The Western Wall

As I started to unpack in an earlier post, my recent trip to Israel was nothing short of amazing and at the same time totally overwhelming. When I was preparing to go on the trip, a lot of people told me about the powerful emotions they experienced in various places. Everyone had their favorite place, but most of them said seeing the tomb was their most impactful experience. Having no context for visiting such a monumental place, I wasn’t really sure what to expect and tried not to think about what I would feel.

You should know that I’m not a super emotional person; I rarely cry, and my highs aren’t super high and my lows aren’t that low (this great in some ways, awful in others). But I also have this weird thing that I do internally when I am about to experience something that could be exciting. For some reason, when I am looking forward to something I try to push down my emotions as much as possible so I don’t set myself up for disappointment. I know it’s messed up, but it’s been my modus operandi for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure how I got into the habit, but I do know that my efforts quite often backfire: I tend miss out on feeling anything significant because I have suppressed feelings so far down in order to play it safe. Like the dog hiding a bone so well even he can’t find it, it’s a distorted way to try to manage my own expectations. There was a little of that going on in this situation.

As we toured the sites in Israel, I quickly realized that even though I didn’t know what to expect, my actual capacity for being impacted by the things I was experiencing was extremely limited. When you stand in front of several fire hydrants a day to get a drink, it’s hard to take in the exact characteristics of the water from each. Most of the time I was thoughtful, observant and reflective, just trying to take everything in so I could sit and soak in the impact later. Except at the Wester Wall.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is one of the most intense places in the world. It is as if the ancient rocks are nervously looking around because of the tension they feel. Herod the Great (who rebuilt the temple around 40 BC) had the brilliant insight that the topography of a mountain is not ideal for supporting huge stone structures. So he essentially surrounded the mountain with a giant retaining wall and built a flat courtyard on top for the temple buildings. This platform is what is known as the Temple Mount.

When the Roman emperor Titus destroyed the temple in 70 AD, the temple buildings were destroyed but the structure that supported the temple (retaining wall and courtyard) were left intact. In later years Muslim occupants of Jerusalem built huge structures on this mountain, one a mosque and another a shrine that is the most prominent feature in any photograph of Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock. The top of the Temple Mount is thus owned by Israel and controlled exclusively by Muslims. That pretty much sums it up.

You have likely seen pictures of people praying at the Wester Wall, also called the Wailing Wall. Devout Jews from all over the world travel there to see, touch, and pray next to the only standing rocks that were closest in proximity to the temple (and thus the Holy of Holies). Not the wall of the temple itself, but the wall of the temple mount that is nearest to where the temple probably  stood. It is a visceral place. You can hear praying, singing, and yes, even wailing. Many people write down prayers on little slips of paper and stick them into the cracks of the wall.

So there I was, plain old emotionally-suppressed me, walking up to this wall when I was overcome with emotion. I still don’t know what it was. Maybe it was the collective feeling of longing that hung palpably in the air around me. Maybe it was the density of hundreds of years of pilgrims having stood in that spot before me. Maybe it was the tragic sense of futility in the midst of the most extreme devotion. I stood there at the wall, put my hand on the stone, worn smooth by millions of hands, and hot tears formed in my eyes. I was at a loss as to what to say, but I managed to pray the Lord’s Prayer, the only thing that seemed appropriate in that moment.

It was hard to walk away from there. After lingering for a while in the sacred air, I walked up the ramp to rejoin the group. I’m still puzzled about why it hit me so hard. Jesus didn’t (“according to tradition”) heal someone in that spot. There was no specifically historical reason to feel impacted. Just the sheer weight of it all coming crashing down in an instant. I think the feeling that stands out the most is gratitude. I’m grateful I got to stand there in such a special place and pray a few less-than-adequate prayers. Some people dream their whole lives to do that. But I’m grateful mostly for the living hope that I have in a living God, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. I’m grateful that God is faithful to his promises and has taken up residence in us through the Holy Spirit. I’m grateful that he hears our prayers and is our refuge and strength.

Singing Different Words

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Singing songs isn’t always easy, especially when you don’t really like the song. This wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t have to put so much time and effort into learning a song you don’t like because it’s not over once you sing it. The time you spent preparing for it seems to blaze that song forever into the hard disk of your brain.

I used to tease my friend and fellow worship leader Lisa about songs she was trying to learn by intentionally singing the wrong words while she was working on memorization. For some reason she didn’t see the humor.

Words Matter
Words really matter in songs, and especially in worship songs. The songs we sing in worship are essentially prayers that are sung to God, about God and for God. It’s not an “anything goes” exercise. There are words in worship that are right and others that are wrong, the same way it would be wrong of me to praise my wife for her beautiful blue eyes. Why? Because her eyes are brown. The words we sing are not only expressions of our affections and intentions toward God, they are statements of belief about his character and works that inform and reinforce our understanding of who God is and who we are in relationship to God.

I have probably developed the reputation of being a hyper-critical lyrical analyst among those who know me and work with me, but I don’t really care. I promise I don’t mean to be overly negative or needlessly obsess over semantic trivialities. But I can’t in good conscience turn a blind eye to something so important and dismiss it with “well, the writers probably meant this…” or “don’t sweat it, people will get the overall point.” Words matter, and they matter too much for us to be careless. If worship leading is a pastoral task (which it is), and we are teaching and discipling people as we lead them in song (which we are) then James 3:1 applies: we as worship pastors will be held accountable for the words we are putting in people’s mouths (and hearts) to sing to and about God. Theologian Gordon Fee has famously said, “Show me a church’s songs and I’ll show you their theology.”

Worship Shapes Us
One scriptural example of this importance can be found in Psalm 115:

Their [the unbelieving nations] idols are silver and gold,
    the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
   noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
    feet, but do not walk;
   and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.

Psalm 115:5-8

In other words, whatever we bow down to (or put “before all things” in our lives) will shape who we are. If you worship an idol that can’t hear, you will lose your ability to hear. If you worship a blind idol, you will eventually become totally unable to see. We become like the thing we worship.

When we read statements like these about false gods, we can also infer that the Psalmist means to say the opposite is true of God: God does speak, he does feel, he is not the work of human hands but is the One who made human hands. Worship him and you can grow to become like him. Worship shapes who we are.

Two Examples
Because the words we sing in worship are so important, pastoral leaders want to be selective about the songs we choose. What is popular isn’t always what is best. When you listen to a song with a theological filter, you begin to recognize traits in songs that are helpful and others that are either overtly wrong or at least could be misleading. The last thing we want to do is contribute to a skewed view of the nature of God. We’re all doing just fine with that on our own! But what do when you come across a very well-written song that declares powerful truths in a beautiful and engaging way, but has one line that ruins it for you?

We only have two options: either we don’t sing the song or we change the lyric. If a song has a lot of personal pronouns (“I” or “my”) we might just change those to “we” or “our” to help stress the corporate nature of the Bride of Christ. More emphasis on We are the collective body of Christ instead of “it’s all about me and Jesus.” Probably the most well-known example of this is the song “How He Loves” by John Mark McMillan:

        Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss
        And my heart turns violently inside of my chest

As this song grew in popularity, many people wanted to sing it in church but were uncomfortable singing about a “sloppy wet kiss.” Thus the alternative lines “beautiful kiss” and “unforeseen kiss” were used to replace the undesirable lyric.

I personally don’t find this line offensive or distracting and certainly not theologically inaccurate. The lavish nature of the love of God expressed in sending Jesus to earth can rightly be compared to a passionate kiss. Because this love was (and is) radical, no holds barred, holding nothing back. But some find it distracting and want to change it. No problem.

A similar and more recent example (although I only know of one church so far who has made this change…ours) is the song “What a Beautiful Name” by Hillsong. I find this song to be incredibly powerful and full of rich truths about the person and work of Jesus. But there is one line in the song that throws a theological red flag:

        You didn’t want heaven without us
        So Jesus You brought heaven down

The issue here is the implication that the purpose for Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was that he was lonely. And it all hinges on the little word “so.” So let’s think about it: Did (and does) God want us in heaven? Yes! Did Jesus bring heaven down to us because we could never get there on our own? Yes! Praise God for the gospel! But was the reason God sent Jesus to earth his desire for us? Nope. I hate to burst your bubble, but if we terminate the purpose of God in salvation on ourselves or even the world, we miss the mark. God did not create the world or send Jesus out of a want or a need or any lack whatsoever. His work in creation and salvation was and is out of an overflow of his goodness and love and for the display of his glory. The chief end of God is his own glory. Period. Isaiah prophesied of this purpose:

 “I will say to the north, Give up,
    and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
    and my daughters from the end of the earth,
  everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
   whom I formed and made.”
Isaiah 43:6-7

Jesus spoke of this purpose as he prayed:

“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

John 12:27-28a

Paul preached of this purpose in the gospel going out to all the nations:

“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”

Romans 15:8-9a

Because of the preciousness of this truth that God exists for his own glory, we chose to change the lyric of the song:

        You’re ever faithful to your promise
        So Jesus You brought heaven down

This song is a wonderful gift. We felt that making this change would allow us to enjoy the gift that God has given the church without risking confusion or misdirection as we celebrate and delight in God’s redemptive purpose (worship). Does it seem like a lot of trouble over one little word? Maybe. But I assure you it matters.

Motivation matters just as much as action. If someone gave you a new car, wouldn’t you want to know whether they were doing it to bless you or because they were trying to blackmail you? When we understand that God does all things for his own glory, it does not make us unimportant. When we take ourselves out of the center and put God there, it frees us to worship because we rightly see ourselves in light of who God is. It increases our awe and our joy that God would invite us to join him in the experience of his glory. God is for us because he loves us. He’s just not about us. He is, and will always be, all about his glory. And how do we see his glory?

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 4:6

Jesus Walks

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Some things are hard to explain. Before I got married, I would often ask people who were married how they knew when they met “the one.” The would say things that barely made sense: “When you know, you just…know.”

Before I had children I didn’t understand what it was like to love a little human more than your own life. People would say things about how it felt to become a parent, especially the feeling when seeing their child for the first time. I probably just stared blankly at them. Then, on one sunny morning in July of 2013, it all made sense. When I looked at my daughter for the first time, I finally understood the phrase “love at first sight.” There are lots of things in life like that. In case you didn’t know, going to the Holy Land belongs on that list.

Before going to Israel, I wouldn’t have had much to say to someone who had been there. I probably would have stared blankly at the ever-so-cliche phrase that I have now repeated a few dozen times: “You just have to go.” Oddly enough, I had never thought much about going before I went. But the experience can only be described as life-changing.

How do you explain the things that defy explanation? All you can do is try. Sometimes it’s so overwhelming that my functions of articulation all but shut down. For me, that’s a strange feeling. If I put thought into something I can usually find words for it. But lately I’ve struggled to express the important things because the weight of all the feels presses so hard against the bottleneck pathway from heart to brain to mouth (or hands) and I get stuck. I guess it’s like the old expression: The best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. (DISCLAIMER: I have never eaten, nor would I ever attempt to eat, an elephant).

It’s funny how perspective changes everything. You can live your whole life thinking you know what good food tastes like, which is obviously those special occasions when you go to Ryan’s all-you-can-eat buffet. And then one day you go to Ruth’s Chris and your eyes are opened. “Good” suddenly has a different meaning. When you see Israel for yourself, your perspective is radically changed. I’ve spend a lot of time reading the Bible over the years, and I’ve always felt like I took it at face value, like I believed what it said. But when I saw those sights and stood in those places, I realized that there was more theoretical distance in me than I imagined, more space between what I understood and what I knew. Sometimes the gap between concept and reality stares at you with incredible severity.

One of my favorite movies is the classic comedy The Three Amigos, starring Chevy Chase, Martin Short and Steve Martin. If you haven’t seen it, shame on you. Actually, you should probably stop reading this and go watch it. In the movie, three has-been movie actors get mistaken for injustice-fighting heroes and are called on by a poor village in Mexico to defend them against their local guerrilla bully named “El Guapo.” The irony of the situation is hilarious: the actors, although in immediate mortal danger, think they’re filming a movie. Because they don’t see the reality, they face off against the bandits with a careless bravado. It’s easy to be brave when you’re pretending.

Things come to a screeching halt when one of the (real) gunfighters fires a shot which grazes the arm of one of the actors (Steve Martin) and suddenly he sees the truth: this isn’t a movie. The danger is real. In an unforgettable scene, Martin walks up to the other two actors and says,  “Uh…This is real. They’re going…to kill us.” And everyone starts to cry.

It may be a crass comparison, but I stood in so many of those sacred spots in the Holy Land and the phrase that kept coming to mind was “Uh…this is real.” I thought to myself, how could I have been so careless, thinking I understood so much more than I do? When you look out at the Sea of Galilee and imagine Jesus walking on the waves, it changes your perspective. When you see the garden where he prayed before his arrest, the reality comes crashing in: this is real. HE is real. A real man walked on these real streets and really died to rescue the world from sin.

I’ll be digesting the experience for some time, probably for the rest of my life. You’ll probably see a few reflections on this site as I process my thoughts. I can tell you two things: I’ll never read the Bible the same way, and, of course, you have to go.

Fasting as Worship

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There was a time in my life when a friend of mine jokingly told me “you should do a fast from fasting.” He meant well. I was in a season where I had several times of fasting right after another. What’s worse is I tend to be a perfectionist, “rule follower” type personality. So, although I may resist a fast at first, when I get into I get REALLY into it. Something about me loves the challenge of restrictions. Yeah, it’s weird.

But after some time away from the discipline, I have once again jumped in during our church-wide Daniel fast for the next couple weeks. Once again I’m struck by the way that “following the rules” isn’t really the hardest part (and isn’t even the point). The difficult part is really the internal wrestling that I go through, not so much making the choices to eat differently. I’m surprised (although I shouldn’t be) at how much of a whiner and complainer my flesh really is. “Gimme, gimme, gimme” is all I seem to hear.

Fasting is a very valuable spiritual discipline. It is a mechanism by which we let go of some distractions in order to reach out for more of Jesus. It can reveal just how entrenched we are in our habits and comforts, relying on them instead of relying on God to sustain us. The slide into idolatry is a slow creep, and it’s helpful every now and then to push the “reset” button and declare once again with the Apostle Paul, “’All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12).

Because it wars against our tendencies to be idol-worshipers, fasting is really an act of worship. Fasting helps us to broaden our perspective of what worship really is (not just singing, not just something we do when we go to church). In worship we honor God for who he is and what he has done, and we say a deeper “yes” to Him in our lives. By saying “no” to things that distract us, we make room for his voice to speak louder to our hearts. We clear the way for the searching light of the Holy Spirit to shine on our hearts and show us where Jesus isn’t before all things, and make the adjustments so that he is first. As a friend of mine says, “worship is really about the first-ness of God.” He’s right.

Fasting is a lot like going to the dentist. For many of us, the very idea is appalling. We resist it because we think we don’t need it. But, like so many other things in life, we can’t experience the benefit of the discipline just by thinking our way through it (“Hey, I’m doing pretty good therefore I don’t need to fast”).  We have to walk through the self-imposed trial in order to see our true need for Christ.

I’d encourage you to take a step and set aside some time to fast. It doesn’t have to be anything radical. A fast from anything you rely on, no matter how small, will help you see yourself and God more clearly, and God will be faithful to guide you deeper into relationship with him.

The Courage to Get Back Up

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Blogging is a lot like life. In fact, if you do it right, blogging is a great representation of life. Maybe that’s why we connect with people’s stories shared through blogs.

Have you ever promised yourself you would do something and then fell off the wagon? This happens to me a lot. Maybe it’s because I’m a “routines” kind of guy. My routines seem to make or break my life. If I want to get something done, usually I will create a routine to make it a normal presence in my life.

The problem with routines is that they are always going to be challenged. There’s always going to be an interruption, an irregularity, an exception to what’s normal. If enough time goes by, it gets harder and harder to imagine starting again. So how is it possible to keep on keeping on? The answer, I think, is courage.

It’s not that we are afraid of change (although many of us are), but that we are afraid we don’t have what it takes. Failure scares us because it temps us to believe the doubts we had before we even tried. “See, I knew this would never work,” is what failure whispers to us. And facing that fear takes guts.

It comes down to having the courage to get over yourself and your inability to be perfect. We (or maybe it’s just me) want a perfect record. We want to have it all together. We don’t want to admit our failure.

But failure is part of learning and part of life. The muscles we build aren’t from just doing the same things over and over again, they are built by overcoming the resistance to do it again.  Tweet: The muscles we build aren’t from just doing the same things over and over again, they are built by overcoming the resistance to do it again.

This is the concept often called “failing forward.” Anytime we set out to accomplish a goal and don’t measure up, our ability to take what we have learned and get back up and try again is what really makes the difference.

Whatever you have done in the past but are lagging (exercise, writing, reading, journaling, creating), here’s your sign to get back into it. Don’t take on the world all at once, just try to ease back into it. Success is just a long line of little victories.

Warring Desires and Self-Denial

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In the season of Lent, many Christians (myself included) choose to fast from some type of food, drink, or activity as an exercise in spiritual discipline as a preparation for Easter.

Historically in the church, Lent has been a season of preparation for baptism–the final push for catechumenates (Christian converts in training) was a fast that ended in an all-night vigil and a glorious baptism service on Easter morning. Christians who had fallen out of fellowship with God or the church would also fast during Lent and were re-admitted into the fellowship of believers at Easter.

Today many churches don’t usually restrict baptism (or repentance) exclusively to Lent, but it is still a great time to practice self-denial as we prepare for the highlight of Christian celebrations (Resurrection Sunday). These practices have tremendous spiritual benefit. Self-denial helps us remember that Christ is Lord and we are not slaves to anything, especially to those things that we so naturally go to for comfort. We remember that we are weak and that we desperately need the help of God’s Spirit to walk this Christian journey–a power that Christ’s Resurrection has purchased for us. It is an act of war against our flesh, that sly and sticky force within us that wants so desperately to rule our lives.

But this aggression seldom goes unanswered. I find that when I fast, no matter what I fast from, the desires in my heart rebel with great force. This always surprises me (although it shouldn’t). Whether I’m denying myself sweets or television or social media, I invariably start to notice the restlessness of my heart rear its ugly head. I didn’t think I cared so much about the thing I gave up…until I started to say “no” to its beckoning cries. The things that seek to take first place in my heart begin to bare down with white-knuckled desperation. Then I remember I’m fasting…this is Lent…and it all starts to make sense.

This is the nature of many spiritual battles in our lives. We don’t notice them until we are right in the thick of things. Without disciplines like fasting we are all like the frog in the pot, slowly and ignorantly boiling to death in our own desires. When we say no to the things that seek to rule us, we are remembering that Christ actually rules our lives (and the universe). Spiritual disciplines snap us awake and help us see reality.

This is one of the reasons I love worship. Worship orients us to reality, as the psalmist writes about in Psalm 73. He, like so many of us, gets fed up with the (apparent) effortless and consistent success of wicked people (v. 4). The voice of arrogant scoffers is overwhelming at times…especially in an election year. The psalmist almost gets lost in his frustration until he goes into God’s house and sees the truth: they are destroyed in a moment (v. 19) and those who are far from God will perish (v. 27). What was the turning point? Worship. Drawing near to God broke the cycle of bitterness and frustration and helped the psalmist remember that the highest good is to be near to God (v. 28). It doesn’t get any better than that.

So a word of encouragement: If you are (trying to) practice self-denial and are finding some surprising thoughts, desires, or habits rearing their ugly head this Lent season, take heart: Christ has won the battle! Saying no to little gods can be a challenge, but nearness to God is worth the fight.

 

 

Image credit: Getty Images, http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/sport-spare-time-boys-at-a-tug-of-war-1933-vintage-property-news-photo/542940737

The Why of Worship

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I believe that no matter who you are, your personality, age, disposition, preferences, circumstances or situation, worship is what you were made for.
Worship is the highest goal and noblest purpose of every created thing in the universe.
Worship produces the highest level of life satisfaction and reward possible.
There is no situation which cannot be redeemed through worship.
All things can and must be enjoyed as worship. The choice is worship or idolatry.

I’m reading a fascinating book by Simon Sinek about the power of why. He argues that it isn’t the thing you do that inspires people to act or to follow, it is the reason you do it — your belief, your value, your core motivating force that draws people to you.

It isn’t enough to just tell people what they should do, people need to know why. In business this principle is powerful: don’t just tell me you manufacture a nice car, tell me why I must have it. What will it say about me? Why will it change my life? Why has far more power to motivate that what.

So why worship? Why spend all your waking hours obsessing about one subject that most of the world seems to dismiss? I’m glad you asked.

You know what I love about my life? I get to live for the best cause imaginable. I believe that worship is the greatest central value of all of life, that all of reality revolves around the principle of worship. Everything exists for something, and that reason is worship. Things exist to tell us something about the One who made them. Worship is fundamental to existence, just as matter and protons and wavelengths are the nuts and bolts of the physical world.

All things worship, some by default and design, others by decision. Asteroids and ants worship by design. They were made to express the pleasure and greatness of God in their uniqueness, detail and magnitude (or lack thereof). The interesting thing about humans is that we worship by design and by decision. As the crowning glory of the creation of God, human beings express God’s incredible power as the Maker and Master of all life. The body and brain still baffle scientists with their capacity and capability to connect and conceive. But the human heart and will can choose, we can express our praise and worship to God through our choices, through all that we do and think.

I believe that when we are made alive in Christ and surrender our lives to putting God first, we step into the thing we were put on this earth to do: worship. How much time, effort and energy is spent trying to find “our purpose”? Here it is: put God first (worship).

You don’t have to be a good singer, a sappy poet, or a deep theologian to be a good worshiper. Worshipers put God first. Period. I believe that the experience of worship is surpassingly greater than any other experience. To worship is to be in the presence of God Almighty, the One who created me (and the universe) and receive his love, lay my burdens down and his feet and get peace, wisdom, insight and encouragement. Nothing compares to that. It can happen anywhere and at any time. It’s what I’m made for, and I’ll spend eternity doing it. We worship because it is right, but also because it is rewarding. I enjoy worship, and I enjoy everything in life more when everything is done as worship.

The worship experience can take many forms. For some, worship may be experienced best through song. For others, prayer or quiet meditation. The balanced ledger or the swish of the ball in the net strike a chord of the rightness of what God has made. The power and presence of God that I feel at times when I read his word are overwhelming. So it doesn’t matter if you are artsy, young, old, rich or poor. You were made for worship, you were made to put God first. You were made for a constant, mindful, thankful communion with God. The worship mandate isn’t a stifling command to somehow stop enjoying accounting or writing or flowers or whiskey. It is an invitation to see the hand of the Maker in all of life, to delight in him in all things.

So yes, I lead worship on Sundays in a church. I play guitar and lead rehearsals and go to meetings and write blogs. But that is what I do, not why. I love my life because worship is what we are all made for. I get to spend my time finding ways to express to others how everything in life is better when it is worship. It just so happens that I do this in a ministry context, but the why motivates an infinite number of whats and hows. Would you like to join me?

Worship and Leadership

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I have three passions in my life apart from my faith and family, summed up in the phrase that has become my life purpose mantra: Teaching worship leadership. 

I am a teacher because I am a learner. My personality makes me gravitate toward a constant influx of new information, researching and seeking to understand things that surround me or interest me. Because I love to learn, I love to teach. Teaching the things that I have learned not only helps me further absorb them, it gets me more excited about learning. I’ll admit this sometimes gets me into trouble. Not everyone likes learning the way I do, and not everyone would like me to be their teacher. Also, the phrase “nerd alert” comes to mind…

Worship has been a passion of mine since my early teens. A profound experience in prayer led me to pursuing a ministry path and ultimately career in worship leading, one that I plan to follow until I can’t anymore. At first I thought that a calling in worship meant that I’d constantly be in front of people with a guitar in my hands, but that has only been partially true. Education and experience has deepened (and widened) my understanding of what worship is. Worship is much broader than music, singing or a Sunday activity. When we see worship as a way of life, a perspective-orienting posture before God, it changes everything from our thinking, our work, our relationships and our priorities.

I owe the focus on leadership to some years spent in an incredibly rich leadership culture. My time on staff at 12Stone Church has made a tremendous impact on how I see my life and various roles, helping me to understand the importance of skilled, intentional leadership over myself and others under my care. Leadership skills are some of the most fundamentally important skills one can ever learn, and they have the power to change your life completely.

Lately I have been searching for ways to articulate the connection between worship and leadership, two of my biggest passions. At first it seemed incredibly difficult. What could Good to Great and Engaging With God possibly have in common? I thought, maybe I just have two things that I’m passionate about that are basically unrelated. It wouldn’t be the first time!

But more reflection has shown me I was wrong. There is, in fact, a very strong connection between worship and leadership if you take a closer look.

Worship is essentially about glory. God is glorious, THE only being in the universe whose essence and character are so magnificent we could spend eternity (literally) captivated by all he is. Even attempting to write a description of God’s glory seems feeble at best. In corporate worship, we gather as the people of God to celebrate and proclaim God’s glory in prayer, songs, preaching and proclaiming the scriptures, and by participating in the sacred acts of the Christian church (baptism and eucharist). Worship reenacts the Story of God’s creation, our fall into sin, God’s redemption, and re-creation of all things. These activities are both participation and proclamation that God is glorious, the Greatest and most Beautiful One of all.

Human beings were made for God’s glory (see 1 Cor. 10:31, Col. 3:17, CS. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory) and thus made for worship. It is a self-verifying truth that glory is of paramount importance to the human soul. Humans everywhere are drawn to the ocean, the mountains, spectacular sporting events and feats of human skill and achievement. Why? Glory. When we worship God, we experience his glory by experiencing him and experiencing what we were made for.

Leadership is essentially the right ordering of ourselves and our relationships. It is intentional stewardship of who we are and how we interact with the world around us. God has created a right order for our lives and for our relationships, made clear in the Bible. Leadership teaching (well, let’s say good leadership teaching) is the distillation of the principles of self-leadership and right relationships that God has designed.

This brings us to the connection point between worship and leadership: righteousnessRighteousness simply means “right-ness,” the proper order of things in the world. God sits on a throne of righteousness and justice (Ps. 89:14) because he makes things right and just. When I live my life to God’s glory, I am essentially living a righteous life, living the way that God intended me to live according to his design. He has designed me to behold his glory, and as I gather with his people and sing and pray and kneel, my eyes are opened. He has also designed me to be disciplined, to be honest, and to live in right relationship with others. If my life is meant to be lived to the glory of God, then my leadership of self and of others will be expressions of worship. Leadership as worship takes worship from the church building and puts it in my calendar and my conversations.

I love to be out in nature. There’s nothing quite like climbing to a higher altitude and looking out across the space below. There’s nothing quite like a sunset, a clear starry sky or the pounding surf of the ocean at high tide. These sights remind me that God is glorious and powerful and has made a world that is very good. In the same way, seeing a man or woman seeking to live life to God’s glory, working hard to make the best use of the time, talent and treasure they have been given, reminds me that God is glorious and his creation of humankind is very good. He has made humans to be the crowning glory of his creation, and we have the chance to display his glory when we live in righteousness.

“Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!”
Ps. 150:6

 

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Worship and the Glory of God

Image credit http://www.vallejointl.com/ponderings/hands-lifted/

I am forever indebted to Pastor John Piper for relentlessly repeating his life’s mission in his books and sermons, so much so that this phrase still sticks in my head and heart:

“God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him.” 

What a statement. What a goal for life! If I could sum up what I believe to be my life mission, it would be somewhat related to that. I love worship, but not because I love music or work in vocational ministry. My deepest desire is to see (and delight in) God’s glory and to see (and help) others do likewise.

What is God’s glory?
Glory may be confusing to some. My favorite definition of God’s glory, while I can’t recall the source, is “the public display of his holiness.” God is holy. Holy means “set apart,” “other” or “above.” God exists on a completely different plane, above and beyond any other being in the universe. His “above-ness” is ontological (related to the essence of his being), not (necessarily) spatial. In other words, it’s not that God exists at a higher altitude than anything we could reach with our best rocket or space shuttle. His very essence is of a superior quality and purity than anything else, ever.

God’s glory can also be thought of as his fame or his renown, the ever-increasing revelation of his greatness and uniqueness as God. He displays his holiness (God-ness) through his word and his works, most specifically in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ continued in the ongoing work of the church. As people grasp who God is and what he has done (albeit in a very superficial way this side of heaven), God is shown to be great. His fame spreads, his glory is revealed.

What is Worship?
Worship must be understood as a total life orientation, not as a single act (i.e., singing) or as a group of acts (i.e., a church service). Worship is about the “first-ness” of God in all things, as my friend Chris likes to say. Bob Webber has famously written, “Worship does God’s story,” meaning that worship is both a remembrance/celebration of and participation in God’s saving acts throughout history. Worship glorifies God because it puts us in proper alignment with the greatest Being in the universe: He is first in all things.

A lot of us get confused when we fail to delineate personal worship from corporate worship. Worship, broadly defined, includes all of life and in fact all of history, summed up perfectly in Jesus. Are you in Christ? Then you are, theologically speaking, “in worship.”

In much of its use today however, the word “worship” tends to refer to a specifically corporate activity (church), or, even more specifically, a type of song that could potentially be sung in a corporate activity (“worship music”). We need to re-train our use of this word. To think of “worship” as meaning only singing or only a genre of music is akin to thinking of the word “food” as meaning only a hot dog or only a piece of pizza.

What do we need?
The greatest need of every person (and the eternal purpose of all creation) is to see God’s glory. The goal of corporate worship and the fight of the Christian life are the same: to see and to believe. Jesus said that the work of God is believe in him (John 6:29). Paul wrote that when we behold the glory of God with the hazy veil of sin and death removed, we are changed into his likeness (2 Cor. 3:18). Acts of worship like songs, prayers, sermons, and communion are all ways in which we grasp at telling our selves, each other and the world around us to behold and delight in the glorious Creator above all else.

That’s what I want to see as a leader in the church. Corporate worship should be a gathering around the public display of God’s glory, a group celebration of the greatness and works of our God. The celebration ought to be enthusiastic (joyful) because there is nothing greater than God and there is no greater purpose for our lives. Daily living should be filled with seeing God at work, seeing his way as best, and believing in him through obedience. Worship should produce in us, above all else, joy. Joy is the rest and unshakable inner happiness of the soul, and true joy is only found by being satisfied in God.

I love Piper’s statement because it is the mission statement of worship: to put God first in all things, in my heart and in that most precious of all group activities, corporate worship. My prayer is that in all of our lives and in our weekly gatherings we would do just that, joyfully celebrate the glory of God.

 

Metaphor: Hillsong vs. Hymns

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Despite what the title implies, this post is not an “epic battle of hymnody.” I was talking to a young worship leader recently about how I choose songs for my worship repertoire, and thought I’d share my answer to his question here. There are many ways in which leaders choose songs. Some use very detailed and helpful tools for evaluating songs, such as this handbook and rating system that helps identify the theological, lyrical, and musical strength of particular songs. Some use hymnals or the CCLI “top” lists to choose songs. Others just go with their gut.

Whatever method you use, at some point every leader has to decide what to include and what to exclude, based on certain factors. One very prevalent consideration is the use of metaphor.

You may remember from high school English class that a metaphor makes a comparison without using “like” or “as.” Metaphor can be used in a single line of text or can be the central idea around which a song is built (more on this later). When we sing that God is our rock, we aren’t saying that we literally worship a geological formation of minerals, but that God is as strong and secure and steady as a rock. You get it.

The Bible is rich with metaphor and we should not be shy about using this tool. However, there are some cautions to keep in mind. First, we need to be aware of the context in which we are using metaphor. To use the above example, I would probably not use a rock metaphor for God if, say, I were on a mission trip ministering to people who worship rocks and trees. The use of that metaphor for God might be confusing.

Second, we want to be careful not to assume too much about how our hearers are understanding our metaphor. This goes back to context. When Jesus is identified as the perfect Lamb of God, ancient Jews would have immediately understood this to connect with the religious sacrificial system of their time. Today, however, the metaphor of the Lamb probably needs a bit more explanation for it to make sense to people. So we need to look for ways to make metaphor more effective by helping people understand what we mean.

In my conversation with my young worship leader friend I compared two songs and the strengths and weaknesses of each. I’ll share some of those thoughts and let you decide who wins. Begin!

Oceans” by Hillsong United is one of the most popular songs in recent years. Masterfully melodic and beautifully performed (usually), this song rivals the best that Coldplay has to offer in taking listeners on an intuitive, emotional journey from start to finish. As the title suggests, the song is built around the metaphor of an ocean (or oceans). The metaphor is used in a negative sense, with the oceans being obstacles and oppositions to overcome and rise above:

I will call upon your name

And keep my eyes above the waves

When oceans rise, my soul will rest in your embrace

For I am yours and you are mine.

The strengths of this song are undoubtedly its artistic creativity, aesthetic beauty and dynamic builds and crescendos. In the right context, the song is a powerful exhortation to keep our eyes fixed on the Lord and embrace the challenges we face as opportunities to grow (one instance stands out when this song was sung at a funeral for a dear friend. I couldn’t sing through the tears). However, when considering how we might use this song for corporate worship I would suggest that there are a couple weaknesses. In the first line of the song the lyrics speak of being called out upon the waters, walking “where feet may fail:”

You call me out upon the waters

The great unknown

Where feet may fail

And there I find you in the mystery

In oceans deep my faith will stand

This hearkens back to Peter’s “get out of the boat” episode in Matthew 14. But this is a somewhat incomplete comparison to Peter’s experience, thus assuming that listeners will fill in the details. The song lyrics do not specify why we would walk on the waves, except that perhaps we want to overcome our challenges (who wouldn’t want that?). In the Matthew 14 account, Peter steps out of the boat because he sees that Jesus is walking on the water. He is able to walk on the waves only as long as he keeps his eyes on Jesus rather than “above the waves.” So the song is a little confusing. If I’m a completely ignorant listener (I don’t know the story of Peter), I probably think that determination is what keeps me above the waves, not keeping my eyes on Jesus. I also probably think that I, the ever-present subject of so many songs these days, am the most important part of the equation. This lack of clarity, along with the vague references to who it is we are singing to/about, make the metaphor a little less effective (I won’t mention the fact that this song tends to feel really good emotionally but is in fact a prayer asking God to lead us into challenge and difficulty with our eyes on him, which doesn’t usually feel good).

Let’s compare “Oceans” to a redux of a classic hymn “Oh the Deep Deep Love of Jesus,” recorded by the folks at Sovereign Grace music. This song also uses an ocean metaphor, but in the positive sense. Instead of being a formidable obstacle to overcome, the ocean represents the incomprehensible scope of the love that Jesus has for us:

Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus

Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free

Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!

Underneath me, all around me, is the current of your love

Leading onward, leading homeward, to your glorious rest above.

The strengths of this song are the lyrically beautiful and comprehensive description of the story of Jesus’ love for his people (the gospel). The song celebrates not only the fact that Jesus loves us, but goes on to explain the why and the how of that love:

Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus

Spread his praise from shore to shore

How he came to pay our ransom

With the saving cross he bore

How does (or did) Jesus love? The cross, a definitive past reality that affects us in eternity. But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus’ work didn’t end at the cross, but he continues to stand as our intercessor and advocate:

How he watches o’er his loved ones

Those he died to make his own

How for them he’s interceding

Pleading now before the throne

While this song is strong melodically, it probably doesn’t earn as many points as “Oceans” in musical dynamics (but more complicated isn’t always better). Some may point out another potential weakness as the somewhat archaic “hymnish” language and some complex theological concepts that are presented and will need more explanation. While I’m at it, I personally like when songs reference the Trinity, the beautiful gospel reality that the Father sent Jesus and we participate in and experience his deep love by the Holy Spirit. This song focuses mainly on Jesus without much mention of other members of the trinity.

Now these are just some thoughts, and I reminded my friend that no song is perfect. Every song (and style) has strengths and weaknesses. If you try to fit everything important in a single song you would either end up with a really long song or one that no one would want to listen to (not to mention sing). There are so many great songs out there that you will probably, like me, have a harder time choosing which ones to leave out.

The point is we need to think about what we are singing and try our best to mean it when we sing it and teach it when we need to (which is most of the time). Choose well!

 

 

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