Young people love liturgy, it would seem …

Here’s my quick and cursory contribution to church life in America, on this Monday morning in late 2018.

Yesterday proved a glorious Lord’s Day at Woodland, our dynamic and somewhat quirky little church in the snowy Northwoods of Wisconsin. (By this I mean that we have a church family of nearly 200 souls in a mostly disappeared rural town of 169. By 21st century church growth standards, that’s quirky, fantastical even.) In our rotation of (what is it?) seven worship teams, Scott was “up” leading with classic hymns. Gary played the organ. We dedicated little Eira Kay, looking pristine and classic in her flowing dedication dress made from her mother’s wedding dress. The elders laid hands on Dan, who  this morning is undergoing cancer surgery. The platform was dedicated in a sylvan scene with white lights and long candles, anticipating advent. The whole morning had a touch of formality; liturgy, even. (By dropping the “l” word here, I mean that the worshipping work of the people toward God took on form. That’s what the word means, anyway.) But, there was nothing fusty or traditional about it. This service moved and breathed!

Here’s my big observation, though: We had young people. Oh, my goodness, did we have young people! Young families and singles in their 20s and 30s, the so-called Millennials. (Sorry, don’t want to lump you all in together.) The young people observation wasn’t mine alone. Visitors from Chicago couldn’t believe it. “What have you got here?” What’s going on?” I was asked, in wonder and disbelief.

So, here’s my heuristic guess, my working thesis about liturgy and our newest, rising generation of church leaders. It kinda blows smoke in the faces of consultants and church growth “experts” writing and working for the so-called Boomers, the parents of the rising generation we’re seeing at Woodland.

Young people love liturgy. 

Really … In contrast to the post-institutionalism of their parents, young people want to belong to something. They like baby dedications where parents and congregation pledge in turn to preach the gospel to the growing child, to bring the child up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, to share the joyfully light load of teaching and discipling and including the child in the form of worship to God that is our liturgy. And, it would seem, young people delight in reaching back to past forms of worship that go deep and strong back to the roots of our faith in the early church that gave primary witness to Jesus and to the events of the Gospel.

That doesn’t sound like come-as-you-are, feel-good stuff to me. That sounds like material for come-and-be-changed. I like it, and I think others do to!

So, those are my thoughts before I get into the matter of the week. I’m excited about where we’re going at Woodland, and about the worship I’m sharing with my (slightly!) younger friends.

Why don’t you scroll to the bottom of this page and toss up a comment on what you’ve observed about our younger people and worship. Do you see what I’m seeing?

Have a great week!

Assurance in the Presence of God: 1 John 5.4b-18

Even as we enjoy the goodness of God’s creation on Thanksgiving Day, we’re wrapping up our 1 John study at Woodland.

We began the study several months ago by thinking about assurance, and the need we have for it. Sunday, we’ll round out our time talking about, well, assurance and what it looks like in the everyday business of our lives.

First John 5.4b-18 reminds me a bit of mincemeat pie. It’s the wrap-up to the letter that includes everything and all the themes John has been expounding to this point—obedience to God, love for brothers, right belief about who Jesus is. Toward the end of his conclusion, however, John shows us what happens when we have assurance in the presence of God (thinking of 5.13-18, in particular).

Three things happen:

First, we know we have eternal life (:13)I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. There’s a sequence in this letter that involves: hearing … believing … obeying … living and, finally, knowing. When we KNOW that our life with God is eternal and real, then we have confidence before God. We’re free to act in keeping with God’s will, and it feels rich and full and wonderful.

Second, we know we’re heard by God (:13-15). When my children ask me for a horse (not really an option on our wooded property), I try not to shut them down with the truth. Instead, I try to let them know that I hear. “I hear you … Maybe someday, but not now.” They might not be perfectly happy with my answer, but it matters that I’ve heard them. John Stott says of these verses that “Asking according to God’s will is the qualification for answered prayer.” We might not get what we want, but we can be content that we’re heard. And, as we learn to depend on God, we can learn to bend our wills around His, not try to bend His will around ours.

Finally, we bring life to other believers (:16-18). Read over verses 16-18, would you? There’s two sins here that require explanation.

There’s the sin that doesn’t lead to death. If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life … (:16). This is a sin committed by a real believer who believes that Jesus is the Christ. The brother who has confidence in God’s presence leads his erring brother or sister to Jesus who serves as advocate who everyone who confesses his or her sins. In this way, the confident Christian becomes a life-giver to her insecure brother or sister.

There’s also a sin that leads to death. There is a sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. This sin is a categorical denial that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh. Like the false teachers described in John’s letter who deny that Jesus is Christ born in the flesh (1 John 2.19) , these brothers or sisters can’t simply confess a sin and be saved, because they don’t believe rightly in Jesus Christ who can save them. This is not a sin characteristic of true believers, however, since, We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on keeping, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him (:18).

Important is that assurance is not just internal, personal and subjective. It’s outward and social. Assurance in the presence of God looks like something to others. And …

Assurance in the presence of God comes by belief in Jesus the Christ. 

Now, with that closing word from 1 John, I’m more excited than ever to celebrate Jesus’ birth at Advent. Truly, the Son of God has come in the flesh. Let’s prepare our hearts!

Here’s a few questions to consider with others:

Where do you most struggle with confidence before God? 

What about John’s teaching in this letter gives you the most courage?

Thinking of John’s three tests (obedience to God, love for brothers, right belief about Jesus), where have you seen these proofs in somebody you know well? Do you think it might be encouraging for you to mention this to him or her? 

Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

Giving Thanks to Jesus: Luke 17.11-19

This week we enter our celebration of a favorite holiday of mine. (Toss out a comment to guess my very favorite, if you want to …)

Thanksgiving has mostly defied commercialization. It’s subdued, understated, contemplative, and is basically a celebration about what we really need. And that’s where I, as a Jesus-follower, begin to think through my proper response to the holiday.

Luke 17.11-19 helps. In a holiday featuring turkey and sesame seed gravy, cranberries and my mother’s special pea-salad that I make each year, this passage is about leprosy.

Jesus met ten lepers in his travels toward Jerusalem. They recognized Jesus (:11-13) They hailed Him from a distance, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!

Why the distance? Under the Mosaic Covenant, the name “leprosy” served to described a whole host of skin diseases that included Hanson’s Disease (so-called in the 19th century), as well as ringworm and lupus. Some varieties were contagious, others not so much; some forms were temporary, others permanent. In the old covenant system of the nation of Israel, the priest (the religious figure!) was to examine anyone suspected of leprosy and prescribe a waiting period before the suspected would be permitted to re-enter society (Leviticus 13-14). The person might recover. But if the disease proved leprous, the person wold be pronounced unclean and removed from civil society, living perhaps in a leper colony outside the village. Skin would become infected. Nerves would die. Numb fingers would become burned or injured. Digits would fall off. The leper would die.

But, more than a dread physical disease, leprosy meant social isolation and separation from formal worship with God’s people in the temple. As such, leprosy became a picture of sin and its ravaging results—the numbness of the human heart as it dies to the things of God; separation from God, and, finally eternal death.

Happy Thanksgiving! … But, wait.

Despite the distance between them, these ten lepers received from Jesus (:14). Upon hearing them, Jesus shouted, Go and show yourselves to the priests. 

There’s an irregularity we can’t miss here. Jesus chooses to operate under the Mosaic Covenant. He’s following Leviticus 13-14 to perfection, in prescribing the cleansing ritual. But, the wrinkle is that the suspected leper would undergo cleansing after the skin had healed. And, the priest was to initiate the ritual. You didn’t just walk into the temple with leprosy.

Verse 14b tell us what happened. And as they went they were cleansed. Got that? While they were in the act of obeying Jesus, the ten lepers received not just healing but religious cleansing that made them right for full integration into society. They were cleaned without the ritual, without the ceremonial washings and sacrifices, without a priest even.

One changed man responds giving thanks to Jesus in faith (:15-19). Nine lepers gave thanks, I’m sure. They gave so much thanks that they ate turkey, took naps in their favorite recliners and then watched the Dallas Cowboys at 3:00 on CBS. They gave thanks, in general. But, did they give thanks to Jesus?

Verse 15-16a tells us: Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks …

Notice how the distance has collapsed. No more shouting from afar. No more social isolation, priests and religious rituals. This man has come to Jesus in thanks! And Jesus commends him: Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well (:19).

That’s my Thanksgiving Day message from this passage. I’m to go right to Jesus Himself with my thanks.

This Thanksgiving my proper response to God’s good gifts is thanksgiving directed to Jesus and offered in faith. 

How about you? What will be your response in faith to God’s good gifts this Thanksgiving?

Like the TEN, we’re all lepers and we need to be restored—to God and to one another. Like the TEN we’re distant from God, and we need to be brought near. Like the ONE we receive what we truly need only by faith and only in Jesus.

And then we need to run to Jesus! 

So, my suggestion. Do it up at Thanksgiving! … Family, friends, favorite fixings. Make Thanksgiving big. But, make Jesus bigger! If Jesus hadn’t made it to the cross, we’d still be in our leprosy. He went to the cross, so let’s focus our gratitude and give thanks, to Jesus and in faith!


Here’s a few questions to get you talking with others:

What about Thanksgiving do you just love? 

How do those things that you love about Thanksgiving point you to Jesus’ work on the cross? (For example, I love family which involves belonging and togetherness. Jesus’ work at the cross brought me together with God and other people who love Him. I need to give thanks to Jesus by faith to Jesus for family that is from Him.)

How will you go about sharing your thanksgiving to Jesus with those who don’t yet “get” the significance of Jesus’ work and are only giving thanks in general?

Have a blessed Thanksgiving, in Jesus and by faith …


Overcoming the World: 1 John 4.1-6

Have you ever been in a group and heard someone say something that you know can’t be right? Like: …

“… I know I can’t afford the payments on this truck, but I think God wants me to have it; so, I’ll buy it.” Or …

“I know God wants me to stay in this marriage, but I believe He wants me to be happy too; so, I’m getting out.” Or …

“I know God doesn’t heal everybody, but I’ve had a dream that He’s going to take my cancer away; so, I’m trusting in that promise.”

How do we know that what we’re hearing and thinking and believing and basing our decision-making on comes from God?

In his first epistle, Apostle John has been giving us tests for our assurance that we belong to God. First John 4.1-6 includes another of the Tests of Right Belief about Jesus. And while we need to tie into what was going on in first century Christianity to understand the passage, John’s idea is immediately relevant to us every day. It involves decision-making that is dependent on Jesus, not on the world’s way of thinking.

Make Jesus big in my decision-making (:1-3). John’s instruction starts with a command: … test the spirits to see whether they are from God (:1). This is a picture of early church worship that would involve singing from the Psalms, reading in and instruction from what we call the Old Testament, readings form the Apostles (what became the New Testament) and a time of prophecy and testimony where believers could spontaneously and under the direction of the Spirit give testimony to what God was doing. Imagine now, if someone were to stand up and say, “The Spirit has revealed to me that Jesus was only a man who became the Christ, and we can become christs like Jesus, if we …” (fill in your blank).

Here’s the test for such an occasion, John says: By this you will know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of antichrist … (:2-3)

The critical message, as we might translate it, is: “Jesus has come from God as the Christ”.  Jesus is God who took on flesh. Jesus is not flesh who took on God. Every teaching that misses Jesus as God and teaches you to depend on something else is not from God!

This is much more than a history lesson for us. There are two world and life views at work here. The World System says, “We need to do something to perfect ourselves so that we will get God’s blessing. The Jesus-Centered, Overcoming-the-World System says, “We are blessed because of Jesus and what God has done and is doing through Him, and we depend on Him.”

Jesus said that we’d be able to identify the true Spirit of God because the Spirit would point to the Son: But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, he will bear witness about me (Jn 15.26).

So, just like the Spirit of God, we’re to magnify Jesus. We’re to make Jesus big in all our listening and learning and thinking and decision-making. In so doing, we (along with Jesus, Jn 16.33) overcome the world and its thought systems. This is practical stuff. It will involve believing things like:

“I know there a good reasons to buy a truck, but debt makes me a slave, and I already have a Master in Jesus; so, believing in Jesus as the Christ matters in my finances.” Or, …

“I know marriage can be hard, but we learn to depend on God through hard times; so, believing in Jesus as the Christ matters in my marriage.” Or, …

“I know God heals, but He hasn’t promised physical healing in this life; so, believing in Jesus as the Christ matters as I endure suffering without losing my faith.”

Decision-making that overcomes the world magnifies Jesus as the Christ.

What decisions are you making right now?

How would you make these decisions according to the World System that values the world’s economy in this passing-away now-time? 

Now, how would you make these decisions in a way that agrees with the Spirit of God and magnifies Jesus? 

Have a talk with somebody about your decisions. And have a great week in the Lord.

Sacrificial Love: 1 John 3.11-24

Recently, our Woodland youth received a chance to serve. When a prominent community member was diagnosed with cancer, our kids (with adult supervision) turned up to cut, split and stack a pulp load of firewood. (That’s 12 face cords, also called “ricks” here in the Midwest). The turnout so impressed our neighbor that he called the local paper which ran a story. “A Great Place to Live,” the caption read.

I like that.  But I hope there’s a little more going on here. Far from a place where people just serve each other randomly, there is sacrificial love taking place up here in the woods. And, it turns out, sacrificial love is one of Apostle John’s tests of assurance we read about in 1 John 3.11-24.

According to the old apostle, sacrificial love issuing from our relationship with God is critical for our assurance that we belong to God.

Sacrificial love assures (:11-18). This is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. John is certainly thinking about Jesus’ teaching on love in John 13.34. In that passage, Jesus is teaching His disciples at the end of His ministry and just before His death. He’s speaking as one who has kept the Old Testament law perfectly and will now credit His perfect law-keeping to those who depend on Him. And more, Jesus will enable His followers to love with the same kind of love with which He loved them. That’s us today! When we love like Jesus we demonstrate that the content of the Gospel has moved from our minds to our inner persons.

John wants us to know more about this heart-change and what sacrificial love looks like, so he lists five things about sacrificial love in this section:

  1. Sacrificial love will be opposed by the world (:12-13). Cain, in the true account from Genesis 4, proves to be the original example. He murdered his brother because he was angry with God for rejecting his sacrifice.  Abel, his brother, had brought his own sacrifice “in faith” (Hebrews 11). So goes the world. We’ll be opposed, if we love like Jesus, because Jesus is opposed (Jn 15.18).
  2. Sacrificial love evidences life (:14-15). We evidence life when we sacrifice, because this is the oppose of hate, which Jesus compares to murder (Matt 5.21-22). Love embraces our brother; hatred involves wishing our brother weren’t present.
  3. Sacrificial love originates with Jesus (:16). By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. This is the heroic sacrifice of Jesus, the most important event ever, and it is a kind of sacrifice that reoccurs through His people through the ordinary business of Christian service.
  4. Sacrificial love looks like practical kindness (:17). But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? These verses don’t say that we give in the same way to everybody. They don’t say we do only one kind of ministry. They do say we don’t “close our hearts” toward anybody.
  5. Sacrificial love is revealed not through talk but action (:18).

Easy, right? Let’s all go out and sacrifice for each other! But, it doesn’t work that way, does it? It so happens that my heart, yet in process as it is, sometimes doesn’t want to give up my time, money, hobbies and energy. Sometimes, I think people should do more for themselves. I might be right about that, but I’m not to “close” my heart.

Sacrificial love overcomes my reluctant heart and gives me confidence before God (:19-24). The rest of the passage tells me how God helps me when my heart is weak.

God helps me when I don’t want to love (:19-20). By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 

These verses make more sense when we understand that “reassure” (ESV) or “set to rest” (NIV) might better be translated “persuade or convince”. This is the reading of both the New English Translation and Holman Standard. Basically, this is describing what it looks like when I’m trying to serve but I don’t really want to. The language is probably from Deuteronomy 15.7-12 where the Israelites were told not to be stingy with their brothers. There’s going to be times when I need God to overcome my heart that, sometimes, opposes His work. God proves greater than my doubts and knows my struggles.

God blesses me when I do love (:21-22). When our hearts come clean with God, we have confidence before God. We receive what we ask of Him, because we ask according to His will, because we’re living in it by obedience.

God grows my confidence when I obey (:23-24). The benefits of of obedience are abiding in God and being assured that we belong to God by the Spirit He has given us. In other words, growing in assurance.

Loving sacrificially like Jesus grows our assurance that we belong to God. 

How about you? Is there somebody in your life God is asking you to love in a sacrificial way? When you do, you’ll participate in the life of God and see your assurance grow as your love increases.

Take a minute to answer a few questions:

How is the sacrifice of the world different from the sacrifice of God’s people?

What are some excuses that we sometimes use not to love each other sacrificially? How many of these excuses are particularly American? 

Was there ever a time when you hesitated to sacrifice for another believer but then finally did? What happened? How did you change? 

How has God used your own works of sacrificial love to increase your assurance of your own salvation?