Page CXVI: Good Friday to Easter

11 04 2014

cxvi_friday_1600Dear Readers,

Next week (April 15th, to be exact) Page CXVI releases their final album in their Church Calendar series. They have graciously given me an advance copy to review (and have given me a link to share with you as a sneak peak preview! – see below). This is a beautiful, rich album. Stronger, I think, than their previous release (Lent to Maundy Thursday). It’s an album that lends itself to the necessary contemplative waiting of Good Friday and Holy Saturday – and then enters with weighty joy into Easter Sunday.

As I generally find the music of Page CXVI to be useful for contemplative listening/prayer (consider buying a few of their hymn albums if you’re planning a personal retreat some time in the future), I would recommend listening to the album this way: make a playlist of tracks 1-3 and play it on repeat as you have time for contemplation on Good Friday and especially on Holy Saturday; then, start your Sunday morning with tracks 4-8. Tracks 4-8 are not jumping-up-and-down-joyful. They are, as I expressed to a friend recently, a celebration of Christ’s resurrection – and of what the cross accomplished – but they celebrate the gain without dismissing the cost.

Listen here, for a sneak peak – The record will be available on pagecxvi.com, iTunes, and other digital media stores on April 15th!

 





Another Book for the List: “Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God”

9 06 2012

Can someone please tell me why I am just now hearing about Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God by Christian Scharen?

This is a topic I have intended to rant about for some time: the mistaken (in my opinion) belief that Christians should shun secular music because it speaks of things “not of God.” It sounds as if Scharen has already ranted to great effect, arguing that we fail to hear the cry of the world when we ignore its music.

I have now officially added this book to my reading list, and hope to get my hands on it relatively soon. In the meantime, however, I refer you to this excellent review: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2012/06/09/saturday-book-review-christian-scharen/





Rant 3: No I don’t Want to Take the “I” out of Worship

29 05 2012

A common complaint about recent worship music is that there is far too much focus on the first person (on the individual), and not enough focus on God, or on the community in which we worship. Strangely, the “proof” offered to support the perception of this as a “problem” is generally the number of worship songs that use the first person singuar in their lyrics. I actually think this complaint is, more often than not, both misdirected and misinformed.

Do I think we need songs that focus on who God is and what he’s done. Of course I do. That’s why we have so many of them.

Do I think we need more worship songs that use the first person plural to describe our communal relationship with Christ, as his gathered body? Absolutely. Please go write some right now.

Do I think that the majority of “contemporary worship songs” are self-centered because they use the first person singular? Nope. I think that’s a load of “something.” And here’s why:

I was taught, rightly I think, that I could have a personal relationship with Christ. As far as I know, the only way to express a personal relationship with Christ in worship is to use the first and second person singular in concert. So what makes us assume that singing in this way is selfish?  That’s reason one.

When we sing “I” as a congregation, the “I” gets twisted into a “we” anyways. It’s simple semantics. A group of individuals singing in unison is just that: a group. Singing “I” in unison, in the context of a worship service, is actually an amazing statement of unity that does not subsume the individual, but honours diversity. That’s reason two.

Guess what? The vast majority of Psalms use the first person singular. Should we throw them out, do you think? This is not a contemporary phenomenon. There is no era of Christian (or Hebrew!) music that did not use the first person singular. That’s reason three.

Now, I understand that we live in an individualistic society, and that therefore the church (especially in North America and Europe) must fight against the tendency to promote an individualistic faith. We are not to stand alone. We are to live, and move, and breathe within the community of faith that is, unified, the body of Christ. But I don’t think changing all the “I’s” to “we’s” is how we fight individualism (after all, as I already said, a group of “I’s” necessarily form a “we”).

With our use of pronouns in worship, as in so many aspects of the Christian faith, we walk a fine line. We do not want to be individualistic and lose the strength of community (as we fill in for each other’s weaknesses and compound each other’s strengths). We also, however, do not want to lose our individual strengths in a giant melting-pot body in which a hand can do as well as a toe when one is trying to balance on a high wire. To live that way would simply not be functional. Neither do we want to be a faith of mindless drones that act, move, dress, and speak in exactly the same way. To live that way would be to utterly fail to reach a diverse world.

In conclusion… please stop asking me if I don’t think there are far too many worship songs these days that speak of “I” rather than of “we.” I don’t think that. Not in the slightest.





Worship: Hit Single or Concept Album

23 05 2012

I came across an article yesterday that I thought was noteworthy: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/worship/features/29251-why-worship-should-be-risky

In this article Michael Gungor discusses the nature of the music industry, stating that the majority of pop albums are “collections of eight to 15 of the best snippets of musical ideas the artist or label can come up with” as they search for their next big hit. The songs have little or no connection to each other. The exception to this, is the concept album. The album that circles on big idea, or intentionally takes the listener on a journey through each sucessive song.

He then, mentioning his own most recent album, makes the leap to worship:

It would be naive to think our liturgy has not been affected by today’s culture of pop music singles. Our church services can become disconnected from a consistent story. Planning the worship service often becomes about finding the best four or five worship singles that will keep people engaged, and then a sermon is given that is separate from anything done in the service up to that point. It’s all about the hits.

I often find myself describing a worship service as a journey: We begin with people scattered all over the map, depending on what their weeks have held. We gather them together and slowly bring them into the Big Story, guiding them to a unified point at which they are all prepared to hear the small part of the Big Story that will be delivered that morning. Finally, we give them the opportunity to respond to that small part of the story, bless them, and send them out into the Big Story.

I think Michael Gungor is on to something here. Too often in worship we simply pick our “top singles” – or we circle around an idea without actually going anywhere. Maybe it’s time we explored the concept album. What do you think?

At very least, I’m going to check out Ghosts Upon the Earth.





Rant 2: The So-called “Worship Wars”

1 03 2012

While teaching a class at Trinity Western University, I gave what I thought was a brilliant lecture in which I explored the arguments of Barth and his contemporaries, and the “God is dead” theologians of their day – challenging my class to consider how the church should engage with its surrounding culture, and whether their own churches are ignoring the surrounding culture, transforming their faith to meet the culture, or translating their faith so that the culture will be able to understand it. When I asked for questions, one student raised a tenuous hand: “So… there are a bunch of old people in my church who only want to sing hymns. What should I do?”

It always seems to come down to that. One group of people wants to sing one type of song in church, while another group would rather sing a different type. Every workshop I’ve given, every class I’ve taught, every lecture I’ve delivered – someone has asked me that same question.

So here’s my response: I’m sick to death of the question.

Because it’s the wrong question.

Oh I understand why people ask it: music causes a deep, personal, emotional, and spiritual response – and music we are more familiar with adds a weight of memories to this response. Think of a song that accompanied a significant spiritual shift in your life – now imagine never being given the opportunity to sing that song again. It hurts, right?

And absolutely every church with any amount diversity at all has this problem – with varying degrees of conflict. (In fact, the problem is so pervasive, that I’ll probably have to deal with it in another blog post or two at a later date).

If this many churches deal with conflict in music choice, why is it the wrong question to ask? Because it’s a symptom question, not a disease question. It’s like asking the doctor to deal with my headaches while completely ignoring the brain tumor that’s causing them. The doctor might be able to make my headaches go away, but unless the tumor is dealt with not only will the headaches keep returning, I’m in danger of far worse.

The worship wars are not worship wars at all – they are music wars. And we can smooth over musical tastes all we want (trying to please everyone, or carving the church up into homogenous groups) – but we will still have a problem if we have no understanding of (or interest in understanding) what worship is and how to employ it in the church.

Yes, I know we still have to deal with the fact that different members of our congregations are familiar with (and love) a completely different era of songs – but please, let’s start asking questions that get at the deeper problems we have allowed to develop. If we do that, some of the symptoms may just disappear along with the disease.





Advent Carols

4 12 2011

We all know which carols to pull out for Christmas, but which carols do we turn to if we really want to observe Advent rather than start our Christmas celebrations early?

Of course the two classics that are already familiar to most congregations are: “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” They work as Advent carols because they convey the sense of waiting and preparation that Advent entails. “Come” is the dominant word and theme, and these carols evoke both Israel’s longing for the Messiah, and our own longing for Christ to return and make all things new.

Other traditonal Advent hymns incude Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending, here sung by the Lichfield Cathedral Choir. T, Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding, and Rejoice, Rejoice Believers. These hymns speak of Christ’s second coming, and call us to prepare ourselves for his return. On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry calls us to confess our sins and prepare, once again, to welcome Christ.

Lest you feel that only hymn-singing congregations can celebrate Advent, however, allow me to recommend a few songs that, while not traditionally sung during Advent, certainly belong within a season of pain, waiting and longing. Laurell Hubick’s song Lift (unfortunately, all I have in the link to itunes, if anyone has chords, music, or a video for this song, please post it in comments) is a gentle way to enter into the disparity between what our world is, and what it should be, while still singing praise. Stephen Toon’s Even Though has a similar feel.

I would also commend to you a song that I found last year, when trolling through “holiday” music on itunes. It is an old carol that was traditionally used by beggars as Christmas approached, as a way of encouraging passersby to give more freely. It’s a haunting and repetative melody, and the lyrics are strongly moralistic, for which it has been criticised. As an Advent carol, however, it contains a confessional element (or a call to confession) that is very helpful in preparation for Christmas. I refer you here to Steve Winwood’s interpretation of the carol, but there is also a lovely acapella version by the The Watersons. The lyrics follow. Steve Winwood: “Christmas Is Now Drawing Near at Hand”

Christmas is now drawing near at hand
Come serve the Lord and be at His command
And God a portion for you will provide
And give a blessing to your soul besides
 
Down in the garden where flowers grow in ranks
Down on your bended knees and give the Lord thanks
Down on your knees and pray both night and day
Leave off your sins and live upright I pray
 
So proud and lofty is some sort of sin
Which many take delight and pleasure in
Whose conversation God doth much dislike
And yet He shakes His sword before He strike
 
So proud and lofty do some people go
Dressing themselves like players in a show
They patch and paint and dress with idle stuff
As if God had not made ’em fine enough
 
Even little children learn to curse and swear
And can’t rehearse one word of godly prayer
Oh teach them better, oh teach them to rely
On Christ the sinner’s friend who reigns on high