John Wesley’s “Directions on Singing” (1761) – and some annotations

I learned these from a hymnology class back in my days at BU, but find myself returning to them again and again.  They’re excellent advice for communities seeking to enhance and invigorate congregational singing – and they can apply to any context of Christian worship. Here they are in annotated form:

1. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.

It is critical that the congregation have an agreed upon canon of songs. To make the songs our songs. Unfortunately for the worship leader, it means repeating songs much more often than I’d like. It is identity forming, and singing together creates a shared experience which builds relationships and (here comes the christian buzzword) community.

2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

I can attest to this. Contemporary American hymnody (read: all songs American christians sing – CCM and trad. alike) is fragmented. I absolutely LOVE the re-tune hymn movement, and see more and more great texts being sung by congregations that might otherwise be lost. But I often wonder if it will last. The melodies are most often much less sturdy, much less memorable. Harmonies are indie-rock influenced, which (sorry to say) is a current fashion that might not last. On the other hand, AZMON, HYFRYDOL, and CWM RHONDDA have made it this far – they’re probably are here to stay.

3. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a single degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

I want to get better at encouraging all people to sing – even if sometimes they don’t feel like it. Our emphasis on authenticity tells us that we should only sing when our heart is behind it. While this is a great sentiment, we must realize that it places the needs and feelings of the individual above the needs and feelings of the community – sound familiar, oh 21st century westerner?  An encouragement: it is certainly true that sometimes our actions can precede our emotions. Take kneeling for example. Sometimes I don’t want to kneel and don’t feel like repentance. Yet time and again, when I do, my heart begins to kneel with my body.

4. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, then when you sung the songs of Satan.

The best one for sure. I think we should reclaim the adverb lustily. My friend Caleb translates “the songs of satan” to “karaoke with the girls” or “Sweet Caroline at Fenway Park”.  I’m fully aware that 80% of the men in my congregation (and I’m sure a fair share of women) believe their voices are not good enough to lift up. This is infectious. If you don’t sing, the visiting family next to you might not want to sing either. Psh! Sing it out!

5. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

Not unintentionally placed after #4. When we do sing out, let’s make sure that it is harmonious with the rest of the congregation. How do we get better at this? Just do it. Take a crack at singing a harmony. It will not come automatically for most, but it is something we can work on together as a congregation.

6. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing to slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

A warning for young and old alike. Working with choirs of all ages, the natural tendency when singing with others is always to slow down. We wait a fraction of a second to hear someone else’s voice before adding our own. By simply acknowledging this we can nip slow singing in the bud. We don’t just follow, we sing with one voice by singing to one beat.  I teach this to the choir time and time again.

7. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

This is a lifelong pursuit and I’ll be the first to admit that we can sing amazing words without thinking twice about what they mean. Worship requires our attention and focus, our minds as well as our hearts. Wesley was aware of our temptation to be ‘swept away’ in a flurry of emotion based on the sounds alone and not the content of the songs.

-From John Wesley’s Select Hymns, 1761

Applicable or Archaic? Let me know in the comments.

postscript: how could I not include this link? Someone set these texts to music for Baritone and piano, incorporating hymn tunes AZMON, HYFRYDOL, and BEATA TERRA.  lol. 

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Happy 4th of July!

God Bless America, yes, but in our (or at least my) current state of comfort and abundance we are often warned both in scripture and from our Christian leaders not to forget the God who has provided us with every good thing.

The Rev. Peter Marshall was Chaplain of the United States senate beginning in 1947, and offering daily prayers on the senate floor until his sudden death just two years later.  One day perusing the racks at Brattle Book Shop, I stumbled upon a collection of his prayers with which he opened the senate meetings.  I didn’t realize there were prayers at every congressional session, but apparently there still are.   Here is Dr. Marshall’s prayer from July 3rd, 1947:

God of our Fathers, whose Almighty hand hath made and

preserved our Nation, grant that our people may understand what it is they celebrate tomorrow.
May they remember how bitterly our freedom was won, the down payment that was made for it, the installments that have been made since this Republic was born, and the price that must yet be paid for our liberty.
May the freedom be seen, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to please to do what is right.
May it ever be understood that our liberty is Under God and can be found nowhere else.
May our faith be something that is not merely stamped upon our coins, but expressed in our lives.
Let us, as a nation, be not afraid of standing alone for the rights of men, since we were born that way, as the only nation on earth that came into being “for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.”
We know that we shall be true to the Pilgrim dream when we are true to the God they worshiped.
To the extent that America honors Thee, wilt Thou bless America, and keep her true as THou hast kept her free, and make her good as Thou hast made her rich. Amen. 

I heard a sermon yesterday that quoted this prayer of Abraham Lincoln, who set aside a national day of fasting, prayer, and humiliation during the events leading up to the civil war.

…In so much as we know that, by His divine law, nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us, then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

Both prayers remind me somewhat of the scriptures, which often remind us not to forget God who has given us all good things.  Here is Deuteronomy 6:10-12, something we are studying at Park Street Church.

10 When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, 11 houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, 12 be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

And Proverbs 30:

7 “Two things I ask of you, LORD;
do not refuse me before I die:
8 Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
9 Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

So happy 4th of July!  For what it’s worth, I’ll be eating potato salad and watching the fireworks on the Charles, but as Derek Webb reminds us:

our first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man
our first allegiance is not to democracy or blood
it’s to a King and a Kingdom!

Christianity as the “end of religion”

Current read: Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann
for the life of the world cover
Russian Orthodox author Alexander Schmemann illuminates in this short (86 pages) book some of the marvelous and mysterious truths of Christianity. Though he comes from the Orthodox perspective, his book explores elements of the christian liturgy that cross all denominations, catholic, protestant, and orthodox alike.

From the back cover:

“For the Life of the World is not about Russian Orthodoxy nor about questions of unity.  It is about the world.  It is written by a man who stands within the Orthodox tradition and who profoundly loves this world of the 1960s A.D. in all its misery and splendor, its brokenness and joy and death.”

An excerpt of Shmemann’s book was given to me by a friend prior to my baptism, which I thoroughly enjoyed and used in my sermon on Baptism last semester.  The book was again recommended by my worship professor at Boston University and I finally decided to read it.

There’s some really great stuff in here.  From the orthodox perspective, Schmemann acknowledges his biases, but presents essays on the Christian life as a whole, not orthodox theology.  It reminded me of CS lewis’ introduction to mere christianity; where he mentions his background in the anglican church, but doesn’t ascribe any special significance to it over any other denomination.

In the first chapter, “life of the world,” he discusses the dichotomy between sacred and profane, natural and supernatural.  What struck me by surprise is his resistance or reticence to “religion.”  For him, Christ and the christian life is in fact, the “end of all religion.”. See John 4:19-23, the story of the woman at the well who asks Jesus about the true way to worship.

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.

Jesus’ response subverts her expectations and re-defines what it means to worship God.  He says we don’t need a church or other holy place to worship the Father.  Striking for an author from the Orthodox church, with its highly reverent iconography and formalized liturgy.  Schmemann responds by saying:

Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man.  But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God.  He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion

Beautiful churches with “all night vigil” services, icons and processions, a liturgy, which to be properly performed requires not less than twenty seven heavy liturgical books – all this seems to contradict what has been said above about christianity as the “end of religion.”

Here he critiques the church for its formality and ritualized practices, and seeks to correct mis-conceptions of the Eastern church by western readers.  Conventional wisdom is that the Orthodox church gives weight and emphasis to “mysticism ” and “spirituality,” which is certainly my experience in attending orthodox services.  Though he understands that the orthodox church may have failed to see the implications of the “sacramentalism,” Schmemann argues either for a rethinking of routinized liturgy, or a rethinking of our opinions about routinized liturgy.  His last question of the first chapter really got me hooked to read the rest:

But does it in fact?  And if not, what is the meaning of all this in the real world in which we live, and for the life of which God has given his son?

And from there I dive in.

C.S. Lewis on what really matters in worship [quote]

Yet another!  This one on humility in church music:

There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect. Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.

This on why worship is the most awesomest thing ever…

An excellently performed piece of music, as natural operation which reveals in a very high degree the peculiar powers given to man, will thus always glorify God whatever the intention of the performers may be. But that is a kind of glorifying which we share with the ‘dragons and great deeps’, with the ‘frost and snows’. What is looked for in us, as men, is another kind of glorifying, which depends on intention. How easy or how hard it may be for a whole choir to preserve that intention through all the discussions and decisions, all the corrections and the disappointments, all the temptations to pride, rivalry and ambition, which precede the performance of a great work, I (naturally) do not know. But it is on the intention that all depends. When it succeeds, I think the performers are the most enviable of men; privileged while mortals to honor God like angels and, for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labour, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that unity they would have had before the Fall.

And this; CS Lewis on bad singers in church…

We shall also be aware that the power of shouting stands very low in the hierarchy of natural gifts, and that it would be better to learn to sing if we could.  If anyone tryies to teach us we will try to learn.  If we cannot learn, and this is desired, we will shut up.

– excerpts from C.S. Lewis, “On Church Music”

Good hymns are…[quote]

Howdy!  I’m on a blog posting kick today it seems.  Here’s a great quote I found and couldn’t help but share:

Good hymns are an immense blessing to the Church of Christ. I believe the last day alone will show the world the real amount of good they have done. They suit all, both rich and poor. There is an elevating, stirring, soothing, spiritualizing, effect about a thoroughly good hymn, which nothing else can produce. It sticks in men’s memories when texts are forgotten. It trains men for heaven, where praise is one of the principal occupations. Preaching and praying shall one day cease for ever; but praise shall never die. The makers of good ballads are said to sway national opinion. The writers of good hymns, in like manner, are those who leave the deepest marks on the face of the Church

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

Lex orandi

Lex credendi

“The law of prayer is the law of belief”

I’m learning how to pray.  This latin phrase above says that the way we pray in public is both shaped by and will shape our theology.  What does it say about our concept of God when we pray with ambiguous phrases such as “Lord, if it is your will…” or “we come to you asking if you would…”?  These phrases point to a deficiency in our concept of God.  Laurence Stookey, in his book Let the Whole Church Say Amen!, claims that “many of the filler phrases act as distancing devices.”

Surely I am guilty of this religious mumbling in attempt to buy time and sort out my thoughts while praying publicly, but now that I am aware of it, I am focusing on eliminating it from my prayers.  Notice Jesus does not pray this way in the Lord’s prayer of Matthew 6:7.  He does not say, “our Father, who is in Heaven, may your name be hallowed … Lord, if it is your will, may your kingdom come … etc …” He talks to God directly, with short salient phrases.  Notice his verbs: “GIVE us this day… / FORGIVE us … / LEAD US NOT into … / DELIVER us from … ”

It is these aggressive verbs that shape prayer that believes in a powerful, influential God.  I hope that in my own personal prayer and the occasions which I pray in public can be shaped by this idea. If we cannot earnestly demand something of God, perhaps we are demanding the wrong thing.

The language of space

A few months ago, I saw yet another interesting ted talk, this one on the way that architecture has influenced music.  The spaces in which we fill sound directly affect the kind of sounds produced there.  David Byrne chronicles the history of music in relation to the history of archetecture.  Reverberant gothic cathedrals allow for polyphonic music, concert halls request loud symphonic music, arenas require slower tempos and clear vocal lines to be understood.  Check out the video:

This term at BU’s School of Theology (my new stomping ground!), I’m taking a course titled “Introduction to Christian Worship.”  For this course we are reading James White’s book of the same title.  I’ve just finished the chapter on the Language of Space, which discusses how the spaces we use for liturgical worship affect and reveal our beliefs.  His main point seems to be this:  Whatever the space, it must function to allow for “speaking and touching in God’s name.”  I like this stripping down of the definition of worship.  Too often I think of worship as what we do on Sunday mornings.

A few definitions of worship:

The Vatican defines worship as “the glorification of God and the sanctification of humanity”

The Anglican Church calls it “setting forth of God’s honor or glory, and to the reducing of the people to a most perfect and godly living.”

Russian Orthodoxy says “the response of men to the Divine call, to the ‘mighty deeds’ of God, culminating in the redemptive act of Christ.”

And White, as quoted before, likens the phrase “speaking and touching in God’s name”.

My professor, Don Saliers, has his own definition that is more focused on Christ: “The ongoing word, prayer, and action of Jesus Christ in and through his body in the world made alive by the holy spirit.”

I digress…

Whatever your definition of worship, you need to have a space in which to worship.  I could go into discussion of why a community of worshippers is important, but that is for another blog post.  White outlines 5 different criteria which are required for proper worship spaces: Utility, simplicity, flexibility, intimacy, and beauty.   After all, “Churches are built to be used, not to be monuments for tourists to admire or art historians to chronicle.”

And it is for good reasons churches debate over the planning of new spaces for worship.  During high school, my church demolished and built an entirely new building, providing new spaces for classes and many different ministries to meet.  During college, for many years my church was creating drafts and proposals for a new building.  After many discussions and an eventual decision made by the congregation the project was cancelled.

White’s five criteria are important to think about when making decisions about church buildings and worship space planning, but I would imagine it very difficult to think about all of them at once.  Gothic cathedrals are beautiful but not flexible.  My home church (no offense!) is quite simple but not always beautiful (just don’t look up).  That new building they made?  Very flexible (cascading partition walls, multiple classroom configurations), but not very intimate.  To me it seems that more and more reformed churches are going for utility and simplicity over beauty and intimacy.  I attended on church that met in an elementary school multi-purpose room!

But what effect does that have on the music, if I may transition to the main topic of this blog?  What does David Byrnes talk say about the direction of christian worship through music?  Buildings are much more permanent than the latest christian rock song.  White says “After it is built, it will continue to shape worship in its image for generations.  Although it is not completely true that the building will always win, we must at least recognize in it a powerful ally and a formidable foe. Its witness will outlast its builders.

And this is true.  I formed a choir for christmas and good friday services at my church in Santa Barbara, which I really enjoyed doing and was pleased with the music.  In the end, however, the space was not correct for that style of music (my church did praise music), so as good as they sounded, the style did not fit the space.

My new church has a fantastic history of hymnody and a marvelous organ, which fits the space really well and envelops the congregational voice.  This church is one that does morning “traditional” and evening “contemporary” services.  I try as often as I can to attend the morning services, because I like the senior pastor a lot and am partial to “traditional” worship music…whatever that means.  I also attend the early services because I hope more young people would discover the beauty of hymnody.  [Anecdote: Saliers told us a heartwarming story of a kids choir that was learning hymns and kids worship songs.  When one kid was asked which song was his favorite, he told him the hymn was his favorite.  This puzzled Saliers because the language was much too complex for a 8 year old boy.  When asked why, the kid replied “The words taste so good!”] Anyway…lead by example right?

On some Sundays, however, I’m lucky to have a church job playing piano for a morning service.  This leads me to attend the evening services at Park Street.  In the same physical space where choir and organ sing, drum set, electric guitars, bass, synthesizers, and powerpoint.  I’ve since gotten used to it, but the first time I walked into the evening “contemporary” service, it sounded like mush (again…no offense!).  The whitewashed walls, high ceiling, and wooden pews made the music echo and sound generally boomy (though not as bad as that church in the M-P room).  It’s not that the music wasn’t worship-full, but it seemed out of place in such that space.  Should churches have services for “traditional” folks, and services for “contemporary” kids?  Should we have two different spaces for two different styles of music?  My inclination is no, but more on that later.

Utility, simplicity, flexibility, intimacy, and beauty.  Let’s strive for these in our worship spaces.

my new favorite bible verse

Thanks to Jeremie Begbie in his book “Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music” for revealing this to me:

  • How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?
    – Psalm 137:4 KJV
  • He relates the verse to the power of music that empowers émigré communities to overcome cultural repression by holding their musical heritage close. While undoubtedly true (spirituals amidst slavery, national anthems amidst apartheid), I read it as a more general cry of longing for christians to return home. The reason music is so frequently debated in church communities is in (hopefully) honest pursuit of the answer to this question. How shall we sing? With gregorian chant? Hymnody? Christian rock? Is Rick Warren right when saying “God loves all kinds of music because he invented it all…if it is offered to God in spirit and truth, it is an act of worship.”

    Begbie believes that Warren’s perspective implies that if all worship-full music is embedded with God-given integrity, it renders depth, quality (and I’ll add to that list, beauty) irrelevant to worship. I hope not!

    I like C.S. Lewis

    “You may ask ‘If we cannot imagine a three-personal Being, what is the good of talking about Him?’ Well, there isn’t any good talking about Him. The thing that matters is being actually drawn into that three-personal life, and that may begin any time—tonight, if you like. What I mean is this. An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his [or her] prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if a Christian, he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also know that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God—that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying—the goal he is trying to reach.
    God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on—the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary Christian is saying his prayers.”

    – C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” Book IV, Chapter 2.

    Liturgy as rehearsal

    Ok so I’m still working on my Paper on Messiaen (see this post).  As I was reading articles and books about Messiaen, his catholic faith and liturgical music, I was reminded of The Sprit of The Liturgy, By Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI), a book recommended to me that I have been reading this quarter.  Ratzinger’s book discusses liturgies’ foundations in Biblical history, its relationship to time and space, and, in his chapter on liturgical form, discussion of practical matters for the church such as placement of the altar, function of music, and physical participation (kneeling/standing/sitting).

    Messiaen’s liturgical music often plays with our notions of time.  His most popularly studied work, Quatour pour le fin du temps, uses a complex and irregular rhythmic language to give the listener the sense of a suspension of time (note: bad idea to listen to when you’re working on a paper with a deadline in 24 hrs).

    Ratzinger, in his opening chapter, discusses what we experience during the liturgy, and how, for a moment, time and our notions of purpose and achievement are suspended in place of a new kind of existence.  During the 1920s, a metaphor was made comparing liturgy to “play.”  Specifically, the play of a child.  Ratzinger begins his book with a mention of this concept.  When a child plays, “it has no meaning or purpose outside of the rules of the game.  For that reason, there is something healing, even liberating about it.  Play is a kind of other world, an oasis of freedom, where for a moment we can let life flow freely.”  He then illuminates a deeper facet of this analogy that ties it in with the essence of the liturgy, not to mention send shivers down my spine.

    Children’s play seems in many ways a kind of anticipation of life, a rehearsal for later life, without its burdens and gravity.  On this anaolgy, the litrugy would be a reminder that we are all children, or should be children, in relation to that true life toward which we yearn to go.  Liturgy would be a kind of anticipation, a rehearsal, a prelude for the life to come, for eternal life, which St. Augustine describes, by contrast with life in this world, as a fabric woven, no longer of exigency and need, but of the freedom of generosity and gift.  Seen thus, liturgy would be the rediscovery within us of true childhood, of openness to a greatness still to come, which is still unfulfilled in adult life.  Here then, would be the concrete form of hope, which lives in advance the life to come, the only true life, which initiates us into authentic life – the life of freedom, of intimate union with God, of pure openness to our fellowman.  Thus would imprint on the seemingly real life of daily existence the mark of future freedom, break open the walls that confine us, and let the light of heaven shine down upon earth.