Use It or Lose It
I was recently "punked" by both God and His assistant... my wife... regarding my musical gifts and use of them. See, I lead worship every week, singing and playing the keyboard. What some people don't know though is that I'm not really a keyboardist or a singer... I am a saxophonist!
Growing up, everyone knew me as the sax player. I played in everything... lots of places, won lots of competitions... that was my focus and what I put my time and efforts towards. This lead to being accepted into the Indiana University School of Music, pursuing a music performance degree in the saxophone studio of Dr. Eugene Rousseau, who was internationally the primary sought after individual to study classical saxophone with. It was a great honor to get into his studio, but it came with a great deal of expectation. Between individual practice time, private lessons, sax quartets, a couple of bands, group class/clinic sessions and occasional recitals, I was playing my saxophone about 5-6 hours per day on average. That doesn't even include time spent playing at my church or other outside ministry opportunities.
I worked hard. I put in the time. I did what it took to achieve what was expected of me, working towards the goals that were regularly in front of me. I graduated, did well and continue to apply much of what I learned in ongoing music ministry, songwriting, etc.
An important note here is that I had regular goals that I was continually practicing and preparing for. We all have goals, right? What was different through those years of training and education is that my musical goals were set by OTHERS. If I wanted to stay in that high level program, I had to continually meet the standard. I had to accomplish what was expected. There was no option to do any less.
When I look back, that was my "prime" time. I could play the saxophone to a level then that I can NOT currently. WHY? Because I don't put that same level of work into it.
Just like anything else in life, the more you do it, the better you get. In a sport or other physical activity, you condition your body to run faster, to build your endurance and run longer, to jump higher, etc. To be able to sustain your present level of ability or to improve, you have to CONTINUE working at it. You could win the Boston Marathon, but take the next year and do not run at all. Then try to run the marathon again the next year. Are you going to win? NO. You probably won't even finish!! You'd be out of shape. Not prepared! Not up to the task!
Why do you run? You run to win! 1 Corinthians 9:24 says "Don't you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win!" Verse 27 continues "I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified." (NLT)
So, just like an athlete must keep their body in shape to win the race, I must do the same thing as a saxophonist. If I'm not playing and practicing regularly, I won't have strong enough lung support to give me the air support I need. I won't have the strength and control in my embouchure... which essentially is the facial muscles that are used to control the sound, the tone... and when you have no control here, it's not pretty!
So earlier I said that I was recently punked...
I had been asked to play a song on saxophone recently at a large event. The song was one I recorded 14 years ago and have played many times, but not for a very long time. And was it a quick and easy song? Of course not. It was about 6 minutes of non-stop, intense playing, with a big finish. I was pretty nervous. Afraid that I wouldn't be able to come through with what that song needed. Would I just make a fool of myself?
As I was grumbling a bit to my wife, expressing how annoying it was that I couldn't play to the level that I used to... she of course reminded me that I had the ability to fix that. I COULD practice. What?! That'd be silly right? :)
I continued and asked "Practice for WHAT?" She replied "You're telling me that you don't know what to practice, what to play?" I said "Of course I know things that I can practice, but I have no reason. I have nothing to be preparing for. What is the point in working on it when I hardly ever use it?"
Then came the hard reply... "How can you expect God to give you more opportunities to use your gift if you're not ready?" OUCH!!
Why would God give me some great opportunity to minister somewhere using my saxophone when He knows I can't really do it?? He's not going to. Instead, He'll give the task to someone else that is ready... someone that has been putting in the time, doing what God expects of them... so when it's time to play, they can get in the game... and not just fill a spot, but get in the game and WIN! That is the person that will best bring glory to HIS name.
I don't have a recital to prepare for... no upcoming lesson to be ready for... but I'm learning that I need to be working anyway. I need to be practicing, preparing. For what? I don't know, but I want to be ready so God knows that I'm here and He can use me in that capacity! Even when the goal is unclear, I have to keep working towards it.
Each of us has a God-ordained purpose and destiny that He has wired and prepared us for. We are expected to act on it... not sit on it.
Psalm 73:24 (NLT) "You guide me with your counsel, leading me to a glorious destiny." So, God has a purpose for me. He has given me certain gifts. Fine. I'm willing to be used in those areas. Isn't that enough? NO.
God expects you to take what He has gifted you with and continually develop it so you can be more effective... do even more... go even further.
Psalm 33:3 (NLT) "Sing a new song of praise to him; play skillfully on the harp, and sing with joy."
This passage says to play SKILLFULLY. This of course is referencing specifically the playing of music. What this tells me is that God doesn't just want your minimal effort. He wants you to play SKILLFULLY. He wants your BEST! Whatever your best is, you give that. But you ALSO continually do whatever you need to do so you can enhance your skill... to make your best even better!
Matthew 25:14-30 tells the familiar parable of the man who gave his three servants each different amounts of talents and then went away. When he returned, he found that two of them had invested, had worked with it, and now had more than what they were given. They both doubled what they had. The master told them "well done, my good and faithful servant." The third however hid what he was given, afraid of losing it. Ironic because the master rebuked him and then ordered that the talent be taken from that servant and given to one of the others.
Matt. 25:29 (NLT) says "To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away."
God has given you gifts. Are you using them at all? If not, are you doing whatever you can to make sure you are ready for God to call you in? If you ARE using your gifts, are you satisfied and stale where you are at or are you continuing to work at it, developing it, practicing, so you can do even more and be more effective?
Earlier, I pointed out that in college, my musical goals were set by OTHERS. I had expectations given to me. What is difficult now is that everything falls on ME. I don't have a professor standing over me making sure I get the work done. I have to push MYSELF. I have to set my own goals and keep myself on track. For some, this is not so much of a problem. For many of us, like myself, it's very hard! It's so easy to become complacent, to just do the minimum.
My pastor has often said that he doesn't want to be asked questions when He meets God. He just wants to hear the "well done". I would agree. Will you hear something like "I gave you this ability so you could use it to reach more people for my kingdom. What did you do with it? Why didn't you use it? Why did you never work to develop what I gave you?"
Are these questions that you will hear? Are you gonna use it, or lose it? God is going to get the work done. He has a job for you to do, but if you won't follow through, He will eventually move on and give that task to someone else. Make sure that doesn't happen to you!
Nathan is the worship pastor at Church52 in New Palestine, Indiana, which was planted in 2007. He grew up as a PK in Indiana and was actively involved in worship music from the age of 12. Over the years Nathan was involved as a saxophonist in his church band and also played in many other groups and events. While in college at the Indiana University School of Music, Nathan began moving into worship leading. Then after graduating, he went right into full-time ministry as a music pastor. He began writing new worship songs that have continued to be a part of his ministry as well as many churches across the country. Nathan has recorded 9 projects, which are mostly live worship projects.