Today I Saw God
"Be the donkey." To this day, this is still the single greatest advice I have ever received as a vocalist.
Early in my participation in Floris UMC's contemporary worship team, a few of us attended a vocal workshop. At this training, we learned proper techniques and bad habits we should avoid vocally. Then the training sessions dug into the heart of the worshipper. The leaders used a story we generally associate with Palm Sunday to help put our role into appropriate perspective. During this session, she recounted the story of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. As he approached the gates of Jerusalem, Jesus asked his disciples to retrieve a young donkey. In fulfillment of scripture, Jesus then rode the donkey into Jerusalem. The gathering crowd began to cover the streets with their cloaks and tree branches while shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David!"
After retelling this story, the leaders asked us to imagine that the donkey was walking through the streets thinking, "Wow! Look at all these people here. I must be pretty awesome because they came just to see me! Praise me, you peasants!" We all roared with laughter. Then she said, "Right. It's ridiculous. That is exactly how ridiculous you are when you think it's about you in worship." Woof.
A little fun factmany musicians struggle with egos. This is particularly true of vocalists, for which sins of pride can plague even the most devout Christian. Perhaps it is because music is our primary mode of soul expression, and it is so dear to our core that any form of criticism can feel like an attack on our personhood. It could also be due to the fact that many musicians struggle with self-esteem issues; yet, their proficiency in an instrument or their voice is the one area in which they feel esteemed. Rather than feeling worthy simply because of who they are, personal worth gets tied into the positive feedback they receive when participating in a musical performance.
During middle and high school, I definitely struggled with this. At a time in which awkwardness abounds and self-esteem plummets, I found myself receiving compliments whenever I sang. I didn't really know what to do with this, but it felt good. Over time, I started to crave the good feelings that came from the compliments, and I think I lost sight of the purpose of worship. Instead, I eagerly anticipated the next time I could sing, as that would help feed a part of me that desperately felt "less than."
As I grew up, I departed from the church scene, but upon my return I felt myself continuing to struggle with my inner ego. Once again my self-esteem was rolling around in the gutter, and I craved the little "hit" of praise I received following a worship service. The problem was that I was so focused on myself that I wasn't allowing room for God to work. In my mind, I was only worthy if every note was sung to perfection, so I spent so much time focusing on vocal perfection that I forgot to pay attention to the words I was singing. During a service, I was thinking about breath control and vocal tone and could not open myself to the movement of the Holy Spirit. If I messed up, I felt worthless, and if I succeeded, I felt prideful. It was ultimately about me. Not a pretty picture.
It wasn't until I started doing serious soul work that I realized how skewed my motivations were. Even though I had sung in a church setting my entire life, I didn't really have a true understanding of worship. Through small group study, I began to learn that worship should be multi-directionalinward, outward and upward. I learned that ministry should be a part of every minute of our day, not simply when we are on stage. Slowly I began to transform myself and rid the ego from the platform. I began to experience true worship, which is probably the most beautiful gift I've ever received.
I don't believe that issues with ego and pride are only reserved for vocalists and donkeys. The beauty of the church is that it is made up of a variety of people with a multitude of gifts that are necessary for Kingdom work. However, we can each get caught up in the pride of doing and lose sight of the humility that Jesus demonstrated so flawlessly. If we are serving for the purpose of pumping up our own ego, our actions are worthless.
So whether you are a teacher, preacher, mentor, A/V technician, writer, small group coordinator, usher, greeter or coffee maker, take a second to check your motivations and remember that we are simply donkeys. Are you doing God's work to feel good about yourself or to please others? Or are you truly trying to honor God's calling in your life at that moment?
If you're getting it right today, check in with yourself again tomorrow. This battle is one we will fight continuously throughout our lives. It's our job to carry Jesus into the world with us so others can experience a loving relationship with God. However, at the end of the day, it is not about us. It's about the one we serve. And remember that the people certainly should not be laying out palm branches for us. Just be the donkey.
As a pastor, I have sometimes felt a bit guilty the day after Easter. Easter is a celebration of the resurrection of Christ. It is big and a contrast to its gentle sister Christmas. Christmas is a candle slowly burning on a starlit night that shimmers on the face of the incarnate Lord. Easter is a triumphant parade whose noise drowns out the sound of mourners as it celebrates the risen Savior. If Christmas Eve is the gentle, "O Holy Night," Easter is the rousing response, He is risen indeed! If you mumble it or don't say it loud enough, we just do it again. Because Easter is big news offered in big ways.
Then I wake up the day after Easter and sometimes my first thought is one of tremendous relief. I lay there and think, whew! Made it. Holy Week is a rich experience. It is full of emotional lows and highs as we consider our redemption and the sacrifice Jesus made for us. There have been details to consider and four evenings of worship. By Monday morning, even though I am grateful for redemption and new life, I am just feeling relieved we made it to the finish line.I wish I was the kind of pastor who would jump out of bed shouting Hallelujah! and He is risen indeed! all through the house. I can only imagine that the first disciples had some extra zip in their step as the result of the good news of Easter. But what I usually feel is a blessed sense of relief that it is complete.
I have come to realize that blessed relief is an Easter experience. Christ's offer of new life doesn't always come in the form of excitement. Sometimes it is just a relief to know that Easter has happened. A good bit of what the resurrection offers us is an experience of blessed relief. I've noticed this lately:
- At the graveside of an old friend who died far too young. I felt such relief that Easter happened and new life was hers.
- When I spoke to a married couple who were, for a time, contemplating divorce, but now they are working it out. They are committed to commitment and to each other. They chose grace and are taking the first uncertain steps into new life together. And it is a relief for them both.
- Listening to a guy tell me about the way he surrendered to God by asking for help with his addiction. He was tired of pretending he had it under control, tired of what he was doing to others. He was finding a new life, and, compared to his old life, it was such a relief.
This Easter, when the great worship service is over and the music fades away, feel good about the ways you experience the good news of the resurrection as a source of true relief.
She was crying. It was near the end of the Good Friday service, and a woman whom I was close to had just come back from the prayer rail with tears in her eyes. I was about 13 years old and was stunned. Why was she crying? She had been fine just a few minutes ago. I knew it was not polite to stare, but I couldn't look away. I just kept looking at her, hoping I would gather some clues as to why she was crying. Nothing. At the end of the service, using the tact of a typical middle school student, I went up to her and asked why she was crying. She explained to me that thinking about the death of Jesus sometimes made her sad. Sometimes it made her cry. I nodded as if I understood, but the truth was that I was very confused.
First of all, it happened so long ago. How could a person's death that happened so long ago still make someone cry? Second, did she not know the whole story? I knew for a fact that she did because she had been one of the teachers to teach me the Easter story; it was not as if in two days she would be shocked to come to church and learn that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning. Knowing that she clearly knew the whole story and Good Friday could still bring her to tears, I realized that there was probably something more to her relationship with God than mine. I wondered what it must be like to be someone who was so in love with God that Jesus' death could bring you to tears.
I wish I could say that was a turning point in my faith, but it wasn't. I would attend several more Good Friday services with dry eyes. In college, I'm embarrassed to admit that it wasn't until I realized my Catholic friends weren't attending classes on Good Friday that I realized I could play the "Good Friday" card and not attend classes either. Several more years passed, and not a single tear was shed.
As I entered adulthood, I began to tackle the obstacles that life throws at you, and at the same time, my relationship with God strengthened. I began to rely on God in ways that I never imagined at age 13. There were days that God's strength alone pulled me through. There were days when I messed up. As a struggling perfectionist, I hated those days. Having these mistakes hanging over my head, knowing people were mad at me, knowing there were errors that couldn't be undonethese days were the worst. It was only by discovering God's forgiveness and unconditional love for me that I was able to rise above these mistakes and start to forgive myself.
I still haven't cried at a Good Friday service, but there have been times that I've sat alone with God, prayed and been so moved by his love that I've cried. I have been so humbled by Jesus' suffering and death for my mostly selfish and careless sins. I have often felt unworthy of Jesus' sacrifice.
And yet, the 13-year-old in me is still present. She is still there to remind me that Good Friday is not the end of the story. She still reminds me that Good Friday really is good. When I am feeling unworthy and pathetic, her youthful voice is in my head reminding me not to forget about Easter. Jesus didn't just rise for the perfect people. He rose from the dead and made things new for all of us. He did it knowing we still wouldn't understand it completely. He did it knowing that we would still mess up. He did it knowing that many would still mock and ridicule Him. He still did it.
I don't know if I'll ever fully understand why Jesus had to do what he did. Maybe one day I'll have the opportunity to have a long conversation with Him and ask Him why. Until that day comes, I have Good Friday to reflect on His amazing love for me. I have Good Friday to thank Him for His huge sacrifice. I have Good Friday to remember that Jesus' death and resurrection brings the promise of eternal life for me. It's enough to bring a person to tears.
As you can guess, Holy Week is the most exciting week of the year in churches, and that's true of course, at Floris UMC. Have you had a chance to see the church's "Holy Week and Easter" announcement? What a week we will have! I am very excited about sharing this with you all.
From Palm Sunday on April 1, we enter Holy Week, the last week of Lent. You don't want to miss the opportunities to walk through the journey of Holy Week because it leads you to truly celebrate Easter. It gives indescribable joy on Easter morning. That I can promise. We will start praising Jesus by the children praising "Hosanna!" on Palm Sunday. Then, as you've heard me announce, there will be a Lenten Cantata, "The Lenten Sketches" at the Good Friday evening service. The Floris Orchestra and choir will share this deeply worshipful cantata. The cantata will lead us to have a portrait of God's grace, shown during Holy Week through meditative words and beautiful music. We have been working hard and praying deeply– not only for the Lord to be glorified through the worship service– but also that we may experience His presence to transform us throughout the service. Please invite your friends and neighbors who especially need to meet our Savior, Jesus. You never know how God will work through your invitations to others. He works miraculously through our actions.
On Easter morning, we will start with a sunrise service at 6:15 AM. And the Hallelujah chorus will be lifted up at the 8:00 AM, 9:15 AM and 11:00 AM services. There will be a fanfare of brass that will lead us to the Easter hymn, "Christ, the Lord is Risen Today." Also a special Easter anthem, "Risen Today" will be sung by the Easter choir.
Now, you can guess how we praise and worship Him! We will use all our talents and all our breath to proclaim "He is risen indeed!" Are you ready? I am surely ready.
May the Spirit of the Lord be upon you and your family through this incredible experience of praise and worship during Holy Week and on Easter.
Here are the lyrics to our Palm Sunday anthem. Enjoy.
Behold, the King of Zion Comes
Behold, the King of Zion comes, the promise is fulfilled.
The visions seen by prophet eyes, to all is now in truth, revealed, to all is now revealed.
From age to age the people prayed and searched the Eastern sky. Rejoice! Rejoice! The time has come. Redemption draweth nigh. Redemption draweth nigh.
Hosanna, hosanna! Hosanna to the King! O blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Lift up your heads, ye ancient doors. Fling open wide, ye gates. Open ye gates neath chapels made of palms and praise. Your King rides humbly on to reign.
Behold, the King of Zion comes. The promise is fulfilled.