Archive for November 2014

KEEPING TIME IN CHRISTIAN WORSHIP

November 30, 2014

Metronome  Sunday begins Advent. A very popular song from the late 1960’s went like this:

 Does anybody really know what time it is?
Does anybody really care?
If so I can’t imagine why
We’ve all got time enough to cry

The group Chicago recorded the hit song, Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?, written by keyboard player and lead vocalist, Robert Lamm. The top ten song called into question a kind of mindless obsession with the clock. Indeed, the frazzled lifestyle seems a far cry from the spirit of the psalmist who said, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24)

There is a kind of tyranny in the busy-ness of our world. Christians far too easily get caught up in a push to monetize all resources God has given us, or worse yet, forget that each moment is, in fact, a gift. We can easily find ourselves no longer using time, but rather being ruled by the clock. Sadly, many believers seem ill-equipped to deal with the conflicting worldviews that shape values associated with time. Dorothy Bass offers an illustration of Christians sitting around talking about how much work they have to accomplish through the weekend. Each one lamented they would be unable to join in Sunday worship because of their workload and deadlines. She says it hit her they were planning to break the command, “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.” She noted she could not imagine sitting around hatching plans to violate other commands, “I’m planning to take God’s name in vain;” “I’m planning to steal something;” “I’m planning to commit adultery.” Missing out on regular worship, however, seems to be an anticipated, almost “acceptable” sin. It strikes me that we even build our sanctuaries, our houses of worship, anticipating that at least half of our congregation(s) will not be present for regular gathered worship on any given Sunday. Hebrews 10:24-25 calls for better participation in regular repeated gatherings.  

The Bible shows us God’s care for time very early in its revelation of the grand story. By separating darkness and light He created day and night. Dorothy Bass says that in the hymn of Genesis 1:1 – 2:4, time’s first measure is counted out: “a first day, a second day, a third day,” and so forth. Continuing the musical metaphor she says, “On the beat, God creates; on the offbeat, God pauses to see that what has been created is good. Indeed, after the last beat, at the end of the sixth day on which God has created animals and human beings, the work is declared very good, and on the seventh day, the Sabbath, God rested. There is no pause, because all is pause.”[1] And yet, even in the Sabbath rest there is an understood pulse that keeps marking time.

A steady beat is the foundation of good rhythm. As a music leader I can tell you that making music gets tough when some of the music-makers lose their sense of rhythm. If someone gets the time signature wrong, drags the tempo, or drops a beat, whether it’s the director, organist, pianist, drummer, or singers, it becomes a challenge to stay together. Instead of serving as an encouraging inspiration, music can become a source of frustration and discouragement, rather quickly. We would say that it is important, especially for those leading the music, to keep time. But keeping time in worship has to do with much more than just making music, and the responsibility extends far beyond those up-fronters who give leadership.

Christian worship is built upon steady rhythmic pulse. There is a pulse in the alternation of Revelation and Response within the liturgy of worship, whether formal or informal. There is a pulse in the repeated steady beat of weekly worship, Sunday by Sunday. There is a pulse in the recurring cycle called the Christian year that pulses with the seasons that celebrate the major events of the Gospel story. Repeated patterns of regular worship together keep us in time with what God desires to do in the world. Measures of beats go together to form sections of the song, if you will, that remind us of what God has already done, while at once helping us anticipate what He will do in coming days. The season of Advent incorporates both.

Recognized as the beginning of the Christian Year, Advent prepares us for Christmas and also refreshes our anticipation of Christ’s return. The observance and celebration of Advent holds great opportunity for spiritual emphasis in our homes and church congregations through the reading of scriptures, the re-telling of the nativity, and through the imaginative anticipation of what is to come when Christ returns. More and more evangelical churches have an Advent wreath in their sanctuary and observe the four Sundays leading up to Christmas by the lighting of candles, enhanced by scripture readings and carol-singing. The same kinds of activities in the home can strengthen the message and anticipation of Christmas and may help our families understand that we are a part of God’s grand story. Leaders do well to encourage this kind of home worship by providing Advent worship guides for home, posting links for Christmas songs listening aids, as well as preparing special musical and social events for the church family and for outreach in their communities announcing Joy to the World! Maintaining and refreshing these traditions help us keep time in worship. Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come!

[1] Dorothy C. Bass Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (San Francisco: Josey-Bass 2000) 47.

PERFECT WORSHIP

November 25, 2014

The God We Worship_215442_lg If you try to envision perfect worship what does it look like? For the music leader it may include great music presented flawlessly. For the preaching pastor it may have a well-crafted dynamically delivered sermon at its center. In the minds of both of these leaders, perfect worship likely includes a visible and/or audible response from congregants to either element, whether thunderous applause, weaping and nashing of teeth, or an altar filled with confessional converts. For the average church member perfect worship might include the songs that inspire them, and/or the sermon that gets them fired up. If the worshiper is a thinker, the worship may challenge and motivate their thinking. If the worshiper thrives on inspirational passion, the worship may trigger either laughter, or tears, but either way the worship would effect them in such a way that their feelings are profoundly moved. For the formal liturgy worshiper, perfect worship likely includes smells and bells and is replete with rich symbolism. For the reformed worshiper, perfect worship is likely saturated with scripture reading at every turn. The revivalist worshiper likely describes perfect worship in terms of the response by worshipers at invitation time.

I grew up as a P.K. (preacher’s kid) and Mom was Church Organist, so I was in church nine months before I was born. I have attended church worship my whole life, and have studied on worship from a historical, liturgical, biblical, spiritual, musical, and theological perspective. Even though I grew up a little Baptist boy, went to a Baptist college and Baptist seminary, I have worshiped in churches of different faith traditions, and completed formal education with the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, which includes students from across many denominations. It was richly fascinating to share in learning to discover how different denominations viewed and experienced worship together. I have grown through and from those experiences, and find them richly rewarding. In fact, in the descriptions above of the different perspectives of what feels like perfect worship, I admit that there have probably been times that each of those has seemed just right to me. What is confusing is that even though I am one person my sensitivity changes. I have been responsive in different ways at different times. Imagine the wide experiential swing from the kind of worship setting of a Greek Orthodox church to the holy roller experience of an outdoor tent revival with a screamin’ preacher and screamin choir accompanied by loud drums and guitars you could hear thumping from blocks away. Yet at one time or another each of these has moved my spirit to praise and commune with God.

As human beings our sensibilities can shift and change from one day to the next, or from one season of life to the next. This teenage P.K. that loved jammin’ on his guitar and wondered why we didn’t do it in church more, turned out to be the seminary music student who was mesmerized by Gregoriant chant, and cried at the first rehearsal of Brahm’s Requiem because of the haunting effect the lush harmonies evoked in his spirit. That same guy as an adult with grown kids and grandkids now sometimes drives up to a little white country church and is often deeply moved by the selfless effort of a choir leader who works all week driving a tractor, teaching school, or running an office, and then comes to church to lead people in expressions of their worship through songs that they know, and sometimes even helps them stretch to learn a new songs to help freshen the experience. Perfect? Well……depends on the rubric.

One of the problems in all of the descriptions of “perfect worship” above is that they center primarily on the external aspects of corporate worship. One of the reasons I am less than enthused about the use of the term “worship leader” is that it is so readily assigned to our utilitarian functions as organizers, coordinators, and engineers of activities included as elements in our gathered worship experiences. The “worship leader” is the one who chooses, organizes, and then leads the songs we sing in worship. Even worse the term is often used for a performer who conveniently wears the term, although leading others to sing seems the furthest thing from his or her mind. Selecting or writing unsingable songs in unsingable keys that show off the voice of the performer, or are drowned out by the 90+ decibels of the band (or organ for that matter) can hardly be called leading people to worship as a corporate body. With shifting patterns of preferences, sensibilities, and artistic appreciation, how can we satisfy ourselves in worship?  Of course that is not at all the point of worship.   Our need is to return to the heart, and continue to rest our worship in Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.  He is the one true Worship Leader.  He sings with us (Hebrews 2:12) It is through Him we offer the sacrifice of praise (Heb 13:15).

“The real agent in all true worship is Jesus Christ.” (James B. Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace, InterVarsity Press, 1996, 17.)

We need Jesus, the true worship leader – the perfect human, the perfect type, the Second Adam, the perfect Lamb sacrifice, high priest, . When we pass from this life, and/or Jesus returns He will take us to be with Him in Heaven, the place of eternal worship!! Our entrance is dependent upon Him. Our praise will be rooted in Him. Our communion will take place in Him. In scripture we see solid evidence that we will sing through eternity. I do not know what kind of songs we will sing, or what style it will be, or if we will even have any sense of style (I doubt it), but I do know there in the presence of Jesus Christ our Lord it will be perfect.  I believe that even now when we gather with hearts humbled and open trusting Him, He sings with us, the Spirit gives words when we do not know what to pray, and in Jesus the worship is perfect.

 

When we all see Jesus we’ll sing and shout the victory!

 

“If the whole point of the gospel is forgiveness of sin, then why do we insist on continually parading these almost perfect lives in front of each other?”

–John Fischer in 12 Steps for the Recovering Pharise Bethany House Publishers 2000, 95

WILL YOUR WORSHIP MUSIC LAST A LIFETIME?

November 17, 2014

HPIM1336.JPG Through more than forty years of ministry I have had occasion to share music in assisted living residences where some tenants had lost much of their mental acuity. In my early years I was uncertain as to the value of singing in such environments, but over time grew to realize that not only did music sometimes brighten an otherwise obscure existence for some, but that at times it would be a hymn or a tune that held the final connections to the real world for some participants. I remember a resident who could not recite her own name, but who joined me in singing five verses of Amazing Grace and never missed a word or note. For me it was a heartwarming reminder that the Lord has final victory, and this dear saint would someday soon join the song of paradise, and was well prepared. What a rich joy has been mine to have been singing from days of childhood, singing Jesus Loves Me This I Know to teen years singing a contemporized version of For the Beauty of the Earth to anxious parental moments clinging to the prayer, I Need Thee Every Hour, to the Sunday after September 11, 2001, joining with congregation to declare the Psalm 90 paraphrase O God Our Help in Ages Past, to the more recent joy of joining brothers and sisters victoriously singing In Christ Alone.

Think about the songs you currently sing in congregational worship. Do you anticipate singing those songs throughout your life? Do you, or will you teach them to your children and your children’s children? When we send children to worship in another location and in another way, a la “kid’s style,” are we abdicating our responsibility to demonstrate worship singing, and teaching them songs that are meaningful to us? In our rush to sing the latest tune from the radio, are we forfeiting passing along the songs of our lives? I understand the arguments for some of these methods of ministering with children, and the removal of “distraction” from parents and other adults. (Personal note: I sit with grandchildren when I can….I get it!) I know that mumbling along with words they do not understand or coloring while sounds fall around their ears may seem meritless to our over-utilitarian mindsets. Could we not admit, though that many of us have certainly sung hymns we did not fully comprehend at the time, but that we grew into understanding as faith took root and matured. In my experience the taking root has itself often served as evidence of the Spirit’s work in transforming and renewing of mind and soul. I have noticed that pastors who quote song lyrics as poetry, most frequently reference the texts of hymns they have known from childhood, or have learned along the way.

It was a great honor and privilege last week to be a part of hosting a Leadership Luncheon for worship leaders and pastors featuring our friend and modern hymn writer, Keith Getty. Keith offered a refreshing and convicting reminder of the high value of the role that singing plays in our lives, in the Church universal, and in the local church body. He did not mince words in the challenge he laid before those who choose and lead songs in worship. I will not attempt to rehearse his talk or the interaction that followed other than perhaps a very general outline. If you are a pastor or worship music leader I highly recommend you seek out an opportunity to encounter the material, or even attend a Leadership event offered through Getty Music should you have such an opportunity. Three primary areas that Keith spoke about included: 1. God’s people learn their faith in large part through song. 2. The holy act of congregational singing is just that, holy. 3. Songs need to stick with people.

Reflecting on some of the music and singing that I hear in churches, conferences, and events, I confess a real ache for leaders to give more substantive lyrics couched in singable and memorable melodies for congregations to sing in ways that advance acts of worship and encourage communion with the holy, living God, not only for the given moment, but songs that, in fact, stick with us through our lives. If worship in our churches is characterized by throw-away music and cycles through songlists every five to eight years, what will our children sing in years to come? Could our impatience to develop a richer palate of material possibly even have played into the exodus of so many young adults who have left the church once they left their youth group? Will words flashed on screens in eight-unit increments stand the test of time to reside in our minds and ignite our passion into our most senior years, even our last days?

I am grateful for writers who are crafting new hymns and worship songs of sufficient maturity in theology, music, and poetic interest to call us to feast in their riches for years and generations to come.

WORSHIP IN WEAKNESS

November 3, 2014

joined handsJesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so.

Little ones to Him belong. They are weak but He is strong.

The hymn is not just for children. Maybe we teach it to children so they will have it in their arsenal through the storms and realities of life. Maybe we adults think of the song as a means of comforting children who are otherwise helpless and could have feelings of fear in the big bad world of ours. The fact is, though, that there are lots and lots of times as a grown man that I am weak. I confess that when I sense weakness often my first inclination is to try and self-correct. I think, “Surely I can change this situation by some means of self-transformation.” Worse yet, my motivation is frequently stoked by a fear that others will know I am weak. Forgive me, Lord. Nowhere in scripture is masking weakness a virtue. I have known the truth of scripture that states:

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (2 Cor 12:9)

I do not have to reflect long upon my life as a worshiper to recall that my most profound and memorable times of worship have been when I was acutely aware of weaknesses. From times of relational turmoil to times of physical challenge, I have known the Lord’s presence in my abject helpless state. Perhaps most challenging have been those times when it was my responsibility to stand up and lead out in worship through music, although, truth be known, total ineptness was the most dominant emotion of my spirit. But boast about my weaknesses? Hardly. In such moments my self-talk sometimes goes like this:

“Really? Lord, do you really want (and expect) me to call others to worship you in song when I am so washed out? I have no strength. Who would want to follow someone like me at a time like this?”

You will note, though, that the self-talk is still just that, talk of self. Pastors and Worship Music Leaders, let’s admit it; this is where it gets sticky. Self-pitty is not the same as dying to self that the power of Christ may dwell in me. As someone has said, it is at the end of self that I find God. At the end of self I am reminded that serving to help guide others in acts of worship is never about me. Sir, let us see Jesus! In reading liturgies of the Church over history I am struck when comparing the content of those historic liturgies from across the ages to much of our present-day focus in the evangelical church. Of course, our supreme example of what it is to be human, Jesus, set for us the model, while He fleshed out the very enactment of the timeless Gospel itself.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,[a] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,[b] being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)

I recently read some of the news regarding big name preachers whose empires are crashing. How are these empires built in the first place? When did being an entrepreneur become the measure of a spiritual leader? How does the image of “worship leader” get to be a picture that looks eerily like the rock star who is the very subject and object of the praise itself? The aura of these big personalities seems 180 degrees from the selfless weakness implied in the apostle’s letter to the church at Corinth.

I read with rapt interest the recent CHRISTIANITY TODAY interview with Austrailian pastor, Mark Sayers. The interview questions regarding the findings of his book are interesting, but the flashing neon sign for me was Sayers’ response to a an interview question. He said there was a breaking point in his leadership when he came to the proverbial end of himself. Suffering with a mental illness, a bipolar disorder, he says,

The way I had measured success was wrong. It wasn’t about retweets, book sales, and buzz. It was about dying to self in public. It was not about building a career or a name. It was about operating out of complete dependency upon God. He was far more interested in what he wanted to do in me than in what I was doing. So I became focused on passing the baton to others, stepping out of the way so others could flourish. I learned that Christian leadership in a shallow age had to depend on him. I learned that when God leads you through suffering and trial, and when you press into him, you return with spiritual authority.[1]

Perhaps we who worship in free church settings would do well to revisit some of those historic liturgies, prayers of confession, and most importantly, pray for illuminated reading of the Holy Word itself. Perhaps those of us who have leadership responsibility would do well to carefully review our songs and readings and sermons, and further evaluate the environment of worship itself. Maybe we should see if our ethos clearly rests in the strength of our sovereign Triune God, and not in our own creative genius, artistic talent, or entrepreneurial spirit.

Let the cross be our glory and the Lord be our song.

[1] Drew Dyck “Rising Above the Spectacle” in Christianity Today, Vol 58, No. 8, October 2014, pg. 52.


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