Program Note: Three Poems on Grief and Faith

In May of 2018 I led the choirs and orchestras of TCC Wayland and Westgate Church in a concert which included three original pieces I wrote over the last few years. Here is the program note that accompanied these pieces.

Program Notes:

In greyish doubt and black despair
I drafted hymns to the earth and the air
Pretending to Joy, although I lacked it
The age had made lament redundant.

So here’s the question – who can answer it–
Was he a brave man, or a hypocrite?
– In Black Despair by Czeslaw Miloz

I’m excited to share three pieces on tonight’s program of my own composition. These draw texts from three poems that have been meaningful to me on my own spiritual journey. Though some come from a very real place of brokenness and emptiness, these songs are prayers for anyone who has walked through loss, trauma, heartbreak, grief, or failure. They are for anyone who has walked the path of Christ. Perhaps tonight, you feel broken or beat down by life. Whether this feeling is a kind of grief from an external loss that you had no control over, or a kind of shame because you did have control and missed the mark, these songs speak directly to that place. And the Gospel is this – God knows our story, knows our failures and losses, and turns toward us in love.

As for me, I can say with confidence these words by T.S. Eliot:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”

1. Overture: When in the Soul of the Serene Disciple • Text by Thomas Merton (1977)

One who finds themselves at the end of themselves will resonate with these words by Thomas Merton, a Cistercian monk, theologian, and poet. His poem recalls the feeling of emptiness and despair and is the scene we find ourselves at the beginning of a spiritual journey. When consoling one enduring grief, the best thing to do is often to say nothing at all, and Merton understands this. “Be still: there is no longer any need of comment.” 

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.
Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions
Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.
Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction
What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.

Notice how Merton describes this failure in seemingly contrasting terms – the life of a disciple is a “noble ruin.” Our failures and losses are not turned into successes, but can be viewed as a “lucky wind” because by walking through them in faith we stop trying to earn our salvation and earn our worth by our own merits. We can turn to God and honestly say the words uttered by the prodigal son in Luke 12, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”  But the Father has compassion. He responds with a disorienting radical love. The Gospel is this: not only is he welcomed back into the family, but given a feast in celebration completely undeserved. Merton’s poem is a lesson in humility, where there is no room for boasting even in our failures. We are okay with just being okay, and this is a lesson I am learning and re-learning every day.

2. The Valley of Vision • Puritan Prayer by Arthur Bennett (1975)

The second song in this cycle is a Puritan prayer about finding God in the valleys and struggles of life. It has been with me since hearing it at a Bible study in California over 10 years ago. The prayer is one of paradoxes, reminding us that the spiritual journey is not a climb up a mountain but a descent as we walk the path of Christ. The early Christian hymn from Phillipians 2 says of Jesus,

“…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him…”

But the Gospel is this: it is by humbling ourselves that we are exalted. It is our brokenness that God uses for our healing and ultimately His glory. The invitation in this prayer is to open your heart in the midst of sin and grief to God’s joy, grace, riches, and glory. 

Lord high and holy meek and lowly
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision
Where I live in the depths
but see Thee in the heights
Hemmed in by mountains of sin
I behold thy glory

Let me learn by paradox
That the way down is the way up
  to be low is to be high
  the broken heart is the healed heart
the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit
the repenting soul is the victorious soul
to have nothing is to possess all
to bear the cross is to wear the crown
to give is to receive
that the valley is a place of vision.

Lord in the daytime
stars can be seen from deepest wells
And the deeper the wells
the brighter thy stars shine
Let me find thy light in my darkness
Thy life in my death
Thy joy in my sorrow
Thy grace in my sin
Thy riches in my poverty
Thy glory in my valley.

3. Love (III) • Text by George Herbert (1633)

If God is love, and the Gospel is grace, George Herbert’s third poem on love beautifully captures a soul’s response to first seeing God for who He truly is. It is shocking – we often wrestle with believing we are worthy of unconditional love. “If only you knew who I truly am…,” we often think to ourselves, limiting just how far Christ would go to love his children. But Herbert identifies with the shameful hesitancy of a soul receiving Christ for the first time. We don’t feel worthy, and by earthly standards, this is true. We are not perfectly kind, perfectly grateful…we are not perfect, so we do not deserve the perfect love of God. But the Gospel is this: as we place our faith in Christ, we gain his identity through his righteous life, and he bears our blame on the cross, fully identifying with our sinfulness. It’s the great exchange: Christ’s righteousness for our unrighteousness, and inspired Herbert to write these words. This poem, written in the first person, depicts Christ simply as “Love.” As you read, you can substitute the word Love for the word ‘Christ’ or ‘God’, and make this poem your own prayer.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

In the Kingdom of God, if our entrance is not earned by merit, so too our participation neither improves or reduces our status at God’s feast. We are guests, who are simply offered a seat at the table. The Gospel is this: Christ sees us, and as we turn toward him in faith, Christ forgives us, bears our blame, and invites us to feast at His table.

Herbert sums this up in his hymn, “Repentance” (1633):

But you will sin and grief destroy;
That so the broken bones may joy,
And tune together in a well-set song,
Full of His praises,
Who dead men raises.
Fractures well cured make us more strong.

Recording coming soon!

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“A lucky sea that drowned his reputation…” On making meaning from emptiness with Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr

In the summer of 2017 I spent 10 weeks at l’Abri Fellowship in Southborough after a pretty tough life transition. I was learning to grieve, and grieving doesn’t come easy. I spent many days reading books, listening to lectures, and generally trying to put meaning back together. Several months in, I discovered that it was not books on theology that spoke to me, but poetry. There’s some part of the mind, or perhaps the heart, that poetry accesses through our imagination which can startle us and wake us up.

One poem I discovered was through Richard Rohr’s book “Falling Upward,” recommended by my spiritual director. Rohr speaks about a model for life’s spiritual journey in which after an ascent (which he calls, the “heroic” journey), we often find ourselves in a place where our effort, talent, skill, and success can carry us along no further. Many people might call this a mid-life-crisis, but this is not just about quitting your job or buying a sports car. Rohr speaks to a crisis of limitation, where we no longer view life as a climbing up a mountain, no longer looking to achieve the next step in the ladder, but begin to find new meaning in the journey of wisdom, which, as Christ models for us, is always a descent (i.e. Phil 2, “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.”).

Sooner or later (and for me it was much sooner than I expected) we find ourselves in a state of utter failure and loss, at a place where our own intellect and resources will not save us. It is from there that God can remind us that he and he alone is the rock on which we stand. “In the divine economy of grace,” Rohr writes, “sin and failure become the base  metal and raw material for the redemption experience itself.” From this place of failure Rohr reminds us that our fall or failure is actually the biggest grace we can receive, if we truly receive it. There’s a ton of wisdom in the Enneagram here, which I believe is a very effective tool in spiritual growth, and I hope to expand on in future posts.

At the end of the book, Rohr points to Merton’s Poem, published in 1977, as a unique vantage point of one who has just begun their second half of life. Merton writes:

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.

Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions

Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction

What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.

And now with some of my annotations:

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.

I lamented many things, but one deep sense of shame came from realizing that I was no longer living up to the heroic image I had for myself – one who is successful, without failure, without problems, and generally well put together. Oh, and I also actually lost my house.

Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions

There’s a certain emptiness in grief that is amplified by the fact that nobody can say anything to make you feel better. The best consolation in grief is simply someone sitting with you and saying “I’m sorry. I can’t make it better, but I can be here with you.” I cherished the friends that were able to say that without trying to make me feel better.

Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

I suppose looking back on it it is lucky. There are many good things that have come from tragedy, but to say that it is lucky is not to say that “something good will come of it,” but is to say that when your external facade (i.e. our metaphorical “halo”) is blown away, and your reputation destroyed, you have nothing else to stand on, and, because of Christ and only because of Christ, that is a lucky place to be.

Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction

A quick reminder to an over-achiever like me that there is no prize for finding this poverty, no special award for being content with emptiness. Don’t humble brag, or try to say how awful your life is and how you deserve the most praise for enduring such suffering. There is no easy end or cliché moral to the story.

What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.

I am still learning the importance of humility – of being okay with just being okay. It is a certain freedom when I can remember it, though this #enneagramthree has a tough time sometimes. So hard that I decided to write music and turn it into a concert for choir and orchestra. Oh well.

Yes, I’ve set this poem to music for choir and orchestra. We’re performing it on May 19th at Westgate Church in Weston. Read more here!

Liturgy and the Grieving Heart

I’ve been silent for a while.

In March of 2017 I heard news that would change my life forever. It was bad news. Really bad news. It weighed deep in my mind, my heart, and my soul, robbing me of all joy of everyday life. My work, which used to be a great source of joy and excitement, withered into a dutiful chore. Food, a source of delight, pleasure, and energy, lost its taste, and my appetite was half of what it used to be. I started losing weight, which was not a good thing. Minutes seemed like hours, and days like years. Every day was drudgery. I remember just trying to get to the end of the day to get to sleep – a short rest from the pain of conscious life. When I did sleep, it was sporadic at best, and I often woke up before the sun came up with thoughts racing through my head. This was darkness. I now know the pains of Psalm 88:

I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.

Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.

What follows are thoughts I wrote in the darkest moments of grief – I wrote these words in April of 2017. Now that I’ve learned to stand and breathe again, I’ve felt compelled to share these thoughts from this very dark time. I hope that these words draw others to God during times of grief and suffering.

I run to the scriptures. I’m a Christian, so I know how I’m supposed to trust God. I cry out to God in prayer but it didn’t make me feel any better. There was no “inner peace” that helped me rejoice in this suffering. I have never experienced pain like this and did not know when it would end. As a worship leader, I felt completely useless. How could I lead others in praising God when all I want to do is throw rocks at the sky and curse his name. How does one hope, when the circumstances around them seem utterly hopeless? I swear, if anyone quotes to me Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord”) or Romans 8:38 (“And we know that in all things God works for the good”) in the midst of this grieving, I might just punch them in the face. I know I’m supposed to rejoice in all things, but I just want the pain to stop.

In my grief, I turned to the book of Lamentations, which, unlike the verses above, don’t run around or away from suffering, but sit in it.

He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;

Even when I call out or cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer.

So I say, “My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”

This verse seemed different than the go-to Christian advice. It acknowledged the depth of my suffering (especially all of chapter 3). It acknowledged the distance I feel from God. It also doesn’t rush to cheap consolation. It acknowledged the cries of my heart that God is not acting to fix, restore, heal, or help the situation. But God is still not absent. Though I, and the author of Lamentations, do not feel God’s presence or help, He is still in the story.

It is good for a man to bear the yoke
while he is young.

Let him sit alone in silence,
for the Lord has laid it on him.
Let him bury his face in the dust—
    there may yet be hope. (Lam 3:27-29)

My eyes will flow unceasingly,
without relief,
until the Lord looks down
from heaven and sees. (Lam 3:49-50)

God will certainly not take away my suffering, but God sees. By confronting the raw pain, and by honestly speaking of this experience of suffering, hope can be real. I think the most faithful thing one can do in the midst of grief or suffering is to be honest to yourself and to God, even if that means addressing your anger directly at Him. I think the God we know through scritpure would rather have us beat him up and blame him than to turn away from him. I think this because the God of the Bible showed us that he loved us by sending his Son Jesus, who received our blame, our mockery, our abuse, and continued to love and forgive. He took the beating and the blaming, because of his love for us. So, for a while, I was angry at God. Sometimes I still am, and this is a good thing.

For no one is cast off by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.

From this place of honesty and brokenness I can take a step forward. I went to church one Sunday, and wept through most of the liturgy. I wept not because of my sadness, but because of the amazing contrast between the words of the liturgy and my own experience at that moment in time. And of course, I remembered why I love liturgy. It is there precisely for that reason – as an antidote to personal experience. When my world is crumbling before my eyes, it is a gift to run to words that tell us about God, who is always faithful, always loving, infinite and unchangeable.

The opening prayer of an anglican service reads:

Almighty God, to whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thought of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

God knows all of us – even our deepest desires and secrets. He knows how much I can’t stand this pain right now. He knows I want to run to things other than Him to self-medicate and numb the pain. He knows I want to run to sin because though my life is out of control, it makes me feel, at least for a moment, that I am in control. And yet I ask him to “cleanse the thoughts of my heart,” not so I feel less of the pain, but that I may worship Him perfectly.

Okay God. Let’s do this. I’m here – broken and humbled.

We hear the law of God, given to us in the Ten Commandments, which begins “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, the land of slavery…”

Then we hear the commandments and respond saying “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” You need not ask me to say this. I’ve got this one down pat. I’ve been crying this all month. I’ve been shouting this at God through tears. But now I get to have the church say it around me as I can barely open my mouth through the tears. Even as I type this I began to sob again. What is mercy? Does it mean taking away the suffering? Does it mean removing the pain which I utterly deserve? Does it mean fixing the situation or leading me through it barely alive?

It is a gift to sing hymns from centuries past, unfiltered by modern day consciousness. And to this, simply copying hymn texts here do not fully communicate their effect. It is one thing to read the text of the hymn, “Praise to the Lord! the Almighty, the King of creation!”, but another thing entirely to sing it with a congregation. God’s goodness and mercy is not just an abstract thought, but a reality made known through community. We are not just brains, we sing and make music to make sense of the world. The tune is important. The harmony is important. Singing together is important. When I am fighting back tears and cannot open my mouth to sing, I hear dear friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike all around me singing these words. Though I can’t see how my “desires e’er have been Granted in what He ordaineth”, maybe others can, and maybe God is still good. Maybe.

At the church I attend, we weekly recite a simple benediction from Kenya, which says:

All our problems,We send to the cross of Christ!

All our difficulties, We send to the cross of Christ!

All the devil’s works, We send to the cross of Christ!

All our hopes, We set on the risen Christ!

I never thought too much of it. When life is good, it’s just going through the motions to say we send our problems to Christ. But let me tell you, when you can barely get out of bed in the morning, to be able to shout these words out loud in the liturgy is a gift. Then we hear the pastoral blessing: “Christ the son of righteousness scatter the darkness before your path; and the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be among you, and remain with you always. Amen.”

Maybe I will get through this.

 

 

A new blog adventure: Seedbed’s Worship Design Collective

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 2.00.42 PM

Big news!

In just 2 days, the good folks over at seedbed.com are sprouting their latest branch on their tree of blogs – The Worship Design Collective. These sub-sites are hand curated blogs that exist to equip and empower leaders in various areas of ministry: youth ministryfaith and worksoul carechurch planting, and now worship. Judging by other seedbed collectives, the content can range from intensely theoretical and philosophical, such as “A Christian Conception of Markets” (a 12 part series exploring how Christian virtues and Capitalism intersect), from the faith and work collective, to the intensely practical, such as “3 messy summer games you have to try” (which for a youth pastor, is prime click-bait), from the youth ministry collective. And of course they have everything in between. In the vault of the seedbed collectives is great advice that veteran pastors share from their years of experience working through hard topics such as “talking about homosexuality and other big topics with teens,” “teaching children about death,” and “how church planters should handle conflict.” Whatever your ministry area, whether senior pastor or lay ministry leader, there is something encouraging and applicable for you here.

And here’s the cool part – I get to be a part of their newest collective, the Worship Design Collective. I join a team of ~20 other contributors: a community of thought leaders and practitioners — worship leaders, pastors, creative directors, entrepreneurs, songwriters, professors, artists, theologians, and farmers (perhaps both literal and figurative) — committed to networking and encouraging worship leaders with the richness of the Wesleyan theological vision and tradition (though I am not part of the Wesleyan tradition, I have some good friends that are). As one member mentioned on our first conference call, it’s kind of like The Avengers of worship leaders, though instead of saving the world, we just hope to encourage each other in designing and leading worship with excellence in the power of the Word and Holy Spirit – though maybe those goals are more similar than I think.

Even after 4 years of worship leading, I feel like I’m still just a beginner as a worship leader, but I’ve also gained some wisdom along the way, and I’m excited to be able to share my thoughts with a wider audience than just this personal blog. Some folks on the blogging team are way more experienced than I am, so I’m excited to learn from them as well.

If this collective sounds like something you may be interested in being a part of, I’d highly encourage you to check it out. Here’s where you can find us:

Twitter: @worshipdesignco
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Worship-Design-Collective/1544680545795792
Website: worshipdesigncollective.com

And here’s a video of Seedbed’s Sower-In-Chief, JD Walt, sharing a bit more about the vision behind the Collective:

So check it out! My future blog posts related to worship will be cross-posted here and there. Be sure to comment/share my posts (not here, but on the Worship Design Collective site) when they come out :-). I heard a rumor that the blogger who gets the most page-views wins a free toaster.

 

Conference Reflections: Spirit and Sacrament with Andy Piercy

The conference crew
The conference crew

Conferences are great. At the beginning of June I travelled to Trinity School for Ministry to attend “Spirit and Sacrament: Integrating Modern Worship with Traditional Liturgy,” a 3 day worship conference designed to equip and encourage leaders from traditions across the liturgical spectrum. It was refreshing to hear worship leaders, filled with love and wisdom, speak about joys and struggles, successes and failures, and to speak candidly about the heavy weight placed on our shoulders Sunday after Sunday. By the end of the conference I looked up to these leaders, not because of the size of their churches, amazing bands, flashy albums, or any other external success, but because it was clear that they have huge pastoral hearts, want to see Jesus glorified, and want to build up the church for the sake of His name.

I was also encouraged by being reminded of my convictions. As I met with fellow worship geeks from across the country, I was reminded that I am not so weird after all…or at least, if I am weird, I’m not alone! We all desire theological accuracy and depth in lyrics; elegance and economy in melodic writing; ways to draw the congregation into deeper worship expression; worship forms and models that help people become more like Jesus every week.

Liturgy was, is, and ever shall be CONTEXT-DRIVEN

Since the conference was hosted by TSM, and organized by Andy Piercy [web | twitter], Director of Worship Development for the Anglican Mission, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer was at the center of our worship. Piercy reminded us that when Cranmer first complied these texts and wrote these prayers, they were to a specific people at a specific time. They were a direct reaction and indeed a correction to the theological mis-steps of the Catholic church in that day. When the religious climate of the post-medieval church was fear, guilt, and shame, Cranmer sought to reveal grace and gratitude. The liturgy was not an end in itself, but a means by which the nation would be converted; from guilt to grace, from fear to gratitude.

Glenn Packiam [web | twitter | blog] also pointed out archeological evidence of this paradigm shift. He showed us this chapel fresco from medieval England:

Then he showed a modern restoration of what the painting might have originally looked like:

We can see clearly an exalted and ascended Christ at the top of the picture. Great! But looking closer we see naked figures being tormented by demons, impaled on spears. Packiam pointed out, that at one point, this may have inspired worship in an authentic way, we are not medieval Christians, so we can’t assume they see it the same way we do. Indeed, we must fear God and love God. The reformers decision to whitewash these details was not out of hatred of art, or of the traditions of the past, but to better align the message preached by the walls of the church to the message preached by the sermons, prayers, and other ministries in that current context. When the post-medieval church was showing a powerful Christ standing above the chaos and torment of the world and hell, Cranmer was showing that Christ said “COME unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. (St. Matt. xi. 28.).” Read more about that story over on his blog.

Of course we need both, but the lesson here is that if any one is too-emphasized, we need a correction. As liturgists, we ought to be seeking the right words for our context. Are we too comfortable in our sanitized Christianity that is all about love and not about personal transformation? Then we need the Holy Sprit to convict us of sin, and an encouragement to move from apathy to action. Are we burned out on empty religious gestures or tiresome church programs? Then we need the Holy Spirit to refresh our souls and lead us to truly rest. As a diverse church, we have people from all different perspectives who may be searching for different things. Some come to church to pray earnestly in a peaceful space, others come to worship through song, to be poured into through a convicting sermon. It’s our job as leaders to listen to the congregation, hear where they are coming from, and lead them to a greater love for Christ and the world.

A Modern Example

I was greatly encouraged by Aaron Niequest [web | twitter], who shared with us about a new liturgical service born out of the place you would least expect: Willow Creek Community Church. “The Practice” was created from the idea that worship is formative (thank you James K.A. Smith), and instead of thinking of a worship service like a classroom, maybe we should think of it like a gymnasium. By engaging in ancient devotional practices, we were encouraged to see worship not only as something we do to glorify God, but something God does to us. It is not only our expression of praise to God, but how God has chosen to communicate with us: through his word and the sacraments. This dialoguical perspective has a huge impact on how we plan and organize our worship services. At “The Practice”, instead of the worship service centered around a 45-minute sermon/teaching and relegating music to “warmup time,” the entire service is a smooth flow of spoken and sung prayers, gestures (physical participation is loosely encouraged with simple encouragements: “let the posture of your body reflect the posture of your heart”), and guided meditations. The congregation even takes 2-minute, 3-minute, and *gasp* 5-minute pauses in complete silence, listening to God and reflecting on scripture.

One step at a time

One thing that was made clear again and again throughout the three days was that all the discussions and examples are meant to be models; representations of a real thing, but not to be mistaken for the real thing itself. The lesson was not, “look at the awesome things we’re doing at our churches…here’s how you can make it happen at yours,” but real honest discussions about the struggles of ministry; with all the conflicts, disagreements, misunderstandings you would expect.

One comment by Aaron stood out to me. He mentioned that early on in his “mission to liturgize” the culture at Willow Creek, and having recently “discovered” liturgical worship, he introduced a sung kyrie at the beginning of the worship service. This was met with a resounding NO from the congregation, as for too many people, it reminded them too much of “that Catholic thing I ran away from.” I couldn’t help but smile remembering that I did the exact same thing at TCC a few years ago myself. Sometimes you need to take a step back before taking the next step forward.

For those of us serving in Evangelical contexts, there is no one-size-fits-all liturgy. Every person has a unique faith journey and we all carry baggage and mis-conceptions about worship. As leaders we need to be wise in discerning the shape of worship each season. We need constant reflection and evaluation. We need to be sensitive and listen to the pastoral staff, the lay leaders, and the congregation. And of course to do all this, we need the Spirit’s guidance and power.

Redeeming Emotions

Speaking of baggage and mis-conceptions, if you are like me it is not a skepticism of liturgy that I need to fear, but exactly the opposite: a strong aversion to overly emotional worship. I remember many camps and conferences that used music, dim lights, and social pressure to manipulate awkward jr. highers into making commitments for Jesus. I have always looked on those experiences with a mixture skepticism and embarrassment. Today, with a decade (almost two!) distance from jr. high, I feel myself resisting any emotional response to music in worship, out of fear that it is not “real,” but put on or influenced by the music.

But here’s the thing: music is emotional. Cranmer’s prayers are emotional. They are evocative, stirring the heart and moving the emotions. When the church prays the prayer of humble access before communion: “we are not worthy even to come to this your table…but you are the same Lord who’s nature is always to have mercy,” I often get choked up. Relentless grace should create an emotional response!

The redemptive part for me was to hear several eloquent, thoughtful, and even well educated speakers share how they want to redeem emotions and help the church embrace worship not just in the mind but in the body and the heart, I was encouraged to give it a second look. We, perhaps rightly so for a time, emphasized intellect out of fear of a thought-less worship, but perhaps we need to reclaim the heart. I’ll admit, it doesn’t come easy for me!


Like I said, conferences are great! This one reminded me of that fact. With only 50 or so attendees, a simple schedule, and a very warm atmosphere of respect and love, the conversations were healthy, life giving, and energizing – which is a high bar to hit for worship discussions!

So if you’re interested in geeking out with fellow worship nerds, be sure to register next year for this conference! I’ll be there!

Why 2015 is going to be the year of the podcast

I’m not usually one for making predictions, but here goes nothing.

For those of you living under a rock, let me inform you that the recent This American Life podcast spinoff Serial has exploded into public popularity, prompting parodies from SNL, Funny Or Die, and has even reached the supermarket-tabloid corner of the internet known as buzzfeed (omgwhyisthattextsobigitsliketheythinkicantreadsmallthings). Continue reading “Why 2015 is going to be the year of the podcast”

Five great songs I’m looking forward to singing this year

Approaching my 4th year in ministry at TCC it’s nice to look back and realize that I’ve established a good diet of songs for the singing church. We sing well here at TCC, and I think the biggest reason is simply familiarity. We have ~50 songs we sing on a regular basis, and every week they are sung they take deeper roots in our hearts as these 50 songs become “our songs”.

That being said, I’m always on the lookout for excellent sturdily constructed songs for congregational singing, or just excellent songs that tell the Gospel story in fresh and exciting ways. Here are a handful I’m excited about:

1. I know it’s a few years old at this point, but Chris Tomlin’s “This is our God” will be a great addition to our regular repertoire this year. The simple melody of the verses, and the repetitive chorus bolsters the voice of the yearning congregation to sing of our expectant hope. Perfect for Advent!

A refuge for the poor, a shelter from the storm. This is our God.
And He will wipe away your tears and return your wasted years. This is our God

This is the one we have waited for
This is the one we have waited for
This is the one we have waited for
Jesus, Lord and Savior, This is our God.

Since apparently we’re starting with an Advent theme, Come to Us O Lord by Young Oceans is another great heart-beat song that is simple but powerful.

O living Word; please come dwell in us, Lord wipe away, these tears
O Ancient Son; so long foretold, we’re desperate souls, draw near

And we will stand, securely in the strength of the Lord
Every heart will surely come and adore The Great I AM.

Something about the fifth in the melody above the IV chord at the top of the chorus really lifts you up. Some might mock it’s rather monotone melody, but I think it really pulses with energy on top of the simple chord progression. It fits the text too.

3. No list would be complete without a little Hillsong (p.s. they have a concert at BU tomorrow!). Their version of Psalm 65, “You Crown the Year” from the Glorious Ruins album is packed with verses from the psalm. I’m blown away by how they can take the ancient language of the psalms and make it sound like it was written just yesterday. It’s clear that the songwriters are saturated in the word, and it seeps out into their songwriting seemingly effortlessly. Don’t believe me? Check out the psalm as you listen to the song:

[Psalm 65] [You Crown the Year (Hillsong)]

There’s an epic building bridge to boot, if that’s what your into…


 

On to the non-congregational songs – songs that I like but would never make a congregation try to sing along with them. Unfortunately there are many of these!

4. Songwriter from Indianapolis Nathan Partain is writing some great lyrics and good music to boot. I particularly liked “For His Own Sake” – it has a definite Simon and Garfunkel feel to it so insta-connection to my childhood. Thanks mom!
[For His Own Sake – Nathan Partian]

5. Audrey Assad is one of my favorite Christian songwriters out there today. Most of her songs are perfect for congregational songs (we’ve done “I Shall Not Want” and “Restless” here at TCC), but her recent Christmas song “Winter Snow” with Chris Tomlin has a wonderful jazzy Norah Jones feel to it. [Winter Snow – Youtube]

Ben Keyes’ “The Last Laugh,” and why you should buy this awesome album

A few months ago I had the pleasure of creating the album artwork for Ben Keyes’ (rhymes with “skies”) first solo album. Ben is one of the members of  Ordinary Time, a folk acoustic trio from Vancouver, Canada, and is a member of TCC Wayland, where I work. The cover (in my completely unbiased opinion) reflects the bluegrass/gospel roots of Ben’s music. Check it out!

Continue reading “Ben Keyes’ “The Last Laugh,” and why you should buy this awesome album”

Blogging with the anglicans, part II – Lent 27 (John 9)

For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind (John 9:39)

Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? This is one of those fundamental questions we all have, and indeed why some skeptics have yet to place faith in Jesus. A simple, powerful doubt about God and the nature of the universe: “If God is good, why does suffering exist?”

Continue reading “Blogging with the anglicans, part II – Lent 27 (John 9)”

Amos on worship and Repentance

Juan de Borgona, The Prophet Amos, Museo Catedralico, Cuenca, 1535

Hey Blog Readers,

This fall I started a discipleship cohort at Church of the Cross, Boston. The group is designed to help us to engage with key issues in our world through the study of both Biblical and non-Biblical texts. The 14 of us will meet monthly to discuss and debate issues such as Politics, authority of scripture, absolutism (is there only one true religion?), Sexuality and Gender, and more. Fun!

This month we are reading Amos, a book that this worship leader has very mixed feelings about.

 

 

 

Continue reading “Amos on worship and Repentance”