Lent Log Day 22: Liturgy is an Anchor to the Soul

It’s no surprise to readers of this blog that I believe that liturgy (which is to say any practices, actions, words, or habits that we do with regularity) has the power to shape our hearts. As our world is turned upside down, our thoughtful liturgical practices will help us remain connected to God and serve as an anchor in very turbulent waters.

We’re doing church virtually now – a “practice” that I’ve always resisted because I feel it shapes our hearts more as consumers or passive viewers than as active participants. But in God’s providence we’re all watching church on screens now, so what choice do we have but to make the most of it.

People have been overwhelmingly appreciative of our efforts to get things running smoothly online. Someone in my small group mentioned last night (via a zoom call, of course) how nice it has been to walk through the Church’s liturgy together. Even though it’s carried in a different vessel of the computer or tv screen, the content remains the same, and it’s to him very grounding and assuring. I couldn’t agree more. Through singing and reading scripture and praying together – especially repeated things – we see and read into them even deeper meaning than what we’ve seen before. I know this firsthand from allowing the liturgy to wash over me while walking through a divorce. The words became somehow more true, more meaningful, more real for me. This pandemic is in many ways similar – it’s easy to say “God is my refuge and strength” when all is well. Quite another proposition to say that during Coronavirus. It is my belief and my hope that by saying and praying such words from your heart when things are well, we can with God’s strength, say them the same way despite whatever is going on around us.

So in many ways, the church should continue doing what it always does – proclaiming Jesus as the way of life, health, peace, forgiveness, and the only true and lasting reality we’ll ever know. My job isn’t any harder. It’s just gotten a bit different.



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.



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!

Theology, Watches, Competing Liturgies, and why James K.A. Smith is a baller and a scholar.

Remember this post? In it I wanted to discuss the undeniable fact that apple stores look like and effectively function as religious shrines for the faithful consumer. Well 3 years and 3 iPhone models later, I guess its time to blog it up.


Theology of Space. Every place tells a story.

How do our public spaces tell stories about humans and what we desire? How do our churches tell us what is important in life, and where to direct our attention and focus during a worship service?

These and other questions make us realize that no space is a neutral space, and that every space both explicitly religious (a church) or not (an apple store) are pointing our hearts towards things to love (and in the same breath, worship).

Don’t believe me? Take a look at these pictures from the latest apple press conference (aka the iFeast day) and see for yourself…

apple1 Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 6.15.09 PM Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 6.08.14 PM Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 6.15.13 PM

And you thought it was a cult before… these iconic, monumental, yet strangely familiar spaces (there’s one on Boylston St. and one in the Natick mall) invite in the faithful apple junkie to gaze upon the newest objects of worship, bathed in light and set apart from the darkness or chaos from which you enter. In the center, the emblem and icon of the fruit – no Eden reference intended but I’ll bite 🙂 – reminds us who is behind all of this, and who will receive our offering when we purchase the things for $649 for the 16GB-model–without–a-2-year-contract-thank-you-very-much-t-mobile…

Competing Liturgies. Who (or what) do we love?

But the connection to religious doesn’t stop with their stores temples.

I’ve been reading James K.A. Smith’s fascinating analysis of competing liturgies in his book “Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation,” which makes 3 basic claims:

  1. Human beings are oriented and defined by desire (what we love).
  2. Human beings are influenced and shaped by practice (by what we do)
  3. Some practices or rituals communicate a specific vision of “the good life” (Smith categorizes these as “liturgies”), and compete for first place in our lives.

In short, the church is not the only liturgy in our life, and it is not even the loudest or most effective.

Smith then exegetes competing liturgies in our 21st century western culture. Consider his first analysis.

The layout of this temple has architectural echoes that hark back to medieval cathedrals – mammoth religious spaces that can absorb all kinds of  different religious activities all at one time. And so one might say that this religious building has a winding labyrthinth for contemplation, alongside of which are innumerable chapels devoted to various saints. As we wander the labyrinth in contemplation, preparing to enter one of the chapels, we’ll be struck by the rich iconography that lines the walls and interior spaces. Unlike the flattened depictions of saints one might find in stained-glass windows, here is an array of three-dimensional icons adorned in garb that – as with all iconography – inspires us to be imitators of these exemplars. These statues and icons embody for us concrete images of “the good life”. (Smith, 21)

If you haven’t guessed it by now, Smith is describing, albeit from a unique tongue-in-cheek perspective, any suburban mall. His evocative depiction of a “full worship experience” at the mall, complete with all the “smells and bells” needs to be read in full to be truly appreciated, as his depiction of the mall as a cathedral pilgrimage site makes unfamiliar the familiar, and makes us truly stop and think about just what kind of liturgy we’re competing against. As Smith states, The mall understands humans as desiring creatures.

I think we must admit that the marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly discerned that we are embodied, desiring creatures who’s being-in-the-world is governed by the imagination. Marketers have figured out the way to our heart because they “get it”: they rightly understand that, at root, we are erotic creatures–creatures who are oriented primarily by love and passion and desire. In sum, I think Victoria is in on Augustine’s secret. (Smith, 76)

The mall (or marketplace) is of particular interest considering Apple’s press coverage today. I think Apple’s brilliant marketing, design, and a knack for grabbing our hearts fits in perfectly with Smith’s analysis.  They even have their own saint…

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 6.19.50 PM
from the homepage at abcnews.com

These pictures tell a story. Combine that with insane apple fanaticism, monumental media attention, and a half a billion “followers” (apparently there are 500,000,000 iTunes subscribers), and you have a religion. A religion that tells us what is good, what we need, and what we’ll buy as soon as we are able to.


 Where do we go from here?

In part 2, “Desiring the Kingdom”  James K.A. Smith offers a counter for the church to paint the picture of “the good life” through our Christian practices of worship based around the teachings of Jesus. We cannot simply shun consumerism – we need to offer a replacement. The result of the fall was not that we stopped loving, but that we began loving the wrong things. It’s up to the church – the hands and feet of Jesus – to re-orient our desires to what they were intended for and the only thing that will bring ultimate fulfillment. Lord help us. More on that after I read part 2, and even more on that after I read his second book: “Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works“. Unfortunately I have to save up for my iWatch so it will be a while until I can afford paper books again.


Architecture of a liturgical worship service

CotC July 28

Last Sunday I lead worship at Church of the Cross, Boston. The worship leader and his family have moved away from Boston for dissertation work, and some leadership gaps have appeared – I am happy to help out!

The fun part for me is CotC uses liturgical worship for their corporate services. What does that mean? I’m glad you asked.

Continue reading “Architecture of a liturgical worship service”

David Bailey on Assimilation, Acculturation, and embracing the whole gospel

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.

Check out the full talk here: David Bailey – Contextual Creativity in Worship: Practices for Diverse Congregations

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.

Check it out here: http://www.makingamelody.com/mam-questions/

Messiaen is awesome.

At the beginning of his Traiie de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie,
the seven-volume treatise on which Messiaen worked from 1949
until his death, he discusses, with the support of quotations from the
work of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the difference between eternity and
time. Time is not a part of eternity, time and eternity are two absolutely
different measures of duration. Time is the measure of what is created,
eternity is God himself and is indivisible as God is indivisible. The
end of time, a vision of eternity through the suspension of musical time was Messiaen’s aim in the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, and in the works that immediately preceded it. A regular pulse draws the attention
of the listener to an awareness of. time, so the destruction of this
regularity by the addition of short time values, or, the creation of
rhythms from the addition of different durations was to provide the
contact between the listener and the eternal in order to illustrate the
theological concepts involved in Messiaen’s composition. It can be
argued that, however one organizes rhythm, it is impossible for music to
exist outside of time and that bringing about the ‘end.of musical time’
through irregular rhythms is simply an illusion. Much music, however,
depends on creating a sense of illiusion.  The listener—whether it is a
vision of a submerged cathedral in a Debussy Prelude, a primitive ritual
in Le Sacre du printemps, or simply the transporting of the listener from
the physical world to a world of some musical experience as would be the case with music with no programmatic or pictorial content. In a certain sense, the. illusion becomes the reality, if only for a short space
of time.
This is also the aim of liturgy arid liturgical music, and it is significant
that the musical traditions of the older Christian churches should
be ametrical in the sense of avoiding a sense of regular pulse, as for
example in Old Roman and Gregorian chant arid the liturgical polyphony
of the High Renaissance. It is natural that the shape of Gregorian
chant should form a constant basis of many of Messiaen’s melodies.
The use of the introit for-the-third mass of Christmas, Puer natus est
nobis, or the gradual Haec dies, from the Easter Mass in Regard de
I’Esprit de joie (no. 10 from Vingt regards sur I’Enfant-Jesus) for
instance, both freely transformed into his own modal language, are
appropriate because of the association with the Nativity in the first case
and with joy in the second, although the movement itself does not have
a specific Easter association. Many other examples occur in all periods
of his music.

Robert Sherlaw-Johnson, Rhythmic Technique and Symbolism in the Music of Olivier Messaien

Preparing for ministry

Gotta love those puritan architects

After almost a year of job searching and interviews around Boston, I’m excited to begin ministry as minister of worship and music at Trinitarian Congregational Church in Wayland, MA.  Today is my final meeting with the elder board, and if all goes according to plan I should be starting within a few weeks!  In my interviews and meetings, I was initially impressed with the quality of musicians at the church, and the passion from the search committee and pastors in both maintaining the rich protestant heritage of hymns and incorporating new styles of worship.  Like any church, there will be some resistance to change at TCC, but from the feedback I’ve heard when I lead back in July, the congregation is very receptive to developing and maturing their worship in creative ways, both new and old.  I hope that I can hear the many voices of the congregation, and also remember the things I’ve been studying and thinking about for the past few years as I begin forming the services, shaping the liturgy, and teaching the choir and bands how to lead others in worship.  I’m really excited to get my feet wet in real-life church work!  Here are a few things I’m thinking about going into it.  Do let me know if you resonate with any of them in the comments:

1. The Anglican church produces worship materials on their website which will be very helpful in forming liturgies over the year.  In a small footnote at the bottom of one document titled “introductory material” it states: “The social and economic needs of the city do not fit obviously into an annual cycle in the way that the rhythms of the agricultural year do, and the pace of urban change is so rapid that we have not devised a corresponding set of urban liturgies.”  TCC is a relatively ‘low-church’ (compared to some churches in New England) in that it does not form its liturgy around the standard church year (besides advent/christmas/holy week/easter).  In this context, what is the place for a yearly liturgical cycle?  Are church seasons worth implementing to give insight into the rhythm of christian life, and if so, are the resonant with 21st century thought?

2. In September the church will be launching a saturday evening service (I’m shooting to call it evensong).  How can we avoid the downfall of discontinuity that affects many churches that offer multiple styles?  How can we maintain an identity as one church, though we offer three separate services?  What can we do as the worship planning team to unify the services and avoid a generational split?  How can we make a parishioners decision to attend one particular service a decision of our devotion to God and not a decision of our consumerist have-it-my-way identity?

3. How can we create a holistic vision for worship and arts, not simply focusing on sunday (or saturday) worship, but to encourage worship in small groups in peoples homes, at other church gatherings and events, and the sharing of our other artistic gifts (visual arts/drama/poetry)

4.  How can we produce music and other arts events that outreach to the community and share the Gospel in new and creative ways with Christians and non believers alike?  A few ideas include: weekly artist gatherings (non-confessional), a prison choir ministry, an advent or christmas concert series.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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.