Tuesday, May 03, 2016

What I Am Learning...

Almost seven years ago, I was at a worship conference in Kansas City. The conference was a sort of “choose your own agenda,” so I was looking through the optional breakout sessions when one caught my eye. It was about early church worship practices, and the instructor was with a school called The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies (IWS). I decided to attend the breakout. And thus began a very important season in my life.

See, I didn’t go to seminary. I went to UNL for a BA in Music and a BSBA in Marketing. I felt called into worship ministry a couple years after college, and was encouraged to put my resumé out there. Before I knew it, I was five years into full time worship ministry with no real sense of what that meant. I yearned for a deeper understanding of worship.

Fast forward to today. I’ve spent six years reading, studying, writing and praying. I’ve been instructed and encouraged by a diverse faculty of wise men and women on a variety of topics related to worship. I’ve attained a new title as of April 13: Doctor of Worship Studies. And while I don’t feel much different today than I did on April 12, I know the past six years have forever changed me. And I know I’m not done. Here’s some of what I learned, and what I am continuing to learn…

We need each other. At IWS I was part of a cohort: we were together from orientation day to graduation day. The exchanges I’ve shared with my classmates—who come from many denominations from around the world—over the years were sometimes eye-opening. I’ve seen my own faults, and learned to speak with love and grace, and to listen. This was a tremendous time of growth for me. I ended up writing my doctoral thesis on unity. We need others to speak wisdom into our lives.

Worship looks around as much as it looks up. Half of worship is inviting others to know God the way we know God: through Jesus. The minute we put ourselves ahead of our neighbor in worship, we start to miss the point entirely (Isaiah 58:1-11; Amos 5:21-24). Worship isn’t for me; worship is for we. How do we worship in Christ? How are we being invited into God’s story? How do we respond to the story?

God is bigger. When I started learning about the history of the church, the variegation of worship around the world, and the depth of meaning behind symbols that we tend to take for granted, I realized how limiting my view of God has been. It’s like I’ve been looking backwards through a telescope at God: He looked further away, and small. Now I see God is bigger than anything that can come my way, and He is closer than I imagined, and I have to sweep my telescope back and forth to take Him into view. Until He comes again, I will never be able to fully comprehend or appreciate God’s greatness. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.

We all have these seasons where God stretches us, changing us forever. Are you in one now? Or has God just led you through a season? Or do you feel a yearning that might lead you into a time of change? How will you respond in worship? Who will you invite along?

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Pray, Then, In This Way

Perhaps the simplest form of worship is prayer. Every expression of worship that I can think of has an element of prayer to it because every expression of worship carries a message. We sing (action) songs of praise (message). We tithe (action) to show trust and gratitude (message). Prayer can also be both action and message. It doesn’t require memorizing lines, or a formal space, but it can include those things if we want. Prayer can be as simple as a quick, “Thank You, God!” or “Help me, Lord!” Or it can be a dedicated time of speaking and listening to the Creator, petitioning Him with the desires or the praises of our hearts.

So prayer is simple. But it’s not easy for many of us (myself included). Why is that? I think partly, we have formalized prayer into an activity that only takes place on Sunday morning and before meals. It’s usually led by someone else, and maybe it’s something we just listen to. If you feel that way about prayer, you’re not alone. And I’d venture that over centuries, church has taught us to pray like this: bow your head, close your eyes, and listen to the person praying. Many of us have slid into this view of prayer gradually.

When I look at how Jesus prayed, and how He taught us to pray, I see something entirely different. Jesus says pray when no one is looking. He lays out a simple prayer in Matthew 6 that praises God and asks Him for help. And when Jesus prays (John 17, e.g.), it is with an intimacy that is available to us thanks to Jesus’ death and Resurrection.

That’s how I want to pray. A lot of times I feel like I don’t know how, and I feel awkward doing it. But I’m taking steps to make it feel less awkward, because I think it’s important. Too many times, I’ve felt a tug to ask someone, “Can I pray for you?” but I’ve ignored that tug because I feel too embarrassed to pray in front of them. So here are some steps I’m trying out, that you might want to try, too:

Praying out loud. I like praying silently, but my mind tends to wander, or I get tired if I’m praying before bed.

Praying passages from the Psalms. The Psalms express a lot of emotions: joy, pain, fear, anxiety, peace, contentedness, hope. Sometimes I’ll come across a passage and I’ll just read it out loud, because the Psalmist gives words to something I’m feeling. So I’ll say it out loud.

Try a prayer book. You don’t have to memorize prayers. Actually I’d advise you to memorize scripture, like the Psalms, first. But prayer books give us another lexicon of prayer language, which can be helpful if you feel like you don’t know what to say.

Say “Amen.” When someone else is praying, listen, but then actively say, “I agree, and I pray this, too,” by saying “Amen” aloud.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The Mark of the Cross

“All God's plans have the mark of the cross on them and all His plans have death to self in them.” - E.M. Bounds (1835-1913)

At the end of March we will celebrate an unprecedented event. It forever changed the course of humanity for good. Though it happened over 2,000 years ago, its impact has stretched through time and continues to grow. Jesus of Nazareth—who was fully God and fully man, faultless yet convicted, perfect yet despised, free to walk away yet resolved to show his love for humanity—took up a cross and carried it to a place known for death. Beaten, bleeding, crowned with thorns and mocked by his oppressors, Jesus took his last breath at what looked like the end. And the symbol of that sacrifice was the cross.

Consider the cross… It’s not to be revered in place of Jesus, and it’s not the only symbol we have of God’s love for us. But it is a paradox, both terrifying and beautiful. It shows us great pain, suffering and death. But it also shows us great love, hope and life.

Consider the cross… On Ash Wednesday crosses of ash are drawn on foreheads as a reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But our brokenness is not the end of the story, because Jesus made a way for us. Though our bodies will rest for a time, they will be resurrected again as Jesus was resurrected.

Consider the cross… It’s not the end of the story. It’s the beginning of a new story. It was intended for death but it made way for life. Not just then, but even now. What does it look like for us to take up our own cross? If God’s plans have death to self in them, then how will we follow Jesus to Golgotha today? How can we pour out our lives as Jesus did?

As we journey through Lent toward Easter, consider the cross. And on Easter Sunday, let’s consider the life we have been given. Let’s raise a loud shout of joy to Jesus, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame.” 

Let’s praise Him, and let’s consider how we can take up our own cross, to transform our world through Jesus for the glory of God!

Monday, February 01, 2016

How Do You Define Worship?

“Hey, worship sounded great yesterday!”

“Thanks,” I enthusiastically replied, and felt that familiar wrestling in my gut. For years now, I’ve tried to figure out how to best respond to similar compliments. To be honest, I appreciate the kind words. Who doesn’t enjoy a pat on the back from time to time? But what about when it doesn’t sound great? Sometimes I wonder if we need to expand our understanding of worship. Here are some principles I’d love for you to ponder and hopefully embrace.

Worship is not… just music. The words we use matter. I’ve found that sometimes when we talk about “the worship,” we really are talking about “the music.” Worship is so much more. What about prayer? Or listening (actively) to God’s word? Giving our offerings? Communion? And those are just the things we typically do on Sunday mornings! Keep reading…

Worship is not… a performance (and we are not the audience). Sometimes we seem to think worship is a performance we attend. “How was worship today?” “It was amazing!” If this sounds familiar and worship has become something to watch and hear, then I apologize, because some Sundays I’m a terrible performer! I miss chords, I forget words. The good news is, worship is a product: it’s an offering. Worship is what you bring. Maybe that’s singing and praying along on Sunday mornings. But maybe for you it’s helping your neighbor, or encouraging a friend, or mentoring a young person, or leading a small group, or giving an offering… worship can be anything that you bring to give glory to God!

Worship is… “the work of the people.” This is the biblical definition of worship. It’s what happens when God’s people gather and declare together that Jesus is Lord in all areas of our corporate life! So I’d encourage you to sing along. Get involved. Say “amen.” Show kindness to others. Join a small group. Serve, in and out of the church. See Sunday morning as a recap of your worship life for the past week, and as a prelude of your worship life for the next week. I’d love for every one of us to leave your church on Sundays with a prayer in our hearts, “God, that was for you. Thanks for your love. And this week: it’s for You, too. Thanks for speaking to me today!”

Worship is… a transformed life. Wouldn’t it be awesome if when someone said, “Tell me about your church,” you responded by telling them how Jesus has transformed you, and how you see Jesus transforming those around you at your church? Don’t get them interested with “the music is awesome” or “the message is the best.” Tell them—and show them—how your church has changed you, and invite them to come along.

Friday, January 01, 2016

A New Year and A New Song

The new year always feels like a fresh start to me. Sometimes I get the winter blues this time of year, but for the most part I feel hopeful for all that God may bring in the next calendar year. There’s so much possibility! So much could be accomplished, so many changes will take place.

I honestly feel that same hope on Sunday mornings. As the Pastor of Worship, I am privileged and blessed to see people experience these moments of intimacy and wonder in worship. Sometimes I see them happen during the service, which is inspiring. Other times I hear from someone about a moment that caused them to open their eyes to see, or their mouth to sing, or their heart to receive God’s grace in a new and fresh way. We all long for these moments, though they may look different to each person. But when they happen, when God’s Spirit speaks to us and we find ourselves responding openly to Him, those moments can sometimes sustain us through periods of silence.

If you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, I want to suggest some spiritual practices you might try this year. Worship is rhythm: revelation and response. When we embrace the rhythm of spiritual practices, like praying each morning, or attending a worship service each week, the rhythm helps shape us. It becomes part of who we are, and we can find strength in it. Spiritual disciplines may help you realign with God the Father, who is always looking for you to come running to Him.

Get a devotional book. A devotional is usually a brief meditation on God’s word or character that you read regularly to remind you of His presence. There are tons of options out there. Maybe you’re best reading a brief reflection once or twice a day. Maybe you’d rather read a longer chapter each week. Many devotionals are topical, so find something that helps you take a step closer to Christ.

Start a reading plan. There’s no substitute for regularly reading scripture. I’m a big fan of the YouVersion Bible app. It has many different Bible reading plans, as short as 3 days or as long as several months. Choose a topical plan, or an area of the Bible to focus on. I’d recommend starting with Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

Carve out some quiet time. Maybe it’s getting up each morning with a cup of coffee and a prayer guide. Maybe it’s listening to worship music or Christian radio programming over your lunch break. The idea is to push out of mind the busy-ness of life, and just listen to God. Get a notebook to write down what you think God is saying, and to keep track of prayers.

This year, this day, this moment is full of possibility. Try “singing a new song” this year. Not literally, necessarily. But try something new. Keep pursuing God. Trust Him with your tomorrow, and decide how you will seek Him today. 

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Advent: He Came and He Will Come Again

I only recently saw the movie Inside Out, where personified feelings (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear) inside a little girl’s head struggle to help her cope with a move to a new city. The feelings catalog joyful memories, sad memories, angry memories, etc. that shape who the girl has come to be. I loved the movie. There’s this amazing moment when you (and the feelings) realize that a memory can be both sad and happy. It can contain elements of many emotions at the same time.

Christmas can be like that. My mind goes to memories of snow outside the window in the morning, hearing the wind whistle through the trees in Oak Valley, the smell of a fire downstairs, and the promise of new toys, sledding, and time with family during school break. When I think of Christmas, I am filled with joy.

But I’m also filled with sadness. My cousin died in a one-car accident when both of us were 25. I remember our family getting the phone call, and sitting in shock in our living room, my mom sobbing, on the first day of a vacation from work that Tracie and I chose to spend with my parents.

I remember finding out my grandfather had died. We knew it was coming, but it was difficult, nonetheless. Instead of gathering with extended family for Christmas Eve, we gathered a few days earlier for a funeral. Christmas is a time of joyful anticipation, but also mournful yearning for a time past, or maybe a future reunion.

It was the same for the Israelites, waiting for the coming Messiah. They were exiled, scattered, refugees living far from home, waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. And it’s the same today. We, the Church, live in expectant hope for Jesus to return, to wipe away every tear, to right the wrongs, to raise up the valleys and lay low the mountains. This year, with so many tragedies in Syria, Paris, Beirut, Nigeria, and even in our country, we yearn for Jesus to come and redeem the world around us.

In a nutshell, that is what the season of Advent is all about. Advent means “arrival.” We not only celebrate Jesus’ arrival as a baby born in Bethlehem. We also await the arrival of Jesus who is coming again to rescue and redeem us all forever. As we near Christmas, embrace this season. Consider New Cov’s Christmas Experience, a weekly opportunity to enter into Advent and Christmas with family or close friends. You might also look up World Vision’s 2015 Advent Prayer Guide.

Know that you are not alone in feeling the joy and the sadness of the season. And know that Jesus comes to us all, promising to fulfill our joy and banish our sadness one day soon, just as he did for the world once already. 

Peace on earth. Good will to all people. 

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Worship Wars

Mostly I just wanted to spend some time with my friend. But he had also sent me an email that expressed frustration and anxiety. He had written me, “It felt like we were a flock of sheep, but instead of being led by the Good Shepherd, we were letting ourselves be led by trends, clichés, and market research. I think maybe I don’t know what to think about what I think.” So we decided to get together for dinner.

My friend had attended a concert of a well-known worship leader and a well-known worship band. He watched as the crowd around him raised their hands and sang along at the top of their lungs. He noted that people cheered the most when the bandleader mentioned “Nebraska” in his comments between songs. He took in the smooth production, the happy-happy enthusiasm of the artists, the way it felt like a great big club. He left with mixed feelings, because he picked up on some common currents that also give me pause. Here’s some of what we discussed.

  1. Worship leaders tend to look like celebrities in Christian circles. We get giddy about meeting Tim Timmons or Francesca Batistelli. We cheer them on when they take the stage, like we would a performer.
  2. Much of contemporary worship plays heavily on an emotional level at the expense of an intellectual level. Why is it that we tend to feel about worship songs of five years ago the way we feel about 80s music: it’s dated, old, tired, blah? Why is it that some songs have lasted decades or even centuries? I think it’s because when lyrics tell a fuller story of Christ, they strike deeper into our hearts and minds. What’s more, they shape us as believers. 
  3. The worship wars of the past 40 years may have quieted lately, but they still wage within us. Many people have serious doubts about their faith, and about themselves, because they don’t feel like they are in with the “in” crowd. If I don’t like this style or that, am I not as much of a Christian as the next guy? If I don’t know the words, or I’m not raising my hands, am I not worshiping as well? Does God not love me as much because I don’t “get it”?

Recently I read a statement that has stuck with me and keeps coming up: Jesus came to tear down walls and destroy barriers. You see it in Galatians 3:28. He came to destroy divisions and to connect us to the Father and to each other. Worship should do the same. What does that look like?
  1. We need to be careful that we are placing our worship at the right altar. If we are more concerned with a style of music or a handful of artists who are “doing it right,” then we may be putting up barriers where Jesus would tear them down. Consider broadening your knowledge of worship music: look up Taize, or Keith Green, or John Wesley, or Hillsong Young & Free. Better yet, explore the depth of communion, or prayer, or baptism. Why do we place so much emphasis in worship on a handful of songs written in the past year, instead of the myriad of other worship expressions of the past two millenia?
  2. We need to remember that worship is as much about loving those around us as it is about loving God. Do we create a worship culture where people feel like their outside looking in?
  3. We need to give ourselves and others grace. God loves you perfectly, no matter what. There’s nothing you can do to end that love, so don’t worry if you feel outside a particular circle. You are in Him and He is in you. Let that thought guide your worship first, and all these worship wars will begin to fade within you.