Containing Worship

I’m not going to lie to you. Sometimes, it’s really frustrating being a worship leader. I love worshiping God, I love seeing others worship God, and I love music. When all three of those come together in a single moment, it’s absolutely glorious. It gives me goosebumps to feel God’s presence and worship alongside other people. Then there are those moments when the goosebumps fade and I get frustrated. You know the moments I’m talking about. Fast vs. Slow. Soft vs. Loud. Older Hymns vs. Newer Songs. Band vs. Choir. Lighting. Audio. Visual. Effects. Atmosphere. Quality. Acoustic. Electric. Presentation. “Traditional is more reverent.” “Contemporary is more relevant.”

I’ve been around ministry and music long enough that I’ve been involved in more discussions, read more articles, and heard more debates than I can hardly stand anymore. I have the background and have had unique opportunities to be heavily involved in both traditional settings and contemporary settings. Through my experiences, I’ve met a slew of people with a variety of opinions on the subject. The vast majority of them have the best of intentions in their heart. They don’t necessarily believe that one is wrong per se, they just truly believe that one or the other is on a greater spiritual level. They engage in passionate conversations about the depth of which their preferred style reaches beyond the other.

When did worship stop becoming about worshiping? What moment in time did people start having the mindset that “worship” could even be stylized? I think it was around the same time we started treating “worship” as only a noun instead of both a noun and a verb. Worship is supposed to be an expression. It is supposed to be a deep and emotional expression of reverence for something of which the worshiper has great adoration. If we are to believe that is the case (and I very much do believe it), how can we define what style is appropriate for worship? Why would we limit our own ability to worship by placing unnecessary parameters around something that is supposed to be beautiful and intimate?

Now beyond that, and far more importantly, at what moment did we decide worship had anything to do with us in the first place? “The worship just didn’t speak to me.” “The songs just didn’t move me.” “I couldn’t get into the music.” “I didn’t really like the worship leader’s voice.” I’ve heard all of these and have been guilty of saying a few of them. What do they all have in common? The focus is always the worshiper. But the problem is that worship isn’t supposed to be about the worshiper, it’s supposed to be about whatever is being worshiped. When we come together for our church services and the music starts, our thought process shouldn’t be “OMG IT’S THE NEW ONE FROM HILLSONG”. Our thought process should be focused on the one who gives us a reason to worship.

I once had the most incredible privilege of taking a church youth choir I directed into an inner-city church in Chicago. The overwhelming majority of the choir was made up of white, middle to upper-class, suburban high school kids from a United Methodist church in Texas. The independent gospel church we were visiting was in the center of a predominantly black and economically downtrodden neighborhood on the western side of Chicago. From the demographic and regional differences alone, you know that the stereotypical worship styles of the two groups are on vast opposite ends of the spectrum. That night we worshiped together and it was electric. We sang hymns, we sang contemporary songs, we sang gospel songs, there was spoken word, there were scriptures, and there was dancing. There was a cultural and spiritual exchange between these two groups and it transcended stylized worship. Our worship transcended our preferences and became what it should always be, a deep and emotional expression of reverence for God.

On that evening in Chicago, worship was a verb. What might it look like if worship became a verb in our every week worship? What might we be able to accomplish if we get over our preferences and allow worship to take over our hearts. We must stop containing worship as a simple noun, inserting our preferential adjectives and limiting it’s true purpose. Go and express emotional reverence for God. Go and worship.

(Insert Name Here)

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

Ernest Hemingway

I’ve never been exceptionally talented at any one thing. I have attained many average or “slightly above average” skills. Because of this average “jack-of-all-trades” life that I’ve led, I have oftentimes found myself in an almost constant state of comparing myself to others.  I was a decent baseball player but not on the same athletic level as my older brother. I was a pretty good public speaker but didn’t size up to my youth pastor’s ability to draw in his audiences. I am a good musician but can’t even begin to list the countless people I’ve met who are far more talented and hard-working than myself.

I admired these people for what they were able to do and what they were able to accomplish in their field of expertise. I admired them and I compared myself to them. I compared myself to them and I put myself down in my own mind for my inability to live up to them. In turn, I would find people less talented or less intelligent than myself and feed my own ego off their “inferiority”. I would tell myself that I might not be as good as (insert name here) but at least I’m better than (insert name here). I caught myself in this trap of feeling insufficient through comparison while also needing to gain self satisfaction through further comparison.

We live in a world of constant comparison. Competition is not only encouraged, it’s expected. Survival of the fittest is ingrained at an early age. Work harder, move faster, study more…be better. The error is when we step back and realize whom we are supposed to be better than. We’re told to be competitive with those around us which is not totally wrong, healthy competition is good, but are we really improving our lives by holding our heads higher from having defeated someone else? Isn’t true improvement, the truest “betterment” in character attained when we can look in the mirror and say, “Today, I am better than I was yesterday.”

I’m a remarkably competitive person and I won’t lie and say I have this completely figured out. Comparison and competitiveness is something with which I struggle on a daily basis. I have, however, come to a point in my life where most days, I can shut out the rest of the world, stop worrying about others achievements, look in the mirror, and know how I size up to the man I was the day before. Some days the man I see is better and some days, that man falls short. On the days where I have fallen short, I pick myself up and find ways to be better the next day. On the days where the man I see is better, I find ways to be even better the next. On this day and every day after, don’t concern yourself with being better than (insert name here). Concern yourself with simply being better than (insert your name here).

My Ecumenical Christmas

Yes, I know it’s January 27 and I’m posting about Christmas. I started writing this a while ago and had planned to finish it the week after Christmas. When that didn’t happen, I thought I’d just not write it but I just couldn’t make myself trash it. So here it is, one month and two days after Christmas.

Last year, as Christmas approached, I found myself without Christmas Eve plans for the first time in my life. Growing up, we always had a “big-family” Christmas party with the entire side of my dad’s family. It was always one of my favorite parts of the Christmas season. As my siblings, my cousins, and I all got older, got married and had kids (myself not included on the kids), the party started becoming harder and harder to organize until it finally stopped.

It was during the same time (my college years) that I started working for churches as a paid musician so my plans switched from family Christmas parties to singing in Christmas Eve services. I enjoy church so it wasn’t anything I dreaded, actually I enjoyed it quite a bit. After college I started working my first “real” job in ministry at Christ UMC in Plano, TX. CUMC is a large church, large enough to warrant having seven services on Christmas Eve. So for the last three years, I spent my afternoon and late evening performing various tasks and participating in the services. I would also always take out a little time to attend a Christmas Eve party with some dear friends, a party that became very special to me.

This year however, I found myself with no plans. No Christmas Eve parties, no responsibilities to fulfill at the churches for which I now work, nothing at all. At first I didn’t know what to do. Then one day the week before Christmas, as I was looking at some old photos, I came across some pictures from a church performance during my old youth choir’s tour to Chicago. We sang at a predominantly African American inner-city church on the west side of Chicago and the atmosphere was electric. I remember thinking how awesome it was to watch two groups of people with very different socio-economic, political, and theological backgrounds come together to worship. That’s when I decided to have my ecumenical Christmas.

I decided to visit 4 churches around Birmingham representing a wide range of the theological and political spectrum. The night of Christmas Eve, I set out with my step-sister to visit Mountaintop Community Church (Non-denominational), Bluff Park United Methodist Church, Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, and Cathedral Church of the Advent (Episcopal). My goal was to experience various styles of worship…to gain an understanding of how different people choose to celebrate Christ’s birth. I thought it would be a nice evening filled with pleasantries associated with my favorite holiday. What I got was a renewed spirit.

There was something so sincere about each place I visited. Each church worshipped in different ways…some used guitars, some used organs, some used projection screens, some used hymnals, all had sermons and all had candles. What I found was that even though they chose different styles with which to worship, it all came down to the same thing: thankfulness for a God who chose to take on human flesh, bear our sins, and save each of us.

So much of the church’s energy is spent arguing things like who God loves or doesn’t love, how to get to heaven, how to avoid hell, what is a sin and what is morally appropriate, do we choose God or does He choose us, is it wrong that I used “He” to refer to God…the list goes on and on. But this one night I visited 4 very different churches and left each one feeling a renewed spirit about how the all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present Creator of all things and time itself took on human flesh for each person I worshipped with that evening. He took on human flesh for each person worshipping around the world that evening. And He took on human flesh for each person NOT worshipping around the world that evening.

I know that it’s January 27 and that this post has been mostly about Christmas but as I think ahead to the rest of this year, I find myself wanting to keep those feelings alive. As I prepare for Lent and Easter Sunday, I find myself thinking about the initial choice God made to come to Earth in human form. Christ knew His destiny was to end up on the cross. He knew his destiny was to take on all the suffering of this world in the most painful act of love ever displayed. Yet he made the choice to come anyway.

I think about all the different people I worshipped with that evening. I saw a wide variety of social, economic, professional, political, and theological backgrounds. I saw males, females, heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, blacks, whites, asians, hispanics, and ethnicities I would not have been able to identify without asking. I saw many different people coming together to glorify God for the greatest gift ever given and it gave me hope.

It gave me hope that the church universal would return to love. It gave me hope that the church universal would preach a gospel that is never contained by any parameters of a person’s identity. It gave me hope that the best is yet to come. It gave me hope that the church would, in the same way that the candles illuminated each building that Christmas Eve, do it’s job of shining the light and life of Christ to a dark and dying world.

 

“Christmas means you don’t have to be afraid of the dark ever again.” -Pastor Doug Ferguson (Mountaintop Community Church)

“The people most attracted to Jesus were those who could recognize their own inabilities best.” -Rev. Andrew Pearson (Cathedral Church of the Advent)

“We live in a world where everything is a problem needing to be solved when the real solution was laid in a manger 2000 years ago.” -Pastor Gary Furr (Vestavia Hills Baptist Church)

“Christmas is a time to trade in our pessimism and receive the life changing gift of joy everlasting.” -Rev. Mike Holly (Bluff Park United Methodist Church)

Music Monday 01.26.15

“Sinking Deep” Hillsong Young and Free

Over MLK Day weekend, I took my middle school youth on a ski retreat up to Lake Junaluska in North Carolina. It’s hosted by the UMC camp and conference center up there with a guest speaker, a worship band, games, and, of course, skiing. We closed each day with a corporate worship service for the entire group. The guest band leading worship for the weekend ended the service every night with this song.

When I heard it the first night, I thought it might an original song of theirs as I had never heard it before and I consider myself reasonably knowledgable about worship music. I did a little research care of Google and Spotify and found out that it was actually written and recorded by Hillsong Young and Free a little over a year ago.

I was enamored with the song. I couldn’t stop playing it. I looped it over and over taking in every word and every note. I dwelled on the lyrics.

“Sinking deep in mercy’s seas”

“Your love so deep is washing over me”

I like the allusion that God’s grace/mercy/love is so vast, so overwhelming, that we can’t possibly contain it. It’s such a force that we can do nothing but sink deeply into it, be completely overtaken by it. It’s immovable, it’s immeasurable, it’s incredible, and it’s yours for the taking.

 

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Music Monday, feel free to follow it along with the posts.

Music Monday 01.12.15

“Future/Past” John Mark McMillan

I traveled quite a bit during the holidays so I decided to take a break from the Music Monday posts as I focused on visiting with friends and family. The holidays are now over and 2015 is well underway. As I was deciding on which song I felt led to begin the year in this series, I found myself reflecting on another blog I’m working on right now. Thinking about that led me to this song that was introduced to me late last year. I love most of John Mark McMillan’s worship songs (“How He Loves” is my favorite) and this one was no exception. To me, the lyrics are a simple way of praising the beauty of how intertwined God is with our lives. Everything that happened/is happening/will happen to me last year, the year before, this year, next year, etc… it’s all connected to my relationship with Christ. He is my most powerful yet loving and tender relationship. He is my friend, He is my first, He is my last. Here is to a 2015 where I allow Him to be my future and my past.

 

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Music Monday, feel free to follow it along with the posts.

Reset Button

I used to love playing Pokemon on my GameBoy Color. And I’m lying when I say “used to” because a friend recently showed me how to get the game on my iPhone and now 2-3 times a week, 12 year old Trey reawakens for some mind-numbing Pokemon action. When I was really into it, I would research and use all these different strategies to get better and better (let’s all take a moment for how incredibly nerdy I was)…One of the strategies was pretty basic, right before something big or important was about to happen, you save your spot in the game, that way if it doesn’t go the way you want, you can reset by turning the game off and then on again to start over from your saved point. I used it often.

I can think of several times that being able to use this strategy in real life would have been really nice. I’ve made plenty of bad decisions in my life, who hasn’t right? Sometimes it would’ve been great to have my place right before that decision “saved” and then I could just magically go back to that exact moment if things didn’t go how I liked. It doesn’t even have to be the big moments or decisions in life either. There are some days that just don’t go the way I’d like, things I can’t even control, that would be awesome to reset.

That’s, at least, how I always feel in the moment. See, when we are facing adversity, indecision, complications, etc., it’s understandably hard not to focus on what is wrong. It’s easy to forget Romans 8:28 and forget that God is working for us while we are working for His will. As I look back at all the times I made decisions that turned out bad or those days where everything that could go wrong went wrong, I see a negative and frustrated person who wanted that reset button. Then as I take time to reflect on the aftermath of those bad decisions and terrible days, I see a person who is covered by the mercy and grace of a God who loves him enough to work for his good.

I’m glad that life doesn’t have a “reset” button. Not figuratively, I mean literally. Anyone can change their path in life at any point if they want to bad enough, I get that…I mean that I’m glad life doesn’t have a literal “reset” button or “on/off switch”. Some choices I’ve made that seemed “bad” in the moment have even led me to bigger and greater things than I ever could have possibly imagined happening in the first place. We serve a great, big, loving God. The next time you find yourself searching for that save and reset button right before you face the elite 4 (Pokemon reference), spend some time searching for the One who is always working for your good.

Accepted

I was recently talking with my good friend, Becca Wilson, about the realization that college students aren’t staying connected to the church. In fact, research from the Fuller Youth Institute and College Transition Initiative has shown that approximately 50% of youth who grew up in the church are leaving their faith behind in their college years. As someone who is passionate about working with youth and young adults, this troubles me. As a college freshman and someone who is passionate about her faith, Becca wrote this recently and sent it to me. I loved it so much that I wanted to post it on my blog. After some convincing, she is letting me share it with you.

“I recently went through recruitment and was offered a bid to a sorority at TCU. At first it seemed cool, a fun social group to be a part of on campus. But I had a gut feeling and after some serious thinking, praying, and talking with several people on and off campus, I knew my gut just wasn’t going to shut up about this one. Now don’t get me wrong, the people are awesome; every single girl I met through the recruitment process and after bid day was so welcoming and really seemed to care about what I was going through. There was just something in my heart telling me that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, that I was meant to be somewhere else. I just realized that Greek life wasn’t for me. Since I made the decision to drop out, I have been happier and more confident in who I am and where I’m headed, and I am 100% sure I made the right choice. However, there has been one stressor that has come with my decision. Multiple people, including me, have worried about my decision because of one reason, and I’ve been thinking about it extensively the past couple days. As a college freshman, this little phrase is EVERYWHERE in my life right now and it has begun to bother me quite a bit:

“In college you’re going to want to have a group you can identify yourself with”

Why? Why do I need people to define me? Why do I have to be a part of a group just to feel important on campus, and why does that matter at all? Of course in the beginning, I was guilty of this mentality, for sure. In fact, I would go as far as to say it’s one of the main reasons I even decided to go through recruitment in the first place. Every girl in every house would ask me, “Why did you decide to rush?” And every time I answered, “I don’t really know many people here, so I just want an instant group of friends to associate with and to know I can count on.” I’m not saying this is WRONG, but I’m saying there is something to be said for the fact that we don’t NEED to find a group to define us. Having a group of people who genuinely love and care about you, who you can go to for advice, for accountability, and for guidance, now that’s something everyone needs. But the fact that we, as college freshman, or as anyone really, should feel that we HAVE to find some sort of group to call our own is simply false.

Instead of running towards people who will make us feel accepted, and make us feel like we are a part of something, we should be running to the one who will never fail us, Christ. Can’t I identify myself in God alone? Can’t I identify myself as a Christian, with the church, with the community of fellow believers? Fellowship is very important to me, so I’m not saying that Christ is the only thing I need in my life. I strongly believe that my faith would not grow without the help of others, but I’m talking about identification, not existence. All of this college stuff, all the sororities, the clubs, activities, parties, they’ll all go away. Christ won’t. So doesn’t it make more sense for me to identify myself in Him rather than a fleeting social group? Honestly, this concept scares me to no end. The fact that I may never find a social group to call my own, the fact that maybe I won’t fit in. But you know at the same time it’s awfully comforting. God will never go away. I wish I could bold that one hundred times and scream it because so many people just don’t live their lives in a way that exemplifies that.

I believe in Christ’s eternal and unfading love. Since I’ve been at TCU, my faith has been tested through the activities I’ve tried to put myself into. My life before now has been easy, I was in band, and I had a home church. My path was laid out for me. I had easy ways to make friends, and I felt I was somewhere I belonged. When that suddenly all ended and I had to start fresh, I was forced to put my faith and trust in Him to lead me where I’m meant to be and it’s been a hell of a lot more challenging than I ever thought. I’m not telling you that being in a sorority is bad. I’m not telling you that not being in a sorority is bad. I’m telling you that if we are to call ourselves believers, our identification in Christ alone should be enough. Worldly love, worldly acceptance, and worldly comfort are all essential to fulfill our social needs, but you don’t need a group to have a purpose. Our primary purpose is found in glorifying God and through our worship of and devotion to Him we are fulfilling that purpose.

If you’re like me, stop searching for a group. Stop stressing out over being accepted and fitting into a certain mold these groups have for you. If you find one that uplifts you and helps you grow spiritually, by all means do it. If you don’t, just know that you don’t need that to feel accepted. Christ has already accepted you and in the end, that’s the only “group” that is truly everlasting.”

Music Monday 9.15.14

“139” by Gateway Worship

I first heard this song a couple years ago when I was in a service at Gateway Church. David Moore, who wrote the song, and his wife Aleena were leading worship for that specific service. Obviously music is very important to me; it’s an epic force, it speaks to me and often times it overwhelms me. This is one of those songs that easily overtook my emotions. The text is based on Psalm 139 which is ascribed to David(biblical king, not current worship leader). The whole chapter is this marvelous reassurance of how well it is that God knows us and yet still loves us. Everywhere we go, He is with us, watches over us, and leads us in His path if only we ask.

The chorus is my favorite part of the song. It paints a beautiful picture of the redeeming love that we have in Christ.

Where can I run from Your love?
You searched me and know all my heart
If I climb to heights You’ll be there
If I make my bed in Hell
You’ll lead me home

 

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Music Monday, feel free to follow it along with the posts.

Who Are You?

I have found that I spend a great deal of my devotional time trying to attain a greater understanding of who God is. This is, of course, a good thing to do as we should strive to reflect His character (Matthew 5:48), something that can only truly be accomplished by being in relationship with Him….and the absolute base level of maintaining a relationship with God is through the reading of scripture so we can discover more about Him and prayer that we may speak to Him and be spoken to by Him.

Recently however, I found myself wondering what scripture says about how I am viewed by Christ. As I researched all the different ways we, humankind, are referenced in the Bible, I realized that God thinks a lot of things about us. I don’t have nearly enough space to list all the different things we are to God so I decided to narrow it down to the five that I feel are most necessary for us to know and understand.

1.) You are imperfect. 

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23

You might think that this list is just going to be a lot of negative things but it’s important I start with this one, stick with me. The crappy news is that we are broken and undesirable beings incapable of perfection. Verse 23 above says it plainly with that first word: All. Your pastor, your worship leader, your mentor, your role models, teachers, leaders…every single one of us falls short. We are born into sin by way of Adam and imperfection is unavoidable. The good news? That’s found in verse 22 and 24. We don’t have to be perfect because we have a savior in Jesus Christ who is perfect. His perfect grace justifies us, redeems us, and covers our imperfections.

2.) You are free.

“I have the freedom to do anything but not everything is helpful. I have the freedom to do anything but I won’t be controlled by anything.” I Corinthians 6:12

We have no choice in the matter when it comes to being born into sin but we do have a clear choice when it comes to maintaining that relationship with sin. Free will is a wonderful and terrible thing all wrapped up in one nice gift from God. Wonderful because it gives us the opportunity to choose relationship with Him which makes us an active participant in that relationship. Terrible because it also presents difficulty in overcoming our own selfish, sinful desires (I Peter 2:16). Our freedom to be in relation with God makes the end result of choosing Him all the more worthwhile as we come to the realization that God’s grace is a far better reward than anything we could ever attain outside of Him.

3.) You are loved.

“This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” I John 4:9-10

Hopefully you knew this long before reading it just now. It always gets me just a little to think about this one…this idea that an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present God would even consider me, nonetheless have unconditional love for me. The great part is I don’t have to understand it. There are multiple scriptures in which God not only tells us of His love for us but also describes in detail just how great and boundless is that love. In Genesis 22, Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as an offering to Him. Abraham’s love for God was so great that he was willing to obey this command in spite of losing his only son. At the last-minute, God called out to Abraham to commend his obedience and to spare Isaac. Conversely to Isaac, the sacrificing of Christ did occur. God’s love for us is so great that He wants to see us obtain life and righteousness through that sacrifice. Not only are you loved, you’re loved to a larger degree than you can ever possibly fathom.

4.) You are a child of God.

“I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” 2 Corinthians 6:18

This is one of those cliché sayings you hear all the time growing up but something being cliché doesn’t necessarily make it any less true. Actually because of its cliché status, I think we all-too-often forget that this is true. If you think about how you typically interact with your earthly parents, it’s probably vastly different from your interactions with your heavenly Father. I know that I am guilty of getting caught up in the motions of how I think my relationship with God should be from time to time but I think God is far less concerned with the formalities of the communication as He is with establishing and maintaining that communication. Another important message we get from this point is pertinent for those without earthly parents. I have a good friend whose biological parents died when He was still very young. This caused him to be raised by his grandmother. He appreciates and loves his grandmother but it can certainly be difficult to never have the opportunity to connect with your biological parents. I know from his sharing with me that he takes an abundance of comfort in knowing that he never can and never will lose his heavenly Father.

5.) You are accepted.

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” Romans 15:7

This is the single most important message of the modern-day church. Why? Because it’s an all-encompassing message of everything we are to God. Despite an abundance of love, mercy, and grace in Christ; there are many who preach the opposite of these three foundations of faith in the name of the very one who died that we might obtain them. If we are to believe that ALL are imperfect and born into sin, ALL are free to the will of sin or the will of God, ALL are loved and extended the grace and mercy of Christ, and ALL are children of God our creator and sustainer; then we must believe that ALL are accepted as such.