Category Archives: Worship

Letter 57: O Come O Come Emmanuel

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, which marks the beginning of the Church’s celebration of Christmas. Of course, outside of church, the Christmas season started over a month ago, before Halloween. So this seems to me to be a good time to ponder how one might celebrate the coming of the Christ Child.
If you feel a certain disconnect between the usual festivities and a sense of religious observance or devotion, you’re not alone. This is a very old problem. Every year since 1965, Charlie Brown has bemoaned the empty feeling the flurry of festivities brings on. In 1953, singer Red Foley was urging listeners to “Keep Christ in Christmas.” My Puritan ancestors believed that the Christmas festivities were nothing more than popish superstitions, and dispensed with the holiday completely.
The problem stems, I think from Christmas’s origins. I do not mean the actual Incarnation and Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem. Today, it’s not very clear what the earliest Christians thought about commemorating this event. Christmas as we know it today starts with the Emperor Constantine. Attributing his successful pretensions to the throne of Rome to God’s favor, Constantine became a Christian, and decided that everyone else should to, by naming Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
This obviously caused some significant dislocation for many people, who may not have given much thought to paganism, but dutifully went through with the established patterns of religious observance. If nothing else some of the old celebrations were fun, often involving feasting and drink and sex.
One of the largest celebrations was the Saturnalia, six days of eating, drinking and partying, in celebration of freedom. It was timed around the winter solstice, which would be the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and thanks to the comparatively colder temperatures, a time when fresh food too longer to spoil. Since there was little agricultural work to be done this time of year, it was a good time for a real celebration. By government order all schools and businesses were shut during the six days of the festival.
This was heady stuff, much loved by people of all stations. And now they would be asked to give this up.
It was thought best to “Christianize” Saturnalia, by drawing out some of its more universal aspects, and now tying them to Christ. Nearly all peoples had a celebration at the winter’s solstice, celebrating the return of light to the world. Jesus declared Himself “The Light of the World,” and so it became a straightforward matter to name this time the celebration of His coming to earth. The gift-giving now echoed the Magi, and the sense of equality and fun was now grounded in our identity and freedom in Christ.
And so the party continued, but now with a tension.
We like giving gifts, mostly because we like getting gifts. As a child, I timed my desires around the twin poles of Christmas and my birthday. Thankfully, they were sufficiently spaced out to make this possible. I loved the food of Christmas, too, the candy and cookies, the departure from the usual fare.
But when I think about what it is we are supposed to be celebrating, I find a disconnect, particularly when I read many of the familiar Bible passages. Indeed, if I were to summarize what the Bible has to say about Advent and Christmas, it would be this: “The King is coming, Get ready!”
“For just as the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. For as in the days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered into the ark. And they did not know anything until the deluge came and swept them all away. So also the coming of the Son of Man will be. Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore be on the alert, because you do not know what day your Lord is coming!” Matthew 24:37-42 (LEB)
So I think it is helpful to separate what we might term “secular” Christmas celebrations from “religious” or devotional observances. Gift-giving, decorations, cookies, and parties are all fine, but they do nothing to prepare us for the coming of the King. It is also helpful to realize that not everyone is going to agree with that secular-religious distinction. We have gotten far too bothered about how other people celebrate, or do not celebrate, Christmas. If we are serious about following Jesus, we would do better, by far, to ask how he wants us to prepare for His coming.
So, over the next few weeks, I want to spend some time thinking about this. How do we get ready?

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Letter 51: Giving Thanks

Furthermore, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are worthy love, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, or if there be any praise, think on these things.” Philippians 4:8 (Geneva)

Heavenly Father-

I am thankful that this year the whole family was able to gather under one roof to celebrate for the first time in several years.  The food was good, too.  Thank you.

For the joy of curling up on the couch with our dog snuggled next to me.  Thank you.

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For the infectious joy my wife exudes whenever she gets an idea.  It gives me a taste of what Creation must have been like.  Thank you.

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For the blue of the sky against the golds, reds, oranges, greens and purples of the trees that makes autumn in the part of the world so special.  You go for the big box of crayons!  Thank you.

For the smell of fresh baked bread, or the aroma of something wonderful wafting from the kitchen after a hard day at the office.  Thank you.

For cheese, and bacon, and that through Christ, we needn’t keep kosher.  Thank you.

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For the thrill of voices blending together.  Thank you.

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For mercies new every morning, for all gentle thoughts and mild.  Thank you.

For Thyself best gift divine, to our race so freely given.  Thank you.

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O Give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious, and his mercy endureth forever.” Psalm 107:1 (Coverdale)

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Letter 40: Adventures in Combined Worship

Like many churches, our church has gone to a summer schedule of only one service.  This has brought some challenges, as we seek to combine elements of both a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service.  To my mind, the combined format has not worked very well.   While both services have their own flow and logic, as combined, the resulting service has a Frankenstein feel to it, with bits and pieces stuck together without much regard to how they function.

So, we start with two hymns, each sung singly, with a pause to move from one to the other, followed by a prayer, and then the worship set. The flow goes start-stop, start-stop, start, stop, then start, and continue on for the next fifteen to twenty minutes.  The rubric of the traditional service involves a series of discreet parts intentionally chosen (when done well), that are designed to focus and direct one’s mind.  The contemporary model seems to require broad bands of time, giving the Spirit room to work, chiefly on our spirit and emotions.

As we’ve worked with trying to combine the two styles, it has become clear to me that it is not the music necessarily, that separates the two.  Music is music, and one can perform it in virtually any manner imaginable, and I’ve seen hymns performed as worship songs, and worship songs sung as hymns.  Instead, the two styles have different flows and different foci that make it difficult to combine them, unless you wish to create something entirely different.

The traditional service has many individual components, which works to fulfill a checklist of sorts.  We come into God’s presence, express praise, worship, and awe.  We confess our sins, and offer up our prayers and petitions.  We then let God speak through His Word.  We may also partake of Him directly through His Supper.  We close in a statement of praise and purpose thence depart.  Each part is distinct, not unlike the singing, and few last long, except the sermon.

The contemporary service has far fewer parts, and most of them are of far longer duration.  It is unhurried, seeking, I think, to free the mind, and welcome the Spirit’s embrace.  It is intentionally unintentional from the standpoint of human thought and activity.  The discrete and rapid shifts of nearly every aspect of the traditional service jars with the contemporary worship experience.  Thus we are dropping the traditional hymn singing from the combined service, and we may not get to prayer.

The strength of the contemporary format is an openness to the workings of the Spirit (thought one is left in the lurch if the Spirit decides not to act).  The strength of the traditional format is a completeness in the range of worshipful activities offered, and the more conscious effort to ties the congregation together.  But the traditional approach can also be rote and stale.  How would a service that combines that openness to the Spirit with the fuller dialogue with God flow?

First, we are called to worship.  We hear God’s invitation to us, to turn out eyes and minds toward Him.  This is a communal act, and need not take much time.  Having drawn near, we engaged in praise and worship, and luxuriate in His presence.  Here, we can sing, dance, or remain in silence.  The challenge here is to draw everyone together.  The best way I can think of to accomplish this is to begin and end the set with strong congregational singing.

Following this, I know the hope is that people will spontaneously burst into prayer.  However, in my experience that tends to yield the same voices, often uttering the same prayers.  I think the prayer should be led and guided, making a point to address concerns of the congregation, hopefully submitted in advance, and other affairs of the moment, but also leaving space for people to pray as the Spirit leads.  Prayer is a time to speak to God in hope and faith, but also presenting our questions, fears, and doubts.  It comes from the time that we have spent in His presence.  Ideally, close with a few moments of silence, inviting God to speak to us individually.  This should then prepare us to hear God speak to us collectively through His Word preached.  Alternatively, one could place the corporate prayer after the message, placing it as a final response to God.

Close with one quick hymn or song, invite people up for further prayer if desired, and formally dismiss the congregation.  I did leave out a specific time for confession, something that has been a part of some traditional liturgies.  This can be incorporated into the time of prayer or the call to worship.

The time breakdown should probably run thirty minutes for worship, ten for prayer, thirty again for the message, and ten to close.  If one assumes a ninety minute block for the service, this breakdown leaves ten minutes as a cushion.  Obviously, if you have something like Communion or a baptism, everything needs to be shortened.

Part of the key to making this work and flow is to think about what each part is doing and how it relates to the whole of the service.  The Sunday worship should be a time for the people to come together before God, engage Him, and depart from thence into the world, renewed and reconnected.  Each part does its bit in that process, by drawing us in, uniting us, speaking to God, listening to God, finally going forth to do His will in the world. There should be movements and pauses as we make this journey.

That isn’t what my church doing, alas, but then I’m not sure they know what the various parts of a worship service are for, or that its significance is as a collective experience.  Something for you to add to your prayers for us.

Nov_ 29 combined

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Contemporary or Traditional Music: Which is Right?

Our church has gone to only one service during the summer, and we are trying to combine elements of both services. This article does a good job of explaining the challenge we face in trying to combine musical styles.

A Question of Style Let us limit our discussion to congregational singing. Some concepts can be applied to choral singing as well. However, for the sake of brevity, we will ignore entirely the issues of solo and instrumental music.

Source: Contemporary or Traditional Music: Which is Right?

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Letter 35: A Prayer for Penteost

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Come Holy Ghost,

Alight on us as a dove

And bring us peace.

For we are tempest-tossed

And would thy comfort seek.

 

Come Holy Ghost,

Singe us with your fire.

For we are cold and dark

And would thy better tongue

To speak.

 

Come Holy Ghost,

Free as the wind,

Fill us, propel us,

Drive us where you will.

Be ever-breathing still.

 

Come Holy Ghost,

Shaker of worlds,

Hold forth God’s power

That all the world, and we,

Would see, and believe.

 

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Letter 33: Watching and Waiting, an Easter Mediation

Easter is Sunday. In thinking about the Easter story, I was struck by two things. First how unnoticed the first Easter was, and second, how much waiting surrounds Easter. I suppose I should elaborate.

Easter is central to the Christian faith. Without Easter, there is no Christian faith. Given how much notice the seminal events in Jesus life received, Easter is surprisingly low key. Indeed, if one accepts the earliest copies of Mark’s gospel, we have only some frightened women and an empty tomb. Angels will appear, but again, only to some women. The guards are struck as dead men when Jesus rises from the tomb, so they see nothing, and can only report that the tomb is empty.

John reports that the first disciples to inquire again find only an empty tomb. John believes, but Peter has only questions. The risen Christ is finally spotted by the same group of women who have attended Him throughout His ministry, and they at first think He’s the gardener.

At Jewish law, women cannot give testimony, and so God deliberately chooses to reveal himself to people whose testimony cannot count and cannot be trusted. It seems a strange thing to do, as if He is making deliberately difficult to get to the bottom of what He is up to. He confounds the wisdom of the wise, and turns this world upside-down, but we have to work to find it. Why?

Thus the waiting. There is a lot of waiting in the Easter story. Jesus gets shuttled back and forth between the various authorities in Jerusalem waiting for the resolution He knows will come. He is several hours dying on the Cross. Nothing happens quickly. And then comes Holy Saturday, where Christ lies buried deep in the bowels of the earth, unseen. Holy Saturday is the day nothing happens, the day we wait.

There is much to ponder here. Which is why we wait. In the hidden places, God is at work.

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Letter 23: When Keely Smith Sings the Beatles

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Last night, I was listening to a most peculiar album, “Keely Smith Sings the Music of Lennon and McCartney.”   In and of itself, there is nothing remarkable about it. Ms. Smith was a second tier singer of standards during the 1950s, and like so many singers of her ilk, the coming of the Beatles brought a significant career challenge. Hitherto, while rock and roll laid a strong claim on popular attention, they often drew from the same sources for material, and there was much overlap, and the two existed side by side. Now, however, the old standards were pressed to the background, and only the first tier talent was still drawing attention.

What to do? The curse here, was relevance. Top stars of the older generation, like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, could pick and choose what current songs they performed, including some Beatles songs. But in the main, there was little change. People still came to their concerts and bought their albums, though it was now mostly an older audience, those on the edges did not feel so out of date.

The second tier performers found it much harder to attract an audience. One could choose to set up shop in Vegas, or hit the country fair circuit, or try to re-invent one’s self. Thus Keely Smith turned to covering the Beatles. It made for a strange marriage.

Smith was a good singer, who had refined her pop sensibilities through years of live and recorded performances with her then husband Louis Prima. But it was the pop of a different era. For some of the songs it works. For others, it leads to something utterly unrecognizable, a once poppy tune turned syrupy and saccharine. Yuck.

As an aside, the real irony is that these days aging pop stars have found refuge in the old standards that were once Ms. Smith’s stock in trade. Ms. Smith herself has followed that path. I am not sure if the old songs are simply easier to sing, or just better fit superannuated singers.

There may be a lesson in this sad tale for us. The “Worship Wars” that so many of us had hoped were now past now seem to be returning with a new twist. Young people are decrying contemporary worship as superficial, empty, and worst of all, “inauthentic.” When they experience modern worship, they are apparently picturing Keely Smith singing Beatles’ songs.

So what makes worship “Authentic?” Does it require use of archaic language? Must it possess an ancient pedigree? It seems we keep circling back to the question of what is worship, and what we should be trying to accomplish in worship and through worship.

Outside of the sacrificial system, which we believe to have been fulfilled and abolished by Christ, the one place were Scripture regularly demonstrates worship is in the Psalms. The Psalmist engages in a conversation with God. He describes both his experience of God and the state of his soul. He declares the truths about God, and offers and account of walking with God, both its ups and its downs.

Using this model, our worship should be both descriptive and normative. What I suspect strikes people as “inauthentic” is our tendency to be descriptive when we should be normative and normative when we should be descriptive. Authenticity comes from trying to balance the two aspects of worship. We should be honest about the state of our souls at the same as we declare the great truths about God, because they are not always the same.

Church probably shouldn’t look or feel like anything else, either.  We are, after all, trying to connect people to a reality that transcends our world.  It will always be imperfect and messy, but a church service should never be mistaken for a talk show, or a concert, or a TED lecture.  That, too gets smeared when Keely Smith sings Lennon and McCartney.

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