Wednesday, December 10, 2014



Baptism – More Than an Event

As Baptists, there are several things that I believe we get right about Christian baptism.  New Testament baptism was always for those who personally embraced the faith through belief and repentance.  While I respect those traditions who baptize infants, I remain, and will always remain firmly convinced that believer’s baptism is the New Testament norm.  Furthermore, immersion was the mode practiced by the New Testament and early church.  In contrast to sprinkling or pouring, immersion is the most faithful to the original Greek word used in the Scriptures, baptizō - meaning “to dip.”  Perhaps even more importantly, immersion is a richer symbol representing dying and rising with Christ. 

But as Baptists, we’ve also had our weaknesses in our baptismal theology – at least in practice.  We’ve tended to consider Christian baptism as a necessary step of obedience (it is) and a public declaration of our faith (it is that, also).  But that is where we’ve often stopped.  But such an understanding isn’t nearly deep and rich enough to capture the full meaning of what the New Testament teaches about baptism. 

The Apostle Paul taught a baptismal theology that impacts the believer’s life every day:  “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).  Today, we will baptize four people.  But you will be brought into the experience as well as we “remember our baptism” together.  The new reality of the baptized life as taught by Paul gives us power for living in victory over sin.  It doesn’t matter how long ago you followed Christ in baptism.  It was more than just an event.  It is the new reality in which we are to live.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Power of Contemporary Song



Introduction – Experiencing Something New
One of the biggest challenges I face each week as I prepare a sermon for the morning service is to identify an experience I’ve had and with which you might resonate.  That’s not always easy.  But when I identify that common experience, we can set out on the sermon path together.  As I was considering how I might begin today’s message, I thought I might relay my experience with opera in honor of our new friends from California. 

How many of you really like opera?  That’s what I thought.  I didn’t grow up appreciating it either. Most middle class Americans don’t have much of a clue when it comes to opera.  And because the experience they may have had with opera was diminished from its ideal, many, if not most Americans would rather pass.  I had exposure to opera in school through music appreciation and music history classes.  I watched a little on PBS.  I also attended a few amateur and student productions.  The combination of high skill demand for opera and the not-fully-mature abilities of amateurs and students left me underwhelmed.  I wasn’t terribly impressed.

That wasn’t the case with my in-laws.  They were bona-fide opera buffs.  For many years they held season tickets to the San Francisco Opera.  They knew the names and the stories of the popular stars and the well-known operas.  On one occasion, they could not make a performance and gave their tickets to us.  That was no small deal.  They were $50 tickets back in the early 80’s.  Well, I was a music major and was supposed to appreciate it, so I agreed to go.  It was a big night out on the town.  A classy event for this blue-collar boy. 

I was surprised and enthralled.  Professional opera was like nothing I had ever experienced before!  Here was the pinnacle of artistic performance.  The combination of vocal virtuosity, a sensitive but powerful orchestra (that played in tune), dramatic story acted out with passion, fantastic visual sets, and, in the opera we saw, expressive dance was a tour-de-force of artistic presentation.  I was swept away into another world.  I was also surprised by the enthusiastic engagement of the audience.  The rich elite were acting like common folk at a baseball game.  When one of the primary singers would finish their song, the audience would clap, whistle, hoot, and throw flowers up on the stage while the singer would take multiple bows.  I fully expected ice cream and popcorn hawkers to appear in the aisles at any moment.  I will never forget that experience and I will never again disparage opera.  Given the chance to attend a professional performance, I would go in a heartbeat.  

Most people have some experience in their life that has surprised them.  It is not unusual for many to be afraid of something only to end up loving it after they’ve experienced it.  The fear or disdain we may feel for something is generally born out of ignorance or misunderstanding.  But once we begin to experience the thing and understand it, we may indeed come to fully embrace it and value it in our life.  Those are wonderful turning points.  We would be all the poorer for it if we refused to take a chance and experience something new. 

For many older Christians, the worship songs that began to appear in the 1970’s and blossomed in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s to become a dominant voice in worship today have always been a problem.  For the WWII generation that raised teenagers in the ‘60’s, guitars and drums have symbolized rebellion.  Contemporary praise and worship has always been a hard sell to them.  For those a bit younger, it has still been a difficult transition, because the musical style wasn’t what you grew up with.  And even if you grew up with Rock ‘n’ Roll and you prefer praise and worship songs, I believe there remains a good deal of misunderstanding about the genre.

Our text this week is the same as two weeks ago.  Let’s read it together:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
Colossians 3:16

In my last message, I contended that all three forms:, psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs were gifts from God through creative people to assist us in engaging with God in worship.  As no parent should prefer one of their children over another, I believe that Christians should embrace all three.  Two weeks ago, we celebrated the richness of hymns.  This week, I want to explain the power of contemporary song.

This message is the fifth in our series on worship.  In the first message we considered worship in a general sense: just what is it that is supposed to happen during this hour?  In the second and third sermons, we dealt with worship in the Old and New Testaments, respectively.  Two weeks ago, we celebrated hymns.  Throughout the series, in order to receive the most benefit, I’ve maintained that we must be:

·         Committed to the authority of Scripture
·         Learners
·         Servants of one another

A Look Back – The Origins of Contemporary Praise and Worship
The church has probably always had popular and contemporary song.  This is good and right, as the gospel must be relevant in every culture.  Part of the genius of Martin Luther’s Reformation strategy is that he wrote German hymns in the musical style of the day.  Charles Wesley, writer of over of 6,000 hymns wrote his words to be set to the popular songs of the day.  Along with psalms and hymns, the gospel should be set in the musical language of the people. 

The praise and worship music of today had its beginnings in the Jesus People Movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s.  Music, for that generation, became their prophetic mouthpiece.  The protest songs of the 60’s drove the anti-war and hippie movements of that day.  It was natural, then, that music would play a very important role in the formation of the Jesus People Movement.  I lived in Southern California at the time, which became the vortex of activity in the revival.  I attended a number of festivals where different bands would play for three or four hours and then an evangelist would speak for twenty minutes and give the invitation.  In a sense, the musicians became the preachers and the preacher the one who brought clarity and closure. 

Just south of Los Angeles, in Orange County, a little church called Calvary Chapel began to explode with new young converts.  Their growth was so rapid they had to assemble under a large tent for over a year before a building that was large enough could be built.  Unlike most of the evangelical churches in the day, Calvary Chapel encouraged musicians who were new believers to use their music for evangelism.  The church built a large stable of bands like Love Song, The Children of the Day, The Road Home, and Daniel Amos.  These bands, which were a mixture of folk and rock would tour around the region singing the gospel.  Thousands of young people came to Christ through those concerts. 

But not only did they use their music for evangelism, some of the songwriters began to produce songs to be used in corporate worship.  All of these early songs were very simple.  Songs like Alleluia, Seek Ye First, and Father, I Adore You were typical.  In their corporate worship, they were also experiencing a whole new dynamic as they sang to God rather than just about God.  Through this new music, the evangelical church was waking up to actually engaging with God in worship.  Music was now not just a warm-up to “prepare the hearts of the people” for the preacher.  Music had its own worth as a conduit of engagement with God in worship.    I cannot emphasize that point too strongly.  This is the great gift and paradigm shift that happened in evangelical corporate worship.  People actually began to connect with God through their singing.   It would be arrogant to assert that this kind of worship never happened before.  Tozer speaks of it as he sings classic hymns.  But after several generations of being fed on a full diet of testimony gospel songs, these new “praise choruses” ushered in a whole new understanding and experience in worship for evangelicals.

Why Context is Critical
Now it is critical to understand the spiritual dynamics that were in place during the Jesus People Movement and Calvary Chapel, in particular, where the Praise and Worship Movement began. This was a movement in which people were not ashamed to publically express how they felt about God. It was an environment in which people were not afraid of the mysterious work of God and were willing to take a risk to experience more of him in their lives.  The hunger and desire for genuine connection with God through the music is at the heart of the Praise and Worship movement.  Worshipping through contemporary praise and worship music is, in a sense, a transcendent and mystical experience.  And it is, almost always, an emotional experience.


Performance Practice
It is important to understand the roots and essential qualities of praise and worship music.  You cannot sing praise and worship songs the same way that gospel hymns were sung – to prepare hearts to hear the sermon. The person who sings praise and worship songs with the same expectations that he sings hymns will be disappointed.  Generally, hymns express compact theological truths through profound and beautiful poetry.  While they engage the emotions, their primary value is in the substance of their text; they engage the intellect.  Most praise and worship songs, on the other hand, express a theological concept simply but in a way deeply emotional way.  They engage the affections. 

Now in our modern world, we are prone to exalt reason over emotion.  You see it everywhere in our culture – even our Christian culture.  It is acceptable to demean and marginalize our emotions.   But such hierarchy between intellect and emotion is unfortunate and it is definitely not biblical.  Read the psalms.  They’re drenched with emotion.  We are to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and might (Deut. 6:8).  Praise and worship songs can help to give voice to our emotions and affections toward God.  That’s why people in praise and worship cultures lift their hands, close their eyes and are not afraid of tears.  Some of them even jump around and dance!  That’s why it is not a problem to repeat a phrase over and over and over again.  Not a problem at all if you are emotionally engaged.  But if you are not engaged emotionally with the song, then the repetition is boring and irritating.

Problems with Contemporary Song
Two weeks ago, when we discussed the richness of hymns, I also listed some of the challenges, namely, archaic language and a musical style that doesn’t resonate with the popular culture.  Contemporary praise and worship has its serious challenges as well. Obviously, I’m a very strong proponent of the genre, but I want to temper my promotion with these cautions.

1.      Because contemporary praise and worship is an expression of popular musical culture it is also subject to its worldly influences.  As is the case in the secular world, we are prone to idolize worship artists.  Nothing could be more repulsive to God (and I would think the artists, themselves) than to steal glory that is due to Him and give it to the artist.  And we are often naïve, unreflectively using the techniques of the world to highlight the artist and promote a performance culture in worship.  There may be a place for stage lights and fog machines in worship, but they must be used to draw us to God rather than the platform.  It is very easy in praise and worship to draw attention to yourself if you are on the platform.  It goes with the musical culture.  The burden of the worship leader is to lead the people in engaging with God through music.  Too often, the engagement is only with the artists as they become performers rather than prompters pointing the congregation to God. 
2.      A second problem with contemporary praise and worship is its tendency to reflect the cultural values of the world in the content of the text.  Here is where we need more theological reflection in our songwriting.  And I’m happy to report that worship song texts have been improving in the last several years.  One example, however, of how easy it is to fall into worldly cultural patterns of thought in our song has been the over-emphasis on self-fulfillment and” making me feel better” that has been pervasive in our contemporary worship songs for the last twenty years.  Often, these texts have been romantic in nature – you could easily sing them to your boyfriend or girlfriend.  The pervasiveness of these kinds of songs is an outcome of a self-focused and narcissistic culture.  Unfortunately, that is the state of contemporary American culture, but it shouldn’t characterize the church.  Those kinds of songs are the result of immature theological reflection.  We need to get out of spiritual adolescence and grow up.  I’m happy to say, also, that songwriters are becoming more aware of these problems and are giving us texts that are more spiritually nutritious.
3.      Finally, because praise and worship music is, by nature, emotionally engaging, it is subject to emotional manipulation.  This is a great danger and pastors and worship leaders need to be aware of this negative potential and put a stop to it if manipulation becomes a regular pattern.  It is very easy to shape your musical technique to move people emotionally.  Build it up here, break it down here.  We’ve got formulas.  When that happens, our worship is being empowered by manipulation and emotion rather than the Holy Spirit.  We must take care to be sure that it is the Spirit that empowers our affections which can be expressed in music rather than the music manipulating us to shallow and meaningless worship. 

In Layman’s Terms:  Enter into the Song
Many have said, with all of the dangers of contemporary praise and worship music, we should abandon its use in our churches.  That would be unfortunate.  I believe God was at work in the Jesus People Movement and has brought the church into a deeper understanding of worship through the Praise and Worship Movement.  Like hymns, praise and worship music is one of God’s gifts to the church.  How then, can we most benefit from this expression in worship?

In order to understand and engage with God through praise and worship music, you’ve got to be willing to release your emotions into the song.  You’ve got to emotionally engage.  You have to enter into the affect – the feeling of the song. 

I know.  It’s a risk.  But there is a whole world that opens up to you when you risk emotional engagement.  Those of you who are married:  what would your marriage be like if you were emotionally disengaged with your spouse?  There would be no intimacy and the relationship would eventually die.  Why then, should we be emotionally disengaged with God in worship?  Praise and worship music offers one avenue to passionately engage our affections with God.  I can talk about it.  But it’s probably a lot more effective to see and hear it and then I’ll make a few comments to close.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huFra1mnIVE  (Forever (We Sing Hallelujah))

Conclusion
I’m not a young man anymore.  Most of the people in the video are less than half my age.  God forgive me, but I don’t see myself jumping around like that in public.  But I wish I could.  The glory of God is worth my embarrassment.  The glory of God is worthy of all the enthusiasm and emotion I can muster.  So beat those drums with all your might for the glory of God!  Play the guitar with all your might.  Raise your hands lift your voice for the glory of God!  I’ve often been accused of playing too loud.  Can’t help it.  Sometimes, I’m just overcome in the worship of God. 

I began this message with my experience with opera.  I didn’t really appreciate it until I saw and heard a professional opera, as it was intended to be experienced.  Praise and worship is an experience that must be entered into emotionally.  Friends, I’m not asking you to become like those we saw in the video.  If you can worship like that, God bless you.  Lead the way.  But I’m old enough now to have earned the right to say I believe God is in this.  Praise and worship has it shortcomings, as do hymns.  But I believe with all my heart that God has given these songs to us at this time in our history to learn to engage fully and emotionally with him in worship.  All I can do is explain the songs to you, which I have done.  All I can do is invite you to risk releasing yourself into the song – no matter what your age.  But it is up to you to enter in.  This I do know:  when we as a people are willing to enter into worship and fully engage with God with all our heart, soul, and strength, then we will experience the manifest glory of God in our midst.  And once we experience that, we will never be satisfied with anything less.


The Richness of Hymns


(NOTE: There are three places in this post where I reference the hymns, "Teach Me Thy Way, O Lord" and "All Creatures of Our God and King."  Unfortunately, I couldn't upload a copy of the print music.  If you're curious, I recommend a hymnal to get a visual on what I'm describing.)

Corralling the Cows in the Corn
There are two competing silly stories that have been making the rounds in churches since the 1990’s. They go like this:

An old farmer went to the city one weekend and attended the big city church. He came home and his wife asked him how it was.
“Well,” said the farmer. “It was good. They did something different, however. They sang praise choruses instead of hymns.”
“Praise choruses?” asked the wife. “What are those?”
“Oh, they’re okay. They’re sort of like hymns, only different,” said the farmer.
“Well, what’s the difference?” asked the wife.
The farmer said, “Well it’s like this … If I were to say to you, ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn,’ well that would be a hymn. If, on the other hand, I were to say to you, ‘Martha, Martha, Martha, Oh, Martha, MARTHA, MARTHA, the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows, the white cows, the black and white cows, the COWS, COWS, COWS are in the corn, are in the corn, are in the corn, in the CORN, CORN, CORN, COOOOORRRRRNNNNN,’ then, if I were to repeat the whole thing two or three times, well that would be a praise chorus.”

As luck would have it, the exact same Sunday a young, new Christian from the city church attended the small town church. He came home and his wife asked him how it was.
“Well,” said the young man, “It was good. They did something different, however. They sang hymns instead of regular songs.”
“Hymns?” asked the wife. “What are those?”
“They’re okay. They’re sort of like regular songs, only different,” said the young man.
“Well, what’s the difference?” asked the wife.
The young man said, “Well it’s like this … If I were to say to you, ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn,’ well that would be a regular song. If on the other hand, I were to say to you,
Oh Martha, dear Martha, hear thou my cry
Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth.
Turn thou thy whole wondrous ear by and by
To the righteous, glorious truth.
For the way of the animals who can explain
There in their heads is no shadow of sense,
Hearkenest they in God’s sun or his rain
Unless from the mild, tempting corn they are fenced.
Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight,
Have broke free their shackles, their warm pens eschewed.
Then goaded by minions of darkness and night
They all my mild Chilliwack sweet corn chewed.
So look to that bright shining day by and by,
Where all foul corruptions of earth are reborn
Where no vicious animal makes my soul cry
And I no longer see those foul cows in the corn,
…then, if I were to do only verses one, three and four, and change keys on the last verse, well that would be a hymn.”

I may be the only one, but I’ve never found those stories to be amusing.  Here’s why…

In Colossians 3:16, the Apostle Paul urges the church to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”  Psalms (which we will deal with this summer), hymns and spiritual songs are gifts from God through creative song writers to assist the church in engaging with God in worship as well as teach eternal truths.  I have two children.  Different as night and day.  I have never considered Meredith better than Wes or Wes better than Meredith.  To show partiality between your children is self-absorbed and cruel.  Anyone who prefers one of their children over another should have their parent license revoked.  In the same way, Christians should not shun one or prefer another of God’s musical gifts to the church.  Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are as different as night and day – apples and oranges.  It is my hope to be able to show the distinctions and great value of both hymns and choruses in the next few weeks.  This week, we will explore the richness of hymns.  In two weeks, we will consider the power of contemporary song. 

Why is Song Important?
Is singing really that important to Christians?  We joke about this all the time on the deacon board because I have them close each meeting with a hymn.  In the parallel passage to Colossians 3:16, Paul tells the Ephesians that singing is a mark – a by-product – of being filled with the Holy Spirit: “…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5:18-19).  Christian songs, which include hymns and contemporary choruses, are lyrical poetry about God and his ways.  They are intended to be sung.  Reading them has some impact.  But when you sing them…  Wow!  They come alive!  Hymns and spiritual songs carry theological concepts with the emotional power of music.  Let me give you just one example of how the music makes the text come alive.

Teach Me Thy Way, O Lord (#91)
This song is one of my favorite hymns.  It isn’t the most profound in its theology.  But it has spoken to me many times when I’ve been hurting, confused, and needing to be centered on Christ rather than myself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmY6848ZQeo

Unlike some of the greatest hymns of the faith, like Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, for example, Teach My Thy Way is a personal prayer.  The general feeling and spiritual impulse is that of surrender.  Interestingly, both the text and the tune were written by the same person in this hymn.  That isn’t usually the case.  But in this hymn, the music matches the spiritual intention perfectly.  Notice the rise in the melody line through the first half of the song.  That is the growing intensity of the prayer. But notice the second half of the song.  Here, you see the melody falling back – a beautiful expression of surrender.  This hymn illustrates clearly how the content of the text is made more powerful and meaningful with the emotion that is expressed through the music.  What a wonderful gift God has given us in music!

Secondly, songs are written in memorable form with their rhythm, rhyme, and poetic devices.  I love the beauty and the poetic pictures attempting to describe the indescribable in the third verse of The Love of God:

Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made,
Were ev’ry stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, Tho’ stretched from sky to sky.
O love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure the saints’ and angels’ song!

Those are words that stick.  And those are words that will last – because they are profound and in a word – beautiful.

Third, singing is important because it is active participation.  I know.  Some people do not sing.   And frankly, that breaks my heart.  I don’t care if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket.  Sing it out!  Hymn writer Isaac Watts said, “Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God!”  If you know God, you must sing – even if it isn’t pretty.  Singing is participating.  And we will learn much more when we “do” rather than just observe or listen.  Singing is a powerful educational tool.  Just ask any grade school teacher.  And learning is part of what it means to be a disciple. 

Finally, songs can be repeated frequently without becoming tiresome.  Typically, we’ll sing a well-known hymn two or three times a year and a contemporary song probably a bit more.  We can sing Be Thou My Vision four times a year easily.  We sang New Hallelujah during the Nehemiah series probably six or seven times.  Why the difference?  My own opinion is because the contemporary song won’t be around much more than a few years until its life is used up, whereas the hymn – if it is a good one – will last through generations.  We can repeat songs with good benefit.  How many of you would like to hear this sermon again in nine weeks?  The same can’t be said of sermons. 

What Are Hymns?
So what are hymns?  They are lyrical poetry.  Unlike the psalms, they are not divinely inspired unless they have been included in Scripture.  Because they are lyrical, they are meant to be sung.  Because they are poetic, they are artistic.  Their meaning lies beyond just the words, but in the way the words are expressed and the pictures and emotions that they convey.  Time does not allow me to detail all the wonderful poetic devices that hymn writers employ.  But theirs is a craft that is carefully cultivated and cleverly employed to produce a lyric that will capture the imagination and spirit of the singer. 

Hymns aren’t new since the Reformation.  There are several hymns quoted in both the Old Testament and New Testament.  Both Moses’ song and Miriam’s song in Exodus 15 are examples of Old Testament hymns.  Hannah’s song in I Samuel 2 is one and Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1 is a clear echo of Hannah’s hymn of praise.  The wonderful words in Philippians 2 describing Jesus’ humiliation and eventual exaltation are considered by many scholars to be an early church hymn.  The Book of Revelation contains many jubilant hymns of praise. 

What are the Unique Qualities of Hymns?
The best hymns are compressed theological statements.  This is perhaps where their greatest value lies – in their rich theology.  Now, not every hymn in the hymnbook is good or has this quality.  But the best ones – the ones that have stood the test of time – and some of the newer ones carry rich theology.  Some well-known examples include:

·         Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty
·         A Mighty Fortress
·         Immortal, Invisible
·         All Creatures of Our God and King
·         O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing
·         Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
·         All Hail the Pow’r of Jesus Name
·         O Little Town of Bethlehem
·         Christ the Lord is Risen Today

…you get the idea. 

Because hymns are powerful ways to teach and communicate the theology of the gospel, they have frequently come to the center stage when the church was struggling with doctrinal issues.  It was in 325 A.D., at the council of Nicaea, that the church affirmed that Jesus Christ is fully divine.  We can hardly imagine the intensity and division that existed in the church over the question of whether or not Jesus was equal to the Father.  Our disagreements over homosexuality and marriage pale in intensity by comparison.  Those who opposed the opinion about Christ that prevailed in their region were often imprisoned or worse.  But it wasn’t so much the arguments that were presented by theologians that convinced the Council to affirm the deity of Christ.  The deciding reason was the fact that the people were already worshipping Jesus as fully divine in their liturgies and songs.  Martin Luther was not only a prolific writer of theological works, he also wrote hymns in the people’s language to support the Reformation that he was leading.  It was in the fierce struggle over the authority of Scripture in the 19th Century that Samuel Stone wrote, “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.”  The hymn became the rallying cry for churches that would remain faithful to the Word of God.

Hymns are also valuable – and this is counter-cultural – because they are old.  The modern way is to reject the old completely and always press into the future.  I’m still mad at Microsoft for forcing me to go to Windows 8.  That’s the modern way.  But it’s also the arrogant and short-sided way.  History has such great value.  We do stand on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us.  Hymns, because we can trace them throughout the history of the church, keep us connected to the Story.  To sing the hymns that Charles Wesley wrote, or that the people in the First Great Awakening found so powerful is very profound.  These timeless hymns reminds us that our fellowship with other believers is not limited to just our time and location, but spans the world and all time.  Hymns remind us that we are connected. Something resonates deep in my soul when I sing lyrics written by a blind poet: “Watching and waiting, looking above, filled with his goodness, lost in his love!”

Finally, the best hymns have stood the test of time.  They have been filtered through decades, perhaps even centuries to make it to us.  They have to be good – they have to be timeless – to pass that test.  I cannot understand the shortsightedness or arrogance of a person who would reject such gifts from the past to us.  

What are the Challenges of Hymns?
Now, if I ended the message here, some of you would be quite happy and feel quite vindicated in your preference for hymns.  Sorry.  Can’t do that.  Because of all of the reasons I’ve stated above, I am committed to effectively using hymns and worship and passing them on to the next generation.  There are enormous challenges to that mission because the way that most hymns are presented in the hymnbook is not in the musical language of our contemporary culture.  Let’s be fair and let’s be honest with each other.  That’s where the root of our problem has been.  There are a few challenges that I want to mention.

First, most of the older hymns are written with archaic King James English.  You know – the thee’s and the thou’s.  It “idst’s” and “ouldst’s.”  Some of the old language can be altered to be up to date and many hymnals have done that.  Sometimes it has been with good result.  Other times, the updating of the language has destroyed the poetic power of the hymn.  I don’t have time to give examples.  But fortunately, for younger generations like the Millennials, archaic language is not that much of an issue.  It was for Boomers – my generation – because we were so set against the establishment and tradition.  Younger generations, however, tend to be more open to tradition – probably because their parents were so much against it.  …and that’s a good thing.  You know how it goes. 

But the bigger challenge is the musical language of most of the hymns.  Our hymns are arranged for piano and organ accompaniment, generally with four-part choral parts.  That is no longer the dominant musical language of our culture.  As you know, today, it’s the band, driven by guitars with three-part vocal harmony.  And for many of the hymns, the old arrangements are a nightmare for guitars.  They’re unplayable – except by the most virtuosic musicians.  Let me give you an example. 

All Creatures of Our God and King #77
One of the great hymns of the church is All Creatures of Our God and King, written by St. Francis of Assisi in 1225.  In our hymnal, the chords change just about every note.  This is a guitar player’s nightmare.  It can’t be played smoothly, sustain the rhythm, and support the congregation in singing. 

There are some creative worship leaders who, like me, are not willing to let the hymn tradition die.  They have made a commitment to hymns and find a way for a worship band to play them.  David Crowder’s treatment of the hymn does just that.  He kept the melody and greatly reduced the chord changes so that a band could play it.  He also added a short, repeatable bridge or chorus to make it more like a praise and worship song. 

We’ve sung settings of great hymns like that:  All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name and Be Thou My Vision, are just two examples.  We need to continue selecting the best of the hymns and arrange them so that a worship band can play them.  In that way, though the music may change somewhat, the great treasure of hymns will be passed on from generation to generation.

There are, however, a number of great hymns that will not lend themselves to an effective treatment by a worship band.  They are rich treasures and we cannot afford to lose them.  We are in a great advantage because we have committed ourselves to being musically eclectic and blended in our worship.  We haven’t, like so many have, ditched the organ.  Unfortunately, the organ is a greatly misunderstood instrument. Unlike piano, which does not sustain notes (they dissipate as soon as they are struck), the pipe organ and their electronic copies are wind instruments, just like the human voice.  Because of that quality, the organ is a great help in supporting singing.  God does not favor the organ over any other instrument.  But we are blessed to still have one and someone who can play it.  We will continue to use the organ and explore ways in which we can even combine it with the worship band.

In today’s contemporary worship landscape there are also writers who are creating hymns – with their important compressed theology – that can be played by a worship band.  Stuart Townend and Keith Getty are one team of writers who have given us a wonderful hybrid of hymns in contemporary musical language.  Some of their songs you know:  How Deep the Father’s Love for Us and In Christ Alone – the song we’ll close this service with. 

Stretch Yourself – Embrace Hymns
So what shall we say to this – this lecture – on hymns this morning?  It needs to be more than informative.  It needs to be more than just a lecture.  It is my hope that the deeper understanding of hymns that I have tried to relay to you this morning will result in a commitment to learning and singing them.  If you haven’t liked hymns, I hope that you will change your mind and your heart.  You can’t reject them.  They are God’s gift to you passed down through the ages of the church.  If you’ve always liked hymns but are averse to contemporary song, I hope that you’ll be more understanding of the natural tensions and challenges between the two musical forms.  I hope that you’ll be open to new creative settings of hymns led by a band so that we will be able to pass them on to our children and grandchildren, who typically no longer listen to piano and organ, but have their ears tuned to guitars, drums, and keyboards. 

Friends, we are living the Father’s Grand Story through Christ.  Hymns, better than contemporary song (spiritual songs) shape the Story and its meaning in our lives.  Aside from the Bible, hymns are the most profound shapers of our theology.

Song of Response – In Christ Alone

Monday, March 24, 2014

God's Design for Sex


The following is an excerpt from my sermon, "God's Design for Marriage" which I had given as part of my series on Nehemiah.  The topic in the text was God's prohibition against intermarriage between Jews and the surrounding nations. You can find the entire sermon in audio or PDF format at http://fbcaberdeen.com/site/audiodownloads.asp?sec_id=180007979.  

God’s Design for Sex
To understand the nature of marriage, we need to reflect at the beginning – the stories in the first chapters of Genesis.  In the beginning, God created.  He didn’t create because he needed to do so.  God has no needs.  He created simply for his own pleasure and as an expression of his nature.  God’s nature is one expressed in three persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, when God went to make man, the Scriptures say “Let us make man in our own image” (Genesis 1:26).  Now within the Trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – there is a sharing of life and eternal love.  Between the three Persons of the Godhead, there is eternal giving to each other.  You see that love beautifully expressed in Jesus’ life and especially in his prayer to the Father found in John 17.  Out of this sharing of life and love, God profoundly created man in his own image.  But at first, the man was alone.  That’s not good.  I mean, just imagine:  the dirty dishes piling up, the laundry not getting done, fast food every night.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…and accept my apology for being sexist. 

There are many good reasons to get married.  As I reflect back on my lonely years as a young man, I think the most compelling reason was that I wanted another person that I could give myself to.  And that’s what Adam was missing.  God, who by his triune nature, is eternally giving himself, had made man to do the same thing.  And so, he made a “helper” for him – from his own rib – so that the man and woman might give themselves to each other.  In establishing marriage as the foundation of human relationships, the Scriptures say, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

The passage continues, “…and they were naked and not ashamed.”  In their first state, Adam and Eve had no reason to be timid or ashamed.  No one was going to use or abuse the other.  They knew, obviously, that they were made for each other – to give themselves to each other and to become one flesh – an obvious reference to God’s blessing on sex. 

Do not miss the connection here.  We are made in the image of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three Persons sharing the same life of eternal self-giving love.  We are made as man and woman – two distinct genders and two persons – designed to give themselves in self-giving love to each other and in so doing, become one flesh.  Do not miss this profound truth and mystery!  When a man and a woman come together in sexual union, it is the joining together of two souls.  The two become one as a symbol of the oneness of three Persons in the Trinity.  And as God created life – don’t miss this – the fruit of the sexual union between a man and woman can also be the conception of new life as well.  I’ll put it as simply as I can:

The self-giving of sexual love within the covenant of marriage is a symbol of the nature of God.

The sexual union of a man and a woman within the covenant of marriage is the most profound image of God in humanity. 

Broken Sex
The world tells us that sex is just a matter of biology.  With contraception, it’s a way to have fun without consequences.  Those are the lies that Satan has been propagating since sin entered the world.  Have you ever thought about it?  As sex is the most profound image of God in us, Satan has twisted it to destroy people and serve his purposes.  Virtually all of the ancient pagan religions involved sexual activity of some sort.  It is also true of many modern pagan religions as well.  Why is that?  It is because sex goes to the core of who we are.  When the ancient pagan religions used temple prostitutes in their worship, they touched the participant in the depths of his being.  Solomon had 1,000 women in his palace for more than just political purposes.  Let’s not be naïve.  And by the joining of his body with theirs, he also joined his soul to their pagan religions. 

It is significant that after Adam and Eve rebelled against God and sinned that they recognized they were naked.  They were ashamed.  Their innocence was gone.  The image of God in them was diminished.  No longer would they give themselves completely in perfect love but they would begin to use each other.  They saw the other not as another soul to which they could give themselves, but they saw the other’s body as an object of their selfish desire.  They needed fig leaves to protect themselves from the other. 

And so this great gift of God became twisted.  Sex became broken.  It is not new, and the manifestations of broken sex are all around us.  In our culture, sex is not for giving, but for our own gratification.  Bodies are no longer the home for precious souls, but rather the objects of lustful desire.  The greatest tragedy of our sexual obsession is the objectification of people.  We have become less than human – we are dehumanized.  O the depth of tragedy of people made to symbolize the nature of God being reduced to mere objects and toys.  Think of the people caught in the sex industry by choice or by being trafficked.  Over and over again, their souls have been diminished by being joined with another.  And those who are caught in the web of participation with promiscuity or pornography have diminished their souls in the same way.  The veneer of our contemporary sexual carnival disguises a great unspeakable human tragedy.  Lord, have mercy!

Whole Sex
We have unwittingly done this to ourselves.  With the advent of contraception, we have bought the Devil’s pitch that there is such a thing as “safe sex without consequences” outside of marriage.  The Scriptures have warned us over and over again – Proverbs 5-7 are especially clear – that sex outside God’s designs is a path to destruction.  But we have laughed at God all the way to the gates of Hell.

Sex is not a toy.  It is not an occasional fling to make us feel good.  Sex is a precious gift of God that profoundly reflects our Maker, designed for the union of self-giving lovers within the covenant of marriage.  No marriage is perfect, but there is a profound joining together of two souls as one.  I see this all the time when I go to visit older folks in the hospital who are struggling with illness.  If they are married, the spouse suffers as much – though in a different way- than the one who is sick.  I always pray for both because the two have become one.  Talk with most widows or widowers.  The death of their spouse has deeply wounded their soul because the other half of their soul has been taken away. 

Christians have been called prudes – killjoys – for our stance against sex outside of the marriage between a man and a woman.  Too often, though, we’ve focused on “don’ts” of sex without giving a vision and understanding of the glory of sex, seen from a biblical perspective.  My brother and I got into trouble when we were in elementary school because of some pictures we had drawn and hid under our beds.  My mom found them and made us get on our knees and beg forgiveness from God.  We didn’t know what we were doing.  At the time I don’t think I even knew where babies came from.  We were innocent, but normal boys.  I grew up thinking sex was dirty and bad.  No one ever explained to me God’s perspective on sex until Diane and I started premarital counseling. 

We need to do better.  We have to do better.  We need to give the world God’s perspective on sex.  Isn’t it clear, from all that has been said in this message, why promiscuity, homosexuality, and any sex outside of God’s design in marriage falls short of the glorious design he has implanted within men and women?  God designed sex to be exclusively enjoyed only within the bond of the marriage covenant because it is the joining together of two souls that become one. 

Invitation to Wholeness
I remember very clearly navigating the very difficult years of adolescence with my daughter.  To our great discomfort, most of her friends did not share our Christian moral values. I watched as most of them gave away their virginity to a young man, only to be devastated when he broke up with the girl within days.  It was a pattern that was repeated over and over again.  More than one girl was suicidal, with at least one, as I recall, winding up in the hospital.  Of course!  They had given their soul to another and it was ripped out. 

Too many people are wallowing in the pig-slop of sexual promiscuity thinking they are having a great time.  All the while, God invites us to a banquet of love.  The truth is, most of us are sexually broken at some level.  It’s part of the human condition, especially in our sex-obsessed culture.  No one needs to wag a finger at another in self-righteous condemnation.  We should all extend mercy because we all need mercy.

Sexual sin is perhaps the most damaging of all sins because it goes to the core of what it means to be human.  Those who have engaged a long time in sexual sin have greatly wounded and diminished their humanity.  But Jesus offers you healing. It doesn’t matter how far you’ve gone or how jaded you’ve become; Jesus can make you new again.  I am struck in the Gospels by how many sexually broken people Jesus encountered. There was the woman caught in adultery that Jesus spared from stoning.  He gave her grace and forgiveness.  He said simply, “go and sin no more.”  There was a prostitute who crashed a party at a Pharisee’s house and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears of repentance.  Jesus told her that her faith had saved her.  You see, with Jesus, there is mercy, forgiveness, and healing.



This morning, I wanted to give you a redemptive vision of God’s design for sex for you.  If you are living outside of that design, your pathway leads only to heartache and destruction.  Won’t you come and be healed?  God is not a prude or a kill-joy.  He desires wholeness and true joy for you.  With this vision of God’s design for you, you will find healing and fullness of life.  This morning, I urge you, by the mercies of God, to turn from your path of destruction to the path of life.   

Friday, February 28, 2014

I Don't Find Jokes About Worship Music Very Funny


This post is a second attempt on this topic.  The first was pushback on the cartoon above that a friend had posted on Facebook. It was lacking in grace.  I regret that but remain committed to my point. 

I have a good sense of humor.  I enjoy the satirical website, Lark News, and even my own copy of A Field Guide toEvangelicals and Their Habitat.  I can laugh at myself and my evangelical tradition.  But I don’t find jokes about worship music very funny.

Most of the time, it is contemporary praise and worship songs that are the target of the jokes and cartoons I’ve seen and heard.  There was a variation of Cows in theCorn several years ago that poked fun at hymns.  Nevertheless, the repetition found in praise and worship is the usual target.  It is my experience that people who don’t like the genre think the jokes are really funny. 

I don’t.  I never have.  Here’s why:

Praise and worship songs are different than hymns. That seems obvious, but the difference lies much deeper than music and text.  Generally speaking, hymns – especially the classic, timeless hymns (e.g. Holy, Holy, Holy; Immortal, Invisible; For All the Saints, etc…) – contain beautiful theology densely expressed in poetry.  Frankly, it’s good that we have hymnals.  The words go by too fast on the screen.  It would be good to pause and just read them.  The poetry in our best hymns withstands the deepest contemplation.  They are rich in content and meaning.  Such hymns typically challenge and speak to our intellect.  While the text and singing of hymns may spark intense emotion at times, the experience is generally cognitive because the texts are so rich. 

Gospel hymns, which hold a significant part of the repertoire for many evangelicals (especially older ones) are typically less dense in their theology.  These are the hymns with refrains and, as a rule, grew out of the revivalist tradition.  They are generally testimonial in nature, that is, they relate the experience of a Christian.  In the revivalist tradition, hymns and songs were sung in preparation to hear the sermon or in response to it (the invitation hymn).  They may be deeply emotional in their joy or devotion but their function was utilitarian.  They served as preparation or response to the Word.

The praise and worship genre, however, is meant to be a different sort of experience.  It is essential to understand that P/W comes from the Charismatic Movement.  While the strength of hymns is their cognitive richness and the gospel hymns are good expressions of testimony, P/W is best understood as an affective experience.  Affect, of course, means the emotional part of us.  While modern people are suspicious of emotion, affect is an essential way of knowing, just like cognitive knowing.  Imagine a marriage without emotion.  It wouldn’t last long.  Emotion is vitally important in the relationship that we have with God expressed in worship.  It helps us to engage spiritually beyond the black and white of doctrinal truth.  A.W. Tozer once defined worship as “to feel in your heart.” 

Most P/W songs seek to primarily engage the affect of celebration or contemplation.  That is why you will find frequent repetition in these songs.  They are not meant to engage our intellect as much as our emotion.  This is an essential difference between P/W songs and hymns. 

We have problems and misunderstandings when we unconsciously equate P/W songs with hymns or gospel hymns.  If your worship language has primarily been hymns or gospel hymns, the repetition of P/W songs will be confusing and off-putting to you.  The lack of textual depth in comparison to hymns may easily cultivate disrespect in your mind for the genre. That’s why the jokes seem funny.  You cannot sing a P/W song the same way that you sing a hymn.  You cannot compare P/W to hymns on the same criteria.  Depending on which genre you prefer, the other one will always lose.  (There are, of course, a large number of people who don’t like or disrespect hymns for the same reason: they don’t appreciate their value.)

For the value of a P/W song to be fully understood it has to be experienced.  The worshipper has to risk releasing themselves emotionally into the song.  The experience of P/W often includes the lifting of hands, dance, or of even prostrating oneself.  The risk of embarrassment by engaging the body is symbolic of the emotional engagement of the worshipper in the song.  When the worshipper is engaged emotionally in the song, repetition is a help rather than a hindrance.  But if the worshipper is unengaged emotionally, the repetition is like nails on a chalkboard.  (BTW, repetition in worship is biblically endorsed.  Check out Psalm 136 or the practice of the four living beings in Revelation 4:8 who do not cease to cry, “Holy, holy, holy…) I strongly suspect that those who do not like P/W and are averse to the repetition have never really released themselves into a song.  They sing P/W songs just like they sing hymns and are generally disappointed.

There is, of course, a great danger to emotional worship.  Like Eros in C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves, emotion “needs to be ruled.”  We worship in spirit and truth.  P/W songwriters have an obligation to be true to Scripture in their lyrics.  While problems remain, I have observed much greater depth and richness in P/W texts in the last ten years.  Worship leaders, too, have an obligation to avoid emotional manipulation.  With worshippers released into emotional engagement, it would be very easy to turn up the heat with musical effects that are intrinsically known to musicians.  Worship leaders must be mature and discerning.

Nevertheless, I believe P/W is a great gift given to the church in the last 40 years.  As a worship pastor, I have tried to introduce the songs and the experience to the congregations that I have served for over thirty years.  In the same way, I have also held up the richness and necessity of our hymn tradition in the same churches.  It hasn’t been easy.  I am very passionate about having the church experience the fullest spectrum of worship that they can.  Not surprisingly, people are reluctant to grow beyond their own comfort zone and experience.  Hymn lovers have constantly harangued me about repetition and the loudness of the band – even when I’ve measured the decibel levels equal to or less than piano and organ.  Contemporary P/W aficionados suggest that I’m over-the-hill and irrelevant if I don’t constantly give them the playlist from KLOVE. 

This has been my calling – my vocation for the last 30 years – to broaden the experience and understanding of worship in the congregations that I have served.  Frankly, the wounds I’ve suffered from people who are unwilling to grow run deep in my soul.  I am war-weary.  That is why I do not find these jokes to be funny.  For the person who does not like P/W, it expresses their ignorance of and lack of true experience in the genre through condescension.  It isn’t funny.  It’s divisive.  Still, the jokes get a lot of laughs and traction with a certain set.  Though I carry battle scars, my calling remains the same.  I want the church to grow and embrace the fullest and richest worship experience they can.  I will, from now on, push back whenever I encounter these condescending jokes.


No apologies. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve Reflection: Born to Save


The Wonder and Paradox of Christmas
No one knows the exact day that Christ was born.  It’s really not important.  December 25th is the day that the Church has chosen to celebrate his coming.  But we do know that the true meaning of Christmas has been under attack for quite some time now.  I don’t want to rehearse the stuff about whether or not we should say, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or whether or not public schools should sing Christmas carols.  It does seem a bit hypocritical to me that we can use the word “Christmas” and sing the carols to draw big audiences and sell products in our culture, but to actually believe the story and the Bible from which it came is deemed somehow bigoted and uninformed.  The limitations that the world imposes on the Gospel aren’t fair.  But when has the world ever been a friend to God? 

Let’s lay that aside.  We get ourselves sometimes so worked up over the cultural battles that we can be distracted from noticing our own shortcomings as Christians.  We like the warm feelings of Christmas.  The words and sounds of the carols bring back wonderful memories.  Seeing Mary and Joseph and the baby in the crèche reminds us of the “reason for the season.”  But if we’re not careful, our “reason for the season” becomes the protection of our sentiments rather than a deep reflection on the wonder of the Incarnation and what response this day demands of us.  We can be our own worst enemy by being content with just recapturing “that Christmas feeling.” 

Christmas is disturbing.  It should make us tremble with deep awe and wonder.  I have a good friend who blogs several times a day.  I really don’t know how he does it.  And he is quite edgy in his topics.  He’s no twenty-something radical pushing against his upbringing.  He’s a sixty-something pastor who thinks and prays deeply about the things of the Lord.  One of his blogs to day was called “Violent Night.”  OK.  That’s upsetting.  But he’s right.  Christmas was the day that God himself invaded Satan’s domain to engage the darkness in cosmic warfare.  So much for warm, fuzzy feelings.  Christmas has to be more than mere sentiment.  Lawrence Hull Stookey insightfully observes:

Christmas commemorates the appearing of that Eternal Word in our midst.  To settle for the romance of a displaced mother giving birth in a stable, to argue about how a virgin can conceive a child, is to bring profundity to the brink of ruin.  Christmas is the enfleshment of God, the humiliation of the Most High and divine participation in all that is painful, ugly, frustrating, and limited.  Divinity takes on humanity, to restore the image of God implanted at creation but sullied by sin.  Here is the great exchange Christmas ponders, that God became like us that we might become like God.  God accepted death that the world might accept life.  The Creator assumed temporality to redeem creation from futility.[1]

Christmas is the hinge-point in history.  It is when God became man to bring man back to himself.  Jesus was not merely born – he was “sent” from God.  Christmas was when the King came to be the Servant. 

Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God and there were many who wanted to get in on his program.  They were excited and they began to talk about what place in the hierarchy they would have when Jesus finally inaugurated the Kingdom.  They were in for a surprise!  Those who would be first would be last and those who would be last would be first.  And then Jesus reminded them why he came:  “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Jesus – the little baby in the manger – was born to die.  He was born to save us.

Diane and I are fortunate this year.  Our son, Wes, has come to share Christmas and spend a few days with us.  Last night he and I watched “Les Miserables” (the musical) on DVD.  I wanted to see it at home because when I saw it last year in the theater the guy behind me was talking and the guy across the aisle was loudly munching on his popcorn.  Les Mis is a deeply moving story and I wanted to experience it again without the distractions.  (I seem to fully engage myself emotionally into those kinds of movies.)  The most profound moment in the film is when Fantine, played by Anne Hathaway bares her tortured soul in the song, “I Dreamed a Dream.”  Fantine’s life tragic.  She had a child with a man who deserted her.  She works in a factory to pay room, board, and care for the child.  When she loses her job for unjust reasons, she is forced onto the streets and eventually prostitution to support her daughter.  She has sold her beautiful hair and her body is wracked with tuberculosis. Her situation is truly pathetic.  Symbolically, she sings her song from a coffin.  I don’t know if there is a more profound moment in all of film history.  I can’t think of one.  For that performance, she won the Oscar last year.  




"I Dreamed A Dream"

There was a time when men were kind
When their voices were soft
And their words inviting
There was a time when love was blind
And the world was a song
And the song was exciting
There was a time
Then it all went wrong
I dreamed a dream in times gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving
Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid

No song unsung
No wine untasted
But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
And they turn your dream to shame
He slept a summer by my side
He filled my days with endless wonder
He took my childhood in his stride
But he was gone when autumn came
And still I dream he'll come to me
That we'll live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed
The dream I dreamed

There is hardly a better description of the broken world in which we live.  Some of you have lived or are now living a similar hellish dream.  Fantine was wrong.  There was a ransom to be paid because we deeded the whole world over to Satan and the forces of darkness years ago in the garden. 

But now, Christ has come.  He was born to die – to give his life as a ransom for you and for me.  You cannot separate the cradle from the cross.  Let’s clear the fog away.  Christmas is not about Hallmark moments, White Christmas, and religious sentiments.  It’s about God becoming man to save you and me from the darkness and brokenness of life.  So let’s not impoverish this day with just warm feelings and nothing more.  Bow in wonder and awe.  Most of all, believe and receive “this little child” as the Savior, born to die for you. 



[1] Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar:  Christ’s Time for the Church,  Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1996, p. 106.