THIS ONE’S WORTH MORE THAN A THOUSAND WORDS

There is a way to tip the scales and turn the tides of evil in the world.

A child soldier, brainwashed from the age of 10, just recently “surrendered” and returned home to rehabilitation:

“Opondo was 10 years old when he was kidnapped by the LRA 15 years ago. A former child soldier, Opondo recently surrendered in DR Congo holding a “come home” flier. The flier was one of 20,000 you funded in May.”

Opondo, now 25

Opondo, now 25

This is an amazing redemption story. There are few things more grossly evil in the world than abducting children and teaching them to kill (Mark 9:42). Can you imagine Opondo singing a song like “Amazing Grace”? I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see…It makes me want to invent new words to describe how “amazing” that really is.

This organization drops thousands of “Come home” fliers throughout the rebel (child soldier) groups’ territories, encouraging abducted child soldiers that they can surrender and return home to rehabilitation. You can support by funding fliers. 79% of surrendered/rehabilitated child soldiers cite the “come home” fliers as influential in their decision to escape the rebel groups. Please take a moment to consider supporting. Please share with others to encourage support.

AN ACHEY BREAKEY HEART CHECK

Even for those who try and avoid celebrity gossip, the recent Miley Cyrus debacle was hard to ignore. I couldn’t look at Facebook the following day without seeing half a dozen posts about it. The Internet media had a feeding frenzy. The general public learned what the word “twerk” means. Parents and youth pastors everywhere decried the event and mourned the moral decline of our country, which is apparently “headed to hell in a hand basket.” And thankfully, my buddy Chris was telling people that “Jesus loves Miley Cyrus,” too.

miley smokeSo by Monday night, I figured I had to check it out. As my wife and I talked about our friends’ Facebook posts, she pulled up images from the VMA’s. At first we laughed at the absurdity.

“Well, this is the least surprising news of all time,” I said, considering the endless string of messed-up child stars that litter the tabloids, “She’ll be coked-out and checked into rehab inside six months, guaranteed!”

But as we investigated the pictures and the press coverage, I grew more disgusted. Truth be told, she kind of looked like a flat-chested thirteen year old in a toddler’s bathing suit pretending to have sex with a middle-aged Beetlejuice. The whole scene was a little nauseating. But then it hit me, and I got really sad.

Sunday, August 25th was the worst day of Billy Ray Cyrus’ life.

I imagine him dropping his can of Bud Light as his daughter took the stage. “Please…no…dear God, what is she thinking?” I imagine he winced with every sexually-explicit gyration his daughter made in front of the millions of TV viewers. I imagine at some point, he just had to look away. And I bet his self-esteem as a father dropped like a lead balloon.

See, I’ve got a daughter. She’s almost two. She’s pretty and sweet and sort of cheeky and is the most adorable little person in the world to me. Shemullet ray cyrus likes “kitty cats” and squints when she smiles and has somehow learned to carry a purse, a baby, and one of her stuffed animals all at the same time. And when she walks, she shakes her hips so much that I’m afraid she might throw her back out. Come to think of it, she’s probably a lot like Miley Cyrus was when she was two years old.

As much I want to judge Miley (and Robin Thicke), I can’t shake the idea that she’s some dad’s little girl. I can’t shake the haunting fact that, vile as the scene may have been, Miley is a beautiful creature in the eyes of God. I’m convinced that on Sunday August 25th, God’s heart was broken even more than Billy Ray Cyrus’. (Insert bad “Achey Breakey Heart” pun here.)

Miley’s performance was cringe-worthy to watch for anyone, no doubt. But consider it from God’s perspective. God doesn’t watch the MTV performance and think “skank,” “whore,” or “slut.” He looks at her as a screwed-up daughter and He has pity on her.

We sometimes forget that the gospel of grace begins with a compassionate Father, heartbroken over the way His children have screwed up their lives. So heartbroken that He was willing to let His son be murdered to un-screw us up. (See John 3:16-17.)

It’s laughable how quickly I can forget God’s compassion. I get so wrapped up in my own little world of work and family and church and night classes and Facebook and reruns of “The Office” that I just forget. I forget that when Jesus looked at the crowds of people his feeling was compassion, not judgement or disgust (John 14:14.) I forget that I’m a child of God who flipped Him the bird and broke His heart. I forget that if some of my private thoughts were made public, I’d make Miley Cyrus look like a choir boy.

I forget these things and I start to act a lot like the people who murdered Jesus, judging and criticizing and being disgusted with “sinners.” I start getting really high on myself and throwing those “sinners” under the bus. I start to get this ridiculous idea that my salvation started with me and how awesome I am. I start to feel like I must be really impressing God.

When I lose sight of God’s compassion, I forget that Jesus’ “target audience” is sinners. I forget that Jesus isn’t looking for people who feel like they have it together. He came to call and redeem the prostitutes, the cheaters, the swindlers, the thieves, the murderers, the gay pride reps, the pornographers, the potheads, the alcoholics, the road ragers, and even the skanky dancers.

May we never forget the depths of our depravity. May we never forget that deep down we’re just as broken and screwed-up as Miley Cyrus or Robin Thicke. May we never, ever forget the compassion of the Father who sent Jesus to fix our brokenness.

CONFESSIONS OF A CHRISTIAN MUSIC SNOB (AND MY SIX STEPS TO REHAB)

Confession: Of all the songs we sing at my church, I like about five of them.

Meaning, actually like them. Meaning, they’re songs I might listen to outside the four walls of my church.

No doubt this will come as a surprise to a lot of my church-mates and friends, who see me on stage as a volunteer worship leader. Let me explain.

I admit to being a recovering music snob. But even in that recovery process, I still have opinions. There is still music I like and music I don’t like. There still exists an uncomfortable tension between my artistic tastes and most of the worship music I hear. I want to offer my musical abilities to serve the church, but I also want to be honest. It’s not that I have anything against worship bands. And it’s definitely not that the lyrics are bad. It’s just a matter of opinion.

It’s not about maintaining “artistic integrity” or musical street cred. We all have to check that ego at the door when we come to church. It’s about trying to figure out how to play and lead songs I may not like and still be completely genuine.

At some point every worship leader is going to get asked to sing a song they hate in church. The way that we respond to these requests speaks volumes about our views on servanthood. It’s been a long road for me in releasing my musical pride and embracing worship music. Here are a few steps I found helpful:

1. Realize that your opinions are just that: opinions. Your musical tastes are 100% opinion. No amount of graphs and flowcharts and albums sales will “prove” that your taste is better than anyone else’s. Believe me, I’ve tried. I learned the hard way that my musical tastes are not sovereign.

Musical tastes are kind of like taste buds. They can be developed and stretched over time to appreciate more complex things. But the snob who looks down on people with different or less-developed tastes isn’t impressive. He’s just a jerk.

2. Know that your opinions are valid…and so are everyone else’s. I have to catch myself on this a lot. I try to replace phrases like “They’re the best band ever” with phrases like “they’re one of my favorites.” I know the semantics probably don’t matter in most conversations, but it keeps my music-critic ego from swelling up and entering a parallel universe where my musical opinions are absolute truths.

polka crazyUnderstanding exactly why someone loves polka or nu-metal or funk-tron-burgercore probably isn’t very important. But respecting the fact that they’re entitled to that opinion is. All our tastes are subjective, and that’s okay.

3. Be honest. The world (and the church) doesn’t benefit from your silence about the creative process. If you want to offer alternative opinions, start with humility and be honest. If something sounds cheesy, it’s okay to say it, just be kind and diplomatic about how you communicate that. Remember never to challenge people, but to focus on the group’s creative goals and helping achieve them.

4. Be pragmatic. Remember that music is all about context. You might crank out some Bruce Springsteen while driving on the highway with the windows down, but you’ll likely turn to a very different genre to lull you to sleep. Worship music is the same. Respect the fact that while youjohn-coltrane may not have any worship music on your “all time favorites” playlist, Beatles and John Coltrane songs don’t make for very good worship tunes.

5. Resolve to submit to church authority on matters of opinion. Don’t ever give your church leadership a chance to question your loyalty to the church. If you’re serving with a large “platform” like worship leading, submission should be foundational anyway. Musicians are known for rebellious attitudes, and I’ve even seen it happen in the church before. Don’t be the rebellious punk rock guy that always quotes the Scripture about Jesus flipping over tables. That may score you “cool” points with scenesters, but not in the Kingdom of God.

6. Use your unique voice to bless the church and further the Kingdom. Every worship musician offers something unique to their church. Find out what your musical offering is, and give it gladly. Don’t worry about whether people “get” what you’re trying to do artistically. There is a place for raw art and creativity, but it’s probably not your local church.

You may have a deeper desire to serve the church through your creativity. Your local church may not recognize or need that. Don’t freak out. It’s okay to write, create, and serve outside of your local church. The advent of the Internet makes that easier than ever.

Leading worship in church may not satisfy all of your creative longings. That’s okay. Worship music is about glorifying Jesus and serving your church. “Serving your own agenda” is never part of the deal. The more we realize that, the more we’ll be able to serve with joy and clarity.

Are you willing to sacrifice your artistic tastes for the church? Even if you aren’t getting paid for it? What do you do when you don’t like a song you’re asked to sing in church? I’m convinced that the answers speak to our integrity and willingness to serve.

It may not always be easy, but it’s totally possible to serve the church with your musical talents, even when you don’t like the music.

Do you sometimes struggle with the music you play in church? What would you add to this list?

WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT “PRAISE”?

Several years ago I was talking with a buddy, and somehow we got on the topic of heaven. I still remember his musings.

“I know we have to, like, praise God all day long and everything. But I wonder if after that I can do some cool stuff too, like turn into Spiderman and swing from buildings! I just can’t see myself singing to God for all that time…”

Outwardly, I laughed, and said something how it will probably be a bit more exciting than that. But inwardly, I echoed his sentiments. The fact that the Bible was exploding with references to “praising God” was always a little annoying to me. I never saw what the big deal was. I hardly liked any church music, so singing it forever sounded more like a punishment than a reward.

But a few years ago, I made a mental switch. I realized that I cared more about being cool than about worshiping God. And I figured that needed to change. I started singing in church and I immersed myself in the (sometimes scary) world of worship music. I offered to buy legit worship leaders a meal or coffee in exchange for wisdom. I followed a bunch of worship leaders on Twitter- the good, the bad, and the ugly. And I decided to go back to school and study “Christian Ministries.”

Within the first few months I was taking an Old Testament course. We read through selected Psalms each week, and this verse from Psalm 96 struck me, “Sing to the Lord a new song.” Now, I’d heard that line before, I guess I just never took it literally. It didn’t say “sing an old song in a different key” or “revamp an old tune but change the groove and the tempo.” It said, straight up, “Sing a new song to the Lord.” So as someone who’d written a heck of a lot of new songs, but never once written a new song “to the Lord,” I was a bit convicted.

So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a “praise song.” I’d tried to record a few old hymns before. And my Christian faith had never been hidden in my lyrics or anything. I’d just never worked on any original music that people would consider “praise and worship.” I guess I was scared that if I drank the worship Kool-Aid, I’d turn into one of those super hokey 80’s worship infomercials. I’d have to start writing cheesy key-changes, clapping on the “ones” and “threes”, and rhyming “love” with “above” all the time. So with a wince and a little trepidation, I went to work on writing my first worship song.

Because I didn’t know exactly where to start, I figured Psalm 96 was as good a place as any. I worked on the song on and off for a couple years. And just this weekend, I finished mixing it. It’s called “The First Worship Song I Ever Wrote.” Just kidding.

Click the play button below or check this link to download the song.

It turns out that Jesus has a bit of a magnet-effect. The closer you get, the more attracted you are. The deeper you dig, the deeper you want to go. Our normal, dulled senses can’t comprehend Him. But as we engage in some of the biblical disciplines of worship, He begins to pull back the clouds and reveal His light to us. In the words of Richard Foster,

“A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain…This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines – they are a way of sowing to the Spirit… By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done.”

And that is the reason we should praise Him. That is the reason the Bible is so full of appeals to “praise the Lord.” We may not be able to send the rain, but we can put ourselves in the right conditions for the seeds to grow. And so with everything within me, I would urge you:

Praise the Lord.

All glory and honor and praise to Him who takes away the sins of the world.

“BLESSED ASSURANCE” FEATURED ON “SAFE WATER IN GUYANA” COMPILATION

Some friends of mine at Lift Records have released a benefit compilation for “Safe Water in Guyana.” My recording of “Blessed Assurance” was featured on the album, which is now available via iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify.

S.W.I.G. Well

I hope you’ll consider purchasing the album and spreading the word. Clean drinking water is a luxury that most of us North Americans take for granted, while much of the third world suffers from contaminated water that spreads disease and sickness. May we be reminded of our fortune as we pour ourselves a glass of water from the faucet.

There are several ways you can help. The first step is to check out the music. You can write (honest) reviews on iTunes and Amazon. If you dig the music, share it with others who might like it. You can also call your local Christian radio station and request “Blessed Assurance,” as radio promotion is still a key way listeners hear about new music.

You can learn more about Safe Water in Guyana directly on their website.

THE ART OF THE SONGWRITING PROCESS

pen paperI recently wrote an article for AllAboutWorship.com called “7 Reasons You Should Have a Songwriting Process.” The article was also re-published by the USA Songwriting Competition’s blog.

I used to hate the idea of using formulas within the realm of songwriting and creativity. Then I realized all my favorite songwriters used some sort of process. Turns out a little structure was nothing to be scared of.

You can read the entire article here. Feel free to post comments about your own songwriting process below or at either of the two blogs. Big thanks to Wisdom (at All About Worship) and Ira (songwriting.net) for giving me the chance to share about one of my favorite subjects.

GOD = NICE + SCARY (HAPPY FATHER’S DAY)

Awhile back I read an article about Billy Graham. He was talking to a football team and somebody asked him how to maintain a close relationship with God. He said, “read the Bible and pray every day.” I hated how simple that is. I really wanted it to be more complex and interesting and something I felt good about figuring out. But I figured if it worked for Billy Graham, it might work for me too. So I started reading the Bible and talking to God every day, and listening to see if He has anything important to say. I think I’ve learned more about God in the last few months than the rest of my adult life. You know what I’ve learned?

God is really nice.

Like, really nice. He keeps telling me that he loves me, and that he likes me even. And honestly, as a dude it makes me feel sort of uncomfortable sometimes how much he says he loves me.

Another thing I’ve learned, and it’s probably equally important.

God is really scary.

Not in the horror movie or prison showers kind of way. More in the “giant grizzly bear that could crush you in a heartbeat but decides not to” sort of way.

It reminds me of my dad when I was a kid actually. My dad is super nice. Anybody who knows him knows how nice he is. When I was little, he always spent a lot of his free time helping people move and cleaning old ladies’ houses and counseling messed-up people on the phone late at night. And he was nice to me and my brothers. He came to all our basketball games and taught us how to work hard and took us out to eat on our lunch breaks at school.

Nice dad + Hammer pants circa '94

Nice dad + Hammer pants circa ’94

But he was also really scary in a way. Anyone whose dad took the idea of discipline seriously knows about this. My mom would “wait until my dad got home” to decide on our punishments. And if you had to wait until dad got home, that pretty much guaranteed a spanking with the wooden spoon. When you’re little, this is confusing because you have this super nice guy who is really calm but also whooping you at the same time. And as soon as he was done spanking us he would always give us a hug, sometimes with tears in his eyes, and tell us he loved us.

In a lot of ways, I think that’s what God is like. I admit it can be confusing, especially when you’re young. Some people paint this weird picture of God, like He gets off on torturing people that don’t bow down to him. I disagree. I think it’s more like a really good dad who spanks his kid with tears in his eyes because it hurts to punish your kid, but if you don’t he’ll destroy his life and turn into a bratty adult with no friends.

Nobody wants a cop that looks the other way when someone’s getting mugged. Nobody wants a teacher that gives all her students an “A+” no matter how they actually perform. Nobody wants parents who let their kids run the household. Even Adam Sandler learned that lesson in “Big Daddy.” If we’re honest with ourselves, I’m pretty sure we don’t want a God who doesn’t discipline either.

I guess that’s why the term “Father” is used to describe God so much. God, in a lot of ways, is like the picture of the ideal father. Really nice because he likes you and understands you more than you do yourself. And really scary because you know that if you disobey him, he’s not going to overlook it. He knows that’s not good for you, and he likes you too much to see you wreck your life.

Thanks dad, for helping me to understand and relate to God.

To Mike Morrow and to God, and to all the nice + scary dads out there:

Happy Father’s Day.

THE TRICK OF STARTING A CRICKET LEAGUE: “MAKING CONVERTS” VERSUS “MAKING DISCIPLES”

The following is an excerpt from a teaching I did a few weeks ago titled “Jesus Is Teacher.”

Suppose you visit England and fall in love with the sport of cricket. You’re so intrigued that you set out to start a cricket league in your hometown. So you gather a few friends who are willing to play with you. You hype the cricket league, spend money on advertising, and get the word out to as many people as possible. A dozen or so more people show up. So then you and your friends cast the vision to the newbies, and they also start helping your raise awareness and sign up people for the league. This goes on and on and snowballs, and after a few weeks you’ve got hundreds of new cricket players and dozens of teams.

vintage street cricket

Notice that up to this point, everyone involved still has no idea how to play cricket.

You’ve made a boat-load of converts. But until you start learning and practicing the fundamentals of the game, it’s gonna’ to be a hot mess. Sometimes I’m afraid modern Christianity operates in a similar way.

Jesus said to go and make “disciples.” I feel like we sell this awfully short sometimes, and just aim to make “converts.” Sometimes people get really hyped on being converted and go out and try to convert as many people as they can. Some people do this their whole lives. The problem is, you can become a “convert” and never enter the rough task of being a “disciple.” And then you miss all the really good, deep stuff like feeding the poor or loving your enemy or learning how to forgive even when it sucks.

We aren’t doing ourselves any favors by making thousands of converts without discipling people. People that don’t go to church have a name for that. (Hint: it starts with an “h” and rhymes with “zip-a-crits.”) I think the global church would do well to return to the task of disciple-making, and the “conversions” will take care of themselves.

So let’s go learn some cricket, eh?

Thoughts?

TANGAWIZI AND THE CARROT SEED

After being asked by several people, I realized that I’m long overdue for a Tangawizi update. Unfortunately, there is not much to tell beyond the closing prayer requests of my last update.

The recent rains in Kenya have made it impossible to travel (safely) from Nairobi to Keekorok. Gloria said in a recent email that her friend in Keekorok is poised to call her as soon as the rain waters recede and it’s safe to travel. In the meantime, she’s sent pictures of both the photographer Gabriele Galiberti and Tangawizi ahead, hoping to get a lead on where to find the boy and his family. carrot seedBecause of the timing of the trip being delayed, Jennifer may or may not be able to join Gloria in searching for Tangawizi.

On this side of the pond, Lincoln talks about Tangawizi often. Once a week or so, he matter-of-factly reminds me that we still need to take a bed to Tangawizi. When I tell him that it’s too far to travel for us, he offers the simple solution: we should just take a submarine. It reminds me of one Lincoln’s favorite stories, The Carrot Seed:

A little boy planted a carrot seed.

His mother said, “I’m afraid it won’t come up.”

His father said, “I’m afraid it won’t come up.”

And his big brother said, “It won’t come up.”

Every day the little boy pulled the weeds around the seed and sprinkled the ground with water.

But nothing came up.

And nothing came up.

Everyone kept saying it wouldn’t come up.

But he still pulled up the weeds around it every day and sprinkled the ground with water.

And then, one day,

a carrot came up

just as the little boy had known it would.

Honestly, it feels like we’ve lost steam, and a lot of hope. Fortunately I have my three year old and “The Carrot Seed” as good reminders.

THE ANTIDOTE TO INSECURITY

I had the pleasure of writing a new article at forworshipleaders.com. It’s a (hopefully) funny tale about some of the insecurities I’ve battled as an artist, and the answers I’ve come up with in dealing with them. Here’s a snippet:

American Idol judge Simon Cowell

American Idol judge Simon Cowell

“I was scrambling for reasons that I’m better than these other guys to make me feel better about my own abilities and boost my confidence. I’d told myself I was just being a music critic. I was actually just being a jerk. The sudden realization of my insecurities was horrifying…Judging ourselves against the performance of others is a common temptation. Even in Christian circles, it’s easy to be jealous of someone else’s gifts or opportunities. As worship leaders, we need to be honest with God and confess our insecurities.”

You can read the entire article here. Big thanks to Steven Potaczek for the opportunity to share a few thoughts. Feel free to share thoughts (or your own triumphs over insecurity) on Steven’s blog or in the comments below.