Turning to a Woman for the Voice of God

“Did you see how upset King Josiah was, Akbor?”

“He wasn’t upset, Ahikam. He was scared.”

“When my father Shaphan read aloud the book of Moses found by Hilkiah the high priest, I shook as well.”

“I think everyone in his presence did, my friend. But Hilkiah is a man of God. He will guide us rightly.”

“Haven’t you heard, Akbor? We are not going to consult a man about the curses found for those who fail to follow God’s laws.”

“Then who will guide us in God’s ways?”

“Hilkiah says we are to consult a woman.”

“A woman!”

“Yes. My father said the king and high priest spoke together and decided Huldah the prophet is the one to seek. We are going to the New Quarter of the city now in hopes she is home.”

“Huldah? I have heard of her, Ahikam. Isn’t her family connected to the king’s palace?”

“Her husband is distantly. His grandfather is the wardrobe keeper. Look, we are at her gates.”

“Is that her in the doorway? Is she waiting for us?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised, Akbor. The king said to inquire of the Lord, and she is God’s prophet. I’m sure if God wanted to let her know we were on our way, he’d tell her.”

***

“Huldah surprised me, Akbor.”

“Why? Because she’s a woman?”

“No, I misspoke. She didn’t surprise me. Her words surprised me. When I first heard the book of Moses being read in the king’s presence I feared immediate disaster and destruction for all Jerusalem and Judea.”

“But she promised just that, Ahikam.”

“Yes, but she also said God approved of King Josiah’s grief at all the wickedness of past kings and Israelites that led to this. She said he won’t live to see the disaster.”

“That does not mean much for Israel. She said the disaster was still sure to come.”

“My father Shaphan said he and Hilkiah the high priest and the king are consulting now on the next steps.”

“What do you mean ‘next steps’? We’re doomed!”

“Israel may suffer for its sins, and suffer greatly. That is not the important thing, though.”

“What could be more important, Ahikam?”

“To follow King Josiah’s example. He did not humble himself and grieve and repent because God promised to save him from the coming troubles. He tore his robes in anguish before hearing from Huldah the prophet of God.”

“And your point?”

“Hilkiah and the king are gathering the people in the Temple courts where the king himself will read aloud the book of the law. I will listen to those words again – and again if necessary – to let them sink into my very bones so that I will live according to God’s promises and not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors.”

“Of what good is that, Ahikam? Disaster will still come.”

“And it may very well come in my own lifetime, Akbor. But I will honor the Lord with what is left of my life just the same. This is the example of the king I will follow.”

“Will the people, though? This nation is riddled with false gods and their adherents.”

“My father said there are plans already to remove the pagan shrines and altars, especially that abomination to Molech where people sacrifice their own children. And I fear for the pagan priests who do not repent and denounce their wicked ways. The king, I hear, is in no mood for compromise.”

“So plans have already gone that far … . Would you mind going on ahead to the Temple courts without me, Ahikam? I will catch up with you soon.”

“Of course. You will be there for the king’s reading, though, won’t you?”

“I will, without fail. I must do one thing first.”

“What is that, my friend?”

“My wife’s cousin sent us a present for our marriage, a small fertility idol. We’ve kept it wrapped in cloth and left it in a cupboard behind some old jars.”

“You’re not bringing it to the Temple, are you?”

“No. I am bringing it to our cook to grind with her mortar and pestle and then throw in the kitchen fire to burn the pieces to ash.”

“I see. Yes, that sounds like a fine way to follow the king’s example in honoring God according to the word of his prophet, Akbor.”

“It’s a start, Ahikam. I’d say it’s a start.”

***

Mortar and Pestle, eminently suitable for grinding household idols. (Wikimedia)

***

[See 2 kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 34-35 for the story of Huldah, Josiah, Ahikam, Akbor and the rest.]

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The Gossip and Gospel of Jesus

[From the archives.]

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Celebrity gossip is everywhere – supermarket checkout lines, radio talk shows, television programs devoted to nothing but the latest details of celebrities’ lives. Why do we do it? Is it to satisfy our voyeuristic tendencies, are we envious of their lifestyles, do we want to escape for a moment whatever deficiencies we think exist in our own lives? That’s for the psychologists to figure out.

What I suggest we do is watch this great little video that makes fun of all that, and which shows just how good a sport Jennifer Aniston can be about all the ridiculous gossip that surrounds a celebrity’s life, and then consider (below) how this helps us understand what we know about Jesus.

She and Ryan Seacrest and Jimmy Kimmel seem like they’re having a good time poking fun at society’s appetite for inside looks at the lives of the rich and famous. It’s hard to read the little alien guy’s take on all this.

The Night Visit

Jesus attracted this type of attention. Crowds and leaders and common people and the intelligentsia and the working class all wanted to see what this man was about.

One who came was Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council, who visited Jesus at night. A lot of people knock Nicodemus for making a night visit, as if he were trying to hide his interest in Jesus. That doesn’t make much sense to me seeing as how Pharisees were meeting with Jesus all the time, even inviting him into their homes for dinner. Instead, I think he was probably a busy man, what with all his responsibilities, and he came to visit when he had the time.

I love the way he started the conversation:

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:2.)

If I’d tried this, my opening line would have been something like, “Uh, hi.” Nicodemus, though, gets a lot of meaning in just two sentences. These words are practically bursting with anticipation, the unspoken question pressing up against that last period: “Who are you, Jesus?”

Jesus knows that this is what’s really on Nicodemus’s mind and gives one of the most important answers that anyone has ever heard:

“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:13-15.)

Nicodemus was probably trying to be polite by saying that Jesus “came from God” (that is, he thought Jesus was essentially a godly man) but Jesus’ response showed Nicodemus that he didn’t know how right that was – Jesus claimed to be from heaven!  Then, he went on to make a couple of Scripture references Nicodemus must have been very familiar with: the Moses story about God bringing healing to his people (Numbers 21:2-9); and the title Son of Man (see Daniel 7 for example).

The way Jesus said all this, it should have been clear to Nicodemus that Jesus was talking about himself being lifted up for the salvation of God’s people, himself being the majestic Son of Man from the heavenly throne room.  These are audacious claims that no Jewish person in his right mind would make in front of someone like Nicodemus, a religious man and one of society’s leaders.

Today, if we were to read an article about some celebrity and they made a similar claim we’d probably think they were pulling a publicity stunt. But what if the way they lived the rest of their lives proved their claims to be true? That’s what Jesus did.

Nicodemus saw that and it changed him forever. He wasn’t ashamed if the world knew it, either. You see, at the end of Jesus’ life it was Nicodemus who stepped forward to help his friend Joseph take Jesus’ body down from the cross and place it in a tomb. Nicodemus showed everyone that he was Jesus’ man.

And on the third day Jesus rose.

His claim wasn’t so outrageous any more.

He was who he said he was.

Celebrate celebrities? I suggest we celebrate the One whose life we should really want to know about.

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Why Black Student Unions Are Necessary and White Student Unions Aren’t

My high school in the mid-70s had a diverse student body. It was majority white with significant numbers of Hispanic, African-American, Asian and Filipino students, plus a smaller number of Americans from other heritages.

The school had a lot of clubs to join, including the Black Student Union. I was one of the ignorant fools who wondered why there was no White Student Union. I look back on it now and understand.

The support and sense of belonging that club members enjoyed by being part of the Black Student Union was the same support and sense of belonging that I enjoyed just by being a student at that high school. Seen in that light, the whole school was a white student union as far as I was concerned. And where students of color needed to create clubs (like the BSU), I was automatically a member of a club ready made for people who look like me: the high school itself.

This isn’t to say my years in high school were a cake walk. My mom died a few months before my freshman year started. I got bullied and beaten up (always at the hands of white students). I spent three years watching others have a string of boyfriends or girlfriends, but it wasn’t until I was a senior that a girl at my high school said she’d consent to be my girlfriend. I also had some wonderful times in high school, almost all of which revolved around being in band and having friends among the band geeks.

My high school band in the early 70s, with my older sister on the far left of the top row. (Source)

Yet I never felt my skin color required I find a special place where I would be welcomed, where I would belong. Because I am white I belonged automatically at that school. My classmates who are people of color did not have that same privilege so they formed clubs like the Black Student Union.

I wish I’d understood that at the time.

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Growing Old, Gracefully or Not

If  good memoirs reveal something about the writer, great memoirs reveal something about the reader. By that measure, Jennifer Grant’s When Did Everybody Else Get So Old is a great memoir.

The subtitle Indignities, Compromises, and the Unexpected Grace of Midlife goes to the heart of the memoir, captured in this line:

We are experts at avoiding that which disquiets us. (Ch. 5, Coyotes and Shadow Selves.)

Grant tells of her early thoughts on middle age, which principally revolved around trying to figure out how old one has to be to reach it. Once there, she found all the tropes she expected – growing children leaving the home, navigating new ways to interact with her friends, discovering aspects of marriage unanticipated but not unmanageable – as well as unexpected events – debilitating illness, even death, among peers.

The poignancy found in some chapters is balanced with triumphs, and moments of laughter and lightness of heart are liberally sprinkled.  They are found in equal measure when she writes of her children growing up.

But things change when they hit adolescence. Our kids begin to prefer the company of their friends to time with us. They no longer follow our advice about what to wear or what books to read. Whereas they once found us endlessly funny and entertaining (Peekaboo! Silly songs in the car! Kitchen dance parties!), they often find us mildly annoying. Or worse. Most of all, they want space.

Some of that passes, of course, but we have to acknowledge that this is all as it should be. Since their births, we’ve raised them with the hope that they’ll be strong adults and able to make their ways in the world, independent of us. (Ch. 9, Of Teenagers and Flight Attendants.)

My wife and I followed the same philosophy, although not as elegantly expressed. “You raise ’em up to move ’em out” was our refrain as our son and daughter made their way through high school and on to college. As first our son and then two years later our daughter went off to university we found that – unlike we’d been told – the house did not feel empty.

Then it hit me: We’re not empty nesters. We’re spacious nesters. How could the nest be empty when we’re still in it, for crying out loud?

Jennifer Grant’s memoir tells me we are not alone in looking at our family this way. Unlike just about everyone else I have expressed that sentiment to – people whose responses have ranged from indulgent and slightly patronizing looks to outright contradiction that any parent should feel this way about their kids leaving home – Jennifer says “this is all as it should be.

As great memoirs should, this revealed a truth about myself I had not put into words. In moving through middle age and on toward retirement (God willing I live to enjoy yet another stage of life with my wife) life’s progress has been all as it should be when it comes to raising our children to young adulthood. They have learned and continue to learn how to make their way in the world.

Just as their parents continue to learn as well.

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White Privilege Is an Abomination to God

[Updated from the archives.]

I have something my wife doesn’t have. No, I’m not talking about a Y chromosome (although it’s true she doesn’t have one). What I have I didn’t ask for, I didn’t earn, and I don’t deserve.

White privilege. That’s what I have.

The concept of white privilege has been around for decades:

The term denotes both obvious and less obvious unspoken advantages that white individuals may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice. These include cultural affirmations of one’s own worth; greater presumed social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely. The concept of white privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one’s own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal.

The universality of white privilege is a controversial topic, but the existence of a privilege based on skin color is hard to deny in specific instances. When you have enough specific instances grouped together it becomes evident that people of differing skin colors experience the same social, economic, educational or political spaces in divergent ways, often to their detriment.

Here’s how that played out for one family:

Yet even though this was a moment when everyone learned something, does that make white privilege itself a good thing in this instance?

I think not. I think white privilege is an abomination to God.

White is Not the Color God Looks for in His People

God has chosen from the beginning to bring people from all over the world into his family. How else could he bring together an uncountable multitude into one nation, as he promised Abraham?

I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:2-3.)

As Jesus said:

I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. (John 10:16.)

John found out just how large a multitude of people Jesus called together from Israel and from all those other places:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9.)

Can you imagine the skin tones you’ll see in that gathering? The colors will be staggering and, no matter what you look like, there is no privilege in God’s kingdom for people of a particular color of skin:

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11.)

God’s kingdom looks like this. (Source)

Not like this. (Source)

 

 

 

 

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The Only Privilege Worth Having Is Knowing Jesus

I am so looking forward to the day no one will need to remind whites they have a privilege and power they must exercise for the benefit of others, because the only power any of us will need is the powerful majesty flowing from the throne of God.

This is a privilege we all share in right now, as a matter of fact:

the Body of Christ,

the Kingdom of God,

the Fellowship of the Spirit.

What a blessed day it will be when all privilege is cast aside but the privilege of knowing we are Jesus’ own people.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:7-8.)

What a privilege.

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The Universe and God: which is easier to explain?

[From the archives.]

I heard a space scientist on the radio last week. He was saying that in space there is no up or down or left or right. One star appears to be right next to another, he explained, but they might really be hundreds – perhaps thousands – of light years apart. And in relation to one another, neither is higher or lower than the other. He said our vocabulary for spatial relations here on earth is inadequate to the task of understanding the spaces between the stars.

He tries to explain this to his students by telling them to see themselves here on earth and view the stars out there as being all around them, to look up at the stars above them and know that in the universe the relations between bodies is vast and wonderful.

It was that look up part that got me. In one sentence he was saying that there is no up or down, then he says he tells his student to look up at the stars above them. Even a scientist who has been studying the issue his entire career cannot find the words to explain what he means.

It’s like he was mimicking Paul trying to explain the nature of God …

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (Romans 11:33.)

… and God’s love for us.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19.)

Unsearchable … beyond tracing out … surpassing knowledge.

You think explaining the universe is hard? Try explaining God.

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The Burger Joint and Misbegotten Notions of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

[In today’s guest post, Tara Galles provides a brief memoir of a lifetime learning and unlearning gender roles both inside and outside the church.]

Blonde Jokes at the Burger Joint

It’s silly to play the dumb blonde when you’re not. Of course blonde jokes prescribe a place and role for women, dumb by hair color alone. I’m brunette. Larry, my old General Manager at Burger Chef use to tell me I was really blonde and dyed my hair brown. It was his way of dumbing me down as a female, he never accused any of the male employees of really being blonde. Like blondes, young females had a prescribed place and role to be dumb in that environment.

That was in the late 80’s. Larry’s prime was really in the early 1970s when his kinky-curly hair formed a beautiful white-guy fro. This is the rural Midwest we are discussing so subtract a couple decades of social progress, Larry’s mentality (in uniform with the owner Butch) was really that of the 1950s. So was our dress code and the “girls” prescribed role and place in the business.

We teenage girls who overused aqua-net and listened to Duran Duran worked up front wearing white uniform dresses and ruffled aprons while we smiled at the customers and made soft-drinks and correct change. The teenage boys in back wore white pants and shirt with a brown apron and paper hat (think Steak-n-Shake hat but brown and orange) while running frozen burgers through the flame broiler and sinking baskets of fries into grease in back.

We girls were the servers, the guys were the providers.

Of course all of the managers were men and the few African-American employees were the janitors, no joke. That’s just the way it was in rural Illinois, in the late 1980s at Burger Chef; people were assigned a “place” with a prescribed role.

Routon Illinois, c. 1966 (Burger Chef archives)

It’s easiest to categorize people by race and gender. Burger Chef opened in 1954 and from the pictures on the wall, our uniforms had not changed in 30+ years. Nor had the gender (or racial) qualifications for management.

I had always wondered why Dawn, a faithful employee of 2 decades was not a manager, while the 30-something-year-old Ron who was snorting cocaine in the employee restroom and making passes at us 16-year-old girls (whom he tried to lure with alcohol and marijuana) seemed to be more worthy of managerial pay and position.

The Church Where Women Dumb-Down and Men are in Charge

Once upon a time, a few years after my 2-year Burger Chef tenure, I was a little older, but still young and impressionable looking for stability and answers. I’m a woman, a womb-man, and had lots of questions about my place and role in the world. The church seemed like a sound place for answers, or so I thought.

My church family didn’t fabricate a cover for my intelligence by labeling me as a blonde who died my hair brown, like my old Burger Chef Managers did. Instead, through persnickety theology and polite discourse, the church encouraged me to dumb-down and believe there was specially designated “God-given” category for me as a woman, “Biblical Womanhood.”

Once again, I found myself in a prescribed place and role. It was a cookie cutter womanhood where I was not free to shape my own presentation to the world. Biblical Womanhood valued the virtue of me being liked or likable over my virtue of truthfulness and authenticity. My demeanor, tone of voice and clothing selections were policed, usually by other women who were married to the male leaders. A life-long sexual covenant of submission and sacrifice, Christian Marriage, to a male leader was required for these women to hold their leadership positions in church. To say she slept her way to the top in this sexual-hierarchal-ministry may be an understatement.

Whenever I questioned the premise of Biblical Womanhood, my humility became under scrutiny and I was accused of being angry as if being angry is something to be ashamed of. When I read the Bible, it was okay for King David to be angry and murder and pray for the death of his enemies (and rape scores of women, keep a harem, leave virgin house maids as some sort of mercy offering for his son who was chasing him and then imprison them after they were raped, and publicly celebrate in his underwear as the ladies blushed), but it was not okay for me use these Psalms or stories to question the church leaders’ interpretation of the Bible (and there was no way I would be stripping down to my underwear to celebrate anything!). The Warrior and King David, “the man after God’s own heart” is the pinnacle of another separate more influential category called (yes you guessed it) Biblical Manhood.

Biblical Manhood teaches men that being truthful is more valuable than being likable, the opposite of Biblical Womanhood. This teaching has code words like honor, integrity, authenticity, courage. The code words for Biblical Womanhood were sacrifice, submission, obedience, and love, to have a quiet and gentle spirit. The prescribed Biblical Womanhood taught me that my most important virtue was to be submissive, hence liked. Like was more important than authentic or honest. It wasn’t as if I had to lie about anything, I just had to remain silent when I disagreed. (Can someone say deception?)

According to the teaching, all people must fit into a place and role “prescribed by God”. Again, the easiest way to divide people is race and gender which is why we see women and slaves (usually foreign) under rule of man. To make my life easier, I dumbed-down at church and kept my mouth shut, just like I did at Burger Chef.

Not Fitting into Church or Cultural Boxes

My first few years in church, when I was in graduate school, my team of classmates and I at University, dissected a cadaver with three breasts in cadaver lab. There was another cadaver assigned to another team which had unidentifiable genitalia. These are the people who donate their bodies to science, probably in hopes that science will make progress towards freeing them from living a lie to fit into society’s prescribed places and roles for women and men. It’s a bit tragic that we privileged graduate students cut them up and remove their flaccid hearts which didn’t beat anymore. Despite their gender discrepancies, I believe their heart used to beat the same as mine. We all bleed the same color.

It is my fundamental belief as a Christian that Jesus freed all people from society’s (and church’s) prescribed places and roles. In a day when women were not allowed to witness in court, Jesus considered women (not men) worthy and capable to witness the most important truth of all history, the resurrection (John 20, Luke 24). Jesus didn’t hand these women the dogma of Biblical Womanhood telling them to be respectful to the future apostle (of which the women were also). Jesus didn’t tell these women to be gentle and quiet. No! Of course the men didn’t believe the women, and, the women spoke anyway. Good job ladies! To our demise as Christian women (and men) a couple of millennia later, we really don’t hear the question, “why do you look for the living among the dead?” It’s like a rhetorical query that gets filed away into our subconscious. A fleeting thought. The prescribed place and role of women is a cultural law that has persisted as the 1950s burger joint swag persisted into 1980s at my teenage part-time job. It’s a dead culture.

Leaving the Dead, Seeing the Living

Fifteen years after grad school I decided to stop looking for the living among the dead. My husband and I left our church and found one that did not prescribe a place and role for women that was submissive to men (in the name of God of course!). Our consciences are clear because we do not have to train our daughter to dumb-down and ignore teachings that demean her womanhood or stunt her God-given potential. The egalitarian theology honors the Bible as inspired while honoring all people. Egalitarian theology does not prescribe a place or role for persons based on their gender or race but acknowledges that the persons and environments the Bible described who subscribed that all people were not created equal.

In the land of the living, there is no dress code and women don’t have to be married to the leader to have a voice in ministry. There are of course issues but they are not blatantly teaching women that being likable is their most important virtue. We all bleed the same color (even the blondes). Now when I go to church, I see the living around me and I am alive. When I ask questions, my humility doesn’t get evaluated. Still, even though I’ve been told women have the same opportunity as men in this church environment I don’t see women aspiring to serve in church leadership, which means it’s partially dead, or partially alive, or just partial, however you choose to see it. This needs to change.

Tearing Down the Signs

In 1968 my Burger Chef GM Larry was a young man working a part-time job at Burger Chef and assigned to take down the signs that said “White Only” and “Colored.” When he told me his story from over 20+ years ago, he made it sound as if it were an inconvenience. We all have to take down the symbolic “Biblical Womanhood” and “Biblical Manhood” signs in our personal theology. Change starts in our own hearts.

Change is also inconvenient. Women, we have to speak up and value truth more than being liked. It has taken me many years for me to speak up, I’m still hesitant because I know the ramifications, especially when challenging someone’s deeply traditional perceptions on God. The more I speak up the more resistance I get. It has been hard and hurtful but I have come to the conclusion that when I speak, I am seen as a person, a woman in power. We have all been conditioned through cultural laws to think of power as male. A woman with power is an aberration.

And so the tradition keepers try to keep women in the prescribed place and roles, policing us with the superficial questions: Is she humble? Is she grateful? Is she graceful and beautiful? Does she smile? Does she have kids? Is her domestic side home the most important thing in her life? These are not the questions asked of men but of women to ensure she remains in her prescribed place, with her prescribed role that quietly and gently serves in submission to men. God has always been the same from the beginning and doesn’t have to submit to evil’s presence in the world. It is man who has changed, and now so should women.

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Tara Galles MS, OTR believes biography becomes biology so founded YOGATHEA® Christian Yoga + Meditation to help women “Breathe the Peace Which Transcends All Understanding, Mind + Body + Spirit.” Tara is working to move women (and men) into their full potential through increased flexibility, strength and the renewing their minds through meditation. Tara is the producer of “Perfect Peace” Christian Yoga Home Exercise Video and is currently considering using her Egyptian maiden name, Asaad, as a pen name for her upcoming book PINK SUNGLASSES: A Greater Vision For Biblical Womanhood (which was to be out by the end of 2017 but the editor required yet another revision). You can follow her on Facebook but, for the record, Tara does not know how to use Twitter or Instagram and will not unless her publisher makes her!

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Successful Worship Music Leaders Get Out of the Way

One Good Thing About Hymnals

“One thing I like about hymnals,” the older church member told me, “is it gives me an idea of whether to go up or down when we sing a song.” He didn’t know how to read music. He just knew that when the notes went up on the page they were sung higher than those lower down.

I was leading music for the church services at the time. The pastors asked me to do it off and on, sometimes for a year at a time while they looked to hire someone as music director or worship pastor. I’m not a master guitar player, but I am good at leading singing and good enough on guitar to play rhythm while a group of much better musicians helps make it all sound good.

An old church hymnal on an old church bookshelf (Wikimedia)

The Point of Singing Together

The Bible is full of songs written by people who love God. Some of them are meant for group singing (Psalm 134’s song of ascent, for example) while other songs seem designed to listen to rather than join in with. (Such as Mary’s song.)

Paul tells us that it is good for God’s people to sing together:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Colossians 3:16.)

The Bible doesn’t get specific on the style of music, and if it did I don’t think we’d understand it today any more than Paul would have understood what we mean in describing the differences between hip-hop, blue grass, back-beat rhythm, and a waltz. Paul’s lack of specificity tells me that music offered in worship to God does not depend on style.

What matters is substance. Paul said hese psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit are to be sung to God with grateful hearts and to one another for teaching and admonishment. This can be done in a gathering of God’s people (corporate worship) by someone singing a song for the gathering or by the gathering of people signing together.

Trouble comes when the person leading the worship music mixes up those two modes of worship.

Sunday Morning Cover Bands

Most churches I’ve attended over the last 30 years have gotten away from hymnals and organ music, where a single person stands at the front of the body of believers and leads everyone to sing together what is on the printed page.

Rather, the music is presented by a group of musicians with one person (or perhaps two or three trading off) leads everyone in singing. Sometimes there’s “special music” where the musicians and singers present a song for the congregation to listen to but not sing along with. Both modes are great and the band can choose music of any style from any source as long as it follows Paul’s instruction to sing with gratitude to God and to encourage one another.

This includes choosing music being played on Christian pop music radio. I’ve heard a lot of good music on those stations, at times better than is found on some rarely used pages in a hymnal. Yet like the songs found in the Bible, not all of the music on the radio lends itself to corporate worship.

A person leading worship music needs to learn how to discern the difference. It can take experience and an understanding of what corporate music is for, and it can take an awareness of how to bring people alongside you in these opportunities for Spirit-led worship.

Some tips from a guy who did it for a long while:

  1. Get the basics right. Review the music’s words to make sure they square with scripture. There are a lot of songs, both on the radio and in hymnals, that don’t carry good doctrine. Just because a song has a good hook doesn’t mean it should be used in worship.
  2. Take a walk on the wild side. There’s nothing wrong with playing a song with a style wildly different from what the group is used to. But recognize there will be people who will find it hard to join in with you. Take the time to explain what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how they can come along with you in worshiping God through that song.
  3. Lead people to come along with you. If it’s a song everyone knows well – Amazing Grace, perhaps – this is a cinch. If it’s a new song, you might encourage everyone to take a seat as you sing through the first verse and the chorus, then invite them to stand and join you in singing that again and continuing through the song.
  4. Corporate singing is for singing together. Resist the temptation to take off on your own. Whether it’s a song familiar to the group or a new piece of music, the people in the congregation need your leadership, not your showmanship. Are you a woman whose ability to soar through the registers without breaking a sweat would impress Beyoncé and Celine Dion? Are you a man who can fly around a note and land back on it without ever going off key? Congratulations. Save it for the special music solos. Corporate worship is for singing together as a body and that means staying with the notes the congregation is expecting to sing.
  5. You’re not the worship leader. The person leading God’s people in worship is God himself, the Holy Spirit. When I led music for congregational singing my prayer with the music team every week was that we would set ourselves aside and that the Spirit would a) use us to show Jesus to the people in the congregation, and b) work in the congregation to bring glory to God.

Paul wrote on the subject of worship music to more than one church, but his instructions to the Ephesians below are strikingly similar to those he sent to the Colossians and are based on the premise that all of this is done by being Spirit-led.

[B]e filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-20.)

Notice how he directs your attention to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in those lines. This is how you know you are presenting songs worth singing. When you are filled with the Spirit and bring people alongside as you sing you will find that you are making music together to the Lord.

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Duckling Gospel – a short tale of the rescue that stopped traffic

I’d like to tell a duck story to lift your heart.

I was driving along and saw a mother duck crossing the frontage road, her line of ducklings behind her. I stopped for the duck line and realized that as the mother reached the sidewalk she was the only one who could jump up the curb. Her ducklings were too small to make the leap so they stayed in the gutter, walking up and down the concrete wall in front of them. I got out and ran up, the mother duck backing away and acting very distressed. Another driver stopped and then ran up behind me.

We started scooping little ducklings up onto the sidewalk.

We had all but one duckling reunited with their mother when I noticed one little one running away from us down the gutter … right at an open storm drain. I sprinted to it and gathered it up just inches from the wide grating, then carried it toward the mother and let it down. The mother duck flapped her wings a couple times before moving away to the open field behind her, all her little ducklings trailing behind just as they should.

When I turned to get back in my car I saw a string of other drivers had stopped, since we’d blocked traffic to become duck-rescuers. No one was honking their horns in frustration. Not a single car tried to pull around us. Everyone waited for the ducklings to reach safety.

Everyone loves a good rescue story. I know I do, especially when I’m in it. Like this one:

He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand. (Psalm 40:2.)

Jesus scooped me up too. Great story.

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Some People Can’t Stand God’s Grace

The gospel is the story of Jesus and what he has done for us, not what we are supposedly obligated to do for God. One is grace; the other is impossible.

This is too much for some people to handle. Grace – free and without end – scares them.

  • They want lists so they know what grace won’t cover.
  • They want limits so they know what’s on the other side of grace.
  • They want rules so they know what’s expected of them.

Grace doesn’t give them any of these things. Grace won’t beat anyone down for failing to follow a rule, check off a list, or stay within the lines. Rather, God’s grace does the opposite. It lifts you up.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. (Romans 5:1-2.)

And your eternal standing of peace with God doesn’t depend on you one bit. It’s all God.

Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:21.)

God’s grace has brought you peace, and it has also set you free from rule-following.

Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:23.)

An appearance of wisdom, but lacking value. Does that sound like some rules you might have imposed on yourself – or worse yet, rules you’ve allowed others to impose upon you? This is not the life Jesus offers, the life where he said:

“If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.” (John 8:36.)

In speaking of this freedom and refusing ever to be bound again by rules and lists, Paul wrote:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1.)

Can you handle God’s grace? Can you handle that it is a free gift that in turn sets you free from rules and lists and being burdened by expectations you never meet?

Free means free. It’s not up to you to earn God’s grace and it’s not up to you to keep it.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God … . (Ephesians 2:8.)

It’s all God, and it’s all yours.

Grace, peace, faith – this is how much God loves you.

I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:28-30.)

Handle it, because he has you in his hands forever.

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