He’s an award-winning speaker, emcee, writer, and musician, moonlighting as half of the hip-hop duo The Iccsters (pronounced ‘icksters’) and director of worship at Irvington Covenant Church.
June 17th, 2011
Tye Tribbett, Fresh, “Only Help”
So I’m going through some things.
Like, the kind of “going through” that you might hear from one of the saints who’s been around the block a few times and is waiting on the Lord to get their breakthrough… that kind of “going through.”
One of the things I’ve noticed is that when I’m going through something big, or maybe not even anything that’s a super-big deal, but if I’m just in a bad mood or whatever, the music I’m playing tends to fall into one of two camps.
1.) I’m really not doing okay and I want to listen to something languid and full of melancholy and ennui that expresses a measure of the blah feeling that is plaguing me… or,
2.) I’m going to be a grown-up, practice what I preach as a professional Christian and worship-leader-type, and listen to something that will encourage me and/or help me to worship, despite whatever I happen to be feeling.
Many times I’m quite aware that the right thing to do, the thing that will promote the most edification and be the best for me long-term is option number 2, but sometimes I just can’t stand doing option number 2, because sometimes it just feels so doggone FAKE. It’s like, no… I don’t feel like being a happy, shiny, good Christian. My life sucks right now, and *I* suck right now, and I feel like garbage, so I’m not trynna hear all that bless-the-Lord crap.
Into the void comes, “Only Help,” this tune by Tye Tribbett, from his 2010 release, “Fresh.”
I love it because when it starts out, it’s a great confessional tune. Like David the psalmist laying his soul bare before the Lord, Tye holds nothing back:
I can almost tell you each time I’m gonna fall
Devil always paint the same picture, sweet frame and all
I wanna change
And you would think by now I’d catch the scenario
Sorta like a old sitcom playing the same show
I wanna change
I’m listening to this and I’m like yep… that’s me. THAT’S ME. *I* feel that way, yes, thank you. Thank you for voicing these feelings!
But he doesn’t stop there. As a response to his own futility and brokenness, a desperate plea of praise and adoration wafts out…
I lift my hands to You
You’re my only help.
And just like that, Tye Tribbett has done what few songs can do for me… help me to get from where I am, to where I need to be.
What a tremendous gift.
And apart from the emotional and spiritual dimensions to the song, I like how the accompaniment really sets the mood. The verses are sparse, with a few bass notes and a few chords and sound effects scattered about, like hardwritten scribbles in a journal.
But when the chorus comes, the vocals usher in a soft, floating ascent into a different musical space, and even though it’s auto-tuned, it’s anything but cold or antiseptic. And at the end of the tune, the Hammond organ swells and takes over, providing the only accompaniment, and after the vocals fade, it keeps going, like a testament to the rock-solid faith of saints who have gone before and made the same plaintive cry… yes, Jesus, you are our only help.
I had to put that one on repeat for awhile.
(And by the way, if you’re really blessed by this song, don’t just use the first link. Use the second link, too.)
You can listen to Tye Tribbett talk about the song here:
March 28th, 2011
(This poem was written to me by my friend James, after he witnessed a particular exchange I had with my uncle at a church function. Without unpacking all of my personal history, I can say that I found it to be deeply moving and personal. If you know James personally, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. At any rate, the way these words connected to my past and present was really valuable to me, and helped to compensate for any latent awkwardness over the idea of a dude writing a poem for another dude.)
October 4th, 2009
Being a card-carrying citizen of the hip-hop nation, I have a passing familiarity with gold.
Back in the late 80s, if you wanted to be rapper, you needed to look the part. That meant gold chains. Big, ostentatious, glittery gold ropes were the accessories of choice, along with gold rings — four-finger rings if you were a DJ.
(Or Radio Raheem.)
Of course, nowadays it’s not enough to have gold around your neck. It’s gotta actually be in your mouth. Makes me long for the days when the only gold you saw in a kid’s mouth were gold fillings.
This preoccupation with gold is not just with the young rappers, either. Older, down-and-out rapper MC Hammer has taken to shilling his likeness on commercials for Cash4Gold.
(Hammer probably agreed to this once he realized that his 24k gold chains no longer counted as collateral for his mortgage refinance.)
Even without gold itself, people still love the idea of gold.
When the Cleveland Cavaliers redesigned their uniforms for the arrival of LeBron James, their color scheme was not simply maroon-and-yellow. No, that would never do. In a nod to the upper-middle-class fans who attend most NBA games, the Cavs identified their colors with the two classic symbols of decadence: wine and gold.
This gold fixation is everywhere.
It’s not enough to have a regular old American Express card, you’ve got to have the AmEx Gold card. Same thing with XBox Live, you can’t just have the silver account, you gotta have the Gold membership… you slap the word “gold” on there, it makes anything look valuable.
It’s what makes the Olympics so popular — everybody wants to go for the gold. And lest you think this is simply a problem of modern society, may I remind you: the Olympic games have been around for a long time.
Obsession with gold is not just a modern trend; it’s a symptom of the human condition.
* * *
It’s against this backdrop that the Bible offers a stunning contrast between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.
The world simply chases after gold.
As followers of Christ, as servants of the most high God, we are to become gold.
Metaphorically speaking, anyway. (No, I’m not on some King Midas Greek mythology trip.)
In this short quote from the book of Job, the Lord reveals to Job His own methods for bringing out the best in humanity, and Job expresses it with the language of the refiner. “I will come forth as gold,” he says.
It’s no coincidence that it’s Job making this proclamation.
The story of Job (rhymes with “robe” … the e on the end is both silent and invisible) is a story of tremendous trial and testing. Job sustained an unbelievable series of losses, none of which her his fault, each more tragic and crippling than the next. Job’s losses were the kind you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
I mean, Job got a raw deal. He had an ordeal for every weekday, and a bonus crisis for the weekend.
Fortunately, his story ends well. In the final reckoning, Job gets his life back — and then some. Truth be known, Job ends up with a fuller lifeafter going through trials then he did before.
Today, we’re going to look at Job’s story, as well as some other key Scriptures, in order to ask a big question, a question that many of us will ask at one point or another — why.Why was Job’s life fuller after such a string of horrific losses? Why did God allow those things to happen? Is there a purpose for such hardship? Is there any comfort to be had in such trials? These are important questions, because all of us go through seasons of trial and testing.
And because we’re all in different places along our journey of faith, many of us have already been through the fire, time and time again. Everyone who follows of Christ lands somewhere in this process. We’re all slowly being conformed into His likeness, and some of us have been going through it longer than others.
So just because we’re taking the time to focus on this as a church doesn’t mean that this is anew thing.
On the contrary, God has been doing this for awhile.
So if these questions are burning inside you, I pray that together we’ll find some answers in God’s Word.
* * *
Before we do that, though, let’s take a closer look at the gold itself.
Gold has always been a popular, valuable commodity, but in thinking about Job 23:10, I started wondering… why? Why is gold so valuable? What makes a precious metal precious?
To find some answers, I did some basic research (which is code for, “I looked it up on Wikipedia.”)
Here are a few things I found:Gold is more resistant to rust and other forms of corrosion compared to other metals, which means that it’s safer to expose to the natural elements.
And of course, it’s considered beautiful.
Gold is a mineral, so it’s found in the ground, picked and chipped away one nugget at a time. Then it goes through an intense process of refining before it becomes desirable to the eye.
In order for gold to be refined, it must be subjected to an intense fire. This fire is what purifies the gold, because it separates out all of the impurities in the gold, also known as the dross. As the dross is burned away, only the pure gold remains. The refiner knows when the gold is sufficiently purified when he can look into the nugget of gold and see his face in the reflection.
This refining process is the only way gold is made. There are no alternatives, and no shortcuts.
Which leads me to the first lesson…Refining is a process for every believer. “Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth.” Psalm 26:2-3
I don’t know about you, but on first glance, this passage seems awfully arrogant. It makes it sound like David was just a perfect guy.
But if you actuallyread the Bible, you find out — David was anything but. David was sort of an Everyman of Bible times… he has his moments of epic triumph (“down goes Goliath!!”) and just as many epic failures (“Bath-sheba? Isn’t she married?”).
But this does not stop David from honestly petitioning God to be tested. Amazing.
If I had all the same colossal failures on my record as David did, there’s noway I would want to ask God to be testing me. There’s no way I’d be boasting about being blameless and above reproach. I’d be wearing a ski mask (or something similar) and sunglasses, hoping nobody could identify my hidden sins.
The fact that David says what he says in Psalm 26 means that he wanted to know and please Godmore than he wanted to get away with any misdeeds.
As a matter of fact, in the previous psalm, David makes reference to sins that were eating away at his insides because of his concealment, most likely an allusion to his murderous affair. This leads me to believe that by the time he’s writing this psalm, he’s writing from a place of restoration. Having repented of his previous sins, he appears to writes this psalm out of a holy fear of God and a desire to remove any barriers of relationship to Him.
It’s because of this kind of radical devotion to God that David is known as a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14). This is the legacy of one of the greatest kings in the history of Israel, who, despite his victories, was a tragically-flawed hero.
Which means that the rest of us… well, we have no excuse.
If we’re going to learn anything about God, we must be willing to be tested. James 1:2-4 tells us to consider it joywhen we face trials, not if we face them. What James knew then is what we need to be reminded of now and again:
Just like in school, testing is not just for the smart kids. It’s for everyone.
Here’s the second lesson:
The beginning of the book of Job starts with God. God is having a conversation with Satan, and God is bragging about Job. “Have you seen my servant Job?” God says to Satan. God is proud of Job, proud that he is above reproach and fears Him only.
But Satan is cynical, and accuses Job of false motives, saying, essentially:Yeah? He only does that because you do good things for him. Take those away, and he’ll curse you to your face.
So God makes an agreement and allows Satan to harm Job, just to see what his response will be. In short order, Job loses all of his wealth, all of his worldly possessions, and even his children are killed in a freak accident. So Job becomes saddened and despondent, but he clings onto God’s sovereignty.The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, he says.
This was Job’s first test.
So then Satan goes back to God and says:Oh yeah? A man will do anything to protect his health. If I make him sick enough, THEN he’ll curse you to your face.
So God allowsSatan to afflict Job will all these horrendous sores all over his body. It was so bad, the only way Job could get some relief was to scrape his wounds with pieces of broken pottery.
Now you would think that after all of this, Job would have nothing to do with God. But Job 2:9-10 records his response:
“His wife said to him, ‘Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!’
He replied, ‘You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’
In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.”
Here Job makes a profound theological statement — God is in charge.
This means we cannot cheerfully and freely accept his blessings and then turn around and curse him when things are not going our way. It’s the refiner who decides how hot the fire needs to be.
Sometimes as believers in Christ, we believe in our minds that God is in control, but we live as though we think that God somehow owes us prosperous circumstances. We wouldn’t come right out and say this, but we tend to operate on the principle that if we give our life to God, then that means that life should be easier, not harder.
Let me tell you something.
If someone told you that being a Christian would automatically make your life easy and drama-free… they lied to you.
Which brings me to the third lesson:
The refiner’s fire is fueled by suffering, which makes us like Jesus.
Hebrews 2:5-10 says this:
5It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. 6But there is a place where someone has testified:
“What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
7You made him a little[a] lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor
8 and put everything under his feet.” [b]
In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. 9But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
So when Job proclaims that he will be as gold, he is foreshadowing the gold standard of human expression and achievement – Christ Jesus.
Consider the first characteristic of gold that I mentioned — it’s non-corrosive. That means it doesn’t rust. It’s not affected by natural elements like wind and rain. It retains its molecular configuration.
Romans 12:2 says:
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
As believers in Christ, Jesus sends us into the world to make disciples for Him, but He wants to make sure that the world doesn’t make disciples of us first.
This is why sometimes He allows us to experience certain ways of the world, in all of its brokenness and moral depravity, so that we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, where those roads lead.
Gold is also great conductor of electricity, which means wiring made of gold has strong ratio of signal fidelity.
John 5:19 says:
“Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.
Jesus made sure he had a clear signal coming from the Father at all times. With all of his miracles, he only did what God the Father was already doing.
Some of us have a problem hearing from God because we have habits, situations, maybe even certain people in our life, who are causing interference.
If we can’t, then He turns up the heat. He allows someone to hurt us, or allows a negative situation to come about, knowing full well that pain and suffering often get our attention and open up the lines of communication.
How many of us have ever gone through something difficult, and then realize that our relationship with God is better for it?
God uses our suffering to purify us, so that we can receive clear signals from Him. The more we’re pure, the more we’re like Jesus.
1Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.
2Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
3“What did Moses command you?” he replied.
4They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”
5“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied.
6“But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’[a] 7‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,[b] 8and the two will become one flesh.’[c] So they are no longer two, but one.9Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
10When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
Normally when this Scripture is preached, the point is to reinforce the idea that God hates divorce. And make no mistake… this is true. God hates divorce. (Lest you think I’m reading too much into this, I offer Malachi 2:16a: “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel…”) But I want to draw your attention to a verse that is often overlooked in this passage — verse 5. Moses gave you this law because your hearts were hard. What Jesus seems to be implying here is that by asking about the rabbinical laws concerning divorce and remarriage, the Pharisees were completely missing the point. Where man looks at outward behavior, God sees the heart. Divorces happen because men and women harden their hearts toward God and each other. Therefore, God doesn’t just want to change our outward behaviors, he wants to change our hearts. In this way, becoming like Jesus means allowing our hearts to soften. See, God always has purpose for what He does. And He has a perfect plan for each of our lives. But many times, we become so fixated on the hurt and pain that we’ve endured that we harden our hearts against Him. When this happens, we’re no longer flexible. We’re no longer submitted to His will. We’re no longer able to be molded and shaped as He sees fit. This is why sometimes God allows us to go through tests and trials, because pain and suffering can make our hearts soft again. Because we know what it feels like to suffer, we can be more compassionate toward those who are suffering.
Normally when this Scripture is preached, the point is to reinforce the idea that God hates divorce. And make no mistake… this is true. God hates divorce.
(Lest you think I’m reading too much into this, I offer Malachi 2:16a: “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel…”)
But I want to draw your attention to a verse that is often overlooked in this passage — verse 5.
Moses gave you this law because your hearts were hard.
What Jesus seems to be implying here is that by asking about the rabbinical laws concerning divorce and remarriage, the Pharisees were completely missing the point.
Where man looks at outward behavior, God sees the heart. Divorces happen because men and women harden their hearts toward God and each other. Therefore, God doesn’t just want to change our outward behaviors, he wants to change our hearts.
In this way, becoming like Jesus means allowing our hearts to soften.
See, God always has purpose for what He does. And He has a perfect plan for each of our lives. But many times, we become so fixated on the hurt and pain that we’ve endured that we harden our hearts against Him.
When this happens, we’re no longer flexible. We’re no longer submitted to His will. We’re no longer able to be molded and shaped as He sees fit.
This is why sometimes God allows us to go through tests and trials, because pain and suffering can make our hearts soft again. Because we know what it feels like to suffer, we can be more compassionate toward those who are suffering.
Beware of gold-plated counterfeits
Remember, when it comes to the refiner’s fire, there are no alternatives and no shortcuts. Even so, the enemy of your soul would have you believe otherwise.
“Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed!
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to you your deepest distress.
“When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie,
my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
that soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.”
Set to music and verse, these are the words of Jesus.
I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for Mixin’ It Up with me.
August 16th, 2009
So at Irvington Covenant Church, we’ve just finished wrapping up one series, and we’re heading into another. For those who have been missing-in-action for awhile (and you know who you are), here’s the skinny. In May, we launched a series on prayer called Pray With Simplicity, where we examined the topic of prayer through a series of teachings drawn from the text of The Lord’s Prayer. We ended this series with a prayer service, because it’s a little silly to talk about prayer without taking the time to… actually… pray. (Haven’t we learned anything from MC Hammer?) Following that we had a Missions Sunday, where we talked to people connected to our church about the work they do both locally and globally — including a live remote via Skype to Trevor and Chrissy Davies in Johannesburg. We ended that service with a challenge from my man Ronn Elzinga, drawn from John 4:34 — look around, check out the harvest before you, and pray for an opportunity. This is all part of a larger season of examining our spiritual foundations. We want anybody connected to ICC — even tangentially — to understand why it is we do what we do. We want folks to be armed and dangerous with the truth, always prepared to show and prove (1 Peter 3:15-17). You know, “Take the Stand” and such. So now we’re turning our attention to the church. But before I do that, let me tell you about this book I read earlier this week. I’m a fan of John Grisham, and legal thrillers in general really, but I recently picked up his first work of non-fiction, entitled The Innocent Man. As always, I was absolutely spellbound.
So at Irvington Covenant Church, we’ve just finished wrapping up one series, and we’re heading into another.
For those who have been missing-in-action for awhile (and you know who you are), here’s the skinny.
In May, we launched a series on prayer called Pray With Simplicity, where we examined the topic of prayer through a series of teachings drawn from the text of The Lord’s Prayer. We ended this series with a prayer service, because it’s a little silly to talk about prayer without taking the time to… actually… pray.
(Haven’t we learned anything from MC Hammer?)
Following that we had a Missions Sunday, where we talked to people connected to our church about the work they do both locally and globally — including a live remote via Skype to Trevor and Chrissy Davies in Johannesburg. We ended that service with a challenge from my man Ronn Elzinga, drawn from John 4:34 — look around, check out the harvest before you, and pray for an opportunity.
This is all part of a larger season of examining our spiritual foundations. We want anybody connected to ICC — even tangentially — to understand why it is we do what we do. We want folks to be armed and dangerous with the truth, always prepared to show and prove (1 Peter 3:15-17). You know, “Take the Stand” and such.
So now we’re turning our attention to the church.
But before I do that, let me tell you about this book I read earlier this week.
I’m a fan of John Grisham, and legal thrillers in general really, but I recently picked up his first work of non-fiction, entitled The Innocent Man.
As always, I was absolutely spellbound.
The Innocent Man is the story of Ron Williamson, and his friend Dennis Fritz, who were wrongfully arrested, convicted, and in Williamson’s case, almost executed — for a capital murder they didn’t commit. Set in rural Ada, Oklahoma, it’s a tale of small-town injustice.
Once I started, I zoomed through it pretty quickly, for I was confounded by the basic premise:
How does this happen?!? How does a man almost get a lethal injection for a crime he had nothing to do with???
* * *
Which happens often, actually. As the mind races to try to make sense of such abject tragedy, we often fill the blanks with familiar notions.
Like, for example, one might subconsciously think… hmm… small town… wrongful conviction… death penalty… must have been a Black guy.
But that would be wrong. Williamson and Fritz were both White.
Okay, well… fine… then, it’s a case of small-town folks being distrustful of outsiders.
But that’s not exactly the truth either. Ron Williamson grew up in that town. As a matter of fact, he was once considered the pride of Ada, having parlayed a successful high school baseball career into a shot at the big leagues.
Well then, what was their deal??
I’m glad you asked.
The truth is that Fritz and Williamson went through their ordeal not because the policemen and the district attorneys of Ada, OK are evil people. (Though, by the end of the book, it really does make you wonder.)
It happened because those civil servants made some assumptions pretty early on in their process. And as the investigation went on, their view of the evidence continued to be slanted toward their original assumptions. Through a combination of ignorance, fear, and arrogance, they fought to keep those assumptions from being challenged.
The result: two wrongful convictions, several verdicts overturned, an absolute tempest of bad P.R. for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations, and one man who was almost executed for a crime he never committed.
After finishing The Innocent Man, what I walked away with was this:
One wrong assumption, over time, can produce a world of hurt.
* * *
Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens much more than we think.
And not just in the criminal justice system, either. The people of God, the people of church, people who call themselves Christians, are often guilty of false assumptions — about God, and about the church — that produce a world of harm.
And just like those Ada cops, they don’t do it because they’re evil, but mostly because they don’t know better.
It’s not hard to do, really.
If you’re part of a church for awhile, chances are you might experience some benefit. You might kick an addiction, or be healed of some affliction, or have some sort of mountaintop epiphany in the middle of a service.
So you keep coming back, because you’re not dumb enough to turn down more of a good thing.
Churches are aware of this, and some even market themselves this way.
“Come to our church to receive a blessing!”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, because hey… if God is in the house, and the people encounter God, the people will be blessed.
The problem comes when churchgoers start to make the unspoken assumption that you go to church in order to get a blessing… that the purpose of the church is to get one’s needs met.
Unfortunately, successful churches often instill this mindset unwittingly because they do such a good job of meeting the needs of their parishioners.
But this mentality, over time, tends to skew our perceptions. It leads us into a MeChurch mentality, where the church is just another consumer-driven entity that exists solely for the purpose of meeting my needs.
Now I realize some of you have heard part of this before. You’re probably thinking:
Okay fine … the church isn’t about me… I get it.
But it’s not enough to just get this far. Such a realization begs the question: if the church is not about me, then what is it for?
Unfortunately, many churchgoing Christians have never taken the time to find a solid answer, so the blanks are occupied by their assumptions.
But if we are to truly function as the church of Jesus Christ, this is the question that must be answered. We must intentionally fill in the blanks, and eradicate these fault assumptions once and for all.
For the answers, we must, as always, go to the Scripture.
[And speaking of Scripture, there are great free Scripture study tools available online, so you have no excuse for not studying the Bible, other than, well, you just don't feel like it.]
Here are three foundational ideas that will help us answer the question of what the church is for…
The church is for gathering.
As a matter of fact, that’s what church means. The word translated as “church” in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklesia, which means “gathering.”
This is an important idea, this gathering thing.
Because us postmoderns have embraced the idea the church is not simply a building. But we often take it to the opposite extreme, where we act like anytime we’re in the presence of other Christians, or reading the Bible, listening to Christian music, or doing anything remotely spiritual, then that counts as “church.”
(And don’t even get me started about people sleeping in and trying to churchify it. We Christians have all kinds of euphemisms for sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Bedside Baptist, Pillow Presbyterian, and my favorite, courtesy of my wife’s mother Deanna: Church of the Inner Spring.)
Jokes aside, though, have you ever heard anyone say anything like this?
“Hanging out with friends at a coffee shop? That’s church to me.”
“Communing with God out in the wilderness with my family… that’s church to me.”
“Spending quiet time at home with God… that’s church to me.”
Problem is, the whole church-is-what-I-want-it-to-be thing not exactly Biblical.
Oh sure, people who say that may quote Matthew 18:20 (“where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them”) but Jesus was talking in that quote about church discipline.
Scholar Frank Viola says it this way:
New Testament scholarship agrees that the word ekklesia (translated “church”) meant a local community of people who assemble together regularly. The word was used for the Greek assembly whereby those in a city were “called forth” from their homes to meet (assemble) in the town forum to make decisions for the city. The Christian ekklesia is a community of people who gather together and possess a shared life in Christ.
As such, the ekklesia as used in New Testament literature is visible, touchable, locatable, and tangible. You can visit it. You can observe it. And you can live in it. Biblically speaking, you could not call anything an ekklesia unless it assembled regularly together.
In Hebrews 10 there’s a passage that embodies most of the essential elements of what we do in a church.
16“This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”[a]
17Then he adds:
“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”[b]
18And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. 19Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The author of this epistle to the Hebrews (who some think may have been the apostle Paul, but there’s no clear consensus on the matter) is using Old Testament imagery to relate to Jewish converts to Christianity.
See back in the OT times, there were laws that required sacrifices, including blood sacrifices, for a variety of things: entering into a covenant agreement, receiving the forgiveness of sins, the consecration of the priests, etc. (See: Exodus 24, 29.)
Not only that, but part of the duties of the Levites, the priestly tribe of Israel, was to enter the Holy of Holies, the veiled part of tabernacle where the Most High God, Yahweh, was believed to dwell. God’s presence was so powerful that only the priests, who regularly purified themselves with ceremonial cleansing rituals, were allowed to enter the veil into the Holy of Holies.
And even this was dangerous, for if a priest dared to do so without purifying himself, he would be struck dead (Leviticus 16:1,13).
What the author of Hebrews is trying to say is that, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the veil separating us from God’s presence has been torn. The Most Holy Place, previously inaccessible to ordinary folks, is now accessible. Because of Jesus, we have incredible access to God.
This should be the basis for our gathering. This access to God is the reason why we have church. And it’s the undercurrent of all that goes on in our church services.
Go back and reread this Hebrews passage, keeping in mind the kind of things we do in church.
Putting His law in our hearts (vs. 16), that’s understanding and internalizing the truth of God’s Word. And then there’s receiving the forgiveness of sins through the sacrament of communion (vs. 17-18), entering the Most Holy Place in worship (vs. 19), drawing near to Him in devotion (vs. 22), holding onto the hope we’ve been given (vs. 20), spurring each other onto good deeds (vs. 23)… all of these things we do as part of the church, and we do them together.
This is why the last part of the passage (vs. 24) is a reminder to his Jewish audience to not forsake meeting regularly. It’s not because the author is concerned about poor attendance levels, or because the author is worried about contributions to the church drying up.
He wants them to keep meeting because so much good happens when believers assemble in one place in Jesus’ name.
This is what the church is, a gathering of God’s people for God’s purposes. You can’t call it an ekklesia unless these things are happening. Conversely, wherever these things are happening, that’s where the church is.
Which is not to say that these things — the absorbing of God’s Word, the receiving of Christ’s forgiveness, the sacrament of communion, etc. — can’t happen in a Starbucks, or out in the woods, or in someone’s home.
But in order for it to be ekklesia, there must be an intentional gathering of believers for these purposes.
This is what the church is, and this is what sets it apart from the world.
Which leads me to the next foundational idea…
The church is for displaying God’s glory.
The access to God that we saw in Hebrews 10 is the main thing that sets the church, and Christianity in general, apart from the rest of the world.
God wants us to connect with Him, not just for our sake, but for the purpose of putting His glory on display.
Consider the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he is discussing God’s patience with unbelievers (in this case, Jews):
Romans 9:22-24 (emphasis mine):
“What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?”
Consider also Paul’s second letter to church in Corinth, where he is discussing the new covenant under Jesus’ blood, and the glory that awaits those who trust in Him:
2 Cor. 3:17-19 (emphasis mine):
17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
God loves humanity, because He is love and we were created in Him image. But God did not ordain the church only to serve the needs of its members. Rather, He desires to use the church in the same way that, in Old Testament times, He used the nation of Israel — as a light to show off His glory to the rest of the nations.
Think of just about any of the Old Testament stories you were taught as a child. Moses and the Red Sea (Ex. 14)… Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al (1 Ki. 18)… Daniel in the Lion’s Den (Dan. 6) … the Hebrew boys in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3)… the list goes on and on. These stories exist as part of God’s sovereign plan to show off his power and authority to those who did not know Him.
And this is a large part of the purpose for the church today, for there is no greater witness to the redemptive power of the blood of Christ than when unbelievers get to see people, fallen, fleshly, imperfect human beings, somehow choose to gather together week after week to confess their sins to one another, worship together, rejoice and mourn together, and generally live in the confines of authentic, messy community.
When viewing this divine experiment up-close and personal, unbelievers should (and often do) gawk in disbelief.
How in the world do they DO that?!
Unbelievers are often confounded by this because they are conditioned by the world’s system to believe that higher, nobler forms of living can only be achieved through decades worth of self-refinement. In the world’s way of living, we must work to become better versions of ourselves, more well educated, more physically fit, less emotionally needy, more giving and less corrupt, etc.
As believers in Christ, we rejoice in God’s goodness precisely because we know we can’t make any of those things happen. Yet somehow He makes it work. His grace animates and lubricates the functionality of the church, inexplicably causing the impossible to become possible on a week by week basis. We come in, needy, frustrated, driven by fleshly desires, prone to anger… and yet, somehow we refrain from killing each other. Somehow, we forgive. Somehow, we reflect His power, and by extension, His glory.
Later in the same letter to the church in Corinth, Paul refers to the ministry of reconciliation between God and man, the ministry that God has entrusted to him, this way:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”[a]made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 7But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us (2 Cor 4:6-7).
That is the glory of the church, in a nutshell.
He pours Himself out into weak, plain, unspectacular vessels. And He does this intentionally so that people will know that the treasure is from Him.
We get continual life transformation, and He gets to pad His rep as God Almighty.
Talk about a win/win scenario.
This leads me to the final crucial thought…
The church is for advancing God’s kingdom.
Eph 1:18-23 (emphasis mine):
I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, 20which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Paul’s prayer is a theological mouthful, and properly unpacking it could take all day. However, let me sum it up this way. Paul is praying that the believers in Ephesus would truly embrace the hope they have in Christ, and that hope is rooted in Christ’s power, which fuels their relationship and participation with Him.
The key verses are 22 and 23, where Paul says that Jesus has been appointed head over everything, and that the church, then, becomes his body.
Paul is hoping that these Ephesian believers will be able to fully get on board and embrace the power that Christ has conferred onto them. This is what Paul means when he refers to the church as Jesus’ body.
In churches, we often are taught the Pauline analogy that we are one body with many members (Romans 12:3-5), but here Paul is taking it further. He’s saying that we are not just the body of some random joe schmoe… but we are Christ’s body. We are the embodiment of all of the authority and dominion that has been given to Christ Jesus by God the Father. And if we truly embrace our identity as part of His body, then we’ll be able to exercise that dominion and authority.
The image I keep coming up with is from Voltron, the 80′s cartoon show. It was a show about these five, giant, primary-colored robotic lions, controlled by these fierce human pilots. And they would rove the anime battlefields, generally kicking evildoer booty, until they came upon a truly evil behemoth that could not be conquered normally.
And then, all five lions would come together, lock into formation, and transform into this superpowerful robotic being called Voltron. And if you thought the five lions were powerful… look out. Voltron’s power was on a whole ‘nother level.
When Voltron was on the scene, absolutely anything was possible.
And that’s the image that I think Paul is trying to impart to these Ephesians, a message just as relevant to believers today.
We are Christ’s body. We are His voice, His fists, His muscles. Jesus said that we would do even greater things than He did (John 14:12).
That means all of the miracles.
All of the prophetic confrontations.
All of the Chuck Norris-style roundhouse kicks in the face of evil.
And that, and then some.
The thing is, Jesus only did what He saw the Father doing (John 5:19). He was fully committed to doing His Father’s business. In other words, Jesus was God’s vehicle to advance His agenda.
And that’s what He wants us to be.
That’s His desire for the church.
Consider one more foundational scripture… Matthew 16:18-19:
18And I tell you that you are Peter,[c] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[d] will not overcome it.[e]
19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be[f] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[g] loosed in heaven.”
Ignoring for the moment how momentous a moment that had to be for Peter personally, consider what this means for the church.
I’ve heard some Christians quote vs. 18 as a sort of pre-emptive lament over the inevitable trials of the world that will rock the church to its core.
Oh yes, the gates of hell will unleash their fury against us, but by the grace of God we will somehow prevail (*gulp*)… I hope.
It’s as if this verse is talking about defense.
That’s the thing, though… Jesus is talking about defense here, but not the church’s defense.
He’s talking about the enemy’s defense.
Jesus is speaking prophetically here, saying to the knucklehead disciple who will one day become a pillar of the church… look, I’m going to build a church through you, and it will eventually become such an offensive juggernaut that the very gates of hell will be powerless to stop it.
This is an INCREDIBLE idea, and it’s so countercultural compared to what I see from so many Christians in so many churches.
From the beginning, God’s design for His church was for it to be a powerful agent of change in a corrupt world. He designed it to be a light to the rest of the world, a powerful beacon of hope that can withstand a constant onslaught of depravity.
And, in a manner of speaking, that’s what it is.
Not just our church, not just our denomination, not even just the North American church, but the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ has, throughout the annals of history, been a powerful force for change.
Not that the change has always been for the better (see: The Crusades), and we’ve certainly endured our share of scandals, but that’s beside the point.
The point is that the overall catholic church (as in universal, not Roman Catholic) is a force to be reckoned with, and that’s exactly what God had in mind from the beginning.
That’s why we gather, that’s why we show off His glory… so that His will and His kingdom may be established on the earth.
Here at Irvington Covenant, we’re in the middle of a reboot of sorts, where we are rapidly evolving into a different version of church compared to what we were in the past.
But at the end of the day, our mission is the same as it’s ever been.
And if the changes have come too fast, or have been too scary, or too painful… then, speaking as a staff person, i apologize. We haven’t always done the best job of communicating what we’re trying to do, or following through on our commitments. We haven’t always done the best job of walking alongside people and helping folks to find meaningful places of connection. Truly, there is a laundry list of mea culpas that I could rattle off from here to kingdom come of things we’ve found some way to screw up.
But you know what we won’t apologize for?
We won’t apologize for identifying, prioritizing, and walking in our purpose.
If you’re reading this, and you’re considering whether to engage with us in our brand of Christian community, or any church for that matter, then I urge you — decide for yourself, and don’t let anyone dictate what you should do because it’s convenient for them.
But if you’re trying to figure out whether or not a church is really being true to its calling, then you better fill in the blanks. You better examine your expectations. And you better read the Scripture and see what it says, because if you don’t, I promise you… you’re in for a world of hurt.
Igniter Media sums it up with a great video contrasting church metaphors.
Check it out, and tell me what you think.
And if you’re an ICC attendee or member, tell me what you think we can do to live up to this standard. Because that, among other things, is why we gather. And I need just as much help as anybody else in filling in the blanks.
I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.
December 31st, 2008
I know that a few of you will be in church services this evening, because many churches hold New Year’s Eve services. And because it’ll be an obviously late evening, many of you will probably do something you normally do when you come to church — bring coffee.
With that in mind, I offer a parody of one of my favorite songs, Kirk Franklin’s “My Life Is In Your Hands.” Here’s a rendition on Youtube if you’ve never heard it.
Like many parodies, it’s actually much funnier if you actually sing it. If I had more time at my disposal, I would record it myself and send it around. (One of these days I may do just that.) Until then, those of you with taste for satire, feel free to actually sing it on your own, out loud even.
By the way, I wrote this parody over a year ago, and I’m realizing now that I was in a much darker place than I thought. Writing this was a form of stress relief, methinks. When I shared it with my wife, she didn’t find it as funny as I did — probably because she drinks coffee and I don’t.
To each their own, I guess.
My Latte’s In My Hand
(sung to the tune of Kirk Franklin’s “My Life Is In Your Hands”)
I don’t have to worry
I don’t have to be afraid
The lines are short at Starbucks
And the coffee is Fair Trade
See, every Sunday morning
This routine is what I do
I can only sing with one hand
Cause really praising Him takes two
Oh, I hope the church will make it
I hope it’s in God’s plan
But no matter what may come my way
My latte’s in my hand
I used to go to small group;
But it took up all my time
We studied from a workbook
And I kept forgetting mine
Now my ministry is different
Now consuming is enough
And I find my inspiration
From the quotations on the cup
Oh, I hope the church will make it
I hope it’s in God’s plan
But no matter what may come my way
My latte’s in my hand
Without it I feel naked
And in a year, I’ll spend three grand
But no matter what may come my way
My latte’s in my hand
Some people don’t drink coffee
That’s a promise I can’t make
If I don’t have my latte,
Then I cannot stay awake
Cause I used to get in trouble
When I fell asleep alot
But all I need to hear the Spirit,
Is a couple extra shots
I hope the church will make it
I hope it’s in God’s plan
But no matter what may come my way,
My latte’s in my hand
If there’s a need, let pastor take it
He seems like a good man
But no matter what my come my way
My latte’s in my hand
I hope the church will make it
I hope it’s in God’s plan
But no matter what may come my way,
My latte’s in my hand
I still might send an offering
To that mission in Sudan
But no matter what may come my way
My latte’s in my hand
Let the church say amen. And if you can’t say amen, say ‘ouch.’
September 20th, 2008
That’s just the term that I’ve given to the four guys pictured on the poster that was seen mysteriously taped to the sign of my church (and to the wall of one of our buildings).
On the one hand, I agree with the overall sentiment of the poster. As Christians, we believe that our identity in Christ is the ultimate common denominator, and that by first being reconciled to God, we can minister grace and be reconciled to each other, and then extend that grace out to a world in desperate need of it.
On the other hand… the iconography of the sign is deliberately provocative, which is great if you’re the type of organization that is seeking out controversy, but most churches are not in that category because, sadly, controversy usually does not put butts in seats. (As a matter of fact, it usually removes them.)
Which is why my fear with those signs, the reason why I removed them, is that I wouldn’t want anyone to be confused. If all you see are the “stars and bars” design and you don’t read the words, it looks like white supremacist propaganda. And I don’t trust many churchgoers to be discerning enough to give it a thorough enough look to understand the meaning. I do, however, trust many of them to go flying off the handle and start complaining, loudly, to anyone within the vicinity. And that, our church does not need more of.
So they came down.
Still, I’m so intrigued…
Who did post this? Are there any more at other churches in our neighborhood? Are these four guys pictured even involved, or were they just victims of a rogue Photoshop session? And what was this poster supposed to accomplish? Was it just to stir up some thought and discussion among those of us who think there is no race issue in the church or in America? And considering everything that’s gone on with this presidential campaign, is there anyone left who still thinks this is not an issue?
As Arsenio used to say, these are things that make you go ‘hmm.’
(or, if you prefer, C+C Music Factory also said it.)
May 16th, 2008
Skye Jethani is my new favorite columnist/blogger.
If you’re wondering about the significance of my making this statement, then check out the last time I said that about someone (in that case, Eugene Robinson).
This time, it was the way he nailed my frustration with the
Purpose personality-driven church model. His latest piece on the Out of Ur blog delves into the schadenfreude that compels members of the younger generation to snarkily reject the culture of celebrity, especially as it relates to churches. He likens it to the clay-animated carnage from the popular MTV show of years past:
They’re not alone. Other young church leaders are forgoing the traditional senior pastor model. They prefer a flattened structure with shared responsibility where a team, rather then an individual, has the steering wheel. Thus no one achieves celebrity status in the congregation. Even in next-gen churches with a visible leader there is a trend away from the “Senior Pastor” title. The reason is linked to the scary rate of failure seen among senior pastors. Like “Celebrity Deathmatch,” the evangelical church seems littered with the corpses of leaders who’ve been beaten beyond recovery.
I’m also part of a church that has seen its attendance decline, and some of it is due to an over-reliance on the people-skills of our charismatic (in all the best sense of the word) senior pastor. Lest anyone feel like I’m gossiping or murmuring my making such a statement, that’s a paraphrase of many things that I’ve heard directly from the pastor himself. It’s not an attack or a mea culpa, it’s just an observation.
I’m hoping that in the years ahead, we will be able to follow the lead of churches like Denver’s The Next Level church, which has chosen to change its leadership structure to something more team-based after their former pastor had to step down.
Hopefully Skye won’t let his head get too big from the kudos he is bound to receive for his post (and corresponding Leadership Journal interview, for which he is managing editor).
I didn’t just call him my favorite simply on the basis of that one story. I’ve read a lot of his stuff and been impressed each time.
But I must admit, I’m also attracted to the aesthetic visual of his last name. It’s so close to my first name, I feel like we’ve gotta be distant relatives or something. Plus, he’s got Indian heritage… I’ve got West Indian heritage… eh?
Okay, I’m reaching.
April 29th, 2008
That’s the title I confer on anyone who manages to articulate my thoughts so clearly without me knowing them personally.
I’m talking about his latest piece in today’s Washington Post, entitled Where Wright Went Wrong.
By now, if you’ve been following the national news, Dr. Jeremiah Wright has spoken publicly for the first time since the furor of his out-of-context remarks have been looped on Youtube for all to see.
I’ve attended Dr. Wright’s former church, Trinity United Church of Christ. And I lept to his defense when many in the mainstream media were trying to castigate him as a hateful bigot.
But I do think he’s wearing out his welcome, irritating his allies, and further threatening Senator Obama’s candidacy.
Here’s the closing from Robinson’s column:
I point all this out not to say that one tradition is better than another; as Wright said, different doesn’t mean deficient. But what Wright did was to try to frame the issue in such a way that to question him or anything he has ever said was to question the long, storied tradition of African American religion.
Historically and theologically, he was inflating his importance in a pride-goeth-before-the-fall kind of way. Politically, by surfacing now, he was throwing Barack Obama under the bus.
Sadly, it’s time for Obama to return the favor.
As hard as it is for me to say this, being the son of a high profile pastor… I kind of agree. Yikes.