December 22, 2014

Spread the Light

We'll return to our series on "What Helps People Sing on Sunday" next week. For now, it's almost Christmas again, and I thought I'd offer some reflections.

As with every family here in America, advent was a chaotic time for me growing up. There were always school productions to be rehearsed, concerts to be performed, presents to be bought. But my favorite part of advent was the tree. As a kid, it was a family affair. Dad and Mom would take my sister and me out to the local tree farm and we’d hunt down a good, solid white spruce, cut it down, and then wrestle it home into our living room. And because the season was as busy as it was, between church and shopping and school events, we almost never got our tree decorated until the week of Christmas, and sometimes even only on Christmas Eve.

There was lots of waiting at Christmas. Busy waiting, but waiting nonetheless.

Later, when I was a boy scout, our troop’s big fundraiser was selling Christmas trees. On one weekend in November, we’d trudge out to one of several tree farms and we’d cut down all sorts of trees - douglass firs, pine, and maybe even some spruce. Then, we’d get five or six volunteers from the national guard to drive out some large cargo trucks and help us get them back to our tree lot on main street, and each would get a tree for their help. And then came the long nights of volunteering in the little trailer on the tree lot. Mom would pack me a thermos of hot chocolate and some snacks, and two or three of us would huddle in the trailer with our dads waiting for customers to come in so we could dazzle them with our knowledge of the trees we were about to sell them.

Mostly, though, there was a lot of waiting.

Oh, everyone wanted a weekend shift - lots of customers kept us busy on Fridays and Saturdays, even on Sundays. And everyone usually GOT a weekend shift, because there were so many people out then that we needed extra help. But the rest of the week, those nights were fairly uneventful, and everyone got at least a few of those. But the unfortunate few, of which I was often a part, would get more than a few night shifts. We’d sit in the trailer on milk crates telling bad jokes and lamenting the cold, wondering when our replacement shift would show up so we could go home and thaw our cold hands and feet and frozen bottoms.

The waiting was busy, but it was still waiting.

And then suddenly it was Christmas and the waiting was over and the lot was closed and there was a tree up in our living room and it was time to decorate. I remember one year, a guy from church, who happened to be the volunteer fire chief of our village in upstate NY, came to my parents and offered to park a firetruck outside our house during the holidays. He was only half joking. My parents politely declined, and, after church, went home and set up our newly-cut White Spruce. My father would grumble at the tree as he wrestled the strands of lights into a very prickly set of strong branches. Then, as she did every year, my mother carefully added candles.

This was my Grandfather's tree last Christmas
It’s an old tradition for the Swiss side of my family, and one of which I’m very fond. Christmas Eve would start at church, of course, but then we’d come home and sit in our living room while mom lit the candles on the tree and then dad turned the switch off for every light in the house - including the tree lights - and we would read the Christmas Story out of Luke by candlelight. On the best Christmases, we travelled to visit my grandparents and our cousins and aunts and uncles. After dinner, we’d move into the living room where the tree was set up, full of old ornaments, each with a story, and of candles, their soft glow reflecting off the bay windows. There, my grandmother would read us the Christmas Story before we’d open presents. Inevitably, my grandfather would tell us stories of doing the same thing when he was a kid in Switzerland, and of even finding creative ways to string candles together and light them in sequence with one match.

For me, advent is a story of generations; each generation slowly, carefully passing the light on to the next. To pass the light of the candles means to pass on hope; hope of salvation, hope of redemption, hope of a Kingdom come to earth. Hope that the waiting will end soon, but with the knowledge that eventually, it will end. God came as one of us, bringing His light into a world that had forgotten they were even waiting, save for a few carefully holding onto a weak, flickering candle. But then the light spread, and has been spreading for centuries. It’s a light of redemption, of restoration, of re-creation. 

Waiting did end. Advent did turn to Christmas. The Kingdom has come, and now, that day will never end! The mission of God is something we can join with confidence because the end has already been won; in the incarnation, Peace became tangible; Joy overflowed; Hope was fulfilled; the light of the world has begun to spread. But it’s an ongoing project - the Kingdom is a gift that our world is unwrapping very, very slowly. And so it takes you. It takes me. Our advent world only feels that way because the gift is only open a little. But Christmas has come. God is on the move, and the invitation is open: here’s a candle. Join the movement. 

Spread the light.

December 20, 2014

Above the Clouds

My latest post on the ECC Worship Connect Blog is up, I'd be grateful if you'd pop over and join the conversation in the comments section!

"The view from 30,000 feet puts things in perspective."

December 15, 2014

What Style People Sing on Sunday (Part 4)

I felt like this one deserved its own post (even a short one) because, at its core, the debate about style lies at the heart of the so-called “worship wars.” 

Style, believe it or not, is only a secondary influence to engagement; its influence depends more on the culture in which the style is placed. It’s not a “neutral” like theology generally is, but we must also be careful not to overstate its influence by equating it with “excellence” or “planning.” Like I said before, if you like the music, if it strikes a chord within your soul, you will probably sing. If you chose a church, chances are you chose it, in part, because of the style you like anyway. Put another way: the style you choose will make singing more NATURAL (or if you prefer, comfortable). 

But as time rolls on, style matters less and less to, for example, millennials, who instead value the authenticity or the excellence in which it is led. Translation: they prefer a church where they perceive that the worship team or choir or leaders a) like what they’re doing and love the people they’re serving (authenticity), and b) know how to do what they’re doing and care about doing it well (excellence and intentionality). They don’t especially care (as a group) what the tunes themselves are; diversity of expression matters to them.

However, even if you value, say, traditional music more than contemporary or hip hop or whatever (whichever is your “soul language”), that doesn’t prevent you from singing it when it’s presented in your worship gathering. Style is an expression OUT of culture, rather than a requirement for singing, but while it helps us to sing what we love, it also will help us when we sing what OTHERS love. In other words, the wars have never been about worship. It’s such a terrible name. Maybe “style wars” or “preference wars” or even “culture wars” - maybe - but “worship wars” they are not. A “worship war” is an oxymoron; love of neighbor implies the ability to love one another in spite of preferences or styles, and true love of another often means learning to sing their songs. If you are warring about worship style, you are not responding to God’s mercy, which means it is not worship (Rom 12:1); you are instead responding to your own baggage. 

The worship wars still exist because young and old alike still say that the style of the song is more important to them than the people who are singing it.

It’s not like this everywhere. I know lots of people who prefer traditional music, but who champion the contemporary music though it’s not their preference. I also know plenty of other people who love modern music, but also have learned already to value the old hymns. 

If you find yourself in a church “at war” over music style, you are responsible for starting the healing process. If you’re all about contemporary music, learn some old hymns alongside those who love them (go to the traditional service sometimes). Learn the stories behind them from those who have been singing them all their lives. Ask about Wesley and Sandell and Luther and why they wrote what they did. Ask those beside you which hymn is their favorite and why. ... OR ... If you’re all about traditional hymns, the same is true; learn the contemporary music alongside those who love it (go to the contemporary or modern service). Sing some Houghton and Crowder and Jobe and Fraser and Gungor and All Sons & Daughters. Ask them why this music speaks so strongly to them. Listen to their stories. Sing with them.

You have no idea what a gift this will be.

For them. For you. For your community.

Next time: what actually does help people sing …