Friday, September 10, 2010

Expositors Conference

As we approach the coming week, we are anticipating a wonderful couple days focused on the exposition of Scripture. Some might wonder why such a conference is necessary. Don't all pastors preach the Bible? Sadly, there is a dearth of preaching that accurately proclaims what God says.

Preachers, God doesn't expect you to rearrange His Word into your neat little categories, as if He didn't quite get it right. If God had wanted His Word topically arranged, He would have done so, better than you can. Also, God doesn't need you to supplement His Word with spicy tidbits from the culture, and never forget that you and your abilities are not the essential element of preaching. Powerful preaching does not begin with powerful delivery; you are impotent to supplement the power of God's Word.

There are many who assert that they are preaching God's Word, but it isn't enough to say things that are in accord with the Bible (though that would improve many sermons considerably). It certainly isn't enough to preach in such a way that you don't contradict the Bible. It isn't even enough to preach about what the Bible says (which is often passed off as expository preaching). Preaching God's Word is far more demanding than all of these cheap imitations.

If you are going to claim that you are proclaiming God's Word, you dare not obscure what He says with anything at all. When you are done, every hearer should be able to claim a greater understanding of who God is and what He expects from His people. Anything less is just a speech.

You must say what God says, where God says it, and use the same emphasis.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Making of "Great Redeemer"

As we are coming to the end of our most recent recording project, we have an opportunity to reflect on how these songs have progressed from beginning to end. This particular group of songs originally grew out of some very fruitful conversations that I had with a pastor friend in Southern Michigan.

Those conversations centered on the Messianic Psalms, particularly as regarding the Priesthood of Christ, and though I had already written a few songs based on a couple of the Messianic Psalms, many of these songs have grown directly from those conversations. Indeed, we are not entirely done with this project, as I have begun working on a series of songs starting with Psalm 111 and culminating in Psalm 118 (also Messianic).

Once the passage has been chosen for a song, this is the methodology that I usually follow: translate and interpret the passage so as to understand the mind and heart of God through it, seek to understand the overall emotional tone and trajectory of the passage, write lyrics that expose the meaning and basic structure of the passage, and write the music.

It is uncomfortable for me to describe this as a process, like there is some kind of mechanics that just churn out songs. Nothing could be further from the truth. The best way for me to communicate it is to view the process as a conversation with God that starts with His Word and that culminates in an expression that communicates, such as I am able, what He has taught me. Though most of my songs have followed this general trajectory and the mechanics described, I do not want you to get the idea that these songs are simply the result of a process or methodology. For me, there is a deep sense of conversation and worship that is intertwined with the whole process.

Writing these songs is a very much a part of my own personal growth in knowing and understanding God. That always begins with understanding His Word as much as is possible, saturating my mind and heart with the passage (and related scriptural concepts). So the process begins much as any sermon should, with prayer and a thorough understanding of the pasage under consideration - all as part of an ongoing relationship with God.

I find that translating from the original languages often illuminates certain properties of the passage in a way that is particularly helpful for building a song, though sometimes this is a considerable challenge (as with the Psalms). However, it is always fruitful. But it isn't enough to extract the data from the text; for our purposes we want to try and understand the emotional tone of the passage, either the emotion with which it is to be understood or the emotion that a right understanding should evoke.

To do this, I am looking for an overal emotional tone - for example: joyous, contemplative, agressive, or sorrowful. That will form an emotional core for the song's music. In addition to this, I am looking for an emotional trajectory, which will follow the trajectory of the content. Does the passage begin in doubt, working forward to confidence (like Psalm 77)? Maybe the passage expresses a subtext of external turmoil, while communicating the heart of one who trusts God (as in Psalm 16).

Music is uniquely suited to communicate these interpretive nuances, particularly with the Psalms, which were (of course) originally communicated with music. The words begin as a set of expressions that are essential to the passage, and then lyrics are finished with the goal of communicating the content of the passage in a way the exposes the meaning and tone of the passage in word, but that is only half of the song.

By the time the lyrics are being solidified, the emotional tone becomes more important, and I usually write emotional "cue words" along side of the lyrics (such as they are at that point). This is where the chord structure begins to form. I often pray and study with my guitar close at hand (I have a small Bible that fits in my guitar case). Sometimes I sing and worship the Lord with songs that remind me of the passage (or vice versa). Other times I just play and try to communicate the emotional content of those cue words. All the while working to find words that best express the meaning of the passage.

The music is usually comes together with the words, and by the time the lyrics are complete, the melody is nearly complete. From this point things progress somewhat more quickly. The whole process can take a month or even many months. Each song is the product of seeking to understand the mind of God in His Word, meditating on these things, and then seeking to respond in a way that is appropriate.

It is my prayer that these songs will open up and explain God's Word to the hearer, and that each will, by the understanding of God's Word, grow in their understanding of God, as He has revealed Himself. May the Lord grant that any vestiges of musical performance will be eclipsed by the wonder of His grace, through the gospel of Jesus Christ preached in music.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Few Thoughts on the Psalms in Worship

My good friend, Bob Bixby, has written again on worship, and his post has provoked a few thoughts that I would like to share with those of you who follow our ministry.

At the start, we need to be careful of the categorization system we are using when discussing worship music. One of the biggest factors that contributes toward confusing the discussion is a lack of distinction between individual and corporate musical expressions. When there is no distinction here, we find quite a few problems and misunderstandings are introduced on both ends of the spectrum. By way of example, many modern songs are written in a performance-based idiom that doesn't lend itself to corporate expression, and as a result, congregational participation is diminished.

We have observed this in contemporary congregations where audience participation is minimal until a song that is written to be more conducive to corporate worship is introduced. In these cases, the participation is noticeably improved. Part of the reason for this seems to be that in contemporary musical styles the congregation is viewed and treated as an audience, rather than as participants within the particular musical expression.

Bob recounts Paul Jones' outline of the purpose of worship, which is praise, prayer, or proclamation. This accords nicely with the pattern set in the Psalms, but it doesn't necessarily limit the conversation to participatory worship. This brings me back to noting that dividing Christian music between corporate and individual expressions can be helpful when we are discussing this topic.

By way of example, we write a few songs that are designed for a participatory corporate worship, but most of our music is aimed at proclamation rather than participation. So even though our Sermons in Song would be considered worship under this categorization, most of it should be excluded from a corporate expression of worship. It is true that there is room for both in our worship services, but we should at least be aware of the distinction musically. Interestingly, the pattern of the Psalms allows for a variety of individual and corporate expressions.

Perhaps our Messianic Psalms project has given me a little stronger view regarding our use of the Psalms in worship. The Psalms should, at the very least, provide a pattern for content, since it is here that we have a full representation of the worship of God. But more than this, they are a significant well of truth, and much of the New Testament draws deeply from it.

For example, the Messianic Psalms form a backbone for the entire argument of the book of Hebrews. Indeed, it would be difficult to understand this book without a good understanding of these Psalms in particular. Thus we cannot ignore the content or the pattern of the Psalms. This, by the way, is one of the motivations for Isaac Watts, who wrote a series of hymns as, "The Psalms of David imitated in the language of the New Testament."

We should at least make sure that people have a thorough understanding of Psalms place in Christian thought, due to their significance in the interpretation of the New Testament, and I would love to see the Psalms more emphasized in our worship, which is one of the reasons that we have been doing the Messianic Psalms concert. We need to regain an appreciation for the Psalms and return them to their high place of esteem in the worship of the church.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Excellent Post on Worship

When we first made the Jeremiah album, "Sorrow to Hope," some suggested to me that the group of songs were too heavy. And as I have been studying and writing songs based upon the Messianic Psalms, it has repeatedly been evident that the themes of sorrow (and others - like imprecation) found throughout the Psalms are not just ignored but actively avoided in our modern church music. We are greatly impoverished for it, and my friend Bob Bixby has written an article that is particularly thought provoking and insightful on that topic. Here is a snippet:
We Americans have too many toys to play with to be constantly “gazing upon heaven.” We have bought into Pastor Perma-grin’s lie that this life is our Best Life Now and we have no real reason to anticipate a life in heaven. Sadness has been banished. We’ve replaced it with complaining, whining, pouting, and bitterness. But real sorrow, the sorrow that leads us to repentance (the repentance that turns our hearts from earthly things to spiritual things) has been expunged from our lifestyle and liturgy (2 Corinthians 7:10). We think sadness and worship are incongruous.

But for many people, going to church and worshipping is still the place to go to be sad; sad in a way that dignifies the human soul, magnifies a Sovereign Lord, and replenishes the human spirit with deep, inexpressible joy. It’s the kind of worship that actually believes the words of Jesus: Blessed – blessed! – are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matthew 5:4). This was certainly the case for the slaves many years ago, African-Americans during the Civil Rights conflict, and it still is the case for places of oppression.

But what does the 21st century American really know about sadness? We try so hard to hermetically insulate ourselves from the hardness of life that, too often, our worship has the glib triumphalism of people who are trying to sing perky hallelujahs to God every Sunday because we have the Americanized conception of worship that we are not really worshiping until we have a happy experience. So be perky! Smile! Put your hands together! Shout! Make a joyful noise! But our peaks of joy are so low because our valleys are so shallow.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Financial Needs

We have now been on the road for almost two years, and God has been faithful to provide every step of the way. As we look forward to the coming years, we continue to anticipate His provision. Many of you have been instruments of God's supply, and we are humbled and grateful for all that He has done, both for us and through us.

Looking forward, we expect to continue our work in three areas of emphasis: continuing to use music and preaching together in the proclamation of God's Word, helping churches train their own leadership (through both Veritas School of Theology and the ordination preparation program), and using the gifts and experience God has allowed me to have in God's service wherever He takes us to minister.

To this point we have not had any monthly support, relying mainly upon love offerings that average around 250 dollars a week (about 1000 dollars a month). While this has served to keep us moving from place to place and take care of food, it has not allowed us to maintain a consistent budget, and this has proven to be problematic, particularly as it regards planning and in respect to various monthly bills (phone, insurance, etc.) and surprise expenses (doctor and dentist visits have hit us hard this month).

Our dependence on love offerings has made some struggling churches hesitant to invite us, and it has forced us to keep moving from church to church when, in some cases, we could be more effective by helping a church for an extended period. Of course, we can seek to supplement our income (as we have done, on occasion) by painting, providing audio recording services, and other related means. However, these activities tend to distract from our emphasis on the exposition and teaching of God's Word.

So we would like to ask you to consider whether God would have you support our ministry. Perhaps the Lord would burden you to help subsidize our travel expenses, enabling us to go to those smaller or struggling works (75 dollars would cover approximately 100 miles of travel). Perhaps you would be able to support our ministry monthly; even a relatively small amount would go a long way. For example, if half of our current prayer partners would invest the equivalent of buying one latte per week we would be able to cover the bulk of our expenses and all of our basic needs.

So we would like to ask you, our prayer partners, to consider whether or not God would lead you to participate in our ministry financially and of course, to continue to pray for God's provision for our needs. Thank you all, again, for your prayers to God on our behalf!