Monday, January 29, 2007

Water into Wine

Yesterday at Parish Pres, the service focused on the wedding feast at Cana and the broader application of the joy and festivity that should abound in the New Covenant. I was thrilled to find this hymn by Charles Spurgeon (1866) that I set to a new arrangement of a 16th c. German melody.

Amidst us our Belovèd stands,

And bids us view His piercèd hands;

Points to the wounded feet and side,

Blest emblems of the Crucified.

What food luxurious loads the board,

When at His table sits the Lord!

The wine how rich, the bread how sweet,

When Jesus deigns the guests to meet!

If now, with eyes defiled and dim,

We see the signs, but see not Him;

O may His love the scales displace,

And bid us see Him face to face!

Our former transports we recount,

When with Him in the holy mount,

These cause our souls to thirst anew,

His marred but lovely face to view.

Thou glorious Bridegroom of our hearts,

Thy present smile a heav’n imparts!

Oh lift the veil, if veil there be,

Let every saint Thy beauties see!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Modern Culture Strikes Again

My three year-old daughter went to the eye doctor this past week. I was curious as to how they can test the sight of a child (“better or worse”) or on what they have them focus. As a child, I remember the “E” that went right or left or up and down. In this generation, they now use Barbie, Sponge Bob, Nemo, or other such big business characters. Her apprehension at being at the doctor’s office was exacerbated by the scary scene of a movie that was playing in the examination room. Unfortunately for the examiners, she did not recognize any of the characters. When they said, “Look at Dora,” she didn’t know what they meant. While waiting for her eyes to dilate, they put her in a room with another video running and some books. The video agitated her further until my wife turned off the TV, and they started looking through books.

A friend of ours had a similar experience at the mall this week. As if the culture of the mall did not create over-stimulation enough, the children’s clothing store in which she was shopping had a Sesame Street video running. It’s somewhat telling that we as a culture do not even stop to think that a video (regardless of content) might be offensive to some parents—whether at the mall, doctor’s office, or nursery room.

I have no doubt that my daughter could quickly become infatuated with an ubiquitous character or begin to choose a TV show over books. I just don’t want to give her that option until she develops more discernment with age and wisdom. For now, we’ll just enjoy the imagination that flourishes through reading and interactive play. It may be more time consuming and time intensive, but we already see the long-term benefits.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Worship Notes 26 January

God has placed us here in this time and place for a purpose, and our corporate worship should reflect that reality within the context of redemptive history. We are reformational, not revolutionary. We are confessional, not traditional or modern. In order to be truly contemporary, “with the time,” we must understand our place in the lineage of the Church—which necessitates an understanding of what has gone on before. We should appreciate and utilize the wisdom and artistic excellence of the past without worshipping the forms; we should seek to create new work, without divorcing ourselves from our history. In all, the controlling factor is the worship of God through that which is excellent.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Worship Notes 19 January

Following are some of the controlling principles with regard to the leading of worship that should be helpful from the congregational perspective as well:

• Worship is not performance
• The role of leading and facilitating worship is for the purpose of encouraging the congregation in worship, not to worship “at” them
• Arrangements and songs should be chosen that are ecclesiastically appropriate—what is appropriate in other venues may not be appropriate for corporate worship
• The criteria for what is ecclesiastically appropriate refers to text, music, the combination text and music, arrangements, and execution
• Worship should be accessible yet excellent
• As musicians, we should be growing in skill and depth—musically and theologically
• Craftsmanship is a biblical concept; originality is a humanist concept
• How we play and lead should be different than how we play and sing at a recital, coffeehouse, or concert
• God is the standard of beauty and excellence—our worship should seek after biblical excellence and objective beauty, goodness, and truth

More Thoughts on Worship

I still maintain that we often ask the wrong questions about issues of theology and worship. As a result, we create opposing categories which are not really in opposition because they both contain the same erroneous thinking. As such, I offer a critique of both modern and traditional worship with the caveat that despite the surface negativity, the affirmation of those things which are good and true and beauty about worship should be apparent.

Things I dislike about "Modern" Worship:
• Rejection of the past through chronological arrogance
• Effeminate music
• Lack of printed music to encourage part singing
• Being "worshipped at" instead of led in worship
• Instruments played in a secular, instead of Biblical, manner
• Disjointed images and truth conveyed in unbeautiful ways
• The following of cultural trends
• Lack of intentionality
• Lack of holy ruts
• Slave to tradition

Things I dislike about "Traditional" Worship:
• Acceptance of the past through chronological arrogance
• Stodgy music
• 1950's form of liturgy—three hymns and a sermon
• Empty traditionalism; focus on externals
• The discouraging of children in church
• Failure to be constantly reforming
• Formality for formalities sake
• Solemn and funereal communion
• Stuck in non-holy ruts
• Slave to tradition

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Effeminate Music

Now before I get blasted before I even get started, there is nothing wrong with feminine music; however, since Yahweh created Man male and female, the current lack of masculine music in the Church is troubling.

The ancient Greeks were highly concerned with the power of music to shape character. Wimpy music would produce effeminate men feared Plato. I believe such a thing has occurred in the modern evangelical church.

The use, or misuse, of bass lines is one of the most egregious examples. In the feminization of the American church, we’ve eliminated strong bass lines and thus have eliminated the need and place for men to sing manly music. In some songs we’ve removed bass vocal lines altogether. I have even been in church situations in which worship teams have sung hymns a capella but without a bass line!

Another element that weakens ecclesiastical music is poor vocal technique that makes breathy singing the norm. The full use of the voice, vocal projection, and good breath support is unnecessary, and actually undesirable, when microphones and amplification are used.

In addition, theology that presents God as a cosmic teddy bear who longs to have us climb in his lap and run his fingers through our hair while telling us he loves us is a far cry from singing the psalms that ask God to destroy his enemies. How many modern hymnals leave out the third verse of “Be Thou My Vision” (Be thou my battle shield, Sword for my fight) or “The Son of God Goes Forth to War” because they are too militaristic?

All of these elements leave church-going men without a vocal line to sing, no opportunity to sing robustly, and lyrics that major on emotional theology and not a balanced approach of emotional and intellectual truth.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Worship Notes 12 January

The concept of confessional worship creates an unfamiliar category
that challenges the better known ideas of contemporary or traditional.
Practically speaking, what is called contemporary or traditional can
be very subjective depending on time and place. As such, confessional
worship offers a corrective which transcends both categories. The
following thoughts may begin to help point us towards what that really
—Worship is the work of the Church—all other ministry flows out of
biblical worship
—Worship is coming before the throne of God and joining in worship with
the Church visible and invisible
—Worship provides joy, rest, and peace. It is restorative and
preparation for Godly living
—Worship is an efficacious tool in the process of sanctification
There is no substitute for corporate worship in the Christian life
—Worship is about what God requires, not what we like or prefer

Saturday, January 6, 2007

The King Shall Come

Tomorrow at Parish Pres we’ll be singing the following hymn translated from the Greek. It’s a wonderful text that captures all of the essence of this season: from the first to the second advent, the anticipation of the Lord’s coming, the images of light, glory, triumph over sin, and the revealing of Christ. My favorite tune for this text is “Morning Song” from Kentucky Harmony.

The King shall come when morning dawns,
And light triumphant breaks;
When beauty gilds the eastern hills,
And life to joy awakes.

Not as of old a little child
To bear, and fight, and die,
But crowned with glory like the sun
That lights the morning sky.

O brighter than the rising morn
When He, victorious, rose,
And left the lonesome place of death,
Despite the rage of foes.

O brighter than that glorious morn
Shall this fair morning be,
When Christ, our King, in beauty comes,
And we His face shall see.

The King shall come when morning dawns,
And earth’s dark night is past;
O haste the rising of that morn,
The day that aye shall last.

And let the endless bliss begin,
By weary saints foretold,
When right shall triumph over wrong,
And truth shall be extolled.

The King shall come when morning dawns,
And light and beauty brings:
Hail, Christ the Lord! Thy people pray,
Come quickly, King of kings.

Friday, January 5, 2007

The Christmas Oratorio

On January 6, 1735, J.S. Bach premiered the sixth, and final section, of his Christmas Oratorio.

One of the things that I appreciate about the music of Sebastian Bach is the liturgical context of his work which integrated with worship services. This fact is true with regard to the six-part Christmas Oratorio (1734-35)—a work written and conceived as a whole but designed to be performed on significant dates during the twelve days of Christmas. This unfolding of the Christmas story, compiled primarily from the biblical narrative, includes details about the Annunciation, the adoration of the shepherds, the circumcision, and the arrival of the Magi. Bach wrote the sections of the oratorio to be performed during services on the First, Second, and Third days of Christmas, the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1), the First Sunday of the New Year, and the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6).

The technical mastery, personal devotion and faith, liturgical application, and accessibility of Bach’s music is unmatched by any other composer. Even Handel’s Messiah is not a work for the church service, and the successive generations of composers after Bach (including Handel) wrote primarily for the concert stage—not the sanctuary.

As such, Bach’s music, and the Christmas Oratorio in particular, offers a rich feast of theology and worship. It’s a shame that these works (including the 200 church cantatas) are so under-utilized in worship, but at least we have recordings.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and January 1

One of the elements of modern academia is either the wanton disregard or attempt to discredit Christian influence on literature, or the lack of ability to notice it when it is indeed there. Critiques of medieval literature should always keep in mind the context of Christendom in which the authors wrote. This is why the following remark is puzzling concerning the manuscript of Gawain, Patience, Pearl, and Purity: All the poems except Sir Gawain and the Green Knight deal with overtly Christian subject matter, and it remains unclear why Sir Gawain, an Arthurian romance, was included in an otherwise religious manuscript.

The answer, of course, is that Gawain is indeed an overtly religious poem. One of the most obvious religious features of the poem is that significant events occur on liturgical feast days: Christmas, All Saints, and most importantly, the Feast of the Circumcision—January 1. The first antiphon sung during Lauds on January 1 is:

O wonderful exchange, wonderful trade:
The Creator of human kind, assuming an inspirited body,
Deigned to be born of a Virgin;
And coming forth as a man without admixture of seed,
He bestowed upon us his godhead.

This highlights the sin of Gawain. All of the virtues represented by the pentangle are subsequently discarded in Gawain’s sojourn in the Castle of Bertilak. He fails in his five fingers, in courtesy and chastity, and he fails to pray. His response to the seduction of the Lady is to value his own life above the morals and virtues he so proudly claims. The antiphon is a reminder that Christ fully accepted his humanity, but that Gawain refuses to submit to mortality at the potential cost of his own soul.

Ironically, Gawain glories in his outward virtues (through false humility), but inwardly he is corrupt. His sin which drives him to a full assessing of his character is outwardly minor, but inwardly significant because it reveals his motivations and desires above his public personae. In a sermon, Gregory the Great preached the following about chastity and lust that could hardly fit the circumstances of Gawain any better:

There is one kind of lust, namely of the flesh, by which we corrupt chastity, another, however, namely of the heart, by which we glory in our chastity. Hence God says to Job: “Gird up your loins like a man” [Job 38. 3], so that whoever first conquers the lust of corruption may now restrain the lust of glorying, lest becoming proud of his patience and chastity, he live so much the worse lustful within, before the eyes of God, as he appears the more both patient and chaste, before the eyes of man. Hence well is it said by Moses: ‘Circumcise the foreskin of your hearts’ (Deut. 10.16), that is, after you douse the lust arising from the flesh, cut off also the excesses of thought and imagination.

The climax of the story occurs on the Feast of the Circumcision, and the word used to describe the nick of the blade on Gawain’s neck, the nirt, is also a term used in discussing circumcision. Significantly, the Green Knight bestows Gawain’s name back on him after the acknowledgment of sin and guilt. The nick of the blade becomes a sacramental action that symbolizes the cleansing of baptism and a new name.

Much more could be said of the parallel between the hunting scenes and the seduction scenes with the animals involved, the separating of Gawain from Arthur’s court for testing just like the doe was separated from the herd during the hunt, the fact that Gawain wears blue, the color of fidelity, when withholding the gift of the girdle from his Host, and the maturity and connection to the earth of the Host’s castle versus the youth and artificiality of Arthur’s court. All of these things make a rich and wonderful tapestry in a substantive story of redemption and chivalry.