Over my first few years in the ministry, I’ve gained a deep appreciation for the profound thing that happens when Christians gather together in the name of Jesus. If Christians have the very Spirit of God living within them and speaking to them, then the gathering of those people becomes a fuller expression of God speaking among us. The more we are aware of and open to God’s here-and-now presence, the deeper our communal “church” experience will be. But my appreciation for this profound experience sometimes gets clouded by the busyness of life.
Imagine you were running at a dead-sprint and all of the sudden slowed to a walk and began to pay attention to the scenery around you. Sometimes entering into a church service feels this way. Encountering God as a community requires a certain attentiveness, a certain in-the-moment-ness. And going from a hundred to zero…can feel jarring.
So we need those songs. Songs that are easy to sing. Songs that help us transition from the sprint of life into the communal gathering of the Body of Christ. Songs that bring attentiveness and expectation for what God wants to do among His people gathered. Songs that, in a very literal way, call us to worship.
This is my attempt at one of those songs.
“I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
-Jesus (Matthew 18:19-20)
As we gather together to meet with You / Let us hear Your voice, Lord / Let us worship in spirit and truth / As we gather together, Lord make us one / Come and bind us together in the name of the Father, the Spirit, the Son / Oh praise the Father, the Spirit, the Son
Come and meet with us / We are here, we are eager, we are listening / We are listening / Come and speak to us / Give us faith, give us ears to hear and eyes to see / Give us eyes to see
As we gather together, Lord humble us / Let us turn from our idols, may we give you our worship and trust / May we give you our worship and trust
May Your Kingdom come, may Your will be done among us
If you would have told me ten years ago that I was going to be a worship pastor I wouldn’t have believed you. If you told me that I would actually write worship songs, I might have laughed. But if you told me I’d end up writing a kid’s worship song…I probably would have smacked you.
The idea came mostly from necessity. At our church the children worship with the adults for twenty minutes or so before being released to their respective classrooms. Families seem to enjoy worshipping together for those few minutes, but we’ve noticed that sometimes the children don’t participate in the singing when the songs are tricky or unfamiliar. So what if just wrote our own? we thought.
It turns out that kids are pretty good at creativity. So one Sunday I had the opportunity to sit in with our fourth and fifth graders. We talked about what “worship” is and how music can be worship and why we sing a lot in church. Then we read several Scriptures that encourage us to “sing a new song to the Lord” and talked about why we sing new songs a lot. Eventually I asked them if they’d like to help me write a “new song to the Lord”? They were psyched.
So with a whiteboard, a dozen or so kids, a guitar and a Bible, we wrote this song together. We read Psalm 36 over and over as a sort of meditation, and started brainstorming phrases that could be lyrics. In the end, we had a full whiteboard and more lyrics than could fit into a song.
A few months later after I finished the tune, the kids helped teach the song to our congregation. Jesus says that in order to enter into His Kingdom we have to “become like children.” So we asked for some of their help in the process.
No matter where I go, Your love is with me / I climbed the highest height and You were there / Why should I be afraid if You are with me? / I faced the darkest night and you weren’t scared
Wherever I go, Your love surround me there / Wherever I go, Your love surrounds
Your love, oh Lord / Is wider than the mountains / Deeper than the oceans / Higher than the clouds / Your love, oh Lord / Is full of perfect justice / With mercy and forgiveness / You’ve never let me down
No matter where I go, Your love is with me / I swam the deepest depths and You were there / Why should I be ashamed if You are for me? / Within my worst mistakes You still cared
Co-written with the fourth and fifth graders of Common Ground Christian Church (West): Isaiah Alexander, Ella Sherck, Sarah Hanscom, Seth Keller, Carter McClure, Luke Smith, Ava Blanchard, Paige Burkett.
How we wrote it.
I brought a melody and Psalm 36 to the kids – that’s all we started with. I hummed the melody, and suggested we start brainstorming lyrics that would fit into the blanks, Mad Libs style. Within ten minutes the kids had come up with at least a dozen great lines. We could barely write them down fast enough. I took pictures of our whiteboard and began trying to cobble the lyrics together in a coherent way. Almost all the lyrics in the chorus were written by the kids.
Finding a verse and pre-chorus to match was the trickiest part. Thankfully, I had this little ditty left over from another song, although it had completely different lyrics. I tried writing the simplest lines about God’s ever-present love for the verses, lyrics that felt appropriate and relevant for kids to sing.
The lyric about the “highest height” was from a journal from about ten years ago. I lived in England for a brief time in my college years, and it was the first time I’d been away from friends, family, and the familiarities of American living. It was the time in life when I began to realize that God’s presence transcends space and time. The Spirit of God is everywhere, His love isn’t bound to places or people.
The family I stayed with lived at the top of the hill, a small mountain really. It was a short five minute walk to the top, where I once experienced God’s presence in the early morning in a profound way. So, while the lyric functions as a generality for most people singing it, “I climbed the highest height and You were there” is very literal and sentimental for me.
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“To believe anything with certainty we must begin by doubting.”
Writing a “worship” song about doubt seems sort of counterintuitive. But I’ve always resonated with people like “Doubting” Thomas in the Gospels. Thomas was always asking good questions. He really loved Jesus, but his skepticism always nagged at him. At one point, Thomas is trying to keep up with Jesus’ theological treatise and just gets exasperated. We don’t understand, Thomas says. And Jesus comforts them with one of the most beautiful things ever recorded:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life…”
Doubt isn’t a handicap in the Christian faith. It’s a rite of passage. Doubt is the means through which every Christian learns to really trust Jesus. By asking good questions and sincerely seeking to know the truth, we’ll find it. Or rather, we’ll find Him. I don’t think Jesus expects us to understand every possible nuance of theology. His disciples couldn’t even do that. And so “faith” seems less about retaining information, and more about trusting within the context of relationship.
I’ve taken a lot of comfort in a quote I once read from Rosemary Clement-Moore: “Faith isn’t the absence of doubt. It’s belief without proof, not without question.”
In those moments of doubt, the moments of questions without answers when we feel trapped in a downward spiral of unknowing…let us trust like children in those beautiful words:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life…”
When I’m empty and weak / And I don’t have the strength to stand / And despair cripples me / And the shadows consume my plans / Show me the way / Show me the truth / Show me the life, Jesus
When temptation surrounds / And I can’t figure out Your ways / And I’m buried in doubt / And I’m losing my grip on faith / Show me the way / Show me the truth / Show me the life, Jesus
I have no other rock upon which I can stand / You are my hope, You are my hope / Without you I confess I have no other plan / Where would I go? Where would I go?
When the grave comes for me / And I have no ambitions left / And I’ve said my goodbyes / I will breathe with my final breath / You are the way / You are the truth / You are the life, Jesus
Last fall a young man named Marshawn Frazier was shot near the churches offices where I work. My friend Jeff, a fellow pastor, is neighbors with the Fraziers and conducted Marshawn’s funeral.
Just a couple months later, Amanda Blackburn was murdered in her home just a few blocks away from where we live. Several of our friends know the Blackburns, and the story flooded the chaotic stream of national media.
These situations caused a lot of mourning, prayer, and fasting. But they also caused a deep anxiety in our community.
My wife was understandably freaked out. Most pastors wives were afraid. Most pastors were afraid. The community was juggling the dual blow of losing a beloved friend and being worried for their safety. It took me awhile to admit it, but for the first time I was legitimately scared for my family’s safety in our own home.
I wrote this song as a means of processing what was happening around me. The day Amanda died I sat and sang this song through many tears, grieving for the Blackburns and a community devastated by violence. The prayer of “come quickly Lord Jesus!” was very real in those moments. This song was cathartic in that it helped me to express hope even within those moments of hopelessness. My prayer is that it can be a song of redemption amidst violent communities, broken families, and the anxieties that plague our existence.
Would you join me in praying for your own community, that the Kingdom of God would advance the Gospel of peace in the spaces we occupy? Feel free to use the comments to write out a prayer for your community.
There’s violence in this city / There’s hate within these streets / There’s fear among this people / Lord we need Your peace
There’s worry in our spirit / Despair within our souls / There’s grief within our hearts / Lord we need Your hope
Let Your Kingdom come and flood this city / Pull us from the valleys we’ve made / Oh Jesus, Healer of the Nations / Bring us Your salvation in this place
There’s tension in our families / There’s pain within these wounds / There are lies within our stories / Lord we need Your truth
There’s peace within Your Kingdom / There’s truth within its claim / There’s hope among us it’s people / Lord we need Your reign
How I wrote it.
“There is violence in this city.” That’s the phrase that haunted me for weeks after Marshawn’s death. I never figured I could use it for a worship song.
About a month after Marshawn was killed, I was on a men’s retreat with our church. During some down time these lyrics started coming quickly. I’d forgotten to bring a guitar (major songwriter fail) so I started making notes of lyrics and chords I thought might work. I took a long hike, praying and journaling lyrics as I went. Most of the song was finished before I had a chance to get to a guitar.
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There is an inextricable link between the ideas of “worship” and “justice” in the Scriptures. Unlike modern church communities that are usually segmented into “worship ministries” and “outreach ministries,” it seems that God’s plan was that the two are one in the same. Two sides of the same coin. In the Old Testament and New, we see God suggesting that you can’t have worship without justice, and vice versa.
Most of the harshest words in Scripture were reserved for those who were pious and zealous about worshiping God, but negligent when it came to showing His justice and mercy to the world around them. Sometimes I wonder if we live in a similar culture, that has compartmentalized “worship” and “justice/mercy” to the point where (we think) we can have one without the other?
It’s a sobering and harrowing thought: we can’t claim to be “true worshipers” of God unless we are willing to be the carriers of His justice and compassion.
May our worship propel our heart for justice and our justice propel our worship of God.
Lord give us eyes that see like You see / Lord give us ears that hear like You hear / Lord give us minds that think like You think / Lord give us hearts that feel like You feel /
Let us be righteous, let us seek justice / Let us take care of the needs of the poor / Let us be peaceful, loving our neighbors / Let us be formed in Your image, Lord /
Lord let our worship, married with justice, be a pleasing sound to Your ears / Lord let Your Spirit reap of the harvest of seeds we’ve sewn through the years
About a year and a half ago, a family in our church shared some gut wrenching news. Laneia Thomas, along with her husband Jon, told us that she had just received a pretty serious cancer diagnosis.
We were all sitting together in a prayer meeting, so we did the logical thing. We prayed. But it didn’t end there. For the last couple years we’ve been praying for Laneia’s complete healing. We’ve prayed together in prayer meetings. We’ve prayed in homes. We’ve prayed in private. We’ve prayed in church.
And you get to a point where you’ve been asking God for the same thing over and over in desperation, and you just don’t care if it feels like begging. You ask, like a little kid who keeps asking their parent over and over for something. Even if you don’t understand exactly how God’s healing works, you quit trying to understand it and keep asking Him for healing over and over and over.
Throughout their journey, the faith of the Thomas family has influenced our church beyond what they even realize. They’ve been the most tangible example of what faith-in-crisis looks like. Sure, they’ve voiced plenty of doubts and fears and anxieties. But amidst the tears, Laneia keeps saying things like, “I just want everyone to know that God is good. No matter what happens to me, God is good.” Hearing our sister who is suffering through cancer praise God is inspiring. Singing things like “blessed be the name of the Lord” and looking out to see Laneia shouting with her arms outstretched is sobering and faith-building.
Laneia’s trust and love for God trumps her fear of sickness and death. Andy every Christian would like to think they’d praise God even if they were stuck with tragedy. But it’s another thing to have to actually do it. In the end, we’re all beggars within God’s economy. It’s just that some situations force us to realize that more than others.
I believe songs are like alters, they’re special ways to remember important things. Here’s to remembering the faith of the Thomas family, who have reflected the glory of God even amidst the darkness of cancer.
Please join me in praying for the continued healing of Laneia for the glory of God.
You have heard us as we pray / You have answered us in unexpected ways / You have been with us always / But we need Your healing presence here today
Like a beggar with an empty hand hungry for food / Like a pilgrim in a distant land searching for truth / Like a traveller in the desert we are thirsty for You / Thirsty for You
We have journeyed on in faith / We have heard Your winsome voice among the waves / We’ve been desperate for Your grace / Lord, to be within Your presence is to change
Jesus we believe, but help our unbelief / Come redeem this story / That we may become like mirrors to the sun / And reflect Your glory
Co-written with my wife, Melissa Morrow.
How we wrote it.
One day I was reading Psalm 63 and free-writing some potential lyrics. The Thomas’ had been on my mind a lot, and I thought, “Maybe I could write a worship song for the Thomas’?” The first verse and the melody for the chorus came really quickly, but other than the “traveller in the desert” line I was stuck.
A few minutes later my wife came home, so I shared my idea with her and asked for her help. Pretty quickly she came up with “like a pilgrim” line, and together we finished out the rest of the song. She also suggested using the “mirrors reflecting God’s glory” metaphor from 2 Corinthians, which became one of my favorite lines to sing.
Jackson Browne, Tallest Man on Earth, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan.
The night before I wrote this song, I’d been listening to Jackson Browne, and shortly after I recorded a voice memo of the opening verse melody. The next morning the rest of the song rolled out pretty quickly. Sometimes extensive listening of one artist can inspire new songs for me.
2 Corinthians 3:18, Psalm 63, Mark 9:14-29.
The day before I wrote this song with my wife, I’d starting writing a completely different song based on Psalm 63. I wound up scrapping the entire first song, and the “traveller in the desert…thirsty for you” idea was the only thing that survived.
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Last week I released my third demo for the “Fifty Songs” project, “Humble Us, Oh Lord.”
When we first introduced this song at my church, I worried that it was too wordy to be a good worship song. After trying it out with the congregation a few times, I decided to chuck it, thinking it maybe wasn’t the most helpful tune for worship. You win some and you lose some, I figured. And I’ve always held that songwriting and creativity should serve the church, not the songwriter.
A couple months later my buddy Clint says, “Hey man we’re playing your song Sunday morning!” Clint leads worship for another church in our network, and we’ve done some co-writing and song sharing over time. I hadn’t told him that I quit playing the song, but was excited to see someone reviving it. The week they introduced the song, I got some nice texts and emails from friends. A couple of the pastors told me that it had been a really meaningful song for the congregation. Eventually it became a regular song in their worship rotation.
All this after I’d decided to toss it out.
I’ve heard stories of temperamental writers out there. Apparently when Bruce Springsteen first heard the mastered version of “Born to Run,” he tore the record off the player, tossed it out the window, and said it was garbage. I also heard a tale from Matt Redman that he didn’t think “10,000 Reasons” was a great song, but his producer convinced him to record it. Dave Grohl once said in an interview that the Foo Fighters didn’t realize that “Everlong” was such a good song until it started getting wildly popular. Apparently a whole lot of songs have nearly ended up in the garbage bin.
Artists can be a temperamental bunch. It’s safe to say that we lose any sense of objectivity quickly, if we ever had it to begin with. We have a tendency to place way too much stock in the opinion of other people, and second-guess ourselves ‘round the clock. And I wonder if there’s a greater truth in that, that we all have a hard time being objective about our lives, our goals, our actions, our accomplishments? Having solid people around us to help us stay grounded and objective seems vital.
I spent some time in England in my early twenties. I had a vicar there who was also named Nick. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Nick was one of the best mentors and spiritual directors I’ve ever had.
One day we were talking about my plan in life. I was trying to navigate some big decisions about my future. I don’t remember the exact details of the conversation, but I’ll never forget Nick’s response. I can still remember his words, his expression and his strong British accent:
“You’ve got to scatter the seed, mate.”
He went on to tell me about this story Jesus told about a farmer planting seeds. The farmer scatters a bunch of seeds all over the place, but only a fourth if them grow into maturity. The others fall into poor soil, or fall on the road or in the weeds. They never grow into plants. And we could point out the fact that this farmer needs a few lessons in agriculture, but that’d be to miss Jesus’ point. The point, Nick said, is that while we’re busy working and living and “scattering seeds” everywhere, some of it will flourish and some of it just won’t. We have to be okay with that. We want to know for sure that our plans are going to succeed, but that’s just not possible. So we play it safe, play our cards close to the chest.
“Yeah, I know, it’s bad theology,” I told Nick.
“It’s not just bad theology, it’s bad living, mate!” Nick said with a smile.
I’d never heard the parable used for that application, but over time I’ve seen the truth behind the wisdom. Our job is scattering seeds. But we can’t make them grow, that’s God’s job. And no one can predict which of their “seeds” is going to be a success or failure. We don’t get to dictate which seeds grow and which don’t, the speed of growth, or the conditions.
May we continually give up the desire to control how the seeds in our life grow. May we continue to faithfully scatter seeds, wait patiently, and trust God with the growth process. May He become more, and we become less.
I used to be notorious for complaining about the music in church. Not that the musicians were ever bad. I’ve always been blessed to be surrounded by good musicians in church. It was always the songs I couldn’t stand. And I had my reasons.
I didn’t like how almost every song sounded like a bad rip-off of a U2 song. I didn’t like how most of them sounded like Disney jams from 1997. I didn’t like the lyrics that sounded like 8th grade poetry. I didn’t like how high the vocals were always mixed. I didn’t like the dramatic key changes and vocal gymnastics that seemed impossible to hang with. I didn’t like that most of the lyrics felt like they were plagiarized from Scripture with no real honesty behind them. I didn’t like how some of the songs seemed to be bad knock-off versions of other bad worship songs. I had all sort of reasons I thought the music in church sucked.
A guy named Tim Lambesis recently hired a hitman to kill his estranged wife. He paid the man a thousand dollars and promised another $19k once he’d confirmed his wife was dead. He gave the hit man specific times that his children would be alone with him, to be sure they were safe and that he had an alibi. When it turned out that the hitman was actually an undercover detective, Lambesis was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison.
This probably wouldn’t have made national news coverage, except that Lambesis was the lead singer for a popular “Christian” band.
Shortly before his trial, the singer gave an interview and explained how he and his bandmates had become atheists throughout their years of touring. In order to maintain record and concert ticket sales, the band decided to continue marketing themselves as “Christian.” In the interview, he shared openly about his struggle to be honest and the “cowardly” way he handled it. He talked about the Christian music scene and said “9 out of 10 ‘Christian’ bands we toured with weren’t actually Christians.” Lambesis’ cautionary tale reminded us of a gross reality within the Church:
You can totally fake it.
Actually, you can totally fake it and loads of people won’t even know that you’re faking it. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between who you really are and who you pretend to be on Sunday morning. And if Christian rock stars can get away with faking it, couldn’t worship leaders as well?
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.