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.

An Experiment in Expression

Because of the extreme amount of demand by friends and family to start a blog (maybe I dreamed that first part…yeah, pretty sure…) I decided to start one.  My goal is not so much to write about the latest pictures my kids drew, whether or not Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is as good as Starbucks’, or to rant about the latest loss by a Philadelphia sports team, but rather, I hope to offer my thoughts on all things that shape our lives as Christians.  Music, culture, church, the Bible, Movies, theology, Books, tragedies, miracles, neighbors and friends.

I don’t claim to be perfect (even my kids have figured out I am not…which is very sad) but, since we’re all on this side of Heaven, we’re all in the same boat.

So, sounds like a pretty general blog, right?  It is.  I don’t want to limit what God wants to say.  Well, what defines us as Christians is not the world.  The world does not tell us who we are.  What defines us is who God says we are.  This is one of my favorite scriptures that, in my opinion, defines who we are in Christ (loved it so much I had to write a song about it):

2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (NIV)    So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

I often have this image of Jesus having the sin of the world dumped on him at the cross, and this is true to a certain extent.  But the last verse here takes in a million steps further.  Jesus BECAME sin for us so we could become righteous.  That is just amazing.  How the perfect God of the universe was able to literally become sin is baffling to me.

I’m keeping this blog brief today, but I wanted to start off with this simple reflection on the cross and what Christ did for us.  There’s no better place to start.  He deserves all the praise and glory.  No me and this silly blog.  Not the person who invented blogs.  Not the person who invented the internet.  Not the person who invented computers, or electricity…not anyone.  Not anyone but Jesus.