Thursday, November 17, 2011

thankfulness

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

complete

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.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

truth matters

"It's truth, but it's not worship."

This was a line written by a fellow blogger to whom I responded by my last couple of posts.  Not to beat a dead horse, but this line has stuck with me over the past several weeks.

He was speaking about the text of the standard hymn "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy," which he claimed spoke truth about God, but that it wasn't worship.

I think this statement outlines the mindset that leads us to a place of complete narcissism in our services.  When our eyes are taken off God's attributes, we end up not affirming anything specific about Christianity.  Instead, we become consumed with how we feel about God and how God meets our needs.  There is little in the way of informed response at this point.

But a thorough engagement on God's attributes gives us the proper impetus for worship.  When I sing this text, for instance...

For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.

...my heart is filled with a love and gratitude that leads me into the worship of God.  I'm pulled out of myself and into the presence of a transcendent God who has lowered himself and let me taste the kind heart of the Eternal. 

If there's no truth, I think it's safe to say there is no worship.  Singing songs about God, that draw on concrete knowledge given to us by revelation, are as worshipful as songs can be.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Hymns Aren't Better, part 2

The nice fellow (also named "Jonathan") to whom I responded in my last post has responded on his blog, and I would like to follow-up again.  Feel free to join in the discussion if you are so moved.

“Honestly, I have never been to a church that had a “vital traditional congregation.” My comment about the hymns was based on flipping through the thick book and realizing that there are songs that are no good lyrically in there. The point being that modern songs fall into that category. I’m pretty picky and would argue that some modern songs would fall into the once-done-but-now-thankfully-forgotten category, just as those unsung hymns.”

Again, my guess is that not being familiar with the standard repertoire is a real problem here. My guess is that some of the best hymns are those you’re not familiar with, such as those by Wesley or Watts. There are vapid hymns (though most of them are gospel songs by definition), though most of them have fallen out of use prior to the publication of any modern hymnals. “In the Garden” is the best example of one that has remained, and without apparent reason that I can see.

“Point one shows lack of knowledge when it comes to modern songs. There really is nothing wrong with that. If I was only familiar with poor modern songs, I’d stay away too.”

Point taken, and though I certainly don’t keep up constantly, I’m around the scene enough to here what’s happening. I am occasionally impressed by a text, that’s for sure.

“So, if they are music driven, it isn’t what drives me to those songs. To address the last sentence: the way a song is crafted is neither right nor wrong. It is.”

Well, I think we need to think more deeply about this, and I won’t go on and on here, other than to say that music matters theologically, as does everything else we do. There are theological connotations to musical setting. [What I mean is, music is not amoral, even if it is contextual.  It does have ethical, moral and theological connotations.]

“Point three I think is partially true. Because of the limitation by modern song form one cannot write as much theology into a song. But the same truth should resonate when singing the less verbose modern song. Songs like Hillsong’s “Desert Song” touches on good theology.”

You’re right in that not every song needs to be a deep theological treatise, but they should be a) correct, b) well-crafted, and c) solid.

“To address the last sentence I’m not arguing for CCM, I’m arguing for modern worship songs. Most CCM I can live without. I don’t even listen to it because after hearing a few songs there is nothing to draw me to it lyrically or theologically.”

I use the term to abbreviate. If it’s more inclusive, we can use “modern.”

“If you have looked at the songs I mentioned in this reply I hope you can come away encouraged that not all modern songs are bad, just as all hymns aren’t good, which was the main point I was trying to get across.”

You’re right. Not all the texts are bad. But there is more to consider. First, the best of hymnody is better than the best of “modern” and reflects a deeper theological concern. Second, never in the history of congregational song has it been the practice to only sing new songs and in a new style. New hymns were always being written and added to the ranks of the previous years. Now, the practice is to only sing new songs and to sing them in a vernacular style. There is, quite simply, no reason for this.

“If we search “new” and “song” in the Bible we will find we are commanded to sing a new song. Continually singing old songs is disobedience. If hymn style is important than more songs like Stewart Townend’s “In Christ Alone” and “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us” should be undertaken. It is our duty to obey Scripture and write new songs. Thankfully, God didn’t demand a style.”

When we are told to “sing a new song,” it most certainly doesn’t mean songs that are chronologically “new.” That is a complete “uninterpretation.” It means that we are to rejoice afresh in the love and grace of the Lord. And the traditional format, again, does not mean just simply “old.” There are new hymns being written all the time, as there always have been, in a classical or neutral style, instead of a vernacular, fleeting style.

:BTW just to give it a shot I found the article mentioned and looked at the list and read the lyrics to “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” It’s truth, but it’s not worship. It is us singing to us to remember truth. There is nothing wrong with that (as we are commanded to so by Paul), but I wouldn’t sing it call it a worship song. ”

Sorry, friend. This statement demonstrates the influence of contemporary understanding of “worship.” Worship is “reverential human acts of submission and homage before the divine Sovereign, in response to his gracious revelation of himself, and in accordance with his will” (Daniel I. Block). The contemporary definition is something like “speaking directly to God in a church service with simplicity and felling.” That is completely unbiblical and erroneous. Singing songs about God are concise reminders of God’s self-revelation can be very worshipful. Humbly listening to Scripture is worshipful. Reciting creeds is worshipful. These are all worshipful acts. Additionally, whatever we do in a service can only compose a tiny piece of worship, if that much. We are to encourage each other and listen to God’s self-revelation, so that we can spur one another on to actual, life-consuming worship.

In fact, there are some who would suggest what we do in a service is not worship, because it doesn’t demand anything out of us. I’m wouldn’t go that far, but words, even if we mean them honestly and authentically, cost us next to nothing. It’s the same thing if I were to tell me wife all the nice things I think of her, but I do nothing to actually show it, the words have no meaning.

It’s time we get this straight. You, me, and everyone. Singing songs about God, that draw on concrete knowledge given to us by revelation, are as worshipful as songs can get.

Here are some examples, if you'd like:
Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above
Built on the Rock the Church Doth Stand
O Worship the King
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
There Is a Fountain
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
The God of Abraham Praise
The Church's One Foundation
Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation
Be Thou My Vision

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Hymns Are Not Better Than New Worship Songs": Aigner's Response

During my regular stroll through the neighborhood of church music blogs, I came across this guy at Thoughts on Worship and his post on why hymns are not better than new worship songs.

Of course, this is just the opposite of the sort of statement that I'm looking for, but it's hard to pass this by.  This fellow is certainly well-meaning and likely authentic, and it's not my intention to jump all over him about this, but I think his post highlights a few of the problems with the typical CCM perspective on hymn texts.  Read it first, then join in my discussion.

First, he quotes the text of a popular gospel hymn, "How Great Thou Art."  Is there anything wrong with this text?  Not really, except that some of it (like the whole second stanza, which he leaves out) is more sentimental than anything else.  All in all, it's a decent hymn text, but not a good example of a strong hymn text.  This is the first problem.  When CCM people think of hymns, they think of some of the weakest hymn texts, usually made into gospel songs with the verse\refrain style.  "How Great Thou Art, "In the Garden," and "The Old Rugged Cross" are some of the ones I hear mentioned a lot.  But they're far from the most theologically rich texts, like those of Luther, Wesley, Cowper and the like. 

And this is not all their fault.  They have obviously never been to churches that have taught them the standard hymns instead of only the populist, revivalist style gospel hymns.  But if they truly consider themselves church musicians, they'll get on the ball.  Christianity Today's recent list of most enduring standard hymns is a good place to start.  There's not an overly sentimental one of the list.  Well, "Just As I Am" toes the line, but nothing so sentimental you have to go fetch the mop.

Second, he goes on to announce the following:
We go through less hymns than we do modern songs. When I think back to being a kid I still know more modern songs than old hymns...The good ones keep being sung, while the old ones fade away. Have you ever looked at a hymnal? Those things are huge and we usually only sing a few dozen at most, and a dozen of those are Christmas songs.

This clearly indicates his church wasn't really a hymn-singing church, or he just wasn't paying attention.  The church I serve has sung somewhere around 100 different hymns since last Advent, and there are a number of good ones we haven't gotten around to yet.  If this guy doesn't know "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" or "Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above," or "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" or "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," then he's clearly not in a position to comment on the validity or the endurance or the salience of the texts, nor of the hymnody genre, at large.

This is the point if someone ever argues that hymns are better: hymns we sing are good because they have stood the test of time. Truth endures.

It's funny, because I've been arguing that hymns are better for years, and I've heard many argue the point better than I can, and none of the good arguments have centered on the fact that they've simply hung around.  So clearly he's been listening to the wrong arguments or arguing with the wrong people.

For one thing, hymns are not necessarily old.  There are fantastic new hymns being written regularly, though not as well as they once were, since the art has been lost on many.  But there are a number of good, strong hymn texts that have been written in the past couple of decades and paired with good, singable melodies in a classical or folk style.  We have to remember that "traditional" does not mean "old."  It means, well in our case, something that is created in the vein as an established tradition.  Some of the traditions have been around for two thousand years or longer, but some of the content is as fresh as anything being done on the contemporary side.

What separates the best hymns from the weaker hymns and songs is that they are grounded and steeped in theology.  They are not songs about how God meets my needs and how much I like God and how much God likes me.  They are songs that proclaim Christian truth through the vividness of concrete example (i.e. "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."  Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, were not the right man on our side, the man of God's own choosing...).  The best songs humbly cite God's self-revelation as the basis for our worship.  The worst songs say nothing or nearly nothing distinctive about Christianity and the Christian God.  Many of them could, with a couple minor changes, be about girlfriends or mexican food or a trip to Paris.

Am I talking about all CCM texts here?  Of course not.  There are some fabulous texts out there.  But we would do well to look at the very best hymnody has to offer when we are composing or selecting texts for Christian corporate worship so that we avoid what is happening far too often today in churches.   Regent (the good one, not the Pat Robertson one) professor John Stackhouse, who is an amateur musician who has played in more progressive church settings gives this blunt account.  It might seem insensitive, but I think the truth is too important to pass up: "We are the most educated Christians in history, and yet our lyrics are considerably stupider than our much less educated Christian forebears–the people who sang lyrics by Fanny Crosby or Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts."

This individual's post highlights the huge need for all church musicians to be adequately trained in theology, music theory, and church history, especially the history of church music.  I don't necessarily mean everyone has to be seminary trained or have music degrees (though that certainly is a huge advantage), but more that those disciplines need to be a huge, ongoing part of our professional development.  Whatever "style" or genre or music you select, we're all measured by the same theological yardstick.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

horrible book on marriage


This is not a good book.  It’s actually a very poor work full of problematic interpretation and shoddy reasoning.

The main premise of the Love and Respect theory is flawed.  His exegesis and interpretation of the Ephesians 5 text is presumptuous, to say the least.  The assumption is that since Paul admonishes husbands to love their wives, men should primarily focus on loving their wives.  And since Paul tells women to submit to their husbands, they should primarily focus on respecting their husbands.  And if everyone plays a neat part in this neat and tidy little plan, everything will go swimmingly.  That’s a lot to read into a few words, sliced neatly and taken out of context.

So what we have here is an entire theory built out of a misinterpretation of biblical text, which is taken completely out of context.  But the author sells it.  He sells it very well, in a way where many unsuspecting people who haven’t done their theological homework will listen to it and think, “Well hey, that sounds pretty good.” 

Here’s the biggest problem, one that should seem painfully obvious to all of us: love and respect, by definition, go hand in hand.  You cannot love someone without respecting them also; neither can you respect someone without loving them.

The book is horribly redundant.  Eggrichs sounds like a broken record, spouting his mangled interpretation of Ephesians 5:33 constantly. 

Additionally, he loves playing on stereotypes, which is evident if one doesn’t read anywhere past the subtitle: A Husband-Friendly Devotional that Wives Truly Love.  It might as well say We’ve Made This One Really Interesting for Husbands Since They Are So Uncaring.  He also purports horrible generalizations of women, consistently shifting the responsibility of men onto women.

There are many better books on marriage.  Pass on this one.