Lauda anima: praise, my soul!

Seemingly since the beginning of time, there have been rules about what is and is not appropriate for music in God’s house (or even if music is appropriate at all.) Over the years, the progression and development of church music has invariably been in response to those guidelines, either in compliance with or in rebellion from.

Over the years, these rules have addressed texts, language (and translations), melody, instrumentation, singers… and get endlessly more complicated when church politics and personal relationships are added into the mix. There are as many different ways to worship God as there are people on earth, but there have always been people who believe that how they encounter God is the only way to encounter God, or the only correct way, and that the church’s worship should reflect those opinions.

Out of such a situation comes LAUDA ANIMA, “one of the finest [hymn]tunes that arose out of the Victorian era,” along with the text for which it was originally written, “Praise my soul, the King of Heaven.”

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Thematic worship.

We generally have thematic worship at Middletown United Methodist, which means that we have a focusing theme around which the entire service is centered. As in many other congregations, we usually preach by sermon series, which allows us to be responsive to the needs of the church. Planning series also lets us be deliberate about having some Sundays throughout the course of the year that are teaching sermons, some that call the church to mission, some that are practical how-this-scripture-changes-my-daily-life sermons, some that inspire the church to hope or compassion, etc.

For an example of a recent series, in the 4 weeks leading up to the 15th anniversary of September 11th, 2001, we had a series titled “The Decline and Fall of Israel.” This was a primarily a teaching series. We learned about the time recounted in the Old Testament when God’s people demanded to be led by a king, to be a monarchy rather than a theocracy, and in the Sundays that followed we saw the parallels between the people of Israel and the people of God today, exploring what we could learn from their story. Next Sunday, we’re beginning a 3-week series titled “I’d Rather Not Talk About It,” where we’ll address mental health issues including addiction, anxiety, depression, and suicide. We’ll be talking about the roots of these issues– and why the answer is not, “well if you just had more faith, you wouldn’t be depressed.” We’ll look at what scripture says to us, and what the church can do to support those with mental health struggles.

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Are Christians in the US allergic to community?

Are Christians in the US fundamentally uncomfortable with community?

I’ve been reading a book out of the excellent series of worship texts published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship called A More Profound Alleluia, edited by Leanne Van Dyk. The book explores what our liturgy says about our theology, and how our theology drives our liturgy– and sometimes, what we state as our theology can be belied by what we do with our liturgy. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in why we do what we do in worship.

I have a natural interest in the historical practices of the church because I’ve never quite felt comfortable clamoring to take down a fence until I understood why it was erected. And once I learn the reasoning behind something, perhaps it’s theological or symbolic, the historical nerd in me frequently says “well isn’t that cool? We should do that!”

There are, however, some historical practices of the church that I find harder to swallow, and I’m noticing that my resistance seems to be, at times, related to how much I identify in my individuality and independence. Lately, I’ve been thinking about where that part of my identity comes from.

Many people have noted that individualism is an essential part of understanding American culture. For better or worse, the political philosophy upon which this country was founded, establishing historical levels of freedom unheard of in any other country and now emulated by countries around the world and used as the measure of fundamental human rights and basic human decency, permits the individual with considerable ability to chart his or her own destiny. (For argument’s sake, I’m glossing over the not-shallow pool of legitimate justice issues that have often stemmed from historical prejudices and oppression, left to run rampant thanks to this freedom. They’re very important, but peripheral to my contemplations.)

If you think about the heritage of the country, with pioneers and cowboys and explorers traveling to map a new land, and folks packing up their belongings and traveling to parts unknown on the rumor of employment or better fortunes, it really makes sense why independence is so tightly woven into the fabric of our country. You had to be able to make it on your own, or you wouldn’t make it at all. Even after the country was settled, America has had a seriously difficult time with anyone trying to tell them what to do. The defense of independence, frequently labeled as “freedom,” is often a knee-jerk reaction in our country.

few have questioned whether individualism is such a good thing. When one begins to see how the theory of individualism tends to prize a certain ruthlessness over compassion, grace, and forgiveness, they might have a point. And honestly, if individualism has in any way caused this matchup between Hillary and Trump, I think I’m comfortable saying that it might not be as great as we suspected.

Be that as it may, individualism and independence are so fundamentally tied to the American culture, reinforced by shows like The Voice or America’s Got Talent where anyone can be a star if they work hard enough, that they’re not going anywhere soon.

To top it off, growing up as a girl in the 1990s, we were surrounded by these strong, independent female role models who preached that true feminism was total independence: you didn’t need anyone’s help, much less a guy’s, and it was all about embracing your awesome individuality. I was never really into soccer, but every girl had a poster of Mia Hamm on their wall, and so did I. I remember watching Xena and [that other girl] kick some serious butt, and Clarissa was so awesomely sassy as she “explained it all.” And on the music front, Gwen Stefani did not take any nonsense from anyone, and do I really need to mention the Spice Girls or Destiny’s Child? These women were female role models for a generation of girls, and defined feminism in a very particular way for that generation.

So this is where I’m starting from. I have 2 parts of my identity, my culture, that are fiercely independent. And in a lot of ways that’s good! It makes me step up and be a better version of myself every single day, because no one can do it for me. It’s made me resilient, and it gave me the confidence to follow a call to ministry without worrying whether I could take care of myself. I’m capable and smart, of course I can!

So.

A few weeks ago my senior pastor preached on the community of believers in Acts, and I can’t say that I’m ever particularly comfortable when that passage comes up. He used Acts 2:42-47, but a few chapters later in Acts 4 there’s a more complete description of what it was like living in that community:

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Reading about this group of folks is uncomfortable because it sets up expectations about the big-C Church and those who are members of it. And they’re expectations that are directly counter to the ways I identify as a strong, independent person, both in my identity as an American and a woman.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say the culture of independence in our country, and the strain of independent-individualistic-feminism in which I grew up, are fundamentally incompatible with the kind of Christian community that we find in the book of Acts. Both of these cultures value pride in oneself above all others, and as Christians we’re called to sacrifice that self, to die to self for Christ.

This is a challenge that’s unique to the Christian church in America; I don’t know of any other culture that celebrates freedom and individuality to such a degree, nor can I think of another culture that has such a severe automatic response to being told what to do. We also don’t have a vast legacy of relationships that have been steeped for generations the way many older countries do, though we have a few. So if Americans don’t like something a group or community does, they usually leave it: they end the relationship. They boycott (Chick fil-A, Target), they sue, they torch it and find another community. There is no effort toward investing in living in an imperfect community. There’s rarely any value placed on the relationship that’s greater than the irritation of disagreement.

And everyone does this! We self-segregate more than ever, because more than ever we have the ability to do so, and it’s not healthy or beneficial to individuals or to our country at large. We pick colleges where we’re going to feel comfortable and not challenged, we live in neighborhoods with “people like us”, we go to churches where everyone agrees with us, which is seriously not healthy for Christians or for the Church– and we often shun those who attempt to be a part of our community but are different than us, or who disagree with us.

But that’s not how you live in community. When you live in community with others, at the level of these Christians in Acts, you live with them through the agreements and the disagreements. You love them in the times when you totally understand them, and in the times when you totally don’t get where they’re coming from. You appreciate them despite- and perhaps because of- your differences. And you don’t bolt from the community at the first sign of unpleasantness.

This country’s culture has made us allergic to living in true community like the example that was set for us. It is a naturalized cultural tendency to bolt from a community for any number of reasons, and be our individualistic, independent selves. But a Christian faith calls for a different response.

 

Open hearts, open minds, open doors, open table.

This Sunday’s scripture is the story of the prodigal son, which most of us are pretty familiar with. But I don’t always pay attention to how Jesus sets up this parable in verses 1-3 of the 15th chapter of Luke:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable:

He then tells the parable, and towards the end, when the son returns, the father says to his servants:

‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

This Sunday, the first Sunday of the month, our church will celebrate Communion. As Methodists, we welcome to the communion table anyone who seeks to respond to Christ’s love and to lead a new life of peace and love. Our Book of Worship says, “All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive.” This practice of an “open table” comes from the Methodist understanding of Holy Communion as Christ’s table, not the table of The United Methodist Church or of the local congregation, and the recognition that Holy Communion may be an occasion for the reception of converting, justifying, and sanctifying grace.Read More »

We sing together.

The church is one of the only places in our culture today where people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities gather together for one hour on Sunday mornings and sing as a group. Throughout the rest of the week, we mostly listen to soloists singing songs that highlight their skill as individuals, whether it’s pop, country, rock, even contemporary Christian radio, or we watch soloists compete on shows like The Voice; even if we go out to listen to live music, it’s all lead-singer driven.

This increasing cultural focus on the solo singer, and the pursuit of flashy, individual talent and show-offy singing to the exclusion of all else (e.g. the national anthem at ball games), is tragic inasmuch as it marks the demise of group song. Singing with a group is one of the most profoundly unifying activities in which we can engage. Singing together unified and empowered the Civil Rights Movement of the last century. Singing carols brought together the two sides of the Western Front during the cease-fire on Christmas Day in 1914. And lifting our voices together in worship unites the church in the same way: it is an essential practice that strengthens the community of the church in a way nothing else can, which is why from its very beginning, the church has sung together.

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Mark 14:26)

John Wesley, like the other hymnists of the Great Awakening, realized the power of a singing church; from the beginning, the people called Methodists were known as “a singing people.” In his 1761 hymnal Select Hymns, Wesley included “Directions for Singing” to encourage congregational song, and these can still be found in the front of our hymnal today.Read More »

“The shadow proves the sunshine.” –Switchfoot

This week’s scripture comes from Luke 13:1-9, and causes us to ask, who are we really? Is there a difference between our public persona and our private life? Does who we think we are match up with what we actually do?

Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”

Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’”

In this passage, Jesus preaches the hard call to repentance and obedience, and then tells a parable that says it isn’t too late. This is the Christian experience lived in the beautiful tension of both/and. We are simultaneously sinner and saint. We need the law that tells us the truth about our sinfulness and the gospel that tells us we are a new creation in Christ, freed and forgiven by God’s grace.

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What does “burying the alleluia” mean?

On this Ash Wednesday, I wanted to talk about the practice of some churches of “burying the alleluia” during the season of Lent. Since Middletown UMC doesn’t practice this, it may be a tradition with which some of us are less familiar. Essentially, when a church “buries” or “hides” the Alleluia, they avoid using the word in their music and their liturgy during the Lenten season. And it starts to make some sense if we ask ourselves the question: Should our praise and prayer be the same during Lent and on the Sundays of Lent as they are in the rest of the year?

I think the answer is, well, yes and no. Lent is a season of reflection and abstention, but it does not mean we need to morosely plod along for six weeks as if we were at a funeral. In fact, the Sundays in Lent are not counted in the forty days of Easter; rather, they are considered “Little Easters” within the season. That’s why the Sundays during Lent are named as “Sundays IN Lent” rather than “Sundays OF Lent.”

And yet, altering our Sunday worship practice during this season can enrich and shape our prayer and our sense of discipline as we anticipate Easter Sunday. Abstaining from Alleluia is a kind of fasting from “ecstasy” and ecstatic praise, letting the word lie dormant for six weeks before we again burst out in joyful and ecstatic affirmation of the Resurrection. When we retire something familiar, recovering its use has a way of making it “new” for us. It has a way of giving emphasis to what precedes and follows it. Taking a rest from something gives shape and rhythm to life, to worship, to relationships – even to our relationship with God.

Unlike some denominations, our United Methodist worship resources do not call for this practice, and do not offer directions for doing so. However, there is a long tradition within more formal liturgical United Methodist congregations for suspending the use of Alleluia from either the Last Sunday after Epiphany or Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) until the first service of Easter. Some churches dig a hole in the ground and make the burying literal; others get children involved in the process, having them yell “Alleluia” and closing a box where it is trapped within, and bringing that box back out on Easter morning to release the Alleluia.

MUMC, like many other churches, will not officially “bury” the alleluia during the Lenten season this year. But whether or not a church observes this practice, what’s ultimately important is our reflection on that earlier question: how should our prayer and praise change during Lent, to reflect the changes we are making in our hearts as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter?

(Some of the background of UMC practices was found on umcdiscipleship.org.)

And can it be that I should gain?

And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me?

Most scholars consider today’s hymn, found in our Methodist hymnal at #363, to be the one that Charles Wesley wrote to commemorate his conversion experience in May of 1738. This makes it an important hymn to give us a glimpse into the faith journey of the young Charles Wesley.

We’ve covered some of the influence that the Moravian Brethren had on the Wesleys during and after their first missional trip to North America, focusing mostly on what the early Methodists adopted from the Moravian traditions. It’s important not to forget, though, how much of a shock the present and practical faith of the Moravians was for the Wesley brothers, and how meeting them forced the Wesleys to rethink their own beliefs.

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Wesley, the Moravian hymnwriter

Almost 2 years ago, I wrote an introduction to the Moravian church, which is interesting knowledge for Methodists because of the Moravian influence on John and Charles Wesley. I intended to continue the discussion, but grad school got the better of me and I never made it back to it.

I’ve been reflecting lately on the early theological development of the Wesley brothers, back when the Methodist movement was just some blokes in Oxford who wanted to be closer to Christ, and how much of an influence the Moravian church was for them. In fact, it’s largely thanks to the Moravians that the modern Methodist church is a singing congregation.

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