Archive for November 2013


November 29, 2013

Advent Candles unlit 2  I am happy to say that more and more evangelicals seem to be practicing aspects of the Christian year, especially this season of Advent.  This is fitting since it is the beginning of the cycle and because it seems more people are in a mode of contemplative spirit following the Thanksgiving holiday and in the early days of Christmas preparation.  Here are a few simple reminders of why the Advent season is so important to worship, and thoughts about how its observance can be effective within our church families

A Reminder of Time’s Significance

Don’t you just love being in a meeting, or with friends, and everybody ends up at some point checking their phone for messages?  There is a prevailing attitude in our day that seems to imply we can overcome time restrictions.  Technological advances like smartphones, rapid transit, and the internet give us the illusion that we can be anywhere at any time.  It is both fascinating and sad that while we have developed more and more technologies to give us control of our time, the truth is we seem to have less and less time to invest in the most important aspects of life.  It is as though the availability of so much at once becomes tyrannical as some become crippled to the point they seem they are nowhere in particular at a given time.

The Gospel at the center of Christian worship is rooted in events that have taken place in real time.  God made Himself known in time through certain events.  It is in the course of time that we see God act and thus come to know about Him.  He, who is timeless, the Eternal One, sends His only Son into time and space to live among us.  And so, there was a specific day on which Jesus was born, a specific moment that He took His first breath.  He learned a trade and spent time growing into favor with God and man.  The events that led to the cross, the Resurrection, Ascension, all took place in history.  All events that provided for our salvation took place in time.  Observing seasons like Advent serve to remind us of time’s significance, and the special nature of that which took place in the season we observe.


Christmas decorations, music, and commercial promotions in stores seem to happen earlier and earlier every year.  Retailers make no bones about depending on this time of year to fill their coffers sufficient to carry them through more lean seasons.  The blatant commercial emphasis seems all the more reason for parents, pastors, and worship leaders to set the tone of the Advent season into a biblical perspective with a clearly spiritual sensitivity.  Symbols of Advent, especially the Advent Wreath outlined with four candles focused around the white Christ candle can help to remind worshipers that while so much commercial hoopla is going on in stores, the real reason for the season has a spiritual core of eternal significance. Jesus came “in the fullness of time.”  Watching candles being lit while others remain in wait for their turn can open doors for significant spiritual conversation with children as to how God works in time.  It can aid we adults to consider our faith in God’s actions in keeping with His very nature as Everlasting Father whose love knows no end.  In our frantic world where everything knocks at our door at once, this season holds rich reminders of real joy found in moments reading to children, teaching or learning songs about a baby, or practicing our faith by giving to those in need knowing they cannot give in return, and therein finding real joy.

This season of the year is resplendent with opportunity.  People seem more nostalgic than other seasons, opening way to heighten understanding of Who holds time in His hand.  There is an openness to time-honored art forms like no other time of the year.  Choral and orchestral music pack concert halls and churches in this season.

In your home and church, will you help patiently lead in this special time of year as we read, sing, and pray, and engage in significant acts of Christian worship?

Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,

Born to set Thy people free

From our fears and sins release us

Let us find our rest in Thee

Israel’s strength and consolation

Hope of all the earth Thou art

Dear desire of every nation

Joy of every longing heart

                        –Charles Wesley


November 26, 2013

Give Thanks  The old hymn encourages us to “Count your blessings, name them one by one.”  Needless to say, it serves us well to pause and consider all the ways in which we have been blessed in our lives.  Thanksgiving season and services that include invitation to share things for which we are thankful can be positive exercises.  Such activity invites us to not only count, but announce individual blessings for which we are grateful.   Most of us could fill up a notebook with enumerated things in our lives for which we give thanks.  Having been a part of many Thanksgiving services over the years, I can think of some dependable pronouncements that are guaranteed to be part of any such service where blessings are counted and named “one by one.”  I also remember that in church staff meetings there was usually one staff member to wave the caution flag to remind us that there would be people present in any service for whom certain blessings might trigger sadness or contradiction.  It was not until I had matured some in ministry that I could appreciate such a tension.  It is likely true, for instance, that for some people family may not have been such a source of blessing as they experienced it, and therefore having others pronounce such may bring pain or sadness in that way.

It seems good that we open the lens a bit wider and consider a larger picture in this season of Thanksgiving, and especially as we facilitate and encourage times of worship in the season.  Of course, Thanksgiving services have roots in a variety of influences.  There is a clear patriotic element for Americans, hailing back to the early 1600’s, Plymouth Rock, and stories of pilgrims and Indians.  Giving thanks for country is most appropriate, as recognized by past presidents including the first, George Washington, and 74 years later by Abraham Lincoln, who is credited with the 1863 declaration standardizing the time of the celebration.   There is no question that we Americans have been blessed through the principles upon which our country was founded and through untold blessings of bounty by comparison to the rest of the world.

Lest our Thanksgiving season worship miss the central focus of Christian worship, we need the lens opened yet wider to help us remember that the story of each of our lives, the story of blessings we enjoy, the story of families, the story of country, all are captured up in a larger story of our Triune God.  He is our God, and we are His people, the sheep of His pasture.  Creation, the Fall, the Promise, the Birth, Atoning Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus, and Promised Return toward which we watch and wait, are parts of the story in which all other stories exist.  Christian worship reminds us of our orientation in this larger story.

It is one thing to count individual blessings, but Christian worship at its core helps us to live thankful (Eucharistic) lives.  The Dutch priest and author, Henri Nouwen, reminds us that a Eucharistic (thankful) life is always lived out in mission.

Forming a community with family and friends, building a body of love, shaping a new people of the resurrection:  all of this is not just so that we can live a life protected from the dark forces that dominate our world; it is, rather, to enable us to proclaim together to all people, young and old, white and black, poor and rich, that death does not have the last word, that hope is real and God is alive.       (Nouwen, With Burning Hearts, 110)

The GOSPEL reaches out to a lost world through the lives of thankful people living thankful (Eucharistic) lives.  Gathered worship reminds us, re-orients us through Word and Table (response) to the truth that we were created by the Giver whose love is so great that He gave all that we might have eternal life, and that our life would be made abundant as we know the joy of  living as givers.  We follow the way of Jesus, in light of His grace having provided what we could never provide for ourselves.

Give thanks with a grateful heart, give thanks to the Holy One.

Happy Thanksgiving living!


November 16, 2013

Rose Window  Lest I lose you musicians, who are the lion’s share of readers of this blog, my reference here to art certainly includes music.  In fact, music is likely where we find the most prominent misuses of art in gathered worship, and perpetuation of anthropocentric practices.

Two predominant misunderstandings seem to be prevalent in how we view, and thus engage with, art in gathered Sunday worship.  The first view is art as commodity.  Have you ever heard requests from your pastor or other leaders asking for high energy opening songs to “get people awake?”  In various ways have you felt it necessary to induce a more intimate mood just in time for the pastor to stand and preach?  While liturgical encounter clearly calls for an ebb and flow of corporate as well as personal expression, music as mood-inducement not only cheapens the art form itself, but frequently re-centralizes the environment on the individual selves.

In fact, invoking wholesale musical style shifts in order to make worship “more contemporary,” or “more traditional,” or supposedly appealing to one age group or another is really commercial in nature when you come right down to it, is it not?  Music, in this case, is being used as a commodity to reset the environmental table if you will.  The process of turning art into commodity places the artist in suspect roles of a most disingenuous posture.  Interestingly, numerous reports tell us that the younger worshipers that many church leaders say they are trying to connect with are much more concerned with authenticity than attempts at “giving them their music.”  This commonly misguided direction is most often the work of leaders who believe they have soothsayer powers to know what younger worshipers are looking to experience.  Thus, many evangelical churches’ platforms are manned either by young rockers playing for high dollars, or by boomer bands trying to mimic the latest Christian radio tunes.  When art becomes commerce, artists are bought and sold.  In the church setting this seems clearly contradictory to the Gospel that worship is to unveil.

Another predominant and closely related misunderstanding of art in worship has to do with the question of what the art and artist are intending to reveal.  Especially when we think of so-called “high art,” conceptions seem to imply that the art is to be freed from conventional responsibilities, thus its expressions are more luxury than service.  As Wheaton professor and author, Bruce Benson points out, this marginalizes art and makes it “something that is only for the artiste, as opposed to something for us all.”[1]  In this view the artist’s understood intention is to “express yourself.”  How is this more than idolatrous, since self is at its center?

Both of the above misunderstandings of art in worship have been brought into the church along with the value systems they represent.  Each appears to undermine the very purpose of Christian Worship, whereby rather than some fabricated external pumping up of the atmosphere by purchased art (secured for that very reason), worshipers are, instead, engaged by the Holy Spirit of the Living God through many means including revealed truth encountered through art and artists for whom this revelation is primary in both the original creation and expression of the art.  Likewise, rather than a romanticized indulgence of self-expression as an endgame, art and artists serve to aid community in joined worship, lifting high the One to Whom, for Whom, and about Whom that worship is expressed.

Benson helps us comprehend worship in its natural rhythm of “call and response.” He points us to ways that art participates in both sides of the rhythmic cadence.  Indeed, the design of sacred space, symbols with which such space is adorned, the musical landscape, the sung as well as spoken word, are all art forms that give voice to the call of the King, as well as the response of His people.  Drawing understanding from the function of icons in Eastern Orthodox worship, he calls preachers and leaders to function as icons, rather than mirrors.  Mirrors allow us only to see reflections of ourselves, whereas icons are intended to serve as windows through which we can see God.

Lord, help us never to lead people to gaze upon either themselves, or upon us.  Rather, help us to reveal truth that we may together gaze upon You in worship.

[1] Bruce Ellis Benson, Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship, 32.


November 4, 2013

singing lesson  The old adage states that practice makes perfect.  Musicians, of all people, should know that it takes repetition to train behavior into skill.  We have heard terms like “muscle memory” and “second nature” to describe conditions toward which we are aspiring in order to make musical performance possible.  We know something of what it takes to get there, namely “practice, practice, practice.”  There is no substitute for repetition.  Good pedagogy teaches us that the developmental process is accomplished step by step.  In music training we are stacking routine upon routine, concept upon concept through deliberate repetition.  Not every repetition is exciting or fun or even necessarily gratifying for either student or teacher.  The repetitions are, nevertheless, necessary to achieve the muscle memory and second nature condition toward which we are wanting to move.  Somehow brain – muscle – and innate aptitude connect and music sounds can be made by the trainee.

Any music teacher worth their salt would tell you that the end objective of music rehearsal is certainly much more than a mechanical regurgitation of mental, skeletal, muscular actions that make sounds that match a printed roadmap on a page that we call printed music.  Neither is the end goal a rote re-sounding/mimicking of material presented through recorded or live audio.  To the contrary, when these kinds of objectives seem to be the end goal, it is likely that either the student will quit, the teacher will be dismissed as ineffective, or the resultant music made will simply be heard as stale and lacking musicality.  Even when other mechanical techniques are employed to try and add on the missing component of musicality, the result usually still displays that there is a crucial ingredient missing.  Even those musical elements like phrasing and dynamics can feel mechanical.

So, what is missing?  In the best results of our music training, imaginative discovery and human expression are mysteriously ignited to engage.  Along the way of the training/rehearsing process, sparks of imaginative soul connections seem to fire somewhere in the chemistry of our humanity.  Neuroscientists and media ecologists, following natural science methodology, are likely to attribute it all to the human brain.  Musicologists generally focus more on the meaning of the music itself.  The romantic will more likely be satisfied to leave explanation of musical expression as resultant of stirring the human spirit.  The theologian must surely speak into the discussion biblical examples, instructions, and admonitions toward music-making as expression of praise and as means of ministry, as well as artistic gift.

As practitioners of theology, liturgy, and music, worship music ministers must help senior pastors, other church leaders, and congregations to understand the value and function of music in worship and ministry in the church.  Hearts are trained through a developmental process much like what we know of music training.  We must realize and help people face the truth that not every song every week gives us goosebumps, and Lord help us when that becomes our primary objective anyway.   Rather, we are training our hearts and minds in Godward direction.  Music serves in disciple-making, praise-offering, confession-bearing, assurance-declaring, Gospel- proclaiming, Word-revealing, prayer-wording, and missional-sending.  As pastoral leaders, careful attention needs to be given to what our repetitions are likely to foster among the worshipers we seek to lead.  Words that take root in worshipers’ minds and affections stirred through artistic expression need firm grounding in biblical adherence.

Along my own journey I have heard pastors and music leaders say, “We don’t want to just go through the motions.”  Like you, I know well what is being said here.  On the other hand, it seems important to recognize the word “just” as the problem.  It is not “just going through the motions.”  The practice of Christian worship very much IS, however, about going through the motions….over and over again.  We are practicing, moving toward “muscle memory” and helping worship as response and action to be “second nature.”  With the rhythm of worship being revelation and response, we need to practice listening prayerfully for revelation and practice offering worshipful response.  Somewhere along the line as we are practicing (going through) those motions, the Spirit illuminates our soul(s).  No cheap thrill, or momentary excitement can compare.  Like worship renewal, which such realization can engender, it is not something we achieve, but something for which we pray.  Meanwhile, it’s practice, practice, practice.

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