October 2007

I had not planned on going to the meeting that night. For months I had been running sound for MacMurray’s BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ) meetings. It was not a very involved sound set-up, just an acoustic guitar and a couple of microphones, but it meant a lot to the members of the worship team. So every week I would bring a small mixer, a couple of mains, some microphones, and the requisite cables to the meetings, get them all set up and then, after the meeting, pack it all up and load it back into the church. So when the worship team told me that they did not need the sound system that week, I planned to take the evening off and just relax. They had a special group coming in to the meeting and they were bringing their own gear.

That afternoon, though, I just made the impulsive decision that I would go to the meeting anyway (I was not an actual member of the group, I just liked to help them out when I could). I had heard that the group was a music ministry, so I called a few of my musician friends and invited them to come along. They agreed and we went to the meeting, not realizing that all of our lives would change forever that night.

Musicians are notoriously skeptical of other musicians. We automatically assume that we could do it better than the person performing. When we saw that the members of this group were all our age or younger, we thought for sure that they were not going to be very good. Seated at the back of the room, with arms crossed and cynical comments whizzing out of our months we all watched, amazed as they began to play. I will not soon forget the keyboardist who started the whole thing. She was incredible, and then one by one, every instrumentalist and vocalist impressed the crowd with their humble displays of talent. And by humble I mean full of humility.

For the first time in a long time, I was able to worship without distraction. I think that was the most impressive thing about it to me. It was not about them and they made that abundantly clear. They shared stories of their travels around the US and to Hong Kong and I was hooked. Every part of me wanted to be a part of something like this, and then they said it…they were looking for musicians to join with them and form future teams! I looked around the room desperate to find sheet to sign, something to get it on paper and official that I wanted to do this! In this frantic search my eyes met with my friends’ eyes and I saw the same look in theirs that was in mine.

Then the guest speaker for that evening got up and delivered a divinely inspired message about not settling for less than what God has planned for you…that was all the confirmation I needed. I made my way to the table following the performance and nervously inquired about the process of joining a team. They told me that there was an audition/application process and that I could audition right then and there. Oh man, now my heart was beating and defense mechanisms started kicking in. “But…I don’t have my own drum kit,” I said. “Oh, that’s no problem. You can use ours,” came their reply. Clearly I was not getting out of this. It was not that I had lost my nerve about joining a team, it was just that I wanted to do it on my terms.

I sat down behind the drum kit, confident that due to the sweatiness of my palms the sticks would quickly fly out of my hands. They asked me to do a few things and I demonstrated my basic abilities. Then came the humiliation. [It should be noted that I have played drums for upwards of 15 years and have played all different styles and time signatures.] They asked me to play in 6/8 time signature. No problem, I thought. Then I spaced and froze. I ended up playing some hybrid of 4/4 and 2/4 that resembled nothing at all similar to 6/8. The auditioners exchanged sidelong glances and I knew that I had blown it. They wrapped up the audition and I felt like a fool. In an attempt to salvage some dignity, I offered to help them pack up their stuff and carry it out to their van. We all went out for coffee afterwards, and the entire time I was regretting even trying out in the first place. I was not keen on rejection and I was sure that one was coming.

To be continued…


Setting: Hong Kong, December 2005, Dundas Park

Characters: My Team and me, random street people, drunk Englishman (Joseph)

We played probably 15 concerts in Dundas Street Park. We knew the place well. We knew exactly where the holes in the sidewalks were and how to avoid them with the carts carrying our gear. We knew where the elderly ladies would be sitting to watch our stuff while we continued unloading it. And that smell…oh, how we knew that smell.

We found out that the smell was the odor of stinky tofu. At first I thought maybe there was a dumpster nearby that just always happened to be full of spoiled fruit. Or maybe, the road construction nearby hit a pipe that caused raw sewage to spill out into the park. Never did we imagine that the source of that smell could be coming from something that humans willingly consumed. Every time we carried our gear down the sidewalk to that park we had to fight back the gag reflex that the smell caused. After you got over the initial whiffs of it your olfactory system adjusted and things got better, but those first few minutes were always pretty rough.

The standard procedure for us was to set up our equipment in the early evening and play intermittently for about 3 hours. We would play a few songs, wait for the crowd to swell, and then share our message with them, at which point many of them would walk away from us. The ones who stayed, though, were the ones who wanted to know more about what we were doing. Some of them wanted to know more because they were skeptical of what we were saying, but others wanted to know more because they felt that what we were saying had some merit. There were many people who started their journey towards a relationship with Christ as a result of those concerts that we played.

We could not discount the effects of what we were doing, but sometimes we wondered if anyone was listening. Often, people stopped listening once we started talking, but one of our final nights there was different.

We always noticed the caucasian faces in the crowd and secretly wondered if they spoke English. The amount of time we had spent away from a majority of English speaking people had caused us to miss the sound of it, and getting an opportunity to speak with someone other than the other team members was always welcomed.

It was in the midst of our drama that I noticed him standing at the back of the crowd. He was keenly observing everything that we were doing. I had an uneasy feeling about him the moment we made eye contact and then he did something I will never forget. Using his hands he emulated a bow and arrow and acted out loosing the arrow directly at me (It should also be noted that at the same moment I was portraying Jesus’ crucifixion). It was not long before he began a profanity laced tirade at the top of his lungs. We kept going, as our YFC partners urged us to do, but it was admittedly very hard to focus. I began to share a testimony and this man continued throughout the entire thing. I was angry that he was interrupting our concert, but more than that, I was uncertain how to proceed.

We finished the concert and the man stuck around through the whole thing. We began to pack our equipment up and one of our team members decided to go talk to the man who had interrupted our concert. He wanted to find out if there was anything he could do to change the man’s opinions of us and what we were there to do. Their conversation lasted for nearly an hour, and by the end of it the man was very calmly listening to what my team member had to say. It turns out that the man had been burned by organized religion as he was growing up and he projected his hatred for religion onto us. We, of course, explained to him that we were not fond of religion ourselves and that seemed to allay some of his emotions. The whole thing probably had a lot to do with the fact that the man was incredibly inebriated.

From this series of events I learned that it may only take a little investment of our time to change someone’s entire outlook on life. God can use a few minutes and a willing vessel to accomplish a lot.

Given my current situation (i.e., recovering from two years of full-time ministry with CTI Music Ministries) I have been trying to intentionally reflect on the things that happened in those two years. I am hoping that a part of this process will include me recognizing the changes that the Lord made in me through these two years and, in that same vein, striving to allow those changes to become permanent.

So what does this mean to you, my faithful readers? I’m hoping that in the next weeks and months I will be posting a series of anecdotes and stories about my time with CTI. They may be funny, emotional, or just plain silly, but they will be real and they are a very real part of me now.

So here’s the first installment:

Setting: Singapore, August 2006, more specifically a school

Characters: The members of my team, the YFC (Youth for Christ) staff, and about 1,000 students.

When my team had arrived in Singapore, we were equipped with 16 or 17 songs, two dramas, and a whole bunch of desire. We were there to share the Gospel with anyone who would listen and we felt that we were very well prepared for the task.

The Singapore YFC staff felt differently.

Allow me to qualify that last statement. Singapore Youth for Christ is one of the most effective and in-touch youth ministries I have ever seen, and they knew that what were equipped with (i.e., our songs and dramas, even our mindset) would not be as effective as some suggestions that they had. So we ceded to their authority and did not regret it for a minute.

Our first priority was to change our song repertoire, which we diligently set out to do. Once we had some new songs under our belt we moved onto the new skit that had been developed just for us by some members of the YFC staff. [The YFC had not only written a wonderful script and developed a soundtrack for us, but they had also spent a lot of resources on putting together some pretty extensive costumes for us.] It is important to note that our initial opinion of the skit (mainly because it involved us making complete fools of ourselves) was much less than our final opinion, the change in opinion was due to the raging success we had with the skit in our perfomances.

My role in the skit was fairly simple. I was to play fire, and when moment was right, I was to destroy the village at the command of the villain who was taking revenge for his unrequited love. Nothing to it.

The climax of the skit involved me chasing the villain of the skit off stage, illustrating the concept that revenge can get out of hand and come back to burn (quite literally in this case) us if we let it. After we did this scene a few times, we started spicing things up a little. We would involve spins and turns and jumps, just to make things slightly more interesting. It usually got quite the reaction from the crowd.

It was a performance like any other. We were playing at a school and there were about 1,000 students in the auditorium that afternoon. We had wowed the crowd with our music, we were going to show them the drama, and then hit them with the meat of our message: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sounds like a great plan huh? Then it happened…

Ernest (the villain) started the chase scene as per usual, running down the steps toward the front row of the students, preparing to run out the side door of the auditorium. That day, though, he decided to stop short, cut, and completely change direction. It was a cut that any NFL running back would have been proud of, it would have fooled even the most seasoned defenders…and it definitely fooled me.

Everything happened so quickly, I am not sure exactly what transpired. All I know is that I tried to emulate the cut Ernest had so deftly made and the ground beneath me started to shift. I looked down to realize my worst nightmare had come true. I had chosen shoddy footing for my poor attempt at directional change: a loose square of carpet. Soon I was tumbling downward in a flurry of red and orange cloth (important insertion: my costume was composed of large toga-like pieces of red and orange polyester…it was incredibly flattering). I quickly tried to recover, but my effort was in vain. In fact it made the situation worse, as my feet got tangled in my costume when I tried to stand back up. I crawled for a few feet, dejected and not even wanting to stand back up to make my exit, but I knew that the quicker I got off stage, the sooner the humiliation would be over.

The humiliation was only beginning, though. Once I reached the wings of the stage, I quickly ripped my mask (that’s right, there was a super-heroesque blindfold with eye holes poked in it, I looked like an orange Zorro) off and tried to catch my breath. It was then that a terrifying revelation hit me: I had to go back out there. I was asked earlier that day by the YFC staff to be the one to share the Gospel with the students at the school. I finished extracting myself from my costume, held my chin up high, took the microphone in hand, cleared my throat and started with this statement: “I meant to do that.” The crowd responded by erupting in a cacophony of laughter (maybe even louder than the one following my fall). Though this did a lot to soften the blow to my ego, it did nothing for what I was about to say. The audience was unrecoverable. I can only hope that the Holy Spirit reached those it was trying to that day despite my best efforts at getting in the way.

The only redeeming thing about this whole thing is that most of my team did not actually see me fall, they only heard the laughter. This did not stop them from mercilessly ribbing me for the rest of our trip. Oh well, having the story to tell is worth any amount of ribbing that I had to endure.

“We speak our words of praise in a world that is hellish; we sing our songs of victory in a world where things get messy; we live our joy among people who neither understand, nor encourage us. But the content of our lives is God, not humanity. We are not scavenging in the dark alleys of the world, poking in its garbage cans for a bare subsistence. We are traveling in the light, toward God is who is rich in mercy and strong to save. It is Christ, not culture, that defines our lives. It is the help we experience, not the hazards we risk, that shapes our days.”

Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction