Saturday, February 25, 2012

Monday, February 6, 2012

practice for the renewed earth

My school district today observed a wonderful yet pointless phenomenon called "early dismissal."  It was wonderful.  The day went something like this:

1) See a bunch of children for a small amount of time.
2) Try to impart something musical to said children.
3) Take a long lunch.
4) Sit through an excruciating in-service on a subject worlds away from your content area.
5) Work at you desk for a while.

Number 5 is my favorite, because I get to enjoy some quiet time in a room that represents chaos.  I backed up my planning with a nice youtube playlist of congregational hymns sung by Britains in some of their finest sacred spaces.

Because of my ADD and my constant need to analyze the harmonics of music I'm hearing (i.e. "Was that a German or an Italian augmented 6th chord?!?"), working was a bit difficult, but the fantastic tunes were so beautiful, I let it continue to play. 

Here is one of my favorites:

I obviously have no idea of the actual spiritual condition of these congregants, though I would imagine it would be representative of what one would find in the Church of England as a whole.  That being said, this group is an example of good hymn singing in several ways, which I would like to highlight.

1) They are singing good theology.

This post is about text only as it relates to the singing, but nothing (for better of for worse) influences a church's theology more than what it sings.  It is a sobering responsibility to be the one who chooses what a congregation will sing.

I'm always stunned when I sing "life is naught without thee, aid us in our strife."

2)  Everyone is singing.

This goes back to the very present problem for us: as a whole, we are music consumers, not music makers.  But we are called to be the ones "doing" the music.  We shouldn't need to have it pulled out of us.  We shouldn't just be humming along like we would with the radio in the car.  We shouldn't need to have a song-leader say "If we really, really love Jesus, we'll sing this."  It should be organic for the body of Christ, regardless of innate musical gifting.

Of course, this will take a huge culture change.  We are fighting with a very powerful industry, both Christian and secular, that wants us to merely sing along with a performance.  But we have to start somewhere.

Here's a little example.  I am an elementary music teacher to K-4 children, most of whom are poor, are raised by uneducated parents and guardians, and are to some extent English language learners.  Four years ago, I marched in and started having my littlest children interact with the masters of classical music.  What did they do the first time they heard it?  Some laughed, some rolled their eyes, but few really were engaged.  They couldn't really relate to what they were hearing.

Fast forward to today.  Those children are now (mostly) in 3rd grade.  Most of them can aurally identify instrument voices.  Many of them can spot basic differences between Bach and Beethoven.  A lot of them can verbally move from the nuance of what they hear into a concrete concept.  Best of all, they don't laugh or roll their eyes anymore.   It's no longer strange to them.  It may not be on their ipod, but it's at least in their "funds of knowledge."  And they're better students and people because of it.

So, teach young children the art of music making.  Explain to new believers why music-making is important in the Kingdom.  Do the same with mature Christians who haven't yet been taught.  It's not all their fault.  Society, the Church even, has failed them.

3) There is a seriousness to what they're doing.

This isn't always easy to measure, but I think it's safe to say that these congregants are singing with intentionality and purpose.  Sure, some are happy, joyful, emotional, moved, etc., but they are well aware of the seriousness of their task.  This is important stuff, folks.  If we feel an emotional or personal connection to what's going on, that's great.  If not, we still need to do it as a matter of principle.

For Christians, singing isn't just a hobby or pastime.  It's a divine calling.

4) It's an age-inclusive congregation.

There are many that would say hymn singing isn't for the young.  I recently even heard a well-respected theologian say something like, "You're fooling yourself if you think 17th-century hymns are for kids."

Check out the diversity in the video and others like it.  These congregations answer back a resounding "why not?

The truth is, congregations need to make music as a unified body, at least a portion of the time. 

Somewhere around 9th grade, I went to the Minister of Music at the gargantuan church my family attended and asked if I could join the choir.  I was a fluent music-reader, Jr. High and High School region choir member, and had a voice that comfortably sat in the "bari-tenor" range.  He was nice, but responded with a three-fold negative response.  First, if he let me in, then he would have to let everyone in.  Second, the changing voice is a nightmare.  Third, I'd surely have trouble being "one of the guys."  Therefore, I should stay in the youth "choir," which bellowed contemporary music with recorded tracks. 

I don't know what our music-making will look like when we join the heavenly chorus, but I seriously doubt there will be age-segregated gatherings.  We will all be part of the same choir.

If anyone notices anything I left off or would like to challenge something I wrote, please feel free.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

confessions of an evangelical egalitarian

Today, I'm coming clean, as if any reading this don't know by now.

I'm an egalitarian.  I believe that God calls both men and women to serve him in all capacities of church leadership and ministry, and I reject the principle of male headship in marriage and family.

You may be wondering what a post like this is doing on a blog on worship.  That is a good question.  I think it's the perfect place, actually.  Because I believe that the worshipful response to God's self-revelation is for all believers, men and women, to use the gifts and calling of God on their lives in life and ministry.

I was raised to believe that patriarchy was God's plan for society, and that any professing Christian who disagreed was either deceived or deluding themselves.  After all, the Bible has spoken, and there are just some capacities that are boy's clubs.  It's so simple.

But we all know that in biblical interpretation, we cannot go straight from reading to application.  We have to interpret.  We're not throwing parts of the Bible out, we're doing our best to get it right.  We want to know what it is saying to us.  Today.  Right now. There are many who have done this and done it well, so I won't try to say it any better, (I would point you to the writings available at the Christians for Biblical Equality website) but I can tell you a little bit about my transition.

If you had talked to me during my years at Baylor University, I would have told you that evangelical feminism was a crock, a godless idea borne out of a rebellious society that was infiltrating the Church.  I said some horribly offensive things to some fellow students when they voiced opposition to my subtly extreme patriarchal views.  But my last couple of years, I began to slowly sink into a crisis of faith and the darkest time of my life.  Long story short, I began to question a lot of the old beliefs I grew up with.  And I found out, they'd become idols.

The scene shifts to Wheaton College.  I was a young theology student who still clung to his unexamined legalism disguised as garden variety conservatism.  But it didn't last long.  I found myself studying under a diverse collection of professors.  That alone was life-giving.  I found out for the first time that you can be a committed Christian and a Presbyterian, or Lutheran, or Mennonite or, yes, an egalitarian.

I can point to several specific instances when I literally felt the Spirit leading me away from patriarchy.  When confronted with the biblical evidence, there was no turning back.  I realized that no matter how I previously felt about patriarchy, I couldn't get there from the text. 

It's not always been easy.  Old habits die hard.  Just when I think I'm past all the old biases, they will reappear.  But I trust that the Spirit is working God's purpose out in my life and pray those habits will continue to disappear.

I remember being at an ordination service for my best friend a few years ago and watching the parade of ordained men dropping by the front and giving my friend and his wife their words of wisdom. I realized at that moment that, no matter whether the pointers were healthy or unhealthy, my friends were only hearing half the story.  I'm sure in the congregation there that evening, there were many, many women who God has gifted and called to full participation in pastoral ministry.  And we (the Church) haven't let them.  And they might not even realize it.

Some of you are thinking that your old pal Jonathan has taken an Aigner-sized cookie cutter to the Bible, so that I can magically make it say whatever I feel.  I don't know if I can say this strongly enough: I am a committed evangelical Christian, and I hold the Bible in very high esteem.  It is infallible, the final authority in these matters.  I've arrived here after a lengthy process with much prayer, study and reflection. 

The difficulty of this issue is that there are those who will distance themselves from me solely over this issue.  I've been told that I'm giving up my faith, under Satan's control, giving up my true masculinity, etc.  But I'm convinced that to oppose gender equality is to give up God's best for his people and is against the entire witness of Scripture.  I'm also embarrassed that I was once one of those very people saying those very hateful things.  And I'm not going out on a limb here.  There is a huge (and growing) host of evangelicals who stand here with me, even some of the most reliable and prolific male names in evangelical ministry and scholarship, such as N.T Wright, Stanley Grenz, Gordon Fee, Greg Boyd, Tony Campolo, Scot McKnight, John Stackhouse, Ronald Sider, and numerous others.

And while this injustice lingers, there's a lot of work to be done in the church by us men.  We need to get rid of the subtle rejections that say, "You're welcome as long as you don't stir up any trouble."   Or, knowing scoffs and smiles among us men that say, "Isn't it cute - the little girl wants to be in our club."  We have to stop treating our wives like they need to serve us while we come home from work and check out in front of the TV, regardless of whether she has outside employment.  And, most of all, the offensive terms we use to label strong and capable women MUST cease.  Permanently.  Right now.

We have to lay down our defensiveness in favor of some authenticity and empathy.  After all, throughout history, we've had the upper hand.  It's time we accept women as full partners in life and ministry.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


For the most part, I'd prefer the Church not celebrate secular holidays. I suppose it’s okay to mention them in passing, but I really don’t see what the Church is doing celebrating civil holidays as if they had much of anything to do with God or creation or salvation history or any of those things. I was even in a Church recently (a liturgical setting, believe it or not), that sang some strange hymn about concrete and steel to celebrate Labor Day.

Hallmark holidays are even worse. Father’s Day and Mother’s Day are just distractions. Give the mothers a flower and the dads some kind of cigar substitute like a pen or a book, but don’t build the whole gathering around it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine to celebrate them with your family or community, but in churches, they can be, at least, distracting and, at most, idolatry.  

Check out my July posts to read about my stance on Independence Day.
I'm still not sure about Thanksgiving. Even though its origins had religious overtones, it’s little more than secular in our culture today. And even though the pilgrims were probably pretty thankful for those natives they ran across, the sentiment didn’t last too long, did it?

That reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite TV shows, FOX’s King of the Hill.
Bobby Hill: You mean Indians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving?
John Redcorn: We did. Once. 

On the one hand, if we're being honest, most of us like the holiday because it gives us a chance to eat ourselves silly and not feel bad about it. 

On the other hand, Thanksgiving comes at a good time to practice thankfulness, which is a discipline most of us need to work on.  But in the Church, giving thanks for the symbolic harvest we enjoy should always be done in light of God’s mercy and grace that over-abounds in our lives.  Further, it should be a time that reminds us as Americans, and especially as American Christians, of the injustices that continue to pervade and persist in our culture and around the world.  

May we skip out on the sap and sentimentality and fully consider how to respond to God's grace and provision in our own lives.  And that is the point where true worship begins.

Monday, November 7, 2011

look at Jesus

This has quickly become one of my favorite quotes, because there is so much packed into it. 

Jesus is absolutely in the middle.  If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus.  If you want to know what it means to be human, look at Jesus.  If you want to know what love is, look at Jesus.  If you want to know what grief is, look at Jesus.  And go on looking until you’re not just a spectator, but you’re actually part of the drama which has him as the central character.
- N.T. Wright

And if we want to know how to worship, look at Jesus.

where to begin

I enjoy reading Zac Hicks' blog often.  I don't always agree with him, but I appreciate that he is a contemporary church musician that understands the theology of worship.

Today, he reminds us that "worship songs should say far more about God’s love for us and far less about our love for God."

As I repeat so often, "response" is a key toward biblical worship, but it's the last step in corporate worship.  We must always start with what is true about God, for instance, God's love for us, before we can respond.  I would argue, however, that we must go back further beyond this point.  Something, of course, proceeds God's love for us.  His character is and has always been, apart from us.  We must begin with God's transcendence; his "otherness," and then recount His hand in salvation history and, further, into our own lives as individuals. 

Though I like to refrain from being cliche' with my hymn choices, "Holy, Holy, Holy" is one of the better and most accessible texts emphasizing God's otherness.

Holy, holy, holy!  Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.
Holy, holy, holy!  Merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy!  All the saints adore thee,
casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.

Holy, holy, holy!  Though the darkness hide thee,
though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,
only thou art holy; there is none beside thee,
perfect in power, in love and purity.

Holy, holy, holy!  Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea.
Holy, holy, holy!  Merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity. 

In this great text, we are over and over drawn to acknowledge the transcendence, the "otherness" of God (Lord God Almighty, song shall rise, which wert and art and evermore shalt be, though darkness hide Thee, perfect in power, in love and purity...).

From this point, we move to God's immanence; his work in human history. Here is a fabulous text:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

In this great hymn, Wesley immediately recognizes that the all-powerful, transcendent God has made himself immanent, working in human history (Joy of heaven to earth come down). 

The last element of congregational worship is our response.  It's extremely important, but it cannot happen without a clear understanding of why we should worship the Living God in the first place.  Here is one of my favorite examples of response: 

Out of my bondage, sorrow, and night,
Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;
Into Thy freedom, gladness, and light,
Jesus, I come to Thee;
Out of my sickness, into Thy health,
Out of my want and into Thy wealth,
Out of my sin and into Thyself,
Jesus, I come to Thee.

Out of my shameful failure and loss,
Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;
Into the glorious gain of Thy cross,
Jesus, I come to Thee.
Out of earth’s sorrows into Thy balm,
Out of life’s storms and into Thy calm,
Out of distress to jubilant psalm,
Jesus, I come to Thee.

Out of unrest and arrogant pride,
Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;
Into Thy bless├Ęd will to abide,
Jesus, I come to Thee.
Out of myself to dwell in Thy love,
Out of despair into raptures above,
Upward for aye on wings like a dove,
Jesus, I come to Thee.

Out of the fear and dread of the tomb,
Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;
Into the joy and light of Thy throne,
Jesus, I come to Thee.
Out of the depths of ruin untold,
Into the peace of Thy sheltering fold,
Ever Thy glorious face to behold,
Jesus, I come to Thee.

In this text, the congregants are prompted to respond to the truth of God's transcendence and immanence.  The only proper response is one of complete surrender to the Almighty Creator and Savior.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
-W.W. How
These are beautiful words that describe my grandpa, Garret Herbert Aigner, who joined the Church triumphant last summer at the age of 90.  He was a wonderful man who had a way of living the gospel in even the most mundane circumstances. 

Today on All Saints Day, it struck me in a new way that this man who was such a loving presence in my life is at this very moment in the presence of the Creator and Savior of the world.  As the pastor said this morning, he is "more alive than ever."

What a fantastic reality.  May we be more alive with every passing day we join those who have gone before.