On Closing our Church

Oh, my friends – where do I even begin?

We announced a week ago that we are closing our church, and so many of you have reached out to us to find out how we are doing, and I haven’t quite had the right words to answer that question.

The truth is, we are grieving. Deeply. Every week we discover a new painful part of this process, and the whole thing has just been plain hard. We’ve cried a lot and there is no easy band-aid to put on this pain.

But….. But, but, but…

God.

My God is in the business of redeeming what is broken.

If you’d asked me a year ago what that means, I would have told you something that sounded really nice, probably using a mosaic as an analogy, how things can be more beautiful because of their brokenness.

But now that I’m having to live that out, I’m finding out God’s redemption is so much bigger than I gave Him credit for. Closing our church is both more broken and more beautiful than I ever could have imagined. I ugly cry almost every day, and God’s grace is there, big in my big pain. God’s grace is there in friends who weep with us, holding us tighter than I would have ever imagined they would do. God’s grace is there in the prayers that poured forth in our living room night after night, sparking revival in our hearts. God’s grace is abounding to us.

Friends, I didn’t know it could be like this.

I knew in my head, theologically, that God is present in the midst of suffering. But the truth is, I think I secretly believed that God’s leading meant a win. That because he asked us to do it, our church couldn’t help but grow bigger and better all the time.

And if I’m being really honest, I think I secretly believed that the people who had planted other churches that closed had missed God’s leading or disobeyed him along the way somewhere. That it couldn’t be God’s plan to lead someone into hardship.

And yet, here we are.

So just what are God’s plans for us?

Most of us who have grown up in church know Jeremiah 29:11, about God’s good plans for us. But what does that even mean?

If you back up a chapter, you will see that Jeremiah was prophesying to the nation of Judah during what was basically foreign occupation by the Babylonian Empire. More and more of the people of Judah were taken captive to Babylon, until Nebuchadnezzar’s puppet king, Zedekiah, rebelled, and the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in retaliation (see 2 Chronicles 36).

The people of Judah had no context to process this large-scale punishment for their collective disobedience to God. They were sorry. They wanted to go home. Why wasn’t God hearing their prayers?

Because of this, some prophets were saying that God would deliver them from the oppression of the Babylonians in two short years (see Jeremiah 28:2-3).

But they were wrong. So God prompted Jeremiah to write this letter to the exiles:

“’Build houses and settle down…. Marry and have sons and daughters…. Seek the peace and prosperity of the city into which I have carried you into exile…. Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them,’ declares the LORD. This is what the LORD says, ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jeremiah 29:5-11, emphasis added

Most of the time, I think I am more like the false prophets in this story than I am like Jeremiah. I want there to be a quick fix just around the corner. An “all better.” A why behind my pain. And instead, God says to his precious chosen people, “buckle up. The answer to your prayers is going to be a long time coming. But I know what I’m doing.”

After all, why would God have to reassure us that his plans were not for harm, unless it felt very much as if they were?

And though we don’t like to talk about it much in the church, that is how walking with Jesus often is.

We have taken verses like Jeremiah 29:11 out of context, and fooled ourselves into believing the gospel says “Come and prosper.” We want to believe that God is always leading us to places where we will be richer, happier, healthier, and more successful than we were before.

But what the gospel of Jesus Christ really says is, “Come and die.” We don’t want to the Lord to lead us into places of brokenness and betrayal and heartache, but that is so often the road he asks us to walk.

To know Jesus is to know suffering.

I don’t want that to be true, but I just can’t get away from verses like this:

“You will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” Matthew 24:9

And this:

“In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

 And these:

“[Peter and John] left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name [of Jesus].” Acts 5:41

“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope….” Romans 5:3-4

 “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison….” 2 Corinthians 4:17

 “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamites. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:10

“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” Philippians 1:29

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” James 1:2-3

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trail when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” 1 Peter 4:12-13

The truth is, God does have good plans for us. But we have to let Him define what that good is. And we have to know that the fullness of the good He has for us will not be achieved in this life.

Someday, we will be with Jesus, and he will wipe away every tear from our eyes. That is our future. And even now, in the midst of all we suffer in this life, He is ALWAYS with us. That is our hope.

Jason and I are taking comfort in the far-off future we have in Jesus, no matter what the immediate future holds. We truly have no idea what is next for us. We have not had any job offers or interviews, but we have peace that God will go with us into all of our tomorrows. We are spending more time on our knees than ever before, and if only for that we are grateful for this season and how it drives us to seek more of God.

Thank you to everyone who has been praying for us and taking time to encourage us along the way. We are humbled by your love!

Blessings,

Amy

PS. I am indebted to many anointed writers and musical artists whose work God has used to speak to me over the last few months. If you are in a season of brokenness (or want to know how to encourage someone who is), I recommend The Hardest Peace by Kara Tippets, When God Doesn’t Fix It by Laura Story, and Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard. If you’re looking for music, what we have on repeat around here are The Glorious Unfolding by Stephen Curtis Chapman, As Sure as the Sun by Ellie Holcomb, Majestic by Kari Jobe, and How Can It Be by Lauren Daigle.

The First Whisper of Christmas

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Today is December 1st. The big meal and big deals are behind us. We started lighting advent candles at our dinner table two nights ago, and tonight, at bedtime, we will crack open a brand-new storybook that will carry us through these next 24 days, tracing the family of Jesus, the promised Messiah.

It begins with the promise that God made to Israel, through the prophet Isaiah:

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him–the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD–and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. 
“He will not judge by what he see with his eyes or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
“In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the people; the nations will rally to him and his place of rest will be glorious.” Isaiah 11:1-10

This is what the whole Old Testament has been leading up to, what all of creation itself has been waiting for since Adam and Eve took that very first bite of sin. This is where we place our hope, this Coming One, who will reconcile us to God and bring us peace.

My advent devotional reading this morning asked where in my life I was longing for a tender shoot of hope, and I wanted to ask back, “where am I not longing for hope?” Two thousand fifteen has been, without question, the hardest year I’ve had yet. Truthfully, there’s a large part of my heart that would be willing to box up the tree and skip right over this season and right into a new year.

This year has been a year of circling the story of Elijah. There’s the story of Mt. Carmel, when God answers Elijah’s simple but faith-filled prayer by sending fire from heaven. It is, to my mind, one the most astounding miracles in the whole BIble–this fire that burns up soaked wood and laps the water filling the trench beside it.

But that’s not the story I keep coming back to. In the aftermath of that miracle, Jezebel threatens to kill Elijah, since he killed her false prophets.

And Elijah is DONE.

“He came to a broom tree, sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, LORD.’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.'” 1 Kings 19:4

It is this story that I kept coming back to.

“I have had enough, Lord,” I prayed in April.

Then we put our dog to sleep.

“I’ve had enough.”

My son, who is about to start kindergarten, can’t stop having accidents.

“I’ve had enough.”

Attendance numbers at our church leave me feeling discouraged.

“I’ve had enough.”

My doctor can’t figure out why the medicine isn’t helping my asthma, and in the meantime, I can’t walk a block without getting winded.

“I’ve had enough.”

My friends move away.

“I’ve had enough.”

Hurt. Betrayal. Loss. Failure. Fear.

“I’ve had enough.”

Every single thing that happened, small or large, felt like the last straw, and I would kneel in my bedroom and read this story and pour my heart out before the Lord.

Like the people of Israel waiting for a political Messiah to throw off Roman oppression, I want Jesus to come in big and loud and rescue me out of this mess. I want God to be in the mighty wind or the earthquake or the fire. But that isn’t how God appeared to Elijah, and it’s not how he appears to us.

“After the fire came a gentle whisper.” 1 Kings 19:12

“She gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and place him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2:7

All year long, I’ve been begging God to come and change my circumstances. But instead, he offers to come in quiet and small, and change me.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus.

 

Sunday Conversations

Sunday we tried something we have been wanting to do for a very long time.

It started with conversations Jason and I would have, sitting on the couch in the evening, driving along the road together, or lying awake late at night. We had questions about the Bible and what God really meant. And so we talked through them, using our limited, but complimentary, knowledge of God’s Word to try to find our way towards some answers.

I know we aren’t the only ones still wrestling with questions of faith and how that plays out in our daily lives. Even my most well-educated friends don’t pretend to know absolutely everything about the BIble and what it means. Learning and growing in God’s word is a process, as Paul pointed out in his letter to the Philippians:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Philippians 2:12-13

The problem wasn’t with the questions and conversations we were having; the problem was that those conversations felt so much more authentic than what we were presenting to our youth group on Wednesday nights. Delivering sermons, no matter how good they were, felt somehow incomplete. (Not to mention the fact that lecture-based instruction has the lowest retention rate of all the teaching methods.)

Was there a way to invite our students to come an eavesdrop on this process? To invite them to see how even as adults, we still had fears and doubts and unknowns? To show them how we always turned to the Bible with those questions, and found hope and encouragement, even when our understanding was incomplete?

We wanted to find a way. So we tried speaking together a couple of times to our youth group, and a few more times to our church, once we became pastors at Life360 Ozark. But it was still lacking what we wanted. There was something intangible to real conversation and debate that was missing from our Sunday mornings.

What we wanted, honestly, we saw best displayed in the 30 minutes of pregame analysis before an NFL game. The anchors come prepared with notes and opinions, and stats to back them up. And then they talk for a while about how they think the game is going to play out. We wanted that, except about Jesus.

So this past Sunday, we finally tried it. Jason and I and our friend Chris spent some time studying what the Bible has to say about prophecy: what it is, its role in the church today, and what we are supposed to do about it. Then we got up on Sunday morning and talked about it for awhile. It was a total experiment, but I think it went pretty well, and we are hoping to try it again soon.

If you want to have a listen, the whole conversation is up on Jason’s blog here.

And whether you listen to it or not, I’d love to know what you think about this style of presentation. Have you ever had any conversations about God or the Bible that were life-changing for you? How much do you feel like you retain from a Sunday morning sermon? Do you think listening to someone else’s conversation would make it easier for you to learn and feel engaged?

JBF Tips & Tricks for New Shoppers

This week is one of my very favorite things is happening: the semi-annual Just Between Friends consignment sale.

JBF is a well-organized, one week used kids’ sale where people can buy gently used clothes, toys, books, baby gear, and tons more at 50-90% off the retail price, but it’s also a chance for families to make a little bit of extra money selling the things that their children no longer want or need.

I love being able to sell my old stuff to moms who need it more than I do, but I also love the bargains I find on stuff for my kids. My mother-in-law were talking about this the other day, and she, being a super savvy sale shopper, insisted that I could find comparable bargains on brand-new clothes during big sales, and she’s probably right.

But to me, participating in JBF is about so much more than saving money.

It’s about making sure the dollars I am spending are going directly into the pockets of moms like me. It’s about eliminating manufacturing and landfill waste by making sure that clothes are really and truly worn out before they get tossed. And it’s about the discipline of making room for new things before I go out and buy them, and even then, only buying what I truly need. This year, for the first time ever, my kids are electing to sell some of their own toys so they can earn money to buy the things they really want, and I’ve encouraged them to do so.

Can you tell that I really love JBF? If you have kids (or grandkids! or friends with kids!) I highly recommend that you check out this sale. But if you’ve never been before, the amount of stuff that is for sale can be a little overwhelming. If you’re new to JBF, here are a few strategies that I have found to be extremely valuable when I shop:

1. Know what you have (and what you need)

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There is nothing more frustrating than spending money on a good deal on long sleeved shirts for your 5-year-old, and coming home to find that he already has plenty, and that it was your 3-year-old who needed the shirts. I know it’s only August, but take an hour or two, pull out your kids’ winter clothes, figure out what still fits and what needs to be replaced, that way you aren’t wasting your time shopping for things your kids already have.

This year, my kids are already mostly set when it comes to basic clothing items, but what they really need are accessory items: jackets, shoes, hats, etc. I snapped the pictures of above of what will comprise the bulk of their fall wardrobes so I can be sure that I’m not buying a hoodie that they’ll never wear because it doesn’t match anything.

2. Take your kids’ measurements

If you shop at the same store all the time, you probably know what sizes fit your kids. But since JBF is a consignment sale, all kinds of brands of clothing will be available, and sizing is extremely inconsistent. At the last JBF sale, I found 3 different t-shirts all labeled 5T, one of which fit my small-for-his-age 3-year-old, one of which almost fit me, and one that fit my son who actually wears 5T-sized clothes on a regular basis. So it can be valuable to have kids’ measurements with you as you shop, especially for items that you really need.

What this means for me is that this afternoon, when Caleb gets home from school, I will make both my boys stand on a piece of cardstock so I trace their little feet and take their actual foot size with me to the sale. If you really need jeans, you might want to measure their inseam, and bring a small measuring tape with you, or cut a length of ribbon as long as you need their pants to be.

3. Don’t buy the first thing you see

Give yourself plenty of time to shop, and if you can, go through the whole section of items you’re shopping in. Maybe you found the perfect pair Batman jammies, and they’re only $4. Yay! Grab them, but keep looking because there’s a chance another consignor has the exact same pair of jammies a little farther down the rack for $2.

Every sale I’ve been at, I’ve seen identical items, sometimes in identical shape, but with difference prices. Without fail, exercising patience and diligence while I shop has been rewarded.

The Springfield JBF sale is at Remington’s on Republic Rd., and opens to the public Wednesday, although some folks get to shop early (See here if you qualify.) And if you’re not in the Springfield area, you can see if there’s one near you here.

Happy shopping!

What We’re Talking About When We Sing Christian Songs: Fire Fall Down

One of the things we sing a lot, at least in evangelical circles, is for fire to fall down, or for God to send his fire. In fact, we sang this Matt Redman song, “Here for You,” in our own church just a couple weeks ago, boldly voicing our desire: “God, let your fire fall down.”

If you look at this very literally, it seems like a crazy a thing to ask. I’m not sure any of us want God to send an actual fire into our church in the middle of one of our services (although that would be kind of cool.)

God did actually send literal fire down a number of times in the Bible. The time that comes most immediately to mind, at least for me, is Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth on Mt. Carmel. Israel had embraced idol worship, and Elijah had prophesied a drought over the land as God’s judgment for their worship of the idol Baal (whom they believed provided them with rain, crops, and fertility). After three years, the land was dry and barren, and Elijah made king Ahab and his false prophets an offer: Let’s build sacrifices to our respective gods on the top of this mountain, but not light them. Whichever god answers our prayers with fire is the true God.

They accepted, so Israel gathered at Mt. Carmel to watch the showdown between this one man of God and the 850 prophets who served the nation’s idols.The false prophets went first and called out to Baal for hours. They wept and wailed, and even cut themselves in an attempt to get his attention, but to no avail.

Then Elijah took his turn. He repaired the altar of God, arranged the meat on it and then drenched the sacrifice with water. Now it was going to take a honest-to-goodness miracle for this thing to catch on fire. Elijah stepped forward, and prayed a simple prayer that demonstrated his absolute faith that God was able to do this:

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: ‘Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you,Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.’ Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!'” (1 Kings 18:36-39, emphasis added).

Elijah asked, and God answered with fire. Not just any fire, either, a supernatural fire that burned up all the things we use to contain fire: water, soil, stones. It is this image that is often in my mind when I sing about fire falling down. But this is far from the only time that God sends fire in Scripture. God rained fire down on Sodom and Gomorrah. God sent a pillar of fire to guide the Israelites in the desert. God sent fire to consume the sacrifice when Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem. And tongues of burning fire appeared over the heads of the believers in the upper room on the day of Pentecost.

These are all instances of a literal fire coming down from the sky. And as I said before, I’m not sure that’s what we are asking for when we sing these songs. So what are we talking about? We should be careful to consider what the Scripture says about God and His fire.

So often, in the church, I think we equate fire with zeal, as in “being on fire for God,” and some nebulous feeling of being excited about God. But the fire of God is much bigger than that.

Want to hazard a guess at which book of the Bible mentions fire the most? It’s Leviticus, which is not a book we often enjoy reading or studying, but it can teach us a lot about what it really means to ask for God’s fire.

In the book of Leviticus, God’s fire meant a few different things, and they are a pattern for what fire means throughout the rest of the Bible.

Judgment

In Leviticus, the people of Israel frequently turn away from God by grumbling, complaining, losing faith, acting irreverently, and turning to idols. In these instances, God often judged people for their disobedience, and on more than one occasion, the Bible says that fire came out from the Lord and consumed people (Leviticus 10:1-2, Numbers 11:1-3). Through Christ, we are no longer stand accused of our sins, but for those who reject Him, the judgment that awaits them is often described with images of fire and burning (as in Mark 9:43).

Sacrifice

By far, the majority of references to fire in the book of Leviticus had to do with sacrifice. Leviticus is all about instructions for the priests in their duties, one of which was continually offering ritual sacrifices on the altar before the Lord. The fire on these altars was supposed to remain burning at all times. Those who loved God continued to make burnt offerings to God throughout the rest of the Old Testament, and as I mentioned before, there were several occasions when God sent fire from heaven to show his pleasure for a sacrifice his people offered to him (Leviticus 9:24, 1 Kings 18:38, 2 Chronicles 7:1).

Sacrifice looks a little different for New Testament believers. Jesus died once for the sins of the whole world. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t bring anything to offer to God; on the contrary, because God has done so much for us, we owe him everything. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer you bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. This is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).

Purity

Another primary way that fire was used in the book of Leviticus was for ceremonial purity. Because God is holy, and cannot abide where sin is, His people needed to be set-apart and clean. A large portion of the book of Leviticus talks about what makes a person unclean, and how the Israelites were to purify themselves. Things that had touched disease, bodily fluids, mold, or had been in foreign possession had to be purified also, and anything that could withstand fire was usually purified that way (as in Numbers 31:23).

In the New Testament, believers aren’t purified outwardly through ritual, but inwardly through obedience and submission to Christ. New Testament writers often remind us to be joyful in the midst of difficult circumstances, because they often purify our faith and draw us nearer to God. Peter calls these “fiery trials” (1 Peter 4:12, ESV) and Paul teaches, “We also rejoice in our sufferings; because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4).

God’s Presence

To me, the most significant thing that fire represents in the Bible was the very presence of God. In Leviticus, when they were setting up the tabernacle, God signified that He was with his people by appearing in their midst as a pillar of cloud by day and as a pillar of fire by night. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that when God poured out His own spirit on New Testament believers that what they saw “seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (Acts 2:3).

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Asking for God’s fire is a big thing, but for those of us who are serious about forsaking ourselves and following after Jesus, I think it’s a wonderful and appropriate thing for us to ask from God. We just need to be mindful that when we sing and pray “fire, fall down” we are not asking for a warm glow of affection for God. We are asking for his blazing, consuming, awesome presence. We are asking for God to come as rightful judge. We are asking for Him to look with pleasure on the meager offerings we bring before Him. And we are asking for God to draw near to us in His fullness and to burn up everything in our lives that is displeasing to him so that we can know Him more and walk in closer step with Him.

Recommended Reading: Back to School

I cannot believe it’s that time of the year already. Ozark starts Kindergarten in LESS THAN A WEEK. We have the school supplies and the backpack, the lunch box and the water bottle. We are going grocery shopping this weekend for school lunch food. So I am prepared, but I am so not ready. You know what I mean?

But I do love this time of year. Even though I’m not in school anymore myself, something about the fall makes it easy to embrace routine, tackle difficult projects, or learn something new. A lot of the books I’ve read recently are absolutely perfect for this time of the year, whether you’re looking for a great novel or a really interesting piece of non-fiction.

At the Water’s Edge – This is a new one by the author of Water for Elephants. The story is extremely compelling, especially if you like WW2 novels or are intrigued by the idea of the Loch Ness Monster.

The Invention of Wings – I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this. It’s a novel, but it’s based on a true story about a little-known woman who was a major part of the early abolition movement. Another home run by Sue Monk Kid (also the author of The Secret Life of Bees).

To Kill a Mockingbird – If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past two months, you probably know that Harper Lee just released a brand-new book about Scout when she’s all grown up. It’s been met with mixed reviews, but a lot of people are saying it’s important anyway. If you’re thinking of reading it, might I suggest reading To Kill A Mockingbird first? If you’ve never read it, it’s more than worth your time, but even if you read it in high school, it’s worth the re-read. I realized, as I was reading this again this summer, that my freshman year of high school when I read it before was literally half my life ago. My perspective on Lee’s characters and message has changed a whole lot in that time.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking – I have only recently realized that I am an introvert. I found this book helpful and fascinating. Did you know that people who are introverted, and likely more sensitive to their environments physically have thinner skin than their extroverted peers?

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – I love Michael Pollan’s work, and this book was no exception. He explores the route of food through the industrial food chain, but also delves into the worlds of organic farming and hunting. If you like knowing about where your food comes from, this is an excellent read.

 

Of course, you may not be quite ready to tackle my back-to-school reading list. It’s still quite warm outside, the pool is still calling, and you need something to read. I get it. The lazy days of summer seem to me more ideally suited to fast-paced, easy-to-read engrossing stories that you can finish in a weekend. (In fact, my summer ideal is a two-book weekend.) If you’re not quite ready to give up your summer, here’s what I recommend:

Royal Wedding – I unashamedly love the Princess Diaries series. This installment is written for adults, about Mia as an adult. It falls squarely in the “chick lit” category, and is an easy, fun read.

All Fall Down – Grace, the main character in this book, returns to the European embassy where her grandfather is an ambassador following her mother’s death. It’s clear that there were some traumatic events that led up to this, and you’ll spend the entire book trying to piece them together. If you liked last year’s We Were Liars, you will enjoy this book. And that’s all I’m going to say.

Rapunzel Untangled – Nominated for the year’s Truman Choice award, this book reimagines the story of Rapunzel in a modern, non-magical context. What if someone kidnapped a baby and keep her locked up in a tower for 16 years? What would that look like today?

The Bookseller – I picked this up off the new shelf at the library, and was so intrigued by the jacket description I decided to check it out. Katherine wakes up, alternately, in two different lives every time she goes to sleep. Which life is the dream? Which is real? I couldn’t put this book down.

The Girl on the Train – No one quite expected this book to the be breakout bestseller it’s become over the last several months, but it’s clear why it’s so popular. The story is so intriguing: Rachel, an alcoholic who rides the train every day, has had a vantage point into the lives of a couple whose home is along the tracks, even though she doesn’t really know them. When the woman goes missing, Rachel is sure she can help figure out what happened. Disclaimer: this one is a little intense, suspense-wise, and with regards to some of the things the characters do and say, but if you’re looking for a chilling mystery, this book is worth your time.

What We’re Talking About When We Sing Christian Songs: Introduction

Worship

When I was in college, I was part of an on-campus Christian organization. As we grew we did a lot of things, but the way we got started was through a weekly evening of worship at one of the fraternity houses, of all places. (Actually, it was the one with the worst reputation. Isn’t is just like God to reach into a place of darkness and shine brilliant light?)

Eventually, we had this idea to bring in Christian artists and host a concert for them, giving them all of the proceeds, if they would agree to come and lead our worship night, where anyone could attend free of charge.

Thinking back on this as an adult, I am astounded we got anyone to come. I can’t imagine those concerts were very lucrative for these artists. We were a small school and our biggest auditorium didn’t hold much of an audience to speak of, especially not if these artists were used to playing in big arena.

But they must have seen our hearts or something, because some people came anyway, and led worship for us like we had asked.

One of those nights, Todd Agnew came. I had heard his songs on the radio and was excited to hear him play for us, both at the concert and at our worship night, which was first. I had a really full schedule that semester, and hadn’t been around when some of my friends picked him up at the airport and got him settled at our school’s bed-and-breakfast-type inn. We had decided to have the worship night at the old cathedral on campus, because we were expecting a larger crowd than we typically had on an average Monday at the fraternity house.

I had come from work and got there just as it was starting. I expected to see Todd Agnew up on stage, but the only stage lights that had been turned on were the ones behind him, outlining only a vague silhouette of a man on a guitar.

“Tonight isn’t about me,” he said. “It’s about the Lord.”

And he proceeded to teach us about worship. He pointed to Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in John 4, where Jesus tells her that the kind of worshipers the Lord seeks are those who worship in spirit and in truth. Todd challenged us: how often do we sing words we don’t understand or words we don’t mean? If God wants people worshiping Him in truth, are we doing that?

Those questions have stuck with me all these years, and I return to them often, evaluating the way I sing when I sing to the Lord and the lyrics of the songs I’m singing to Him. My favorite songs contain rich imagery and language taken directly from the Bible. But I also love songs that force me to stop and ask, “Do I really mean that?” Is God’s grace alone really enough for me? Would I really follow Him anywhere? Do I even know what I’m asking when I ask to see God’s face?

Lately it seems a lot of other people have been asking those same questions, particularly as it applies to the Hillsong United song, “Oceans.” The lyrics to the bridge of this song say, “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders/Let me walk upon the waters/Wherever you would call me/Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander/And my faith will be made stronger/In the presence of my Savior.”

That is a big thing to ask. And a lot of other people in Christian circles have been pointing this out, and asking us, do we mean it? (I would contend, that if we are call Jesus Lord, we should be praying these things. There is no way to follow Him halfway, but that’s another post for another day.) I am glad that “Oceans” has sparked those questions for people

But “Oceans” isn’t the only song we should be applying those questions towards. We should be asking questions of every song we profess to sing to God. We should be asking:

  • What does it mean?
  • Is it biblical?
  • Do I mean it?

I can’t answer that last question for you, but I can help with the first two. Studying worship lyrics has always fascinated me. As a teenager, I loved reading a passage of scripture and realizing it was the inspiration for a song I liked. And as I’ve gotten older, I have intentionally sought out the history and meanings behind songs that are a part of our tradition, from the most contemporary worship songs to the oldest hymns.

I want to start sharing some of that information here. It’s so easy to get caught up in lyrics that sound good, or that are set to a nice melody. I’m guilty of that as much as the next person. So I thought we could spend a little time together examining the things we say in Christian songs, and what it really means to say to those words to our Lord, so stay tuned.

But in the meantime, would you do this with me? Next time you go to church and sing worship songs, would you read the lyrics before you start singing–I mean really read them? Start asking yourself the questions above. What do these words mean? Do these words line up with the truth in the Bible, to the best of your knowledge? And most importantly, do you mean them?