“My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you…
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips.
– from Psalm 63
The trouble with feasting for me is that in my current station in life feasting has been rarer than I’d like. Actually, this semester has been pretty difficult in terms of getting time in the kitchen. I have been attending evening meetings for (ironically titled) the Great Banquet, which has kept me from spending my Sunday afternoons cooking Sunday dinners, which not only are my favorite sabbath activity and way to unwind after a busy Sunday, but provide me with leftovers for the beginning of the next week. I’ve also been up on the North Shore for class on Tuesdays, out Mondays for Bible study, Thursdays for choir, so there are very few nights each week when I’m actually home to cook!
The result is too much fast food than I’d like to admit, and a very understocked pantry which makes me sad.
So it makes sense that I’m compelled by all these food passages in the Bible. Psalm 63 talks about how our souls are satisfied as with fat and rich food – not fast food, but a slow roasted chicken perhaps. Fat and rich food prepared at home is not only immediately satisfying but I believe the feeling of satiation carries well into the next day. So perhaps God is trying to show us how he alone is the metaphorical ‘chicken soup for the soul.’ Everything else that we seek to satisfy our souls are like fast food – they may meet the caloric requirements, may make us feel good at the moment, but they just leave us empty. Basically, it’s reminding me 1) need to spend more time with God, and 2) need to make more chicken stock.
I’ve always wanted to write some thoughts about Advent but can never find the time in the month of December. Too busy! Here’s some non-seasonally appropriate content for today.
I hate to admit but I’m always taken off guard by the season of Advent. Every year I begin the season with determination to wait in hope, but by the middle of the month of December, the high expectations I perceive from congregation, those that I place on myself as a church musician, and on top of a ton of extra hours of work when I’d rather be spending time with my family, I find myself worn down.
Is the purpose of Advent, as Fleming Rutledge believes, to “take an unflinching inventory of darkness” (pg. 173)? She sternly warns against seeing Advent as a time to ‘prepare for Christmas,’ and urges the church to fully enter into the darkness to see just how bright the light of Christ is. The medieval church did not focus on Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love like we do today, but rather death, judgment, heaven, and hell. “The idea was—and is—to show how the light of the birth of Christ appeared against a backdrop of darkness, depravity, and despair” (pg. 238).
But is the Medieval church right? I can’t imagine the looks I’d get from our staff and congregation if I urged us to consider swapping in death, judgement, heaven, and hell for our advent candle themes. It seems exactly opposite what people want to be focusing on during the holidays.
In grad school I was taught to keep Advent distinct from Christmas, and to resist the hurrying of the cultural Christmas season spurred on by commercialism and consumerism. I can’t help but agree – there seems to be little focus in December about Christ’s second coming.
Let’s take a step back for a second. Should, at certain times, the church focus on the future coming of Christ and the coming judgement of the world? If it’s in the creed, which it is (He shall come again to judge the living and the dead), then I believe the answer is yes.
But how? Preaching of ‘hellfire and brimstone’ is today a trope on how not to preach. And speaking of darkness seems not only unnecessary, but not required – we all know there is darkness in the world. We can’t avoid it. We don’t need to be reminded. A whole month of darkness, hellfire, judgement, during our culture’s most joyful time of the year doesn’t seem counter-cultural in a good way, but paints the church as a grinch who doesn’t want any joy.
But perhaps since the culture is well aware of the darkness all around us, I have a feeling that it would be very different and quite possibly very powerful, to shepherd the church by actually helping us consider these “four final things” of death, judgement, heaven, and hell in the light of Christ’s second coming. If we begin (and Advent is in fact the beginning of the church year) with the end in mind (Christ’s second coming) we frame all those nasty things in between in light of his victory. To prepare we must be looking at Christ more closely – remembering how we place our “hopes and fears of all the years” in him and him alone.
But how we prepare is equally important. Rutledge warns that an emphasis on ‘preparation’ is that preparation puts the emphasis of the season on human effort rather than God’s mighty work. I have heard this from parishioners. We need help ‘keeping Christ in Christmas,’ just like the secular world does. If we constantly feel the coming of Christmas as “stress with a deadline” than a season of preparing to receive joy, we’re missing the point. In fact, the gift giving should really be saved for Epiphany! What we want to do is treasure the gift of Jesus. Let every heart prepare him room!
“But we will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us, to reach even you. For we are not overextending ourselves, as though we did not reach you…” (2 Cor 10:13ff)
Paul talks a lot about boasting. As someone who struggles with pride (which is expressed more often in self depreciation than boasting per se) I find his statements about boasting confusing. Paul, in this passage, does boast in the area that God has given him influence. The famous verse later (“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” reference to Jer 9:24) seems to be a good rule – boast in the things God is doing that are great.
But what does that look like? It’s so easy to cross the line from “boasting in the Lord” to “boasting in the success of my ministry.”
Boasting with regard to the “area of influence God assigned to us” reminds me of a life principle I try (and often fail) to hold on to. Focus my energy on what I have influence over, and, (here’s the hard part) let go of the areas I don’t have influence over. Working in a church, there are many areas I do have influence over, and many areas I do not. Boasting in areas that I don’t have influence over would imply that at some point I tried to take or gain influence in these areas, perhaps extending myself outside of my lane. That never has gone well for me in the past.
By staying within my area of influence that God has assigned to me, I hope to reduce anxious feelings. Paul understood this. “And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28). Paul also speaks a lot about being anxious. If I want to, I could worry about all sorts of things that the church is not doing well in, but I think God is telling me through these verses to simply focus on the area he has placed me, and boast in the good work He is doing right there.
In past years I’ve taken to fasting from social media or listening to music in the car during lent. I don’t really do social media anymore these days (if you want to quit the facebook habit but still need to go to the site every once and a while for a group or some notifications I can’t recommend more “quiet facebook” – it basically blocks the news feed) so I don’t feel the need to “fast from social media” to draw closer to God. What I do need is more reflection in my life. More pausing to listen to God.
During Lent I try to ask myself “God, what are you saying to me?” I try of course to do this year round, but the season of Lent is a reminder nevertheless; an invitation to take a practical step in my life of faith.
So instead of fasting, instead of ‘giving up’ something for Lent, what if I got back to this blog thing as a tool to draw me closer to God. Sometimes it’s hard to reflect simply in prayer alone, and I’m not a fan of keeping a personal journal. It’s just not the tool that works best for me. Perhaps this tool (for all the millions of readers of my blog … /s) will help me reflect on what God is saying to me this season.
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.
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!
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:
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]
In my daily blog reading I ran into Issac Wardell’s followup post on the Bifrost Arts 2013 conference. Here you can find recordings of each of the conference talks relating to the themes of worship, community, and mercy in the life of the church.
David Bailey’s talk on “Contextual Creativity in Worship” caught my eye. His vision for music as a reconciliatory tool is uplifting. His humor on our denominational differences is refreshing. A couple key points:
He acknowledges that churches are incredibly diverse organizations, yet there can be unity through diversity. Indeed it is scriptural.
Aural culture vs. literacy culture. Not everybody learns the same way. We all have different educations, experiences, and learning styles. Yet the power of stories connect with everyone. Is my song selection is biased towards doctrine over response?
Hymns speed through a bunch of awesome doctrine at 1000 miles per hour. Wesley and Watts are master craftsmen at infusing congregational song with doctrine. This is great if you have studied the doctrine, read Romans, and know the tunes, but what about giving some time for the singer to digest and meditate on one point entirely? (skip to 37′ for his discourse on this.) I am often skeptical of the ‘retune’ choruses that Tomlin et. al. splice into hymns (Amazing Grace + ‘My chains fell of…’ is a classic example). Why mess with perfection? But Bailey made me see the value in these additions.
We have our denominational emphases: Evangelicals, the cross and personal salvation; Mainline, the kingdom of God and social justice; Baptists, the resurrection and the power of the Gospel over sin; Charismatic, the holy spirit; to name a few. But we have the Good News, and it includes all of these things. What are we forgetting in our own church contexts? We need to preach the whole gospel, not our Christian tradition’s preference of the Gospel.
David also runs an “equipping ministry,” Making A Melody:
Making a Melody is a ministry department of Artist In Christian Testimony International. We use music as a tool in the reconciliation process. Music is a great tool for connect people, cultures, and communties, creating shared experiences that can be a bridge for deeper relationships. We are an equipping ministry that provides resources and trainings for Christian communities that are commited to cultural diversity.
I was pleased to partner my church with four amazing groups for the launch of our 729 concert series. A contemporary worship leader, a renaissance vocal ensemble, a gospel choir, and a folk trio; we heard from all of these groups in just 4 months. We got a write-up in the local paper (pdf) (confession: I wrote said write-up), and broke even with income from ticket sales exceeding the honorariums we sent to the musicians. Alrighty! Attendance was good too. After a small first concert (~30 folks came out), the momentum started to pick up. In October there were 50-60 people in attendance, November’s Teen Challenge concert drew the most with ~80 people, and Ordinary Time completed the series with ~60. At this point I can confidently say that when we do concerts in the future, we have a solid base audience to build upon. I hope in the future series that these 60 regular attendees will bring friends and family who might not be willing to come to church on a Sunday morning, but would come out to hear an interesting performance. They also might be willing, in this context, to catch a glimpse of the gospel that they might have never heard before, or maybe heard but never understood. Here’s what I learned:
Wade Huggins taught me that the gospel is fun! we can sing and dance and clap our hands with all creation in praise.
Cambridge Chamber Singers taught me that the gospel is old. That this story did not begin even with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, but that God has been ordaining praise (some of the most ornate and glorious praise) since we began to write music down (and of course before that too!). It puts our feeble songs in perspective, and our stories in connection with the Church throughout the millennia.
Teen Challenge Choir taught me that the gospel is transformative. Here were a handful of guys, humble, honest, and real, proclaiming with song that God is “Mighty to Save”, and that “I am redeemed”. Their lives and stories reflect just that.
Ordinary Time taught me that the gospel is for me and for all. Mary’s song, written by guitarist Peter La Grand and sung so delicately and graciously by Jill McFadden, reminded me that through Mary, God exalts the humble and lifts up the lowly.
Did you attend the concerts? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!