Many years ago, when I was a worship leader in Ohio, my pastor and I came to an understanding. I told him that the Lord had forbidden me to lead our congregation out of my own musical ability or experience. I was only to use my abilities in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
I had been a professional guitarist and singer for a couple of decades at that point. I knew how to look like I was “on” even when I wasn’t. I knew how to fake it, whether on a jazz gig or on a church platform. I had good musical chops and I relied on them for my confidence.
But the Lord had broken into my life in a new way at that time, giving me clear revelation of the sacred, holy privilege of leading others in worship in the house of God. I learned that in the time of David, and the kings that succeeded him, worship leading was a role for the Levitical priesthood. It took much more to qualify to be a musician in the Temple or Tabernacle than simply playing an instrument and having a decent singing voice.
This priesthood required intimate knowledge of Scripture. It required living a consistently holy, blameless life. It required an anointing from the Lord, like spiritual oil poured upon the head from heaven. Only this would qualify a lowly human to serve as a conduit in song, gathering up the praises of the people and directing them heavenward.
So, I began to think quite seriously about my responsibilities, and concluded that I was to be in full submission to the moment-by-moment inspiration of the Holy Spirit at all times, and especially when leading worship.
It may seem like this was a recipe for chaos or a decision to fly by the seat of my pants. To the contrary. I always worked throughout the week on a written and practiced plan. I showed up with an impression of what I believed the Lord wanted to do in communion with his people and had chosen songs I prayed were congruent with that.
The caveat was that the perfect Lord was free to change my imperfect plan, and I needed to be free to follow him into his glorious unknown. As I moved in this freedom, the band and congregation became more and more free to follow also.
My, we had some amazing times of thunderous praise and deep, transformative worship!
In practical terms, this meant that sometimes the musical part of the service would run longer or shorter than planned. Perhaps he would suggest a different song that was not on the list or the slides. Sometimes our order of service would be interrupted by prayer, or prophecy, or an instrumental departure from the charts. The pastor could also redirect as he felt the Spirit prompt him.
It also meant—and this is the really tricky bit—that if I arrived at my moment to lead, and knew I was out of fellowship with the Spirit for some reason, I was allowed to tell him so, and we would forego the music altogether. Because as for me and leading people in worship, we would do it by the Spirit or we would not do it. There was no Plan B.
As the band was practicing early on Sunday, Pastor would stick his head in the sanctuary and ask me how I was doing. Our code phrase that said we could proceed was, “We’re doing Plan A.”
There are very few pastors who will tolerate this much spontaneity. But my pastor trusted Christ in me as much as he trusted Christ in himself, so we were able to minister together harmoniously, submitting to one another as each submitted to Christ. And if the Lord was not going to be fully honored in what we were doing, we figured it was better to go against religion and tradition and simply not do it.
As I recalled this rare experience of learning to fully rely upon the Lord, it brought to mind a story about one of those above-mentioned kings.
Asa was one of the mostly good kings of Judah. This mostly good king would be put to the test, and unfortunately, fail miserably in the Lord’s estimation.
In the thirty-sixth year of Asa’s reign, Baasha, the rival king of Israel began to threaten Asa’s authority. Asa’s response was to enlist the help of a pagan king of Syria, sending him silver and gold from the temple treasuries as incentive to form an alliance against Baasha.
This strategy was clever and successful. The enemy king’s plans were thwarted, and he was driven out. But now Asa had to deal with the King of Aram, with whom he had made an unholy alliance.
The Lord was not pleased; He spoke through Hanani the seer:
“Because you relied on the king of Aram and not on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Aram has escaped from your hand. Were not the Cushites and Libyans a mighty army with great numbers of chariots and horsemen? Yet when you relied on the Lord, he delivered them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. You have done a foolish thing, and from now on you will be at war” (2 Chron. 16:7-9).
Isn’t it fascinating to consider that the God of the universe is watching his human creation, scanning for individuals who exhibit a loyal kind of faith in him, and seek his counsel in everything? He wanted Asa to ask, and Asa did not. Unfortunately, instead of accepting Hanani’s word of rebuke, Asa put the messenger in prison, and started brutally oppressing his own people.
A few years later, Asa contracted a serious disease in his feet, and “though his disease was severe, even in his illness he did not seek help from the Lord, but only from the physicians…” (2 Chron. 16:12).
This is the way it so often goes with us humans, great and small. We think we are so clever and talented that we can conduct our affairs without consulting the one who made us.
The story about myself is not intended to exalt myself above anyone. There have been so many times, before and since, when I have not humbled myself and surrendered my own plan to the Lord. I have relied on my own experience, training, or talent instead of staying with Plan A.
I share this with you because when I recall those moments in my story when my heart was “fully committed to him,” his ranging eyes found me, and he strengthened me to win my battle in the right way, his way. Because this is Plan A, and there is no Plan B.