Monthly Archives: July 2014

Music, as Music, must be Redeemed!

There is no doubt that music is powerful.  It has a way of speaking to our deepest soul, drawing out tears of joy or sorrow and other emotions, often unexpectedly.  I have witnessed this in worship services and at concerts, and noted that many in the audience were moved to express emotion even in the midst of relative strangers.

The music in these circumstances often had lyrics attached.  In other words, the emotional reaction was not just a response to the music as music, but to the meaning of the words which were carried by the vehicle of music.  In fact, I would suggest that the emotional responses would not have been the same had the lyrics not been present.  If it was just the music, there would have been no apparent meaning to which respond in an emotional way.  All too often, the musical form is not matched well with the lyrical content, so to remove the lyrics is to remove the meaning.

This is a sign of our times.  Modern music – as music (as an art form) – has been stripped of meaning.  Some think that music and musical styles are benign, and that there is no inherent goodness or beauty within the music itself.  Some might say that without lyrical content, there is no meaning in music.  Still others see music as the way to promote an agenda, especially as a powerful force to portray and convince people of a certain message (or worldview).

In fact, music, in and of itself, is full of meaning. As an art form it carries meaning of its own accord.  Those familiar with the melodies of someone like Chopin, for instance, will have the experience of responding emotionally to the music itself – even without lyrical content.  The very texture and form of the music can carry its message into our minds and hearts.

One can “hear” the sorrow of a past relationship in Chopin’s Etude No. 3 in E Major (“Tristesse”), for example.  I have often used this piece in teaching music appreciation courses.  What I have found interesting is that both adults and children respond in very similar fashions.  When asked to listen and respond to what the music is communicating to them, groups of students will ultimately “hear” the sorrow of the melody, have feelings that the composer is forlorn, and notice the pleasant memories in the second section of the piece before it returns to the sense of longing the music invokes. By this we know great music – it communicates something to the listener without the composer or some expert having to explain it.

That being said, there is plenty of room for the Christian to think more Christianly about music as music.  As an art form, developed and utilized by mankind, it will have inherently all the characteristics found within fallen mankind.  Rather than being benign, it is full of all that man is and he will creatively weave his natural inclinations into it. That means music – as music – is redeemable.  That means we Christians are to be in the business of redeeming it! This is much more than attaching Christian lyrics to any and every form of music.  It is much deeper and much more vital.

I have been thinking along these lines for a number of years, but seldom find Christians willing to go in this direction.  Certainly those who are committed to a certain form of music, because of their own inclinations and tastes, are reluctant to discuss how a particular style of music may be inherently inappropriate for a Christian message. Attaching Christian lyrics to a form of music, without a redemptive interaction with the music itself, does not automatically make that music “Christian music.”  Although it doesn’t make me popular, I point out that certain styles of music are “angry” by nature, and attaching a “Jesus loves you!” message to angry music does not redeem the inherent hatefulness embedded there within the music.

How we might engage in this process of redeeming the art form of music is open for discussion – if any are willing to discuss it openly and honestly.  I’m not sure that “angry” music as music can be redeemed away from its inherent anger.  As such, it may have some limited use within a Christian framework, such as thematic material dealing with the destructiveness of sin.  However, as a steady diet of Christian entertainment, I’m not clear how this style can be combined with the restorative nature of the Gospel message.  How can one sing of restoration, when the music portrays destruction?

I’m certainly not calling for a return to previous forms of church music. Although we can learn a lot from someone like J.S. Bach, it’s not likely that people will respond well to that music in our churches due to the saturation of entertainment in our culture.  The truth of Christ and His word can be carried by many vehicles, but I wonder where the Bachs of today are in the church? Where are those who are transforming the nature of music, redeeming it from our day and age, and raising it to new heights under the banner of Christ? Who are those that will lead us from the mundane, repetitive songs that characterize modern worship to a new expression that challenges convention and explores redeeming music as music?

May the Holy Spirit, even now, be working in the minds and hearts of those He will raise up in this endeavor.

 

(Original Post on May 6, 2014 at the Worldview Church: http://www.worldviewchurch.org/worshiparts/articles/21705-music-as-music-must-be-redeemed)

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Worship, is this the BEST we have to offer?

(With the recent World Cup fervor, these thoughts seem to fit though they were written in response to another significant sporting event.  -ms)

Watching the Super Bowl coverage this past weekend brings many lessons for the Church.  Not the least of which is the way that Bruno Mars lit up the half time show.  I have seen several musical groups such as this, whose presentation is so well-rehearsed that it allows you to relax and enjoy it, and it is wonderful to behold.  The performers worked with precision in their music and in their presentation.  Not one step was out of place, everything was prepared and planned in advance, and no one was just “feeling it” without having rehearsed it.

It may be unfortunate that the Super Bowl is on Sundays for this very reason.  It may not be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, but I wonder if there is an underlying comparison going on with what is experienced on Sunday morning and what is experienced on this particular Sunday night?

Granted, there may be a few churches that have worship services which are carefully planned and thoughtfully crafted.  However, based on my observation, it seems to be more often the case that churches are “doing the best they can.”  Which really means, “We’re not really prepared, and haven’t practiced that much, but as long as we do the best we can it will be OK.  Let’s pray about it.”

I’m not so sure that’s a good place to be.

As a musician and worship leader, I can’t help but reflect upon my own commitment to quality and development.  Because we are a family of musicians, my wife and I often have conversations about what it means to really give of our best as we perform and serve God’s people musically.  We could easily get by and make a “good show” that would impress others and have few noticeable mistakes, but is that enough?  If we can perform with relative excellence, can’t we allow that to stand and move on to the next performance or worship service?  Do we constantly have to analyze what was good and right, as well as what needs improvement?  We’d really like to find a point in which we can say, “There it is, and it’s good enough.”

I suppose some might encourage us by trying to say that none of us can be perfect.  And that is true.  All that we offer will need improvement, even if the necessary improvement cannot be perceived by most people.That does not lift the burden, however, of these gifts that God has given.  It does not release us from the responsibility for constantly improving them to the best of our ability.

For musicians, and other artists, the parable of the Talents really cuts to the heart of the matter.

To one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey.” (Matt. 25:15)

Although Jesus spoke of money in the parable, we see the reality of how the “talents” are these gifts for which we are responsible.  And none of us receive equal talents, but are nonetheless responsible for those we do have.  For the faithful use and development of these gifts (no matter if they be large or small) we can look for God to encourage us, and find joy in our service:

Well done, good and faithful servant. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (Matt. 25:21)

In Romans 12, Paul refers to this idea as well, in which God gives grace and gifts in varying portions.  For each gift, He has provided the appropriate amount of grace to use that gift as needed.  We can also think of Bezalel and Oholiab (see Exodus 31-36) who, along with many other skilled artisans, creatively outfitted the Tabernacle.  The “skill” of these men was not only a gift from God, but a well-developed gift that they had learned and practiced.

As a result, we must commit to constant improvement. We must improve our skills as musicians. We must learn the craft of planning worship that is effective and meaningful. We must provide good leadership for those who are part of our team, giving them plenty of time to practice and rehearse, as well as recognizing carefully their level of ability. Our development must be holistic.

I recall a mid-week rehearsal I was leading had not gone well for my own performance, and with a few days left before the Sunday service, I took time to practice. Preparing to lead worship for a conference means my wife and me running through the songs beforehand – even though we have sung them many times before.

Sometimes I get teased for having a group work on the first song or two of a set for an extended period, and then flying through the other two or three songs. I noted, on one of these occasions, that my purpose in doing so was often to help us all communicate well – and when the rehearsal begins we aren’t necessarily speaking or listening with the intent to really communicate. But once we “settle in,” we find that our communication is more effective as our rehearsal continues.  Effective communication must be part of our skill set.

After performances I often find myself assessing and strategizing how to improve things the next time. It is constant and unending.  These are the processes that must be used to really give our best.

Over and over again we should hear God’s Spirit remind us of Colossians 3:23-24, “Do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of inheritance.  It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.” And that is why we work hard, practice, prepare each time…for every performance…for every service…for Him.

 

(Original Post on February 3, 2014 at the Worldview Church: http://www.worldviewchurch.org/worshiparts/articles/21194-worship-is-this-the-best-we-have-to-offer)

Unity: A Key Ingredient in Worship

Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves.  Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification.  For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell upon Me.”  …   For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.  …   Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus; that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. …  Wherefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. (Romans 15:1-7)

This passage is the finale, so to speak, of the picture of worship that Paul paints throughout the book of Romans.  (This column featured an overview of worship in Romans that can be found at: Worship in the Book of Romans)  We find here the goal to which this path has been leading.

  • First, we saw the focus of worship to be God and God alone, and the corruption that is a result by misplacing that worship onto idols of any kind – whether man, beast or non-living entity (Romans 1).
  • Then Abraham was presented as an example of true worship.  His worship was one of responsive obedience and an unwavering belief that God could and would do what He promised.  We referred to this as the faith of worship (Romans 4 & 5).
  • After this, the path led once again to Romans 12 and the reality of worship being both internal and external.  This is the form of worship that engulfs the whole person and the whole of daily life.

And now we come to the fellowship of worship, which ultimately signifies the wholeness and unity, not only of each person, but also of the Church, which is Christ’s body. We can examine this goal for unity in the Church in Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:13.  Paul indicates that the point of a lifestyle of worship within the Church community is to “attain to the unity of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”  Although we find this concise phrase describing the results of a healthy Church life in Ephesians, we also find this end goal for worship described in Romans 15:1-7.

Here we discover Paul using worship terminology to discuss the fellowship of Christians loving and serving one another.  He is expecting the combined Christian effort of living godly lives to issue forth in a unity of purpose and voice.  “That with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:6).  Obviously, from the perspective of the larger context, our unified “voice” is not necessarily vocal but a reflection of our daily lives of obedience and service (i.e., faith).  “The word liturgy [i.e., the service of the people] derives from the Greek leitourgia.  The Greek connotes an action through which persons come together to become something corporately which they were not as separate individuals.  It means a gathering whose unifying purpose is to serve (minister to) the world on behalf of God.”

In this pattern of the worship life, we are to be others focused.  Paul refers to our “neighbor” (15:2) and his or her needs as that which determines our activity.  He even points to Christ as an example of this outward focus (15:3).  It is clear here, and in other places, that the life of worship is one of actively serving God by serving others.  James indicates this in his epistle when he says, “Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).  I am not saying that a vocal and community time of “worship” (i.e., a worship service) is unimportant, but that in the broad sense of the idea of worship in Scripture it is only a part.

Paul also has the expectation that we will be committed to the body of Christ, forgiving and loving one another as God forgave and loved us (15:7).  This matter of loving, forgiving, and persevering with and for one another draws the body together – it is the key to unity.  Paul says it leads to the “same mind” (15:5) with “one accord” and “one voice” (15:6).  This is unity. Unity in diversity is a hallmark of the Body of Christ.  We differ in our giftedness and abilities, yet serve toward the same purpose – bringing glory (worship) to God.

Of course, Paul reiterates the “renewal of the mind” (12:2) idea in 15:4 when he states, “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”  It is no accident that Paul reuses phrases and terms.  His thought is interconnected throughout Romans, and his desire is that the Body of Christ becomes a community of loving individuals unified in their service to God, and also that God would be glorified in what we do.

And so we see that worship is an integral theme within the book of Romans.  It would be unique if it only appeared here, but we can see that these concepts cross through many of Paul’s writings as well as the other writers of the New Testament – and are founded upon principles laid down in the Old Testament.  This is why it is important to think properly about worship, that we may then experience a life of worship, which encompasses the whole of our daily lives.

References
1Vigen Guroian, “Seeing Worship as Ethics:  An Orthodox Perspective” in The Journal of Religious Ethics, 334.

 

(This article has been adapted from Mark Sooy’s book: The Life of Worship: Rethink, Reform, Renew.  For a more complete discussion you can order the book at www.MarkSooy.com.)

 

(Original Post on March 24, 2014 at the Worldview Church: http://www.worldviewchurch.org/worshiparts/articles/21476-unity-a-key-ingredient-for-worship)

Review – “Life of Jesus: Who He is and Why He Matters”

Review

“Life of Jesus:  Who He is and Why He Matters” by John Dickson

by Mark Sooy

In preparation for teaching a course on Gospel Literature I was given John Dickson’s book, Life of Jesus: Who He Is and Why He Matters.  The book, along with the accompanying DVD, has been a refreshing look into this Man we call Jesus, who we also know to be the Author and Creator of life itself.  Dickson is unapologetically orthodox in his faith, yet discusses the person of Jesus in a way that brings new light to the reality of who He really is.

This study’s purpose is “to provide the inquiring, the skeptical and believers alike with an opportunity to explore Jesus’ life and to consider its significance for today” (p. 175).  I found this to be the case as I read and considered Dickson’s fresh approach to the subject.  I think it fits this purpose well as I prepare to teach college underclassmen, but also relevant in ongoing discussions that I have with atheist friends and skeptics, as well as well-meaning but uninformed believers.

Dickson has created the book, as well as the DVD, in six parts that discuss the framework of Christ’s life and covers many of the modern questions about His life, His deity, His miracles and His claims.  His use of historical data, along with quotes from both secular and Christian scholars, makes his arguments and ideas a potent resource for the dialogue that Christians should be having in today’s culture.

Part 1:  God’s Signpost.  This section explains Jesus as a “tangible sign of God’s interest in our world.”  Not only does Dickson deal with the big question of God’s existence, but he shows how Christ is one of the ways in which God has interacted personally with the world – and why.  He demonstrates that Jesus is not only a significant person in history, but a vital part of God’s intentions for the world that he created, as well as the humanity he desires to restore.

Part 2:  Christos.  Under this title Dickson explores the “identity of Jesus and His critique of ‘religion.’”  As can be expected, he shows the reality of Jesus the Man while at the same time unraveling the arguments against Christ lifted up by those opposed to Christian teaching.  He reveals a true picture of Jesus and dispels many myths and misconceptions about who He really is.

Part 3:  Kingdom Come.  Here Dickson takes on “Jesus’ vision of the future and it relevance now.”  Although it may seem from this title that he has not shown the relevance of Christ in today’s world, in fact Dickson shows His relevance page after page.  In this section, he is specifically noting the redemptive activity of Jesus.  He considers Jesus in the historical context of other teachers, as well as His miracles during His earthly ministry.  In this respect, Jesus is also relevant now for the redemption He continues to offer those who respond in faith.

Part 4:  Judge and Friend.  As Dickson considers the ideas of “Jesus’ thoughts on ‘religious hypocrites’ and ‘rotten sinners,’” he spends time debunking another list of misconceptions about Jesus and both his teachings and his life.  He notes that Jesus often taught about judgment, but of the self-righteous as opposed to the sinner.  In addition, he taught forgiveness for the sinner and showed in His ministry the reality of God’s grace and mercy to those in need.

Part 5:  Cross Examination.  In this section on “Jesus’ death as the source of life,” Dickson reveals a clear picture of the reality and scourge of crucifixion in the ancient world.  His treatment of its history is short but well done.  Beyond that, he discusses the reasons for the death of Jesus from many perspectives – political, social and religious.  He also gives a clear explanation of how Jesus viewed His own death.

Part 6:  The Resurrection.  Finally, the matter of the resurrection is raised.  “How could it happen?  What does it matter?”  These are the questions that Dickson raises and answers in another example of clarity and brevity using historical commentary and an analysis that reveals a balanced perspective for this core element of Christian teaching.

Overall, I highly recommend this treatment of the Life of Jesus by John Dickson.  I can see the benefit of this study in any small group setting, whether the participants are believers, skeptics, doubters, or any combination of those interested in seeking a greater understanding of Jesus and His life.  This is one I will keep in my library.

 

Dr John Dickson is founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity (Australia). He has a degree in theology and a doctorate in ancient history, specializing in the birth of Christianity. An ordained Anglican minister he is also a Senior Research Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia), where he teaches a course on Christian origins.

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