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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Some Thoughts on Spiritual Anniversaries....

Life goal: "To reproduce in myself and others the character of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father." That's was I penned in a discipleship group Kathy & I were leading in 1975. It's mounted in our home, and I still see it everyday. But seeing it again today brought back several memories and I dawned on me that it had been 35 years ago...

Kathy embroidered that life goal, had it framed and gave it to me as a birthday present. It reminds me of her consistent walk with the Lord and our relationship together.  It reminds me that Christ's character is a discipline grown out of our daily walk, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and must be developed in myself and multiplied in the lives of others. God has commanded us to make disciples. 

As Christians, our relationship with the Father is one of worship, awe, obedience; our relationship with others is one of discipleship. Yes, that certainly includes evangelism, it must not just stop there. The motivation for discipleship is obedience born out of love and gratefulness of worship.  Even though I had made commitments for keeping a regular devotional time of prayer some years before, it took on a deeper significance in my life that year. I had read the Scriptures through a few times, but that was the year that I had made a commitment to read through the Bible every year.

That was a big year for what I was learning about  worship as well. God began to burn in my heart what worship was in a class with Dr. T. W. Hunt and I’ve never been quite the same. I had plenty of zeal, just as many other young worship leaders of that day, but lacked some of the biblical depth and knowledge. How I praise God for godly men like T. W. who invested in so many lives! [We were in the preparation process for missionary service and T. W. was a contact person for almost all the music missionaries all over the world.] I began to read and study about what God’s Word taught about  worship, buying books on worship... The more I studied, the more I realized that I didn’t really know much and I had so much more to learn. [By the way, I'm still working on it, 35 years later.]

When I look back over these years, I confess shame in not really growing as much as I should have. [I’m not sure what I thought things would be like 35 years later, but one can be assured that I never dreamed I be teaching at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. This has certainly a gracious privilege from the Lord.] I am grateful for the mercy and grace of the Father during these years. I confess that I’m a slow learner when it comes to what God has been trying so patiently to teach me. For over 40 years now God has allowed me to serve Him in  ministry, and the questions that haunt me now more than ever are, “Am I being obedient? Am I growing in Him? Am I making an eternal difference in the lives of those around me?” As I ponder these questions on this "anniversary," I commit again "to keep on, keeping on."

Sometimes a funny glance at something you see brings back a flood of memories, and in this case, a time of self-evaluation. As David said in Psalm 139:23-24:

 “Search me, O God, and know my heart;
       test me and know my anxious thoughts.
  See if there is any offensive way in me,
       and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Reflections on Moments You Wish You Could Forget...

We had finally arrived in Nicaragua after language study in Costa Rica and I received an invitation to speak to a meeting of the pastors from the northern part of the country who had come for the annual convention. I was to speak on worship, but this was to be my first time in Spanish and I was so new to the country, I really didn’t know anyone who might be able to review what I had written to check the Spanish and was definitely still learning the differences in vocabulary, expressions, etc. I stood up to speak to some very kind and attentive brethren, many whose daily rural ministry meant walking miles just to visit members. When I finished, one dear brother raised his hand and asked my boss, Donatilo, “Hermano [brother], would you translate for this guy, we didn’t understand anything he said.”

Well, I had understood what he said and clearly. Inside I was totally crushed; I had tried and done my best, but it was woefully inadequate. It was a moment I wished that I could forget. What happened in the next two minutes probably did more to change the direction of my missionary journey than any other single moment in the 12 months prior to that point. Inside, I was ready to thank them for the opportunity that they had so graciously given me, go home, and give up on ever being effective as a communicator in the language, or even go back to the states where I at least could speak like an intelligent adult [at least most of the time]. At that moment Donatilo looked at the dear brother who had made the comment and told him, “No, I won’t translate, he can do it.” Then he turned to me and said, “Do it.” I was on the spot. There was no time to hide or give other options, so I started all over again, this time without so many notes and trying to explain in a different way and trying to make clearer what I had said. I thought I would die before I could finish, but I didn’t die and I did finish. I’m really not sure how much more the men there understood, but the greater issue was settled; don’t give up when it gets rough.  Donatilo continued to encourage a very young and green missionary the nearly 2 ½ years we served before leaving for our first furlough. It was a defining moment in my life: God has called us to persevere.

I can’t tell you how many times I have returned to that moment in the years that followed. I doubt if Donatilo realized how great a part he has played in my life, though I had shared my appreciation to him. He had the insight from having worked with new missionaries over the years to know how to correct and how to encourage. From that memory two truths have been burned into my heart: [1] the importance of encouraging in the right direction, even though it may be hard and even embarrassing, and [2] the importance of making right choices.

Young worship leaders get discouraged often. [By the way, they don’t have a corner on the market for discouragement, more experienced ones have their moments as well.] Sometimes through their own inexperience they make mistakes. In one of the first churches I in which I had the privilege to serve as music and youth director, I said something to some of the youth and one got mad and decided to walk home from camp. That would have been a good 5 miles and his parents were active members. He started hitch hiking and was picked up by one of the pastors who was serving as camp security. The pastor took him home and then returned to tell my pastor everything that had happened. I was devastated and asked the pastor is I needed to resign, since I was obviously failing. The pastor was a wise man in the Word with years of experience working with inexperienced young men like myself and said, “No, the world’s not over. Let’s just move on.” Things did get better, and I continued to learn more, probably in part because I realized that I needed to learn more than I thought I did before all this had happened.

Right encouragements help lead to right choices. No, I’m not saying that I have always made perfect choices during my life. I think you could ask my wife or children and they could fill you in on more than I would want to admit. But, by God’s grace, there were those crucial moments, those times, though not recognized as such then, that were defining moments in my life that the right choices were made. I will be the first to tell you they were never easy, if not painful. When we’re corrected, it is only natural to “jump to our own defense.” There very well may exist the need for clarification, but digging in and taking a defensive stand on everything rarely accomplishes anything. Those with more experience are able to see the “blind spots” in what we do and hearing them can help us avoid even greater problems later.  All of these things are part of learning how to make the right choices.

One of the realities with which we need to live is that we need to seek to continue to choose what is right over what is just convenient or trendy, even though it may not be popular. There are no short cuts to the making of a diamond. Without the heat and the pressure all you have is a lump of coal. Only as we allow God to mold us through the difficult situations in which we find ourselves can He complete the process of transformation He desires to see in our lives. We need to hear the calls to “do it again,” and not give up. We need to remember Who it was that called us in the first place and claim in prayer Phil. 1:6, “He who began the good work in you, He will carry it on unto completion...”  You might be saying, that’s well and good, but what about my situation? What should I be doing? Who can you encourage today? It may not be a defining moment in your life, but it might be in theirs. What hard choices are you facing? Remember Paul’s admonition in Romans 8:18: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” It's worth it and it's part of living of life that you will not regret later.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Disappointments, Expectations and Worship

Sometimes plans change, or are changed and you get caught in the middle. Even when you think that you were following God’s direction, all of a sudden you find yourself in completely different circumstances than what you had expected or planned. Did you miss God’s will? Did God speak and you just miss hearing His voice? Did you do something that caused God to stop talking? I would not pretend to understand how the Father chooses to reveal Himself, but I do know that many times in Scripture there were men and women who were trusting and following God and the answers did not come as they expected.

Abraham believed God would send a son through Sarah, but years passed and nothing happened. It was not until he was 100 and she was 90, when everything looked hopeless, did God step in and work in a way that would bring Him the most glory. Moses led the people to the Red sea and realized that although he was following  God’s plan as best he knew, it looked hopeless until God worked. In fact, the 40 years in the desert was a time of learning that Jehovah  was God over deserts, food, water, enemies and every situation they would encounter.  God chose not to fulfill the human expectation, but bring glory to His holy name.

Naaman, the pagan general, before Elisha is another wonderful example of misguided expectation. When the prophet told him to go and wash, he said, “I thought he would come out and wave his hand over the spot and say some words and make me clean, and all he says is go wash in a muddy river?”  Thankfully one of the general’s servants convinced him to obey and his response is one of worship to God alone.

To the disciples the greatest disappointment was the cross. Three and a half years of seeing the unbelievable, seeing even the dead raised to life must have made the disciples believe that Jesus was invincible. They must have felt that their position and power because of Him was secure.  ... And then there was the cross. I’m sure they passed those two nights without sleep in grief and vain attempts to figure out what had happened. Had they been deceived? When Jesus appeared to the after three days the depth of their despair turn into the heights of rejoicing. Indeed the risen Christ was Lord of all, their preconceived expectations melted as they watched him eat the fish and explain the Scripture, passages they knew, but did not understand.  Disappointments, failed expectations, all can cause us great anguish.

What about worship? I am not saying that sin will not block our understanding of God’s will or hearing His voice. But sometimes the way God teaches us to trust Him is in the silence of obedience in unfulfilled expectation. We walk into a worship service, having confessed our sins, claimed the love and forgiveness of the Father, thanked Him for such grace and mercy and expected an incredible experience of worship, only to hear ...nothing......just silence. Our expectation might have led us to believe that we would feel something “extra” today or there would something quite special and unique about the service and nothing happened.  Yes, we need to check to see if there is something wrong, but this just might also be a time of silence that we must stand in obedience and worship with only the assurance that God is Who He says He is and will do what He says He will do. 

The measure of our worship is not based on our expectations, but the assurance of God’s nature and character. My thoughts, feelings, emotions change like the tides of the sea, but God never changes. Our worship is not dependent on the feelings that can be generated in response to a sermon or song, but on the obedient response to the revelation of God’s nature and character.  Let’s give Him our expectations, our disappointments, and bow in worship, even if it’s in silence.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Elephant in the Room in Worship: Sinning While We Worship?

Recently, I was listening to some worship music while driving on the highway and was truly in an spirit of worship. Unfortunately, it was enough to distract my eye on the speedometer. When I did look down, I noticed that I was above the speed limit. Well I foot went off the accelerator and returned to the legal speed, but the incident really initiated thinking through what had happened and if what I had done was "sin." If breaking the speed limit is wrong, that is, "sin," then regardless of the fact that I thought I was worshiping, I was really breaking the law.  The question to raise is was I really worshiping God, while I was speeding? Ignorance of the law does not take away from the fact that I was speeding. Obviously, the solution is not to drive and do things that are distracting and I now do take steps to watch things. But, in the eyes of my heavenly Father, do all the warm feelings of worship that I had translate into worship, even though I was violating the very laws He has commanded that I obey?  Think about Paul's admonition in I Cor. 14:15: "I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind."  There is a conscious act of the will in worship that must be acknowledged. I realize that there may be those that might not agree with the conclusion, but I really believe that my experience cannot be called "worship."   This leads me to the next issue.                       

I hesitate to mention the following, but I really believe that it is an issue that worship leaders need to deal with on an honest level.  It is an "elephant in the room," and because it is a very emotional one, with would rather not mention it because it involves personal opinion as well as scientific fact. To what am I referring? — The volume of some worship services. "Loud" is a totally subjective term, because what may be loud to one  person, might not be to another. For this reason, I will talk in terms of decibels and decibel levels, or "dbs," which is the measure of sound pressure. {I would encourage those interested to Google "causes of hearing loss" or go to to get more information.} Basically, exposure to 85 dbs for an hour can cause hearing impairment; just if the sound level peaks at 120 dbs, damage is caused to a child's hearing and above that can cause impairment to hearing in an adult. Hearing loss is insidious, acting almost secretly, generally doing its damage without any major "red flags" to call attention to itself. None the less, the damage is done and the process of hearing loss has begun.   

Because of the nature of the sound equipment and amplification systems used in many worship services, the level of sound pressure exceeds the “safe” limit for hearers. I was recently in one service that the level in the hallway outside the service was above the limit, not to mention what was going on inside. There were people from all ages there and my question was, “Are those leading worship aware of the damage they are causing to those who have gathered to worship?” “Are the parents of those children aware that their children’s hearing is being seriously affected by continual exposure to these levels of sound?” Unfortunately the cochlea [The cochlea is a hollow tube inside the inner ear that is coiled to resemble a snail's shell. It is to the cochlea that sound vibrations picked up by the middle ear are carried. ] really doesn’t know the difference between a praise song and a jet taking off, all it knows is that it is now damaged.

As worship leaders, we need to step up to the plate and face the issue honestly. Many people love the “loud” music, and some even say it gives them a “rush” to listen to it. The “rush” they feel is the endorphins the body is releasing to deal with the pain it is experiencing. It is normal chemical reaction. Until we can face this honestly and take some pro-active steps to curtail the negative effects, we are leading others in worship and causing them physical harm at the same time. Lawsuits could follow. [I know of a major university that already has to have students sign a waiver saying that to enroll in a particular instrumental ensemble so that the university is exempt from any liability of their hearing loss for fear of legal action against them.]

I know that many will say, "Look, it's been that way since the first portable cassette players and headphones. Some will be listening to stuff in their cars louder than what they hear in church." And I certainly agree, basically. Let's look at it from another angle. For decades smoking was considered a social norm and the worst problem was the smoke that stained walls or clothes. Then the links came to light that it was really harmful; not only harmful, but addictive and deadly. The difference was that although the activity itself had not changed, research had shown some things that were not know previously. Or take for example a coach who does things that are actually  injuring the players during workouts. Would parents still want to send their children to that kind of coach?  Doubtful. As far as the volume and hearing injury goes, we now know some things that we didn't know before and we don't want to be like the coach that would sacrifice the health of his players just to win a game.

What can be done? Get a decibel meter and check things out. [I have one on my Iphone and it works great.] Learn to use it to check levels, and if its too high, turn things down. [By the way, this can happen just as well with a pipe organ as it can with an electric guitar and bass.] We are accountable to God for the stewardship of what we do. The pressure of the culture is great and many will want to play like it’s always been like this. [Part of the problem is that the real damage doesn’t always show up until about 10 years later, and the exposure has been long term.]

I pray that this will be received in the spirit in which it was given. I long for all generation to be able to hear the praises of God for years to come, to be able to hear their children and grandchildren praising God. But, to do this, we need to face the “elephant in the room.”

Friday, October 8, 2010

Prayer and Worship

Prayer is the breath of discipleship; God’s Word is our food. Congregational worship that is weak these areas will be anemic in others as well. How can our times of prayer in worship become more effective? One way is to pray Scripture. An simple way to start is to start with the prayers of Paul in the New Testament. Take for example, Paul’s prayer for the church at Colossae [1:9-12]:
“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.” [NIV]

Paraphrase into your own words as a prayer to the Father:

We have not stopped praying for ____ and asking You, God to:
fill ___ with the knowledge of Your will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.
in order that ___ may live a life worthy of You, Lord
and may please You in every way:
bearing fruit in every good work
growing in the knowledge of You
being strengthened with all power according to Your glorious might
so that ___ may have great endurance and patience
and joyfully giving thanks to You, Father, who has qualified ___ to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.

Another prayer of Paul’s is found in Philippians 1:9-11:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Praying this passage would look something like this:

    And this is my prayer: that ________ love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that _______ may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Praying Scripture not only deepens our prayer life, but puts the Word of God in our hearts and minds.

Look at the prayer of Jesus in John 17: 15-26:
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

 My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.

This is a great chapter to memorize, but let’s pull out what Jesus was praying:
    1. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.
    2. Sanctify them by the truth
    3. that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
    4. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory

Pray this as well. We know that this is God’s will, since it came from the lips of our Lord, himself. Protection from Satan’s deceptions, oneness in Him, and unity among each other are powerful requests. Paul’s prayers center around the development of God’s nature and character in our lives to accomplish what God has called and commanded us to do. Strengthening our prayer life will also strengthen our worship.