Renewing the Soul: Finding Refreshment in the Daily Grind

Do you find the life of faith monotonous or uneventful? Do you find yourself asking with the psalmist, “How long, O Lord?”

Psalm 90 is ascribed to Moses, the Man of God. He understood monotony and seeking to find God in the daily grind. After growing up in the lap of luxury, benefiting from the best education available in Egypt, Moses spent 40 years as a shepherd. And then he had a few weeks or months of excitement as he led Israel in the Great Exodus followed by another 40 years of wandering. Now he was a shepherd of a faithless people.

Moses understood something about remaining faithful in the monotony of literally wandering in circles.

Moses wandered for 40 years before meeting God at the burning bush

Moses wandered for 40 years before meeting God at the burning bush

Of course Moses met with God face to face on a regular basis. We don’t know much about his 40 years shepherding sheep, but we do know that he saw God in a burning bush–that’s far from ordinary. He must have enjoyed sweet communion with his God while he wandered those pasturelands.

We know that Moses met God face to face on Mt. Sinai and enjoyed regular direct communication. The people of Israel relied on Moses to hear from God.

As Christians we now have the same direct access to God. I fear sometimes we act like Old Testament believers who relied on a priest or other leader to seek God for them. Jesus left us with the Holy Spirit so that we may now approach the Father’s throne of grace anytime, 24/7.

Meeting with God face-to-face is anything but monotonous and boring.

But what do we do when we’re worn out?

Tenth Avenue North expresses well the agony of the grind and the hope we find in redemption in their song Worn.

Psalm 90 provides 5 helpful tips.

5 Ways to Find Joy in the Daily Grind

1. Learn to number your days (v4, 12)

Moses starts the psalm acknowledging the eternal nature of God. For God “a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past or as a watch in the night.”

In light of that, Moses prays for a heart of wisdom to number his days. After all, what we count as toilsome and a burden are like a blink of an eye to God.

If we live each day and moment as if there may not be a tomorrow, we will find much more contentment and joy. Our sensitivity and expectations will increase.

I wrote recently on the benefits of looking for 15 minute life-changing increments. Life can become boring when we assume we have endless years and decades before us. But what joy if we look for God’s fingerprints in our everyday lives!

May God give us a greater vision of Jesus. I love this rendition of Fairest Lord Jesus from Passion:

2. Pray for mercy (v 13)

When we lose sight of God’s gracious involvement in our lives and history, we often complain and become bitter. Moses understood something about waiting for decades. He spent 40 years wondering if the Egyptians would find him and bring him to justice for killing a man. 40 years of wondering if his life would ever amount to anything. 40 years of doing the same thing day after day. 40 years is a long time to wait, but I know missionaries who recognize that the fruit of their labor may not be felt for 40 years.

The lament of “how long” is legitimate, but what we do with our lament defines our faith. If we allow bitterness to grow, our faith will rot and become essentially ineffective. If instead our lament turns to prayers for mercy, a desire for intimate fellowship with our maker, we will find gladness even while we wait.

I love the Desert Song from Hillsongs’ singer Brooke Fraser. She describes well the life of prayer in desert times and times of plenty.

3. Find satisfaction in God’s love (v 14)

Steve Jobs was a master at creating a sense of dissatisfaction so you would want his solution

Where do you find satisfaction? Living in the Internet Age has created a constant dissatisfaction–we’re constantly looking for the next thing. As a marketer I know that companies are trying to create a sense of dissatisfaction in your life so that you’ll be ready to take action and hopefully make a purchase (from them). There’s something wrong with this equation.

The Gospel message reveals the unrivaled good news that God loves us so much he sent Jesus to make a once-for-all sacrifice so we might be restored to our right status as God’s children and heirs. We have full access rights to God’s immediate presence at every moment. If you want to be in on the action, there is no better place than watching God at work.

When we have wandering eyes, eyes that stray from God’s love, we will find ourselves falling away from our first love. That’s Satan’s design. He doesn’t want us to remain content or to find satisfaction in God’s love. He constantly works to make us dissatisfied.

How do we combat this? Think deeply about and constantly delight in God’s love, as we share that love with others and watch God’s love transform those around us.

John Piper has famously said,

“God is most glorified in us when
we are most satisfied in Him.”

When we are satisfied in God, we will indeed bring him glory. The song The Stand calls us to “stand in awe of the One who gave it all.”

4. Be glad for affliction (v 15)

The apostle James said, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” James echoed what Moses knew: affliction deepens and purifies our faith.

I also think affliction makes us appreciate more the suffering and sacrifice Jesus endured on our behalf. I often rehearse the Gospel message and am reminded of the greatness of God’s love in contrast to my weak faith. My circumstances, that once seemed insurmountable, become endurable as I reflect on what Jesus endured for me. I can cling to hope as I know God will ultimately prevail just as he prevailed at Calvary.

I love Tim Hughes song Here I Am to Worship, especially the line “I’ll never know how much it cost to see my sin upon that cross.” His sacrifice frees us to worship.

5. Continue working as you pray for God to establish the work (v 17)

The apostle Paul exhorted believers to never grow weary in doing good so that we might one day see the harvest (Gal. 6:9). The psalmist acknowledges that unless the Lord builds the house our labor is in vain (Ps. 127).

Moses ends his prayer by asking God’s favor to rest on his people and to establish our work. We never give up, even when circumstances seem to show that God has abandoned us. Instead we keep working faithfully praying for God to use our efforts–whether we see the fruit or not. That requires faith.

Moses waited 40 years, but God’s faithful remnant waited 400 years between the words of the prophet Malachi and the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth. They faithfully studied and proclaimed God’s word for ten generations.

We have a hard time waiting 40 minutes in a doctor’s office, but may God teach us to patiently wait for His movement while we faithfully do his will.

How do you face the daily grind?

Psalm 90 offers a number of remedies for the daily grind. I hope some of these insights help you the next time you’re wondering, “How long?”

Tell me about how you find joy in the daily grind below. I’d love to hear from you.

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Divine Appointments: How 15 Minutes Could Change Your Life

Is your spiritual walk in a rut?

Are you looking for change in your life?

Do you feel stuck in a job or relationship that’s sucking the joy out of your existence?

You have 64 15-minute increments today. How will you use them?

You have 64 15-minute increments today. How will you use them?

Fifteen minutes could change all that.

And no, I’m not talking about that Geico commercial.

In a normal year we each get around 24,000 fifteen-minute increments in our waking hours. That’s a lot of time chunks.

My question: But how do we maximize all the fifteen-minute increments in our lives?

Fifteen minutes in the spotlight

It’s often quoted that everyone will get fifteen minutes in the spotlight. You never know when that’s going to happen, but sometimes it can radically accelerate your career (like for an actor or musician). Other times it can lead to public humiliation and demise (like for the leader caught cheating or embezzling).

I could provide some tips on how to be ready for your fifteen minutes of fame, but that’s not my point.

Fifteen minutes alone

If you’ve been around the church very long, you’ve heard pastors, teachers and leaders talk about the importance of a quiet time. Fifteen minutes alone with God in prayer and study can transform your perspective on life’s circumstances. In times like these, God will meet with us to instill confidence, peace, purpose and power.

Just as we need food and water for daily sustenance, our souls were made to receive spiritual food daily. There is no substitute for communing daily with God through devotions. Fifteen minutes is a good place to start.

But that’s still not what I mean by fifteen minutes, even though that’s very important.

Fifteen minutes at the gym

When I go to the gym, the personal trainers tell me that spending fifteen minutes intensely exercising daily can lead to major health improvements. Even taking a 15-minute walk during the day can be very helpful. But guess what? That’s not what I mean either!

Task management

The FlyLady helps make overwhelming tasks fun and seem more doable--in 15-minute increments

The FlyLady helps make overwhelming tasks fun and seem more doable–in 15-minute increments

I’ve also learned that breaking large tasks down into fifteen-minute chunks makes them seem less insurmountable and more achievable. Most of us can focus for fifteen minutes on one thing. The Fly Lady teaches people how do this with house cleaning, making a mundane task almost fun.

Communication

Communication researchers have learned the adult attention span is ten to fifteen minutes; after that we need some kind of change in visual or auditory stimulus.

Preachers, teachers and public speakers need to keep this in mind. I know some seminaries now teach pastors to prepare 15-minute messages. Personally, I feel that’s a bit light. Instead, good communicators need to introduce variety in their preaching to offset the tendency toward mental dozing.

Relationships

Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott have a lot of great resources on time-based conversations, including this book on dinner time

Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott have a lot of great resources on time-based conversations, including this book on dinner time

Research shows that most parents spend far less than fifteen minutes in daily focused conversation with their children once they reach school age. Many men can go weeks without having meaningful conversations with their spouses or peers.

But none of these are the fifteen minutes I’m talking about. However, I encourage you to allow each one of these fifteen minutes perspectives to change the way you look at devotions, exercise, task management, communication or relationships.

Steven Curtis Chapman addressed this question in his song “Next Five Minutes”:

So, here’s how 15 minutes can change you life…

steve_brown

My seminary professor, Dr. Steve Brown

When I was first out of seminary, I was talking to my professor, Dr. Steve Brown, about finding a church to serve. He encouraged me by saying, “Phil, remain patient and do your work with excellence. You never know when 15 minutes will change your life.” I asked him what he meant and he explained that it only takes one conversation to change everything. It could be a job interview, a date, a lunch with a friend, a phone call or an encounter at the grocery store or cemetery.

I’ve been thinking about that for the last decade and I’ve seen how true that can be. We just need eyes to see and ears to hear when that 15 minutes is happening.

Pilots train for their 15 minutes of terror

Pilots train for their 15 minutes of terror

I think it’s much like the life of a pilot. Pilots describe their job as hundreds of hours of routine boredom and fifteen minutes of pure adrenaline producing terror. They train and prepare for those terror-filled moments, but diligently go about their daily task.

While most pilots prefer to avoid those terror-filled events entirely, the Christian is looking for those divine appointments–those times when God opens the door we seek; those times when God allows us to speak into someone else’s life and circumstances.

I remember soon after talking to Steve Brown, I was going through some emails in an account I rarely checked. I read an email that led to a fifteen-minute phone call that led to a career change.

I also remember going on a prayer retreat concerning an impending job change. We needed to find a new job in less than three months. While I was praying, I received a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. I ignored the call since I was praying (being so spiritual that I missed God’s voice coming over a cell phone). But I took a break fifteen minutes later (go with me here, it might have been longer) and listened to the message. That voicemail led to a fifteen-minute conversation that led to another career change.

I’m reminded of Acts 12 when Peter was released from prison in answer to the church’s prayers. The church didn’t really believe God would answer their prayer, so they didn’t have eyes to see God’s deliverance.

Recently, my mother-in-law was visiting her husband’s gravesite. While there she encountered a distraught young man who couldn’t find his father’s tombstone. As she helped him find it, she learned from his story that his father had died in his arms when he was only 11 years old and now it had been over year since he last visited the gravesite. Through that conversation she was able to bring hope, friendship and purpose to this young man. She blessed him by helping him clean his dad’s tombstone and sharing the flowers she had brought. That young man left having not only found his father, but with a new friend and a smile on his face.

Be on the lookout. You never know when the next fifteen minutes will change your life or someone else’s life through you. In the meantime, make the most of every fifteen minutes you have.

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Preparing for Worship: When Does Worship Really Start?

What time does your worship service start? That’s a typical question for church visitors. But for longtime members, this question might seem irrelevant.

See what time worship starts for this church. QUESTION: Do they really wait 48 hours until their first coffee break?

See what time worship starts for this church. QUESTION: Do they really wait 48 hours until their first coffee break?

At one level the answer is as simple as looking at a church’s bulletin or website. We could quibble over whether the service starts at the prelude, with the words of welcome or with a formal “call to worship.” But we can normally define a specific time when our worship service starts. For that matter, we typically also know when the worship service ends.

But that’s not my question.

My question is: When Does Worship REALLY Start?

Saving the discussion of lifestyle worship for another day, I’d like to discuss:

7 Times and Places Where We Prepare for Worship.
These thoughts could change the way you prepare for corporate worship.

#1: On Saturday night at home

In Jewish culture, the Sabbath is celebrated from sundown to sundown. Based on Christ’s resurrection, the Christian worship clock now has a sunrise orientation. But the Hebrew worship mindset can our worship preparation.

For example, I’ve learned that what I do and think about on Saturday night invades my mind and heart Sunday morning. Here are a few things I do on Saturday to prepare for Sunday:

  • I proactively avoid temptation and situations that invite heart idolatry.
  • I also prepare physically for worship. This means going to bed at a decent time, having my clothes ready and even preparing my gifts in advance. Note how the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians to have their gifts ready for his arrival (2 Cor. 8-9). For Old Testament sacrifices, families had to prepare their offerings in advance before making the trip to Jerusalem. You couldn’t decide to make a sacrifice at the last minute. The same is true for our worship.
  • Jesus told the disciples to deal with broken relationships before coming to worship (Mt. 5:24). As I prepare for worship, I desire to be in right fellowship with my brothers and sisters. Advice: take time to inspect your relationships and seek restoration wherever possible.
  • Cultivate an expectant mindset. Answering this question can alter your expectations and the priority you place on corporate worship: What would happen if Jesus walked into our church tomorrow?
  • Reading scripture and examining my heart also helps put me in a mindset of expectancy. One of the best ways I’ve found for doing that is through journaling.

IDEA: What if a church regularly studied the passage on which the pastor would preach, learned the songs that would be sung and prayed expectantly that God would show His power and grace?

#2: Through the watches of the night

Psalm 130:6 says: “My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning.

If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter or worked the night shift, you know what its like to wait for sunrise on a long night. Those living in places like Alaska understand this better than most when you endure the “endless nights.”

The watchman waits expectantly on the wall for morning to arrive.

The watchman waits expectantly on the wall for morning

The psalmist reminds us to expectantly await God’s merciful movement just like the watchman who waits for first light. Yes, the night holds much darkness, but morning is coming and with the morning comes our hope: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” (Lam. 3:22-23)

As I grow older, I find myself awaking in the middle of the night more frequently. Often God is giving me a chance to pray and think about things I don’t have time for during the day. On Saturday nights, he is giving me a chance to pray more specifically for worship.

My temptation is to watch Sports Center on ESPN instead. What is yours?

#3: When we rise on Sunday morning

Psalm 5:3 says “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.

If you were meeting with a famous person tomorrow, I imagine you would set your alarm clock extra early, lay out your clothes in advance, prepare a healthy breakfast and think about what you would say and do.

Why do we treat worship like its just another appointment on the calendar?

Granted. We are God’s children and so we can rightfully approach Him with a childlike playfulness and informality. But God is also our King, Lord and Commander in Chief. Even children are taught to approach leaders with respect and dignity. In our worship, I fear we often err toward being too formal or too informal.

Theologians call this transcendence versus immanence. God is “above us” vs. “God is with us.”

If you know your Bible, you recognize that both are true and these create a proper tension in our minds and hearts.

FBC-Wichita

Church architecture reminds us of important biblical truths. In this case we see God as majestic, unchanging and a refuge.

I’m privileged to lead worship in a beautiful church with majestic stained glass windows and high ceilings that remind me of God’s transcendent power and glory. But our church is blessed with authentic people who love each other and care for our neighborhoold and world. Through those relationships, worship and life we understand that God is also “right here” with us.

I wrote this song based on Psalm 5:3 a few years ago: In the Morning

#4: On the car ride to church

What music do you play as you ride or walk to church?

What do you listen to while driving to church? Is it on purpose?

What do you listen to while driving to church? Is it on purpose?

I don’t just mean what radio station or musical playlist you play. What’s going through your head? What are you talking about with the family?

Pastors often joke about the fights we have during that proverbial car ride to church. But it’s not a laughing matter. Those fights really happen and they may be in your car. Sometimes that car ride can change a cheery morning into a drudgery—or worse.

Pray ahead of time about how to respond in that moment. Think about the source of those conflicts and how you can minimize those issues.

Perhaps you can proactively guide the conversation and help your family share in your enthusiasm for worship. Our family will often pray and sing worship songs on the drive.

Psalm 122:1 says,

            “I rejoiced with those who said to me,
            ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

Psalm 84 also calls us to reflect on the beauty and goodness of God’s house.

May our families rejoice at the thought of going to God’s house.

#5: In the church parking lot

I like to remind churches that worship begins for visitors in the parking lot. The way they experience your church will effect how they view God and His people. To this end, many churches have greeters stationed in the parking lot to not only help with traffic flow, but to also be a warm friendly face.

Worship is a communal activity. The way we help each other and especially those visiting our church will impact how we see God’s movement in our midst.

Steve Hawthorne provides helpful guidance on prayer walking in this book.

Steve Hawthorne provides helpful guidance on prayer walking in this book.

I’m a big advocate of prayer walks through our neighborhoods and cities. When we walk and pray God often shows us his heart for people and our community. Taking time to regularly prayer walk around the church and in the church will help build excitement for and awareness of God’s work in our corporate worship.

In fact, I wrote the song In This Place after many months of praying through the pews at Lake Oconee Presbyterian Church.

#6: In our fellowship

Before, during and after the worship service we have time to connect with our friends, family and those visiting our church. Its in these times we can often see God’s tangible ministry happening.

Counselors often talk about “being present” when they notice our tendency to let our minds wander to other places. Christians need to practice this ministry of presence in every conversation. You never know when God will use you to encourage someone, provide godly counsel, offer a prayer or just be a friend.

A mindset of expectancy attunes us to these opportunities that we might otherwise miss.

#7: During the prelude

Many churches have done away with the “prelude” because it feels like a showcase of talent. It can certainly become that, but that’s between the musician and God.

The true purpose of a prelude is to provide a place for people to prepare their minds and hearts for worship. Some like to do this in quiet prayer. Others enjoy connecting in conversation. Still others appreciate having thought-provoking quotes to stimulate their minds and hearts toward the day’s service. Some of us like all three. The point is to purposefully prepare for worship, even if its only during these last few minutes before the service formally starts.

So when does worship REALLY start?

As I hope you can see, it depends. I’ve attempted to provide some thoughts to help us rethink how we prepare for the start of worship. No one can consider all these things every week—it would become burdensome and make worship seem like a chore, not a grace.

I pray the Holy Spirit will take one or two of these ideas to change the way you prepare for worship this Sunday.

How do you prepare for worship? 

Please share your thoughts below…

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Praying the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father, Who Art in Heaven

What’s your prayer life like?

Do you primarily pray in arrows?

arrow_prayer

You know what I mean. It’s like Nehemiah before approaching the king for permission to return to Jerusalem to inspect the city (Neh. 1). He thought he would lose his job—or worse, his life—so he prays a quick prayer and submits to his destiny.

Or, is your prayer life mostly like approaching Santa at Christmas? “Dear Santa (I mean God), I know I haven’t been perfect, but I know you give good gifts and are merciful. So here’s what I could really use…”

Learning to pray from Jesus

When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray, I suspect they were looking for something different. If they were like me, they wanted a lesson on prayer methods and mechanics. Perhaps a lesson like, “Five things to say when praying for the sick.”

Instead, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for long and empty prayers. He said they would receive their reward before the prayer is finished – recognition for being so “spiritual.”

In contrast, Jesus modeled a prayer that is beautiful in its simplicity and intimacy. The prayer assumes relationship and quickly rises above the petty stuff we tend to pray about (you know the organ recital and fundraising prayer meeting—Aunt Sally’s kidneys and Jonny’s car wash).

Over the next several months I’m going to explore a few phrases from the Lord’s Prayer to help us pray more like Jesus—I should say I hope this helps me pray more like Him.

Our Father

These two words immediately confront our Western individualistic approach to spirituality.

First, it communicates that prayer is communal. We pray to a Triune God who lives in eternal community. We also pray as part of a community of faith—a community that spans many generations, many nations and many cultures. Prayer unites our hearts and minds. When you pray like Jesus, you find we all have similar needs and requests: daily bread, forgiveness, protection from temptation and so forth.

The second thing Jesus demonstrates is that prayer is intimate dialogue with our father, not a distant king, ruler or deity. Prayer, in other words, happens in family.

Fernando Ortega offers an amazing reminder of the Father’s love for us, a love that fuels our lives and prayers:

It’s a sad family where the children fear the father so much they won’t approach him freely. I know it pains my children to hear me say I’m too busy to play, cuddle or talk to them when they come to my office. God never does that. While he’s busier than a billion fathers, God always makes time for his children.

3 Implications of Praying As Part of God’s Family.

#1 – We can pray openly, honestly and without flowery speeches.

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their public prayer life since they only prayed when they could be seen. Public prayer not fueled by  private prayer  results in empty praise and little promise.

Family members have a freedom to communicate more openly and in shorthand. We don’t need to prepare longwinded speeches to get our points across.

#2 – We can say what’s on our minds

Our family status allows us to say what’s on our minds, even when it doesn’t come across right.

God can handle whatever we say or do. I remember Becky Pippert talking about a new Christian who wondered if God would mind if she smoked while studying the Bible. As much as it upsets some of our sensibilities, the answer is, “Of course not!”

A child has many privileges with her father. She can approach him most anytime and in any place without fear of rejection. Her father might be busy, but he’s not going to deny knowing her. God gives us immediate access so we can approach him without an appointment.

If we have constant access to God, we don’t have to say everything now. We can also come back later to correct, amend or append our prayers. How freeing!

#3 – There doesn’t have to be so much structure

While strong families will sometimes have family meetings and organized family devotions, they generally don’t need an agenda for meals, game night or vacations.

Young children especially understand that hanging out with dad is just something to enjoy. I remember my children sitting next to me while I read and they played. They wanted to be with me and would occasionally interrupt me to show me a picture or ask a question.

Only when I’m not spending enough time with my kids do they start demanding my attention when I am around. Then they will talk non-stop, ask a thousand questions in a minute and make a dozen requests. Many prayer meetings become like this. Someone organizes a list of prayer requests and then we start detailing our petitions to our Divine Patron.

I tend to think God prefers we approach him like the small child who crawls on his lap and promptly falls asleep.

Our Father’s Invitation to Pray

Are you tired and weary? “Come to me and rest,” says the Father. “We’ll have time for what’s on your mind later. Let’s just enjoy being together.”

Does that sound inviting? It does to me. I get so busy that most of my prayers come from a demanding and distracted spirit. Prayer is meant to come from an unhurried relationship with our all-knowing Father.

The song Father I Adore You reflects the simplicity of a child’s relationship with his father. The words are easy to remember.

Father I adore You
Lay my life before You
How I love You

While our Father is the creator and ruler, we approach him as children not as subjects. Our communication should be easy and natural. Certainly there’s a place for more formal language when we come to him as king, but Jesus breaks down the walls and says it’s okay to approach God as intimate children.

How does the image of sitting next to God in the family room change your vision of prayer?

Forgetting that this picture is only a metaphor, I would love to hear how this helps you pray more naturally and personally. Share your thoughts below…

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Called to Worship: God is a Missionary God

Do you wonder why some pastors say that God is a missionary God?

Are you confused when some people call America a Christian nation? Doesn’t Scripture talk about people from every nation being part of God’s family?

How do we reconcile this? What does it have to do with worship?

Let’s consider some scriptures together and see…

From Jerusalem to the Ends of the Earth

Simply said the book of Acts provided a corrective to common Jewish thinking that God was only the God of the Jews. Jesus uttered the Great Commission in Acts 1:8, showing an outline for the church to take the Gospel from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Later, in Acts 10, God makes it clear that the Gospel is for the Gentiles and not just for the Jews.

But God’s heart didn’t just turn to the Gentiles at the Ascension. His heart has always been for all the nations of the earth. In other words, God has always been a missionary God.

01_urbana_09

The Urbana missions conferences today draw many thousands of students from all over the world to learn about God’s heart for the world and find ways to respond

Let’s look at a few familiar passages to see God’s heart for all the world.

The Call of Abraham

In Genesis 12:1-3 we find God calling Abraham to follow him. God promises to make him into a great nation and to bless him. Then he says something surprising, “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The word “peoples” translates as nations, but it’s not to be confused with political nations. Instead it refers to ethnic groups, like tribes in Africa or North America. God is promising to bless all nations through Abraham.

The apostle Paul helps us see the significance of this verse in Galatians 3:8: “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”

When God called Abraham as the father of Israel and many nations, he wanted Israel to be a blessing to all the nations.

The Conquest of David

One of the first stories we hear in Sunday School concerns David and Goliath. In fact this story is told in many circles when people want to give hope to the little guy. But we often miss David’s heart when we tell this story. We know David went up against this champion with just a sling and five stones. Hear what David said before defeating Goliath with that single shot:

“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.” (1 Samuel 17:45-46)

Before this day David had hundreds of sleepless nights to contemplate God and his glory. He understood that the whole world needed to know his God. Now that he has a platform, he proclaims God’s glory for the world to hear and see.

A Man After God’s Own Heart

Scripture calls David a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). If God acknowledges that David knows something of his heart, then we should be able to glimpse God’s heart through David’s writings. And we find that the psalms are filled with references to God’s heart for all nations, all peoples.

I remember stumbling upon this reality while serving in Kenya on a 7-month study service program. I was a budding songwriter at the time, having only written a few songs at the time. I decided that I would set a psalm to song while I was there and teach it to my Kenyan brothers and sisters. The psalm I chose was Psalm 67. I selected it because its relatively short and it had a natural refrain. It was only upon later reflection that I saw how profound my choice had been (thank you Holy Spirit!). Here is the refrain:

“May the peoples praise you, O God. May all the peoples praise your name.”

While David was a master military leader who conquered tens of thousands of his enemies, he also prayed that God would be known and worshipped by people from every nation.

While I don’t have a recording of my original song, here’s one from the Scottish songwriter Ian White:

Another one of my favorite sources of psalm settings comes from the Sons of Korah out of Australia. Here is their setting of Psalm 67:

The Lion and the Nations

The prophet Daniel never faltered in his worship of God—even when threatened with a date with the lions. As a result of his faithfulness, we get a glimpse of God’s heart from the tongue of a Gentile king. King Darius wrote a message to all the “peoples, nations and men of every language throughout the land” (which was most of the known world at the time):

“I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.” (Dan. 6:26)

Jesus: Savior for All Nations

The Jews were looking for a political savior, but Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom. His ministry was primarily to the Jews (though he healed a Phoenician and ministered to a Samaritan woman, among others), but he commissioned his disciples to go into “all the world.” God’s salvation is for people of all nations.

Most of us reading this article would be considered Gentiles. Therefore, if it weren’t for God’s missionary heart we would never have heard the good news of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ. That’s something to be thankful for.

The End of the Story

Let’s fast forward to the end of the story. We know God started by expressing his desire to bless all the nations through Abraham. Revelation shows that He will ultimately accomplish this purpose.

In Revelation chapters 5 and 7, John paints a picture where men from every tribe, tongue and nation are bowing before the Lamb. They are all singing of God’s salvation.

The stories are streaming in from all over the globe today of God’s heart for all nations. In fact most of the church’s growth is happening in Asia, Africa and Latin America today.

FromJerusalemtoIrianJaya

Read stories from all over the world about God’s redemptive plan being worked out

If you want to read some stories of how the Gospel is moving to the ends of the earth today, I encourage you to read From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya by Ruth Tucker.

I love Paul Baloche’s simple chorus, “All the Earth Will Sing Your Praise.” It sums up the Gospel and the truth that we will one day sing the truth of God’s salvation with brothers and sisters from every nation on the earth. This arrangement by Travis Cottrell is wonderful:

How Does This Change My Worship?

Understanding that God is a missionary God has many implications for our lifestyle, but how does it impact our personal and corporate worship? Here are 3 closing thoughts:

1)   If God is the author of all cultures and loves all nations, we should spend time enjoying and appreciating the worship and arts coming from all over the world.

A great resource for appreciating this comes from the International Council of EthnoDoxologists (people who study culturally appropriate Christian worship).

2)   If we are going to one day worship with people from every nation, tribe and tongue, why not start tasting that now. If you live in America, you’ve probably heard it said that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. That’s not as true in major metropolitan areas, but many of us would benefit from regularly worshipping with people from other nations. It gives us a bigger picture of God. Find a church close by that has a different culture and join them for worship.

3)   Probably the most challenging aspect of multi-cultural worship is that it confronts our own cultural idols. Some cultures desire privacy, order and reverence while others prefer spontaneity, exuberance and community. God’s heart for the world causes us to confess our self-centered worship and embrace God’s delight in all worship that confesses Jesus as Lord.

Please share your story. How has God’s heart for all nations impacted your life story? 

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Called to Worship: The Newest Ministry of Artists in Christian Testimony International

ACTBNR_794x160

I’m excited to announce that Called to Worship is now an official ministry of Artists in Christian Testimony International.

I have been a friend and fan of Byron Spradlin since the early 90s when I met him at Praise in the Rockies while honing my songwriting skills. He has always impressed me as a creative artist, pastor and entrepreneur. I’ve contemplated joining ranks with A.C.T. Intl many times over the last 20 years. Now the time has arrived!

Why join A.C.T. Intl? Good question! Here are some reasons:

  1. Be part of something bigger. I long to connect with like-minded artists and ministers who are seeking to build up the church and take forth the Gospel through the worship arts.
  2. Accountability from a ministry that understands and is uniquely designed to support my ministry ambitions. Though I’m an ordained minister, I find myself also wanting the specific support and accountability that A.C.T. Intl can offer. It is an organization run by artistic ministers and so they understand my needs.
  3. Financial structure. Though this ministry will be modest in its financial needs, and largely self-supporting to start, its helpful to have the backing of a well established non-profit.

What changes? To begin, not much. I do plan to restart regular posts here and will be starting a podcast in the first 6 months of 2013. Additionally, I intend to attend a couple of worship conferences and run some surveys to understand the needs of worship leaders and congregations to see how this ministry can uniquely help. Primarily, I plan to take some time building a team and plan for long term fruitfulness.

What is the focus? Understanding that this vision will likely change over the next few months, here are the stated vision, mission and objectives of the ministry. I’d love your feedback on what you think is most needed:

Vision: To equip, train and inspire worship leaders to plan and lead biblically informed, gospel-infused and theologically enriched worship services and congregations.

Mission: Through teaching, writing, events, consulting, mentoring and organizational development, we will assist worship leaders and pastors from all over the globe, starting in the United States.

Objective: By equipping worship leaders and lead worshipers, we aim to create a sustainable movement of churches focused on being agents of gospel transformation and cultural renewal.

So, as we celebrate the birth of our Savior during this week, I’m also grateful for the chance to be part of birthing this new ministry. Please pray for me and my ministry team.

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Worship in the Storms: 5 Benefits of the Gospel Found During Life’s Storms

Have you ever lived through a tornado or hurricane? How about an earthquake, blizzard or tsunami? Maybe an extreme drought, windstorm or flood?

No matter where you live, the threat of natural disaster always looms. Most of us go through our lives without great concern for these storms–until one hits close by. These storms are lifechangers. Oldtimers mark their lives by storms: “I remember the Andover tornado of ’91.”

Kansas was recently hit by over 100 tornadoes in one day. One of the largest swept right through my neighborhood, destroying several homes near us and demonstrating its force on our car barn.

The path of the recent “Oaklawn tornado”. Our house lies on the upper right end of the blue line–the last neighborhood hit before the twister lifted.

As we hunkered down in our basement waiting for the tornado to pass by, we fully expected the tornado to do just that. After all, my family has lived in Kansas for over 40 years and we’ve never had a tornado effect our property. Sure, we know plenty of people who’ve been touched and we’ve served in the aftermath of several major storms. But you can imagine our surprise when we walked out of our house to see the wake of this EF3 tornado in our neighborhood. Several houses lost their roofs, two houses were leveled and a mobile home still rests upside down. 100-year old oaks were leveled, garages are caved in and the piles of debris will take weeks to clear. That’s just our neighborhood where the damage was minor compared to the mobile home park that lost 90 homes.

Overall this storm created more than $140 million in damage in our county.

This isn’t a news column, so why do I give you these details? Because sometimes the reality of a storm can cause us to reevaluate our lives.

5 Benefits of the Gospel found during life’s storms

1. Worship helps us retain perspective

As we waited for the tornado’s arrival, our family prayed and sang worship songs. It was an act of faith–we didn’t feel like worshiping in that moment. Psalm 34:1 says, “I will praise the Lord at all times. I will continually speak his praises.” Intellectually we all know that God is sovereign, even over tornadoes, but it requires faith to sing/speak his praises when a storm is bearing down on you.

One of my daughters exclaimed later that she saw her life go before her eyes (short as it might be at 13). Until the power went out we were gaining comfort from the weather reports showing the storm moving toward other parts of town (of course, we didn’t wish ill on anyone else). We figured we would have plenty of people to help. After the power failed, we had no idea the storm had turned down our street!

One of the songs we clung to was Praise You in the Storm by Casting Crowns:

2. Joy comes in the morning

The news reports in this storm show families who lost most of their possessions, but there is a recurrent theme – praise for personal protection. You see, not one person died in Kansas. That doesn’t always happen, and in fact several people died in Oklahoma from the same storm system, but we all know that family and friends are of infinite value. Homes, cars and possessions can be replaced–people cannot.

So there are many people, including us, offering prayers of thanksgiving for the preservation of life. When we saw the sun rise on Sunday and every person was found, there was tremendous rejoicing.

This book provides great insight into the message of the psalms, as well as a guide for how to interpret psalms.

Dr. Mark Futato was one of my seminary professors. His books on the Psalms have had some of the deepest impact on my life. In his book, Joy Comes in the Morning, he spends an entire chapter showing how the theme of mourning into dancing plays a prominent role in the community of faith. God takes us through storms and then sets our feet to dancing. Sometimes that journey is short and other times it takes many years.

I love how Psalm 34 goes on to say in verses 4-6:

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me
freeing me from all my fears.
Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy;
no shadow of shame will darken their faces.
I cried out to the Lord in my suffering, and he heard me.
He set me from all my fears.

God set us free from our fears in that storm. We were comforted by his presence and knowing that our future always lies in His hands.

I’ve recommended this song before, but its worth sharing again. Scott Krippayne understands something of God’s fingers in the middle of storms.

3. Storms cause you to rethink priorities

No one looks for storms and we all hope they pass us by. But when they comes we’re wise to embrace the chance to look at all our priorities. Those who lost everything in this storm have a chance to start rebuilding their lives. Too often we quickly revert to old patterns, but I see the wake of a storm as a chance to ask, “What am I really living for?

If this storm had been catastrophic how would I evaluate my life to this point? How would God review my life’s efforts? Would he say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant”? I hope so, but now is the time to answer that question with an intense freshness. It’s too easy to remain busy without making lasting contributions.

One of my other mentors is Dr. Larry Crabb. His book Shattered Dreams takes a close look at his own reflections on enduring a storm of a different kind – losing his brother prematurely. The way he processes his priorities in the wake of that experience are an instructive pattern for all of us.

Casting Crowns has another song I listen to when thinking of my eternal contribution. If someone wrote a song that summarized the impact of your life, what would they say?

4. Jesus weathered a worse storm

No matter how devastating the storm we endure (and Hurricane Katrina or the recent tsunami in Japan are far worse than this tornado), we must always look to how Jesus faced storms.

First, we know that Jesus spoke and calmed some storms. He is sovereign over nature, but he doesn’t always exert his influence. I wish he would at least preserve human lives, but I think he uses these storms to keep our attention. If life were a constant tropical beach day, we would never see our need for a savior. Storms remind us that we aren’t in control and never know when destruction might arrive.

More importantly, storms remind us that Jesus weathered Satan’s worst storm for our salvation. Facing betrayal, death and his father’s temporary rejection were far worse storms than any of us could endure. Jesus persevered this “perfect storm” for our eternal salvation. 

As I inspect the damage of this recent storm, I’m reminded that sin’s wake of destruction is far more devastating. Only because Jesus endured the storm of the cross can I sing, “You Never Let Go” with Matt Redman.

5. Storms bring communities together

We have met numerous neighbors and seen our city stirred by compassion over the last week. I remember friends after Hurricane Katrina relocating to Louisianna to help the victims restore their lives. I’ve been deeply impressed by the sacrificial love shown as outsiders show genuine care for those whose lives lie in shambles.

Sure, there are hucksters and gawkers, but God seems to use storms to bring people together who would otherwise prefer the comfort of anonymity and privacy. Few of us can rebuild after life’s storms without community. How much better to have that community in place before the storms hit!

Storm Stories

Sometimes we watch the Weather Channel’s show called Storm Stories. It’s a reminder that destructive storms are happening every year. Someone’s life is being touched by a storm almost every day. How do we respond?

What are your storm stories?

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Worship after Easter: 10,000 Reasons to Praise God for the Gospel

Have you suffered the post-Easter duldrums?

It sounds heretical, but I’m not talking theologically. Many pastors and worship leaders experience a natural let down after the proper focus we place on the Holy Week and especially Resurrection Sunday. It always happens for me after any major production.

But I think for many evangelical churches we suffer a worship planning let down after Easter. We’ve spent weeks, if not months, leading up to Palm Sunday and Easter. Now what do we do?

If you’re like many evangelical churches you will now enter a 7 month period of “normal” worship planning before Advent starts. You might pay attention to national holidays like Mother’s Day, Independence Day (if you’re American) and Thanksgiving. You might also be a church that organizes around sermon series and other natural rhythms in church life like the beginning of a new school year (which naturally lines up with the start of a ministry year).

But what do we really focus on in our worship during this extended season? I’ve always struggled to call worship on these “tweener” Sundays generic. Generic implies ordinary, bland and plain. Post-resurrection worship is anything but generic. Our hope rests in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. If that’s true, why do we struggle to plan meaningful worship during the May-November stretch each year?

I would venture to say that if you don’t struggle with this, your church likely either does a good job with long-term worship planning or you follow some form of the historic church calendar. Both of these are good remedies. I would also advise a third remedy.

1. Long-term worship planning

John Piper is masterful at creating sermon series

Many pastors have found it helpful to plan sermon series based around an exegetical journey through a book of the bible or some topic relevant to their community. Worship planning becomes much easier when you can predictably look ahead and know the pastor will preach on John 6 on May 15th. Whether an exegitical or thematic series, prayerful worship planning can focus on key biblical themes the church needs to soak in. This can allow great freedom for the creation of new songs, art and other worship offerings that can be agents of change for your congregation.

Northland Church in Orlando does a great job in planning meaningful worship series.

Check out Northland Church for examples of how to do a culturally relevant and biblical sermon series.

SUGGESTION: If your church does not do longer term service planning, I suggest the pastor and worship planners meet to discuss how this might be implemented –even if for only a 4-6 week experiment. I know many pastors don’t feel a freedom to plan more than 1-2 weeks because of the pressures of ministry (and the all important adrenaline rush that comes from Saturday sermon prep–been there too many times!). But sermon prep comes a lot easier when you know where you’re headed for the next 3 to 6 months.

Harbor's current series teaches how the Bible tells one continuous story.

A POSSIBLE MODEL: Harbor Presbyterian Church takes a unique approach to sermon planning. All the sites agree to a similar preaching schedule (with variance allowed for local circumstances). Typically the churches will preach a 10-12 week series on each of the following: 1 Old Testament book, 1 New Testament book, 1 Gospel and 1 topical series. The other Sundays are up to local discretion and given to the major Church holidays. Some churches will turn each of these biblical series into a topical series that can be promoted in the local community.

Do you have a method for preaching and worshiping through the scriptures?

2. The historical church calendar

There has been a recent resurgence in evangelical interest in the church calendar and other elements of historic worship. Dr. Robert Webber spent a lot of energy teaching on this through the Institute of Worship Studies and the Complete Library of Christian Worship.

I’m not an expert at using the key dates from the church calendar. But there are very meaningful opportunities associated with key Sundays like Ascension Sunday and Pentecost. Bruce Benedict at Cardiphonia has gathered a number of resources for these days. So has the Liturgy Fellowship.

3. Celebrate the Gospel – weekly

I’ve written a couple of posts about rehearsing the Gospel in our worship services, including this one and this example of a worship project that retells the Gospel.

There is no better theme to explore in our weekly services than the Gospel! So don’t say you’re going to plan “generic worship” when you don’t have a specific direction. Instead, plan a gospel-centered worship service.

I have recently been listening to Matt Redman‘s new worship project called 10,000 Reasons. I love the title song as it calls us to explore the unfathomable extent of God’s love. Like Charles Wesley’s great hymn, O For a Thousand Tongues, this song reminds us of all the unexplored themes when it comes to the Gospel.

The Apostle John said that all the books in the world couldn’t contain all that Jesus said and did. How is it that we become bored or feel like we’ve said all that can be said about the Gospel?

Here is Matt Redman’s new song:

How do you plan for worship during the post-Easter pre-Christmas portion of the year?

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The Hunger Games: 5 Things Church Worship Leaders Can Learn from The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games movie will be released in theaters this week. Culturally sensitive worship leaders should be aware of this.

If you don’t have teenagers, it’s possible that you’ve missed this trilogy. Don’t let the target audience keep you from reading this (and definitely read it before going to the theater). Suzanne Collins has produced a provocative classic that will keep you enthralled. You’ll also start many fascinating conversations with peers, family, church members and neighbors. My friend Cliff Ravenscraft, the Podcast Answer Man, has started a podcast dedicated to discussing this book series.

WARNING: This is not for the faint of heart or for younger readers (e.g. we’re not letting our 13-year old daughter read it or watch it, as there are too many disturbing topics and images).

If you have read the book, or seen the movie by the time you read this, you may wonder what this book has to do with worship. Valid question. Read on…

The Hunger Games tells the story of a civilization living in what was the United States and the senseless ways the Capital keeps its citizens under control. The most hideous punishment is a forced form of entertainment called the Hunger Games, where “tributes” are recruited to fight each other to the death till only one tribute remains alive. This tribute is rewarded with lifelong immunity and is promoted as a celebrity to the citizens.

(I’ve already revealed more than I should as one of the book’s strengths is the constant suspenseful storytelling. My apologies to those who haven’t read it, but trust me I have left out most pertinent details.)

So, in a story filled with senseless death, deception, corruption and domination by an obviously Christless government, what can worship leaders learn (and maybe just as important, why do I suggest worship leaders read this)? I hope the following points will answer those questions.

Before I answer that question though, I must ask who shouldn’t read The Hunger Games. Pastors for senior citizens or nursery workers may not find this book particularly useful for their ministry (though the seniors may see this as a way to connect with their grandkids). Also, if you have a weak stomach for violence, the themes of death and violence may disturb your sleep.

That said, I’ve been reading plenty of senseless death in the Bible recently– consider the story of King David and his ascension and fall from power at the hands of those closest to him.

The Hunger Games shocks the senses due to masterful storytelling. That is where worship leaders can benefit. A few weeks ago I suggested worship leaders learn to be better storytellers. I think there are quite a few things to learn from Suzanne Collins in this respect.

5 Things Worship Leaders Can Learn from The Hunger Games

1. Transitions make or break the flow of the “story.”

Suzanne Collins demonstrates mastery at leaving her audience anticipating the next chapter or the next book. I had made a decision to only read one chapter per night. That all changed when I reached the end of chapter one. The last sentence completely caught me off guard and left me wondering what was next. I did put the book down that first night, but after that I learned that if I wanted to fall asleep I needed to stop reading in the middle of the chapter. Needless to say I was hooked!

Worship leaders need to master the art of transitions. In his book Worship Matters, Bob Kauflin describes his habit of spending 30 minutes weekly just rehearsing his transitions so they are thoughtful, Spirit-led and natural. Sometimes, in our desire to be led by the Holy Spirit we forget that God can provide that inspiration in advance so that we can deliver His message clearly. That’s what usually happened with the Old Testament prophets – God told them to write down his message in advance. That’s a great lesson for worship leaders who may not feel as confident in their verbal skills as they are in singing or playing.

2. Start your service with a strong “hook”

I’ve seen countless services where a worship leader or church leader gets up and casually says something like, “Hi! We’re glad you’re here. Please stand and sing.” I find myself thinking, “Why should I sing? Maybe I don’t want to…”

What if I just learned that my grandmother died this morning? What if my dad just lost his job and I don’t know how I’m going to finish college? What if I’m still thinking about the fight we just had in the car while driving to church? What am I singing about anyway?

Most people need more time to prepare their hearts and minds to worship than a 10-second intro or even a beautifully played prelude, though that can be an important aspect of preparation.

Pastor Scotty Smith is masterful at creating an emotional and intellectual hook to draw worshipers into a worship service. He anticipates the sermon, but he also connects to his congregation’s current mindset. Of course, you could argue that this is all the Holy Spirit’s job. True enough. But I do think we play a role in creating a coherent worship service that retells the Gospel as we bring God glory. That requires both disciplined planning and a constant dependence on the Holy Spirit.

The Hunger Games accomplished this through a story that takes unexpected twists and turns. It also bonded readers to the lead characters quickly. When Katniss, the main character, finds herself in the hunger games, we’re instantly pulling for her because she is presented as a noble contrast to the Capital’s cruel sense of entertainment.

All songwriters know the importance of a memorable hook and the need to quickly draw people into a song. If this is true for a song or book, it’s even more true for a worship service. Here are some tips for those starting the service:

TIPS: 1. Find someone to lead the welcome who has a gift for connecting to people.
2. Make sure to share the direction of the worship service with all people involved with leading. Don’t assume they’ll pick it up through the bulletin or elsewhere. Also, don’t assume the other musicians can read your mind. :)
3. Intentionally prepare your opening comments as if someone might put down the “book” after the first chapter if you don’t hook them (this is when people stop singing, fall asleep or start talking to their neighbors (sometimes via Twitter).
4. Study how great speakers and novelists engage audiences from their very first sentences and discuss with your planning team how to bring some of those elements into your service.
5. Practice all your transitions, but especially the service introduction. Write it out if necessary.

3. Don’t overtell the story

Collins keeps the trilogy moving with an economy of words. She doesn’t get bogged down in overly descriptive passages, though she provides plenty of descriptors to help you enter the story.

If some worship leaders have a tendency to say very little, others have a tendency to say too much–often without getting across a clear message. It’s also possible to obscure the themes and Gospel nuggets you hope your congregation grasps by hiding them or not clearly stating these connections. You can do so artfully, but make sure it’s clear. I recommend testing it on your spouse or someone not intimately involved with planning your services.

RESOURCE: Consider this song by Sovereign Grace called Only You Satisfy by Zach Jones. Here are the lyrics:

So hungry, so thirsty for
That which satisfies
This world’s full of broken cisterns
That have left me dry

There’s only one place where I’ll
Find what You made me for
There’s only one true fountain
That satisfies my soul

Only You
You’re the Fountain of living water
Only You satisfy my soul
You’re the source of eternal pleasures
Only You satisfy my soul

So desperate, so needy for
You to open my eyes
To see where I’ve turned to idols
Where I’ve bought their lies

There’s only one place where I’ll
Find what I’m looking for
There’s only one true fountain
That satisfies my soul

Whom have I
In heaven but You, Lord
And the earth
Has no one
Above You, Lord
Whom have I
In heaven but You, Lord
And the earth
Has nothing I desire above You, Lord
© 2006 NAP Record

4. Acknowledge the real battle we fight

I lead worship every Sunday at McConnell Air Force base in Wichita, KS. The families in our chapel understand the cost and nature of war. Unfortunately, for many Christians we have forgotten that the real war we face has an external enemy.

The characters in The Hunger Games know the Capital is their enemy. They are fighting for the freedom of all regions in their post-war civilization. This is the overall conflict running through all three books.

TIPS:
1. Plan songs, scriptures and themes that consider the reality of spiritual battle.
2. While our worship services rightly should focus on the person of Jesus and His redeeming mission, we should also reflect regularly on how we handle the inevitable opposition from the devil.
3. Don’t sugarcoat spiritual warfare. It’s real and we face an enemy who will show no mercy.

RESOURCE: Here’s a song about spiritual battle from Cece Winans:

5. Highlight the importance of the Last Supper

Before tributes entered the playing field for their hunger games, they were treated to a meal of their choice. Typically something rich and sustaining, but also qualitatively better than anything they had ever eaten at home.

In worship we have the chance to regularly celebrate the Lord’s Supper. While this isn’t typically our “last” supper, it is a lasting supper and it reminds us of Jesus’s last supper and how he commemorated this important part of our worship life. Smart worship planners don’t just casually prepare for this act, but prayerfully consider how to engage their congregation in this spiritual meal.

RESOURCE: Here’s a hymn I arranged based on “I Hunger and I Thirst” by John S.B. Monsell that is a good reflection for communion.

There are five points to consider. I’m sure many more could be made (like finding redemptive themes).

Will you be going to the movie?

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Psalms in Worship: Congregations Singing New Psalms (an album review)

Does your church sing the psalms? I don’t mean singing psalm snippets like many modern worship songs do–nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the same as psalm singing–but singing a psalm in its entirety or at least a significant portion.

There is a movement toward psalm singing in modern churches. Many traditional and liturgical churches have often sung the psalms, but I am thankful for this resurgence of psalm arranging and singing. I think every congregation can find its worship voice by studying and interpreting the psalms for their community. I also think it helps us teach the next generation to discover the fullness of the Christian life. After all the psalms explore the gamut of emotions from sorrow to exuberant joy, as well as providing a poetic history of redemption.

People have been singing from the book of Psalms for at least 3000 years. Thankfully, we don’t have the original music that David sang while tending his father’s sheep. Nor do we know the tunes Jesus and the disciples sang. If we knew this music, we might feel constrained to sing only those tunes–I know there would be groups who would advocate this, just as there would be those who rebel against this notion. Instead, God mercifully set us free to sing the psalms in musical genres that are appropriate to our local culture.

The Psalms Project

During seminary I conceived of a way to help congregations do this through what I called The Psalm Project. The goal is to bring artists of many disciplines together to study the psalms and then create works of art based on their study. In 2007 and 2008 we had many versions of this crop up in Chicago, San Diego and Denver. We had some amazing musical, visual and poetic renditions emerge. (If I can find some of the recordings, I will share those here in a future post.)

A Survey of Modern Psalm Singing

The Calvin Institute of Worship has also sponsored several projects along these lines, including one by my friend Bruce Benedict where his church and some friends created a project based around the Psalms of Ascent.

I remember in college hearing Ian White of Scotland speak of his  goal to write new versions of all 150 psalms during his lifetime. That inspired me to set a similar goal (so far I have about 10 settings). Here is a psalm from Ian White:

Brian Moss is seeking to do something similar through his Prayer Book Project, though his songs are stated as “inspired by the psalms” as opposed to being psalm settings. He will soon release his second set of songs based on the psalms.

Another group that has made a major impact on psalm singing is The Sons of Korah, getting their name from the biblical group of priests who wrote many of the psalms that David didn’t write. Group founder Matthew Jacoby said this, “The best exposition of the psalms you can do is put them to music.” While this is a professional caliber band and many songs aren’t specifically for congregational singing, the interpretations seek to strictly follow the text and get inside the emotion of the psalms. Here is their setting of Psalm 51:

If you’ve read many of my posts, you know that I love Sovereign Grace Music for writing theologically rich songs in modern musical idioms. Their review of the psalms is no exception. Our congregation has done God is Our Refuge on several occasions and loved it. Here is their “Out of the Depths”:

In the Wakeful Hours: An Album Review

With that exposure to some broader movements in modern psalm singing, I’d like to feature a new project released by Mark Chambers and his church at Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church in Suffolk, Virginia.

In 2011 their pastor decided to preach through a number of psalms. Mark and church leaders invited the musical members of their church to write new settings to the psalms based on their communal study. Over 25 church musicians participated in the project (not counting the choir).

While the artists didn’t specifically meet to discuss their arrangements, they came with a strong collection of psalm settings that I’m sure their congregation will enjoy and sing for decades to come. It took them about 2 months to produce the project (and Mark wished he could’ve had another month to fine tune the mixes). The only outsider involved was the mixer.

Here’s what Mark had to say about the project:

“For us it was a matter of contextualization. I wanted our people to see that all music does not come out of Nashville and that we have a number of people in our own midst that can contribute quite substantively to the worship life of WRPC. That is why the CD is so diverse. I purposefully wanted it that way, too. I did not want to leave people out of the project because their material was so very different from my own. I have seen in this process our musicians grow as they have been stretched to meet a goal and to also continually rework material. Our congregants have also benefited from it by seeing that our worship life is not limited to CCM and that many people have something to say within our own community.”

Some things I love about this project:

1) Representation of the church – After listening to this project, I feel like I know some of the people of this church. They have poured their hearts and talents in these arrangements. You’ll find many voices and many instruments. One of my pastors used to say worship services should allow “Grandpa and Johnny to worship together.” This project has the diversity of styles that would truly allow all generations to sit together.

2) Fresh and diverse interpretations – I loved the choral setting of Create In Me, but also the Bob Dylanesque setting of In the Wakeful Hours. This project covered many styles, including choral, traditional, rock, folk and even a little gospel/jazz.

3) Multi-voiced – I loved hearing a wide range of musical instruments (guitar, piano, violin, trumpet, bass, drums, organ and many more). It was nice to hear the singers represent all the church’s generations, not just the youngest members. While this might keep some settings from gaining prominence on the CCM top 40 charts, it will endear the songs to their community. A very worthwhile commitment to the longterm worship life of the church!

4) Thoughtful arrangements - Many of the settings felt very appropriate to the lyrics. The psalms cover a wide emotional array and this album’s settings covered that gamut.

5) Outward focused – Many of the psalms have a focus on God’s missionary heart, but that’s not my point here. WRPCA has decided to use all proceeds from this project to support their on-going musicianary work in Austria with the Musik-Brucken project.

***WARNING: This is not an album you can just casually listen to. Instead allow each song to take you into the mood and meaning of the text.***

My wishlist

This album provides an incredible model for churches everywhere to create their own psalm projects, I do have a couple of wishes:

1) Stick to the text – Unless you’re doing as Brian Moss by writing songs inspired by the psalms, I think it’s important for psalm arrangers to stick to the text (changing translations is fine). You’re putting these songs into the minds and hearts of your congregation and it would be best to help them memorize scripture. A couple songs clearly added some new lyrics that will quickly become dated. I remember writing a song with the line, “Let’s roll!” soon after 9/11. My congregation responded negatively and I wisely removed that song from our rotation.

2) Focus on making psalms singable for your congregation – I asked Sons of Korah about why they didn’t make all their songs congregation friendly and their answer was they are a performance group. I have no problem with performance songs, I’ve written quite a few. I don’t know how many of the WRPCA authors were seeking to write for the congregation, but I believe we need many more psalm settings written for the congregation.

What do you think?

I’m very encouraged by this project. I hope many other churches take up this charge and create psalm settings they will sing and share with the rest of the world. 

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