth. The other was a car accident. I wrote this poem to help me process the feelings I was experiencing as I processed the death of a promising 16 year old young man.

July 29, 2011
by David Banfield

The day began like every day
The busyness, the hurry, the need to get things done
The norm of life was in full flow
Then the world stood still

The norm was shattered with the unexpected
In a moment the unwanted imposed itself
Everything came to a stop with a crash
Then the world stood still

All the busyness of life didn’t matter at that moment
All that we think is so important faded from view
Our world became focused on one tragic point
We were frozen in time

The hours ahead were filled with pain
Unanswered questions flew in and out of our minds
We cried, we embraced, we sat in uneasy silence
Our world stood still

The time came to start the clock again
We didn’t want to, but we had no choice
Slowly, painfully we moved
We moved back into the flow of time

I drove home alone and watched the world rush by
Don’t they know, don’t they care
I felt the terror of a life cut short
I felt myself being swept back into the relentless flow

One day the world will stand still
And time will be no more
Good-bye will become a forgotten word
When we stand on that eternal shore

I am writing a "book" about living the Christian life titled Run and Not Grow Weary. Here is the introduction.

Run and Not Grow Weary

            James Fixx, the author of The Complete Book of Running, is credited with helping to popularize the sport of running in America. His bestselling book, published in1977, inspired millions of people to put on their running shoes and hit the trail. In 2009, 1.32 million people completed timed road races in America.
            I began running in Jr. High. I was not fast so I was quickly “promoted” to being a distance runner; the 2-mile race to be exact. Throughout Jr. High and High School I ran cross- country in the Fall and track in the Spring. I was never any good but I did enjoy running. After High School I ran only occasionally. By the time I entered ministry running was a vague memory.
In 2006 things changed.  My daughter Elizabeth decided to follow in her brothers’ footsteps and join the cross-country team. She came to me one day and said, “Dad, if I’m going to do this you need to help me.” So in August we began running together. At first we ran only to the end of our driveway and back; a distance of a half mile round trip. Gradually we extended our runs. Soon official practices began and Elizabeth left me. I continued to run on my own, reasoning that it was good for me and I had already made some progress so why stop now?
At the end of the cross-country season my son Adam’s team decided to run in the Living History Farms Race in Urbandale, Iowa. They were in need of a chaperone so I volunteered. As I thought about this up-coming event I decided that I didn’t want to go as a spectator. If I was going to take the time I may as well run. I had been running since August so I thought, “I can do this.” I had no idea what I was getting into.   
The Living History Farms Race is a demanding seven mile race that takes place the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year. The course takes you through fields, up and down ravines and through streams. The atmosphere is electric as thousands of people gather at the starting line. In 2006 there were about 5000 runners, many dressed in crazy costumes for the occasion. The temperature at the start of the race hovered around freezing. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. There were several times during the race that I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I ran the race alone, having been abandoned by the team, in the midst of thousands of runners. I crossed the finish line at two hours and eleven minutes. I was exhausted but felt good. I had been re-infected with the running bug.
After the race was over I talked with my three children and suggested that we all run the race together in 2007. Throughout the following year I trained for the Living History Farms Race. I set goals and pushed myself to extend my runs. The month before the race I was running six mile training runs. I was feeling pretty good. I set a goal of finishing the race under two hours.
The week before the race I hit a major setback. I had a flu shot that triggered a nerve reaction in my left shoulder called Parsonage-Turned Syndrome. The pain in my shoulder was excruciating and debilitating. It even kept me out of the pulpit for one Sunday. Thanks to a neurologist in our church I was quickly diagnosed and put on some strong medications. I prayed that God would allow me the strength to run the race. Just one week after my problems began we loaded up the van and made the drive to Iowa. I woke up Saturday morning almost pain free, dressed and took my place with my children at the starting line.
We had decided to run the race together; a sacrifice on the part of my children who could have easily left me in the dust. The gun sounded and we were off. We ran in pairs keeping an eye on each other and changing the lead from time to time. We ran the first four miles at an 11 minute pace. Somewhere around the four mile mark my legs refused to continue. It was as if someone flipped a switch and turned the power off. I had to stop and walk for a distance. In an act of grace my children walked with me. Within a few minutes I felt my strength returning and we were off again, just in time to hit the ravines and the creek crossings. These turned out to be a blessing for me because they gave me short periods of rest as we had to wait our turn to cross.
Somewhere around mile six Isaiah 40:31 popped into my mind. “But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” I was overwhelmed by the significance of that verse for I had experienced it in a very tangible way throughout the race. It was only by the grace of God that I was running at all. I had soared and run and walked. With renewed determination I pushed toward the finish line. As we neared the finish line I looked up at the clock. It read 1:29:28. We had beaten my goal by half an hour!
God has used running as a means of helping me evaluate and refocus my walk with him. There are many passages in scripture that use running as an image of the Christian life. Running the race of life is much like running the Living History Farm Race. It is full of obstacles and challenges. There are times when we get discouraged or tired. There are also times of exhilaration and joy. It is an endurance race, not a sprint. And it is best run with others.  The goal is to run the race well.
In the following pages we will explore what it means to run the race of faith. As you read my words I hope you will reflect on your own race. Let Christ be your coach. Rediscover the joy of running the race for Him and with Him.

That is enough for now. I hope in some way I can be an encouragement to you wherever you are on this journey of life.