A Backlog of Thankfulness Makes Tough Times Better

Several years ago, we were attending a National Vineyard conference in Anaheim.  It was a difficult season in my life. I was feeling particularly tired and sorry for myself.  Working two jobs, not getting enough sleep, battling a long illness, I loved leading worship but everything about my life was getting to be like going through the motions. I was deeply weary. There was no breath of inspiration for living the life God gave me. I felt like the valley of dry bones.
At these conferences, there are usually breakout sessions each afternoon on various topics, which I am sometimes inclined to skip, because I’m tired and I’m an introvert.  I need down time.
However, this particular time, Linda and I decided to attend an afternoon session on worship. It was led by Chris Lizotte and I really enjoy his thoughts on worship.  But I was surprised when at this workshop, Chris spoke for less than a minute and then introduced his neighbor, Jimmy.  I thought to myself ‘I should have gone back to hotel and taken that nap!’. Jimmy was a small man, in his early fifties/late forties, with a broad smile, a carpenter by trade, who embraced the Southern California surf culture, with a blonde pony tail and a pretty thick southern drawl. Jimmy had also been fighting cancer for a while and actually lost that fight not too long after.
Jimmy wasn’t really a preacher, but he had a powerful message. He was about saying thank you, out loud to God, for His love and every detail of care He shows for us.  This man embodied his message. He was joy packaged. We were undone!
His message wasn’t new.  The scripture clearly tells us to give thanks always and in every situation. But I think this message hit me hard for a few reasons. One, it was what God was speaking to me. It was clearly his word to my tired, sick, discouraged and weary heart. And it hit the target square on. It was all the more powerful because it was delivered by a man fighting cancer and could not have been more authentic and genuine. He was a husband, father and friend who in no way wanted to be in the situation he was in.  But, in every inch of his being, he was extremely and genuinely thankful.   The resulting joy and peace were something you could see and feel. I have a tape of the session, and it still moves me.
He was a living example of how actively giving thanks to God changes your perception of everything. He was a powerful reminder of the fruit of gratitude  Jimmy just had us all say “Thank You Lord” a whole bunch of times together.  It sounds contrived, but when the Spirit is in something, it gets real very quickly.  We could feel the Spirit moving through the room, happy to move among us and lift burdens.  We ended the time by crowding around Jimmy and praying for his physical healing. It was a bath of tears. Good tears.
This 90 minute session brought about a lasting change in me.  Here in the bay area; we are a sarcastic, suspicious, independent bunch.  How could something this simple as a grateful heart change such “sophisticated” people?  But it did change us.  There is power when we name things. And naming the things we had to be thankful for was just that, powerful. When we name things we see them. And we are reminded of them. And we stop and acknowledge them. And we encourage others when we share them. So we started intentionally thanking God out loud as an act of worship.  We wrote Him notes of thanks.   Thank you Lord, thank you Lord, thank you Lord became a breath prayer for us.
Everyone has difficult things happen.  We’re navigating a particularly hard one with our friends and family right now.  The hard challenges of this life are real. And we need to acknowledge them and pray our way through them, hearing what God is saying to us about them.
But equally if not more important is His goodness. So even still in the midst of the good and the bad, the easy breezy days and the hard painful ones, when we gather together for dinner, we each take a moment to say what we’re thankful for this day.  Each of us naming something we are thankful for, from the youngest to the oldest. It seems to disarm the enemy’s lies, calm our insecurities and neutralize our fears.  It sets the tone for our conversation. It puts us in the right frame of mind to hear His voice and go where He leads us.
 It can change your way of thinking and lighten your heart.  As it becomes an ingrained part of your daily rhythm, it will change the way you encounter others and engage in daily life.  You will see the joy of the Lord become your strength. It will become your “go to”, because you’ve put in the time, you’ve practiced the discipline of being thankful and it becomes part of your spiritual rhythm.
   “Thank you Lord, that You know my name, That you look at me and everyone as the same, Your love is strong, and it never changes.”  (From- You Know My Name by Chris Lizotte)

Abiding: How to Hear God’s Voice

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.    John 15:1-4
In my home church, Vineyard Concord, we take the month of July for a time we call Summer Sabbath.  We suspend our midweek meetings, along with our kids and youth churches.  Our Sunday mornings together are called “All-In;” and we have a very simple worship time with a couple of activities all ages can do together.    During Summer Sabbath, the worship band is pared down It’s a couple of us on acoustic guitars and maybe someone on box drum.  I ask all of the worship team to serve in one year terms, which start in August. Summer Sabbath is also a time set aside so we can listen to God and decide together if they’re going to sign on for the coming year. We end Summer Sabbath with the whole congregation getting together for a picnic in a local park.
When we first started explaining Summer Sabbath a few years ago, some people got the impression that it was basically a time to give the church staff and leaders a break.  This does happen, but really, for us, Summer Sabbath is a season to abide in the Father and prune back our activities to allow us to bear better fruit in the coming year.  We encourage each other to embrace a rhythm of life where we take time to read, reflect, pray and hear God’s voice, so we can go and do the things we hear Him saying.  My wife, Linda, writes a weekly blog during this time, called Abiding, to help focus our thoughts and prayers.
Other churches we are in relationship with in our valley encourage their congregations to do the same. To join in and embrace Summer Sabbath as a time to intentionally rest in Him.  We may not be able to actually take a vacation or scale back our work schedules, but we intentionally find ways and time to connect with the Father’s heart, which we may neglect when we’re busy with fruit bearing times of our lives.  Our goal is to establish a rhythm in our lives of resting then working to bear fruit.
During the rest of the year, we talk about and encourage everyone to find a rest/work balance within the day, within each week, in every season. Life is not a marathon with a few weeks (if we are lucky) off for vacations in the summer. Life is about rhythm. All of creation reflects this truth. The seasons, each having a specific, rhythmic purpose, in order. Breathing in, breathing out. Daytime and nighttime. Work and sleep. We are created for both. Each has its own specific purpose in our physical and emotional and spiritual well being. God created it all, knowing how He made us. And by acknowledging this fact, we humble ourselves, admitting we are the created, and we honor His design in us. True, we easily get knocked out of rhythm in our lives.
To be sure, there are days, weeks, seasons where the call is to be intense and intentional about something, and we will needfully put aside rest or work. New babies come to mind. Or job changes or illness, or any number of life interruptions. But we must go back and find the rhythm we were created for and acknowledge it is designed for our good. We function best when we agree with God about who He says we are and how He made us. After all, we are the created, He alone is the creator. We honor Him when we recognize and by our actions agree with this.
Our Summer Sabbath begins on first Sunday after July 4th and runs through the last Sunday in July. Join us! I’d recommend seeing what daily and weekly activities you can put aside for the time, diving into the word and prayer, (we use the  Moravian Texts as our daily readings and the Abiding blog), to hear His voice. Then reflecting on what God is saying to you, now in this season of life. Listen to His direction for your upcoming season, year.  Since I’m mainly writing for worship leaders here, I want to challenge you to get in there and make this a rhythm of abiding. Daily, weekly, seasonally, annually, recognize your need to both bear fruit and abide. You’ll draw closer to the Father’s heart, and your ability to lead others will be more fruitful.197392_10150103597568862_3232886_n
Note: Moravian texts are a daily set of 3 or 4 sections of scripture, which can be emailed directly to you every morning.  They aren’t selling anything and they won’t flood your inbox.  It’s just a daily scripture reading resource.  We use it as something we can do as a church family. 

 

You’ve Gotta Put Your Whole Heart Into It

One of my favorite recent songs has been “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.  I bet you may have heard it a few too many times, but it’s hard to be unhappy when Happy comes on.  It’s an unavoidably effective mood lifter.  Even now, writing about it, I can’t get the song out of my head!  It isn’t a “worship song” or even a “Christian” song, but it moves me. My own thought is that music, no matter the genre or category, has the potential to be inspired by God. God gave us music and song, and sometimes in the act of writing or singing we touch on the heart or intention of that creation. But that’s just me.

One of my favorite worship leading examples might surprise you.  It happened during the seventh inning stretch of a 2012 National League Championship Series game. Tony Bennett came out on the field at AT&T Park in San Francisco to sing God Bless America.  I love Tony Bennett.  He’s had an amazing life and an incredibly long singing career.  The man is 87 years old, and still sounds awesome.  The crowd always responds to him well here. After all, he left his heart here.  So, Tony started singing.  Subdued at first, he seemed respectful of the God he was asking to bless America.  His voice rose as he asked God in to bless America in particular places (mountains, prairies, oceans).  Then his voice rose in power as he sang God bless America, my home sweet home.  He could have continued on singing to complete what was building to be one of those “goose bump” performances.  But he took a moment to engage the people, shouting “Everybody”!  Then you hear 40,000+ people belt out the last line and high note.  I was watching on television, but felt like I should join in too.  I believed Tony believed every word he was singing to the very depth of his soul.  I’m sure many of the people in the crowd probably didn’t even believe in God, but Tony Bennett did, and he made the most of it.  The Giants ended up winning the World Series, but I don’t think God intervened on their behalf.  I’m an Oakland A’s fan.

Maybe we won’t have the chance to lead 40,000 people in song, but we can use the chances we do have to do it with the most we have to give.  My wife, Linda, has a sign she gives me sometimes when I’m leading worship.  With a smile, she’ll tap her heart with her fist, sometimes after a technical band or sound distraction, or something else that has distracted me from engaging with the meaning of a song.  It’s a reminder to invest or go deep into the words I’m leading.  I have no problem reading her.  It doesn’t mean get louder or more emotional.  It means to put everything into it.  Set aside the distraction. Remember who this is all about.  I haven’t always had the ability to do this.  But through the years, time spent sitting alone with God, my bible, my notebook and my guitar, has helped me engage in the moment, stay present at a personal level that becomes training for the corporate level. There’s an investment of time spent abiding.  You can’t fake depth of meaning for very long without investing in the relationship.  You’ll be putting on a performance, which is great for someone who’s performing, but leading people in worship is different.  Great skill and talent are awesome tools to have, but the ability to lead others in meaningful worship is about relationship. Relationship with the God we come together to worship.

 

Check out Tony Bennett.  Maybe I’m overstating what he does here, because he really is a hero of mine. Check it out a few times and see what God says to you.

Genuine Expression in Songwriting

songwriting

‘m getting ready to record a new album this summer.  The last one was finished 6 years ago, so there’s a lot of water under the bridge.  I write most of my songs in a moleskin journal I keep by my bed.  I keep thinking inspiration will hit during sleep, and I’ll need to have the journal handy to scribble the download.  I’m still waiting for the first occurrence.  I’ve tried writing songs on my macbook, which would be a really good idea, because my handwriting is truly an embarrassment.  But, there seems to be some kind of connection for me between inspiration and writing with my own left hand.
I’ve used quite a few notebooks and written hundreds of songs.  The vast majority aren’t worth recording or playing in public.  I’m pretty sure my notebooks aren’t going to be worth much when i’m gone, except to people who know me.  I like to go back and look through them sometimes though, because one story line I see going through all the songs is a longing for genuine expression of what’s on my heart.  When I was young it was about wanting to find love.  Later it was about the joy of finding love.  Then I wrote about what I thought about God.  Later, I started writing to God on a personal level.  This led to songs for the church to sing as acts of corporate worship.
In the last few years, I’ve written anthems, laments, songs of thanks and songs of reflection.  All of them focused on helping God’s people come into his presence with open hearts.  As a songwriter and worship leader, I find great joy in being able to write songs that represent the heart of God’s people for him and the heart of God towards his people.
If you write songs, i encourage you to keep doing it, with increasing frequency.  Don’t be afraid of having unfinished songs  in your book.  One of my songs took 15 years to finish!  The more you practice writing, the more you’ll experience inspiration.  The more you spend time in His presence, the more you’ll recognize God’s voice. Songwriting isn’t magic.  There’s inspiration involved to be sure, but there’s also the willingness to just step out and do it.  Write!

If You Have a Home, You Can Invite People In

Aside

oikosIf we’re going to be worship leaders who in turn, raise up worship leaders, there’s something we’re going to have to learn how to do.  We can train them in all the ins and outs of Pro Presenter and chord changes.  We can train them in building a worship song set.  Those are important, but there’s something else we need to give them, which has nothing to do with Sunday mornings.  We need to give them access to our lives.

If you have a house, you can invite people over.  When they’re around you in your home environment, they can see who you really are, what you value and how you relate to family.  If you’re the same person in private that you are in public, you’ll be giving them the gift of seeing that you aren’t putting on some kind of magic show when you’re leading worship.  They’ll start to see how they can do it the way you do it by doing it like you do it!

We had a great time in our back yard last weekend.  We invited our leaders over for a potluck barbecue.  There wasn’t any fancy set up involved, but the place was clean and welcoming.  After a nice time together at dinner, we sat in a circle on the lawn.  We worshiped with a few songs, then shared some God stories (things we’d seen God doing in the past few weeks).  Then we prayed for each in small groups and had dessert.  Pretty low bar stuff.  But our leaders felt welcome and loved, and we were encouraged in Kingdom values.  It was an easy evening to host, and it bore fruit.

There’s something good about opening your home. It’s a higher challenge than meeting at a coffee shop.  We’ve opened up our private lives.  When we’re transparent, we’re modeling a life worth imitating.

 

Making People Feel Loved and Valued

Linda, my wife, enjoys having people in our for dinner.  She has a gift for making the place look warm, inviting and beautiful.  She has an eye for detail, organization and function.  The plates, the flowers and the lighting all are things she takes great joy in arranging.   Now, some people do these things to extremes, trying to find perfection, driving others around them nuts with endless details and fault-finding.  She’s not that way.
The reason she loves to make the house ready for people to come over is because she wants our home to be an inviting and warm place. A place where people feel and know they are loved and valued. Usually, when people come over, we have most of what we’re going to serve (appetizers, drinks, main course) already done or close to done. If it’s a potluck the house is set to recieve. When people are in our home, we want to focus on them, not be rushing around getting things ready and being hurried.  As much as possible, we want to be relaxed and engaged.  Linda sees it as a way of loving those God has called to be family. And a way of honoring people God has brought to our lives. By setting the table, by setting the tone, there is a freedom to focus on those God brings into our home.
People often comment they feel at home in our house.  It is by no means a fancy place!  The house needs gutters and paint.  Our furniture is old and shows signs of wear.  The area rug in our living room was taIMG_9803ken from the display floor of a clothing store in the local mall over 25 years ago.  But the house is beautiful, relaxing and welcoming.  Our family, friends and visitors feel at peace here.  Many deep, meaningful times have happened here over the years.
So what can a worship leader learn from this?
Knowing where we want to draw people’s focus. Being clear on what our focus is and how to bring others into that focus. We want to clear away the busyness and the rushing.  We want to be present before the Lord, we want to be engaged as a worshipper and as one who lead others in worship. With all done and prepared so that with warmth and invitation, we can draw them in and then show them their place at the table in His presence. We want to set the environment, so that those we lead are free to see Him and just be with Him. We want to demonstrate what being engaged and present with the Lord looks like, we want to show what it looks like to have Him first and foremost in our worship. We disciple others by being a living, breathing disciple ourselves.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.” Matt hew 22:2

Here's what I was listening while writing this post.  Especially the track "I Belong to You", by Ryan Delmore

Here’s what I was listening while writing this post. Especially the track “I Belong to You”, by Ryan Delmore