Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Wednesday Worship – Brightest and Best of the Stars of the Morning

January 11, 2017

We’re still in the liturgical season of Epiphany, and here’s another traditional Epiphany hymn.  The text of the hymn was composed by Reginald Heber around 1811.  Heber was a gifted linguist and eventually the second Anglican Bishop of Calcutta.  He died unexpectedly at the age of 42 in 1826.

As an Epiphany hymn, it concentrates on the revealed divinity of Jesus and the application of this reality to our lives.

Brightest and best of the stars of the morning / Dawn on our darkness and lend us thy aid;

Star of the East, the horizon adorning, / Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

The first verse makes much use of words dealing with light (Brightest, stars, morning, dawn, Star, horizon) because light is a prevalent theme in Epiphany (taking after John 1:1-5, no doubt).  Jesus is light incarnate – not in a vague way but as the light which dispels the darkness of sin and death and Satan.  This is our very real need – we cannot dispel the darkness ourselves because we are part of it.  The star in Matthew 2 is the means by which the magi are drawn to Jesus to give him praise and honor, and we likewise seek to be drawn to this baby who is more than a baby, more than illuminated by a star, but the source and word by which that very star of revelation came into existence.

Cold on his cradle the dew drops are shining / Low lies his head with the beasts of the stall;

Angels adore him in slumber reclining / Maker and Monarch and Savior of all.

The second verse poetically describes the two natures of Jesus – true man and yet true God.  According to his humanity He is here spoken of in humble and very physical terms that emphasize his humanity and participation fully in the creation He speaks into being.  He is affected by temperature and climate (cold, dew) and He is first found in the lowly condition of a stable surrounded by ‘dumb’ beasts.  Yet He is divine, and so adored by angels for who He also is – the Maker and Monarch and Savior of all.

Shall we not yield him, in costly devotion / Fragrance of Edom and off’rings divine,

Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean / Myrrh from the forest and gold from the mine?

How should we worship the Incarnate Son of God?  Certainly there is no gift too valuable for him.  Edom is an interesting reference here.  Edom is the alternate name of Esau, Jacob’s older brother and a source of constant difficult for God’s people.  Judgment is decreed frequently against Edom in the prophets, and Isaiah 34:9 talks about the land being reduced to nothing – streams of tar and soil of sulfur.  Yet even from such odorous things a pleasing fragrance might be obtained, perhaps specifically as an offering to the Son of God.  All of creation is the Lord’s, and those aspects we value most highly because of their difficulty to obtain are suitable offerings to the Incarnate Son of God.

Vainly we offer each amble oblation / Vainly with gifts would his favor secure

Richer by far is the heart’s adoration / Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.

Scripture passages such as Psalm 51:17 or Mark 12:33 no doubt inform this stanza.  We bring sacrifices to God the Son because it is right to do so, because He is deserving of them – not because they are of use or value to him, or in order to sway his power in our favor.  The gifts of the magi are beautiful but ultimately useless to the magi without corresponding faith in the baby as the divine Son of God who saves us from our sins.  Such faith sees in the Christ child the proper object of worship and adoration, correctly (though imperfectly) seeing our own poor plight in darkness (stanza 1).

Brightest and best of the stars of the morning / Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;

Star of the East, the horizon adorning, / Guide where our infant Redeemer lay.

The song ends as it begins, with the request that as the magi were guided by the star, our faith and hope in Christ might be guided in faith by the Word of God in Scripture, the Word that leads us to the cradle, the cross, the empty tomb, into a posture of waiting and anticipation for our Lord’s return.

Wednesday Worship – Songs of Thankfulness and Praise

January 4, 2017

Wednesday is normally the day when I coordinate the details for worship on Sunday.  I’ve already begun musing on the readings for the day with my Reading Ramblings from Saturday night/Sunday morning.  Guided by the liturgical calendar (usually), I begin the process of thinking first about the readings and what they say, and then what they say together, combined.  This begins to lead me in a direction for a sermon based from the readings.  Next comes the process of selecting music that is in keeping with the above elements.

I’ve decided to start including some information about at least one of the songs or hymns that we’ll be using for Sunday worship.  An examination of the song along with biographical details.  As important as music is to worship (and theology in general), I’d personally like to learn a bit more about these songs and thought I’d share it here.  Hopefully it will be of interest to y’all as well.  I undertake this as someone with no formal musical training, so if I say something incorrectly, feel free to correct me!

This is Epiphany Sunday coming up, which emphasizes the mystery that the human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is also divine, the Son of Mary is also the Son of God.  It’s a counterpart to Christmas, which celebrates the mystery of the divine taking on human flesh.  I’m blessed to have a faithful parishioner who assists in selecting more contemporary, praise-style songs for worship, while I select the hymns.  Our worship is a fairly liturgical format, but we utilize different types of music.

I selected two hymns for this Sunday (since it’s not a Communion Sunday) – both are associated with the Epiphany season in terms of their theological content.  The first is The People that in Darkness Sat and the second is Songs of Thankfulness and Praise.  I’ll talk about the second one today.

Songs of Thankfulness and Praise was penned around 1862 by Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885), a nephew of the poet William Wordsworth.  Christopher was a prolific hymnist, and composed hymns around the liturgical calendar.  The key term used repeatedly in this hymn is manifest.  The definition of this word as an adjective is to make readily apparent or easily seen.  I consider it as closely linked with revelation and revealing – something that was obscured or hidden is now revealed and disclosed, soas to be readily apparent.  This is the primary theme of Epiphany – the deity of Jesus of Nazareth revealed in conjunction with particular events in the Biblical narrative of his life – the adoration of the magi, his baptism, and the Transfiguration.   The theme of the hymn has to do with how the divinity of Jesus is disclosed to us, made manifest in the events of his life.

Songs of thankfulness and praise, /  Jesus, Lord to thee we raise,

Manifested by the star / To the sages from afar,

Branch of royal David’s stem / In thy birth at Bethlehem:

Anthems be to Thee addressed, / God in man made manifest.

This is a song of praise, just one of many that are appropriate and proper to Jesus, who is our Lord.  Why is He our Lord, and not simply another obscure historical figure?  Because of the manifestation of his identity in the star the magi followed, based on the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24:17.  Jesus further fulfills prophecy about a ruler from the line of David (Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5, 33:15) who will be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).  Jesus is not acknowledged as Lord apart from how he manifests his identity as the Messiah, the prophesied offspring of David.

Manifest at Jordan’s stream, / Prophet, Priest and King Supreme;

And at Cana wedding guest / In Thy Godhead manifest;

Manifest in pow’r divine, / Changing water into wine;

Anthems be to Thee addressed, / God in man made manifest.

Wordsworth continues to elucidate the moments that demonstrate Jesus’ divinity and worthiness to be called Lord.  First he refers to Jesus’ baptism and the divine declaration and manifestation of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:13-17, 28:18; Deuteronomy 18:15; Hebrews 7:26-27; John 18:36-37).  This is then linked to his first miracle, his first demonstration of power at the wedding of Cana (John 2:1-11).

Manifest in making whole / Palsied limbs and fainting soul; 

Manifest in valiant fight, / Quelling all the devil’s might;

Manifest in gracious will, / Ever bringing good from ill;

Anthems be to Thee addressed, / God in man made manifest.

Wordsworth moves on in the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ miracles, prophesied beforehand (Isaiah 61:1-3; Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 4:1-11, 11:4-5, 8:26, 8:13).

Sun and moon shall darkened be, / Stars shall fall, the heav’ns shall flee; 

Christ will then like lightning shine, / All will see his glorious sign;

All will then the trumpet hear, / All will see the Judge appear;

Thou by all wilt be confessed, / God in man made manifest.

Wordsworth now moves from the events of Christ’s incarnation to events associated with his return in glory.  He draws on both prophetic Old Testament sources (Joel  2:10, 31; Isaiah 13:10, 34:4) as well as New Testament quotes (Matthew 24:27; 29-31; Mark 13:24-27; Luke 17:24, 21:25-27; Acts 17:31; Philippians 2:11; Revelation 1:7) which highlight Jesus’ role on that day as judge, identifying those who have placed their faith in him.

Grant us grace to see Thee, Lord, / Present in Thy Holy Word – 

Grace to imitate Thee now / And be pure, as pure art Thou; 

That we might become like Thee, / At Thy great epiphany

And may praise Thee, ever blest, / God in man made manifest.

Wordsworth concludes with the application.  As Lutherans we tend to get a little nervous here, never wanting anyone to confuse the process of sanctification with what Christ has accomplished in justification, and never wanting sanctification to eclipse justification.  But sanctification has a worthy place in hymnody topics as well.  We are called to imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1; Ephesians 5:2) in anticipation and consistency with who we will be revealed to be, as children of God on the day of our Lord’s return (1John 3:2).

So there you have it.  For another analysis of the song and the themes contained, here is a good, short article.  It takes issue with more modern tweakings of this hymn to be more politically correct – and I concur with the author completely on this subject!

 

 

 

Christian Music Redux

July 14, 2016

Thanks to Lois for sharing this essay with me, since I recently blogged about Christian music.

I was surprised to learn of the huge growth in the Christian music marketshare, but I certainly can appreciate the author’s interpretation of why – it gives hope and encouragement.  I worry that marginal Christians will be led to think they understand their faith and are engaged in it even if they don’t go to church because they listen to Christian music.  From the perspective of providing hope and encouragement that music may indeed be very helpful, but understanding the context of that hope and encouragement is even more important.  The Christian faith isn’t simply about making me feel good no matter what – it is very specific Good News that centers on the person and work of Jesus the Christ as the Son of God.  Feeling good is not the same as salvation.  Feeling encouraged is not the same thing as justification.

I like the author’s openness to hearing a broader cross-section of theological music. Because if the world is full of judgment, then we need to know how to deal with it other than just tuning it out.  Christianity is all about judgment, but certainly not on the terms or by the rules the world works with.

As with most things, peppy Christian music has a place and a function.  So long as we don’t pretend that it is representative of Christian theology in a full sense, I’m glad that people are enjoying it, and pray that some people are drawn to learn more about this Jesus guy that so many people are singing about and to.  That’s really encouraging, really hopeful, truly Good News.

Hear, Hear

June 6, 2016

Or Sing, Sing, but that sounded more like a prison.

This article is an interesting – if undoubtedly not thorough – examination of Christian pop music.  It rings anecdotally true to me, but I also don’t listen to Christian pop music very much, if ever.

I wonder if there isn’t a much-needed aspect to this optimism in Christian music, considering the darkness that otherwise seems to dominate media.  I can’t check the weather web site without being informed of some dramatic weather development somewhere in the world, seeking to draw me in deeper to the web site (and advertising) with ominous warnings.  The news is certainly predominantly negative.  Cynicism is a predominant theme all over the place.  Maybe it’s reasonable for Christian music to strike a different chord, to insist on the joy that is found in Christ.

Admittedly, this will leave Christians in the midst of struggles with fewer songs that deal with their situations, and that’s deeply problematic.  Traditional hymnody, with an emphasis on teaching, could appeal to people in all situations.  The call to worship God could be positively recognized and responded to – even through tears.  One of the most popular hymns for memorial services I conduct is How Great Thou Art.  A song that calls us to acknowledge the greatness and glory and beauty of God and his creation, sung in the midst of personal loss and grief.  It seems ironic.

But the song doesn’t focus on the singer’s emotional state.  It calls on the singer to think about other times and situations where, surrounded by the grandeur of God’s handiwork, we can’t help but burst into praise.  The song doesn’t ask for me to praise God because today is a particularly wonderful day or because I’m feeling happy, but rather accesses me at a different level, a different place, enabling me to sing through tears and proclaim the greatness of God even in the midst of sorrow.  I’ve watched people sing this song with all their heart, tears on their faces.  They have no desire – or ability – to dance and bop around in that moment.  They are broken in the face of death and the reminder of their own mortality, but they sing praise to God and draw on the confidence of his greatness to bear their sorrow. The hymn doesn’t expect them to be happy; the hymn expects that regardless of their emotional state, they can praise God.

Christian pop-music may be better in terms of lifting spirits, or functioning as the soundtrack to a good day.  But it may not have the depth necessary to sustain someone in a time of loss and grief.  Admittedly, Christian pop may make no pretenses towards this.  But there has to be a catalog of music that we can draw on to get us through those times without compromising or fabricating our emotions.  This is what the psalms do.  This is what great hymnody does.  Maybe that’s not what Christian pop wants to do, and therefore it shouldn’t be blamed for a shortcoming it never intended to accomplish.  Maybe both can work together, providing a more comprehensive playlist for the Christian life.

Groovin’

June 3, 2016

This is a great little article that examines the results of a rather informal survey of the songs people play at their wedding receptions.  The author’s theory to explain the distribution of music by style and age – and which makes sense to me – is that the various generations present at a wedding – the couple, their parents and grandparents – each have at least a few songs that represent music popular in their late teens or early 20’s, with the remainder of the set list made up of current hits.  Music that is popular today and high on play lists today may fall off for some time, only to reappear in 20-30 years on play lists as the children of the couples getting married today start getting married.

What music did you have to have at your wedding?  What music was forbidden?  What sort of overlap do you see with the data in this article?  And yes, you certainly can justify including ABBA at your wedding reception.

 

Time Sink II

March 11, 2016

Sermon preparation almost demands interruption.  This time, instead of album cover locations, it’s a site dedicated to the premise that almost any movie could end with Dire Strait’s Walk of Life.  Now, I enjoyed this song  a great deal when it first came out, but it’s hardly what I’d call Dire Strait’s best song.  But I gotta admit it’s a humorous concept, and you may enjoy reliving the final two minutes or so of some of your favorite movies.  With a musical change.

Time Sink

March 10, 2016

If you’re looking for a way to waste some time, this little site is great.  The site owner spends time trying to locate famous film and album cover locations in New York City.  The selection is quite limited, but some of them are pretty interesting.  I particularly enjoyed his search for a Billy Joel album back-side photo (The Stranger) that was also a scene in the movie Leon: The Professional from a few years back.

Who Is Worshiped?

December 5, 2015

I became aware of Lindsey Stirling this week when I read about her lucrative YouTube success story.  I sampled one of her popular videos and certainly she has talent as well as some very gifted partners in video production.  So when someone on Facebook shared her playing “What Child Is This?” (one of my favorite Christmas hymns) I began watching it.

Immediately, I found myself distracted.  Her expressions in the video are appropriate to someone in the act of worship.  It’s clear that she is worshiping, but I wondered who she was worshiping.  If she is Christian, than her enthusiasm and joy are appropriate as worshipful responses to the baby in the song, the Son of God incarnate.  But if she’s not a Christian, then she’s basically glorying in her own performance, worshiping herself.

Thanks to the Wikipedia link above, I was able to confirm that she is a Mormon.  And while I don’t think that Mormon theology is Christian, it helps me to know that she very likely is worshiping the baby in the song rather than her own talents.  That makes all the difference to me as I watch/listen to her.

 

Defending Miley

August 16, 2015

I don’t often find myself agreeing with Miley Cyrus.  The famous former Disney star has blazed her own path in the few short years since aging out of Disney’s star-making machine.  The carefully cultivated girl-next-door image necessary for maximum marketing purposes has been replaced with a considerably non-family-friendly persona.

So it is more than tempting to dismiss Cyrus’ claims that her early fame messed her up mentally.  But – perhaps for the first and only time – I empathize with Cyrus, and suspect that her claims are closer to reality than even she suspects.  For a young child to be subjected to that sort of pressure to look and act a particular way – I can’t imagine what that must be like.  Or, perhaps more accurately, I sorta can.

Like most Americans I went through public school most of my life.  I walked the hallways of a junior high school and high school where there was enormous pressure to fit in, to find your niche and then to stay in it.  While there were some people who successfully remade themselves midstream, it was an exception rather than the rule. Often those changes were in rebellion to other roles, more of a rejection of being a jock or a preppie.  But regardless of how you got there,  roles were expected to be as clearly defined as cultural touchstones like The Breakfast Club showed them to be, even as it tried to deconstruct those roles.  Cyrus’ struggle is not unique, but is amplified and exaggerated by her very public presence.  I suspect she echoes the dissatisfaction and rage that some young people experience as they recognize how relentlessly they are bought and sold.  A whole new generation continues to discover for itself what it means to turn on, tune in, and drop out.

The tragedy is not the rebellion itself, nor even the marketing frenzy that tries to hammer us into roles that can be accessorized by consumer consumption.  These are hallmarks of being human.  We all seek identity and purpose and meaning.  We all struggle for a measure of autonomy as well as cohesion in a larger social setting, whether our immediate family or our larger culture.  We all have tendencies to exploit others and in turn to be exploited.

The tragedy lies in not having a better alternative than selling out on your own terms.  The tragedy lies in not having a better alternative than shock and awe in a way that demeans yourself and those who idolize you.  There is an alternative to having your identity pre-packaged for you by commercials or a television contract.  There is an alternative to self-destruction and embracing the extremes of the human condition in flight from commodification.

That alternative comes in acknowledging our core identity as creatures, not accidents.  To recognize that we are loved not because of what we wear or say but simply because we are.  To recognize that just our bare existence speaks to a love that pre-existed us, that knew us and crafted us for something beyond being bought and sold.  The alternative comes in the increasingly radical assertion that not only am I not yours to be exploited, I am not even my own.  Seeking out a healthy identity in that context becomes truly possible.  Still not easy, perhaps, but possible.

So I empathize with Miley.  I applaud her for being willing to call the exploitation what it is.  It’s a reminder to parents that they are responsible for protecting their child and equipping them to protect themselves.  I can’t imagine how complicated that must be in the entertainment industry.  I hope Cyrus will find herself in an active role as a proponent and defender of other young people still in a marketing pipeline (whether Disney’s or another).  But she has at least reminded me that life and youth and celebrity are very complicated things individually and together.  I hope she can blaze a path suitable not just for herself, but for others to follow, and ultimately an identity bound up in the God who created her and sacrificed himself for her.

Live Aid

July 13, 2015

Hard to believe it has been 30 years since the first Live Aid.  I remember watching parts of this on TV in my room as a teenager, excited by the possibilities and confluences of music and art and charity.  Thirty years later, and I don’t know how much money was raised, or who it went to, or whether it made an actual difference in the lives of the ordinary people that were starving to death at the time.  I pray that some of the $150 million the article mentions did make a lasting impact, though the news over the past three decades doesn’t paint a promising picture.  Still poverty.  Still hunger.  Still a lack of infrastructure and development in many places.

We seemed on the brink of exciting things 30 years ago, just as 20 years earlier another generation had thought the same thing.  Now, I wonder how much capacity for excitement and wonder and hope there is in our country’s young people.  I wonder if something has captured their imagination the way mine was.  I hope so.  And I hope that it makes a real difference to real people in the world.