Worship Leader, You Are a Theology Teacher

I visited a church recently, one that is fairly prominent in the city it’s in. There were people from all different walks of life, of many different ethnic backgrounds, and the musicians were good. People were raising hands and singing at the top of their lungs and everyone seemed into it.

And then toward the end of the third song, something dawned on me. Not once during the three songs was Jesus mentioned. The cross wasn’t brought up. Sin and redemption and the love of Christ were nowhere to be found. We sang two more songs before the message, and the theme of every song was, “I’m going to get through this. God is going to lift me up.” God was a coach, someone to help walk you through the difficult times in life. And you know what? You can do it! 

Jesus was nowhere to be found.

Worship through music is a big part of most church services, whether it be through a pipe organ or a rock band. Music moves us in certain ways; scientists have done many studies and tests to try to figure out why music affects our emotions so, without any definitive answers. Every known human culture uses music and song to communicate, and it can’t be by accident! We’re wired to enjoy music, and it’s one of the many ways we offer worship to God.

I’m no stranger to worship music: I led the worship team at my home church all through high school, was heavily involved in leading with our college ministry, and was the worship director at a church for a year and a half after college. I come from a church tradition that highly values and emphasizes worship through song and music, and so that scene is a very familiar world.

Early on in my worship leading, I would pick any song that someone could describe as a “worship song.” Songs I liked, songs someone else liked, the latest songs by the best worship bands, songs that really got the church hyped. Songs that tickled peoples’ ears. Songs that tickled peoples’ hearts. I was teaching my people a weak theology with minimal Biblical support. There was a lot of, “This is what I’m going to do, God!” and not much, “God, this is what YOU’VE done!”

I’m picky now when it comes to worship music. Someone once complained that I didn’t do enough new or different songs, that my song database was too small. When it comes to leading congregations, I think worship leaders must use discretion when choosing songs.

Think about your church service last Sunday. Can you remember the preacher’s main points? What Bible passage was he expounding on? It’s a bit difficult, isn’t it? Now think about what songs you sang. Can you remember one or two of those?

The reality is, at the end of the week, people will be more likely to hum a song they sang at church than to ponder sermon points. I found myself just this morning singing the worship songs my church sang the last two weeks. When you put anything to music, you’re bound to commit it to memory. My 6th grade math teacher taught us about fractions and percentages through several songs he wrote, and I still remember them to this day. I’m sure when you’re going through your ABC’s, you sing the tune in your head.

Melodies and lyrics stick with people, and so it is important that when we pick songs to lead our congregations with, we pick songs that clearly point to the gospel and are supported by Scripture. They need to be songs that are doctrinally sound. What we think and believe and sing about God is of utmost importance, and so which songs we sing in our services is of utmost importance.

So how do we do this?

First, worship leaders should be in the Bible daily. Saturating yourself with the Word of God enables you to lead people to God and the full richness of the gospel. It also helps you see when songs aren’t biblically sound and enables you to teach people where the truths in your song come from.

Worship leaders should be excellent theologians. Leading people into worship is more than being able to play the guitar and sing! You have an immense responsibility and calling to shepherd the people God has entrusted to you. It’s not a call for every aspiring musician.  Go buy a book on Christian doctrine or systematic theology and study it. Things like the Trinity, the doctrine of man, and eschatology are rich biblical truths that will inform you when choosing a worship song. Knowing theology helps you see why the line, “you took the fall and thought of me above all” in the song “Above All” is inaccurate and faulty. It puts man at the center of God’s purpose, as opposed to the glory of God being at the center of God’s purpose.

Worship leaders should pick songs carefully. (If you haven’t gotten it yet, this is kind of the point of my post.) People are often quick to include a song in their set list because Hillsong or Bethel or Passion does it. But God has called you to be faithful to Him and your people. Go through the lyrics. All of them. Do they have biblical support? Are they doctrinally sound? Is it a song your pastor would approve of? What truths do your want your people to cherish? Would people know that you’re singing to, about, and for God? Remember “In the Secret?” It sounds like you’re asking someone (probably Jesus) to sneak around the corner and make out with you. Awkward. Same with “Draw me Close to You.”

It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of prayer. And this is before you even get to the practicing part! It decreases the amount of songs in your song bank. It may sound like too much, but as worship leaders, you’ve been entrusted with much! Be diligent and faithful, friends. It is not an entitlement to anyone with with a decent voice. It is a calling by God.

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the grace of God that wounds

I was a good kid. I made high A’s all through school and the extent of my rebellion to my parents was how low I would grow my sideburns. I led worship at my church throughout high school, and then again with our student ministry in college, and I would often speak/preach when given an opportunity. I learned how to be socially adept and maintain friendships with many people, so that my friends would jokingly use terms like “social butterfly” and “friend whore” to describe me. And I had a relationship with Jesus that seemed earnest, and I knew that I needed Jesus.

But I didn’t really need Jesus.

I knew that God sent Jesus to save sinners like me, and I knew I was a sinner, but I really didn’t think I was that much of a sinner. I didn’t do that many sinful things. I knew about the grace of God, but grace seemed more to me like good things I deserved because I was good. I was a good kid! Why wouldn’t Jesus save me? Grace was just for those few times I slipped up and looked at pornography or lied to my parents about being in my dorm when I was really at my friends’ place.

I knew that the gospel was good news, but honestly, the bad news didn’t seem that bad, at least for me. School was going great, my parents bragged about me, my church family loved me, my friendships were great, and I did all the things a good Christian leader was supposed to do.

But then I felt God calling me to vocational ministry, and I switched my life about. And in fear of the consequences, I wasn’t so forthright about it. My parents and extended family eventually found out and didn’t take this so well, because it had seemed clear that God was actually calling me to be a doctor or some other prestigious vocation.

There were many tears shed and hurtful words shared. We went from talking almost daily to me talking to my mom maybe once a week. I hardly talked to my dad at all. My grandparents didn’t know what to say to me except to look at me in sadness and my church family just didn’t talk about it. School seemed to take a turn for the worse. I ended up hurting close friends, and I was hurt by close friends. I was in a relationship that ended suddenly, and for the first time, it wasn’t amicable. I was hurting and cowering in the darkest shadows of my life, and I didn’t know who to reach out to. I tried to portray cool confidence and trust in God, but I was floundering. I was confused and depressed and heartbroken and angry and anxious. There were even several times where I thought that the best way to deal with it all was by ending everything. And several times where I almost did.

And all this brought me to a place of deep introspection and crying out to the God I claimed to love and serve.

Slowly, layer by layer, relationship by relationship, God began showing me things I had never seen before. I realized that I was selfish and hurtful and greedy and arrogant and sexually immoral and wicked — all without having to do any specific actions. That was just how my mind and heart was bent! God showed me how silly it was that I prided myself in my “humility” and self-deference. He humbled me by unveiling the fact that I was capable of causing so much destructive damage in my relationships with people. He exposed a heart that sought comfort in temporal things rather than on eternal things. He revealed that self-approval was the idol I worshiped at, and my identity wasn’t really found in Christ, but ultimately in how people perceived me.

It felt like life was beating me up, but when I thought upon the sovereignty of God, it dawned on me that my world wasn’t rocked upside-down by chance, but by the grace of God. He had brought me to this place! And it was one of the greatest displays of love I had encountered personally. It was a gift of the grace of God. 

In love, he had brought me to that point to show me my brokenness. I had always been broken, I just refused to see it. In love, he had wounded me so that he could reveal his goodness. So that he could reveal his love in binding me up. He had knocked my legs out from under me, so that I could be on my knees before him. He bruised me to show me why the Son of God was bruised. To show me why the gospel was such good news.

The depravity of man (the fallen nature we’ve all inherited ever since our ancestor Adam felt like rejecting God was a good idea) began to be a real thing I knew not only in theory, but in experience. Sin wasn’t just things I did, but the posture of my heart. As I began to see myself for who I am, I began to see why I so desperately needed Jesus! I was a mess, and no amount of self-help would ultimately fix my heart. I turned to the only One I knew to turn to.

I was spiritually dead, and Christ came into my dead-ness and caused me to be un-dead, to have life, and new life in him! He had saved me from sin, from death, from myself. And by the grace of God, he has healed my brokenness — and my relationships.

I am thankful for the grace of God displayed in the perfect life, sin-absorbing death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that this same Jesus is coming again! It is the gospel that changes everything!

But I’m also thankful for the gift of the grace of God that sometimes, He wounds us in love.

“Let me hear gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.” – Psalm 51:8
“Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down , and he will bind us up.” – Hosea 6:1
Image Credit: Courtney Celley 

race and reconciliation

The world is broken.

On the eve of our annual holiday of celebrating what we’re thankful for, our country lies divided over what has transpired in Ferguson, Missouri. In August, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer, which prompted riots in the city, and outrage around the nation. Last night, a grand jury decided to not indict officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death, and the tension in America is palpable.

I don’t want to enter into a debate of guilt or innocence or safety or facts. I wasn’t there and I don’t know every single fact about the case. My heart is heavy and breaks for both sides. What I do know is that this is not the only situation where there has been an outcry of racial injustice. Being a brown man, I am certainly not a stranger to racism. But even then, I had always assumed that if you don’t give people a reason to distrust you, you’ll be fine.

And then I began having conversations with my black friends about how they often get pulled over while driving and questioned. Frisked and treated gruffly, sometimes shoved against their cars — without citation. Suspiciously eyed and accused of shoplifting when walking through stores. These friends aren’t thugs, they look and talk a lot like me! And strangely, these are not conversations I’ve ever had with my Indian, Asian, or white friends. I get “randomly” screened a lot at airports, but I’ve never been pulled over for suspicion of possession. I’ve driven many a late night and I’ve never had a cop ask me why I’m driving around this neighborhood this late at night. .

This is not an accusation of police officers; on the contrary, I am incredibly grateful to the men and women who daily put their lives on the line so that the rest of us can live in safety. What they do is something we all take for granted, and I thank them. I also do not think most white people are racist; most of the white men and women I know have shown me otherwise.

What I am saying is that everyone’s experience of “freedom and justice for all”  has certainly not been the same. We’re all viewing these situations differently because we’re all viewing these situations through the lenses of our own experiences. And our own experiences are very different. That is something we need to address.

Black people are often accused of turning everything into a race issue. Most of the rest of us don’t understand because we haven’t been subjected to systemic prejudice the way our black brothers and sisters have. Most of us don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t trust a civil servant because most of us have never had a reason to not trust a civil servant. We don’t want to talk about racism because we want to think we’ve moved past it. Clearly we have not.

The frightening thing is that most of us may not actually have racist thoughts or biases… and yet still choose to walk on the other side of the road by failing to acknowledge or ignoring the beaten and bruised Samaritan in the street. Ignoring our hurting brothers and sisters is not loving our neighbors as ourselves.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King, Jr

So how do Christians respond to this? I think the first step is to speak less, and to listen more. Instead of looking to CNN, Fox News, or Facebook for perspectives and “facts,” let’s engage people in dialogue. Instead of ranting about justice or lack of justice, pick up the phone. Ask your black friends why they’re so hurt by what’s gone on in Ferguson. Listen to their stories of their experiences of being colored in America. Ask yourself why communities are rioting and why people are mourning. Observe the pain, and ask why?

This is not just an issue of “facts”. Uncovering “facts” will not heal wounds because these wounds are emotional wounds, and they have their context in each person’s story. Healing begins when we sit side by side with our hurting brothers and sisters and understand where they’re coming from. Healing begins when we come along side them and mourn with them and pray with them and advocate for them. Christians, we must step in.

Let’s pray for the family of the victim. They’re hurting in so many ways. Let’s pray for those who feel betrayed by the justice system. And we must also pray for the officer and his family. They may be in danger for a long time, and for the rest of his life, Officer Wilson has to live with the fact that he killed someone. Let’s pray for healing and safety for them.

In all of this, one thing is certain: the problem is sin. The solution is the gospel. All of us (black, white, Indian, Asian, Latino) are broken people capable of incredible evil. Michael Brown was broken with sin. Wilson is broken with sin. You and I are broken with sin. The only thing that can ultimately fix us is the gospel of Jesus Christ that we all so desperately need. Not laws, not anger, not punishments, not education, not government. Let’s remember that as we talk about Ferguson and how to move forward. Let us be a people who seek the repentance, love, grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation that are all possible in Christ Jesus.

when grace meets mercy

Grace. Mercy.

Those two words have become so common in Christian-speak. We talk and sing and teach about the grace of God and the mercy of God, and we use them rather interchangeably. But what do they even really mean?

Simply put, grace is when you get what you don’t deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you do deserve. *

Confused?

We must start off by understanding humanity and God. At the heart of it, humans screw up on a daily basis and God is perfect. We have this incredible knack of sinning, and God is holy. We’re broken people breaking the world even more. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

The justice of God is to exact punishment for crimes and sins. After all, that is what we expect our own law systems to do: to catch and punish criminals. If God did not do so,  He would not be a just and fair God. How just would our justice system be if we let violators of the law go free? The wages of sin is death, and that’s what every person rightly deserves, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Justice is when you get what you deserve.

The mercy of God is that He does not always mete out the punishment right then and there. You and I, we deserve punishment and death on a nearly daily basis. How many times have you screwed up this year? This week? Today? Do you ever marvel that God hasn’t struck you down by lightning yet? I do. But it is the mercy of God that He has hasn’t struck us down, not giving us what we duly deserve. Mercy is when you’ve been speeding and the cop pulls you over, but doesn’t give you a ticket. It is the mercy of God that “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:10)

The grace of God is that He gives us salvation and communion with Him. The grace of God is that He gives us Himself in Jesus, even though we don’t deserve it. It is that in spite of who we are and what we do, Christ loves us and died for us to reconcile us to the Father. We don’t deserve to be saved into a relationship with God! We’re getting what we most certainly do not deserve. Grace is when the cop who pulled you over takes you to lunch and offers you an escort to where you’re going so you don’t get pulled over again. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and it is not because of yourself; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)

Grace and mercy are similar, yes. But also beautifully different. If not for mercy, we would have perished a long time ago. If not for grace, we would be a hopeless lot. Mercy saves us from condemnation. Grace grants us eternal life.

Lucky for us, God is merciful and gracious.

“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Psalm 145:8

And in Jesus, we see where the grace of God meets the mercy of God.

*These definitions aren’t absolute throughout the Scriptures, and sometimes the writers (and biblical translators) used the words for different purposes. For example, in the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10, “mercy” is used to mean compassionately caring for someone’s needs. The definitions I have provided are more to be understood in Paul’s writing, and what we mean when we talk about the terms in our understanding of what Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection; they have judicial implications.

words of life

Today marks 5 years since cancer took my friend Esther. Last week, I learned of another college friend who walked from earth into eternity. The list of people I know who have passed away grows at a rate that I’ll never be comfortable with. And I hate it.

We always want to say things, anything, that might offer comfort in times of loss, but the reality is that it’s often little solace. Pithy statements like, “he’s in a better place!” and “she’s with Jesus” do not take away the sting of death. They are well-meaning and true words, but they do little to change the situation. I am reminded of the limitations of my words every time I try to console a grieving friend. Every time a friend tries to offer me words of encouragement. Our best words cannot undo sin and its end product: death.

There is one place that I’ve found comfort and hope, especially when dealing with death, and that’s in the words of Jesus. You can chalk it up to religious sentimentality or fanciful feelings, but there is a very real peace in the red letters. Almost as if they have power.

After all, when Jesus spoke, people were healed and demons went scrambling. When Jesus spoke, the winds and the sea obeyed him. When Jesus spoke, a dead man walked out of his grave. John 1 tells us that Jesus was the very Word by which all things were created out of nothing back in Genesis. Jesus has power. And the power was displayed when he was resurrected from the dead, the firstfruit, proving our spiritual resurrection and future bodily resurrection.

We also know that the Bible is God’s revelation to us, so that that when it speaks, God speaks. Thus, it makes sense that reading Scripture would bring peace, because it is the power of God working in you, not just your brain processing the words on paper.

The words that I have been resting on today are some of the last words in the Bible. They describe a vision of what is to come, a reality that draws nearer with every passing day.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, Behold, I am making all things new.  – Revelation 21:1-5

This is what we look forward to. Not for a future of floating around playing harps, but a future where heaven is on earth, where death and crying and pain will be a thing of the past. It is a place where the dead in Christ will live with God in newly restored, resurrected bodies. Esther. Patrick. Ronnie. Ommar. Christ the Redeemer will return to finish what he began and redeem everything fully. The earth. Our bodies. Our lives. He is working all things toward this redemption.

Jesus said it, and they are true because the One who spoke it is Truth. He is God.

Behold! Jesus is making all things new!

suffering in the hands of a sovereign God

Pain and suffering are not things that are foreign to Christians. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if we have more of it.

Following Christ doesn’t mean life gets easier. Loved ones will still die. Disease will steal health. Life will not be kind. People will talk negatively about you. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words may break your spirit.

Following Jesus isn’t a ticket to health and wealth, but a surrendering of your life and taking up your cross, because that’s what Jesus did. We follow the leader who fell to the ground while carrying His instrument of torture. He was bruised and crushed and spit upon and reviled; the King of kings suffered to the very point of death on a cross. He, who could call angels to strike down His persecutors, who did not deserve to hang like a criminal, submitted Himself to suffering because He knew that the Father was still in charge. God still sat on His throne.

Following Jesus means that sometimes, we don’t get to come down from our cross.

This song reminds us that whether it be cancer or criticism, death or disability, our suffering is not just random bad luck or the universe out to get us. It does something in us. Our suffering has purpose in the hands of a sovereign God.

I come, God, I come
I return to the Lord
The one who’s broken
The one who’s torn me apart
You struck down to bind me up
You say You do it all in love
That I might know You in Your suffering

Though You slay me
Yet I will praise You
Though You take from me
I will bless Your name
Though You ruin me
Still I will worship
Sing a song to the one who’s all I need

For the stories behind the song, click here and here.

“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” – Job 1:21

the walking dead

When I was in high school, I told my grandmother that I wanted to be an archaeologist. While everyone around me was telling me that medicine was the right path for me (I’m Indian, it’s the default assumed profession), I was convinced that I would be happy and content digging in the dirt. My grandmother then laughed and asked me why I was so interested in looking for dinosaur bones. When I told her that was paleontology and not archaeology, clearly two different disciplines, she laughed again. Harder.

Needless to say, I am currently not an archaeologist.

For as long as I can remember, the earth and stuff from history buried in the earth have always intrigued me. Geology, paleontology, and archaeology were the stuff that fascinated me as a kid. And Power Rangers, but that’s a different story. I wanted to be a mix of Ross from Friends, who by the way, was a paleontologist, and Indiana Jones. Well, maybe not, but I was very interested in what the ground had to offer for me discover, particularly when it came to ancient cultures and civilizations.

No ancient civilization wooed me as compellingly as ancient Egypt. Egypt, with her dual kingdoms and audacious building projects, themselves little more than monumental grave markers. Historians claim that the Great Sphinx, the Great Pyramid and the other pyramids in the Giza Necropolis were already built and standing for over a millenium before the exodus of the Israelites from the biblical account even happened. Egypt with her pyramids and pharaohs and pantheon of deities. Egypt with her mummies.

Archaeologists have found many of these mummified corpses, housed in elaborate coffins that were then placed in stone sarcophagi. The body of the deceased would be embalmed and wrapped in linens, with its vital organs removed and preserved, and then placed into a carved wooden coffin, which in turn would be placed into the rectangular sarcophagus. The idea was that the spirit of the deceased would return into its body, and so to help the returning spirit distinguish its body, the faces of the pharaohs were carved and painted onto the lids of the sarcophagi.

What strikes me is how bright and vivid these ornate coffins are. Many of them are very stylized and intricate, gilded and painted with deep, rich colors and have been attempted to look lively and life-like. Some of the coffins of the royalty were overlaid with, or even made with gold and silver. And despite how beautiful the outside of the coffin is, just one peek under the lid reveals the grave truth (no pun intended… okay, maybe): what lies within is dead, decaying and decomposing. You will never pop the hood and find life.

That description is pretty accurate when it comes to humanity. We spend so much effort and money and time trying to ensure that we look a certain way, maintain a certain image and have everything in order. We paint ourselves with education, money, and fame, trying convince everyone that what’s on the outside is who we really are. We live to satisfy this image that we bear. And all the while, inside we’re dead. We’re life-less corpses walking around in magnificent human bodies.

This is exactly how the apostle Paul describes us in the New Testament: dead apart from Christ. Not that we’re physically dead (although sin will certainly lead to that) but that spiritually, what lies within our earth-suit lacks a pulse. There seems to be no purpose or goodness to life, and we live knowing that there is more, just unsure of what it is.

But God.

The risen Christ is a testament to Jesus’ power over death. God makes us alive with Christ in His resurrection, reaching into our dead hearts and replacing them with living, beating, thriving hearts. Our spirits can rejoice because in Christ, life has purpose and reason and meaning. We are no longer selfish beings looking to extend our legacies far beyond our lives, which is what the Egyptians had attempted to do with their mummies and building projects. No, we live in Christ as proclaimers of the love of God in this life and heirs of His promise in the hereafter.

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins  in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—  among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,  even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—  and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,  so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” — Ephesians 2:1-7

In Christ, we are no longer zombies or walking coffins. In Jesus, we do not live in mindless wandering, attempting to appear as if we’re alive. We are alive and our identity is found in Jesus. The image we project is not an idealized self-portrait, but we display and proclaim Christ in our lives. We live to make His name great. Christian, live in this identity.

Two thousand years ago, a body lay in a tomb, wrapped in ceremonial burial linens. This body didn’t stay in the linens, though. Jesus the Christ rose from grave and gives us a promise that if we are in Him, death will not be our final resting place either.