Thursday, September 29, 2011

Singing for Fun

Section 8 having some fun playing music at Southland for the Birthday Bash.

I love to sing. So do my kids. In fact, we don’t just like to sing, we like to make up songs. Usually, these are silly songs that play with my kid’s names or what we’re eating for breakfast. I make up songs so often that when singing, my four-year-old son will often interrupt and ask, “Dad, did you make that song up?”  My daughter, who’s older, can already tell which songs I’ve made up and which songs have been composed by more skillful hands (my songs lack a certain level of quality, to say the least). But she likes my songs anyway and now has picked up my habit by making up her own impromptu tunes. My wife looks at us all like we are a little crazy. I think we’re perfectly sane – for nothing is more natural than having fun while making music. 

Having fun with music is something we haven’t talked about in this sermon series on the gift of music; that’s a shame. One of the preacher’s great struggles is that there is always more to say. So let it be said here: the delight that music can bring to the soul is a gift from God. Even the seemingly silly can honor God if offered up with a pure heart and at the right time. What did the writer of Ecclesiastes say? Oh yes, “There’s a time for everything.” Certainly, that includes the fun that comes through singing.

We know the fun we can have singing in our cars or in the shower or with friends through a karaoke machine. But some of the best fun can be had singing with the saints. I remember as a child listening to the men singing the bass part to many a hymn and thinking – that’s fun. There was one man in our church growing up who sounded just like Elvis. When he’d sing a song, I’d close my eyes and imagine we had the King of Rock ‘n Roll singing to the King of Kings that day in worship! That was fun. And to this day, on Easter, when we sing plaintively, “Low in the grave he lay, Jesus, my Savior! Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!” my heart fills not only with hope but also with a childish giddiness waiting for the boisterous interruption, “Up from the grave he arose! With a mighty triumph o’er his foes . . .” That’s not just the gospel truth, it’s also a lot of fun. I think it’s ok to admit that. For fun, in its best forms, is a foretaste of that very joyful morning when Christ returns and we all lay life’s burdens down so that we may sing and dance like a kid who’s having the time of her life.

“Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world” – Jesus in John 16:33.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Favorite Hymns

The last few weeks in worship at Southland, we’ve listened as friends have shared with us some of their favorite songs. I’ve been blessed by each testimony and look forward to hearing another one in worship this week. All this testifying has me wondering, what’s my favorite song? An easy candidate would be that classic hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Barely old enough to read the words from my hymnal, I remember singing those words, “Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty! God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!” and giving my heart to the Lord. It’s been well over two decades since that moment and the first few notes of that song take me right back to my first conscious encounter with the Almighty.

Still another would have to be “Come Thou Fount.” For one, it’s one of the few songs I can sing all the way through. I’ve never been good at remembering the words to songs (just ask Alyson). I’ve always enjoyed the tune and the words. I may be a preacher, but my heart has been just as prone to wandering as any other (see verse 3). The song’s message of grace has always filled me with hope. For whatever reason, this is the song I most often sang over my children when they were infants. On many a dark night, I’ve raised my Ebenezer in an attempt to get a crying baby back to sleep. I’ve sung that song so often to the two of them that whenever they hear it now, they recognize it, smile, and say, “That’s Daddy’s song.”

And so it is.

Come, Though Fount of ev’ry blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise:

Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above;
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love;

His mercy truly does call for songs of loudest praise. May we, his people, never stop singing.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mere worship

This week in worship, we will continue our series on the ways God blesses our lives through music. We’ve talked before about how people were actually made to praise. We know this, in part, because we take to praising so easily. This is likely because, our enjoyment of an activity, a work of art, or even a person, doesn’t find completion until we’ve offered our praise. After a meal or perhaps an exciting sporting event, we continue the enjoyment with praise. “Mmm…that was good!” “What a game! Did you see that play?” In praise, the enjoyment of something continues and finds completion.

The praise we give to God in church, is in part, our attempts “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” We sinners, of course, still do this only poorly. And our efforts at praising God in church often fall well short of our expectations of what that event ought to be like. I’ve known many people terrified by the idea that heaven involves the perpetual praise of God because their experience of worship at church has been so disappointing. Worship seems like it should be easy, but it’s not. It’s hard work to pay attention and to keep one’s focus on God. While there are moments in which our praise of God leaves us in a state of bliss, more often we’re left wondering what went wrong.

In his book, Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis reminds us that “Our ‘services’ both in their conduct and in our power to participate, are merely attempts at worship; never fully successful, often 99.9 per cent failures, sometimes total failures. We are not riders but pupils in the riding school; for most of us the falls and bruises, the aching muscles and the severity of the exercise, far outweigh those few moments in which we were, to our own astonishment, actually galloping without terror and without disaster.”

I’ve come to love Lewis’s image. I’m certainly no horseman. The few times I’ve been on a horse, it has been a near disaster. While most of my riding has been awkward (for me and the horse) there was that brief moment when we did gallop and the horse and I were in the same rhythm, and I thought, “Yes!” I understood why people love riding so much. Of course, afterwards, I was sorer than I think I have ever been. Riding is glorious, but it isn’t easy.

The worship of God is much the same way. When it’s right, it’s glorious, but it’s never easy. Which is why we practice every week. And why, when it doesn’t work because we were distracted, or worried, or somehow out of rhythm with the rhythms of God, we don’t give up, but give it a go again the next time God’s people get together to give God praise.

Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together – Psalm 34:3.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Hurricanes, the Waffle House, and your Spiritual Health

People are always trying to figure out what’s going on in the world around them. Because none of us can posses or digest all the data that exists in the world we turn to what are called indicators. Indicators are single bits of data that give us a glimpse into the larger reality of what’s going on in the world. The Dow Jones Industrial Index would be a market indicator. The GDP would be a national economic indicator. That vein on your father’s forehead, that’s a mood indicator. Now, according to the Wall Street Journal this morning, there is the “Waffle House Index” which indicates the severity of natural disasters.

Apparently, a person can judge the severity of a hurricane or other natural disaster by how quickly the local Waffle House gets back open for business. Waffle Houses don’t tend to advertise much. Their entire marketing strategy revolves around being open when others aren’t. This means that if your local Waffle House is closed, the storm was really bad. If it’s open, you can trust things will get back to normal pretty soon. This indicator works because the fact of whether or not the Waffle House is open is connected to a whole host of other issues like supply lines, electricity, safety, etc. It’s these factors that really tell the story of how bad a storm was. But since these issues determine whether or not the Waffle House is open or not, the Waffle House becomes a solid indicator for how bad or good everything else is, as well.

What makes for good spiritual indicators? We all have them. Not all of them are good at predicting spiritual health. Think of the Pharisees. The assumed that if they avoided sinners, said their prayers before mealtime, and followed proper religious protocol down at the synagogue, then they could be assured of their spiritual health. And yet, Jesus said, such things were pretty useless in helping a person determine whether or not they were close to God because such procedural issues did not connect with the heart of the matter (which was the heart of the person).

Instead, Jesus explained, we can now if we love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, mainly by looking at how well we are loving our neighbor – by which he meant almost any soul we come in contact with whether they be a nobody or even an enemy! Too often, we’re like the Pharisees. We have our church attendance index, or our alcohol consumption barometer, or our denominational affiliation indicator. We think these alone can tell us all we need to know about our spiritual health. But what we really need, according to Jesus, is our own version of the Waffle House index. For how you love and care for the people you meet at the Waffle House (or anywhere else) may be a far better indicator of your spiritual health than anything you do at church.

Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40.