Church Sightings on NPR

Here is NPR’s take on what the church sings.

By and large, for what is a 4 minute segment built around a songwriting couple, it gets a bunch right. The one thing that is interesting is the complete absence of those congregations that never caught the CCM wave. It is written as if the entire chruch dropped hymnbooks for a while and then discovered them like Josiah finding the book of the law. As one of those congregations that hews to the hymnody of the church that is odd.

The best thing that they got right is the true dynamic of hymns and praise songs. Quoting Getty (the profiled couple)

The couple came to town to write songs not for individual artists, but for what Keith Getty calls “the congregation.”…There’s no definition for what’s a hymn and not a praise song. But Keith Getty says it should be singable without a band and easy for anyone sitting in the pews to pick up. And it should say something bold.

The hymn, because of its metric nature and usually simple tunes, should be immediately singable with minimal accompaniment. And because of the verse structure can actually say something. What has become known as the praise song is more musically complex. The performers sing it and maybe you get to join on the snappy chorus.

Now I’m not one to rule out the praise song (even though we don’t use them here), but what I would say is what is the intention of singing in church? Is it to emote, or is it to hear the word? Do we come to church primarily to bring what we’ve got to God, or to hear what God has for us? What you sing, even if you don’t know it, supplies an answer to that. The praise chorus can have proper places, but in my experience of it, where it is bunched up in front of the sermon, the purpose of that form is to emote and bring to God. The historic liturgy put the Kyrie (Lord have mercy) first. We praise after we’ve received the gifts – namely the mercy of the Lord. Putting praise before, as in “bringing all my worship”, is a misdirected understanding of what happens in church.

An Inside Look

LSB_Icon_hymn_bookThe Christian Century published a couple of articles on the PC-USA’s production of a new hymnal. This is an interesting essay basically defending the publication of hymnals. This is the more interesting story told about the making of it. As the first articles notes, there have been a series of new hymnals produced by denominations in the last 10 years including the LCMS’s Lutheran Service Book. The first article does a fair job of defending the production of a hymnal, although the entry paragraph is one of the worst metaphors I’ve seen in that I don’t think it makes any sense. The author was obviously trying to get to the concept that updating hymnals roughly every generation is a necessary thing. Just because the books in the pews are physically fine doesn’t mean that they serve the spiritual purpose any longer. Instead of reaching for a technology analogy I would have reached for something less ephemeral like maybe the family. Family roles change. We learn new roles, give up some responsibilities, take on other and see others in a completely new light. As the author eventually moves onto, a hymnal shapes a people spiritually over time. It also needs to be shaped by that people. New hymnals allow for new generations to sing to the Lord a new song. Speaking of the Lutheran Service Book, that is one the best things that it has done. The hymn editors did a marvelous job adding “newer” hymns. They also did a marvelous job letting others slip away. For the LCMS this was necessary as the last generational baton pass was dropped. Many had still been using a hymnal produced in 1941. Some had faithfully taken the botched job of 1981 only to find it wanting. And in the confusion created, many wandered outside of the common book. It is hard to form or maintain a Lutheran Spirituality without a common set of hymns.

But the second essay is the more interesting one. One paragraph I believe emphasizes the growing divide between churches that place themselves with the great tradition (what Lewis would call Mere Christianity) and those denominations that are declaring a break (even if they don’t admit it) with that church. (Roman Catholics divide over this around Vatican 2 between those “reading the council in continuity” and those “reading the council as a rupture from that continuity’s summed faults”.) The author of the second piece highlights the discussion and vote around one of the newer hymns they originally wanted to include.

Even more sustained theological debate occurred after the conclusion of the committee’s three-and-a-half years of quarterly meetings in January 2012. We had voted for a song from the contemporary Christian canon, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone.” The text agreed upon was one we had found by studying materials in other recently published hymnals. Its second stanza contained the lines, “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.” In the process of clearing copyrights for the hymnal we discovered that this version of the text would not be approved by the authors, as it was considered too great a departure from their original words: “as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” We were faced, then, with a choice: to include the hymn with the authors’ original language or to remove it from our list.

Because we were no longer meeting as a committee, our discussions had to occur through e-mail; this may explain why the “In Christ Alone” example stands out in my mind—the final arguments for and against its inclusion are preserved in writing. People making a case to retain the text with the authors’ original lines spoke of the fact that the words expressed one view of God’s saving work in Christ that has been prevalent in Christian history: the view of Anselm and Calvin, among others, that God’s honor was violated by human sin and that God’s justice could only be satisfied by the atoning death of a sinless victim. While this might not be our personal view, it was argued, it is nonetheless a view held by some members of our family of faith; the hymnal is not a vehicle for one group’s perspective but rather a collection for use by a diverse body.

Arguments on the other side pointed out that a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasize some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations; it would do a disservice to this educational mission, the argument ran, to perpetuate by way of a new (second) text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger. The final vote was six in favor of inclusion and nine against, giving the requisite two-thirds majority (which we required of all our decisions) to the no votes. The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness.

All involved agreed that this new song (part of the newer praise song canon) expressed a deep and even core expression of the work of Christ on the cross. The hymn is a strong statement of substitutionary atonement. The hymn committee first wanted to delete that understanding replacing the wrath at sin with a vague reference to love. When that was blocked by the hymn writer, the committee voted to excluded it. Substitutionary atonement given modern meaningful expression would not be part of the new PC-USA hymnal. A Presbyterian spirituality formed by this new song collection will not express how Christians for at least 1000 years have primarily understood the cross. And that was exactly the argument of the exclusionary side. It would be bad pastoral practice, “a disservice to this educational mission”, to perpetuate substitutionary atonement. That is a rupture.

If I was driving deep at this I would ask why? Why is a clear expression of substitutionary atonement so offensive that is must be driven out? I would argue that it takes the law seriously. It takes seriously that God commanded certain things that can’t just be forgotten or endlessly twisted. Any reminder of this to a people involved in redefining sin is an offense.

Are there other perfectly biblical expressions of the atonement? Yes, absolutely. Christ the victor finds wonderful expression in that most Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress”. But we should realize that decisions made physical in books like Lutheran Service Book and the other new hymnals are making permanent and wide the rupture or gulf. And atonement, part and parcel of justification, as Luther said about the Augsburg Confession, “the entire church stand or falls on this article”. Erasing the tradition on atonement could be said to be erasing the gospel itself.

A Few Links, and a few Seasonal Grumps

a short meditation928_0570The Children’s Christmas Pageant (ours is 12/23 @ 10 AM! …

The religious pageant, that peculiar intersection of liturgy and theater, traces its roots to the Middle Ages. Christian clerics in Europe introduced drama into the Mass (a dramatic event in its own right) as early as the ninth century to enrich the faith and understanding of worshipers. Over time these performances evolved into cycles of plays that told the whole salvation story, from the fall of humankind to the nativity to judgment day…

On the church. Point 1: Christ instituted a church. You (normally) don’t get Christ without a church. And If you don’t get Christ, you are still in your sins. Point 2: I’m a little sick and grumpy today, but I’ve reached my fullness of things like this. I’m tired of ever so cool people making their hay beating up on mother church. An atheist or one outside can do what they like. There are internal conversations and knowing laughs about the church in the way that siblings talk about mother but rarely in her presence. But for ministers to go bad mouthing Her in public, It’s a “yo momma” joke without the joke part. This guy explains the connection very well.

Christmas Songs: I inherited a tradition from my brother. Cleaning out his place I think we found a Christmas album for every year. Imagine a 6’6″ guy with a beard listening to some Celtic sprite sing Ave Maria. He liked Carols and Hymns vs. songs, but you could tell that he was reaching in the later years; getting tough to find singers cutting albums with such tracks. Out and about I caught an interview on NPR. I never caught the names, but I’m willing to bet its one of these: Tracey Thorn 1, Tracey Thorn 2, Tracey Thorn 3. The part that caught me in the interview was talking about what a studio expected in a new “Christmas Song”. The list was roughly: no mention of the word Christmas, no religious images, major key, upbeat tones and rhythms, 2:30, preferably with either a mention of Santa, snow, reindeer, or some other “traditional” element. (The artist was trespassing several, although I don’t think the religious ones. We know what the third rail is). Yes, I’m religious, but come on: 1) It is Christmas and 2) you don’t get something White Christmas with the original first verse (“in Beverly Hills, LA…”) or Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas if everything deep and meaningful has been drained out of the time. It is almost enough to make you as grumpy as this guy.

All the Stockings are hung by the Chimney with care….

Well the sermons are done, the programs are practiced, the booklets being printed. As the sticky post above says, everyone is invited to come and worship. Its good for your soul, even if you don’t know what that word means. At Christmas you find amazing things where you don’t think they belong.

There are several people my thoughts and prayers stray toward at this moment. Most of those prayers are for a measure of peace to be granted. Mixed in with those have been a couple of songs in my “Christmas Album” this year. (Here is the Album, by the Lower Lights – it really is gorgeous) In going through my brothers things I found a huge collection of Christmas albums. I converted most of them to MP3. It reminded me of just how big a softie he could be. Every year he would buy a few more, but they were never the big ones. Not a Mariah Carey to be found. He found singers instead of pop stars; instrumentalists and choirs instead of soloists. So I’ve kinda inherited the tradition. I’m sure sometime in early December to pick up a Christmas album. It doesn’t take but a couple of days of WARM 101.3 “Frosty Fest” after Thanksgiving to get my fill of secular tunes. (If I hear Rudolf or this years off-beat tale of grandma being run over again I’ll beat something.) To hear the sacred takes MP3s it seems.

One of the Songs is I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Its taken from a Longfellow poem. And the third stanza seems very “unchristmas-y”.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Sorry for the downer, but I bring that up for two reasons. First, unlike this plastic season of manic Christmas we seem to get foisted with, the older Christmas was preceded by Advent and had the strength within it to contemplate such things. Look at all the good older Carols and Hymns of Christmas. Look past the first verse into verse 2 and 3. Take What Child is This – “Nails, Spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you”. Take We Three Kings – “Myrrh is mine, is bitter perfume, breathes a life of gathering gloom, sorrowing, sighing, breathing, dying, sealed in a stone cold tomb”. Take Once in Royal David’s City – “For He is our childhood’s pattern, Day by day like us He grew; He was little, weak and helpless, Tears and smiles like us He knew, And He feels for all our sadness, And He shares in all our gladness.” Longfellow talked of all the bells of Christendom. The days of Christendom as Longfellow knew it are over, but that culture knew things that we forgot – or never bring to mind, until forced to.

That brings up the second song on this years album – Stars of Glory. The performance seems designed to break your heart just at the time the soprano’s folk-y voice breaks. The hymn must be a Roman Catholic favorite as it is older. I was not aware of it to my impoverishment. But verse one strikes just the right vein…

Stars of glory, shine more brightly,
Purer be the moon-light’s beam,
Glide ye hours and moments lightly,
Swiftly down times deepening stream,
Bring the hour that banished sadness,
Brought redemption down to earth,
When the shepherds heard with gladness
Tidings of a Saviour’s birth.

The hours and moments gather. Time’s stream deepens. Even in sadness all is not lost. It is brought to fulfillment. The angel’s tidings of peace and joy still ring, even though they are mocked from all corners, because the LORD upholds them. The LORD chose to be with all the moments: Gladness and sadness. Cross and manger; tomb and throne.

I have no interest in a plastic Christmas. But the LORD who can inspire such songs…be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay.

Hymns We Sing – All Saints Edition

Tuesday was All Saints proper. We will celebrate it this Sunday. All Saints is the Christian feast day that originally inspired Halloween or All Hallows Eve. There are all kind of explanation stories about where this feast day came from. You can read some of them at the wikipedia page or is you want something more sanctified the Catholic Encyclopedia has some history. The church lives with a distinction of the Church Militant (those alive here and now) and the Church Triumphant (those already in glory). The Roman Catholic church would add the Church Suffering (those in purgatory) and also All Souls Day which is the day after All Saints. To me what all of this tries to capture is one line in the Apostle’s Creed and a general sense of connectedness. Though dead saints may have passed, we remaining still feel connected to them and not just in an emotional way. In the third article of the creed we confess that we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints. The entire church – militant and triumphant – is united in Christ. The church at all times and all places is united in Christ waiting for that final revelation and victory. That communion, because we know that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, is what All Saint Celebrates. All Saints ends up being a celebration of the Church and a looking forward to our final unity.

One of the great Hymns that captures this sense is For All the Saints. The Text was written by William How and the tune by Ralph Vaughan Williams. IN the span of the church it is a relatively recent hymn written in the 19th century. But what I want to highlight about it is how it gets the end times sequence correct. Stanzas 5,6,7,8 capture the true confession about time.

5) And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long

Steals on the ear the distant triumph song

And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong


6) The Golden evening brightens in the west

Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest

Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest


7) But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day

The saints triumphant rise in bright array

The King of Glory passes on His way


8) From earth’s wide bounds, from oceans farthest coast

Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host

Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost


In verse 5 the Church militant – us here and now – is still struggling, but already we hear the music. The victory has been won. It might be far off, but we hear it – in word and sacrament. In verse 6 is the acknowledgement that eventually all the saints move from militant to a better term might be rest. It is not really the church Triumphant yet. Sweet is the calm of paradise, but things are not as they will be. In verse 7 a yet more glorious day breaks. The Great and Glorious Day of the Lord – resurrection day. The saints, now triumphant, rise is bright array. You see, before the resurrection, is not the end. Read Rev 6:10. The saints in Abraham’s bosom or calm paradise or heaven ask the same question we ask – How long? The Triumph waits until the resurrection of all flesh and the King of Glory passes on his way. Verse 8 captures the final situation. After the resurrection and judgement, from earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast – from every race, tribe, nation and tongue – the saints take up residence in the new Jerusalem. Rev 21:2-4, 21

For All the Saints captures in Word and Song the Hope, Struggle, Rest and Triumph of the Church and all her saints. For that reason is gets pride of place as a theme song on All Saints Day. You’ll hear it this weekend. Come and sing with us.

Hymns We Sing #1, Cont.

I ran out of room yesterday, so I’ll continue this today. I want to talk about Lutheran Service Book #782 Gracious God, You Send Great Blessings. We have sung whole or parts of this hymn 9 times in the last three years. The text has a special connection to St. Mark. It was written by Gregory Wismar who is a former pastor of St. Mark many years ago. Pastor Wismar was born in 1946, but has apparently retired from active ministry at this time. The tune is Holy Manna or Columbian Harmony. It is one of the prettier tunes having a very American feel. Some may say Scottish, which gets you to Appalachia. You can hear the bagpipes, fiddles and fog off the mountains. The combination of text and tune have a more contemporary feel as it is a hymn that contains a chorus or refrain.

One of the reasons that this hymn has been used more often is because we have used it in a liturgical spot. There are these places in the service where people are walking or things need to be done.  For example after the offering is taken the ushers walk from back to front to bring it up.  The offertory is a musical piece that puts words and music to the action.  We are giving our offerings.  And that offertory is something we have used this hymn for.  Looking at verse 1 we acknowledge that we have received blessing each day and are offering our praise and thanks.  The refrain turns from that offering to our response to our neighbor – we share the blessings to bring glory to the name.

1)Gracious God, You send great blessings

New each morning all our days.

For Your mercies never ending,

For your love we offer praise.

2) By Your Word You formed creation

Filled with creatures large and small;

As we tend that endless treasure

May our care encircle all.


3)In His early life, our Savior

Knew the care of faithful friends;

May our deeds of dedication

Offer love that never ends.

4)Heav’n-ly Father, may our caring

Bear the imprint of Your grace;

With the Son and Holy Spirit,

Praise be Yours in ev’ry place!



Lord, we pray that we, Your people

Who Your gifts unnumbered claim,

Through the sharing of Your blessings

May bring glory to Your name.


But this hymn is not just an offertory.  It stands in its own right.  All the best hymns tell a story.  In the merging of melody and text they create a feeling and tell it out.  The first stanza combined with the music invokes the feeling.  And this hymn is aspirational.   We know we receive great blessings.  We pray here that we remain thankful at all times and learn to share them with our neighbor.

Why is that important?  Stanza 2 – God created all things and placed us in them to care for them.  The original intent of creation.  Stanza 3 – Jesus came to care for us, and while he was here he received the blessings God gave him with thanks: parents, friends, fish and loaves, even the bad stuff like when Lazarus died Jesus gave thanks for the blessings (John 11:41-42).  Our purpose and great example is to be thankful and share the blessings.

Stanza 4 closes with a doxology.  We know we cannot do that without God’s involvement in our lives.  So we ask that our lives bear the imprint of His grace – Father, Son and Spirit in every place.

This Sunday we use Stanza 1 for the offertory and stanza 4 for the post communion piece of music.  While the pastor is putting away one of the greatest gifts, the congregation asks for that gift of grace to continue in our lives.  We have claimed the body and blood.  Let us share that blessing to the glory of your name.

Hymns we Sing #1

I’m a numbers guy. I hold firmly to the truth that if it isn’t measured it isn’t done, or said another way, the things you really care about, you attempt to track. The big problem with being a numbers guy is that the numbers never tell a full story, and they are often tracking the wrong things. They might be tracking a nominal number when a percentage or an indexed number might be better. In light of the stewardship series running, an example of that is total offering to a congregation. That is a nominal number. It is important to the congregation, but it tells you little about what you really want to measure which is something of the spiritual health of the individual. A percentage or an index that most congregations have no way to track would be better – like percent of gross income given in charity or the percent contribution as an index of when the Christian life started (i.e. baptismal year = 1). The percent tells you something good and makes it more broadly understandable as there are widow’s mites that mean more than ruler’s talents. The index would tell you even more. It might tell you the heights from which you have fallen (Rev 2:5) or it might say to you that you have not just buried the mina given you (Luke 19:20).

One of the things that I track is the hymns that we sing together. Part of our vision as a congregation is that we teach the apostolic faith and that we encourage depth in that faith. The hymnody of the church is a big place where that happens. If our typical church service is 45 mins (and here it is), about 12 of those minutes are sermon, but about 20 of those minutes are singing. The hymns carry a larger burden of the word for that day than the pulpit. And while people might exit thinking about a line from the sermon if it is very good, more often they will exit humming a line of the last hymn. The music is sticky. It is very easy to fall into a pattern of singing the same hymns once a quarter or more often. That might be very comforting to a section of the congregation, but it is not a good signal of spiritual health or vitality. In fact it is probably the opposite. It is a statement that we as a people don’t want to engage the faith in any way deeper nor learn anything new. So that is one of the big reasons that I track and keep an eye on how many times we’ve sung any particular hymn. It would be rare to hear the same hymn in our congregation more than twice in a given year. God has more to say that that.

What I intend to do in this series to walk through some of the “new staples”. These are hymns that are newer in vintage that we have sung multiple times. I want to flesh out their teaching and give an explanation why they deserve their role in our congregational life. The first one that I will discuss in Lutheran Service Book #782 Gracious God, You Send Great Blessings. We will be singing this hymn this coming Sunday. Tomorrow I will walk through it as I’ve used up my words today for an introduction.

Instead of an Organist/The adaptability of Hymns

The hymn being sung is Blessed Jesus at Your Word LSB 904 [or Dearest Jesus we Are Here LSB592 the baptismal hymn].

German to English to African French. Acapella to piano to organ to drums. The Word translates. The Word incarnates within cultures. My only question would be what those African Seminarians think of that hymn. Do they see it now as part of their heritage, or is it something still alien or imposed? Hymns are or should be simple enough to ‘go native’ or become thought of as part of my heritage in my tongue. The cultural content of say pop-music or Hollywood or anything that tries to ape them is much higher. You either take it as an invading culture or you leave it. Its hard to translate Lady Ga Ga.