Monday, January 28, 2008


Today, on a train ride into Chicago for a stimulating lunch discussion Jon Dennis, Holy Trinity Church Downtown, I caught up on some reading. Correction: I got at a little bit of the backlog of reading that accumulated over the past months.

Among the articles that someone or other had copied and passed along is an excellent piece by Mark Noll in the November/December issue of Books & Culture.

... imagine a fully harmonious and spiritually edifying service of Christian worship where new Christian believers played Palestrina on the indigenous musical instruments of Burkina Faso, where an African American gospel choir led in a chorale of Heinrich Sch├╝tz, where white middle-class Presbyterians surged with Christian ecstasy to the beat of a drum, where teenaged believers filled up their iPods with the Robert Shaw Chorale, and where learned Western theologians delighted in a nearly infinite repetition of "God is so good, he's so good to me."

Oh yes, may it be so.

Watch Holy Trinity Church, Chicago; they may just be a place for such a gospel-rich and joyous fusion!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Flash from the Past

I received an email from someone who was deeply involved in the music ministry at my previous church. It reminds me to give proper due to Berean Baptist Church, in this space but more importantly as a matter of appropriately holding those amazing people in my heart.

In 1985, Karen and I were raising a young family in Hinsdale, a western suburb of Chicago. It was a winter much like this winter, actually, with intense cold. Why in the world I would even entertain a move to Minneapolis – for any reason – is still beyond me. But consider I did, and after Easter that year I was called into a full-time ministry of church music.

For years I was convinced that the good people of Berean’s search committee had resumes for two Charles Kings, and had just pulled the wrong one off the stack that winter. Berean had never had a full-time music pastor, and I had never been one – we were well suited; neither party knew what to expect! The church, for its part, acquitted itself admirably. They took in a young know-it-all, gave me a chance to succeed and to fail safely, and eventually even ordained me to the ministry of the Word through music.

I had conducted choirs, prepared programs, and planned worship, but never been responsible for the ongoing, week-to-week work of a choir and worship planning. My pastor kept an appropriate watchful eye on me, while at the same time giving room to develop and grow in these areas and as a leader. During an interim between pastors, the leadership determined that in matters of public worship, the buck would stop with me. Over 16 months the congregation and I grew in matters of expression and trust. (Karen still chuckles over the comment of a dear older woman’s comment that I was “running the church.” Ha! Man, would that have been a disaster.)

We moved together into a longer, even richer ministry partnership when Roger Thompson was called to that pulpit. Roger and I both speak “intuitive,” and there was a delightful creativity and deepening that took place over 5 years of working with him. A special bonding also took place with the willing and joyful choir members. Instrumental music took on a new vigor. A summer sabbatical provided some exciting study and family time. And then we moved into a whole new phase with the introduction of a contemporary service.

At this point, readers who know me – or who know College Church – might expect a rant. Well, maybe another time. We gave due diligence to the principles and values of this service. Very fine musicians gave boat-loads of time and energy to it. In my final four years at Berean, it seemed that Sunday mornings popped along at full speed, all cylinders firing. It was stimulating, rewarding, sometimes confusing. If, ultimately, it was the contemporary service experience that led to my openness to a change in ministry, that is more a reflection on me than on Berean Baptist Church.

So, old friend, thanks for writing this week. You have stirred fond memories of a church God has blessed, and which God has used to bless me – not just in my 11 years there but through the 11 years since I left.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Time in a bottle

The old year ended, and the new began, with sermons (basically) on redeeming time. At the same time I was working my way through the Jonathan Edwards sermon, “The preciousness of time and the importance of redeeming it.” You have to love Puritan sermon titles. At least we always know what they are about!

Anyway, it was a triple-whammy to walk me into 2008, thinking about the year just past, and how to do better this year. And it further informed a deepening, nagging, clarifying conviction about music ministry:

It is all about stewardship.

In regard to the subject at hand, there is of course the stewardship of time. How to use, or redeem, or redemptively use, time.

But it also surfaces the issue of “why” it is so important to use time well. And the implications of time used well … to what purpose or ends? Surely the time given to me in ministry is fleeting and uncertain. 22 years flew by, and even if I have 22 more in this racket it won’t be enough to accomplish anything significant.

Unless what is accomplished is what God considers important. Unless what is accomplished uses and enhances the people that God gives the church to make music for his glory. Unless time spent considering, praying, choosing, preparing, and leading people is partnered with God’s purposes for the church – to equip every member for ministry in the areas of their giftedness; to build and strengthen the church for local and global gospel witness; to joyfully proclaim Christ’s glory among the nations.

Sure, I’d like to have efficient and effective use of my professional time to accomplish more, for personal growth, to produce more. Somehow, I think, almost none of that matters so much as spending the right kind of time with people. Spending preparation time with a larger picture in front of me – of why it is important to get this musical phrase right in rehearsal, to choose just the right song for that spot in the service, to help that young musician succeed in her first public worship service performance.

With apologies to Jim Croce, there apparently is enough time to do the things you want to do, once you find them … If you’re looking in the right places, and if you’re working with the One who is in and through and beyond time.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Sound Becomes a Song

Somewhere in a burst of glory,
sound becomes a song.
I am bound to tell the story;
that’s where I belong.
Paul Simon, “That’s Where I Belong”
on You’re the One (2000)

I admire those who can write a song. A lyric. A poem. A melody.

I admire the good work of others. It is my job to get that good work in front of others for the glory of God in public worship. But I admire good song-writing way beyond the narrow confines of my job. That’s why I am a Paul Simon fan, and when I first heard this opening cut of his album from 2000, I was drawn right into the entire disc. Is it his best work or his finest album? I don’t really care. He says in these opening lines what he is about. And he grabs me with the mystery of a song-writer’s craft. And the power of a song.

Harnessed to the service of God, the mystery and power of song-writing can and often does go way beyond C. S. Lewis’s critique of hymns as “fifth-rate poetry set to fourth-rate music.”

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried,

Fred Pratt Green, 1971
© 1972 Hope Publishing Co.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Christmas Hymns

Having groused about an evangelical impatience regarding Advent, and the potential glories of a 12-day Christmas, it is ironic that I have been dormant during these days! At the risk of feeling trapped into an Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle of posts, I should at least get a Christmas post off my chest.

At the church I serve we do not have a Christmas day service. I’ve always thought I would like to attend such a church … and would not like to be the minister of music for such a church. Selfishly, I like my last week of vacation each year, beginning at midnight Christmas Eve. But what a delight it would be to spend part of each Christmas Day morning in worship, with the beloved and anticipated songs and carols of the nativity and a simple prayer liturgy. Well, there are my nascent Anglican tendencies.

At my church we hung in there this year, opening the December 30 services with the Epiphany hymn “As with gladness, men of old” (which counts in our hymnal as a Christmas hymn). But the proximity to the New Year – and an excellent sermon from Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 – naturally (and I think appropriately) led to a New Year’s theme. Meh. It worked. This coming Sunday we will confuse some of our congregation with both New Year’s (“God of our life, through all the circling years”) and that Epiphany which sounds like Christmas: the gospel song “Jesus, the light of the world” and the Victorian hymn “Brightest and best of the stars of the morning.” For some, it will be Epiphany Sunday in our hearts. That’s OK.

What have we missed, among the Christmas hymns? Karen likes to point out how I compromise in our Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, ending “O Come, All Ye Faithful” before the final stanza. Well, I just think it’s asking too much earlier in December to sing:

yea, Lord, we greet thee

born this happy morning

No, let’s keep something for Christmas Eve! Before the day of the Nativity, we have already sung:

glory to the newborn King! and

worship Christ, the newborn King. and

see Him whose birth the angels sing; and even

Christ is born today! Christ is born today!

Well, it’s a small disappointment, and not a very serious one, and certainly not damaging to the spiritual health of a vibrant congregation.

End of my seasonal whine. Now, here is a newer Christmas hymn, from whom else – Timothy Dudley-Smith. A tune by Edwin T. Childs was written for this hymn to be used at College Church; together they are published by Selah Publishing Company.

Exult, O Morning Stars Aflame!

Exult, o morning stars aflame!

With all the works of God proclaim

the Child of Bethlehem who came

for love and love alone.

Come earth and air and sky and sea,

bear witness to his deity

who lived, the Man of Galilee,

for love and love alone.

By faith behold the Crucified,

his arms of mercy open wide,

The Lamb of Calvary, who died

for love and love alone.

Let every eye his glories see,

who was, and is, and is to be;

who reigns as Christ in Majesty

for love and love alone.

O world, by strife and sorrow torn,

new hope is yours on Christmas morn,

the Prince of Peace a child is born,

for love and love alone.

Timothy Dudley-Smith

© 1992 by Hope Publishing Company,