3 Errors of Corporate Musical Style

Congregation-blurThis is an excerpt from a worthy post I read yesterday at Challies.com:

It is ironic that music, an element meant to draw Christians together in mutual love and service (see Colossians 3:16) has become a force for significant division within the church. It just goes to show, I guess, that we can make a mess of pretty much anything. In their book The Compelling Community, Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop point out 3 common errors of musical style can stifle local church community:

Music that’s difficult to sing corporately. When you shape your musical style with the entire congregation in mind, you battle a consumerist mind-set that wants music that “appeals to me.” And you emphasize the breadth of community we should expect to find in a local church.

Music with limited emotional breadth. Much of church music is happy music. But if that is all we ever have, we substantially dilute the Christian experience.

Music that feels like a performance. Little can build a feeling of congregational unity more than hearing the whole church sing their hearts out in passionate praise to God. We should design our musical style with this in mind.

Above all, we must teach our congregations that congregational worship requires sacrifice [emphasis added]. If we’re serious about displaying the diversity that the gospel brings to a local congregation, then each of us will make sacrifices in the type of music we sing. But through that small sacrifice, we enable congregational unity that sings a much more profound note of praise than any individual could ever produce on his own.

My experience as a church musician and director resonates deeply with this. I hope you’ll take a moment to read the entire post.

“Wand’ring Pilgrim” Lyric Backstory

IMG_0145.JPG - Version 3“Wand’ring Pilgrim” was commissioned by Joe Tyrpak as part of a media project at the tail end of his doctoral work on David Brainerd. The following notes by Joe tell the backstory:

On Sunday, April 25, 1742, David Brainerd penned two eight-line poems in his diary (pp. 163-64, The Life of David Brainerd, vol. 7 in The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Yale, 1985]). He wrote the poems a few days after he turned 24 years old, which was only a few months following his expulsion from Yale. During this “wand’ring season” of his life David lived with Jedidiah Mills, an experienced pastor in Ripton, Connecticut. There he engaged in ministerial studies, preparing for a licensing examination in July—which would give him authority to preach as an itinerant in Connecticut. Before the sun rose on this Sunday morning, David had “spent about two hours in secret duties.” He experienced in prayer both agony (to the point of sweat) and delight (to the point of poetry). He begged God to convert unbelievers, to help him forgive those who had hurt him, and to completely conform him to Jesus. He prayed, “O for sanctification! My very soul pants for the complete restoration of the blessed image of my Saviour; that I may be fit for the blessed enjoyments and employments of the heavenly world.” Then he wrote two poems which (till now) have never been put to music:

Farewell, vain world; my soul can bid adieu:
My Saviour’s taught me to abandon you.
Your charms may gratify a sensual mind;
Not please a soul wholly for God designed.
Forbear to entice, cease then my soul to call:
‘Tis fixed, through grace; my God shall be my all.
While he thus lets me heavenly glories view,
Your beauties fade, my heart’s no room for you.

Lord, I’m a stranger here alone;
Earth no true comforts can afford:
Yet, absent from my dearest One,
My soul delights to cry, My Lord!
Jesus, my Lord, my only love,
Possess my soul, nor thence depart;
Grant me kind visits, heavenly Dove:
My God shall then have all my heart.

Within three months of composing these lines Brainerd was licensed to preach. Later the same year he was commissioned to evangelize Native Americans in New England. He spent the next four years preaching the gospel to Indian communities at Kaunaumeek (East Nassau, New York), Forks of the Delaware (Easton, Pennsylvania), Crossweeksung (Crosswicks, New Jersey), Shamokin (Sunbury, Pennsylvania), and Cranberry (Cranbury, New Jersey). During one year of ministry in Crossweeksung David baptized about 130 newly converted Native Americans. Brainerd died of tuberculosis at 29 years old.

Some may justly criticize Brainerd’s heavenly hope as too “Christoplatonic” (to use Randy Alcorn’s term). David mostly longed to be “absent from the body,” and he rarely longed for the experience of sinlessness as physical life in a resurrection body on perfectly remade planet. Yet, Brainerd was only imbalanced, not in error. His weaknesses reflect corresponding strengths. Every believer should learn from Brainerd’s “other-worldliness.” These two poems profoundly express the solidly biblical truths that we are “no more than foreigners and nomads here on earth” (Hebrews 11:13, NLT), that every believer should continually exclaim, “Whom have I in heaven by you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you,” and that the greatest good in life is “for me…to be near God” (Psalm 73:24, 28, ESV).

[Joe’s project includes a DVD documentary and a devotional based on the book “The Life of David Brainerd” by Jonathan Edwards. Follow the link to find out more about these products (available for preorder).]

A Year In Review…Lord Willing!

The Pre-Post

So, I started off yesterday with the goal of sending out a timely “year in review” post, and I finished off yesterday with the disappointment of not sending out a timely “year in review” post. Somewhere in between, the Lord had to deal with my idolatrous heart.

You see, I tend to look at people or companies that seem to be very productive and successful, and desperately want that for myself—so desperately, that I would sacrifice my relationships with God and others on the altar of productivity. That’s idolatry. And that’s what God in His mercy showed me yesterday when I didn’t get this post finished.

A few months ago, on New Year’s Eve, my wife and I were up north skiing as part of our anniversary weekend when she broke her wrist. Not only did this put a damper on some of our plans, but with the soreness of her fresh injury, I had to do just about everything for her. I was utterly shocked at the ugly rebellion and selfishness that rose up in me that first day or two. But as the Spirit helped me to submit my plans and desires to God’s, a real joy settled in. And even though January was one of my least productive months ever for some of my personal goals, it was one of the happiest in recent memory.

Now that my wife’s wrist is all healed up, it appears the cries of my old “productivity idol” are getting stronger again. But my productivity belongs to God, and He has the right to make any interruptions in my life that He wants to. My wife reminded me of something Jim Binney once said when he realized something about all the people that would interrupt his plans in the ministry: “These interruptions are my ministry!” God breaks in through various means to remind us that He and other people are more important than things or goals.

The Post

A year ago [yesterday], Watchsong.com was relaunched with a new facelift and some grand goals! While I am slightly disappointed that I didn’t reach several (okay…frankly, most) of those grand goals, I am thankful to the Lord (now, considering the Pre-Post) for what He allowed me and my friends and fellow-creatives to accomplish.

Added several new songs to the site

This, after all, is the purpose of Watchsong: to share with God’s people the songs that God gives to us. I am grateful for the wonderful people with whom I’ve been able to collaborate, and I’m just as pleased to share some great songs that others have written.

Started Watchsong Blog

You’re looking at it. Thanks for stopping by! As the Lord allows, we’ll bring you interesting, relevant, or just plain fun content. Consider signing up by email or RSS feed!

Made a movie

This short film was originally a creative way to state Watchsong’s mission, but I’ve heard many stories about how this has helped people in their thinking about music, worship, and creating new things for God’s glory. The Lord had bigger plans for it, and I couldn’t be more pleased! It also kind of helped me get a job…but that’s a story for another post…. I’m so grateful to Shane McMullin for making this happen. He has recently experienced some much-deserved recognition for his work!

Made more friends

Thanks again to those who have joined Watchsong’s Facebook page! “Like” us there, and stay informed about everything new at Watchsong. You can also follow us on Twitter. Just look for our handle: @WatchsongMusic.

The Post-Post

So, what will this year bring? Well, I have some goals (several recorded songs, several new choral octavos, several new hymns, to name a few), but I’m going to let God interrupt those if He wants to. May His name be praised and His will be done!

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’–yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance” (James 4:13-16). “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

How to Help the Grieving

cross-cemeterySometimes it seems that sorrow comes in big waves. The Lord, in His wisdom, has seen fit to take several of our friends through times of deep grief very recently. Those of us who haven’t experienced the same sorrows often don’t know what to say or do. And those of us who have may at times be unhelpful or unthoughtful in the ways we try to empathize with our grieving friends and family.

A few months ago, my wife and I stayed with some friends who have been shepherded by the Lord through many trials. They talked with us candidly about things that helped and didn’t help them during their grieving. The things they shared were so helpful and practical, I asked if I could share them here on the blog. What follows are some of their suggestions.

“Because each situation is different, we will try to generalize…but you will need prayer. This is NOT exhaustive. This is NOT Spirit-inspired. Please rely more on God than our words, but we do hope these will prove helpful.”

How to encourage verbally

Silence is not bad. A consoling look through eye contact says more than you might think. Say less, hug more (if permitted).

Don’t be afraid to cry with them. This is humbling, but means so much!

Pray with them, but don’t preach during your prayer. It might be helpful to pray God’s promises in regard to their specific situation. For example, “God, You promise never to leave or forsake us, please help ____ to have a real consciousness of You during this time.”

Do not say you understand…only God truly does.

Do not share your own personal experiences until they have worked through their own. They may not want to hear it until later when they have questions, but right now, they may need space to sort through their emotions. Adding emotional weight to them does not help.

Speak truth coupled with love. Again, promises help. The person may need some redirection with their thoughts, but as with Job, consider that a grieving man’s words may be “wind.” They may later regret what they say even though at the time they mean every word. People often don’t think straight/biblically when they are hurting. Does this excuse sin? No, but preaching at them when they are struggling with overwhelming emotion may not help. (Remember Job’s friends.) Again, prayer may help.

By “preach” we mean: Telling a person what to do in an imperative way or saying a truth without a loving context.

We had someone tell us, “God is sovereign,” when _____ died. Is that true? Yes, but there was no context. We do know God is sovereign, but if He is not good–or our circumstance seems to defy that–how does that truth in itself bring comfort? Unless a person is rebellious to God, preaching at them probably will not help. They will likely know the truths that they should be thinking on. Rather, try to tangibly and prayerfully demonstrate love and truth for them.

Listen if they want to talk . Don’t be quick to respond/fix the problem. If they ask for advice, maybe pray with them about it instead of offering an opinion of what they should do–or wait until you’ve had time to process everything. Be slow to speak.

“I’m praying for you” will mean much more than “So-and-so is watching over you from Heaven’s gates!” Again, think, and speak truth in love.

Don’t ask what the person will do after the passing of their loved one. They may not know or want to share that just yet. They are still having to work through their emotions. They may have extenuating circumstances in which they feel overwhelmed. Maybe a better thing to ask would be, “How could I help you? Do you need someone to help with taking care of your car/taxes/meals?” They may hesitate to ask for help, so offering help may alleviate that.

So, moving on to practical help….

Meals

Ask if the family has food allergies or strong dislikes (if it is possible to get this information).

Avoid casseroles. Really, who wants someone else’s mystery goop?

Think cold cuts or very simple meals with only a few ingredients. For kids, especially, think of something typical such as fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans…These don’t require a lot of ingredients and taste great–usually.

Avoid jello salads.

Bottom line: The simpler the food (meat, vegetable, fruit, dessert), the better.

Other practical help

For widows: They may need help with their cars (changing the oil, needing to know how to handle a flat tire, etc.). They may just need someone to compare notes with if something does come up with the car and they don’t know where to take it.

They may need help with taxes and getting paperwork together for that.

They may need help maintaining their house. They may have a “honey-do-list”, but cannot get to it due to caring for their children.

They may need help with childcare so that they can run a few errands without have to worry about the kids. Or, maybe they need a time out with some friends or a time to cry.

Encouragement in prayer and notes

For kids: For those who lose a father, they may need a male figure to step in and take them hunting, fishing, and all the rugged things that men do. Similar for those who lose mothers. They may need to see the “softer” side of things. Discipleship…God is the greatest Father/Mother; it is amazing when the church body steps in and makes this tangible to the kids.

For those who have lost a baby: Don’t ask when they will have their next child (as if the first one didn’t matter). Don’t avoid the topics of babies, etc. This could be hard if the couple has friends who are expecting. Don’t be afraid of the grieving couple sharing their emotions via crying. It just means they feel strongly about the loss, as anyone would, but not that they are angry that babies were brought into the conversation. Be willing to listen.

Overall, listening is huge.

Media Revival

In a recent post, I shared how artists can have a unique impact on spreading the fires of spiritual revival. Here are two examples that have recently blessed me:

Visual Theology

If you are a visual learner like me, you might really benefit spiritually from some of these “theological infographics.” They were commissioned by Tim Challies and are available here, at his website. These are brilliant pieces of design and could at potentially be wonderful graphic aids in Bible study and understanding. I’ve posted one of them below: it’s a graph of the books of the Bible designed to look like the periodic table of elements! You’ll want to see all twelve of them on Tim’s site.

Video Devotional on Glory

I’ve read many of John Piper’s books. I’ve heard lots of his sermons. But these five brief heart-to-heart video devotionals are as powerful and effective as anything that I’ve experienced from his ministry. Share them with Christian friends and spread a passion for God’s glory. Share them with unsaved friends and start a conversation about the meaning of God’s glory. Pastor Piper is very kind and clear in His explanations. These would make a great gospel introduction. For links to all five videos, click here. Below, I’ve embedded the 2nd video which offers what I think is the clearest, most succinct definition of sin I’ve ever heard. If sin is not related to God’s glory, it loses its weight of seriousness.

When God Works…

“Almost every hymn is a result of revival–whether personal, local, denominational, or regional.” (Fred Coleman, Head, Department of Church Music at BJU)

This is a striking statement. I would probably be a bit more skeptical if it didn’t come from Fred Coleman, a man who has done massive amounts of research in the area of hymnology. I should know: I took his graduate hymnology classes. I remember sitting through his riveting lectures, listening to him rattle off hundreds of years of church music history practically by memory. I had to think back through some of these lessons as I wrote the script for the recently released Watchsong film. Luckily for me, “Uncle Fred” is also my music pastor, so I was able to pick his brain as well.

Hymns are inspired by revival. The more you think about it, the truer the statement becomes. Look back through history, or think of David writing the Psalms–listen to the stories of hymnwriters past and present: when God works, people sing. The great periods of prolific hymnwriting through history correspond to periods of great revival. At the very least, hymnwriters testify to experiences of personal revival as their creative spark. This very website is the result of personal revival. The hymn that started it all, O God, My Joy, was written as God was lovingly leading me through a period of repentance and restoration. It’s a freeze-frame of what God was teaching me.

Singing is often a telltale sign of God’s reviving work. So is prayer. In fact, when God works, people exult and worship and weep and repent and preach and witness. Just yesterday, I was reading Luke chapter 1 where God was working in extraordinary ways in the lives of Zecharaiah and Elizabeth and Mary. All three of them were prompted to give blessing and pray and prophesy because of God’s work in their lives.

So, how is your singing these days? From my church’s choir loft, I get a chance to watch people sing. I try not to, actually–I need to focus on worshiping God myself, not wondering about everyone else–but sometimes, in my weakness, I glance around. I can’t help but wonder what’s happening in a person’s heart who isn’t singing or even looking responsive at all. I’ll admit, sometimes I need to stop singing and just meditate on the words I am supposed to be “praying” to God. But usually, the more excited I am about worshiping my Lord, the louder I sing (and, being a tenor, the higher I sing, too).

Perhaps you’ve forgotten what’s worth singing about. My wife and I both confessed to each other recently that we were in need of personal revival. Life happens, and before we know it, there are 1,000 things that distract us from seeking God. I was encouraged again by Hosea 3:6, a verse I return to often:

“Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD;
his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
as the spring rains that water the earth.”

God is faithful and merciful and eager to restore and revive parched, thirsty hearts. The greatest revivals in history started in one heart–with one person. Humbly press on to know the Lord, and watch Him work in you and in others through you.

It is here, I believe, that Christian artists have a unique and wonderful privilege. As we respond to God’s work in our lives by creating, very often we are not the only beneficiaries of this God-inspired creativity. When God works, other people sing, too. How many sparks of revival have been lit by a song or a poem or a work of art or a book or a journal or even a single sentence? The influential Moravian leader and hymnwriter Nikolaus von Zinzendorf is said to have committed his life to Christ after seeing the painting Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”) by Domenico Feti. Frances Havergal was inspired by the same painting to pen the hymn I Gave My Life for Thee. I wonder if Feti had any idea that his painting would influence thousands and thousands of people for Christ in the centuries to follow.

My prayer is that Christian artists would experience deep personal revival and be used of the Lord to inspire others through their art to “press on to know the Lord.” My prayer is that revival would break out in my own heart and in yours. When God works…well, I hope you can fill in what happens from your own experience.

We Must Exit the Stage

Every now and again, I’ve enjoyed listening to This American Life from Chicago Public Media. About a month ago, I heard a story that really saddened me. The episode was called “Fear of Sleep” which originally aired August 8, 2008. For the last act, “A Small Taste Of The Big Sleep,” several people were interviewed about their ultimate fear (which only seems compounded by sleep)—death. Here are a few of their recalled experiences:

“You’re cornered. You’re a trapped animal who’s like sweating and waiting for its head to be chopped off.”

“I can feel time whizzing by. And I’m trying to hold on to something generally. So I usually start grabbing the walls or like clinging to the pillow. And I’m like this isn’t going to go away. I need to hold this. I need to hold on to time. I need to stand in this river and just not move.”

“…it’s a kind of very primitive feeling. You have to just, like, flee from this totally horrible thing that’s happening to you. But there is nowhere you can flee. And understanding at the same time that what you’re fleeing and trying to run away from is the complete cessation of you.”

“When this wakes me up in the middle of the night it’s because I’m right…it’s going to happen. That’s why. Because that’s reality. And just for some reason I can see it.”

“I cry. And I just get really sad…I try to breath really deeply. And I just think…there’s nothing I can do. Like the terror is overtaken by just sadness. I just want it to not be true.”

I’m not making light of these experiences. I’m genuinely saddened because no one need fear death! The show ended with part of a poem. I longed for some word here that would comfort these people or give them the answer to their fears. But this was the only wisdom and comfort that was offered (taken from “Aubade” by Philip Larkin published in his Collected Poems):

“…the total emptiness forever, the sure extinction that we travel to and shall be lost in always. Not to be here, not to be anywhere, and soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

“This is a special way of being afraid no trick dispels. Religion used to try, that vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die, and specious stuff that says no rational being can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing that this is what we fear– no sight, no sound, no touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, nothing to love or link with, the anesthetic from which none come round.”

These poor souls will find no comfort here. But they might take comfort in the fact that Larkin couldn’t be more wrong. Enter a worldview with a purposeful Creator God, and feel the pure, raw hope it brings (taken from Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl by N. D. Wilson):

“There was a time when men and women understood death more fully, when mortality was never ignored. Men and women executed their endings better then….They, like Solomon, knew that we are but vapor, that we are here for but a little while. We must exit the stage, down through traps, and let others traipse and sing, love and lose, fight and struggle above us.

“When we die, wherever or whenever that might be…God is also there, shaping the story, off the stage and on the stage….To His eyes, you never leave the stage. You do not cease to exist. It is a chapter ending, an act, not the play itself. Look to Him. Walk toward Him. The cocoon is a death, but not a final death. The coffin can be a tragedy, but not for long. There will be butterflies.

I will die, and when I do—whether it be in my bed as age creeps over me, or struck by lightning, a meteor, or a UPS truck—when my body and soul find their divorce, His hand will be the one that cuts the thread and shows me the path He [Jesus] blazed through tragedy. His finger will point to the parade.”

True religion does not try to pretend we never die. Rather it tries to point us to (and prepare us for) the greater reality which death unveils. The question then is whom will you believe: those who pretend that there is no God and that this earth-bound existence is the greatest reality we can experience (i.e. Philip Pullman in The Amber Spyglass), or those who point us away from these “shadowlands” to the real God and the very real and substantial life that He holds and offers (i.e. C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce)? Your answer will have grave consequences for how well you execute your stage exit…and your quality of sleep in the meantime.

If you want to make a death-defying exit, then listen to the One who tasted death and conquered it for all who will follow Him:

“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me….For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jesus in John 6:38, 40).

Andrew Peterson Testimony

On my website, I posted two audio clips of a talk by Andrew Peterson which I found to be very helpful in encouraging me not to view my artistic endeavors as inferior work in the kingdom of God.

“Your work for the kingdom can be married to your passion for art and beauty.”

In these clips, Andrew shares the testimony of his personal journey to recognize this. He is a very witty and entertaining speaker. If these clips interest you, you may want to listen to (or download) the entire session audio, where he also sings three of his songs.

Love Your Pastors!

As I’ve befriended and have been mentored by some of my pastors, I’ve come to realize that they probably hear more from the minority of people who are disgruntled than from the majority who really love and appreciate them and what they do. I suppose this is in our natures: the tendency to speak up only when we have a problem with something. Well, my wife and I have decided to be among a vocal majority who challenge that tendency, and we want to bring as many people with us as we can!

So I’m starting the “Love Your Pastors” campaign. Hebrews 13:7, 17 say this:

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Obey…and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

I am appalled when I hear of all the petty complaints that my pastors have to deal with. I am distressed that my pastors sometimes dread opening their email inboxes on Monday morning (after pouring out their souls for us on Sunday) because of the “hate mail” (their words, not mine) that will be waiting for them. And I have a feeling that my pastors are not alone.

When is the last time you sent an encouraging email to your pastor or pastors? When is the last time you prayed for them? When is the last time you asked them how they are doing and really listened instead of just dumping your own problems? When is the last time you found them after a service and told them how much you appreciate the way God uses their gifts to edify you?

These are questions that I’ve been asking myself lately. And, quite frankly, my answers stink. But I have already started making a conscious effort toward change. Praying for our pastors should be a given. My goal is to verbally (or in writing) encourage at least one of my pastors every week.

My church has a regular weekly service attendance of nearly 1000 people. What if just ten percent of us regularly encouraged our pastors each week? How would their Monday mornings feel if the typical ratio of encouraging emails to “hate mail” were completely turned upside down? How would you feel if 100 people told you this week that they love you and appreciate you and are praying for you?

Remember that Disney/Pixar movie called Monsters, Inc.? The monster city (Monstropolis) was powered by the screams of children afraid of monsters in their bedrooms at night, but the city was facing a power crisis. By the end of the film, they discovered that a child’s laughter was a much more potent energy source, like nuclear fusion compared to a AA battery. Encouragement and love have a similarly empowering effect on others.

I know there are many people who are faithful encouragers, but there are also many like me who just don’t think about it. So, will you join us on our quest to encourage our pastors each week? Will you encourage others to join you? Spread the word! Let’s overwhelm our pastors with love! Let’s give them the honor they deserve!