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Planning with Pastoral Interns 

I have been working with several pastoral interns as they plan our worship services for the next four weeks (July 12 - Aug. 2). We are looking forward to learning together. Already I have noticed that I will learn a lot from them. It's great to collaborate, whether we are talking about writing songs or planning worship. It breaks you out of ruts and grooves that you don't even see. 

How to Plan

I've encouraged our interns to think in terms of themes, theological categories, emotional quality, and most of all making the service lead through a "gospel arc." That is, I've asked them to ask themselves, "does this service highlight the gospel in some way?" Does it lead us through seeing a God who calls us to holiness, a Savior who provides that holiness, and the Spirit who helps us walk in holiness?

Of course, they will also be balancing things like length, keeping songs we don't know to a minimum, prayers, readings, etc. Plus, they will be making assignments for who does what, and they will be leading a portion of the service themselves as well. 

Until You Do It

I believe it's important that more seminary students spend more time thinking about and actually planning worship. A class is good and important. However, until you are thrown into the actual planning process with real live people in mind you don't really understand all that you must balance. Plus, there is something about actually leading in front of people that gives you a sense of what connects, what falls flat, what's important to do even if it did fall flat.

Then, of course, there's the variable of working with the other pastors and musicians. How well will they understand what your intent was when you planned? Did you communicate that well? Did you consider or ask about their skills, personalities, backgrounds? And these are just a sampling of all that may come up in the course of ministry in various contexts. 

It's Worth It

Finally, once the dust has settled, once the service has come and gone, there is the joy of knowing that you had a part in helping a congregation see more of Christ. The hope and prayer is that all these efforts lead to a people to grow in holiness and affection for Christ and others. This makes all the planning and prayer worth it. Plus, from my own perspective, this exercise of working with pastoral interns provides the opportunity to shape several young men in how they think about and plan for worship. That's a privilege.  

Kingdom of the Heart 

Lord, now indeed I find thy power and thine alone,
can change the leper’s spots and melt the heart of stone.
Jesus Paid It All, by Elvina M. Hall, 1865

The Bible proclaims and calls for the spread of God's kingdom. However, how it spreads, and particularly, how it should spread has been a matter of debate and sometimes debacle. Plenty of theological errors related to the kingdom of God have led to grave consequences. The crusades, for example, are low hanging fruit. More recently, you could add Reconstructionism and several abuses related to Patriarchy to that list. 

This Sunday we will ask how the kingdom spreads. It should come as no surprise that it's mainly by changed hearts and not by military action, political wrangling, or activism. Our worship service will call us to focus on lifting up our hearts first and foremost. We will confess that the Lord directs the kingdom by spreading light in darkness. But mainly, we are reminded that the kingdom of peace takes hold by breaking up the hard and stony ground of the heart. 

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Worship Notes For Sunday, July 5, 2020 at Christ Covenant Church, Matthews, NC

Habakkuk's Two Responses  

We are in the midst of a health crises, race crises, financial instability, and more. Of course, we don't expect a complete melt down, but what would our response be if that were the case? Habakkuk knew that destruction was coming. As a prophet he was sure of it; he'd 'seen' it. His response was two fold. 

Response One: Cry for Mercy
In Hab. 3:2 the prophet cries out for mercy. He now knows the end result of sin: destruction. As we taste just a bit of chaos and destruction, it is right to cry out for mercy. As we recognize our sin and the result of that sin, it is good to cry out for mercy. 

Response Two: A Resolve to Rejoice
Responding to promised destruction with rejoicing is not natural. But, destruction is not all Habakkuk foresaw. He also saw the ultimate end, which was salvation. I think his response of rejoicing was both a resolve to give God praise in the face of chaos and an ultimate sense of hope. Perhaps part of the key to the call to rejoice in severe mercies is to find hope in ultimate promises. We are not left with just "bad" providences. Instead we know they lead somewhere. Therefore, rejoicing is a choice now as well as the end game.

This week in worship I'm using passages from Habakkuk for the call to worship and confession. Plus, the Numbers passage mirrors Hab. 2:14. And, we will sing from Hab. 3:17-19 again (listen here). From beginning to end, this book leads us on a gospel path. In chapter three we will see the cry for mercy and the resolve to rejoice. May the Lord build both responses in us as we grow in our sense of eternal hope. 

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Worship Notes For Sunday, June 28, 2020 at Christ Covenant Church, Matthews, NC

I Will Rejoice (2020 Version) 

This month (June 2020) at Christ Covenant Church we are working our way through Habakkuk, which is one of my favorite books of the Bible. This week in worship I will introduce I Will Rejoice, based on Hab. 3:17-19. 

Part of what I love about this passage is how it prepares our hearts to give thanks even in the face of providence that we don't understand. Seems appropriate to most times. 

Back in 2006 I released my album Rise in the Darkness. For this update I have redone the vocals, and  smoothed out a couple phrases with congregations in mind. Plus, I gave the melody a lift at the end of the chorus. Finally, I was able to add my kiddos on background vocals!

Stream or download I Will Rejoice (2020 Version) here. There's a lead sheet with chords too. Enjoy!

P.S. My son, Elliot is working out some string parts, and I look forward to singing this with our choir once we are back to whatever normal will look like. 

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Worship Notes For Sunday, June 21, 2020 at Christ Covenant Church, Matthews NC

A Looking Faith 

My faith looks up to thee, thou Lamb of Calvary, Savior divine;
Now hear me while I pray, take all my guilt away,
O let me from this day be wholly thine. —Lowell Mason

I need this song. Truthfully, I often look down at my own toes rather than "up to thee." I get bogged down in the mundane. I wonder about the importance of my position. I sometimes exhibit a distracted faith, a self focused faith. But biblical faith calls me to set my eyes on things that are above. 

This old hymn captures a lot of what we will focus on in worship this week. Biblical faith is not a contentless faith or a self focused faith. Rather, it is a "looking" or trusting faith in someone beyond myself. It has content, requires assent, and brings about assurance (Heb. 11:1) to the point of a new walk. Not only this, but our opening hymn this week will remind us that the Lord is sovereign in faith, and that therefore we can cast all our cares upon him, even if those cares arise out of the valley of the shadow of death.

Thankfully, as I look to Christ it's harder to look at self. And, once 'self' is out of the way, walking by faith is a real possibility. This is something we need amid all the pain which is currently sweeping our country. 

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Worship Notes For Sunday, June 14, 2020 at Christ Covenant Church, Matthews NC

I'm Not Ashamed to Own My Lord (PISGAH) 

Here's an old song recorded with my family. We like to take it in a quasi-bluegrass vein, but it would be a great congregational song too. Enjoy!

 

1 I’m not ashamed to own my Lord, or to defend his cause, 
maintain the honor of his Word, the glory of his cross. 

2 Jesus, my God! I know his name, his name is all my trust; 
nor will he put my soul to shame, nor let my hope be lost. 

3 Firm as his throne his promise stands, and he can well secure 
what I’ve committed to his hands ’til the decisive hour. 

4 Then will he own my worthless name before his Father’s face, 
and in the new Jerusalem appoint my soul a place. 

Text: Isaac Watts, 1709 Music: PISGAH, from Kentucky Harmony, 1817.

The Greatness of Gentleness  

2 Samuel 22:36 reads, “You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your gentleness made me great.” 

This short snippet in the midst of David’s last words is striking. The poetry is full of war talk -troops, bows, battles, torture, enemies – with themes of meekness and mercy sprinkled throughout. But it’s the shield and gentleness that grabs me. 

When I think of a fight, salvation and gentleness are not the weapons that first come to mind. Yet, as Martin Luther noted, the cross of Christ turns everything upside-down. In the Lord’s economy, rather than burying dirt to save your career or smearing your opponent as an offensive tactic, salvation is a shield and gentleness makes one great. That’s countercultural. 

A Shield 

If I am honest, self-defense and pointing the finger is my gut instinct. But shielding oneself and being a bullish accuser rarely protects. At best it provides the opportunity for more dirt to stick, and, at worst, it is mimicking the devil. My best defense is not self-defence or accusation, but the breastplate of righteousness in Christ (i.e. salvation). 

Gentleness 

On the one hand I am tempted to lash out. It feels good to use sarcastic and cynical offensive tactics. On the other hand I’m tempted to be silent and passive. But principled gentleness does not allow for either. The greatness of biblical gentleness is that it accompanies the strength to work for a principled and true peace without using those principles as clanging gongs. 

Therefore, to restate the verse above, resting in God’s salvation is a shield against ultimate harm, and greatness comes with principled gentleness. 

Real Armor 

This week our worship service will include some “war-talk” and “war-songs.” Some folks are uncomfortable with this, and rightly so given certain historical events. But when you consider that our ‘armor’ should actually be things like truth, peace, righteousness, salvation, and even gentleness if we borrow from David, it transforms both our discussion and our actions. This week at Christ Covenant, among other things, we consider Ephesians 6:14-17 and the putting on of the helmet of salvation and the readiness of the gospel of peace. 

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 
Or, to paraphrase David: blessed are the gentle, for they shall be made great.

Wait, and Be Strong 

When we feed our dog, Dottie, we tell her to ‘Sit!’ and ‘Wait.’ Dottie obeys, and as she waits, begins quivering with anticipation. Dottie will wait a very long time, fully expecting good things to come. She is quite strong. 

This Sunday our congregation, like so many others, will be scattered around town and tuning into our worship service digitally. It’s strange to say the least. For the moment we will have to wait to get back together. Until then join us and sing along in your living room: https://christcovenant.org 

Our service has been developed around Ephesians 6:10-11, which is a call to be strong. Other than that the current virus scare is generally a result of the fall of man (See Kevin DeYoung’s post here), we don’t need to say that it’s specifically a “scheme of the Devil”. Yet the fear and worry that might accompany it could be. All kinds of darts are thrown at us: distraction, fear, impatience, etc. 

So we will sing of hope (My Hope is Built on Nothing Less), thankfulness (My Heart is Filled With Thankfulness), our refuge (O Lord, My Rock and My Redeemer), and the Lord’s strong arm (We Praise Thee O God, Our Redeemer). 

Psalm 27:14: Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD! 

We wait on the Lord, and with strength we anticipate worshiping together and forever.

Are You Weary, Are You Languid 

A good friend brought this hymn to my attention, and it’s a good one. I don’t know that I have ever used the word languid. However, it sure does capture the idea of weakness and fatigue well. In times of uncertainty or doubt, the text of this old song is wonderfully encouraging. “Is he sure to bless? Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs answer yes.”

Text: John Mason Neale, 1882 
Music: STEPHANOS, by Henry W. Baker, 1868 
For the arrangement I simply adjusted the chord structure and an added refrain using the last verse of the text. 

Chorded Version: Download 

Capo Chorded Version:  Download 

Text: 

 Are you weary, are you languid, are you sore distress’d? 
“Come to me,” says One, “and, coming, be at rest.” 
Has he marks to lead me to him, if he be my Guide? 
“In his feet and hands are wound-prints, and his side.” 

Finding, foll’wing, keeping, struggling, is he sure to bless? 
“Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs answer yes.” 

Is there diadem, as Monarch, that his brow adorns? 
“Yes, a crown, in very surety, but of thorns.” 
If I find him, if I follow, what his promise here? 
“Many a sorrow, many a labor, many a tear.” 

If I still hold closely to him, what has he at last? 
“Sorrow vanquished, labor ended, Jordan passed.” 
If I ask him to receive me, will he say me nay? 
“Not till earth and not till heaven pass away.”

True Spirituality: Devoted and Cherished 

This post begins a series of posts based on a Sunday School class I am currently teaching entitled True Spirituality: How to Have Communion With God.  Artwork: Cammille Pissarro’s Conversation By the Fence. 

Tone Obsession 

Guitar tone is a bit of an obsession of mine. I can wax eloquently (at least I think so) about the nuances of guitar projection and subtle differences of certain tone woods.  People who have known me for a while would say I’m obsessed with finding good tone. Maybe obsession is not the best term to bring into this discussion, but at the very least it helps me realize that I have not always given a similar kind of devotion to my Lord. Perhaps I have at times, but consistently? 

Likewise, around Valentines Day, it was brought to my attention that though I am faithful in my marriage, being devoted to my wife and family to the point that they “feel and know” they are cherished is another level altogether. My guitar, if it had feelings, would. 

When dealing with the subject of spirituality Sinclair Ferguson (Devoted to God) and Allan Chapel (True Devotion) obviously center on the idea of devotion. The term is quite helpful when thinking through a subject like spirituality and communion with God. 

Foundation 

It may be pedantic to say it, but our understanding of what spirituality is should be founded in the Scriptures. However, with the wide interest in “spiritual things” from Hollywood to modern Spiritual Guidance movements, it bears repeating. If Scripture is the “only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy [God]” (Westminster Shorter Catechism), then it should shape our view of what spirituality actually is. It gets to define the terms. 

Definition of Terms 

Exciting, eh?! Actually, yes, I do get excited about definitions of terms. The more clarity we can bring to the the limits and extent of a term the more we can communicate. Some might say defining terms is too reductionistic, but I would simply reply that some understanding of what we are talking about is a necessity for communion. We are not striving for an emptying of the mind or heart, but a filling of it. Add to this the unfortunate reality that common words are often the most difficult to define (words like person, heart, feeling, emotion, etc), and the need for simple definitions becomes evident. Several very common words are below, along with an attempt at a few easy-to-understand descriptions. 

Spirit: While some, like William a Brakel, often use the term synonymously with ‘non-material,’ he and other solid theologians equate the term with “living being” or “living mind.” Of course, as soon as you dig in, you find that the terms heart, and mind are very, very similar in the Scriptures. 

Mind: Obviously, there is some overlap with the term spirit. The way we use term mind in everyday language is varied, but often we mean the place that holds information, the place of computation or reason. The Bible’s use of the word is much more fluid and is often synonymous with heart. Our common heart/mind distinction is often represented as lip-service versus a heart or mind truly following after the Lord in the Bible. 

Heart: The idea of heart does go beyond the mind in at least one area. It seems to be the place of belief that moves the will. Again, there is clear overlap with mind, but often includes affection, trust, and will (volition, strength) as well. 

Communion: Likemindedness, thinking alike, having the same will or purpose. For example, if God wants you to be sanctified, and you would rather stay lazy, you do not have communion with God in that area. 

Devotion: Loyalty, regularly attend to, dedicated, unwavering love. 

Devoted and Cherished 

Things that moth and rust destroy easily win my devotion (or worse, obsession); things like guitars, cars, comfortable shoes (why are they oh so elusive!), etc. Instead, I want to cherish and be devoted to my Lord, his word, my wife, my family, and the church with my whole being; i.e. spirit, mind, and heart. There is a lot packed into that last sentence. Hopefully this class will unpack some of it, for this is true spirituality. Oh how much I need to grow in my communion with God.

On the Move 

A biblical worship service should reflect good news, tell good news, and propels us toward gospel service. Neither the service nor the Christian life should be static. This week Kevin DeYoung’s sermon series takes us to Acts 13:1-12 in which Barnabas and Saul/Paul are sent out – they are on the move. 

Here’s a link to our Sunday order of worship. Below are my notes to help prepare us for the service. 

Today our service progresses from a plea for mercy to confidence in our calling to tell of our Redeemer. We move from requesting that the Lord would shine upon us to confessing that Jesus does reign wherever the sun may rise and set. We are called to turn from disobedience unto obedience. We ask “is Christ worthy?” and sing with confidence that he is. We move from darkness to light, from shame to salvation, from hearing to speaking, from receiving to sending. We are not a static church, but a church on the move that the Lord’s glory might fill all the earth.

Longing for Belonging 

*The following is copied from our bulletin at Christ Covenant Church, which we call “In Preparation.” I write these notes off and on in order to help our flock train their eyes and hearts for worship. I don’t write them every week, in part due to space and in part because it’s good for us to discover themes and connections on our own. Not every service must be a tight unit, and yet often clear themes can help us prepare or examine our hearts before the Lord in worship. 

For Sunday, October 20, 2019: 

A sense of belonging is a deeply felt need in the human heart. We love our groups, tribes, gangs, buddies, peeps, and most of all our families. Simon and Garfunkel longingly sang of being an island or rock, but no one can actually live like that without becoming cynical and lonely. The church can provide a sense of home, and yet the truest sense of belonging cannot be separated from believing. 

A true church member is not one who joins a club or finds his peeps. A member is one who is saved by grace through faith and lives a life of repentance. Today our service points out what it is to belong to Christ, be his people, be in our Father’s house, be a part of the body, and find union in Christ. The sacrament of baptism points to being included in the visible church, and the accompanying call to faith reminds us that we must also be welcomed into the invisible church by faith and repentance. The family of God are all those who are hid in Christ the Savior.

Yesterday, Today, and Forever 

Colossians 3:16 (ESV) Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 

This is an incredibly familiar passage. Equally familiar are the debates about the use of traditional versus contemporary music in worship. A little less familiar are the debates about singing psalms only. On the face of it, the verse would seem to answer all the debates. Shouldn’t we just use all three categories? Yes, but the conversations continue. 

So Yesterday: Hymns 

Some disparage using hymns in worship for various reasons. One argument is that the three categories listed in Colossians are simply categories of psalms. After all, several psalm inscriptions describe it as “a song.” Further, they will often point out mistaken (or at least squishy) theology in some hymns and songs, and rightly so. 

Other’s will disparage hymns because they are boring, out dated, too hard to sing, or connected with historical events or movements we don’t appreciate anymore. You don’t have to look too hard to find someone who will beat up on hymns. 

So Today: Songs 

Yet, you can easily find folks who throw most praise and worship songs under the bus (both modern worship songs and older gospel songs). Many will argue that they are vapid, simplistic, repetitive, melodically boring, and lyrically one-dimensional. Plus, many have pointed out that modern praise music pretty much repels men. Those in this camp can easily find low hanging fruit to pick on. I certainly have. 

Add to this the painfully obvious marketing machine…. Now, marketing itself is fine, but we all cringe a bit knowing that major dollars are spent to make the next big worship song common place on radio and in churches, perfectly timed for Easter to boot. Should songwriters and record executives be the driving force behind the church’s song texts? Good question. In any case it seems there is plenty to complain about when it comes to the modern worship song phenomenon. 

So Forever: Psalms 

Then there is the unused Psalter. Some will quickly point out that many praise songs are psalms. But I’m speaking of singing through a large portion of a psalm, or even a whole psalm. Avoiding this is understandable. The texts are often awkward and at times the subject matter can feel out of place and uncomfortable. Singing the Psalms confronts our milk-toast theology. It forces us to grapple with texts that paint God in ways that would never pass the bumper sticker committee. 

Plus, while there are some great tunes, fewer good tunes have been offered for psalms than hymns. Thankfully that’s changing, but if you spend a little time around psalms-only singers you will find that they have their favorites (i.e. Psalm 98), as well as a bunch of tunes they avoid because of a lack of beauty and healthy dose of clunkiness. Plus, though I assume it is not their intent, some traditions of psalm-singing smack of legalism and pride. So, too often we abuse the Psalter simply by neglect. 

One Big Happy Family 

Yet… so many hymns are loved, so many have wonderful melodies, so many have been driven deep into our hearts and are a common touch point for millions. Plus, hundreds of hymns are very accessible and singable (if you choose the right key). I wonder how many hymns of the faith have been sung by family members around the deathbed of a loved one. Hymns are a gift to the body of Christ. To skip over hymns is to skip over hundreds of years of devotional insight from the saints who have gone before us. To dump hymnody is to disconnect yourself from the church-historical. As to the difficultly of some of the lyrics, there is value in meditating and taking some time to understand what you will sing. 

Yet… there are songs that have been written and are being written that are musically sound and very accessible, while at the same time lyrically thoughtful and theologically rich. Some songs are simple without being simplistic; some are not overly repetitive; and some are repetitive in a good way. Plus, a well written song can capture the heart’s cry in a way an ancient text can’t. To skip over spiritual songs is to disconnect yourself from the church present. There is value in immediately understanding the text in a way that speaks in the way we speak. 

Yet… singing the Psalms, like hymns and songs, is commanded. They are for our edification. Not sure you like them? Oh well. Sing them anyway. You will find that some are glorious, some are hard, and some are downright difficult. So be it. These were the songs of Miriam, Moses, and David. They were also the songs of Jesus. Not only did he sing them, they are his. The next time you are singing a Psalm and it dawns on you that it’s strange or awkward, ask yourself how it points to or is fulfilled in Christ. Even the Psalms that are not obviously Christological find their fulfillment in Christ. They should not be ignored. To skip over the psalms is to disconnect yourself from the church-eternal. There is value in struggling through the Psalter. 

When our singing reflects the universal body of Christ (past, present and future) it reflects the fact that we are one big happy family bound together by truths, texts, and even tunes. 

Ratios 

I’ve been asked, “what percentage of psalms, hymns, and songs should we sing?” I dunno. 1/3, 1/3 and 1/3? I would kind of like 51% psalms, 30% Hymns, and 19% songs. That may be somewhat arbitrary, and yet my reason is that the Psalms are lasting, hymns less so, and songs less than hymns (contemporary, by its very definition, implies a relatively quick passing body of songs). But that ratio is hard to employ in real life, especially if your church has not been in the habit of singing the psalms. 

Therefore, I simply try to use all three categories over several weeks. If there is a Sunday that does not use a song, that’s ok…..or a Sunday that does not have a hymn, fine. No Psalm? Lightening will not strike you down. However, because more often than not we skip Psalms, I tend to emphasize reclaiming the practice. At my last church we were up to 30-40% psalms, in part because the practice was already alive when I arrived. I simply had to build on it. Even so, it takes time to teach, a will to press ahead, and a willingness to get questioned about it. Once you begin, you will find that it’s musically and theologically rewarding. The fruit is eternal, for you are singing the eternal and living word of God. 

So, here’s to psalms, hymns, and songs. Let’s sing ’em.