The Fear of Death and Why You Should Stop Saying Stay Safe.

Fourteen years ago today, I was much younger and much more naive about life and God’s ways. I thought if I did the right thing, good things would happen every time. That if I said the right things, people would feel comfort and joy every time. I found out that God doesn’t work the way I think he should work. God is not tame, but he is good. I found out that the God we serve is not safe. All my life to that point, I thought he was safe, and the day I realized he was not safe was also the day I began to question if he was even good. 

How I have come to know God over the past decade and a half has changed the way I see him, the way I trust Him, and the way I see everything because of him. It is not an overstatement to say I was blind, but now I see. That day fourteen years ago, led to a chain of events that made me question the goodness of God; it led me to struggle with anxiety as a result of an overwhelming fear of dying. 

It was nearly two years of working through the implications of me thinking that if I pray enough, give enough and serve enough, good things will come from that as my payment from God because of my goodness. I had grown up in church my whole life, and I thought the gospel was for sinners, not for me. I thought God was in my debt because I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was angry fourteen years ago because I didn’t think God heard the prayers of a sweet family suffering far more than I ever had. I was angry because I prayed for a boy filled with more faith than I had ever had. He didn’t rise. I was angry with God because he owed me and wasn’t coming through when I was calling in my favors, eared through years and years of good behavior. 

I was a Pharisee. People look at Pharisees in the Bible and say they are religious zealots who don’t love God they love themselves. That isn’t so. They were some of the most outwardly perfect people you could ever imagine. A pattern of good behavior marked their understanding of life. They encountered Jesus, and he was not the Messiah they imagined. They killed Jesus because he was not and could not have been the God they had long-awaited. I was one of those. I had an idea of God that he always answered my prayers in the way I prayed them, He always did what I thought was right, that he is more pleased with me because of my goodness. I knew God but not his ways. 

It changed one day reading The Jesus Storybook Bible to one of my babies. I read how a woman who was a sinner came to Jesus and took the most important and expensive thing; she had a jar of perfume she broke it, and poured it on the feet of Jesus. The religious people thought this was a waste. It smelled like the lilies in the summer field. It wasn’t a waste. They were mad at God’s kindness to this sinner. They thought Jesus should not be kind to her. “That woman is a sinner!” they grumbled. “We’re the good ones,” God spoke to me as I was reading that to my child and said, that’s you. I knew God but not the ways of God. 

Jesus Calms the Storm

My favorite artist is Rembrandt because of his story, his use of biblical imagery, and the fact he places himself in the paintings he paints. This is what good art does it envelopes you; it swallows you and emerges you into its story. My favorite painting of his is the Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s been the background on my iPhone for four or five years now. I put it on my phone because I wanted to be daily reminded that I am prone to wander like the son, that I growing up in the church and never leaving home left home on my heart, and lastly, I’m called to be the father who loves both those who have wandered far from home and those who have wandered while never leaving home. The gospel points out my sin points me to Christ, and redirects me to run toward sinners.

The Return Of The Prodigal Son

I recently replaced it for the time being with Christ calms the storm. A painting that depicts arguably the best depiction of God’s trust in His Father and our trust in ourselves in all of scripture.

The biblical scene pitches nature against human frailty – both physical and spiritual. The panic-stricken disciples struggle against a sudden storm, and fight to regain control of their fishing boat as a huge wave crashes over its bow, ripping the sail and drawing the craft perilously close to the rocks in the left foreground. One of the disciples succumbs to the sea’s violence by vomiting over the side. Amidst this chaos, only Christ, at the right, remains calm, like the eye of the storm. Awakened by the disciples’ desperate pleas for help, he rebukes them: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” and then rises to calm the fury of wind and waves. Nature’s upheaval is both cause and metaphor for the terror that grips the disciples, magnifying the emotional turbulence and thus the image’s dramatic impact.

Michael Zell
Jesus Calms The Sea of Galilee

There are many ironic elements of this masterpiece. The first is the fact it was stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Gardener Museum in Boston. Most experts believe it to be the work of organized crime to be used as ransom to free jailed crime bosses. The irony is that since it was taken, there has been wave after wave of stolen peace in our lives and in our countries collective experience. I do not believe that the theft precipitated our lack of collective peace. It is only a cultural artifact that points to our loss of peace by righting our ship on our terms.

Don’t Burn Bridges.

Remember when Facebook was for sharing photos of your children and videos of otters holding hands? Me neither. Social media has become a battlefield of conflicting ideas. A minefield of potentially explosive issues. It has gone from a digital scrapbook to a digital equivalent of a dual. Every post seems to be about the defense of a person or idea and with those who disagree hurling horribly generalized caricatures of who they think you are based on what party they think you are a part of.

As Christians, we have to guard against this. Some of the most scathing reprimands of scripture are towards those who can not control their tongues. In James 1 where we famously quote the passage that states “True religion is taking care of the widows and orphans.” This is a feel-good statement that is completely true and we love it. You know what it says in the verse right in front of it. James 1:26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle (control) his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

Every sin that we commit is first a sin of the heart and second a sin of our mouth before it is a sin of our actions. Therefore what we think about, what we desire affects what we say. How we speak and what we type is a pretty good indication of the state of our heart.

Here is the bad news. None of us do this. Why because the Bible tells us our heart is desperately wicked. Kierkegaard called this the crooked timber of the heart. Our words will not change until our hearts have been transformed.

A preacher I respect greatly said this: “[James] calls for us to have a tamed tongue. And if we do, it’s evidence that we’re a Christian. And if we do, it’s evidence that we’re walking in obedience. And as you look at your life, beloved, if you see those things coming out of your mouth that ought not to come, you need to confess it as sin and turn from it. And how you react to those times when bitter water comes out of the sweet fountain is the key to your spiritual strength, the key to your spiritual effect and power.”

Our speech will not change until our hearts are transformed here is the good news. That is what God does best. He takes our hearts of stone and gives us a new heart with new desires and new words. Will we still slip in our speech online and offline? Yes. Should we strive to grow in the grace that God provides and be more kind in what we say think and do? Yes. This is a work God does and we join with him growing in his likeness day by day.

Here are a few things I am trying to do better when engaging people online.

  1. Ask more questions and make fewer statements – Look to learn not only prove a point.
  2. Delete more comments than you publish – If you know me, you would say there is no way you do this I have read what you have published online. I delete A LOT of comments, and so should you.
  3. Clarify when you don’t understand don’t assume you understand – This is essential offline as well as online. Communication doesn’t happen when two people speak. It occurs when two people speak, and there is understanding.
  4. If you know the person in real life call or text them to have an honest conversation about something you don’t understand – Use online disagreement to build bridges, not burn them. Talking in person builds bridges torching someone’s wall burns bridges.
  5. Take regular breaks from social media – I regularly take breaks to keep from becoming an angry, anxious, annoying person. You need to take more breaks than you do.
  6. Try to verify if a story is true before you share it – This is becoming more and more difficult to do even some fact-checking sites have become politicized. Try to use original sources, give away credit, and use common sense. If a story sounds like something, your craziest friends often say it’s probably not true.
  7. Try and stay friends with people who think differently than you. The mute button may be your friend at times, so use it. – Try not to burn bridges. Sometimes you will have to mute people online so you can stay friends offline, and that’s ok. Offline friends are more important than online friends.
  8. Know when to walk away, know when to run – Sometimes comments get ugly fast. Don’t go there. Walk away.
  9. When you overstep, and you will apologize without expecting them to apologize in return – If you only follow one of these pointers, let it be this one. I had to use it this week. I had to text a friend and apologize for what I said it was too strong and didn’t convey what I wanted to say because it was not seasoned with grace.

We all need God’s help to control our speech so that our thoughts, words, and actions convey the grace that is ours in Christ. What you say and what you type will signal to a watching world a heart that has been transformed by grace. May this be more and more true of us every day.

3 Things That Need to Change About How Our Kids Worship

Most of the time when we talk about worship for kids or youth ministry its most often in the context of practical tips. What songs are hot right now? Where can I get videos for this song? Most recently can I use worship songs that have copyright for our online services during COVID-19? What we fail to ask is why we worship and are we worshiping God in the way he desires to be worshiped.

This question of how we should worship is not new. For centuries the church has referred to this question as “the regulative principle it is simply the assertion that we must worship God in the way that he has revealed himself and the way he has commanded us to worship Him in His word. We need to worship God according to Scripture. Our worship needs to be directed by Scripture. The form and the content of our worship needs to be in accord with the Bible, informed by the Bible, and warranted by the Bible. It needs to be founded in the Scriptures. That is an emphasis that is so important today.” (via RTS.org)

It seems today the questions that we ask in the arena of worship are more around production value than around the Biblical basis for the songs we sing. We need to think deeper about how our songs are forming our kids. We need to think about how our songs are painting a picture of who God is and what he has done.

Yancy, recently released a new worship album aimed at pre-school and early elementary it’s called Ready, Set, Go! It’s fantastic. Yancy’s passion for the local church and for worship is so evident in everything she does. I love that her focus is always faithful over famous. I sat down with Yancy Richmond to talk about three things in kids’ ministry worship that need to change.

Engagement Not Just Aerobics

The first thing that needs to change in kids is we have to engage kids and not just lead them in aerobics. It seems in the last six or seven years that actions in kids ministry worship have gone from something helpful to being almost the totality of the worship experience. We seem to no longer judge our worship by transformed hearts but by how many people are moving at the same time. We are all guilty of this one because it’s easier to measure how many kids are jumping, it’s much more difficult to measure how many hearts are being transformed.

I think it gives kidmin leaders a false sense of participation. To be able to step inside the room and see it bouncing up and down and think “Yeah we are winning at worship.” Motions have a time and place but somewhere along the way, we started to shove motions in every part of every single song that we do instead of when it actually makes sense and when it actually enhances that song.

Yancy

We rightly want our kids to engage but what I’ve found is that when kids do dance moves they don’t sing. When kids don’t sing they don’t memorize the words of the song that when written well will be truths from God’s word that will be forever lodged in Kids Hearts. It seems that we have lost the art of teaching our kids to sing a heart song in exchange for Tik Tock.

We have lost the art of teaching our kids to sing a heart song in exchange for Tik Tock.

Motherhood and Loss.

Mothers day is a bittersweet day. It is filled with sweet memories of moms who daily listen and selflessly give of themselves in the middle of the mundane. Mother’s day is also a painful reminder of loss. The loss felt when observing those celebrating around you, the mothers you wish your mom always was. The mothers being honored by the kids you will never have.

Family is God’s idea. Mothers are a necessary reflection of who God is and what God is like. Jesus wept over his people and wanted to gather Jerusalem under his protective wing like a mother hen. There is a protective self-giving love that we all long to know. For many of us, we found that in our mothers. Our fathers told us to get up and get back on our bike as they should have. Our mothers bandage our knees and kiss our imaginary wounds.

Motherhood is not easy in a world that continues to push the value of things that are shiny then rust. What our culture doesn’t value but desperately needs is the love security and safety of moms who have learned to trust God in the mundane.

I remember when I was young. I didn’t understand loss. I didn’t understand why moms would tear up on mother’s day. Sandra and I lost our first baby. It was devastating. I think of our baby girl often. I used to think when mom’s lost a baby, they can try again. I now know that each of those babies has a name. Each of those babies is a loss. Mothers day reminds us of what we have but also of what we have lost.

If mother’s day is hard for you. If you have lost a mother or never had one. The gospel gives you hope. You are loved by God with such brilliant love such that even the love of the best mother is only a shadow in His brilliance. The love we experience on earth is but a foretaste. The loss we experience on earth creates a longing for a better world. A world where all the sad things about this world become untrue.

The song “Always” by JJ Heller is a beautiful lament of the joys and losses the fill and break a mother’s heart.


You are the answer to the prayers I prayed.
And the hope in childhood games I played.
Pushing baby dolls in strollers
And dreaming of who you would be

You are the news I celebrated
That little blue line exclamation
Got me dancing in my bare feet
And I couldn’t help but sing.

You will always be my baby
You will always have my love
I will always, always be your mother
Always

You are the reason I was holding on.
Somehow I knew you were already gone.
So many questions without answers
‘Cause only God knows why

Now I think I’ve cried a million tears.
For all the laughter, we will never hear.
We lost you in the silence.
Before you had a chance to cry

You will always be my baby
You will always have my love
I will always, always be your mother
Always

And I would…

JJ Heller

To mothers and the motherless on this mother’s day. May you find in Christ what no mother on earth could provide. Run to Jesus. He is more than enough.