Worship Song of the Month

the blessing of RESURRECTION LIFE

Thank you for joining me, these past couple of weeks, as I’ve reflected on “Three Blessings from Ephesians 1-3.”  So far, we have rejoiced in the blessings of Church and the Holy Spirit.  A third blessing that we experience in Christ is Resurrection Life. 

We see the blessing of Resurrection Life clearly in Ephesians 2:1-10.  Before we followed Christ, we were dead in our transgressions and sins.  We followed the ways of this world and the spirit of darkness.  We gratified earthly cravings and sought to fulfill sinful desires and thoughts.  “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5, emphasis mine). 

I suspect that we typically think of Resurrection Life as being something that we will receive when we die or when Christ returns.  Certainly, our Resurrection Life will be enjoyed and realized most fully when we are face to face with Christ in glory.  Paul says in Ephesians 2:7 that God’s kindness and grace will be shown clearly “in the coming ages.” But, even as we await the new heavens and the new earth, our Resurrection Life starts now.

I encourage you to (re)-read Ephesians 1-3 to remind yourself of the innumerable benefits of life in Christ. Perhaps the greatest is knowing God himself. As Jesus prayed for his disciples (and us), “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). One day we will know him fully, but we have the blessing of knowing God even now (Eph. 1:17, 2:18, 3:14-19).

Another benefit of Resurrection Life is that we are given purpose and ability. As new creations, we are to “do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (2:10).  We are to live “a life worthy of the calling [we] have received” (4:1).

Paul spends the final three chapters of Ephesians giving us insight into how to do this:

We are to be humble, gentle, and patient.  We are to be peacemakers and unifiers in the Church.  We are to use the gifts we’ve been given to serve and build up the Church.  We are to grow in maturity, not being easily deceived, but speaking the truth in love (4:1-16).

We are to have soft hearts, sensitive to the wisdom of the Spirit.  We are to put off our old self with its deceitful desires, and instead practice thoughts and attitudes of righteousness and holiness (4:17-23).

We are to tell the truth, forgive and reconcile, stop stealing, and work in order to share.  We are to speak in wholesome and encouraging ways, without slander, bitterness, or malice—forgiving one another as Christ forgave us.  We are to practice sacrificial love towards one another (4:25-5:1).

We are to run from sexual immorality, impurity, and greed, and we are to avoid speaking in obscenities or coarse jokes. We must not hide secret sins, but should “find out what pleases the Lord” and obey.  We should not be lazy or debauched, but wise and disciplined.  We should sing to the Lord and give thanks for everything (5:2-20).

In whatever role in family or society we find ourselves, we should submit to one another and wholeheartedly to Christ.  Wives should submit to their husbands, and husbands should love their wives unreservedly and sacrificially.  Children should obey their parents, and parents should teach their children to follow God.  Slaves should obey and serve their masters, and masters should show kindness and respect to their servants.  In all things, the Church should submit to Christ (5:21-6:9).

We should stand firm against temptation—immersing ourselves in the truth of God’s Word, the discipline of righteousness, and the practice of peace.  We should act in confidence that we have been saved, by grace, through faith.  We have the Spirit of God.  And we should pray in the Spirit “on all occasions, with all kinds of prayers and requests, for all the Lord’s people” (6:10-20).

Yes, it may seem like most of this post is a summary of Ephesians 4-6, not 1-3 as advertised. The blessing of Resurrection Life is introduced in Ephesians 2, and then the apostle Paul gives us a great deal of application in the latter part of Ephesians. But the truth is that none of these attitudes and actions would be possible apart from the fact that we have been given new life in Christ.  This blessing of Resurrection Life is a gift from God, so that no one can boast (2:9). As Paul puts it in another of his letters: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone; the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

As I close this series on “Three Blessings from Ephesians 1-3,” I want to say that I am grateful to you for reading these posts and for reflecting with me on these good gifts that Paul highlights in his letter to the Ephesians.  I delight in the blessings of CHURCH, the HOLY SPIRIT, and RESURRECTION LIFE.  And I delight in your participation with me in these blessings. 

I will sign off by offering Paul’s benediction, with which he blesses the church in Ephesus: 

“Peace to the brothers and sisters, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.”

Worship Song of the Month

the blessing of the HOLY SPIRIT

As we looked last week at the first three chapters of Ephesians, I hope you were inspired by the way the apostle Paul describes the Church.  The Church is a holy people, the body and fullness of Christ, a building established on Scripture and Christ, a temple in which God lives.  The Church communicates the wisdom and love of God to the powers-that-be and the people-that-need.   The Church is a good gift from God—a blessing. 

In these same chapters, Paul also speaks of another good gift that God gives his people:  the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit blesses us with Assurance, Relationship, and Power.

First, we can have Assurance of God’s plan. God’s plan has been unfolding since before creation.  It was God’s plan to send Jesus to die on the cross to redeem and forgive us, and to make us holy in his sight.  It was God’s plan that all who believe in that redemptive work should be adopted as his children. God’s plan is that, in the fullness of time, all of the blessings outlined in Ephesians 1:3-14 will be fully realized, and all things will be united under Christ.

In grace, God made known to us his mysterious plan, which he “set forth” or “purposed” in Christ. When we heard the gospel truth and believed in Jesus, we were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us assurance of God’s plan, and because we have the Holy Spirit, we can be assured that we have been included in it. The Holy Spirit is a “deposit” guaranteeing that we will in fact inherit eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth. 

The Spirit also gives us Relationship.  We are, first of all, given relationship with God.  As “the eyes of [our hearts] are enlightened,” we come to know God more and more.  We increase in hope, we enjoy his present and future blessings, and we understand his power (1:17-23).

The Apostle Paul makes it clear that this relationship with God is given to both Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ. And, by the Spirit, we are reconciled not only to the Father but to one another.

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (2:13-18).

By the Spirit, we are given relationship to God and with fellow believers.

Finally, the good gift of the Holy Spirit is a blessing of Power.  It is impossible to imagine the extent of this power, which is “immeasurably great.” As Paul says, the power working in and through us is the same power that God “exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand” (1:19-20). 

Just as God’s power raised Jesus to life, God raised us to life (2:4-5).  The power of the Spirit gave insight to the apostles and prophets (3:4-5); this same power gives us insight into God’s redemptive plan (1:8-10).  The power of the Spirit made Paul “a minister of the gospel” (3:7), and the Holy Spirit gives us gifts to be used for the edification of the Church and the spread of the gospel message today. God’s power gives us strength in our inner beings. It gives us faith and endurance and comfort.  The power of the Holy Spirit is at work in us to transform us for God’s glory (3:16-21). 

I am thankful for the blessing of the Holy Spirit.  As we see the heart of Paul in Ephesians 1-3, let’s join together in praying that we (as individuals and as the Church) would grow in Assurance of our salvation and in Relationship with God and each other.  Let’s pray that we would have the Power of the Holy Spirit to grasp the amazing love of Christ that surpasses our own knowledge, and to be filled with all the fullness of God. 

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the blessing of CHURCH

We don’t always think of Church as a blessing. 

Sometimes we engage with Church as a cold institution. Or we might see the Church as a judgmental, fractured, political group of individuals.  Some people experience great pain and disenfranchisement within the Church, and as a result, make a conscious decision to be a Christ-follower without being a church-participant.  Others may be apathetic towards the Church; they find that church has no impact, and instead seek meaning in other communities or choose to live privately “spiritual” lives.

Whatever our hurts or disappointments, I encourage all of us to read the first three chapters of Ephesians to see how the apostle Paul describes the Church. I hope that, through Paul’s eyes, we will start to view the Church as a blessing.

In Ephesians 1:3-14, Paul praises God for the many “spiritual blessings” that are given us in Christ.  These blessings include our having been chosen by God to be holy and blameless, predestined for adoption, and redeemed through Christ’s blood.  Our sins are forgiven, we have had God’s grace lavished upon us, and we have been given understanding of God’s plan. We have been included in Christ and marked with the Holy Spirit. We are “God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.”

We tend to think of these blessings as having been given to each of us as individuals (and we often experience them in that way), but Paul is speaking to a community of believers in Ephesus—whom he calls “the faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1). In his list of spiritual blessings, we find a multitude of the pronouns “we,” “us,” and plural “you.”

We—the Church—receive the blessings of Christ, and, in turn, we are a blessing—blessing God and blessing one another. In Eph. 1:15-21, Paul thanks God for the local church community in Ephesus because of two things:  their faith in Jesus (I think of this as a vertical expression of the Church) and their love for all of God’s people (horizontal).  He prays that the church there will be built up in wisdom, knowledge, and enlightenment in order to know Christ and the inheritance and power given to “his holy people.”

Then he makes this beautiful statement about the Church: “God placed all things under Christ’s feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (1:22-23).

Wow. The Church is the fullness of Christ. The Church is his Body.

In The Cost of Discipleship, theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer says: “The Body of Christ is identical with the new humanity which [Jesus] has taken upon him.  It is in fact the Church.  Jesus Christ is at once himself and his Church… To be in Christ therefore means to be in the Church.”  He continues, “Since the ascension, Christ’s place on earth has been taken by his Body, the Church.  The Church is the real presence of Christ.”

As the Body of Christ, we have been made alive with Christ, given the privilege of participating in his mission and work, and are recipients together of his blessings (2:1-10).

We are brought near, through the blood of Christ, to God and to each other (2:11-3:6). We are one People, united in Christ.  We are Citizens and Family Members.  We are a Building, rising up from the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ as the chief Cornerstone.  Together, we are being built into a Temple in which God lives by his Spirit. We are Heirs of and Sharers in the promises of Christ.

It is through the Church that God intends for “the manifold wisdom of God [to] be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (3:10).

And it is in the Church that we “may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that [we] may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (3:18-19). 

Yes, Church can be disappointing.  Mainly because the Church is full of disappointing people (myself included). 

But I encourage you, if you aren’t currently joined to and participating in a local church, to find a community of believers with whom you can be built up and filled.  If you are already in a church body, look at your church—whatever its faults—as a blessing.   

And, even if deep wounds or ongoing frustrations make it “immeasurably more than all [you] could ask or imagine” (3:20-21) that Church would be a blessing, God is able.  His power is at work within us.

“To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”

Worship Song of the Month

Worship Song of the Month

February 4: Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah

This week, I invite you to read my blog post on Ephesians 5, which, for me, is a “life passage” for worship.  In Ephesians 5:19, we are instructed to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.”  This directive has become a bit of a theme for me, as I try to include both hymns and songs in our worship repertoire on Sunday mornings and in our “Worship Song of the Month” devotionals, and also to choose some hymns and songs that are based on Psalms. 

This month, we will be singing a hymn that is even more directly tied to the Psalms. Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah is an example of what we call a metrical, versified, or rhymed Psalm. Throughout the month of February, we will look at Psalm 146 (NIV) side by side with the metered version, and enjoy singing what is essentially Scripture itself.

Today, let’s look at the first verse of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah.”

Praise the LORD. 

Hallelujah, praise Jehovah.

Praise the LORD, my soul.

O my soul, Jehovah praise.

I will praise the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

I will sing the glorious praises of my God through all my days.

Do not put your trust in princes,

Put no confidence in princes,

in human beings, who cannot save.

nor for help on man depend.

When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;

He shall die, to dust returning,

on that very day their plans come to nothing.

and his purposes shall end.

In this part of the Psalm and song, we instruct our souls to praise the LORD (in all caps, meaning Jehovah or Yahweh or I AM). We call him by his most intimate and holy name, and then we commit to worship him our entire lives. We remind ourselves to put our trust only in God, not in earthly rulers or leaders or human helpers. Our plans and the plans of those on whom we would rely will ultimately end. Only God’s purposes extend beyond a lifetime, from generation to generation, throughout eternity.

For Reflection: Remind your “soul” of all that God has done for you. Remind yourself that, even when you fail, leaders fail, or the people around you fail, God never does. Commit to praising God for the rest of your life. Praise the Lord!

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ATTENTION PASTORS: 10 Things Your Worship Leaders Wish You Would Stop Doing and Saying

I’m writing this post for pastors, with the hope that it might help you to better understand your worship leaders, and perhaps avoid saying and doing things that are well-intentioned but come across negatively. And I’m writing this post for my fellow worship leaders, who may be feeling some of these things but can’t communicate them to their pastors. I have the utmost respect and love for each of the pastors with whom I have served and under whose leadership I have grown — which is why I’m choosing to post this list (which I may or may not have written in the past) now, when the church at which I’m serving is in-between pastors.

Any resemblance to former pastors is purely coincidental.

So, here you go: Pastors, my Top 10 things your worship leaders wish you would stop doing and saying.

10. Stop telling us you “need time to develop your sermons,” and then expect us to put the worship service together in a couple of hours.

I say this with so much respect for pastors and the time it must take to prepare a sermon – I can’t even imagine!   And I say it with grace, because I know you are busy, and crises and emergencies come up all the time in ministry. But if you regularly wait until Wednesday afternoon to send your sermon info to your worship leader (even the basics), when you know the musicians rehearse that night… Or if you often send it an hour before your worship leader needs to present their service ideas to you and the worship committee… Or if the church secretary has to let your worship leader know what the service topic is, on the day the bulletin is due… What are you communicating to your worship leader about how much you value what they do? What are you saying about the time you think their work takes? 

I once had a pastor tell me that it was no big deal for me to go on vacation (a nice sentiment) because he could just “throw together a couple of songs.”  This communicated (I thought) a misunderstanding and undervaluing of what I strive to do on a weekly basis.  Yes, some weeks the worship service comes together quickly.  Other times, the process is a struggle – a disciplined, time-intensive workout of reading Scripture, studying resources, researching music, brainstorming ideas, trying things out, and practicing. 

Much like sermon prep.

9. Stop telling us that “general worship” is just as good as themed worship.

While it’s true that a worship service doesn’t have to have a theme to be good, please don’t use this as an excuse to not communicate your sermon topics or texts.  Some worship leaders may pick songs out of a hat, but most desire a starting point, and… see #10. 

Imagine having to come up with a sermon from scratch each week – with no series, theme, liturgy, or predetermined book of the Bible – picking a Scripture or topic from thin air. Perhaps some preachers (and worship leaders) can do this on a regular basis, but I am not one of them.

8. Stop having the “contemporary vs. traditional” discussion.

I’m not going to harp on this one, because the point of #8 is that I’m tired of the harping. Communicate clearly your expectations, choose your worship leaders according to their strengths and your goals, then let them be creative within your parameters and with the resources and volunteers with which your church has been blessed. If you’d like, set dates to evaluate your church’s mission, vision, and style (every 5 years?).  You can set more regular times to evaluate how well you’re achieving these goals, but don’t regularly evaluate or change the goals themselves.  Think about how it would feel to be constantly revisiting the question of whether your preaching style is the best for your church.  Constant change for the sake of change (or questioning for the sake of questioning) is exhausting and potentially debilitating.

7. Stop critiquing specific mistakes in the music.

Believe me, I know I started one of the songs too slowly.  I know that my song transition wasn’t very smooth.  I know I played a G# instead of a G, the guitarist missed an entrance, the organist played too loudly, the drummer was a little off.  Musicians tend to recognize clearly, and relive regularly, their mistakes.  If your worship leader is competent and practiced, and you’re generally pleased with the work they’re doing, this may not be the kind of “feedback” they need.  Think about the kind of feedback that’s helpful to you after a sermon (i.e. will this observation help you improve in future weeks, or does it only point out a mistake?), and apply the same kind of criteria to the constructive criticism you give your musicians. 

6. Stop blaming the music when attendance is down or the budget is failing.

Enough said.

5. Stop telling us that we don’t have to do something because we’re only part-time. (Better yet, make us full-time.)

If you feel your musicians and worship leaders have an unhealthy work-ministry/home-personal life balance, you may want to address this gently with them, as a mentor and encourager.  Of course, you don’t want your staff and volunteers to burn out.  But, generally speaking, it’s a good thing if your worship leader has a ministry mindset, is striving for excellence, is excited about expanding the ministry and growing the church, and is engaged in the church as a congregant and not just as a Sunday-morning musician.  To all of us worship leaders who are wanting to give our best to the church, the encouragement to do less can sound like you’re “putting us in our place.”

Which brings me to #4.

4. Stop treating us like “hired help,” and instead engage with us as ministry partners.

Quality worship leaders care about the overall health of their church.  They, and their families, are involved in church activities outside of the area of music as congregants and members.  They tithe money, and they tithe time.  They love the church.  They love the people in their ministry.  Sometimes what they do looks a lot like “pastoral care;” other times they may be discipling or experiencing discipleship, giving and receiving fellowship. 

Pastors, guide your worship leaders to be creative and to support and further the church’s vision within their areas of leadership. Listen to and consider any ideas they may have for areas outside of music and worship. And encourage their participation in the greater life of the church.

As musicians, we know what a “gig” feels like.  We don’t want to feel that at church. 

3. Stop faulting us when we go out of town and the music is bad.

It is often our responsibility as worship leaders to find musicians to replace ourselves when we go out of town.  In small or medium-sized churches, this can be no small task.  Our reinforcements are likely from within our own congregations – volunteers or staff who are given the responsibility and privilege of leading for that Sunday, not just participating.  We do our best to prepare them—not just with skills but with confidence.  Sometimes the process of preparing for a Sunday away is so time-consuming and difficult, that we feel like we need a vacation from our vacation.  This is an area where I am often jealous of the pastor who can simply line up “pulpit supply” or ask an assistant pastor to preach.

But mistakes can happen.  I once had a pastor tell me that the back-up worship leader and musicians had done such a poor job that they should be leading worship more regularly while I was in attendance so that they would be better prepared for when I was away.  Which makes sense…  unless #2.

2. Stop punishing us when we go out of town and the music is good.

Under this same pastor, when the music went well during my absence, it seemed it was not in any way due to my preparation or training, or the team’s increased opportunities to practice. As a result of the successful worship experience, the pastor stated that he would like the back-up worship leader to lead worship even more often.  I came to the discouraging realization that the pastor preferred the back-up worship leader to me no matter what.

No church musician wants to live in fear that they will be punished (or replaced) if the music is too good when they’re out of town.  I know a church music couple who was summarily fired upon returning from vacation because the pastor liked the way the sub led worship better. Perhaps you would never dream of doing this to your staff, but, if your musicians feel this as an unspoken threat, please consider what you’re communicating. 

Which leads me to the #1 thing worship leaders wish their pastor would stop doing or saying:

1. Stop telling us you’ve got our back.

It’s a really good thing, of course, to have your worship leader’s back.  But if you have to say it, we might start to wonder what’s being said behind said back.

Instead, communicate clearly what you and the church board or elders desire of us, so that we can be confident that we are in line with the church’s mission and vision.  Then we can respond to criticisms from congregants (and, believe me, worship leaders face a LOT of criticism!) with confidence and grace, knowing that the pastoral leadership will back us up. Defend us to these congregants in helpful, graciously teaching ways.  Don’t throw us under the bus when something doesn’t go well or someone is disgruntled.

Tell us you support us, but with specific affirmations, not general platitudes.  I have heard from pastors that their preference is not for congregants to tell them, “I liked your sermon.”  Pastors would much rather know why:  what the person learned, how they were challenged, how they were inspired to grow in their relationship with Christ.  Worship leaders approach their craft in the same way, and with similar goals.  And they appreciate the same kind of feedback.

Pastors, thank you for taking the time to read and consider this list! Worship leaders, feel free to comment with your own ideas of how pastors can help you feel loved and appreciated, and inspired to serve and lead with passion and purpose!

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running anonymously

I had a revelation (small r) today, while running.

Now, some of you may love running.  Some of you may be pros.  You may have been running for a long time.

To be completely up-front, today was only my second time running.  I actually hate running.  I’ve always said that running is okay if there’s a physical goal – like a basket or a base or someone is chasing me. 

But, now that my kids are back in school, I’ve started running.  Partly because it’s a relatively cheap form of exercise, and mostly because I can do it anonymously.

Again, some of you may love exercising in pairs.  Some of you might enjoy group classes.  I personally don’t like to sweat, stink, suffer, or embarrass myself in public.

And this, friends, brings me to my revelation.  We need to go back to church.

To be honest, I’ve thought this for some time.  As a music and worship director, I never really left church.  Even when others were sleeping in, drinking lattes and enjoying brunch, snuggling in pajamas with their children– I know, the experience is probably not as cozy or lazy as I envision it– I was in the house of God making music.  So, yes, it is with a certain amount of judgment that I think that (at least most) people should return. 

But only today was I able to articulate one of the reasons why. 

I’ve heard from some who have been at home during this pandemic that they miss church.  They miss the fellowship.  They miss hearing the people around them sing.  They miss seeing people face to face.  They miss the in-person “community.”  Those people are longing to go back to church, and they probably should.

Others like being anonymous.  They may be social, but they enjoy being comfortable.  They may prefer to not be vulnerable.  They don’t like to sweat in public.  But the church isn’t meant to make us comfortable; it’s meant to challenge and support us in our race.   

And then there are people like me, who, unlike running for exercise, have been “running the good race” for a long time…   Maybe I don’t need the accountability quite as much.  Maybe I won’t be suffering or vulnerable, because I generally know what I’m doing. 

Frankly, megachurches have enabled anonymity for some time (and, not to put total blame on churches, many of us choose to stay anonymous wherever we go to church).  But now, small- and medium-sized churches are offering the same comfort in the form of a little screen.  We can “go to church” in our living rooms, and find community (maybe even serve!) in other ways – small groups on zoom, coffee with a mentor, worship with friends. 

But what if church is a place where experienced runners and newbies are meant to collide?  If the gyms are open but the athletes are at home, where can a new believer, seeker, or unbeliever find encouragement, support, or even the desire to start his or her race? 

We need to go to church for them. 

I guess since this is my blog, I can be a little harsh, like the apostle Paul.  “You were running a good race.  Who (or what) cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?”