July 21, 2014

Mad Church Disease

True story: I was so busy and exhausted at one point that when I finally got my hands on this book, the only time I had available to read it was during breaks in construction on a mission trip in Haiti.

What was most helpful, honestly, was that it helped me name what it was that was the problem, as putting a label on something is the first step on a road to recovery. I am so excited that Mad Church Disease has been re-released, because pastoral burnout has continued to grow in the last few years and will be something that so many of us have to fight consistently. Our culture values busy-ness over healthy rhythms, products and perception over people, and so the pressure is mounting to perform at the expense of our health. Gifted pastors are leaving the ministry through recognition of their burnout - or worse, its consequences - because many don’t have the tools to build those healthy rhythms into their lives. Anne has done a fantastic job in this new, self-published edition of bringing new voices into the conversation, of giving helpful advice and practical tools (see also her companion workbook “Beating Burnout”) to combat this growing epidemic.

But most of all, the stories of others give a communal voice to this issue.

To to the tired and weary pastor, lay leader, or volunteer, know this: you are not alone. And there is a way out. Thank you, Anne, for continuing to make the holistic health of our leadership a priority.

July 17, 2014

Lina

In the mid-nineteenth century, King Karl XV of Sweden was petitioned to forbid a man named Ahnfelt from preaching and singing the gospel in Scandinavia, and so Ahnfelt was called before the King to plead his case. Ahnfelt was justifiably worried by this, but being a man of passion for telling the story of his faith, asked a friend of his named Lina to write a song for the occasion. Several days later, she handed him this:
Who is it that knocketh upon your heart’s door in peaceful eve?
Who is it that brings to the wounded and sore the balm that can heal and relieve?
Your heart is still restless, it findeth no peace in earth’s pleasures;
Your soul is still yearning, it seeketh release to rise to the heavenly treasures.
As the story goes, the King listened to this with tears in his eyes, and said to him, “You may sing as much as you like in both of my kingdoms!”

It’s not the first time a King has been brought to tears by music.

Music is one of the most powerful forms of art there is. Not a culture on earth goes without some form of music. Each is unique, created in different contexts with different instruments and voice types and environments, but all express the most raw emotions of our communities and the very core of who we are as individuals. Music is identity, told through stories.  When we share our music with others, we share ourselves with them. Music done well can bring Kings and Peasant alike to tears, to repentance, to action.

Our music will always tell at least a part of our story. Sometimes those parts are full of wonder. Other times they’re full of pain, joy, or awe. Sometimes the story we tell is one of action and commitment. Sometimes it's one of renewal, restoration, resurrection. And the best stories get told through songs over and over and over again, spanning generations and cultures and continents. See, good worship is a missional practice, and good mission is always a worshipful one. The two cannot be separated; if a Church engages God, they will engage their community. They can't not; it's natural. There is an intimate connection between the way a congregation worships together and the spread of the gospel.

A story full of good news is, after all, meant to be shared.

The way you sing this week can change the way you live out your faith. What you sing and how you sing it can change the community around you. If you let it. As the scripture says, sing to the Lord a new song. Sing the same story, tell a new chapter.

May you sing well.
Sing a new song to the Eternal; sing in one voice to the Eternal, all the earth. Sing to the Eternal of all the good things He’s done. Enlighten the nations to His splendor; describe His wondrous acts to all people. For the Eternal is great indeed and praiseworthy; feared and reverenced above all gods, the True God shall be. For all human-made, lifeless gods are worthless idols, but the Eternal plotted the vast heavens, shaped every last detail. Honor and majesty precede Him; strength and beauty infuse His holy sanctuary. Bless His name; broadcast the good news of His salvation each and every day.
[Psalm 96:1-6]

July 15, 2014

Psalm 63

“O True God, You are my God, the One whom I trust. I seek You with every fiber of my being. In this dry and weary land with no water in sight, my soul is dry and longs for You. My body aches for You, for Your presence. I have seen You in Your sanctuary and have been awed by Your power and glory.

Your steadfast love is better than life itself, so my lips will give You all my praise. I will bless You with every breath of my life; I will lift up my hands in praise to Your name. My soul overflows with satisfaction, as when I feast on foods rich in marrow and fat; with excitement in my heart and joy on my lips, I offer You praise. Often at night I lie in bed and remember You, meditating on Your greatness till morning smiles through my window.

You have been my constant helper; therefore, I sing for joy under the protection of Your wings. My soul clings to You; Your right hand reaches down and holds me up. But as for those who try to destroy my life, they will descend into eternal shadows, deep beneath the earth. They will fall by the sword, and wild dogs will feast on their corpses. But the king will find his joy in the True God; all who make pledges and invoke His name will celebrate, while the mindless prattle of cheaters and deceivers will be silenced.”
[Psalm 63, VOICE]
When you’re stuck in the middle of a desert, one does not expect to find you writing poetry. Especially not poetry like this.

When our family and friends are far away … 
When our resources have dried up … 
When we just can’t seem to get it right …
When those who oppose us press forward …
When it seems like everything that can go wrong has …
And then something else goes wrong …
When all else is lost, where is one to turn?

I can imagine David sitting, forlorn, against a rock in the Judan countryside. His own son has run him out of town in a coup. He finds himself without food or shelter or resources, without friends, without purpose. Whatever part he may have played in his current circumstances, it sure feels like it all happened TO him. Everything used to be great! I was king, I had everything I could possibly want laid before me for the taking. I ate the best food, drank the best wine, slept in a comfortable bed, had friends … You gave it all to me, God … and now it’s all gone. Why have you let it all go away, God? Why have you removed your hand of blessing from my life?

As he mulls over his situation, he looks around and sees the dry, arid land of his exile and finds it as parched as his body and as his soul. And the words come pouring out - God, I’m just as this desert, my life is ebbing away, I long for water, for life to spring anew. 

Where are You, God?

Though the desert is void of life because it lacks life-giving water, the possibility of life is always there, hidden beneath cracked earth and dusty wind. The soil can be incredibly fertile; nobody's used it yet. There are always untapped possibilities in the desert. 

And then suddenly you’re there, a child of God the Provider.

What if you’re there to bring life to that desert on behalf of the God who Sustains?

This does not have to be the end, this is an opportunity for a new beginning. The desert is the one place where life would be most welcome, and God, time and time again, shows how desperately He longs to work with us to bring life into places where there is none. And sometimes, in bringing that life to a desert through us, God revives life in us we didn’t even know we had lost. God has been by David’s side this whole time, and can restore him once again.

Though I am mocked by the desert, says David, though my enemies seek to keep me here, my enemies will eventually self-destruct on their own, I need not exact revenge. Though my enemies take everything from me, God is all I need, and they cannot take Him from me. It is that very God who gives life, He who sustains, He who I must long for above all else. 

And so I will make something of this dry and weary land and let God use me to bring life anew.

July 7, 2014

Equipment

Worship Pastors walk a fine line between the world of the artist and the world of church finances and politics.  Like it or not, we need tools to do the job entrusted to us. And like it or not, equipment costs money. Sometimes lots of money. Like the old joke goes, a musician is a person who will take $5000 of equipment in a $500 car 50 miles to make $5 an hour at a gig. 

It can get old after a while, believe me.

When evaluating our equipment needs, we must strike a balance between quality and affordability. We generally shouldn't buy the top-of-the-market-all-the-bells-and-whistles-gizmo-shinyness we really wanted because our churches - most non-profits in general - usually don’t have the budget for that. But buying the right tool - one of quality that will do its job well and last - is usually better then buying the less-expensive-but-of-substandard-quality alternative that will break in a few years leaving us to buy it again (thus driving the cumulative cost of said item UP, not down). As an aside, this is why I own a mac: my laptop is going on 5 years and cost the same as each of my last two windows-based platforms; less if you count the cost of software upgrades.

If it were only about our preferences of gear, this might be less complicated. When push comes to shove, we can work with the cheaper stuff if we have to; in some organizations, we’ll have no other choice. It won't be great, and it shows a church's priorities, but we can make do. Everyone likes working with the best there is, but good artists work with what they have - creativity comes inside boundaries, not from a lack of them.

This isn't just about us though.

This is really about setting up our volunteers for success. As pastors - leaders - our job is to equip and empower those in our care for works of ministry (see Eph. 4); providing good equipment is an act of advocating for those we serve. By providing good tools to work with - tools in good condition that will do what they're meant to without excessive tweaking - the volunteers will grow confidence as they succeed.

For for a long time, I had pitch problems in my singing that I thought were my fault. But it turns out that my mic stand was constantly drifting down, no matter what I did to clamp it tight. A mic stand that's too low will drop a singers throat, which clamps down on air, which messes with pitch. My singing had been sabotaged and I had no idea until someone pointed it out to me.

If your equipment is causing you to fail but you think it's you, you'll quit and the church will be the less for it.

We need to be able to give our volunteers the ability to succeed by giving them good tools to work with. Worship teams will be much more confident when they know they have the tools to sound their best. Confidence will cause more success, which will build more confidence, and so on. This is the positive cycle that reasonable financial investment can provide. Better equipment shows your musicians that you care about their art, and thus that you care about them.

When a church is generous to its artists, they will lead better.

July 4, 2014

The Mechanics of Awkward

I interned for a summer with a worship arts pastor when I was in college. At the time, it had nothing to do with my major, and I did it for free. But it was an awesome summer for me - I learned a ton, and I also met this amazing girl who later agreed to marry me. The church was fairly large by most standards - average weekend attendance was around 1500 at three services - and so it seemed a fitting place to learn the ropes of leading and planning worship. 

I remember that first few weeks of this strange new world I’d entered were awkward, as starting any new routine usually are. There were lots of things I wasn't used to, especially the planning meetings, but I remember noticing that my mentor had an attention to detail that I’d never seen in a pastor before. She was a bit of a nazi for transitions in particular, and it’s taken me a long time of doing this myself to realize why it was so important to her.

People can tell when things happen on purpose, or when they are simply mistakes or badly planned. When telling a story, awkward pauses in the flow - someone who doesn’t come up to the stage fast enough, someone who can’t remember their line in a sketch, a capo change that lasts forever, a mic still muted when a speaker starts - those awkward pauses interrupt our attention to the story and instead draw our attention to the mechanics of what’s happening. Instead of pondering what God just revealed in the midst of a piece of music or scripture or drama, our eyes and ears are instantly drawn to whatever interrupted the experience. Planning our transitions - and bring prepared for what to do in the eventuality that something will go differently than planned - helps us to tell the story in a way that makes sense to those we’ve been entrusted to lead. Far from manipulating an audience, it’s about creating space free of distractions from what’s most important. Instead of drawing our attention to the mundane - walking, people putting down instruments, fumbling for a mute button - it allows the elements we’ve spent so much time planning draw attention to God.

But there’s one more reason I've discovered, and to me, this is the most important one.

When there's that extra space that lasts just a bit too long between things, and you're left wondering if these people actually care enough about what they’re doing to know their own plan, there's always an uncomfortable silence. The thing is, the silence was not on purpose. In our culture, people are already suspicious of silence or pause; it doesn't fit into our "self-made people" image very well, and doesn't fit into our cultural narrative of constant productivity. We work hard, we play hard - we don't like to slow down for sabbath. Yet silence is an important spiritual discipline and thus a counter-cultural element of the Christian spiritual life. So when it happens unintentionally, say in an awkward transition, it reinforces our hostility towards it.

Awkward transitions give silence a bad name.

Planning your transitions effectively not only helps tell the story of God in a better way, it also helps curate space for purposeful silence. It helps us learn to sabbath.