One of my favorite hymns, which is short and seemingly direct, is "My Hope is Built on Nothing Less". For the first verse you'll find
My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus' blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus' name.
On Christ, the sold rock, I stand;
all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand.
A friend once explained to me that the "frame" refers to the worldview or the system of beliefs by which one lives life, and the description of "sweetest" is tactile or appealing to the eye. The sweetest frame might be a philosophy with persuasive rhetoric, forced overtones of positivism, etc., with profoundly destructive consequences. Here we're talking about the frame of mind.
Though this interpretation brings much depth to the words, I like to think of the framing of a home. You hang many things from your wooden frames: drywall, wiring, air ducts, and even paintings and speakers. Houses with poorly built framing are instantly recognizable as shoddy to builders and inspectors, and potentially hazardous if not taken seriously. When we realize that the deepest issues of our heart, the seemingly nonsensical philosophical jargon, are as important as the framing of our home. We interpret and "hang" all parts and things in our "home" from these frames. Christ calls us to make him our frame.
On what frame do you hang your wiring, your paintings, your doors?
I'm not sure I'm the best person to write on music. With the exception of Sunday morning, music is something I listen to when I'm doing something else: driving, writing, sometimes even reading. This morning, as I prepared a Bible study, Leonard Bernstein was my background music. It was beautiful. In the early nineties, Huey Lewis and Billy Joel accompanied me from my hometown of Hillsboro to my college town of Eugene, Oregon, and back again.
I remember that Brenda and Eddie were popular steadies and the king and the queen of the prom. Things seemed to go downhill from there. Kind of a sad song. I remember that song about the piano player, too. It was nine o'clock on a Saturday when the regular crowd shuffled in while some old man did something unmentionable on a Christian website to his tonic and gin. I remember Huey sung about the power of love but honestly I can't remember what the power of love (at least according to that song) is. So there you have it, my mind is a very small graveyard of pop songs from the eighties and nineties. Not impressive.
But then there are hymns. Now that is a different story. I don't care if the hymn was written recently or if it was written 1,000 years ago. I love to sing hymns, and I love to meditate on the words of hymns. This Sunday, we are singing a hymn that is new to us found in a collection called Grace Hymns. It is an Isaac Watts hymn. Here is the first stanza:
Show pity, Lord, O Lord, forgive
Let a repenting rebel live:
Are not Thy mercies large and free?
May not a sinner trust in Thee?
That about sums it up for me. I am a repenting rebel that deserves death and judgment. But I can plead with the Lord to forgive me. Though my forgiveness was purchased decisively on the cross, these words urge me to go back, again and again, in dependence upon God and trusting in his large and free mercies. Yes, a sinner like me may trust in him!
Sunday we are going to sing this and as we sing it we are going to pray it, and my prayer is that words like this, will help me draw near to God in repentance for I know he will come near to me.
Thanks to a daughter in the band and as an assumed part of life in Western PA, I join a growing number of pals to trek down to University of Pittsburgh home football games. The games take place at the Steelers’ Heinz Field, which affords a spectacular view, of the game and also of the city at the official inception of the Ohio River. With the stadium full to SRO, it's like Pittsburgh's family room: we settle back with old friends and new, visit, and yell.
I don’t know how it started, or who is behind it, but I have a new favorite moment in the liturgy of Game Day. I guess it's football’s version of the 7th Inning Stretch that occurs between the 3rd and 4th quarters. What happens at the Pitt game is that over the sound system come the signature opening notes of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. At first, my high school memories of dates and of, I guess, one boyfriend in particular were jarred to consciousness with that great throbbing rhythm and then that singer’s rich, husky Neil Diamondishness. But these have been eclipsed by the phenomenon that transpires: The song begins, and the entire stadium rises to its feet, links arms, starts to sway, and together belt out the song with top-of-lung exuberance, word for word (thanks to the Jumbotron). You get to the part, “…reaching out, touching me, touching you,” and everybody gestures that, with 100%, whole-bodied, passion. Then—“Sweet Caroline!”—LET’SGO PITT!!!!—“The good times never seemed so good”—GO PITT! GO PITT! GO PITT!!!—“I’ve been inclined”—LET’S GO PITT!—…and the musical composition, whatever it meant the first time around, has forever been co-opted for a fresh purpose. We embrace the random intertextuality, in the cause of team rallying, with the serious playfulness of which college students are the greatest experts. You can see it for yourself on You Tube.
The Pitt rendering of Sweet Caroline is way louder than either the National Anthem or Take Me Out to the Ballgame at any baseball game I ever have attended. I have never heard that many people, in one place, singing together that loud, swaying like one gargantuan Jewish folk dance. To hear and see that, to be caught up in it, is a moment of transcendence. You transcend all that any one of you is by him or herself; you transcend whatever may be unfolding on the field, you transcend, for a moment, whatever are the heartaches and brokenness of your life and of your life together the world around.
It isn’t worship, so much as it is play—grand, all-out, with hints of the eschatological. I cannot word a moral without desecrating the event. In the moment we feel we were made for it. And may we wonder if we have discovered the same proclivity in the heart of God?
I went to the Houston
Symphony's performance of Handel's Messiah last month. I had never
heard the oratorio all the way through--most of us only hear 2 of the
53 mini-songs that make up Messiah. I took a peek at the lyrics page
in the concert program and to my surprise found two full pages of
text made up entirely of Scripture. We might give credit to G.F.
Handel for skillfully weaving the tapestry of singers and
instruments, but this declaration in song wholly originates in God's Word. Which made me wonder: who in this chorus sings these words
from the heart, with belief? They are perhaps the most powerful
words put to song. Many of the singers were about to explode with
the energy they were putting into each word. Others carefully
uttered the lyrics with more dispassionate looks on their faces.
How many confess--not just sing--those words? I wanted to bump into
one of the choristers after the performance and say, “So, what's it
like to sing that song?”
I often mouth Christian
verbiage with a less than believing heart. How can I do this? As I
step back and look at the story told by my Christian faith, how can I
help but bow my head in reverence and humility? Our hearts are to be
directly tied to the words we confess (Luke 6:45). How can we make
our tune a true song that springs from the heart?
“Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to
I can’t remember how old I was when these words struck me as
memorable. Surely less than 10. Maybe seven, or eight. And I’d heard them sung
scores of times by then. But one Sunday morning this phrase from “Come Thou
Fount of Every Blessing” barreled out of the choir loft and off the hymnal page
straight into my heart, then rattled around there until I could try and make
good sense of it.
I grew up in church. In the Southern Baptist Church.
I heard hundreds of hymns and sermons long before I could hope to understand
them. My age predates the trends of “children's church” and “age-appropriate
worship.” The churches my parents and I attended deemed all worship appropriate for all
ages all the time. No target
marketing segmented the congregations of the Protestant South in the late
1960’s and early 1970’s. No sir. You showed up on time, parked your bottom on
the pew, sat still, kept quiet, and paid attention. (And I’ve got no regrets.)
But even though I was present by parental command only and
in way over my head theologically, “Come
Thou Fount” compelled me. It contained words I was not sure of. Words like
“constrained” and “Ebenezer” and “hither” and “interposed.” It was pregnant
with mystery and a little bit of melancholy. I liked it, and I didn’t know why.
That phrase, “Let Thy goodness like a fetter bind my
wandering heart to Thee” chased me like a shadow. I’m still not sure I fully
comprehend its meaning for my life, but this much I can say with certainty:
My heart wanders. Even though I know there’s nothing better
for me than what my God has given. Even though I’ve tasted what the world calls
its best and gone away hungrier than before. Knowing what it knows, my heart still
I long to be bound by something. I don’t want unlimited
freedom. I want to be rooted. Found. Held. Fetters are not to be feared.
They’re a comfort in the right hands.
Finally, it is God’s goodness more than anything that holds
me close to him. Not duty. Not fear. Not compulsion. Not even habit. His sheer,
unceasing goodness. It shows up in the most unlikely places and is quite simply
the strongest force I’ve ever known. It’s like a magnet lodged inside my chest
that keeps me coming home.
When I hear the opening notes of this hymn, I feel my heart
swing open wide. Every time. Still. “Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my
wandering heart to Thee.” Please God, do. Amen.
In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus reveals to us a man who was so consumed with himself, his possessions and his own comfort that during the course of his life he never really noticed this poor beggar named Lazarus who sat at his gate day after day. While preparing to preach this text a few months ago, I couldn’t help but see much of myself in the character of the Rich Man. Often my own schedule, needs, hobbies and comfort blind me from the obvious needs of those around me. It caused me to ask the question: who are the needy that are right in my midst, and yet are “invisible” to me? It’s sort of a scary question to ask. There are some obvious ones that immediately came to mind, such as the homeless in my community, the elderly widow two houses down, and even the young single girl across the street who desperately needs Jesus. But it wasn’t until a couple of nights ago that I realized there is a whole group of people that are often invisible to me, even though they are all around me. They are people with special needs and disabilities.
A few years ago, my dear friends, Chad and Jennifer, had a son who was born with an agenesis of the corpus callosum. Basically, that means the band of tissue that connects the two hemispheres of the brain did not develop correctly, resulting in severe disabilities. Since then, I have realized that if I simply open my eyes there are families with special needs children all around me. They are often easy to overlook, because in truth, we don’t want to look at them. We don’t want to think about the difficulty of their daily schedule, the endless doctors appointments, and the many nights with little to no sleep. But obviously, the gospels are full of examples of our Savior looking directly at the needy people that no one else noticed. He even said that these needs are there so that the work of God might be displayed in their lives.
I think the question for those of us who follow Jesus is: are we taking advantage of these gifts that are right in our midst? As we consider reaching out into our communities, loving the poor, and making our churches more ethnically diverse, are we also considering how we can better love these needy people who are plentiful in our very churches? There is a special needs ministry in my denomination that is working to raise awareness. Please take a few minutes and watch this video and consider those who might have been invisible to you up until this point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygZKM2YY4sc
In December 2006 I was drawn into the tragedy of three missing climbers on Mount Hood because one of them, Kelly James, was the brother of beloved professor and friend, Frank James (then president of RTS-Orlando, now provost of Gordon-Conwell). Frank and Carolyn are friends and comrades in the gospel, and I fervently prayed that the Lord would rescue Frank's brother and the other two climbers.
The Lord didn't rescue them, so all who loved the missing climbers grieved.
I wondered if Frank or another survivor would write something in light of the news. Frank did. Read this piercing post about his grief over his brother Kelly that he shares with more families this year.
I don’t exactly know what this will mean for each one. For me, it has
meant that I can shout out loud my frustrations and even say things I
don’t really mean; I can weep quietly in my bed in the middle of the
night; I can look up into the sky, stretch out my arms and ask why? In
all of this anguish, God was present even when I felt alone. I don’t
understand this paradox: how I can feel so alone and yet sense in my
bones that God is near? David describes much the same experience in
Psalm 10. David cries out in verse 1: “Why, O Lord do you stand far
off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” But then David
declares unequivocally in verse 17: “You hear, O Lord, the desire of
the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry.” It is
a mystery—somehow both are true at the same time.
As for me, I'm praying for Frank and Carolyn and the families of the 2006 and 2009 families who lost loved ones to Mount hood. Lord, have mercy.
Matt Chandler is the pastor of the Village Church in Flower Mound, TX, north of Dallas/Fort Worth. Because he's a pastor, perhaps some readers will yawn at this verbiage: Matt loves Jesus.
He really does love Jesus. It's not perfunctory or staged. It's not schtick or a spiel. Matt is a servant to a King, a disciple to a Master, a son to a Father. His fondest ambitions are not the human-fabricated benchmarks of "success." Matt is not about building an empire, he's about growing the Kingdom.
Last week, after Matt experienced a seizure, doctors diagnosed a brain tumor. The doctors scheduled the surgery for today, Friday, December 4. Read what Matt Chandler wrote at his blog prior to the surgery.
I am grateful for the men of God in my life, namely John Piper who
taught me to hold my life cheap and to join with Paul in saying “I
don’t count my life of any value or as precious to myself if only I
might finish my course and complete the work that He gave me to do to
testify to the Gospel of the grace of God. I’m nothing, I just have a
job. God keep me faithful on the job and then let me drop and go to the
reward.” Without this strong view of God’s sovereign will, I’m not sure
how you don’t despair in circumstances like mine.
I am thankful for my wife Lauren. “Strength and dignity are her
clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with
wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well
to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he
praises her: ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them
all.’” “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears
the LORD is to be praised.”
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Please pray for Matt, his wife Lauren and their three little children.
Welcome to Common Grounds Online. Readers of Common Grounds have suggested a website to continue the explorations they began in the book. In keeping with the interactions of Professor MacGregor, Brad, Lauren and Jarrod, the theme of this site is ‘learning and living the Christian story.’
I have invited friends, and a few friends of friends, to communicate aspects of the Christian story that have been significant in their own lives. We’re all trying to find joy and pleasure in this life and the next, but often we forfeit the joy that could be ours by living out foolish, competing scripts. What distinguishes Common Grounds Online Contributors is not our own goodness, achievement or service, but rather the recognition of our need of God’s grace abounding in our lives.