Friday, April 20, 2007

Sing psalms

I've been encouraged to post the following piece, which I wrote several years ago.

The answer to the “worship wars” is in the back of the pew in front of you. There, languishing between the storied suffering of Job and the royal wisdom of Proverbs, lies the Book of Psalms – one hundred and fifty of the greatest praise and worship songs ever.

How many churches squabbling over music have sung even one, first verse to last? How many have even considered it?

Christians these days are rethinking what they sing. Not all that’s old is good. Not all that’s new is bad. But the Psalms and biblical canticles are the measure of both. Any congregation that rallied around that point would eventually find its musical taste transformed. The best would drive out the pretty good, regardless of age. Almost miraculously, water would be displaced by wine.

Our songs shape our piety. More than most preaching, they’re the things that stick with us after we’ve exited the pew and passed through the back door. If we wallow in schlock and schmaltz, our devotion grows schlocky and schmaltzy. Our faith becomes long on sentiment, short on substance.

It is one thing to sing a line such as “now I am happy all the day,” to quote a traditional old hymn with a lie in its refrain; it is another to sing, with the author of Psalm 119, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” We can (and should) outgrow ditties and bad hymns. We cannot outgrow the Psalms. Psalms mature us.

Biblical music is a gift of God. Scripture is full of songs – those of Miriam, Moses, and Hannah, of Zechariah, the Virgin Mary, and Simeon. The letters of St. Paul contain hymns, and so does the Revelation. The Bible doesn’t come to us first as a theology textbook but as a storybook and songbook. We’re invited to put ourselves into the story (by faith and baptism) and then to join the songs.

That singing them never occurs to many “Bible-believing” Christians uncovers a baffling irony: The churches that claim to make the most of the Bible in their theology make the least of the Bible in their worship. For all their emphasis on the authority and God-givenness of Scripture, evangelicals have the least biblical worship in Christendom.

There are churches – even some that bear the name “Bible” – in which the Scriptures are a closed book, liturgically speaking. They aren’t sung. They aren’t prayed. They often aren’t even read, save as an aperitif before the sermon.

By contrast, Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches abound in biblical song. They sing Psalms and canticles. They sing the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. They sing songs full of biblical language and imagery.

The point of comparison isn’t to vilify one tradition while idealizing others. It has to be admitted that some churches that sing Psalms often settle for truncated versions and intone them with little relish. Every tradition has its liabilities. But Christians wrangling over worship would do well to learn from their brothers and sisters who have not forgotten that the Psalms are the church’s first and finest hymnbook.

The Psalms have always held a cherished place in private devotion. St. Jerome, the great fourth-century Bible translator, reports hearing them sung by people in the fields and in their gardens. But the Psalms were also central to public worship, and Psalm-singing churches perpetuate a tradition rooted in the Bible itself.

What is the Book of Psalms about?

Many things, of course. Praise and lament, wisdom and wickedness, secret sins and tender mercies. But the deepest Christian conviction about the Psalms is that ultimately they speak of the suffering and glory of Jesus. It is a conviction that springs from words attributed to the risen Lord himself, who opened his disciples’ minds to the things concerning him “written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).

Jesus prayed the Psalms. They were twice on his lips when he was dying. To sing them after him is to join his prayer. What stronger incentive do churches need?

One stumbling block is obvious. Many churchgoers aren’t accustomed to chanting, which is the kind of singing that best suits the shape of the Psalms. But the success of chart-topping chant CDs proves that such music retains its appeal. Of course Gregorian chant isn’t the only way to sing Psalms. But the key thing is that chant, in all its various forms, adopts a posture of humility before the text. It seeks only to give the inspired word pre-eminence, to be conformed to it, and to glorify it. Ideally, it bends the singer to do the same.

If churches limit themselves to an hour of gathered prayer each week, shouldn’t they apply their voices to the best, most profound songs they’ve got? Wouldn’t biblical songs top the list? Many congregations sing so little as it is. Four hymns take as little as five minutes. The rest is talk.

Churches can do better than that, and they’ll have to if they hope to acquire the mind of Scripture, which is the mind of Christ. Doing better will require moving beyond skirmishes over “choruses versus hymns.” It will require a long look back at the patrimony they have lost and a resolve to reclaim it.

By all means sing the words of Wesley and Watts. And sing the best words of writers today. But sing, above all, the words with which Jesus made his prayer to the Father.

A postscript: When this was published in a newspaper, it drew a varied response. Evangelicals who wrote letters tended to take umbrage. No church, one of them wrote, sings all the psalms. (He was wrong.) Another said chant was unrealistic. (I think he was wrong, too.) A Methodist worship director challenged my assertion that four hymns can take as little as five minutes. Anyone who plans worship, she said, knows that you allot five minutes per hymn. Maybe so, but I stand by my stats. I took a few well-known hymns -- "Holy, Holy, Holy," "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," etc. -- and timed them. When worship leaders in a rush shave a verse off a hymn at the end of a service, they're often not saving more than 25 seconds or so.

A Lutheran or two were full of thanks. One Anglican said: Keep on, but evangelicals are not going to listen.

Since the piece was published, I've done a number of psalm-chant workshops at several Presbyterian churches and twice at Dallas Baptist University. The Baptists have been the most enthusiastic. The first time I was on their campus, several of them hung out around the piano for an hour afterward, expressing their weariness with contemporary Christian music. The second time, a student came to me afterward and said, "I like this music because it doesn't call attention to itself. It calls attention to the text."

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Christ is risen!

The Catechetical Sermon of our Father among the Saints John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Holy and Light-bearing Day of the Holy and Saving Resurrection of Christ our God:

If any be pious and a lover of God, let him partake of this good and radiant festival.
If any be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.
If any have wearied himself in fasting, let him now partake of his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour, let him receive today his rightful due.
If any have come after the third hour, let him feast with thanksgiving.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings, for he shall in no wise suffer loss.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, not wavering.
If any have arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not fear for his tardiness.
For the Master, who loveth his honor, accepteth the last even as the first.
He giveth rest to the one who came at the eleventh hour, as to the one who wrought from the first.
And He hath mercy on the one that delayeth, and he careth for the first.
To the one He giveth, and on the other He bestoweth gifts.
He both accepteth the works, and welcometh the intention;
He honoreth the acts, and praiseth the purpose.
Enter ye all, therefore, into the joy of your Lord.
Ye first and ye second, partake of the reward.
Ye rich and ye poor, dance your joy together.
Ye that abstain and ye slothful, honor the day.
Ye that have fasted, and ye that have not fasted, be glad today.
The table is laden; do ye all fare sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let none go away hungered.
Partake ye all of the banquet of faith.
Partake ye all of the riches of loving-kindness.
Let none lament his neediness, for the common kingdom hath been revealed.
Let none grieve for his offenses, for pardon hath shone forth from the grave.
Let none fear death, for the Savior’s death hath set us free.
He that was held by it hath quenched it.
He that descended into Hell hath despoiled Hell.
He embittered it, which had tasted of His flesh, and Isaiah, anticipating this saith, Hell was embittered, when it met thee below.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was deceived.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was cast down.
It was embittered, for it was fettered.
It took a body and encountered God.
It took earth and met heaven.
It took what it saw and fell upon what it saw not.
Where is thy sting, O Death?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown.
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.
Christ is risen, and life prevaileth, and there is none dead in the tomb.
For Christ in arising from the dead is become the first-fruits of those that have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and might unto ages of ages. Amen.

Christ is risen!

Friday, April 06, 2007

'Truly, this man was the Son of God'

The major newspapers and magazines regularly write about Jesus this time of year. More often than not, the news is scandalous, at least where Christian believers are concerned. Several years ago one paper published a story about professing Christians who believe that their faith needs a new symbol: The cross (they say) is too violent. In its first draft, the story quoted no one who might have pointed out that you'd have to move mountains of New Testament testimony to the cross to dislodge it from its central place. The cross stands out, as if in a pop-up book, on nearly every page.

In the years since that report, one of the national newsmagazines published a story about what followers of the great world religions think of Jesus. They gave him great reviews for his character and teaching -- as they understood them -- but they all had this in common, too: They stumbled over Jesus' cross. The cross was offensive, nonsensical, unthinkable. If the story did nothing else, it proved that the apostle Paul’s words still hold true: The message of Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.”

Mark, of course, wrote one of the first stories about the cross. His whole Gospel is about the cross. Especially from the middle of the book on, the cross throws a shadow that grows darker as the story goes on, until we finally arrive at the awful moment itself. What we have heard tonight is the climax of the story. But how does Mark begin to tell it? Here’s his first sentence, which isn’t really a sentence but something more like a title: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Already we risk tuning out. We hear the words so much -- gospel, Jesus, Christ, Son of God -- that we hardly hear them at all. But keep listening, more closely, and you may end up asking questions: What’s a gospel? What’s a Christ? Who is God? We think we’ve got the answers down pat. But if we suspend what we think we know and open ourselves to Mark’s story, we may find ourselves challenged to think afresh.

Take the gospel: What is it? Most of us have gotten in the habit of saying something like this: Jesus loves you and died for your sins. That sort of statement is true, and it’s part of the gospel, but it’s not quite how Mark puts it. Or, more to the point, it’s not quite how Jesus puts it when he himself "preaches the gospel." Listen to how Jesus begins a public ministry that is destined for the cross: He came into Galilee, “proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” We’re not used to putting it that way. Awhile back I polled dozens of friends and acquaintances with this simple question: What is the gospel? As I recall, none but one said anything about the reign of God, which, for Jesus, was the big headline.

But what will it look like? How will God bring his reign to bear?

Mark’s answer is full of irony and the unexpected. Not least in the confession of the centurion at the cross: "Truly this man was the Son of God." He -- the executioner, a non-Jew -- is the first human being in the Gospel to make that confession. The opening of the Gospel identifies Jesus as the Son of God, and the Father bears witness to his Sonship, at his baptism and at his transfiguration. But the centurion is the first to say, in effect, "Amen." And he says it when we least expect it: When Jesus breathes his last in shame.

On the Gospel's first page, Mark tells us that the cross-story about to unfold is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, one of whose great themes is the coming reign of God. Think back to a scene involving that prophet almost four centuries before the scene we’ve heard described tonight. In the year that Israel’s King Uzziah died, Isaiah was given a vision of the Lord in his temple. He saw the Lord enthroned, “high and lifted up.” He saw the train of his robe fill the temple. The foundations shook. Smoke filled the house. Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, borne aloft on their wings, flew around him crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” The sight did not leave the prophet unmoved. Seeing the Lord of hosts in glory put him on his knees. Isaiah saw the sorry hypocrisy of his heart. “I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the king!”

The centurion as well saw the Lord, “high and lifted up.” But how unlike Isaiah’s vision this is! And yet Mark is saying that this, too, is a vision of the king. Soldiers mock Jesus with acclamations of royalty. They dress him in purple. They crown him with thorns. Above his head they post the accusation against him: King of the Jews. The chief priests taunt him as he hangs on the cross: “Let the Christ [the Anointed One], the king of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.”

In all this, Mark wants you to see and believe. He wants you to believe that even in mockery, the mockers speak more truth than they know. Yes, this is where the gospel of the kingdom is reaching a climax. He wants you to see -- not something other than what you see, not a fiction in which Jesus does come down from the cross -- but he wants you to see the scene in its shame and degradation and to say, with the executioner standing by: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Jesus is the king, and this cross is his throne. Here he comes with saving authority to bring God’s reign, dealing at last with what’s wrong with the world, which is to say you and I. Here is the gospel. Here is God, not “acting like he's God” as we often say of someone who's “lording it over someone or everyone else.” No. Here is God, the servant of all, giving his life as a ransom for many.

“The hopes and fears of all the years,” we sing at Christmas, “are met in thee [Bethlehem] tonight.” Maybe so. But here, in the nails of the cross, are met the human spitefulness of all the years, all your spitefulness, all your selfish ambition, all your self-centeredness, all your ugliness; here in the darkness around the cross is all the darkness of your heart. Jesus carries it there and absorbs it, suffering alienation from the Father, alone in darkness of the dreadful curse. “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” But if he saves himself, he cannot save others.

“The whole earth is full of his glory.” On this day, it was the glory of God to undergo voluntary humiliation. It was the glory of God to hang naked on a cross. Will you face that image, for the first or millionth time, and own it? St. Augustine said, "God has humbled himself, and man is still proud." Behold your God. And, beholding him, humble yourself. Cry within the dark places of your heart, “Holy, holy, holy. ... Woe is me apart from you. For I am a man, I am a woman, I am a girl, I am a boy of unclean lips." Say, with Isaiah, "My eyes have seen the king." And with the centurion, "Truly this man is the Son of God.” And embrace him, cross and all.

To him be glory and honor, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.