Abide with Me

The Christmas season is, to borrow the cliché, the most wonderful time of the year. It is filled with opportunities for families to reunite. It is a chance to break out of the drudgery of our everyday routine. The Advent season is a time when we are reminded of hope, joy, peace, and love, and that Christ is Emmanuel—God with us.

Christmas can also be difficult. It can be hard to feel welcome to express anything other than joy and happiness. Whether due to financial troubles, the death of a loved one (recent or long past), or something else entirely, the holidays can be discouraging and challenging. It can be hard to feel like Christ is with us.

I write this in the midst of the death of my grandmother. During this time, it is hard to find language for grief. It’s Christmas time, and Christ’s birth is on everyone’s mind, but the pain is real. However, the hymn “Abide with Me,” written by Henry Francis Lyte in 1847, provides helpful words. I love this sobering hymn with deep passages. It is a beautiful poem and has a wonderful tune. It was actually written and revised at the threshold of Lyte’s death. While this hymn is most often used in the church calendar around Lent or Pentecost, I believe it also has a place during Advent and Christmas time. It invites the worshiper to express hurt.

(The Brigham Young University’s men choir performance of Abide with Me is a beautiful arrangement which allows for meditating on the lyrics and allows the listener to freely contemplate.)

“Abide with Me”

Verse 1
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

Verse 2
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away
Change and decay in all around I see
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Verse 3
I need your presence every passing hour
What but your grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like yourself my guide and strength can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.

Verse 4
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness
Where is death’s sting?
Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Verse 5
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies
Haven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee
In life, in death, o Lord, abide with me.

Lyte writes for an occasion like a family’s first gathering after hardship. It has given language for grief as my family works through the death of my grandmother, and speaks to anyone who has painful memories or difficult situations arise during the holidays. No matter what is happening for you this Christmas, Lyte’s words can speak to you.

Take, for example, “Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou, who changest not, abide with me!” It is a line that is entirely destitute. There have been many times in my life when I realized that everything was different. The passing of my grandmother has certainly been one of them. It has affected everyone in the family, it has changed family dynamics, and it can be a hard reality to grasp, but a reality we have to come to terms with eventually.

The words, “The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide!” is a cry for help amongst grief and pain. It is a cry to feel the presence of God. Even if you aren’t dealing with having financial struggles, hurt among family, or a family member’s death, the holidays and Christmas is a busy time, and it can be hard to know and feel the presence of God. The hymn is a constant prayer for the Divine to be near and stand beside us.

What seems most important is how the hymn centers the singer with the Divine, and gives an assurance of faith. At the end of verse 3, Lyte writes, “Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.” Even though we are surrounded by death, heartbreak, and sorrow, we have assurance through Christ, our Lord. Through darkness, tears, and hardship, Christ stays the same. Through light, joy, and good times, Christ abides with us.


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Slowing Down

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

Matthew 6:25-34, NIV

 

When Jesus was talking to his disciples, he told them not to worry, and he uses the birds of the air as an illustration. This passage is not often thought of as a passage about worship, but it actually is. One of the key points in this passage is the first word of verse 26. Jesus said, “Look.” To look or consider something requires us to take time, and when we take time to slow down, we become centered.

 

Taking time to look, consider, or observe is crucial in a person’s worship and spiritual life. Without that, it is like looking at the world through a pinhole. It is hard to see the beauty because of all the things happening, but when a person slows down, they can see all the things they can be grateful for. It is a good step in developing a healthy spiritual life.

 

Life can easily become overwhelming. This is no mystery. Without realizing it, our days can be filled up with commitments and appointments. This is especially the case with the holidays. Thanksgiving just flew passed us, and now Christmas and New Years are fast approaching. It can be hard to take time to consider the birds and the lilies, but taking time each day to simply be, can change an overwhelming life into an encouraging one. This can look different from person to person. For me, I spend time each day praying around a prayer rope. This helps me to slow down and focus on God. Slowing down is unique to each individual, but it only takes a little time to just look around.


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The Psalms & Lament

The book of Psalms is not merely a deeply theological collection; it is an example – a handbook – of how we can worship. Filled with myriad examples of sorrow and joy that are all lent toward God.
 
Psalm 95 is an expressive example of how vibrantly full of worship the book is. It is a Psalm with great refrains of doxology. It calls us into worship, and it tells the story of God.
 
 
6 O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!                                               7 For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,                                                                                                                 and the sheep of his hand. (Psalm 95:6-7, NRSV)
 
 
There are many kinds of psalms; you can break them into ‘genres’ or ‘categories.’ It helps to understand each Psalm in a new way when you separate them. Just as music is labeled in order to give the listener an initial awareness. There are Psalms of Thanksgiving and Covenant Psalms. Along with Wisdom Psalms and Torah Psalms. These are common and helpful identifiers when reading the book of Psalms.
 

The Psalms listed above we are quite familiar with, but there are also Psalms of Lament. Lament Psalms take up quite a large portion of the book. It is important to consider all the different genres as we develop our understanding of scripture and worship, but often the laments are overlooked. They have a tendency to make us uncomfortable, but as the Psalmist cries, “How long, O God?” We too can cry out to God in our anguish. A perfect example of a lament Psalm is Psalm 13:

 

1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, 4 and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. 5 But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6 I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:1-6, NRSV)

 

In Psalm 13, we see despair, fear, and pain—among other things. The genre of lament can be complicated, and it is more complex than this short blog could hope to cover. If you examine the passage above, you’ll find there is a praise at the end. Even though the Psalmist is in deep sorrow, there is a shift to praise in verses 5 and 6. The heart of worship is praise, but we cannot forget that there is pain in this life.
 
It is important to note that lament is not simply an Old Testament concept. Jesus, himself, wept for the death of Lazarus (John 11:35). John does not tell us in his Gospel what Jesus said or anything specific except for the fact that he wept. The lack of description leaves a certain degree of emptiness for the reader. The lack of description depicts the pain. By only saying two words, John creates a genuine, deep sense of mourning and of lament.
 
There may be some who would argue that Jesus discouraged lament. In Luke 8:52, Jesus tells the parents of a dead child not to weep or lament. From the surface, one could come to the conclusion that he was discouraging the practice of lament, but Jesus was about to bring resurrection and hope. He was not attempting to chastise them for crying. Jesus understands lament, but he is in the midst of pain bringing hope. It wasn’t a rebuke against lament, sadness, or the pain they felt. It was encouragement of hope and resurrection.
 
The book of Psalms, as well as the whole Bible, is filled with celebration, praise, wonder, and awe, but it is also filled with lament, sadness, and pain. Authentic worship gives praise to God, and it is free to encompass all parts of life. God is present with us. God celebrates with the community and cries with the community, His followers. This is the blessed assurance we have. God is with us in the joy and the pain. As the book of Psalms shows, God is not uncomfortable with our pain, but is there at work in it.
 

As we continue to walk through what worship is, we are defining worship, and we are continually seeing a broader, fuller view of worship that is formative. By adding lament into a personal spiritual practice, we can connect with God and worship God in new ways as we develop our relationship with the God of love. But how do we start implementing this kind of practice? A good starting point would be to read through the lament Psalms and pray through the experience. It is important to understand that we are not the audience of worship, whether in private or corporate worship. God, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, is the audience. God is bigger than us and is with us as we go through life.


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God Creates Beauty

As I look out of my office window, admiring the changing colors of the leaves, it reminds me of how incredible God’s creation is. Everything and every action in God’s creation has a purpose. The tree, in order to protect itself for winter, stops producing the chemical which is needed to form budding green leaves. The leaves, lacking the proper nutrients, change colors and eventually die. The dead leaves on the ground act as a nutrient to the soil, and a source of food to the tree roots neatly tucked away just under the surface of the ground. This entire process, is triggered by one event: the shortened days and longer nights. What a beautiful and amazing thing.

 

God doesn’t reserve the beauty exclusively for nature, He creates it in our lives as well. The Apostle Paul writes, “28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28, NIV). Like the tree in nature, God has a way of creating beauty in a seemingly inclement season.

 

From the beginning of time, God has created order out of chaos. The author of Genesis tells us that with a few verbal commands, God turned a dark formless void into this vast, incredible universe we have today (1:1-31). If God can create this vast complex universe with just spoken word, imagine what He can do in our lives.

 

Inevitably, we will come to a point in our lives that seems dark, without shape, and void. The good news; God can take that darkness and shape it into something beautiful. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, God has paved a way for us to experience the most beautiful life possible. The power of Christ has opened the door to eternal joy. As we call on the name of Christ, God begins a restoration process in our lives (1 Peter 5:10). He prepares us for the impending “winter months” and stands with us during the storms.

 

So, as I stare out of my office window, I see more than the beautiful colors of the changing leaves. I see all of the times God has protected and stood by me during my “winter months”. As a challenge, I urge you to just sit, spend some time admiring God’s creation and reflect and all the beauty He has created in your live.


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Prayer and Worship

Prayer is essential in a Christian’s life. Without prayer, it becomes empty with no connection to God. Prayer and worship are closely knit. They are inseparable. Worship is a prayer. Prayer is an act worship. It is possible to have one without the other, but they both quickly become lacking in depth when on their own. Worship quickly becomes about things it truly isn’t meant to be, and prayer turns into an empty routine.

Although we often don’t want to admit this, we have a tendency to view prayer as the currency for God’s vending machine. If we put the right amount of money in, press the right buttons then we can get whatever we want. Maybe we’ll even get some change back too. This isn’t the Biblical understanding of prayer, and it certainly is not the model Jesus showed us. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, He gave them the Our Father prayer which is found in Matthew 6:9-13 (NRSV)
 
9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread
12 And forgvie us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial 
but rescue us from the evil one.

 

The whole prayer is about centering ourselves with God’s will. It is about relying on God. What did Jesus teach us about prayer? Prayer is aligning our hearts with God’s own heart. God’s heart is constant, and through prayer, we are reminded our way is not God’s way.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, we are told to pray without ceasing. Prayer is a journey we take, and it connects us with God. This is why we are never done praying.

Speaking to His approaching death, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done. (Matthew 26:42, NRSV).” Jesus, being fully God and fully man, realized the importance of aligning with God’s heart. Once again, ultimately seeking for our hearts to be aligned with God is what prayer is all about. The end result of prayer and worship ought to bring out less of us and more of God. As we align our hearts with God’s, we are reminded of the other, and we learn to say, “Your will be done not mine.”


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The Perfect Worship Service

When it comes to music, everyone has an opinion. Worship has the power to draw people closer together. It can build a bridge between differences in race, gender, age, etc. It also can cause division. It can drive a wedge between whole churches. It can create an “us vs. them” divide. In light of this fact, this month I want to share a fun excerpt from Tom Kraeuter’s book, Guiding Your Church Through a Worship Transition.
 
 

The Perfect Worship Service

            After listening carefully over the past several years, we believe we have finally determined what those who attend our church really want in music. Following are the items that come up most frequently whenever this topic is discussed:

  • More fast songs in the opening praise time and more slow songs in the opening praise time
  • More of those wonderful, lovely old hymns and less of those stupid, dead old hymns
  • A longer and shorter time of praise at the beginning of the service, and a shorter and longer time at the end
  • Songs to flow quickly into each other and long periods of time between songs for reflection
  • More repetition of songs so they can be learned and meditated upon while singing, and less repetition of songs because it gets boring singing the same thing over and over
  • More of those lovely arrangements with extra instruments and less of those showy arrangements with all those instruments
  • To sing the good old songs more often and to stop always singing those same old songs
  • Songs to be sung in higher and lower keys
  • The band to play in the middle of the platform where they can be seen, back behind the plants where they won’t be a distraction, louder, softer, faster, slower, more often, and not all

 

Grace and peace,
Daniel Hazel
 
Source:
Guiding Your Church Through a Worship Transition by Tom Kraeuter

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Pastors’s Corner

Christian A Schwarz, a globally recognized expert on church health, states “…many people confuse the (constantly changeable) structures of the church with its (unchangeable) essence. Therefore, they are not able to view structures as means to an end. Rather, they strive to maintain the structures as they have always been.”

How true. In the U.S. this year, well over 4,000 churches will close their doors. An even staggering figure, over 50 percent of the churches in the U.S. will not add any members by conversion (Barna Group). What does this mean? We are “doing church” the wrong way. The ‘structures’ that were relevant 40, 30 or even 15 years ago, are not relevant today. Younger generations are not following in the footsteps of their elders. Days of going to church because it’s what we’ve always done are over.

Speaking at the 2017 North American Christian Convention, consultant and generational expert Hayden Shaw stated, ‘for the first time, we are experiencing 4 generations in the church and we are trying to be all things to all generations…and failing miserably’. If we look at the beginnings of the church, we can see their strategy was to reach the lost and strengthen the saint. But if you read deep into the context of the Pauline epistles and Acts, you will see their methodology was to do whatever it took to minister the gospel to all who were willing to listen. Many churches today have lost the essence of the church. They have committed to inward growth but largely neglect the unchurched around them. Hence, the decline of the neighborhood church.

Growth will only come one way, through change and constant evaluation. We should be relatable to the younger generations, while still serving and growing the older generations. Our look must be relevant, our programming/music/structures should be attractive and our community outreach efforts should be direct and pointed (changeable structures). However, our message and reason for existing (unchangeable essence of the church) will always remain the same.

Jesus never said the church will establish and be comfortable. What he did say was cast the net on the other side of the boat, and I’ll take care of the fish (John 21). So let’s join together in casting our net on the opposite side of the boat. Let’s unite in one common purpose of reaching the unchurched and the lost. And I can guarantee, Jesus will do the rest.


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What Is Worship

Psalm 66:4 says, “the earth worships you and sings praises to you; they sing praises to your name.” Nature sings praises to the Creator, Yahweh. Creation worships God. And similarly, so do we as people. Humans and creation both praise the Creator. It reminds me of a professor I had that would consistently describe worshiping as “experiencing God.” To put it another way, worship is our response to experiencing God. This is powerful. This is meaningful.
 
This
 
Is
 
Important.
 
So what are we talking about when we talk about worship? Realizing that worship is our response to God should change how we talk about worship. It means worship is not confined to our humanness. Worship is rooted in scripture. In the Old Testament, the writers often speak of singing to and exalting the name of God (1 Chronicles 16:23-31 and Psalm 99). Worship is something we do because it is a part of us. And because it is part of us, worship is intertwined with our lives. Worship is not confined to certain moments, it is found in our dark and light days. This means worship can be found in lament and praise.
 
Worship is about aligning our hearts with the Creator of all things. This requires less of us and more of God. In the song, Heart of Worship, Matt Redman articulates this perfectly. He writes,
 
“I’ll bring you more than a song
For a song in itself
Is not what you have required
You search much deeper within
Through the way things appear
You’re looking into my heart”
 
God is continually searching and looking deeper than the surface (1 Samuel 16:7). God is not only looking for songs. God is looking for hearts that are fully abandoned and ready to be used to further the kingdom of heaven. God wants a life that is striving to be aligned with God’s will. God wants lives of worship. Worship is thoroughly entangled in our spirit. Worship that permeates the aperture of our mundanity. That is what worship is. Doesn’t that make you excited? It should, and I hope it does. The best part is that this is only the beginning, the surface, level 1, of what worship is.
 
Grace and peace,
Daniel Hazel

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