Song Stories: “Thank You”

So a few weeks ago I released a record (or whatever they’re called nowadays) called After All(,) This

It was really nothing more than a little exercise in musical creativity and exploration, and it was deeply satisfying to me. What’s more, some of you actually paid money for it, and that was a great blessing to me as well.

One of the songs on that release is actually a cover of a song from the early 1990s by a guy named Dennis Jernigan. On the surface, it may have been an odd choice, but there’s a story and a connection to that song.

In 1995, my wife and I moved from Texas to Chicago, Illinois to begin what was the first of many little “adventures” that we’ve undergone. At that time, I was an electric guitarist in my mid-20s, with some miles behind me as a fairly focused musician from Texas. I played on 6th Street in Austin, in Deep Elllum in Dallas, and a few other places in the Lone Star State. What’s more, I was imbued with the notion that electric guitarists from Texas were a breed apart: our legacy included Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Johnson, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top (not to mention Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson).

I took this legacy seriously, and that combined with a strange gumbo of Duane Allman, the Edge, David Gilmour and even a little 1980s hair metal all produced an attitude that was all about making a statement and making an impact on whatever was going on around me musically.

(Occasionally I even had the chops to pull it off LOL.)

Though I’d grown up in the church, I’d done my share of wandering (and wondering), and by the time we made this move to Illinois, I’d already hit my first of a few (unfortunately it took more than one) “rock bottoms” in my life, and I was beginning to re-explore my faith. I grew up in a strictly “hymns” church, but during this time Shana and I started to encounter something called “Worship Music”, which was (supposedly) Jesus music set in “contemporary” arrangements.

The lyrics were spot on, obviously, and they touched the part of my life that longed for a deep, passionate connection to something or someONE higher.

However, the music was another story.

It was supposed to be “contemporary,” but I often sat wondering, “Contemporary for whom?”

Though the lyrics reached me, the recordings did not: the compressed, chorused, polite guitar sounds left me feeling empty.

When we arrived at Willow Creek Community Church, through an amazing set of circumstances and beautifully serendipitous conversations, I ended up volunteering with the music team there. All of a sudden, I’d gone from clubs in Texas—and an occasional church gig to 75 people—to playing before 5,000 at a pop, 10,000-15,000 total on a weekend. What’s more, the musicians there were mostly killer. Just amazing drummers (always my favorite) and bass players and keyboardists and singers, etc., etc.

(And they were filled with this amazing, joyous, celebratory love and passion as well.) 

And other guitar players too…

But not so many like me.

(NOTE: Sitting here, I know now how damaging it can be to my soul for me to ponder ways in which I am different from other people, but at the time, this seemed pretty real to me…)

  • They were established family men and women … Shana and I had been married for a few years, but were still a few years away from being able to have children (another story for another time).
  • They wore dockers and polo shirts … I had jeans and thrift store t-shirts (or that amazing relic of the 1990s: the gas station work shirt).
  • They played the aforementioned chorused and compressed Stratocasters through multi-effect units … I played a Les Paul through a handful of pedals attached by velcro to a piece of plywood.

In addition, I brought this southern, Allman Brothers approach to what they were doing…

And, sometimes, it just really seemed to work.

What was also fun and helpful was that I really didn’t know any of these records that they were covering. Instead, I played with instinct and improvisation. I listened to what they were doing in rehearsal, and then just started playing “what made sense”.

… And, for their part, they tolerated it.

(NOTE: Musicians and guitarists, if you want to do this, please… well… please be good. This approach is decidedly NOT recommended unless you’ve spent upwards of 4-5 hours a day of “deliberate practice on Wikipedia” for about 7-8 years.)

Anyway, “Thank You” was one of those early songs. I loved it’s simplicity; at its core was something essential and elemental to faith, and what’s more there was a soulfulness that I was able to find underneath the somewhat safe (and overly “white”) production. I remember being on that stage at Willow, tuned to “Drop D” and just hammering that low D against a wailing high slide. I remembered digging down deep, SOUL LEVEL DEEP and trying as hard as a human being could try to MAKE THE NOTES I PLAYED = THE EMOTIONS I FELT.

Looking back, it might have worked. It might have been a disaster. Truth is, it was probably somewhere in between.

There are other songs, and maybe they are for other times.

But that’s why I covered “Thank You.”

(OH: And it’s ALSO because… I’m thankful.)

For all that You’ve done I will thank You
For all that You’re going to do
For all that You’ve promised, and all that You are
Is all that has carried me through
Jesus, I thank You

And I thank You, thank You, Lord
And I thank You, thank You, Lord
Thank You for loving and setting me free
Thank You for giving Your life just for me
How I thank You, Jesus I thank You
Gratefully thank You
Thank You.

– “Thank You” by Dennis Jernigan (c) PraiseCharts

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Dream … Small

Are big dreams the only dreams

Last week I spent two days along with some other leaders from my church at Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit (full disclosure: my wife actually works for the GLS). As usual the conference was full of top-notch speakers and cutting edge leadership and vision discussions, and it was awesome to take a bunch of folks from my church and have them hear such great speakers.

However, with where I’m at in my life personally, the GLS brought up some interesting tensions. Most of the speakers (Christian and otherwise) talked over and over again about having huge dreams, and how important these big dreams are to the world.

The particular challenge that I have in my life—and one that I have to continually come to terms with—is how damaging “big dreams” actually are to my life. You see, if you were susceptible at all (like I am) to the ravages of pride and self-centeredness, then big dreams are actually the worst possible things that you can entertain. When I allow big dreams to enter my life without some kind of balance, interior wreckage and disaster and seems.

In other words, big dreams can be an absolute disaster in my life.

And yet, this is where so much of Christian culture seems to be nowadays. I think one speaker even said something like if we leave something undone in the world, then God will never get it done. To my thinking this is outrageous.

Whenever I hear really really good people talking about grandiose visions and making some kind of huge impact in the world, I think about Richard Rohr’s comments about how the United States professes to be such a thriving Christian culture and yet we are at least as addicted and obsessive as everyone else in the world; maybe moreso.

Anybody in recovery would tell you that pride and self-centeredness are foundational “sins” that fuel our addictive and compulsive behaviors. 

Can the church actually be contributing to this addiction and compulsion?

Don’t get me wrong, I took lots and lots of notes last Thursday and Friday. I love learning new things. My voracious curiosity is a huge part of who I am. But I can only take these new ideas seriously to a certain degree in my life before they start getting unhealthy.

To be blunt, I actually think that what the church needs is people who dream small dreams. People who want the kingdom inside their hearts to be ruled by God, rather then doing some amazing outward work of ministry.

I think truly transformed and enlightened individuals who have dreamed the small dream of simply, “Change me, Lord,” can make a drastic difference in our schools church, churches, and neighborhoods.

How do you organize a conference around that?

At the same time, however, I want to say  that there were some really powerful glimpses of hope. For instance, a good friend of mine did an impromptu interview on camera, and in subtle but firm contrast to all of the talk of big dreams and grandiose visions, he related about how his call to ministry was one small, open window after another. He said something like, “for me to think that one day I would be leading worship at the Global Leadership Summit when I started out in ministry would’ve been absolutely outside of my framework. But it seems like God just open tiny little edoors one after the other and I just was faithful to what he brought to me.”

(I am paraphrasing)

In addition, Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, made a passing comment that was struck me. He mentioned that working for him was “not about the career, it was about the work.” In other words, what he seemed to be saying is that sometimes you need to forget the big dreams and do the things, day-to-day, that you love to do. I wonder if some pastors (if you’re anything like me) need to remember “the work” they were called to do (put loosely: preaching and healing) and why they do what they do and press “pause” on the big dreams and visions for a little while

Put the career on hold, and focus on the work.

After all, I think God has the big things covered.

Two Strange Gifts That Working at a Mega Church Gave Me

For one strange reason or another, my first full-time ministry job (or part-time ministry job, for that matter) was at Willow Creek Community Church, at the time one of the largest churches in North America. At the time Willow was (and still is, in many ways) the flagship of the Evangelical, mega-church world. The statistics are probably old, but I do remember doing 12 Easter services over two days; we had a “conference season” during which we hosted a Small Groups Conference, Student Ministries Conference, Arts Conference, the Church Leadership Conference and, eventually, the Global Leadership Conference.

It was crazy, and tremendously exciting.

Looking back now, I’m struck with how that time at Willow (I worked for their “Axis” ministry, one of the first GenX/post-modern/post-college gatherings in North America) shaped me. I definitely internalized “The Willow Way” in regards to excellence and leadership, but I also received a couple of very different gifts that have significantly impacted my approach to ministry since.

Platform

Before I had 2 years of leading a worship ministry under my belt, I was teaching at Willow’s Arts Conference; before I really knew what post-modern worship was (do I know now?), I was conducting seminars and trying to help other pastors “figure it out.” Though practically all of us at Axis were wet behind the ears and learning to do ministry on the run, hundreds and hundreds of leaders from around the world sought us as experts. Though we were very vocal with our ignorance, and very up front with the idea that we were also just trying to figure things out, we also didn’t shy away from the attention.

In addition, I personally fielded invitations to come and lead worship at a variety of different camps, conferences and other churches. Again, I was honest enough to be somewhat humbled at the invitations given my inexperience, but I still accepted what I could and was privileged to lead in these different environments.

In short, Willow’s reputation within the evangelical world (again, well-deserved in almost all respects) was such that we were perceived as insightful experts on ministry. People listened to what we had to say; they paid attention the questions we were asking (because a good post-modern only asks the questions; never answers them).

In short, we were given a platform, and a pretty big one at that.

For the years that I taught and led around the Willow circle, it was amazing. But over time, I realized that it’s very easy to mistake having a platform for being a pastor. Platform and ministry can get so dangerously intertwined that when one diminishes, you start to question your effectiveness in the other. If you’re not careful, you start to believe that doing ministry equals having a platform, or somehow entitles you to be an expert. What’s more, in my case at least those invitations and opportunities began to feed an unhealthy ego, and I began to believe that I was entitled to have a voice. Rather than seeking an opportunity to serve my local community, I was raging with the thought that I was “too special” to be contained in only one church: I deserved to be traveling, to be playing at conferences and festivals.

This was about as far from Jesus as you can get.

Eventually, the platform went away. As “Willow Creek” moved lower and lower on my resume, the invitations came less and less frequently, and it was actually pretty depressing, until I came to realize what most people know already:

That practically every pastor in the world simply does his or her work, week in and week out, with no expectation of a platform:

  • no speaking engagements
  • no article writing
  • no leading seminars
  • no perception of being “an expert”

… and this is okay. 

I’m pretty embarrassed to admit this, but it’s the truth. Being a pastor does not mean you are an “expert” in ministry. It means that you’re a shepherd, trying to help people navigate their life in an effective, gospel-shaped and meaningful way.

Downward Mobility

The first strange gift from being on staff at Willow—or rather its loss—would have been difficult to navigate had it not been for the second gift.

In the process of becoming a member at Willow, Shana and I received a workbook to fill out that contained many of the values and principles that Willow sought to embody.

In its pages had a statement that we were charged with embracing and embodying as Willow Creek members:

“I will embrace the idea downward mobility as a way of life.” 

(Or something very similar to that.)

Wrap your heads around that for just a moment.

This mega church in the affluent Northwest suburbs of Chicago was asserting that the normal way of life for a follower of Christ was to embrace, not affluence and “prosperity”, but generosity and even poverty.

I have never, ever seen this statement in any other church membership material. Ever. 

For all of its reputation of “easy spirituality” and “cheap grace,” Willow was advocating a much more radical discipleship, and that statement has haunted me ever since I read it. It’s a simple assumption that every new ministry opportunity should be bigger, or more prestigious, than the last, but that short little sentence and concept reminds me that this was not the model of Jesus’ ministry. 

His ministry ended up with him being deserted by all of his followers and dying alone.

True downward mobility.

(Note that I am not saying all “up-and-to-the-right” ministry paths are bad; I’m just saying that you can’t evaluate success or failure this way.)

Obviously, this second gift made putting the first gift into context a bit easier. It was still difficult, but over time it made more and more sense. These days, I feel like I’m still doing “recovery work” from the first gift, and doing the difficult and challenging work of staying engaged with a community over the long haul. I’ve been blessed to do a couple of things here and there outside my church, but I can no longer pretend to be an expert on anything, and that’s really okay. Frankly, my spirit is much healthier when there are none.

Lastly, let me say that there were other gifts that I got from Willow as well: a baptism, a mentor, a vision for ministry, amazing friends and colleagues, the opportunity to be a part of a truly great team, to work under an amazing leader (and to see other amazing leaders work as well), and many, many others.

Know Your Core

At Willow Creek’s 2011 Global Leadership Summit (hollah), Bill Hybel’s challenged us to be aware of how we would summarize the central message of Christianity:

“What five words would you use to describe the gospel?”

He had everyone draw a circle, and then write the five central messages inside the circle. Everything inside that circle should be driving your mission; those words should be connected vitally with your mission, either as an organization or an individual. 

My core

Question 1: What are your five words?

Question 2: Are you living them out?

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