Posted in Different Thoughts, Uncategorized

on worship & music.

Growing up, I remember standing and enjoying a good extended refrain of “Victory in Jesus” with our old Nazarene worship pastor Calvin Kring.  His joyful countenance, and excitement to lift the name of Jesus were infectious.  I didn’t know everything God wanted to do in my life, but I knew if I could infect others with a love for God like his, that’d be a good start.

Throughout high school and into college, worship in song happened both in church through hymns and worship chorus, and in concert-type atmospheres of “youth gathering” type events.  In college, my love for music and gifts for singing gave me privilege to lead thousands in worship, travelling the Midwest in a couple different bands.  I loved the sounds of music that could fill a room, and creatively express God’s beauty in increasingly new ways.  But even in the midst of this, I encountered many who equated “new ways” with “better/more genuine ways”.  I’ll admit, there were even moments where I believed them.

Fast forward many years.  I’m serving as a pastor of a church in an area with hundreds of churches.   There are as many musical styles in our various “sanctuaries” as there are musicians.  Even within a congregation, there will be seasons of styles, based on who or what instruments are available to assist in the music that week.  I’ve seen people drawn to the love of Christ as they’ve connected with music in His presence.  I know it can be a powerful draw to new attenders, and some pastors feel the urge to put a large emphasis on it for that reason.  I also know many of us are returning from “COVID-induced” breaks from in-person gatherings with singing – and we’ve missed it.  I believe we are shaped in important ways, as we join in song together.

In his book, “Life Together”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives us his 2 cents on singing:  “Why do Christians sing when they are together?  The reason is, quite simply, because in singing together it is possible for them to speak and pray the same Word at the same time; in other words, because here they can unite in the Word.  All devotion, all attention should be concentrated upon the Word in the hymn.  The fact that we do not speak it but sing it only expresses the fact that our spoken words are inadequate to express what we want to say, that the burden of the song goes far beyond all human words…..

..The purity of unison singing, unaffected by alien motives of musical techniques, the clarity, unspoiled by the attempt to give musical art an autonomy of its own apart from the words, the simplicity and frugality, the humaneness and warmth of this way of singing is the essence of all congregational singing…..

..There are some destroyers of unison singing in the fellowship that must be rigorously eliminated.  There is no place in the service of worship where vanity and bad taste can so intrude as in the singing.  There is, first, the improvised second part which one hears almost everywhere.  It attempts to give the necessary background, the missing fullness to the soaring unison tone, and thus kills both the word and tone.  There is the bass or the alto who must call everybody’s attention to his astonishing range and therefore sings every hymn an octave lower.  There is the solo voice that goes swaggering, swelling, blaring, and tremulant from a full chest and drowns out everything else for the glory of its own fine organ.  There are less dangerous foes of congregational singing, the “unmusical”, who cannot sing, of whom there are far fewer than we are led to believe, and finally, there are often those also who because of some mood will not join in the singing and thus disturb the fellowship.”

Long ago, I would’ve considered Bonhoeffer’s words here ancient.   Obviously he was limited, and way too conservative with his views on worship through music.  Even still today, I’d counter that there are some beautiful things that a gifted instrumentalist or vocalist can add to the experience of a song.  But I can’t help but find some important truths in what he’s saying there.  He had been raised in an aristocratic family with a deep love for music.  They would spend a large portion of their family time learning or performing instruments, and offering these gifts in honor of God.  Dietrich himself was a highly skilled pianist and lute player, and his family thought he might go into music performance as a profession.

All of this to say, I’d much rather join in genuine unison singing on a Sunday morning with no-part-harmony, and no instruments playing with my family of believers wanting to praise the name of God in words beyond words, than a world-renowned worship band that was focused more on presentation and polished emotional manipulation.  Thankfully, I think many of our “normal churches” have something pretty genuine going on.  I pray we never get so amazing at worship that people begin the pack the pews because of our talented musicians (or great preaching, for that matter).  But I also pray we never get so comfortable in our humbly sung Words that we stop allowing them to impact our heart and life.

May we continue to be a people who worship “..in Spirit and in Truth.”

Posted in Different Moments, Different Thoughts, Uncategorized

Stations of the Cross…

A very simple, unpolished video that walks through the 14 local stations of the cross in preparation for Easter.

Takes about 21 minutes.

Posted in Different Scriptures, Different Thoughts, Uncategorized

Beyond fig leaves…

In ministry to youth since my college years, there have been many psychologists, sociologists, neurologists, and even parents who have attested to the teenagers’ quest for “self” discovery.  Throughout adolescence, floods of hormones and new/heightened neurological abilities for cognitive and social connections (the ability to “think” from anothers’ perspective) allows young people for the first time to be more fully aware of the self they not only are – but the self they are perceived as by others.  The fact that the “self” perceived by others might be different from the “self” they believe themselves to be – becomes realized.  (For more on this, here’s an awesome article you might be interested in.)  This ability actually grows and deepens throughout adolescence, and combined with modern technology can become a labyrinth from which young people need – not rescue, but guidance.  I’m also convinced that many of us “adults” (myself included) are sucked back into our adolescent years, in terms of the practices evoked by these opportunities.

This goes back to our very first presentations of a crafted “self-image”, as human beings.  Today, we see it in the duck-faced 13-year-old girl or the 15-year-old male flexing in a mirror – both affixed as a “Profile Picture” or even just an update.  The statement is implied by sharing (even if not understood), “This is the image I’ve chosen to represent the ‘self’ I’m curating for you to perceive me as.”  This is not a new desire.  Our first img_8561attempts at this are found in Genesis 3:7, as Adam and Eve sew fig leaves together out of a desire to cover up their true “self” which they’re shamefully aware has been marred.  They want to be perceived without the humiliating nakedness and vulnerability, and so they put on leaves and say, “This is the image I’ve chosen to represent the ‘self’ I’m curating for you to perceive me as.”

To this, God responds with the hard truth about what has happened.  He also replaces their garments of leaves which cost nothing, with garments of skin which we can assume cost the lives of animals.  God seems to suggest, “You may cover up, as this level of vulnerability is a heavy burden.  But it comes at a price also.”  We see here a prophetic illustration, that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  Not as payment, but as a direct result – living in a way that chooses our own presentation of “self” above the “self” God has created us to be, will always lead to death – whether of relationships or literal.  This is not something that weak people “fall into” as an activity, but rather something we are each born into as a state.

Thomas Merton wrestled with this same concept in thought & prayer: “To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self. I was born in a mask. I came into existence under a sign of contradiction, being someone that I was never intended to be and therefore a denial of what I am supposed to be. And thus I came into existence and nonexistence at the same time because from the very start I was something that I was not.” (Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, 1978)  (Note that “sin” here is less about morality and more about ontology.)

We are not left to struggle with this tendency toward the “false self”.  We believe and proclaim that Christ has provided a New way of being (ontology again!).  Galatians 2:20 declares that our “self” is “crucified with Christ” so that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (NIV)  Scripture reveals to us this Freedom is not only something offered to us, but invites us to understand that the very activity of sacrificing our “self” in order to receive the “self” that is alive in Christ is our act of worship! (Romans 12:1)  It is in this New-Creation-living in the life of Jesus that we discover and move toward the “self” God has created us to be. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

So how do we guide young people, and how do we respond to a technology culture that constantly invites us to purposefully curate our own “self” for the sake of how we’re known by others?

  1. Understand where the desire for “multiple-selving” comes from.  A certain level is healthy and expected:  What foods do I enjoy? What music/culture/comforts/fashions do I prefer?  What art do I appreciate/contribute?  During the adolescent years especially, our cognitive abilities develop in ways that allow us to “try on” variations of who we might become.   Most of us even continue into adulthood with more than one “self”, and seek to balance these expressions of our identity.
  2. Understand where the desire for a “false self” comes from.  Scripture reminds us we are born into a state of sin that brings death (Romans 5:12).  To deny this is our nature, and just try to “be good” or “be strong/successful/attractive”, etc. is to throw on fig leaves and hope for the best.  We come to God, confessing our naked vulnerability, and accept the price He has paid-to reconcile us in relationship – offering a restored “True self” that exists in the Love of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  3. Offer every expression of our “self” to be an opportunity to worship God, not bring glory to our “self”.  Whether on social media, in classrooms, in the living room, or wherever we find ourselves.  “Offer your ‘self’ as a living sacrifice…” (Romans 12:1)  This means daily (and a life of) prayer where we bring our whole “self” into the presence of God.
  4. Pray.  Together, and individually.  In prayer, we enter into a redeemed time and space where we discover the Loving God whose image we were created to bear, and are shaped/empowered by His Spirit toward how that can happen today.  Here we become less and less influenced by how we might be perceived by others, and in declaring Jesus as Lord – give weight to who God has declared we are becoming in Christ.
  5. Love.  Love God as the source of our True Self.  Love others, not as the “selves” they might curate for better or for worse, or as the “false self” ascribed to them by others, but as the “True Self” they are in the light of Jesus Christ.  Finally, love the True Self God has set you free to become – united with God in the Love and power of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.