Saturday, November 22, 2008


November 21st, 2008

"I think I'm in trouble!" he announced as I entered his home and began preparing for his weekly piano lesson. "I volunteered to play the piano for our church's Christmas program,” he continued, his voice betraying a mixture of both fear and pride. “Can you help me with the music?"
He stared at me wistfully through a pair of very eager, twelve-year-old eyes, his hands holding up a crowded folder of sheet music. It was clear his young ego had been seduced by being asked to perform for the yearly children's pageant. He appeared to be more than a little nervous but he was also obviously excited by the prospect of being on stage. Although he realized this experience would dramatically test his musicianship he seemed fairly confident that he could handle this important task. After all, hadn't I told him how talented he was? Hadn't I bragged to his parents and others about his potential? So why was I searching my mind for a delicate, tactful way of suggesting he might be in over his head?
Over the last three years I had watched as he rapidly progressed from an absolute beginner to an impressive, intermediate student capable of playing both classical and contemporary pieces including transposing some works by ear to a number of different keys. Among those I was currently teaching he undoubtedly exhibited the most talent. Yet as I leafed through the music for the children’s program I quickly realized it was considerably more advanced than his level of expertise. I had enough confidence in his ability that I felt with a few adjustments we could probably find a way to make it work. But something inside me brought forth a reluctance to agree to his request for my help.
Why was I so uneasy about encouraging him to accompany the Christmas production? Being an accompanist may be the most difficult task in the world of music. There are only a small handful of virtuosos who can perform a difficult composition in a way that always elicits enthusiastic applause from an audience and rave reviews from the critics. Yet there are even fewer musicians who are capable of accompanying such performers in a way that actually makes the virtuosos of the world sound even better. While every musician dreams of one day being the soloist who brings down the house in some great concert hall, not many aspire to being the lowly accompanist. Even though they are absolutely essential to a concert and their performance can make or break the way a soloist is received, the accompanist is fortunate if he or she gets one token bow and their name spelled correctly at the bottom of the third paragraph in the critic's column. For the most part they remain in the background, anonymous and under-appreciated. Remaining in the background and helping someone else sound good and get the applause does not come naturally to most musicians, nor does it come easy to most people in general, for that matter. However, realizing that my young student's church was very small and likely didn't have any other young person who could do an adequate job, I reluctantly agreed to help coach him through the performance.
"Remember," I told him often over the next several weeks, "the accompanist is not the star.”
“But I thought the piano player is sort of like the leader and that everyone else is supposed to follow him,” complained my young protégé one day.
“Your concept of leadership is highly flawed,” I responded. “As the accompanist, you must always follow whoever is singing, whoever is on stage. If they speed up, so do you. If they slow down, so do you. If they skip a measure, change the tune, forget the lyrics, or fall off the stage your job is to make everything sound like it was intentional. You exist to make them look good. At the end of the performance if the singers get a thunderous round of applause you have done your job well. If people applaud you more, you have likely failed."
Yes, the role of an accompanist may be the most difficult job in the world of music. But it strikes me that the role of a follower of Christ is very similar. Like an accompanist, we exist to help make the real virtuoso, Christ, appear to perform as flawlessly, minister as graciously, and relate to others as lovingly as possible. And like most musicians, being a servant does not come naturally to those of us in the church. Our egos crave the spotlight and hunger for applause. Yet we should count it as the richest blessing if others even briefly take notice of our efforts done for Christ. For the most part, Christian accompanists remain in the background, usually anonymous, almost always under-appreciated. "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves...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 2:3-7.
Incredibly, Jesus came to earth to be our accompanist, to make our performance better, to make us successful, to make us appear perfect in the eyes of our admiring audience, namely, God. Now we have been asked to play the part of an accompanist to the Accompanist, a servant to the Servant. How much more "in the background" could we be? And yet our Lord has chosen to make much of the success of His church dependant upon our performance. What an amazing honor, and what an amazing opportunity for failure. All it takes to destroy the concert is for us to control the stage, to dictate the tempo, to overshadow the Soloist, to drown Him out with our own music, to covet all the applause.
“But Bill,” others have complained to me, “what about the leaders in the church, you know, those whose job it is to stand before the congregation and preach or teach or lead worship or make decisions? Don’t they have the authority? Aren’t we supposed to follow our spiritual leaders?”
In many gatherings of the faithful, the concept of leadership is highly flawed. In the church, leadership should take on the mantle of servanthood. We are not to be the stars! Instead we are to sacrifice ourselves in order that others might be acclaimed; we are to yield the spotlight so others might receive the applause. We are, in fact, the accompanists for the accompanists of the Accompanist, the servants for the servants of the Servant. Jesus, Himself, is the perfect example of servant leadership. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:42-45.
Does this mean Christian leaders are unnecessary? Are we better off without them? Of course not; otherwise, why would Scripture mention the spiritual gift of leadership (Romans 12:8)? Christian accompanists are essential to a concert and their performance can make or break how the true Soloist is received. The problem, tragically, is that true servant-hearted leaders are rare. Far too often the accompanist ends up stealing the spotlight away from Christ. Leadership in the church involves training up others to be accompanists, not soloists. That, of course, places leaders one more step further removed from the applause, as accompanists for the accompanist of the Accompanist.
My advice to my young student rings true on this stage as well. Remember, the accompanist is not the star; that billing always belongs to Christ. As the accompanist, we must always follow the Soloist. If He speeds up the tempo, so do we. If He slows it down, we match His pace. If He transposes to another key, we meet Him there. We must modify our playing to match His voice. If He changes the music in any way, we must follow Him and keep on playing no matter what. He is the composer, the conductor, the maestro, and the chief musician. The glory belongs entirely to Him. We exist to make Him look good! And leaders exist to help others make Him look good! "And whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus..." – Colossians 3:17.
At the Christmas pageant my talented young piano student did an admirable job accompanying all the other children. It wasn’t totally flawless, but he performed as I had taught him. He made the entire program sound better and kept the focus on stage, not on himself. As for me, I sat in the audience, anonymous and very proud of my student. It was reward enough for me to receive a hearty hug and a heartfelt “thank you” from the boy and his parents.
At the end of the performance if Jesus gets a thunderous round of applause, we have done our job well. If they applaud us more, we have likely failed. If our own identity is obliterated amidst the clamor of adoring fans rushing the stage to heap praise upon the Master for a performance we helped to accompany, then we are truly great in God’s eyes. But let us not complain about our anonymity. Instead, rejoice, my fellow accompanists, for a time is coming when we will walk out on the greatest stage ever created, bow before the largest audience ever assembled, and receive a long over-due standing ovation, along with the following words coming from the throne: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” – Matthew 25:21.

Bill, a child of God and just another lowly accompanist

Saturday, November 15, 2008


November 14, 2008

The momentary respite was a welcomed relief from the monotony of the flat, straight, desert road bisecting an endless sea of beige sand and lifeless gray shrubs. Long road trips are difficult enough to endure, but when you add summer temperatures and three small children to the mix you end up with a recipe for near insanity. Our family was traveling from Phoenix to Southern California when a roadside diner, the dinner hour, and three bored-to-tears, hungry, sweaty children all combined to demand a pit stop. The restaurant was clean, the menu was inexpensive and, of highest importance, the place was air-conditioned. I was pleased.
"Daddy, it's my turn to thank Jesus," announced Trisha as our food arrived at the table. Her four-year-old enthusiasm was gladly rewarded and we all bowed our heads, closed our eyes and waited for her prayer. However, unaccustomed to praying in such a large, noisy setting, she folded her hands in front of her face and with head bowed, spoke in a soft whisper audible only to herself and God.
"Louder, please," I interrupted. "No one can hear you."
It was then that Trisha proceeded to teach us a very valuable lesson about prayer and thanksgiving. She did exactly what I had requested; she spoke so that everyone could hear...EVERYONE! Her hands unfolded to form a megaphone for her mouth and with uplifted face she shouted at the top of her lungs. "DEAR JESUS, THANK YOU FOR THIS WOOONNNDERFUL FOOD! AND THIS WOOONNNDERFUL PLACE! AND THESE WOOONNNDERFUL PEOPLE! IN JESUS NAME, AAAAA...MEN!!!"
I must admit to opening my eyes during Trisha's prayer and looking around the room. I was profoundly embarrassed by her outburst and wanted to gauge everyone's reaction to determine how best to apologize to the other patrons. I could only guess that they must have been terribly disturbed. My wife buried her head in her hands and began laughing uncontrollably. Trisha's older sister was sinking out of sight in a desperate attempt to disappear under the table. Her two-year-old brother, with eyes twice their normal size, actually stopped moving for a few seconds (I'm not sure that has happened since).
But the reaction of the other diners was not at all what I expected. All over the restaurant conversations suddenly ceased and heads bowed in reverent silence. At the close of her prayer, several other "Amens" were heard along with some applause. In an instant, with her childlike exuberance and naiveté, Trisha had transformed a roadside diner into a cathedral of praise and a crowd of strangers into a church of prayerful worshippers. For one brief moment we were all collectively mesmerized by the divine inspiration of a child, she the impassioned preacher shouting out her thanksgiving, and we the surprised congregants suddenly, unexpectedly finding ourselves assembled together at the throne of grace and reminded of the benevolent love of our heavenly Father.
At what age do we lose that childhood enthusiasm, that unashamed boldness, that natural piety, that passion for the Divine? More importantly, how can it be regained? Why are we adults so subdued in our thanksgiving, so inhibited in our praise, so stifled in our witness? Unlike Trisha we are all too aware of the sensitivities of those around us and choose to express our faith with extreme caution so as not to offend anyone. After all we wouldn't want to disturb the unbelieving world with our too-exuberant praise and cause any embarrassment (mostly for us). But I wonder why our inhibitions seem to flee when we are extolling the virtues of our favorite sports team and cheering them on to victory. And why is it perfectly acceptable to shout for our favorite political candidate, but not for our beloved Lord? Interestingly, I know of no passage of Scripture where we are encouraged to "whisper a prayer" or "speak softly our thanks."
“Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.” – Psalm 47:1. "Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving..." – Psalm 95:1-2. "Shout with joy to God, all the earth! Sing the glory of his name; make his praise glorious!" – Psalm 66:1-2. "Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth...Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise..." – Psalm 100:1, 4.
When was the last time you actually shouted for joy to the Lord in a worship service? How long has it been since you did so at the dinner table? I believe God was well pleased with Trisha's shout of thanksgiving, and likely disappointed with my embarrassment. Thank you, Trisha, for teaching us not to be ashamed of giving thanks, and not to be embarrassed to show the world our faith.
I have always been intrigued by the church’s response to its first major trial. Not long after the church had its explosive beginning, Peter and John were arrested by the Jewish authorities for healing a crippled beggar and using the miracle as an opportunity to preach about Jesus. After they were threatened and commanded not to ever speak or teach in the name of Jesus, the two apostles, upon their release, showed up at a prayer meeting. But what do you suppose they requested of the Lord during their prayer? Had it been me I would have begged the Almighty to rain down fire and brimstone upon those who were opposing our message and then I would have implored God to keep us safe from any harm. Yet what did these early Christian servants actually pray for?
“Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.” – Acts 4:29. God’s answer to their prayer is recorded just two verses later. “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” – Acts 4:31. Obviously, God was pleased with their request and the book of Acts chronicles the church’s continued amazing growth.
The message for us is clear; God blesses the efforts of His people when we live out our faith uncompromisingly and witness to others with great boldness. We may very well be entering a time of increased opposition, both from human as well as spiritual forces. Already we are struggling to minister in this region against an enemy which seems to be ramping up its attacks upon the church. I am guessing this rise in spiritual opposition is much more widespread than in just Northern California. How we respond to such adversity will make a huge difference in whether or not the kingdom in this locality, and around the world, is able to grow.
Papa God, consider the opposition we are already facing. In this area we have yet to undergo the severity of the persecution which the church had to endure when it first began nearly two thousand years ago. But nevertheless, we seem to be experiencing trials and setbacks on a daily basis. Papa, do not allow us to cower in fear. We pray for the boldness to speak, to give thanks, to pray, to praise, and to witness no matter where we may find ourselves and no matter who may surround us. Help us not to be intimidated by a world which is increasingly hostile, or to be ashamed of our Lord who boldly went to the cross for our sakes. We pray that the Spirit who led your servants, Paul and Silas, to sing praises in the midst of prison would lead us to give thanks in all circumstances. We pray that the Spirit who shook the place where your servants were praying for boldness, would once again shake up your church and enable us to speak your word with great boldness. And we pray for the wisdom to know when to speak and exactly what to say. For the sake of the growth of your kingdom in this area we implore you, Papa. We pray this in the name of Jesus, amen.
As I write these words we are less than two weeks away from celebrating another Thanksgiving Day in this country. As you gather with friends and family for your Thanksgiving meal, don't forget to give thanks. I recommend you do so with enthusiasm, no matter where you may be dining. Just don't be surprised if your blessing over dinner is interrupted by your heavenly Father saying, "Louder, please. No one can hear you!"

Bill, a child of God, boldly shouting for joy

Saturday, November 08, 2008


November 8, 2008

With its grayish-green scaled hide, spiked tail, and horned skull, the ferocious beast waddled awkwardly, yet menacingly toward the humble abode of the unsuspecting humans. In the waning darkness of early evening one of the front scales of the sinister serpent glowed eerily making its appearance even more terrifying. Closer and closer, with unmitigated determination, the dastardly dragon trudged toward the hapless inhabitants of the unfortunate home. Just before the beast lifted its paws to break down the walls of the house, the front door opened and a young woman appeared. Instantly she reeled at the sight of the raw, untamed force hungrily staring at her, now barley three feet away. Shrieking in terror the woman reached for something beside her and produced a large plastic bowl. The eyes of the frightening beast glared at the woman, then at the bowl. Suddenly, its mouth opened and out came a spine-chilling roar.
The woman howled with laughter as she directed the beast to grab a handful of delicacies from the bowl. The beast greedily complied dropping the goodies into a plastic pumpkin-bucket it was carrying.
“Tank oo,” shouted the dragon (or was it a dinosaur?) as it rose to its full height of two feet and waddled off in search of the next victims.
Spending Halloween with our grandkids was a pure delight for Babs and me. But for Veronica, our little dragon, just twenty months old, it was an incredible adventure. For the first time she was experiencing the joy of masquerading as someone other than the sweet little girl we all know her to be—and being rewarded for it all with candy, tons of it. What wonderful fun!
It didn’t take long, however, for her little legs to tire of the sweet crusade. When she began playing with the safety glow-stick hanging around her neck, pulling off her costume and fussing to be carried, we knew it was time to bring the adventure to a close. At her home, with some help from her parents, the dragon skin was quickly shed and her true identity reappeared.
“There’s our Ronnie,” we all declared. “We wondered where you’ve been all this time. Did that nasty old dragon eat you? We’re sure glad he spit you back out. You look much better as a little girl.”
Masquerading as someone else can be a source of great amusement, but it has no place in the church. No, I’m not talking about banning Halloween parties. I’m raising my voice against Christ followers who have a bad habit of disguising themselves as something other than who they are in Jesus. Since the Holy Spirit has been rebuking me on the subject this week I hope you don’t mind if I pass along the criticism.
Some Christians, including me, periodically struggle with an identity crisis, or perhaps it’s a recurring case of spiritual amnesia. At any rate, we all too frequently find ourselves masquerading as someone entirely out of character for a true believer. Instead of shining like saints, we participate in deeds of darkness. Instead of wearing His righteousness given to us freely in Christ Jesus, we attempt to create our own costume of good works. Instead of displaying the joy of the Lord, we cover ourselves with gloom and doom. Instead of revealing a life of faith, we wear a mask of fear. Instead of surrounding ourselves with the glory of His abundance, we immerse ourselves in the false reality of our need. Instead of bearing the dazzling uniform of a conquering army, we wrap ourselves in the rags of defeat.
This Christian identity crisis has come to a head this week as I have been inundated by the gloom of those who have been deeply disappointed by the results of our recent election. To hear some commiserate you would think the Kingdom of God itself has been wrested from our hands. I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth. While I may share some of your concerns about the future of our country, I refuse to don the mask of defeat. As a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, my true identity is not wrapped up in a political party, nor is my joy dependant upon who may currently occupy the white house. My identity, rather, is in Christ and my joy rests in Him alone. “…for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” – Galatians 3:27. “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” – Philippians 3:20.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, it is high time we tire of this masquerade. I propose we remove our frightening costumes before that nasty dragon consumes us completely. Let the real beast choke on our true identity; make him spit us out of his mouth. With the help of our Heavenly Father and with the authority of Christ, let’s shed our dragon skins. The world has been wondering where the real Christians have been hiding.
So just who are we, anyway? What do we look like in Christ? The following descriptions of Christ followers are all lifted directly from the pages of God’s Word:
We are sons of the living God, joint heirs with Christ, friends of the Master, brothers of the King, servants of the Savior, and citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. We are like living stones, members of God’s household, a holy temple, a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit. We are God’s work of art, a new creation, dearly loved children, Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. We are born again, bought with a price, redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit. We are created in His image, predestined according to His plan, made just a little lower than the angels, and crowned with glory and honor.
We have been elected, chosen, adopted, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified. We have been given the mind of Christ, the promise of His presence, the power of His Spirit, the forgiveness of our sins, the assurance of our salvation, victory over death, every spiritual blessing in Christ, and all we need of God’s glorious riches in Jesus. We are inseparable from His love, empowered by His Spirit, filled with His peace, and saved by His grace. We are the sheep of His pasture, the objects of His affection, the apple of His eye, and the praise of His glory. We are overcomers, overly blessed, overjoyed, overflowing with hope, and overwhelming conquerors through Him who love us!
I could go on and on but I think by now you are getting the picture. So let’s have no more identity crisis, no more spiritual amnesia. Throw away the costumes; tear off the masks. It is time we allow the world to see us as we really are. I ask you, since this is our true identity in Christ, why would we ever consider masquerading as anything less?

Bill, a child of God, unmasked