Tuesday, January 20, 2009

On Lent

Here's something I wrote for a church newsletter. Written in part in evangelicalese, it's seeking to make a case for Lent for an audience that isn't used to such things.

Of the following dozen themes, which are most worth remembering in thoughtful, prayerful ways?

Jesus' birth.
Jesus' kingdom ministry.
Jesus' death.
Jesus' resurrection.
Jesus' ascension.
The sending of the Spirit.
Jesus' Second Coming.
Repentance and holiness.

I suspect you picked them all.

One advantage of following something like a traditional Christian calendar -- as opposed to a secular or Hallmark calendar -- is that it continually reminds us of the high points, from Bethlehem to the empty tomb and beyond. Granted: Seasons such as Christmas and Easter aren't biblically mandated. But done well, they can be one more discipleship tool, like Sunday school or men's and women's groups.

There's an easy objection to seasonal observances, and it's often put this way: Aren't these things that we should be emphasizing all the time? I think the answer is: Yes, in a sense, they are. But it isn't humanly possible to emphasize everything equally all the time, just as it isn't possible to recite all 21 chapters of the Gospel of John simultaneously. You can't say everything at once. It takes time.

But the objectors have a point. It's never right, for example, to forget the cross because we're emphasizing something else. All God's truth is interconnected. Some of our best Christmas carols illustrate this. "What Child Is This?" is a song about Jesus' birth, but it carries a dark reminder about this Baby's future:

Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
the cross be borne for me, for you.

We're forgetful creatures. And the Lord says, "Remember!" (Deuteronomy 4:10 and 7:18, among a host of other passages). It may be helpful to think of seasonal observances as periodic reminders of all the things we're called to reflect on -- and to live out -- the rest of the year. Every Christmas, every Easter is meant be a rock dropped into a pond that sends ripples through all our days.

We celebrate Jesus' resurrection every Sunday, of course -- that's why we meet on Sunday rather than some other day -- and we'll celebrate it in an even bigger way on April 12. How can we do it in a way that suggests we take Jesus' resurrection as seriously as we do his birth? How can we give it more weight?

One way is to prepare for it, as many churches have often done, with a season of repentance and renewal, with special attention to Jesus' suffering. I think of this season as the original Spring Revival, or (to use language associated with Rick Warren's book The Purpose-Driven Life) the original "Forty Days of Purpose." It's the "Lead Me to Calvary" season. It's the "Jesus, I Come" season.

That's what we're going to pursue this year here. We'll have a special service to get us started, on February 25, followed by special weekly services leading us to the cross and resurrection. We'll focus on humbling ourselves anew before God, on turning toward him in faith and repentance, on mutual forgiveness.

Can any of us honestly say we don't need those things?

Please pray even now for what's ahead. Pray that the beauty of these things will be real to us. Pray that we'll be changed, that we'll see afresh the light of God's glory in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Nothing in our hands we'll bring -- nothing but our twistedness, our failures, our need; simply to his cross we'll cling.

Friday, October 24, 2008

How biblical is our music?

I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. – Saint Paul (Acts 20:27)

Any ministry of the Word should be devoted, not to a handful of pet themes or favorite sentences, but to what the apostle called "the whole counsel of God." It otherwise lacks integrity. A preacher who preaches only on the texts he's most drawn to is liable to end up preaching a lopsided gospel. One strength of working through whole chunks of the Bible is that it forces the preacher – and the rest of us – to wrestle with issues and questions that we might prefer to avoid.

As with preaching, so with music. Church music is a ministry of the Word. It should be devoted, not to a handful of favorite themes and sentiments – however good they are in themselves, and however good they make us feel – but to "the whole counsel of God." Our music should stretch us.

How are Christians, especially evangelicals, doing today, musically? Is this area of church life marked by wholeness, fullness? In many places, no. Proof: Lots of us know scads of Christmas carols, but only a handful of resurrection hymns. Given the New Testament's emphasis, that's scandalous. (See, for starters, 1 Corinthians 15; that's where the apostle says that the truth of the resurrection is what makes or breaks the church. See 1 Thessalonians 4; that's where he says he wants Christians to encourage one another with the hope of bodily resurrection on the other side of death.)

A scant familiarity with resurrection hymns isn't the only problem. There are no doubt plenty of other gaps in our music. How many hymns of confession and repentance do we know? How many songs about perseverance in holiness? How many hymns that spur us to fight the world, the flesh, and the devil? How many hymns about the promise of new heavens and a new earth? How many hymns on the ascension of Jesus? How many on His transfiguration? How many baptismal hymns? How many Communion hymns? How many psalms?

Looking back to my formative high school years in church, I don't remember many songs about any of those things. What I remember is a lot of songs about conversion. Conversion is important, but it's just the beginning, not the fullness, of our life in Christ.

If we want a music ministry marked by wholeness and integrity, it's not enough to ask of each individual song we sing, "Is it biblical?" We've got to ask whether our body of congregational music as a whole is biblical in its breadth and depth. We can't, like the blind men in the parable of the blind men and the elephant, lay hold of the trunk alone and pass it off as the whole beast, however much we like to revel in his trunkitudinousness. There's more to him than that.

Jonathan Edwards said we're naturally drawn to those things about God that we find friendliest. We shrink from the rest, and that leads to distortion. So with our music: We can have a hundred hymns about justification by faith (or conversion, or joy, or something else) that, taken individually, are all biblical. But if we sing little else, we distort God's truth.

The Scriptures have more to say. And so should our music.

I'm still alive

To mark one year of not blogging, I'd like to offer this video. Musically, at least, I enjoy this.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

'Our Father' in French

Month before last, I posted a video of Kedrov's setting (in Slavonic) of the Lord's Prayer. Here's the French version by Maurice Duruflé. His original was for unison voices and organ (what you hear first); he then arranged it for four parts, unaccompanied (what you hear second). I wish this were a better recording, and that's no reflection on the singers. It's just that the audio and video aren't the best. No matter. You can still get a sense of the piece. Notice that Duruflé moves phrase by phrase in what is more or less the rhythm of speech. It's chantlike. The score goes back and forth between two and three beats to a measure.

These settings of the Lord's Prayer by Duruflé and Kedrov are my favorites. Both are 20th-century works, so they qualify as contemporary Christian music. Duruflé's, a mere thirty years old, is dedicated to his wife, Marie-Madeleine: à ma femme.

Here is the text:
Notre Père qui es aux cieux,
que ton Nom soit sanctifié,
que ton règne vienne,
que ta volonté soit faite sur la terre comme au ciel.
Donne-nous aujourd'hui notre pain de ce jour.
Pardonne-nous nos offenses,
comme nous pardonnons aussi à ceux qui nous ont offensés.
Et ne nous soumets pas à la tentation,
mais délivre nous du mal.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Weekly World News: 1979-2007

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Psalm-chant recordings

When I write about singing the psalms, as I did here, or when I do a psalm-chant gig, people ask about good psalm-chant recordings. And I get paralyzed. I wish there were a slew of recordings to which I could point. Of course there's an abundance of recorded Gregorian chant, but not much is in English or involves the psalms. And there's an abundance of recorded Anglican chant, sung by English cathedral choirs. Indeed, you can get the whole psalter, as recorded by the choir of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, on the Hyperion label. But much recorded Anglican chant sounds -- to these ears -- rather bloodless. The English choral tradition is less heavy with men's voices than, say, the Russian tradition, and the English tradition in most cases continues to favor boys' voices on top. I go to a little conference every year where we use Anglican chants to sing, for example, the Te Deum and the Beatitudes. But we sing them a good deal more vigorously and enthusiastically than what you'll hear on most recordings. I don't know of any recorded Anglican chant that sounds like what we do there.

Yes, that's the problem: I don't know many recordings of which to say, "Here's exactly the sound we're looking for."

Here are a few things I do enjoy:

The Divine Liturgy, St. Vladimir's Liturgical Chorale, David Drillock directing (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press). Orthodox worship is sung worship. I like its richer, deeper sound in comparison with the English tradition. This recording is in English and includes a couple of psalms or at least substantial psalm portions. You get the Lord's Prayer in Rimsky-Korsakov's setting, which is quite simple, and the Beatitudes. You also get Fr Alexander Schmemann singing "Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages" at the beginning, and he does not sing it the way many an Anglican cantor would -- as if he had a ping-pong ball stuck to the roof of his mouth.

The two Anglican chant recordings I like best are cheap and recent and better than their titles:

Psalms for the Soul and Psalms for the Spirit, Choir of St. John's, Elora, Noel Edison directing (Naxos). This Canadian choir uses clear-toned women instead of boys. I appreciate that the organ takes a back seat. You can actually hear and understand the choir. (Note: Not everything on these CDs is chant.) These recordings are available at iTunes.

Runner-up on Anglican chant: Psalms, Choir of Westminster Abbey, Martin Neary directing (Virgin). You can sample it at iTunes.

Lord, Open My Lips: Music for the Hours, by Cyprian Consiglio (Oregon Catholic Press). There are things to fault here -- I would like more vigor at points, and stronger voices among the cantors -- but in some ways this sounds closer than most recordings to what you might hear in your own church if you were doing this sort of thing. At least give credit where credit is due: The scriptural content of these three Catholic rites is higher than you get in a lot of evangelical worship. You can hear samples of every track at the link I've given.

As for myself, I am most drawn to the sound world of the Divine Liturgy CD.

Now, you may give each of these an audition and screw up your face at all of it. What then? Four things:
1. Listen again. Don't decide you don't like something after a single hearing. For the longest time, I'd listen to Brahms' Fourth Symphony, particularly the first movement, and think, "I just don't get this." I didn't like it. Now I love it. I love it as much as I love the rest of Brahms.

2. Use your imagination. Be open to the thought that, whatever your misgivings, something like this could be done and done well.

3. Honor the intent. Each form of chant represented here seeks to bend itself to the Scriptural text and give it pre-eminence.

4. Know that as you're reading this, someone in Africa or Asia or some other place is probably chanting a psalm, using cool African or Asian music that you and I haven't heard but might end up liking better than anything I've posted.
The Czech composer Antonin Dvorak drew on Czech folk melodies for his own work. He encouraged American composers to turn to black music for their inspiration. Could spirituals be an idiom worth exploring for psalm chant? Listen to Psalm 96 here.
The piece in the video above is the Lord's Prayer in a chant by the Russian composer Nikolai Kedrov Sr. (1871-1940). It's sung by the Youth Choir of Petcherskaja Lavra Kiev.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Try being sensitive to this seeker

Think about your church's worship. Think about the worship of other churches you know. Now think about this seeker:
To whose church would you send a twenty-something Reformed Christian who could get into singing a little Greek on Sunday mornings -- say, a string of Kyrie eleisons?

Where would you send some young believer who fancies set prayers?

Where would you send somebody who thinks the psalms are all that, and is dying to sing them in church? What if he imagines -- get this -- that he could enlist the kids' help to make it happen?

Where would you send someone who wanted to be in a church where they sing things such as the Creed, and don't just say them?

Where would you send somebody who's dissatisfied with the Eucharistic status quo -- who's gotten to thinking (this person is big into reading the Fathers) that the Eucharist is enough of a raison d'être for Sunday worship that not to have it at least every week is deformed, not Reformed?

Where, in short, would you send John Calvin?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Thank you

I'm back from Florida, and I've found things to give thanks for.

Thank you, O Lord, for the black-silver shimmer of sea beneath a rising full moon, a beauty that can make me cry and think how full of foolishness the world is.

Thank you, O Lord, for barefoot moms and dads and kids up and down the beach, huddled with flashlights over captured crabs.

Thank you, O Lord, for the noise of waves that let me sing out at night without worrying who'll hear.

Thank you, O Lord, for human companionship.

Thank you, O Lord, for the kindness of people who barely know me.

Thank you, O Lord, for my teachers.

Thank you, O Lord, for a 59-degree night in August in Philadelphia, and for a walk that makes me feel alive.

Thank you, O Lord, for the beauty of women who love you.