Making Music

I love music. I tend to only half jokingly tell people Dad raised me on 50s & 60s oldies and Mom on opera & classical music. As a result I have a fairly wide musical interest & tend to be pretty eclectic in my tastes. Right now I could tell you some of my favorite songs from any genre from hard rock to cowboy country to blues to a Baroque aria. I have my more favorite genres of course, and I go on kicks with one or the other. One style of music that I will never tire of is acapella singing. And I don’t just mean on during assembly times, though that is where this post is geared towards. If you don’t think acapella singing outside of church times can be good, check out Pentatonix or Home Free (yes even though they’re not gospel, still good stuff!).

Acapella singing is such a wonderful communion in its own right with God & each other. Its something we truly do all together as a body even if one person happens to be leading it, and often I’m extremely encouraged by hearing all of our voices united in the same song, in the same lyric, in the same thought that lyric is trying to provoke. I hear others singing with no barrier between them & God, between each other and our combined praise to God, and personally feel more connected as a body than at many other times when we’re singing together. In the same way as taking communion together as body speaks to one another that we’re in fellowship in Christ, and that we still believe Christ has been raised from the dead, singing together as one voice the praises of our Creator often does something similar, or at least it can. It can unify a body, open our hearts to what God may tell us that morning, and connect us with the person standing or sitting next to us as we together sing a line that speaks to both of us. Singing is one of the more experiential things we do as a body, and I think that’s correct. Many other aspects of walking in the Light require head knowledge to trump our feelings, for instance believing we’re saved by grace even if our heart tells us we could never be. But singing is a place where truly as we sing the lyrics we can both understand them in our heads and feel them in our hearts. To borrow from Horatio Spafford, “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.” Even as I read these lyrics now and understand them, when sung with my brothers & sisters it takes on new meaning, it feels different, & it means something different when I read alone versus when I sing with the church. Those lyrics came out of a tragic experience that was put to music as the hymn we know.

We all have different experiences in our lives, some that can be shared with others and some that can’t. We all see God through different eyes, perspectives, & see Him working in different ways. We have different joys, different sorrows, different trials and different triumphs. We know this. What we don’t know is how our experiences may affect, may help, may encourage, may admonish, may rebuke, may relate, may connect with others. Hebrews 10 tells us the assembly is for encouraging each other and for spurring each other on to good works. Many people don’t treat the assembly this way, but that’s another post. Here’s my question:

Why don’t we do this with music more? 

OK, what am I really asking?

Why don’t we write music from OUR OWN EXPERIENCES more? 

This last Sunday I had the honor of song leading an original song written by a sixteen year old young lady from our congregation. While this was done with Leadership Training For Christ (at least as a pushing motivation), and used scripture for the lyrics, there is her experience somewhere in this song. It speaks to others inasmuch that they may not have read the same scripture she used & had it affect them the same way as when they sang the scripture along with the notes & the body singing it with them. To sing together “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trial,” giving glory to God while at the same time singing it with the same person who arranged the notes with this scripture was such a wonderful, encouraging experience for the congregation. To be connected not only now by singing the same lyrics and notes, but connected through whatever experience inspired the song writing, to share in that, to be lifted up by it is a unique experience. This is a similar experience as giving- there’s a blessing to the receiver as well as to the giver, possibly more to the giver. There is a blessing to whomever gives to others of their gifts, experiences, knowledge, & emotions as to the people receiving it, whether it be praying, preaching, encouraging, with whatever gift we have been blessed.

Songs are something that connect us to each other & to the principles contained in Scripture on an emotional as well as knowledge level. They’re a way to truly make the assembly experience our own. I’m not saying that the assembly is or should be totally experiential- not at all, but there must be an aspect of that. Scripture does not change. Principles do not change. We won’t be changing the Lord’s Supper. What does change in the assembly? What do we use to help mold each Sunday to this way or that? Our prayers, and our songs. We don’t use other peoples’ prayers to address our own congregation. There’s nothing wrong with that if its appropriate, but often we don’t, why? Because we personalize our prayers to our body & what’s going on with us today, to speak to each other & to God about the interaction between our experiences & the principles of Scripture He’s revealed to us.

Why not do this with songs too? At one point or another every song you’ve sung was new, & written by often very ordinary people out of an experience. Why not write new songs out of our experiences that speak to God from our experiences, hearts, minds, & thoughts, that speak to each other out of the same fellowship it can also encourage?

I know what many of you might be thinking- “I don’t know music!” “I don’t know where to start.” ” I have no musical training.” “I don’t know how.” “It might not be good.” Etc, etc, etc…

Well as far as the “It might…” arguments, I’ll tell you the same thing as I tell my children and happen to believe- for every “It might be bad” thought there’s an equal “It might be good” thought as well- you don’t know until you try, which as cliche as that’s become is still true!

Far as training & experience, well you’ll never get that until you try too. In this day and age of training, knowledge, & helpful programs literally right at our fingertips (he writes somewhat ironically with his fingertips) while it may not be the easiest thing, it is as easy to try and learn as its ever been. There are websites on tips for songwriting, websites that will teach you music 101, and free programs that can help you write notes & lyrics and let you hear how they sound. Those are just 3 things from a quick search, there are thousands of other resources. And this is assuming that you want to go full out and write a four part harmony song.

A hymn begins with a love for God, a few words and a basic melody. You don’t need notes on a screen, a fully developed chord structure and a copyright in order to share your love for God through song. Come up with something, teach it to someone else, and you’re worshiping in and through song, and if it happens to get sung on Sunday morning, praise God. We needn’t write new songs to have them sung on Sunday morning, but we need to ourselves write new songs to continue the tradition through the millenniums of taking Scripture to heart, of grappling with what it means to me, sharing it with others, and enjoying the blessings of God being praised. This is true, by the way, of prayers, Bible study, sermons, & random thoughts we have through the day. God is praised not just & only when we’re at the church building, but when we make Him such a part of our lives that we think on Him, dwell on Him, wrestle with what He tells us, & we must overflow somehow, whether in prayer, encouragement, sermon, or song in His praise. Worship is not something we go and do, but something we orient every aspect of our life to exude- worship is a life orientation. Church is not something we go to, but something we live, something we are, who & what we must be. A song from a heart that belongs to God is always worth singing. So, go for it, and maybe we’ll be singing your song from the next hymnal printing. Or maybe only your congregation will ever sing it. Or maybe just your friend will sing it with you. God be praised.

Grace to you.

 

Advertisements

The Qualities of Qualification- A Few More Thoughts on Shepherds

Yesterday was the first time I’ve felt truly nervous before a sermon in a long while. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it was because I knew this was the last sermon in a series that possibly may shape the future of the congregation for years to come. Maybe it was because the subject matter were texts that have tended to draw strong feelings from many people, that have divided more than united. Maybe it was because due to my own study from the week I’d actually changed (gasp) my views of a few things. Probably it was all of that.

Yesterday I preached on “The Characteristics of Qualification” out of 1st Timothy 3 & Titus 1 (with 1st Peter 5:3 stuck in there too). It was the last sermon in a series on leadership which has apparently been beneficial to everyone, not just our existing or prospective shepherds. This last one was the one in which I finally covered the New Testament “qualifications” for elders. I say it with quotes because I don’t believe they’re so much a checklist, but describing characteristics of a man already serving in that way. A shepherd in title should already be a shepherd in action & motive. Giving him the title of a shepherd is purposefully & prayerfully placing the responsibility of being accountable to that position to God, to his fellow elders, & to his congregation.

You can listen to my sermon from yesterday here at NHCC’s dropbox, and especially if you’re a part of the NHCC body I’d highly encourage you to do so. I’d like to offer three additional thoughts in addition to what I talked about yesterday about leaders & elders, specifically in relation to 1st Tim. 3 & Titus 1.

  1. We must have judgment when we appoint elders. 

There’s a line of thought in the world when it comes to judging. When looking at Matthew 7 the world often see it like this…

FB_IMG_1433992602052

Hopefully you see the ridiculousness of that. We must judge in certain instances. The lesson of Matthew 7 is don’t judge people in the way God does or unfairly, because that’s how then you’ll be judged. Much like the Golden Rule, judge unto others as you would be judged is the lesson. We should judge each others’ actions & lives in love according to Scripture to be able to encourage each other and keep each other walking in the Light. I’m glad that if I do something ungodly that someone in our congregation will judge it so, and let me know about it. When it comes to elders, I preach that we must look at the full measure of a man, & that a sin in itself doesn’t “disqualify” him from shepherding, whether this means at one time or another he was an alcoholic, went bankrupt, or even was divorced. Our judgment comes in looking at how he has dealt with his issues, & judging would this be something that would prevent him from shepherding like Christ. For example, was the divorce of a man “scriptural” (again in quotes because I believe while there are 2 exceptions where a marriage can end in a divorce & one person didn’t sin I don’t believe divorce is scriptural, but that’s another post) and has he proven he can be a faithful husband & manage his household well? Or even if it wasn’t, how does he address what happened? Where has repentance, making peace as it depends on him, prayer, asking forgiveness from God & all involved happened, or has it? Has God forgiven him? If it happened only a few years ago or if these necessary things (not just for being an elder but a Christian!) aren’t evident, maybe being a shepherd wouldn’t be a good thing right now. Same with alcoholism- he may be recovering, but what if it only last year? Judgment is needed, which leads me to point #2…

2.  Spiritual maturity is key in all things. 

It is written he must not be a new convert, which I believe the implication is that he is to be spiritually mature. What does this mean? A lot, but it comes down to has he dealt with his past mistakes, owned up to them, repented & asked forgiveness of God for them, learned from it, and has taken the steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again in his life? For example, if someone was divorced in their 20s, and now even if he’s had a marriage for 40 years to the same woman, if they have had to go to marriage counseling for the 9th time in the last few years we must judge if that is something that may prevent either the sheep from following him or him carrying out his shepherding duties to the fullest of his ability. Don’t hear me saying that marriage counseling is bad-far from it, in fact I advocate certain marriage programs even for healthy marriages- but a shepherd is to be as close to the ideal- Jesus & His picture for marriage & the church- as possible. This is not an issue of sinning or messing up, for we all do that. This is an issue of the maturity to have sinned & messed up and taken the necessary steps to correct & control whatever the issue is, first & foremost with God’s help. This is an issue of spiritual transformation, having been & continuing to be willing to let the Spirit & the Word do their work in transforming him more and more into the image of Jesus. It is again the complete picture of the man & His walk- it is a given that he will have sinned & messed up both before & after his baptism into Christ. What’s not a given is maturing into a more complete man, complete in Christ.

It is not even just an issue of does he currently meet the qualifications- it is a characteristic that the shepherd is to be hospitable, but is simply opening his home enough? Is there a Christlike attitude, a discipling spirit, a warmth & desire for fellowship as well? Is it enough that he’s been married to the same woman for ________ length of time? Has he nurtured her, built her up, loved her & shown her affection, shown that he loves her as Christ loves the Church? I encourage you to reread the characteristics in 1st Timothy & Titus 1 with the complete picture in mind- yes he may meet this characteristic, but is he mature in it? Is he someone that I can emulate & learn from in this category? There is always growing to do, and no mere mortal is the complete picture of Jesus, but part also of maturity is the willingness to mature into that which he lacks.

    3.  Qualities don’t always equal ability

This may sound funky, and it is a bit. Let me illustrate it when it comes to preachers. There are many people who have a heart for God, who love to study, & can communicate the Truth very effectively when in certain venues & situations, say one-on-one or in small groups. These same people may not be able to effectively preach a sermon week after week for a congregation. Why not? The qualities of study, of teaching, the love for God & His Word are all there, what’s missing? Put simply, he hasn’t been gifted the ability to preach. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, it just means he must use his gifts in a different way than someone who is gifted to preach week after week. Same with song leading- a lot of us know someone who has great heart & spirit, who has the musical knowledge & technical know-how, but are simply not gifted to lead a congregation in singing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I believe it beneficial to sometimes recognize our limitations, either to be aware of them to let others serve in those ways and/or to work on them to grow the ability.

I believe the same applies to shepherding. There may be men who have all of the qualities talked about in abundance who may seem the ideal choice for a shepherd, but turn out to be non-effective leaders. Why? Perhaps its something he never wanted but feels an obligation to do. While this is admirable to an extent, 1st Timothy 3 begins by saying that he who desires the office, meaning who is willing & not compelled, desires a good task. While the qualities may be there the desire to be intentional in using them in seeking out sheep is not, which will doom an eldership from the beginning. Another reason may be that while the qualities are there he is not in a place to devote the necessary time or make shepherding & all it entails enough of a priority in his life & ministry. Is this good or bad? There is a season for all things, and if a man feels his season to shepherd is not here, it is best for him not to serve.

Another instance may be that while again the qualities are there he is unwilling to purposefully exercise them for the flock. This again goes back to maturity as well as judgment. If a man is unwilling to shepherd the whole flock, even “problem sheep” or sheep he freely admits he doesn’t care for, we must judge if the maturity is there to handle the demands of a congregation. A man may be respected among the congregation & willing & able to serve, but he intentionally does not purposefully practice shepherding to someone or any part of the congregation, he ought not to serve as a shepherd. Sometimes he’s just not gifted to lead, & what’s expected of him as a shepherd is simply beyond his ability, which is again not a bad thing, but must be recognized.

I hope that from the sermon series & even this last sermon we can see that there is much more to being a leader, a shepherd of the Church than checking off this qualification or that. It’s about more than did he or didn’t he do or not do this or that. It’s first and foremost about his walk with The Shepherd, & how he strives to first be like Jesus, and then how he can help those in a congregation work towards that as well. There’s a case to be made that that walk should include some things that “normal” people deal with, like anger, bad financial decisions, marital problems, etc to be a living example of what Christ can do in a life. Sometimes the best way to lead is to be able to tell people you’ve been there too, and you know the way out, the way to clean all that up, & His name is Jesus.

As we pray about our future leaders this week at NHCC, let us always strive to be the reflection of Jesus in all we do, & follow those who help us shine brighter into the world.

Grace to you.

 

 

September 11th, Black Lives, & Division in Unity

It was a normal Tuesday morning in 7th grade (yes, I’m betraying my age here but oh well.) I had just finished first hour, and I’ll admit I can’t remember who my teacher was…I think it was Pre-Algebra with Miss Flath, but I’m not sure. I do remember however walking into Mr. Wright’s classroom where I was expecting to have Geography, but instead the TV was on in the corner of the classroom with a picture very similar to the cover picture of this post. A burning building, & the words “Possible Terrorist Attack on WTC Towers” scrolling across the bottom of the screen. The Towers themselves meant little to me, as a 7th grader I didn’t know what the World Trade Center was besides it sounded important. Terrorist meant something to me, though not as much as it would come to. Our class watched the news coverage silently, which is something for a room full of 7th graders. The first tower collapsed just as the bell rang to move on. We begged Mr. Wright to let us stay to watch, but he pushed us out. We then begged whoever our third hour teacher was to let us watch, but to no avail. I remember another student staying to me we were at war, which made me stop. Everything seemed so wrong, because it was. I grew up in Southwestern Illinois, in the outskirts of St. Louis suburbia, mostly farming communities, and nothing major like this happened where I grew up. It was a shock.

I remember Mom picking me up that day, and seeing huge lines near the gas stations, asking what they were doing. I remember hearing President Bush give his first recorded address over the radio, repeated every so often for those who hadn’t yet heard. I remember seeing more footage later that evening, glued to the TV, unable to tear my eyes away from the images. I had no real sense of the loss of life, but I knew this shouldn’t happen, and I knew from history this sort of thing was definitely not supposed to happen in the United States.

I would reflect upon those scenes later in life, about 8 years later actually, when I was flying several flag draped transfer cases back to Dover, Delaware from Afghanistan as a member of a C-17 flight crew. I reflected upon that day which was probably a major reason I was wearing the Air Force uniform, and that that day 8 years before was a direct reason why those men, one younger than me inconceivably, were headed home, their war effort and their earthly lives finished.

Today, I reflect upon that way yet again, this time 14 years later as a husband, a father, a minister. I think of what I’ve learned in those 14 years & how it’s reshaped my perspective, & how that continues to be reshaped the more I learn. I reflect upon what I learned about life today in 2001, what I learned about life on the plane ride home staring at those flag covered coffins, what I’ve learned about life since becoming a husband & father of three, and what I learn about others’ view of life.

I think of that particularly in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement that has threatened to make today a radical showing of “power” against whites & police officers. There’s a personal connection here as well as my brother-in-law is a police officer, and I’m praying for his safety today. The issue though goes beyond that. It goes beyond a single movement or creed or belief. It goes beyond family.

September 11th happened for many reasons, and I’m not writing to give a history lesson, but for a base reason that a certain group of people thought & believed that another group of people were expendable, worthless, & justified to be murdered. This manifested itself in the September 11th attacks, but the larger picture was a religious group of people declaring an entire other group of people worthless. Al-Qaeda & Osama Bin Laden actually declared this back in 1996 when he issued several Islamic religious decrees asking his followers to unite in wiping out all their perceived enemies. But this is hardly the first time anything like that had ever happened- history is full similar incidents. In essence this is what Hitler sought for the Jews, what any culture who has committed to slavery has sought, what anyone has sought when they willingly & knowingly elevated a certain group of people over another. They sought control over another by which they would be defaultly given value through power. Perhaps it was phrased in light of protection or convenience or necessity, but what many struggles come down to is power & value. As does the Black LIves Matter movement.

The source of the newest Black Lives Matter movement can be traced to Ferguson, Missouri when Officer Darren Wilson shot & killed Michael Brown. Investigations judged the shooting self-defense & the officer was deemed not guilty of anything more. Many people didn’t and don’t accept that which has lead to a sometimes militant movement demanding value. This quest for value has consummated in this latest reach for it- a show of power against those the movement deems of lesser value, thinking this perception is returned.

One may say that language is incorrect, that no one has said white or police lives are of lesser value, but to that I say it’s not necessarily what is said in language, but what is said by what’s shown. By singling out a specific group of people to enact violence upon, the demonstration of value is obvious. Now, have there been assaults against blacks by white? Absolutely. Have there been assaults of the opposite nature. Yes. In fact there have been assaults by any one of any ethnicity against every one of every other ethnicity. This terrible game has been played by all sorts of people, so don’t hear that I’m saying one is justified over another in this particular situation. Any police officer who consciously singles out anyone & shoots them beyond the authority the law gives them is wrong. Anyone who consciously singles out anyone else & intends violence against them is wrong. My point, I’m on no one’s side in the present struggles.

So what am I saying? I’m saying our perspective when it manifests itself in this way is completely out of whack. I’m saying that by purposely elevating a certain group & saying their lives matter is out of whack. I’m saying ANYTIME we separate ourselves from each other, that is out of whack.

Do we actually see what whenever we label each other it always creates division? Don’t believe me? Ask a teenager to go help out an in an old folks home- what happens a lot of times? By phrasing it that way we create division between them- teen & old people. Oh you live on the poor side of town? Oh, that subdivision is where the rich people live. Which family? Oh the black family, or Chinese family, or the…it goes on.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be descriptive, and often times that’s how we mean it which is fine. But the line between describing & deciding on people is a blurry & thin one. Even with the best of intentions do we describe people in ways that shape others & sometimes our own opinions about them, whether we realize it or not. The value we place on others often comes from our judgment of their description. If I were to describe a certain family as living in the poor side of town in the black neighborhoods, what image does that conjure? What if I described the same family by saying a husband, wife, three kids who live on such and such street? See what I’m talking about? How we choose to describe one another, especially in context, affects our perception of their value consciously or not.

I write all this because interestingly enough, the Bible doesn’t often describe God’s people in the same terms we do. Anytime it does its in response to a division that’s already there that the writer is trying to fix- see, well, most of the epistles honestly. So how does the Bible describe the people who follow God?

Radiant

Without stain

Without wrinkle

Without blemish

Holy

Blameless

A chosen people

A royal priesthood

A holy nation

God’s special possession

Christ’s Bride

The Body of Christ

What do these descriptions do for you? One of the things I find most amazing about these descriptions is that the value is built into the description! And I didn’t even put my favorite one there, I will in a minute. All these expressions describe the Church, & what I mean by that is the group of people who purposely & intentionally have obeyed God’s commands & strive to continue to do so. This is how God views His Church, valuable, united, & together.

Often times in society, as seen by what I’ve been talking about, we’re guilty of dividing in our unity. What I mean is that we’re united in something until there is something that divides us. For example, I would venture a guess that the Black Lives Movement participants & police officers are all American citizens, but they have chose to call themselves something differently to unite together apart from someone else for the sake of wanting the same thing. As many groups have done throughout history. And it’s stupid.

My favorite term for what God calls His Church is children. It’s my favorite because I know of the special love I have for my three children, and to imagine that from God is incredible. And I prefer that term because we ALL are children of God, whether we admit it or not. Some have left the family, some have come back, but we’re all God’s children that He loves, cares for, & desires to be with having created us in the first place. The main problem I have with saying something like Black Lives Matter, or White Lives, or Striped Lives, or Polka-Dot Lives, ANYTIME we decide to make a division that wasn’t there before we are spitting on the true definition of value that applies to everyone God has formed & made. Division is always something that is man-made because man constantly wants to be the one deciding the value of things instead of respecting the value that has been placed on all of us.

If we truly understood the meaning & manifestation of value, the view of value through the eyes of Heaven, having to qualify which or whose life matters wouldn’t make sense to us. If only we could understand that life by virtue of being alive requires intrinsic value, & that those who are alive have no true division between them. What if we could understand that dividing to be unified makes as little sense as stepping off a cliff with strap-on wings, and in the end has the same result- destruction & death?

What if we could understand that the only division that truly matters isn’t between us as humans, but the one that for many people divides them from God Himself? What if those who have sought to accept the Christ that spans this divide truly believed that there is neither black nor white, nor poor nor rich, neither old nor young, neither blue collar nor white collar, neither anyone or anything but children of God? What if the Church truly started acting like it ought to, showing the world that there is no unity when we continue to divide ourselves?

But alas, we live in a world where to most people this is a fantasy beyond our ability. They’re right actually, it is beyond ours. And so we wait & pray as we watch those who deem others less valuable act accordingly. You know the first time someone decided a life was less valuable than their own God said to Cain “Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” I wonder how much more blood will yet cry out to God before we realize that enough blood was shed on the Cross for all lives, & that shedding any more only deepens the divide we so desperately claim to want to unify.  And so we divide, believing this time we’ll be able to fly, not realizing we’ve already been falling for a long time.