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2018: not about me

January 5, 2018

While I was leading worship at Center Stage at Christmas, God told me that 2018 was to be a year of PRAISE...which really didn't mean much when I first heard it. I mean, I lead worship every week and write Christian music for my job, so isn't that enough praising? Turns out, I didn't really know what praise meant. 

 [Photo courtesy of Joe and Christian Leaphart. Center Stage, Atlanta]

[Photo courtesy of Joe and Christian Leaphart. Center Stage, Atlanta]

If you spend very much time around me at all, you'll hear me yell "PRAISES!" just about any time something good happens. But to be honest, I didn't even know exactly what that word meant beyond singing about Jesus (that's rough to admit, as a worship leader). So I looked it up.

To praise is to proclaim who God is, and call attention to His goodness. It's almost funny - often in worship, we tend to focus our attention on someone leading and how good THEY are. But God's entire purpose in giving us those gifts is to draw attention to HIM - because he actually deserves our attention and love. 

(Sidenote: I used to think that it was selfish of God to demand our praise. But loving God means loving others, and loving others is loving him. When my eyes are fixed on him, I forget about myself and my selfish desires, and I recognize him as the highest good and the source of all good. How is it selfish to point others to the source of all good?)

So when I sing, I'm literally drawing people's attention to the source of all good things, which is God. When I think about that for a while, I feel empowered to be bold in singing even in places where it's uncomfortable or where I could be rejected. But the problem is, it's easy to forget that and focus back on myself.

What keeps me from singing? Start with insecurity, throw in some fear of rejection, add in the enemy telling me I'm not good enough... as the odds stack up against me, my mouth stays closed, lips stay silent, and my eyes stay fixed on myself. In Psalm 51, David cries out to God, "Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise." God, I just need you to help me open my mouth, then everything that comes from it will be yours! Later, in Psalm 81, God says, "Open your mouth and I will fill it." I often hear him tell me that when my faith is wavering. But as I open my lips in simple obedience, his breath fills my lungs, and a melody releases from his heart to mine. 

As I open my lips in simple obedience, his breath fills my lungs, and a melody releases from his heart to mine. 

When I open my mouth in praise, I literally forget all my doubts and I KNOW that God and all his promises are true. When I praise God, I'm fighting darkness and fear, I'm fighting to believe Love, and I'm fighting for freedom. (Praising God actually wins physical battles - check out 2 Chronicles 20)! God challenged me to start every morning by singing to Him, and end every day the same way. It seemed like a bit much at first, but wow, does it do wonders for my soul. To praise is to rejoice in all God has accomplished, and declare His victory over what we have yet to see accomplished. Every single time, praise renews my hope, and restores my joy. Starting and ending each day like this is changing my world.

When my focus is on God in worship, I remember who I am, and that I was created to praise him. But at the same time, I get so lost in him that I forget about myself and am only aware of His presence in Me. I forget my selfish desires, and just want to love Him and others with all that I am. When God is the song on my lips, he is also the focus of my mind, and the desire of my heart.

I was crafted for the very purpose of drawing attention to God and his goodness. 2018 is not about me.


The middle of the pile-up

October 14, 2017

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I feel like I got hit by an 80,000 pound truck…oh wait. I did.

It was 0% my fault, but my immediate reaction was shame. How could I have let this happen? What will people think of me? I felt paralyzed, trying to figure out what had just occurred, unwilling to believe what I didn’t want it to be. I had been knocked around with several impacts in front and behind, and as I spun into the other lane, I waited, expecting another hit. It never came.

In the silent moments of aftermath as I sat in my car, I again experienced shame – why wasn’t my first reaction to cling to Jesus? When I literally saw my life flash before my eyes, why wasn’t Jesus the first thing on my mind? All of a sudden, I heard God whisper, “I’m still holding on to you even when you’re not holding on to me.”

To be honest, me and Jesus haven’t been super tight recently. (And let’s be real – that’s 100% on me). It’s not that I’ve moved on or that I’ve given up on him, but I haven’t been giving him the attention he deserves – sometimes it just feels easy to choose other things before him, and listen to other voices before his. He’s been pursuing me, but I haven’t exactly been pursuing back. Honestly, I’m pretty ashamed of that. And each day that growing shame piles up in front of me (just like that 5-car interstate pile-up), and keeps me from seeking Jesus back. It keeps me paralyzed, feeling helpless to avoid the danger right in front of me, and unable to take a step toward safety, toward him.

I’m still holding on to you even when you’re not holding on to me.

But even when I’m buried deep in the middle of the pile, beat up on all sides by shame, Jesus reaches through the mess and says, “I’m here! I’m still holding on to you, even when you’re not holding on to me – BECAUSE I LOVE YOU! And nothing - no shame, no 80,000 pound truck, no 5 car pile-up - can separate you from my love!”

Not only did his love hold me and reassure me in that moment, but it also protected me (and all others involved) from any serious injuries. Can we just take a moment and give him some serious praise?! There is only one response to such a love as this – I am in awe, and just want to love him back.


bringing [easter] new life

April 16, 2017

Easter used to be my favorite day of the year. There was something magical about waking up before the sun had even started to light up the sky, getting all dressed up, then gathering with friends to watch the sun rise. The mystery breathed in the salutation, “Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” captivated me to no end. There really was no way to describe the joy that I felt in singing with hundreds of people of how my Jesus did the impossible and conquered death.

But somewhere along the lines, the magic of the special day lost its luster. The words of the story became all too familiar, and the excitement of gathering with the church and singing about Jesus became ordinary. The traditions became routine, and no longer did the celebration fill me with joy. The impossibility of the miracle became commonplace, and my awe disappeared.

I grabbed hold of Easter and made it about me.

Instead of beholding the mystery of the resurrection in wonder, I fixed my eyes elsewhere, trying to recreate the child-like fascination I once had. No longer was winning the annual Easter Egg hunt enough for me (yes, I am the 15-year reigning champion), I needed to find other ways to satisfy my hunger for extraordinary. But with youthful innocence gone, not even a full morning of performing and music productions could come close to what I had experienced before. But at least the more I threw myself into perfecting my performance for the holiday, the more I distracted myself from that unsatisfied longing to experience the mystery of it once again. As I strived to make the day what I wanted it to be - a special feeling, a special performance, and a special opportunity to display my gifts - I grabbed hold of Easter and made it about me.

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"Despite the way you reached out to let go of Me and take hold of what is Mine, I reached out to take hold of you in love and make you Mine."

I still looked like I was glorifying Jesus, and honestly, my heart wanted it to be about him. But since I couldn’t find that special feeling back, I was stuck, trying to breathe new life into it by making it about me and my performance. And we’re not just talking about Easter here - this is a picture of what my entire life had become.

As this Easter approached, I kept my head down and tried not to think about my desire for it to be different. I detested the idea of meaninglessly going through the motions of tradition again, but felt resigned to it. As a last hope, I told God my desire. I asked him to give me a new perspective on Easter, but didn’t really expect an answer, and definitely not the one he gave me. It was as if Jesus was looking me in the eyes and saying...

“I was killed because you tried to reach for something that was not yours. You reached for Me, not to have relationship with Me, but to take what I could give you – ultimately in an attempt to take control of Me. You tried to reach for life, truth, joy, and wisdom apart from Me, that you might take what I have to give as your own, and leave Me behind. Yet despite the way you reached out to let go of Me and take hold of what is Mine, I reached out to take hold of you in love and make you Mine. Despite the way you exchanged Me for the likes of a bag of coins, I exchanged My life for yours, and bought you back. Despite the fact that you killed Me, I gave you true life. The only way I could get you back was to trade My life for yours. And because I love you with a love you can’t even fathom, I did. The same love that the Father has for Me, I have for you. The same way that the Father and I are connected, I want to be connected to you. So accept my invitation to come and dwell with us! There is no life apart from Me. You are not your own. You were bought at a price! And now that you are mine, I bring you new life!”


As Far As I Run (away)

January 6, 2017

One afternoon, when I was six or seven, my neighbor gave me two mini snickers bars. Instead of eating them, I put them in the top drawer of my dresser for safe keeping, so that just in case I ever needed to run away, I would have some food to bring along. First of all, that would not have lasted me very long. Secondly, what kind of kid was I...storing candy instead of eating it right away? And third, what on earth possessed me to think I’d ever need to run away? I remember finding the buried snickers bars a couple years later and throwing them out because they were hard as a rock. Needless to say, I never followed through with my escape plan.

More recently, though, I’ve found myself having the urge to run away. Not from home (ha, I don’t even live at home anymore), but from people, from dreams, from expectations, from reality. And in fact, sometimes I do run away from these things for a while…until I run out of snickers and have to go back because I’m hungry, which doesn’t take long. But really, what is it that gives me the urge to run away? And what is it that always draws me back?

I’ve found that often the urge to run away tends to be the strongest when God is calling me to press into something difficult. Take relationships as an example. I hate conflict. When people are mad at me, it feels like the end of the world – ESPECIALLY when my near-sighted eyes can’t see resolution and reconciliation in the close future. So instead of turning to Jesus and clinging to hope, I take the road more travelled and high-tail my way out of that relationship. But sometimes there are those annoying people (like my best friend), who sit across from you on the couch, stare you in the eye, and say, “I’m not taking ‘no answer’ as an answer. Let’s press into this together.” THAT’S the worst…until you’ve actually pressed into the real reason for the conflict and come out on the other side closer than you ever were before. Jesus spoke to me through that situation, “Ashley, as far away as you run, I will still want you. I will still pursue you and lead you back, closer to my heart.”

As far away as you run, I will still want you. I will still pursue you and lead you back, closer to my heart.

One of my biggest fears is hurting people. As soon as I sense that I’ve wounded someone, I have the immediate urge to run away (also known as a “hit and run”). But what makes the situation even worse, is when the person I’ve hurt doesn’t get angry, but they choose to forgive and then do something kind for me instead. The one car accident I’ve been in was my fault. We pulled off to a gas station while the cop was working on the paper work, and while we were sitting there, the owner of the other vehicle offered to buy me hot chocolate…uh…STOP SHOWING ME GRACE – I JUST WRECKED YOUR CAR. You know that story in the Bible where the arrogant second son asks his dad for his inheritance (essentially telling him to go die) then runs away with the money? Then after he runs out of all the cash and has no more snickers to tie him over, he shamefully returns home to ask his dad if he can work for him as a servant. What does the father do? He doesn’t give him a job. He throws him a PARTY, lavishes him with gifts, and restores his place in the family. “As far away as you run, I will welcome you back with joy, and lavish you with unchanging, real love.”

As far away as you run, I will welcome you back with joy, and lavish you with unchanging, real love.

On my second day of recording vocals in Atlanta, I ran away. A couple miles from the studio, I laid on a grassy hill and sobbed. I ran away because I kept hearing over and over, “You’re not good enough. No one will actually want to listen to your music. You think God would really call you to do this?” A friend recently told me that the enemy will go to great heights to get us to run as far away as possible from what God is calling us into. And he had almost succeeded; all I wanted to do was give up. I called my dad, and between his own tears, he reminded me of the truth. God gave me a voice, and God gave me songs. And God takes immense delight in hearing me sing to Him.  He spoke to me, “As far away as you run, I will meet you there and rejoice over you.”

In the words of a song I once heard (on my album)... Your love is strong, it's raging like a storm, it chases me as far as I run.