Thursday, December 4, 2014

Who’s In, Who’s Out?

In talking with so many people over the last several years who visit our church in hopes of getting connected, one strong, common longing is repeated over and over.  People want to belong.  Long before sin even entered the world, God observed that it was not good for man to be alone.  He was specifically speaking of the union of husband and wife, but in a much larger sense, it was apparent to him that we needed much more than stuff to do and a natural environment with which to interact.

Here we are today, each of us still wanting to be included, valued, and missed when we are absent. The truth is, we can be surrounded by people all day and still feel alone.  Or we might think that because we are in a certain life situation, have a certain color of skin, or have arrived at a certain age that we are not fully accepted, but have been moved to the margins.

Marginalized: We’re all familiar with the concept in today’s vernacular. It refers to those people or persuasions which are out of the mainstream, less influential, or even completely devalued. The dictionary lists, among it’s meanings, “the edge of something, especially the outer edge or the area close to it; the part farthest from the center- that part of anything, e.g., a society or organization, that is least integrated with the center. Least often considered, least typical or most vulnerable.” To put it in everyday terms, you’re the last one picked for the team, assuming you have to be picked at all. 

In Mark 7:24-37, we are presented with a dynamic encounter between Jesus and one such person who dared to challenge the notion that God’s grace be reserved for a select few. The writer describes it this way: “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Talk about chutzpah!

Can any of you relate to this text? Have you ever felt out of the mainstream, devalued, without influence where you want it most?  Maybe it was in your job, in your marriage or family, maybe even—God forbid—in this church? Looking at this issue from another angle, perhaps you are one of those who easily flows with the idea that in this dog-eat-dog world of ours, there will always be those who are undesirables, inconveniences, even just plain losers. In this Darwinian approach to the masses, what’s the big deal when someone less educated, less attractive, perhaps less spiritual than the mainstream goes under for the third time?

Well, there is One who thinks that it is a big deal, and as our Good Shepherd he relentlessly pursues those very kinds of people.  You know, those people like you and me.  I think of the line from the familiar hymn, “Come Thou Fount”

Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God.

Talk about your margins! While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  I wasn’t just a little off-center…I was nearly over the cliff! As were you. As was everyman. Thank God, Jesus is never content for us to remain at a distance, not a self-imposed one or as a result of being rejected by others. He is always in pursuit of us. 

When it comes to margins, I pray for two things: May it never be an acceptable notion to any of us that we are outside the margins of God’s love and redemption plan…ever! And may it be equally intolerable that we would view even one person we encounter as less than us or unworthy of the touch of God. As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, let’s use margins for writing papers, not classifying people.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               –tad

Monday, November 24, 2014

Something Smells to High Heaven

When I first heard this quaint little idiom, I think my mom was referring to 1) the room I shared with three other brothers, 2) my sock drawer, or 3) a carry out order I had forgotten about in the trunk of my dad’s Pontiac sedan.  Regardless, I sensed immediately it was not a compliment!   That’s the thing about odors and fragrances…they don’t keep a secret very well.  They tend to make whatever causes them to go public very quickly.

Throughout God’s word, fragrance is used to signify an offering or outpouring of worship to God, either through a sacrificial act of obedience or an expression of deep devotion.  King David knew this when he wrote,

“Let my prayer be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”
(Psalm 141:2).

Here the image of prayer as a fragrance is used metaphorically to describe something sweet that rises to God from our hearts when we draw near to Him.

A more literal example of the aroma of worship is found in the New Testament in the gospel of John. It is the familiar story of Mary anointing Jesus as a PDA, one which elicited responses of praise and disgust from those in attendance. 

Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus— the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor.
Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him.
Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard,
 and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair.
The house was filled with the fragrance.

But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said,
“That perfume was worth a year’s wages. 
 It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.”
Not that he cared for the poor—he was a thief,
 and since he was in charge of the disciples’ money, he often stole some for himself.

Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.
You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”  
(John 12:1-8 NLT)

To the object of her affection, Mary’s gift was a sweet smelling aroma which filled the room and publically announced that this Man’s life and love were worthy of costly adoration.  To the hypocritical onlookers, it was a stench which reeked of wastefulness and self-indulgence.  Surely there were more worthy beneficiaries (the poor, perhaps their own coffers) than this commoner from Nazareth.  Isn’t it interesting how quickly we move to judgment of others’ expressions of devotion when they seem to surpass or even call into question our own? 

Then there are the application passages which speak of our very lives being a fragrance to God, much like the life of Jesus himself, whose obedience was received by His father as a kind of incense.  Paul writes to the Ephesian Christians: 

“Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ.
He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. 
 (Ephesians 5:2 NLT)

And like most fragrances, we can expect different reactions from different recipients.  To the church at Corinth, Paul wrote:                      
“But thank God! 
He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along
 in Christ’s triumphal procession.
Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume.
Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. 
But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom.
But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume.”
(2 Corinthians 2:14-16 NLT)

The next time you are tempted to criticize someone else’s act of worship or life of devotion to Christ, remember that God has designed our love toward Him to leave an impression on others. Hopefully, what comes from that will smell to high heaven.  Sweet!                                                                                                                                           tad

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Loving God…unforced intimacy

hilarious wedding photography
From time to time, we hear the phrase “forced intimacy” to describe efforts in connecting people which go beyond the comfort ability level of both parties.  It could happen in a small group, on a blind date, or any interaction in which one person feels compelled to share more about themselves than they wish. The very nature of an intimate relationship with another demands that mutual trust, respect and affection exist at a fairly equal level.

One of the core values that shape our worship arts ministry is that we intentionally focus on staying intimate with God. As worship leaders, it is important that we not just be familiar with his character and history, but that we genuinely pursue knowing and loving Him in a personal way. While I respect the character and contributions of historic figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, for instance, I would never admit to loving them.  I didn’t really ever know them personally.  If we loosely define being intimate as being relationally close to another, it becomes apparent that intimacy with God has less to do with what we know to be true about Him and more about a living, loving relationship with Him…talking and listening to Him, expressing devotion to Him in words and actions.

Imagine, for a moment, the difference between sitting around your table on your birthday and having your closest friends and/or family members enthusiastically (sometimes humorously) singing happy birthday to you. You are aware that beyond their singing skills and familiar words are the numerous shared experiences which, over time, have yielded a closeness and intimacy with them that transcend this simple tradition.

Now imagine dining out at your favorite restaurant on your birthday and having total strangers surround you—your waiters and waitresses who have been conscripted by their boss to acknowledge your special day with some local version of Happy Birthday. First, if you’re like me, you are feeling awkward or, worse, dying inside of embarrassment, and secondly, you are aware that these well-wishers had little choice in the matter…it’s part of their job.

Sometimes we, as followers of Christ in general and worship leaders in particular, can fall into patterns of “doing our job”…going through the motions, even saying and singing the right things, but feeling empty inside or at least a bit disingenuous. I have even heard teammates confess that they feel hypocritical when they sing worship songs because their personal lives or walk with Christ have hit a rough patch or even flat-lined.

It is at times like these that we can do a quick inventory, asking a simple question: “If God seems far away from me right now, who moved?” It is even in the dark and desperate times that God reminds us “Draw near to Me, and I will draw near to you.” (James 4:8) For His part, He never stops calling, never stops wooing, never stops pursuing us. Just move toward Him.

Another example is found in Revelation 3:20:

“Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door,
I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.

Notice the freedom in that?  His is an invited relationship, never a forced or coerced one. There is also an immediacy to God’s invitation to stay close to Him when He warns:

“Seek the Lord while He may be found, call on Him while He is near.” (Isaiah 55:6)

Yes, He promises to never leave us or forsake us, but there is something about delaying or postponing getting close to God for a more convenient season that becomes less likely the more time passes, and we grow comfortable with the distance.

My encouragement to each of you is to have at least one other person in your life who routinely asks you how you are doing in this area. Close, personal brothers and sisters in the faith can help us fan the flames of our passion for God before we find ourselves running on spiritual fumes. Fumes are more like the remnants or even memories of former days when we really walked hand in hand with our God. Let’s make a covenant in the worship ministry to lovingly encourage and challenge each other to keep the main thing the main thing. As a worship leader, it is the sweetest gift we can give to the Body…and to the Lover of our souls.  Nothing forced about it.


Monday, November 3, 2014

The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself…and things that go ‘bump’ in the night.

What did FDR know about it anyway?  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Yeah, right.  Try telling that to a little boy growing up in South Dakota, far away from the wilds of Africa, but who still thought it necessary to pull his covers up around him (on the top bunk no less) so that tigers and lions couldn’t grab them and crawl up in his bed to eat him.  Thinking back, I learned at least two things about fear pretty early on.  First, it preys on our imagination, not of what is but what could be.  And secondly, it must be managed or it can control us.

As a young lad, I had a vivid imagination.  My mom used to say I’d have an ulcer by 15, because I was a worrier.  Two of my biggest fears were (don’t laugh) people with handicaps and wild animals.  As a toddler, I was traumatized by a young deaf man who would come to our house and could only communicate with guttural sounds and gestures.  I found him frightening.  Later in my early elementary school years, I found a man with no legs tipped over in his wheelchair near my home.  I ran in the house to get help, but couldn’t keep from wondering if he could hurt me if I got close to him.  Still another memory involved an usher in our church who (I kid you not) had a hook in place of an amputated hand, and when I went to put in my offering, he clamped the plate with this frightening appendage. 

My second fear—that of jungle animals—came from our visiting an exhibit at the St Louis zoo.  I remember locking eyes with a famous gorilla named Bushman who had died and been stuffed for all the world to see (and fear!).  These two destabilizing fears—handicapped people and jungle animals—finally teamed up in my most vivid nightmare as a child.  In the dream, I was on my backyard swing being pushed by my grandmother when what should appear out of the bushes behind me but a one-legged gorilla with a peg leg?!  I froze in terror, and even though my grandmother repeatedly yelled for me to run, I couldn’t move.  Only waking from the dream saved me from some horrific conclusion.

I’m sure many of you are shaking your heads and saying, “well this explains a lot.”  But as absurd as it all seems to me (and you) now, I still recall how real all these fears were to me then and how firm was their grip on me throughout my childhood.  Because left unchallenged, that’s how fear works.  Whether it’s the threat of Ebola, ISIS, a fluctuating stock market, or the barrage of bad news coming at us from every angle, you and I are tempted throughout our life to be anxious about things…many things.  The fact is, most of these things will never happen to us or to our loved ones.  They dwell in the realm of what could be or perhaps what has happened to others, but will, in fact, never touch us.  When tempted to camp out in these “mind” fields, we would do better to meditate on God’s word and engage in some rational Christian thinking.  The psalmist describes the mental gymnastics like this:

The LORD is my light and my salvation—so why should I be afraid?
The LORD is my fortress, protecting me from danger, so why should I tremble?
 Though a mighty army surrounds me, my heart will not be afraid. 
Even if I am attacked, I will remain confident.

What I did as a child in moments of fear was to magnify the object of dread and minimize the One who could deliver me (Psalm 34:4).  It was only after growing in my confidence in the Lord that I could see fear for what it really is…unfaith. Paul writes “God has not given us a spirit of fear” and “be anxious for nothing.” Christians are to acknowledge fear and then confess it:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.

It’s a bit like temptation.  A thought in the mind is not in and of itself sin.  It’s where we let that thought take us…to an obsession, an action, a habit, eventually to an addiction.  But even Jesus was tempted, perhaps even to be afraid at times.  In asking God to examine our anxious thoughts, we are praying that our thought life would not offend God.  Even our anxious thoughts.  The remedy?  Worship.  And better yet, corporate worship, where others can encourage us and buoy us with their faith.  Psalm 34 invites us:                                                                                                                                                          
Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt His name together. 
 I sought the Lord and He answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. 
Those who look to Him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.

Speaking as your worship pastor and choir director, my face will be covered with a lot less shame if you keep these admissions about my childhood on the “down low.”  Besides, I totally don’t need to sleep on the top bunk anymore.                                      


Thursday, October 23, 2014

You're Welcome - No Problem

I’ve noticed an interesting cultural shift in America that has taken place in just the last decade or so.  It’s a simple thing, really.  It involves what has always been a very natural exchange that two people have when one thanks the other.  In fact, most parents consider this a key area of training when it comes to teaching their little ones how to respond to kindness.  Soon after teaching them the P-word, some would even call it the magic word…“please”, we teach them to say thank-you and you’re welcome.  But it is this last phrase, you’re welcome, that has increasingly fallen on hard times, if not completely been kicked to the curb for its more modern counterpart.  And what’s that, you say?  No problem.

Whether it’s at the drive-through window or a five star restaurant, dropping off your clothes at the cleaners or picking up your brand new Lexus, the simple phrase thank you is, more and more, being acknowledged by No problem!  At first, I didn’t even notice it, but the more its usage increased, the more I began to wonder how it came to replace you’re welcome.

The welcome in you're welcome is a statement saying: “I would do this for you again, if asked." (as in,  “You're welcome to ask me again.”) Now, this may or not be a true statement. If someone thanks you for donating a kidney, for instance, and you casually say you’re welcome, I do not believe that anyone would think you would happily donate the other kidney.  But the response you’re welcome is much more akin to its usual substitute “it’s my pleasure” than the currently popular “no problem.”  My initial response to someone saying no problem (admittedly under the breath) was “Really? I didn’t think it was a problem…you getting me my cheeseburger or fetching my suit which I paid you to dry clean.  Are you suggesting that under normal conditions that would be a problem?”

You might be thinking, seriously, what’s the big deal? At least the person is trying to be polite and responding to you in a positive manner.   That is true, but that is not my point.  Think about it this way.  When someone greets you for the first time, or for the 100th time, really, would you rather hear them say, “You are welcome here” or “Your being here is no problem.”  We even sang it in a worship song last week, addressing the living God, no less.  The song was entitled (note this) Here for You and included the lines “We welcome You with praise”, and “be welcomed in this place.” I doubt a song with the lyrics “You’re no problem, God” would have gained as much traction in the contemporary Christian music industry.

What may be at the heart of this is an increasing focus on self in our culture, a society of me-ism (sometimes to the point of narcissism) which has, as its starting point, what’s in it for me.  If it’s all about me, then the way I show you I am doing you a favor is to say no problem.  But if you (the other person) are the focus, than saying you’re welcome can affirm your willingness, even eagerness, to serve that person. 

As the musicians at our church begin our preparations for a Christmas event, our thoughts often turn to outsiders…those outside our ministry, our church, perhaps even outside the faith.  It is at these very times when I try to challenge those inside the circle to be welcoming of those outside the circle.  I don’t think a no problem attitude will quite cut it.  For openers, it states a positive with a negative.
I try to remind my veterans to think back for a moment to the last time they joined a group for the first time:  What were their hopes at that first meeting? Any fears? What made that experience such that they wanted to return? Or what, perhaps, happened that kept them from going back?  Recently, some of our newer members voiced apprehension at first, wondering “am I in someone else’s seat” (officially or unofficially), “do I bring my music home?”, “what line should I be reading in the music?”, “where are the bathrooms?” (OK, I made that one up.)  More than anything, they want to know that they are OK…and that we’re glad they’re here…not just that they’re not a problem.

As worship leaders, let me encourage you.  Opening our doors to new folks is, indeed, part of our mission!  This is also part of our worship!  As we welcome them, we welcome Jesus into our midst!  (Whatsoever you have done to the least of these brothers and sisters, You have done to Me, Jesus says). 

So treasure your choir buddies, but don’t forget to make new ones.  Community is in; cliques are out.  I appeal to you!  Be on the lookout for unfamiliar faces, and take a risk by initiating a conversation.   Try talking to some folks you are not that familiar with, perhaps whose name you might not even know.  Don’t forget what it took for you to brave joining a new group for the very first time. I believe how we handle the little things of creating a safe and welcoming place qualifies us to be entrusted with the much larger task of leading Christ’s body in worship.  If I witness that over the next several months, I will be the first to say thank you.  And I better not hear…no problem!


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Under Construction

Here’s a challenge for all you married couples out there—especially those of you who have endured some bumps and bruises along the way in your relationship.  On your next date night (and I pray for your sake that they are regular and frequent) have the lyrics to this song in front of you and listen to We Build by Nicole Nordeman (

It's bigger than we thought; it's taller than it ought to be— 
this pile of rubble and ruins.
 The neighbors must talk--it's the worst yard on the block;
Just branches and boards where walls stood.

Did it seem to you like the storm just knew
we weren't quite finished with the roof when it started?

So we build, we build;
we clear away what was and make room for what will be.
If you hold the nails, I'll take the hammer.
I'll hold it still if you'll climb the ladder. 
 If you will, then I will…build.

On any given day we could simply walk away
 and let someone else hold the pieces. 
The lie that we tell says it's better somewhere else,
as if love flies south when it freezes.

What I'm trying to say in some clumsy way 
 is that it's you and only you for always.

Every year that goes by brings a deeper appreciation for this song’s honesty and this songwriter’s insights.  Nothing is more difficult, perhaps, than achieving the goal of a happy and healthy marital relationship, able to endure all the pitfalls that await it.  After all, the “two becoming one” are always two sinners, fallen and fractured, if not broken, human beings who, on their best days, are still capable of hiding and hurting, disappointing and dashing the hopes and dreams of another.  And as Christian couples, we discover all too soon that relational discord between a husband and wife becomes pretty obvious over time.  The use of the metaphor of a house that has grown increasingly dilapidated in full view is particularly poignant.  It only adds to our shame when we fear our failure is on display for all to see, and we often incorrectly conclude that our conflicts are unique to us.  We might even think that if we were “truly Christians” we wouldn’t be having these problems.

The chorus to this song provides, I believe, the key to moving through the pain and problems to better days and an even deeper relationship.  It suggests that we must repeatedly look each other in the eyes and “re-up.” 

What I'm trying to say in some clumsy way is that it's you and only you;
 Not just for now, not just today, but it's you and only you…for always.

We must go back to our original vows and recommit to staying, to listening, and to working through or overcoming whatever chasms we believe have begun to separate us.  And, like any builder knows, we must start with a firm foundation.  There is limitless help—God with us—for those days we are tempted to “simply walk away and let someone else hold the pieces.”

Don’t wait for the next “storm” to appear to begin preparing for it. Trials and setbacks are part of being human. Resolve together right now to attend to the details, the issues which make you most vulnerable to the attacks of the evil one. Resist the natural tendency to let your love grow cold through neglect or taking one another for granted.  Find other couples to be totally honest with about your struggles.  Talk to a counselor, a pastor, or a trusted, but also grounded, friend. Whatever you do, recognize the signs when outside help is needed. And never be too proud to admit that yours is a marriage still under construction.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Statues or Support Beams?

As a leader in the worship arts ministry of our church, I often find myself revisiting a fundamental question—why do I do what I do?  In fact, why do any of us so-called upfronters do what we do?  I like to think of our role as primarily prophetic, not aesthetic.  We are called to prophesy, not merely beautify.  The use of arts in public worship should go well beyond merely helping to provide window dressing, so to speak.  Nor is it our role to merely “set up” the pastoral message for the day—the sermon. 

This is not a universally held value, however.  Many churches, traditional and contemporary alike, continue to see the role of the arts as an end in themselves, rather than just a means to a greater end.  I tell my musicians that we are the frame of the picture, never to be confused with the true work of art—our glorious Christ, whom we worship.

King David spoke of participating in public worship as going to “the house of the Lord,” a prospect which made him glad (Psalm 122:1). Metaphorically speaking, if we can imagine corporate worship as entering the temple (or presence) of God, then those who lead others in worship are actually more like the pillars or columns supporting the structure than the artifacts which merely provide artistic beauty.  Personally, I’d rather be a support beam than a statue or a stained glass window any day.
While not specifically addressing worship leaders, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah established one of the foundational roles they can have in our corporate life together. In the 35th chapter he reminds us that one primary function we have in whatever we do is to build up or support one another. Imagine this as your weekly, if not daily, job description:

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come,
 he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.

In the New Testament, the writer to the Hebrews gives instruction specifically for public gatherings with these words from chapter 10: 

“Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith,
having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience
 and having our bodies washed with pure water. 
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.
 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing,
but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

I believe one reason God originally established the rhythm of a seven day week with a Sabbath rest was because we need regular, systematic refueling. Our spiritual computers need a reboot routinely to clear out all the junk that makes its way into our minds and hearts. 

God understands this human dilemma.  He also knows that left alone, we will lose this battle every time. The idea of meeting together with others of like mind has been around since the beginning of time.  It suggests our need for accountability, mutual encouragement and to experience certain aspects of God’s goodness en masse.  Sure, I can enjoy listening to a symphony on my iPod or CD player all by myself.  But how much richer is the experience when I sit in a larger auditorium listening to live players surrounded by other symphony lovers who can join me in the experience.

Enter the need for leadership in this experience we call corporate worship.  Traditionally, this team of gifted artists was required to be prepared, honed in their skills, strong of faith, and outwardly focused. In other words, they understood worship was not about them.  It is exactly these traits which the contemporary church still needs today from its upfront leaders.  Not just excellent musicians.  Not just trendy dressers or hip talkers.  In following in the footsteps of those who went before them, worship leaders need to be willing to lead the people into battle against seen or unseen enemies (2 Chronicles 20), to speak and sing faith into the lives of those assembled, and to be concerned about supporting other upfronters, such as pastors, teachers, etc., as well as the people in front of them, all needing a touch from God.

One of the most powerful images I ever heard used to describe the role of the worship leader was…a donkey.  More specifically, the donkey used by Jesus on Palm Sunday, when he rode through the streets of Jerusalem to the accompanying cries of Hosanna—Lord, save us!  How are we to be like a donkey? We’re not the big deal.  But we do have a big role.  As we lift Jesus up (perhaps not all that high atop a donkey, but the image is still there), others can see and focus on him, not his mode of transportation. As artists, this is so counterintuitive to the way many of us were raised—to see our “talent” as a means of gaining attention, if not our own self-worth.  But when we begin to accept this function as a high calling, indeed, a privilege, then Jesus is glorified and His people can be edified.

As a worship leader, do you know your job description?  Do you comprehend the high calling to which you have been called?  I, for one, can’t wait to join you and others around the globe in fulfilling our role the next time God’s people gather. So what’ll it be? A work of art or a source of support?