From Death’s Dark Shadows

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

It’s one of the first verses many Christians memorize. It’s so clear-cut: sinners deserve death, but because of Jesus, we can receive eternal life instead. BOOM. The New Testament in a nutshell.

Yet I suspect we sometimes take its message for granted.

The Old Testament provides us with a deeper understanding of how seriously God takes sin. We see it in Adam and Eve’s dismissal from Eden; in the swift judgment dealt out to those who disobey God in Exodus; in the many kinds of sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus. God’s justice demands that sinners be prosecuted, and His people experienced that over and over — not just as something theoretical that they deserved, but as something vivid and concrete. They understood very well that the wages of sin was death.

As we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth, we would do well to consider what the Incarnation would have meant for those living under the Law.

To look back, imagining the continual sacrifices, and even the death sometimes incurred by God’s people themselves, that perpetually kept the “wages of sin” at the forefront of the Israelites’ minds.

To imagine how this way of life would produce a longing to be right with God, free from the need to constantly atone for sin through the shedding of blood.

We, of course, have the privilege of hindsight — of living under grace. But the Israelites of the Old Testament had no “flash-forwards,” no script…only cryptic messages from a smattering of prophets, hinting that God wasn’t going to always let things continue as they were.

As we remember the many dark, expectant years that preceded the coming of the Messiah, we can more fully appreciate the words of the beloved Advent hymn — and sing them with joy overflowing, because we can be FREE from the power of sin and death:

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The Best Devotional for Everybody

In a book I’m currently reading — Women of the Word — the author made the following remarks:

The preponderance of devotional material available to us bears evidence to our love for the neatly-wrapped package: a spiritual insight paired with a few verses and an application point or two. We approach our ‘time in the Word’ like the drive-through at McDonald’s: ‘I’ve only got a few minutes. Give me something quick and easy to fill me up.’

And just like that, Jen Wilkin perfectly expressed a thought I’ve been chewing on for a while and wanting to put in writing.

Friends, I love a good devotional. Maybe, like me, you devour books by Philip Yancey and C.S. Lewis. Or maybe you’re more into “Our Daily Bread.” Or perhaps you find encouragement in devotionals tailored to moms…or dads…or teenagers.

That’s fine.

But, no matter how much encouragement we find in a book about the Bible — no matter how convicting it is, or even how theologically sound it is — it does not replace time in God’s Word. In fact, I’d venture to say that the best books out there will rekindle our love for His Word and create in us a thirst to dive even more deeply into it.

Read His Word. ALL of it.

Some of it is difficult — but just do it. If it takes over a year, that’s okay; just do it. Again and again.

Because no other book holds the power that this one does.

“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:13)

Running to our Daddy’s Arms

This verse is really cool. If you’re at all familiar with it — even if you don’t have a Bible college degree or a grasp of the Aramaic language — you probably know that “Abba” is equivalent to “Daddy”; that is, it’s an intimate word referring to one’s father. Used here by Paul, it reminds us that God is not merely a paternal figure who brought us into being but remains stern, distant, and demanding; instead, He loves us dearly and desires a close, trusting relationship with us.

Pretty amazing.

But it’s even more amazing than it seems at first glance.

In Romans 7, Paul reveals his ongoing struggle with sin in great detail: “ I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do (v. 15)… For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing (v. 19)…Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (v. 21-24)”

Paul then introduces the good news: that through Jesus Christ, we are rescued from the consequences of our sin and given the Holy Spirit who renews us from within (Rom. 8:1ff). What a relief! But what about God the Father?

Ed Cyzewski describes, in his book Why We Run From God’s Love, his early understanding of salvation as it relates to our Father:

I was told as a child that I was a wicked debtor, doomed to be eternally tormented by God unless I took part in a divine transaction. I could go to court with Jesus on my side before God, the angry judge with the keys of hell jingling around his waist. Jesus paid my debt, standing by my side in the witness stand and pleading my case. I skipped out of court because Jesus thwarted God’s plans of eternal hellfire for me. It’s like Jesus became the brilliant defense attorney who figured out a way to beat the system. I wasn’t saved because of God’s love for me. I was saved because of a loophole. (emphasis mine)

Isn’t this how we sometimes think of God — especially when we sin? Either we excuse ourselves, sidestepping the issue when we do pray, but mostly praying awkwardly because of the elephant in the room…or we cower, avoiding God completely because of our shame. Regardless, what’s the last thing we want to do?

Run to Him.

Rest in His arms and confess, as David did in Psalm 51, that our sin was against Him…but that only He can give us a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us. Tell Him we’re sorry and that we love Him.

Calling Him “Abba” isn’t just for those moments when we’re around a bonfire, singing praise songs and getting that spiritual high that comes with stars and guitars and togetherness.

Or for quiet mornings with coffee and Bible and sunlight streaming through the windows.

For those moments when we just feel that deep connection with God.

We can call Him “Abba” when we’re in our darkest moments, brought on by our hardest struggles with sin. Because that’s the kind of Father He is.

How Not to be the Body of Christ

What aspects of becoming an adult have surprised you the most?

For me, several things come to mind. The amount of work that comes with home ownership; the weight of caring for a family; the way ice cream sticks to my waist like it never did when I was young and carefree.

Still, what surprises me most isn’t the new, grown-up burdens. It’s the things I always assumed would be left behind as I officially exited childhood.

Feelings of inadequacy.

Lack of autonomy.



I’ve never been “cool.” (Surprise! I’m an introverted writer with marginal physical coordination). As an elementary school student, I wondered just what it was that drew certain groups of girls to one another and what made other girls unworthy. Certainly I tried to be friendly — I’m an introvert, but I DO try — and sometimes the cool girls would even talk to me. As long, of course, as they were alone.

This bothered me less and less as, over the years, I made friends and developed a satisfactory social life. Cliques felt less personal to me. Still, observing them, I would wonder: what makes people cling to such clearly exclusive, though unofficial, groups? Why are those within them sometimes willing to talk with “outsiders” — quite naturally and pleasantly, no less — but only when other members of the clique aren’t around? Well, at least it’s temporary, I thought. By adulthood, people will have outgrown this sort of thing. Right?

Ah, the innocence of adolescence. (I know…”innocence” and “adolescence” are an unusual pairing, but I’m standing by it).

Yes: they’re pervasive. College, grad school, a teaching job, and various churches have illuminated my high-school naivete. Cliques, it seems, are as inevitable as death and taxes, and if you’re not included in them, well, so be it. You’re a grown-up. You can handle it.

But within the body of Christ, we should do better.

The theme of Christian unity flows through all of the New Testament — through the words of Jesus, through the epistles, and through the books of Acts and Revelation. True unity bears witness to the fact that those who believe in Christ are in fact His Body, doing His work in the world. Paul illustrates this in I Corinthians 12:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor…

 God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (vv. 12-14; 21-23; 24-26)

Within a local church body, believers have the opportunity to live this out. We do so by using our gifts, of course, but — let’s not forget this part — by welcoming those members of the body who hover on the edges.

It can be tremendously discouraging to try using one’s gifts within a local body, but to feel as if it’s happening in a vacuum. To serve in some capacity, to nourish those being served, to converse with those also serving…but, at the end of the day, to part ways when those who served by your side go rejoin their actual friends. To regularly see them among the same cluster of people they join on other occasions, and to realize that one conversation, or even several conversations, do not mean you’re “in”; that serving as part of Christ’s body doesn’t mean you’ll feel like part of it.

Of course, we’re grown-ups. We’ve outgrown the need to be part of the “in” crowd…right?


But should there be “in” crowds among Christians?

Obviously, we can’t all be close friends with everybody, making a giant communal color-coded calendar that allows us to rotate through different groups of people every weekend so nobody can become guilty of exclusivity. True friendships aren’t nurtured that way. And yet…what so often happens is the opposite. What so often happens looks just like high school.

And even if we well-adjusted, mature grown-ups can tell ourselves we don’t need to feel cool, let’s remember: our kids are watching us.

If our kids sense that this is how things work — that once we find “our people,” we no longer need to reach out to others — that, in fact, those who drift around by themselves are probably alone because they want to be — maybe even that their seeming preference for solitude, or their lack of resemblance to the members of a clique, mark them as “other” — then our kids will pattern their own social lives after that model.

We have a responsibility to show our kids something better.

We have a responsibility to one another to choose a different path.

Most of all, we have a responsibility towards the One who created us in His image…because until Christ returns, it is we, His church, who are tasked with showing the world what God’s love is all about.


This Word is Your Life

One of my favorite things is getting an unexpected chunk of time during the day when I realize nobody needs my attention…and I can use the time as I see fit. What a gift, right?

Well, there are times — specifically, times when life has been overwhelming and the future looks dark and I’m sure I will never, ever Get It All Done — when I can’t handle the freedom. Instead, I panic.

“I have about 30 minutes free! Should I clean something?

“No, I need a plan. Should I sit down and make a list?

“Wait, why am I acting like these things are so urgent? Shouldn’t I just catch up with a friend?

“But I’m too tired after phone calls. I should just rest!

“But I’ll feel even worse when I’m done resting because everything will still be hanging over me and then I’ll have self-loathing!”

Crazy, right? Probably. But if your inner monologue (dialogue?) is at all similar, stay with me, friend. Because I have a brilliant and original solution. Ready?!?


(I know, right?!?)

Why would I mention something so simplistic and obvious? Well, because if you’ve read this far, it probably means you’ve said the same things to yourself, and if you’ve said those things to yourself, then maybe, like me, you sometimes need to be reminded of the basics. Sure, you’re smart…but you’re human. And we humans tend to forget where our strength comes from.

When I’m overwhelmed, what I need isn’t to rely on my own (limited) strength and (dubious) wisdom to help me muscle through the challenges staring me down. What I need is to stop.

To breathe.

To open up my Bible and listen to God’s words, which are life itself, instead of listening to the self-talk that only makes me more frantic.

Now, here’s one tip: this generally isn’t the time to close your eyes, open a random page, and see where your finger lands. I’ve found that, when I’m feeling panicky, certain passages help me to re-center; to take my thoughts away from myself and back to God.

Isaiah 40 reminds me that the One who stretched out the heavens and calls the stars by name is the same One who gently leads His flock and gives strength to the weary.

The second half of Matthew 6 reminds me that my worry is futile, and that God knows my needs. (So simple…why do I forget?)

Philippians 1:6 reminds me that HE is the one who began a work in me, and that HE will be faithful to complete it. (NOTE: I often end up reading the entire book of Philippians. I just can’t get enough).

These are among my favorites — my go-to passages that turn me back towards my Creator and remind me that (a) the universe doesn’t revolve around me and (b) it also doesn’t depend on me. (Duh!) Your favorites might be different; the point is: don’t forget about them! When you’re drowning in the tangible, STOP.

Look to Him.

Listen to Him.

Meditate on who HE is instead of obsessing over how stressed YOU are.

And you just might find — as I have — that His Word was what you needed all along.

The Importance of Remembering

“Just keep moving forward. Don’t look back.”

In modern-day America, this has become a mantra. Looking back means dwelling in the past, and doing that is anathema.

Certainly, there’s some wisdom here.


But when we read the Bible, we find that, time and time again, the Israelites are exhorted to LOOK BACK. Why?

For many reasons, actually…but one stands out, and it is this: LOOKING BACK REMINDS US OF WHO GOD IS.

When the Israelites remembered what God had done, not only in their own lives but in the lives of their ancestors, they were reminded anew of God’s power, of His love, and of His faithfulness. Whatever was coming next, the stories of their past gave them courage and hope to face it. In the New Testament as well (e.g. Acts 2, Romans 4, and Hebrews 11) we see further examples of God’s people recounting God’s works.

And as Samwise Gamgee said to Frodo in The Two Towers, “We’re in the same tale still!”

The same God who spoke the universe into being; who delivered Israel from slavery; who conquered death through the resurrection of His Son: He is still working in my life and yours. I look back at my own story, at the stories of my loved ones, and at the stories of God’s servants throughout history, and find that doing so gives me new strength, new hope, and renewed awe of God’s goodness.

Look to your past. Reflect on the many ways you’ve seen God’s faithfulness and everlasting love manifested in your life and the lives around and before you.

And sing to Him a new song, for He is, indeed, greatly to be praised.

What’s So Great About Hymns?

I’m about to share something that will shock and horrify some of you, and will perplex the rest of you because the idea that it would elicit shock and horror is frankly baffling.


Horrified people, you know who you are. You are my classical music friends; the friends who consider me one of you, because I am ALSO a classical music person.

Perplexed people: please don’t conclude that classical music lovers must be complete snobs. They aren’t. (Not all of them/us). They (we) have developed a deep love for the wonderful music that has endured through the ages, and find it frustrating that, these days, so little thought is given — in some cases — to skill and artistry.

Why the startling confession? Because I’m about to discuss congregational singing, and I want to make it clear that I am not coming from the mindset that “ALL THIS NEWFANGLED MUSIC IS FROM SATAN AND CHRISTIANS ARE ONLY SUPPOSED TO SING OLD STUFF BECAUSE TRADITION!!!” As I mentioned in an earlier post, we are instructed in Psalm 33:3 to “sing to Him a new song.” (It’s the next part that often gets ignored: “play skillfully with a shout of joy”). To quote the host of a classical music program I used to listen to, “all music was once new music.”

So what’s the problem? Is there a problem?

Well, yes. Because here’s the thing: when congregations gather on Sunday mornings, singing together is a significant — and biblical — vehicle for worshiping the Lord. Singing. TOGETHER.

Hymns were (and are) written with a very specific purpose: to allow congregations to unite their voices in worshiping the Lord through music. I’d like to discuss two specific elements of hymns that facilitate this.

  1. Strophic format. This simply means that a hymn has regular verses, each one with the same tune and basic rhythm.
  2. Singable melodies. Unlike songs written for soloists, hymns generally have melodies whose pitches and rhythms are more quickly grasped due to range and regularity.

In the vast majority of evangelical churches today, “congregational” singing consists largely of the same songs one would hear when turning on Christian radio: Casting Crowns, Chris Tomlin, Laura Story, and the like. Now, to be clear: I do NOT mean to suggest that such music dishonors the Lord. As I mentioned, I truly do like some of it.


This music was written to be performed. Yes, the songwriters expect (and hope?) that their songs will make their way into churches…but the fact is that those songs are primarily intended for performance by the specific bands and singers associated with them. And music composed for soloists and bands follows different rules from that intended for congregations.

If you listen carefully to songs on the radio — Christian OR secular — you will quickly notice that the verses differ from one another. In the second verse, the last phrase might be repeated when it wasn’t repeated in Verse One. Certain parts of the melody will vary: going up instead of down, being syncopated instead of on the beat, and so forth. Now, there is nothing wrong with this! It’s part of what makes a performance interesting, and it’s not entirely unlike classical music. In fact, I’ll point out another similarity: almost every modern Christian song has a “bridge,” which consists of musical material different from both the verses and the refrain…and classical pieces, though they vary widely in form, often introduce new material before returning to the main theme.

So — you may be wondering — where’s the issue? The answer: halfway through the preceding paragraph, where I mentioned that these variations are “part of what makes a performance interesting.” 

Unless you have listened to these songs over and over and over, you will not know where the changes take place. You will find yourself accidentally singing when you’re not supposed to be, or stopping when everybody else is still singing, or singing wrong notes and worrying that you’re consequently sticking out like a sore thumb. I’ve heard such concerns dismissed with a glib “Oh, all that matters is making a joyful NOISE unto the Lord, hahaha!”…or perhaps “As long as we’re worshiping God, it doesn’t matter if we make mistakes!” Which all sounds very nice…but it’s flippant. It represents a failure to take worship seriously (see Psalm 33:3, for starters). And it ignores the fact that, during the musical portions of a worship service, many people are frustrated because, instead of uniting their voices with others in praise to the Lord, they’re mumbling their way through the songs, singing timidly if they sing at all, because a note out of place could not only be embarrassing, but detract from the experience of the surrounding worshipers. That “singing together” I emphasized earlier? Doesn’t happen.

In other words: the lack of a strophic format seriously hinders the ability of an entire congregation to unite in musical worship.

I’ve already mentioned one element that detracts from a song’s singability (by the congregation) — notably, syncopation, which refers to the occurrence of notes between beats instead of on the beats. Some old-fashioned hymnal-thumping tradition-upholding types went so far, in the past, as to suggest that syncopation was sinful (it might make us want to — gasp — DANCE!!!)

I do not think syncopation is sinful.

What I do think: syncopation is highly unpredictable and extremely likely to make for sloppy congregational singing. It’s great for solo singing, but not for the typical layperson, or at least for the person who doesn’t listen to Christian contemporary music 24/7. And it just so happens that most modern worship songs are heavy on syncopation. Moreover, the melodic range is suitable for a professional singer, but often reaches far below and above what most people can sing without vocal damage. Fun to listen to? Sure. Singable? For most people…not so much. Consequently, we end up with many congregants remaining silent for a large portion of the musical worship time — not because they lack the desire to sing to the Lord, but because they just plain don’t feel equipped to sing. The lack of rhythmic and melodic singability hinders a congregation’s ability to unite in song to the Lord.

If this all sounds extremely negative and even fatalistic, trust me: I sincerely meant what I said about the value of new music and the appeal of today’s Christian music. My concern here lies with the decline of congregational singing and why it’s occurring.

It would be unrealistic to suggest that churches everywhere throw out everything written after 1900 and shove hymnals into the hands of everybody who walks through the sanctuary doors. Truth be told, I’m well aware that today’s church faces much bigger issues, and a complete upheaval of worship music would unnecessarily cause major conflict. Still, I do believe in the importance of corporate singing, and to that end — because my observations would just be empty complaints if I had nothing constructive to say — I will briefly suggest some solutions.

  1. “Sing more hymns” is a bit too obvious, and generally unwelcome (see above); however, I’ve recently noticed an upswing in the number of songs that have a more modern “feel” but also have a strophic format. Incorporating more of these newer hymns (if you will) into a worship service would allow for more people to learn the songs and join in singing them.
  2. Whenever possible, provide the sheet music. I realize that (a) because of today’s fast-paced world, it would be unrealistic to try publishing hymnals containing the songs favored by most congregations; and (b) sometimes there are copyright issues. On several occasions, however, a new song will be introduced in my church, and the sheet music for it will be included in the bulletin. This obviously makes it much easier for musicians to learn the song quickly; moreover, quite a few non-musicians have told me that they can follow the “up and down” of a melody and learn it more quickly with the music in front of them — even if they don’t know the intervals perfectly. So do this whenever possible!
  3. Sometimes you just want to sing a Chris Tomlin song, but simply can’t provide the sheet music. In such cases, a viable option is to communicate sometime before Sunday — the sooner, the better! — which music the upcoming service will feature. Thanks to Facebook and email lists, there’s no reason not to do this, and I’ve greatly appreciated my own church’s efforts in this area. Pretty much every contemporary Christian song is on YouTube, and familiarizing myself with Sunday’s music before Sunday has enabled me (and others) to fully join my church family in musical worship.

One last word: what most discourages me about the aforementioned difficulties in true congregational singing is the exclusivity it fosters; only those who have been initiated — those who are “in” — can join in singing, while the rest are left behind. As a church, we are the body of Christ. Let’s do everything we can to worship accordingly.