Posts Tagged justice

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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Everything is Broken

I’m going to do a psalmist thing and complain for a minute.

Everything is broken. I’m surrounded by malfunctions, glitches, short circuits, cracks, wear, tear, and all-consuming entropy.  Can I just give you a brief list? My dishwasher leaks, my clothes-washer is making a loud grinding noise, there’s a gutter falling off the side of my house, the front storm door is warped and can only stay closed by being locked, the power locks in my van’s door don’t work, the CD player in my car is broken, the speedometer/odometer in my car is broken, my acoustic guitar neck is warped and it’s “fretting out”, our laptop runs too slow, our home stereo speaker has a short and cuts in and out, even my dog has a malfunctioning pancreas and he has to have enzymes in his food or he would get “the runs” so bad that he would starve to death…you get the picture. I bet you have a similar list in your head that you can review of everything that’s broken in your life.

Of course, people are broken as well. We have fears, anxiety, pet peeves, grudges, prejudices, blind-spots, disorders, dysfunctions, and disagreements. Our hearts seem to constantly go back to the same sins and the same idols. We can’t ever seem to get over these persistent dysfunctions and move on with our lives.

Our culture also has systemic brokenness that we live with everyday and take for granted. The problem of racism, the system of prejudice and inequality based on race, comes to mind as a brokenness that many of us passively endorse without doing anything to fix it. We let the brokenness remain and throw up our hands in defeat as if to say, “I didn’t break this, so why should I have to fix it?”

This morning, my complaint about the little things that are broken in my life (the locks, appliances, etc.) made me think about why we allow brokenness like racism to persist, year after year, without doing anything to fix it.

  • It’s too expensive to fix. My family has a lot of broken stuff but the most frequent response to the problem is that it would cost way too much to fix. The solution is there but we don’t have the resources to put the solution into action.
  • It’s permanently broken. Usually, this is a cheap toy that happens to become one of our kid’s favorite things to play with. Then inevitably, it breaks so bad that no super-glue or tape or whatever could fix it. It has to go in the trash forever because it’s just too far gone. Just get over it!
  • It doesn’t bother me, so why should I fix it. We have a light switch in our bathroom that is wired wrong. It turns on when it’s down and off when it’s up. Of course, this is not really a problem to me at all.  Why risk electrocuting myself when it’s not really an issue?
  • If I’m honest, I prefer the brokenness. My CD player is broken in my car and that really was a bother at first. I couldn’t stand rolling around town in silence listening to the weird engine noises (probably more brokenness). Then I started listening to podcasts with an iPod and little portable speaker. I found that I much preferred this to listening to the radio or my CD collection. Let the CD player stay broken because now I have “This American Life” whenever I desire.

These excuses for brokenness are also at the root of why I allow sin to persist in my heart or we allow oppression to persist in our culture.

Now, it’s time to stop complaining. I can stop complaining because in Christ, all things are being made new. The brokenness will not become LORD over all because there is already a LORD over all who is in the business of restoration and redemption. The promises in scripture are the antidote to all our excuses to allow brokenness to persist.

  • There is nothing that is too expensive. I can’t change this because I don’t have the resources. I can’t even stop my own sin, so how can I ever expect to bring cultural change. However, we have in the riches of Christ all that we need for life and godliness. He has paid the full price, and in him, we have access to resurrection power. We have an overflowing bank account of grace and peace that we can access at anytime. We might have to give up our life in the process but even in that, to die is gain because of the riches of Christ.
  • There is nothing that is permanently broken. I want to give up on the brokenness. Many times, I would rather throw away a broken relationship rather than do what is necessary to fix it. But, Christ will never give up on any brokenness. We have a promise that there will one day be a new heavens and a new earth. There is nothing in this world that Christ cannot redeem by the power of the gospel. The kingdoms of the world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ. Jesus is the ultimate in “green” living. There’s nothing broken that he won’t recycle into a new creation. There’s no trash in the kingdom.
  • There is nothing that I can ignore because it doesn’t bother me. I might be able to close myself off from oppression or down-play my sin through denial. But, the Lord promises to discipline those that he loves. He has promised that though injustice seems to go unchecked, there is a righteous judge in heaven who will bring vindication to the meek and reckoning to the wicked. The Lord is committed enough to righteousness and loves me enough as his child that he will not allow me to remain comfortable with my sin or comfortable with oppression. Any branches that do not produce fruit will be pruned and thrown into the fire.
  • There is no brokenness that will actually benefit me. I can’t always say that I despise my sin. There are times when it feels so easy and right to give my heart over to sin. Also, I can’t always say that I despise oppression. In fact, as a white person in the US, I receive many benefits that I didn’t even work for as a result of racism. This brokenness appears to benefit, protect, and advance my personal well-being. However, I can trust that the Lord Jesus has promised that his Spirit will transform and renew my mind to be able to discern his perfect and pleasing will. He has promised that he will lead me into paths of righteous for his names sake. In the light of His word, I will know all truth and wisdom and the scales will fall from eyes to behold the wretched vanity of sin and glorious beauty of grace and peace.

Everything is broken, but in Christ all things are made new.

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Prog-rock, the Coke ad, post-RJC14, and a iii-vi-ii-V worship tune for Black History Month

A few quick items from the last two weeks:

My buddy, Santo Garofalo, has successfully funded a recording project through kickstarter! Santo is the pastor of New City Fellowship in Atlantic City, and unlike most PCA pastors, he is also a face-melting shred guitarist. It’s encouraging to me to see a fellow cross-cultural, justice-minded brother get crowd-funded to produce a recording. I have songs to record, and I hope that it won’t be long before I can get a kickstarter campaign started for myself. Please pray that the Lord will make a way somehow for me to make another recording.

This commercial is good. America is hopefully a beautiful place to everyone who immigrates here from all over the world (and to those whose ancestry goes back to before English was ever spoken here.) As a music guy who leads some worship in non-English every weekend, I can relate to the joy expressed in this ad. I also recommend the interview clips with the ladies who sang the non-English portions for a little more context. As far as the racist and ethnocentric reactions to it, I say overcome evil with good, y’all. May justice and righteousness begin in the church. 

Our Reconciliation and Justice Conference was a lot of fun, especially playing and working with other musicians from our sister churches. I’m looking forward to seeing how God is going to build stronger bonds with some of these fellows musicians in STL. Ronnie Perry stayed in our home during the conference. Ronnie is part of a cross-cultural church plant in Durham, NC called Christ Central Church. It was nice to hear about the work there and to get to know him better. If you are in Durham, you should check out their ministry. 

Speaking of Durham, we are introducing a new (actually old) song by Durham’s native son, John P. Kee, this weekend called “I Do Worship.” This song is from a classic 1997 recording of The New Life Community Choir called “Strength”. Definitely check out this tune as well as “Lord, Help Me To Hold Out” and one of our church’s favorites “Clap Your Hands”. Jazz geeks: “I Do Worship” is like an etude for the iii-vi-ii-V progression. Here’s a link to where you can purchase sheet music.

 

 

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Time to Register for the New City Music Conference!!!

HEY! It’s time to register for the New City Music Conference. I’m serious. No more delay. Why should you come to the conference?

  • Be Encouraged!

There will be a lot of excellent content at this conference including a line up of speakers that are well worth the trip. Are you feeling dried up, apathetic, bored, or weary? Take time to invest in your gift and your passion at this conference.

  • Meet Like Minded Musicians

You are not alone in the struggle! Whether you have been involved with cross-cultural music for decades or your ministry is just starting to consider a change, I guarantee that you will find people just like you who have been wrestling with the same stuff.

  • Hear a Ton of New Songs

Come on! Who isn’t excited about hearing new songs? One of the best parts of the NCM conferences has been the extended worship sessions. A room full of musicians, singing and celebrating is an experience that every servant-musician needs to experience. Go home after the conference with a stack of new song ideas and infuse your ministry with some fresh grooves.

  • Grow Closer to Your Team

Nothing beats a road trip to grow closer together with your team. You have friends to process the content of the conference with and friends who share your experience of the music who can help you “sell” the new songs to your folk back home.

  • Experience “worshipinthecity” LIVE!

Maybe you might be interested in hearing my plenary talk on Friday morning.  I’m not making any promises about it except that knowing my track record with public speaking, I will probably break down crying at some point so there’s that to look forward to.

 

 

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Signifyin’ in “I Hope My Mother Will Be There”

“I hope my mother will be there in that wonderful world on high”

This is the opening line to a spiritual that my friend Hal Bush shared with me. It’s one of the songs we’ll be performing at the Black History Celebration this weekend. Spirituals are a tradition of American music that is both beautiful and tragic. The texts of Spirituals  are often misunderstood by modern listeners, and this is not an accident. American slaves used a kind of code language that was designed to say something without saying anything. They could communicate their true feelings in front of their oppressors while maintaining a kind of plausible deniability. Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls this kind of language “signifyin‘” (thank you, wikipedia!).

The face value meaning of the song is a longing to go to heaven after physical death in order to be reunited with our already deceased relatives. This meaning is pretty clear and it’s a good thing to sing about. Perhaps the “Christian” slave owners would even relate to this sentiment. However, in the life of the slave, there were more immediate causes of family separation than death, causes that related to their oppressed status. Slave families were torn apart through the sale and relocation of mothers, sisters, brothers, children, etc. A slave was likely to have been separated from loved ones and likely to never see them again in this life. There was another meaning to “that wonderful world on high” as well. Going “on high” might have meant escape to the Northern States or to Canada. They were not going to sing about either of these topics explicitly, but under the cover of “signifyin'” they could boast with confidence about escaping their unjust captivity and the hope of reunion with their family in the flesh. Understanding the song this way means that it takes on a deeper cry for justice and freedom for today and not just a hope of an afterlife.

Oh, I will be there, will be there
Oh, I will be there, will be there
With the palms of victory
Crowns of glory you shall wear
In that wonderful world on high

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The Lost Verses of “Jesus Shall Reign”

The hymn “Jesus Shall Reign” was written by Isaac Watts based on Psalm 72 and  was published in 1719. Today most churches sing only 5 verses of what was originally 14. Here’s verses 9, 10 and 11.

Great God, whose universal sway
The known and unknown worlds obey,
Now give the kingdom to Thy Son,
Extend His power, exalt His throne.

The scepter well becomes His hands;
All Heav’n submits to His commands;
His justice shall avenge the poor,
And pride and rage prevail no more.

With power He vindicates the just,
And treads th’oppressor in the dust:
His worship and His fear shall last
Till hours, and years, and time be past.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to write about how we need to resume singing all 14 verses (or all the verses to every hymn). I am interested in looking at why some verses remain over other verses. Obviously, verses 9,10, and 11 emphasize the rule of Jesus as a kingdom of justice and righteousness for the poor. The verses that you would find in the Trinity Hymnal  that my denomination prefers, are 1, 4, 5, 6, 8. Most of these verses represent the spread of Jesus reign as being primarily about the confessional worship of people all over the world (Amen!). However, the focus of justice (one that is pretty clear in Psalm 72) doesn’t come through as strong. There is one verse that is in the Trinity Hymnal that retains the theme of justice:

Blessings abound wherever He reigns;
The prisoner leaps to lose his chains;
The weary find eternal rest,
And all the sons of want are blessed.

I realize that condensing 14 verses into 5 means that you might have to use one verse to convey the sentiment of several verses. But, do we often slant the language of this verse (chains, weary, sons of want) to reflect spiritual poverty instead of physical poverty. The psalmist does not limit his scope to the spiritual reign of the king. He is clearly speaking a blessing on the king to uphold justice for the oppressed.

“For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
    the afflicted who have no one to help.
He will take pity on the weak and the needy
    and save the needy from death.
He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
    for precious is their blood in his sight.” (Psalm 72:12-14)

So what should be done with Watts’ lost verses? Should we pick different verses each time we sing them? I might try to switch out one or two, but I love the 5 we sing currently. Maybe someone should write a new melody using some of the 9 left over verses of “Jesus Shall Reign”.

One this is for certain: there will never be an end to the songs that can be composed about the glory of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom!

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Christ died to defeat sin – for the sinner and the sinned against

Harvie Conn taught that everyone is both a sinner and the sinned against. If we preach the gospel to sinners and leave out the sinned against, then we are only speaking to half of the problem. Christ died to save me from my sin, but he also died to save me from being sinned against.

I asked the question of my pastor, how do we bring this element back into worship services which have become so individualistic. My colleague, Anthony Johnson, spoke up and reminded me that gospel music is full of the response of the sinned against to the power of the gospel. (I was a little embarrassed that I missed that.)

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2012 NCMC, Holidays, and more upcoming events

The fall season for many of us becomes more and more like a flume ride. We spend September and October in a slow ascent with a feeling that’s somewhere between excitement and dread as we anticipate the events on the horizon. Soon, we come over the crest and find our lives becoming a crazy blur of screaming joy and nausea. Next thing we know, it’s January and we’re left feeling a little cold and wet with the entire holiday season  nothing more than a SD card full of crowded and poorly lit jpegs. Personally, I’m about the round the crest this weekend, so I’m not having fun yet. However, despite my melancholic remarks, here’s some stuff that I’m genuinely looking forward to:

Thanksgiving in Tennessee

We’re doing “Turkey Day” in the land of the Moonpie this year. I’m looking forward to talking shop with my dad, having a snackdown with my sister and kin, and getting together with old friends in order to have interactions that are more meaningful then liking their status. Maybe I’ll take my kids to the new Muppets flick.

Youth Sunday – November 27

The New City Fellowship youth band is going to take the role of worship music leadership for weekend. I love youth Sunday for the way it brings a sense of worship being the shared experience of an individual expression. In other words, people give the youth a lot of room to express their faith in worship without the usual constraints. It’s an experiment in cross-cultural ministry as we allow the young and powerless to lead those of us who usually hold the reigns in the church. (November 27 is also my wife’s birthday!)

The First Ever NCF Christmas Concert! – December 10

The NCF Choir will get to make a little more joyful noise this Advent with this new Saturday night event. We will share some familiar classics as well as some new classics. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to celebrate together the wonderful expressions of music that have become such a meaningful part of Advent for the church. The NCF Choir continues to come into it’s own as a ministry that both nourishes the participants and the church on an almost weekly basis.

Reconciliation and Justice Conference 2012 – January 24-25

We will be once again hosting this special meeting of pastors and ministry leaders from around the US to have a dialogue about the issues of reconciliation and justice within our denomination. I’m going to be there leading some of the worship. You can register here.

7th annual NCF Black History Celebration – February 25

This had been the highlight of the year for our music ministry for a long time, but now, it’s only been diminished by the abundance of exciting things happening all year long for us. We expect this year’s BHC to continue the tradition of celebrating the gospel of Jesus Christ through the unique expressions of Black Culture.

Food For The Hungry – March 15-18

I’ll be in Phoenix in March 2012 leading worship at a special fundraiser weekend for the ministry Food For The Hungry. This is an exciting opportunity to participate in a ministry that I can <pun> really sink my teeth into</pun>.

New City Music 2012 Conference

I just published this post and then realized that I failed to say anything about the 2012 NCMC! This summer’s music conference will be hosted by my church again. With the search on for a new senior pastor, the folks in Chattanooga decided to take another year off. The dates will be August 1-3. I don’t really have much more to say about it than that. I’m currently looking for ideas for speakers, musicians, and clinics to feature, so give me any you have that come to mind.

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Reconciliation and Justice Conference 2011

This past week, a dream came true for me. My church hosted a conference for churches in our denomination with the same passion for the biblical call for justice and reconciliation. There were about 80 people made up of pastors, church planters, ruling elders, seminary students, and a few of us laymen. Not many musicians other than folks who wear two hats in their ministry like my old friend, Jim Payne. There were a lot of different kinds of churches represented. There were New City Fellowship churches which were planted with reconciliation and justice as their core values. Then there were mono-cultural, established ministries that are choosing to bring change to their churches vision to include rec/just. A great example of this king of ministry is Grace Church in Dover Delaware. There were also church plants that are just starting out and looking for ideas like Grace Meridian Hill.

The conference was a lot of fun for me to be involved with. I was responsible for worship music and liturgy for the week. We got to sing in English, Swahili, Hindi, and Spanish. With a room full of pastors who have a passion for multicultural ministry, it was an easy crowd to introduce so much diversity in the music styles and languages. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was pretty sick all week, I would have probably had even more fun hanging out with old friends and meeting new ministry colleagues.

There was a few ideas introduced but the most significant was the idea of a network of churches in the PCA who are all committed to these issues. These churches would support the creation of more church plants and maybe even create resources and training opportunities for established churches that are looking for ways to facilitate a transition. This is an idea that really gets me excited. My father and I have been working on creating a stronger network in our churches to share music and to equip our teams for the unique challenges of cross-cultural worship music. An established network of churches that are committed to these goals would be a natural green house to create and share new music resources.

This past summer, I attended the NCF Music Conference in Chattanooga TN. This conference was a great time for musicians from some of these same ministries to encourage each other, get ideas and build relationships. My father, James Ward, organized that conference, but he’s chosen to only host the conference ever 2 years. That leaves a nice gap for my church to host a similar conference in St Louis. So, stay tuned…this week I’m going to start making calls and getting ideas for some dates. Let me know if you are part of a ministry that is committed to reconciliation and justice and you want to get some ideas of how these values get worked out in the worship music ministry.

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