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Archive for the ‘Music’ 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.

Amen.

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photo-1I wrote this song six months ago inspired by the story of Moses and the burning bush. Of all the things I have learned about the story through the years, one comment from a Bible study group back in seminary has stuck with me: when you take off your shoes, you’re gonna stay a while.

The lyrics are simple:
Take off your shoes and stay around.
Take off your shoes and stay around
For the land on which you stand is holy ground.

Throughout our weekly chapel with the preschoolers this year, I’ve shared a lot of music, and so it seemed right to do so on Preschool Sunday.

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Rain, Rain

I wrote this on a rainy day in 2005. I was awestruck by the power of water, how it can both give life and take it away. The recording is simple: just me and my guitar, no fancy tricks.

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Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Luke 2:1-20

I love Christmas music. It probably had a lot to do with being raised in the family I was. My mom is the singer, and my dad was obsessed with Christmas. One of my most enduring Christmas memories is sitting in the balcony at First Presbyterian Church. And as the lights were dimmed and the candles were lit, and as we started singing “Silent Night”, a lump would rise in my throat. I was convinced that there was nothing more beautiful in the whole world.

I still love Christmas music, which is why I was particularly intrigued by an email I got from my sister yesterday, which has Christmas songs in code. Let me read a couple and see if you can guess them:

  • The slight percussionist lad is…The Little Drummer Boy.
  • Far back in a hay bin…Away in a Manger.
  • Do you perceive the same longitudinal pressure which stimulates my auditory sense organs?…Do You Hear What I Hear?
  • Sir Lancelot with laryngitis…Silent (K)Night.
  • The apartment of two psychiatrists…The Nutcracker Suite.

There are about fifty of these, each more absurd than the last. And some of them are just downright impenetrable, but I’ll spare you those. You can find them easily enough online yourself.

It’s harmless fun, of course, but the exercise is actually counter to the whole point of Christmas. Tonight is not about a story that is available only to the select few. We’re not here because we’re “better” than anyone else, or because we have decoded the meaning of the manger. The story is available to all. From the first to the twelfth day of Christmas, we are reminded that the birth of the Christ child is something that all can celebrate: Judean shepherds. Persian Magi. There are no barriers between us and the child who was born far back in a hay bin.

That’s the gift of the ridiculous email: it takes songs that are deeply – perhaps too deeply – familiar and gives us a new way to hear them. Because let’s face it: our favorite Christmas songs tend to touch on the same things: a baby, Mary, Joseph, animals, shepherds, angels, Bethlehem, a star, and three kings. The verses may change up the order, but the song essentially remains the same. That has done nothing to shake the power this music holds on me. The danger, however, is that we domesticate the story to the point that we neglect the earth-shattering nature of it.

This year, as my iTunes worked through the familiar litany of Christmas songs, there was one that stood out in a brand new way. It’s of the pop music brand of Christmas music, released by John Lennon in 1971, just a year after the Beatles had disbanded. There’s no mention of the familiar Christmas themes whatsoever; but for some reason, it hit me in the gut right out of the gate: “So this is Christmas. And what have you done?”

A whole year has gone by since the last Christmas. Am I any different this year than I was last year? When next year comes around, will I be exactly the same? Or will the power of Christmas grab hold of me in more than just the emotionally resonant ways, shaking me to the core of my being?

And then the song hits its “of its time” chorus, which sounds awfully Pollyanna nowadays: “War is over…if you want it.” Surely we’re more sophisticated now than we were forty years ago. We know that war is never over. American troops have just left Iraq; and so, for us, that war is over. But “war is over” isn’t just about war being over for “us”; it’s about the end of war. For Iraqis, there is still a war raging. For soldiers battling the traumas of war, the battles are still aflame within. And there are plenty of places in the world where war most certainly isn’t over.

So what does it mean when we say that we celebrate the “Prince of Peace” tonight? Does the adorableness of a resting baby overtake the aspirations we hold as disciples of Christ, that we yearn, to the very fiber of our being, that war is over – not just for us, but for all? Or have we convinced ourselves that this, too, is a idealist’s dream of years gone by?

My prayer for us this night is that the music we sing and the words we proclaim would shake us, would move us, would cause us to tremble like the shepherds under the angel-lit sky. And that this Christmas would be one that would change us forever.

Amen.

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Reflections on our Advent Cantata, The Christmas Light.

What do you trust more: what you see, or what you hear?

We know that both sound and picture can be manipulated. Photoshop has changed the way we see the world: any two celebrities can be stitched together seamlessly for the supermarket aisle. The same is true of sound. In the era of 24-hour news cycles, the sound byte has the power to make or break political careers.

So which do you trust more?

Daniel Barenboim, conductor and pianist, points out that the ear has an advantage over the eye. Sight doesn’t have a chance to develop until after birth; but studies have shown that we can hear in utero. We can also, he says, control the eye: “If you don’t like the way I look…you close your eyes and I disappear. But if you don’t like the sound of my voice…then you cannot shut your ears in a natural way. Sound literally penetrates the body.”

Sound, music in particular, has a powerful hold on us, even for those of us who can’t carry a tune in a bucket. We associate certain memories with songs. We may not remember important dates, but a song can find its way into our ear where it will set up residence and stay forever. If you’ve ever been on the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney, you know what I’m talking about.

There is probably no time of year more intimately associated with music than Christmas. We sing carols, tune into the radio stations that play 24-hour Christmas music, put on Vince Guaraldi. But today, as our worship service centers around music, we are reminded that song has a purpose for us as a people of faith. The Psalms, after all, were the hymnal of the people of God. Scripture is full of references to singing praise: “Make a joyful noise…” “I will sing a new song…” “How long to sing this song?”

St. Augustine, the influential theologian of the fourth century, wrote that “to sing is to love.” And Martin Luther, the Reformer and hymn composer, said, “As long as we live, there is never enough singing.” Music is praise. When we sing, whether we are making a joyful note or a joyful noise, we join our voices with the choir of angels whose song filled the sky that holy night: “Glory to God in the highest!”

As we move through these final days of the Advent season, as we continue to prepare the way of the Lord, may the songs that we sing be ones of prayer and praise to the God whom we know in Christ, the incarnate, reverberating, eternal Word.

Amen.

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The service didn’t get recorded this week. sorry. But here’s a little special bonus message:

Starfish or spider?

Five years ago, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom published The Starfish and the Spider. In it, the authors compare the biology of starfish and spiders. Both have multiple legs with a central body. But there is one key difference: if you cut off a spider’s head, it will die. The starfish, on the other hand, has no head. If you cut off one of its legs, it will regenerate. And some species can regenerate from just a leg, because the genetic code and the vital organs are all there.

This difference becomes the central point of their book as they compare organizations, especially with the dawn of the 21st century and the explosion of internet technology. Every industry is changing dramatically as a result. If you are working in a business which has not been changed by the internet, please raise your hand.

The most interesting example of this is the music business. As of 2000, it was primarily in the hands of four major record labels. But this four-headed arachnid has since been crippled by internet file-sharing and piracy, a starfish with no centralized organization. The results have been financially devastating. And every time the industry wins a court-case against one form of piracy, another one springs up, each one more anonymous and harder to shut down than the last.

There is bad news in this; but I’m not sure it’s all bad news. The music industry has had a spotty record, at best, in how musicians fare financially from the top-down model. But the argument has always been that record companies, because of their size, can be trusted with the charge of distribution and promotion. And so musicians need them. Otherwise, how else would people know about them?

But as websites like MySpace and YouTube have taken off, musicians have recognized that the old way of doing things is changing.

In 2007, the English band Radiohead released its album In Rainbows. It was posted on their website without a record company present at all. People could pay whatever they wanted. It entered the charts at number one, and within a year had sold three million copies. And even though they offered it as a “pay as you like” download, most fans paid for the record, and the band made a mint.

As I’m reading this book, I’m thinking to myself: what about the church? Are we more spider, or starfish?

We Presbyterians love to talk about God’s sovereignty, the idea that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, that God is, simply put, in control. And when we talk about the church as the Body of Christ, we are always sure to make it clear that Jesus is the head of that body. That sounds like all spider to me.

Think of the Godhead at work in Genesis, forming stars and planets and grass and trees, and animals and fish and birds, and male and female. There is a center out of which everything emanates, and everything owes its life to that center. It’s a top-down hierarchy. God makes, things are made.

Or what about the “Great Commission” that comes at the end of Matthew? Jesus, the early church’s CEO, gives the disciples their mission: go and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And so they go, following orders from the head of the organization.

We are inheritors of this Scripture, and so it is not surprising that churches would be spider-like with a centralized organization, such as a Session, or a Presbytery, or, in the case of the ancient churches, Patriarch or Pope. We are spiders in a world full of starfish.

And that, perhaps more than anything else, is why the mainline churches are struggling. We struggle financially and numerically as we work to sustain, transform, maintain, evolve our forms of worship and governance and physical plant. And our evangelism approach seems to be borrowed from the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Spiders seem to be going extinct. Is that our fate, too?

But before we go too far down this road, let’s be clear about one thing: we are, indeed, inheritors of Scripture; and we are, indeed, inheritors of the church. But we are also heirs to much, much more. We are influenced by culture and language and philosophy and biology and worldview which are outside (and in some cases even trump) the influence of Scripture, of theology, of ecclesial DNA. Which is which? And how can we possibly know?

Today is Trinity Sunday. It is the one day we set aside to deal with the complicated and confusing doctrine of God as three-in-one, one-in-three.

This is my sixth Trinity Sunday as your pastor. And with this Sunday approaching, I went back and looked at the Trinity Sunday sermons I’ve preached since my arrival. And so, let me sum up the sermon I’ve preached every year in a couple of sentences:

The Trinity is the doctrine the early church created to explain the confusion of Scripture where God, Jesus, and Spirit are all described as divine. What it teaches us, ultimately, is that God is mysterious and that God exists in relationship.

But I wonder if there is more to it than that. I wonder if the Trinity can actually shed light on our starfish-spider debate…

For starters, there is no hierarchy in Trinity. Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. There is no “head”.

Look at the creation story. At first glance, it is God – the Creator, the Father – who is at work, fashioning and shaping. And yet, there is this curious pronoun at the creation of humanity: “Let us create…” Not singular, but plural. Who else is there?

Well, let’s jump back to the very beginning of Genesis. Before anything else happens, there is wind, breath, spirit, moving over the face of the waters. The Spirit is there.

And in order for there to be creation of something out of nothing, there must be Word: “And God said…” And that word of God, Jesus Christ, became flesh and dwelt among us. Creation can only happen, it seems, when the fullness of God is at work.

And as we look at the end of Matthew, where Jesus is once again with his disciples after the resurrection, he gives them the Great Commission, sending them out to baptize. But while Jesus is the divine mouthpiece, all of divinity is present. Don’t baptize in the name of God, or in the name of Jesus, but in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The church can only happen, it seems, when the fullness of God is at work.

The Trinity, the very nature of God, is actually far more starfish than spider. But it’s not about the curiosity of chopping off body parts; it’s about part of God containing the fullness of God.

And that’s the gift to the church. We, whether female or male, are created in the image of all of God, that weird first person plural that pops up in Genesis. And the church is baptized in the name of all of God, not just one part. And we, the church, and individually members of it, have that divine genetic code within us.

The question that lingers with us today is, “What do we do with this?” What do we do in a world that is becoming more starfish and less spider?

I think the truth is that we Presbyterians are in a good position to adapt. We have always been suspicious of too much power being vested in one person, whether that be pastor or elder or treasurer or staff. And I think we’ve been sadly vindicated by the evidence we see in church scandals. We are not immune from the headlines, but we are fortunate that the essence of our structure is one of both support and accountability.

When we celebrate communion, we must have at least three people present: someone to receive, an elder (representing this congregation), and a pastor (representing the wider church).

When I go to visit one of our members in the hospital, or to a community gathering, wherever I go, I take the name of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. See, it’s not just me that goes; it’s all of you. And you have given me the trust to carry all of that, the fullness of God’s OPC DNA, with me.

But the same is true with you; each of you. When you leave this worship service today, when you leave the physical confines of our physical plant, you have not left God behind. You carry the divine imprint within you. At work, at home, as a parent, a neighbor, a student, a teacher, wherever you go, you remain part of the starfish.

If you’ve bothered to read this far, I want you to do something. Click on this link. Print it out. It’s made up of three cards (appropriate for Trinity Sunday). In the next few days, give them to someone. Hand it to a friend, someone you meet at the coffee shop. Tack it to a bulletin board at the restaurant where you have lunch, the grocery store where you shop. Mail it to a family member. Put it in a neighbor’s mailbox. And as you do, may it remind you of your Godly DNA, that you are part of the body of Christ: now and forever!

Amen.

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