Tag Archives: hymns

Renewal of a great Christian Church

I’ve been the pastor of First Saint Johns for five years now (wow, I cannot believe FIVE YEARS!) OK, I’m better now, anyway, First Saint Johns really is a great, old downtown, almost cathedral. A place where God is truly glorified and has been for 140 years. It is also the focus on a “Renewal” effort, in order to rebuild a great temple to God.
Due to that I have done a lot of study and experimenting and while this is a message to someone else who is helping on this, I thought I would share this with the blogosphere.
While it might look like First St Johns has been a stuffy, tradition bound church, actually First St Johns “traditions” have been changed considerably in the last five years. While you might assume it has always been a liturgical type of worship, when I started there it was much more a kind of “folksy” as it were, contemporary, really wasn’t feast or fowl. I did not come to First St Johns with an agenda for liturgical worship, but the more I studied and also interacted with other ministries I felt that this is the way we should go. There was a lot of study and thought that went into this, there were no snap decisions and has been handled in a pretty subtle way, partly so that I could learn to do this better (and yea, I have a ways to go). Liturgical worship is not part of my experience, I did not grow up in any particular Christian tradition and my first years were in the United Methodist Church, so it’s not based on an agenda, but in terms of how are we best serving. I certainly could be doing some things in an unconventional way, but there again, I think the repetition of liturgical worship is built in to the worship in order to reinforce the point of the worship for the day. I would agree worship may appear to have a lot “stuffed” in and I’m not sure that’s the best way to go, but I really think a little overkill is more effective and I think it is effective in terms of overcoming years of downplaying Scripture in the church.
There is the issue in terms of using unfamiliar language, I’m not trying to intimidate, with liturgical language. But I think for too long the church has not challenged people, that it has made it easy and not made it something that was something important and God’s glory but that was supposed to be easy and therefore not even worth trying to understand.
I’ve done a couple of worship services, and planning to do it again, that walks through the service and explaining what it was about and why it’s done, something I try to stress for new members also. I really don’t think it’s an issue of “alienating” as much as including people in something that they should come to recognize as something so much bigger, more meaningful, that God does really change lives, His ways are not our ways, be a part of something that is God’s and not something that the church is, again, doing to lower itself into the world, but to raise God’s children above the world.
As I said in my sermon yesterday, worship in a more ancient manner ties us to the ancient church and also as a common factor with Christians around the world. I have seen a lot of current research that finds a desire in people, who, living in a period of such fragility, that we’re in, failure of institutions around us, the desire is for something that is stable, that has survived the centuries, that reaches to a massive number of Christians. Something that is solid, has stood the test of time and will move into the future.
The more we build that, establish that and project that, the more people will realize what they are not getting in their lives right now. During the Pentecost period, we do, mix things up a little. But during the high seasons, I want to emphasize the sacredness of those times and remind people of the important points of Christianity.
The reason why I resist a lot of praise songs is that the emphasis is changed from Jesus to the individual. One of the members of the congregation made an interesting observation (and I’m not really sure he supports liturgical worship), but he said that he’s always counted the number of personal pronouns in “praise music” and the I, me, mine always seem to dominate praise music. Hymns were written to be another way to convey the message of that day’s topic, too much praise music sounds nice, but there seems to be either little teaching or rather superficial teaching. I would very much like to do more with praise music. We’ve been trying to get a First Friday function ramped up to showcase Christian praise, I’d like to do other times of praise music, Erin Bode was at First St Johns a couple of years ago for an evening event. Believe me I love contemporary Christian music music, I have an extensive personal collection.
But it also raises another issue what you and I think of as contemporary Michael Smith, Amy Grant, Michael Card, and what older members think of, Gaither Band, is not what people today think of as contemporary “King and Country” “David Crowder” Modisha, which I also happen to like, but I’m sure you can see that kind of music would not go over big with the majority of people in the congregation. Gaither Band, would not be a big hit with younger members. I really am interested in any suggestions and if it really comes to pass that it would be doable to do a separate contemporary I would certainly consider it.
My reluctance there would be something that other churches have found in doing separate services for awhile, is that it tends to separate the congregation, segment it, instead of bring it together. We may not be able to avoid that since I would very much like to implement a separate Spanish speaking worship, but I honestly believe that at this point, more liturgical worship is what younger people are looking for in terms of stability and other factors that I could go into and would actually unite everyone in one method, vs, doing something that would be more pleasing to one group and would not speak to any other groups.
While I realize that these conclusions are not going to generate a whiz bang. upturn, I do believe that it has stabilized the congregation and given it something that can be shared by everyone and they can bring something that is rather unique into the world as a whole.
One other factor for me is this, I really do have to pick a lane with this church. We have been enormously blessed, and we are in relatively good shape, but we do need to stabilize on a common ground and take that into the world and trust that God is going to use this unified outreach and bless it to His glory and grow His church at First St Johns

Liturgical worship, music, chanting, does stir the emotions, the right ones.

Once in awhile God blesses me with a “eureka” moment and you, dear reader, are about to share that with me, or well at least I’m about to lay it on you. Groovey, huh baby?

The hit on liturgical music/worship is that there is no depth of emotion, it doesn’t lift the spirit, the emotion.

Ya, well there’s a technical term, that’s “bupkus” or as Charles Dickens wrote, “bah humbug”.

The truth of the matter is that it  most certainly does! The problem is that the past few generations are so superficial, so motivated by “eros” love, that it’s all about me, give me, give me. Liturgical worship is much deeper, it gives to God who gives back to me. Yea, well we want to cut out the middle-man and, as always, gimme, gimme. If we would really shut-up and listen we might realize how much more comforting and strengthening liturgy is, how it reaches down to your soul, because it’s the Holy Spirit who is reaching. We can stay with the shallow/superficial or we can really build that relationship with God the way that man has been doing it, which would date back to at least the time of King David, King Solomon and Solomon’s Temple.

Now, I will concede this. Because liturgical worship is difficult, and for those who lead worship and really don’t get it, they will do a lousy job. Sure there are many young pastors who can do it, but they really don’t get it and after awhile it does seem to be going through the motions. For me, who is much less talented, but who has gotten it and is better able to articulate it, but still no talent, you know what, have a little patience with me and my lack of talent won’t matter. What will matter is the depth of emotion and love that we convey to the Father in the liturgy. If you just go through the motions meaning will not come out and again, there are too many who should do it well, but just don’t get it. Sorry, but seems there are far too many of the following mindsets: “Here I am going through the motions, I don’t really know what I’m doing or how I’m doing it or why and, frankly, don’t really care. Right, wrong or indifferent and, frankly, I don’t even think there’s a “right”.”

Well yea, there is a “right” and let’s talk about it.

I have opined before, that the difference between “happy-clappy” and real worship is the emotional content. God the Holy Spirit has finally helped me to articulate the case for the liturgy much better.

We have become an “eros” society. Everything has to appeal to the superficial, emotional, put on a big show – please me, it’s all about me, feed me, sex me, give me this superficial comfort, love me in this adolescent, it’s all about me, wah, wah!!!

Liturgical worship is about agape love. I give to You (God), I lift You up, I know it’s all about You (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). It’s only through You and because of You that I even exist, no less have any meaning at all. I is all about You, when I acknowledge that and praise You, You make it all about me. You make me something I could never be, Your child! You give me something that I could never get – everlasting eternal life in the resurrection. Real worship is always about completing that connection. Not me just sitting back and just taking, again that adolescent attitude.

Of course another reason we like the “eros”, is because it’s easier. It does just go to our base instincts and we don’t have to work at it. One hit that I’ve taken about being more liturgical is that in some way it’s not pleasing, doesn’t resonate well. Yea, well, get over it. Does everything have to be The Gaither Family? No in fact, that’s just another generation’s superficial “please me-please me” with no more depth of true worship. One of my past pastors, United Methodist, but definitely not of the wishy-washy liberal. If anything much more Father Flannagan. He was a military chaplain in Italy during World War II. The man couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but didn’t matter. If he had to belt it out a little louder to prod us to sing louder, he had no compunction about that and we frankly loved him for it. He was actually kind of a little prickly, nothing prissy sentimental about him, and when he started singing we’d just smile. Not a mocking smile, but a “there’s our pastor and we really do love him.” An attitude of pride, of it really doesn’t matter how we sing, just sing and lift up God in worship. That’s the way it should be done. For those prissy little perfectionists, get over yourselves and focus on worshiping God in the hymn and what the hymn is teaching and don’t worry your self about the quality. You ain’t no Pavarotti either. I have a much bigger problem with the guy who has much more talent and goes through the motions then the guy (me) who has no talent, but truly wants to lift up God in worship. I mean really, doesn’t that make sense? (I’m sitting here listening to Bob Seger and going on about hymns and liturgical worship, go figure. God surely does mix it up on you!)

The impetus that God used for what is going to be awhile longer (strap in) is an article in Christianity Today by Steven R. Guthrie Love the Lord with All your Voice (June 2013 pp 44- 47)

CT is not a high liturgy kind of publication and yet Mr Guthrie uses as the focus of his article Athanasius who lived from 293-376. Definitely not happy-clappy. “In the fourth century, the church father Athanasius articulated a different understanding of singing . It includes self-expression, but Athanasius believed singing is centrally a spiritual discipline – an important practice in Christian spiritual formation and a means of growing in the life of faith.” Now that would be for everyone, the Don Paiges, the Gaithers, Martin Luther, Me. Those who are great to listen to and those who, let’s just say can be challenging to listen to.

“In a letter to his friend Marcellinus, Athanasius enthusiastically commends the Book of Psalms and provides guidance for reading the Psalms devotionally, (B N – We are pretty sure that most, if not all, the Psalms were set to some kind of musical scoring. We don’t know how, but the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran Churches have all taken a run at putting the Psalms to melody and most of these are what we chant during worship.) … The Book of Psalms, however, has a unique place in Christian devotions, somethiat the was true in Athanasius’ time and remained so across centuries of monastic practice and worship. Athanasius suggests that the Psalms are so spiritually significant precisely because they are not simply read or spoken but sung…

Now I am going to quote the article at length, because it is just so right on. So I may be breaking rules and I’m sorry and will happily do what I can to make up for it, but this just has to be repeated.

“…In singing, the truth of the Psalms is drawn into the depths of one’s being rather than out of the depths of one’s being…” [this is in contrast to where music today is drawn to, which is much more on the surface, definitely not the soul. This is the difference between agape and eros. Agape reaches down to give you strength, being, connection that you could never do on your own vs. Eros which is entirely about your superficial appetites, more personal titillation than truly moving your soul.- JD].

What Guthrie talks about next applies to Scripture readings also. When we read Scripture with some genuine human emotion, versus the flat/rote manner most people read it, Scripture does come alive. It gives us a sense of what is really going on in the real world. So much of other beliefs are sort of unreal, pretension, than genuine “this is the human condition” ideas. Christianity can be very mystical, it is very deep, it is right where we live because God the Son, Jesus, did live among us and did experience everything we did. So it is real versus this phoney Eastern stuff or gnosticism, that tries to deny the reality of the world.

“We might ask again why we could not simply speak the words of Scripture as if they were our own. What is gained by singing them? Just this: In song, we learn not just the content of the spiritual life but something of its posture, inflection and emotional disposition.”

“When we sing, we learn not simply what to say but how and why to say it. What Athanasius recognizes (and what we might forget) is that inflection, rhythm, and tone of voice matter deeply. They are not aural decoration. For example, after someone offends us we might say, ‘It’s not so much what he said, it’s the way he said it.'”

Chanting is difficult, I keep trying to do better, make it more aesthetically pleasing. But it drives in me the opportunity to express the ideas in a deeper more meaningful way, an expression of the different emotions instead of it being some kind of rote incantation. Because of that, I hope that the hearer hears, the depth of what the writer was expressing 3,000 years ago. That the human condition has not changed a bit since the time of Solomon until now. When we get over ourselves and understand this connection that the church has had going back to the beginning, we can start to live genuine lives instead of this goofy idea that we are somehow so much smarter now than ever before. It’s not true and in some ways it should reassure you that you’re not the first one and won’t be the last. Shut-up and listen, instead of trying to convince us how brilliant you are. If you do, you might find some true comfort and connection to those who have been connected and inspired by God to live their lives in Him. The claim is that the liturgy, chanting has no depth of emotion. That is, as we say in the Greek, baloney. Most chanting is based on the Psalms, mostly written by King David. You do not know anyone who has gone through the range of emotions that David has. Shepherd, then king, great man, great sinner, hunted, hunter. This was a man after God’s own heart. When he loused up, he loused up big-time. But he took it back to God, he took the consequences, he dealt with the rubble, then came back and lived for God. He was a brilliant man, brilliant composer, brilliant king, brilliant soldier, diplomat, builder, on and on. To you guys who think that anything in the Bible is sort of silly and prissy, you need to snap out of it. David is more “man”, than any man I can think of before or since. He truly lived (omitting the really bad stuff), the way men should live. That is why the Psalms are so important, especially to guys.

“Music, Athanasius believes, is a sounding image of a soul that is no longer at odds with itself, nor at odds with itself, nor at odds with the Holy Spirit. Melody models an inner life in which the many different elements and impulses of the person are drawn together in a pleasing chorus.”

“Athanasius goes even further. Not only is this singing of Psalms an image of the well-ordered soul; it is also a means by which God brings about this order. As the Christian goes about ‘beautifully singing praises, he brings rhythm to his soul and leads it, so to speak, from disproportion to proportion.’ This proportioned, harmonized self is not our normal state of being. Apart from Christ, the ordinary state of affairs is for the various members and impulses of our person to jostle for control, battling with one another (Rom 7: 22-23). But when one sings, body, reason, emotion, physical sense and desire come alongside one another, each enlisted together in the praise of God. As we sing, we become a harmony.”

“…Athanasius’ point, however, is that specifically by singing our praises, all the diverse elements our our humanity are drawn together and then together lifted to God in worship.”

“Athanasius portrays the Christian life as a sort of richly broadened harmony, ringing out in praise of God…”

Part of what this means? Quit the non-sense about well you can’t sing, I don’t like hearing that. If you were focused on your singing and what it truly means in respect to the guy next to you and to God, you’d realize it doesn’t matter how good/bad the other person is. What matters is how the Holy Spirit is bringing what you are doing, what he’s doing, what every Christian who is at worship at that moment anywhere in the world is doing, making it a “richly broadened harmony”. Just saying, but I get the feeling you’re going to feel pretty petty in heaven, when you truly understand how the Holy Spirit does bring all that together. And yes that includes my still in much need of improvement chanting.

I am probably not doing Mr Guthrie’s article justice, but I think that I’ve made the point. God has been using liturgical music for at least 3,000 years. It does bring us together, it does reach down to our soul in a sacrificial, it’s all about the other person, it’s all about Jesus way. Can we do it better? Absolutely. But you want genuine emotion and content in your worship? All due respect to the David Crowder Band and all Christian music going back to who knows when, but the eros emotion that music evokes, is OK, believe me, I’ve got all the albums. But when it comes to what is truly from the soul, what reaches back through three millineium, what God uses to tie together Christians around the world, is the liturgy, based on, mostly, Psalms, but also the Gospels. When we truly take this form and truly lift up God in worship and make it all about Him, then He does respond and make it truly about us. In stark contrast to eros, which is all about me and what appeals to my senses and doesn’t go deep enough to impact our soul. Only God does when we truly lift Him up in worship that’s about Him and not about us. And if Athanasius is right and singing is a spiritual discipline, then it doesn’t matter if you do it well or not so well. We worship, we take the Body and Blood of Jesus, we hear the preached word, we’re baptized, we study Scripture, we journal, we confess and absolve, and yes we should sing, in a way that is truly a spiritual discipline and not another worldly indulgence.