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Carol Our Christmas

A few weeks ago I made a brief recording of the wonderful hymn text by Shirley Erena Murray called "Carol Our Christmas." It's a delightful hymn that speaks to the nature of the Christmas experience in the Southern Hemisphere. Check it out here:

Carol Our Christmas


Songs that Teach

This morning I preached in the sanctuary services at Grace Avenue UMC about songs that teach. Below you will find the manuscript for the sermon and on Wednesday I will post the video. God bless you!


Sharing Our Playlist: Songs that Teach

Colossians 3:16



Friends, music has power! Sometimes it’s a power you can feel in the moment, sometimes it’s a power you only realize has been working on you many years after you first hear a particular piece of music. The art of music is powerful; it takes us to a place that words alone cannot go.


The power of music has been used to sell things, to inspire us, to give us pleasure and beauty and groove, to comfort us, to help us express and experience the reality of life for others, to express the prophetic dimension of God’s dream for the world and it also has the power to teach.


Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at the ways in which music can comfort and challenge us, today we will look at some of the ways in which music can teach us.


Let us pray….


I would like to introduce you to an old friend of mine: this is a United Methodist Hymnal that was given to me as a gift when I went into full-time ministry by the staff of Custer Road UMC, where I grew up and was serving before taking my first full-time appointment. It’s been a great companion, I’ve had it in use for the last 11 years and, as you can see, it’s seen some action!


It’s leather, the binding has almost completely come off, the edges are all cracked and peeling, the bookmark is held together with scotch tape…it’s been well-used and well loved.


It is truly one of the most important books in my life, it continues to shape who I am as a follower of Christ, it shapes our worship, especially in this space, and it simultaneously comforts, teaches and challenges us.


This book is important! Some folks call hymnals “singing bibles.” In this book is a collection of the liturgy, the songs, the psalter (the book of psalms set to music), and, perhaps most importantly, the prayers of the saints who have gone before us.  Billy said something last week that I thought was very profound: he challenged all of us to have a hymnal next to our bible for our use in personal devotions and in worship.


Because it is a formative book.


Inside this book you will find orders of worship that were the same patterns that Jesus himself observed, that formed him and who he became. There are Psalms in the back of the book that became Jesus’ heart language, in fact, the Psalms were some of the very last things he quoted as he was dying on the cross, that’s how important and foundational worship, singing, scripture and liturgy are to us, as a people of faith who are striving to follow Jesus Christ, these things form us.


Should you choose to explore it you will find the rites for marriages and funerals, the sacraments of baptism and communion, the basic pattern of worship, the morning and evening prayer services, the historic creeds and prayers of the church and so many other rich pieces.


In the scripture that we heard earlier in the service we were instructed to teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. We are to sing to God with gratitude in our hearts. We can do this when the word of Christ lives in us richly.


Do you see the instruction here? We are to sing to God, the key point here isn’t the quality of our voices but rather that we actually sing to God and do so with gratitude in our hearts.


This is a very counter-cultural instruction to us; we live in a performance-oriented society. The average non-American citizen sings around twenty different songs in their personal repertoire that they sing frequently. The average American has two songs that they sing frequently. Can you guess what they are?


Friends, when we give away the good gift of singing that God has given each of us to performers, we are giving up an essential part of our humanity. We are giving up something that makes us whole. 


It is not the quality of our voice that matters; it is our participation in worship that matters to God. The word “worship” is a verb. It is something we do. Worship is not primarily concerned with us coming into a space, sitting down and being “filled” though that is a nice by-product and my experience has been that the more you participate the more you are filled. Worship is primarily concerned with us, the created people of God, giving glory to God, the one who made us, our creator. That’s the first end of worship. The second is the edification of humanity. We often get this mixed up.


The second end of worship, the edification of humanity, is what the scripture we read is concerned with. The Greek in this case aligns singing with teaching. When we sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs we begin to learn about who God is, who we are, and how we relate to one another in profound ways.


In our United Methodist tradition, the hymnal is considered a second-line teaching source, right behind the bible. That’s a pretty significant statement. We sing to be taught and remember God’s word and the doctrine and experience of the church because when we sing, we internalize these vital things in profound ways that go well beyond where the spoken word can take us.


When we sing something, we own it! When we sing we begin to become doers of the word and not hearers only, we encounter God in open-ended ways, and we can experience the Spirit of God in fresh ways that only God can create. Singing is absolutely vital to who we are!

Singing in worship is so essential to us that John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodism (who are known by other denominations as a singing people), wrote seven directions for singing which you will find on page roman numeral VII.


Pay attention to these rules friends; this comes from the voice of our founder!


Read them in order…


I wonder, if John Wesley were to be among us to day, how he would think we are doing in our congregational singing?


The first hymn in every Methodist hymnal has been Charles Wesley’s “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” That should give us a clue to how we are to worship!


The hymnal itself is organized in a teaching fashion. In the beginning of the hymnal you get Wesley’s directions for singing, liturgy around The Service of Word (preaching) and Table (communion) and the Baptismal Covenant. Then you get the section on Hymns, Canticles (songs from scripture) and Acts of Worship that are organized in this way:






And then the Psalter (the Book of Psalms, set to music) and then a variety of other worship related pieces. Each one of the major categories I listed has a variety of sub-categories designed to teach us, to FORM us in Christ’s image, and to help us worship God.

Here again, we have the idea of the glorification of God and the edification of humanity.


Take a moment and look at hymn number 57 O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing. The page has lots of information that can teach you and help you become a more fully-formed Christian, can help you love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, if you will let it.


Look at the top left side of the page, there you will see in all caps the major category for this song: The Glory of God.


On the right hand side of the top part of the page you see the sub category: Praise and Thanksgiving.


The large piece in the middle top part of the page is the incipit, the first few lines of the hymn or it’s proper title, in this case O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.

Then, below the incipit, or the title, is the hymn with music. Most hymnals outside of The United States do not have music in them, they just have the words, like you would see on the screen: it is expected you will learn the tune by repetition and by listening to the leading voices. In our country we have frequently chosen to add the notated music as a way of continuing to improve our musical education, as an act of hospitality to those who read music and as a way to helping people to see (if you don’t read music) the general direction of the melody. You will often see Laurie and myself using our hands to help show you the direction of the tune (the music) with newer pieces.


Below the music you will see any instructions, for example, many people omit the sixth stanza of this hymn because the language is not inclusive of those who have physical disabilities or who are blind, in fact, I don’t think Charles Wesley would have used that language at all had he been alive today.


Then, underneath that, you will see who wrote the music and when. In this particular example, Carl Glaser was four years old when Charles Wesley died. They never knew each other and yet this collaboration of composer and poet has stood the test of time for over 170 years.


On the bottom of the right hand side of the page you will see the tune name in all caps, in this case it is called AZMON. Below that you will see the meter of the poetry, and then below that, another tune by which this hymn can be sung. When we sing familiar words to different tunes we experience the theological points of the text in very different ways.


As you can see, even the book, which contains many of our songs, is designed to teach us, to form us, into followers of Christ.


Music can be used to teach us and remind us of the important things in life in a very different way.


(Throw Robin Williams quote/picture here)


This past week has been full of up and downs for me, Sarah and the kids and I were on a quick vacation down to the beach this week when we saw the images coming out of Ferguson (images that looked like they would come out of Gaza or Iraq, and we heard about another unarmed person shot to death by the police) and then we learned about Robin Williams’s death on twitter.


I have struggled so much this week with the fact that someone who was so loved, who brought so much joy into the world, touched so many people in such profound ways, could suffer so much.

The world already misses his great gifts of kindness, humor and generosity.


Friends, the rich hymnody of our tradition has something to teach us here as well. Please take a moment and turn to hymn number 264. This hymn, Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit was written in 1984 by an amazing poet, still alive and writing today, named Thomas Troeger.


Troeger’s brother suffers from bipolar disorder. Which, please hear me, I understand is a very different thing altogether than depression but there is a key similarity here.


One day, in 1983, Troeger’s brother came to his front door with a knife and threated to kill him. Eventually he was calmed down enough to put the knife down and leave. And then, sometime later, was back to his best self.


Troeger wrote this him in response to that event. Take a moment to read the text, based on passages from Mark and Luke about Jesus healing a man with a demon.


I will sing the first stanza and, as you feel the tune, I invite you to join me.


Sing Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit.


Do you hear how the music reflects the experience of being bipolar or the effects of the disease on others? The tonal center changes with the text, from a very frantic, almost terrifying first half to a calmer, more peaceful and centered second half of each stanza.


The second stanza is most powerful in light of this week:

“Lord, the demons still are thriving in the gray cells of the mind: tyrant voices, shrill and driving, twisted thoughts that grip and bind, doubts that stir the heart to panic, fears distorting reason’s sight, guilt that makes our loving frantic, dreams that cloud the soul with fright.”


These things, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, addiction, are diseases, they are not anyone’s original fault, and they are treatable. But, if you are suffering from these things you need to go and see someone and get some help and then keep getting the help you need.


You do not have to go through it alone, in fact, God didn’t design us to live that way. We are built for community, to be together. If you need recommendations for someone to talk with, call one of the pastors and we can connect you with people who can help. You don’t have to suffer alone. As the hymn said, “Clear our thought and calm our feeling; still the fractured, warring soul. By the power of your healing make us faithful, true, and whole.”


That is God’s desire, that we be restored to wholeness in all aspects of our lives, from our relationships with God and with others and within our own minds and souls.


There are so many people suffering from these diseases in our community and in the world and the sooner we can change the conversation from fault-finding to disease, treatment and life-long recovery, the better off the world will be, as God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven in new and powerful ways.


In fact, that’s what the final part of the hymnal is all about, God’s dream for a new heaven and a new earth and our role in partnering with God to make it become a full reality.



Friends, we could go through each hymn in the hymnal, and all the hymns in every hymnal ever written, and all of the praise songs, the spiritual songs and the psalms and find teachable moments in each of them.


One of the greatest theological truths, was presented to us by the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th Century:  a Swiss man named Karl Barth. (Throw picture of Barth here!)


His mind was absolutely stunning. His work, Church Dogmatics is one of the pinnacle texts of the 20th Century and one of the greatest theological works of all time. The work is over 6 million words long and resides in thirteen volumes.


After an hour long lecture at the University of Chicago in 1962, a student asked Barth during the q&a section, if he could boil down his entire life’s work in theology into one sentence.  Barth looked at him and said, yes, I can, in the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so.”

Friends, sometimes it is simple words, matched with a simple tune, that teaches us the most profound truth of them all.


Would you sing with me, it’s hymn number 191 if you need it!


Sing Jesus Loves Me with the uke.


Once we know this truth, that Jesus loves even us, it changes everything.

In the name of our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, let all God’s children say, AMEN!”


The Prophetic Power of Music

I had the great opportunity this past weekend to preach about the prophetic power of music at Grace Avenue UMC. It seemed like a great opportunity to try something new: I dj's my way through the sermon using the Pacemaker app. Check it out and let me know what you think!


A few reflections about Music and Worship Arts Week 2014


A few stats: 2,350 miles driven, six states visited (not including a brief flirtation with Kentucky) six worship services participated in leadership, two more as a worshipper, conducting in one concert and playing in another, three worship planning sessions, three rehearsals and many, many informal meetings. That’s the math on this past week’s Music and Worship Arts Week for me. These stats, however. don’t even begin to explain the incredible benefits I experienced at MWAW last week.

Incredible preaching, deep liturgy, marvelous congregational song, stunning dance, wonderful dramatic moments, phenomenal music making, beautiful visuals, and a gorgeous setting are just a few of the great pieces of the Music and Worship Arts Week experience. The best part of the Music and Worship Arts Week experience, for me, at least, is the amazing fellowship and connection time with people who share the same passions, calling and experiences. I was able to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. The opportunity to work with our young adults this year was an extra special gift to me: I am so excited about the present and the future of this great organization!


Thank you, so much, to Michael Cromwell and the design team for all of their hard work to make this incredible week happen and a big thanks to David Bone, Andy Oliver and Carla Swank for their work in getting the event on social media! I hope you are making plans already to attend next year’s Music and Worship Arts Week and the Convocation in July of 2015! 



Passing it Forward

President’s Blog:  Pass it Forward


As we come upon a season of graduations I have been reminded once again of our sacred responsibility as professionals, especially in the area of worship and arts in the church, to serve as mentors for the next generation of worship artists in our midst.


I’ve had the great opportunity this year to serve as a co-mentor, along with my colleague, The Rev. Marcus Womack, in serving as a mentor for Collin Echols-Richter. Collin is finishing his senior year of high school and part of his senior year program involved selecting a field in which he wishes to study and serving as an intern in that field during his senior year. For his internship Collin selected to study Worship Design and Worship Leadership. Over the course of the school year we covered many of areas of concern in the field, all of which culminated in Collin designing and leading a worship service, which included an original song he wrote specifically for congregational singing!

God is going to do some amazing things through Collin’s future ministry. Perhaps even more important, God is already doing some amazing work through Collin’s ministry right now.



I recently read an interview with ?uestlove, the drummer for The Roots (who also serve as the house band for The Tonight Show) who spoke at great length about the need for artists to mentor those who are coming up. I couldn’t agree more! I would not be a worship artist today if it weren’t for the many mentors I had through the years, several of which I still call on today!



I’m sure your experience has been similar.  I wonder, what would the future of the church look like, really, what would the future of the world look like if each member of The Fellowship took the time to mentor, to pass on, the craft that we have worked so hard to perfect in our own lives? How could we create opportunities for younger folks to lead? What could we learn from those who are just entering the way of life that many of us have known for so long? Might even the most jaded among us be energized and refreshed in our own calling?


How will you pass it forward?