Archive for April 2011

Burning Hearts

April 26, 2011

  I hope you had a meaningful Holy Week and a powerful and celebrative Resurrection Sunday!  It was surely a glorious time for my family and me.  Ebbie and I had the privilege Friday evening of worshiping with Grace Community Church, a Southern Baptist church that is just a couple of blocks from our TBC offices. Thanks to Pastor Scott Patty and Worship Pastor, Jeff Bourque for worship planning that places Gospel power in its rightful position to speak to our hearts.

On Sunday we worshiped at First Baptist Nashville with our family.  We looked like “pack a pew night” at a revival service.  It was a glorious day of worship and celebration of the Resurrection.  Frank Lewis’ message focused on the experience of two disciples who were traveling on the road to Emmaus.  The story is a familiar one found in Luke 24:13-49.  Its spiritual meaning and life application have intrigued me for sometime.  It is  rich with meaning for worshipers.  I want to focus on these verses and invite your reflection on the core of our worship planning motivation and challenge you to serving with greatest integrity as one who seeks to help facilitate worship.  Here are verses 30-32 from the NIV:

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

This is only the second sighting of Jesus after His resurrection, so Cleopas and his traveling companion, in their depressed state of mind, do not have much pragmatic reason to expect to see their Teacher.  The conversation that takes place as they walk along includes the two men telling this “stranger” the events of recent days in Jerusalem.  Jesus, in turn, places the events of the entire Old Testament into proper perspective whereby it points to Himself, the Messiah.  Inside their house, Jesus, the house guest, becomes the host, and breaks the bread for them and then vanishes.  These verses have been interpreted from several spiritual perspectives, from those who focus on how Jesus broke the bread, connecting it to the Last Supper, to those who draw remembrance to the feeding of the 5000.  The Spirit must illuminate the words to help us grasp the message for our lives, our ministries, and for His Kingdom.  I would offer a thought relative to worship, however, which I believe can apply regardless of more detail interpretation and application.  That is the truth that it is only Jesus among us that can ignite the kind of spiritual ferver our people and our churches so desperately need.  What’s more, when it is truly Jesus’ presence that causes our hearts to burn within us, the simplest remembrance of Him will stir that same burning sensation once again.  (quite different from trying to whip up a little enthusiasm from hearts and voices that have gone stone cold awaiting our latest attempts at reviving spirit – small “s”)

The thought that only Jesus’ presence can ignite our hearts again may sound like a “no-brainer,” something that “goes without saying.”  Brothers and sisters, the problem is not in the saying, the problem is in the believing-trusting!  As worship leaders serving in our culture of pizazz, it can be hard to resist the strong temptation toward overdoing dramatic crescendos and dazzling effects as means of producing a thrill, rather than trusting the Lord to make His presence known through the power of His Word.  Worse yet, we may struggle to convince pastors, choir members, or other church leaders, that care must always be taken not to be about “conforming to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” (Rom 12:2)  It is hard to admit, but I know full well that there is something in me as one who performs music, that hungers for a hardy applause and would relish in “oohs” and “ahs” in response to something I had designed and planned.  If I am not careful I can justify that trajectory by baptizing it in good intentions of capturing people’s attention so that Gospel can then be presented.  Upon deeper reflection I am convicted again that the medium is the message – they are inseparable.  What’s more, I don’t fool anybody.  People know whether my intention is to “show my stuff” or to get out of the way that they might see Jesus.

When we have been with Jesus, there is something about it that we know it was Him.  I believe it is the Holy Spirit at work pointing us to Him.  The mere remembrance of those moments when we have known He is with us causes our hearts to burn within us.  Worship includes remembrance.  Trusting His desire to “be with us always, even to the end of the age” is a crucial aspect of worship.  We must make sure we do not allow any lesser truth take “center stage” in worship.

Seeking to see Him,        

Paul

Too Busy for Holy

April 19, 2011

They call it Holy Week.  In all of Christendom this week includes the highest days of the year.  The disciplined practice of the faithful over centuries has been to use the period from Ash Wednesday through the forty days of Lent to reflect on our own lives and to repent.  As Holy Week approaches the emphasis turns more and more away from our need of forgiveness and renewal toward what Christ has done to attone for our sins.  The apex is this week that starts with Palm Sunday and moves to Maunday Thursday, Good Friday, Dark or Holy Saturday, and on to the celebrative Resurrection Day.  Christ followers surely take pause to revere these hours of remembrance and reflection…or do they?  How could those who have been forgiven not celebrate deliverance provided them by a Holy God in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus?  How could those who say their very identity is in Christ not be humbled in this time of festivity centering on Resurrection power; the victory over death and hell?

I highly suspect that the answer to most of these rhetorical questions is that we are just too busy, preoccupied with things of this world.  Our preoccupation with world-measured “success” and pursuit of leisure often overrides the cost of a disciple’s journey into a season of confession and cleansing.  Whether such a time is marked by a methodical observance of Lent with its liturgical prayers and private practice of humility and confession, or if it is a “Spring Revival” marked by bold preaching that calls the faithful to repentance, that fills church altars with humbled believers, the question is, “Is there time for such things these days in our churches and/or individual lives?  The notion of fasting or literally bowing humbly before God just takes time and attention away from the driven routines of business and leisure.  Is it any wonder that people in the pew seem not to participate meaningfully in voicing the songs of lament associated with the season, whether it is O Sacred Head Now Wounded, Sweetly Broken, or O the Wonderful Cross?  Though we will likely have the musical and technological forces blowing full blast on Easter Sunday morning, we must ask, “Are herald trumpets, brilliant videography, and raised light levels enough to cover up participation deficiency,?  Will a people who have avoided confronting their own sinfulness, to honestly sing “prone to wonder Lord I feel it,” know the song of genuine freedom?  If we were to literally sing a couple of verses of Christ the Lord Is Risen Today or In Christ Alone unplugged would we hear anything?

We have spent many years trying to attract people living in our culture by demonstrating how “successful” we are, and that success to be quantified and measured in the same terms as popular culture interprets – a la corporate America or a la American Idol in the case of us musicians.  My dear brother in Christ, David Platt, has challenged us boldly in his book, Radical, that challenges this spirit among Christians and in the church.  Is it any wonder that our people are much more consumed with doing than being?

How terribly sad that even in this season of high and holy days we hear of church strife, forced minister terminations, dejection and depression expressed by pastors who serve by preaching or those who lead worship through music.  The not-so-hidden agendas of game-players and power brokers in our churches take no break for Holy Week.  After all, they’re busy with a job to do…they need to make the church in their own image, God forbid.  Robert Wenz challenges us that while the Word calls us to “offer ourselves as living sacrifices” (Rom 12:1), the Apostle Paul immediately cautions not to be squeezed, “conformed” into the mold of the world, but to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Rom 12:2)

Dear brothers and sisters, lead your people to worship in a manner that addresses the full story of the Gospel.  I challenge you to walk through the whole story of Christ this week.  I am praying diligently that you will be filled with the Spirit Sunday such that those consumed with the “American Dream” will be led to discover the King of Kings, the Lord of lords, the Triumphant Risen Christ who conquers death and hell, Who will come again and will reign forever and ever!

O to see the pain, written on your face

            Bearing the awesome weight of sin,

            Every bitter thought, every evil deed

            Crowning your bloodstained brow

            This the power of the cross

            Christ became sin for us

            Took the blame, bore the wrath

            We stand forgiven at the cross

                                    -Keith Getty and Stuart Townend

           

The horrifying beauty of the cross precedes the grave-emptying power of the resurrection.  Gaining whatever level of spiritual grasp on that reality we are capable of wrapping our hearts around can only enliven our Easter song:

Christ the Lord is risen today

            Sons of men and angels say

            Raise your joys and triumphs high

            Sing ye heavens and earth reply,

            ALLELUIA!

                                    -Charles Wesley

 

Earnestly,       

Paul

Then Sings My Soul

April 13, 2011

Recently I have been meditating upon songs of worship that have engendered special inspiration and/or expression in my experience over the years.  I am specifically focusing on songs that have come to life in and during congregational singing.  My first thought was, “this will be easy, because there are so many.”  My second thought was, “this is hard, because there are so many.”

The year was 1979.  Our church’s youth group had just returned from mission trip to a small farming community in Iowa.  In those days I wore the dreaded title of Minister of Music & Youth.

The group I took to Iowa was made up primarily of younger students.  It was just one of those years when we had more seventh and eighth graders than juniors and seniors.  The voice maturity deficit was evident when we sang, but they did the best they could.  God surprised us in numerous ways during the trip.  Through these middle and high school students He had spoken to a farmer, two mothers, tens of children, and one college football player who “just happened to be staying on the campus” where our group was housed.

The first amazing moment of the trip occurred when some of our young girls did not return to the church building in time for the start of revival services.  We sent out adults to find them.  Halfway through the service I heard commotion outside the doublewide trailer church.  I was panicked when I heard crying, and visions of wounded children danced in my head.  Oh me of little faith.

I interrupted the service to ask an adult to check on things.  Moments later the back door to the trailer opened and in burst four girls still crying and escorting a young farmer’s wife and mother of three.  “She’s saved!”  “She’s saved!” one of the girls kept exclaiming.  After hearing the story from the mouths of babes, a story confirmed by the young mother, we paused and sang praise and thanksgiving, “How Great Thou Art.”  The acoustics of that doublewide trailer provided by the Home Mission Board were dead as a doornail, but sounded like St. Martin in the Fields that night as those kids joined church members in celebrating the salvation of one their neighbors.  The music was glorious.  It seemed that every refrain provided a deeper and more emphatic expression of that phrase, “then sings my soul my Savior, God to Thee.”  My soul was ignited to sing because I had seen the salvation of the Lord.

During the remainder of that trip we saw the Lord work over and over in miraculous ways.  After we returned to our home church the next week I received word that the football player who ate in the cafeteria with us each day had located the college chaplain after we left and  had prayed to receive Christ.

At our Missouri church, during the sharing service when these very young students told their stories of the Spirit at work, there were many tears of joy shed.  Our rejoicing culminated in an ending song that exclaimed our shared praise expressed to the Lord Himself from hearts overflowing with thanksgiving and praise.  I was so full personally that it was difficult to maintain composure, but I kept going and could not help but see in my mind’s eye those brothers and sisters in Iowa tearfully expressing the same song right along with us.  Surely God was pleased with the heart expressions of two congregations gathered in two different places having shared the blessings of God.  To this day, when I remember, I cannot help but resurrect the song in my heart.

Then sings my soul my Savior God to Thee

How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

In this season of remembrance and reflection, may your soul sing of His greatness.

Paul

The Music In Us

April 4, 2011

Last night I had the incredible humbling privilege of once again standing before the Tennessee Ladies Chorus to conduct a concert of worship music.  I have never heard them sing with more power.  It helps that First Baptist Church Cookeville sanctuary possesses fine acoustics for choral music.  It helps that the crowd gathered were primarily supportive believers whose expectation of inspiring musical expression did not go wanting.  But I believe with all my heart that the real force at work among us in that setting was the Holy Spirit engaging hearts and minds in a way that only He can as the choir of seventy plus treble voices combined with instruments, all seeking to communicate the message of the songs, the message of the Gospel in the spirit of worship.

Reflecting on last night’s worship as well as upon a life of music-making as means of ministry and worship, I am again overwhelmed with God’s goodness in allowing us to be part of His Kingdom’s work.  The Apostle Paul stated that God chose the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. (1 Cor 1:27)  Surely we see example of such when we experience music that speaks to our hearts at the same time it provides a means of expression to the deepest recesses of our souls.  How could a combination of ordered sounds and words work ministry in people’s lives?  As musicians we often reflect upon the most obvious applications of music as ministry – stories of how one song or the other spoke to the heart of someone who recently experienced loss or pain, and happened to be in a service of music presentation.  There are songs that seem to stir us to action precisely because they help us express joy or celebration.  These obvious applications of music as ministry are easily accessible.  In fact, last night, as usually is the case, I heard these applications expressed from many persons following the concert.  To hear about these effects on people is meaningful and encouraging.  They demonstrate that listeners were active in their listening. They also indicate that one purpose for the singing has been accomplished.  I understand these reflections as evidence that ministry has taken place as intended and prayed for by the music presenters.  These reflections are gratifying to be sure.

But alas, there is more.  James K. A. Smith reminds us that “music gets ‘in’ us in ways other forms of discourse rarely do.” (Desiring the Kingdom, 171)  It occurs to me that in God’s economy of things, somehow for us life experience joins Word of Truth and these become animated with artistic imagination looking for release.  For so many of us music, perhaps more than any other human art form, provides that release.  I can sing worship in which I recall life experience, apply Gospel truth, and express response all at once through this music.  Whether singer, player, or listener, through this process we may be indescribably reminded of what it is to be human.  I suppose it could be said that any kind of music might bring similar conclusion.  In presentation of musical art where the created being is offering response to his/her Creator, though, it would seem more fully human.  Through the ordering of sound we may be moved to reorder life and its desires within the context of Christian worship.  The profound impact is mystery.  Formation is taking place that may reside in me as active memory for a time, or may lie seemingly dormant only to later be reactivated when chords are strummed again, and Christian thinking and feeling about things is excited once again.

Paul said, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” (Col 3:16)  Is it possible that even by the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs the word dwells in us richly?  Our singing in Christian worship is recognizably part of our identity.  For musicians music-making often provides avenues of expression that words alone seem not to afford.  It appears often to communicate to heart and soul of hearers as well.

Bob Kauflin refers to “the three R’s of why Christians sing: remember, respond, and reflect.

Thank God for the gift of music.  Thank Him for music that enters in to our minds and hearts and becomes part of us.  Thank Him for the gift that allows us to find the music within that enables us to express our remembrance and response to Him, and that somehow reflects His glory.  Thank God for music that captures our heart’s imagination and moves us to a more profound alleluia.

How often, making music, we have found

A new dimension in the world of sound

As worship moved us to a more profound

Alleluia! Alleluia!

And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night

When utmost evil strove against the light?

Then let us sing, for whom He won the fight

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Let every instrument be tuned for praise!

Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!

And may God give us faith to sing always

Alleluia! Alleluia!

–       Fred Pratt Green, 1972

Resounding praise,

Paul


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