Archive for November 2009


November 30, 2009

Annunciation to Mary

If I were to ask  “What is the most exciting part of this time of year for you?”  I doubt if any of you would say “waiting,”  though we get plenty of opportunity to WAIT at this time of year – store lines are longer, and so we wait…drive thru lines at McDonalds, which is where we end up eating every night because we are so busy, are slower…so we wait.  In fact “Fast Food” this time of year just isn’t…it’s not fast, and consumed so quickly does not taste like real food…but it sure isn’t fast…so we wait.  Mail is slower, time on “hold” calling customer service is longer…so we wait.  On this “Cyber Monday” it seems like the internet is slower…so we wait.  I want you to think about the joy of waiting …that’s right…I said the joy of waiting.  The key to finding joy in waiting is to think more specifically about what it is we are waiting for in this season.  If we will let it, our worship will helps us wait, and wait joyfully.  It anticipates what is to come, and it comforts us in the anticipation.” 

There is something inherently exciting about this season of Advent.  Something is coming.  Even though secular culture has tried to push Christ from the public square, and remove all images of our Christian faith heritage from our streets, our stores, and our schools, still Christians have an inborn sense that Christmas is coming.  I could talk about the foolishness and evil in our world that has become so decadent that it seeks the removal of our Christ.  I choose, however, to focus on this sense that you and I have that is “in us.”  We wait in expectation, because we are sons and daughters, heirs of the King, because of this event!  It is not just decorating a tree – but it is knowing that there must be something special about a time of year that I go donate $50 to the boyscouts, take a tree that came from Canada, move all the furniture in my house so I can fit this thing in my den, and place shiny balls on the limbs that help me tell a story to my children and grandchildren.  It is not about the presents that are under the tree, but it is about the spirit of giving that reigns supreme in my heart fostered by the Giver of every good and perfect gift.  It is anticipation that builds inside me because the One whose entrance into the world I  celebrate, who came to redeem creation has come into my life and heart.  He even allows me to participate in that redemption.  He is alive in me!  God, Incarnate!   This time of year, all that is good, anything of any merit whatsoever in life is bubbling in anticipation of this celebration.  We know this to be the INCARNATION – the infleshment – God became one of us.

Songwriter Julie Gold’s lyrics to From a Distance were made popular by several singers, and became a monster hit when recorded by Bette Midler in 1990.  Another song recorde Alanis Morrisette with lyrics by Eric Bazilian aks; 

“What if God was one of us?  Just a slob like one of us…”

Bazilian’s lyric contemplates “what if” scenario with no real resolve, and Gold’s lyrics end up leaving God at a distance “watching us from a distance.”  Reality is that God became one of us…not a slob, yet as a Jew under the law of Moses he was subject to the law.  Even so, he came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill the law.  He was a man, and shared our full humanity, pain, hunger, thirst, temptation, tiredness, and death.  As refreshing as it was to hear this kind of lyric with any reference to God making its way to top of the billboard charts, believers know that the picture painted does not tell the true story.  Christians know God has come to us.  This is Gospel. 

You may have heard the story of the little girl who was drawing a picture with crayons in Sunday School one Sunday, and the teacher asked, “What are you drawing, Rachel?”  The little girl replied, “I am drawing God,” to which the teacher replied, “Rachel don’t you know that we can’t draw God, because no one really knows what God looks like.”  In all of her innocent confidence the little girl replied, “They will when I get through.”

I think that we sometimes make Jesus into something unreal.  Our imaginations may cause us to present him as a puppet, who somehow floated through life disconnected from its reality.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  He was fully human, and knew humanness in all its reality.  This is the GOOD NEWS!  He was born of a woman.   It is this birthday we anticipate.  Our hunger for Christmas to come is a sampling of the pangs we have for anything of value to come… We trust that we will receive the gift at just the right time.

I remember as a child (yes, I can actually think back that far) being so excited about the time of opening presents, sitting around the tree peering at my presents and wondering what was in there.  I did not want to know.  I liked surprises!  Because we were church brats – I grew up a P.K. – we almost never had Christmas at our house on Christmas day.  My kids know this same routine as well now.  Sometimes we open gifts and have Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, sometimes it is the week after December 25, but almost never on Christmas day.  That does not stop us from adopting the mindset of Christmas celebration on whatever day we get to be together to open gifts and share a special family meal.

I thought Christmas was “the bomb” as a kid.  Part of me did not want to grow up, because as I grew up I noticed that the anticipation was a little less intense.  Presents for me meant less and less, although I also noticed that I began to get more excited about giving.  I loved getting my wife presents.  That worked out really well, because she seemed to place a high value on receiving them. 

After the children were born we went through plenty of years where our finances were so low we actually could not afford to buy gifts for one another.  Sometimes one or the other would cheat that system and sneak something under the tree – those were the ones that were “To: Mrs. Santa, From: the dogs.”  Over time I learned what to get, and when to get it.  Did I mention she likes jewelry?

Receiving gifts was fun as a kid, but giving gifts to the love of my life, and then to my kids was much more satisfying.  And this year?  GRANDCHILDREN!!!!  I can hardly wait!!  But then again…I love waiting, dreaming, anticipating.  So I wait, and wait joyfully.

I wanted to get my 2 year old grandson a four-wheeler, but Ebbie said it is “not the right time.”

Part of being a good giver is knowing the right time for the right gift.

“When the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.  Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba,[a] Father.” 7So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.” (Gal 4:4-7)  We are “joint heirs with Christ.” 

“We are the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.

 27For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  (Gal 3:26-28)

As we consider the greatest gift ever given, or received, let’s think about the total perfection of the gift, the Giver, and the giving itself.

The Gift, of course, was exactly what we needed.  It was perfect.  A baby, born of a woman, born in a manger, in the most meager of circumstances.  Could this be…God in flesh?  Is God a baby?  A baby is the picture of innocence.  A baby is the essence of vulnerability and humanity.    The gift was perfect.

The Giver was the One who we adore.  I enjoy and appreciate gifts from work colleagues and friends, but receiving a gift from those I love more than life…those I adore…that is the best.

The Giving was not only the perfect gift, but it came at the perfect time. 

This gift came into the world, but the whole Gospel makes this marvelous gift the “gift that truly keeps on giving.”  Christ died for us, was buried and raised from the dead, conquering sin and death and the grave, and ascended to the right hand of the Father.”  This gift continues to give in such a way that we sense the very anticipation of celebrating Christmas (his birth) yet again…and/or “still” thanks to this same wonderful gift.  It is because Christ is truly IN US!

C.S. Lewis says,

When Christians say the Christ-life is in them, they do not mean simply something mental, or moral.  When they speak of being ‘in Christ’ or of Christ being ‘in them,’ this is not simply a way of sying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him.  They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts – that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body.” (Mere Christianity)

This reality – Christ in us – is the reason our singing should be different!  This is the reason our worship itself should be different.  We should anticipate with a much higher level of joy and anticipation than the rest of the world that celebrates “happy holidays.”  When we sing “Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come” there should be an incredible sense of proclamation of our Lord!  Is it any wonder that all of the greatest musicians addressed this season that sums up the spirit of goodness in humanity as it divulges the truth that MESSIAH has come.

“Jesus is God among us”

“The spiritual life, like the incarnation, is participation in this world, this life, this place, in our day-to-day relationships in family, work, church, and leisure.” (Robert E. Webber, Who Gets to Narrate the World? Contending for the Christian Story in an Age of Rivals)

“Because of the incarnation, our humanity is lifted up into God.  God’s image within us is restored, and human nature is healed.  In this sense Jesus Christ is ‘the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

Joyfully Waiting,



November 24, 2009

Singing praise

Thanksgiving is a holiday that is full of dimensions.  School pageants remind children and parents of the days of the pilgrims in the 1600s, and the first days of what was to become the New World colonies.  Many communities celebrate an ecumenical spirit gathering congregations of different denominations to offer thanks for God’s grace and protection.  Of course most Thanksgiving celebrations include a remnant of the harvest festival spirit that hastens back to more agrarian days.  Most of us don’t kill our turkeys, or get our corn from the barn, or have children fetch the pickles from the cellar – these items are well stocked at the neighborhood Kroger, but placing those items on the table is an important reminder of the bounty of our work.  Perhaps the most important dimension of Thanksgiving for most of us is the opportunity to gather our families from across miles to remember our roots, feel the warmth of our love, and be affirmed in our connection to one another while remembering that every blessing is given by the providence of God’s grace.


Since Thanksgivings like other holidays comes every year they help us mark life changes and events that have been part of the journey.  We may especially remember the first Thanksgiving after Grandpa passed away, or the first Thanksgiving after our children were married.  I know at our house this will be the first Thanksgiving that our grandchildren will be fully aware of what is going on, and the first year they will be able to “help” in the kitchen. 


I can’t help but reflect on what has happened in the lives of friends and loved ones this year and know that this will be a very special Thanksgiving for some in our Tennessee Music Ministry Family.  As noted elsewhere in this newsletter the Milams will spend their first family Thanksgiving in Portugal.  Wayne and Carrie Causey will be celebrating their first Thanksgiving with daughter, Joanna, son-in-law, Nathan, and granddaughter Ayla away in France preparing for the mission field.  I am mindful of Richard and Carol Dickerson, who will be celebrating Thanksgiving with son Russell and daughter, Claire, recognizing how differently the holiday could have been without the miraculous guarding of Claire’s life as the Lord intervened to spare her through a terrifying accident last August.  See the video in the link below:


James 1:17 reminds us that “every good and perfect gift comes from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting sands.”  1 Thess 5:18 reminds us to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”


The spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving is something that should permeate the attitude of every believers.  As worship leaders we have the wonderful privilege of fostering a spirit of gratitude in our congregations.  Our singing is biblically sound when we sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in our hearts to God.” (Col 3:16) Ultimately our gratitude centers in the Giver more than the gift.  While thinking about our families overflows our spirits with love and warmth, it is important that our thanksgiving does not stop with just celebrating how good it is to have our families and homes.  These blessings are gifts from God, and are places where His love can be manifested. 


My heart is full of thanks this Thanksgiving as I consider all the Lord has done for us.  It is full as I consider my own family, but also as I consider those with whom I have the humbling privilege to work.  I am full of gratitude as I think about the churches with whom I have opportunity to serve, and as I think about all who are lifting up voices in praise week after week in order that Christ may be known among the nations.  C.S. Lewis reminds me that when we worship we gather up the praise of all creation and give it voice.


“Let all things now living a song of thanksgiving

To God the Creator triumphantly raise;

Who fashioned and made us, protected and stayed us,

Who guideth us on to the end of our days.

His banners are o’er us, His light goes before us –

A pillar of fire shining forth in the night –

Till shadows have vanished and darkness is banished,

As forward we travel from light into light.”

             (Katherine K. Davis)


Call forth the song of thanks!




November 16, 2009

My grandfather was a strong influence in my life.  I spent many summertime hours riding with him in his pickup truck going back and forth to his farms, driving to the farmers co-op to pick up feed, or just bumping around the pasture either checking on the herd of cattle, or hauling hay.  Grandpa liked to fill those moments with either telling me stories from his life, making me laugh with his jokes, or singing.  When his choice was the later I never knew whether the song would be a nonsensical song he learned in his childhood, or if it would be a favorite hymn.  I usually had no warning.  We might be driving along for an hour with no words spoken, and suddenly the hum of the road noise would be broken by Grandpa bursting into one of these recitations, whether poetry or song.  I recall that his hymns would sometimes fool me as I would expect to hear the melody all the way through, but since Grandpa was a tenor he may well float on up to the tenor part.  That effect only became musically satisfying as I grew a little older and realized I could provide the melody and we would be rolling across Missouri’s highway 63, windows down, proclaiming our faith through a duet.

On rare occasions Grandpa would stumble on a word in a song, and would say, “Maybe I better stick to the songs I know by heart.”  He would also ask me from time to time if I knew a particular hymn “by heart.”  I knew then, and certainly know now that he was referring to whether or not I could sing the song from memory.  He would sometimes commend a certain song to me by saying, “you might want to learn to sing that one ‘by heart.”  That phrase that we might consider old fashioned presents an important challenge to our worship singing.  In our day of words on screens, delivered in six to eight word bites, it concerns me that there may be very few songs that our congregations can sing together “by heart.”  There is an obvious duplicate meaning in that phrase that should capture our attention as well.  An important question for worship leaders in music selection, as well as in how music is sung in worship might be, “Can we sing this song by heart?”  The duplicate meaning, of course, implies on the one hand whether we have the song memorized, such that we can sing it without the lyrics on the screen or use of a hymnal, and on the other hand, whether we can mean the song from our hearts.

In some ways these ideas may be complimentary.  In our age of entertainment obsession, novelty is far too often a high value that spills into our worship planning.  I often hear a similar complaint from two sides of the so called worship wars.  One side says, “we are tired of singing the same old hymns over and over.”  The other side says, “we do not want to sing those ‘seven-eleven’ songs over and over again.”  The fact is that an important aspect of our worship is repetition.  We are, in fact, repeating God’s story over and over again every week.  The Gospel must be central to our weekly gatherings.  Repetition of scripture, prayer, and yes, song, are only meaningless if we do not mean them.  I am convinced that we need enough repetition of songs to be able to sing them into meaning.  I am sometimes frustrated by how quickly a song goes by when its message is deeply profound and needs some unpacking.  Recently our Tennessee Mens Chorale sang a song that was new to many of the singers, “Come, People of the Risen King,” by Keith & Kristyn Getty.  Our rehearsal time was just enough to get the flavor and general sense of this great admonishment to “let every tongue rejoice!”  It did not provide us enough time to dig deeply into what it means to call “young and old from every land, men and women of the faith” to a time of rejoicing as “one heart, one voice.”  Yet even in our first presentations of this “new” song I could anticipate that this will be a song we will want to repeat in numerous worship times.  I know our group enough to know that we will sing into its meaning more and more over numerous repetitions.  I cannot believe that, like grandpa’s admonition, this will be one of those songs “you might want to learn to sing by heart.”

Are you giving your congregation and choir songs to sing by heart?  Are you challenging teenagers to grow into singing ancient hymns and gospel songs by heart?  Are you challenging your senior adults to engage in the repetition of choruses by using them to express their meaning by heart?  Are you committed to lead your congregation to know songs at a much deeper level than the drone mantras that far too often serve only as a utility of flow or transition for bored consumers.  Do you recognize your responsibility to select music that is worth learning to sing by heart?  I am convinced that music chosen simply to get from one mood to the other has no place in sacred worship.  Music worth learning to sing by heart should help speak the process of authentic worship that confesses our sin, cries our prayers, lifts our praise, proclaims the Truth, and engages the spirit in concert with the Holy Spirit.

The coming season of Advent and Christmas is a wonderful time to purposefully lead your congregation and choir to sing by heart, meaning by memory and with depth of meaning.  Far too many children, teens, and young adults cannot sing the great carols without printed words.  Teaching about the Incarnation during this season we celebrate our God who came to “dwell among us” could help us recognize His presence at the same time we memorize songs to sing repeatedly every year.  Wouldn’t it be great if all believers could join voices to proclaim, “Joy to the World! The Lord is come!” and if we could all do it by heart?


Private Worship – Worship Leader Roundtable Roundup

November 3, 2009

Wales Trip 06 Window webEach year I travel across the state of Tennessee to meet with Worship Pastors from our Tennessee Baptist churches.  These annual one day gatherings provide opportunities for our music leaders to share with one another openly regarding a variety of topics and to inform one another of resources for ministry that they have discovered in the course of their work.

Our Worship Leaders Roundtables this year focused primarily on our need as worship leaders to be worshipers in every aspect of our lives. Since most of us spend enormous amounts of time preparing for weekly gathered worship, we gave attention to our worship in solitude, and our worship with family. Discussions led us in many directions, which is the case each year, and a refreshing aspect of our roundtable process. I want to appeal to those who attended roundtables (and others may contribute as well) to email me titles and author names of books mentioned in our gatherings, or those that have come to mind since that time – books and other helps that encourage private worship, family worship and devotions, or that serve as good material for these special worship times. I plan to list these in next week’s enewsletter and blog. I want to share a couple of things that were takeaways for me through our times of discussion this year. First of all, private worship is private. That may not sound so profound at first glance, but I have reflected upon our sharing and on present day context for us in our churches and culture. We are a privatized society in many ways. We value our personal space and time, and expect to have complete reign in those environments to do as we wish. For many in our culture that means in those settings we serve ourselves. We might expect to hear “it’s my time, I’ll do with it as I wish.” Such a statement sounds juvenile, yet could very well come from any adult in present culture, or in our churches for that matter. The truth is that in spirit, such a statement could come from pastors and worship pastors who have focused on building a church so much that they have lost sight of the Lordship of Christ over the whole of life. Such thinking is what I believe opens the door to invasions of an individualized culture’s demons, pornography, misappropriation of resources, and egotistical daydreaming that drowns out the humble life of service and surrender. There is a need in our churches and in our culture to surrender our time to the Lord of eternity. There is a need to surrender the hidden corners of our worlds to the Father Who sees and knows all. He is the only Redeemer of it all! I was reminded often in these past weeks that we will not lead people where we have not been ourselves. Most of us recognize the need for worshipers to worship outside the Sunday church setting, and know that it would greatly enhance gathered worship if the church was worshiping through the week. Engaging in a time of daily worship in private will not in and of itself necessarily change my circumstances, but it very well may change me. Spending time praising, worshiping, and sometimes just crying out to the Lord makes a noticeable difference in how I look at the cashier at the Mapco where I fill up my car. I approach the mundane tasks differently after praying the psalms, or when the tune of a great song of faith still lingers in my mind after a morning that included moments secluded with the Lord who often prods my memory to consider faith expressions. Spending weekday mornings in private worship builds an anticipation for Sunday gathered worship that recognizes my connection to other members of the body of Christ, celebrates our connection, and more importantly offers higher praise to our Head, the Christ Himself. I joined others in being convicted of the need for leading my family in worship moments at home and in times of leisure. I heard loud and clear the stupidity of the thought that days away from work means days when I do not need to practice daily disciplines of personal and family worship. What hypocrisy. One thing I noticed in this year’s Worship Leader roundtable discussions was that in some instances we had a little difficulty in openly discussing our personal times of worship. One obvious reason for such reluctance is that they are just what the description implies, private. The Reformation and resultant Bible printing gave us access to God’s Word. Our revivalist tradition has engrained in our thinking our one-on-one relationship to Christ as a bedrock of our faith walk. The proliferation of devotional material and multimedia exposure of charismatic speakers, singers, and authors has provided us with plenty of means to sort of swim around in spiritual waters and feelings with no other humans around. In Baptist life we have only local church discipline to hold one another accountable, except for what voluntary associations we seek to nourish, such as our worship leader fellowship and conference gatherings. In other words, we hold tremendous personal responsibility in the practice of our faith, including daily worship in solitude, family worship leadership, and consistent meeting with the local church body. Of course, the Holy Spirit lives in us, convicts us, reminds us, and rebukes us as we live our lives. I find, though, that one of the ways the Holy Spirit works in me is through brothers and sisters in Christ who remind me of just the sorts of things that we discussed in our roundtables. Corporate worship can never take the place of private or family worship, nor can private or family worship supplant the weekly gathering of and with the congregation known as the church. Each of these should inform and inspire the others. If we are offering our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1), then we will surely seek to redeem the time and space that God has entrusted to us for the purpose of bringing Him glory. That means all of the time (continually), and space (all the world). What a wonderful way to live.

“Through Jesus, we continually offer the sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess His Name.” (Heb 13:15)

Having spent time with you, I am renewed.

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