Worship leaders, if you were training another worship leader and had to make sure they really understood one book of the Bible, what would it be? And yes, I know you like all of the books of the Bible. But what one would affect their understanding of worship and worship leadership the most? I’m working on some training material and I want to cover the whole Bible. But I can’t do that deeply. So I want to dig into certain books on a deeper level and I was wondering which books impacted you. Which ones would you use if you were doing the training? Thanks.
Last spring, I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Michigan. There were many heralded and famous writers there, but my favorite session was on writing fictional characters with an author I had not yet heard of: Shawn Smucker. So, when the conference was over, I bought his novel The Day the Angels Fell.
Over the months since then, I have picked up the book many times. Each time I am in the middle of the rush of life, running from thing to thing, and have a few minutes to read. I’ve never gotten very far in the book. This is rare, because I read a lot. But something was hindering me.
I finally figured it out. The book is too well-written. By that, I mean I couldn’t just skim through a chapter and get the fullness of the story being told like I can with most books. You see, I finally had a trip where I had to sit on a plane for over three hours. I actually had time to slow down. I don’t know about you but that takes time for me. I have a deceleration time. I can’t just choose to be slow. It takes a while for my brain to slow its frenetic shifting and lock in. But once I did, I found that I really enjoyed the book.
I think this is probably true of most art. At least good art. But the pace of our lives is so fast that we miss it. I think we often choose poor art because it’s easily digestible on the run. We listen to pop music, because it takes a while to get in the right place to take in an entire Elgar cello concerto. We tend to fast forward the YouTube video through the orchestra section to get to the “good” part. We buy CDs that only have the famous sections of a lot of different classical pieces. Okay, we don’t buy CDs anymore. We do the same with visual art. We look through Instagram, but can’t take the time to go to the museum. The last time I went to the museum, I caught myself trying to hurry through, just looking for pieces I would like and then slow down a bit for those, at least long enough to take a photo for Instagram. But I had a friend who stayed in front of one painting for an hour. I stopped by a few times and tried to let him know it was a painting of the ocean. I thought maybe he was having trouble identifying it. It turns out he was moving at the speed of art. I was rushing and missing it.
I’m realizing this may be true of a lot of my life. So, I’m planning on slowing down. Operating at a speed at which I can absorb God’s beauty and goodness in his creation and in his creatures. I’m going to plan it as soon as my schedule lets up.
There has been much conversation lately about including the Psalms in worship to a greater extent. The Word of God can be such a powerful part of our worship experience, yet many times, we choose to sing the words of men. Those songs definitely have value as well, but the Psalms are becoming more and more prominent in discussions about what we should include in our times of worship. So I wanted to post the topic along with some examples to encourage discussion here. I’d love to hear from you about how we can integrate the Psalms into our worship services.
Option and Example 1: Keeping the Exact Wording
Some issues with trying to keep the exact wording of the psalm are that Hebrew poetry is much different than English poetry, and some of that poetry is lost in translation. More difficult for us is that the Psalms don’t fit into a modern songwriting structure. There is not a repeated chorus; instead, there are written straight through. Sometimes they have a refrain (a repeated line), such as Psalm 136’s “for his steadfast love endures forever.” But for the most part, psalms do not fit our familiar song structures.
So, option 1 is to keep the exact wording the same. Don’t add anything. Keep it in order. Then write music to fit it. Some of the music might come back around similar to a repeated verse, but because we are sticking to the text, the rhythm will most often not be the same.
A beautiful example of this is Psalm 23 by The Corner Room.
Option and Example 2: Keep the Words, but Restructure
Another option is to choose a piece of the psalm to use as a chorus or at least as a repeated section. A great example of this format is Psalm 145 by Shane and Shane. If you actually follow along with the scriptural text, you’ll find that the Shanes’ song actually jumps around a lot, and then repeats some things that aren’t repeated in the text. But they kept the lines of the text intact and more importantly, didn’t add anything. And the song works as a different kind of song than the straight through approach of Psalm 23. The repeated sections allow for greater memorability.
Option and Example 3: Add a chorus
I have really enjoyed the story and music of Wendell Kimbrough. Wendell leads worship at a church and each week he brings a new setting of a psalm to his congregation. He studies the psalm during the week and writes a chorus that he feels expresses the main theme of the psalm. Then in the service, he has people read the psalm (like the verses of a song) with his thematic chorus in between. Then he take the songs that his congregation really connects with and works them into full songs using more of the text of the psalm itself. “I’ll Not Be Shaken” takes the chorus from verses 6–8 of Psalm 62, the first verse reaches back to verses 1–2, and the second verse digs into verses 9–10.
I’m sure there are many other approaches that would very successfully bring the Psalms into our worship times. I would love to hear about any other ideas you have, any examples you know of, or different experiences you have had. Thanks.
Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness.
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“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Matthew 6:24 (ESV)
My dog Henry does not serve two masters. The master he does serve is neither me nor my wife. He serves the master of food. He is a thirteen-year-old basset hound, white around the muzzle, round around the belly. He is in pretty good shape for an old basset but that it not due to lack of effort. He can only eat what we give him. And what he can scavenge. He is old now. So he is slow. He mopes his way around the yard to go to the bathroom. We drag him on walks where he goes progressively slower as the walk continues. He saunters toward his bed when it’s time to go to sleep. But he sprints like a greyhound when he hears the pantry door open.
The thing is my dog doesn’t try to be passionate about food. It’s not something he has disciplined himself to do. I think maybe that’s just how God made him. Our other dog literally just walked away from her lunch. But not Henry. Never Henry.
I don’t want to serve two masters. Fortunately money is not my temptation, but I’ve found plenty of others. But discipline has only moved my heart a little. So today my prayer is that God would make me like that. Just like he made Henry with a passion for food, would he make me with a passion for him? I will choose him. I will exert my will and discipline in pursuit of loving him more deeply. But I’m going to ask him to make me. So that when I am old and slow, I will still sprint to his presence.
SPOILER ALERT: Do NOT Read This Blog If You Have Not Seen Ant-Man and the Wasp AND Avengers: Infinity War
In case you did not read the title of the blog, if you have not seen the two latest installments of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), which are Avengers: Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp, you should not read this blog. For one, it will spoil the contents of the movie. And two, you won’t really understand what I’m talking about in this blog anyway.
My family loves the Marvel movies. So, when Ant-Man and the Wasp came out, we immediately got tickets at our local Alamo. It’s a little taste of Austin in DFW. The movie is awesome. Mostly, it’s hilarious. But it’s also got a decent story and character interaction. If you’ve seen the Marvel movies, which you should have if you are still reading, then you know that you always stay until the lights come up. There is usually a bonus scene in the middle of the credits and another at the end. So… we have thoroughly enjoyed this movie. We have laughed and laughed. And the good guys win in the end, even redeeming the bad guy! The credits roll and we have had an awesome time. And then there is the bonus scene in the middle of the credits.
AVENGERS SPOILER ALERT! At the end of the previous movie, Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos snapped his fingers and wiped out half the population of the universe. Of course, we were mostly concerned with the fact that he wiped out half of the stars of the movies we have come to love. Spider-Man: gone. Black Panther: gone. Groot: gone. Dr. Strange: gone. It was a devastating end to the movie. Well, devastating is a little strong. That should probably be saved for real life and real people. But it was a tough end to a movie. So we are left waiting for the next Avengers movie in May of 2019 to find out what happens.
ANT-MAN SPOILER ALERT! So we are peacefully, even enjoyably watching the credits of Ant-Man, having completely loved the movie, when the credits scene starts. All the stars of the movie are finally together working on a new project. Everyone is happy and laughing, the characters and the audience. And then, suddenly, three of the characters: gone. Floating away as the moth trash pieces Thanos left behind. We were all shocked. Everyone in the whole theater. How could this be happening? After we laughed so much?
If you are still reading, you actually should have known all this. In fact, you probably knew where I was going as soon as I started. However, I had to explain the story for all you rule-breakers who read this even though you haven’t seen the movies.
So we sat there shocked that something so sad and so dark could come at the end of something so joyful. As I’ve thought about that over the last few weeks, I have felt that we often do that with life, especially as Christians. We are shocked when hard things happen, when suffering hits. How could this be happening when we’ve been through something so good? But the truth is that the Bible is quite clear that being a believer does not grant us a free pass from suffering. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Paul and Peter talk quite a lot about suffering. Paul says, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” 2 Timothy 3:12. And not only His followers, but Jesus Himself says, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple,” in Luke 14:27. And then, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world,” (John 16:33). In the world you will have tribulation. You will have. Not you may have. Not you will have if you’re bad. Rich Mullins paraphrased it like this, “There’s bound to come some trouble to your life.”
So, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to avoid sin. I’m not saying we shouldn’t call out things that are wrong. I’m just saying we shouldn’t be surprised when we suffer. I knew how the story went, so I shouldn’t have been surprised at the end of Ant-Man and the Wasp. But in my laughter, I forgot. The good news is that in our story, we know more of the end of the story. We may guess at the future of the Marvel Universe, but we know God wins. We know that whatever we go through, our God is faithful and true. So be encouraged. Don’t be surprised. I don’t think this makes suffering easier, but it puts it in context.
My wife and I took our two dogs for a walk a couple of nights ago. We have an old basset hound and a one-year-old golden retriever mix. As we turned toward the home stretch, I looked up and saw a huge German Shepherd also out for a walk. I was just about to point him out, when he escaped his leash and came running at us. Since these people from our neighborhood had him out for a walk, I assumed he was a nice dog and was just excited. Still, I pulled our dog close to me on the leash and calmly awaited his arrival. Then he growled and attacked our puppy. A very stressful few moments occurred before we separated them. Don’t worry, she is going to be okay. I wouldn’t write a blog like that. She has a couple of deep bite wounds in her paw and a few other injuries but overall she is okay.
After the ordeal, after we had treated her injuries, after we had sat with her for quite a while, we were going to bed and started talking about what to do when a dog runs at you. We didn’t even know an answer. Honestly, I was considering taking my son’s baseball bat with us on future walks. We did a little research and found out about things like citronella spray (smell) and an automatic umbrella (sight). Obviously, I already knew about umbrellas in general, but it had never occurred to me to use one as a defense system against a 150 lb. beast. But apparently, it’s an option. So you can be sure we will take all that and more on our next walk.
Today, I got to thinking about sin in our lives. Most of us know the verse: “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy,” (John 10:10a). So we know that fact, but what do we do to make sure that doesn’t happen next time. Do we research? Do we put preventative measures in place? And honestly, how long does it take before we get lax in our guard? I can tell, even now, so soon after the fact, that I’m already thinking, “Ah, that won’t happen again. I mean, it would be nice to have that spray and an umbrella, but I probably don’t actually needto go get them. I mean, what are the odds?”
I wonder if I treat sin the same way. I’m pretty sure I do. I start off doing a lot of reading, a lot of preparation, a lot of safeguarding. But over time, I relax. My prayer today is that it won’t take more than one German Shepherd attack for us to take this seriously, for us to do everything we can to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
This is Maggie. She’s doing well, as you can see.
I like to cook. I think it might be the immediate gratification. You put salmon on a cedar plank on the grill. You put an ear of corn next to it. You cut up some cherry tomatoes, avocado, and cilantro and dump it in a bowl with some salt, pepper, red wine vinegar, and cilantro. Then cut the corn off the cob into the bowl. Scoop some on a plate and then lay the salmon on top of it. Dinner is served.
Sorry, this wasn’t meant to be a Pioneer Woman blog. It’s just a quick description of how I spent my evening. Started at 6, ate at 7. Had a plan, followed the instructions, had a good dinner. I think that’s why I liked school, too. For each class, I had a syllabus. I knew what I needed to do: read the books, do the work, get the grade. And I did.
The thing is: life doesn’t have a syllabus. Neither marriage nor parenting has a list of assignments. And you don’t get specific grades as you go along. You just feel like you failed sometimes. And you know what else? The things that matter rarely have an end date. That’s one great thing about a school semester. There is a day when the stress ends. After that, you cannot fret about it any longer. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want my marriage, or my family, or my ministry, or any of the other things in my life to end. But some days I sure could use a spring break from the stress.
I rarely feel like I have a handle on what God is doing in my life. I guess if God gave me all those details then I could just go on and try to get it done without Him. And I know God will do a better job. So I can be patient. I can be willing to struggle and even fail. I can trust Him from moment to moment. It was easier to trust Him with my life. It’s been harder to trust Him with my wife and my kids.
It’s like every moment with my family is a little bit of seasoning going into a meal that’s going to braise for 30 years. It’s hard to wait. And honestly, it’s hard to stay disciplined to brown the minced garlic for just the right amount of time when the meal is decades away. But I guess I’m taking the metaphor too far, because there is joy in the taste of our family today. And God is faithful for the future. So I’ll just lean on that.
In my second year in seminary, I had a professor ask me to grade for him. I had taken his class the year before and had struggled with writing papers, as I’ve discussed in previous blogs. But I was honored and accepted. Grading other people’s papers helped me understand my own. I graded for him that entire school year.
Then in my fourth year of seminary, I had a professor ask me to TA (teaching assistant). This is like grading but more intense. You are actually in the classroom, helping shape the students’ learning. I had taken this course before as well, and I had a great TA in my semester. I immediately felt unprepared and uncomfortable. It was a writing course, and I didn’t know nearly as much about writing. But my professor was very encouraging, reminding me that I did know a lot about writing, just not the same things. I didn’t know as much about the vocabulary and rules of writing, but I did know about songwriting.
But most importantly, she reminded me that I had an opportunity to pastor these students, whatever it was they were learning. Oddly, that reminded me of signing with Ardent and getting ready to go on our first tour years ago. I felt the same way. What am I doing here? I wasn’t a rock star. I was a worship leader and songwriter. And in that moment, God reminded me that he had created me. I was a minister. If that was true in my church job, it was going to be true on the road as well. It was a great learning and focusing moment for the years to come.
Then, in seminary, I had to learn it again. I always worried about the academic quality I had to offer in a course. But I was a minister. My job was to still be that in this new arena. I had students in my writing course that were better writers than I was. And someday I will probably have students in my theology class that will be better theologians than I am. My aim is not to be better than them, but to make them better. I want to encourage them and see them shaped into who God wants them to be.
The thing is I’m not a very good shaper. I’m not in very good shape myself. So, what’s the solution to that? I think the answer is that God has to be the shaper. My role as an instructor is to help that students connect with God, most likely in the context of the subject of this class. At the end of a semester, if a student can repeat everything I’ve said but doesn’t have an encounter with God, then I have probably failed them. My words won’t shape them. So I’m reconsidering how you should teach in this light. I know the classes I benefitted from the most were ones where I encountered God and his word. Sometimes it was a language class, sometimes a ministry class, sometimes a writing class, sometimes a bible class.
You may not be in school currently, as a student or a teacher. But this is the first time I’ve put this all into words, and I’m noticing something. If I want to encourage someone and see them shaped into who God wants them to be, the first people I should be starting with are my wife and kids. If it’s true at work, it’s true about those closest to me. So we can work on that together: creating time, experiences, and environments for the encouragement, equipping, and divine encounter of those we care about. Then, maybe we’ll move on to others.
I recently graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary with a Masters in Theology. I am writing a series of blogs about that experience. This is #3. You’re welcome to go back and read the first two or just jump in here.
My first two years I focused on academics, specifically languages and Bible. In the middle of my first year, my friend Katie walked up to me. Well, I guess she wasn’t my friend yet. We hadn’t met yet. But now she is a friend and a leader of Art House here in Dallas. Katie asked me if I was Todd Agnew. I said “Yes,” because I was. Then she asked me about the worship program at DTS, and I had to be honest and say I knew nothing about it. We continued talking, eventually getting to the topic of my struggle writing papers. Katie is a good writer, and she suggested a creative writing class in our Media Arts and Worship department. I put it on my list of things to do when I could. I didn’t get around to it until year three.
At the beginning of my creative writing class, Jed (my TA) said something that had a huge impact on me. “Most of seminary is about minimizing risk. In your language classes, you are trying to get all the wrong answers out and get to the correct translation. In theology, you are trying to rule out any incorrect or heretical ideas and get to correct interpretation. You are trying to minimize risk. But art is about taking risks. So you are going to have to unlearn some things to do well in here.” He was so right.
I spent the whole semester thinking about what risk I could take. Every assignment, I didn’t just try to do well; I tried to take a risk. And I found some freedom in that. I realized that Jed wasn’t saying that pursuing right answers in languages and theology wasn’t right. It is. We should want that. But creating art is a different process. In the end, I started reconnecting the artist side of me and the academic side. They both have value. And they can work together. But they are not the same.
I have continued to explore this world of academics and art. I have searched for where they meet and how they inform each other. I have looked at how we sometimes judge one by the standards of the other. And I have looked for biblical and theological understanding of this intersection. It’s all fascinating stuff. For me. But wife says I’m a nerd. So I won’t bore you with all the details, but it has been a great journey.