Archive for the ‘arts’ Category

Pulling the weekly bulletin together is always an act of improvisation.

It rarely looks like it; after all, it is the planned order of worship that the congregation receives a few days later. And yet, there is always something that we hadn’t anticipated: a hymn we chose that’s unfamiliar; a special litany that needs to be included; a Scripture that doesn’t speak to the moment…There are always last minute adjustments. This past Sunday, however, stood apart.

Tim, our Music Director, was returning from a month-long sojourn in Europe. Our worship planning had gotten us through his absence, but we had not planned for his return. Tim and I agreed that the two of us would “do something”, and that was as concrete as it got.

Then it hit me: why not improvise? After all, I have been spending the better part of a year learning about the habits of improvisation; why not put some of that into practice? Using my own children as my willing improv guinea pigs in the days before (with different results each time), I hatched a process.*

Last Sunday, our Scripture was Psalm 146 from the Narrative Lectionary. During our time with children, I told them how the psalms were meant to be sung, and that Tim and I had nothing planned. And so we needed their help figuring out what it was we were going to sing.

I read the Psalm, asking them to say something like “I like that” when I read something that grabbed their attention. Then I told them we needed to figure out our key: I needed a letter between A and G and two numbers between 2 and 6. After one child asked if it needed to be a whole number, we got our suggestions: A, 3, and 5. That became the chord progression.

Tim and I began playing our three chords on piano and guitar; eventually, a melody emerged, which became a simple chorus:

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God all my life.

The congregation soon joined in; I used the “liked” phrases to build verses. It took a while. The melody wandered on- and off-key, but we always returned to the chorus with full energy.

I have heard prettier and more interesting melodies. I have encountered more poetic lyrics. This was no Coltrane or Davis. And yet, there was something about this particular piece of music that “worked”. Along with everything else, the whole process invested the congregation in the anthem in a unique way. It wasn’t just Tim’s music or the choir’s music or my music; it was our music, our praise. Our shared creation had them “rooting” for the music in a new way.

We will definitely do this again.

One final note: our worship recording failed Sunday; so here’s my rough re-creation with guitar and voice:

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Use your voice to give God praise!

I will be spending next summer in Chicago. And I have you all to thank for that. Many of you know that Oglethorpe Presbyterian recently received a generous grant as part of the Lilly Endowment’s Pastoral Renewal Program. This grant will allow my family and me to spend the summer in Chicago, and will also cover any expenses related to pastoral, programmatic, and worship continuity here while I am away. It is a highly competitive program, and fewer than 100 congregations across the United States are chosen in any given year.

I mention all of this because of how it relates to our conversation today, about music and worship. The application we submitted to Lilly centered around creativity, and how engaging in creativity connects us to the One who is always creating and re-creating. In other words, creativity is a holy experience.

But you know that already, how the creative arts can speak to us in ways that words never can. When we see a painting, or hear a song, these things can take us to places that can be difficult to describe – and yet, they can be places of intimate sacredness.

It’s one of the reasons that some churches have come to be marked by the so-called “worship wars”. These are the battles over whether traditional or contemporary music ought to be used. Dividing lines are drawn, the world becomes very black and white, and the place for grays is squeezed out. I’m not surprised that this kind of thing happens, actually. If music speaks to us in sacred, non-verbal ways, no wonder we tend to get wrapped up in the kind of music that ends up in our worship services.

A few years ago, we surveyed our congregation about worship styles and music preferences. It was clear that we love our traditional music – that is, organ or piano accompaniment with traditional hymns. However, it was also clear that we see ourselves as a blended worship community. We mix things up with drums and guitars, with handbells and choirs, with gospel choruses and praise songs.

And when you think about it, that’s not too surprising, because we are blended community. Think about our communication styles for a moment. There are those of you who do not have a computer or email. And there are those of you who will tweet during this worship service. We know that about ourselves and about each other, and we appreciate it. So when it comes to music, we know one thing very clearly: we know that we are not the audience of our worship music. God is. As the preacher once replied to the member complaining about song selection, “It’s a good thing we weren’t singing to you.”

Music is a very subjective art. And while a particular song may not connect with me in a sacred way, it may be the most intimate, Godly moment for a fellow worshiper. Who am I to deny that experience?

All of this goes back to our overall conversation for the past few months, as we have looked back at the history of our congregation here at the corner of Lanier and Woodrow. And when we speak of music, there is far too much to say. It is clear to me that we are a congregation who has a high regard for music and its place in worship life, and that we value good music in all its variety. If you have been listening to our worship compilation CD, you know what I’m talking about; if not, you can find it streaming on our website.

That is all true. What is also true is that what our worship music looks and sounds like changes through the years, sometimes dramatically. And it has its life cycles. There are ups, and there are downs. Our choir knows this better than most, as we have met many times over the past few years to figure out what we can do to recruit more choir members. John Cox has personally asked every visitor, and maybe even some complete strangers, if they can sing!

Let me pause here and just make a quick commercial: participating in the choir is not like being the boatman on the River Styx. You don’t have to trick someone else into taking your oar in order to get off the boat. Come when you like to Sunday morning practice at 9:45. Sing once a month, twice a year, whatever works for you. They’re nice folks, too, for the most part.

OK. End of commercial.

Recently, I was talking to a colleague who works with a lot of churches across the country about our choir numbers, and her reply was, “I don’t know of any smaller church who has a growing choir program.” I’m not sure how reassuring that message is, kind of the churchy equivalent of “yeah, times are tough all over.” And yet, I don’t know of a church our size who is blessed with a thriving handbell choir like we are.

For that matter, I don’t know of any other church our size that creates the kind of music we do. Friends, we have been blessed with an amazingly talented and inspired music staff. They arrange familiar songs. They compose new ones. That kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen in a church our size! And that gift extends beyond Tim and his predecessors. It’s in the congregation! We – you – have written songs we have sung in worship.

Forgive me for patting us on the back a little bit here, but this is the unique gift of music at Oglethorpe Presbyterian: we create our own joyful noise. And nothing will speak more directly to our heart or to the heart of God than the words of our own mouth!

The psalmist encourages us not just to worship the Lord, but to do enter into God’s presence with singing! I don’t think it’s any accident that it is called a joyful noise, because not all of us are blessed with the gift of pitch. Even so, on into our reading from Colossians, the faithful are taught not just to teach one another with words, but to sing psalms, hymns, songs of gratitude and thanksgiving. Music, our music, has always been a vehicle to reach the divine.

I think there’s a fitting tale from history in all of this. 500 years ago, a young monk named Martin Luther staked his life on the idea that the people who worship should be able to understand the words of Scripture. Even if it wasn’t an original thought, his radical idea to translate the Bible into the language people spoke was earth shattering. It changed the balance of power and interpretation in European churches. He then took this idea of vernacular worship even further, composing songs in native languages. Most galling of all, he took familiar tunes – beer hall anthems, folks songs – and wrote sacred words to them as a tool to teaching the people how to give praise to God.

I’m convinced that this is the stream of tradition and history into which Oglethorpe Presbyterian steps: the church using its own voice to give God praise. Tim Hsu has composed numerous pieces in his two plus years with us, and arranged even more.  The refrains we sing at Advent and Lent are his, as is one of my favorite pieces, a setting of the Lord’s Prayer in Mandarin. We have used Ted Kloss’ song “Take Flight” in worship as well, and I know he has others we have yet to hear. Our summer music has featured original compositions of simple prayers, even an “Alleluia” set to a song by the band Arcade Fire. You all have even tolerated some of my original music, which is the truest sign of your grace and patience! And when I head off to Chicago in June, one of the things I will get to do is take a songwriting class. I have always loved music, but have never had the courage to write it. It is you, Oglethorpe Presbyterian, who have inspired me to do so.

All of this leads me to my question for you today: How can you use your voice to give God praise? What a fitting topic for our stewardship season, as we look for ways that our gifts of time and ability can fulfill God’s desires and serve God’s purposes! For some of you, there’s a very linear, literal connection here. Maybe you sing and would give the choir your time. Perhaps you play an instrument and would do so as part of our worship. Maybe you have a song you’ve written that speaks to you of God that you would risk sharing with us, or a poem that cries out to be set to music, or a melody that’s seeking words.

For many more of you, that voice you give may not be one of music at all, but you would know that better. Maybe you have an aesthetic eye, or a listening ear, or a patient heart, or a generous presence, or a joyful spirit. Perhaps you have keen insights or understand numbers or people in ways that few of us can, giving wisdom to our ministries and vision to our lives. Maybe you have had a financial windfall that can help serve God’s purposes. Or perhaps you simply have the luxury of time, a precious commodity in Brookhaven in 2013, time you can share with those who find it difficult to leave home, or time you can spend in prayer on behalf of God’s kingdom.

The fact is that each one of us has some God-given voice that can be raised up to make that joyful noise! That’s what it means to be one of God’s children, what it means to be part of Christ’s church. What is it? And how can we be a part of helping you connect those dots?

My prayer today is that this gives you a sense of focus to your daily prayer, that God would stir up within you the divine spark that God alone has placed there.


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From the mind of a four year old:

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You can click on the arrows below to listen to live versions of the music played at the U2Charist Easter Vigil service. There are more links at the church website. You can also subscribe to the OPC podcast, where these live versions can also be downloaded.

The band (AKA U6):
Tim Kromer – vocals
Rachel McDowell – vocals, keyboards
Seth Hammonds – guitars
Marthame Sanders – rhythm guitar, backing vocals
Ted Kloss – bass
John Gunter – drums

MLK/Beautiful Day (Procession)
lyrics – iTunes download (MLK)
lyrics – iTunes download (Beautiful Day)

Grace (Old Testament readings)
lyrics – iTunes download

Yahweh (Old Testament readings)
lyrics – iTunes download

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Transformation of the Sanctuary)
lyrics – iTunes download

Sunday Bloody Sunday (Our Hope)
lyrics – iTunes download

Magnificent (Our Remembrance)
lyrics – iTunes download

“40” (God’s Invitation)
lyrics – iTunes download

With or Without You/Where the Streets Have No Name (Our Communion)
lyrics – iTunes download (With or Without You)
lyrics – iTunes download (Where the Streets Have No Name)

I Will Follow (God’s Blessing)
lyrics – iTunes download

Pride (In the Name of Love) (God’s Sending)
lyrics – iTunes download

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Genesis 1:1-2:4
Exodus 14:10-31;15:2-21
Isaiah 55:1-11
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Romans 6:1-11
Matthew 28:1-10

The U2Charist, as I understand it, began as a practice in several Episcopalian churches. Recognizing that the band U2 often used images of Scripture in their lyrics and a public engagement to making the world a better place, they put together creative worship services. Apparently, the band is fine with that happening and doesn’t worry about their copyrighted lyrics as long as any collection taken up goes to support the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals and that awareness be brought to those same goals.

So: what are the Millennium Development Goals and why should we care? In 2001, these were targets set to be reached by 2015. 192 nations, including our own, are signatories to the goals, which are:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability
  • Develop a global partnership for development

So…how are we doing? Well, there is some good news, but not much. “Extreme poverty” is defined as those living on less than a $1 a day. And while that’s down to 15%, that’s still over a billion people. Meanwhile, some of the progress that has been made has been set back by severe natural disasters, including the Tsunami in Indonesia and the earthquake in Haiti. And then with the worldwide economic collapse of the last few years on top of that, it seems unlikely that these goals will be met in time, which makes me wonder if they will ever be met.

This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. Aren’t things supposed to get better? Isn’t life supposed to be an upward progression? We’re living in the 21st century! We’re way past 1984 and 2001. We’ve had a man on the moon and we’ve built the internet. Aren’t we supposed to be moving forward constantly on the horizon to new and improved?

Remember jetpacks? Where are the jetpacks? We were promised jetpacks!

The future was supposed to be full of this stuff. Flying cars, robot housekeepers, and a jetpack in ever garage. What happened to bigger, better, faster, stronger? Each generation was supposed to do better than the previous one. A bigger house, a better salary, an earlier retirement, a life made easier by technology.

I think the heart of the problem is one of faith. To put it more clearly, we have confused optimism with hope. So when a crisis hits, we lose our trust in optimism. But because of our confusion, we think that we have actually lost faith. But if it was in optimism, then maybe we never had it to begin with…

How long will we have to talk about these things? How long will we have to push ideas like the Millennium Development Goals because the world simply isn’t getting better? And what about those who truly suffer? How long, they must be asking, is life going to be more like death? How many of them are living their own Good Fridays, nailed to their own crosses, wondering where God is and why God has forsaken them?

There’s a reason, I think, that so many of U2’s songs have these themes of yearning. “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”…”How long must we sing this song?” How long, indeed?

And yet, there remains throughout this thread of hope in their songs as well. Optimism assumes things will always get better. Pessimism assumes they’ll get worse. Hope believes that God has not abandoned creation; that Christ is there suffering with those who suffer and offering another way to those who cause that suffering. There is hope.

Bono, talking about their lyrics, had this to say about faith:

“We’ve found different ways of expressing [faith], and recognized the power of the media to manipulate such signs. Maybe we just have to sort of draw our fish in the sand. It’s there for people who are interested. It shouldn’t be there for people who aren’t.”    U2 at the End of the World

He’s referencing the practice of the early Christian community who latched onto the fish as their symbol. There were so many stories of Jesus and fish on which to draw: the multiplication miracles, the fishing scenes on the Sea of Galilee. It was less obvious than the cross as a sign of Christian faith at a time when Christians were being persecuted. And the Greek word for fish was an acronym for “Jesus Christ, son of God, savior.”

Early Christians, not knowing if the person they were meeting was a Christian, could draw an arc in the sand. If the second person made it into a fish, then they both knew that they were safe.

The evidence of U2’s faith is there in their music. You might have to look carefully at times, but it’s there. The same is true of optimism vs. hope. If we’re looking for optimism, we are certain to be disappointed. But if we’re looking for that arc drawn in the sand, we’ll see it and know that there is hope all around us.

Tonight we have followed in the footsteps of millennia of Christians who have moved from the despair of crucifixion to the hope of resurrection. Our Scriptures are reasons for hope, songs that have been sung far too long, perhaps, but glimpses of hope if our eyes are open to them. And above all, we are on this side of the resurrection. Optimism was buried in that tomb. And when the stone was rolled away, optimism imagined that it had all been a dream, like the Wizard of Oz. Hope knows that Jesus suffered horribly and yet is still able to recognize the angel when it comes.

If we are followers of hope, we should run to show the others, not just tell them, but show them, what we saw. We should make the resurrection as real as possible so that there is no question about hope. We should live it in our lives.

How? Well, the plug might be an obvious one, but the Presbyterian Hunger Program, for whom we took up an offering at our service, is one way. They have an impressive resource you can download for free called Just Eating. It’s a curriculum and study guide on food. I highly recommend it. I promise you that you won’t like or agree with everything in it, but if that was our goal, would we ever open the Bible?

One story in particular leapt out at me. It is of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, a city of 2.5 million people. In 1993, they decided to make food a right of every citizen. The best parallel in the U.S. would be public education – it’s available to all. They decided to do that with food. And they have done just that through a variety of programs, including more farmer’s markets (which means better food in more places), competitive open markets in poorer neighborhoods, creative restaurants which are cheap and draw clientele from all economic levels, three free meals a day to Preschoolers, and so on. My assumption would be that this would simply mean more free handouts, but here’s the stunning truth: it costs the city exactly 1% of their budget.

What will you do? How will you feed the world? OPC has its own commitments to making the world a better place, to building the kingdom of God, including our support for Habitat for Humanity, Interfaith Outreach Home, and the Druid Hills Night Shelter. And now, in the coming months, our Food Pantry, after 40 years, will be joining forces with other churches in the area through the Suthers Center in Chamblee. What would it mean, for example, if we worked to commit ourselves to food access in all of our communities? Could we do that for 1% of our budgets?

Ultimately, it’s a question you’ve got to answer for yourself. It takes prayer, of course, and listening – the two go hand in hand. And it also means keeping your eyes open for those arcs in the sand, wondering where exactly it is that they are pointing. And when you see them, go. And don’t walk. Run. Run!


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From our Ash Wednesday service for Haiti. The band and choir play the U2 song to close our worship service. That’s me on minimalist-effect-laden guitar. Lyrics can be found here.

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From our Ash Wednesday service for Haiti. The band sings the U2 song, accompanied by the choir, as Meghan Brown Saavedra offers prayers for Haiti and the world. I got to play some guitar; thanks for letting me borrow the gear, Seth! Lyrics to the song can be found here.

God of mercy, we pray for all people around the world, who climb mountains, risk arrest and gather furtively with your people in order to give praise and glory to you. We give thanks for the people of Haiti, who in the midst of destruction, famine, and despair, have flocked to their churches, gathered with their communities and broken out in spontaneous prayer and song on the streets. We also thank you for the generous international response to the victims in Haiti. In the midst of this tragedy, we have seen glimpses of our interconnectedness. We have felt compassion and grief, pride and humility, utter sadness and despair for people we have never met, but with whom we are mysteriously but undeniably connected.

God of justice, we pray for those in Haiti, those in more distant countries and those in our very own neighborhoods who appear to have nothing: no place to lay their heads, no food to fill their stomachs, no medicine to cure their ills, no family to anchor them. We also pray for those who seem to have everything, but whose illusions of self-sufficiency isolate them from God and neighbor. We deserve your condemnation; but instead of rejection, you sent your Son into the world to love us, forgive us, and save us, not just giving us our life back, but giving us new life in Jesus Christ. O God, we ask that you show your presence and your love in mighty and visible ways in the country of Haiti. We boldly ask for miracles of healing, generosity, forgiveness, hope and transformation.

God of wisdom, let all of our actions be guided by your will and your love. Give us the desire to be instruments of your justice and peace. We know from our personal experiences and through the witness of Scripture that you are our true refuge and our strength, a very present and real help in trouble. We desperately want to be fearless; give us the courage to speak these words; to claim them, believe them, and act as through our very life depends on them. When we feel as though we have not found what we are looking for, help us remember that you have already found us, that you reach our to us, offering grace and reconciliation, new and abundant life, and the promise of your kingdom come.

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