Saturday, May 20, 2006

Service texts--Theme: Remaining in Christ (John 15)

Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways, King of the ages.
Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name?
For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed. (Revelation 3:15)
Your name is holy
What A friend we have in Jesus
Without Christ, we get mired in that old stagnant life of sin. But God’s gift is this: he takes our sin-dead lives and makes us alive in Christ. When we make our home in Christ, God works in us and through us, recreating us into the people he created us to be, doing the work he created us for. (Ephesians 2, The Message--sort of)

He who began a good work in you

Oh, how great is Your goodness, which You have laid up for those who fear,
revere, and worship You, goodness for those who trust and take refuge in You!
In the secret place of Your presence You hide them from harmful plots; You
shelter them from strife in Your pavilion. Blessed be the Lord! (Psalm 31)

You are my Hiding Place
O Blessed Spring

Guide me O Thou great Jehovah

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Service texts--Theme: Love overcomes evil

Scripture: 1 John 4: 7-21
A note about this week's topic: The scripture for this week talks about the source of love, and how it cast out fear; the title of the sermon is "How can we make our House a Home?" (The answer found in this text is, of course, love--that is, the perfect love of God found in Christ.) Henri Nouwen's book Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstacy brilliantly and deeply examines the difference between "the house of fear" and "the house of love." It's a book the profoundly affects me each time I read it, and I really ought to read it once a year just to hear, through Nouwen's words, God say again "fear not." Seriously, if you haven't read it, go get it. It is short, readable, pithy and inspiring.

Service Texts:
The Psalmist cries: Whom have I in heaven, but You? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. Though my heart and my body fail, God is the strength of my heart. Brothers and Sisters, we gather in Christ name to find strength in God; as he gave the Israelites their sustenance in the dessert, so we ask him to send his Holy Manna to strengthen and nurture us today. (Psalm 73)
Christians we have met to Worship
I lift my eyes up
Jesus, God’s Son, is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being; He holds everything together by what he says--powerful words! This is the same Jesus we can trust as our Savior, the Jesus who says “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
(Hebrews 1 and Matthew 28)

'Tis so Sweet to Trust in Jesus
Pass me not, O Gentle Savior
The River (Brian Doerksen)
Closing: He came down/We are Marching

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Service text--First Sunday in Lent (Theme - The deadly sin of pride)

A Voice calls in the Desert:

“Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for Him.”This is the first
Sunday of Lent, the season when we examine ourselves, letting the light of
Christ illuminate every corner of our lives. As Christ was called out into
the desert to prepare himself, to be tested, so we begin our own desert journey,
into a land where we cast off the things that hinder us so that we may hold on
to what matters most. Called to this journey together, we reflect,
repent, and commit ourselves once more to the mercy and love of God.
Sunday's Palms are Wednesday's Ashes
Our journey into the desert reminds us that we are not without
hope. Our only hope is in the Oasis of God’s love, offered through
Christ. We come as those sick to the Healer, as those thirsty to the
Fountain of Life, as souls in need and desolation to the King of Heaven, to the
gentle Comforter.

All who are thirsty
Come, ye Sinners

Pass me not, O Gentle Savior
During Lent, we find again our true hope—one found not in ourselves, but in
the steadfast love of God. For the one who hears the words of Christ and
puts them into practice builds a sure foundation.

Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

"Upbeat" Worship

Woe to the person who suggests to me that the music be more "upbeat." What they think is an innocuous remark or mild suggestion is going to get them an earful, or at least an extended discussion.

"Upbeat." Could there be a more amorphous, ambiguous, malleable term? What to one person is "upbeat" is "hokey" to another, "boring" to yet another "blasphemous" to still another. The way we react to music is intensely personal and thoroughly abstract, which makes it very difficult to give meaningful and specific descriptions.

Anyone who asks for music that is more "upbeat" is going to get this explanation, followed by a question: "What would make the music more upbeat?" Are they asking for a change in the style of accompaniment, the selection of songs, the instrumentation? More often than not, people fumble with their words, ultimately realizing that they don't have the perception or the language to be more specific.

But these questions miss a more fundamental question, which is: Why do we want church music to be uniformly "upbeat?" In response to a recent post on Out of Ur, Taylor Burton-Edwards (about whom I know nothing) describes his a period in his life of intense grief, during which most ministries and programs of his local church were unhelpful and meaningless to him. Moreover, most people weren't equipped to engage and walk beside him in that darkness:

Very few programs form people who can walk alongside a journey like this-- and that is because those programs are simply not designed to do this. Worship that is "happy clappy," always "upbeat" has no hope of doing this.
This is the fundamental reason why "upbeat" music is an inadequate standard, regardless of any agreed-upon parameters of what constitutes "upbeat" music. Music in church needs to give voice to our frailty and brokenness--and if we don't respond to that music, perhaps it is because we fail to grasp the true nature and extent of our weakness.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Service texts--Theme: Waiting on the Lord

(What's all this about then?)

(Lamentations 3)
I remember my affliction and my wandering
I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning: Great is your faithfulness.

Blessed Be The Name of the Lord
(Psalm 89)
Your love, God, is our song, and we’ll sing it! We’ll forever tell everyone how faithful you are. Your love has always been our lives' foundation, your fidelity has been the roof over our world

My life flows on
He is Exalted
(Psalm 40)
I patiently waited, LORD, for you to hear my prayer. You listened and pulled me from a lonely pit full of mud and mire. You let me stand on a rock with my feet firm, and you gave me a new song, a song of praise to you.

You are my hiding place
I lift my eyes up
Communion: There is a fountain filled with blood

Standing on the Promises of God

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Hymnody or Christian Rock?

Music in most American churches today usually come from one of two traditions: Hymnody or Rock and Roll. Many churches refer to these musical styles as "traditional" and "contemporary," but both of these are misnomers. Each is a living musical tradition, that comes from different historical and cultural roots.

Not being an expert in hymnodic history, I'll keep my comments generally about my own perceptions and experience. Typical characteristics of Hymns: strophic (one tune for many verses), designed for four-part choral singing, syllabic text-setting (each syllable gets its own note) with mostly simple rhythms, linguistically and theologically complex and developed (i.e., lots of words, poetically arranged with carefully developed theological messages).

Like many living musical traditions, the Hymn tradition has shown the remarkable ability to incorporate different musical traditions throughout its history: ancient folk tunes ("Let all things now living"), renaissance dance tunes ("A Mighty Fortress is our God"), Bar songs ("We praise the O God"), Gospel music ("Pass me Not O Gentle Savior"), and even elements of contemporary popular music (such as in "Here I am, Lord" or "Gather us in"). Yet hymns have kept most of their trademark identifiers (listed in the previous paragraphs); these other musical influence have not replaced hymnodic stylings, but have been adapted to fit them. Most importantly, new hymns continue to be written, and the best name for these would be "contemporary hymns." It's what makes hymnody a living tradition.

Rock/Popular music, its roots largely coming from African-American rhythms and blues harmonies, also has its own set of typical music characteristics and stylings. The kind of pop-based music most churches sing typically feature: syncopated rhythms, melodies with extensive use of repetition (an important musical device, and what makes the tunes "catchy"), shorter stanzas that are linguistically closer to today's vernacular speech. These songs are less rigid with metrical consistency--each verse may have a different number of syllables in each phrase, and each phrase has a different number of syllables, too. That is, many hymns can be categorized by a number meter (e.g. D), while many pop-based worship songs cannot (marked "Irregular").

Mark Allan Powell has recently compiled an Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music and was interviewed about it by Christianity Today. He makes some important comments about Christian Pop/Rock:
  • It is a musical tradition, and deserves as much attention as other kinds of church music.
  • The people who write it are sincere, faith-inspired, and incredibly diverse.
  • It's purpose is to express and embody Christian piety, in contrast to the hymnodic tradition's usual practice of expressing Christian theology. To quote the article:

Two aspects of faith are theology, which can be explained as matters of the head, and piety, which is matters of the heart. I usually call this the prose and poetry of faith. Theology is the prose, and we need good theology to know what it is we believe and know how to articulate what we believe.
Piety is the poetry of faith. In it, we pay less attention to precision than to honest expression. Contemporary Christian music needs to be theologically sound, but its real strength is in the realm of piety. It touches the heart, it's relational, it's empathetic and it's emotional in a way that is completely appropriate for a holistic understanding of faith.

What's helpful about understanding these things is that it allows us to appreciate each musical traditions for their respective strengths, removing us from judging church music solely on personal preference. It helps to free us from self-centeredness and toward communal identity, away from isolation and toward community.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Performance or Participation?

I practice music in two very different settings: my church, where I serve as the music director, and the UMKC Conservatory of music, from which I will be receiving my Master of Music in Composition (as soon as I finish my thesis). Both these worlds put unique and extremely different demands on me and the music I do.

The purpose of music at the conservatory is aesthetic excellence. The conservatory's aim is to develop musicians with technical and artistic skill--that is, the ability to conceptualize musical works of beauty, power, and depth, and the ability to execute those conceptions. Training, done right, is rigorous and plays no favorites--the best students excel, the worst students fail and drop out. It's a good thing, too: the biggest disservice the Conservatory could do is deceive students by allowing them to believe they are skilled musicians when they in fact are not. Such students need to be redirected to areas in which they will excel.

The purpose of music at church, however, cannot be the same. The reason we do anything at church is fundamentally about community. Why else would believers meet together? It is possible to pray, sing, read scripture--even prepare and consume bread and wine--on our own. But we meet together because God comes to us in community, when we are gathered together. The triune God himself is a communal being, having relationships between each person of the trinity. The purpose of music in church, then, is fundamentally communal.

Consequently, our goal for church music should be participation from everyone, for this is music's most powerful effects: many voices join to become one sound, all occupying the same space together. Where rigorous performance standard asks that only the best sing--for example, we audition for solos, and the best performer wins--our goal of communal worship invites everyone to participate.

Recently, this has been made very personal to me by relationships I have built with some in my church. One member of my choir suffered a stroke a few years ago, and decrease mobility has also been accompanied by decrease vocal strength and control. This person always loved to sing, and they sing in choir now, even though the vocal ability isn't what it used to be. Singing in choir is, for this person, a cathartic excercise, and a gesture of faith that one day their body will be restored. I wouldn't for the world have this person leave my choir, even though they often have trouble matching pitch. I love the way my choir sounds, not because of their musical precision, but because theirs is the sound of the Body of Christ working together.

But if the primary of church music is participation, not excellence, is there any pursuit of aesthetic goals at all? We don't want to do bad music, do we?

My current thinking is that there is a delicate, even precarious balance. I used to be very embarrased by bad church music. I'm still embarrassed by a lot of Christian pop music. Are cheap knockoffs the best that we can do in praise of Christ? Furthermore, if each member of Christ's Body has different gifts, shouldn't we encourage those with gifts other than music to pursue their true calling, not be misled into futile attempts at endeavors to which they are poorly suited?

Somehow, I have to find the right approach that encourages everyone to participate, but that urges everyone toward better music as well. As with all areas of Christian discipleship, there is always room to grow. The real problem isn't with bad music, it's with apathy. Whatever we do in Christ's name and for Christ's body, we should strive to do it well. But this is a journey together, where we do not leave even one out of a hundred behind.

As a trained musician, aesthetic excellence is a hard idol to let go, but ultimately, I believe, one that I must. An important witness for the church is the witness of weakness: that we do not rely on ourselves, but we confess readily our frailty and our reliance upon God's grace. Therefore, we don't shun brokenness or imperfection--we give thanks that in our weakness, Christ's power and grace is made evident. As with any activity in the church, when we sing, we should do our best in praise of Christ, but what's more important is we all do it together, expressing God's grace through our cooperative efforts, through our communal work.