Monday, January 26, 2015

The Eyes Have It

Have you ever stopped to think about how important your face is?  Consider its role in communicating to others what you want them to know or how you are feeling?  Imagine, for a moment, that God had made your face to look, instead, like your big toe.  Although that image might seem comical, it illustrates just important our facial features are, and not just for their utilitarian purposes—seeing, smelling, eating, talking, etc.  They also are the mechanism God gives us for connecting with other human beings. And they are some of our best instruments for communicating God’s love to others.

I believe no one facial feature is as powerful in human interaction as the eyes.  Remember, for a moment, the last time you tried to have a meaningful conversation with someone wearing sunglasses and you get the point.  The eyes are so telling.  They have been referred to as the “windows of the soul.”  With them we can show delight, excitement, disgust, disapproval, earnestness, boredom, fear, distrust, amusement, just to name a few. 

Over the holidays, I had opportunity to be in a lot of social settings: parties, shopping malls, family gatherings.  I found myself trying to read people’s thoughts by what their faces were communicating to me.  And I noticed that many people don’t even allow extended eye contact in such settings.  Maybe they feel more vulnerable.  Sometimes a shame-based upbringing can deeply affect one’s confidence.  Perhaps it’s the fear of exposing more negative feelings than they care to admit.  

Whatever the reason, it limits the connection. But conversely, a sincere, engaging smile from a person looking you right in the eyes can be like “a cup of cold water” to a thirsty man.

Going deeper with my thoughts about this, I tried to imagine what God’s face looks like when He looks at me…and particularly the eyes.  The Bible gives us hints from time to time. One of the most beautiful and often quoted Old Testament passages speaks specifically to this. Perhaps you remember it:

The Lord bless you and keep you; 
 the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to
 the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

I heard these words week after week growing up in the home of a Lutheran pastor.  It was part of our liturgy. One of the benefits of growing up in such a church culture was that some (not all) service components that were repeated week after week had a way of imbedding themselves into my mind, whether consciously or not.  On the negative side, this repetition can cause their impact to be lessened in the short run.  But on the positive side, some of these passages were easily retrievable later in life, even when taken completely out of their original context. 

This particular passage in Numbers (6:24-26) was a blessing spoken by Aaron, a high priest of Israel under Moses’ leadership, and as such would have been received as God’s very own thoughts spoken through a human conduit.  They are a word picture of a God who is inclined toward us, who desires eye contact, and whose face is lifted toward us!

Perhaps some of us imagine a Deity shaking his head in disapproval or disappointment, if not downright disgust when looking at us. Now clearly, if I can imagine the face of God, it is not one expression, all the time.  We are even told in the Bible that it is possible, for instance, to grieve the Spirit of God.  But there is a quantum leap from sadness, on the one hand, and to disgust, on the other.  Yet we often find it hard to imagine a God who is “lifting His countenance upon [us],” even when we fail Him. 

Consider, however, another passage—this one from the New Testament. It involves one of the most monumental acts of failure in the history of Christianity, and by one of Jesus’ very own followers, Simon Peter. Jesus had warned Peter at their last meal before His death of this impending act of denial, reading in Luke 22:31-34:

[Jesus] “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”

But as we all know, “Mr. Blowhard” folded like origami during the test.  Fast forward to just after he had denied His Savior for a third time, this one in front of a young servant girl (vs. 61-62):

“And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.”

So just what exactly was the expression on Jesus’ face that caused his friend to go out and weep bitterly? I believe it was the look only Jesus can give.  A look of unconditional love.  The apostle Paul understood this when he wrote in Romans 2 that “God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” Perhaps that kindness was even communicated to Paul in his own conversion on the road to Damascus, when Jesus asked Him, “Saul (later Paul), why do you persecute Me?”

As I reflect on the face of God toward me, and particularly what His eyes have to say to me, two things come to mind. I must first accept His grace and favor if I am ever to be able to forgive myself and move forward in my life.  And secondly, that same countenance, those same eyes want to shine through my face to others whom I will encounter on any given day.  Being able to connect with others in a genuine, loving way begins, I believe, with receiving the smile of God myself, moment by moment.  His Son has taken my guilt and shame, leaving me to stand faultless and shameless before Him.  And I can begin to see others for what they may become.   If you want my vote, I’d say ‘the eyes have it.’


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Confessions from a recovering racist…

I remember it like it was yesterday.  April 4, 1968—a chilly spring evening in Austin, Texas where I was attending a Christian university as a freshman.  It was also the day Martin Luther King, Jr. lost his life.  Lost it for being courageous. Lost it for wanting things to change. Lost it for daring to expose a major flaw in the American dream. 

You see, his dream was different. He actually believed what our forefathers had written almost two centuries before was true.  All are created equal.  All persons—every living, breathing soul.   And at his core, Dr. King knew that the words to an old familiar hymn were also true: 

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world 
Red and yellow, black and white, 
they are precious in His sight 
Jesus loves the little children of the world

To Martin’s enemies, the only problem with his thinking was that Jesus didn’t love them equally. Or maybe they were content to think “We ain’t Jesus.” Whatever their reason, he died that day for the crime of wanting a different reality, a new way of living, an American dream focused more on life and liberty that merely the pursuit of (one’s own) happiness.

And as much as I deplore this fact, do you know what my first reaction was to this man’s death, tucked safely, as I was, in the confines of that small religious institution?  “WHAT A RELIEF. Thank God someone killed that ‘movement’. Now maybe we can get back to some normalcy.”  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I would never applaud someone’s cold-blooded murder, in and of itself.  But if one has do die to allow the rest of us to live in relative peace, then so be it.  I was ignorant. I was a bigot in sheep’s clothing. But I was not alone.

Dr. King himself knew all too well that he was swimming upstream, going against the grain, perhaps fighting a losing battle. Pick your metaphor, but perhaps the most painful resistance came from his brothers in the clergy, some of whom urged him to stop upsetting the apple cart.  Many, perhaps in their own weariness, had adopted a “go along to get along” philosophy long ago.  Five years prior to his death, Martin wrote these words from a Birmingham jail to this very fraternity:

“I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. Since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

“… I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

How profound were his insights, not only for the issues of his day, but for what we, as Americans, face today. Martin Luther King, like all true followers of Christ, sought to be an extremist for love, for justice, and for peace.  His faith, propelled by the saving grace of Christ in his life, would not allow him to stand idly by as others suffered at the hand of the other extremists—those promoting ignorance and hate, separation and conformity. 

Today, we face a similar challenge.  While the presenting issue for Dr. King was the national cancer of racism, his fundamental issue was the tyranny of lovelessness. If King were alive today, I don’t think he would be limiting his marches to matters of race.  True, racism exists in many, if subtler, forms today, but lovelessness also manifests itself in our public discourse on topics ranging from political preferences to individual rights, religion, and community values.  It is exposed in our growing inability to disagree with one another agreeably. And at its ugliest, it has reared its head in the form of Islamic extremism, an ideology which seeks to annihilate every person and belief system counter to its own.

To all of this, I believe Martin would say, rise up, Church!  Rise up, people of God.  Oppose injustice at every level, whether it affects you directly or not.  Don’t let your silence be deafening.  As Edmund Burke once wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.

My original title for this article was “Confessions of a former racist.”  As I examine my heart each day, reacting to the struggles of people unlike me culturally, ethnically or otherwise, I realize I am still a work in progress.  But what I do know is that I am changing.  Christ is changing me. And today, I don’t see change in itself as a threatening thing.  It’s what we are becoming that really matters.  But it starts with a dream. 


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!