Friday, December 17, 2010

Mavis Staples: The Devil Doesn't Have Any Music

“Why should the devil have all the good tunes?” Gospel and R&B legend Mavis Staples plays off that often (mis)quoted, often (mis)attributed line in a profile/interview slated for the February issue of Christianity Today.

“The Devil doesn’t have any music,” Staples says flatly. “Ever since we were young kids, we sang songs that we thought of as positive music. Some of them were gospel songs. And some of them were message songs like “Long Walk to D.C.” or “For What It’s Worth,” songs that reflected the times we lived in. They were all true songs, you know. We just sang songs about the truth. And it seemed like people always wanted to hear those songs.”

The profile, by veteran music critic Andy Whitman, is worth reading. But you'll have to wait until February. In the mean time, think about her comments. Hyperbolic or not, they nudge me toward these ruminations:

Music is God’s. He embedded it into his creation. Like other aspects of his creation, it gives us glimpses of his character. The ancients could talk about “the music of the spheres,” alluding to the “harmony” that was demonstrated by the perfect working of the heavens. Music is rooted in the handiwork of the Creator. Although cultures adapt and elaborate them, the elements of music are part of the natural revelation of God.

If the devil uses music, it is as a perversion of God’s creation. It becomes a false music—full of false notes and false ideas. Is it just me, or is it true that the music most likely to celebrate brutality toward women and flaunt sex as simple gratification is also the least tuneful music?

The believing musician who wants to serve God is not a priori unable to employ any style or genre of music. What bars us from some music is its falsity. Falsity shows up in various ways: superficial emotion, for example, or flash without substance. Authenticity is also known in many ways: tunes, texts, and tempos that reinforce each other; embodiment of genuine human struggle; celebration of human love and goodness.

So if it sometimes seems that the devil has all the good tunes, to paraphrase Arthur Holmes (with a hat tip to St. Augustine), perhaps all music is God’s music—if it be authentic music.

* * *

Footnote: That famous quip, while often attributed to Martin Luther or John Wesley, was likely spoken by 19th-century hymn writer Rowland Hill in a sermon delivered in London in 1844. It is often misquoted by substituting “music” for “tunes.” Blame Larry Norman.

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Does the vindictiveness of the last verse ruin Psalm 137?

Eduard Bendemann "The
Sorrowful Jews in Exile," 1832
I always look forward to the Sundays when we have a Scripture reading about the Babylonian exile. Such lessons allow me to drag from my music files one of my favorite opera choruses, Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate from Verdi’s Nabucco. I know my choir loves to sing that song. (Listen here.)

On Sundays when I don’t have the choir forces for Va, pensiero, I plan to fall back on William Billings’s round/canon on the first verses of Psalm 137 (sung hauntingly here by Don McLean of “American Pie” fame).

On October 3, the appointed Psalm is of my favorite laments in Scripture, Psalm 137:

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, *
when we remembered you, O Zion.
As for our harps, we hung them up *
on the trees in the midst of that land. …
How shall we sing the LORD'S song *
upon an alien soil?

Last night I was reading the Wikipedia article on Psalm 137. It notes that most classical music settings of the Psalm omit the final verse.

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, *
and dashes them against the rock!

The Wikipedia article then quotes hymnwriter John L. Bell, explaining that he had omitted that final verse from his metrical version “because its seemingly outrageous curse is better dealt with in preaching or group conversation.” Read more!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dwelling in the Suburbs of Heaven

Detail: Virgins in the Heavenly Jerusalem from the Last
Judgment, Sanctuary, Notre-Dame des Fontaines, La Brigue
Here is my sermon from today, August 22, 2010, at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois

Epistle for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year C: Hebrews 12:18-29

I love the trivia I can find using my computer. Recently I used Mapquest to determine that our retired rector, Bob Macfarlane, now lives 728 miles from this parish. That number describes the magnitude of one good reason that we don’t see him much anymore. But when he and Maria paid us a visit back in June, I was really glad for the chance for us to talk and to catch up with each other.
     You know how people talk when they haven’t seen each other for a while. They reminisce and remember, and sometimes they regret. After dinner one night, Father Macfarlane said, “If I had it to do over again, I think I’d preach a lot more about heaven.”
     We talked about the preacher’s resources on heaven—Dante’s 1321 Paradiso , Richard Baxter’s 1650 The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, Pope Benedict’s 2007 encyclical Saved in Hope, and N. T. Wright’s 2008 Surprised by Hope.
     I remarked that the lectionary readings really didn’t offer much opportunity for preaching about heaven. But Bob said, “Oh, no, there are plenty of opportunities if you look for them.”
     He was right. Next month, we’re going to listen to Jesus tell a story about a poor man named Lazarus who died and went to heaven, and a rich man who had failed to help Lazarus when he could. The rich man died and went somewhere else. Perhaps Father Matt will preach about heaven that Sunday, or maybe he’ll preach about that somewhere else. Me? I’ve already picked out two really good songs for that day.
     Today, however, our reading from the Letter to Hebrew Christians is also about heaven, and I think I’ll take this opportunity to talk a bit about that subject.
     The passage from Hebrews is filled with obscure allusions. “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.’”
     Those images—of a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and the sound of a trumpet and a voice that made hearers beg that not another word be spoken—those things are all associated with the story in Exodus 19, when God descends on Mount Sinai to announce to Moses and the people Israel the law that would govern the Israelite’s relationship with the God who freed them from slavery.
     It was a terrifying event. But, says the writer to the Hebrews, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new agreement.” Instead of a fearsome spectacle at Mount Sinai, Christians are treated to a festal gathering of angels and righteous spirits at the heavenly Mount Zion. Instead of the old agreement, there is a new agreement. Instead of being told to keep our distance, we are told to draw near. Instead of Moses, there is Jesus.
     This is the climax of a series of contrasts the writer presents in his letter. Jesus is better than angels. He is a better priest than Moses’ brother Aaron. His sacrifice is better than the animal sacrifices of the Old Agreement. The heavenly tabernacle in which Jesus prays for us is a better tabernacle than the one the Israelites had in the desert. And so on through the book until this point where these Jewish followers of Jesus are reminded that while their ancestors looked back to something truly awesome at Mount Sinai, the event that had created them as a chosen nation, they could and should look forward to something even more awesome at the heavenly Mount Zion.
     Mount Zion is, of course, a reference to a particular part of Jerusalem, a part that often stood for the whole. Heaven is pictured as a city that is the real Jerusalem, of which the earthly Jerusalem is a reflection or shadow. It’s not just the Letter to Hebrew Christians that does this. The Jewish rabbis inferred the existence of a heavenly counterpart to the earthly Jerusalem from Psalm 122. In Galatians 4:26, Paul speaks of “the Jerusalem that is above, which is our mother.” And in Revelation 21, the prophet John foresees the new Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven.
     The difference is this. In Revelation, the picture is entirely future. But in Hebrews, it is present. The writer uses the perfect tense, “But you have come near to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” You have come near, indicating a completed act with present implications.
     The great New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce notes that the Greek verb used here to mean “you have come near” is also the root for the word “proselyte,” a Greek noun meaning “convert.” Perhaps, Bruce says, it was the conversion of these readers to Christ that brought them near to the heavenly city. Of course, they do not have it yet in its fullness, but “the privileges of its citizenship are already enjoyed by faith.”
     Like so much in the New Testament, heaven partakes of the already-but-not-yet paradox. “The people of God are still a pilgrim people,” says Professor Bruce, “ … but by virtue of His sure promise they have already arrived [at the heavenly Zion] in spirit. Our author … makes it clear that His people need not climb the heavenly steeps to seek Him, for He is immediately accessible to each believing heart, making His dwelling in the fellowship of the faithful”[1].
     But even as the writer of the Letter to Hebrew Christians emphasizes the present accessibility of heaven, we want also to remember that it is a future home for Jesus’ followers, as he promised in John 14. “If I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also.”

     Following Jesus, Father Macfarlane told me, is the key to our hope of heaven. In baptism, we die with him, are buried with him, and are united to him. And as we follow him, we can be sure that we will be raised with him, and that he will take us to himself.

It was that future dimension that Father Macfarlane was interested in talking about. After he returned to Virginia, I telephoned him and asked him: Why did you want to preach more about heaven?
     He was unashamed to confess: “The most cogent reason in my case is age,” he said. “As one gets older, one begins to think there is not much of this life left,” he said. “Thinking about heaven is a faithful response to the running out of the string.”
     Teaching about heaven is an important ministry to believers who are getting older. Most pastors know that focusing on those who are aging does not pay back readily in congregational or budget growth. It is common wisdom that a focus on young adults and families is what often marks churches that are geared for growth. It is an axiom of the religious marketplace. But preparing for death and for life in the presence of God is not something the aging should do alone. Children, youth, and young adults need to engage with the aging in order to understand the scope of Christian hope. Creating “a culture of resurrection” in the church is foundational to full-orbed multigenerational ministry.

Teaching about heaven is also a good way to keep our vision of justice in perspective. You can’t talk about paradise—the time and place where everything is right—without talking about the way things will be put right. We can’t talk about heaven without talking about the resurrection of the body and the Last Judgment, the time when God puts all things right.
     Our individual memories and our community stories are full of injustices—both those we suffer and those we perpetrate. In this life, there is no undoing those injustices. There can be forgiveness and reconciliation and even restitution, but lost lives and lost opportunities cannot be recovered.
     Scripture’s earliest clear teaching of the resurrection of the dead is in Daniel 12. It follows a prophecy about God’s people suffering unjust persecution. How will God put things right after his people experience the greatest “time of distress” since the world began? Through a general resurrection and a judgment. Daniel writes, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (v. 2).
     In his papal encyclical Saved in Hope, Benedict XVI points to the way the “Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer’s own soul.” As a result, he says, “in the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgment has faded into the background.”
     “Faith in the Last Judgment,” Benedict says, is “first and foremost hope.” He calls “the question of justice . . . the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life.” It is morally inconceivable, he says, “that the injustice of history should be the final word,” and when we face that, “the necessity for Christ’s return and for new life become fully convincing.”

I think Christians talk more about justice now than they ever have. God is on an intergalactic justice mission, and we are God’s agents, charged with bringing about justice for the poor, for the sexually trafficked, for the abused, for the hungry, for the victims of floods in Pakistan and religious discrimination in Iraq and ethnic violence in Sudan. But it is always a limited and relative justice. We alleviate the worst, perhaps, but we never get things completely fixed. Lest the overwhelming task make us weary, our heavenly hope keeps it in perspective. As Pope Benedict writes, “A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.” The restoration of justice is ultimately God’s task.
     A God whose justice restores lost lives and dreams should lead us to think on heaven. Practice such meditation on the life to come, wrote the Puritan Richard Baxter, and “you will find yourself in the suburbs of heaven”—a phrase that delightfully echoes Hebrews’ “you have come near”—not 728 miles away, but near.
     Dante visits heaven’s suburbs in his fabulously insightful Paradiso. In Canto III, the poet meets a former nun named Piccarda, who in her earthly life was unable to keep her vows because she had been abducted by evil men. She was thus assigned to heaven’s “slowest sphere.” When Dante asked if she wasn’t “desirous of a higher place,” she claimed utter satisfaction and blessedness. To wish for anything else would be “discordant” with God’s will, she explains.
     There’s the secret. The Christian’s future, the world’s justice, and the believer’s bliss is the where and when of everything and everyone being in perfect concord with God’s will. A taste of that is available now—here in heaven’s suburbs. We have come near to the heavenly Zion with its angels in festal array and myriads of righteous spirits. But the fullness will come in God’s time by God’s power. That is worth preaching about.

* * *
[1] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 1964), p. 375

Image: Detail from the Last Judgment at Notre-Dame des Fontaines, La Brigue.
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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Carolyn Arends on Worship, Hospitality, and Song

In her next "Wrestling with Angels" column for Christianity Today (due out in October), singer/songwriter Carolyn Arends talks about what characterizes the best worship services she encounters in her travels. "I recognize certain commonalities," she writes. "Each of those services ... was thoroughly Christocentric and profoundly reverent. No surprises there. The common characteristic that I least expected?" The answer is "hospitality," and she relates a Robert Webber anecdote that ties hospitality to the way congregations sing.

It's a thought-provoking column for those of us who lead church music. You'll have to wait for the October CT read the full column.

But in the meantime, you can listen to Carolyn discuss her thoughts on worship in a free webinar sponsored by CT's sister e-pub Kyria. Register for the August 26 webinar here.
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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ten Good Ideas from Contemporary Hymn Writer Keith Getty

Irish songwriter Keith Getty began his workshop Tuesday at the National Worship Leaders Conference by telling those who had come to learn how to write a great worship song to leave. “Because art is the expression of life, you cannot ‘how-to’ creativity.”

Getty collaborates with his wife Kristyn and friend Stuart Townend. “They’re the words and I’m the music,” he says, estimating that somewhere between 5 and 20 percent of the words of any of their songs are his. “But we both get involved on both sides.”

Here are ten notable and worthwhile ideas edited and distilled from Getty’s workshop comments:

1. The primary form we use is the story form. The gospel is primarily story. How do you take people who want 4-line worship songs and get them to sing 32 lines? By structuring the song as a story.

2. It is important to look at things that are harrowing and that don’t necessarily make us feel happy. The central core of the Christian faith is not something that makes us happy. We need to acknowledge our need for a redeemer. The reason we worship is that we meet God through the central story of the cross.

3. We need lament. But if you want to write lament, remember that a successful lament resolves. Not into a happily-ever-after ending, but like the psalms of lament, by ultimately acknowledging that God is God.

4. To write strong melodies remember that folk melody has to be passed on orally (aurally). I try to write songs that can be sung with no written music. I imitate Irish folk melody, with a great deal of contour, of rise and fall.

5. Use pastors and theologians as resources for your writing. But keep company with them. Don’t just ask them to fix your text here or there when you’re done with it.

6. Trinitarian worship safeguards us from so many problems our worship can get into: either an overly stern view of god or a casual view of god. Both can lead to problems in our lives.

7. Martin Luther is one of ten people from history I would want to have coffee with. I have looked at a lot of Luther’s hymns and emulated him. First, Luther had a high view of redemption. He also believed we live our lives in the midst of spiritual warfare. Thirdly, he had a high view of the church and a high vision of the church.

8. The congregation is the choir and it is merely the privilege of those of us who are musically gifted to help them sing.

9. Lyrics and great writing are the same thing. Lyricism is poetry. If your write lyrics, read as much poetry as you can. Lyricists are people who love words and do crossword puzzles.

10. Growing up, I never listened to pop music as a child. I was steeped in church music. That could be a blessing because everything I write can be sung by a congregation.

* * *

Christianity Today interviewed the Gettys in 2008.

Learn more about the Gettys' work at their website.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Out of the Miry Clay

KANSAS CITY—In England, worshipers influenced by the charismatic renewal have been derided as “happy clappy.” With its roots 40 years ago in the Jesus Movement’s marriage of rock-n-roll and charismatic faith, you might expect the National Worship Leader Conference—with its theme of “Sing a New Song”—to kick off with rambunctious exuberance.

Instead, the conference opened last night on a somber note, with Tennessee pastor Steve Berger reflecting on the pain of having to bury his 19-year-old son just two years ago. For the keynote address, Berger exposited Psalm 40:1-3, one of nine Scripture passages that use the phrase “new song.” The psalm is a narrative prayer that begins with the psalmist’s experience of despair—of being in “an horrible pit” and stuck in “miry clay.” But by waiting patiently upon the Lord, the Psalmist says, he was taken from the pit and the mire and had his feet set “upon a rock” and had “a new song” placed in his mouth.

Berger stressed the pit as the location from which we learn the “new song” (which Berger defined as “a fresh experience with an ancient truth”). Those who want, with the apostle Paul, to experience the power of Christ’s resurrection had better be prepared to suffer with him. “Nothing gets resurrected until it dies,” proclaimed Berger.

The pit is God’s place for renewal—not just a renewal of worship experience (“In the pit, my hallelujah didn’t get stolen!”) but also for renewal of life ("Many will see it ... and trust in the Lord," says the Psalm. “New Song needs to be seen as well as sung,” says Berger).

Gerber’s deep spiritual realism has laid a solid foundation and provided focus for three-days of renewal and learning.

* * *

The National Worship Leader Conference is presented by Worship Leader magazine and hosted by the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. The conference runs July 19-22.

Steve Berger and his wife have written about their experience of “the horrible pit” in Have Heart: Bridging the Gulf Between Heaven and Earth (Thomas Nelson, 2010).
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Monday, June 21, 2010

The Preacher and the Holy Spirit

An aphorism from Norval Pease, my late father-in-law who was also my homiletics professor in the late 60s: "The Holy Spirit can just as easily meet the preacher in the study as in the pulpit."

He hoped his students would learn that preparation is not less spiritual than winging it. That was the 60s, and spontaneity was a culturally salient theme. Unfortunately, I've heard a number of preachers since then who can't blame the 60s for their lack of preparation.

P.S. I've googled this aphorism and it looks like it may have been original. Read more!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

At Play in the House of the Lord

Last Sunday, June 13, I delivered the commencement sermon at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, Florida. As someone who has long admired the late Dr. Webber's work in the area of liturgy, I felt privileged to give this address and truly honored when the school awarded me an honorary doctorate.

The readings for the commencement Eucharist were
  • 2 Sam. 6:12-22
  • Psalm 104:24-35
  • 1 Cor. 14:6-15
  • Luke 5:33-39

Here is the full text of the sermon.

At Play in the House of the Lord

I grew up in a congregation where worship was so Word-centered that it often tried to usher beauty out the door in the name of truth. It might have succeeded had it not been for my father, who loved choral music and believed that God was a god of beauty and should be worshiped with our whole beings.

Our church didn’t have an organ until my father bought a Hammond B-3. It wasn’t exactly an organ, but it pretended to be one. And we didn’t have a choir until my father became the patron of a children’s choir.

There was a no-nonsense woman in our congregation who just didn’t see the point of wasting time on music in public worship. Why, if we did away with the organ prelude and other music, the pastor could extend his already stretched 40 minutes of reasoning by proof text to almost an hour.

* * *

Memories like these get me wondering. Does our public worship have multiple goals which must be kept in proper balance (as when Sister Anita and my father clashed over the time devoted to music and to teaching)? Or is it better to think of our public worship as purpose-less? As producing many good effects, but inherently free from a driving sense of utility?

That memory also sets me to thinking about the relationship of the rational, reasoned, and ordered elements of worship to the intuitive, aesthetic, nonrational elements.

Paul reminds his Corinthian readers that while it is a good thing to pray with the spirit and sing with the spirit, it is even better to pray with the understanding and sing with the understanding.

If Paul had been writing to my home church, he might done the opposite. He might have said that while it is important to be able to trace a chain of proof texts to establish a doctrine, it was also edifying to cut loose in the spirit.

On Pentecost Sunday, my choir sang John Rutter’s wonderful anthem based on 1 Corinthians 14:15, “I Will Sing with the Spirit.” Rutter’s opening melody creates a sense of freedom and ambiguity. It is a musical metaphor for Paul’s words, “I will sing with the Spirit.”

But when Rutter sets Paul’s next clause, “And I will sing with the understanding also,” he uses compositional techniques that create a sense of certainty and structure. He gives his hearers the closest thing in music to deductive reasoning—musical logic that serves as a metaphor for “I will sing with the understanding also.”

I mention this metaphorical music to call attention to the complementarity of “spirit” and “understanding” in worship. Rutter’s composition highlights the paradoxical nature of worshiping, singing, praising, and praying in both spirit and understanding. Without both both dimensions, worship becomes, in Hamlet’s words, “weary, flat, stale, and unprofitable.”

I’m a great fan of the best traditional hymns because that kind of hymnody lifts both the spirit and the understanding. It gives us metaphorical language—in both text and tune—that we can borrow to give expression to both spirit and understanding.

Think of the bold declaration of God’s steadfast, protecting love we sang this evening in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The imagery of the text is reinforced by the fanfare like repetition of the tonic (the home-base note), and then moves stepwise up and down to create a musical picture of a rampart built on a secure foundation.

Or think of a more tender hymn, like Isaac Watts’s brilliant paraphrase of Psalm 23, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” usually married to the American hymn tune “Resignation.” The pentatonic tune bespeaks simple trust. It evokes both the vulnerability of the sheep and the tenderness of the shepherd. Its wandering contour suggests both a flowing stream and wandering sheep. The simplicity of trust suggested by the tune is crowned by Isaac Watts’s final line: “No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home,” thus creating a metaphorical resting place where final word and final tone may dwell together.

Even that beautiful line falls short of expressing the full truth of David’s Psalm, but it gets us closer. If we were to sing only with “the understanding,” we could never reach that full truth.

Take a line from “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”: “What language shall I borrow / to thank thee dearest friend, / for this thy dying sorrow, / thy pity without end?”

Because God’s saving acts on our behalf and his creative acts toward the entire cosmos and his eternal love are unfathomable, so great as to be beyond any language, we are driven to borrow the least inadequate language from creative souls who have reflected on this love and compassion before us. And yet, we know that the best of borrowed language will not do. And thus we must “sing with the spirit.”

* * *

We’ve talked about singing with the spirit and singing with the understanding also. We’ve talked about beauty and truth. Let me introduce another pair of terms: performance and play.

These came to me as I was recently watching some old Leonard Bernstein lectures on DVD. The great conductor talked about Igor Stravinsky “playing with notes,” and playing “the game of notes,” and then “juggling with notes.”

I often talk about “playing music” or “playing my instrument,” without using play in the sense Bernstein used it, associating play with game with juggle.

Performance and play. I perform at the organ. I perform a prelude or toccata or fugue. But I play the music and play the instrument. The word play carries light overtones of ebullience and enjoyment, of getting lost in the moment and the music. Perform, on the other hand, carries notions of thorough preparation, disciplined practice and informed interpretation, well delivered to an audience. Perform is a high-anxiety word, while play evokes joy.

I have told my church choir many times that when they sing an anthem, they should not think of it as a performance. In public worship, our choir’s aim is not to perform. Our aim is to give voice to the people’s praise or petition or lament in a more technically challenging way than they would be able to do as a congregation.

In worship, we who lead—preacher, priest, lector, acolyte, Eucharistic minister, usher, organist, percussionist, choir singer, crucifer, or thurifer—all of us both perform and play. We follow certain forms but we fulfill those forms with varying degrees of freedom.

Performance demands disciplines and structures. We need to consult with each other and with our worship traditions in order to perform the elements of our worship in a theologically and logically coherent way. We must plan the choreography so that we don’t stumble over each other. We work out our gestures and our postures so that we act meaningfully together. We think through our liturgical acts so that we don’t leave something out or inject something alien.

That is what David risked when he danced—minimally clothed—before the ark of the Lord—that he injected something alien into the occasion, something that distracted the worshipers from the object of their worship. But then, 2 Samuel tells us Michal was more concerned for the dignity of her husband than for the worship of the Lord. She was concerned about performance and not open to the play dimension of worship.

Some people think liturgical worship is all form and no freedom. But we who are here know that the elements of freedom and play are strongest when the routines of form and performance are well thought out and practiced.

In my music, diligent practice with attention to technique and interpretation prepare me for performance, and they open the door to play. When one note follows the next naturally because a piece is well rehearsed, I can respond to moments of inspiration. That is when I play.

In worship, well-worn and well-rehearsed structures open up freedom. The freedom to interact with a congregation, to stop preaching a sermon and start preaching to people. To stop reading prayers and to start praying. To stop singing hymns and to make the hymns our own.

* * *

Let me apply several key elements of to worship:

First, play involves repetition. But repetition is not just sameness. It requires variation, as when children play “I spy.” “I spy with my little eye…” that’s the thing repeated. But what comes next: “I spy with my little eye, something that begins with ‘C’,” or “I spy with my little eye something yellow,” that’s repetition with variation.

We do this in worship. We read the prayers of the people with the same words and the same categories of concern every week, but we leave the spaces in which people voice to the particularities of their lives. We like to sing familiar songs, and but we like it best when familiar songs are treated with just enough variation to stimulate delight.

Second, play involves creation and invention. Children are enormously creative in their play. There’s no reason that when children play 19th-century cowboys and Indians can’t mix with 20th-century space aliens and knights from the middle ages. We pour a lot of creative energy into the liturgy. Let me illustrate with one of my favorite instances of creativity that has emerged at my parish. During the “dry bones” reading from Ezekiel at the Easter Vigil, a cellist accompanies the reading, pulling from her instrument the creaks and groans that evoke Israel’s dry bones, and then humming, buzzing sounds swell as the bones and sinews come together.

Third, play involves pretending. Children play house, acting “as if” they are trying to meet the challenges of marriage and parenthood. This pretending is practice for the future. But they also borrow identities from television or books or fairytales. As a child I frequently took on the character of Zorro, thanks to my mother, who sewed me a black cape. When we worship, we act “as if” by dressing up as the kind of people who we truly believe ourselves to be in Christ. We act “as if” the preacher speaks for God because we truly believe that the Word he is exegeting and applying is indeed more than just his word. In the Stations of the Cross we act “as if” we are walking with Jesus to Calvary. During Communion we act “as if” we are sitting down to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb as we practice for the kingdom of God. We act “as if” because we know these things to be true.

Play, then, is my code for the creative, inventive, delightfully repetitive and variable approaches we take to the structures of worship. Performance is the disciplined, informed, practiced activity that builds the foundation and framework for play.

Play is not purposeful. It is valuable in its own right. Think of Psalm 104:26, which says that out in the ocean God made “that Leviathan … for the sport of it.” The text could mean that God made Leviathan to play in the waters. Or it could mean God made Leviathan to play with. The Message blends the two ideas: “Leviathan, your pet dragon, romps in them.” There is no ulterior motive to God’s creation of Leviathan. He does it out of a sense of play—perhaps even whimsy.

Public worship is similar. We do not worship to achieve a set of goals. We do it simply because God is who God is and we are who we are. God is creator and savior. We are creatures and saved ones. And so we worship, so we praise.

The closest we come to praise in daily life is complimenting people—but unfortunately many compliments aim at some ulterior goal. These are not praise, but flattery.

If we have an ulterior purpose for praise, we turn public worship into something else.

Sister Anita, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, thought church was all about learning. She wanted to strip away anything that “robbed” the preacher of time. While teaching should take place in worship, teaching is not the goal of worship. Teaching is to enable us to know the God we praise. It is not to build up our fund of spiritual knowledge. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up.”

Some try to turn public worship into an evangelistic service. I want people to get saved in the context of worship, but we do not worship in order to produce a harvest of decisions. If we proclaim the mighty acts of God in our praise, that should prick consciences and lead people to lay their all on the altar. But we proclaim the acts of God because it is his drama and we are players in it.

Some try to use public worship to coerce God into doing our will. This is essentially pagan magic. You see this across the spectrum, from some traditionalist forms of Catholicism to prosperity preaching on the fringe of Pentecostalism. But worship is about what God has already done. And we rest in gratitude for his care.

The Hebrew word for rest is shabbat. The Bible doesn’t command public worship on the Sabbath. The commandment is about imitating God by abstaining from work. But the synagogue service evolved as a Sabbath institution, and Christians inherited this connection.

If Sabbath is about abstaining from goal-oriented labor, that underscores what I’ve said about worship. Instead of telling people that going to church will bring them benefits, we should describe it as an oasis in time, a space where we can rest precisely because we’re not trying to “accomplish something.” We can simply dwell in the relationship with God, experienced through the community’s reading of his Word and celebration of his sacred meal.

When people asked Jesus why his disciples went on eating and drinking while the followers of John the Baptizer and the Pharisees fasted often, Jesus answered, "Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” He then predicted they would fast once the bridegroom was gone. But, later the risen Christ promised he would be with us always. The bridegroom is with us. So let us play in the house of the Lord.
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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

‘All Acolytes Are Pyromaniacs’

Fellow St. Barnabas parishioner (and Christian Century columnist) Rodney Clapp reports here on his life as an acolyte. He quotes his priest (and mine) as saying, “All acolytes are pyromaniacs.”

Despite the sound of its final syllable, the word acolyte has nothing to do with fire. It derives from a Greek word meaning path, modified to mean someone who follows—and thus referring to an assistant or helper. But as assistants in worship, acolytes do get to play with fire, and Rodney has exciting tales about smoking brooms sweeping up glowing coals.

Acolytes (who along with lectors and subdeacons later become minor orders) begin showing up in Christian records in the second century. But the practice of carrying two candles or torches in procession at the reading of the Gospel is not mentioned until the early 600s. Because St. Isidore of Seville says the candles were extinguished after the Gospel reading, Dom Gregory Dix thinks their use was at that point still utilitarian. But by the time the Ordo Romanus Primus was compiled about the year 800, the candles had taken on a clearly symbolic role. In the papal liturgy of the period, the candle bearers stood below the ambo steps, while the Gospel was read from above. The candles thus illumined nothing, but they symbolized everything: that the Gospel book stood for Christ.

Read Rodney Clapp's “My Life as an Acolyte.”
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Wednesday, April 7, 2010


"Either put fire into your sermons or put your sermons into the fire." —Thomas DeWitt Talmage (1832-1902), American Presbyterian preacher. (h/t Matt Reynolds)
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Saturday, March 27, 2010

IWS - where the amount of product in your hair doesn't matter

One of the great things about the late Bob Webber was his understanding that worship is not about us—it is about God.

I was reminded of this the other day when I got my review copy of Stuff Christians Like, by Christian satirist Jonathan Acuff. (Acuff’s book available here ; his website, here .)

Stuff Christians Like devotes several pages to the Metrosexual Worship Leader Scorecard. A worship leader with a soul patch gets three points, while one with a goatee gets only two. A scarf with a t-shirt gets a one point, while a winter knit hat in summer gets an additional two. And having huge gobs of product in your hair is absolutely essential to being a Metrosexual Worship Leader. (My score is somewhere in the negative numbers.)

Acuff’s satire sends up the way certain parts of the worship movement are consumed by style and appearance. And that made me appreciate the legacy of Bob Webber all the more. Worship, Bob kept reminding us, is about God. It “sings, preaches, and enacts God’s story,” not ours. Bob admonished us to turn away from forms “that assert the self as the source of worship.”

The day before the mail carrier delivered Stuff Christians Like, my e-mail brought me a press release about an important milestone for the Institute for Worship Studies, the graduate school Bob founded in 1999. For just over a decade, IWS has been training students in God-ward worship. In 2005 it began the accreditation process with the Association for Biblical Higher Education. Now, the school has been granted accredited status. IWS President Jim Hart calls it “a significant and critical threshold for the institute.”

A few days later I was walking across the campus of Wheaton College with Bob’s widow, Joanne. It’s the faculty, she said. The quality of the faculty is what impressed the accreditation team. In fact, faculty excellence was item two on a list of six commendations the team handed Jim Hart.

Other key items from that list of commendations: the school is operating debt free; it assembled library resources rapidly; it uses a blend of online and onsite instruction to create an innovative and substantive academic program; its capstone courses are noted for their rigor.

Having enrolled over 400 graduate students in its masters and doctoral programs over the past decade, IWS is playing a crucial role in focusing church leaders on worship that tells and enacts God’s story. This latest step—accreditation—is an important factor in the continuing stability of this mission.

Congratulations to everyone in the IWS family.

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Photo: IWS President James R. Hart and Registrar Laura Ritter receive the plaque from Lisa Beatty, Chair of the Commission on Accreditation of the Association for Biblical Higher Education.
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