A quick disclaimer: I am about as far as you can get from being a New Testament Greek scholar.

But I recently heard something really thought-provoking about a verse you probably already know by heart, Hebrews 13:5.

The ending of the verse reads: “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.”  (Being such an essential verse, we actually set it to music in our kids album, God’s Words from A to Z.)

In English, the verse says “never” twice which serves to underline the point that God has promised to always be with us.

But what caught my imagination is what is actually present in the original Greek.  Instead of 2 negatives as in our English translations, there are actually 5 negatives present!

Here it is in the Greek:

Οὐ μὴ σε ἀνῶ οὐδ’ οὐ μὴσε ἐγκαταλίπω

And a literal (and awkward) translation might go something like this:

“Never not will I leave you and neither never not will I forsake you.”

It struck me as an overwhelmingly affectionate reassurance from a God who knows how weak we are and how much we need to know that He constantly remembers and cares for us.  So in His great kindness He took the trouble to inspire the author of Hebrews to say it over and over (and over!) again.

I think it would make a perfect catechism question for our kids:

Question: Will God ever leave or forsake us?

Answer: Never, never, never.  Never, never, ever!

A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.  – Robert Frost

I’ve always thought that Frost could just as easily have been speaking of what’s behind any thoughtful hymn or song of worship. When we wrote “There is a Place,” (and many other songs and hymns) it ultimately came from all those difficult to describe moments when you feel homesick for a place you’ve never been.

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11 ESV)

We’re all created with a sense of longing. We sometimes anesthetize ourselves from it with sinful pleasures and distractions or sinfully idolizing good things like work, money and family. Or we can face up to the fact that our desire will always be infinite, unquenchable by anything this world can offer, because we were made for an infinite God.

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.  – St. Augustine

But ultimately this nebulous ache and sense of longing can never be the foundation of our faith but is simply, I believe, a gracious gift from God to point us to true north to the foot of the Cross.

If all we had were vague feelings we would all be lost in a sea of emotional subjectivity and private unknowable spiritual experiences. Because…

…we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:19-21 ESV)

And with that objective Word we have a Savior who has risen from a brutal crucifixion into immortality, glory, strength and honor.

So let that vague sense of homesickness, that lump in the throat, those tears that come from nowhere point us to the Cross. Those subjective feelings have an eternal unshakeable foundation far outside of ourselves in the written Word and the Word made flesh bodily risen from the dead.

Everything in Scripture properly understood ultimately leads straight to:

…the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.(Colossians 2:2-3 ESV)

So if you’re off course, remember that the true destination is Christ, sent by Father and revealed by the Spirit. That lump in the throat is a reminder that we’re not home yet and we’re homesick for a place we’ve never been. And not just for a place we’ve never been but most of all for One we have never yet seen with our own eyes.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory…(1 Peter 1:8 ESV)

So if I could re-interpret the quote that started this post as I see it…

That lump in the throat is an infinite longing placed in our hearts by an infinite God and can only be satisfied in Him.

That sense of wrong comes from living in broken and fallen world filled with pain, suffering, tears and death. It’s sensing when we look around that this is not how it was supposed to be.

That homesickness and lovesickness is our unquenchable desire to be with our Savior forever.

So as we follow Christ in this present age before his Kingdom fully comes, whether we preach every Sunday, serve in ministry of any kind, write songs and hymns, share the Gospel or simply encourage others, may God give all of us grace to find the thought and that our thoughts would find…the Word and the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, for whom our hearts were made.

It’s something I often unconsciously tell myself when it comes to just about anything I’m sure I know reasonably well: for example, a news story I’m hearing for the fourth time.  I already know that.  The very next step is to move on to something more compelling ASAP.

But it’s always the wrong thing to say when it comes to Scripture.

Especially when you’ve been around the Bible for decades, the risk of mentally tuning out as soon as you run across a familiar verse or passage is so natural and all too easy.  I have to remind myself often to resist this impulse for this simple reason: The Word will always be a well that is deeper than I can ever hope to fully fathom.

How many times have you been stunned when a gifted pastor or teacher pulls seventeen things out of a passage that you never saw before?

Charles Spurgeon said it so well that I’ve never forgotten the way he put it:

“Nobody ever outgrows Scripture; the book widens and deepens with our years.”

What less would anyone expect when we’re dealing with a book that is the self-revelation of an infinite God?  But you already knew that…  : )

In the Lord’s Prayer, it struck me that Jesus didn’t tell us to address God as “God” or “Sovereign King of the Universe” or “Lord” although these are all true descriptions of Him.

Instead, He teaches us to say:

“Abba”

Abba is an Aramaic word that doesn’t have a perfect English translation. It is a word that is even more intimate than Father that expresses affection and endearment.

Abba is closer in meaning to the words “Daddy” or “Papa”.

When I speak the word “Abba” aloud, it reminds me of a baby babbling and saying “Ab-ba”or “Pa-pa”, or “Da-da”. In Kerala, India (where my parents were born), the word for Daddy is “Appa” (which sounds very similar to Abba!)

Just as a little toddler runs and looks up to his father with outstretched arms and says “Dada….Dada”, we can run to our Abba.

In the arms of Abba, His beloved child finds mercy and grace.

~ Liza

This ministry began with an overwhelming desire to serve Christ and His Kingdom as well as a lover’s quarrel we had with some of the songs being used in the evangelical church.  There is so much that is praiseworthy, but also a few problems in how we sometimes approach worshiping God in song.  As the old proverb goes, when you see a problem you can curse the darkness or light a candle, and so we’re trying to do the latter.

Over the years, we’ve sometimes been surprised by the thin biblical basis of some worship songs and what seemed to be an obvious elevation of emotion over reason. It’s not that we don’t believe in emotion (we’re songwriters after all!). It’s just that the goal ought to be to love God with both our hearts and minds. It’s not one or the other.

We actually have a good friend who attends a larger church in our area who makes a point of arriving late and skipping most of the singing on Sunday mornings. Although the sermon is usually good, she finds the content of many of the songs to be vapid, uninspiring and irrelevant. We’re definitely not recommending missing part of a church service on purpose, but she has a point.

So often, lip service is given (in most churches) to the authority and majesty of the Word. And certainly an evangelical church would typically never tolerate a Bible-free sermon.

But somehow all bets are off when it comes to what we sing.  When a song lyric is clearly misleading, there’s no sense of alarm but usually an “oh whatever, it’s no big deal” attitude.

No one memorizes a sermon, but any song sung often enough is automatically memorized. Worship content matters.  And if that content is Joe’s thoughts about God, it may be helpful or even at times inspiring, but it can only take you so far.  But only if it is inextricably tied to the Word does God promises this: His Word—including when it is in song—will never return empty but will accomplish what He desires. (Isaiah 55:11).

Moses finished reciting a God-inspired song to the people of Israel and then said these words:

“Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today,that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you,but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.”  Deuteronomy 32:46-47

We too will soon cross over the Jordan.  How deeply rooted will the faith we pass on to our children be?  Is the Word of God an empty trifle to us or is it our very life?

The church needs music from the Word that deeply engages both head and heart. It’s head without heart when you sing a dry choppy hymn that leaves you stone cold.  It’s heart without head when you sing an emotionally evocative and endlessly repetitive song where you’re required to check your brain at the door.

The recent resurgence of the great hymns is a refreshing development and helpful corrective. But we don’t believe the answer is solely in recovering the treasures of the past.  The Word itself commands us over and over, “Sing to the Lord a new song.”

We’re so happy to know about the growing number of musicians and writers today in groups like Sovereign Grace Ministries, Keith and Kristyn Getty, Kristie Braselton, Matt Papa, Stuart Townend, Red Mountain Music, Indelible Grace, and many more like minded ministries.

And this is what we hope you’ll always find here: songs and hymns that engage with the Word in an intelligent and heartfelt way toproclaim the excellencies of Him who has called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light.”  1 Peter 2:9

To read more about the blessings of worship from scripture, click here.

My four year old daughter, Faith, was sitting next to me all snuggled warm under her pink quilt .  In the middle of her 4 year old ramblings, she said something that I won’t forget.

In her baby sweet voice she said,

” I love Jesus….I trust Him. I’m sorry for my sins.”

Repentance, faith and love for our Savior.  A seed planted in her little heart.  And in her simple words, I see a simply profound reminder of the gospel that I so desperately need every day.

Out of the mouth of babes….

From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise…Psalm 8:2.

~ Liza

I’m going to have to sheepishly admit that I’m not 100% confident that I’ve read every last word in the Bible.

But I’m hoping 2011 will be the year for me.  (Liza did it in 2008).

Although I put a lot more weight on understanding the Bible, meditating deeply on scripture (through music, for example!), understanding the Gospel and seeing Christ as the key that unlocks every passage (John 5:39-40), there still is something to be said for knowing that your eyes have seen every letter of the Bible in the language you speak, especially since all of it is God’s Word, not just the parts I enjoy more or find easier to understand.

I suppose mastering New Testament Greek and Old Testament Hebrew and Aramaic would be perfectly ideal but you’ve got to start somewhere!  (Quick FYI: the Old Testament is not entirely in Hebrew.  Sections of Ezra, Daniel and Jeremiah and few other places are actually written in Biblical Aramaic).

So I wanted to share a “get through the Bible in a year” plan that I’m working on.  I’m sure I didn’t invent it, but it struck me as a quirky, off-the-beaten-path approach that would work for me.  In other words, slightly strange…like me! : )

The concept is simple: read through the Bible starting with the smallest book (3 John) and ending with the largest (Psalms).  That way you start out very quickly reducing the number of books you have left to go through: 66…65…63…and saves challenging larger books (like Deuteronomy!) for the end of the road.

It vaguely reminds me of Dave Ramsey’s advice to pay off your smallest debt first and ending with the largest.  Of course, he is aware that the financially savvy approach would be to pay off the highest interest rate debt first and then move downward to the lower interest rate debts.  But the reason his method works is that the emotional payoff and momentum is compounded with seeing multiple debts disappear quickly, no matter how small, rather than taking many months or years to finish off a single large high interest loan.

Okay, I know comparing books of the Bible to financial debts is a little suspect, but I’m sure you understand the analogy.  It’s exactly why so many cover-to-cover Genesis to Revelation attempts often fail.  You start off like a locomotive with high hopes and lose your steam somewhere in the middle of Leviticus.

So for what it’s worth, here’s the list below (it may not be perfect order—but it’s very close!—but any corrections are welcome!).  Copy and paste it if you like and I’d love to hear if you’ve tried this or any other plan that’s worked for you.

Books of the Bible from Shortest to Longest

  • 3 John (Shortest Book of the Bible)
  • 2 John
  • Philemon
  • Jude
  • Obadiah
  • Titus
  • Haggai
  • Nahum
  • Jonah
  • Habakkuk
  • 2 Peter
  • Zephaniah
  • 2 Timothy
  • Malachi
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • Colossians
  • Philippians
  • James
  • 1 Peter
  • 1 John
  • Ruth
  • Song of Solomon
  • Joel
  • 1 Timothy
  • Galatians
  • Micah
  • Lamentations
  • 2 Thessalonians
  • Amos
  • Hosea
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Esther
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Proverbs
  • Zechariah
  • Hebrews
  • Ezra
  • Ephesians
  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • Job
  • Nehemiah
  • Daniel
  • Revelation
  • Mark
  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • John
  • 1 Chronicles
  • 2 Samuel
  • Luke
  • 2 Kings
  • Matthew
  • Acts
  • 1 Kings
  • Leviticus
  • 1 Samuel
  • 2 Chronicles
  • Deuteronomy
  • Exodus
  • Numbers
  • Isaiah
  • Genesis
  • Ezekiel
  • Jeremiah
  • Psalms (Longest Book of the Bible)

So if reading the whole Bible in 2011 was one of your New Year’s Resolutions, consider this one more encouraging word to keep going.  And whatever plan you use, God be with you as you walk through His (entire) Word.

Abe

I know Christmas may feel like a hazy memory at this point, but I’m remembering many many years ago a short season of my life when I just couldn’t get enough of Christmas music.

I was listening to everything from Handel to jazz instrumentals to Mariah Carey.  I had borrowed a 3 foot high stack of CDs from the library and was intently listening to everything I could…and this was in July!  (Yes, there was definitely something wrong with me! )

I’m only now realizing what drew me so strongly.  Of course, the great hymns of Christmas surround us with awe and wonder at the Incarnation of God becoming one of us.   But you’ll find that even the most “secular” Christmas songs (that strategically avoid direct adoration of Jesus) still can’t help being Heaven songs in disguise.

Take a listen:

In the lane, snow is glistening, A beautiful sight, We’re happy tonight…Later on, we’ll conspire, As we dream by the fire To face unafraid, The plans that we’ve made, Walking in a winter wonderland.

Over the fields we go, Laughing all the way

May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white.

From now on, our troubles will be miles away…
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.
Through the years we all will be together…

Bliss. Peace. Joy. Laughter. Family and friends. Warmth. Comfort. Contentment.

We love Christmas songs because of the glistening promise they hold.  We hate Christmas songs because reality never seems to live up to the ideals we envision and every January finds us still in a very fallen world.

Even though they were probably not trying to make a theological statement, the songwriters of the great Christmas tunes (some of whom were avowedly non-Christian) connected in their lyrics the joy of Christmas with the joy of Heaven and used language to evoke the briefest glimpses of a place our hearts are aching for: peace, kindness, unfailing love and unending joy.

So I hope you had a wonderful Christmas this past year but even if you didn’t you have something so much better that awaits you if your faith and hope is in Jesus, the one and only Savior of the world:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.  1 Peter 1:3-9

Jesus promised that in this world we would have trouble and we know the truth of that firsthand and all too well.

But He also promises that the Day is coming, closer today than it ever was, when we will finally be able to truthfully say, “From now on, our troubles will be miles away…”

So in your disappointments, broken New Year’s resolutions and even grief and tears, remember that we know how the story ends and that “happily ever after” doesn’t even begin to do it justice.

-Abe

While I was working on a communion hymn this morning, I did a search for the phrase “at the foot of the cross” and ran into this prayer:

I love you, O my God,
and my only desire is to love you until the last breath
of my life.
I love you, O my infinitely lovable God, and I would rather die loving you,
than live without loving you.
I love you, Lord, and the only grace I ask is
to love you eternally….
My God, if my tongue cannot say in every moment
that I love you, I want my heart to repeat it to you
as often as I draw breath.
Amen

This prayer is from the Catholic tradition and it beautifully expresses the cry of our hearts to love God perfectly.   Jesus summarized the Law in essentially the same way when He condensed the Law to two commands: “Love God and love others.”

But friends, our hope is not in the Law (“Love God and love others”), as right and good and perfect as it is. Paul, under the authority of Jesus, writes this instead:

“For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are” (Romans 3:20, New Living Translation).

Let’s be honest with ourselves: if our ultimate hope was in how well we loved God and others, we might as well throw in the towel now.  But with great thankfulness, we can know that our anchor is not in our ever-changing wandering and fickle hearts but rather in our unchanging God.

Our love for God and others is an essential and, dare I say, mandatory, expected and natural  response to the Gospel.  It may sound harsh, but I hold that one who is never growing in love for God and others is very unlikely to have actually experienced salvation. As the apostle John writes:

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.  1 John 4:8

But our love for God and others is not and never will be the Gospel.

Just a few verses later, we read this:

This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son… (1 John 4:10)

Only Jesus, in all of human history, loved God and others perfectly.  And we who belong to Him wear His forgiveness and His righteousness like a crown.  We didn’t create it.  We didn’t earn it.  It is His indescribable gift to all His prodigal sons and daughters.

So the next time you hear someone summarizing Christianity as loving God and others, remember that the cart is being put before the horse.  The Christian faith is a story of rescue in which God, not us, is the main character.  So yes, let us love, but always remembering this:

We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

Friends, your faith is unshakable because it is not riding on your imperfect ability to love, but on God’s perfect ability to love you to the end and make you all that He intends.

Happy New Year!

-Abe

Sometimes we forget that God was under no obligation to even lift a finger to save us.

It would have been perfectly just to leave us in the guilt of our sins.  But the Lord is not only a God of justice but also a God of mercy.  That last word…mercy…was and is our only hope.  It reminds me of this heart-wrenching passage from the Psalms:

Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of your goodness, O LORD!

Psalm 25:6-7

Though He was under no obligation to do anything but deliver justice what did our Triune God purpose to do instead?

God’s only Son left His throne of splendor, was brutally crucified, conquered death and lives for us.  It staggers the mind but even at this very moment, He prays for us. (Hebrews 7:25, Romans 8:34)

If you are in Christ Jesus, you have received an extravagant grace and a love that is stronger than death.  Wishing you all a joyous Advent as we remember Christ’s first coming and long for His soon return.

Here’s a song to remember, worship and adore our great Savior.

-Abe

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.