Tuesday, September 18, 2018

What Makes Church Music Good?

Music in churches is a tricky topic. It stands at a chaotic confluence of personal preferences and impulses about the direction and purpose of the church itself. Sorting out all of these debates is impossible in a piece like this one, nor do I have any interest in trying.

That said, one of the problems with such debates is that they often lack a set of basic categories on which participants can agree. We often boil debates down to a simple spectrum of “traditional” vs. “blended” vs. “contemporary.” I often get asked, “What kind of music do you do at your church?” My canned response - “Hopefully, the kind that glorifies God” - is almost never what people are wondering about. Yet it seems to me that those concerns, along with others that transcend such stylistic categories, are what we really should be talking about. Regardless of approach or instrumentation, there are a number of deeper levels at which we should all be examining our musical choices.

My hope in what follows is to lay out twelve such criteria, grouped into four broad questions – those of lyrics, music, their function in the broader liturgy (structure of a service) and the sources from which we draw them. All of these criteria are intended to be style-neutral. Admittedly, some of them might prejudice certain parts of the discussion. I readily admit that I have biases, although they don't simplistically fit on the spectrum. Mostly, I am biased toward musical creativity and variety in the church rather than accepting any overly-predictable paradigm. That said, I hope the following will help as we talk about church music and how to do it well.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Moral Purity & Missionary Purpose

We cannot separate our understanding of a thing from its purpose. Take the picture below – a curious implement to be sure, especially if I tell you it dates back to ancient Rome. We might be impressed by the craftsmanship and the age, but without knowing what it is for we don't know what to make of it. If I told you it was meant for plotting navigation routes for ships, we might feel one way. If I told you it was a surgical instrument used in childbirth (which it is), I suspect many of us would view it very differently.

As Christians, we are speaking a language defined by the past, especially by the Old Testament. While things have changed with the coming of Jesus, there is a continuing theological vocabulary we share with ancient Israel. Christians don't pay as much conscious attention to this continuity as we perhaps should – there is a tendency by many to fail to appreciate the deep Jewish roots of Jesus and the early church. At the same time, certain unconscious ideas about the Old Testament still affect how we understand our place in the world as New Testament believers.

Here is the specific issue I'm thinking about this morning: what is the purpose of the people of God in the Old Testament? What are they for? I suspect the answer many would give is that their purpose is to be pure. The goal of Israel is to be this nation apart, a holy nation that God loves while the world around it throbs in the throes of paganism. Often, this image serves as a foundation for viewing the church in the same way. We think our purpose rests in our set-apartness, creating communities doing their best to stay pure while they hunker down and wait for Jesus to return.

What if that idea about Israel's purpose is wrong?

I want to be very careful here, and I hope you'll read this carefully. I am not about to suggest that purity isn't of central importance for the Old Testament (or New Testament) people of God. We are called to be holy and set apart. Purity is important, but it was not Israel's purpose – rather, it was the means to their true end. Losing sight of that end leads us to a stunted and misunderstood picture of the Old Testament, and as a consequence, of our place in the world as the church.

Israel is for the Nations
Start at the beginning of Israel's story. When God calls Abram in Genesis 12, he calls him to separation from his family and father's house. He promises, in this separation, a divine blessing. However, both of these promises find their purpose beyond Abram and his descendants. “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3) God calls and blesses Abram so that the blessing might flow outward to all the families of the earth. This same promise is repeated to Isaac and Jacob: “in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 26:4, 28:14)

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Pastoral Prayer - God's Care

(Note: At someone's request, I'm going to start posting the pastoral prayers I write for gathered worship each week. There is a long tradition, in my corner of Christianity, of viewing the pastoral prayer as an important duty that, just as much as preaching, is meant to help God's people grow in worshipping and following Him. I hope these might serve you well in private devotion or reflection.)

You are a God who cares for us. Not because we are impressive or inherently worthy – we are creatures of dust. You care for us simply because of Your unfailing love. As our Creator and our Savior, you watch over us as those formed by Your words and purchased by Your Son. As our covenant Lord, You promised to make us Your people and to be our God. By Your Spirit and our union with Jesus Christ, you have adopted us into Your family as children. You have done all of this not because of something within us but simply because of Your kindness and grace.

Father, as you began a good work in us by Your mercy, so carry it on to completion. Protect us from the honeyed lies of the world, from the slavery of the flesh, and from the fiery arrows of the accuser. Work in us to break the lingering corruption of sin, to stir up our hearts towards good works, and to desire Your glory and the healing of Your world. Comfort us when we are discouraged, strengthen us when we feel beaten down, and teach our fearful hearts the confidence of faith.

As You work in us by Your love, so also teach us to work in the world. Make us agents of Your care for all that You have made. Teach us to steward what You give us, to love those You place around us, and to do the work You have prepared for us this day as those working for You as our true master. When we are wronged, help us to respond with grace as those forgiven by You. When we fail, grant us the confidence that You are at work in and through us. When we succeed, remind us that every good thing is a gift from Your hand and give us joy and humility that You are at work in us.

As we seek to care for the world, we pray especially for those places in it You have put us. We pray for our neighborhoods and communities – bring Your blessing and good news to them, both through us and through Your providential working. We pray for our state and our nation, that You would work to heal what is broken in them and bring peace and obedience. Be with all our elected officials, helping them to view themselves as stewards of their offices who must answer to You. Teach them to recognize that You care for those they serve and give them this same heart.

As we think about Your care for the world, we should not miss Your care for those specific people who are on our hearts. We pray for them as well. For those who are lost, we pray that You would seek and save them. For those who are sick, we pray that You would heal and support them. For those who are discouraged or heavy-hearted, we pray that You would speak to them of Your love. For those who are near to death, we pray that You would shepherd them through the Jordan and welcome them to Canaan's bright shore.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

(Un)Biblical Masculinity

I was recently on the fringes of a talk given to Christian husbands about caring for their wives. It was an okay talk as far as it goes. I generally agreed with the advice that was given. Yet I spent the entire discussion feeling uncomfortable because of its framing. It's been a while since I was around the world of "biblical masculinity," a topic within evangelical Christianity that is familiar from my youth. What struck me again, as it did then, was how wrongheaded the whole foundation felt. What was seen as a calling to excellence seemed, to me, a baseline of what we should be doing, while what was treated as normal and masculine sounded an awful lot like sin.

Masculinity, like gender in general, is a fraught topic, caught up both in the culture war and internecine Christian disputes. Perhaps that is why I'm reluctant to discuss it very often; every time masculinity and Christianity comes up, I feel like I'm juggling lit dynamite. Even if you do it properly, everything is probably going to explode. That said, I continue to watch people engage it in frustrating ways, both in terms of the evangelical world I still sit (sometimes uncomfortably) within and in terms of those reacting against it. So let's talk about what the Bible actually says about "manliness" and the ways it often goes wrong.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

According to God's Holy Ordinance

I watch this couple stammer their vows,
Sweating in my robes,
And (as always) search out your comfortable gaze.
You are waiting, expecting the glance,
Smiling in unspoken agreement.
They have no idea what they're getting into.

We have seen the best in each other,
Known one another at our worst.
You have been mine for poorer,
And while we're still waiting for the other part of that one,
I count myself rich.
The doctors only give us a few more years,
But we covered that too,
Stammering like these young lovers
Without a clue.

Love is a wound and a poultice,
A drawing back and pressing in,
A dream stubbornly enduring the harsh morning sun.
Love is cherishing and forgetting
And finding in another's grace something to cherish even more.
Do they realize, as they mouth these old words,
That they are opening their ribcages
While naming the very things
That will hollow out their chest?
Death will part them,
And while it comes too soon for us,
It always comes too soon.

They are waiting for the next line.
I could stare at your face forever.
You tilt your chin to say,
“Get on with it.”
None of us realizes what we promise.
Knowing, I would promise it all again.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Purity of the Church and Abuse of Power

While very much an outsider, I have watched the recent new wave of scandals striking the Catholic church with great sadness. This was increased today as the Catholic diocese in my own hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska was caught up in allegations of abuse. I am far from being a Catholic, although I have a few wonderful friendships with Catholic brothers and sisters from Lincoln. I have no interest in commenting on these specific claims - they may well be false and will need to be investigated, although they may also be true and it is important to protect those who bring charges of abuse and recognize the difficulty of telling the truth when the structures of power are against them.

My concern is that many evangelical Protestants hear these stories from within Catholicism and simply shake their heads, blaming them merely on priestly celibacy or some sort of popish corruption. There may well be particular structures within the Catholic church that lead to some of its struggles, but leaders in the church abusing power, sinning sexually, and victimizing the helpless are hardly absent from evangelicalism. Treating this as someone else's problem only stores up wrath for the day we eventually reap the whirlwind of our own sins.

With that said, I just want to offer a few general Biblical principles we should all bear in mind when we hear about such evils in the church.