Friday, May 30, 2008


May 30, 2008

The highly acclaimed maestro walked across the front of the stage as the eager audience rose to their feet with enthusiastic applause. He stepped up to the podium, politely acknowledged the symphony seated before him, then turned and bowed to the audience humbly accepting their cheers. As the wild ovation began to subside, he faced the orchestra and raised his baton. Immediately the musicians snapped to attention poised for action, every eye fixed on the maestro's hands. The downbeat was given, but what happened next came as a total surprise shocking the conductor, confusing the audience, yet eliciting smiles and suppressed giggles from some of the musicians.
The location was an outdoor amphitheater in Phoenix, Arizona. The Phoenix Symphony was performing a "Pops" concert, a benefit for the Symphony Association and other local charities. The afternoon concert was packed with music fans looking for a good time. They would not be disappointed; surprised maybe, but not disappointed. Conducting the orchestra for this particular piece of music was none other than Richard Dreyfuss, the well known movie star. This was only a couple of years after the release of the movie, "Jaws," one of his best known and best loved films. Richard was at the pinnacle of his popularity so his presence on the program had aroused a great deal of interest and sold a lot of tickets.
What many people didn't realize at the time is that Richard is quite the classical music buff, and he is particularly fond of Mozart. Naturally, he jumped at the opportunity to conduct a symphony orchestra playing a piece written by his favorite composer. So when the downbeat was given, Richard was expecting the opening chords of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusic”, as was the audience. What few people knew, however, was that the string players had conspired to play the ultimate trick on Richard. Instead of the bright, majestic, opening chords of Mozart, the audience was treated to the low, undulating tones of the theme from "Jaws."
For a few brief moments Richard was in a confused panic. Then it dawned on him what was happening and he nearly fell off the podium laughing. The audience was roaring, the musicians just continued playing "Jaws," and Richard was in hysterics. As a member of the cello section at the time I must confess to being somewhat complicit in the prank. Fortunately, Richard was very good natured about the incident and we all had a good laugh together after the concert was over. The orchestra finally did get around to Mozart but I'm quite sure the impromptu program change was far more memorable to the audience. It has also become one of the fondest memories of my eighteen seasons with the Phoenix Symphony.
Have you ever been in Richard's place? The program for your life was all planned. The details were set firmly in your mind years ago—a prestigious career with lucrative financial rewards, a perfect marriage with no hints of friction, a wonderful family with loving, obedient children perpetually on their school's honor roll, and a spacious ranch house in the suburbs. You gave the downbeat but suddenly some sinister prankster changed the program. Instead of Mozart you got mayhem; instead of classics you ended up with "no class." Your favorite career has been "pink-slipped" off the program. The perfect spouse you married has begun singing a different tune. Your loving children are refusing to follow your baton, and your ranch house in the suburbs has been modulated into a crowded apartment next to the freeway. Somehow life has conspired to play a dirty trick on you and while you fall off the podium in shock, the whole world seems to be laughing.
If this is you then take heart and take heed, my friend, because you certainly aren’t alone in your confusion and disappointment. Like most of us guest musicians on this planet you may be consulting the wrong musical score and playing to the wrong audience. The author of the book of Hebrews invites us to be the guest conductor before an audience of celestial importance. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith..." – Hebrews 12:1-2. King David, the psalmist, certainly knew the correct score to follow. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” – Psalm 119:105. “Your decrees are the theme of my song wherever I lodge.” – Psalm 119:54.
We have an audience in heaven, most notably our Savior and Lord, who is absolutely crazy about us, who gives us a standing ovation just for appearing on the stage of Christianity, who cheers when we mount the podium of faith, and whose adoration absolves us of any miscues. And we have an infallible score which has been proven reliable for thousands of years. When the expected program suddenly changes without your permission, just keep the beat going and remain focused on the true music. Our real audience is never surprised. In fact, our heavenly Maestro has even orchestrated most of our program changes. "Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails." – Proverbs 19:21.
So go ahead and enjoy the concert; laugh along with the world. Just be certain you are paying attention to the right music and playing to the right audience. If you do, you may just find the changes more memorable, more stimulating, more faith-building, and more fulfilling than what you had planned.
In case the above message seems vaguely familiar to some of you, let me confess. It was published in our newsletter over six years ago. I came across it recently as I was searching through my archives attempting to make sure I didn’t accidentally plagiarize something I had previously written. Given what has transpired in my life and ministry over the last few years the message appears to be remarkably prophetic.
Six years ago we were still valiantly struggling to plant a traditional church here in Dublin. Since the above words were written God has dramatically, unexpectedly changed the program. Rather than meeting in a church facility we are holding our gatherings in homes, restaurants, coffee shops, and parks. Rather than striving to grow our congregation larger and larger we are content to have it small, enjoying the intimate fellowship while encouraging our people to go out and plant their own churches. Rather than attempting to attract the world to come to our church we are searching for ways to take our church to the world. Rather than being a clergy-directed institution we are all learning to listen to the Lord and doing our best to obey what we hear. Rather than allowing one individual to dominate the teaching in a sermon format we are all sitting in a circle with each one sharing what he or she believes the Lord desires to teach us. Rather than promoting a complicated system of church structure and polity we are doing our best to keep it simple enough that practically anyone could reproduce it. In the process we are reaching more people and seeing more lives transformed into the likeness of Christ.
Earlier in my life I had transitioned from being a symphony musician to being a pastor. In the last few years I have slowly returned to receiving most of my income from music, teaching private music lessons, which has led me out into the world where I am able to influence more people for the Lord. This also allows me the privilege of “giving away” my ministry to others. Clearly, none of this was on the program of my pastoral career when it was originally envisioned. However, as I look back on it now, it seems obvious that the Master Conductor has been orchestrating all of these program changes. These days He has me playing a piece for which my instrument seems to be perfectly tuned. I am reaching a larger audience and seeing more lives transformed than I thought would be possible just a few years ago. Rather than falling off the podium in shock and confusion I am learning to keep the music playing and enjoying the concert.
A glance at the score tells me I am far from being alone in having my program change unexpectedly. David gave the downbeat on a simple obscure career tending his family’s sheep, but found himself in the limelight playing the part of the king of Israel. Jonah began playing a piece called “World Traveler,” but ended up performing for his most feared enemies after a serious interlude in the belly of a great fish. And who could forget Saul who started out his career conducting a war against Christianity but ended up as perhaps the Church’s greatest missionary playing for audiences throughout the known world.
Unless I miss my guess, I believe most of you reading this have experienced a few program changes in your life. I believe this may be especially true for those of you who are called to some form of professional ministry. Our heavenly Maestro has been radically re-orchestrating part of His church in order to reach a growing number of individuals who simply won’t dance to our traditional music, who refuse to set foot in our institutional churches. If the program appears to be changing on the stage where you are currently playing, don’t be too shocked. It likely has nothing to do with your calling, but may, in fact, have everything to do with a different form of music the Maestro is asking you to perform and teach to others. If you think this might be true in your case I’d love to hear from you.
For everyone, I recommend you joyfully accept whatever program changes the Lord places before you, laugh at life’s unexpected turns, and enjoy the concert. Just remain focused on the right score and be sure to acknowledge our true audience. After six years this advice rings truer than ever. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” – Colossians 3:23-24.

Bill, a child of God, even in the midst of a program change

Friday, May 23, 2008


May 23, 2008

The maestro mounts the podium, raises his baton, and with polished flourish issues the downbeat. Instantly there is an explosion of glorious sound as the orchestra springs to life in a flurry of activity. Fingers dance with passionate ecstasy, heads bob and weave, bows fly in synchronized frenzy, strings vibrate, valves jump up and down, slides push forward and retreat, sticks oscillate furiously, and bodies sway in rhythm to the music. All is in motion—all, that is, except one.
One lonely musician stands at attention in the back of the orchestra, motionless, poised for action, deep in concentration. He is the cymbal player and his inactivity is lost amongst the sound and fury of a hundred other musicians. While violinists glide, he waits. While trumpets blare, he counts. While flutists flutter, he listens. His is an instrument which, for better or worse, will be heard. If he miscounts and plays too soon, the performance of all will be ruined. If he waits too long the moment will be lost and the quality of the entire symphony will suffer. So, in silent humility, he waits...and listens...and counts.
But most of all, he watches. His eyes are fixed upon the maestro. He trusts not himself, nor leans upon his own ability to count. His faith rests totally in the maestro so, silently and with intense concentration, he waits and watches for his cue. At last he sees the maestro look straight at him and nod. With absolute confidence he swings into action. The cymbals crash together; the auditorium is filled with their sound...and the maestro smiles.
When the music stops, the audience roars their approval. The conductor bows, the concertmaster bows, the soloists bow, but the cymbal player merely stands along with a hundred other musicians. Rarely, if ever, is he given any special recognition. The critics only notice if he makes a mistake. Does he disdain his anonymity? Not at all! He is simply lost in the wonder of being counted worthy to play in the orchestra. He finds great joy in partnering with others to create such glorious sounds. And, he lives for seeing the maestro smile.
At the Spirit's command the church springs to life in a flurry of activity. The choir sings, the band plays, the pastor expounds, the teachers exhort; all seem to be in motion. All, that is, except for those who wait behind the scenes, deep in concentration, poised for action. They are the church's "cymbal players." While musicians perform they sit at the sound booth fine-tuning the microphones. While pastors preach they take care of fussy children. Hours earlier they have typed, copied, and folded the worship programs. Long before the worship service began they were unlocking doors, turning on lights and turning up the heat. And long after the last worshipper leaves they are cleaning up what others have soiled.
In silent humility they wait, alertly they listen, and expectantly they count the hours since they have last been able to serve. But most of all, they watch. Their eyes are fixed upon their heavenly Maestro. Theirs is a service which, for better or worse, will make a difference. If they move at the wrong time, the ministry of many others will be spoiled. If they fail to act, an opportunity will be lost and the quality of the church's entire ministry will suffer. They trust not themselves, nor lean upon their own abilities to know when to act. Their faith rests totally in the Maestro so, silently and with intense concentration, they wait and watch for their cue. When at last the Spirit nods, they swing into action. The church is filled with their joyful service...and the Maestro smiles.
When the worship service is over, the “soloists” are congratulated. Pastors are praised, worship leaders are applauded, and teachers are showered with thanksgiving. Rarely, if ever, are those who labor behind the scenes (church "cymbal players") given any special recognition. The critics only notice if they make a mistake. Do they disdain their anonymity? Not at all! They are simply lost in the wonder of being counted worthy to serve. They find great joy in partnering with others to create such glorious ministries. And, they love to see the Maestro smile.
Somehow in the church we have this all completely backwards, totally opposite from what the Maestro has intended. Those who serve in the spotlight seem to get an overabundance of glory while the “cymbal players” faithfully carry out their simple ministries in near total obscurity. “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:26-28. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…” – Philippians 2:5-7.
Whether in mega churches or small community congregations, impressive cathedrals or simple home gatherings, our Lord has made it clear who He truly values. The humble, hard-working, behind-the-scenes, simple servant will get His highest praise, and His greatest reward! "...Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” – 1Corinthians 15:58. Oh, yes...there is one more motivation for church "cymbal players." They know the day is coming when they will step onto a higher stage and all heaven, including the Maestro Himself, will present them with a long overdue, standing ovation! Bravo! “Well done, good and faithful servant!” – Matthew 25:21.

Bill, a child of God and a simple cymbal player in His orchestra

Saturday, May 17, 2008


May 16th, 2008

What could possibly be wrong with a little nap? I thought to myself. After all, it’s Sunday afternoon, the day of rest. Biblical precedence and religious tradition are certainly on my side here. Napping at such a time as this is practically a requirement no matter where I might find myself, even in a church. Besides, who else is going to know?
I was involved in a dress rehearsal for the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and as a contracted musician I was required to be present on stage ready to perform five minutes before the rehearsal started. But since the rehearsal was to begin with a guest soloist accompanied by a small chamber ensemble, I would not be needed on stage for at least an hour, plenty of time to catch a few "zzz's." This particular rehearsal and the concert the following evening were being held in a large church in downtown Phoenix, an elegant, acoustically vibrant facility with comfortable, well-padded pews. Wandering out into the sanctuary I chose a pew near the back, kicked off my sandals, laid down, closed my eyes, and drifted off to sleep with the monotonous sounds of various musicians tuning their instruments coursing through my mind.
I had paid no attention to a small trickle of unfamiliar people who were also wandering around and choosing seats throughout the sanctuary. A handful of visitors was a common sight at dress rehearsals, but this soon turned into more than just a handful. The small trickle of people mushroomed into a massive deluge of humanity, none of whom managed to disturb my sojourn in dreamland. Apparently the concert had been sold out and the demand was so great that the symphony management had decided to sell tickets for the dress rehearsal. They just didn’t bother to inform the musicians. Before long the auditorium was packed with hundreds of well-dressed patrons of the arts along with one obviously out of place, nearly comatose musician continuing in his undisturbed slumber.
Now you must understand that the term "dress rehearsal" is somewhat of a misnomer. For a musician it simply refers to the last rehearsal before a concert; no special requirement is given as to what we should wear. So there I was, clad in my typical, everyday attire of shorts and t-shirt, stretched out on a pew barefoot and looking for all the world like a drunken bum had wandered in off the street searching for a place to sleep it off. I must have provided a stark contrast to all the concert goers dressed in their Sunday best expecting a dignified, rich, cultural experience. Ignoring them all I slept on in blissful ignorance unaware of what was occurring around me. The polite applause from the audience as the soloist entered the stage was insufficient in disturbing my repose. The sweet sounds of chamber music which followed also failed to awaken the dead.
I find it difficult to believe that no one in that church took it upon themselves to gently shake me into consciousness. Perhaps fear of whom I might be and an unwillingness to upset the slumbering vagrant prevented anyone from awakening me. But what they failed to do was accomplished handily by a standing ovation at the close of the guest soloist's performance. My sweet dreams were suddenly interrupted by my worse nightmare. A bolt of lightning and a thunderclap could not have startled me more. Nearly falling off the pew, I leaped to my feet as the horrifying reality began to dawn on me. No, I hadn't missed my cue, but I had set myself up for one of my most embarrassing moments. Surrounded by smiles, giggles, outright laughter and mocking applause (most of it coming from my fellow musicians), I was forced to find my way to the aisle, walk to the front of the auditorium, and take my place on stage. How awful! How humiliating! How could I have been so clueless?
Have you ever fallen asleep in church? Be careful how you answer this question. As I reminisce about my inglorious repose on that occasion I take some comfort in knowing I am far from being alone in my humiliation. Okay, so my untimely nap was particularly egregious. Yet I know for certain that at least once a week our houses of worship are filled with blissfully ignorant, nearly comatose Christians. Whether the church is meeting in a large stained-glass cathedral, small country chapel, or comfortable living room, our gatherings are packed with slumbering saints. How awful! How humiliating! How could we be so clueless?
Is this a recent phenomenon? No, sleeping in the pews has been going on for centuries. Is this problem due to lengthy services, boring sermons or uninspiring worship? No, most worship services are very entertaining and inspirational. In fact, unlike my inglorious example, most of those in attendance have their eyes wide open and seem quite alert and involved in the proceedings. Then how do I know they are asleep? The answer to that should be obvious. For the most part the Church, especially here in the west, is losing its faith, losing its influence upon society, losing its ability to transform lives, losing its compassion for “the least of these,” losing its calling to seek and to save the lost and make disciples, losing its sense of urgency, and losing attendance. Clearly its people are asleep in the pews.
Much of this problem has come about because we have given over the function of ministry to a few highly trained professionals. As long as we pay our dues and say our prayers we can close our eyes to the plight of those around us. It has become accepted, even expected for others to take center stage and do the work of the ministry while we sleep on in blissful ignorance, waiting for some special cue from God. And even if we manage to hear the Master’s cue, we sleep through it believing He must be calling someone else more qualified. How can we ignore the Conductor of the church shouting to His musicians to take the stage? “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.” – Luke 10:2. Many of the answers to this prayer are sitting in the pews in our worship centers on Sunday morning—asleep!
Perhaps this problem is exacerbated by just how comfortable we have made the pews. We have taken great pains to make following Jesus as easy and undemanding as possible. Just come to church when you can and put a few dollars in the collection plate when you have some to spare and you can be a member in good standing. We can worship in air-conditioned splendor on padded pews or, if we prefer, on over-stuffed couches right in our own living rooms. By all appearances being a Christian is as simple as falling asleep in the pew. But have we forgotten these words of our Master? “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” – Luke 9:23. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” – Matthew 28:19. Strange, but I don’t see anything in these imperatives about padded pews, taking naps, and providing for the comfort of all who come to Him.
Excuse me, I don’t mean to embarrass you, but you might want to open your eyes and take a look around you. While we have been dozing the world around us has been filling up with desperate people searching for hope. How can we possibly ignore such a deluge of human needs clamoring for the Church to perform, to share the music of love and grace? How can we slumber on without even being clothed in our work attire while we are surrounded by poverty, depravity, human tragedy, and disbelief? How can we nap when the time is so short and the curtain call is about to sound?
Allow me, the once-embarrassed sleeper, to issue a wake-up call. Better yet, listen to these lightning bolts and thunderclaps from the Holy Spirit. “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God…But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” – Revelation 3:2-3. "The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed." – Romans 13:11. "...for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night...So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self controlled." – 1Thessalonian 5: 2,6. “This is why it is said: ‘Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” – Ephesians 5:14-16. "...He who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son." – Proverbs 10: 5.
Take it from one who knows, it's not good to be caught sleeping in church. In these days the results could be far worse than just embarrassing. Our wake-up call has been given. Will we rise to humiliation or applause? The Maestro has issued our cue; we dare not miss it! Anyone still asleep out there?

Bill, a child of God, awake and alert