During my teenage years, I was in church almost every night. It was a better place to be than home, where chaos ruled and supervision was lacking. Church gave me a loving God, caring adults, funny friends, and a place to be me–just me. It gave me a place away from my family, away from school, away from everything–but close to God. I could focus on His plans for me and His plans for my life.
I loved it.
Now, though, as an adult approaching fifty, my family has been drifting away from the church. Church has been hard because it’s been difficult to be around people. Some days we don’t want to talk, other days we do. Sometimes it’s just hard to sit still and listen and not do. Our minds wander too much when our hands are not busy.
I have a lot of Christian friends–friends who are smart and holy. Like me, they post a lot on Facebook because we live in South Georgia where there’s not a lot to do. These well-read people post interesting things–and one recent fad seems to be writing articles about the theology of worship and whether or not contemporary Christian songs are even Christian at all. So, now, when I’m at church and hear songs like “Oceans” or “10,000 Reasons,” rather than using them to focus on God, I think of Facebook articles I read about the “ad nauseam repetition” and whether the songwriters are truly Christians.
Not only do I have to wonder whether my clothes are appropriate, whether I’m sitting in someone else’s pew, whether I was polite enough to the old lady who greeted me so nicely in the narthex–now, I have to wonder whether Matt Redman is theologically sound.
My father-in-law always says that too much information is a bad thing. I think the current emphasis on worrying so much about so many things–the lighting, the sound of the drums, whether ear plugs are necessary, what kind of coffee to get, set decorations, the ambience, and, now, the theology of lyricists–all of these things distract from the one thing that we all need most in every church, and that is the presence of the Lord.
By obsessing over so many things that do not matter–and so many things do not matter–we are losing sight of the things that do. It is easier to read ten articles on Facebook about Christianity than to read one page of the Bible. It is easier to post six scriptural illustrations than to show Christian kindness to one person who smells really bad. And it is easier to psychoanalyze songwriters than to look at our own hearts and see our filthy rags–our hearts made righteous only by Christ.
I really don’t know when everything became an ordeal and nothing could be simple anymore. Maybe our parents also felt this way and had these struggles–I don’t know–but I don’t think church has to be hard. Church doesn’t have to be a place where we dwell on all the wrong or, conversely, pat ourselves on the back for all the right that we do. Church is a refuge, a place where we are safe and we can forget about this world and how lousy life can be and focus on God, who heals and restores.
One summer day in 2001, I sat in a hospital conference room desperately praying with a Jewish woman as her husband was dying. Later that month, I held another hysterical friend in the moments after her own husband died. In both instances, my prayers were very repetitive. I prayed very simply because life had been stripped to its core.
Perhaps some praise and worship songs come from such places of simple truth.
When Greg was flighting his third cancer, as I walked through the house one day, I heard, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus.” And then I realized I was saying that. Those were my words. My spirit man was crying out repetitively. The need for prayer was so great that it was coming forth, that it was filling the house even though I was in a wretched state, beyond prayer myself.
God was there. God was present. In my distress, He came to me.
I think people who parse lyrics, who search for nuance and subtext and sin, who subject them to “The Berean Test” and numerically rank their theology miss this: God can use anything, anyone. God can touch and heal at will, using tools that you and I would not understand or approve of.
Because He’s God.
After my granddaughter was stillborn, missing part of her skull, missing her leg, after our world was destroyed and there was nothing but loss and sorrow, every single day I spent my entire planning period listening to “He Knows My Name” and “Didn’t I Walk on Water” on a loop–those two Joseph Larson songs over and over. Their strong reminders of God’s love and presence allowed me to function.
When I Googled their singer, I found a site that talked about his alleged marijuana use and labeled him a “lascivious fornicator.” For a second, I thought I couldn’t listen to his songs anymore. I thought it would be wrong of me, to choose to listen to a “bad” person.
And then I remembered that we are all, at our cores, bad people–there are none righteous. There are none good.
Christ is, truly, for all of us, our only hope. We may rank sins, forgiving some and condemning others, but our judgment is only an attempt to soothe our own souls. The truth is, I don’t know the hearts of Joseph Larson or Matt Redman or Lauren Daigle. I don’t know if they are singing for God or mammon. I don’t know if they have drug problems or are squeaky clean. But I do know that, through Christ, God can use them no matter their sins.
Have you ever stood in a church service and sung “Awesome God” in a loud, true chorus with everyone singing as one? Wasn’t it wonderful? You felt either complete or strengthened. You were pushed forward in your faith.
On Pinterest, you can choose your “Awesome God” imagery. There is Jesus holding the world in his hands; there are men and women with their hands upraised; there is a small child in a snow cap; there is a woman in a field–and all of these images declare, “Our God is an Awesome God.”
The song-turned-catchphrase was written by Rich Mullins, who also wrote another, less well-known song entitled “Hold Me, Jesus.”
He wrote it when he was in Amsterdam, where everything was legal, and where he was tempted by sin–even though he was a contemporary Christian artist who knew better.
He was so tempted.
Of that time, he stated, “You think you’re getting somewhere, you think you’re growing as a Christian . . . and all of the sudden, you’re in a situation where you go, ‘I am just as susceptible as I was when I was 16 to a lot of things.”
When I was sixteen and susceptible, what resonated with me about Mullins’ music was that it sounded true. The faith that he presented was accessible and human, not mysterious and complicated. His self-acceptance helped me then, and it helps me now.
He is right to say: “Whether or not I like who I am, that is who I am . . . People are gonna judge you, and there are I think actually people who look for excuses to condemn you and look for excuses to say bad things about you, but God doesn’t look for those kinds of excuses . . . the conclusion of the matter for me was that I think I would rather live on the verge of falling and let my security be in the all-sufficiency of the grace of God than to live in some kind of pietistic illusion of moral excellence. Not that I don’t want to be morally excellent. But my faith isn’t in the idea that I am more moral than anybody else: my faith is in the idea that God and His love are greater than whatever sins any of us commit.”
I live on the verge of falling. I live among people whom I fail every day, who list my shortcomings in a litany, a continual screed of my inadequacies and failures. For some of them, I will never be enough.
Yet in spite of my flaws, through Christ, I can write this blog.
In spite of his failings, Rich Mullins wrote powerful Christian anthems.
Because in our miry pits, places from which we desperately need comfort and rescue, we know our only hope is Him.
We know that God and His love are greater than sin. Than my sin. Than your sin. Than our sin.
These days, there are few things in our adult world that make us want to “take a lap.” To get up and run and dance and shout for joy. Church, in my opinion, should be a time to focus on that amid such rubble and ash.
God’s grace is a shoutable thing.
We know how awesome that is.