January 21, 2015

The Times, They Are a-Changin’

Dear friends and family,

I wanted to let you know about some changes on the very near horizon for the Brawner family. It’s with tremendous excitement and sorrow, in equal measure, that I write these words.

Earlier this week, I accepted an offer to come and serve as the Worship Pastor at Grace Bible Church here in Houston. My final Sunday at Lakewood UMC will be on February 15th, after which I will begin serving full-time at GBC.

I can’t begin to express the love I feel for the people of LUMC and the gratitude I feel for the time I’ve spent, the lessons I’ve learned and the relationships I’ve formed in this place over the last 5 1/2 years. Thankfully, I will still be directly connected to the life of this congregation through my wife, Lacie, as she will be remaining in her role on the staff here. And, as we do not intend to relocate in the immediate future, we will also still be neighbors.

You all have taught me so much as a congregation, and loved us so well over these years. I will always cherish my time on this staff and will miss being a regular part of the life of this church.

I have complete confidence in the leadership of this congregation and their vision for the future of this place, and I truly can’t wait to see how God brings that vision to fruition in the coming weeks and months. You’re in good hands, dear friends.

Your prayers are appreciated as we begin the transition process over the next couple of weeks. Thanks so much! -LB

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October 18, 2014

What’s The Point Of Singing?

Have you ever stopped to think about how odd some of our church traditions are? I don’t even mean the super-liturgical, way “up-the-candle,” high church traditions of our most formal denominational brethren. I mean those common to nearly every ecclesial gathering around the world; things like congregational singing and communal praying. Have you ever stepped back, removed yourself from the integument of familiarity and habit, and really examined the parts of our gatherings that we most consistently take for granted? Why do we do these things?

I’ll state from the very beginning that I am, in no way, suggesting with this post that these elements of our community-life are superfluous or that they should undergo any sort of major overhaul. I believe they are, in fact, absolutely essential to the life of the Church and the lives of the individual believers therein. Whether or not they need to change in any way is a topic for another post. My only hope is to give some thought as to our reasons for doing them, trusting that if we will establish in our hearts and minds their truest purpose, we may do them with even greater fervor and deeper resolve.

I’d like to give consideration to one specific practice that has struck me as particularly strange over the last couple of years: the practice of gathering together and singing songs as a community. Now, I have a vested interest in this particular practice of ours, as it is my primary means of providing for my family’s financial needs. I make the bulk of my living planning and leading the musical pieces of a weekly worship gathering in Northwest Houston. I’ve loved congregational singing my entire life, having grown up in a denominational context in which singing was done entirely a cappella, with no instrumental accompaniment whatsoever, and with nearly every song being sung in rich 4-part harmony. But, until the last couple of years, I had never given much, if any, thought as to why we sing together in the first place.

I mean, think about it. You may have to mentally zoom out a bit to try and view the act objectively, but it’s really odd; a room full of people singing together? How many places do you experience such a thing outside the context of religious gatherings, Christian or otherwise? Occasionally you’ll hear a crowd sing together at a concert, or live sporting event (“Take me out to the ballgame…”), or perhaps at a birthday celebration, but that’s about it. It is, by no means, a common occurrence outside the context of various faith gatherings.

Why, then, do we do it? What’s the point?

Over the last 12 months or so, I’ve begun answering that question, at least for myself, and it has transformed the experience of congregational singing for me.

However, “Why do we sing?” is far too broad a question in and of itself. To get to an answer, I had to follow a trail of smaller, more digestible questions.

First, for whom are we singing? The answer to this question may seem obvious. However, if I learned anything in my twenties, it was this: often the questions with the most seemingly obvious answers are the questions we most desperately need to ask, as they may not have been asked for a while.

I’ve lived my entire life taking for granted the idea that because we sing to God, we must also be singing for God. I mean, it seems simple enough, right? But, is it so simple? After all, who really benefits from our singing? Does God need His ego stroked? Is He so insecure as to require the affirmation of hundreds of millions of people throughout time and space constantly reminding Him of His greatness? I think not.

Now, hear me out. I understand the idea that a Creator would enjoy the affectionate praise of His creation, like any parent cherishes any sincere expression of admiration from their children. I’m not disagreeing with that sentiment, nor do I believe that it’s a poor motive for gathering and lifting our voices to God. We should, without a doubt, sing out of the overflow of our love and devotion to God; out of awe for His goodness and faithfulness and beauty. But, while that’s true, it leaves me with this nagging question: what about the times that we don’t mean the words we’re singing? Those times when we just flat out don’t feel it?

Ten years ago, I wrote a song called “Leaves Like Eves.” It’s a song about how the words we sing when we gather together had become nothing more to me than the leaves I used to hide the true state of my heart from God, as though He who knit me together wouldn’t know the difference between my heart as He created it and my heart as I had dressed it up. Every time I would play that song for folks, I’d introduce it by challenging them with this idea: the God we serve will find more glory in our honesty than in our flattery. He’s not a God who can be flattered. He knows our hearts. He knows what we really think and how we really feel, so we may as well be honest with Him.

I stand by that statement wholeheartedly, but I’ve since come to apply it more to times of personal prayer and devotion than times of corporate singing. Should we mean the words we sing to God when we gather? Sure, ideally. But, should we sing them whether we mean them or not? Absolutely, we should. We must, in fact. When we sing together, we are not having a private conversation with God. We’re having a communal conversation about God, directed to God. We are, in essence, preaching the Gospel to ourselves and one another. We’re calling each other to remember and believe the goodness and faithfulness and beauty of our God.

When I first began leading worship, I served at a tiny suburban church plant in West Fort Worth. The pastor of that church constantly reminded me that the congregation would never leave our Sunday gathering humming the sermon he preached. They’d leave humming the songs we had sung together. In fact, they were far more likely to have the words we sang rattling around in their minds all week than any words they heard from the pulpit. For whom do we sing? I believe we sing for ourselves and for one another, that we might come to believe more fully the truth of the words we sing and to love more deeply the God to and about Whom they were written.

That belief has transformed the way I personally worship God in song, the way I plan the musical portion of any worship gathering I’m involved with and the way I discern which songs should or shouldn’t be a part of our corporate worship life. If music is, in essence, sung theology, then things like lyrical content and melodic hook become significantly more important to consider.

However, that doesn’t completely quench my desire to know “why we sing.”

If that was all there was to it, then why not just leave the singing to the pros, and attend a musically excellent, theologically rich concert every weekend? Or, for that matter, why not just buy musically excellent, theologically rich music on iTunes and listen to it day in and day out? Why must we gather and actually sing together?

Since I was a teenager, I’ve been fascinated by the prayer Jesus prays in John chapter 17. One of the things He prays for specifically is the oneness of those who will come to believe in Him. He prays that we, His people, may be united together; that we might be one just as He and the Father are one.

In the book of Acts, we find the early church living and worshipping together day in and day out. They share what they have. They break bread together. They seek God together.

That begs the question: how many things do we do together? How many things can we do together? How many acts of worship are communal in nature? Congregational singing lends itself perfectly to the togetherness & vulnerability that the Gospel demands, deserves and seeks of those living in community. We, together, are the people of God. We, together, are the bride of Christ. Therefore, it’s right and good that we, together, with one voice, should express our affections for our great bridegroom, Jesus.

When we step outside the familiar walls of liturgical tradition and peek back in through the window at all the people standing and singing and raising their hands together, it may look a bit foreign or silly. But, brothers & sisters, as I said, it is absolutely vital to the life of the Church and to the lives of the individual believers therein. When we gather together, let us lay aside any concern about the quality of our singing voices. Let us lay aside any reservations about whether or not we “feel worshipful” in a given moment. Let us sing. Let us sing as an act of discipline, training our hearts to believe more completely the Gospel of our salvation. Let us sing as an act of community, knowing that the people around us are our brothers and sisters and that they need the truth of the Gospel on our lips to ring in their ears. And let us sing as an act of worship, knowing that God, who knows our hearts fully, is beyond worthy of the humble words we lift up.

Posted by in Church, Music, Theology, Worship and tagged as

September 23, 2014

The Grass Is Greener On The Other Side

We’ve all heard the old adage a thousand times: “The grass is always greener on the other side.” In nearly every situation in which we are confronted with our own feelings of jealousy, envy or general discontent with our lot in life, those words surface on the lips of some obnoxious, but well-intentioned schmuck whose thoughts on our plight we’d likely rather not hear. I mean, who asked anyway, right? Just let me complain in peace…

It’s an interesting, albeit irritating, little truism. It’s like one of those “True or False” statements on tests that kids are taught to watch out for in high school: whenever you see the words “always” or “never,” the answer is practically guaranteed to be “False.” Almost nothing in life is ever so absolute, or so they say.

In stating that the grass is ALWAYS greener on the OTHER side of the fence or hill or whatever, it’s implied that the grass is in fact NEVER greener on the other side. We’re programmed from an early age, immediately upon hearing the proverb, to turn our thoughts inward and examine our hearts, where we’ll find that the problem is not actually with the grass on either side. The problem is with us.

Though it pains me to admit it, I confess that in my particular case that is usually a pretty safe assumption. The problem usually is me. The proverbial grass usually is fine. Point taken. Lesson learned. Whatever.

Early in my ministry, I found myself leaning heavily on that proverb and its implied lesson. I’d constantly look at the flourishing ministry of others and bemoan the ministry I was doing, or the place where I was doing it. “So-and-so” never seemed to have to deal with the same issues I did. “They” had it easier. Anytime conflict arose, real conflict I mean, I’d find myself indulging thoughts about how I’d fit better “over there.”

Invariably, and almost immediately, feelings of conviction about my covetous thoughts would lead me down a familiar path of rationalization. “It’s all in your head,” I’d tell myself. “The same problems exist over there; maybe even worse problems. You just can’t see them from where you’re standing.” These thoughts sustained me for a while. I’m not so naive as to believe that there are churches out there without issues, without conflict or without their own bald spots or brown patches in the lawn, metaphorically speaking. Churches are, after all, gatherings of people. And people are, as we all know, a mess, more often than not. We all have junk. We all have baggage. When we gather together, it’s not as though our baggage just mysteriously disappears. It accumulates. It builds up even as we seek God and work together to find freedom from it. And when that happens, when all our varied brokenness intersects on the road to the cross, there is conflict and frustration. There is ugliness; the very ugliness, in fact, that Jesus came to free us from. There is sin. Aware of those truths, I found solace in the belief that “the grass” beneath my feet was no less green than any other grass.

However, lately whenever the thought creeps in that the grass may be greener on the other side, I’ve stopped even putting up a fight. I’ve come to believe that sometimes, quite simply, the grass really is greener on the other side. Thankfully, I’ve come to find tremendous hope in that statement. It’s begun serving as a constant and convicting reminder to me of what the call to ministry actually is.

Friends, hear this: we were not called to green grass. The call to ministry is not a call to be sheep, who graze all day on the richest, greenest, lushest grass. The call to ministry is a call to be gardeners; green thumbs who get down and dig in the soil, planting and watering and nurturing and calling forth life where there is none.

In Mark 2, we find Jesus spending time with “tax collectors and sinners.” When his detractors inquire with all their spiritual smugness as to why, He responds with this — “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Or, for the sake of our metaphor, it’s not the green grass that needs a gardener, but the dry and dying.

If you find yourself standing in rougher terrain than you’d like, rejoice for God is including you in His work of redeeming that terrain. If your eye wanders over to what may in fact be greener grass on the horizon, rather than being filled with envy or want, let it stir in you a deep desire to dirty your hands in the soil upon which you already stand. Let the Spirit pour through you like living water upon that dry and weary ground. And behold, by His grace the grass will become greener right beneath your feet. Life will spring forth where there has only been death and decay.

It will take time and hard work. More than anything, it will take the life-giving Spirit of God, in no small measure, working through you. It will be exhausting on days and exhilarating on others. But that is the call to ministry. That is our call.

It may be beneficial if I lay the metaphor aside and speak plainly for a moment. I’ll say this with as much gentleness and humility as I can muster. If you, like me, have a tendency to either long for or linger in the areas of ministry that are easiest or most immediately gratifying for you personally, perhaps you’re not being entirely obedient to the call that God has placed on your life.

You may be in a season of ministry that isn’t terribly fulfilling personally. Perhaps it seems as though the ground you’re working is too rock hard to ever break up. The soil won’t loosen. Nothing is taking root. It’s never going to grow. Take heart, friends. While the call to ministry is often a call to a life of hard labor, we can rest in the assurance that our labor is not in vain. Stay with it. Keep tilling. Keep turning the soil. Keep watering. Let the hours you put in and the sweat you pour out serve as reminders that you’re joining with Jesus in the glorious labor of turning the affections of His chosen people toward Him, where they belong. What a grace it is to humbly serve alongside our King.

You may simultaneously be within eyeshot of someone whose ministry is flourishing; someone for whom everything seems to always fall perfectly into place. I wrestle with this and the envy that accompanies it far more often than I care to admit. But take joy in knowing that while we may or may not ever find ourselves in the “green grass” we long for, we serve a God who is in relentless pursuit of His own glory, rather than our egos or comfort.

Let us be people who long to play our part in the redemptive work of transforming deserts into gardens. Let us be people who pray faithfully that God would send us into ever-rougher terrain. Let us be people who trust Him to work in, with and through us to bring forth life from the dry, cracked desert floor. May our deepest ministerial satisfaction be found not in the experience of standing in “green grass,” but in laboring alongside God and one another to make lush the barren soil.

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