How #Ferguson should affect our worship planning

Yesterday, my son was sick with a stomach bug. When our bodies get sick, there are symptoms that tell us something is wrong. The symptoms are painful and sometimes feel unbearable, but without them, we would not do what needs to happen to get well. If I didn’t get a fever or feel nauseous, then I would not know to lay down and rest in order to get well. Today, St Louis is experiencing the symptoms of an illness that has been infecting our community for a long time. We can chose to ignore these symptoms, but it would only be ensuring the diseases we suffer are going to continue. As a worship planner, I have a few thoughts on what our job looks like as we start to respond to the symptoms with the correct treatments. I have a few gospel based themes that I have been trying to emphasize in the midst of this crisis.

Fear vs. Love

Fear has been a major symptom of the community disease that has infected us. Fear is at the root of race-based discrimination and it is also at the root of self-righteous rants on social media. As Tony Myles shared last Sunday, we are prompted by fear to bow down to the “false narratives” of our culture in the same way that the 3 Israelite youths were threatened by the powers of Babylon with a trip “fiery furnace” if they did not bow to a golden image. How many Black men are killed by people filled with fear that is derived from false stereotypes and deep-seeded racist myths that American culture has perpetuated for centuries? In the days preceding the grand jury’s decision, our whole community was overwhelmed with fear. These fears were fueled by lies that that stand in opposition to God’s Word.

Standing against fear is Love. I’m not referring to “the age of Aquarius” love which was ultimately found to be impotent and self-serving. I’m talking about the love that we find in the power of the gospel. Love in the gospel is both unconditional and accountable. In Christ, I have love that is lavished on me despite being opposed to God in my sin. That same love creates a relationship of accountability to respond with unconditional love toward my enemy. Christ demonstrated this love on the cross and his resurrection empowers us through his Spirit to reject the lie of fear and to say to the powers of fear, “You can throw me in the furnace, but I will not bow to you. I will love the Lord and love my enemy without being afraid of the consequences.”

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pic of Mazaré Rogers by Sean Loftin (i think)

In worship services, we express this by affirming that all authority belongs to the Lord Jesus. No other power can stand in opposition to his glorious reign. We need not respond with violence to any perceived threat from someone who the culture tells me to fear. Because we are one with the Lord of heaven, we can say, “We would rather die than to give in to fear.” We can also boast in His victory over every power even as we grieve the realities of injustice. Sing with joy for the King reigns over all the earth. As Psalm 2 says, we serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling because He is the only power worthy of our reverent fear. His throne is established in Love and the submission to anything other than his authority and reign is a rejection of Love.

Death vs. Life

#BlackLivesMatter has been one of the phrases that has framed much of the frustrations of Americans in response to the deaths of several Black men this year at the hands of police. Even if you believe that the police officers were justified in their actions against these men, you have to affirm that life matters and death is the enemy. Any death is tragic. Even the most evil murderers in history were victims of the power of death both in their sinful acts against others and in the deaths that they themselves suffered. Death reigns in disease, in famine, in disasters, and even in the slow progress of time. Death was let loose on the earth by humans in the actions of Adam and Eve. All throughout history, the powerful have brought death to the weak in order to subjugate. In response, the weak have consolidated their power to bring a reign of terror to their oppressors ultimately becoming that which they have feared and despised. At the end of all that conflict, only one victor stands over the field of battle: Death.

However, we serve the Lord of Life. The whole of scriptures affirm over and over that the one true God is about Life and not Death. His whole plan from Genesis to Revelation is the renewal of eternal life to both individuals and to all of creation. Black lives and the lives of all people matter to God. His agenda is always for life and who ever has the power of life in their hands will have to give account for their actions to the God of Life. Jesus was never going to lead a bloody revolution to defeat Rome by the sword. He ultimately used death against itself, undoing it by the power of the resurrection.

In worship, we can respond to #BlackLivesMatter by affirming that Death has no victory or sting. We go back to the cross and the empty tomb over and over to remember that no matter how many lives are lost to oppression, the perishable will be raised again imperishable. This is not to deny the pain of grief and loss. Nor is it about brushing off the anger that comes from murder and other unjust deaths. Rather, the resurrection is a firm foundation in the midst of the shifting sands of history and culture. The resurrection has been the confidence for Christians throughout the ages to stand against violent oppression  from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King Jr.  Sing with joy knowing that Death is ended! No power that holds death in its hand will ever win the victory over the God of Life.

Fear and Death are the ultimate diseases that produce the symptoms that we have in our community today: racism, violence, oppression, injustice, vengeance, vandalism, discrimination, etc. Protestors have been shutting down interstates and staging “die-ins” around our country to bring attention to these symptoms. If we respond to symptoms without the power of Love and Life found in the gospel, which are the antidote to Fear and Death, then we will only be treating the surface issues. As worship leaders or planners, we can lead songs, prayers, and creeds to reaffirm Love and Life in the church. May the Lord bring crowds of “sick” into our services in order to receive healing.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. – Revelation 22:1-5

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Messes and miracles

IMG_2513This past weekend, I led worship with my brothers and sisters at the New City South worship site to celebrate their 10 year anniversary. It was a good time. I especially enjoyed reconnecting with old friends and reminiscing about God’s faithfulness in the midst of some pretty severe trials. It is a miracle that this congregation survived but I suppose the same can be said of any Spirit-filled congregation. The power of God is not the most evident reason for the existence of any congregation. If it isn’t, then we’re nothing more than a social organization.

This upcoming weekend, I get to leave my life in St Louis for a resort in West Palm Beach, Florida in order to lead worship at a fundraiser weekend for Serge. Unfortunately, I can’t bring my wife with me. However, my dad will be there and I’m looking forward to quality time with him as we play music together and get one last taste of warm weather before ol’ Jack Frost gets to work nipping at noses in the Midwest.

Meanwhile, we’re wrestling once again with volunteer participation in the music ministry. The Choir has averaged less than 10 people at rehearsals for the past few weeks. For some reason, available sopranos are hard to find in the praise team and choir. I’ve lost a couple of musician/leader this fall to other churches and some musicians have been even absent from worship services in general. What causes the eb and flow of available servants? It might just be the natural effects of overbooked schedules, cold and flu season, midterm school work and post-season sports, the list goes on and on… It’s a wonder we get anything done in the church. At this time in the choir season, we ask for renewed commitments, we evaluate logistical barriers to participation, we pray and worry, and worry and pray. And when there’s nothing else left to do, we take a deep breath and plunge into the holidays, holding our breath till January when we’ll exhale just long enough to get ready for the conferences and concerts that come up in the 1st quarter.

It’s a miracle that we ever survive this mess. That’s the thing about God’s power, it takes a mess and makes it a miracle.

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New Guitar: Godin A6 Ultra

godinI bought a new guitar, y’all. The last time I bought a guitar was in 2000, so I’m going to relish this moment for a while – bear with me.

I was thinking about a new guitar for a long time because I needed an acoustic guitar that would be easy to travel with and still be useful in my church applications. I already had a Gibson J-200 with a basic piezo bridge pick up. This is a beautiful guitar and it sounds great, but it’s huge! I have a gig case for it and it feels like carrying a cello around. In college, I custom ordered a ATA flight case for it and that case is huge as well. The flight case also began to show wear even after only flying with it a few times. I also came to prefer carrying my instrument onto the plane for obvious reasons.

So, I looked into selling my J-200. I looked up the serial number and “blue book” value. It’s not a cheap guitar. In fact, the process made me realize that I love this instrument and I don’t want to sell it. I want to pass it on to my children’s children.

I started to look into dreadnaughts and the Taylor “concert” style guitars. These all looked like great instruments, but I was not convinced that they would be any better to fly with or would be that different from my current instrument to really justify the purchase. I was also looking at Godin guitars which I had always been interested in. I especially began to notice them after I saw Jaime Valle play one in a club in San Diego. Godin’s have a thin body shape like an electric guitar. They are instruments designed for stage performance and not recording or “unplugged” performance.

Then I came across the Gidin A6 Ultra. It’s basically an acoustic guitar with that thin chambered body of the Godin. But they added a humbucker pickup so that it’s basically capable of both electric or acoustic sounds. It’s not the first guitar to ever do this, but it’s pretty affordable and it also looks great. Honestly, I’m not a fan of sci-fi look of the Parker Fly guitar. It’s also more like an acoustic guitar that can do electric, so in that sense, it sounds like an arch-top electric.

I was able to really try it out this weekend and there are a few things I need to work out. One is that the piezo lacks gain. Even though there is a battery powered preamp in the guitar, my sound guy was saying that he had to crank the gain up on the acoustic sound. We might try an active DI next time and see how that helps. I’m also temped to get one of these, except it means another $200.

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What does the song “Break Every Chain” really mean?

This song kind of blew up at our church this past summer and it’s really struck a chord especially as we’ve been processing the Ferguson mess. We first sung it at the end of “Jesus at the Center” and we didn’t have to explain much after singing the last verse of that song “Jesus at the center of your church…every knee will bow and every tongue shall confess you, Jesus”

A friend of mine recently wrote to me asking if we sing the song and what I thought about it having a “Word of Faith” kind of vibe to it. That whole, “speak the name of Jesus and your dreams will become manifest” sort of thing. Still, there’s plenty of biblical examples of the role of the Messiah in breaking the chains of the prisoner and the captive. In addition, you can find this stuff in many of “the good old hymns” too:

You can find it in Wesley:

“Jesus the name that charms our fears
That bids our sorrows cease
‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears
‘Tis life and health and peace

He breaks the pow’r of canceled sin
He sets the pris’ner free
His blood can make the foulest clean
His blood availed for me”

“Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray
I woke the dungeon flamed with light
My chains fell off my heart was free
I rose went forth and followed Thee”

And you can find it in Watts:

“Blessings abound wherever He reigns
The prisoner leaps to loose His chains
The weary come home and find their rest
And all the sons of want are blessed”

I think that this song works best if we maintain that “the name of Jesus” is not some kind of incantation, but rather a confession. A confession in particular that “Jesus” is the only name by which we are saved and the only name that we call Lord. His name stands forever as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in an eternal kingdom where all forms of slavery have been defeated. Through that confession and the praise of his name, Paul and Silas had their chains literally fall off. In the name of Jesus, we are no-longer slaves to sin but sons and daughters and fellow heirs with Christ.

I’m not going to say every church should sing it, but it especially struck a chord with my church. We followed the song with prayers for the chains of sin to be broken in our lives as well as the chains of injustice and addiction that hold our communities in bondage. The name of Jesus is the only power by which racism, violence, drugs, hate, fear, etc can be overcome. If you still are concerned about the meaning of the song being misunderstood, you could pair the song with a hymn like “And Can It Be” to drive home that there is power in the name of Jesus because of the work that Jesus accomplished in the cross and the resurrection.

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Joy and Sorrow

Kirk Ward:

I’m re-blogging this as well – It’s a post by my wife, Sarah.

Originally posted on Life on Maple:

It’s my first day alone…in so long. I had four kids all summer. I love and delight in all of them but it was hard work negotiating the appointments of two new foster placements (back to back) and daily life with 4 kids. School started this week and I have so much work to catch up on. But I find myself scrolling through facebook and my mind wandering. My brain hasn’t had time to process for the past several months, it’s going crazy with all the silence in my house.

This week is a mix of emotions. Saturday night a teenage boy in St. Louis was shot by a cop. The details of what happened are contradictory. One side says the boy attacked the cop. The other side says the cop harassed the boy and shot him repeatedly as he tried to run away. I don’t know the truth, I…

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Answering Trial With Triumph

Kirk Ward:

I’m sharing this with a hearty “amen”!

Originally posted on Sean & Michelle in STL:

 

Prayer and Fellowship in the St. Louis Metro Area

Wednesday, 10am at First Baptist Church in Ferguson: 333 N Florissant Rd.

prayer, fellowship and clean up in the community

Wednesday, 6:30pm at First Baptist Church in Ferguson: 333 N Florissant Rd.

Wednesday, 7pm at New City Fellowship in University City: 1483 82nd Blvd.

Thursday, 5:30pm at South City Church: 2109 S. Spring Ave.

prayer, worship, and Q&A with Dawn Jones and Mike Higgins. Childcare provided

I will update this list as I hear of more. Please give me dates and times as you hear of them! michelle@southcitychurch.com


 Maranatha, Lord Jesus

Overwhelmed and frustrated with so many recent events in our world, and specifically in our city, I sent a text message to my bright lights and dear family in Tennessee, affectionately dubbed “Team Ellis”. Among other things, I wrote: “St. Louis, y’all. St. Louis”

Karen replied: “Girl, our whole…

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Musicians and artists meeting the needs of the poor

This week, I read an email from a colleague who was wrestling with the role of artists in a church that is actively ministering to the poor. He felt uncomfortable with his role of preparing songs while there were families coming into the church off the street who were looking for food and clothes. I felt compelled to respond to his wrestle because it’s a wrestle that I’ve had to deal with also.

Sometimes, I start to wonder how my salary is actually justified when that money could be added to meeting the basic felt needs of the poor in my community. Wouldn’t it be better for me to give up my salary to the other ministries to the poor and then get a job teaching music and tithe some more of my cash to the meeting felt needs? We all know that art and beauty are important and valuable, but if we do art when our neighbor is starving, we have to seriously consider the verses like 1 John 3:17 “if anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”

With that being said, here are some of the things that I have learned to give me the right perspective on this stuff.

1. Development vs. Relief.

There’s a difference between meeting the immediate felt need (a meal for today) and working to end the systems that create that need. Worship musicians in the church (and all artists) fit into the place of development and not into relief when it comes to doing justice. We point the poor and the rich alike to the gospel and the kingdom in a way that will heal the broken parts of the community which are the root causes of poverty. Find the purpose and value in your role and don’t be ashamed that you are not doing relief – especially because development is the more difficult and long-term process of doing justice. (I learned this from reading the book “When Helping Hurts” but it’s also classic John Perkins stuff. Read more about that process here.)

2. Stay involved in meeting felt needs outside of music.

My wife and I are foster parents. It’s a very practical way that we can love kids and their families when they are in deep crisis. This ministry has helped my music and worship planning because it keeps me out of the ivory tower of arts appreciation and in the mess of real broken situations. I don’t think that an artist who is part of the kingdom can pursue the vision of romantic genius who creates art in a vacuum. I’m not saying art needs a moral justification, but rather that artists (like everyone else) are image-bearing humans who have to stay in community – connected to the needs of the poor.

3. Do justice in your music ministry practices

Are the poor welcome in your church to participate, lead and share gifts in your ministry? Are you using just practices in how you spend the churches resources to equip the ministry? Are you actually inviting the poor and powerless or are you just singing about it? Are the songs and styles representing the voices of the poor in your community or just the powerful?

Some practical suggestions:

1. Invite a deacon to come to rehearsals

If this happens every time you have a rehearsal, maybe the folks with needs are just being drawn in like a moth to a flame by the sounds of your worship. You could have a deacon or someone who is on site during your practice to connect with them as they come in.

2. Lock the doors

Post hours when the mercy ministry representatives are available. Maybe include some emergency numbers. Don’t be ashamed of getting your work done – you have a job and a responsibility that has been delegated to you to fulfill.

Some books I’d recommend:

Evangelism – Doing Justice and Preaching Grace by Harvie Conn

Beyond Charity – John Perkins

The Dangerous Act of Worship – Mark Labberton

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NCFMusic.com Updates

I just got back from Chattanooga and while I was relaxing with my family, I also had time to take care of some long over due meetings. I met with some of the team that curates ncfmusic.com and we are hoping to fix some of the glitches on the website as well as tweak the content to make it more useful. In addition, we were able to talk some about a music conference for 2015! If you are a church musician  (volunteer or pro), you should make a general plan to travel next summer to our conference to be inspired, encouraged, empowered, etc. in the struggle to produce cross-cultural music for worship.

By the way – if you are a musician in St Louis and you haven’t done it yet, please register for the Worship Music Workshop on August 8 & 9.WorshipMinistryPromo

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Throwback Thursday: some of my older songs added to ncfmusic.com

I just posted a bunch of my songs to ncfmusic.com. Here’s what I added today:

I wrote Your Presence is Here early in the morning on Easter Sunday in 2008. I remember that because my son was born a few days later, and I had a million contingency plans in place if my wife went into labor at any point during Passion week. The song is about the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus in our regular worship practices. He is risen, and he is present in every worship service. It was kind of a response to the gospel hit that was popular at the time, “The Presence of the Lord is Here.” The song as well as almost all the others on this list are included on my recording, “Guardian Grace”.

Restore Us  was written when I was in college and listening to Coldplay’s first CD a lot. It’s based on Psalm 80. This was one of the first songs that I wrote that really seemed to click with people in worship. We’ve only sung it once at my church even though we have a ministry called “Restore St Louis.”

Rejoice In The Lord  comes from my jazz performance days in college. I was interested in what it would be like to use “Rhythm Changes” to create a song for worship. The verses were inspired by the Steely Dan tune, “Peg” The text is from Philippians 4. It’s a real harmonic work out for all you music nerds out there. I had so much fun arranging the horn parts for the pros I hired on the recording.

New Creation was written after I was living in St Louis for a while. Our church had a large group of Liberian immigrants who were struggling with some pretty serious sin issues in their community that called into question their understanding of what it means to be changed by the gospel. So, I had the idea of writing a song in an African style using the text from 2 Corinthians 5:17. The bridge is composed in the typical African worship fashion where the group repeats a short idea over and over and the leader embellishes/preaches over top.

Walk the Talk was the theme of the 2002 Urban Camp at New City Fellowship in Chattanooga. It was composed for that purpose and a team of African American  high schoolers  (including NCF-Chatt musician Nikki Ellis) helped sell it to the kids. Among the other things that were created at that camp were the “Afro Man” videos and friendship with a certain counselor that would turn into an engagement a year later. Good times.

Greater Is He Who Is In Us was also composed as a song for kids in our ministries at New City Fellowship in Chattanooga. There was another song we were singing by the same title that I was really tired of, so I composed a new one.

To check out all the songs that I have on ncfmusic.com you can hover over the “My Songs” tab at the top of the page.

songs

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You Are My God and King

This weekend at New City Fellowship, I’m introducing a new tune called “You Are My God and King” which I learned last year at the LDR Conference thanks to Michelle Higgins. The song is performed by Donnie McClurkin and it features verses in Spanish and French. How could we pass up on that?

 

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