when my mess tumbles out and God comes in

In all the 20 years that I have been leading worship in music at church, I still get nervous every single time. It’s more than stage fright, though that remains a significant component. It’s anticipation, longing. Wanting more than a sentimental musical experience. Wanting something real, something deeper. Creating a space with the music for people to go beyond words in bringing their hearts, their hurts, their fears, their doubts, their shame, before a God who says to every broken soul, “Come to the cross, I will not turn you away there.” Creating a space where the heart is opened and everything tumbles out in the mess that we often feel we are, and we try so hard to contain our mess and apologize that we didn’t get it together before we came before this Holy One. Only to find ourselves caught up in the embrace of the Father who ran to us while we were still a long way off and says, “Welcome home.”

I long for this as a worship leader. For this real exchange to happen. For people to find themselves found by God, because of Christ. I am afraid of getting in the way with too many words, not enough words. Awkward pauses. Wrong notes. I’m afraid of a Sunday with a weak voice, an off voice that doesn’t inspire others to proclaim, “I am His beloved, and He is so good.” I used to think that quality and skill in music didn’t matter that much as a worship leader, but particularly after going through John Piper’s series, “Gravity and Gladness,” and reading Bob Kauflin’s book, “Worship Matters,” I am convinced that quality and skill do matter. Quality in music, quality in leadership style, skill and discernment in both. I don’t think I can take the ministry of worship in music too seriously. I am leading people, through song, to come before a holy, loving God. The Creator and King of the universe. Our Life-giver. He is holy, holy, holy. I tremble with this, every week. I don’t want to sing flippantly to this God who sees my heart of hearts. I want to be used by You, God. I don’t want my pride to get in the way. I don’t want my fumbles to get in the way. Give us Yourself. We need You. No one brings life the way You do. Not me, not my music. Give us Yourself and help me not to get in the way.

There is a deep joy I share with my fellow worship team members. I love musicians who offer what they have to worship the Lord. They get it. They get that the backing off with an instrument is a humble expression of worship, a humble act of service to the church family, just as much as the loud strums and beats. I don’t have to play, to be heard, to be recognized, all the time, because it’s not about me. We’re creating a dynamic with our music, the rise and fall of our hearts when we hurt and we hope and we fall and we get up, when our brokenness robs us of our words before God and when our joy can’t be contained so we have to sing and shout and clap. There are certain Sundays when we know that the Lord has been gracious to us in our time of music, He has been there. The weight of His glory lingers even after the benediction has been given. I exchange glances with other worship team members and we just know, He has glorified Himself through our offering, and our hearts are so glad. Sometimes, I have trouble talking with people afterwards because I feel so amazed that He would give us this gift of Himself, our little broken but beautiful church community. He is what we have longed for. We need Him to go with us into our traffic and our housework and our tense relationships and our Monday morning blues. Give us Yourself, God. As you always have, would you now, again, graciously give us Yourself.

through someone else’s song

In my high school years, my friends and I were young, zealous, and just a little foolish in our desire to do good for others. We didn’t know what we were doing, but you sure had to give us an A for effort. We would go to Denny’s, the four of us, order one serving of toast, and throw all the little packets of jam into our backpacks, only to call over the waiter and ask for more jam. You can imagine, this only worked so well. It was a miracle we never ended up in the back washing dishes. We then made our way to the market where we bought a loaf of Wonder bread, a container of peanut butter, and bottled water. From there, we would seek out any homeless person we could find and give them their pb&j fixings ad nauseum for the week.

Something else we did quite regularly was visit the local nursing homes with my guitar. We just kind of wandered in and poked our heads into any rooms with open doors, asking if we could visit awhile. It was a slightly disturbing miracle that we never, to my recollection, were stopped or questioned by the staff as to who we were or why we were entering the residents’ rooms.

One visit stands out in my memory. We found a woman in her 40s or 50s, sitting next to her aged mother, who clearly suffered from a considerable degree of dementia. She was unresponsive to our questions, gazing at us with a confused look through forlorn eyes. We offered to sing a well-known hymn, “Because He Lives.” We closed the door to her room and sang softly.

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow; because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know He holds the future, and life is worth the living just because He lives.

The light in the room seemed to grow softer. Peace replaced anxiety. Dare I say, joy came to us. The elderly woman quietly whispered the words of the song. It was as though we had ever so slightly stepped for a moment into that future time and place where sorrow and tears and death will be no more, and our hearts were glad.

Fast forward many years.

I had received an unexpected phone call. A loved one was in a hospital, many miles away. A suicide attempt. Please come quickly if you can.

I had no words for the pain, it ran so deep. I could not utter my prayers, I did not know what to ask or how to ask it. But there was a hymn that a close friend emailed to me. When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul. It was the sung prayer of my soul. For weeks, as my loved one slowly recovered, words continued to evade me, both in conversation and in prayer. I ached, deeply. Did God hear the words I could not find?

One Sunday, I visited a nearby church rather than attending my own. I had no energy to keep up the façade to help others feel less uncomfortable with my pain. The pastor preached on anxiety and trusting the goodness of God because we see Christ, who bore our grief and infirmities, so that we might be healed. I went forward for Communion. The pastor met my tearful gaze. This is His body, broken for you. I returned to my seat, and the very moment I bowed my head, the music team began to play a hymn.

When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.

What is this love that comes so tenderly from heaven to earth, to this heart that could not pray but through someone else’s song. He heard my cry. Peace replaced anxiety. Even in grief, joy had come.