For music to be an effective tool of ministry, four p’s are required: prayer, preparation, presentation, and purpose. The first prayers in worship were sung, in some instances they still are. With or without instruments the words were sung as adoration, praise, petition or thanksgiving to God. Second, as worship became more patterned, or organized, the theology and doctrines of the Church were set to music and sung as prayers.
The preparation of music for worship begins with prayer as your worship leaders select scripture, hymns, anthems, solos and other special music to fit the seasons of the Church calendar. That cycle begins with Advent (usually the end of November or beginning of December). Advent is a time of preparation for the birth of Jesus. Epiphany is a celebration of the birth in the coming of light. Lent is a time of prayer, contemplation and self-denial that includes the passion and death of Jesus. Easter celebrates the resurrection and power of God in life and beyond. Pentecost celebrates the gif of the Holy Spirit. Another important aspect of preparation is the hours a choir spends in rehearsal, preparing to lead the singing of hymns, and perfecting anthems to share in worship.
Presentation involves the singing of hymns and singing and reflecting upon the anthems. Here the work of the choir musicians both vocal and instrumental is evident in their musical message. The congregation’s work is singing of hymns. These elements along with the sermon and prayers create an integrated worship service, grounded in a Biblical tradition, but with an understanding that contemporary elements in music and the spoken word can reveal God’s love in new and untold ways.
The purpose of music is to make us think and then share. The composers were thinking individuals who created their works out of need to express Holy thoughts about love, hope, forgiveness, justice and grace. When we sing a hymn or listen to an anthem it never hurts to imagine what went into creating these works. Then it is possible for us to be moved to share our own understanding of faith.
Music inspires and enlivens us. A tune or lyric can stay with us for days. Music can bore or even irritate us. A note or phrase can strike a sour note within us. Either way the job is completed for music will move us from a place of complacency to thought and action.
Think for a moment about the difference between an excuse and an explanation. An explanation describes, discusses or defines an event or action. An excuse seeks freedom, forgiveness, or some type of distance from an action or event. To illustrate: in the third grade I went to school without my math homework. When asked by my teacher, Mrs. Wright, where my homework was, I told her that I was not able to complete it because my dog had eaten my math book. Not the homework, but the actual book. What I told the teacher was in fact true. The dog did indeed eat the book. However, it took a couple of hours and a good deal of peanut butter for her to do so. Not only did the excuse not hold up, but I still have vivid memories of my mother’s anger and how many months of extra work I had to do to earn what that textbook cost.
In Galatians 1:11-24, the Apostle Paul writes to members of the early Church seeking to encourage them in faith and practice. He is trying to explain the power of the Spirit at work supersedes and perhaps even confounds human intellect. He shares that his own life is an example for being careful about putting too much trust in the work of the mind, to the neglect of the work of the Spirit. He reminds the readers that he achieved much at a young age in Judaism as a reader and follower of the Law. At first it sounds as if Paul is excusing his previous life as rigid, adherent to the Law and a persecutor of the early Christians, but a close look reveals he is simply explaining how the real gift of his work in faith was not because of his great thought and interpretation, but a direct result of God’s goodness. More specifically, the goodness known in Christ. Paul wants to make it plain that what he knows, what he preaches, what he teaches, and especially what he seeks to live, come not from himself. Rather these things are gifts of grace from Christ shown to us by the Spirit.
Paul knew from personal experience that the call of God is a strong one and that the human heart and mind can be stubborn. Paul, like so many of us today, sought to make his own way in ministry rather than going God’s way. It wasn’t until Paul encountered the Spirit of the living God in Jesus that he truly accepted there may be a way different than his. In the grace of Jesus, Paul ran out of excuses.
There is an old story which exhibits the difference between a prayer stated and a prayer answered. It seems a town, after enduring many years of drought, hired an evangelist to hold a prayer meeting to pray for rain. After a long evening of song and petition, in a hot tent, the preacher sent the people out into the night with the invitation to gather at the Town Square in the morning at 7:30. The next day just past daybreak most of the town gathered at the Town Square. Virtually all had been at the meeting the night before. Only one, a nine year old girl brought an umbrella with her. Which illustrates the thought, if we don’t pray with some sense of expectation why be surprised when there are no results.
In the seventeenth chapter of I Kings, Elijah is sent by God to a foreign land to do ministry. He is assured that a ‘widow’ will be there to ‘feed him.’ Elijah goes and upon encountering the woman, she tells him she virtually has only enough to eat for she and her son who is very ill. Elijah assures her there will be enough for all three and indeed there is apparently for several days.
However, the woman’s son becomes ill unto death at which point she challenges the purpose of Elijah’s visit suggesting he came to bring sin to her home and harm to her son. Taking the little one from the arms of his mother, Elijah carries him upstairs to the room where he is staying and prays over him three times, then brings him back down to his mother restored to full health. We live in the twenty-first century so there are many things which bother us. There are no HMO’s, PPO’s, urgent care, emergency room, or pharmacies involved. Just a person of faith imploring God for the life and health of the child. In this day and age, at least, this would seem silly and at most, some form of child abuse. Yet the story reminds us that while prayer might not always provide the answer we seek as it does here. Prayer moves us in the right direction, namely in the proximity of God in dialogue and relationship. Our relationship is not meant to be between ourselves and insurance companies, but rather between creator and creature. No premiums necessary and the results are out of this world.
Psalm 8 is a song of praise. Here the Psalmist glorifies the work of God in creation and the dignity of humanity as works of creation and partners with God in the universe. The first and most obvious question is, who are we as humans that God would even bother to give us serious consideration? The obvious answer would be, not that much. In verses five and six the author states an understanding of co-creation. “You have made people a little less than God, and crown them with glory and honor. You have given people dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet…” The Psalmist makes clear with these words the work of people is not mere habitation, but Holy ownership. This phrasing is rooted in the creation stories found in the first two chapters of Genesis.
The sad thing is these words have been used by people since then to covet that which they did not create, namely, the earth and its fullness thereof. The gift of dominion has somehow come to mean divine authority. This has led humanity to abuse, at times, the land, animals and each other all in the name of a slanted view of what is holy. In other words to act as destroyers, rather than participants in creation. The intent of the author in this Psalm is to show believers the work of God in creation is a Holy happening. Songwriter, Jim Manley, illustrates this point with a lyric that reads in part, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, from the oceans below to the mountains above, so take, take, take off your shoes, you’re standing on Holy ground.”
The Psalmist reminds us in these verses that God is first and foremost relational. Our Creator is mindful, creating us a little less than God but partners in relation to the world. When we look at the world as something to use rather than a blessing to preserve and share, everybody loses, especially God. For we have been created in love, blest to be a blessing. God created us for something—to be somebodies. When we act in ways that set us above others or creation, in terms of control, we become less than anonymous, we become nobodies. It is no accident the Psalmist begins and ends the song with the exact same words. “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” Lest we forget who we are and whose we are!
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Pentecost. The season begins the seventh Sunday after Easter and is sometimes referred to as Whitsunday, after the custom of the newly Baptized wearing white during this time. Pentecost is historically related to the Festival of Weeks, which marked the approximate fifty days in the growing cycle. On the first Sabbath following the seventh complete week after Passover, first fruits were dedicated to God. The word comes to us from the Greek and Latin word for fifty or fiftieth day.
Of course, the most significant account of Pentecost comes to us from the second chapter of Acts where Luke recorded the Birthday of the Church. The gathered community met and the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them. They were assumed intoxicated because of ecstatic utterances until Peter stood and spoke reminding those present of the prophet Joel’s words on the gift of the Spirit. In Acts, Luke records the formation of Christian spirituality, and reminds believers that the Spirit came to everyone without regard to race, creed or gender.
In a like manner, Paul writes of the Spirit’s work in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans. He writes of the Spirit of God adopting believers not enslaving, but freeing followers to live as disciples. Paul believed, lied and taught that the Spirit of God in Christ was something available to all, and once experienced, it could not help but affect the way one responded to God, to other believers and to the community at large.
For the early Church, the Holy Spirit was not something to evaluate, but rather something to experience and then express in the way one lived. Of course, the early Church argued and the modern Church continues to argue about the weight and work of the Spirit. Yet this much remains clear–
When we gather to praise and sing what we know of Christ, we are Spirit fed. When we take into the world the love and work of God, born in worship, we are Spirit led. When we gaze upon the household of faith, accepting each other for who and Whose we are, we are alive in the Spirit. So, why not aim to be intoxicated by the Spirit? We could do worse at worship than being taken for drunk, folks could happen upon us and assume us dead.
In Revelation 21, John of Patmos gives a measurement of the City of God. It is a symbolic measurement out of a revealed understanding by one seeking to express how great and grand the realm of God is. The first five verses of chapter 22 continue with a description of the environment. In this text, the author shares a vision (as shown him by an angelic being) of a city without a temple and without need of sun or moon. So infused is the presence of God that a house of worship is not needed, and so clear and bright is God’s countenance that the sun and moon are obsolete.
The literary form of Revelation is known as apocalyptic. It is so called because of symbolic language and eschatology. Eschatology is a theology chiefly concerned with the end of history. John of Patmos, along with others, believed Jesus would return soon and thus the world as they knew it would end. For some, this thinking persists with great attention given to every sign and symbol used in Revelation. Jesus was specific that no one but God knows the hour and day of history’s end.
The idea of revelation runs contrary to most religious thinking, especially in this complex and modern world. For revelation is about God’s understanding coming to us, perhaps even through us; this is opposite to most of our education and thinking. From an early age, we are trained to memorize numbers and names, facts and theories, in order to develop a sense of linear or relational thinking. We are trained to reason, sort out, and analyze. These are important skills to have, and enable us to understand math, and both natural and biological science.
However faith is more about revelation than reason, so the rules of math and science do not fare so well in matters of the Holy. When Jesus said to the workers in the vineyard, “The last shall be first and the first last,” he was revealing how large and generous God is. Unreasonable thinking to those who had labored all day for the same wage as those at work for only an hour. Jesus’ forgiveness of those who persecuted and betrayed him is revelatory, but it is outrageous to any reasoned thinker.
Throughout recorded history intelligent people have tried to reason out religious thought. Countless well meaning people have attempted to develop a formulaic expression for salvation, or in some cases damnation. This religion on the half-shell thinking says, “If you think, act and believe this way, you’re in. If not, you’re out.” Since we live in a society governed by rules and regulations, fueled and oiled by reason and order, this religious thinking can make sense.
However, this much is clear from our Biblical record: Jesus embraced people we would avoid or perhaps even discard; and those we would honor he called fools or worse, vipers. The love and hope of God is powerful, great, transcendent, wonderful and sweet. It has never been reasonable.
The Book of Acts is attributed to the author of Luke’s gospel. In Acts, we find the early church fighting to find form and function in terms of discipline and development. Arguments large and small would rage over gifts of the Spirit, especially who was allowed to follow the teaching of Jesus . In Acts eleven, Peter is defending the necessity of the emergent Church in its need to be open to gentiles, which is to say non Jewish and including even Pagan persons, interested in experiencing the love of God in Christ. The difficulty Peter and the Apostles faced was those believers who still held strict adherence to Judaic Law which meant rules against outsiders, and specific dietary laws as well. Many within the early Church were concerned with who was in and who was out, and what was clean and what was not. To illustrate this most of us can look no further than our childhood. Was yours the first name called when choosing teams for sports? When I was in grade school or perhaps Jr. High there was a popular song that went something like this, “I’m in with the in crowd, I go where the in crowd goes. I’m in with the in crowd, I know what the in crowd knows.” Through much of my adolescence I was either a partner to or a victim of this thinking. These illustrations are mere snapshots of a larger phenomenon which afflicted the early faith community. Namely an aversion the revealed truth which Jesus taught and moreover lived.
The process of faith is one of constant revelations in terms of personal experience. The clearest biblical evidence of this for me is seen in the stories of Peter and Paul. Peter was one of the earliest disciples who when Jesus shared his upcoming arrest, trial and passion, assured the Master he would follow him to the death. Jesus told Peter not only would he not do this, but in fact he would betray his Lord three times before sunrise. Jesus did this not to impugn his reputation or crush his spirit, rather to state that Peter was not yet ready to be the Rock upon which the early church could be built. Likewise with Paul, an early persecutor of the followers of Jesus, he was certain of his way and understanding of faith until confronted by Christ spiritually. Each of these men needed revealed experiences which opened them to new possibilities in terms of ordering their lives of faith. The net result of Peter and then Paul’s experience of encountering Christ was that they could not live the same way they had in the past. They had to move to a new reality of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. No longer could they be arbiters of clean and unclean, or who does or does not belong. Their life was now focused on a faith fashioned and focused on an all inclusive love, sung to a tune of grace and forgiveness.
In John 13:34, Jesus is recorded as saying. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” This comes at the end of what is referred to as the Last Supper. Jesus has just served Judas and instructed him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” We, of course, know that what Judas was set to do was betray Jesus. This makes Jesus’ commandment to love all the more difficult and confusing. We would be more inclined to shout at the other disciples to get the traitor as Jesus left, but the aim of Jesus was love not hate. His focus was on hope for the world found in the power of God’s love, not fear for himself or others because of the power of evil. At the point he would face betrayal, abandonment and denial by his disciples, Jesus chose a message instead of judgment.
By calling those following him “little children,” he shows his compassion and care for them. The commandment to love is a fulfillment of God’s will and a continuance in the way and work of Jesus. However, the original twelve and we as modern disciples don’t always seem to grasp what it means to “love as we have been loved.”
Sometimes we view a life of faith and love as a license to evaluate others and say in explicit or implicit terms something like; “God loves you and so do I, but you know you’re really a low-grade sinner and unless you think, behave and believe as I do, you are going to hell, perhaps real soon.” The only flaw with such thinking is that Jesus spoke more of grace than judgment, more of love than hate, and spoke a great deal more of the realm of God than the realm of Satan. The Bible, as a religious and historical document, serves as a record that people of faith have struggled with the notion of how to be more loving. Church history has born the weight, as well, of unloving and evil acts done in the name of faith. However, if this is foremost in our understanding, we have ignored the work of the early Christian leaders and lost sight of the central meaning of Jesus’ message.
The remaining disciples, along with Paul and other leaders, quite literally changed their environment. By living, teaching and showing the way of Christ to others, their world (and ours) would never be the same.
Jesus had experienced the love of God and knew it to be the most durable relationship. Paul, more than any other early Christian, captured this when he wrote to the people of Rome saying that absolutely nothing could separate one from the love of God in Christ. Nothing that is, except a small heart, a narrow mind, and bigoted spirit.
Have you ever asked a question to which you already knew the answer? Some do this for a living as in practicing the art of rhetoric. Jesus is asked a rhetorical question by adversaries in John 10:26, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah tell us plainly.” Those asking the question know the answer or worse do not really want to know.
This is one of those instances where the gospel writer lets us in on the story. In the response offered by Jesus it is obvious they do not care to listen. “I have told you plainly, and you do not believe.”(verse twenty-five) Those opposed to Jesus come at his teaching much like that old adage, “Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is already made up.” They challenge the connectedness of Jesus to God caring not to look at his life and work. However, they like sheep don’t really comprehend. When Jesus says God creates sheep for the fold, the sheep do not create themselves, he is talking not about the reproductive abilities of ovines, but rather the power of God to create souls.
Scientists can tell us with some certainty that sheep are not the smartest of animals. They pale in comparison to horses, pigs and most other barnyard animals. Sheep foul the same fields that they use for food. Sheep will follow each other aimlessly even into dangerous terrain, and are oblivious to predators. In short, sheep need a shepherd, a good shepherd. One who will guide them, who will keep them on the right path. A shepherd who will protect them; who, when they stray and get lost will seek them out, find them and bring them home. The author of John knew Psalm 23 by heart. Furthermore, he believed Jesus lived Psalm 23 through his heart. There was no question on John’s mind who Jesus was. John’s chief concern was where one could find hearing aids for those sheep unable to hear.
The Book of Acts 9:1-22 records what scholars tell us is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Saul is an authority in Judaism charged with indicting followers of “The Way” which is among the earliest names for Christian believers. There are several other records of this conversion including that of Paul in his letter to the Galatians. Most agree this one in Acts 9 is the most dramatic, it shows the totality of Saul’s spiritual reversal.
Saul is on his way to Damascus to confront those following the teachings of Jesus. On the road he is struck blind, and is asked by Jesus who he cannot see why he is persecuting him. Jesus instructs him to rise and enter the city, await further instructions. The companions traveling with Saul lead him to a house where Saul fasts for three days. The text tells us that at this same time Jesus appears to a faithful follower named Ananias telling him to find Saul that he might be healed, and receive the Holy Spirit. Ananias protests that Saul is an enemy of Jesus’ teaching and persecutes followers. Jesus tells him that Saul has been chosen for a special mission to the Gentiles. Ananias lays hands on Saul asking for the Holy Spirit to heal and bless him. In an instant the life of Saul is transformed. Once an enemy of the early Church, now he is its strongest ally. The question we find ourselves asking is what changed?
The answer is Saul changed. Once an adherent to the legal elements of a life of faith, now his life is devoted to the law of love. It is safe to say that Christianity would not be the same if not for Paul. Easily a third of what we know as Christians comes from his hand. His mission to tell the world about the “Way and wonder of Jesus Christ,” helped form the foundation of the early Church. The real story even yet today is why Jesus chose him? Where we would see someone to distrust and avoid, the grace of Christ saw someone to bless. The power of God’s love is so curious.