Thursday, December 1, 2016

Gloria in excelsis Deo: A model for balance in our singing



When two worlds collide . . .

I regularly attend a collegiate chapel which clearly is not catering to my taste. It is, after all, a worship service that students are required to attend, with music planned by and led by students, for students. I get that. In fact, I celebrate that. But when I assert that it is not catering to my taste, I am not referring to the musical style.

What I care about is the content of the typical chapel music set. Again I will say it (I don’t know where I got this phrase, but I use it all the time) “there is no praise without proclamation.” So when students are only offered words to sing that are general or vague praise phrases--however artfully put together, or not--we are not actually, you know, praising God.

Of deeper trouble to me is that many songs do not even get as far as a string of praise phrases. Because they are stuck in expositing the emotions that we have, or wish to have, in this time and place. Presumably evoked by and directed to God; but I use the word presumably intentionally.

That’s one world. The other is writing a program note for a campus performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria. And while writing about the hymn, “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” I was struck with how this ancient model might serve as a pattern for contemporary student chapel worship.

By the third century A.D., the hymn, “Gloria in excelsis” was an established part of worship in the Greek-speaking eastern churches. In the fourth century it was translated into Latin, and in this form became a permanent feature in the liturgies of western Christianity. The anonymous hymn begins with the angels’ words to the Judean shepherds:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to men.”
To this simple, bold declaration, the unknown author added a rich doxological  theology in direct, exalted poetry. The resultant  hymn is still said or sung regularly in many worship traditions.

So, it has some legs. And maybe, as C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton might argue, we owe our ancestors the respect of learning from it.
 
The hymn begins where much contemporary praise singing gets to, and where most of it ends. With ecstatic expressions directed to God: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men. (Thus far, the familiar Luke 2 angels) We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you; we give you thanks for your great glory. There is nothing wordy, or academic, or stodgy about this. In effect, this is what much new worship music expresses. But note that neither we nor listeners nor angels (1 Peter 1:12)necessarily know what all this emotional fuss is about. Yet.

The hymn continues, and it is in the body of Gloria that actual praise is expressed. This is a hymn to Jesus, who is: Lord God, heavenly King; Lord Jesus Christ, only begotten Son; Lord God; Lamb of God, Son of the Father who takes away the sins of the world. (Have mercy and hear our prayer!) Jesus, seated at the right hand of the Father, the only Holy One, the Most High, with the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Gloria is a great model for our sung worship. It is emotionally charged; it is biblical; it uses simple, direct, powerful language. It shows us Jesus as we are meant to know him, whom we approach with humble confidence. It wouldn’t hurt to actually sing this hymn . . . but I am arguing here for Gloria as a model “worship song set,” much in the way we can both say the Lord’s Prayer and use it as a  model for our praying.

Our worship will be enriched, we will actually be praising God, we will come to know Jesus more clearly, we will have ample emotional expression, and (least important of all) no matter the musical style, my taste (my thirst) will be satisfied.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Cultural Impact of Worship


So, this was serendipitous.

The day after the election I was tidying up a stack of papers – a random collection of things I’d kept over the years to use for choir devotions, my old music ministry newsletter, zingers, or whatever. (I had commandeered a binder in a recent emergency, and there was this stack o’stuff on my office floor :~)

Sorting through this material was a walk through my first few years as Music Pastor at College Church in Wheaton. And here was something that my colleague, Dave Helm, had passed on to me. It is from the November 1997 Tabletalk, by Douglas Wilson: “The Cultural Impact of Worship.” There is a lot of incendiary material in the article . . . it is, after all, by Douglas Wilson! But this is the part that Dave had highlighted and brought to my attention:

Christians do not know how to lift a glass of beer to the glory of God for the simple reason that they do not know how to sing the Gloria Patri. We do not know how to compose concertos that honor God because if the sermon goes longer than fifteen minutes we get a case of the creeping fantods. We do not know what a statesman is because we do not know what a call to worship is. (p. 59)

Interesting that this quotation would leap out at me the day after this particular national election. Could the election of Donald Trump as President be a natural consequence of evangelicals’ “willing adoption of a breezy formality in worship that has led to a host of problems outside the church”? (p. 58)

Well, it’s one way to account for why many who call themselves evangelicals voted for a person so antithetical to what evangelicalism supposedly stands for. I continue to believe that how we worship makes a difference in the world. And it might not be the difference we think it is or wish it to be.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Hurry up, People of the Risen King!



I might have left this alone, except within a couple of weeks we had the same experience in two separate churches. Both are churches with fine music programs, whose services we appreciate, and whose ministries we admire. But both sang the same song wrongly.

You ask, how can I say that a song is sung wrongly?

Years ago I heard a fascinating interview with Quincy Jones, the great musician and music producer. He holds the most Grammy nominations, and nearly 30 Grammy awards. He’s been at it a long time, for decades racking up awards for producing in many styles of music. Asked for the key to his success, Mr. Jones replied with one word: “Tempo.” Get the tempo of a song right, he said, and you get the song right.

Twice within three weeks at the end of summer I was expected to sing “Come, People of the Risen King” at a tempo that is, technically, humanly possible—but hardly optimal. Granted, since I didn’t clock either service with a metronome, I only have my subjective memory to go on. But in both places the speed of the song was fast enough to just barely get the words out. Certainly too fast to sing with real understanding or meaning. (And this is a song I know well.)

After the second of these experiences I wondered what might have driven that fast tempo. Is this how the song is being recorded? Are service planners so worried about length of service? Are we worried that people will grow bored, or have grown bored with the song? Nerves?

I rather like the song, and am responsible for introducing it in one of the churches where we sang it this summer. So I came home and did a bit of YouTubing. Predictably the leading videos are of the Gettys themselves performing the song co-written with Stuart Townend. Very near the top of the list is also Mr. Townend performing the song. Ah, there’s the definitive tempo, right?

Very singable, with both breadth and welcome. Ironically, the only really fast version I found in my quick search was by a robed choir singing a choral arrangement of the piece. It would seem there is not an unavoidable online move to re-cast the song.

But can I say the song was wrongly sung in both churches? I believe so. First, because it was difficult to sing the (excellent) text clearly. (And again, this is a text I know; I wasn’t trying to parse the text as I sang.) Second, the song at a too-fast tempo has more of an urgency than a sense of invitation to it. And only third, but importantly, the song creators themselves might be considered to be the best judge of the appropriate tempo for their own song. (I know this is not always the case, but in any case, surely we may privilege a song’s creator with knowing how it goes best?)

As we invite congregations to sing any text, let’s exercise our inner Quincy Jones, and recognize that tempo is one of the means we have to let our singing be “filled with the Spirit” and “let the Word of Christ dwell richly” in those who sing.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Case in Point



 “How does this church’s worship shape her people’s ethical wisdom?”

I hd not yet read Samuel Wells, Improvisation, when on July 10 I posted a Facebook question following a series of national outrages. In the preceding days police officers in Baton Rouge, LA, had shot and killed a black man on the street. Three days later, on July 8, five police officers were shot by a sniper during a legal Dallas, TX, protest. (As we now know, the month would only get worse, and those of us of a certain age began to feel like it was 1968 again.) Preparing to head out to church, I stopped long enough to ask others:


To my church-going FB friends: If you're willing, would you answer the following questions? ( if you wish to remain anonymous feel free to answer privately through FB Messenger)
* Especially this Sunday - did your church read or sing a Psalm?
* This Sunday - were the shooting events of this week mentioned? In what context?
* Were the shooting events of this week prayed for publicly? Was that typical of your church's practice, or unusual?
* Were people, peoples, communities related to this week's shooting events prayed for by name?
Just curious, as I myself head out to church this morning.



The responses were interesting, even if predictable. To summarize:
·         Churches in which the Psalms are regularly read or sung incorporated a psalm(s) in the service that morning. In some cases, the Psalm of the Day fit very aptly into the need of the day. In others, a Psalm was selected for the occasion.
·         Some churches that do not regularly read, sing, or pray from the Psalms, thought it important to incorporate an appropriate psalm that morning.
·         Others, in which the Psalms do not play a regular part of worship, did not go to the Psalms on July 10.
·         There did not seem to be a direct correlation between the presence of a Psalm in the service, and the more personal use of victims’ names in congregational prayer.
·         In some services, only the names of the police officers were spoken, in fewer the names of the other victims of the week.

If you go Here you may be able to scroll down to my July 10, 2016 post to read the responses.

I was just interested in what experiences my friends were having that morning in church. Since then, having read Improvisation, and thinking about how worship shapes the church’s ethics, I simply wish to cite this as a case in point. I am not going to take time to critique or praise any particular church or response.

Apropos Samuel Wells’ argument (I hope I making the correct application of this point in his book), every church had a chance on July 10 to help her people shape a Christian response to this summer’s simmering tensions. Our choices of whom to pray for, whose names to mention in prayer, and how to pray for our nation, speaks to all who listen and are learning to pray. More than learning to pray, we are learning how to respond. Our hearts are being shaped.


I was relieved to hear the associate pastor at my church pray beautifully, meaningfully, and personally along these lines. He prayed for the victims’ families, and spoke the name Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge) as well as all five Dallas policemen. He prayed for justice. If I have one critique of this prayer, it is that the pastor prayed for the church’s role in national healing, but not for this church’s role in national or local matters.

Since this church does not regularly sing, read, or pray the Psalms, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My hypothesis is that a regular recitation of the Psalms—which appears to have been normal in the New Testament, and has been practiced in Christian worship in every generation since—will naturally tune our hearts to pray for, and thus identify with the poor, the marginalized, the lonely and outcast; to pray and thus stand against unjust power and powers; and to see God’s hand and understand God’s heart in the affairs of nations. Hearing the voice of God in the Psalms keeps these matters from seeming political in church. Singing and Praying and Reciting the Psalms together ought to provide bridges for civil discourse about political differences. The Psalms ought to remind us that our hope and hopes are not in the kingdoms of this world, but in the Kingdom of God.

In short, the Psalms ought to not only teach us to pray and praise God, but to live God’s life in the world.