A couple years ago, I witnessed a well-known, incredible worship leader. His guitar strum stirred my heart, and his baritone voice felt like honey to the soul. I was awed—and a bit envious—as I watched him experience God. I understood his fame.
I praised his skills to my friends. When I wanted to write about leadership, that time of worship came to mind. I wanted to write about that. But then I remembered my first wonderment of a worship leader, someone you’ve never heard of.
When I was about twelve, I noticed that my church was singing louder and even tapping their feet (okay, we were Presbyterians, so we just wiggled our toes). We sang with an unfamiliar, inner-confidence. We began new verses in unison instead of a raggedy, smattering of voices slowly joined by others. I asked my parents what was happening.
They said we had just hired a new organist, Donna Picken. While “only” an organist (this was before pyrotechnical guitars and lighting were allowed in churches), she helped us worship with a gusto few Presbyterians allow in themselves.
The thing was, we never noticed Donna. We just sang better. We didn’t hear fancy organ bass runs (they were probably there); we simply felt freer to sing.
Donna was a great leader because we didn’t see her; we just sensed her effect. Donna was a great worship leader because we didn’t see her, we saw through her … to God.
For much of human history, people have been executed because of their beliefs. These people weren’t killed for antisocial behavior (like murder, rape, or treason); they were slain simply because of their inner-conviction about reality.
We’re more tolerant today. That’s good. I don’t want to be burned alive because I believe that Android phones are better than iPhones (though I confess to liking roasted Apples…).
It’s right we abandon belief-based execution, but remember those who experienced it. Thousands of men and women willingly suffered slaughter without recanting. They believed so strongly, they wouldn’t pretend to deny their beliefs; even to save their lives.
Today, though, doctrine is scorned. We imagine cloaked monks, closeted in their dusty cloisters, penning abstract dogmas on “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” I once asked dozens of people what they thought of doctrine. They boldly proclaimed:
- Doctrine, schmoctrine; God only wants us to love each other.
- Doctrine is about the head; I believe in the heart.
- Doctrine divides; it’s more important to find what unites.
- Thinking is the devil’s territory; let’s just experience God.
The thing is, each of these statements is a doctrine. (The belief that “God only wants us to love each other” is called the doctrine of Salvation by Works.) But would you die for your doctrine that, “Thinking is the devil’s territory”? I think not. Dorothy Sayers wrote,
In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair … the sin that believes in nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive simply because there is nothing for which it will die (Creed or Chaos, slightly edited).
We don’t need to be burned at the stake. Our shallow convictions about reality are death. The problem with doctrine is that we all have them; few of us admit it; and it’s killing us.
Why did Jesus have to rise bodily from the dead? Why not just return spiritually to the Father?
Of course the song of resurrection inspires us. It harmonizes beautifully with all our other commonplace choruses, “It’s darkest before the dawn,” “Spring follows winter,” and “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” I once even heard a preacher conclude his Easter sermon with, “So Christ rose in our hearts.” The idea of resurrection feels good.
Such choruses are simply sappy, sentimental attempts to feel good in difficulty. But Paul claimed, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). If Jesus didn’t really, physically, bodily rise from the dead, our faith is just horse manure.
The resurrection is a big deal. But why? Isn’t the real gospel that he died for our sins?
When I was twelve or thirteen, I went on a church retreat in the middle of January. The temperature was below zero. With friends I crossed a low bridge that spanned a three-foot-deep stream. We wrestled a bit, and I accidentally fell off the bridge into the stream.
I was plunged into a pool of stabbing cold; I gasped in shock; the bitter chill astonished me. The icy water began to suck all heat from my body (though technically, I’m told, my tiny body tried to heat hundreds of gallons of ice cold water). We later measured the water to be just above freezing. It felt unbelievably cold. And so did I.
That is the condition of humans after sin; our life is being sucked away in an icy river of death. Sin is not just bad behavior (“I lied,” “You cheated”). Sin is the power of death that ceaselessly, relentlessly, inexorably drains every unit of warmth of every cell from every human being.
In the movie The Princess Bride, the evil genius Vizzini repeatedly (and inappropriately) exclaims, “Inconceivable.” His partner Inigo Montoyo finally responds, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Like that criminal genius, Christians use religious jargon repeatedly and inappropriately. I often want to say, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I struggle with the phrase, “wrestling with God.” Christians use it to describe an intentional long night of pleading with God for his help. The phrase refers to God wrestling with Jacob (Gen. 32:22-31), but we use it the wrong way; let’s “Stop saying that!”
I used to work in a ministry with a man who loved the phrase. If the finances were low, he’d demand an evening bout of wrestling with God. When members failed to follow his messages, he’d insist on an upper room experience of battling with God.
My friend used the phrase as though we needed to get God’s attention, as though we needed to place a shot across God’s bow. We’d argue with God, make our pitch, and try to persuade him of our plans. Maybe we’d fast.
It reminded me of the priests of Baal as they cut themselves on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18). I wish I’d said to my friend, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Our phrase may seem noble or heroic to us, but an African American preacher understood God better when he preached, “Your arm’s too short to box with God!”
Many years ago, I worked for a struggling company. Our architecture was outdated and sales revenue plummeted. Investments in new architecture meant expenses skyrocketed. We were hemorrhaging money with no doctor in sight.
And then our president had a heart attack.
Our parent company asked me if I would consider becoming president. I was flattered by their great offer (and impressed with their great wisdom), but when I prayed I sensed God say, “No.” His word felt clear and strong, and I declined.
Instead, I suggested a new vice president that I had recently hired and who had become a friend. Our parent company agreed, and my friend became our new president.
The next day, my president-friend began to attack me. In the following weeks, he reduced my pay, took away my office, demoted me, and publicly belittled me. *
My friend’s blitzkrieg movements stunned me. I was paralyzed and bewildered. Each new day brought a new disappointment. Every way I turned saw ambush and embarrassment. All of this came from a friend I had helped promote.
And God seemed absent, at least silent. I felt abandoned by God to a betraying friend who appeared intent on my professional destruction. I had voluntarily obeyed God by declining a promotion. As a result, I was demoted, humiliated, discouraged, and scared.
What kind of God would do this to someone who tried to obey him?
I know a company founded by a man with a passion for a hobby. He coupled it with a love for writing and published a magazine centered on his hobby. The fledgling company flourished. It soon had a suite of great products but lacked market penetration.
When the founding president retired, he replaced himself with a marketing expert.
The new marketing-president ran the company for five years. During his tenure, sales tripled. The rapid growth created organizational challenges. When it came time for his retirement, he promoted his organizationally-minded CFO to replace himself.
The new structural-president brought in much needed organization. Their products were great and their marketing terrific; now internal processes hummed. The company didn’t grow, but expenses were cut, operations streamlined, and profit margins soared.
The structural-president was pleased with his improvements. When it came time to retire, he replaced himself with another organizationally-minded CFO.
Within a few years, revenues were down 30%, product quality suffered, market penetration shrank, and corporate morale tanked. So he cut more jobs.
When the second structural-president retired, he hired a CFO … just like himself.
Three decades ago, I reached the high water mark of my personal physical fitness. I ran thirty miles a week, performed three hundred pushups a day, and regularly boxed. (Ever since I’ve been on a downward slide, reaching new low water marks almost daily.)
Used with permission: www.judophotos.com
While in that peak physical condition (never mind its short duration), I met a man with a black belt in Judo. He was twice my age, plump, and he wheezed when he walked. I was lifting bars with heavy weights; I think he was visiting bars with many beers.
He was the first black belt of any kind I had ever met. I was curious, and a bit skeptical. Could this chubby, middle-aged man really beat me in a friendly fight?
Alas. The glory of my youthful strength was unmatched by any glory of real-world wisdom. That fool inside me challenged him to hand-to-hand combat.
Never since childhood had I spent so much time on the ground. The lawn and I quickly became intimate friends. I huffed, puffed, wheezed, and groaned (and maybe cursed), as he effortlessly tossed me to the grass over and over again.
It didn’t matter what punch I threw. Every jab, hook, and uppercut resulted in me lying on my back, staring at the sky, gasping for air, and wondering what had happened.