The Fastest Path to Nowhere (and Other Undesirable Endings)

The past several years have accumulated a resounding theme in my life, which I am more or less successful in following.

Don’t rush.

This is not popular.  All parts of my life – church leadership, activities for kids, work, relationships – fight this nugget of wisdom.

In church we want to get it done now.  If we don’t make the change now we may miss the opportunity for X, may not be as relevant, may not reach our target audience, have to deal with X person for another week or month, and on and on.

In worship we want to end the song and start the next one.  NOW.  Because we have 2 seconds left on the clock.

I am always tempted to rush the kids here and there, like we are running from a fire to put out the next one.

At work the other day a long time family friend whom I respect came to lay block with us and I immediately felt the urge to over work in order to impress him.

When I am hurt in a relationship I want to run away immediately or address it immediately.

All the while God is reminding me – don’t rush.

I still remember how it felt when I was in the middle of purchasing a car many years ago.  I was running out of time in my schedule.  I started feeling more and more tense, worried about what my wife would think, worried the dealer was taking me for a ride, on and on.  I got the car . . . and was late getting home, discovered I had not properly worked through the issue with my wife, discovered I had ultimately signed the promissory note on the wrong decision, and had successfully nailed a point of pain between me and my wife for months.

We worked through it, but I was never so glad to get rid of that car.  It was like I was expunging a bad decision and washing my hands.

When I began working at Lakeshore Community Church in Rochester, NY, I wanted to immediately transition the music team to the kinds of charts I wanted to use.  So, in addition to doing lots of new and difficult music, I started doing just that.  Changing every chart of every song every week.  Bad choice.  After a few months the frustration started hit the fan on the team and I had to dial back everything to give them a breather.

Here are a few familiar steps we learn as children that we would do well to remember as adults.

Stop.

(This will not be easy.)

Obey your gut.  Sometimes you will inexplicably feel tense.  Sometimes you will sense God trying to get your attention.  You will definitely not feel peace.

Just stop.

Wait.

(This will be harder.)

Don’t make a decision. Pause.  No matter what everyone around you is saying, yelling, arguing, or logically explaining.  Remember that only 1% of life is an emergency.  Remember your priorities: God and you, family, work, church, everything else.

Just wait.

Listen.

(You may feel stupid, and people may confirm that feeling.)

Quiet your mind.  Pray.  Thank God for what you have.  Shut off the distractions.  Close the door.

God may split the heavens and give you a message engraved in stone (if you are Moses), but most likely you will simply begin to regain your perspective and peace, along with the ability to make the right decision.

Where in life do you need to Stop, Wait and Listen?

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A Model for Worship Preparation, Part 2

In the last post we looked at the amount of time Christ spent preparing for ministry.  Now let’s look at how Christ prepared for his ministry in the 30 years before he “went public.”

Jesus was fully human in addition to being fully God.  While we will never comprehend exactly how God accomplished this seemingly contradictory union, we can know that in the human realm Jesus grew up much as every other human does.

He grew physically and emotionally from a baby to a man.  While he could have skipped the human timetable of maturity and started speaking, walking, and working earlier than most humans simply because he was God, he did not.  Jesus waited patiently as his body matured.  He played, went to school, and learned the skills of a carpenter, which at that time referred to the construction of whole homes, not just wood working.  He honed his craft.  By the time he was thirty and ready to go into ministry he probably could have taken over his father’s business.

As worship musicians and leaders we must spend time honing our craft, whether that is singing or playing an instrument.  We do not arrive at proficiency overnight; we have to work at it.  Whether we are already highly proficient or just beginning we should all be continuously developing our gifts.

Last night I was speaking with Dave, a drummer, and he was talking about how enthused he was to have discovered a new instructional DVD.  Over the past two weeks Dave has been implementing the exercises he has found on this DVD and he is already seeing results.  Dave is a good drummer, but he sees an opportunity to grow and he is seizing it.  Excellence is doing the best you can with what you have been given; if you think you can do better in some area you need to find a way to grow.  We need to bring our best to God, not our “good enough.”

As he grew Jesus learned how to set aside time to pray and speak with his father.  Jesus did not enter ministry at age thirty and suddenly know that he needed to recharge spiritually by spending time alone with God.  His practice of spending time alone with God was, most likely, commonplace for him by the time he entered his ministry.  Even though he was fully God, he was also fully human, and humans must spend time with God in order to have the power to confront and overcome life.

Do you spend time each day speaking with and listening to God through prayer and reading or listening to the Scripture?  If we want to hear God on a Sunday morning when the guitars are cranking and the drums are pounding, we need to be able to speak with and hear from God when we are alone, silent, and still.

When he was thirty, and before John baptized him, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by Satan.  These 40 days were hard, brutal times.  Hebrews says, “We have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.”  (Hebrews 4:15b, NIV 1984)  Satan tempted Jesus to turn the rocks into bread, and I would not be surprised if Jesus was tempted later in life to turn rocks into bread when he and his companions had been traveling and were very hungry.  Satan tempted Christ with power over all of the kingdoms of the earth without having to suffer the cross; all Jesus had to do was worship Satan. Later in life Jesus was tempted to turn his back God’s plan for his life and allow the crowds to crown him king.

Jesus’ answers to Satan’s temptations all came from Scripture.  We will face many temptations and challenges in ministry.  The best preparation for temptations and challenges is time spent alone with God.  Then when you are tempted or challenged God will bring his word to your mind so that you can overcome the situation.  We have no substitute for time spent reading the Scripture and speaking with God.

Luke 2:52 (NIV 1984) tells us that “Jesus grew . . . in favor with God and man.”  People began to think highly of him, which means he grew to a point where people respected and would listen to him.  Jesus did not at some point say, “I am God, so now everyone will respect and follow me.”  Sounds like Dilbert.  No, Jesus earned respect and the right to lead as every human must.

As leaders we must earn the respect of our employers, employees, peers, and volunteers.  Respect and the permission to lead are earned over time through interactions with people, not through imperial decree.  Several years ago I became the Interim Music Director at Lakeshore Community Church in Rochester, NY, at a time when they desperately needed someone to step in and help shoulder the load.  As a result one week I was a guest musician and the next week I was in charge of the entire music program.  A volunteer said later that she followed my leadership at that time not because she wanted to follow me but because my boss asked her and the others on the team to follow me.  As the year went on, however, I was slowly able to earn the respect of the music team as well as the permission to lead them.

What jumps out at you about Jesus’ way of honing his craft, learning to lean spiritually on his father, or earning the “favor of God and man?” 

outliers and morning successes

Several days ago I mentioned that I was going to begin my days by seeking input from technology (Facebook, email, etc.) after I had spent some time with God and done some creative work.  Well, this is my third  day and all is going well.  I have even been getting up early (for me – 6 am) and getting more use out of my mornings, something I have not been able to consistently do for some time.  OK, yesterday I slept an hour longer that the alarm was set, but I was still up sort of early: 7 am.

I am a musician and I love the evenings.  I also hate to let a day end, which is part of the reason I have been reluctant to get up early unless I had a deadline or meeting hanging over my head.  If I am honest, though, nothing good happens with me after 10 (or rarely, at least).  More often I go into some sort of fog and my decision making and judgement becomes suspect.

A lot of my inspiration came this week in the form of a book: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.  I will not go into too much detail here, but the premise of his book is that outliers (people who defy the norm, i.e. “geniuses,” etc.) are not so different from all of us.  In fact, at the very end of the book Gladwell states that “Outliers are not really outliers after all.”  These are people of whom at least several things (among others) are true:

  • They had an opportunity or multiple opportunities for which they can take no credit
  • They at least good talent and ability
  • They had a really strong work ethic

Gladwell points out that very little differs in people who score 120 or above in Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests.  If someone has a 200 IQ but no work ethic, or a stand-off attitude towards authority, or no opportunity, or a combination of these and other things, that person will not necessarily excel over the person with a 120 IQ and who DOES have a work ethic, a healthy attitude towards authority, opportunity, and other “normal” factors.

J. Robert Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer was not the best candidate for leading the Manhattan Project, but in addition to solid engineering and scientific skills he was really good in reading and managing people.  In college he poisoned his professor (the professor survived) and, instead of being expelled or sent to prison, he talked his way into just being put on probation at college and continuing his studies.  In contrast Christopher Langan, arguably the smartest person living, could not negotiate changing a section of a class in college because his transportation fell through.

Christopher Langan

Gladwell only overlooks one issue, in my mind, and that is the presence of God in our lives.  Proverbs (NIV 1984) tells us that God is in control of all things:

  • 16:1To man belong the plans of the heart, but from the Lord comes the reply of the tongue.
  • 16:9In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.
  • 19:21Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.
Earlier this week, then, with the book in mind I came to several conclusions about myself that were very encouraging:
  • I am smart enough
  • I have opportunities in front of me right now (more to come on that in a later post)
  • My success in these opportunities will, in large part, be directly related to how hard I am willing to work on them
  • Even tragedies and difficult times can turn out to be advantages

From Proverbs I came to several encouraging conclusions about God:

  • Because I am committed to following Christ, God will guide my steps.
  • Because God can see the future, I know I have a good guide.

I’m curious.  What opportunities have come along that made all the difference in your life?  What people came along without whom you would not be who you are today?  Where is God in your decision and planning processes?

Transcendence and Beauty

Right now I am listening to choral masterworks of the 20th century and thinking about St. Francis.  Just a week ago I finished the book Chasing Francis by Ian Cron where the author communicates the values of St. Francis by following the spiritual journey of a burnt out pastor.  What a fascinating and compelling work.

Among St. Francis’ commitment to poverty and evangelizing (using words if necessary), he also had a distinct view of beauty.  Francis believed that all of nature indicated their Creator in some way and therefore were a portal to experiencing God.  He was concerned about caring for the earth specifically because of this fact.  He did not believe that the earth had a divine nature or anything of the sort; he simply believed that God created the universe to reflect himself and that by observing the universe we, as followers of God, can gain a glimpse of God’s reflection.

What followed was a highly transcendent view of beauty and creation.  Everything pointed upwards, much like the old cathedrals of Europe.  Beauty is not the end; it is only a sign post pointing in the right direction.  These choral works by Frank Martin and Poulenc are beautiful reminders to seek out the Creator, not merely beautiful.

As artists in and outside of the church we are tempted to see our art as an end in itself.  We pursue excellence because we want to make something beautiful.  We produce events carefully to manufacture a meaningful experience.  Excellence and production are not evil in themselves; as with any temptation, the trick is in what you do in response.

As artists we must see our art and creations of beauty as pointing to a God who is the ultimate Creator.  The ability to communicate through art is a privilege and a gift, and we would do well not to forget it.  We retain our focus and path by continually remaining grateful for the ability to create beauty and encourage transcendence, an upwards look at God.

In the words of the Bible and ancient masses, hosanna in excelsis Deo.

conception

Some time ago I started to view God primarily through his name of Creator.  I don’t know of anything in particular that pointed me in this direction, except that one day I believe God put the following concept into my head:  If God created everything when nothing existed; if God imagined everything with no initial idea to prompt him other than the goodness of his heart, then doesn’t that make him the ultimate creative?  And if I am creative and enjoy creating things, am I not embodying something which is at the core of who God is?
Light and dark: God’s idea.  Land and sea: God’s idea.  Man and woman: God’s idea again.
God also said that he made us “in his image.”  Much ink has been spilled and even wasted on this topic, but as I considered God’s innate creative nature, and as I considered the words of Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way where she says that everyone is creative, I came to the conclusion that at least one way in which we are “made in his image” is in that we are creative.
Adam named all of the animals.  Pretty creative, in my book.  Tubal Cain made the first musical instruments.  Hats off to him.  All examples of how we are made in the creative image of God.
Recently I was reading through Matthew and this idea took another vein.  The archangel Michael said to Joseph in regards to Mary’s pregnancy that “what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit – God – fathered Jesus through Mary without the help of a human father.  For me the formation and birth of a human life is one of the best reminders today of God’s creative power, because only he can create life.  Usually he does it through natural procreation between male and female, but here he went around that arrangement and fathered Jesus directly through the Spirit, making him 100% God but also 100% human.  Now THAT is creative.
I believe that God can “father” creative things or ideas in us every day just like he initiates life in a mother’s body.  Because God is by nature creative, and because as a Christian God lives in me, then I believe that if I am open to him God will put ideas into my mind, things “conceived by the Holy Spirit.”  He will breathe life into my mind through his creative movements.
We often call these movements “promptings” or “whispers” from God.  They are one and the same.  God conceives ideas and solutions in our hearts and minds when we are tuned in and listening closely to him.
Two months ago while I was preparing to lead worship God put an idea into my head of how to describe our spiritual walk when we do it our way rather than God’s way.  The next day, when I shared that example, many people connected with God through it.  God conceived life in my leadership, and I am grateful to him for it.
How about you?  What has happened in your life that might have been “conceived by the Holy Spirit?”  Put another way, What in your life has NOT been “conceived of the Holy Spirit?”

mysterious God

Ever met anyone who had it all figured out?  Did their attitude bug you?  How about the used-to-be-friend who went to see a movie you have been waiting anxiously to see and then told you the ending to the movie before you could stop them?

What do these things have in common?  The mystery is gone.  Life is nothing without a little mystery, movies lose much of their interest (at least for me) if we know the details of the ending, and the same goes true for God.  The moment you decide you know everything about God he has ceased to be God.  You never know how deep the rabbit hole will go, they say.  The same is true with God.  You will never get to the bottom of who he is.  If you bring him down to your level then he is, well, not up there where he is supposed to be in your view of him.  ( I know, very profound.  That statement will end up in some systematic theology somewhere).

If you ever hear someone say that they have finally figured God out, turn and run.  Aside from the absolutes of the holiness of God, the deity of Christ and the good news, we have many points of belief which we will never really understand until we reach heaven.  Even then, God never promised to explain everything to us.

Cultivate a humble attitude towards the knowledge of God, and everything else, for that matter.  You don’t know it all, and life is more beautiful with a little mystery.

P.S. Bonus for the rest of us: You are a lot less annoying if you do not act like a know-it-all.