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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.

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.'”