Archive for November 2012

ADVENT IS NO TEASER

November 26, 2012

 Worshiping communities that observe the Christian Year calendar recognize Advent as the starting point, or beginning of the repeating celebrations.  Because it is a time that leads to the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus, it is tempting for us to simply see these weeks as a teaser for Christmas.  Though completely understandable in our over-marketed consumer culture, such an approach to the season of waiting misses important spiritual and theological aspects of Advent.  There is a joyous tension inherent in a holistic worship filled with opportunities for remembrance, present-awareness, and future-casting that stretches well beyond the time of a special service on Christmas Eve and the morning of opening presents on December 25.  Let us think about how we in worship leadership can help worshipers to confront the importance of each of these three time tenses.

Let me predicate these thoughts with a disclaimer that I know many worship ministry leaders have a seasonal schedule dictated to them by pastors, other church leaders, or by the attendance and time away patterns of the people they serve.  I get enough church bulletins and review enough websites to know there will be churches conducting full-out Christmas programs every weekend through December.  Perhaps another article will address the challenges of scheduling in special seasons.

 

Advent Remembrance

Advent is a season filled with re-telling the story of the First Coming, and remembering all that led up to the Nativity as well as the events surrounding the birth.  With songs, scripture, sermon and symbol, worshipers can be helped to consider the tension in the wait that must have been part of the lives of those living hundreds of years before the time of the birth, but who looked in faith for a coming Messiah.  Consider rich doses of psalms from ancient worship, and prophecies that promised what we know to have come to be.  Sing songs that shed light on those connections, and pray prayers filled with reflection on prayers answered and promises fulfilled.  Remembrance is likely the most self-evident time tense for Advent worship.

 

Advent Present

Emmanuel – God is with us.  Advent proclaims the truth of incarnation and can call attention to its immediacy in our lives as we recognize the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the forming of Christian community, and the present righteousness available to us as we face the battle in this dark world with evil spiritual forces.  Readings, songs, and symbols of light are rich with the message of His Presence.  Moving through the weeks of Advent we are reminded of our urgent immediate need of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.  It is an opportune time for Him to soften our hearts, break through our resistance and pride, and either transform or revive us to allow His light to shine in our living.  Through the power of His presence in the now, oh that we could live out our sung words:

Truly He taught us to love one another;

            His law is love and His Gospel is peace.

            Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother

            And in His Name all oppression shall cease.

            Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,

            Let all within us praise His holy Name!

O HOlY NIGHT

 

Can we lead our people to pray these words afresh?

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray

            Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today

                                                -O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM

 Advent Future

Parousia – an ancient Greek word that means arrival.   Used twenty-four times in the New Testament, the word refers to the Second Coming of Christ in seventeen of those instances.  The Advent season calls us to watch and wait (see Matthew 24).  Consider bringing attention to the spirit of anticipation in familiar Christmas and Advent hymns, and helping worshipers consider our own waiting for His return.  In our world that is filled with uncertainty and headlines that can give anxious thoughts, we nevertheless sing,

O come, O Dayspring, come and cheer

            Our spirits by thine advent here;

            And drive away the shades of night

            And pierce the clouds and bring us light

                                                -O COME, O COME, EMMANUEL

 As we tell the story of Jesus, at whatever pace, we proclaim His Lordship and look with certain hope to sing,

For lo, the days are hast’ning on,

            By prophets seen of old

            When with the ever circling years

            Shall come the time foretold;

            When the new heaven and earth shall own

            The prince of peace their King,

            And the whole world send back the song

            Which now the angels sing

-IT CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR

May your Advent season be filled with blessing and hope!

WITH THANKFUL HEARTS WE WORSHIP

November 19, 2012

 Thanksgiving – what a wonderful celebration!  Primarily observed in the U.S., the holiday is roughly traced to days of the pilgrims and a particularly good harvest in the 1620’s, followed later by some declarations of colonial governors, setting into motion a tradition that is welcomed in homes and institutions to present day.  While some other countries practice similar social gatherings, some with religious overtones, and others with strictly secular tones, none seem as permanently wedded to Thanksgiving celebration as the good ol’ U.S. of A.  Practiced annually since the 1600’s, Thanksgiving was declared a holiday by presidential order in 1863, and calendared to the forth Thursday in November by federal legislation in 1941.  It is fitting that families gather around a bountiful table meal (hopefully together), to offer thanks.  For those who lead in Christian worship regularly, this time of year presents a fertile opportunity to remind congregants of their duties to engage their families in a time of gathered worship.  We would do well to pray that such a time might spur mothers and fathers to a commitment to a more frequent period of humbling hearts in this spirit of giving thanks to the One Who is Giver, Provider, Sustainer.  For this is the very spirit of what worship is all about, gathered and separate.  He who worships is by definition grateful.

While the theologies of worship in different church traditions will certainly be characterized by their unique and diverse understandings of what occurs in worship, they, nevertheless, are all characterized by a spirit and direction of gratitude expressed to God in Christ.  Historic Christian worship liturgies are resplendent with expressions and spirit of gratitude.  The worshiper who attends the most formal of churches will surely often repeat words of gratitude, “Thanks be to God.”  The heart of a Eucharist service is understood to be thanksgiving.  The word, “Eucharist,” in fact, means thanksgiving, even though it is sometimes also used to refer to aspects and elements of a Eucharistic service.  Whether Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran, the intention to lift up grateful hearts is clearly central to gathered worship.

On the other end of the ecumenical spectrum, the charismatic congregation’s worship will likely emphasize a vital relationship with the Holy Spirit and the recovery of spiritual gifts, seeking to experience both in the present.  Those of the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition of worship find a key element of worship to be praise, whereby the Christian praises God for his character and for His deeds of salvation and healing.

Somewhere between we find other worship traditions and theologies.  Worship in Reformed churches often emphasizes the sovereign transcendence of God and the frailty and sinfulness of humans, centering worship in the Word which proclaims and enacts the Gospel.  Baptist worship, as other traditions, seeks to root worship in scripture, and often relies on specific texts of the day to become organizing principle, but also maintains a sensitivity to evangelistic emphases.  Non-denominational churches most often seem to worship loosely in the tradition of whatever faith tradition was formative to their current pastoral leadership.

In all of these cases, a centerpiece of worship is an attitude of gratitude.  Community ecumenical Thanksgiving Worship services are more prevalent than any other seasonal gathering of diverse Christian bodies.  Why?  I say it is because a clear centerpiece of  all Christian worship is this – We Are Thankful.

Have a Blessed Thanksgiving!

POWER OF MUSIC AT WORK IN MINISTRY AND MINISTRY AT WORK IN MUSIC

November 8, 2012

 Ministry expressed through music is very difficult to either define or describe.   One of the reasons I like to write is that it gives me time to gather thoughts before I commit them to the page or screen.  Sometimes when I am trying to share something verbally before a group or to another individual I struggle to find the right words to even articulate my thoughts and feelings, much less the actual efficacy of more ethereal realities such as art and spirit.  I know ministry happens, and I know it happens through music, but describing that ministry with any sense of accuracy can seem nearly impossible.  I think this gap between ministry observed or experienced, and ability to state or define the resultant effect may contribute to problems for us as church ministry leaders.  That seems to especially be the case in ministry through music.  Here are some thoughts:

  1. Some who struggle to articulate the effect of ministry in other ways resort to numerical reporting, which can leave an impression that the only result worth reporting is how many – how many decisions, how many in attendance, how many seemed “into it,” how many liked it, etc.  We have all fallen victim to this thinking that can so easily distort our perception of the Spirit at work in ministry and music.
  2.  Some resort to “feeling words” to the extent that sensation becomes the goal.  This kind of evaluation can whittle the work of the Spirit down to a big warm fuzzy, or to songs that make me cry.  A sweeping “B” section in a song can have an effect on my emotions, but big strings do not bring with them the Holy Spirit.
  3. Some avoid even trying to articulate that an effect occurs at all through music ministry, and simply “let the song speak for itself.”  While I understand something of this premise, it seems presumptive and misses opportunity to help non-musicians to appreciate music and ministry together in deeper ways.
  4. Having planned song selection and thought through the emotive characteristics of a service carefully, some leaders try to stimulate effect by pointing to an anticipated response by worshipers, often an emotional one.  This practice, as well, can seem to presume upon the Spirit’s work.

So how are we to articulate this work of music ministry in, through, and among us?  Seems to me some prerequisites help us.

  1. Recognize and declare that any work of ministry is a work of grace.  It is a gift of God.  As in all acts of spiritual worship, we pray with grateful hearts.
  2. Even when describing human response to the ministry and to the music, which are not synonymous but which may well be intertwined, confess the limitations of words in our articulation.  Note: this limitation is a wonderful opportunity to draw attention back to the power of music itself to step in where words fail, and what’s more to help other see how this art form can stir us to consider the mystery of grace.
  3. Rely upon the Word.  There is innate power in scripture.  If we have selected worship songs using biblical basis and theological filters, then biblical commentary may serve as the best interpreter of what the Spirit may be doing in our music ministry.
  4. Silence is golden.  There are times when simply allowing spiritual space for musical ministry to soak in by being still together are warranted.  In a culture that fills every moment of every day with noise, a moment of silence has a profound volume all its own.

Finally, we must recognize that our own experience is not the final word on worship’s effect.  When the sanctuary is half empty, the drummer decides to sleep in and so the new song has no rhythmic punch, and the best choir singers do not show up leaving the day’s anthem an enemic expression of praise, worship still happens.  Repetition of the God story, the Gospel of Jesus, is no less potent.

Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that He exists and that he rewards those that earnestly seek Him.  – Hebrews 11:6


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