About 8 months ago I was first introduced to the song Forever Reign by Hillsong, and, to be completely honest, I didn’t care for it.  The phrase that particularly frustrated me (for lack of a better term), was found in the chorus: “Oh, I’m running to Your arms, I’m running to Your arms. The riches of Your love will always be enough. Nothing compares to Your embrace, Light of the world forever reign!”

If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you know a frequent focus of my posts is worship.  I actually feel I’ve been rather silent on the issue for several months, due in large part to no longer serving in an official capacity as a church worship leader but also just because I’ve not been blogging much lately.  One of my criticisms of much modern worship music has always been the lyrics, and I’m in the camp of those who sometimes feel like worship songs sometimes sound more like “prom date music” than they do words of adoration to the King of Kings.

That was, honestly, my first reaction to this song, in particular the phrase quoted above.  For several months I struggled with the song because of this vision it created in me – a song I didn’t, as a male, feel comfortable singing to Jesus, who walked the earth as a man.  It just seemed… well… wrong.  It was one of those songs that I categorized as “more appropriate for women” but not necessarily a good song for men.

As I prayed and meditated on this, though, I asked God why I struggled with singing certain songs.  I asked questions such as, “Do I really love God as much as I say I do if I don’t feel comfortable singing these words?”  But I never felt like the answer to that question was in the negative; what I sensed God telling me,though, was that the answer was in how I was viewing Him and understanding the text myself – it was all in my perspective….

One day I received a new “vision”, so to speak, a new perspective.  Instead of seeing the text in a clearly romantic light (that “prom date” idea), I saw it as the love between and father and his children (or, more specifically, between a child and his father).  There is little I enjoy in this life more than to see the look on my daughters’ faces as they run up and jump into my arms.  One day when I came home from work and they did this I realized they could be singing these words about our relationship: that they were running to their daddy’s arms and wanted to be held by him (which they do all the time).

It was at that moment I realized I could say the same about my Heavenly Father.  I didn’t need to see these words as a twisted eros type of love (not that I ever did because I didn’t, I just struggled with finding a suitable alternative).  I could see these words as a little kid running up to his daddy and jumping into his daddy’s arms.  One of my favorite descriptions of prayers is, “If you want to know how to pray just watch how a little kid talks to her daddy.”  So I guess in the same vein, I’ve realized that if you want to know how to view yourself as truly believing the text, “I’m running to your arms,” view it as a little kid running to her daddy.  This new perspective changes everything.


The Lesson

Chloe loves to sing – I mean, she loves to sing.  She’s almost always singing something – sometimes it’s serious, sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s real and sometimes it’s a goofy made-up song –  but one of her favorite songs is Blessings by Laura Story.  Whenever it comes on the radio or the CD she gets all excited and says, “I love this song!” – at times she’s even called it her song.  And after Jesus Loves Me, this song is the one I am glad she is learning.  For if we can somehow teach her the truth found in this song and help her accept God’s sovereignty over life then she will have learned perhaps the most important lesson she will ever learn – and she is only four.

For those who are not familiar with the song you can listen to it below (and see some comments by Laura during the extended introduction).  Be prepared that the words may make you cry, but broken hearts are what our God specializes in healing.

What I find interesting is that one of the songs Melissa and I have our choir working on is a medley from Fiddler on the Roof, and part of that medley is the song Sabbath Prayer, which contains the words, “May the Lord protect and defend you, may He always shield you from shame.” and “Favor them, Oh Lord, with happiness and peace.”  Every week when we rehearse this song I can’t think of the contrast between what it teaches and what Laura Story’s song teaches.  I pray daily that both Chloe and Celeste would learn the truth found in Story’s song – and every time she sings it I ask God to help her understand the words she sings.  I can tell you without fail, though, that when she sings, “This is not our home!” it brings me to the brink of tears every time.

For more information on the song you can always visit the official page by clicking here.

And It Continues….Worship

I’ve written quite a few posts regarding worship, specifically the place of music in worship, over the years, but this post is unique.  In contrast to all my earlier posts on the topic, this post is written from the standpoint of just another congregant and not a music director.  As we’ve been visiting various churches this topic is always one of the things we talk about after the service.

I really don’t want to go on and on about issues of style or mechanics (music selection, “traditional” vs. “contemporary”, to clap or not to clap, what key a song is sung in, etc), but instead want to focus on the place of music and worship in the service.  Let’s agree on one thing: worship is more than music, and the idea of a “worship section” of the service is a misplaced concept – worship is not something we attend but rather something we do; it is something that requires the engagement of heart, spirit, and mind.  These are some pretty basic concepts that I’ve explored in other posts, and perhaps I’ll come back to them again, but since I’m talking about something bigger today I won’t explore them right now.

Worship is response.  Pure and simple.  Worship is our response to God as he reveals himself through his Word.  Which begs the question: how can we respond to that which we do not know?  I’ve been the member at a lot of different churches in my lifetime, and I’ve served at two different ones as a professional music director, and this is a truth I’ve taught over and over again.  So let me say it again: worship is our response to God.  It is not music, it is not raising or clapping of hands, it is not speaking in tongues, it is not singing, it is not a particular style of music or action. Worship is response.  How we worship may be examined (at least partially) by looking at those things, but the concept of worship is much broader than any of them.

So I naturally want to know what a church believes about worship.  The obvious place to look is to examine how a congregation worships (all those things I’ve listed above), but there are some other things to consider at as well – and that’s the focus of this post.

Since the primary purpose of church is to learn the Word in community, I look at what a church emphasizes in terms of time.  If preaching takes 20 minutes and singing takes 40 minutes then a caution sign goes up in my heart.  Is that to say you can never spend more time in song than in teaching?  Absolutely not, what I’m talking about are repeated trends that happen over time.  One Sunday with that ratio isn’t going to bother me; 5 in a row is going to raise some serious concerns. (yes, for the sake of argument I’m using a standard 60 minute service, though the vast majority of churches we visit and have attended over the years have an average length much closer to 90 minutes, which is my personal preference – I’m making a broad generalization here)

Another important thing to look at is the order of worship in a service.  While there is no right or wrong here, the order can tell you a lot about how a church views worship.  Take the offering, for instance.  Is it smack dab in the middle of a service, between singing and preaching?  Based on a lot of conversations I’ve had with people I find this can often (though not always) indicate a practical belief that the offering is simply a “transition” time in a service.  Is it after the preaching?  Every time I’ve seen it here the church tends to believe the act of giving our offering is a response to the word that was preached (hence, an integral part of worship) (on a side note, I’ve actually spoken to pastors who specifically refuse to put the offering at the end of the service because “too many people may leave after the sermon and we may not get our full income for the week”.  This represents an entirely different view on the offering, and an unhealthy view at that!).  Then there’s the whole issue of do you pass the plate or let people bring it forward…. Again, I’m not suggesting there is a right or wrong place for the offering or way to take it, what I’m looking for is that a church has consciously thought these things through and can justify them.

Another thing I look for in terms of order is a response time after the sermon.  I’ve visited churches where after the sermon there is a quick “God bless you.  Amen.  You’re dismissed”; I’ve been at churches that force an alter call every week (and keep extending it until someone comes forward for prayer, it seems); I’ve been at churches that will sing a single “song of response” (sometimes with very little response by anyone); and I’ve been at churches that fall somewhere in-between those extremes.  I believe there needs to be a time for response – whether it is prayer time, singing, offering, whatever, there needs to be a time in the service where congregants can meditate on the words and challenge of the sermon and then respond to it appropriately.  When churches place extended singingafter the sermon instead of before it they communicate to me they view response in worship as a crucial part of the service, and they communicate an understand that worship is response.  By placing all the singing before the sermon and no response after of any sort they communicate a belief that music is to prepare us to hear the word (in other words, worship is initiated by us) but that worship is not response (after-all, if we can’t respond then response must not be very important).  Again, I’m not suggesting there is a clear right or wrong answer here, except to say that I personally think there should be music before (to help prepare our hearts for worship/learning and demonstrate a physical/aural break with the world we came from) as well as after (to give us an opportunity to respond to what we’ve just heard).

Finally (for this post), one last thing I’m looking for is a church’s belief on the presence of communion in the service.  Perhaps it’s because I spent part of my childhood in a liturgical church, but I think communion should be present more often than it is absent.  Communion is the sacrament we do to remind us of the death of Christ and what he paid for us; we are told to do it “in remembrance” of him.  Do you have to do it every week?  No.  Is there any specific verse in the Bible that says how often it should be done?  Not that I’m aware of.  But if it is part of the regular worship service then it is never viewed as an “after-thought”.  On a broader scale, participation in communion is a constant reminder to me of my membership in the universal church and not just my local church.  Call me crazy if you want, but when I take communion not only do I think of what Christ did for me on the cross, but I am reminded that I belong to a body of believers that crosses geographic, political, and even time lines.  Some argue that if it is done every week it looses its meaning.  If we accept that line of reasoning, though, then we should not pray or read the Bible every day because it will loose its meaning if we do it that often.  For those churches that offer it every week I ask them, “Why” and I want an answer – and it better be good.  For those that do not I ask the, “Why not?” and I also want an answer – and it better be a good one.

I guess what I’m trying to say in all this is that I want to know a church has put much prayer, thought, and study into the construction of its worship service.  To say “That’s how the church has done it for years” is one sure way to turn me off – I could really give a horse’s rear end about tradition.  If tradition helps focus us on God then by all means keep it.  Don’t keep it for tradition’s sake, keep it because it draws you closer to God.  But if tradition doesn’t draw you closer to him and lead you into authentic, responsive worship, then for cryin-out-loud get rid of it!  Just as much as churches need to be able to answer questions of doctrine (where do you stand on such-and-such), they also need to be able to answer questions on worship; churches should invest just as much time defining and studying the structure and components of their worship service as they do defining their statement of faith.  This is, after all, the primary time during the week where the “church” gets together – don’t you think we should be clear on what that is going to look like?

What’s the Deal with the Arts?

Warning: if you are breathing, something in this post will most likely offend you…

Arts In Education Week was established as the second week in September back in 2010 by a declaration from the US House of Representatives, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to share my feelings on the arts in education.

I’ll make it short and simple: it’s important.  No, it’s vital. (okay, now I’ve probably offended all those non-arts people!)

Here’s the next truth: too many arts teachers (and when I say “arts teachers” I am referring to all disciplines we teach in the schools: visual art, music, theatre, dance, etc) put too much emphasis in the wrong area in regards to the students they teach – and that needs to change (okay, now I’ve offended everyone that’s an arts teacher and was all excited about my first point – so I’ve kept my word to offend everyone!)

I’ll start by traveling back in time a little so you know my background and view on this subject.  Not only did the arts, specifically music and theatre, consume my childhood but they also directed the path for just about everything I did after I graduated high school.  I attended college on both music and drama scholarships, I graduated with an undergraduate degree in K-12 Music Education with a minor in musical theatre, and to this day I am still heavily involved in the arts as a music director for two different organizations.  My professional arts experience includes work at amateur, community, and professional levels in theatre (both musical and non-musical), opera, solo singing, directing, arranging, and conducting.  I’ve conducted choirs, handbells, and string orchestras; I’ve served as a clinician in Florida, and obtained certifications in Orff and World Music Drumming.  Believe me, I love the arts.  My daughters both started ballet when they were two, my oldest daughter has been taking violin since she was three (my youngest daughter hasn’t started yet  because she’s only 2!), my wife has a masters degree in accompanying and vocal coaching, and I spent 9 years in the classroom as a music teacher before making the switch to administration.  When I talk about the arts I feel as if I have some understanding and perspective on it.

So here’s the thing: all that brain research you read (or hear about) that says the arts improve cognitive function, reasoning skills, creativity, innovation, people skills, etc, etc, etc, is absolutely spot-on.  The bottom line is research indicates students who study the arts do better in school – I know of no reputable research out there that would disagree with this statement.

And for those people out there who think arts teachers aren’t “real teachers” you need to re-examine what they do.  As a arts teacher I can tell you that these are some of the best teachers in the building to speak to in regards to issues such as differentiated instruction, mastery learning, classroom management, adapting instruction for EC students, student engagement, or higher-order thinking skills.  Students in the arts are constantly asked to create and evaluate (at least if they are being taught well), and teachers in the arts often have to reach every student (even the ones that are allowed in “regular” classrooms), they have to engage and motivate students (since their grades “don’t count”), and they have to constantly fight the never-ending battle to justify their jobs and their responsibilities when funding is tight.  These teachers deserve not just out thanks, but our respect as professionals. (okay, now I’ve really offended the non-arts teachers, so I guess I need to offend someone else).

But here’s where too many arts teachers go wrong: too many (though not all) of them forgot that the most important class they teach is not Honors Chorus and Advanced Photography or Modern Dance IV.  No, the thing that the regular education teacher gets all too well and the arts teachers forget all too quickly is that we can not put all our emphasis on the “chosen few”.  Too many choir directors I know have said they don’t want students in their choir who have never learned to sing or read music; too many visual art teachers don’t want students in their studio who have no talent.  And what they do is turn off the vast majority of the population that will never be on a stage or have an exhibit on a wall.  Yet in so doing we forget that without the people to attend the stage performance or visit the gallery there would be no reason to be on stage or hang something on a wall.  The truth many of us (myself included) need to remember about arts education is that perhaps the most important class we teach is the basic appreciation course for the content area itself.  Why don’t people like listening to symphonies?  Because they don’t understand them.  Why don’t people like to visit the art gallery?  Because they don’t understand what they see on the wall.  And that, fellow arts educators, is the problem.  Too much of our “art for arts sake” is incomprehensible to the general population because we have not done an adequate job of explaining to them how to understand it.  When I taught I constantly reminded myself that the most important class I taught was General Music; it wasn’t my guitar class, my handbells, or my choir.  It was the class where I had to teach the music consumers what it was they were consuming so that the music creators would have someone for whom to create.

So in honor of Arts of Education Week I challenge the consumers to take the time to thank the teachers who empowered and taught the creators how to create.  And to the arts teachers I challenge you to not forget the arts consumers who are the ones for whom you create – both are needed, and when we lose sight of that fact we fail at that which we work so hard to achieve.

Arts education is important – actually, it’s vital – but it’s not just vital for artists.  It’s vital for everyone.

A New Vision for Worship (4.1)

I’m not sure if you remember the series I did last spring on what worship looks like, so to jog your memory a little bit let’s remind us what was discussed.  In short, we talked a lot about the whole issue of having a “blended” service and I made the comment that I wanted us to move away from the term “blended” and more toward the word “unified” in how we described our service.  Here’s the definition I gave last year in regards to what a “unified” service means,

 “I prefer the term ‘Unified’ worship over ‘Blended’ worship because our intention should be to reflect the scriptural teaching of unity in diversity. (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 12:12-14) The term ‘Blended’ worship does not necessarily mean that it is ‘unified’ worship. The best way to describe ‘unified’ worship is to say it is anchored in the church’s historic worship and seasoned with the fresh winds of the Spirit’s movement in the present using the ‘best of the best’ from the past and the present.” (Scott Wesley Brown)

This summer in my studies I “stumbled” across this verse in Matthew (and I put stumbled in quotation marks because if you believe it happened by chance I would tell you I don’t believe in chance…)

“Then [Jesus] added, ‘Every teacher of religious law who becomes a disciple in the Kingdom of Heaven is like a homeowner who brings from his storeroom new gems of truth as well as old.’” (NLT)

That verse is Matthew 13:52.  When I read it I had a picture of what music in a church should look like – it should be a unification of the “old” and the “new”, which for music in our terms means the “traditional” and the “contemporary”.

Which is one reason why choir will not sing in every service in the fall.  We’ve decided to try something new in our effort to unify the worship experience at Landmark.  What you’re going to see beginning October are two different musical styles in the worship service.  On the First and Third Sunday of every month we’ll have a traditional service, which will include the choir and orchestra – similar to our current setup but a little more traditional than we are doing.  On the Second and Fourth Sunday you’ll experience a more “contemporary” service with a praise band – those are the weeks the choir will not sing in the service.  For those months with a Fifth Sunday the youth will lead our musical selections.

We’re attempting to balance the two facets of worship: that facet that says worship is vertical and God-centered while also understanding the equally important truth that corporate worship is horizontal and is supposed to allow us to minister to each other.  By offering these two different “styles” in musical options we’re trying to better reflection the diversity that exists within our congregation.  Please pray for discernment and wisdom for your church leadership, and for me as the music director, as we journey down this uncharted path together.

Resting in Daddy's Arms (3.29)

Every night I rock Celeste before she goes to bed and we listen to her lullaby CD.  One of the songs is entitled “Safe in Your Daddy’s Arms” by a Christian artist named Peter Penrose.  The chorus goes as follows:

Safe, safe, in my embrace

You’re safe in your Daddy’s arms

Safe, safe by God’s grace

You’re safe in your Daddy’s arms

Every night when this song comes up both Celeste and I will sing the chorus together (actually, she doesn’t get out much more than “Safe” and “Daddy’s arms”).  Yet every time I sing the chorus I also realize that even though I work hard to keep her safe there are things in this world from which I can not protect her.  One of the hardest things for any parent is accepting that there are hurts we can’t fix; one of the most influential moments in every child’s life is when they realize there are things Daddy’s can’t fix – or protect them from.

Fortunately, the song doesn’t end by focusing on human strength.  Read the last few lines of the song:

 Now you can rest snug in your bed

Here where it’s safe and warm

All through the night

You’ll be held tight

In your heavenly Daddy’s arms

Safe, safe in His embrace

You’re safe in your Daddy’s arms

Safe, safe wrapped in God’s grace

You’re safe in your Daddy’s arms

Perhaps it’s cliché to say so, but I think this is one of those songs that we as adults need to hear and put into practice.  Every night my little girl will snuggle into my shoulder and rest – trusting me to take care of her.  When  she wakes up scared in the middle of the night you’ll hear her cries for “Daddy! I want Daddy!” coming from her room.  When I get home from work every day some of the first words out of her mouth are “Daddy, bike ride?”  And every day at work I will eventually get a call with a little voice on the other end that says, “Daddy, I love you.”

Now this is not to diminish Melissa’s influence on the girls at all or their love for their mother, because there are plenty of times one of them will say to me, “I want Mommy.”  I’m simply trying to illustrate a point – and that point is the love and trust children have in their Daddy.

I can’t help but think that as much as I love to snuggle with my girls, go on bike rides, push them in the swing, and hear them say, “I love you much, Daddy” God loves to experience that with his children even more.  And I think this is what Jesus was talking about  when he told us not to worry about tomorrow but to trust God to provide for us:

“If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God.  And you count far more to him than birds.

“Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” (Matthew 6:25-34, The Message)