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Friday, July 8, 2022

A Neglected Part of Worship Leadership

 Yes, there are many neglected parts of worship leadership, but here is one that we may not hear much about because it touches an area that we can conveniently allow to slide by and ignore. [I am indebted to Dr. Jessica McMillan for the genesis of these thoughts when she was asked in an interview for faculty her thoughts on a call to ministry and worship leadership. Her response has stuck with me since that day: “First, I am called to make disciples.”  What follows is some thoughts her response has spurred in me.]

Bypassing Discipleship
I have no doubt that God called me into the worship leadership roles that I have had, however, my first and foremost calling is that to be and make disciples. The Great Commission is not the Great Suggestion, but a command for all believers. Leading worship is not a substitute for it. Making disciples is more than just proclamation, though it certainly includes it. 

To make disciples we first must be one– a follower of Christ who is growing daily in an intimate relationship with God and His Word. There are no substitutes for quality time in the study and application of God’s Word and allowing His Holy Spirit to mold us into what He desires. Because there are many good resources in this area, I am going to move on to making disciples. 

The Great Commission
Matthew’s account in 28:18-20 lays the foundation for what all believers are called to do: “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’”  

I’m sure you have heard some powerful messages on this passage, so I just want to highlight a few points. [1] Jesus has the authority to command and expect obedience. [2] The word “go” here is better translated, “as you go;” the command is to make disciples. [3] the implication is that they must first hear, understand, and respond to the Good News of what Christ has done and then baptize them, that outward sign of inward change and a new life and identification with Christ. We also must continue working with them by teaching them what Christ taught and how to obey by word and example. A goal in discipleship is that our nature and character becomes more and more a reflection of Christ Himself, in our words, actions, and emotions. 

Teaching Through What We Sing
Leading worship can be one means of teaching, provided that the lyrics being sung are theologically sound, but there must be individual involvement as well. Paul’s admonition in Colossians 3:16 gives some great guidelines for worship leadership: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” The Word of Christ in us flows to those around us by what we sing and by example. We can teach and admonish one another through the songs we sing provided tat they focus on Christ and His teaching. Failing to teach through what we sing means we are missing that opportunity for discipleship. 

Doing this “with all wisdom” and “with gratitude” can be challenging. “With all wisdom” implies that we are doing it [1] with a biblical understanding of what worship is, [2] with an understanding of what the message and teachings of Christ are, [3] doing it in such a way that is effective, and [4] doing it in such a way the Christ is glorified, not the messenger. “With gratitude” implies that we are ever mindful of the great sacrifice that Christ made so that He might redeem us from our sin by His grace. This needs to be done in more than in a group setting, but with individuals so the details of how to apply what is being sung can become part of the process. The most effective discipleship is done one-on-one or in small groups. We need to not confuse an emotional response with a song with an obedience response to God’s Word. 

What We Sing, Not Just How
We need to reconsider what we are teaching each time we stand to lead, as well as how we are doing it. Mapping out the theological themes and biblical teaching of the lyrics and coordinating them with the message is one way we might be able to do this more effectively. Another step would be to review all the songs sung in the past 3-4 months [or a year would be better] to see what has been presented and if it has been done in such a way that we are helping the congregation to build a canon of songs that they will know well enough that they are part of their heart songs. Doing this would also reveal those things which we are overlooking in our sung worship.  A lot more could be said, but I trust this might help start some conversations and help us to become more aware of an area that is being neglected in worship leadership. 

I welcome responses of how this is being done so we can all learn more.


Wednesday, July 6, 2022

The Dangers of a Velcro Heart….

 The Dangers of a Velcro Heart….  To what or who are we attached?

It was July 1978, and we were attending a reception as part of the newly commissioned missionaries in Richmond, VA at the home of the Dr. Baker James Cauthen, then Secretary of the Foreign Mission Board [later, International Mission Board]. We were excited and moved at the testimonies of the others that had responded to God’s call as we had done and were soaking in the wisdom from veteran missionaries and Dr. Cauthen. In a small group that had gathered around him, he shared some wisdom that had been shared to him as he and his wife were preparing to leave and serve in China years before: “Never wrap your heart around what you can carry in your hands…” Though I understood what he meant; the implications of the statement grew over the next several years.

God was so gracious. During orientation and the year of language study we developed friendships that we cherish to this day. After completing a year of language study in Costa Rica, we had to stay an additional two months for the birth our our youngest, David, and because of the war in Nicaragua, the country to which we were headed. We had excellent care for our newborn and proceeded to war torn Managua, where things were difficult and many things were scarce as a result of the fighting. Dr. Cauthen’s words would come to mind many times during the next years as we completed our first term and were unable to return because of the continued conflicts. God then opened the door for us to serve in Panama. During the next ten years God continued to show His love and faithfulness, as we grew to love the people, and loved the ministries to which God had called us. The embargo and invasion gave opportunity to see God as work even more.

God was so gracious. Later God led us to fill a need at the Baptist Spanish Publishing House in El Paso as a music editor, where we worked and served in a local church for six years until God called us to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to do doctoral work. God’s call to make disciples and train leaders developed into a teaching role. During the next twenty-four years God provided and walked with us as we became professors at the seminary, taught in Cuba, walked through the death of our parents, and through cancer for both Kathy and me. Dr. Cauthen’s words began to take on expanded meaning: we must always be careful that we don’t attach ourselves to the things which make us comfortable, but places, or even people as well. We can love, appreciate, and thank God for them but never let them supersede the priority of Christ as our highest desire in our lives.

God is so gracious. This year we “retired,” though we still will have a limited teaching role and moved once again this time to be close to family. We have loved the people in every place God has allowed us to serve, however, He has led us to not “hold in our hearts a place, but the person of Jesus.” Paul’s admonition in Col. 3 has been a part of my call from the beginning and now has taken on new meaning: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” [Col. 3:1-2] As we approach this final part of what God has called us to here in this life , we want to continue to have the right focus.

Our desires for people, places, and things are so much like Velcro, grabbing our attention and our affections that we miss the ultimate purpose and calling in our lives: an eternal relationship with Him. I like what C. S. Lewis said in the Weight of Glory:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

My prayer is that God would help us deliver us from our Velcro heart and mold and shape our hearts to long for Him.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Worshiping a Memory: 2 Kings 18:4

 He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)  2 Kings 18:4

Someone reading this for the first time might wonder why Moses made a bronze snake in the first place. Numbers 21:4-5 gives us the background: 

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Rather than looking to God for help [remember God had parted the waters and they had passed through the sea on dry land, a great miracle], they began to [1] get impatient– God was not working on their timeline and [2] began to complain, looking at their lack of provisions rather than looking to their Provider. To help them refocus, God sends the snakes, but also sends the remedy: He tells Moses to make a snake of bronze and put it on a pole; all who would look on the pole would be healed. Moses does and God keeps His promise healing all those who would look.  “So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” [Number 21:9] 

Fast forward several hundred years and the people of God had begun worship the bronze snake. What had been a reminder of God’s grace and provision for their sin had become an object of worship in and of itself. Rather than remembering the lesson of God’s forgiveness and provision for their complaining and not looking to God as their Provider, they had begun to worship the memory of the occasion focusing on the object that symbolized it all.

As we review all the great things that God has done in the past, we can easily slip into worshiping the memory of a great work of God and delighting more in being a part of it than focusing on God who was the source of the great work. 

We recently “retired” from teaching [though we will still teach some in a limited capacity] and also celebrated 48 of married life. While reading the above passage this morning in my devotional time, God reminded me that as I recall the great and wonderful things that He has done over the years, I must closely guard my heart in delighting in the memory of the feelings and what others might have said at that time more than focusing on our loving God who was the source of it all. 

The next time you read about Moses and the bronze snake, let this be a reminder to you as well. 


Wednesday, December 29, 2021

My Prayer for My Students in 2022

1. That they would have a deep and consistent time in getting to know and trust God better; knowing that in asking that they are asking God to lead them through situations and circumstances that will stretch their faith.

2. A growing understanding that their worth is based not on their performance, but on what Christ has done in their lives so that their desire for excellence would grow out of gratitude and not from trying to prove they are better than others.

3. That they would realize that their gifts and talents are merely the frame around the picture of Christ’s nature and character that He is building in their lives.

4. That giving God thanks and praise and responding in obedience to Him is at the heart of pleasing God.

5. That as we get to know God more intimately, our desire to please Him grows.

6. That they would be willing to ask themselves their inner motivations and ask God to purify what is not consistent with His will.

7. That they would realize that they are not studying for just a particular class, but for the development of discipline and life skills that God wants them to learn through the class.

8. That they would realize that there are no shortcuts to character development.

9. That learning the material, developing the skills, and relating to others in godliness is as an  important than getting the degree.

10. Understanding and accepting their limits; that they cannot do everything and must learn to make wise choices of what God desires.

11. That they would learn to ask and think through the future ramifications of the choices they make today.

12. That they would forgive and seek forgiveness, releasing to God the vengeance desired and readily admitting wrong committed.

13. That they would worship God in Spirit and truth and lead others to do the same.

14. When discouraged and going through difficult times, that they would remember the four corners of “The Square” [a] God is in Control [b] God loves them and is always near, [c] God has a plan for their lives [d] They can trust God.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Dealing with Discouragement 1 Kings 19

We all face discouragement: circumstances change, jobs, people, even ourselves, —we get overwhelmed, can’t seem to see a “way out” and just want to to push the button and say, “ok, I quit, I’ve had enough!”  Learning how to deal with these feelings is a major step in our growth as a Christian and walking daily with the Lord.  After a quick review of an event in the life of Elijah, we will look at some specific ways God dealt with the prophet that can help us with discouragement when it comes our way.

The prophet comes on the scene in chapter 17 as he proclaims God’s declaration of no rain, which would last for 3½ years. King Ahab, Israel’s monarch of the northern tribes had fostered idolatry across the kingdom. In God’s timing to end the drought, the prophet is commanded to confront the king and challenge those that are responsible for turning the people’s hearts against God. 

Directed by God, Elijah calls for a public challenge between Yaweh and Baal, the Canaanite storm god and bringer of rain. The prophets of Baal were to offer their sacrifice and Elijah his; the god who answered by fire would prove himself to be truly God. For several hours the prophets of Baal cried out with all their might and by all possible means, but no fire came. Elijah even made fun of them. Then when it was Elijah’s turn, he repaired the altar built for the sacrifice which the other prophets had tried to destroy it in their frenzies. Water was then poured over the entire sacrifice 3 different times.  Elijah prayed and fire fell consuming everything so that nothing is left. The people erupted in praise declaring the Yaweh was God alone and then the 450 prophets of Baal were killed. 

Ahab told his wife, Jezebel, that the prophet had killed all of the prophets of Baal, the god she worshiped, but nothing of what God had done. She vowed to have Elijah killed, so he fled for his life, going as far south as the southern edge of the kingdom of Judah, out of Ahab’s rule. He leaves his servant there and goes a day’s journey into the desert. Convinced his life and ministry have been fruitless, he tells God, “It’s enough! Everything I’ve done is worthless!” 

In chapter 19 we see the same prophet who called down fire from heaven so discouraged, he is ready to die. What happened? I’m sure there is much more, but I would like to make a few suggestions to show how God worked in Elijah’s life to bring change and restoration. Let’s trace what happened:

1. The prophet was physically exhausted. In 18:45-46 we read that Ahab rode back to town after the showdown on Mt. Carmel, but that Elijah ran and beat him there. Sometimes we keep pushing to go own, whether because the situation is so dire we just can’t stop or that we just because we have developed habits of burning the candle at both ends. Regardless, our bodies will begin to send warnings. For Elijah, his strength to focus was lost.

2. He lost his focus on God and focused on his fear of Jezebel because of his weakened condition.  He began to make poor choices. He left his servant in Beersheba, perhaps for the servant’s protection from the queen, but in doing so he lost companionship, encouragement, and any sounding board that might have helped him think differently.

3. God continued to watch out and direct His prophet. Elijah was alone, depressed, exhausted, discouraged and finally collapsed into a long sleep. God provided food [not unlike what he had been eating with the widow for 3½ years], and fell asleep again. God’s angel woke the prophet again and instructed him to eat otherwise the journey would be too much for him. Elijah then traveled 40 days [200 miles] to Mt. Horeb without eating, reminiscent of Moses receiving the law after 40 days of fasting in the same place. Elijah then found a cave in which to rest.

4. God began to help him change his thinking.  God asked him: “What are you doing here?” That sounds odd, since God was the one who led him there, so there must have been more to the question. Elijah’s answer seemed almost rehearsed, perhaps a thoughts and words that played a continual loop in his mind: “I’ve been obedient, but it hasn’t made any difference and they are trying to kill me.”  His physical condition and circumstances had led to distorted thought patterns. He had forgotten the great victory God had just given and the people’s declaration that only Yahweh was God. Instead of Jezebel, now an nebulous group called “they” were out to kill him.

5. God responded in a way that Elijah was not expecting. Rather than respond to the prophet’s commentary, God sent him out to the mouth of the cave where God would pass by, again, like Moses. There was a powerful wind, but God didn’t speak, an earthquake, but no voice, and a raging fire; still God did not speak. All three of these could have been understood as things God would use to display His power and might, but God didn’t choose to speak through them. Instead, after all three, there was a period of silence and the prophet heard a still small whisper. Sometimes God speaks in ways that we are not expecting.  We need to listen carefully in the times of silence.

6. God repeated the same question. To get a better grasp of the situation, it might be helpful for us to repeat the question, but change the emphasis on the words:

— What are you doing here, Elijah? 

     Hiding in a cave? Running away? Am I not the one who protects?

— What are you doing here, Elijah?  

     You are my prophet, my voice, your life and mission are wrapped up in my will for you.

Unfortunately, Elijah was stuck in his distorted thoughts. He responded with the exact same words as before as if God didn’t hear it the first time.

7. God shared His truth about the situation. God sent him back to anoint two foreign kings and a replacement to take his place as prophet, but just as important, God shared His truth and reality of the situation that Elijah did not know: there were 7000 in Israel who were faithful and had not bowed down to Baal. Rather than chastising the prophet, God helped him see God’s truth and called him to obedient service once more.  When we get stuck in distorted thoughts, we need to go back and ask ourselves, “What is the truth of God in this situation?” and be obedient. God’s command showed the prophet that God still had work for him to do and that his work would not be in vain; it wasn’t all left up to Elijah, but God to carry on His will.

Ministry and life in general are challenging; relationships, jobs, illness, and a host of other issues can lead us down a path toward becoming discouraged. However, we don’t have to stay there; there is hope. 

Hope in our God that is ever watching over us, even when we are down. 

Hope that His plan is perfect, even when we can’t see the way. 

Hope in seeing the truth of God in difficult situations and being obedient to His will.