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Your Price Tag

How do you measure the worth of a person?

I read a ridiculous article recently stating that Hollywood director Steven Spielberg was “worth” over $3 billion.  Oprah Winfrey is valued at over $2.7 billion.  And NFL quarterback Peyton Manning is supposedly worth only a paltry $120 million.

steven spielberg

The world has valued these celebrities’ worth by a combination of how much money they have made along with how much they are projected to make in the future.  And their fame, of course, is a factor as well.

So…what am I worth?  I figure I’m worth at least the amount of money in the penny jar on my bureau plus whatever coins fell between the cracks of my car seats.  Throw in a $15 iTunes gift card and that should just about do it.

Seriously, though, how does one determine how much a person is worth?  Do you feel valuable?  Or do you feel forgotten, misplaced or unappreciated?

Ten years ago, when my wife and I decided to start a family, we felt strongly that we were to start by adopting a child before trying to have biological children.  This is not THE way to do things, but it was what we felt God telling us to do, so we wanted to obey.  When the reality set in of what exactly it would cost us to adopt a child, we knew we couldn’t do it on our own.  The cost was significant, but we kept telling ourselves not to adopt a child based on what we could afford or what was practical.  We would adopt because God called us to adopt.  He would take care of the rest.  Besides, how do you put a price tag value on the life of an orphaned child?  When you think of it that way, the cost of adopting a human life is kind of a bargain.  God provided all the money necessary, and about a year after we started the process, we met our son in a Moscow orphanage.  I’ll never forget walking up to the playpen area where he was sitting and playing with his toys, and seeing him look up at us as Maria picked him up and held him for the first time.  He just stared at us with his big, adorable brown eyes and I just about lost it.  I wasn’t thinking about all the money we spent, or the hours of paperwork we put into the adoption, of the 11 hour flight, or any other sacrifice we had to make.  I just thought about this precious life before us that was now, amazingly, part of our family.  My love for him was overwhelmingly overflowing, and our sacrifices paled in comparison to our new-found joy.

A few years later we decided to start a second adoption journey about the same time we got pregnant with our first biological child.  This time we were pursuing a little girl from Guatemala.  But the relative ease of our first adoption journey, however, would not be duplicated.  We encountered several logistical snags too numerous to list here, but I’ll just say that our patience was tested quite extensively.  In fact, almost two years after beginning the process we still didn’t see an end in sight, and we were becoming frantically frustrated at all the lies and disorganization being thrust at us.  Meanwhile, our daughter was growing up without us and that tore us apart.  The elders of our church invited us to a prayer retreat to intercede on our behalf.  We left them knowing something had changed in the spiritual realm, and the next Guatemalan business day, we got the call saying we could come get our daughter in just a few days.  Just like our first adoption, the cost was significant (actually, the financial requirements had increased!) but we had gathered the necessary resources thanks to the support of friends and family.  We arrived in Guatemala, met our daughter, and were now a happy family of five (our first biological son had been born during the waiting process for our daughter).  While we were staying with missionary friends from our church in Guatemala, however, Maria got hit with a horrible stomach bug as did another friend who took the trip with us to assist in translating and such.  I was mercifully spared.

Spared, that is, until we got home.  I was in bed for four or five days straight, and could barely eat crackers.  I just couldn’t keep anything down.  I heard my daughter running around, giggling, and the rest of my family all having fun together.  But there I was, in bed, quarantined from the rest of humanity.  After day three I decided to crawl out of bed and oozed into my car so Maria could drive me to get checked out by the doctor.  They took a blood sample, and a day or two later I got a call from the U.S. government basically asking where in the world I had been that I could have contacted such a stomach bug.  You see, the bacteria I picked up was apparently some kind of evil, microscopic alien from Mars and they apparently were bent on world domination and had millions of tiny spaceships hovering just on the other side of the moon, waiting for a sign that the earth was prone for attack.


In all seriousness, looking back, I can see that we sacrificed much for the children we adopted.  And even though I lost 14 pounds in five days (fact) the sacrifice was still worth it.  It was nothing heroic.   I never gave it a second thought.

But when I think on the price that Christ paid for us, it leaves me humbled and in awe.  He paid our price of death and humiliation on the cross, adopting us into His eternal family. Consider the following verse when thinking about the price God paid to adopt us:

Ephesians 1:3-10  Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be ADOPTED as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.


Did you notice that the scripture says that God adopted us, “in accordance with his pleasure and will.”  It was God’s pleasure to pay the price.  Of course there was pain in the sacrifice that He paid on the cross.  It wasn’t that he wanted to go through the pain (he asked his Father in garden to spare him if possible).  But there would be rewards lavished upon Jesus forever for his obedience and love for His Father.  And we (and our worship) were just part of that reward.

Hebrews 13:2-3  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.

Next time you’re feeling worthless, or that your life means nothing, consider the price that was paid for you.  God could not have paid a greater price for you.  It was the most He could do.  Had there been no cross, no price paid for your life, you may have always wondered just how much God loves you.  Wonder no more.  You are worth more than anything.  And no one on this planet is worth more than you no matter what Entertainment Weekly magazine says.

1 Corinthians 6:20 states that we were, “…bought at a price.”  By diminishing my own worth, and seeing myself as less that what God made me, I am diminishing the price that Jesus paid for me.

Let us lift our eyes to our heavenly Father and give Him praise and thanks that he saw us worth paying such a hefty price for.  And let us stand in awe and wonder that it was not because of who we are apart from Him, but Christ who lives in us.

We are adopted into His family forever, and we are now called the children of God, and we receive all the wonderful benefits of such an inheritance.

Galatians 4:4-7  But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.


Santa Claus Theology

“He sees you when you’re sleeping.  He knows when you’re awake.  He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.  Oh, you better watch out.  You better not cry.  You better not pout I’m telling you why.  Santa Claus is coming to town.”

Just think about those lyrics of that song for a moment and separate yourself from what else you might know of the secular imagery of Santa Claus.  If I was a kid, and I read that about Santa Claus, but didn’t know anything else about him, I would be scared to death of the jolly fat elf.  He’s a seriously creepy old man, who watches me when I sleep (ultra creepy) just waiting for me to slip up and make a mistake.  For generations, parents have used Santa as their ploy to get their kids to be well-behaved at Christmas time.  “You better be good or you’re getting coal in your stocking from Santa,” has been the mantra of desperate parents for years.  Now, while many Christians have differing views on whether or not Santa should be included in their Christmas traditions, that is not the subject of this blog post.  What I do want to touch on is how Santa Claus theology is remarkably similar to our sometimes flawed view of who God the Father is.


How many of us have felt like God was like Santa Claus, watching us and just waiting for us to slip up and sin?  And then we wait for the coal to get put in our stocking.  We’re waiting for judgement to get poured down on us from heaven because of our failings.

That is not the message of the cross.  The message of the cross is that our sin is no longer punishable.  There was ONE sacrifice. (Hebrews 10:14…by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.)  There was ONE punishment.  That is, of course, not to say that there aren’t still consequences for our sins.  There are.  When God allows us to receive correction and discipline for our sin, it is always out of love and for our greater benefit.  It’s never just a lump of coal in a stocking.

Consider another lyric of the song.  “He’s making a list, and checking it twice.  Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.  Santa Clause is coming to town.”

Oh, I can’t wait for that visit.  Let’s set out a plate of cookies and a nice cold glass of milk for that guy.  The guy who is making a list of everything I’ve done wrong.  It either makes us feel one of two things:  Fear or Anger.

God is not making a list.

Acts 3:19Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord…”

If you are truly repentant of your sins, God doesn’t even have a list.  It’s been shredded.  Obliterated.  Destroyed.  So there is nothing he can “check twice.”

There are certainly sins that I struggle with on an occasional basis; sins where I am especially week.  I dare say that we all have areas of weakness and foolishness that we can’t conquer on our own without God’s strength (Proverbs 26:11).  And there are days when I get hung up on them and I beat myself up.  I feel like God can’t possibly love me today because of what I’ve done.  But that is Santa Claus theology.  My God actually knows me, loves me, created me, and has paid the price for my failure.  EVERY failure.

I often think of King David, and how he must have dealt with his unbelievably wicked acts.  Having a man murdered because he lusted after his wife.  Pretty horrible.  And there were, in fact, consequences for his sin.  But the key to receiving grace in your heart is repentance.  David was sorrowful and repentant for his sin.

Psalm 51:7  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Let’s all remain thankful this Christmas season that God is not checking his list on us every day.  There is no list!  And when he does come to town, we can be sure that he only has treasure waiting for us in heaven.

Let’s Be Real, Church

Superheroes.  They’re everywhere.  The two biggest movies from this past summer were based on comic books (The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises).  People are fascinated with them for a variety of reasons.

My kids fell in love with Spider-Man long before any of them ever saw a movie, cartoon or anything featuring the famed wall-crawler.  Maybe it is just the flashy colors, or the way he swings on a web, but they would dress up in a Spider-Man costume and have me lift them into the air and help them pretend they are leaping from building to building (in actuality, it was door frame to door frame in our kitchen and dining room).  The only villain that opposed them was my aching back and arms when I couldn’t carry them any longer, their super-powers deflated.

Now, I used to think that the reason Batman wore a mask was because he was trying to hide his identity.  And I think that is partially true.  But Bruce Wayne had an ulterior motive as well.  I think he was trying to create a persona that would strike fear in the hearts of his enemies.  Imagine Batman without the mask for a moment.  He would be just a handsome, billionaire wearing a cape and some armor.  Not all that terrifying.  Maybe a little loopy and eccentric, but not very intimidating.  But when he puts on the mask, he not only hides the fact that he is Bruce Wayne, he becomes someone else entirely.  He becomes THE Batman.  Mysterious and elegant.  Almost supernatural.

So, this of course begs the question:  What kind of mask do you put on every day?  What is the “you” that you want the world (or…gasp…the church) to see?  We all wear disguises to some degree or another, so I am preaching to myself here as well.  And that leads us to a bigger question.  What kind of church are we that we can’t feel comfortable being ourselves?  Whether you lead worship on a stage with a guitar, or you are sitting in a pew welcoming a stranger, or feeding the poor at a homeless shelter, we are all called to love one another.  According to Jesus, it’s the second greatest commandment!  But how difficult is it to love someone you don’t really know?  Remember how it felt when you found out that someone deceived you or was not who you thought they were?

People can smell a rat.  When someone comes into a church for the first time, their antennas are up.  Many of them are looking for the fakers, the hypocrites and the prideful.  They’re often looking for an excuse to throw the church out with the bathwater.  But what would happen if the only people they met were real and genuine?  Warts and all.

We need to put on our Superman outfits.

What in the world does that mean?  Do you need to buy a red cape and blue leotards?

You see, Superman, is totally different from almost every other superhero.  His mild-mannered alter-ego, Clark Kent, who works as a reporter at the Daily Planet, doesn’t seem terribly worried about the perception skills of his friends and co-workers.  When he changes into his Superman costume he doesn’t put a mask on.  No need.  Why?  Because when he is Clark Kent he wears glasses.  But, ah, when he’s Superman he…wait for it…he takes off the glasses!  Bam!  Completely unrecognizable!  Sorry, that isn’t completely true.  He does let a little curly-q section of hair fall over his forehead as well.

The point is that it’s his alter ego that actually wears the mask.  It’s when he is in superhero mode that he is himself.  And people don’t see Clark Kent anymore.  They see the big red “S” on his chest and everything it stands for.

So what do people see when they see you?  Do they see Jesus shining from within you, or do they see your mask?  Are they blinded by the big red “S” on your chest that stands for “Savior” or are they trying to figure out if you’re someone else?

“We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.” ― Andre Berthiaume

The longer we wear a mask, the more we actually become like the person we are impersonating.  Not only is this disingenuous and unhealthy, but dangerous on a number of levels.

I recently read the book Why Jesus?  by Ravi Zacharias, one of my favorite Christian apologists, and he actually used another analogy from one of the recent Batman movies to explain this point even further.  He explained how, in the second Batman movie called The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger seemingly lost connection with his true self during the filming.  Heath played the role of the Joker– a twisted, almost demonic-like villain­– who was a self-proclaimed “agent of chaos.”  Ledger spent months preparing for the role in isolation in his quest to become the Joker, and he even kept a journal, writing down the thoughts of the Joker.  Months after filming ended, some of Ledger’s friends noted that the Joker was still inside him somehow and hadn’t let go.  This was real-life stuff.  Makes you wonder if he was acting in the movie at all.  Maybe he didn’t really deserve the Academy award for best supporting actor.  Maybe he was just being himself.  His mask had overtaken him.

The following is a quote from Heath not long before his untimely death.  He said, “There’s something about the metaphor to work behind a mask and from within a mask always gives you the license to do whatever you want or the freedom, free of feeling like you’re being judged or viewed and so I’m literally wearing a mask now which empowers me twice as much to kind of feel free and feel unrestrained here and it’s pretty exciting.”

Sources on the set of the film, including co-actor Michael Caine, expressed a sort of morbid fascination with how Heath could no longer separate himself from the Clown Prince of Crime.  In fact, it was apparent that the mask never came off during filming.  This is not unusual for actors.  Daniel Day Lewis, in preparation for the film Last of the Mohicans, lived off the land for six months, learned to hunt and fish, and even carved his own canoe.

No one knows for sure if the Joker killed Heath Ledger, but it is known that the line between Heath and the Joker became blurred.  Where the one began and the other ended was anyone’s guess.

Are you wearing a mask?  Have your lines become blurred?  Is your mask seemingly impossible to remove?

Life can be both beautifully wondrous and horrifically terrible in the span of a breath.  That’s the world we live in.  One moment we’re standing on the precipice of elation, the sun is on our face and the air smells clean and brisk.  The next second we’ve fall off the same cliff and broken a few bones and we can’t move.  Still, we get up, we move on, brush the dust off, and even when the world falls around us we put on our masks, we smile, drink our 5-hour energy drinks, and we’re off and running again.

But I don’t want to wear a mask, and when I’m ministering to others dealing with pain and heartache, the last thing I want to do is help the hurting person put on their own mask.

How do we do that?  Well, we do that when give cliché answers to their hurt.  Or we try to over-explain God’s reasoning for their suffering.  We talk and don’t listen.  We tell them that we know exactly how they are feeling.

No we don’t.  Even if you went through something similar in your life, you don’t REALLY know how they’re feeling.  Every person on this earth has lived a uniquely different life.  And sin, death and pain has affected each of us differently.

We are all walking in various stages of life.  Some of you are tired and weary, and all you want to do is escape and watch TV, but you can’t even find the energy to change the batteries in your TV remote.  Some of you are pumped with joy and zeal that seems unstoppable, and only a hurricane could stop you.

If you minister on a stage, don’t be afraid to cry, or to kneel, or to laugh.  Just be yourself.  Let the world see your genuine worship.

When I am picking out songs for a Sunday morning worship set I don’t want to pick songs that will force people to feel a certain way.  Even if they’re good feelings.  I don’t want someone to say, “I feel happy,” when they just lost their job last week.  However, they can sing, “O, Happy day, You washed my sins away,” since our salvation is something we can always find joy in, no matter the season.

And I never want to be afraid of singing honest songs of questions and laments to God.  The following hymn was written by  a woman named Anne Steele.  I was not familiar with it until a few weeks ago, but the lyrics so moved me.  Take a few minutes and listen to the song, then read her story below the video as I bring this blog to a close for today.

Beautiful song, isn’t it?  Now to Anne’s story.  She was born in 1717, the daughter of a pastor in Broughton, Hampshire.  When she was 3 years old, her mother died.  At age 19, she became disabled after suffering from a hip injury.  When she was 21 years old, she was engaged to be married.  However on the day of her wedding, her fiancé drowned only hours before the ceremony.  She remained single for the rest of her days, but went on to write over 140 hymns, many of which had to do with suffering and loss.

We as the church should never sweep our pain under the carpet.  The book of Psalms is full of honest heart-cries to God.  Sometimes the Psalmist even seems mad at God.  Or he questions God’s faithfulness.

Consider Psalm 42.  It is full of honest questions to God.  But it isn’t all despair.  It offers hope as well.  But it’s honest.  I sometimes wish we’d sing more songs like this in church.

Psalm 42

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God,
with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.

Why are you downcast, O my soul?  Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

My soul is downcast within me;  therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.

By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me,saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”

11 Why are you downcast, O my soul?  Why so disturbed within me?  Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

God has never rejected an honest heart.  Let the church rise up and be real.  Let us remove our masks and be who we are.  Only then will the world see how we are ALL desperately in need of  a Savior.  And that’s when they’ll see Christ shining from within us.

Let Me “Paintball” You a Picture

I often jokingly proclaim, “I’m the most humble person in the world!”  Of course, the irony of that statement is thick and instantly makes it a lie.

Maintaining a humble attitude is a fickle thing.  One day you find yourself cruising down the road of life in your 1971 rusted  and clunky Ford Pinto and you know that you are where God wants you.  And as you realize just how amazingly humble you are, Self-Righteousness pulls up alongside you in a shiny new, sparkling Porche and he invites you to jump in his car.  Of course, Self-Righteousness’ cousin is Pride.  And even though your car is shiny and has that new-car smell, no one will want to ride with you.  No one is truly attracted to ego unless they themselves are trying to stroke their own.  Maybe you feel like your “car” smells like a milkshake spilled in the backseat a week ago and you left the windows up while it sat it the sun kind of smell.  But which car would Jesus rather ride in?

One day my wife and I were given a nice sum of money from someone at our church, but there was no card or name attached to the gift.  We had no idea who gave us the blessing.  And trust me, it was a huge blessing.  Then it struck me.  Could I do that?  Could I give to God in a way that wasn’t somehow acknowledged at least a little bit by someone I know on earth?

It is incredibly difficult to do anything that is truly humble and selfless.  If I am on a stage leading worship songs in front of thousands of people, then how easy would it be for me to slip into the trap of performance and wanting people to like me or the songs I’ve written?  That’s the opposite of leading worship.  I don’t want to draw any attention to me unless it first and foremost draws attention to the Father through me.  Or what if I help someone pack their boxes and move to another house?  Am I doing it solely because I just want to help them and I’m full of love for them?  Or is there a small part of me that wants them to like me more because, well, I’m such a great servant?

How much do any of us do that isn’t somehow tainted, however slightly, with self-interest?

I recently attended a 30th birthday party at a paintball course.  If you don’t know what paintball is, it is basically an opportunity for grown men to act like kids who think they’re acting like tough, grown men with guns.  You play capture the flag and shoot little balls of paint at your opponents to “tag” them out of the game.  Now, I’ve been jogging off and on since the spring and through the summer, so on this fall day, I was fairly confident in my conditioning and prowess with a gun that fires a ball about 200 mph.  Don’t worry, there’s a spiritual connection coming.

During one particular game of capture the flag, we were placed in the woods by the referee.  I partnered with a friend as we worked our way along the right side perimeter of the course and headed toward the flag.  I had seen enough action movies to understand how it worked.  One guy shoots (causing the enemy to duck behind their defenses) while the other guy runs and slides behind a barrel or a tree stump.  Players from both sides were slowly eliminated with blasts of paint that stung worse than a non-insured prescription medicine bill.

We drew in closer and closer, but then my partner got tagged with paint and was eliminated and joined the rest of the guys who were knocked out of the arena.  They were lined up along the far, north side of the woods just outside the perimeter.  I could see a few of my teammates still working their way across near and in front of them, while I appeared to be alone down on the south side, near the flag.  I took out the last defender between me and the flag with a precision shot that would make Legolas jealous.  The ref announced that there was only two minutes left.  I decided to go for it.  I burst from behind my cover, ran towards the flag, grabbed it, and started my mad dash back to our own flag.  And when I say dash, I meant mini-marathon.  I hadn’t realized how far I had come to get the flag.  So as I sprinted through the woods, I could could still hear gunfire.  I imagined paint bullets whizzing past my ear.  I heroically drew closer to our home base, where the enemy flag needed to be returned.  By this point, I realized I was not in as good of shape as I thought, but my fallen comrades deserved my best.  The massive, red welts on their stomachs, necks and legs would not be in vain!  Finally, with my heart about to explode out of my chest, I made it back and returned the flag.  The ref yelled out that the game was over.  We had won!

As I worked my way back up the hill, I was slightly bent over from absolute exhaustion.  I could hear my breathing in my mask and I sounded like Darth Vader encouraging his pregnant wife to practice her Lamaze training.  As I rejoined my friends at the top of the hill, I expected to hear some sort of, “Way to go, Gary,” or a “Thanks for saving the day.”  But I got nothing.  No one said anything to me.  We started to work our way back toward the camp where we would gather between matches to eat and refuel on paint bullets and such.

My ego was struggling.  I almost died for these guys and they weren’t patting my back.  Then I overheard someone say, “Too bad that last game ended in a draw because the time expired.”  I was shocked.  “Uh, no it didn’t,”  I said, because I was able to talk now.  “I got the flag back to base.  That’s how we won and the game ended.”  Everyone who overheard us seemed shocked, and that’s when it dawned on me.  No one had seen me get the flag and make it back to our base.  We still won, but no one had seen it.

I really believe that our Christian walk, in many ways, should largely reflect this metaphorical analogy.  How much of the race of life are we doing so we can be seen doing it?  But really, which do you think brings a larger smile to God’s face- the good deed that everyone sees, or the good deed that only God has witnessed?

This is a challenge to me as much as it is to you.  I want to be the silent, behind-the-scenes worker for Christ more than I am up on a stage or out in the world.  I want to do things for others that NO one knows about except for God.

Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with doing things for others that people see.  Sometimes we have to serve in that way.  But a little self-evaluation regarding our motives never hurts.

I often wonder how many things Jesus did for others that weren’t recorded in scripture.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of acts of ministry that weren’t recorded.  But the very nature of Jesus was a model for humility.  And I desperately want to be more like Him.

Philippians 2:3-4

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Sing a New Song

That’s right.  I’m talking to every one of you out there who loves the Lord.  Let’s sing a new song to God.

Probably most of you are saying something like, “Uh, I can’t play an instrument, and my singing voice makes those crazy contestants auditioning for American Idol sound like Pavarotti.”  But the Bible doesn’t say, “Sing a new song only if it’s good enough to be released on the next Hillsong CD.”  Psalm 33:3 says, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.”  Notice, though, that it does ask the instruments to play skillfully.  God just wants to hear a new song sung from His people regardless of skill and ability.

But let’s back the truck up for a moment.  Why does God ask us to write a new song, and what does that look like?

A new song can be one of two things:

1)  It can be something spontaneous.  Sometimes you just gotta sing.  It could even come out during another song at church, or while listening to a beautiful orchestral song.  Or maybe it just happens during your quiet time with the Lord.  You sing a song to God.  Only God can hear you.  And God the Father, Son and Spirit won’t be sitting behind a table, sipping on product-placement Coke cups, judging you, saying, “You’re a little pitchy,” or “You’re just not right for this competition.”  I guarantee you that God will delight in your sincere offering to him.

I wrote a song for my wife on our wedding day.  There’s nothing particularly wonderful about the lyrics or music.  On the surface its a fairly average song, and I wish that I could go back in time with the knowledge I now possess in regards to crafting a good song and re-write it.  But I am guessing that she wouldn’t want me to touch it.  She still asks me to sing it from time to time.  Why?  Because I wrote it FOR her.  And I would never sing it to anyone else.  She cares more about the fact that its an expression of my heart towards her than about the strength of the melody or the chord patterns.

2)  A “new song” is sometimes the opposite of spontaneous.  It can be something that takes you days, weeks, months or years to craft.  I have found a rule at work in my life.  The songs that take me the longest to write are usually the songs where God is really trying to drive a point home.  For instance, I am easily swayed by the lures of this world. (I often imagine myself as one of those brainless little fish you see swimming along the bottom of the ocean that get fooled by the glow-in-the-dark baits that dangle in front of a long-toothed, ugly, vicious angler fish….as pictured below.)

I get sucked into things that really have no eternal value whatsoever.  Not necessarily bad things, mind you, but things that just consume my time.  Sports, movies, sports, books, sports…ugh, the list goes on.  So I remember when I started writing the song Living for Eternity it was tough for me to honestly say those words, because I didn’t always feel like I was living for eternity and setting “…my sights on things above,” as scripture (and the song) asks us to do.  Well, I pretty much finished the song in a few weeks.  All but one line.  But that one line took over a YEAR for me to come up with.  And even when it finally came to me (after reading a scripture about being a “living sacrifice”) during a prayer meeting at church, I told God I needed some kind of burning bush sign that this was the right line to finish the song.  After battling with the song for so long I just couldn’t believe it was done.  Two minutes later someone got up to the microphone and read Romans 12:1:  “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”  That was the exact same scripture I had read just moments before.  Message received, God.  Thanks.  But the point is that God taught me so much during that year about living for eternity, because while I was writing the song I was studying scripture on the topic, praying about it, reading books on the topic…the song saturated my soul.

Even had we never recorded the song or even if we had never sung it at church, it wouldn’t have mattered.  What it did for my own spirit was irreplaceable.

So I encourage each of you, brothers and sisters in Christ, to prayerfully consider writing a new song.  And don’t do so with the motivation to have the Newsboys cover it someday.  Do it because God asks us to sing a new song to him.  Maybe it will just be your personal song you sing to God driving down the road or in the shower (you might want to make sure your bathroom window is closed). But watch what God will teach you and how your own heart will be changed as you delve into your new song.

Songs are just poems that we sing.  But they’re not just words.  They are an expression of your heart to the One who spoke love so powerfully to all of us on the cross.

Psalm 40:3

“He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.”

Revelation 5:9

“And they sang a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.'”

The Day the “Applause” Sign Must Have Been Broken

The day of my college graduation was actually one of the more humbling days of my life.  It took place over a decade ago, but it is as fresh in my mind as a Subway sandwich (interpret that however you will).   Hundreds of graduating students stood in line outside the building where the diploma ceremony was set to begin in mere minutes.  I must have just looked amazingly cool and debonair as the hot sun bore down on my black polyester, unventilated, flowing graduation gown.  (I still think there is a market for those things being used by astronauts in need of a cheep, air-tight suits when they do spacewalks outside their shuttles).  I was the fashion envy of the parents and friends hurrying by, trying to get to their seats inside.

And then I noticed who was standing in front of me in line.  I will not mention his name in this blog for his discretion, but I will say that he was a nationally well-known, accomplished Christian musician who was quite popular both within and without the school.  I was actually half-expecting him to set up a table, while he stood in line, so he could sign 8×11 glossy photos of himself.  This was, of course, simply my own perception of him and not a true, accurate representation of what he was like as a person.

Some time later I found myself inside the auditorium, standing at the foot of the stage steps, ready to receive my diploma.  Someone on an extremely loud microphone was announcing the names of the now-broke, former students so they could come up in front of a small multitude of people and get a piece of paper that cost thousands upon thousands of dollars.  But truth be told, I was thrilled that this moment had finally come.

The celebrity went before me, and when his name was called, he pumped his fists in the air, and the roar of the crowd reminded me of a scene from Gladiator.  I almost expected the man to yell out, “Are you not entertained?!”  And then the announcer on the microphone called my name.  The silence was almost deafening, especially considering the contrast to what came before.  At first, as I worked my way up the steps and across the stage, I thought maybe that the crowd just missed hearing my name announced since there had still been some lingering applause when the preceding superstar descended off the stage after getting his diploma.  But then I did hear a couple of people clapping for me.  About seven or eight people, perhaps.  My family, I supposed.  I did a little, meager fist pump when I got my diploma as well, but I think I was still riding in the wake of our local celebrity.  The ripples of his awesomeness just left me bobbing in the water behind him like he was the Love Boat and I was Scuffy the Tugboat.

To be honest, it didn’t bother me that much.  I really thought it was more comical than anything else, but it still gnawed at me… just a little.  And that’s how Satan gets his barbs in.  He finds a chink in the armor, and burrows into it.  I was a musician of sorts (I guess I still am) and I was only a few weeks away from getting married.  I had put my musical career on hold to honor the start of my marriage and to focus on what God wanted for me.  But I still remember feeling just a pang of jealousy that day.  I wanted what the “other guy” had.  The adulation of the crowd.  Not so much that I could be famous or a celebrity, but I think there is something inside each of us that desires affirmation.  We thrive off of it.  It invigorates us.  It motivates us.  But when the adulation lifts us above our Maker, it blinds us.

I never want that kind of adulation.

Philippians 2:3-4 (NIV)  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

That’s what Jesus did.  He didn’t do anything out of selfish ambition.  And he had his chances.  Oh, he had his chances.

Even when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the moment when scripture was finally being fulfilled (Zec 9:9), and the people cried out, “Hosanna” (meaning “God saves” or “God save us”) it was done in the most humble way possible.  He didn’t ask for it.  For he knew that some of those same people would be crying out, “Crucify him,” mere days later.

Affirmation is a fickle thing.  If we adore people because of the great things they’ve accomplished or done, then what happens when they don’t do anything of worth or value anymore?  The accolades stop.  The affirmation is cut off.  What then does that person think of themselves?  Are they all of a sudden worthless?

What happens to the all-star, Heisman Trophy finalist college quarterback– the envy of his fellow students– who doesn’t make it in the NFL?  He is then called a “bust” because his lack of accomplishments and his inability to meet lofty expectations.  One of those players is Ryan Leaf (chosen second overall in the 1998 NFL draft, just after Peyton Manning ).  Numerous articles have been written about him, practically making fun of the man who never lived up to the hype the ESPN and Sports Illustrated analysts had thrown all over him.  One NFL show called him the “No. 1 draft bust in NFL history.”  His failure defined him.  Unfortunately, his life took a tragic turn towards dysfunction which culminated in him getting arrested numerous times over the last few years on charges of burglary and drug possession.

I don’t want my identity being wrapped up in who others say I am.  People can say, “Gary, you write great songs,” or “Gary, your blog inspired me to hike the Appalachian Trail.”  But what happens when I stop writing songs and stop writing this blog (which could be tomorrow)?

My identity is in Christ.

John 1:12-13 (NIV)  …to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

Galatians 3:26-27 (NIV)  So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

So I am not clothed with a stifling hot graduation gown.  I am clothed with Christ.  Not because of anything I have accomplished so that I should boast.  But it is Christ who did it all on the cross.  HE is to receive all the glory and affirmation.  Every victory in my life is simply because Christ lives in me.  And because of that, after I hear my name called in the Book of Life, I won’t hear just the smattering applause of seven or eight family members.  I will hear the only voice that matters and it will boom in my soul.  The voice of my loving, patient Father who says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  I think that will feel pretty amazing.

Gaining Perspective

I recently celebrated my 36th birthday.  I know, I know….I don’t look a day over 35.  But alas, it is true.  Ahem.

Anyway, whenever I celebrate a birthday I am always struck with a deep sense of how quickly life is flying by.  I am sure many of you share the same sentiment.

I led worship (songs) last week at the Hopewell Network Kids Camp, and I had a blast.  The kids love to shout out the songs, they jump up and down with the drums, and they kneel on their faces because even they are aware of how desperately we need a savior.  On Tuesday, however, I gained a whole new perspective due to an unplanned, unforeseen event.  That morning, like normal, I led worship for the kids.  I drank in their beaming faces, their bed-head hair (no moms around to make sure they combed their hair since showering the night before…or to even make sure they actually got a shower), and their youthful sincerity.  It was a blast.

Then, after lunch, I headed off campus to lead worship at a funeral for someone at our church.  I was glad to be able to lead at the funeral, but the whole thing did feel a bit surreal.  I have led songs at many funerals, some of which have been incredibly draining on me both emotionally and spiritually.  Once, I led worship at a funeral for a youth who committed suicide and another time I led for friends who lost their young child to a battle with cancer.  They were both painful.  But I’ve also led at funerals for complete strangers who lived long lives.  And even at those, I’ve gotten choked up watching the slide shows of the person’s life, even if the person was 95 when they died.  Seeing a slideshow of their life during the service just wrecks me.  They often start with a picture of the deceased as a bouncing baby-at the zenith of life-and then the pictures take you through their awkward adolescence, then their wedding picture, then pictures when they had their own children, and so on and so on.  And now they have passed on to the other side of eternity.

While I sat at the piano leading Amazing Grace, sing the words, “When we’ve been there 10,000 years…” it just hit me.  Those little kids I had just been leading worship for will be having their own funerals before we know it.  And I was challenged to not just look at the kids as…well…kids.  But rather, I felt God leading me to view them as He does.  I wanted to see them as eternal souls.

So when I returned to camp an hour after the funeral, I changed back into my shorts and t-shirt and prepared my set list for the evening chapel.  While doing so I decided to pick songs that really celebrated what God has done for us in regards to eternity.  I wanted to celebrate both THIS life and the life to come.  Those children are one breath from that life, same as the rest of us.

I was reminded of the sobering verses from Psalm 90:3-6 (NIV)

You turn people back to dust,
    saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
    are like a day that has just gone by,
    or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
    they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
    but by evening it is dry and withered.
Our precious children are like the grass.  In the morning they spring up new but it won’t be long until evening comes, and they have withered away and become like dust.
I was at my Grandfather’s house a few weeks back and I found myself looking at famous photographs of American history collected in a book.  And there was a picture of a baby from the late 1800’s (similar to the one connected to this posting….which was taken in the late 1860’s).  I started getting emotional looking at the photo even though I had no idea who the child was.  Why?  There in front of me was the captured image of someone as a baby, when the rest of their life was still in front of them.  So cute, so young, so seemingly innocent.  But even if the person in the picture featured with this post lived to be 90 then she has been dead for over 50 years.  She has been long gone.

Consider James 4:13-14  (NIV)  13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Lets look at our children, or your friend’s children, or your grandchildren, with eternal eyes.  Even they are just a mist that fades in the afternoon sun.  But there is joy in the morning.  And He desires that we enjoy this life, broken world and all.