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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Waiting on God

Waiting on God is never an easy process. We live in a “I want it now” culture and a world where information is instantaneously available on our mobile phones. Whether it is waiting in line, or at a traffic light, our impatience readily reveals itself when we have to wait another 30 seconds. Another reality is that God is timeless. He spoke the universe into being from nothing and exists outside of the limitations of time and space. Through Jesus Christ, God broke through these limitations to reveal Himself and provide the means by which we can come to know and have a relationship with Him. Everything God does is complete, perfect, and right, for it is His very nature to do so. Scripture says that “in the fulness of time, God sent His Son...” that is, at the exact moment, not a day later or earlier, but at the perfect time. God is aware of our limitations, since He made us.

God works on a schedule and timetable much different than ours; – much different than ours. Which leads us to think at times that He is not aware of our situation. – After all, if He knows everything, why do we have to tell Him and ask Him about our needs in prayer? I make no claims to be able to understand how God works, or to have all the answers. In fact, the very reason that “waiting on God” is the subject of this blog is because I am struggling with it myself. Some much could be said, but let’s remember that God doesn’t want us to ask Him for our needs and tell Him about our condition because He is unaware. He does so that we might realize our continued need of Him, and to build His nature and character into us. (I realize much more need be said, but it will have to wait for another blog.)

One of the passages of Scripture that comes to me when I think about “waiting on God” is Isaiah 40:31: “but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” So I began to study that and related passages for help. (In the process, I did find an interesting article on the subject by J. Hampton Keathley III [] that gave some great background on the biblical understanding of the word “wait” in the Old and New Testaments.) There are several words that are translated “wait,” but the idea in the Old Testament most often is “look patiently, wait, hope, expect, look eagerly, wait expectantly.” In the New Testament the word is most often used related to the return of our Lord. As I continued to study the passage, I looked for the context of Isaiah 40, the chapter of comfort, and focused on verses 27-31:

27 Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God”? 28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. 29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

Notice that in verse 27 the people find themselves in trouble and begin to question not only “Does God know?” [My way is hidden from the LORD] but, “Does He even care about our circumstances?” [my cause is disregarded by my God]. When we are in distress we often think that God has forgotten us. We think that if God were watching out for me, why would I be going through this difficult period? Remember Mary’s question to Jesus about her brother Lazarus’ death: “Lord, if you had been here, he would not have died..” That is to say, “You didn’t come when I really needed you and now look what has happened!” The truth is that we are never out of His sight. Look at Psalm 139:

1 O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. 5 You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. 13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, 16 your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. 17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you. 19 If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men! 20 They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. 21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you? 22 I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies. 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

After addressing their misconception about God, God reminds them “who” He is in verses 28-29: “28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. 29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.” When in the midst of a difficult time it is easy to forget who God is. We need to go back and remember what the real truth is about God. Yahweh [LORD] is the relational God, the everlasting God, who has always been here and will always be, He is the Creator of the universe, and creates out of nothing, the All Powerful One who never gets tired. He understands and knows everything. He gives strength and provides for the needs of those who seek Him. Failure to seek and wait on God is saying that God is not sufficient for the problems we face.

Verses 30-31 reminds the people to remember who they are: “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope [wait] in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” The reality of human existence is that we get tired, we get old, we make mistakes. That isn’t a possibility; it is a fact. BUT, those that wait, hope, look eagerly, and wait expectantly in Yahweh, will renew their strength. They will continue to go on, sometimes like eagles, sometimes running, sometimes just walking, but always making progress. Not from their own strength, but from Him who creates out of nothing. That’s good, because we have nothing to really offer; we bring nothing to the table.

Look what the sons of Korah said in Psalm 42:1-5:“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? 3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” 4 These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng. 5 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” The word for “hope” here is the same as “wait.”

What can we do when we feel we just cannot go on? What can we do when we feel that God has forgotten that we exist? We “wait” on God. How? For starters go back over what Scripture teaches:

1. Go back to the truth of the situation: God knows me and loves me. Read Psalm 139 and John 3:16 out loud two or three times. Read them slow. Think about what God is saying.

2. Go back to the truth of Who God is. Name His attributes, His character qualities, His names. He is Creator of the universe, creates out of nothing, the All Powerful One, He never gets tired, He understands and knows everything. He give strength and provides for the needs of those who seek Him.

3. Go back to the truth of your own weakness. Only a fool would pretend that he or she never makes mistakes and never has problems, or never grows tired of the circumstances around them.

4. Go back to the truth of God’s promise to those that seek, hope, and wait on Him. The ability to persevere in difficult times is not dependent on us, but power of God’s Spirit in us. It is an act of faith, an act of the will, not emotions. Thank God for Who He is. Thank God for what He has done in the past. Praise God for His unchangeable nature and call out to Him presenting your needs and concerns, but in faith, asking for His perfect will. Believe God to act. Then, “look patiently, hope, expect, look eagerly, and wait expectantly.”

As we learn to wait on God, we grow in our relationship and faith in who God is and leave a heritage of testimonies of God’s faithfulness for those around us.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Worship Leaders: How to Help the Singer with “Stage Fright”

Working with small music groups in ministry is a joy and a challenge. There is an immense amount of joy in being part of the spiritual growth and encouragement to believers as well as an instrument in sharing the message of the Gospel through music. At the same time, we realize that we are working with volunteers who might have some experience musically, but very few actually have professional musical training. One of the most common problems that I have found with these volunteers is the singer with stage fright, being shy or being overly nervous when he or she has to sing solo in front of a group. How can we help these who are involved in the ministry to overcome the anxiety that can hamper their ability to function effectively? Allow me to share five things that I have found to helpful and trust that they will be helpful to you as well.

1. Realize that our worth comes from what Christ has done in our lives, not from any abilities that we might have. We live in a performance based culture where human worth is based on how much talent one might have or how well one might perform. The value of the individual is equated with his output. One of the problems with this line of reasoning is that we become valuable only as long as we are useful or more useful than others. Such a pragmatic view sees those that have little talent, old, disabled, etc., as less than valuable and are a burden on society. They really have little, if any, real value.

When Christ comes into our lives, He gives us eternal life, forgiveness, and true worth based on His own nature and character. Our value comes from what He has done in and through our lives, and we are freed from cultural limitations and expectations that defines our worth. Whether I can sing as good as someone else, or play an instrument as well as someone else doesn't really matter; what really matters is who God says I am: a child of His. I no longer have to compare myself to others to see if I measure up, because my audience is God, Himself, and He has accepted me through His Son. We have no reason to fear not measuring up to the standards of someone because we have already been accepted through Christ Jesus.

2. Be well prepared. There are no substitutes for the hours of practice. Preparation includes many things: spiritual preparation, mental preparation, as well as the preparation that comes from hours of correct practice. Singers that are nervous because they don't know their music from lack of rehearsal have a reason to be nervous. However, adequate preparation can help alleviate those insecurities. Distractions can come at inopportune moments and the singer who is the least bit unprepared will forget words, etc.

One thing that I have found helpful is to have the person sing in front of a mirror. Although it may be uncomfortable at first for the singer, singing in front of a mirror is generally enough distraction to show how well they know the music and is good practice in how to deal with distractions as they come.

3. Sing small sections as a solo first. Before giving a big solo to an inexperienced singer, help them ease into a solo role by letting them sing a short solo as part of a group song. This can help build confidence burden of being responsible for an entire song.

4. When the singer is going to sing solo, especially for the first time, let them practice in the place where they will be singing, but with no one else around. Let them get used to the area and begin to feel comfortable being out in front and not just part of a group. This may take several rehearsals for them to really begin to relax.

5. Encourage, encourage, encourage!
You will be helping and evaluating them during these practice sessions and it is better to find three things to compliment before you even mention one thing they need to correct.

A word of caution. If the Worship Leader cannot find anything to praise them on, then he or she is responsible in at least two ways: [1] they chose the person to do the solo in the first place and should have known better, and [2] they need more training in working with volunteers.

Dr. Frank Stovall, an outstanding voice teacher at Southwestern Seminary while I was a student there once said in class, “if you are teaching a student voice and cannot find anything on which to compliment the student, you have no business teaching voice.” I have never forgotten it. We as “teachers” may have issues of our own that need to be corrected, such as pride, or trying to prove to the person that we know more than they, etc., and need to be more sensitive to the needs of those with which God has called us to work. Look at the posture, their breathing, their enthusiasm, their attitude, etc., but find some things that they are doing and encourage them.

I trust that these suggestions will go a long way to help you when working with volunteer singers, and that God will be glorified in your work and ministry.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Seven Things I have Learned from our Cuban Brothers and Sisters in Christ

Those that know us well know that we served 20 years with the International Mission Board of the SBC, and since coming to the Seminary here at NOBTS, have the privilege of some 15 trips to Cuba, serving in teaching in our respective areas. Although we do teach, the reality is I believe they have taught me more than I have shared with them. As we prepare to go again I am reminded of what God is doing and fill my heart with joy. There are many more, but I would like to briefly share seven:

1. Jesus is Lord and God is in control. We can trust Him, He is faithful.
2. God will supply our needs.

Knowing these truths is basic to our walk with the Father, seeing them daily lived out in simple faith is life changing. “Contentment with godliness is much gain.”

3. Mega resources cannot guarantee worship, nor are they necessary for real worship.
4. Real worship is not dependent on keeping up with the latest trends.

So many times I have heard the phrase, “ if only we had ____....” and fill in the blank with “a new building,” “new equipment,” “a praise team,” etc. I have seen first hand that Jesus is enough. We can throw all the money in the world at technologies, and other things, but nothing can replace someone with an obedient faith that is committed to God and to worship Him and share God’s love with others.
Having these other things is not bad, but too often we fall into the trap of trusting in the externals to do what only God can do.

5. The prayer offered in faith is powerful and effective.
6. Worship is about God alone.

Time after time I have observed times of prayer, not to approve plans already made, but earnestly seeking the Father’s direction. Being a part of brothers and sisters in Christ praising God for who He is and thanking Him for what He has done and is doing, focusing on Him alone to meet needs is an experience I will never forget. Some of the most accomplished musicians I have ever met serve the Lord in Cuba, yet they know that “worship is not the music.” I have seen so many of these musicians committed to high standards of excellence, not willing to offer to the Lord anything less than the best they have to offer, yet they understand that worship is not entertainment. Worship is about God alone.

7. The Joy of the Lord is my strength.

I have observed real joy and deep fellowship. I have laughed literally until I cried and cherish the precious times God has allowed us to share. They have made us feel like we are family. They have shown me a new depth of joy in the Lord.

I realize that these are not unique to a group of individuals in a single locale. There are many places where any or all of these truths might be evident, but I share these from my own recent experience, and am indebted to believers there.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Future of Worship Leaders

Once upon a time in a land far, far away churches never had any problems getting a worship leader. In the center of the town was a magical tree, called the “Worship Leader Tree” and all a church had to do was go to the tree and say, “Oh Tree, we need a worship leader, please give us one!” Out from the tree came a young energetic worship leader, trained in singing, playing the guitar, leading groups, and knowledgeable of all the new songs and most of the old ones.

We all know that such a tree does not exist, yet if we are not careful we are acting as if it does by failing make the preparations necessary so that there will be men and women adequately trained to lead worship. Perhaps the biggest area of neglect lies in the lack of children’s choirs and those trained to lead them. Because public school music programs are generally one of the first targets of budget cuts, and many grade schools have no real music program whatsoever, churches have become the last stand for early music preparation. The development of learning to match pitch and sing with a melody are basic, yet the most crucial time in the life of an individual to learn these things is precisely when it is not available.

Lowell Mason, the composer of the melody for many hymns, including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” was the first to start music in the public schools in Boston, and he did so to help the worship in churches. The singing and leadership in the churches at that time was deplorable to say the least. Mason knew that if he, as a director, would only be able to help one church, but if he could teach children in public schools, he would be able to have a much greater influence. School administrators were very hesitant at first, thinking that only a few people were gifted enough to be musicians and that singing was not for everyone. It wasn’t long after Mason’s experimental group proved otherwise that the movement exploded across the country. It is now hard to imagine a time when music was not a part of the fabric of a child’s growing years, but we are approaching that time.

With public school music on the decline and fewer churches providing opportunities for children to learn to sing, such as children’s choirs, we are growing a generation of believers that are being conditioned to just “listen,” but never learn to “sing,” much less “lead.” So much focus has been placed on one and two day workshops that “train” worship leaders, that many churches have completely overlooked where these future leaders are formed: children’s choirs. A wise ministry is one that has a planned process for leadership training from the children on up through adults. Teaching children how to sing and making it an enjoyable experience lays the groundwork for children to want to continue in a youth choir or an ensemble. As these children and youth learn how to lead in worship by sharing in the service with their songs, we lay the foundations for the worship leaders for the near future.

Large churches may have more resources for this ministry, but there are many more small congregations than large ones and even if we can begin with two or three children, we will be able to reach more children in more areas. Leaders spend a large amount of time with their choirs and praise teams, but rarely think of the long term consequences of not teaching children and youth. It is almost as if we believed that there were a “magical worship leader tree.” I am praying that God would raise up worship leaders with the vision of a ministry that is bigger than just what is visible with the group, but that is committed to raising up a new generation of believers who understand what biblical worship is and to teach it to children and youth. I am praying that God would move men and women past their comfort zones to seek the training necessary to help these children and youth and that from the youngest to the oldest we would be able to worship in Sprit and truth.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

ATVs: Three Qualities that Make the Difference in Leading

An “ATV” may be an “All Terrain Vehicle,” but in leadership it stands for authenticity, transparency, vulnerability. There are many other character qualities that those who lead worship must have, but those that deal with people skills are some of the most crucial. Let’s look at these one by one:

Authenticity: The idea is that is not simply a copy, but the real thing, it’s genuine. I remember seeing stamped on the inside cover of a Bible I had as a child “genuine leather,” indicating that it wasn’t some sort of plastic, but the real stuff. Leaders who are authentic are the “real stuff” as well. How they act in public is the same in private. Recently I accidently dropped some coins and failed to hear the familiar “ring” of real copper and silver hitting a hard floor. Picking them up it was obvious that they were not solid, but a mixture of inferior metals. They had the appearance of the real thing, but were not of the same quality. Godly leadership “rings true” regardless where it is and with whom it relates. What they know from Scripture is what they practice. Character and integrity are not just subjects talked about, but practiced.

Transparency: Willingness to share weakness and admit wrong seems on the surface to be counterproductive. The idea here is not that the person is perfect, since only Jesus Christ is the only one on this Earth that has ever been and will ever be perfect. All of the rest of us are not. So, we are not talking about perfection, but the ability to recognize one’s on limitations and the humility to be open to share those weaknesses with those whom God has called us to serve. When we fail to admit our weaknesses, we only fool ourselves. Those around us generally are painfully aware of those areas in our lives in which we fail to function properly and many times are suffering under the situation. True leaders not only recognize and admit their weaknesses, but bring along side of them those that are strong in those areas and do not feel threatened.

Another part of transparency is the willingness to receive criticism and be informed about blind spots. When our son was taking a drivers education class the instructor made a statement that our son shared with me later. The teacher said that the blind spot in the typical vehicle is big enough for an 18-wheeler to fit in and not be seen. That is a startling fact, but just as big are the “blind spots” in our own character. How many “18 wheelers” of unloving attitudes, pride, unforgiveness, to mention a few are lurking near us ready to cause ministry collisions? If we are not open to hearing about our blind spots, or do not have those with whom we can receive such information, it is only a matter of time before things come crashing down.

We must always be wise in our transparency, for the time and place for such openness is just as crucial as the act of sharing itself. However, this should not be an excuse to avoid being transparent, especially within a group that we accountable.

Vulnerability: Vulnerability is closely linked to transparency, in fact one cannot exist without the other. For there to be true transparency, one must be willing to be vulnerable. It is risky. All manner of fears come to our minds: What will people think if I tell them that I have trouble with my prayer life? What will they think if I admit weakness in other areas? Transparency and vulnerability allow others to see the human side of leadership and help “take them off the pedestal,” allowing identification to take place. Is this biblical? Let’s see what Paul has to say in Romans 7:19 “ For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” If the apostle Paul was honest about his life, should not we be as well? Is it worth it? I think the choice is obvious: We have a choice to remain disconnected from those around us, or we can become bridges and models of how to apply the truth of Scripture in our lives. Godly leaders are authentic, transparent, and vulnerable because the command to make disciples requires it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Worship Leaders, Control Freaks, and Other Leaders

Planning services, rehearsing music, checking on set ups, checking sound and lights, – the list of what those that lead worship have to do could go on and on. Some of these activities are things that are our primary responsibility, while others are things that have been absorbed for lack of someone else to do them and they end up on our plate. Most of these deal with working with other people. How we deal with those who work with us in all these tasks reflects how effective of a leader we are.

There are four types I would like to mention: the Micro Manager, the Avoider, the Whatever, and the Enabler.

The Micro Manager is a well-known leader type that must have his or her hand in every aspect of every part of the ministry. Many times this person has talent in several areas and concludes that it is much easier to “do it yourself” or feels that he or she must change something on every plan before a final stamp of approval can be given. It is not unusual for this person to go back and move microphone stands two or three inches, run back to the sound board and “tweak” EQ s, even though there is someone operating the equipment. Suggestions may be received, but only after personal additions have been made. Success is defined in terms of “how well everything is controlled,” more than how well Christ’s character and nature is lived out. Sometimes this person has a fear failure or a fear of being replaced by someone else might be able to do the job better. This person lives with the frustration of having to work with “so many incapable people,” who would not function properly without supervision. Confrontation is not an issue, since the Micro Manager knows he or she has the final word. Those that work under this type of leader are rarely encouraged for a job well done, knowing that whatever they do, there will always be “just one more thing” that has to be added before it is acceptable.

Another type of controller is more subtle: the Avoider. The Avoider controls by not making decisions, or waiting for things to “take care of themselves.” While this might seem on the surface as the opposite of the Micro Manager, it is really just another way to control what is going on. If specific decisions have to be made, the Avoider will put off making the final decision until it is too late to do anything thing else, or nothing else can be done, because none could act without the approval of the person in authority. The Avoider is a professional procrastinator, is almost always late in arrivals, and puts off getting the music charts to the musicians in time, contacting necessary people, etc. The Micro Manager controls by over making sure that every single detail is to his or her specifications. The Avoider controls through default. Confrontation is avoided or ignored at all costs. Those that work under the Avoider are frustrated because they often see what could have been done if only given advance notice or the authority to complete task given the necessary time.

The Whatever leader
is really no leader at all. “What ever” sound comes out is fine, after all this is just church and the people here are not really informed on what the best songs or how they are supposed to sound. There is no sense of excellence in offering the best one has to offer, and this person is generally a “good old boy [or girl]” that gets along with most everyone. Not surprisingly, this type of leader rarely stays anywhere for any length of time.

The Enabler
is just that. This type of leader empowers those that he or she works with both the skill to accomplish the task in an effective manner and gives the authority to carry out their task without having to go back and seek permission for minor modifications. The Enabler has planned ahead and knows what pitfalls to avoid and had made alternative plans in case everything starts to unwind. The Enabler is not threatened with the success of others, but rather rejoices when a member of the team does well, because he or she knows “it’s not really about me,” but about giving bringing glory to God. It is a joy to work with the Enabler, since ideas are listened, and the best plan is carried forward, whether or not it was the Enabler’s or not. The Enabler is also an encourager for those that are having difficulty accomplishing their tasks. The group knows they will not be embarrassed because the Enabler will not let them go on to present a song or program that is not ready or sounds bad.

One sign of a good leader is willingness to hear criticism and not issue revenge or “payback.” Sometimes those under us do not feel the liberty to share these blind spots for fear of reprisal, resulting in poor morale and the group not performing to its most effective manner. One goal all worship leaders need to embrace is that of continually working to improve our leadership skills for the honor and glory of God.