In my time of meditation and prayer the other day, wresting with loss, I felt the Spirit whispering to me, “When are you going to learn to let go of things you can’t control?” So much of our human experience, even as believers, is filled with adversity or difficult circumstances we don’t understand.
There is a story of a situation like this in 2 Chronicles 20. King Jehoshaphat is facing a “vast army” coming against Judah that they have “no power to face.” The way he responds is great example for us when we encounter uncertain and troubled times. His powerful prayer to God about the situation concludes, “We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chron 20:12).
I wrote and recorded this song during the long months of lockdown, inspired by this biblical story. As I recorded the various tracks I used my iPad to record video. The song appeared on my recent album and yesterday I finally got a chance to edit the iPad videos together with it. (So this video is the footage of the actual recording of the song.)
I DON’T UNDERSTAND (2 Chron 20:1-2)
I don’t understand
But I know you love me
All is in your hands
even if I don’t know what to do
On your Word I stand
To your will surrender
Gonna keep my eyes on you
Like a mighty army
Coming down upon me
If what they say is true
But I’ve seen your glory
Yeah I know the stories
So I’m standing here with you
I can face the problems
Knowing you can solve them
When the war belongs to you
Lord you will deliver
You love is forever
So I stand and worship you
Your love endures forever
Your glory we praise
Your love endures forever
You’re coming to save us
Copyright J. Brian Craig, October 2020
Ross Lippencott is a gifted singer, songwriter, guitar player who has also worked in church ministry for a long time. He was instrumental in planning much of the worship at the recent “World Discipleship Summit” in which around 11 thousand Christians from around the world participated. We have an interesting conversation about his personal history in music as well as all that went into planning the congregational singing for the conference. We discuss such things as:
- Key objectives he considered in planning the conference music
- Important values we should hold to in our worship teams
- Ways we can bring the gospel to artsy people
- How generational dynamics can play into worship ministry
Starting in April, my wife and I took a three-month sabbatical from our ministry duties at the church we work for. (I spoke here to our church about the concept of sabbath and sabbatical just before we went.) Even though I had studied and learned the logical idea of sabbath, I feel like it was something in my head and maybe just a bit of my heart but certainly not yet in my body and my bones. It was so hard for me to stop! (The very word sabbath is derived from the Hebrew word for stopping.) As God was just beginning to form for himself a people-group unique in the world, Sabbath was given as a gift to this group of former slaves, whose very identity had been in their production value, the number of bricks they could bake on a daily basis. God says to them you have to stop! Stop and remember who you are. Stop and know you can trust in me. Stop and know that I am enough for you. All the festivals and feasts that defined the identity of the people were built on top of sabbath rhythms. Even the origin story of the cosmos had sabbath as its crowing moment and key literary organizing feature (the Bema and Bible Project podcasts have much more to say about this if you’re interested).
I realized that even though I had taken vacations before, it had been at least 25 years since I had let a Sunday or two roll by without being deeply involved in all the workings of the church. Even though I might leave town and worship with another congregation, I would set everything up for my local church, remaining intimately involved in everything going on while I was away. But taking three months away meant I had to let go. I set up a sermon series and preaching rotation for our time away and delegated various responsibilities and then I had to just step away. It was so good for me (and so good for the church). It was good for me to spend hours and hours in reading, prayer, meditation, listening to spiritual podcasts, taking long hikes in nature. And I also spent time recording music!
One of the books I read, This Beautiful Truth, has as its thesis that beauty and art and creativity is one of the answers to the question of theodicy. Like the mystics taught, God is so big, so vast, so endless that he can never be understood through purely rational and logical means. He has to be encountered in ways that go beyond–into areas of artistic expression and delight. (God’s own answer to Job is not to rationally explain but rather to point to aspects of his amazing creation.) When approached this way art can become an act of worship. As I meditated on this I realized I had become so hampered from releasing new music by perfectionism. This quote from the book rang true, and both inspired me and really hit me hard:
Every work of art reaches out across the centuries, and each is a vision that casts a flame into the darkness. The wonder is that one great light wakes another. The song of one wakens the story of another. The story she told became the poem he made that kindled the painting in yet another’s hands. Each is a work of obedience. No artist can cast their flame of vision without a twinge of fear that it will simply fade or even pass unseen. But each is also a work of generosity: precious, private worlds offered in a self-forgetfulness that pushes aside vanity, insecurity, and perfectionistic pride.Sarah Clarkson, This Beautiful Truth (p. 187)
I realized I had around 20 worship songs I had written over several years I hadn’t released because I wanted them to be so perfect, I wanted to get my amazing musician and singer friends to help me work on them and was always too busy to make it all happen. My own voice has limitations, especially as I age. My own recording abilities are not as good as other stuff out there. But my heart was not in the right place. Sabbatical reflection helped me to surrender and realize how I just want to be like a flower or a tree or a mountain that reflects the worship and God and witnesses to his amazing grace. Who cares if there are better or more professional ways to perform or release these songs. Who knows how God can use my “fishes and loaves” and do something better or bigger with them. So I decided to spend some of my sabbatical time recording the first batch of these songs–the ones that had been written during times of waiting or spiritual struggle, wrestling surrender to God’s plan and my own limitations. Many of these were written were written simply enough to be congregational songs, but also they were borne of journeys through darkness and coming through to the light of the other side.
The posture of waiting is the posture of worship. It is interested that the book of Acts starts that way–Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God and his followers want to know how it’s all going to unfold. Yet his answer? To WAIT. His Spirit is going to be the central character in the narrative to follow. Our job is just to wait and witness. We don’t have to have it all figured out, we don’t have to direct all the action. We can trust in his goodness and guidance and enjoy the ride. Yes we will need to speak up, to act in boldness and courage while participating in God’s mission in the world. But it all starts with our souls patiently waiting on him.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem IsraelPsalm 130
from all their sins.
I haven’t posted in this space for quite a while. My wife and I were able to take a three-month sabbatical after 22 years of full-time ministry, and as part of that I stepped back from leading worship, speaking and writing engagements, and so I took a break from the blog as well. I hope to write more soon here about the concept of sabbatical and share a bit of what I learned. (I was also able to use part of that time to do some “devotional recording,” and here is an album I released of what I recorded; look forward to sharing more of that in the months ahead.)
After our sabbatical came to a close we ramped back up in preparation for an international gathering of the ICOC family of churches, the World Discipleship Summit, entitled “Renewed Vision.” (The Vision Conference in Orlando was originally supposed to have taken place in 2020, and we all know what happened with large gatherings that year.) Renewed Vision was an incredibly inspiring time together, like a festival of 9 days or so of joining in worship and prayer, sharing stories and scriptures. Towards the tail end of that week we had a get together for anyone involved in worship ministry that was there at that the conference. Around 200 worship leaders from around the world joined together for a time of singing, encouragement, and talking about the future of working together in the worship ministry of the ICOC fellowship of churches. What an amazing time! There is nothing like singing together with a room full of singers! We made a little fun of ourselves, sang a medley of songs written by members of ICOC, and had a time of trying out some new songs written by people in the group. (Thanks to Khalid James for recording this audio on his phone!) I think anyone who visits this blog would really enjoy listening to the whole two-hour session. Please add any comments below to join in the conversation as well.
As part of that time together we were able to introduce a few new congregational songs that are presently being written and shared among our congregations. Here are videos of these songs being introduced (videos courtesy of Erika Tan):
Can’t wait for the World Discipleship Summit this summer, entitled “Vision.” My best friend Marshall Mead is leading the church in Orlando and directing the conference. He recently recalled on a couple different podcasts how he had a mountaintop experience were he had an experience of hearing from God that he would direct the conference and it would be called “Vision.” Of course the small detail that what was “Vision 2020” would be postponed by a global pandemic and would later be “Vision 2022” was not revealed.
The last WDS was 10 years ago this summer and was called “On the Mountain of the Lord.” I recently stumbled across something that connects the two conference themes in a cool way. I hadn’t realized that the “Land of Moriah” where Abraham was tested (which would later be called the Mountain of the Lord and would be connected with the site of the temple) means “the Land of Vision.” And when it is translated “it will be provided” the literal Hebrew is “it will be seen.” Abraham literally says “God will see,” which is interpreted as he will provide. (The Bible Project has a released a really cool new app that has great podcasts and video-game-like guides that make some of these connections and themes; I’m loving it.) Anyway I just think it is so cool how the only two WDS’s that our family churches have ever had are joined in this way by this foundational story of testing. The Mountain of the Lord = The Mountain of Vision.
Anyway, on to sharing my song today. Collaborating with others I am sharing a song for the conference, “God Give us Vision.” We tried singing it this past Sunday with my Region of the LA Church and it seemed to go really well. (We recorded it live, so I’ll share that some time soon also.) The song is taken from several passages of scripture and is really centrally about the idea of praying that God will open our eyes to what he is already doing in the world and how he wants to use us. It has been said “I should not ask what kind of mission God wants for me, but rather what kind of me God wants for his mission.” I just want to be on the ride with God with whatever His Spirit is doing in the world – His will be done, His kingdom come. And I want to pass that along –I believe an important part of this conference is younger men and women “having vision and seeing dreams” for God’s kingdom, just as it was passed on to me by others who have gone before me. So that is what the song is about –standing humbly before the presence of the triune God (as we sing about in the bridge), asking him to open our eyes to what he wants to do in the world with each generation and how we can be a part of it.
1 Pet 2:9-10
Joel 2:28-32 / Acts 2:16-21, 32-33
1 Peter 1:10-12
GOD GIVE US VISION (lyrics)
God give us vision
Open our eyes to you
This is your mission
And we are joining you
Bringing your light and life
Lifting your name on high
God give us vision
God give us vision
From out of darkness into light
Our worldly nature crucified
You call us now to be a holy nation saved
To sing your praise
Death and the grave is overcome
Your Spirit poured on everyone
With each new generation, open eyes to see
Visions and dreams
Holy, holy, Lord Almighty
You are merciful and mighty
All your works will praise your name
In earth and sky and sea
Holy, holy, our King Jesus
By your blood you have redeemed us
As the prophets had foretold and
Angels longed to see
Holy, holy, holy Spirit
Breath of heaven draw us near and
Speak through us this great salvation
For those who believe
Bb / F / Dm / C
Dm / C / Bb / Bb
Dm / C / Bb / Bb
Dm / C / Bb C / Dm C/E
F / F / Csus / C (break)
Bridge 1 and 2
Bb / Bb / C / C
Dm / Dm C/E / F / F F/A
Bb / Bb / C / C
Dm / Dm / Gm / Gm
Bb / Bb / C / C
Dm / Dm C/E / F / F F/A
Bb / Bb / C / C
Dm / Dm / C / C (break)
This is a song my daughter Cora wrote that a pulled from the live stream of our service just over a week ago, when the teens picked all the songs and led us in much of the worship service. This song talks about how really knowing God, really coming into the light allows you to truly be yourself. Cora has a whole album of great songs she has written (and we are working on recording a few more new ones).
Here are the words and chords:
I was such a fool, so blinded
In a dark room that you lighted
You are my, my everything
You mean the world to me
No I can really be who I am
Down this road you will see the horizon
You are my, my everything
You mean the world to me
Such a beautiful sight, you and I, and I
I get afraid when I cross that line
Bm / G / D / A
Bm / G/ D / A
Bm / G / D / Em A
Hey everybody, happy Monday! I use this space more for sharing worship-ministry-related content than my teaching/preaching work. But yesterday there was a bit of a crossover as I share a story about a disaster on stage for a church event and dig into some pretty deep concepts as to how to relate to using our talents for God —something critically important for anyone involved in worship ministry. So I hope you’ll take the time to watch the sermon and share any comments, or your own thoughts about my interpretation of this story Jesus told. This shift in perspective towards God and my own identity is really meaning so much for me personally, and something I believe can be very transformative in how we interact with risk, uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, especially as it relates to using our gifts for spiritual purposes. I’m sharing it with the hope that it might help make what you’re doing a purposeful joy rather than a cynical grind.
We lost a couple dear members from our local congregation this past month. Strong disciples of Jesus, they have crossed over to “the other side” to be with him in Paradise, but we sure miss them! Singing this song as a congregation was therapeutic for us as we reflect on our own journeys and what really matters. (See here for an earlier posting of an album recording of this song.)
I wrote this song almost exactly 10 years ago for a conference that was to take place the following summer. As we have gone through difficulties as followers of Christ in various nations around the world, it’s good to be reminded that God has provided for us and will continue to provide for us. See Genesis 22 for context of the song, what the rabbis call the “Binding of Isaac.” The test of Abraham’s faith became a lesson about the provision of God. That is so true for my life, anytime I have been tested, God always comes through – he walks with me through hard times, he gives me just what I need at just the right moment. “On the mountain of the Lord it WILL be provided.”
This video is part of a “Regional” worship service, my congregation South Bay Church joining several of the other congregations of the LA Church of Christ. The young woman singing the song (Jayde Matthew) is a part of a great family, and her dad was appointed an elder for our church at the end of the service. Here’s the whole worship service. Here’s a video of the song when it was introduced at the conference back in 2012.
I had a few new worship tunes that I feel like the Lord gifted me during the many long months of Covid isolation. One of the songs was based on a cool passage from the book of Zechariah. Here’s the scripture and a bit of commentary on it (and I preached a sermon from this text last Christmas if you’re interested in hearing more):
6 Then he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts. 7 Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’”
8 Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 9 “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. 10 For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel. – Zechariah 4:6-10 (ESV)
Zechariah is a pretty weird book to our Western ears, but here is a bit of context. It helps to also look at Haggai, a contemporary book. This is the beginning of what’s known as the “Second Temple” period in the history of God’s people. As this new temple was taking shape, there were some of the older folks who had seen the glory of Solomon’s temple in their youth and thought this new one just didn’t measure up (Haggai 2:3). But God’s message to them was “do not fear, I am with you, my Spirit is with you” (2:4). It wasn’t about the amount of gold or silver or even all the riches of the world —God has all that already (2:8) it is HE that will fill the temple with glory even greater than the former temple (2:9). So that helps us understand the Zechariah passage. It’s not about human might or power, it’s about what GOD’S SPIRIT can do and where HE dwells (Zech 4:6). Even a mountain can become a plain with God’s power (4:7, cf Matt 17:20).
I love the NLT translation for verse 10: “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin, to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hand.” God was rejoicing just to see the work begin even with just the tape measure in the leader’s hand. Don’t make light of small victories – that’s often how God works! Little by little. Or with “little” people. There is a theme throughout scripture: God delights in the little. He chooses the weak and unknown. He lifts up the lowly. It’s easy for us to be down on ourselves, or to dwell on how we wish things would be, especially during times like this. But God rejoices in small beginnings. Let us take time to celebrate special moments like the first block in a new temple, or a newborn king in a humble manger. As we’re coming out of Covid hiding, let’s rejoice in every spiritual victory God gives us in his church. There’s a lot of big changes that need to happen in our world. God’s going to make a difference not by might, nor by power but by his Spirit (and perhaps by using our “small beginnings”).
NOT BY MIGHT (Zech 4:6-10)
Not by might
Nor by power
But by the Spirit
Of Almighty God
What are you?
Oh mighty mountain
Before us you
Become a plain
Can bring a blessing
In his Spirit
In His hands
A firm foundation
We build his temple
By his Spirit
In his name
In your hands
Our small beginnings
Through us you can
Bring change to earth
Use us now
To serve your mission
By your Spirit
Heal the world