One of the most beautiful sounds in the world is a congregation lifting their voices together in song. We recently had a hymn-sing at my church, where people yelled out numbers from the hymnal and we lifted our voices together. I was able to get some audio of some of those songs. I hope you enjoy:
I was able to preach two sermons at Forest Baptist Church during 2016. The first was was from 2 Chronicles 20: http://www.forestbaptistchurch.org/sermons/?sermon_id=413
And the second was from Colossians 1:3-12: http://www.forestbaptistchurch.org/sermons/?sermon_id=435
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. -Colossians 3:16
There is much discussion about what music in the church should look like. It seems that there are as many different opinion as there are churches, and while I do think there is plenty of room for various viewpoints, Colossians 3:16 gives a wonderful outline for some basic principles for church music. While there is certainly much more to church music than what we’ll look at here, I firmly believe that there should not be less. This verse is written as a command, and should be treated as such, and responded to with obedience. So, let’s look at the various parts of the verse to see what it teaches us.
“The word of Christ” – The music of the church should be scriptural. If our music is ever in contradiction to the Bible there is a severe problem, however what is more common is when music is simply ignorant of the Bible. When the lyrics bear no imprint of scriptural references and ideas, they become indistinguishable from the secular music around us. It is my goal that the music of this church will always be rooted in scripture.
“Teaching and Admonishing” – Here we see, quite plainly, that the purpose of church music is not emotional or experiential, but rather educational. Paul is clear that our music is used for teaching. It is for this reason that we strive to make the music a further exposition of the sermon text. We do not want the music time and the sermon time to be two separate elements, but rather it our goal that the music will be teaching the same ideas and themes as the sermon. This helps to combat the issues of emotionalism and entertainment in our singing. It ensures that the basis for all we do is not within ourselves, but always in response to scripture. It also ensures that our attention is drawn to the aspect of God we are learning about, and not to anyone who is on the platform. Paul does not simply say music is for teaching, but also for admonishing. This means that the songs we sing should also be working with the sermon to convict us, and to encourage us towards righteous living. It is my goal that after we leave the sanctuary, if you find yourself humming any of the songs we sang that day, that they will remind you of the sermon, and that they will continue to teach you.
“One Another” – The New Testament is filled with commands to live with ‘one another’ in view. This requires participation. We cannot love one another if we are cloistered away by ourselves. In the same way, we cannot sing with one another if we keep our mouths closed. Again, this fights against the culture of entertainment that can creep into church music. We are not gathered together to listen to someone else sing, but rather to join our voices together. There are some practical implications to this as well. If we are to be singing together, then the songs must be singable. There are many popular songs on the radio that have ranges well beyond what the untrained voice can handle. This keeps the average singer silent while only the talented continue singing.
“With Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” – Here Paul takes a stance on the issue of genre in church music, and his instruction is to have diversity. We are not just to sing Psalms, or just hymns, or just spiritual songs, but a mix of all of them together. Here at Forest, we have such a wide range of ages in our membership, and there is an equally wide range of opinion on worship styles. My goal is to follow Paul’s instruction and to keep things diverse. One week there is a brass ensemble, another week a band with guitar, bass and drums, another with violin, flute, and hammered dulcimer, and yet another a men’s quartet. We have been blessed with many talented musicians, and I am thankful for the ability to have such diversity in our music.
“Singing with thankfulness”- Overall, however, we music remember that singing in church is not a duty to be endured, but rather a joy to be participated in with gratitude. We get the chance to gather together and lift our voices in praise and adoration of our Creator who loves us and has redeemed us. I hope that we will keep these things in mind while we sing and they will enhance our participation in worshiping Christ together.
For this Easter season, I wrote three songs celebrating the Kingship of Christ as displayed on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter.
I decided to challenge myself this year and write my own small Christmas Cantata. I am proud to present the result, four original songs scored for Choir, piano, and brass quartet.
You may have noticed by now, and if you haven’t I apologize for the spoiler, that this world is a very strange place. We talk of the Creator who made all things good, who gives all good things. And yet. You don’t have to look around for very long to notice that not all things are good. A mind can bend and a heart can break under the weighty presence of darkness in this world. We have a problem. We profess the goodness of the Creator, and yet all around us is the evil of his supposedly good creation.
Act I: Consider the Toxoplasma Gondii. T. Gondii is a parasite, which for some particular reason, is only capable of reproducing in the guts of cats. So, picture this scenario: The parasite is in a cat’s gut, and it lays its eggs. However the gut of the cat is part of a larger digestive system whose end result is a pile of droppings in a discreet location. Oftentimes, a few days later, this same pile of droppings becomes lunch for a rat. So now our friend T. Gondii has a problem. For the sake of reproduction, it desperately wants to be in the gut of a cat, and yet that is the absolute last place its new host wants to be. So, this little parasite travels from the gut of the rat up into the brain, specifically the section of the brain that controls such things as fear, anxiety, and terror, and once there is able to “switch the commands” of this section of the brain with the part of the brain that controls attraction. T. Gondii, a microscopic parasite, is able to make rats find cats to be attractive, thus causing the prey to desire to be near the predator, often allowing the T. Gondii to find itself back in the gut of the cat. Where did this diabolical parasite come from? Did God look down upon Toxoplasma Gondii and say, “It is good?” Was the death of prey by predator created into the fabric of the universe? Does this mean that God is the author of death? How then can he be Good? And if he is not Good, how can he be God?
God must not exist. We must be the product of the random throws of the dark and uncaring universe. There is no meaning, there is no purpose, all that is, is all there is, and anything more is the projection of fanciful human wistfulness. It is only thus that the world can make sense. Take away the divine and you can easily make sense of pain, famine, death, Sandy Hook, Toxoplasma Gondii.
Act II: Consider the vampire bat. An animal that lives and travels in packs, vampire bats have been a source of much curiosity among evolutionary scientists. The logic of the world without God is that only the strong survive. The weak were meant to die off, and are only a hindrance to the pack. When scientists first began to study vampire bats they were shocked to find that these blood sucking creatures engaged in surprisingly altruistic actions. While observing a pack that had come back from a feeding, scientists noticed one of the bats going around the pack, cuddling up to other members of the pack. In response to this cuddling, the other bats would regurgitate some of their own meal into the mouth of the beggar. Scientists tested this, by holding back one of the members of the pack while the others were fed, and then watched as the hungry bat made rounds around the pack and others in the pack gave up a portion of their own hard won meal to feed this ‘weaker’ bat. So. It seems that even though this world is dark and evil, there is a capacity for goodness sewn into the fabric of nature. How, in a world without God, can we account for this goodness? If there is no meaning, then where did our capacity for understanding come from? Why are we so susceptible to beauty? How do we make sense of the man who jumps onto the subway tracks to hold the stranger who is having a seizure in the path of an oncoming train?
Act III: So what are we to do with this strange world? There is darkness, there is light. We have the capacity to view a sunset and to have our breath be taken out of our lungs in amazement, to have tears come to our eyes as we take in the display of color, and yet that same sun can give you skin cancer. Around the world, countless people are killed when the earth heaves and quakes, causing fissure and cracks that destroy cities. And yet, without the movement of earth’s plates that cause earthquakes, the mountains that we lift our eyes to would not exist. The same ocean that we find great pleasure and enjoyment in can be whipped into the fury of a destructive flood. How do we make sense of a world where those who selfishly take lives live among those who selflessly give theirs? A world with both Toxoplasma Gondii and vampire bats?
Act IV: There was a tree in a garden. We know it as the tree of the knowledge of both good and evil. When Eve took a bite of that apple, she gave us the strange juxtaposition of being aware of, susceptible to, capable of, both good and evil. Humanity still bears the image of God, and yet we bear the blight of original sin. Nature, likewise, was created good, and yet is under the cruel weight of the curse. The optimistically spiritual person struggles with the darkness in this world. The atheist desperately tries to explain away the good. It is only with a true Biblical understanding can we make sense of this strange world.
Be. To be is to exist. To exist is to be in motion. There is nothing that is that does not move. The Poet Dean Young put it this way: “To always be in motion there is no choice/ even for the mountain and its frigid/ cousins floating on the oceans that even sluggish/ seethe and moan and laugh out loud at their own/ jokes. How "like the human heart" can be said of/ pert near everything, pint of fizz, punching/ bag because all moves: the mouse, the house, the pelt of moon corresponding to the seas/ (see above) (now get back here)” (From As Easy as Falling Down Stairs). Indeed all moves. The universe itself, we are told, is always moving, ever expanding. Measurements from the Hubble Telescope estimate that our universe is expanding at the speed of about 46.2 miles per second per megaparsec (a megaparsec is roughly 3 million light-years.) If that seems a little technical, rest assured, it is quite fast. The fixed points of stars, being gaseous, are also constantly in flux, in motion. Light itself moves in measurable speeds. Let us, however, ignore the inherent motion of the universe. Let us ignore the fact that our galaxy is rotating at 492,125 mph, or that our sun is orbiting around our galaxy at five hundred fifty nine thousand two hundred and thirty four miles per hour. That the mass of rock and water that we call home is hurtling through space at an average of sixtyseventhousandonehundredandeightmilesperhour, all the while rotating on its axis at a breathtaking speed. Let us ignore that the continents we stand on are inching their way across the face of the ever moving globe, and still it is impossible to escape the perpetual motion of existence. With every breath we take, our lungs expand and retract. Our heart is constantly pumping blood through our veins. There is the immeasurable motion of thoughts coursing through the mind. Neurons firing, eyes blinking. Cellular mitosis. To be is to exist. To exist is to be in motion. So be:
Still. Defined: Not moving. Old English speakers took the word still from the same German word that they used to get the word stall, as in cattle stall. The original German root word (stel) literally means fixed, not moving. Stall is also used to mean delay, or to keep from action, motion. If life is motion, then stillness is death. We understand this, thus the term ‘a stillborn child.’ There is a reason why the phrases ‘the still of the night’ and the ‘the dead of the night’ are interchangeable. Emily Dickinson reinforces the relationship between stillness and death with the words: “I heard a fly buzz when I died/ The stillness round my form/ Was like the stillness in the air/ Between the heaves of storm.” It is indeed in death alone that the body ceases to move. The lungs cease their labor, the heart is at rest, the blood ceases its veiny race, and the body rests in peace. And yet, does Christ not call us to come and die? Romans six reminds us that we have died with Christ. It is only in this death that we find rest. Peace. Stillness.
And Know. Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible is a dramatic retelling of the Salem witch trials. In one of my favorite moments of the drama, the main character, John Proctor, is attempting to undermine and discredit the testimony of Abigail, who is hurling accusations of witchcraft against people in the town. Desperate to prove that Abigail is anything but innocent, he shouts out in the court, (as a condemnation of both her and himself), “I have known her!” When reading through this portion in my high school English class, my fellow students laughed. In their minds it was if he had shouted, “We had coffee once!” They were not thinking of ‘to know’as what is often called the ‘biblical’ sense. Knowledge implies intimacy. Scholars often refer to the great men of their studies by their first names. I had a music professor who referred to Beethoven as Uncle Ludwig. To know something is not simply to be aware of it. Not simply to have a shallow understanding. It is more than being acquainted. It is to be intimately familiar with the ins and outs, the nuances, and intricate facets of a topic/person/idea.
I Am. My grandfather used to tell of his conception of God before he was a Christian. It seemed absurd to him that there was a being who had no beginning. He thought that God surely had to have a father or a creator, just like everyone else. However, upon reflection, he realized that such a figure themselves would have to have been begotten by another, who required another origin. He was faced with acknowledging either an eternal line of begetters, or one eternal, self-existent One. Even secular science considers matter to be a self existing constant: something that always has been, and always will be; something that did not have a beginning, and does not have a foreseeable end. There was a man herding sheep in an ancient desert. The sheep were plodding through the hot dry sand, winding through large rock formations, searching out what vegetation they could find. The dirty, sweat-drenched shepherd caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye. A fire blazing in a bush, and yet, as he approached, Moses noticed that the bush was not consumed. If a burning-yet-not-consumed bush had not been strange enough, Moses was undoubtedly shocked when a voice proceeded from it. After receiving the command to deliver God’s people from Egypt, Moses replied, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses,” I Am, Who I Am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, “I Am has sent me to you.’” I am who I am. What a name. The self-existent one. He is the constant eternal God. The hymn writer Frederick Faber declares it this way: “Thou wert not born; there was no fount/ From which Thy Being flowed/ There is no end which Thou canst reach/ But Thou art simply:
God. Immutable. Unchangeable. Absolute. Unassailable. Wise. Kind. Love. Omniscient. Holy. Eternal. Impassable. Infinite. All-powerful. Self-existent. Self-sufficient. Good. Gracious. Merciful. Just. Indefinable. Sovereign. God. Imminent. Impeccable. Missional. Three. Incomparable. One. Providential Righteous Veracious God Transcendent Majestic Faithful Truth Wrath Jealous Divine Perfection Invincible Supreme Ultimate Alpha Omega BeginningEndCompassionPowerPeacePatienceBlessedBeautifulOrderlyKnowableIndescribableInexpressableUnutterableMarvelousHolyGreatBoundlessUnrestricted BlamelessIrreprochablePrevailingFairIndescribableEndlessUnlimitedGodunfathomableglorylimitlessceaselessfaultlessandbeholdtheLordwaspassingbyandagreatandstrongwindwas rendingthemountainsandbreakinginpiecestherocksbeforetheLordbuttheLordwasnotinthewindandafterthewindanearthquakebuttheLordwasnotintheearthquakeaftertheearthquakeafirebuttheLordwasnotinthefireandafterthefireasoundofagentleblowingwind.
“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests but also for the interests of others.” Philippians 2:3-4
These verses clearly spell out one of the major differences between the Christian world view and the rest of the world. In our society, driven as it is by evolutionary presuppositions, it is accepted that everyone will, and often should, look after their own interests. Our own inherent selfishness grabs at the excuse and runs with it to extreme egocentric heights. However, as Christians, we know that such a mentality does not lead to personal satisfaction, but rather destroys our relationships with those around us. Since I have been married I have been learning every day more and more how essential it is to regard my wife as more important than myself and to elevate her personal interests in my life.
The Church, a family itself, also needs to keep Paul’s admonishment to the Philippians in mind in how we deal with each other while we work, serve, and worship together. Worship is often seen as an intensely personal act; an individual’s interaction with God. However, when we gather on Sunday mornings, we are not a collection of individual worshipers who happen to be in the same building at the same time while we worship. Rather, we are a corporate body that is together engaging in worship through prayer, attention to scripture, and song. The aspect of togetherness is easiest to see while we sing. We are all saying the same words at the same time; words confessing truths about our God, to our God. Our singing is a beautiful reminder that we are one entity engaging in worship.
It is, however, a sad truth that music is often one of the most divisive issues in the church. Within a congregation there is inevitably going to be a diversity of personal musical preferences and tastes. If we were to gather our collective Cds, iTunes, Spotify playlists, vinyls, Pandora stations, Cassettes, and any other music listening mediums, together, the resulting catalogue would cover much of the full spectrum of musical styles. It follows then, that on a Sunday morning, when we gather together and sing, not every single individual is going to like every single song we sing.
However, that is precisely why we need to keep Philippians 2:3-4 in mind while we sing, because even though I am not personally interested in the style of certain songs, I need to be aware that some of my brothers and sisters are, and I need to look out for their interests. I call this Grace Filled Worship. We show grace to one another by joining and participating together in worship, even when it is not suited to our own personal taste preferences. If we let our own personal tastes dictate our participation in a worship service, then we are acting out of our own selfishness. How can that be true worship? Our worship should, above any question of style or taste, be Christ focused, and Christ, as Philippians 2 goes on to unmistakably show, is the essence of selflessness.
What would it really look like if each of us were looking out for the musical interests of others instead of our own? To paraphrase from Russell Moore: could you imagine if it were the senior saints of the congregation who were advocating new music while the younger members were ensuring that the older hymns aren’t forgotten? We have a chance, in our singing, to honor one another, and serve one another by participating in different songs and styles, no matter what our personal preference may be. And by participate, I don’t mean simply grinning and bearing certain songs, but actually engaging in them out of love for those around us who resonate with those songs. You may find that if you are interested in what enhances the worship of your brothers and sisters, your own worship will be enhanced.
Show grace to your fellow church members by participating with them in songs that are in their preferred styles. Put your own musical interests aside, and worship with humility and deference. For it is only when we put aside our own selfishness that we can truly focus on Christ. And it is only when we truly focus on Christ that we are truly engaging in worship.
"It's enough to drive a man crazy; it'll break a man's faith
It's enough to make him wonder if he's ever been sane
When he's bleating for comfort from Thy staff and Thy rod
And the heaven's only answer is the silence of God" -Andrew Peterson (The Scilence of God)
There are those times when you look up into the night sky, and it’s almost as if you can see every single star out there. It’s almost as if you could just reach up and touch at least one of those stars with your fingertips; the night seems so alive and full of light and love that you can barely stand it. There are those days when the warmth of the sun covers you like a blanket and a soft breeze brushes against your skin. You feel so connected to everything around you and a peace flows through your soul. There are times when you stand on the edge of a mountain and you can see for countless miles. See the reaching peaks, the rolling foothills, and the pleasant valleys. And you are reminded of how small you are, but also convinced that something greater exists. There are moments when the music swells, when the prayers come easy, and the veil truly seems ripped in two.
But then there is the rest of life. When everything is so busy that you barely have time to look at the sky. And when you do have a moment to glance up, it screams back in complete silence. At night you read your Bible and the words just seem like platitudes that you've heard a million times before. You say a prayer and it seems that it has hit the ceiling and ricocheted back, just to slap you in the face. And it’s not always that everything in life is so completely horrible, it’s just that the heavens, which you remember being so bright and so vividly alive, are now nothing more than a far away collection of matter. You just want to be in touch with God. You long more than anything to reach out and to feel his hand in yours. The way that you have felt it in other moments of your life. And that’s when you understand the desperation of the ancients. Those who were inspired by the grandness of nature to believe in a higher power, but could not understand how to reach him. The incantations, the dances, the rituals, and even the sacrifices began to make sense. You feel that you would do anything, no matter what, just to reach out and touch God. But it feels as if all you touch is the silence of the heavens.
But you don't have to reach out to God. That’s the beauty of Christianity. While every other religion shows you what you need to do, rules, rituals, and human effort, the Christian Gospel tells a completely different story. It tells the story of a God who reached out to humans. It tells of a baby in a manger, who though being in nature, God, didn't think equality with God was something to be held on to, and so came to this world in order to break the silence of the heavens, and to live as a man. So when you feel the despair of a seemingly meaningless sky, and you are searching for a way to break through the walls that seem to separate you from your Creator, just remember that he has already taken the initiative and broken through those walls himself. He left the glory of heaven in order to reach out to mankind. So you don't have to kill yourself trying to reach out to him, you just need to remember that God became a man in order to draw us into Himself. That is what the incarnation is all about. Jesus Christ. God becoming a man in order to draw all men into Himself.
Merry Christmas everybody.
"(I ask you to subscribe) to a countercultural affirmation that God, the Creator of the universe, has cut a path into our history and, having become one of us in Jesus, unites us with Himself." -Robert Webber (The Divine Embrace)