Archive for April 2014

WORSHIP THAT OVERCOMES “HELL IN A HANDBASKET”

April 28, 2014

hell in a handbasketSometimes when watching the evening news or when Cable TV is allowed to run as background noise in our home my wife or I, either one, will sometimes make editorial note, “the world is headed to hell in a handbasket.”  Easily adjusted to cover our nation, state, or town the alliterative locution of unclear origin (Wikipedia) expresses what seems to be certain doom for that to which it is applied.  In days of wide cultural shifts away from traditional values and mores that adjust to allow for technological changes that outpace the human mind’s capacity to embrace, and/or moral contemplation to surmise.   Whether we are watching displays of impenetrable political impasse, disastrous results of human folly, or expanding horizons of evil activity, whether motivated by religious terror or basic greed, the fact is that sometimes it appears that everything is headed in an unstoppable downward spiral.  I do catch myself at times asking why the 24-hour-a-day display of so much bad stuff converts into a multi-billion dollar enterprise.  Then I am reminded that I am watching it myself.  It sells because we watch.  And it becomes addicting.  Maybe we need an intervention.  Oh wait!  Is this a role of the Church?

Historic Christian worship includes prayers of intercession.  Jesus taught his disciples to pray for the coming of the Kingdom.  He prayed for the unity of His people, even from one generation to another.  On the cross he prayed for those that stood around, even those responsible for his sufferings.  His teachings included reminders to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us.  The Apostle Paul, in his instruction to Timothy about the ordering of public worship, noted needs to express in prayer (1 Timothy 2:1-4).  It is evident through the New Testament that Christians are to pray for an environment in which the Gospel message might be made known.  The Church has exercised intercessory prayer as a major undertaking of Lord’s Day worship through its history.  The ancient church and church of the Reformation engaged in intercessory prayer as a hallmark of Christian activity in the world.

Are we missing our mark in public worship when we give scant attention to such historic actions as the reading of scriptures (not just preaching from them, but actually reading the Word as worship), and engaging in intercessory prayer?  As worshiping musicians are we searching for songs that help us pray the prayers of the people, express concern for peaceable surroundings, and lift up a lost and dying world before a Triumphant Savior?  Do we help to couch worship singing in such a way as to pronounce Good News in our “going to hell in a handbasket” world?  Do pastors offer clear call to God’s people to act in an intercessory manner in their worship, rather than becoming obsessed with personal pleasure experiences of emotional release?

Formal liturgical worship environments include prescription for the intercessory component of Christian worship in the tradition of historic Church figures from Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian throughout centuries of worship practice.  In free church tradition and revivalist practice such engagement is no less necessary for Christ-following worshipers.  In fact, the very nature of revival and renewal would seem to include ongoing emphasis upon the need for pleas to heaven for peaceful communities, Holy Spirit conviction that leads to salvation of our neighbors, friends, and family, and worship that reminds Christians (“little Christs”) of their own need to renew vows and deepen devotion to Word and deed practice.

I am convinced that people are hungry for spiritual authenticity that seeks to center worship in Triune God, and prompts His Church to actively love Him, and to love their neighbors as themselves.

WORSHIP IN TRIUMPHANT TONES — IN LIGHT OF RESURRECTION

April 22, 2014

Church at sunrise  Sunday was Resurrection Day – Easter Sunday, and what a beautifully glorious day it was in Middle Tennessee.  We got to worship with our own church family, and then join with the church of one of our grown “kids.”  Grandchildren were all “dressed to the nines” (whatever that means) in Easter attire.  Our immediate family was able to be together Sunday afternoon and into the evening.  It was picture perfect, with grandchildren playing in the yard, and adults sitting and visiting on the back porch and patio.  Pictures from the day provided for good Facebook fodder, and replies from friends and especially fellow grandparents were in accordance with what you would hope pictures of family would bring.  Thanks facebook friends.  I loved everything about Easter Sunday this year.

I feel certain that for most of you who regularly read this blog, it goes without saying that the Norman Rockwell-esque idea of an Easter Sunday, while wonderful to experience in many ways, is not the essence of the victorious tone of Sunday’s worship.  Lest you think that is the only distraction we might have from the real essence of Christian worship on what arguably should be considered the highest of Sundays of the Church Year, consider this.  As I have had occasion to ask different people about Sunday’s worship in their church, I have heard more about how many were present, about exciting music, about unique sermons, and even about things “coming off without a hitch.”  I am aware that a wide variety of dynamics likely go into these replies.  I also recognize that I tend toward hyper-sensitivity to our (me included) mundane perception of what takes place in our gathered worship.  It concerns me, however, that the surface topics that tend to occupy our areas of response to one another regarding our worship are likely indicative of continual centering of our worship in our own experience, rather than in the high holy praise of God that resonates His Gospel story, and resounds with an unmistakable tone of definitive victory.

At its root, worship in light of the Resurrection of Jesus is victory.  The victory is so much more than a jubilant experience of a singular moment in time.  Rather than dragging God’ eternal victory into something we can experience in our “special moment,” Christian worship helps us recognize that all of human life is lived in light of resurrection power, set in the midst of God’s eternal story, which includes His ultimate eternal victory celebration.  Whether we are in worship on a “regular Sunday,” a high holy day, a special occasion of worship, or whatever, we worship in light of resurrection power. Therefore, while we are fighting life’s battle with and in darkness, worship reminds us that Christ is ultimate victor!  He has already won!  In the cosmos, Jesus is Lord!  In time’s continuum, Jesus is Lord!  Our churches, as bride of Christ belong to the Victor!  Whatever we are facing, Jesus is Lord!  Of course, this does not mean flippant, happy – clappy worship, but rather sets an undertone that should always be not far from the surface in our worship environments and expression.  Observe, the empty cross as one visible example.  There are so many needs and our worship reminds us of Whose we are, and victory that is His.

My thoughts turn to the hard reality of numerous challenges in lives of people that I know and love.  Worship ministers whose spouses are battling cancer and other physical maladies.  Other ministers who have serious health issues themselves.  The passing of loved ones, some having lived good long lives and others much earlier than anticipated.  I think of a former work colleague for whom a pending delivery of a new baby will be followed by immediate and lasting challenges of raising a down syndrome child.  I am burdened for worship pastors who struggle with questions about their viability as minister-musicians, because they have been dismissed from churches  are currently without places of service for their ministry that will support their families, and may struggle with lingering doubt.  In all of these circumstances, Jesus is Lord!  Resurrection power is at work in the battle.  Note I am surely not saying anything like, “don’t worry, everything’s going to go like you want.”  I am saying that in worship we reaffirm that our God is sovereign, and our faith and trust is rested in Him, and in the finished work of Jesus.  Gospel saturates the whole of life and living, and even declares clear victory over death and grave.  I hope you got to sing that more than once last Sunday.

What if every Sunday was Resurrection Sunday?  Oh wait….it is!  We know that fact from our five-year-olds Sunday School class.  That Gospel truth has not changed.  Our respect for Sunday may have changed as we give in to soccerdom, traveling baseball teams, and the like, but the last I checked Sunday remains what New Testament writers called the eighth day, the first day of the week, the day on which Jesus rose from the dead.  So worship leaders, wise up, please.  This is a worship issue.  It has nothing to do with how “well” your songset went.  The number of worshipers may speak of a spiritual condition among the congregation, but be assured and assuring, the Gospel is alive and well!  The end of the story has not changed, nor will it change!

How can you help as a worship music leader?  Keep reminding them with sensitive spirit.  In singing worship “we are reminded of the continuing nature of our singing as response to the nature and presence of God.  We are presented with the theme of His deliverance, and are reminded of the victorious tone that must be sounded as an ever-recurring dynamic of our singing in theocentric worship.”[1]

Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!

            Sing ye heav’ns and earth reply, Alleluia!

 

[1] Excerpt From: Paul B. Clark, Jr. “Tune My Heart To Sing Thy Grace.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/PCA0B.l

 

 

SUNDAY!!

April 20, 2014

Justin Martyr“We assemble together on Sunday, because it is the first day; on which God transformed darkness and matter, and made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead on that day; for they crucified him the day before Saturday; and the day after Saturday, which is Sunday, he appeared to his apostles and disciples, and taught them these things which we have presented to you also for your consideration.”

–Justin Martyr First Apology, 67.

Excerpt From: Paul B. Clark, Jr. “Tune My Heart To Sing Thy Grace.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/PCA0B.l

 

“Christian worship as a means of edification, communion, and witness of the body of Christ is best observed on Sunday, providing reminder that this is the first day, the day of Resurrection, the day of gathering, and the Lord’s Day which reminds us to anticipate the coming parousia. We believe that our Baptist ecclesiology is in much need of strengthening at these points, but it is these points as well that offer opportunity for just such strengthening to occur.”

Excerpt From: Paul B. Clark, Jr. “Tune My Heart To Sing Thy Grace.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/PCA0B.l

 

 

Love and Grief My Heart Dividing

April 18, 2014

Isaac_WattsAs part of my Good Friday morning meditation today I read hymns and spiritual song texts from the Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of the Rev. Isaac Watts, D.D.  As often seems the case, a line jumped out at me.  On this very contemplative day I was drawn to the line, “Love and grief my heart dividing.”  Worship, whether in solitude or community, so often holds in tension such very real strange bedfellows as love and grief.  This makes some spiritual sense in that Christ is our All in All, and we are in Christ.  It seems to follow then that love and grief lay side by side in the same residence.  Thus the tears with which we might bathe his feet are tears of worship, whether in memorial sadness or overwhelmed response to such love as this.  See the poem below and join in “sweet moments before the cross” on this Good Friday.  All praise to God for the finished work of Christ our Lord.

Sweet the moments, rich in blessing,
Which before the cross I spend;
Life and health, and peace possessing,
From the sinner’s dying Friend.
Truly blessed is this station,
Low before his cross to lie;
While I see divine compassion
Beaming in his gracious eye.
Love and grief my heart dividing,
With my tears his feet I’ll bathe;
Constant still, in faith abiding,
Life deriving from his death.
May I still enjoy this feeling,
In all need to Jesus go;
Prove his wounds each day more healing,
And himself more fully know.
— Robinson in “Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Isaac Watts”

Worship by the Numbers

April 14, 2014

Church Signs Easter

Easter Sunday — High Attendance Day?

Over the years I have seen some churches display evidence that they would do just about anything to get people to attend weekly services.  Worst of all, when just looking at attendance numbers, much of our push includes trying to get our own members to come to church.  This says much about church discipline, the kind of disciples we are making, and other serious ecclesiastical problems that are too comprehensive for a blog-post.  Promotional campaigns and church signs range from the sublime to the ridiculous with a seeming preponderance toward the latter.  For decades churches have programmed celebrities, advertised special benefits, and of course modernized their music to do what Whoopee Goldberg said in the movie, Sister Act, and “put butts in the seats” (pardon the crudeness).  George Barna, Lifeway Christian Research department and other research operatives have invested millions in the study and monitoring of all things spiritual, Christian, and church related.  Since quantitative analysis provides the most accessible means of evaluating what might be taking place in the spiritual climate of communities, nations, and/or the whole world, then it is natural for us to seek to quantify most things related to worship.  First on that list of things would be worship attendance.  Ask any pastor, worship leader, or other responsible churchman how their church is doing, and the answers you will receive are likely to have to do with numbers.  For certain in my denomination most will, in fact, go there right off the bat.  My conversations with church leaders often sound like this:

Me:  “How is your church doing these days?”

Leader:  “Well, we started the new year off in a slump, but we have been picking up in recent weeks.”

Me:  “And what does ‘up’ mean for your church these days?”

Leader:  “We are doing good to hit ‘______’ (attendance number) on a good Sunday.”

As I am sure you know, it seems to always be about the numbers.  Admittedly, I am not that guy, and not being a big numbers guy in a big numbers world brings problems.  I trust there is room for both – quantitative and qualitative emphasis.  I am definitely more prone to inquire toward the intangibles like spirit, unity, or apparent engagement in worship.  Those kinds of questions are often met with less specificity, which is of course their nature, but I pray they prod a broader spectrum of thinking.  Even questions of congregational participation in worship acts like singing, listening, scripture reading, etc.  can leave us with little more than quantity to offer answers.  While we would all hopefully state emphatically that how many people have their hands raised during worship singing is no indication of a level of worship, there is little doubt that such activity denotes some kind of evaluative impression in our minds.

 

Granted, full house carries a certain level of excitement.  Feelings are stirred, and can we admit, we leaders feel “successful” when the room is full.  Let us be reminded that while man looks on the outer appearance, including activity and even simple attendance, God looks on the heart.  Sometimes a “down Sunday” is a proverbial gut check.  Who are we here to worship really?  What determines the “success” of worship?  Is the Gospel message less relevant to those who are present just because others are not?  Likewise, an “up Sunday” might have similar assessments.  Is worship better because there are more here?  Is God really any less magnified?

Whether numbers are up or numbers are down, God reigns.  His command to love the Lord, our God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves is not predicated on quantity.  Our commission to go into all the world, making disciples of every nation, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, is not only a direction for diligent missionary living, but also reminds us that we are in His constant presence without which we are indeed powerless.  It is to Him that all authority in heaven and earth has been given.

Perhaps during Holy Week our churches will be at their fullest point of the year.  May our rejoicing rest with great certainty in the Victorious Jesus!  Certainly we all pray that many will hear and respond to the Gospel message in this Easter season.  Leaders, may we aid disciples by keeping the attention on that Gospel, and not on numbers, attendance excitement, or any other distraction.  Christian worshipers have responsibility to declare His praise in light of the glorious Gospel message.  As fellow sinners saved by the magnificent grace of our Lord, saved through His finished work, let us resound with the clear tone of victory in Jesus, and declare that it is In Christ Alone that we stand, where sins chains have dropped and we are free with no guilt in life, no fear in death.  Sing it!  Proclaim it!   

 

THE STRANGE PRACTICE OF SINGING AT THE CROSS

April 7, 2014

CrossWho steps up to an execution sight and sings?  After all, Ravi Zacharias points us to consider just how humiliating the cross really was; humiliating and excruciating.  In fact, he notes the word, “excruciating” comes from the Latin: ex cruciatus.  Crucifixion on the cross is the very definition of pain.  To a world given to comfort at all costs, we surely seem like wacko’s at this season of the year when we place so much attention on the cross.  How does our marketing team overcome this obstacle?  What is appealing about coming to a cross?  Seems to me that too often churches are obsessed with perceived “success.”  Trevin Wax recently posted a stark reminder by quoting a genuine way of the cross follower, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success. It is not ideas or opinions which decide, but deeds. Success alone justifies wrongs done….  

The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.

In his best selling book, Radical, David Platt confronts us with the Gospel’s call to follow the way of the cross.  A tough message for all believers, it seems a particularly challenging charge to deliver to American evangelicals in our day.  We have become use to worship that fits the way we want it, lyrics sung to the kind of music we like to hear.  Our singing tends to be about us.  Worship singing tends to be what Pete Ward classifies as reflexive, focusing on the worshiper’s experience of intimacy in the present moment more than on the historic events that bring us salvation’s truth.  While there is good reason to celebrate personal acceptance by faith in salvation’s message, and the moment we, like John Wesley, had our “heart strangely warmed,” the great truth we proclaim is the finished work of Christ.  This is an historic fact.

In its best observance the season of Lent ushers us to the cross and prepares us for its scandalous truth that will confront us in our sinfulness and at once invite us to accept its victory, an unspeakable gift of God’s grace.  Here the unbeliever can find salvation’s claims.  Here believers can reaffirm faith, and be renewed in God’s grand story where we take up our cross and follow Him.  Singing and retelling the story, let us embrace the cross.  Might I ask you to consider renewed dedication to:

  1. Be unafraid to display its shame in our singing
  2. Be unashamed to reveal its message in our singing
  3. Be bold to proclaim its victory in our singing
  4. Celebrate your own deliverance rooted in what Christ has done, and sing in that spirit of praise that points others to see Him

There are numerous songs of all styles that aid our worship in the season of Lent.  As we move toward Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Good Friday, and toward glorious Resurrection Sunday, let us sing our faith in ways that encourage worshipers to look upon the acts of the Savior, and indeed upon the Savior Himself.  Let us take care not to park our attention yet again upon ourselves, even ourselves worshiping, but instead, purposefully point our attention to the nature and character of our Lord, and see the saving acts that reveal that nature.  Perhaps, rather than feeling good about ourselves as we are, we might come to the cross and confront our proneness to wander, and repent afresh to faithfully follow our Savior.  Maybe we need to plan opportunities to sing more in our worship during this season.  Consider planning for worship singing before and after the spoken Word, and/or before and after observance of the Table including invitational response – altar calls.  Certainly the list of songs is rich with worship expression.  What are some to be sung in your setting?  Here are just a few likely to be sung in the Baptist world:

Songs

Beautiful Savior
Behold the Lamb
Communion Hymn
Fairest Lord Jesus
God So Loved the World
Hallelujah! What a Savior
Jesus Paid It All
Lamb of Glory
Lamb of God
Lift High the Name of Jesus
O Sacred Head Now Wounded
The Power of the Cross
When I Survey
Worthy Is the Lamb

Testimonial Songs in Light of His Work

Amazing Love
And Can It Be?
Before the Throne of God Above
It Is Well with My Soul
Jesus! What a Friend for Sinners

 

Prayer Before Singing 
A song is a beautiful thing!
Voices join in full-throated melody,
And lift to blend in glorious harmony,
Men’s hearts are moved, e’en lifted to ecstasy
With a song;
For a song is a beautiful thing.
 
But when I sing: Lord, let it not be for this alone,
Lest fruitless I be when day is done;
Touch Thou my lips,
Thy beauty let me see,
And fill my heart with love eternally,
That men may come to know and adore Thee;
Lord, this prayer I bring, Lord, for Thee I sing!
–Don Hustad, ©1959

Singing Worship as One

April 2, 2014

Singing WorshipI like for everyone to get along.  Well, that is a bit problematic since I utilize music as expression of worship and ministry.  And so far I have not found the music for worship that everyone appreciates.  I have not always been completely honest about this position either.  There have been times that I even made statements like, “I do not care what complaining people think, or whether they like our music or not.”  They just need to get their hearts right.”  Note the divisive tone in the spirit of such an attitude.  Not only was the attitude spiritually unsound, but it really was not true.  In fact, I cared very much what people thought, and at some level of consciousness wanted everyone to like the music I was planning for worship.  At the same time, when I plan for worship, I am keenly aware of certain standards learned over years of training and influence of respected teachers and others.  What’s more, my own preferences are, no doubt, a combination of personal impulses and genetic art (and heart) language that has then been shaped through that learning.  So, the desire for people to like the worship music may run head-on into those personal impulses and the shaping and learning fashioned by education and experience.  What is a musician-minister to do?   Perhaps oneness in worship will not be fashioned by a common acceptance of musical material, as such, at all.  And yet, scripture indicates God’s pleasure in unity of His people.

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore.

            –Psalm 133:1-3

The psalm resonates with a spirit for which we long in gathered worship.  It is critical for Christian worshipers, beginning with leaders, to be reminded over and again that unity is not of our making.  Note in verse 3, the Lord has commanded the blessing.  The unity which escapes us when we seek to build it upon ourselves, especially in such things as mutual tastes, common dispositions and affinities, etc., can be found only in the One in Whom our worship rests.  The Triune God enacts perfect worship in Father-Son-Spirit communion of Oneness.  Oh to be like Him!  Make us one, Lord.  Make us one.

This week I attended the Baptist Church Music Conference in Dallas.  The theme selected for the conference was “The Power of One: Empowering Unity Through Worship.”  Note that it says “through worship,” and not through music.  Even though the conference was, in fact, a music conference and all the plenary sessions included musical presentations and participative music-making opportunities, and breakout sessions dealt largely with music-related topics, there was recognition that unity would not be found in music, but rather in worship.  As such, the focus is not the worship itself, but rather in the One we worship.

How good it has been to be with brothers and sisters from Baptist churches across many states, and even some foreign countries, and to share in the experience of music-hearing, and music-making.   Through gathered worship in Word and song, conference sessions, table conversations, and prayerful meditating I have been freshly reminded of the impossibility for unity in the body of Christ except that unity be rooted solely in the Husband of the Bride, the Head of the Church, Christ Jesus Himself.  Our singing does not have the power to unify us, but rather the Spirit alone can unify us in Christ, including our singing.

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling— one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  Ephesians 4:4-6

In this season of Lent it is good to reflect upon all aspects of life, and consider needs for confession and surrender.  Jesus prayed for our oneness:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.  –John 17:20-23


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