Peace in Rest

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he provides for his beloved during sleep.
-Psalm 127:1-2 (NRSV)

“Daddy! Daaaaaddy! Daaaaaaaaaddy! DaDDY! DADDY!”
I slink into my daughter’s room, twenty minutes after my wife and I gently sang her lullaby and closed her door. The lullaby didn’t work. “What do you need, dear?” I ask her.
“Ummm… I’m thirsty.”
“You had a drink just before bed. You need to go to sleep.”
“Oh, okay. Goodnight Daddy.”
I can tell she’s determined to avoid sleep, so I brace myself for a barrage of excuses. And sure enough, five minutes later I hear, “Daddy! . . . I need to use the restroom.”
I begin to ponder the fact that children are experts at putting off rest, and the way they do it is one excuse at a time: “Daaaddy! I had a scary dream.” “Daaaaaddy! I have toots in my belly.” “Daaaaaaaddy! I’m not sleepy.”

But we do the same thing, don’t we? Too many times have I tried to persuade myself that I’ll rest after work. I’ll rest after supper. I’ll rest after the kid goes to bed. I’ll rest after this television episode. I’ll rest after I do a bit more work. I’ll rest after I read another chapter. I’m late to bed, but I’ll get some extra rest tomorrow.

Resting is a hard practice. The idols of our society—work, exertion, self-dependence—persuade us that our productivity will free us from the world. “Lazy” and “freeloader” are curses we call down upon the heads of our enemies, and we dare not rest for fear that others will see us as weak or irresponsible.

All of this is a big fat lie.

Scripture shows us again and again that rest reflects—and fosters—an abiding faith in God. In Exodus 18, Moses explained to his father-in-law his great godly responsibility as judge in every dispute among his people. I suspect Moses was both shocked and relieved when his father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (NRSV).

Jesus, too, encouraged his apostles to “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:31 NRSV). He extends the invitation to us: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 NRSV).

Rest is a physical and mental necessity. Even more than that, it is a spiritual necessity, an area in which my faith in God guides my daily life. Sometimes God calls me to participate in his work, but he calls me to trust his love and power at all times. By making time to rest from work and play, I acknowledge my helplessness and put into practice my belief that God is sovereign and good.

Resting also holds a huge a bonus for relationships: It facilitates communion. My best communication with my wife does not happen when we’re working, cooking, shopping, or entertaining our daughter. Our deepest and most honest discussions happen when we are at rest, when we are away from busyness and distractions. Likewise, my best times of reflection and of conveying my thoughts and feelings to God occur when I step out of my blur of activity and choose to rest. And most of the time that is also when I perceive God speaking to me.

I encourage you to evaluate your habit of rest (or your habit of avoiding it). Let me offer five questions for reflection:

How can you fight the lie that unceasing productivity creates freedom?

Consider that busy people encourage busyness, and restful people encourage restfulness. Which sort of people are around you, and how do you affect others?

Understand that life has seasons of busyness, but be honest with yourself: Are you simply having a busy season or have you cultivated a busy lifestyle?

How can you plan regular times of rest and then plan your activities around those? When planning, beware of busy activities disguised as restful ones. Rest needs to be rest, and it needs to allow room for spontaneity.

What can you do to make God the center of your rest, and rest with faith in his power and goodness?

Remember the words of Jesus: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27 NRSV). Rest in the peace of God.

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O Come All Ye Faithful: The stanza we don’t sing

What we sing together forms what we believe. Let me give you a specific example.

First, a short list of things I love:

  • Congregational singing
  • Hymns
  • Christmas hymns and carols

I am sad to report that this year I got to sing only one (yes, that’s ONE) Advent or Christmas hymn with a congregation. It is truly tragic. Nevertheless, I have many fond memories of Christmas songs in church. Though I like many of them, I particularly enjoy O Come All Ye Faithful. This hymn text does a fine job of reflecting the themes surrounding Jesus’ birth as recounted by Luke and John.

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!
Come and behold him, born the King of angels;
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

 

Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation,
sing, all ye citizens of heaven above:
“Glory to God, all glory in the highest!”
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

 

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing;
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

“Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing” … What a well-written abbreviation of John 1:1-14! And the way the angels’ song invites all of us into adoration of Christ is glorious!

A bit of history . . .

The text O Come All Ye Faithful exists in multiple forms, so the origin of the hymn is not certain. However, it is generally agreed that John Francis Wade, an eighteenth-century Roman Catholic, is both the author and composer of the hymn, originally written in Latin. It was translated in the nineteenth century by Frederick Oakeley, who was first a priest in the Church of England, and later became a Roman Catholic priest.

Although I have sung O Come All Ye Faithful for as long as I can remember, it wasn’t until graduate studies that I was introduced to the original second stanza of the text. I grew up in a church that used the Baptist Hymnal (1975), and stanza two was not included in this hymnal. The editors of the subsequent Baptist Hymnal (1991) and Baptist Hymnal (2008) also chose to omit stanza two. In fact, the omission goes further back than 1975; the stanza is not found in the 1956 Baptist Hymnal, and neither is it in the 1940 Broadman Hymnal.

I asked a colleague of mine, a prominent Baptist hymnologist, about the reason for this omission. Here is his reply: “I don’t have any documentation for what I am about to say, but my suspicion is that [stanza two] was omitted because it is so significantly irregular in its hymnic meter. Of course, all the stanzas of this hymn (or at least this translation) are irregular, but that stanza is even more so. Once the stanza was omitted in Broadman Hymnal, subsequent Baptist hymnals simply used the version that was in the previous hymnal. In Celebrating Grace [2008], there was a conscious effort to go back and at least look at the versions of hymns found in books from other denominations, as well as the original versions as they were first written or published, which accounts for the presence of the stanza in that book.”

And now, the text of this stanza, so elusive among Baptists:

God of God, Light of Light eternal,
lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created;
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

Why is this such a big deal to me? These lines convey a vital theological belief that is often misunderstood by the very people who don’t sing it! The words are borrowed from the Nicene Creed to express the Christian belief about the incarnation. From early on, Christianity has maintained that Jesus Christ is God. When we say Jesus is the Son of God, the little preposition “of” means he is the same substance as God; Jesus is God. I have encountered a common misunderstanding, however, that implies (if not states outright) that Jesus is God’s Son, in the same way that I am the son of my father. But while my father helped to create me, the hymn reminds us that Jesus was “begotten, not created.” Jesus Christ is “God of God,” and “Light of Light eternal,” not a subsidiary of the Father, and not separate from the Father.

What we sing together forms what we believe, and by omitting such a stanza we limit our understanding of who God is and what God does.

 

I Really Do Enjoy (Some) Congregational Songs

I recently had a brief discussion with a family member about the romantic, or maybe even sensual, language that pervades contemporary worship songs. After our talk, she paused for a moment and said, “You know, you’re very critical about worship music.” I think she said it more as observation than as insult. I smiled and said, “Yes I am!” Really, more of us ought to be critical about what we sing and say and do in corporate worship. After all, doesn’t God want us to offer our hearts, souls, and minds to him? Critique is vital if done with good intentions and a perspective of pastoral care.

Still, she has a point. So, lest I become known as a 30-year-old curmudgeon who has a shed full of axes to grind, I want to share with you a few congregational songs that recently have caught my attention in a good way. Most of these are on my “helpful” list due to thoughtfully-presented theology, well-constructed lyricism, and music that is memorable, singable, and beautiful. Here they are.

new worship

First, there are songs popularized by the Contemporary Christian Music industry (in other words, controlled in the United States by Capitol Christian Music Group):

  • Christ is Risen by Matt Maher
  • Indescribable by Laura Story
  • Praise the Father, Praise the Son by Chris Tomlin
  • I Will Praise Him Still by Fernando Ortega
  • By Our Love by Christy Knockels
  • Man of Sorrows by Hillsong
  • Come As You Are by David Crowder

I’ve found several great songs by an organization called Cardiphonia – “an ongoing collaboration of artists and musicians giving their first fruits to the church.” These folks tend to be thoughtful and creative. You can find their music here. The following are some good selections from their “Songs for the Supper.”

  • In the Name of God the Father by The Ironsides
  • The Feast by Karl Digerness and City Hymns
  • The King of Love My Shepherd is by Redeemer Knoxville
  • Lord, I Believe by Zac Hicks and Cherry Creek Worship
  • We Sing His Name by Melanie Penn
  • Until He Come by Gina Tuck
  • The Lamb Has Overcome by Luke Morton

The last several years has seen a growing movement, often referred to as the “retuned hymn movement” or “rehymn movement“, that sets previously written hymn texts to new music. Here are a few personal favorites:

  • O God of Mine by Rita Springer
  • I Surrender All by Jadon Lavik
  • In the Hours arranged by Kevin Twit (Indelible Grace)
  • Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul arranged by Kevin Twit (Indelible Grace)
  • Arise My Soul Arise arranged by Kevin Twit (Indelible Grace)
  • On Jordan’s Stormy Banks arranged by Christopher Miner (Indelible Grace)
  • Abide With Me arranged by Justin Smith (Indelible Grace)
  • All Must Be Well arranged by Matthew Smith (Indelible Grace)

Finally, one of my favorite modern hymnwriters is Keith Getty, who often co-writes with his wife Kristyn and their friend Stuart Townend. Their texts marry head with heart, using beautiful language to poignantly express solid theology. And they write music for the congregation to sing! A few that top my congregational songs playlist:

  • By Faith
  • My Worth Is Not In What I Own
  • Christ Is Risen, He Is Risen Indeed
  • The Perfect Wisdom of Our God
  • My Heart Is Filled With Thankfulness
  • Holy Spirit
  • In Christ Alone
  • Simple Living

This list is by no means comprehensive, and I regularly listen to new music. Also keep in mind that my iTunes has 161 church music songs that I’ve rated four or five stars. The thing is that there is so much new worship music available. It’s impossible to keep up with it all. There’s the stuff that’s played on Christian radio stations, new hymns written by modern hymnwriters, and an increasing number of churches and coalitions that are sharing the music they are making.

With the abundance of new music, I have abandoned the practice of finding songs that are acceptable for congregational singing. Instead I now search for songs that the congregation needs to sing. Why sing a song that is only tolerable if there is better song that conveys the same theme or theology?

What tops your congregational playlist these days?

Review of John Bell’s The Singing Thing Too

Several weeks ago I wrote a review of John L. Bell’s book The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song. I (finally) finished reading the sequel, The Singing Thing Too: Enabling Congregations to Sing (Wild Goose Resource Group/GIA Publications, 2007), and I’d like to share a few thoughts on this volume.

singingthingtoo

First, I want to emphasize that my taking so long to read the book in no way reflects the quality of the writing. The Singing Thing Too is every bit as helpful as it predecessor, and I recommend it for all leaders of congregational song. Bell warns in his introduction, “be prepared to have your musical, denomination and aesthetic sensitivities tramped on as you wend your way through these pages. But also be prepared to try things out. For this is a starter pack rather than a blueprint” (10). If you’re new to congregational song leadership you will find this book to be educational and practical. If you’re a seasoned song leader you will be encouraged and reminded of basic, yet important, principles of musical leadership.

johnlbell

John L. Bell

Bell discusses the difference between a choir and a congregation in a chapter entitled “Lion-taming for lambs or sheep-rearing for tigers.” This section is especially helpful for congregational leaders who have been trained as choral directors. (Here’s looking at you, ACDA folks.) There are important differences between choirs and congregations, and underlying Bell’s writing is the deep conviction that congregations deserve at least as much respect and devotion as choirs.

The chapter on teaching technique is the most practical. In fact, I wish that I had been given this chapter to read waaaaay back in my early days of undergraduate study. Music ministers have a tendency either to make congregational instruction too complex or to completely ignore the need for it. Bell gives excellent tips for using the mind, voice, and physical gestures in teaching a congregation to sing. He first emphasizes that the music leader needs to really know the songs he is leading. The leader should be able to teach without staring at a sheet of notation. She should also be able to sing the melody without playing it on an instrument. Congregants will assume that if the leader can’t sing a song then they can’t either.

Bell devotes several pages to a topic that I have rarely heard anyone else mention: rehearsing the congregation. A music minister would never expect her choir, orchestra, or praise band to perform a song on Sunday morning without having gone through it beforehand. However, I know that the act of teaching the congregation a new song can feel very ‘unspiritual,’ which is why we ignorantly “presume that it is by the alchemy of osmosis that a congregation should be able to sing immediately a song they have never rehearsed!” (19). Bell makes a strong case for a short congregational rehearsal prior to the start of worship. “Indeed, if we believe that ‘full, active and conscious participation’ is essential for good liturgy, we should view the teaching of new material as part of the gathering rite in which the community discovers its identity as a singing assembly” (29). If the congregation is going to offer its gift of song to God, it should be given time to practice a bit, or at least get to know the songs it will sing. Moreover, I’ve found that a short time of informal teaching can be a wonderful, relationally-focused prelude to corporate worship.

Finally in regard to teaching, Bell advises, “Think less about being the knowledgeable musician and more about being the enthusiast who would like to get his or her friends to sing a really good song” (27). And he’s right – this is really who pastoral musicians are. A skilled songleader functions more as an enabler or enlivener than as a director: “The good teacher does the job quickly, then the teacher gets out of the way to let the song be a common offering” (42). I suggest this should be a guideline for ministers, no matter their area of expertise.

Following the chapter on teaching technique is a lengthy section (with examples) about song types and how they may be used with integrity. “Musical integrity—and it is a matter of integrity—requires that we respect the different types and styles of tune, and sing and/or accompany them in the best way, which sometimes might be in the original manner” (82). I’ll confess that this chapter was a bit long for me, but it is a good introduction for someone with minimal knowledge of various types of congregational music.

Let me end by sharing a couple of especially poignant quotes, each worth a read and a re-read:

“Musicianship is not about one person being able to do everything, or adapting what he or she cannot do to fit his or her skill level. It is about discerning how any given tune can best be articulated” (109).

“Leading congregational song calls for more than technique. It depends primarily on the relationship which the musician forges with the assembled people and on his or her desire to enable sung texts to become meaningful experience” (123).

Now go read this book, and please share your comments!

The Art of Worship and Belief (part 3)

The Art of Worship and Belief, part 3: Doxological Dogma

I’ll confess up front that this has been one of the most difficult blog posts for me to write. The deeper I go into the idea of doxological dogma the more elusive it becomes. But let’s start with the basics, such as what do I mean by “doxological dogma”?

Dogma, it is generally agreed, is the beliefs that are central to a faith. In this case, Christian dogma includes the theological beliefs that make up the core of Christianity. They are more firm, more basic, and more ecumenical than other doctrines. Christian dogma includes ideas such as the divinity/humanity of Jesus Christ and (for nearly all Christians) the Trinity of God. I like to think of belief in terms of concentric circles, as seen below.

ConcentricCirclesTheology

Doxology is a liturgical formula of praise to God. This is not to be confused with doxologies, which are short hymns of praise to God that are often tacked on to the ends of psalms, canticles, and hymns. A doxological perspective is one that is from the vantage point of liturgy, or worship. The idea of this blog post stems from the notion that the theology of a group comes into focus in its worship. In short, the goal of this post is to put a finger on the core beliefs that are present in Christian worship, or the doxological dogma. This is not a theology of worship, but theology in worship.

 

There are some Christian traditions for which the liturgy is the theology. This is especially true for  Orthodox Christian Churches, many of whom still use the Liturgy of St. James, which probably developed in the fourth century. Others use the early liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil. These are followed strictly at each gathering because they represent–indeed are–the beliefs of these Orthodox Churches.

Roman Catholic theologians, too, generally agree that liturgical texts and rites form the basis of theology. This is why the Ordinary of the Mass remains consistent and the Proper texts follow a prescribed pattern. As far as Protestants… well it gets more complicated. The early Reformers believed that doctrine should influence worship just as worship influences doctrine, so Protestants began to introduce other elements into their liturgies. Thus hymns, spiritual songs, readings, and additional prayers were added to the long-standing elements of Christian liturgy.

 

Still, most of us can agree with the beautiful fifth-century axiom lex orandi, lex credendi, which means that the rule of prayer (read: worship) is the rule of belief, and conversely the rule of belief is the rule of prayer. In other words, worship influences theology and theology influences worship. But what beliefs are at the core of Christian worship?

 

Some people would point to the Creeds as doxological dogma. The Nicene Creed was adopted by the First Council of Nicea in 325 and amended by another Council in 381. Its younger cousin, the Apostles’ Creed, is widely used in worship by many Churches in the Western tradition, including the Roman Catholic Church, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists. The Nicene Creed is used by most of these groups too, and also by some Eastern Churches. The creeds include the essentials of Christian doctrine, or dogma. So maybe the creeds should be our doxological dogma, and we should check to see how these beliefs find a place in our worship (or whether they are absent).

 

Some of my friends in the Reformed tradition believe that Christian worship, at its core, should portray the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, as well as what that means for human salvation. This is a good measure because the work of Christ for the salvation of humankind has been the long-standing center of Christianity itself.

 

Another idea for doxological dogma that is less frequently noted is the Lord’s Prayer, or the prayer of Jesus recorded in Matthew 6:5-13 and Luke 11:1-4. (The prayer in Matthew is more extensive and is the one more often used in worship.) Keep in mind that prayer in the Jewish context is essentially what we would call worship. Indeed worship is the ongoing dialogue between God and God’s people. So it may be that we can use both the words and the theological patterns of the Lord’s Prayer as a guide for our doxological dogma. What I want to point out is the parallelism found throughout the Prayer:

  1. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” God’s kingdom exists, and this phrase calls for obedience and surrender to God here too.
  2. “Give us today our daily bread.” The parallelism here is not plainly stated, but it is implied. “Daily bread” means bread that is necessary for tomorrow, but which tomorrow is not specified. The bread of earth mirrors the banquet of heaven.
  3. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Our forgiving others is a reflection of God forgiving us.
  4. “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and for ever.” I think these two statements go hand-in-hand. The first asks God to deliver us from failure of faith during persecution, and the second affirms that God has the power to sustain.

The entire Lord’s Prayer shows a powerful parallel between the here-and-now and the there-and-then. It speaks of them separately, but also reminds the pray-er that the kingdom of God is at hand. If we take this to heart, the Prayer shapes our thinking, feeling, and living.

 

If we were to state the central idea of the Lord’s Prayer in light of Christian tradition, I assert that it would be “Jesus is Lord.” This simple statement is overflowing with significance. First, it applies to ever-widening circles; Jesus is Lord of me, Lord of the Church, and Lord of all. Second, Jesus is Lord of the kingdom of God, which exists here and now but will be fully realized in the future. Third, the confession “Jesus is Lord” places the life, death, and resurrection of Christ at the center of our individual and communal lives as well as our worship. Simple as it may seem, could it be that “Jesus is Lord” is the central dogmatic statement of Christian worship?

The Art of Worship and Belief (part 2)

The Art of Worship and Belief, part 2: Theology is Art

Before you read this post, please have a look at Part 1, which essentially serves as my caveat to all that follows.

Since you’ve now read Part 1, I’ll be blunt: I wish church folks would quit thinking that theology is a dirty word. I have found that when the term theology arises in congregational settings, people feel afraid of what is coming next. They think that theologians only exist in monasteries or seminaries or dusty old libraries. In fact, theologians do exist in these places. But theologians are not confined by monastery/seminary/library walls. Theology is done by anyone who thinks about God, believes in God, communes with God, or refuses to do any of those things. You (yes you!) probably engage in theology whether or not you call it that.

The primary difference among theologians is their approach to the understanding of God. Some refuse to employ their minds in thinking about God. Some refuse to employ their hearts or souls in believing in God. Some refuse to employ their experiences in working out who God is and what God has done. Some refuse to acknowledge the value of other people’s thoughts, beliefs, and experiences with God. So there are many ways to do theology, and there are many possible outcomes of doing theology.

My own theology has been formed by twenty-nine years of congregational participation, overlapped by ten years of exploring the nature of theology and the plethora of approaches to it through higher education. In my younger years I thought that the outcome of theologizing was a systematic list of clear-cut beliefs about God. Whatever made the list was correct and whatever did not make the list was wrong. And anyone who questioned the list deserved to be rebuked. This idea has changed over the years, and here is my current thinking: Music, worship, and theology—all three—are artistic insofar as they are creative practices that wither when confined to principle or formula. Each of these three are descriptive more than prescriptive and should not be subjected to rigid systems of definition. (I’ll write more about music and worship in future posts in this series.)

In case you’re not familiar with it, I’d like to share with you a way of thinking about theology that has been helpful for me. It is rather pretentiously called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, but it’s really pretty simply. First have a look at this illustration:

wesleyanquad
Now here’s the idea in a nutshell. John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement in the late eighteenth century, believed that four factors came together to form the core of Christian faith for the believer: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Wesley came from the Anglican theological tradition, which already used the first three as the bases of its belief, and he added experience to the list. I should note that Wesley himself never articulated this quadrilateral idea; it was written out by twentieth-century Methodist theologian Albert C. Outler. I now refer to the United Methodist Church website for more detail:

Scripture is considered the primary source and standard for Christian doctrine. Tradition is experience and the witness of development and growth of the faith through the past centuries and in many nations and cultures. Experience is the individual’s understanding and appropriating of the faith in the light of his or her own life. Through reason the individual Christian brings to bear on the Christian faith discerning and cogent thought. These four elements taken together bring the individual Christian to a mature and fulfilling understanding of the Christian faith and the required response of worship and service.

In summary, “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” [The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press) p. 77.]

I think it’s helpful to understand that scripture, tradition, experience, and reason inform the way that each of us believes. Personally, I know many Christians who will object to this, claiming that their belief comes directly from scripture. “I believe what the Word of God says, nothing more and nothing less.” First of all, a pet peeve… The Word of God is embodied in Jesus Christ, who holds authority over scripture, the word of God. Note the lowercase.

Secondly, claiming that doctrine comes directly from the Bible is just not correct. To reduce scripture to a list of theological principles is to do it an injustice; it is so much more complex, and Spirit-filled, and authoritative than a list of doctrines. Anytime we read or hear scripture and then seek to apply it to our lives, it goes through a process of interpretation. (In this sense interpretation does not mean translating from one language to another.) Please understand that interpretation is good and necessary. The process goes like this:

Scripture –> interpretation –> application

So if scripture is the foundation of your belief (and I really hope that it is!) you should realize that it first goes through a process of interpretation. And your process of interpretation is based on your tradition, experience, and reason, or how you have been taught.

Interpretation of scripture is crucial for theology. Beyond this, there are a number of balances in how a person or group believes. Is belief more personal or more communal? Does it lean toward reason or experience? Is it more heady or heartfelt? How much is it informed by tradition and how much is freshened by newness? When you consider theology like this, you can understand how it is really more creative than dry and rigid.

If all this seems like too much thinking, I sympathize with you. But remember – we are all theologians, and our relationship with God requires us to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Please share your ideas with a comment.

The Art of Worship and Belief (part 1)

The Art of Worship and Belief, part 1: Absolutes, Humble Opinions, and Thinking Out Loud

This is the first of a series of blog posts on “The Art of Worship and Belief.” They will outline some of my current beliefs about worship and church music. Let me state up front that I hold these beliefs with open hands, and I rejoice that God is far beyond my understanding and that he has led me to these beliefs even as he refines them.

Indeed I do believe that God is far beyond my understanding. In its attempts to describe human comprehension of what God has revealed to us, Protestant and Catholic theology (essentially, the study of the nature of God and religious belief) too often forgets that the nature of God is unexplainable. Let’s be honest: On the cosmic scale, any attempt to describe God is grasping at straws. Nevertheless, these theological straws are very important to us, because living in relationship with God means that we hold dearly to what God has allowed us to understand.

So you can tell that I value mystery, and you can probably guess that I hold firmly to only a few absolutes. (I’ll address some of these in Part 3: Doxological Dogma.) That’s why I don’t want to argue with you about the finer points of doctrine, unless we both understand that such arguing serves to deepen our friendship and our common belief in God. I think it’s important that we Christians understand that, beyond our very core beliefs, finer points of doctrine should be presented as our humble opinions. Here is where I take my elbow and nudge my theologian friends, some of whom tend to be more opinionated than humble.

theologycartoon
A brief anecdote . . . Back in the summer of 2009, shortly after I finished my undergraduate studies, I had the pleasure of attending a conference that featured Dr. Terry York as its keynote speaker. (Incidentally, Dr. York ended up being one of my very favorite professors during five years of graduate studies.) He spoke as a friend and colleague of the music ministers who attended that 2009 conference, and he addressed some issues that had been controversial to this group in the past. He did so with the wisdom and sensitivity that is characteristic of a pastoral teacher. I can’t recall all the details of what he said that week (and I didn’t understand all of it back then), but I clearly remember one phrase that he repeated time and again: “I’m just thinking out loud.”

All of this is to say up front that when I talk about theology, beliefs, worship, repertoire, ritual, etc. my discourse is really me thinking out loud. I want to emphasize this because I have found that we are all less touchy about other people’s beliefs about God when they are presented as opinions, not absolutes.

So I invite you to join me in this discussion on the art of worship and belief over the next few weeks. Please share your thoughts when you feel so inclined.