Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A Historical Vote

Voted today... no long lines or anything. In fact, Marla and I walked to our polling place, a church right around the corner. It felt odd looking down at the ballot and seeing the names that we've all been hearing about and talking about for what seems like an eternity.

The highlight of the experience was just the beautiful day and the great walk Marla and I had there. We were really able to discuss and process the whole experience with one another. Everyone we met along the way and talked with as we walked were in great moods. I think the 70-degree georgeous sunny weather here helped.

We also peeked into the worship-space of the church that was a our polling place and we met the worship-leader who was tickling the ivories as we slipped in. What has me possibly more excited even than voting today was meeting another worship-leading colleague in our area and make a connection that could lead to some great networking and even some opportunities for song workshopping and playing out in the community!

Well, hope you all have voted, or are on your way out. May grace and peace cover our entire country as we finally find out the result of such a long and passionate campaign.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

the prodigal returns... sort of

Well, I wish I had a good excuse for neglecting this blog since Good Friday... but I don't. Lately we've been busy closing on a house and preparing to move, but that doesn't explain 5 months!

I had started this blog with reflections on worship-related subjects, and had moved on to processing thoughts from a conference on conversational evangelism. I have a lot of topics remaining from several previous conferences that I hope to explore here over the next several months, and will add to that new things picked up at the recent Whitworth Institute of Ministry (July 2008, Spokane, WA).

To get myself started today... no matter how much I end up rambling... I want to reflect on a topic related to the context in which I'm writing right now. I've been eating lunch and hanging out for a bit at our local Caribou Coffee. My office at the church is a humid, basement fishbowl right off our Fellowship Hall, so I periodically escape over lunch just to get where I can see daylight.

But ever since hearing Dan Kimball speak at the CEC conference in Menlo Park last Spring (see below) I've tried to get out of my office to do some work from a coffee shop (I rotate between Starbucks, Caribou, or wherever else I can bring in my sack lunch) at least once a week.

Here's why... Kimball shared a personal revelation that convicted me about the incongruity of my work habits and my preaching content. Kimball realized that his ministry routine at his church kept him from having any meaningful contact with non-Christians, so he took steps to change his habits. As our "evangelism" guy, I'm charged with rallying our church members and spurring them on to lovingly engaging those around them with the Gospel in the midst of their daily lives. However, as someone whose entire weekly routine and network of daily contacts includes almost NO interaction with anyone outside of the context of the church, I have walled myself up into a lifestyle that means I have no opportunity to actually practice what I encourage others to do. I have almost no weekly contact with anyone who is not an active part of our church community. (I could maybe could my weekly Ultimate frisbee pick-up game by the lake in Milwaukee... but I've been out of town and missed it so much this Summer I bet those guys hardly remember who I am anymore... plus I'll be moving soon and will need to find a new pick up game... anyone know of one in Lake County, IL?)

Hence the conviction. Since Kimball's talk, I have felt the need to find regular times in my weekly routine that get me outside the church walls and into places where I can have at least the chance to interact with other people in the community.

So, how am I doing? Well, that's what I'm reflecting about today, sitting here at Caribou. I acheived part one of the goal, I got out of the building for lunch... but what I'm not feeling so good about is what I did once I got here (and quite frankly, what I've done every time I come into a place like this). I walked in, ordered coffee and bantered a bit with the friendly barista whom has served me several times before. But then I set myself up in a corner, pulled out my computer and my lunch, put my headphones in and instantly disappeared into my own world.

So the questions I'm asking myself now (which I won't try to answer today... gotta let 'em stew... with you and with me)... Does getting outside of the church walls do any good (for me or for others) if I'm not actually having any real conversations with any of the people with whom I come into contact? How can I strike up conversations or build relationships with strangers who, like me, come in, do their own thing, and get out? Are there better choices I can make with this plan, like going to the same coffee shop at the same time and day each week? Can my budget afford that many mochas?

Not that I was getting any comments before my unintended hiatus... but if you have any thoughts to contribute to this discussion, please, comment away.

Glad to be back.

Friday, March 21, 2008

a snow-bound Good Friday

The stuff of Holy Week and all the preparations for it has kept me away from the blog lately, I apologize.

Today the "first day of Spring" got a rather cold welcome, as one of the biggest snow storms of the entire season blew in last night. It will dump up over a foot in some areas by the time it's all said and done. It's as if the cold of Winter is trying to hold off the new life of Spring as long as it possibly can, smothering it under a frozen blanket.

Today is also Good Friday, the day Christians everywhere remember the death of Jesus of Nazareth on a cross. On that hill almost 2000 years ago, Death tried to deliver its knock-out blow to the Son of God. Followers who had so much hope for what might come in this man many believed to be their Messiah were struck with inconsolable grief when their Master, Teacher, Savior and Friend was brutally beaten and thoroughly killed. What glimmer of of hope flickered in their hearts faded away as the life of Jesus was snuffed out.

But, as a great preacher once said, "... Sunday's coming!"

Winter, the coldest season, the darkest season, the season in which everything green and living seems to die for good, cannot hold back the new life that lies dormant, waiting to spring forth, even through the snow.

The Life that came in Christ was the Light of the all... and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

belonging before believing

Last week I attended the Conversational Evangelism Conference hosted by Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in CA (which meant I got to spend a couple days earlier in the week in Fresno with my adorable nephew and precious god-daughter! …and their families of course). Speakers included John Ortberg, Todd Hunter, Mark Mittelberg, Becky Pippert, Garry Poole, Dan Kimball and Dr. Richard Peace.

So, for the next several weeks, I am going to switch my cyber-reflections from the issues regarding worship I have been processing since the Calvin Symposium in January to ideas that I encountered during this more recent conference.

As you can probably guess by the title—Conversational Evangelism—the focus of this conference was on a paradigm shift in approaches to Christian evangelism away from the formulaic, linear and propositional methods of the Modern era, with their frequent demand for an immediate decision, to a more organic, relationship-based, conversational perspective which fits better our emerging postmodern context and is aimed more at coming along-side others in a shared, God-ward, spiritual journey.

One of the most intriguing concepts I heard articulated was the mantra of those involved with the Alpha program (which we have recently reintroduced to First Pres.) – “belonging before believing.” The idea being that in the Alpha course (and perhaps in the church, too) people should be welcomed with warm hospitality and allowed to truly belong, relationally, without having to sign-on to statement of faith beforehand. This same concept was reflected in one way or another by just about every speaker.

While I don’t think this phrase should be a concept applied to polity issues such as formal church membership… I do really love this idea as a governing principle for the kind of unconditional love with which we who are followers of Jesus should be interacting with everyone else around us.

Just think about it… belonging before believing… isn’t that how our eternally gracious God has dealt with each of us? God has extended grace to us long before we ever professed faith with our lips, pursuing us with abandon until we finally heard the call and came to the realization that “we love because God first loved us.”

Could we be capable, as God’s beloved children, of extending that unconditional love in gracious, no-strings-attached relationships to those around us who do not yet know God’s love for them in Jesus Christ? Could we do that regardless of this person’s personal beliefs, background or behavior? Could it be that perhaps these people might be more open the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit if their stories have been listened to and their hearts of have been loved in such a Christ-like way?

Think about it and talk back… let’s start a conversation.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Can we worship Jesus too much?

Continuing my reflections on the ideas I encountered in workshops I attended at the Calvin Symposium on Worship, I want to return to the workshop led by Lester Ruth, The Most Used Contemporary Worship Songs: Their View of God and of our Love for God (the out line and even audio of the presentation itself can be accessed online at the Calvin Institute's website, here).

In discussing his analysis of 15 years worth of CCLI's "Top 25" most reported (most used by churches) worship songs, I mentioned earlier that one of the most intriguing aspects of Ruth's research was the finding that Jesus was by far the most commonly mentioned or addressed person of the Trinity. The focus of Ruth's study was to analyze the content of these songs through the lens of Trinitarian theology, and his observations painted a picture of American Protestant Christian spirituality (at least from 1989 - 2004) that is by and large Christocentric, and not too concerned with robust or nuanced Trinitarian language.

I reflected positively on this in my previous post, stating that I thought it an encouraging sign that the Christian church in America seemed to be united by a central focus on Christ in the worship songs we have the most in common across denominations and associations.

Now, however, I would like to ask a question with a more cautionary tone that I see raised by this research. And that question is: Can we worship Jesus too much?

That sounds like a silly question at first, like asking "can I love my mother too much?" Of course not! Jesus is very deserving of all the worship we have too offer.

But the deeper question behind that question is what happens to us and our worship of God when our expressions of worship (of which one could argue songs have become the most formative) are narrowed to only speaking of Jesus to the neglect of our Triune God in a general sense, or of God the Father/Creator and God the Holy Spirit in the specific sense? Is it possible for there to be negative long-term affects on our theology and even the practice of our Christian faith as individuals and church communities because of too much "Jesus only" language in our shared worship experiences?

One obvious affect is the development and nurturing of a more personal, individual, intimacy-focused, "me and you Jesus" spirituality that is reflected by much of early CCM and Praise and Worship music, and which is being reacted to pretty strongly by younger generations of Christians (e.g. the emerging church). As Ruth put it in his outline, "the[se] songs do not explore how the character and relationships of the Trinity might shape Christian relationship." An emphasis on the individual Christian's relationship with Jesus, which I think is good at heart, has (I hope inadvertently) deprived our churches of worship expressions that help to form an awareness and appreciation for the inter-relational quality of God's nature, and has contributed to a diminished understanding of the ways we relate to God not only as individuals but as a community, a people called to a common purpose by a common Grace.

There are other considerations that contribute to this affect as well, the relative use of singular ("I") vs. plural ("we") pronouns in congregational singing, for example, but I hope these other questions from Ruth's Trinitarian perspective have gotten you thinking.

I suppose the question in the end isn't "are we worshiping Jesus too much?" so much as "are we not worshiping God in God's fullness enough?" Are we missing out on something? The Church in the past has said lex orandi lex credendi, that what we express to God in prayer, song, liturgy, etc. both reveals and shapes what we believe. It is always a good thing for us as Christians to take a careful look at how our credendi and our orandi--our faith and our expressions of it--relate to one another.

How do you think you/we are doing?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Sing a new song... or several!

As I sit on my couch this evening, after lots of fun and sweet fellowship at our "Italian Carnivale" Fat Tuesday celebration at church, and now watching the "Super Tuesday" results coming in on TV... I'm just glad to have made it home through the snow to be able to relax at home with my wife and get a little blogging in.

As always, one of the highlights of attending the Calvin Symposium on Worship is the rich breadth of music that is sung throughout all the various worship services. And what's even better is having good songs to bring home to my church that I think will be meaningful for us to sing together.

I was blessed to be asked this year by my good friend Ron Rienstra (whose last name blogger's spell-check wants me to respell as "chinstrap" ... hmmm) to participate in an Alt. Vespers service on Friday evening with a wonderful team of people, all of whom I feel very honored to have gotten to know. The service was a deeply enriching experience, and I hope to reflect more about it later, for now I want to focus on the new songs I learned while taking part.

The corporate songs used in the service had been newly composed for this symposium worship experience by Doug Gay, a pastor and practical theology professor from Scotland. Inspired by specific verses from Hebrews 10 that grounded the Vespers service, these songs are immediately accessible, simple yet theologically profound, and sing like they're old favorites. With Doug's permission I've created lead sheets for these songs which can be downloaded as PDF files here:

Into the Holy (Hebrews 10:19-22)
Wash Me Clean (Hebrews 10:22)
Hope This Hope (Hebrews 10:23-25)

We sang "Into the Holy" at First Pres. last Sunday as we shared in the Lord's Supper, and it resonated with deep meaningfulness as we sang words like "Jesus, our sacrament, making a way for us..."

Another highlight for me during the Symposium was meeting Greg Scheer, attending his workshop (which I have reflected on earlier) and being introduced to his music. I particularly enjoyed the song, "One Thing" (based on Psalm 27:4), which we will be singing this Sunday in the Chapel service, in connection with our Italian guest, the Rev. Gianni Genre's sermon - "The Kingdom of God: Seek to be Found."

I look forward to these songs becoming staples in our church's repetoire, and if you're reading this as a pastor or musician from another church, I hope they can become meaningful expressions of worship for your congregations as well.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Desire, Will & Grace

Disclaimer: this post has nothing to do with the long-running NBC sitcom.

Continuing my journaling about my experiences at the 2008 Calvin Symposium on Worship last week, another highlight was attending a workshop by the inimitable Dallas Willard, titled "Understanding the Battle Between 'Flesh' and the 'Spirit.'" Surely I will not do Dr. Willard justice, but here goes.

The battle between "Flesh" and "Spirit," as described by Paul in Galatians 5:17-26, is understood by Dr. Willard to be essentially about the battle between desire and will. Desire being that drive that obsesses over its object... Dr. Willard gave the example of a child obsessing after a certain toy to the point that if the child is told "no" you get the whole kicking and screaming routine. "Desire is how the flesh works," obsessing unrestrainedly, even to one's detriment or danger. "Will," on the other hand, "is our God-given power to consider what is better or what is best..." Willard said. Rather than obsessing on the object, like desire, the will is able to consider the thoughts and desires of others... "the will is open to love."

The trick (for me, at least) is training yourself to not give in to obsessive desire, and instead cultivate a Spirit-led will. The reason this is a "trick", or problem, for me is that I know Dr. Willard's answer is going to be something that I've never been able to get the hang of very well... and that's spiritual disciplines.

Spiritual disciplines, according to Willard, are "practice"--like piano lessons--something we can do over and over to develop habits that otherwise don't come naturally to us.

The problem for me is that I've always had a hard time reconciling disciplines (and more importantly my tendency to be too hard on myself when I fail at keeping up with them) with God's grace. That's what impresses me most about Dallas Willard--his ability to hold together an emphasis on spiritual disciplines with a robust understanding of and dependence upon God's grace.

I think often an erroneous, though unintended, effect of an strong theological emphasis on grace (as in the Reformed tradition) is inactivity... the thought that if everything worthwhile is a gift of God's sovereign grace, then there's no reason for me to put in any effort. Willard counters this by saying, "Grace is not opposed to action, it is opposed to earning" (quote of the year, in my opinion).

Disciplines are things that are within our power to do that enable us, by God's grace, to become what we could never become through direct effort (my paraphrase of Willard). The good, the spiritual outcome of the disciplines is not the result of our effort, but the result of the work of God's Spirit in our lives. But the disciplines are still good things for us to be doing.

"Disciplines are wisdom, not righteousness," Willard said. They are wise and good things to be doing, they open our lives to the work of the Holy Spirit. But spiritual disciplines do not by themselves produce righteousness. God alone, in Christ, has provided us with righteousness.

That's what I have to always keep foremost in my mind. I can't earn it. God's grace is sufficient. I can and should take action, making specific choices of will to practice certain disciplines in order to cultivate an openness to changes the Spirit would do in me.

But when it comes down to it, the results are in God's hands. And that gives me enormous amount of peace about this journey of faith. I know I will stumble along the way, and I will fail again and again. But my righteousness is not up to me, thank God, but rests in the grace of God through Jesus Christ... and "Jesus' blood never failed me yet."

Saturday, January 26, 2008

"Jesus... be the center..."

Thanks to the pleasant surprise that there was free wi-fi available in Calvin College's Prince Conference Center, I'm able to do a little catchup today... since I missed posting yesterday...

Here's the fun part of this... I'm writing as I listen to Michael Card play an old upright piano in the corner of the room, singing a song from his recent lament album, "Come Lift Up Your Sorrows." A beautiful song. I'll have to write about it later.

In the meantime, I want to just begin processing through a couple questions that were raised at a workshop I attending Friday by the worship historian Lester Ruth - The Most Used Contemporary Worship Songs: Their View of God and our Love of God.

Lester Ruth studied the CCLI lists of the top 25 songs (most used, as reported by churches with CCLI licenses), two lists per year for a 15 year period, 1989 - 2004. The list of all songs that appeared on those 30 lists totaled only 72 songs.

Ruth studied the content of these songs, asking of them certain questions about their theological content, particularly regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. (i.e. studying who the songs speak about or address--God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit--and what titles were most used for God or the person of the Trinity being addressed)

One of the many interesting observations he made was that the largest single chunk of those 72 "most used" songs addressed or spoke about Jesus in particular, and not "God" in a general sense, and without mention of God "The Father" or the "Spirit" in a Trinitarian sense. 35 songs were about or to Jesus, whereas only 4 referred to God "the Father" and 6 to the Holy Spirit.

What was most intrigueing to me was not to see this as an indictment of the lack of broader content in these songs, or in the work of these composers. Many of these composers have written a broader range of songs... but these were the ones churches chose to sing more.

Lester Ruth suggested that these songs he studied can be a window into a particular sense of piety or spirituality that exists in American (mostly Protestant) churches.

One of the things I saw in this particular trend of Jesus-only songs (among a lot of other possible influences) were that perhaps these songs were used by the broadest spectrum of Christian churches because Christ is our primary commonality. Jesus is the unifying factor.

I agree with Ruth that when we who plan worship make choices about songs & prayers... words that we are putting in the mouths of our congregations to express their worship to God... we should be making wise and balanced choices that reflect a deep grounding in scripture and a the richness of formative Christian theology.

But I take it as a good thing that the one thing our churches are singing about the most is Jesus. We need to make efforts to make sure that this is the "real Jesus" we are singing about, not a watered-down or "gospel lite" Jesus. Not just a "Jesus is my boyfriend" Jesus. The real Jesus who really came, God incarnate, to love and heal and release and redeem... who really lived and died and rose again... who really is the embodiment of God with us.

As Michael Card said yesterday, "God is with us... Emmanuel either means everything or it means nothing."

May we always keep that Jesus, who has come and is already present in our midst, at the center of our lives, our churches, and our worship as the people of God.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sucker for a good metaphor

OK, day one at the Calvin Symposium.

I attended Greg Scheer and Paul Ryan's seminar entitled "The Art of Worship Team Leadership" (based mostly on Greg's book The Art of Worship).

As a worship leader, and someone who has led similar workshops in the past, I'm always interested in attending others' workshops to compare ideas and learn new techniques... new tools for my toolbelt so to speak.

Speaking of toolbelts... the thing I love gleaning from workshops like these more than anything else are new metaphors (like "tools for my toolbelt")... new perspectives on how a worship team works together and how best to get across an unified understanding of that dynamic to your team.

The two new (to me) metaphors that Greg and Ryan used that I liked a lot were those of worship leaders as "gardeners" and as "hosts."

As gardeners, those leading a congregation in worship--particularly musicians responsible for leading congregational singing--have a lot of details to attend to, much preparation or "tilling the soil." But in the end, all you can do is sit back and let the Holy Spirit work. We don't make the congregation's authentic, heartfelt worship "grow" by our effort... all we do is lay the groundwork and prepare our part. The true worship of God by God's people is ultimately the work of God's own Spirit, not the result of human leadership, no matter how skillfully done.

The second metaphor of hospitality hit home for me as well (forgive me, I couldn't resist). They struck upon this idea in a couple of different ways. The first is similar to the gardening idea, but instead of a garden the picture is that of a dinner party. The hostess or host of a dinner party has many details to attend to (the worship-leading musician has many musical and technical details to attend to), but in the end it's not about the details, it's about enjoying yourself at the party. The hostess wants to be able to enjoy her guests once they arrive! Musicians in a worship service should remember that once rehearsal ends and the service begins the most important thing is the worship of our living God, not the details.

The other aspect of hospitality that was discussed which really was meaningful for me was hospitality within the worship team itself. I have often described the dynamic of interaction between musicians on a worship team as that of a good jazz combo, each listening carefully to one another and playing off of each other. Part of that which always bears reminding with musicians, particularly inexperienced ones, is that good musicians have learned to not play on top of each other, drowning one another out, and that no one has to play all the time.

Having "inter-team hospitality", as Paul put it today, means that each team member has a servant-attitude toward one another, deferring to one another rather than selfishly taking up all the sound space themselves. I love how this perspective shifts the difficult issues related to arrangement of a team and team-member personalities from a focus on the director who has to ask team members to pull back to a focus on each member listening for how they can make room for their fellow teammates. This is a wonderful way to model biblical, Christian sister & brotherhood within worship leadership ministries.

There were many other great ideas and tips I picked up today, as well as some points of contrast that I'm still processing through... but alas, it is late and I have a long two days ahead of me.

Check back in tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Like a butterfly from its cocoon...

This blog is about to emerge from dormant sleep into a new life... hopefully one that includes frequent posts from its neglectant creator!

Inspired by an opportunity I have this weekend to attend the Calvin Symposium on Worship in Grand Rapids, MI... I am taking over this old blog of mine that was used for a class I took in Seminary... my intent is to blog my way through my experience of the Symposium, processing and discussing insights from various workshops, etc., and along the way hopefully developing a habit of posting to this thing.

We'll see how it goes. "So much depends..." now on the high-speed internet at the Comfort Inn (not quite what W. C. Williams had in mind, but oh well).

Until I decide what to do with all the old "Global Media & Culture" stuff... I'll leave it up. I may end up archiving it, or I may end up deleting it.

Pray I make it through the snow tonight.