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Chant: Pure Music


A couple weeks ago, as I was putting the finishing touches on our Ash Wednesday service layout, I decided it would be good for the musicians to be able to put down their instruments and microphones in order to participate with their families and the church in the part of the service when the elders imposed the ashes and when everyone formally journeyed on Way of the Cross. So, knowing there would be no musicians to underscore, I was thinking about what kind of music would fit to be played overhead during that time. I began searching the iTunes Store for soft, contemplative music, and after sifting through a bunch of New Age weird stuff, I came across something that immediately brought me back to one of the most memorable moments of my life. Although, thinking of it now, it seems like it happened in a dream.

It was about ten years ago, and I was staying with my team of Celebrant Singers (not to be confused with the Celibate Singers) at a bed and breakfast inn in Vermont. It was late October, and I must say that being in the Northeast during the Fall was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life. We had a couple days off - we usually got one day off per week, almost always Mondays, and then we'd be back to doing concerts in different churches every weeknight, and anywhere from two to six Masses in Catholic parishes on weekends. Our days off were purely sabbatical. Well, at some point between partaking of a nice home-cooked meal and crocheting a scarf in a rocking chair next to a fireplace, we were told of a local monastery where a group of monks gather together at four o'clock in the morning to chant.

So in the morning a few of us woke up and drove down to a dimly lit chapel in the woods. Slowly, monk after monk entered the chapel. They gathered on the altar near the sanctuary, about thirty of them. Some sat down, others leaned against a wall or pillar, and they all began to sing. It was mostly Latin, from what I can remember. (Of course, being up that early, everything seems Latin.) There were a few moments when one of the monks would play a simple tune on a classical guitar or incorporate the subtle sound of a rain stick, but for the most part, it was simple, pure drone and chant. It was one of those moments when you are truly alive.

This is the album that captured my attention in iTunes: Chant: Music for the Soul - Monks of Cistercian Abbey. I thought for sure Gregorian Chant would be the perfect music to use in our Ash Wednesday service during a half hour of reflection. That is, until I ran the idea by the staff. Apparently, most of their encounters with Chant weren't as moving and colorful as mine. Their experiences were pretty much limited to a single priest (no pun intended) singing part of the Mass with an awful, crackly voice, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of my co-workers. They claimed that many others like themselves, especially former Catholics, would immediately be turned off at the sound of Chant. Now, let me just say that I am extremely grateful for the freedom I have to be creative and incorporate ancient worship practices in our church, but I am equally grateful for the reins of a healthy team. We keep each other in check, oftentimes steering one another away from disaster and towards honoring God in a greater way.

To be sure, we were already pushing the evangelical limits by imposing ashes and praying through the Way of the Cross. And although I personally would have preferred this beautiful Chant to be heard in this rich service, we could definitely accomplish what we needed to with any number of other music styles. Perhaps this Gregorian Chant would have been more of a distraction to some. We ended up using an instrumental piano album. I honestly don't even remember hearing it. I was too enraptured in the Way of the Cross, observing a bunch of marked people journeying on the Jesus Road, and participating with my wife and another family, as we listened to a mother read the Scripture passages to her Son at each stop along the Way.

In the meantime, over the past couple of weeks, I have listened to this Chant album a number of times. I let it play in the background while I am working. I absolutely love it! I heard it once said that Gregorian Chant is music in its purest form, the closest sound to the voices of angels and the song of God. I suppose that is a pretty subjective statement, but I challenge you to listen to it for yourself (thirty tracks for only $7.99 in iTunes). You may find a certain objective beauty in it that exceeds the music of later eras. I know, it's hard to accept that Contemporary Praise and Worship music might not be the pinnacle of musical achievement.

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Jeremy Riddle: Interview and New Album


I highly recommend taking the time (about 30 mins.) to listen to Jeremy Riddle's interview with Casey Corum and Inside Worship. IMHP, this is their best podcast yet. (Click here to directly download the Quicktime video. It may take a while.) In the interview Jeremy's passion for Christ and His Kingdom really comes through, as he talks about the makings of his new album, The Now and Not Yet, and tells the story behind two songs from the album, "Christ is Risen" and "As Above, So Below." His insight is theologically rich and full of biblical truth. I am very impressed with his knowledge, not less his musical creativity.

You can listen to the whole album here. We'll probably be doing "Christ Is Risen" on Easter. This is some really good stuff.

You might have heard of Jeremy Riddle from his songs "Sweetly Broken" and "Stand in Awe."

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Redefining "Charismatic" 3 1/2


Boy, this is not an easy task. I have more changes to make to the categorical terms I chose for the four groups. But before I do that I thought I'd tag something onto what I said about Counterfeit Charismatics. This came to me this morning through my devotional. It is a quote from Thomas Merton.

Sometimes contemplatives think that the whole end and essence of their life is to be found in recollection and interior peace and the sense of the presence of God. They become attached to these things. But recollection is just as much a creature as an automobile. The sense of interior peace is no less created than a bottle of wine. The experimental 'awareness' of the presence of God is just as truly a created thing as a glass of beer. The only difference is that recollection and interior peace and the sense of the presence of God are spiritual pleasures and the others are material. Attachment to spiritual things is therefore just as much an attachment as inordinate love of anything else. The imperfection may be more hidden and more subtle: but from a certain point of view that only makes it all the more harmful because it is not so easy to recognize.

Got that? Read it again. It took me a few read-throughs before really catching what he means. And although we don't usually compare contemplatives to charismatics, what Merton is saying is very much related to charismatic experiences. What I get from this is that we experiential, sensory beings are prone to attach ourselves to the feelings we have rather than to the source of those feelings. We make idols of our feelings: happiness, contentment, peace, even anger. We worship those experiences, that stimulation, which are very much created by us. So in turn we worship ourselves in good ol' self-indulgent fashion. Merton rightly says this is more harmful than simply loving beer, or food, or any other material thing. The reason it is more harmful is because when we do worship our feelings, we actually think we are worshiping God. We don't recognize our idol-worship.

Do you see how this pertains to Counterfeit Charismatics? They call God something that is absolutely not God, themselves, their own creation. What they are truly worshiping is their experience of God, the emotions they manipulate and create in the presence of God. This only drives them further away from God and from His Word, from the truth of who He is. That is why their understanding of God is so skewed.

I speak in "theys" and "thems" but isn't this something that we all struggle with? Don't we all make idols of ourselves? Let's call it what it is: pride. In fact, the opposite of this is humility. And humility is not only rightly acknowledging ourselves as unworthy beings, but it is also finally attaching ourselves to the only One who is worthy or worship, God the giver of every good thing, including feelings and the sense of His presence.

Deep stuff. Still sorting through it. Your thoughts would help.

Now, I would like to further modify my labels for clarity's sake. I already changed the two Non-charismatic groups from Uninformed/Informed to Unregenerate Charismatics and Regenerate Non-charismatics. It's time to change the two Charismatic groups from Counterfeit/Genuine to Unregenerate Charismatics and Regenerate Charismatics. This will make for a real nice quadrant table setup if you ever want to diagram my theory. I think it holds better logically, as well. So that's what I'm going with. And to be sure, Unregenerate Charismatics are still counterfeit in their expressions of worship. (How could a spiritually dead person truly and intentionally express worship to God?). But, as we will see, even Regenerate Charismatics may offer counterfeit, or false, worship to God. Just look at what we talked about above. All humans, regenerates and unregenerates alike, struggle with idolatry.

Peace, ya'll.

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Perspectives on Christian Worship: Five Views


Just ordered it. Can't wait to read it. Perspectives on Christian Worship: Five Views. I have tremendous respect for all of these authors and church leaders. I recall how enlightening and influential Exploring the Worship Spectrum: Six Views was in my life. I'm sure this book will be just as helpful as my theology of worship continues evolving.

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Preparing for a Shwednesday


Last year, five days after the first day in Lent, I asked, "What's a Shwednesday?" I figured this year I'd mention Ash Wednesday before the day occurs. Perhaps some of you will be able to implement and encourage some of the elements and emotions of the upcoming penitential season.

Ash Wednesday is February 25. We will be participating in our third Ash Wednesday service as a church on that evening. This year is going to be especially awesome for me and hopefully for our church. I have never actually participated in the "Way of the Cross" before, but ten days from now our whole church will go on the journey. The "Way of the Cross," also known as the "Stations of the Cross," is a tradition dating back to St. Francis of Assisi. Usually practiced during Lent, the "Way of the Cross" is an opportunity for us to walk with Jesus on the road to his death. We will stop, reflect, read, worship, and pray at fourteen different stations, each depicting a step along the Way. The traditional "Way of the Cross," which is practiced almost exclusively in Catholic churches, includes a few extra-biblical stations. In 1991 Pope John Paul II released what is called the "Biblical Way of the Cross," which cites only biblically supported steps Jesus took, and in which our church will participate.

The depictions, beginning with Jesus' praying in Gethsemene and ending with His burial, are usually displayed on the side walls of the church worship space, starting (if your facing the sanctuary or stage) at the front right, on towards the back right, then across to the back left side, and down to the front left, seven on each side. The stations are usually highly ornate pieces of art, often carved images or stain-glassed windows. Of course you don't need to have stations in your worship space to participate in the "Way of the Cross."

Ave Maria Press at Notre Dame just published a resource I would highly recommend, John Paul II's Biblical Way of the Cross. It is a liturgical pamphlet for use anytime and anywhere. The artwork in this booklet is so moving, I contacted the artist, Michael O'Brien, and requested permission to print and display his paintings in our worship space. He granted it to me, and we will be displaying them along with the corresponding Scripture passages on the side walls of our auditorium. I cannot wait to lead our church into this worship experience. Families will be encouraged to take the journey together. Imagine families participating in this together, fathers reading the Scripture passage to the little ones, mothers and children reflecting upon the Passion of our Lord. (Below is probably my favorite of the paintings, "Jesus Promises His Kingdom to the Good Thief.")

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An Apology for My Sarcasm and for Not Leading Well


Fifteen minutes ago, we finished our opening song for our third Sunday morning Celebration. The song was "Holding Nothing Back" by Tim Hughes. I began the song by saying, "Let's stand together, and let's hold nothing back." We rocked it, and I mean we rocked it hard. But at no point during the song did I ask the people to clap, and no one clapped. At no point did I ask them to sing, and about half sang. And at no point did I attempt to make sure people were engaging their minds. There were a few people, those expressive-by-nature ones, who, at least seemingly, held nothing back.

When the song ended, since no one was clapping, there was an extremely awkward moment of silence, and everyone looked like deer caught-in-headlights. I did nothing to alleviate the awkwardness, nor had I done anything to avoid it in the first place. So I proceeded by raising my eyebrows followed by an Amen. More awkwardness. Then I continued, "This week's prayer in The Book of Common Prayer for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany fit the song we just 'held nothing back' singing so nicely, that I felt we should pray it together." As soon as I said that I could have stuck my foot in my mouth. I cringed thinking about how I might have offended people with my sarcasm. Most people probably didn't pick up on it, but my heart was certainly sarcastic in saying, "the song we just 'held nothing back' singing." It was obvious that most everyone was holding back.

We continued with the prayer, which, as far as I could tell, just about everyone prayed. And then I released everyone to continue worshiping in giving tithes and offerings and in saying hello to their neighbors.

[I have to go back in the auditorium now. I'll be back in a few...

...days.]

Why am I writing about this? Because I learned something very important. While I was "leading" the song to open our Celebration, I was frustrated at how many people were not participating. When the song was over, my frustration carried over into sarcasm and potentially offended people. I haven't received any emails about it, so I don't know if anyone was actually offended. What's more important, though, is what God began to do in my heart immediately after the incident. I was brought to my knees in conviction. God began revealing to me that I wasn't doing my job. He assured me that although it is not ultimately my responsibility to make sure people are worshiping (connecting to Him), it is my responsibility to lead them cognitively and physically (to a degree), directing their attention toward God not by manipulation but by encouraging intentional focus.

As I began to think more about it, I was reminded that many of the people in our relatively non-expressive church won't just dive in without prompting. Some of them probably just listened to their kids screaming the whole way to church and are flustered when we strike the first chord. Some spouses have been fighting all morning, and the last thing they feel worthy of doing is singing in God's presence. People come in with all sorts of messy issues. And all they got from me was, "Let's stand together, and let's hold nothing back," followed by a rock concert, never once encouraged by me to participate.

If I had been sensitive to the Spirit, here's what I would have done: 11:00 rolls around, and I say, "Let's stand together, and we're going to sing a song that many of you are not going to feel comfortable singing. It's called 'Holding Nothing Back,' and it's about how God has broken off our chains of bondage to sin. In this amazing love and forgiveness we are free to worship God, to love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. So let's do that. [The music begins.] Let's forget about all of the crap in our lives that holds us back from praising God. His mercy is new today, so let's sing."

I am chosen, I am free
I am living for eternity
Free now forever
You've picked me up, turned me around
You've set my feet on solid ground
Yours now forever

And nothing's gonna hold me back
Nothing's gonna hold me back
Nothing's gonna hold me back

My chains fell off, my heart was freed
I'm alive to live for You
I'm alive to live for You
Amazing love, how can it be?
You gave everything for me
You gave everything for me

You washed my sin and shame away
The slate is clean, a brand new day
Free now forever
Now boldly I approach Your throne
To claim this crown through Christ my own
Yours not forever

I am free to live, free to give
Free to be, I'm free to love You, Lord

I give everything for You
I give everything for You, everything."

I have led people in this way before, and it's amazing how hearts are softened and set at ease with a thirty second blurb to set up a song. That is leading well. That is giving people a better opportunity to receive and respond to the love of God in song. I apologize to my church, especially those who were in the 11:00 Celebration, for not leading well, for my sarcastic remark, and for blaming you for not participating when there is no one else to blame but myself.

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The Unity of Singing: Addressing One Another


Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart. (Ephesians 5:18b-19 my emphasis)

Here Paul identifies two purposes, two things that are happening spiritually, in the act of singing. In the second half of this verse Paul describes the part of it that we acknowledge and do as Contemporary Praise and Worshipers: We sing and make melody to the Lord with our hearts. When we throw the word "worship" around in our churches and conversations, this is what we mean. We are worshiping the Lord by singing to Him. This is good, especially on an individual level, but it is incomplete. The other component to the act of singing, or the other thing that is happening when we sing, is what Paul mentions in the first part of the verse. We address one another in song. What in the world does that mean, and what does that look like?

In one sense, we subconsciously "address" one another when we sing in church. It's sort of an automatic thing that when we all lift up one voice we are encouraged at the sound and feeling it invokes. I wonder, though, if that is what Paul means by his exhortation for us to "address" one another. Perhaps he means for us to be more intentional about "addressing" one another. It seems like it would be an uncomfortable thing for us to turn to one another, look each other in the eye and sing. In our current church settings, this might be too weird to do. It would almost be like we were living in a musical theater world, where we sing our thoughts to one another instead of speaking them.

I would submit that "addressing one another" in the biblical sense actually brings our singing to a whole new level of purpose, meaning, and reality. It brings our singing beyond individual edification and expression. Singing songs to one another unifies us as we sing. It is a form of communion. Think about it, singing is sort of an other-worldly thing to do. Normal conversation usually consists of one person talking while another person, or group, listens. And then a back and forth exchange. I suppose this could be done in the form of song, such as in musical theater, but that's not realistic. I can think of couple scenarios that are comparable to singing songs together in church, both involve sporting events.

The first is when we all rise, remove our caps, and sing "The Star Spangled Banner" together. There is a unification of voice and heart (if engaged) as we sing our allegiance to our country. The moment is set apart from everyday speech and communication. We sort of escape from normal life to a different world, at least for a moment. And there's more to it than just singing it to the flag, or about the flag, that we're looking at. We're standing together, hearing each other, united by a common purpose and freedom. If we're not engaged, sometimes simply hearing everyone around us engages us. Does anyone else have an emotional experience during this event?

The other scenario that is similar to singing in church is being a part of the crowd at a sports event, cheering when something good happens. We approve of the thing we just watched, jump to our feet, hoot and holler, and turn to one another with high fives and chest bumps.

How much greater is the act of singing in church! Not only do we see and hear the re-presentation of the Gospel, we participate in it by the Spirit, receiving the Word in our hearts, consuming the body and blood of Christ into our souls, approving of this infinitely greater event than any other, and responding with shouts of joy and songs of praise, encouraging one another with these songs, looking each other in the eyes as we sing, uplifting one another with our unified voices. Yet in so many churches we have such a hard time physically celebrating this event? Why aren't we giving each other high fives celebrating our forgiveness. Are we not more excited that we have access to God through Christ than we are that our favorite team just scored a touchdown? Are we too dignified with our Sunday clothes and presuppositions to be as excited about the Gospel?

Why have we neglected this part of singing? Clearly it's biblical. I would submit that in the name of "worship" we have overspiritualized the act of singing. It doesn't count unless it transcends normal life stuff. It's between me and God. For whatever reason, whether we've been culturally conditioned this way or whatever, we don't think we are "worshiping" unless we are singing to the Lord. Paul seems to say otherwise. And so does Isaiah:

Above him [the Lord] stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" (Isaiah 6:2-3 my emphasis).

Not only are the angels singing to the Lord, saying, "Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power" (Rev. 4:11), but the angels are singing about the Lord to each other, as we see in Isaiah. And heaven comes down when we gather to celebrate the Word and Sacrament. We join with the angels, singing both to one another and to the Lord. We address one another in song in order to remind each other of God's holiness, of His worth. This is a more complete view of why we sing in church. There is so much more joy when we use our songs to remind one another of the Gospel, when we exhort and encourage one another with our unified voices.

Not to mention, God's presence is so much more tangible and evident in the faces of His unified people, the Church, who are singing and exulting in the Gospel, than it is in the disjointed, existential experience of lonesome individuals, singing in the "presence of the Lord," with potentially different ideas of who God is, how is is acting, and what His "presence" is like. (I am speaking of those who seek God's revelation primarily in worship moments rather than in His Word.) Who knows whether these people are experiencing the true and living God or not? My assurance of effectiveness as a worship leader comes in knowing that I am not ultimately responsible for ensuring that each individual is singing and worshiping correctly and truly. My assurance rests in the fact that the Gospel is faithfully preached and re-enacted every week in our church, giving us a solid rock to stand upon as we lead and remind and encourage one another of its truth through teaching, fellowship, communion, prayer, and singing.

I guess my encouragement and challenge to us all is to think about these things and to take into account this uncomfortable part of Scripture. Have we neglected "addressing one another" in our singing?

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