The Transfiguration of the Commonplace – chapter one

Skopje Dam Over the last 47 years I’ve seen some glorious things, walked in some heavenly places. There are a bunch of lists of “WONDERS OF THE WORLD” and I’ve witnessed many of them. They each deserve their own page of wondrous description. I’ve seen Kilimanjaro peeking above the clouds from Kenya and seen Mount Ranier peeking above the clouds from Seattle. I’ve raced along at 275 mph on a bullet train from Shanghai to Nanjing and bounced along the foothills of the Himalayas from a 3rd class sleeper birth in Northern India. I’ve walked along the Great Wall of China, through the Wagah Border gate from Pakistan into India and climbed on my hands and knees into the belly of the Great Pyramid at Giza. I’ve stood awe-stunned by the beauty of the Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal, the Porcelain Tower, and the Sydney Opera House. I’ve run my hands along the rough stone ruins of Ephesus in Turkey, Philippi in Greece, the Old City of Jerusalem, and Monte Álban in Oaxaca. I’ve been drenched in the spray of Victoria Falls and came way too close to drowning in the rapids of the Nile river. In all, I’ve visited 26 countries so far and like the old Indiana Jones films, I’m always eager to follow a little red line across a weathered map to the next exotic destination. All the while I wasn’t searching for adventure. I’ve been chasing glimpses of glory.

TealyLioncubMy brother William is working on a new book and I’ve been inspired by his title: “The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere.” It’s a quote from Thomas Merton in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. The way I’ve come to understand the Merton quote is that the entrance to heaven or even to an experience of God’s presence is less of an external place we must visit and more of an internal way of being – always open to us. The experience of God’s glory comes at the end of ourselves when we cease all of our striving and relax confidently into grace. What a beautiful and needful truth. In the beatitudes Jesus referred to “the poor in Spirit” and the Benedictine monks echoed that thought by calling followers of Jesus to experience the glorious riches of spiritual poverty. Merton calls it a place “untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth.” It is a place in the center of our being that is nothingness and everything all at once.

Walking among the wonders of the world has definitely taught me some important lessons:

1) God’s glory is Everywhere Always – learn to behold it. There is a vast difference between seeing and beholding. Seeing is a dash of salt. Beholding is marinating. In her poem “Aurora Leigh”, Elizabeth Barrett Browning says “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries, and daub their natural faces unaware.” Earth is crammed with heaven. I love that! I’ve wandered the world in search of God’s glory and found it as clearly displayed on the face of a five year-old at the Houston Zoo this weekend as I did in the setting of the sun behind the Hagia Sophia in the City of the Seven Hills. I have seen God’s glory as clearly in a whispered conversation at a strip-mall coffeeshop as I ever did from atop the Great Wall at Badaling. God’s glory becomes most evident when we become most aware. To immerse yourself in the glory of God requires no passport. Instead it requires a stillness, a beholding, a quiet seeking. Every common bush is afire with God because His glory is everywhere always. Take a moment to read 2 Corinthians 3:18 and Psalm 16:8 and feel the transformative power of Beholding.

2) God’s love is an Unstoppable Force – surrender to it. Most of my travels have involved some expression of Christian missions. A key principle in all of those missional adventures has been the search for a “Person of Peace.” The goal when entering a new area is to find someone who can serve as bridge for gospel conversations. The idea is founded in the sending instructions of Jesus recorded in both Matthew 10 and Luke 10. It can be seen in the interaction between Rahab and the Israelites at Jericho in Joshua 2. There is not a single place I’ve visited on this whole planet where God was not at work before I arrived. The principle behind a “person of peace” is that God is always at work preparing the way for love to spread, for grace to expand its reach. I have seen and felt the unstoppable force of God’s love on the remote island of Siumpu in Indonesia, in the remote Tibetan villages of western China, and in a sleepless midnight conversation with Hindu strangers as our electric train rattled across the great Indian darkness. On a recent trip to Uganda I took some students white water rafting on the headwaters of the Nile river. It was a harrowing adventure and I was ill-prepared for the class 5 rapids we faced. I fell out of our raft at the start of a dangerous technical section of the river and I was quickly instructed by our guide to point my feet downstream and just ride it out. There was no point in swimming against such an aggressive current. It would have been futile to do anything but fold my arms across my chest and surrender. Likewise, I have quit trying to control or even direct the unstoppable force of God’s love. TealyNileRapidsI have learned to feel the current of God’s love as it moves with equal force through the suburbs of Houston and the slums of Mumbai. God’s love pours with furious urgency into every corner of our planet and I am learning to search for new opportunities to surrender to it. God’s love might take you to unexpected places. It might ask you to take a few uncomfortable risks but you are at the very gate of heaven. Just point your toes downstream and surrender to the current.

Cantatio Divina

Over the last 5 years, I’ve frequently used a practice of “sacred singing” that I’ve called Cantatio Divina with various groups of worship-focussed songwriters. Below is an explanation of the idea, its historical and biblical foundations and some tips for leading this practice in your own context.

Old-Piano-HD-Wallpaper-1“Do we read the Bible for information about God and salvation, for principles and ‘truths’ that we can use to live better? Or do we read it in order to listen to God and respond in prayer and obedience?” – Eugene Peterson in Eat This Book.

Lectio Divina (or sacred reading) as a Benedictine practice saw scripture not simply as a book to study but as a place to meet with a living God, believing the presence of God could be experienced through meditating on the Word of God. Lectio provides the prayerful student of God’s Word a powerful path to follow in praying the scriptures. In the practice of Lectio Divina, one moves through 4 stages – lectio (reading the Word), meditatio (meditation on the Word), oratio (praying the Word), and contemplatio (contemplating the Word). That final stage of contemplation is not simply “thinking about the word” but a centered union with the Word Himself, bringing the heart and the mind into resting in the presence of God. This movement might be viewed as a kind of labyrinth for the soul, encouraging the reader ever-inward toward a deeper union with God through a prayerful reading of God’s Word.

Similarly, Cantatio Divina (or sacred singing) is a practice that can provide us a place to encounter God through singing God’s Word. Cantatio as a group practice anchors our spontaneous singing or prophetic singing in the Word of God or quite literally in the words of God. In Ephesians 5:18-21, the apostle Paul instructs the church at Ephesus that the filling of the Holy Spirit is supposed to result in us speaking and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another. In a parallel comment to the church at Colossae, Paul suggests that these spiritual songs cause the word of Christ to “dwell richly” in us. Our thankful singing gives life the word of God in our hearts (Col 3:16). To the church at Corinth, Paul gives specific instructions about prophecy in worship and even specifically guidelines for the practice of spiritual or prophetic singing. “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?” (1 Corinthians 14:15-16, ESV). Sacred singing is certainly a biblical practice but must be practiced in a way that leads to understanding – to the word of Christ dwelling richly in us.

CANTATIODIVINASimilar to the pattern the Desert Fathers established for Lectio Divina, Cantatio Divina has four distinct movements: Inquisitio (searching the Word), Lectio (reading the Word), Cantatio (singing the Word), Concentio (choral agreement with the group). Participants move in and out of these four stages freely, sometimes searching the scriptures, sometimes joining the singing of another group member, sometimes reading scripture allowed, and sometimes spontaneously singing the word of God that has been read or singing their own prayerful response to either what they have read aloud or what they have heard read aloud. While the goal of Lectio Divina is centered oneness with God, Cantatio Divina moves the participants toward a communal harmony with each other and with The Melody, Himself. Once a time of Cantatio Divina has begun, there is no need to follow a specific order of these four movements. Participants may move freely from concentio back into the cantatio of their own heart’s response to God’s word. Or they might move from a time of lectio straight back into inquisitio and find another passage to read aloud before singing anything at all. Each participant is allowed to follow their own path into an experience of God’s presence through this uniquely musical interaction with God’s word.

I traditionally begin the practice of Cantatio Divina by identifying a specific aspect of God’s character on which the group will focus (ie. “search the psalms for evidence that God is sovereign”). Because God is diamond-like with infinite facets of beauty, any aspect of God’s nature can serve as a rich beginning point for this practice. Occasionally I will lead at least one familiar worship song as a beginning point for the time of sacred singing, inviting the group to enter into a spirit of thanksgiving and inquisitive expectation. Sometimes this initial time of singing eases the anxiety of those inexperienced in the practice of prophetic singing and gets the ear used to the sound of worship in the particular space where we have gathered.

As the musical leader of a time of Cantatio Divina, I will play a repeating pattern of chords on piano or guitar that might serve as a canvas on which our time together might take shape. Any key, any progression, and any tempo can work. Particular care should be taken to keep the repeating pattern consistent for the sake of the singers. I might change the chord progression, key, tempo, or key signature once or twice during the practice but only when the entire group is in a season of inquisitio or oratio. These occasional changes keep the time fresh and moving forward. Dynamically, the musical leader can and SHOULD respond to the singing of the group, rising and falling on the same tide as their sacred singing.

The practice normally includes some time of quiet music as the group members individually search the scriptures for passages that draw their attention (inquisitio). As some participants continue searching the scriptures, others might begin reading the Word of God allowed to the group (oratio). As the musical leader you might spur on their cantatio by singing your own simple “thank you Father,” or “hallelujah.” You might encourage their concentio by listening well to their singing and joining someone’s song even verbally encouraging the group to join in singing a particular word or phrase that you’ve heard someone vocalize.

bible-study-groupI usually end the practice of Cantatio Divina either be verbalizing a prayer of gratitude to God for the specific aspect of His character on which the group has been focussed or by unifying the group around another familiar song of worship.

I hope you find in the practice of Cantatio Divina the same rewards I have: a deeper love not simply for the word but for its Author, not simply for worship but for The Song, himself.

Year-End Albums List

2017 is rapidly setting and this twilight always causes me to reflect on the records that moved me over the last 12 months. I’m always torn what’s worth sharing because I so rarely return to the albums over and over. I listen to new music once or twice and move on to whatever is released next.

This year I’ve decided to include 2 lists. I will simply list some albums that grabbed me this year either because of their excellent song-craft or for the innovative production that inspired me to try some new things in the studio. I’m not including links in this list because I assume you either know how to find these are more realistically, you’ve found them already. Nothing crazy-surprising here. In no particular order:

  • Harry Styles – Harry Styles
  • Bleachers – Gone Now
  • Randy Newman – dark matter
  • Lana Del Ray – Lust for Life
  • Passenger – The Boy Who Cried Wolf
  • PJ Morton – Gumbo
  • John Mayer – The Search for Everything
  • Jay-Z – 4:44
  • Stu G - Beatitudes Project
  • Shawn Mendes – Illuminate

This next list is more vital to me. A bunch of my current and former students have released projects this year. The songwriting program in the Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business at Belmont University is truly unparalleled the world over. There is some genuinely BRILLIANT music in this list. I’m certain everyone will be able to find something that moves you on the playlist below. I have NOT included all of the singles that students have released or co-written for others. I’ve also excluded songs by students that graduated from our program before I got here. (it’s sad how many great songs you’ll miss because of this exclusion. My apologies for robbing you of great songs by Devin Dawson, The Rooftop Secret, LANY, Adison, Coin, Rand, Nilka, and Mitchell Rose). Merry Christmas. Happy New Year and happy listening.

Hey Worship Leader, What Do You Think You’re Doing?

Yes, I mean to literally ask, “what do you THINK you’re doing?” because I think it might actually be different than you’ve intended. What you’re accomplishing might be bigger than you ever expected. I want to lift your eyes to the Kingdom potential in every opportunity you’re given because leading worship is a high calling to a low position. There are at least three important things you’re doing when you step up to lead God’s children in worship.

You’re teaching theology – I hope this scares you a bit. I’ve been told by too many worship leaders, “I’m not a theologian. I’m just leading some songs.” That is a misunderstanding of the power of songs and an underestimation of your authority from the platform. In his book Knowing Scripture, R.C. Sproul writes, “No Christian can avoid theology. Every Christian is a theologian….The issue for Christians is not whether we are going to be theologians but whether we are going to be good theologians or bad ones.” In his book The Christ Centered Expositor, pastor Tony Merida reminds preachers that the songs we use in worship are “portable theology.” Your people will continue singing the truths of those songs throughout their week. The simple act of selecting which songs to use in a worship gathering teaches theology; having attended your church for a month, a year, or a decade, will your people have a balanced understanding of the character of God? Will they have rehearsed the gospel enough in the songs you’ve selected that they could explain its foundations to their friends? Choosing songs in a setlist based entirely on tempo and key signature is still a theological act. You might be accidentally teaching bad theology. Recognizing your role as a theologian means working with your pastor to carefully choose songs with lyrics that will help set the gospel ablaze in the hearts of your people. It means giving your people the tools to rehearse the gospel as they wander through their week.

You’re giving your congregation permission or an excuse – Every person who walks into your worship gathering is either looking for permission to bring God their worship or their looking for an excuse to check out and let you worship God for them. Are you offering them permission to set aside their inhibitions and declare the excellencies of a good God? Or are you blacking out the audience lights and turning your instruments up louder to give them an excuse not to participate. Recently at a sporting event I was cajoled by the guy next to me to chant along more enthusiastically with the cheers of the crowd. Can you imagine if God’s people did this in worship? But men say, “singing isn’t really my thing.” At least it’s not their thing in worship. Have you given them an excuse to check out or permission to sing out? Kenny Lamm, in a challenging blog post on his website, has made some guesses as to why people might not be singing in our worship services. Lamm posits, “Prior to the Reformation, worship was largely done for the people. The music was performed by professional musicians and sung in an unfamiliar language (Latin). The Reformation gave worship back to the people, including congregational singing which employed simple, attainable tunes with solid, scriptural lyrics in the language of the people. Worship once again became participatory.” Are we returning to a time where worship is performed for us by the rock stars we’ve hired to sing melodies the average musician can’t sing at volumes just loud enough that you can’t tell whether or not people are participating? I hope not. Instead of giving your people an excuse to become spectators, why not give them permission to bring God what ever they have to offer. Are you setting songs in the key signature that is best for your voice or best for theirs? What your people can offer God probably won’t be as professional as what you might bring on their behalf, but doesn’t the One Most High God deserve the praise of EVERY tongue? Let engagement and congregational participation become your first goals and give your people permission to worship the God who deserves no less.

You’re going into war – This one might not be a surprise to you. I’ve felt like I was going into battle almost every week as a worship leader. I must confess, I’ve been an angry worship leader for years now. I thought my battle was with the people in front of me. I’ve struggled to pull and even shame them into singing louder, being more expressive, more free. Treating worship as a war was the correct posture, I just picked the wrong enemy. Last year, I finally turned my anger toward the enemy who has been working harder than I ever have to make sure my people walked into worship feeling defeated, deflated, and distracted. If you could see how hard the enemy is working to keep your people from feeling set free in worship it would change every aspect of your worship preparation. Now every moment I spend practicing and preparing is an act of war. Every moment I spend praying over the lyrics of the songs we will sing, the scriptures we will read aloud, and the visuals our people will see – each choice is an arrow pointed at a real and active enemy. I am not some American Idol worship leader chasing compliments from my fans. I am a fierce defender of the hearts that God has entrusted to my care. I am a shepherd and the songs I lead every week are the sling and stones I will use to defend the flock against a vicious enemy. I will stand with the great worship leader David and declare to the enemy, “You come against me with a dagger, spear, and sword, but I come against you in the name of Yahweh of Hosts, the God of Israel’s armies—you have defied Him. Today, the Lord will hand you over to me” (1 Samuel 17:45-46). Our songs are our weapons and every hallelujah is a battle cry.

Sometimes, a vast gulf can exist between what we THINK we’re doing and what we are actually accomplishing. Worship leader, when you stand in front of the church with a song on your lips this weekend, feel the tremors of expectation rattling the floor beneath your feet. Your job is so much bigger than just leading a few songs.

Harvey Relief

While I understand everyone’s desire to drive supplies into Houston, I can tell you from my experiences during Katrina that truck loads of random donations create a huge logistical mess. Sorting through your used goods to determine their usefulness and get them to the right place takes a whole infrastructure itself.

Your BEST WAY to help is by donating money to TRUSTED organizations that are already on the ground doing the work – they know exactly what supplies they need and simply need the resources to purchase them. I recommend HARVEY DISASTER RELIEF because 100% of donations go to relief efforts. The cooperative giving of churches cover the entire administrative and marketing costs of the organization and your donation can be COMPLETELY focussed on relief efforts.

I know it FEELS better to load up the car with supplies and start driving but giving to a trusted organization will actually accomplish exponentially more.