Monday, August 29, 2011

Making Music in Christian Assembly on the Anniversary of 9-11

On Sunday, September 11, 2011, Christians in the United States will undoubtedly come to the Sunday assembly aware of the tenth anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001, when terroristic violence and hatred led to catastrophic death and loss in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. There has been much in print and in online discussions among pastors, musicians, and other worship planners on how to best observe this occasion. See, for instance, these:

It has also not escaped the notice of many that the Revised Common Lectionary for the day assigns three readings and a psalm focused on the themes of reconciliation, compassion, judgment, and forgiveness:
  • Genesis 50:15-21 Joseph reconciles with his brothers
  • Romans 14: 1-12 When brothers and sisters judge each other
  • Matthew 18:21-35 A parable of forgiveness
  • . . . and we respond to the first reading by singing of God’s compassion and mercy in Psalm 103:8-13.
For musicians planning appropriate music for September 11, these readings and psalm provide many invitations to deep consideration and thought. How does the gospel reading’s teaching regarding forgiveness in the Christian community extend beyond the community of the church? What shall we do with Paul’s urging that we not make ourselves judge over others? How does the compassion and mercy that God extends to us also inform the way we forgive one another? How do we help each other see that, guided by the reading from Genesis, confession and forgiveness are not the exclusive occupation of Christians?

Because of the intersections of the themes of God’s forgiveness and the anniversary of 9/11, some congregations and worshiping assemblies will plan worship to be an extended confession, or even a time of healing and forgiveness offered also to the terrorists from that catastrophic day. Some worship will be planned largely as a lament, or even a requiem for those who have died, mourning both the deaths on 9/11 and the ensuing deaths that have come about from the protracted war(s) since 9/11. Some musicians are planning to perform works composed in honor of the day, expressing the diverse postures of lament, confession, forgiving love, and remembrance.

Care must be exercised that the Christian assembly on this day not be marked by excessive nationalism. All of the counsels we have regarding worship on national holidays bear repetition here. The allegiance of the Christian assembly is to the triune God and not to a particular country or race. And certainly, any excessive trumphantalism or claims of victory, on the part of the United States or Christians, over the enemy should be silenced. Further, when proclaiming the forgiving love of God, we do well to encourage all to also forgive one another, but then not stand too proudly as if to say, “look how well I forgave those who sinned against me, us, our country, or our global community.” On the matter of forgiveness on this day, we should plan worship that is intentionally broad and deep, and not get narrowly focused on the sins only of others. Rather, Christian identity calls us to reflect honestly on all sin, and especially our own. Consider this counsel from John Chrysostom, preacher of the fourth century:

The evil of remembering past offenses is twofold: it is inexcusable before God, and it serves to recall past sins already forgiven and places them against us. Nothing whatsoever does God so hate, and turn away from, as cherishing remembrance of past offenses and fostering our anger against another. If we must remember offenses, let us remember only our own. If we remember our own sins, we shall never store up the sins of others. I shall make bold to say that this sin is more grievous than any other sin. Let us be zealous in nothing so much as in keeping ourselves free from anger and from not seeking to be reconciled with those who are opposed to us. Neither is this my word only, but the word of that God who shall come to judge us. (John Chrysostom, in The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, IV, 289.)

All of this implies these practical suggestions:

1) do not abandon the lectionary on this day but rejoice in the opportunity to proclaim God’s forgiving love, especially in the face of the anniversary of 9/11;

2) sing some hymns and other choral music that brings to expression lament and confession, but also the promise of forgiveness, both as extended to us by God and also from one human to another, or one community to another. The section of hymns on the topic “lament” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship may be a good place to start, as will be the hymns and other music recommended for the Sunday in lectionary helps such as Sunday and Seasons or Indexes to Evangelical Lutheran Worship;

3) avoid excessive mourning or focus on our communal ability to forgive; do not be haughty or boastful, and do not imagine that the Christian assembly is a national assembly; it is not the recommendation of this blog to do a full-scale requiem as worship on this day;

4) take advantage of this opportunity to sing and make music that looks forward to reconciliation among all the peoples and religions of the earth, that promotes interfaith dialogue, and encourages love and respect;

5) encourage those who compose the intercessions on this day to be particularly sensitive to all of these matters and craft careful prayers of appropriate lament, confession, and pardon. Especially on this day, encourage intercessors to pray and not preach.

6) do not neglect music that expresses joy or gladness on this day; Sunday is always a celebration of resurrection, and the proclamation of Christ’s saving action for us and the world is able to hold all of the lamentable catastrophes we endure.

Prepared for and originally posted at

Friday, July 22, 2011

Thoughts on Leading Assembly Song

When one is called to be a musician for the church, one might imagine that the task is primarily about aesthetics. “How can I make our worship more beautiful?” one might first ask. While the pursuit of beauty is often the primary task for most visual and acoustic artists, the church musician is first called upon to bring the gift of music to the task of proclaiming – singing a word, narrating a story, giving voice or sound to God’s truth and wisdom. “How will this music I choose/lead/play make the good news of God in Jesus Christ heard in this assembly?” is the church musician’s first question. Will the music be beautiful or have aesthetic qualities? Almost certainly it will, but the beauty shines primarily when rooted in the truth of God’s saving and living word for God’s people.

When one is called to be a musician for the church, one might imagine that the task is primarily about praise. “How can I assist in bringing praise to expression in our church?” one might first ask. While praise is certainly a task assigned to music, the church musician will want to help the assembly express at least also sorrow, prayer, jubilation, disappointment, yearning, and delight. The word worship might lead us to think that Christian assembly is primarily about a group directing praise and honor to one seated on a judge’s bench. However, worship in word and sacrament will be more of a dialogue or dance, where the primary actor is a God of justice and mercy gathering, speaking, feeding, and sending, while the assembly responds with petition, praise, lament, thanksgiving, and going forth in mission to the world. “How will this music I choose/lead/play bring to expression the many emotions, postures, and actions of worship?” is another primary question for the church musician.

When one is called to be a musician for the church, one might imagine the task to be primarily rooted in one style. “How can I make our worship more contemporary or more traditional?” one might first ask. While we all have our own tastes, the rich diversity of the church is brought to expression when we set aside our personal tastes and work to use music in worship that is also richly diverse: from here and there; from now and then, from ours and theirs. Music in worship will be slow and fast, melodic and harmonic, familiar and new, consonant and dissonant, fugal and homophonic, ancient and modern, simple and complex, easy and challenging. While always being sensitive to local context, the music of the church will also link us to the wider church, receive gifts from the churches around the globe, and perhaps even go against the prevailing cultural values to assert a truth about the gospel. “How can this music I choose/lead/play transcend style and invite the assembly to be a local, global, catholic, and prophetic church?” is another primary question for the church musician.

The primary questions for church musicians today are these:

“How will this music I choose/lead/play make the good news of God in Jesus Christ heard in this assembly? Or – “How is our music participant in proclaiming the word of God?”

“How will this music I choose/lead/play bring to expression the many emotions, postures, and actions of worship? Or – “How is our music enabling this assembly to receive and enact sacramental signs?”

“How can this music I choose/lead/play transcend style and invite the assembly to be a local, global, catholic, and prophetic church? Or – “How can the best of all available styles of music be used in worship?”

When these questions are at the heart of the church musician’s task, then the musician becomes a servant of the gospel, called to use the gift of music given them by God in the act of worship rooted in word and sacrament that the world might come to know God’s love.

[Prepared for and published at]

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Navigating the Great Divide

There is now a widespread practice in Christian congregations across North America to provide a menu of options on Sunday morning for worship oriented toward particular musical or ceremonial styles. Often labeling worship as “contemporary,” “traditional,” or “blended,” these congregations are responding to the perceived needs of congregants who desire or enjoy a particular style over another. Some of the planners of worship in these congregations have been persuaded by data that claims that offering such options meets the needs and desires of a great variety of worshippers.

I am particularly and newly concerned about the church we cultivate by the division of worship according to musical styles. This concern has been enlivened by a number of recent conversations and circumstances which I will consider over several blog entries. Here is the first situation:

N’er the twain shall meet

Consider an individual who has attended for the last fifteen years only a Sunday liturgy where the music has been all from the current “pop-contemporary” genre. This person has not, over these years, sung one classic hymn, any of the lyrical poems of Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts, nor any of the melodies of plainchant, the chorale tradition, or even Victorian hymnody. This person also has learned all of the music of this genre while reading the words projected on screens and led by a band singing with microphones and a variety of electronic and acoustic instruments.

Imagine that this same individual goes to worship at a regional synod assembly or denominational convention where the music is intentionally diverse, including some songs from the pop-contemporary genre, but also global and classic hymnody. Such a person might be led to believe that all worship should look and sound like the worship they have experienced in their congregation’s contemporary service. Further, when provided with a hymnal or a printed worship aid that includes the words and melodies of the music sung at such a churchwide event, the individual has no capacity or inclination to access the song outside of their contemporary repertoire, having never been challenged to “read” musical notation or endure longer poems or strophic stanzas.

Or, on the other hand, consider a congregant who has gone only to a “traditional” service for the last fifteen years where the musical repertoire has only consisted of hymns from the German chorale tradition. This person has not sung one text written or one tune composed after 1850. This worshipper has only ever sung to a hymn accompanied by a pipe organ and feels confident that the only hymns appropriate for Christian worship are the hymns they know, or ones that are included within the boundaries of their denominational hymnbook.

Imagine that this believer goes to the same regional synod assembly or denominational convention above and again encounters diverse music, some of it accompanied by piano or guitar, and some of it with newer poetry informed by changes in language or translation, or informed by the contexts of world wars, global poverty, and needless hunger. When presented with a hymn from the Asian churches or a freedom song from the South African peoples repurposed for the expression of Christian freedom, this individual can’t imagine that this song has anything to do with them.

Both people are impoverished by our Sunday morning Great Divide. The worshipper informed by only the German chorale tradition may only understand God as a “he,” or may think the only way out of the trials and tribulations of life is death and heaven. The worshipper informed by only the pop-contemporary repertoire may only hear God through the din of electronics and drums, or may never experience the layers of metaphor, other poetic devices, and the vast biblical allusions inherent in classic strophic hymnody.

Toward more unity

This blog is written on the day when the church commemorates Irenaeus, the bishop of the third century who was one of the first persons to use the word “catholic” in reference to the church. “Catholic” means that congregations do not exist by themselves, but are linked to one another throughout the whole church. We have many signs of “catholicity” in our worship: the inherited pattern of worship that transcends time and place; a common lectionary used by a growing number of churches around the globe; the sharing of communion and ordained ministers and other leaders among a great many churches; and common signs and symbols that represent God and God’s presence among us.


Can we expect music in each of our liturgies to also, in some ways, reflect our catholicity – our connection to each other and our connection to the body of Christ made alive in the church around the globe? Can we expect that we will share in at least some ways the texts and tunes of our songs? Is there benefit in forming Christians to know and love at least some common musical elements? Should we encourage all Christian liturgies to include the very best of every possible musical genre, all of it answerable to the whether the music serves the purpose of worship – namely the praise of God, the proclamation of the word, the celebration of the sacraments, and the prayer of God’s faithful people? Can we get past the obsession with musical style and focus our attention on what God might be doing in and through us in the great diversity of the world’s music?

More will follow in blogs about these matters, but especially these questions: what does it mean for North Americans obsessed with individuality and consumerism to use music in worship that is primarily created for individuals to sing and in styles not different from the music we use to sell and entertain? what do we say about African congregations only using African music, and does that compare at all to North American congregations only using 20th and 21st century music? how might the multi-lingual character of the mass inform an expectation that Christian worship always have some cross-cultural elements?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Some Assembly Required

Some of us relish the activity of uncrating a new piece of furniture from IKEA and opening the materials to begin putting together the myriad of parts that make the final product. It’s the act of assembling the furniture that gives us more investment in the ongoing use and care of the piece, whether it’s a chair or a table or a bed. When we participate in the creation of anything, we have a stake in its very identity. It’s the same when Christians assemble for worship. We make and cultivate an investment in the ongoing life of the assembly and its relationship to all of the other assemblies meeting together. Christian assembly pulls us into our identity as body of Christ.

The church that Martin Luther was born and raised in had developed a worship life that was primarily acts done by a few to be viewed or heard by many. The active and full participation of the gathered assembly at worship was not a primary value at the time, but instead, worshipers attended worship to watch or hear the mystery of God unfold before them. In many cases, the sounds of worship were foreign to them. Often the language was not comprehensible to those sitting in the pews. And the music and ritual action was performed by choirs or ministers on behalf of the assembly, but did not involve them physically or audibly.

Assembly is necessary!

Luther longed for Christian faith to be embodied by the baptized — to be lived out and owned by each one of us. To that end, in his renewal of the church he sought to make the expressions of the Christian faith accessible so that all — lay people and clergy alike — could fully participate in the body of Christ.
He translated the Scriptures so that people could read and study for themselves. He made connections between what members did when they gathered with what members did when they were apart from each other. And, he began a reform of worship accessible to all, inviting the full participation of the assembly. For Luther, “some assembly required” is an understatement. Lots of assembly is required in Lutheran worship!
In order to engage worshipers in the music of worship, Luther relied on the practice of the church in the past.
He knew of the hymns of Ambrose (340-397) that were sung by believers to combat the heresies of his time. He also knew many of the hymns of the faith had flowered and developed so much that their complexity meant that they were best sung by choirs. He knew that the book of Psalms was a collection of communal songs sung by the Hebrew people as they worshipped.

Something borrowed, something new

Luther was not really an innovator with music. Instead, he took traditional material, translated it, paraphrased it, learned from it, and out of what he learned crafted something new. He then made it singable by all the people, not just a few. How did he make it singable? At the time, Luther enjoyed a culture where guilds of singing musicians traveled from town to town, organizing public singing festivals (contests?) of communally loved folk-art music.

The musical style of the songs was in the rugged syncopations of the renaissance motets that lingered in the ears of the listeners of the day. The musical form of the songs had an opening section that repeated followed by new material at the end, often borrowing some material from the first section. This musical form (AAB) is known in music history as a “bar form,” probably because a “bar” was included at the end of the first section, indicating a repeat. We have no evidence that Luther used tavern songs in his renewal of assembly song. (Could someone have read the music history books and thought bar form was about taverns? Really?) Instead, this form and style was a communally accessible musical form already in the hearts and on the lips of all the people.

From community to individuality

Much has happened to music since Luther’s day. Probably the most significant developments since then have been the invention of opera (and later the concerto) in 1600 and the invention of the microphone in about 1900. Both of these developments changed music from a largely communal endeavor, where each individual part was equal and dependent on the other, to musical expression where one voice or instrument is primary and others are secondary or designed to accompany. Certainly the invention of the microphone has made it regularly possible for singular sounds to be amplified above all other sound. When music begins to be driven by an individual voice or instrument, and, therefore, can be more complex melodically and rhythmically, the communal character of music is often lost.

Some take Luther’s methods of reforming assembly song and apply them in our time. For instance, someone might attempt to take a popular melody from our culture today and create a scripturally based poem to be sung with it. The problem with such an application is that much popular music in our culture today is expressly individual in construction and not designed to be sung communally. The result of such an exercise is usually that the pop-song-transformed has to be sung by an individual or a small group for it to feel stylistically honest. When this happens with music in worship, the communal nature of the music is obscured, just as in Luther’s time, when music had flowered such that it was best left to the voices of the choir.
This is not to imply that we cannot create music for worship in our time with some of the instruments and styles present in our culture. But, we will often need to break the individual character of our current styles and make them communally accessible.

Communally accessible music the key to worship

A congregation cannot — and should not — try to sing popular (entertainment) music styles from our culture unbroken to communal possibility. Every congregation should — and can — sing communal song from the widest possible array of places, times and peoples when it is crafted with care and expertise, lead with conviction and supported with love — all turned to and made accessible for the assembly. Christian assemblies gathered in song with communally accessible music are not unlike people who have assembled IKEA furniture. Because some assembly is required to be Christian and to make Christian worship music (and especially Lutheran music in worship), we all participate in and have a stake in the ongoing life and care of the body of Christ. When our breath joins the breath of the spirit of the resurrected Christ in making melody, we receive the gift God has meant for us — music, that all might hear the love and mercy of God for the world.

Posted first at , a communication of the ELCA.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hosanna in the highest!

We sing this too quickly, forgetting that "hosanna" is Hebrew for "save us," and "in excelsis" means (in a world that is not a three-story universe where heaven us up and earth is down) "beyond all things." Gail Ramshaw once translated "Hosanna in the highest," as "Save us, we pray, you beyond all." Our musical settings of Hosanna  often treat the word as though it were interchangable with "Alleluia" (a latinization of the Hebrew word for "praise YAH (unspeakable name of God)" -- but Hosanna is more petition ("save us") than praise.

Think about that while waving your branch around: "Save us, we pray, you beyond all."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Two Passions Each Year: Part Two

My opinion that the church read two passions each year is informed by an unusual context. This year I have the remarkable opportunity to prepare and perform Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion with the Bach Society at Christ the King Lutheran Church. Last year I was able to prepare and perform Bach's St. John Passion also with the Bach Society. Preparing and studying these two large works, created by Bach for the Good Friday Vespers in 1724 and 1727 respectively, gives anyone who does such preparation a unique perspective.

Bach Society Houston

Bach's setting of Matthew's passion story accentuates Anselm's theory of the atonement. This theory understands Christ as a sacrificial lamb, willingly going to his death, out of love (aus Liebe) to redeem humanity of sin and death. Such was the orthodox Lutheran position that dominated Leipzig in Bach's day. Bach's setting of John's passion story illuminates the "Christus Victor" paradigm, where God in Christ goes deeply into sin and death and swallows it up in a cosmic battle, destroying death forever. For this, Bach goes back in time, skipping over Lutheran orthodoxy, and uncovering Luther's theology of the cross. See, for instance, Luther's Easter hymn, Christ lag in Todesbanden:
Our Savior Jesus, God's own Son,
here in our stead descended;
the knot of sin has been undone,
the claim of death is ended.
Christ has crushed the power of hell;
now there is naught but death's gray shell --
its sting is lost forever. Hallelujah. (ELW 370, Stanza Two)
Bach inherited the pattern of presenting the passion accounts from the four gospels in the communal worship of his time. That he tried to balance the best of orthodoxy with the best of Pietism, and that he seeks to tell the stories of Christ's life, death, and resurrection in remarkably different ways can serve as a model for us in our time of competing pieties, where religion of the heart and mind always need to be held in balance and creative tension, lest we arrive at a practice that is either too intellectual or too emotional.

My defense of the RCL appointment of two passions each year is motivated by a hope that the church take the opportunity to go deeply into both (all?) of these ways of thinking about Christ's loving act for the world on the cross. I urge the use of the lectionary not only for all of the ecumenical churches that shared in its creation, but especially for Lutherans who have a history of honoring both (all?) of these ways of looking at the atonement. The passion stories from Mark and Luke, while different from Matthew, share the viewpoint of Christ in his humanity. The current RCL proposal is still very good for our churches -- we should embrace it.

The stated goal of liturgical renewal in our time toward the recovery of the Three Days, spanning sundown Maundy Thursday through sundown on Easter Day, and the encouragement to the church to attend the worship of the Three Days is still urgent. We should not discard the lectionary because current attendance figures show that people don't come on Good Friday. And we should not imagine that the RCL on Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday was created out of practical concern that people hear at least one passion each year. Instead, we should commit to teaching about the bible, the liturgy, and even the lectionary, so that we encourage people to observe the richness of the year by attending both Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday and Good Friday, so that our proclamation is like a deep well and not a shallow stream.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Two Passions Each Year

(Warning: this blogpost is more about liturgy and lectionary at Pascha than it is about music, although those who make music in the liturgy will want to at least think about these matters, especially if they make music on Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and definitely if they serve as a cantor for a sung Passion.)

Each year the questions arises: "Why does the lectionary appoint a reading of the Passion on Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday and another on Good Friday? Isn't one Passion enough?" It is true -- the Revised Common Lectionary recovers the more ancient pattern of reading the Passion from the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, or Luke) on Sunday of the Passion, and the Passion narrative from John on Good Friday. Some remember a time when Palm Sunday included only the gospel narrative of the entry to Jerusalem and never took the paradoxical turn that the liturgy appointed for us now takes. Here are a few reasons why I think we need both Passions each year:
  • The four gospels tell the story of Jesus in remarkably different ways, but the differences are most vividly seen when one compares the stories surrounding Jesus crucifixion in the synoptic gospels with the story from John's Gospel. In John, Jesus' divinity is proclaimed. In the synoptics, Jesus' humanity is proclaimed. To quote from Worship Guidebook for Lent and the Three Days:
The synoptic accounts stress the humanity of Jesus, and each tells in its unique way about his sufferings. Yet, paradoxically, we read of his sufferings on a Sunday, the same day in which we celebrate his resurrection. On Good Friday we proclaim his trial and crucifixion as told by John. John's gospel stresses that Jesus is the incarnate God who goes to reign from the cross. Again, paradoxically, on the Friday of Jesus' death, we proclaim the gospel that boldly announces the divinity of Christ... Christian doctrine teaches that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine, and each year we strengthen this faith by listening to the passion in both the synoptic gospel and John. We hear the more sorrowful story on Sunday and the more triumphant story on Good Friday.
  • Although it may appear to be so at first glance, the liturgical year is not a chronological walk-through of Jesus' earthly life. (i.e. Advent = Jesus in Mary's womb; Christmas = Jesus is born; Epiphany and Time after Epiphany = Jesus' earthly ministry gets started; Lent = walk with Jesus to Jerusalem; Easter = Jesus dies and is raised; Pentecost and the Time after Pentecost = the Spirit is poured out on the churches) Instead, the church year is shaped first by the Sunday-after-Sunday encounter with the risen Christ in word and sacrament, over which two annual cycles are laid: the incarnational cycle around the winter solstice, and the paschal cycle around the first full moon of the spring equinox. The lectionary is "our way to read the bible against our experience of time on this globe we call earth." (Lathrop, from an unpublished lecture) People who argue that Palm Sunday should be dedicated to the entrance into Jerusalem and the narrative of the crucifixion be reserved for Good Friday are often arguing from an expectation that the lectionary be a chronological calendar, which it is not.
  • "We always need at least two things to tell the truth about anything." Telling a biblical story two different ways saves us from the trap of reading the bible as though it were a newspaper report of how things actually happened. Telling the story of Christ's passion two ways each year protects us from pretending to be Mel Gibson creating a movie of the "way it was." Having two stories each year helps us not read the bible as literalists, but instead helps us to read the stories that we might believe -- not because we have the facts, but because the paradoxically different stories give space for us to find hope and comfort. So -- read Luke on Christmas Eve and John on Christmas Day; read John's narrative of Easter morning at the Vigil of Easter and the synoptic story on Easter Day. Christians tell our most important stories in at least two ways.
One final opinion, and this is a word about the lectionary in general:
  • There is a remarkable witness made when congregations around the globe make use of a common lectionary. This witness speaks of the unity we share as Christians beyond denominational lines and beyond the borders of country and continent. Certainly the current lectionary we share is not perfect, but it is the best we have right now, and is far better than what we had before. Biblical, liturgical, and other theological scholars today are right to share insights concerning how the lectionary might be reformed in the years ahead. But local congregations should be careful about discarding the lectionary because of an article here or a lecture there. Let lectionary reform happen among the consensus of the churches -- but until then: keep the lectionary. By making a commitment to keep the calendar of readings and psalms, regardless of whether we're feeling up to proclaiming it or not, makes a statement about our commitment to unity among our churches, and the unity we have in Christ Jesus.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Solemn Reproaches on Good Friday

In the Good Friday rite of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, one of the options during the Procession of the Cross is to sing the Solemn Reproaches. This ancient text, known also as the Improperia, first appeared in Good Friday or Holy Saturday rites of the ninth century. The text then slowly spread in use through the middle ages and then was finally added to the Roman rite in the fourteenth century. One of the great controversies with the ancient text is its anti-semitic stance. This known history makes the use of the text today very difficult. But, thankfully, the Evangelical Lutheran Worship text of the Reproaches has been revised for contemporary usage.

The structure of the text is simple: each reproach begins with an expansion on Micah 6:3: "O my people, [O my church,] what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!" Then, each reproach continues with a new biblical claim, not unlike that of Micah 6:4; "I brought you up from the land of Egypt..." Finally, each reproach concludes "...but you have prepared a cross for your savior." The assembly responds to each reproach with a petition for mercy; in the ELW text the response is the Trisagion (the "thrice holy") of the eastern church: "Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us."

The biblical claims are a tour de force of scriptural allusions, from both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament:
  • I led you out of slavery into freedom;
  • I led you on your way in a pillar of cloud and fire;
  • I made you branches of the vine and never left your side;
  • I gave you the kingdom and crowned you with eternal life;
  • I washed your feet as a sign of my love;
  • I raised you from death and prepared for you a tree of life;
The next to last reproach of the ELW text merits the most attention.

O my people, O my church, what more could I have done for you?
Answer me.
I grafted you into my people Israel,
but you made them scapegoats for your own guilt,
and you have prepared a cross for your Savior.
        Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal,
        have mercy on us.
This additional reproach in the classically anti-semitic text calls the church to repentance of all earlier versions. Further, when sung in the Good Friday liturgy in which the John Passion could be heard as an indictment of the Jewish nation, this reproach aids the liturgy considerably. This reproach, along with the newly reworked Bidding Prayer in the ELW Good Friday rite will help us considerably.

Various musical settings of the Solemn Reproaches exist that allow for the reproach to be sung by a cantor and the response by the assembly. Several settings, including one that I composed, are included in the "Music Sourcebook for Lent and the Three Days" from Augsburg Fortress:

Music Sourcebook for Lent and the Three Days

One last word: these Reproaches find themselves in a rite that is widely unknown among ELCA congregations. Having spent the last three years doing workshops across the church on Lent and the Three Days, we found that overwhelming numbers of churches do lots of different things on Good Friday -- tenebre, three hours with the "seven last words," cantatas, even requiems (very, very bad idea) -- and not this Good Friday rite. I cannot recommend the Good Friday rite as it is in ELW to you and your congregations enough. Do it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why do we sing?

Upon attending vibrant Christian worship, some in the assembly might come away from the event asking, "Why do Christians sing as much as they do?" Of course, there are plenty of Christian assemblies these days that do little communal singing. Such assemblies are influenced by our entertainment culture that values recorded music, or highly professionalized music, such that those assemblies are quite content to sit back and let a hot-shot band or choir do it for them. But there are also plenty of Christian assemblies that are enjoying a renewal of assembly song, where Sunday after Sunday, the assembly is given the task of being the primary musical ensemble in the room, singing a diverse repertoire of hymns and canticles around the means of grace.

That anyone would ask the question above should not surprise us. We live in a time when communal singing is a counter-cultural activity. Even at the ballpark, when the singing of a national anthem was once common-place, fewer and fewer people actually sing the anthem, and more listen to the professional hired to do it for them. Families may have more frequently found time to sing together in the past, but the plethora of activities pressing in on household schedules means that families infrequently eat together, much less sing together. So when Christians sing together, they are engaging in an activity that they rarely do elsewhere. Some may wonder if such a counter-cultural activity is worth it. Here is why I think it is worth it:

Jews and Christians believe in a God who creates out of an audible impetus. The first creation story of Genesis tells the story of a God who speaks, and from that speaking all creation comes into being. "God said, Let there be...light, dome, waters..." The story does not imagine that God visualized these things and made them visible. No, they exist because God makes a noise. Christians continue this understanding of an audible God with their reception of the Gospel of John, in which the Word -- the audible presence of the living God -- takes on flesh and lives among us. That Christians value ordered sound -- or music -- as a primary means of gathering, proclaiming, celebrating, and sending is no accident. Our God is an audible God.

The ancients even considered that when God set the planets, the sun, the moons in their orbits -- the very movement of the orbs caused a "music of the spheres." Such a belief values that music is intrinsic to creation, part of God's created order.

So, when Christians sing together in assembly, they participate in the creative work of God. Further, God's spirit is breath, and God's breath fills us that we may sing. When we sing together, our breathing is unified and we participate in the inhaling and exhaling of God's very spirit. Music gives form to the moving breath of God.

When voices are set together in tandem, either unisons happen, or relationships of harmony are created. The relationships of harmony can be consonant or dissonant, but they are still only created by relationship. Our singing together is metaphoric to our life together. Our individual voices come together with others and create relationships that are not unlike our life as a united body. The sound is molded and stressed and reshaped when we sing together. Such singing helps us to identify ourselves intrinsic to a body, like a hand or and eye or a mouth. In the singing assembly, we discover our part of the body.

Why do we sing? Because singing does something for us that no other thing can do. It pulls us into community, into the breath of God, into relationship, and into the ordered sound of creation.

Some may feel unqualified for the task. "I can't sing," they say. While it may be true that some of us are so damaged or abused that our voices lie dormant in our bodies, and some of us legitimately were created without voice, more of us can sing than we are willing to admit. Again, we are silenced by a recorded culture that creates an expectation in us that singing be perfect. No communal singing is perfect. It will bear the marks of humanity; it will be frail and fragile. It will not always be in perfect rhythm or pitch. Most people have the potential to find their voice and join it to the voice of the assembly, perhaps with help and encouragement. The Christian assembly has a responsibility to welcome all voices and to cultivate and encourage each voice to find its part. Such is the nature of a united body, set on a task. The body of Christ -- the assembly in which the Triune God is made audible -- welcomes your voice, be it fantastic or feeble, to the song of the church.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hymns on the Sundays in Lent

At a recent discussion about hymnody with some musical colleagues from diverse congregations across the ELCA, someone suggested that we might sing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" (ELW 503-505) as hymn of the day on the First Sunday in Lent. Many bristled at the idea; one person even said, "Oh, we can't do that in my congregation -- it's not a Lenten hymn." And I wondered, "what do they think makes for a good Lenten hymn?"

It is true that many of us were formed in a church where Lent was understood as a primarily penitential time, a period where we walked step-by-step each week of Lent with Jesus to Jerusalem. It made some sense, if one experienced the liturgical year as a chronological walk through Jesus' earthly life -- you know: Advent (Jesus is unborn in Mary's womb), Christmas (Jesus is born), Epiphany and the time after (Kings come, Jesus is baptized, begins earthly ministry), Lent (moving toward Jerusalem), Holy Week (eats with disciples, is denied and tried, dies) and Easter (he is risen and appears) and Pentecost and the time after (the Spirit is poured out and the church lives into its future). But the church year did not originate as a chronological walk through Jesus' life, but as a gathering each Lord's Day (Sunday) over which are imposed two different cycles -- the incarnational cycle of Advent / Christmas / Epiphany, and the paschal cycle of Lent / Easter. The incarnational cycle occurs when it does in the year not because we believe Jesus to have been born on December 25, but because we keep the feast of the light of the world coming into the world on the darkest days in the northern hemisphere. More, the paschal cycle comes when it comes because Christians know from the scriptures that Jesus was crucified at passover, the springtime festival, and so we keep our annual observance in tandem with the Jewish calendar. English speaking Christians are at a disadvantage at Easter -- most other languages and peoples use the same word for the Jewish passover and the Christian observance of passover -- Pascha (or some variant on that word)

Because Christians understand baptism as the sacrament that joins us, by water and the word, to the death and resurrection of Jesus, it became customary that baptisms happened at Easter. If the church baptized at Easter, then there was needed a time to prepare candidates for baptism, to teach them the faith into which they were being baptized. Forty days of preparation before the feast allowed the church to teach the meaning of the faith and especially the meaning of baptism.

Lent, in its origins, is then a time of preparation for baptism and baptismal renewal. The scripture readings we read now during Lent are the classics of the Christian faith. This year we read from the Hebrew scriptures of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, David, and Ezekiel, from Paul's letters his correspondence with the church at Roman and Ephesus, and except for the first and last Sunday in Lent when we read from Matthew, we read from John's Gospel stories of images of baptism: Nicodemus and his nightime inquisition, the woman at the well, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. Finally, at the end of Lent we have the Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) when we read the details of Jesus' denial, trial, punishment, and death. We read the story of his passion one way, from the synoptic gospels, on Sunday, and then another version of the story, from John, on Good Friday.

It is right to sing the hymns of Christ's passion and death at the end of Lent, when we read these amazing and perplexing stories. But leading up to the Sunday of the Passion, the Sundays draw us deeper into the meaning of being baptized into Christ's death and resurrection -- into the stories of people of faith called to live a life in God. Lenten hymns then can sing robustly or with solemnity, in major and minor keys, in rhythmic vigor or meditative nuance, in joy and contemplation -- in the vast array of ways music sings the faith of the church.

So, in our Lent in our time, musicians will resist the temptation of playing only music in minor keys or in slow mournful strain, as if to impose a pall of gloom and sadness. Lent in our time does not deny the cross or repentance for sin. But Lent does not invite us to have amnesia about the story of our life in God and pretend that the resurrection and forgiveness have not already also come to us. And especially the Sundays in Lent, which are in the season and not of the season (skip Sundays when counting to forty), call us to sing the breadth and depth of the Christian life. Thus, music in Lent has many colors, tempos, and tonalities. And all of it points to the rich life in Christ we receive through cross and resurrection.

Sing "A Mighty Fortress" on the First Sunday in Lent this year -- and don't hold back. This is the best Sunday for the hymn. Let it rip.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Singing with our Brothers and Sisters in Japan

All of the news and pictures coming from Japan beg our contant prayers. In addition to our prayers, we might also find ourselves in the company of our Japanese brothers and sisters by singing one of their hymns in our Sunday assemblies. Consider adding one or both of the hymns with Japanese origins included in Evangelical Lutheran Worship over the next weeks.

ELW Hymn 718, "In a Lowly Manger Born" at first glance looks like a Christmas or Time after Epiphany hymn, but it is broader in scope. Stanza three reads:
Then, to rescue you and me, Jesus died upon the tree. See in him God's love revealed; by his passion we are healed. Now he lives in glory bright, lives again in pow'r and might; come and take the path he trod, son of mary, Son of God.
Set next to John 3:16 ("God loved the world in this way..."), this hymn would be a welcome addition on the Second Sunday in Lent in Year A.The tune name MABUNE comes from the first word of the hymn in Japanese and it means "manger."

ELW Hymn 530, "Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather" was written for the Fourteenth World Council of Christian Education Convention held in Tokyo in 1958. In the ELW Hymnal Companion, Paul Westermeyer writes:
The hymn was written when fear and suspicion were mingles with new possibilities. Beyond the world's perplexity the church, as is its birthright, looked for sustenance and help to Jesus as savior, teacher, healer, and master. The hymn presumes passages like John 14:12, Romans 10:12-13, Ephesians 1:7-14, 2:13-22, and Psalm 102:25-27 along with John 14:6 as context for the world's confusion and need: servants old and young from many tongues and scattered lands gather at the cross of Christ -- with love's demands, hope in darkness, and nature's secrets opened wide -- facing change, looking for peace in the midst of distress and endless strife, praying for help to work in an age of renewal.
The tune TOKYO sounds considerably more Japanese than MABUNE, but is still easily sung. Also, if assemblies learned to sing it this Lent, it could very well be repeated on the Fifth Sunday of Easter this year when we have the passage from John's gospel as Jesus "the way, the truth, the life."

Singing an ever-widening repertoire of global hymnody is important for every Christian assembly, whether the congregation is monolithic or quite diverse. Singing words and music from other times and places reminds us that the church exists beyond the four walls of a building, beyond the confines of our city, state, or country, beyond the cultural make-up of one particular congregation or church, and beyond the boundaries of time and location. Singing global hymnody is not about trying to create a church that is more enticing to people of diverse cultural backgrounds, as if we were marketing Jesus to a particular demographic ("Let's sing an Asian hymn to get Asians to come to our church"!!) Nor is singing global hymnody a task that is motivated by somehow being "politically correct." Instead, singing global hymnody is about the incarnation -- it means that God comes enfleshed in diverse colors, tongues, and styles. We sing what the body of Christ -- the church -- looks like.