Horror and Sinai

Horror and Sinai

I jumped off the boat and into the lake, my skin grateful for the cool of the water. I floated, face up, and closed my eyes. The sun burned red through the lids. There was no gravity, no up or down, or east or west, and my thoughts sailed off in the light breeze. All my cares melted away like the clouds in the afternoon heat. 

Then it touched me. My body coiled and wrenched my mind back to earth. I kicked my legs,  swiveled my neck, eyes darting down into the darkness around me. Something icy, slick, and fast had slithered up my back. 

Try as I might, I could not see more than a few inches below the surface. I couldn’t see my own feet, straining up against gravity’s slow snare. A sick feeling bloomed in my stomach and oozed to my fingers and toes. A feeling of smallness. A sense of incomprehensibility. A dread for the shapeless and nameless things that might lay below. I swam hard for the boat. 

Later, I gave the feeling a name: horror. 

Some version of this horror has probably found you, too. It creeps up from the darkness of the deep water. It steals in through the telescope pointed out into the emptiness of space. It falls down on the head looking up from the feet of mountains. It’s not the horror of Jason in slasher movies like Halloween. It’s not the cheap thrill of The Exorcist. It’s not even the suffocating fear of human depravity like Rear Window or Psycho. It’s the horror of the unknown – or more precisely – the unknowable. 

H.P. Lovecraft made a living on this form of horror. You may or may not know the name, but you’ve probably felt his influence. He is widely known as the father of cosmic horror, a sub-genre that does not so much play to our fears of death or pain, but to more existential dreads about our place in the universe, our smallness in comparison, and the sheer incomprehensibility of it all.

It is an effective form of horror because it is so deeply rooted in the human experience. It is, in fact, a form of horror we encounter in the biblical story. When Moses and the people come to Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, Israel meets the living God like this:

 [16] On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. [17] Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. [18] Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. [19] And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. [20] The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. [21] And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the LORD to look and many of them perish.”

The sense of the story is terror inducing. To the ancient mind (and perhaps the modern one as well), a mountain was as permanent and as awesome as it gets. This is why so many places of worship were set atop a mountain. When God descends to Sinai in Exodus 19, and seems to consume it with fire, the people tremble at the power of God, who is bigger, and older, and higher even than the mountains themselves. It’s almost incomprehensible. It’s horror on a cosmic scale. 

The story is a reminder that God is, in the Lovecraftian sense, horrifying. To actually see God as he is, what he is capable of, his purposes and plans laid bare to our eyes, would obliterate us. When Isaiah is transported in a vision to God’s throne room (Isaiah 6:1-5), he is not fascinated or awe-inspired. He is undone. Lovecraft would approve. 

It is important, as I’ve reflected on this, to understand the horror of God. Not because he wants to hurt us or scare us, but because he is unknowable to us. He is higher, and deeper, and wider, and older than we are, and even older than the stars and the planets. The vastness of space still teaches the same lesson that Sinai did; who is this God even the quarks and the photons obey? 

If God were to turn our horror to awe, or even to worship, he would need to reveal himself, hide himself, in something much smaller, something weaker, something very much like a person. Something like Jesus of Nazareth. This is, after all, how the author of Hebrews understood the incarnation in chapter 12:

 [18] For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest [19] and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them…[22] But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, [23] and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, [24] and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

The Old and New Testaments, when read together, equally affirm how thin the line is between horror and worship. The whole thing ultimately pivots on the incarnation of Jesus. He is, in a sense, the line. He is the Word made flesh, the fire and lightning become skin, the unknowable made touchable. 

Lovecraft is only half-right: there is a dread just beyond our conscious thought that, when it slithers up our backs, can evoke a horror unlike almost any other, and that horror is a holy God in the presence of a sinful person. But in Jesus, our God reveals himself not to be the boogeyman, but the Son of Man; we do not fully know him, but he fully knows us. And when we finally see this “monster,” he does not confirm our worst fears, but defeats them. And our horror becomes awe. And our awe becomes love. And our love becomes worship.



Why do we sing?

A church service can feel like a strange place to those who lack familiarity with the practices that take place in gatherings for worship. One of the practices that sets the church apart  is corporate singing. While it may seem non-negotiable to those of us for whom church attendance is a regular discipline, it can seem a bit odd to someone experiencing it for the first time. Or, for that matter, there may very well be those among us who have attended for years and they are asking the same question!

“Yeah, I’ve always wondered…why DO we sing so much?”

Let’s consider this for a moment. Even if you have taken this as a given in your life, I think it is a subject worth exploring to understand the extraordinary practice of corporate singing. Historically, it has been a part of the Christian church since its inception. Music as part of worship predates Jesus’ life and ministry. The first documented song of worship goes all the way back to the book of Exodus. I mean, if it’s good enough for Moses, I guess we should consider it, right? I think the greater question, however, is ”Why”. More specifically, why has the use of the song and the participation of the congregation in singing been such a primary medium in worship? And why does it continue to be? Why should I sing?

I could probably write about four chapters of a book on this, but I think I will limit myself to two primary reasons why singing plays such an important role in worship.

First, it’s biblical.

OK. I know this sounds like a “Cuz the Bible says so” argument. But for those who take Scripture seriously, this is not an argument to be brushed by or easily disregarded. If one is an earnest student of the Word of God, then there is an understanding that precepts are followed by practice. For those of us who are interested in what God’s Word has to offer on this matter, let’s just say there is a great deal of biblical evidence that suggests this has always been an important aspect of Christian practice. 

Singing is directed and commanded in Scripture (Deuteronomy 31:19-22, Psalm 5:11, Psalm 33:1, Psalm 47, Psalm 95, Psalm 96, Psalm 149, Psalm 150, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Singing is  something God does (Zephaniah 3:17) and a practice Jesus participated in during His earthly ministry (Matthew 26:30). Throughout Scripture, we see singing as a way of proclaiming who God is and what He has done, as well as a means of communicating with and responding to God (Exodus 15:1-21, Luke 1:46-55, the entire Book of Psalms). And while this certainly doesn’t capture the breadth of the subject, there just doesn’t seem to be any lack of evidence that singing has been, is, and will be an expression of God-worshiping people. 

 You might be thinking, “All right. I figured there had to be some biblical evidence, but why? Why…singing?”

Second, it’s formative.

I am reminded that God has given us a responsibility “…to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12-13 CEB) So when we gather together, we are seeking to form one another in the unity of our faith and a greater understanding of the person of Jesus. And singing helps us to do that.

“How?” I’m glad you asked.

This reminds me of God’s incredible hand of creation and His intimate understanding of those He has crafted in His own image. Because as He commands, “Sing!” He also understands what singing does for us as a means of spiritual formation. And I think it is vital that we understand that corporate worship and singing as a part of corporate worship are distinctly formational practices for the follower of Christ.  

In an interview in 2015, Keith Getty, co-writer of In Christ Alone, provided this anecdote regarding the role of singing in worship. “My joke with all my preacher friends,” he mused, “Is that if they finish a good sermon, people go out singing the last hymn. And if they do a really bad sermon, they go out singing the last hymn. So it really doesn’t matter what they say.” 

And while that may seem like a lighthearted proposition, scientific research affirms the sentiment. It begins with how music connects with memory. You might understand this more inherently than you realize. For instance, has there ever been a time when you heard a song and it took you back to a particular time and place? Or it stirred up a feeling or a particular emotion? That is the associative power music has in creating memory. And therein lies the power of music and the understanding God has of the human mind He created, the medium of music He created, and the way the two interact.

One of our worship leaders at the Leawood Campus, Amy Wilson, is a highly educated, licensed music therapist. In a lecture she presented in 2011 on Music and Memory, she helps us understand how the glory of God’s creativity, the way the mind stores information, and the human experience interact.

”Long term memory is the relatively permanent and limitless storehouse of the memory system. However, we need cues to recall this information. When we encode memories, neurons form connections called neural networks. When we access one aspect of a network, this leads to other bits of information stored in the same network. Stronger emotions related to these networks create stronger memories.”

So here’s the incredible byproduct of singing in church. Because of the strong emotions intrinsically embedded in a song and the experience surrounding it, you are encoding memories and creating a memory storehouse when you physically participate in it, leading you to inevitably remember what you sing and build meaning around it. It’s how we learned the alphabet and, more than likely, why you have a library of Scripture in your head without really knowing it. Ultimately, that means that when we sing in church, we create a storehouse of the songs we sing. And the words of those songs – the lyrics – serve a valuable role in forming the way we understand and interact with our faith. 

This collection of memories we store shapes our imaginations and reorients us to the story of who GOD is, what GOD says about us and the world, and who GOD says we are. And in response to the incredible story that God is writing in our lives, our singing gives us language to reflect our emotional response to Him – songs of thanksgiving, praise, adoration, devotion, longing, commitment, and love. It is by no means a passive activity. It’s participative. It requires something of you, and it involves our body, mind, and heart. 

Not to be overlooked, there is an incredibly unique characteristic found in singing which is something we desperately need today as the people of God – unity. When we sing together, we sing in agreement. We say the same thing, we pray the same thing. The songs we sing literally put words into one another’s mouths. We sing these words – words of shared expression, belief, devotion, commitment and prayer – for one another, over one another, and with one another as a means of shaping one another. It is a sung covenant to be the people of God together. And we are forming one another into a new creation, a new community. Keith and Kristyn Getty put it this way in their book, Sing!

“As we sing to God and about God together with the people of God, we reflect the truth that we were designed for community, both with God and with each other…and singing together engenders and expresses that we are family. When we sing, we show the community that reflects our Creator, our triune God. When His Church sings together, voice upon voice like arms linked across a room, and indeed across all the gathering places of His followers around the globe, across history, we are doing what we were designed to enjoy-using our God-given voices to sing praises together to the One who gave us those voices. It expresses what unites us, and it reminds us of our interdependence.”

Perhaps you didn’t realize all that was happening and being communicated as you sing! 

So when you come to church again this Sunday, be reminded that your participation in singing is not only a biblical directive but is a meaningful part of your spiritual formation and the formation of those around you. Listen to what you are singing about God, to God, and to one another, because it is quietly forming you (or not so quietly, depending on how loud you sing) into fully grown followers in the fullness of Christ. 


Songs of Faith,” CBS This Morning, Columbia Broadcasting System. CBS, New York. 17 Apr. 2015. Television.

Wilson, A. (2011, October 5). The Songs of Our Lives: Music and Memory [Conference Presentation]. Cross Train Your Brain Symposium, Leawood, KS.

Keith Getty and Kristyn Getty, Sing!: How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church, (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2017), 8.

Does The Local Church Really Matter?

Does The Local Church Really Matter?

We may only be at the beginning of a major health crisis. But it may not be for the reasons that first come to mind. This is what two Harvard researchers are saying in our cultural moment. Tyler VanderWeele, professor of Epidemiology and director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University and his associate director, Brendan Case, recently published an article entitled Empty Pews Are An American Health Crisis.  Noting the continuing decline in church attendance in our country, these two Harvard researchers point to a sizable body of research that speaks to how participation in a faith community strongly promotes health and wellness.  Here is what these researchers say. “…Americans’ growing disaffection with organized religion isn’t just bad news for churches; it also represents a public health crisis, one that has been largely ignored but the effects of which are likely to increase in coming years.”  The Harvard researchers offer this conclusion.  “Something about the communal religious experience seems to matter. Something powerful takes place there, something that enhances well being; and it is something very different than what comes from solitary spirituality.…The data are clear, going to church remains central to human flourishing.” 

A bold assertion about the importance of going to church coming from university professors and not from pastors or theologians may be surprising. However the idea that human flourishing and human belonging go hand in hand is anything but a new idea. The Bible tells us God designed the family and the local church to be the primary sustaining institutions for human flourishing. Jesus pointed to his called out community when he said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” 

Jesus makes the case that real faith not only rightly believes; it also deeply belongs. A primary metaphor of the local church in the New Testament is a body. The New Testament writers paint a beautiful picture of the body of Christ with its diversity, unity, interdependence and commitment to one another. As apprentices of Jesus our calling is not to just show up at church–that is an essential part–the goal is to truly belong to a local faith community. Martyred German pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer speaks of Christian faith as a belonging faith. “We are members of a body, not only when we choose to be, but in our whole existence. Every member serves the whole body, either to its health or its destruction. This is no mere theory; it is a spiritual reality” (Life Together, pg. 100). 

We are not only called to Christ; we are called to each other. We simply cannot grow to spiritual maturity, become whole, or truly flourish without embracing a belonging faith. While Sunday morning attendance is very important for a belonging faith, finding a smaller group of Christ Community brothers and sisters in Christ is also very important if we are truly going to flourish and help others flourish.

Do we have a small handful of other Christ Community members who we are doing life with? Are we taking the initiative to know others and be known by others, to share our stories more fully and truly? Who in our faith community knows our joys, hardships, heartaches, burdens, questions, doubts, dreams, and hopes? Who do we know is praying for us? Doing life together in spiritual community unleashes joy in our lives, but it can also be messy, hard and at times disillusioning. We are all broken with flaws and failings. We all look through a mirror dimly and we may see a good number of things differently. We must remember life together now in local church community is not the New Heavens and New Earth that await us in eternity. Embracing with both head and heart a daily kind of hopeful realism is the order of the day. As yoked apprentices walking in the Spirit, let us prayerfully exhibit sacrificial love, a ton of grace and lots of patience with our dear fellow brothers and sisters in our multi-site church family. Truly loving one another in word and deed forges a belonging faith and is the most compelling witness we have to a watching world. 

In this season of Advent let us not only thank God for the gift of the incarnate Son, but also the gift of our local church family. From both the realms of empirical research and biblical revelation we are reminded how much the church really matters in the world. If you have not yet truly embraced a belonging faith and made Christ Community your home, I would encourage you to do so. Reach out to one of our staff about some small group possibilities that are available at your campus. I also believe it is fair to conclude that one of the best ways to love your neighbor is to prayerfully invite them to join you at church. Advent would be a great time to take that loving step. 









‘He Shall Be Called…’: Introducing the Names of God

‘He Shall Be Called…’: Introducing the Names of God

What’s in a name? You can learn a great deal about someone based on their name. This is nowhere more true than when it comes to the names of God.

The Importance of Names

In western culture, names are a way to conveniently refer to a specific person. This does not mean that names are always arbitrary — often great thought goes into choosing a name that feels right. But in most of our day to day experiences, names are simply a way to refer to someone lest we become stuck in endless conversations trying to identify “Who’s on first?” How difficult and confusing the world would be without names!

However, in the biblical world, names go deeper than simply what something is called, but also communicate something of the nature of the thing or person. In the Bible, names are a window into the essence of who someone is.

This is tremendously important as we consider the names of God. When it comes to God, we don’t want just to know what to call this divine being we worship; we want to know who He is, what He is like, and why He is worthy of worship. The names of God reveal God to us.

Unless God reveals Himself to us, how will we properly identify who “God” is? Left to ourselves, “God” is merely whoever we conceive Him to be. But as Christians, we believe in so much more. In the book 3 2 1: The Story of God, author Glen Scrivener puts it this way: 

“Confessing ‘belief in some kind of god’ is about as appealing as marrying ‘some kind of carbon-based life form’. Who cares about ‘spouses in general’; it’s my Emma who has won my heart. In the same way, who cares about ‘God’? ‘Which god?’ is always the question.”

We don’t just want to believe in some idea of God. We want to believe in the true, personal God, and we want to know that person’s name.

The Names of God and Human Experience

The names of God revealed to us in Scripture — or more precisely, the characteristics of God that the names reveal to us — have enormous implications for our everyday experience. Though it is now largely a relic of the past, many family names demonstrate something of who our ancestors were — Go to Mr. Potter for a new set of dishes, see Mr. Carpenter about a new coffee table, and pick up some flour from Mrs. Miller—and so on.

In a similar way, if we know who God is, we know what we can depend on Him for. We know how to relate to Him. We know how He is able to meet our needs. When we are anxious, we need God to comfort us, and when we are afraid, we need to know that God will protect us. The good news is that God has revealed Himself in ways that speak to the unique needs of our experience, and He has done this so that we may know what sort of relationship we can have and what we can expect from Him. What a comfort and joy it is to know to Whom we belong, why He is worthy of our worship, and what we can expect from Him!

Advent is a fitting season to remember and reflect upon these truths. As the image of God, Jesus is the perfect embodiment of every one of God’s names. More than anywhere else, when we look to Jesus, we see and understand exactly who this God is and what He is like. Just as importantly, as we look to Jesus, we see better than ever how God meets us in our time of need, what sort of relationship we can have with Him, and why Jesus is worthy of our worship. In Jesus, God became man, and the divine nature meets human experience.

As we look back to how God has revealed himself in Jesus, we remember who God is and who He is for us. We are reminded that Jesus is exactly who we need in our experience and why He is worthy of our worship. As we learn together about the names of God, may we grow together in our understanding of who our God is, and see and worship Him foremost as He is revealed in the person of the Lord Jesus.

The Message of Palm Sunday

The Message of Palm Sunday

It is impossible to overstate the dramatic change from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The typical Palm Sunday service is filled with kids waving palm branches, upbeat songs, and a vibe of joy. Good Friday, on the other hand, is a service in a dark room, marked by Scriptures read that describe brutal violence, ending in silence. 

That is a stark change in just five days, like driving a car on a new spring day then suddenly slamming into a wall. What happened in those five days? What happened between Palm Sunday and Good Friday?

The presence of Jesus is what happened.

The original Palm Sunday was a day long in coming for the people of God. It was first spoken of in Genesis 3, it was hinted at by God when He promised David an eternal line of kings through his descendants, it was described in full by Zechariah, and now at lastit was here. The Messiah was coming into Jerusalem to establish His reign. Everyone knew what that meant. Jesus was going to throw out the Roman oppressors and establish God’s world-wide reign of peace. 

Then Jesus showed up and ruined everything.

He confronted the people of God, not the Roman oppressors. He said to them “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.” (Luke 19:46) 

Now a decision had to be made. What to do with this confrontational Jesus?

This is where things turned tragic, how we get from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The religious leaders of the day determine they are not interested in what Jesus is offering, so they scheme, plan and devise a way to get rid of Him. Instead of instituting the reign of God from the hill of the Temple, Jesus was crucified on a hill called “place of the skull.” What a drastic, rapid fall.

What happened?

It is easy to believe that we want Jesus, but we must confront the fact that it only took five days for an entire city to go from revering Jesus to rejecting Him. Five days is all it took for Jerusalem to move from cherishing Him to crucifying Him. That is the message of Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday reveals how fast my reverence for Jesus can turn to rejection.

In the presence of Jesus, I am confronted with where I am broken, where I am hostile to the Kingdom of God, where God’s purposes are at odds with what I want to do in the world. As Barbara Brown Taylor wrote:

In the presence of his integrity, our own pretense is exposed. In the presence of his constancy, our cowardice is brought to light. In the presence of his fierce love for God and for us, our own hardness of heart is revealed….He is the light of the world. In his presence, people either fall down to worship him or do everything they can to extinguish his light.

Holy Week is an invitation for us to meditate on the ways in which our hearts move from welcoming the presence of Jesus to trying to extinguish His light. To let His integrity expose the false ways I live. To let His courage and constant commitment to others expose my selfishness. To let His love and devotion to the Father expose my own fickle commitment to the path God calls me to follow.

Meditate on those themes, and the weight is crushing. However, the irony of Holy Week is that while our pretenses are laid bare and exposed, Jesus’ commitment toward us is firm, resolute, and irreversible. The way we tried to extinguish His light became the very means by which He flooded this world with His light. Crucifixion. Death. Resurrection. The dramatic shift from Palm Sunday to Good Friday may reveal the darkness of our hearts but it also sheds light on the glory of Jesus.

My reverence for Jesus may quickly turn to rejection, but Jesus never responds that way to us. Whether we are waving palm branches, shouting for joy and worshiping Him as Messiah, or trying to go our own way, rejecting Him and blocking His light from our eyes, He continues on His way to the cross, committed to our salvation, our healing, our redemption.

Palm Sunday may reveal how quickly we turn on Him, but that is not the message of Palm Sunday. The message of Palm Sunday is that our heart toward Jesus will not affect His heart toward us. He is always working toward our healing, even while we are trying to snuff out His light.

YouTube – Staff Recommendations

YouTube – Staff Recommendations

YouTube. Did you know that 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute worldwide! That’s a staggering amount of data. And 67% of people believe they can learn anything they need to know on YouTube. Anything from how to be a better parent, to how to build a better pizza. With all that content, how do you find ‘the good stuff’? How do you find something worthwhile to watch? 

While our campus pastors may not be YouTube aficionados, we did coax them into sharing a few of their favorite YouTube recommendations and videos with us to help us cut through the clutter. Enjoy these YouTube picks, then share with us a few of your favorites as well. 

Bill Gorman – Brookside Campus 

One of my favorite new artists is Jon Guerra and the visual version of his album KEEPER OF DAYS has been a regular YouTube companion for the past few months. The album offers an eclectic mix of musical styles combined with deeply thoughtful and scripture-saturated lyrics. My favorite tracks are “Hiding Lord,” “Tightrope,” “Citizens,” and “Prettier Than Solomon.”

Gabe Coyle – Downtown Campus

Sometimes we just need to laugh. It’s good for the heart and the body. And I have to say that KEVIN JAMES’ YouTube CHANNEL has been the place I go to just laugh. My favorites are the Sound Guy episodes where he splices himself into movies. So good. 

Andrew Jones – Leawood Campus

This one is easy for me. I don’t rewatch ANYTHING on YouTube like I rewatch Tim Keller’s recent (2017) lecture at Princeton Seminary called, “ANSWERING LESSLIE NEWBIGIN.” I don’t know if I have heard a clearer summary of the church’s mission to encounter and transform western culture than this. I have found it both timely and timeless. If that sounds too intense, I recommend rewatching the Chiefs Super Bowl win and/or the Royals World Series game 7. 

Reid Kapple – Olathe Campus

One of my favorite channels is SCARY POCKETS. They do some incredible funk and groove covers of modern pop music. Their cover of Hanson’s hauntingly catchy song MMMBop is just gold!

The TEN MINUTE BIBLE HOUR has been a recent discovery for me. Matt Whitman is an evangelical Christian who visits and learns about various denominations and traditions within Christianity. He tours and interviews different ministers, pastors, and priests to discover what we all share in common and where we differ in theology, worship, and practice.

Shawnee Campus

My seminary education took countless hours of reading, studying, reflecting and sitting in class. It turns out I could have just subscribed to THE BIBLE PROJECT YouTube. Their videos are theologically rich, visually engaging and memorable. In seriousness, I would never trade my seminary education in for some YouTube videos, but if I had to, The Bible Project would be my choice.