ef·fer·ves·cent

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
ef·fer·ves·cent19 years old, visiting with relatives for the weekend, I was seated within the sanctuary of a large church in Durham, NC. I was taking in the scene around me: men, women, boys, girls…most singing, many clapping and swaying…some running…some speaking in languages other than English…a large choir on stage with various musicians and other singers. In spite of the frantic energy in the room, I was feeling the seconds being slowly peeled away from the unknown remainder of the service.
As I sat pining for the lunch awaiting me (the only reason I attended here), I tried to distract my focus from waiting out the unyielding worship leader on the stage and began to note the elements of the environment that frustrated me, that shouted at me, “Look over here! No, look at this! Wow…have you noticed me yet? How could you have missed this one?”
The choir and musicians swelled into a key change, foreshadowing a second wind, and the congregation responded as if they were floating atop carbonated waves….”I want to be washed in the blood of the Lamb! I need a cleansing from the fountain!”
The heaviness of perfumes in the air underscored the loud garish colors shouting from the dresses and hair accessories of pious women intending to present themselves in modest dress while cajoling around the room in dramatic fashion. Men in stark white dress shirts tucked within shells of dark suits shouted and cheered. Pumping their hands and fists in the air. Shiny belts, polished shoes, awkward ties. The choir whipping up the room into a frenzy of steamy fabrics, misty perfumes, and billowing hair sculptures.
Sigh…such misguided people.
Internally, I was weighing it all harshly and with much frustration bordering on anger. Externally, I smiled and kept time with my foot patting dark carpet and one hand softly tapping a knee. This was my extent of my polite participation while my physical form sat anchored to a pew by a spirit in protest. I encouraged the steadiness of my bankrupt heart with images of chicken and cornbread and mashed potatoes.
I honestly cannot provide an explanation for what happened next. It was as if a television program’s broadcast signal was abruptly disrupted causing an entire scene from the show in progress to be lost…missed…unseen…and the signal suddenly returns, the show is restored, and nothing you’re seeing makes any sense now.
My awareness of sitting in judgement was truncated and suddenly, like a slight of hand magic trick, I find myself suddenly conscious of my body fully erect, both arms sticking up as rods towards the sky, my face turned to the ceiling, eyes pinched shut, hot tears pouring, and the sound of my voice jockeying for position among the congregation singing the words, “I want to be washed in the blood of the Lamb! I need a cleansing from the fountain! My soul is hungry, I’ve got this aching within! I wanna be washed in the blood of the Lamb!” And I knew that I meant them. I don’t know how, but I knew that these words were, and are, my deepest-to-date plea…my sudden and unexpected surrender to a Christ with Whose story I had been immersed in and fed all of my life.
Much of the remainder of that day’s events are now a blur. I can only recall being baptized at the conclusion of the service. I recall walking out of the church with new eyes, a new mind, an unfamiliar gnawing hunger, and a zealousness for pleasing the LORD that was ef·fer·ves·cent.
That was some 22 years ago. Looking back, I am amazed and humbled by my Jesus. I was attending a college I did not desire to attend. On a scholarship that I did not want. Newly majoring in a field of study that was awkward and causing me much distress. Living a life of scathingly enduring people.
Ironically, within a year’s time of that conversion, I was called into Christian ministry…worship of all things..working with people…an occasional and residing phobia. The one thing that I sat despising in the lives of others…God destined me for it.
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
‪#‎mytestimony‬ ‪#‎bornagain‬ ‪#‎spiritualrebirth‬ ‪#‎thensingsmysoul‬ ‪#‎surrender‬ ‪#‎confess‬ ‪#‎befree‬ ‪#‎loveofChrist‬ ‪#‎compassion‬

We Are Home OWNERS!…but not really.

My wife, Vince, recently shared some very big news regarding our family. WE PAID OFF OUR HOUSE THIS WEEK! After nearly 15 years in this home, our first home, we made our final mortgage payment this very week.
Pulling into my driveway this week has been more satisfying than my normal “home again, home again, jiggity jog” elation that arises once I have completed a full day of living outside my home and in my community. I am thankful and grateful that my wife and I have accomplished this milestone together. I am thankful for our gracious God who led us here (yes, He led us to this property one seemingly random day as we drove, nearly lost, in Mecklenburg County) and, after almost 15 years in this structure…serving God, living for God, believing in and holding to God…a lot of life has happened. Marital strife, financial roller coasters, family drama, love, birthday parties, Christmases, tears, fights; you name it…this house has seen it. When a man loves a woman, and they work at becoming ONE…well, it’s a force of nature and an act of God. Marriage is not about my sexual attraction to or emotional enjoyment of Vince. Those things are simply what sparked the intrigue of the concept. And here we are, 20 years later, going strong and paying off our house.

But despite the really cool feeling of knowing that I don’t have a mortgage payment to make anymore, instead of wondering, “what’s next?”, I remember and savor the following experience.
Shortly after moving into our new home on Branthurst Drive; the structure, the door frame, the occupants were prayed over and anointed by Dr. MA Thomas. He was a great missionary, visionary humanitarian, and the inspirational founder of Hope Givers.
I considered it a distinct privilege to have Dr. MA Thomas in my home and praying because he had left a memorable imprint on my life a few years prior to this moment when he had stayed with Vince and I in our Cornelius apartment for a weekend while visiting North Carolina. I remember having to almost fight for the right to host him because there was another family at my church (a wildly financially successful family) that wished to host him, as well. Their position on the matter was, “We cannot host this great man of God in an apartment when he can stay in our lakeside home.” In my immaturity, I despised the comparison and the desire to have Dr. MA Thomas in my home became more of a competition than an offer of hospitality.
In God’s sovereignty, not through my efforts (as I thought then), Dr. MA Thomas stayed with Vince and me and that visit was instrumental in shaping my growing faith. While with us, he would spend 2 to 3 hours per morning in our guest room…praying. He would be on the floor, facedown, seeking God and praying. I thought, “how in the world does he have that much time or that much stuff to pray?”
Fast forward to the prayer over our present home; I remember that as he was praying and anointing our home with oil, he authoritatively asked God that our home be set apart and that, by His power, it be found useful and effective in the ministry and mission work of God.
Back to his stay in our apartment:
During his stay with us in our apartment, I had asked Dr. Thomas about my observations regarding his prayer life and the time that he spent praying and meditating. He said, “Allow me to start with an observation of my own.” (People from India and England always sound so poetic and wise…I feel like a bumpkin when talking with most of them) He shared that, on his visits to the US, he was always struck by American’homeownerships appetite for and relationship with their houses, yards, wealth. He said that he did not understand why they could not see how much time that their houses and their possessions required of them. When staying with gracious hosts, he would note how much time was spent by his hosts in maintaining yards, maintaining cars, keeping rooms cleaned, picked up, dusted, organized, etc. From his observations, he sensed that one would never reach a place of inner contentment because they would always be seeking more to own which would result in more to do.
I have never forgotten that conversation. I have never forgotten the vision of him praying in my apartment for what seemed like an excruciating amount of time. I have never forgotten his mighty request of God regarding my home and my family. It was as if I was living the Mary and Martha story of Scripture.
So when I pull into my driveway of my fully paid for home, I remember that it is set apart. And though Bank of America no longer owns it with Vince and me, we do not own it either.
It has been a place where much ministry and mission has been accomplished and birthed.
In closing, I must add that my wife, who is a financial genius, has managed our finances well. She is the closest thing to a Proverbs 31 I will ever know and see. She gave up her culture, her family, her “identity”, to become Mrs. Lanier. You’ve done good, baby. You’ve done real good.

So now we are mortgage free and I know that, in part, it is because God honored Dr. MA Thomas’ prayer that day. But I also know this: In the eyes of Heaven, I am not entirely debt free. No, I owe Him. All to Him; I owe everything. So, as for me and my house…we will continue to serve the LORD.

Constructing Worship Teams with Honor & Heart

Life Arts Worship Team

 

I find myself in a season of building & strengthening worship teams at my church. This task encompasses musicians, vocals, technicians, and various production roles. It is a delicate team task that requires honest prayer, purposeful decision-making, lots of patience, collaboration, & the willingness to take risks with & for people. If you’re a worship leader, music minister, worship pastor, and you’re in a similar season of ministry, here is a list that is helping me at the moment:

1) Choose honor over production quality.
Honor the Lord & honor His church in your decision-making. How? Pray for God’s team design to be clear to you. Pray for His discernment when seeking teammates. Then choose to build by His design from the “natural resources” around you…the LORD put them there! DON’T set out to build according to a video from Hillsong, Passion, or Jesus Culture, etc. I LOVE these videos…but they are not necessarily reflective of where you are, where God wants you to be, or who God has brought to your church. What is He doing where YOU are? I detest McChurch mentality in worship service and team design.


2) Choose heart AND talent.
Too often in our production driven culture, we overlook the absence of “heart”…that nearly undefinable ingredient that we know is a requirement of authenticity in worship. It is oft imitated through cleverly chosen words. It can be tricky to discern. Ask the right questions and learn to listen. Don’t pursue the WOW that doesn’t pursue God. Demand both. There are artistic believers out there that possess both heart and talent. Sometimes you may have to look past the present display of the talent and seek the potential for the talent…and then be willing to invest in it so that it reaches its potential.


3) Choose to partner in patience rather than to pester toward perfection.
When you’re building new teams, there are going to be bumps; mistakes, awkward moments, missed targets, etc. The teams are composed of members who are assigned specific roles. Of course there will be some bumps and misses as members learn their roles, then learn how their roles fit with other teammates and their roles. Be patient and learn/teach together. Do not succumb to a sense of defeat or exasperation that comes with setting uninformed expectations and failing to meet them. Additionally, be prepared to receive LOTS OF OPINIONS from others…informed and uninformed. Everyone’s a critic…including you and me. Take them in stride and remember 1 & 2. Partner with your teams and its members. Get to know them. The REAL them. This TAKES TIME. Do not allow yourself to feel rushed. Fast growth is not typically sustainable NOR good growth. Neither is “organic growth” good. Be intentional. Nurture. Invest. Be willing to inconvenience yourself with and for each other.


That’s all I have for now…the inspiration hit, thought I’d share it while it was on my mind and in my heart. If you have other tips, please share! I’d love to read them.

Some quick thoughts on Art, Pleasure, and Purpose

I’m, by a nature, an outdoors person.  Whether I’m walking, running, kayaking, hiking, canoeing, or SITTING, I love communing with my mind, my God, and my heart within the sanctuary of nature.  It is not so much an escape as it is a cleansing and filtering of the day; conscious and subconscious.
While walking the nature preserve next to my neighborhood, enjoying its vibrant and teeming ecosystem, my mind wandered to the subject of art, pleasure, and purpose.  So, as I am prone to do…I meandered.

Please note, these thoughts address the arts from a Christian perspective.  They are the opinions of an individual who serves his Christian community with and through artists and the arts.

Art, generally speaking, provides an emotional and/or reflective experience for an observer because it is typically birthed from a bed of emotion and/or thought within the creator.  The work of creating an artistic expression is an inner collaborative process of the maker’s psyche; mental, emotional, and spiritual, partnering with the maker’s physical efforts to create a tangible and/or experiential product.  Simply put, an artist is compelled to get the idea(s) out of their inner selves and put it outside of themselves for someone else to receive.

The act of intentionally presenting art for public consumption should be compelled by a desire to promote and/or achieve a higher purpose within the individuals or the community; either an elevation of thought or the illumination of understanding.  If the originating purpose of presenting a work of art is rooted in an exclusive desire to achieve nothing other than personal pleasure or gain, then the artist (defined as one having a gift to weave thought and emotion for the purpose of compelling sensation) has abandoned the programming of Original Design and is pandering to and promoting self-love which destroys Christian community and embraces atheistic humanity.  There is no legacy.  There is no worth.  There is no significance.  There is nothing more than an undulating emotional wave that will break itself in time leaving no trace of good…but potentially helps to pave the path for others to pursue the same destructive course of self-love.

In the corporate worship experience of the Church, the enduring artistic works have come to represent altars of remembrance of God’s grace, mercy, and presence in our lives’ circumstances. This is an effectual gift of God to us.  How many times do we hear songs, or read poems, or view images that result in an edifying “flashback” of interventions in our lives we know to be the work of God?  There is a risk, however, in sequestering these works and our creative artistic efforts for this sole purpose.  We must work to avoid permitting the arts to only PRESERVE a culture of faith.   If they cease to do more than safeguard anthropological exercises of preferred religious ritual, then we are back to self-love and a sense of godlessness in the things about which we become passionate.  The arts in worship should always present a God that is ALIVE and PRESENT; presently engaging the culture for the purpose of redeeming it and restoring it.

Therefore, it should not be our desire, the artist or the worshiper, to offer each other, or our God, the same songs, same offerings, same gifts over and over for they begin to cost us nothing in spirit, thought, or effort.  Such a practice is the result of ignorance to Truth and an absence of Relationship.  In the Old Testament, you will find that offerings presented in worship were offered, left, and consumed. To come again meant to come with something new and, important to note, something that was the result of purposeful effort, process, preparation, and thought.

Brief aside:  Regarding the contemporary and modernist trends that have been developing in Christian art and corporate worship for decades; though I do not believe that the arts should archive history, we should be careful not to reject the works of the past.  It is important to recognize the significance of their testimony.  No act of God is disposable and, therefore, no work of art conceived from His intervention in a believer’s life should be either.  Consumable?  Yes.  Disposable?  Absolutely not.  Though we know His mercies are new every morning, yesterday’s mercy delivered the morning to us.

Another birthday…Another day?

Yesterday was my 35th birthday.  I love birthdays.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t love the fact that they represent another year of my life has been completed.  But I relish the opportunity that a birthday provides for reflection, remembrance, and review.

I decided to take a hike with my 3 year old son, Liam, on my birthday.  I didn’t want it to be a quick excursion.  I wanted it to be long, significant, rejuvenating and taxing.  I had a lot to think about.  So I loaded the backpack into the trunk of the car, strapped Liam in, and headed for Clark’s Creek Greenway.

After a quick stop for some provisions (diet Sun-drop and gum for me, sweet tarts for Liam), I parked the car, put Liam in the backpack, and started a 12-mile hike down memory lane.

I love this particular hike.  There are so many  different landscapes to see along this greenway and there are quite a few smells, as well.  The various animals, flowering trees, the creek, the marsh, the fields, the gravel paths, even the large wooden bridges all trigger memories linked to specific sights and smells.  Since I was wanting to remember and to reflect, this environment was necessary and supportive.

As with any hike or run, there comes a point that the spring in my step begins to get a little sprung.  The exhilaration of the first few miles turns to thoughts of, “You know the further you go from this point, you still have that many MORE miles to complete when you decide to turn back.”  My mind begins to play tug-of-war with my body as they fight to see who will determine the next step; forward or back?

My hike down memory lane was nearing that same point.  I had been walking for nearly 3 hours and thinking about my last 35 years.  My back was a little sore.  My feet were barking.  And the tug-of-war game was getting harder to maintain.  The memories I had of my childhood and adolescence were changing to memories and thoughts of a more difficult nature.

While navigating bikers and runners, Liam’s requests for candy, and wondering if I would finish this walk in time to get Ellis from the school bus, I was trying to figure everything out.  Like many people, I want to know the plan.  I want to feel as if I can answer with confidence and clarity, “Where do you see yourself in 20 years?”  Questions like, “How did I get here?”, “What decisions were made that determined this direction?”, “How do I know I’m doing the right things?”, were all rattling in my mind as I remembered my life.  (These are all the typical questions you ask when on a hike, right?)

Did I mention that I had my phone with me, too?  It is rarely far from my side (a fact to which my wife will attest with great annoyance) and it keeps me tethered to the greater community of which I am a part and that I love to serve.  I was using it to track my speed and distance and as I was reviewing my progress, I noticed several notifications in my inbox from my Facebook account.  I knew that they were the typical and expected “Happy birthday” sentiments that we all love to give and receive.  Since I needed  a break from all the remembering and questioning, I decided to check out “the wall”.

As I was reading through the postings and smiling, I came across a particular post that put me back on my hike down memory lane.  It was a post from Mary, a lady that once served in a choir I directed a few years ago.  In her post, she shared with me that her son and I shared the same birthday.  She shared with me that she had lost her son 11 years ago.  She shared with me that my life had impacted her life.  She instructed me to take time out from the busyness of my life to “be still” and to listen to God’s voice.

Mary had done something significant.  She had taken time out of her day of remembering, to share with me during mine.  She effectively guided that day’s journey to its final leg.  She reminded me of something critical to our faith; to be still in Him.

I walked in silence.  Allowing the memories and thoughts to be still.

Within a few moments, I heard a song.

Time measured out my days.  Life carried me along.  In my soul I yearned to follow God but knew I’d never be so strong.  I looked hard at this world to learn how heaven could be gained.  Just to end where I began, where human effort is all in vain.

Were it not for grace, I could tell you where I’d be.  Walking down some pointless road to nowhere with my salvation up to me.  I know how that would go.  All the battles I would face.  Forever running, but losing the race…were it not for grace.

Our birthdays are not just another day.  They provide us with an opportunity to look back, to be deeply and honestly aware of our present, and to ponder the path ahead.  Our birthday marks the beginning of our progression from our mother’s womb towards His destination.

On my 35th birthday, I determined to rest upon Proverbs 16:9.  In his heart, a man plans his course.  But the LORD determines his steps.

 

The Convenient Witness

Largest BuddhaRomans 12:1-3

“… offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1 NIV).

Convenience. Sacrifice. Convenience feeds the flesh. Sacrifice feeds transformation. Convenience is self-love. Sacrifice is love of something greater than self. Decisions of convenience and sacrifice are observable, tangible witnesses to whether one loves self or something greater than self.

I had the opportunity to visit a religious island in China while visiting my wife’s family. On this island, the largest Buddha statue in all the world has been erected.  It is so large that worshippers and visitors alike respond in awe.  It is HUGE!

My flesh was amazed at the sheer size and magnitude of this work.  But my spirit was deeply disturbed.  Why?  How could I be amazed on one hand and deeply pained on another?  Well, the obvious explanation could simply be that, thanks to the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ in my life, I was looking at this statue with “eyes that see” and knew it to be an idol and a gateway to eternal separation from the one true God.  However, I have a tendency to self-examine myself anytime I have an emotional or spiritual reaction to something.  I am not satisfied with the obvious explanation.  Though that explanation is fact…it was not the only reason the Holy Spirit was tugging at me in the moment.  After more observation and reflection, I realized that God wanted me to take note of the various acts of worship occurring around me.

For those individuals that were there for worship, this religious icon was real.  Their passion was nearly tangible.  Their worship of this statue and all that it represented to them provided visual evidence of their faith.  How did I know this? Because I witnessed these people intentionally sacrifice self for love of their god. Their acts of worship were most inconvenient.  And yet, here were thousands of men, women, boys, and girls intentionally participating in acts designed to express their faith and their devotion.

These worshipers commuted to this island on a series of buses, subways, and ferries. Upon arrival, there were literally thousands of people in line patiently waiting to pray, light incense, offer fruit, or to toss various amounts of money into wells. People were climbing hundreds of stone steps to ascend to a holy place. Most notable was that, in spite of all these inconveniences, they worshipped with observable determination and acceptance of the expected sacrifice.

In this setting, the Holy Spirit convicted me. Considering my worship is not tethered to a specific time or space and that my worship is composed of the daily decisions and actions of my life, was I an example of a LIVING sacrifice?  Was my worship a witness of passion for Christ or a witness of my passion for Christ when the externals met my personal preferences?

My worship lacked depth and transformational power, just like the worship occurring around me.  Why?  I was worshiping the true God…so why was my worship leaving me empty and unchanged?  It was on this island that I realized my acts of worship lacked intentional and purposeful sacrifice and my body was not being presented to God in holiness as a result. My worship was more a witness of self-convenience, of duty, of tradition; not an offering of my body, my self.  My worship of Christ, more often than not, occurred when external circumstances met my internal preferences.  This is not worship of some ONE larger than me…it was worship of things and of me.

There, in the midst of countless powerless prayers, I offered a repentant prayer to Christ and my Father took me in His arms and affirmed me as His son.