Archived entries


So much of the work of God in our lives is invisible. This is probably why most of the visible world has such a hard time allowing God any space. Ironically, he is there anyway, enjoying all the space we did not leave him.

This is the challenge in being a truly spiritual person – seeing the invisible work of God, and accounting for the invisible God. On one hand this all sounds completely ridiculous. What could be more foolish than looking and accounting for invisible things? Yet even elementary science teaches that something can be invisible and present at the same time.

Mary carried a work of the Spirit, a work that was completely invisible, up until her physical appearance started to change and her belly began to grow. I love that picture. I love it because it’s not just a picture of the Holy Mother, but it is a picture of you and I as well. Everyone of us is a nesting place for the Holy Spirit. Every one of us a womb for the activity of God. Every one of us a main character in the emerging story of God. Yet a good portion of what the Spirit is doing is invisible, unseen and hidden.

So many of us are overwhelmed with feelings of disappointment. So many of us are wondering when the ‘good stuff’ is going to start happening. So many of us feel like outsiders in God’s kingdom. However, it might just be that the Spirit is at work. It might just be that the Spirit has already started something. It might just be that you are carrying an embryo of God’s design right now. No one can see it, and you can’t even feel it – invisible, yet present.

Don’t lose heart.


eulogies are for the living

I remember the first time I saw a dead body. It was my grandfather. Truthfully though, it wasn’t him at all, and even though I was a young boy I somehow instinctively knew that ‘he’ was gone. His skin was waxy and cold. His hair, a little too firm. He had become, in one long exhale, a mannequin sporting the very best clothes my grandmother could find in his small, spartan closet.

There was a rather long line of people gathered in the funeral home to wait and walk the carpeted aisle and give the living members of our family their condolences. I sat on the front row sort of bewildered by the whole thing. Some people cried. Some people kept the tears collared by telling funny stories about my grandfather. It sounded as though these people were speaking in another language. I could hear their words, and their stories, but the content was utterly foreign to me. I never knew my grandfather in the ways that these people spoke about him. All their words glistened.

All I knew of ‘Paw-paw’ was sickness. He was never happy. He was a sullen bull of a man, weakened by a diseased heart and a suitcase full of medicine. His skin was yellow like his fingernails which were stained by the cigarettes that he smoked. His tone was harsh, especially towards my grandmother who served him like a king, always smiling, never slow. Looking back, it seems as though having a bad heart in the 1980’s had made him bitter and angry. He was a strong man, now weak. He was a farmer, brought indoors. He was a hustler with no energy. And all that was crushingly disappointing.

But there in the receiving line were stories and laughter and tears that told a different story. People talked about my grandfather in the way that one might talk about a friend. I distinctly remember one of my uncles telling my grandmother that he was going to miss my grandfather. That was a shocking moment for me. Why on earth was anyone going to miss him? He wasn’t fun, or kind, or caring, or anything. He was angry, and distant, and scary.

I once picked up one of my grandfather’s prized pocket-knives when he wasn’t looking, and from across the room, without turning his head to see me, he yelled, “Dammit, put it down!”

I did put it down. I was so startled that I dropped that pearl handled knife on the carpet where it bounced twice. I looked down in horror.

“Pick the damned thing up and don’t touch it again!”

I think that was the most my grandfather ever said to me in one moment, and it was shouted in his signature hot tone.

The most awkward thing was that later, when we were leaving, my dad made me go and give paw-paw a hug. I didn’t want to hug him and I’m pretty sure that he didn’t want to hug me either. It was obligation and the one thing that shouted louder than my grandfather were the prods of forced affection.

Looking back I can see that I really didn’t know my grandfather at all, at least not the way others in the funeral home knew him. He had become someone that I’m sure he never planned on being. Most people aren’t hoping to become sick and emotionally disconnected. Most people’s life goals don’t include dying early and unhappy, yet people do all the time.

Life has a way of happening that even the most prepared can’t plan for, which begs the question – why do some of us wither and others of us flower, even while facing death and hardship and the angles of life that we did not consider?

Funeral home receiving lines are amplifiers, shouting in quiet whispers, loving embraces, and the preachers eulogy who a person really was. And often who a person really was is almost nothing like the body lying in the casket, or even the body that was breathing and hanging on just a few days ago.

Tragically, most people never get to hear the sound of their own life. That amplifier gets turned on only after they are gone. The words are right, the timing wrong.

Eulogies are for the living. Life and lives were meant to be celebrated, out loud, in front of others, long before that sad day when aunts and distant cousins gather. Our words about one another are not merely descriptive, they are creational. They hover over the deep waters and draw together elements that we did not know existed. They declare beauty over the ashes, and in doing so, grow a garden, a garden of love.

Joseph was his father’s favorite son, clothed in love, a coat of many colors that all his brothers could see. Heaven declared Jesus to be the beloved son before he had healed the sick or preached even one sermon. Some things simply cannot wait.

Joseph is also the son who was beaten, thrown into a hole, and sold into slavery. Likewise, Jesus was beaten, and nailed to a cross. Joseph knew hardship and pain and the unfair happenings of life. Jesus was the most innocent man in all history treated like a criminal! Yet both Joseph and Jesus did not wither, they flowered, and I’m convinced that they were able to flower because they had been planted deeply in the soil of affection and affirmation.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to my grandfather if he had heard the sound of his life before he died. What if the 17 year-old Arnold Russell had heard his mom and dad and friends say what they really thought and felt about him? Sadly, I’m afraid he probably did hear quite a bit of what people really thought and it was most likely not the celebratory song that gets sung at the end of one’s life. Perhaps those, harsher words were actually the seeds of anger and discontent, planted in vulnerable soil, all grown up in the end, squeezed by pain and sickness.

Timing matters. Some things simply cannot wait. Eulogies are for the living

what’s next?

What’s the next thing?

That’s a powerful question. It deserves at least a bit of attention, especially from those of us who feel a call to serve and lead Jesus’ church. Without answering that question we get a bit stale, we atrophy. To put it another way, we miss the million ways that the Spirit is speaking in the moment, or moments, and in doing so, actually miss God’s guidance.

God is always at work (John 5:17), and that work is often coming in forms that certainly seem new and surprising. Without wrestling with the question ‘what’s next?’, we miss the very present work of Jesus. Now, we may in fact be a part of some of His work without the question, but there’s no doubt that we will miss some of it, or even worse, be on the wrong side of God’s work just like the Pharisees who had studied the scriptures but failed to see the Word of God when it was standing in front of them!

‘What’s next’ is the mirror of ‘what is’. We need to wrestle with both. But it seems to me that a good portion of the church has missed seeing both because it could not envision the tomorrow that the coming kingdom contains. ‘What’s next’ is a good way to engage the coming kingdom, and to prayerfully consider what God may doing. Asking the question doesn’t ‘make it happen’, rather it puts you and I in a position to see things where we were previously blind.

This is the essence of the dreaming heart. This is the essence of the divine image that God has placed upon humanity – the ability to live in ‘what is’ and lay hold of ‘what isn’t’ or, better still, ‘what could be’.

God’s kingdom is coming, the question is this – who can see it?



meaning and mystery

One thing we all long for is simplicity. We’re looking for ways to reduce – to make the main things the main things and ways to push unimportant things to the side, or perhaps, completely out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind we say. We say it over and over, a mantra, a prayer. Except saying it fills up our mouths with so many words that a simple thought becomes something complex – a mouthful full of meaningless words recited in hopes that we would remember what’s important – we’re left with the mantra, the ‘important thing’ has evaporated.

The trouble with simplicity is that it rarely sits well with love. In an effort to embrace simplicity, we edit, we hack away at the extraneous, looking for the essential. Followers of Jesus usually get down to love – but love is always connected to people, and people are almost never simple.

People are complex. People are hectic. People are wandering, staggering through life like a drunk man in the dark who is looking for a bed that is hiding from him. Even people who are successful and ‘with it’ and educated and ‘saved’ are erratic – often the sparks of genius are combustable and burn through relationships leaving loved ones hot and smoking, the unfortunate recipients of ‘winning’.

I’m not sure that simple is an attainable goal, or even the right goal. Rather than ‘simple’, as followers of Jesus, we should be looking for ‘meaningful’. Because we’re committed to the way of love, there’s a really good chance that it’s going to be complicated, but it can be meaningful too.

Complexity often contains a great deal of meaning. The most difficult people (the ones closest to us) and situations (the ones closest to us) usually contain a high level of meaning. In facing difficulty, embracing ambiguity, and holding out hope we are simultaneously digging down into the very foundations of meaning.

This is not the same thing as understanding. Some things, are filled with meaning, but relatively little understanding. Often the people who mean the most to me are the most complicated, and those whom I understand the least. They are beautiful abstractions, phantom, dancing lights that move this way and that across a cold, night sky. When I married my wife, I thought I knew her. Now, after 14 years, both meaning and mystery have grown in our life together. I know her, but I do not know her. She is complex and a lifetime of loving her may never unravel into any real understanding.

Simple is overrated, so is understanding. Let’s embrace meaning and mystery.



god, the beat poet

Sometimes people are surprised to learn that God is a poet. There are prominent streams in the church that have, for the better part of two hundred years, portrayed God as a floating brain of unending intelligence. Make no mistake, God is really smart, but he’s more than just smart, or better put, he’s a particular kind of smart – he’s artistic, he’s poetic.

The very first revelation that the bible presents about God is that he is a creator. He speaks the worlds by his words. His limitless imagination is the source for all the color and diversity that exists in our still unfolding universe. Not only does Genesis make the point that God is a creator, but it does so in a particular fashion. Those opening verses in Genesis read like a poem, or the lyrics to a song, with the repeating refrain being “and there was evening and there was morning…”

Those repeated lines provide the rhythm, the sense of meter.

The Holy Spirit could have written the Genesis account in a different manner. It could have been a text book. It could have had a bibliography page. But it didn’t.

Which is to say that in his heart, God is a poet. He doesn’t just want to do things or say things, without considering the ways in which he might say them. Disseminating information is not the only consideration. It might not even be the primary consideration. How things are done, and how things are said are just as important as what is actually done, and what is actually said.

Again, He’s an artist.

This approach, this nuanced way of working, this sense of style, and design that God loves isn’t limited to creation in an original, book of Genesis, sort of way. It seems as though he’s always at work, and that his work often takes on this poetic sensibility.

A quick example from the book of Judges –

In Judges 11 God calls Jephthah to lead and deliver his people. In the midst of his calling the bible notes a couple small details about Jephthah, one being that he was the son of a prostitute. No big deal, except that one of the recurring theme’s in the book of Judges is that Israel is continually ‘prostituting’ themselves out to other Gods.

I love this. It’s not just that God wants to deliver his people. It’s not just that God wants to partner with someone to see it through. It’s that, in all of Israel, out of every capable male available, he specifically chooses the son of a prostitute to be the deliverer of a nation of who has lived out, in shameful colors, this sort of transactional, lust instead of love, life apart from God.

Obviously, He didn’t have to work out his plan this way. He was under no contractual obligation with anyone. He didn’t owe Jephthah any favors. It’s just that he’s a master poet, always writing the story on multiple levels, saying one thing, but meaning 10 things.

Look for the poetry and you will find God. When you bump into irony, you can be sure that God himself is not far away. Life is nowhere near as one dimensional as we might have assumed.

Review your life. Find the meter. What are the patterns? Where is the theme? Where is the poetry? It’s there, because God just can’t help it. He’s not writing a thick, dull text book. He’s writing a grand narrative. A poetic story with billions and billions of backstories and tie-ins. You and I are included. Now look again.




God is into process and God is into seasons. These ideas began with him, and he has woven them into the fabric of creation so seamlessly that we don’t even flinch when summer’s thread is pulled into autumn and the maples in our back yard flame up in one last gasp of glory. Then winter, and silence – the stark, damp gray that hangs over Kentucky for four months.

These seasons don’t just happen in nature, they happen in our lives as well. There are times of growth, and harvest, and rest, and silence. They come and go like ghosts. We’ve all been through a cycle or two, but somehow the pace and our own fixation on the moment blinds us to the reality that there are new seasons approaching, just as our current season is waning.

If you’re in the winter, and everything feels cold and there’s only the memory of harvest present, don’t loose hope, spring is coming! A time of delight, and consummation, and small harvest. Your current season is actually a chance to rest. God hasn’t left you, he’s giving you a chance to catch your breath, a moment to not have to ‘show’ anything, to be leafless, to need less, to trust.

And if your in full autumn harvest, laugh, and celebrate, and be thankful – but make no mistake a day is just around the corner when it will seem like all of this bounty is just a dream, a mirage out on the desert, drawing you out a little further, possibly to your demise. Your current season is a chance to share, and to put his goodness on display, and to dance, to demonstrate that delight is not merely a concept or ideal, but a very present reality. Harvest time is a chance to be nourished, and strengthened, and encouraged.

As sure and true as the seasons of God are, they don’t operate in the exact same manner that the seasons here in Kentucky do. Rarely do seasons of God overwhelm whole communities. Rarely do we all move through the times at the same pace or in the same moment. When the community of faith gathers, we are a patchwork assembly of all that God is doing.

Some of us are in winter, seemingly barren. Others of us are experiencing the warm embrace of spring. It’s all bird songs and pregnancy. While others still are facing the blazing sun of summer and everything is growing, good and bad. And for some, it’s harvest time. The baskets are full, the weeds didn’t win, and there is something amazing to show for all the effort.

The trouble is when you put all of that in one room.

It’s easy to compare. Questions arise. Pressure to conform is everywhere.

People who are in a winter season look at people in harvest and feel despair. People in harvest look at people in winter and think, “What’s wrong with you?” “For the love of God, cheer up!”

We all tend to personalize the world through our current circumstance, and in doing so attract and repel people based upon the season that we are living in. The trouble is that when we do so we are probably dissociating ourselves from a large percentage of the body that we are connected to. Life can become animated by either judgment or envy, depending on the season that we are living in.

Right now we should let go of all these kinds of comparisons, all this anxiety, and all such arrogance knowing that if we are faithful to God that he will move us all from season to season – that the soil of my life is not barren, but might simply be in winter – that the harvest will come to an end, and that end should be welcomed, other wise I may never get a chance to rest – that God is faithful, and will not leave anyone out.



maybe i’m crazy…

I’ve traveled quite a bit in the last few years leading worship and speaking. Aside from the airports and airplanes it’s been really great. Getting to meet new people, and see new things has probably made a bigger impression on me than I have made on the communities that I’ve been invited to sow into. That’s always been one of the great mysteries of ministry, that you go to give, and somehow, a real harvest is returned to you!

I just got back from a trip to California where I led some worship and spoke at several different places, varying from a packed 3,000 seat auditorium to a small 8:00 am service with about 60 people in a little room. All this got me to thinking about the spaces that we gather in to worship. It’s funny how the things that play well for 3,000 seem awkward for 60, and how the things that connect with smaller groups often seem too quiet or ‘flat’ for a larger room.

First off, I don’t have any sort of axe to grind here. I don’t think that there’s a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ size for gathered worship. If that’s what you’re reading here, then I’m communicating poorly, and will need to ask your forgiveness right now. Rather, I’ve noticed that there are certain sociological factors that come into play in all our times of worship that probably need to be considered for the leaders who stand in front and give shape to those meetings every week.

For instance, I’ve often wondered how the size of the room, and the quality of the sound system might play into how we write worship songs and ultimately deliver them on Sunday morning. I’ve realized that when I’m writing, in the back of my mind, is Sunday morning, and our people, and our room, and our drummer, and our sound system. That might be shocking for some people, but it’s true, and I suspect that it’s in a lot of our minds, and probably should be – after all blasting giant guitar solo’s with anthemic choruses on a gassed out sound system to 20 people in a small room is awkward, kinda like having an intimate dinner with your significant other, shouting at the top of your lungs across a candle lit table.

There are more implications. Too many to cram into one post. But a few questions might help.

When writing songs for your congregation do you think about the room, and the people?

Are you trying to pull off a style of worship that your sound system just can’t produce?

When was the last time you went to a different church for worship?

Are you shouting when you should be whispering, or vice-versa?

Am I crazy?



you’re going to need a trellis

If you’ve followed this blog at all you probably know that my family and I own a vineyard and a small winery (humble brag, sorry). The vineyard and winery are not my full-time job but I spend a lot of hours in the vines, which ends up being about meditation as much as it is about caring for the farm. When the sun is high, and your sweating like crazy, the vineyard has a way of showing a person things, things that one might miss, were it not for the hours, and the slow pace, and the sheer beauty.

The other day I was out in the vines tucking the long vines up into the wire trellis where the canopy can gain maximum benefit from the sun and ultimately, ripen the fruit fully and evenly. It got me thinking about the importance of the trellis – the wire, the posts, the structure. Without the trellis the vines would never produce fruit. They would grow along the ground where the weeds and bugs would devour the plant in one slow, summer-long bite. The fruit would most likely rot, laying on the ground. I honestly can’t think of anything more depressing.

Point is, we need structure. We need to be tied to something, trained, and disciplined. Now there are a lot of good ways to apply this little ‘field lesson’ to our everyday life but since this is a blog about creativity in the local church I will simply say this – our churches are producing the fruit that our structures will support. If you want to grow songs and songwriters you need to think about the trellis, a support structure that gets the creatives at your church off the ground, away from pests, and into the sun.

It seems counter intuitive, but creativity requires a considerable amount of structure to come to fruition. People need goals and deadlines, and values, and input, and freedom, and limitations. In an environment where anything goes, usually nothing happens – it rots on the ground.

You have creatives in your church right now. You have songwriters in your church right now. You have talent and real potential for fruit in your church right now. The question is, do you have a trellis?



why write for your local church?

This blog is called Indigenous Worship because God is raising up indigenous, local tribes of songwriters and musicians all over the world who will praise Him for who He is and do so in a manner that reflects the actual people and places they are from. Here are a few reasons to consider writing for your local church

1) There are songwriters already in your church. Usually when I travel to talk about raising up songwriters people come in with a mindset of hoping to learn how to get songwriters to come to their churches, as if the writers were ‘out there’. Truth is, the songwriters are sitting in our churches right now! They just need to be empowered, trained, refined, and released. When Jesus constructs a church, which is his body, he doesn’t leave any part out, and that includes those parts that are designed for capturing and distilling melody and phrases down to something that we can all sing to God.

2) Songs written for the community of faith, by the community of faith, carry an aspect of authenticity and genuineness that people can sink their teeth into. People are looking for something real, and that encounter can come in a lot of different ways, but few are as powerful as a song sung by a group of people who are trying to work out the complexity of following Jesus together – a song written by those people! It’s the reason that pizza is different in Chicago than it is in New York! It’s the same idea worked through the specific people in a given region that makes it unique. New Yorkers weren’t trying to do something different than the good folks in Chicago, for the sake of being different, rather they were just being who they really are, no pretense, no faking, authentic.

3) Jesus is the most beautiful person in the universe, therefore a billion songs isn’t too many. Sometimes I read articles about how there are too many worship songs being written now, that we are drowning in ‘new material’, and that this has somehow weakened our collective worship experience. Now if your trying to every song off of every major release coming out these days, that could be a real problem. But rather than seeing the explosion of writing as a bad thing, I see it as an appropriate response to who Jesus is – that men and women, all over the world are getting a glimpse of the beauty of the Son of God, and trying their level best to respond! If your seeing Him, even a little, you’re responding, and it might just be a non-melodious yell at first, but soon enough those groans too deep for words are going to form into something more, a song of gratitude, a river of delight.



daniel boone

Writing songs is a lot like pioneering. The white, blank page is a western horizon, and the guitar is a horse, still wild, yet sometimes rideable. If your writing music it’s because something on the inside of you is unsettled and restless. It’s not that the other songs are bad because they’re not. It’s just that for the songwriter there’s a need to head off into wilderness of life, and melody, and emotion, and lyric, and try to stake some sort of a claim. It’s this gnawing notion that even though everything has been said, that there might be another way to get there, a more interesting way, a short-cut even.

I have a song due in a few hours. I say due, because in my community, even though lots of us write pretty often, we come together every summer and write every two weeks from May to August, and if you don’t have a song on the due date, you’re out. There’s nothing like a due date to keep you in the pioneering spirit!

Anyhow, I’ve been hacking my way through this song for the past week and up until this morning, I wasn’t totally sure where I was even going. That’s the thing about writing, you have to embrace a certain amount of mystery. Where am I going? I don’t really know. I’m just following an instinctual path that’s barely there, one worn down by the wildlife. And then, when it seems like it may be a path to nowhere, the dense forest reveals a stream where thirsty souls can find a drink, and I think I may have found that stream, for this week anyway.

You know, that’s songwriting – looking for things that you can’t even articulate at the beginning of the journey, things that you know immediately when you stumble upon them. It’s searching for a melody, cutting out a lyrical path from a forest filled with options, and making a home where there was nothing, or very little before. Songwriting is a restless heart that just knows that there’s more ‘out there’, that perhaps we haven’t seen it all. It’s a heart that just can’t settle comfortably into what already is. Praise God for settlers, they really are good people, but we’re not them. We’re wilder, Daniel Boone types. We’re marking out the territory of the human heart, mapping it out moment by moment, line by line. We’ve got calloused hands, and wrinkled faces, and a notion that West is a better direction than East.


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