The Whole World in God's Hands - Prayers Rooted in Providence

World_in_black_and_white_hands Years ago, when I worked as a chaplain at Central College, I had a colleague who used to get together with me regularly to pray for our students.  We did so not only because we believed it would make a difference for them, but because we knew it made a difference for us.  Praying for Jennifer and Scott as they worked through the pain of their parents’ divorces in anticipation of being married themselves, praying for Kim as she struggled with anorexia, with Mark as he battled addiction – these prayers helped remind us that though we are to be faithful and diligent in the ministries God has given us, in the end the sun does not rise, and the crops do not grow, and people are not made whole, and the kingdom does not come by dint of our own effort.

No, the world belongs to God.  It has been entrusted to us, yes, but it is ultimately in God’s hands.  What a good thing for type A people to remember every day!

I let this lesson guide our evening prayer a few weeks ago as I led worship at the hard-working General Synod of the Reformed Church in America.  We decided each night to let a particular song shape and direct our evening prayers.  So we would sing a verse and then let that verse prompt particular petitions and thanks.  So, for example, one evening we sang verses from Bless the Lord, My Soul, the setting of Psalm 103 from Taizé.  Another evening we sang four verses from All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night.  But my favorite was the evening we began and ended with the old gospel favorite “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands.” 

Planning the service, I wanted to get rid of the repeated masculine pronoun, and thought to change the lyric from “He’s” and “his” to “You’ve” and “your” (a far less clunky tweak than alternating genders or using “God’s” throughout). This had the surprising – and wonderful – effect of altering the character of the song altogether.  It shifted it from testimony to prayer; from speaking about God’s providence to speaking to God, rooting our petitions, both spoken and silent, in a confident declaration of God’s power and love: “You’ve got the whole world in your hands.” 

Musically, I played a James Taylor-esque accompaniment (think “Secret of Life” -- Key of A, capo III), and even wrote a couple extra lines, riffing on the old hymn “Sing Praise to God who Reigns Above” as a break leading into the final chorus.

For the shape of the prayer itself, we allowed the song’s verses to suggest thematic areas for prayer (“tiny little baby” = family concerns;  “wind and the rain” = creation care, etc.)  I then augmented those verses, following my own advice to speak with emotional specificity for the lost and the lonely, the weak and the wounded, the whole and the hopeful.

Full text of the prayer, lead sheet (click on the thumbnail), and MP3 demo after the jump.

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What is Worship?

This is an article that featured Todd Johnson and Ed Willmington address the question "What is Worship?"  It helps to get inside of the heads of these two worship gurus.


Pastors’ Gathering Explores Worship Issues

Worship was the topic of Fuller’s semiannual President’s Breakfast for Pastors held Thursday, November 9, with speakers Todd Johnson and Ed Willmington, both of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts. More than 100 attended the event in Payton Hall.

“What and who is our worship for? Why do we worship?” These must be central questions we ask in our churches, said Todd Johnson, the William K. and Delores S. Brehm Associate Professor of Worship, Theology and the Arts at Fuller. In his talk “Worship Choices: Going Beyond the Categories,” Johnson discussed what we can learn from early church worship history, and then went on to offer pastors some “neutral terms to help you evaluate what you are doing in your worship, and why.” Professor and author Lester Ruth offers three helpful questions we can ask, he said: First, whose story is being told in your worship—God’s story, or the individual’s story of coming to faith? Second, who do you understand your church to be when you worship—one part of the larger corporate church, or a more autonomous, homegrown congregation? And lastly, where do people find God in your church’s worship—in the Word, table, or music? It is helpful to understand who you are as a church and work to strike a balance between these different elements, Johnson said.

“A Pastoral Approach to Local Church Worship” was the topic of a second talk given by Ed Willmington, director of the Brehm Center’s Fred Bock Institute of Music. First considering how pastors and worship leaders relate to each other, Willmington emphasized the need for a strong level of trust and communication between the two. When bringing worship leaders and musicians into your church, “look past the talent—look for a servant heart,” he urged, and also noted the importance of providing spiritual support and direction to worship team members. “Who is walking alongside them?” he asked. Moving to the pastor-congregation relationship, Willmington stressed the importance of studying and preaching specifically about worship. Congregants need to understand, he said, that “worship is a verb—something you do, not something that is done to you!” Involving the congregation in worship-centered seminars and formalizing a congregational statement about worship are also helpful practices, he noted.

A time for questions and answers with both speakers followed the talks, led by Brehm Center Academic Director Clayton Schmit. “However we conduct our worship,” Schmit said in conclusion, “let us serve the One who is worthy. Then we will be on the right track.”

A Taize Type Chant on Micah 6:8

WhatMany Christian traditions suffer from a lack of musical resources on the issue of justice.  Here is one based on Micah 6:8 you might try.  It is written in the style of a Taize chant.  In other words, it is a simple line of scripture set to a repeatable refrain.  It can be used in worship on its own as a canticle (scripture set to music), sung as a refrain to prayer petitions, or interspersed with scripture readings. 

Click here for the PDF.  Click here for the MP3.

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Congregational Imagination

As we've been living in the midst of house renovations, I've been thinking about congregational imagination. A congregation's imagination is reflected in many ways: how it shapes and reshapes its worship space, how it shapes its re-telling of biblical stories and its own congregational stories, the kinds of people who are welcomed and who feel at home, and the kinds of cultic practices it considers normative. 

I had a pretty clear sense of the congregational imagination of the church in which I served as music director for over twenty years. The congregation had a sense of the dramatic, and this was reflected in its development of the worship space. It loved to take unusual angles in its retelling of biblical stories; it was not unusual to have worship feature a potter's wheel in the centre of the sanctuary and liturgical dance, though not frequent, was welcomed as part of normal (rather than “special” or “different”) worship.

I am now in a new congregation, and am still in the process of learning the scope of its imagination.

The congregation's imagination cannot, of course, be completely separated from that of its leadership. There is a kind of conversation that begins early in a pastor's (or other leader's) tenure, as congregation and pastor listen to one another, and develop what you might call an “image bank”, that treasure house of story, metaphor, symbol, visions and images with which it expresses its communal identity.

Dorothy Butler Bass, in “The Practicing Church” (Herndon Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2004) writes (p.5) that “…the pastoral imagination works in tandem with…the congregational imagnination, the imagination of God's people in community.”

She says (p. 47) that “(f)or their entire history, Christians have invented, recreated or adapted traditions when old patterns no longer hold sway. Thus, fluid re-traditioning is an expression of the theological imagination, as biblical tradition is lived out in community, and is an ancient practice of faith that connects Christians to their ancestors.”

Part of what allows a congregation's imagination to develop is trust; trust between its leaders and the people, and among the members of the congregation. Trust is key, since imagination is a risky thing: it invites to see things differently, to try different ways of acting, and to be ready to see that God is “doing a new thing” in its midst. I have seen congregational imagination flourish and develop, becoming richer as it grows; I have also seen it shrink and wither as trust erodes and a congregation becomes fearful, wary weary, and finally unable to imagine its future or re-imagine its past.

One area of congregational imagination that fascinates me is how a congregation plays. In a way similar to watching a family at play in its own home (renovated or not!), how a community celebrates when it doffs its ceremonial or denominational garb is often the congregation at its most revealing.

No matter how you dress it up...

Victoria Weinstein, a Unitarian Universalist minister [obviously outside of the bounds of evangelicalism] who goes by the handle PeaceBang, has launched a fashion blog to encourage the "defrumpification of the American clergy." And in a recent Boston Globe story, Weinstein says that even though fashion isn't the greatest concern for clergy, it still matters.

I read the article and I would like to put a spin on this.

Though Weinstein's advice is decent, especially to her target group of women ministers, her comments have implications. And I'm sure Weinstein's aim is not to cause any overt controversy, but it raises some interesting I've heard on more than one occasion.

"Anyone who is in a position of leadership has to consider what image they're projecting...they will not be willing to hear us in the same way if we look like we walked out of 1972."

Absolutely. But the underlying statement here is "there is an accepted way to dress and if you don't dress that way, than you are projecting the wrong image."

What is the litmus test? Should there be? To me, the only 'test' is context. Consider your context and dress appropriately. If you minister in an urban area with neo-hippies, you may need to dress like you stepped out of 1972.

And what version of 1972 does she mean? Frankly, the business casual look of the 80's & 90's were the polyester suits of the 70's. But I guess by frumpy, she is not talking about that version of the 70's.

"...the problem with frumpiness isn't so much aesthetic as it is a problem of looking as though you are not paying attention to the world and that you are not part of today's world."

Maybe if you are dressing like a white collar business person for a twenty-something crowd.

The word 'frumpy' gets thrown around with the more casual look young people take. And again, in those contexts, they actually are paying attention to the world they live in.

Isn't dress a non-essential? And further, isn't a mandate on what dress is appropriate for worship extra-biblical [outside of the need for modesty]?

I see dress just like I see worship style. If the Bible does not forbid it, we have freedom to choose the best expression of it in our context as we honor the people in that context.

There seems to be an element of elitism related to the idea of one way to dress for worship. And frankly, for those that elevate it as a matter of contention, to me, it masks a deeper problem...they think that God cares about our outer appearance and that that appearance can hinder our worship of Him.

My friends, that is not the Gospel.  God cares about our hearts not our habiliments...

[HT: Church Marketing Sucks]

Complexifying the Liturgy

Worshiptodo_1 As we plan weekly worship here at Fuller Seminary, the worship interns and I have been talking quite a bit lately about three persistent and related problems.

The first problem is theologically inspired boredom: we are growing weary of planning and leading the same twenty minutes of “opening exercises” every week. The dominant feature of our pre-sermon worship time is a significant chunk of music interspersed with words of welcome and perhaps a prayer or two. In the past months we’ve worked hard at intentionally selecting congregational songs that have cultural breadth, theological depth, and liturgical clarity. Still, the logistics of the service (including the architectural shape of our space) leave us with a default organizational ordo with which we are increasingly uncomfortable. It is an order that feels not blessedly simple but distressingly simplistic: songs (led by a group from the right hand side), followed by a sermon (preached by a professor from the left hand side).

The other problems we’re struggling with are thematic coherence and sacramental expectation.

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Ash Wednesday

Ash_wednesday In some monastic communities, monks go up to receive the ashes barefoot.  Going barefoot is a joyous thing.  It is good to feel the floor or the earth under your feet.  It is good when the whole church is silent, filled with the hush of people walking without shoes.  One wonders why we wear such things as shoes anyway.  Prayer is so much more meaningful without them.  It would be good to take them off in church all the time.  But perhaps this might appear quixotic to those who have forgotten such elementary satisfactions.  Someone might catch cold at the mere thought of it.

-- Thomas Merton

Emerging Confessions Part One

In his book on emerging or progressive Christianity, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg questions whether "sin" is the best term for describing our human condition before God. His argument isn't merely theological, but liturgical: "The nearly universal liturgical element of 'confession of sin and absolution' might be replaced or complemented by a 'declaration of what ails us and God's promise to us'" (p. 170). He continues in a note: "I am not suggesting these exact words as 'liturgical headings.' I would hope more elegant phrases could be found, but I am suggesting the notion that lies behind these words" (p. 185, n. 8). Following is one attempt at more elegant phrasing for several of the images Borg mines from the Bible to describe our condition.

Confession of Blindness and Promise of Illumination

God of Light, we confess that our vision is impaired. Your presence is lost to us in the shadows of our world and the darkness of our hearts. We look, yet we do not see, blind to the daily opportunities to praise you and serve others. Restore our sight, we pray, in the name of Christ whose vision of your kingdom come, led him on the path of salvation.

God who commanded light to shine out of darkness has sent Christ as the light of the world. He remains with us in the Holy Spirit, and promises that those who seek will surely find. In Jesus Christ, our eyes are open. Amen.

Recognition of Exile and Hope of Restoration

God, alone in whom our hearts find their rest, we have awakened to find ourselves far from home. Our paths have led us away from you. We feel lonely and fear we are abandoned. Here, your word seems foreign to us, and we struggle to sing the songs of heaven. In your faithfulness, show us your presence once again, that we, too, may rejoice with all who call upon your name.

We have a good shepherd who searches for lost sheep. The Spirit of God still blows through the wilderness and prays for us. The sacred testimony gives us this hope; God delivers us in Christ. Amen.

Admission of Bondage and Words of Deliverance

Listening God, hear our cries. We are not free. We have enslaved ourselves and others to debt and despair. We are bound by vain desires, and our liberty to love is curtailed by bad habits. Our emotions hold us hostage to wrongs, real and imagined. In our bondage we are less than what you call us to be. Hear and answer us, we pray, in the name of him who came to set prisoners free.

The God of the Israelites has shown us the way of exodus. Forsaking what lies behind, we follow our liberating Lord. When we are weak in faith and strength, the Holy Spirit provides daily bread and springs of living water, that we may complete our journey in the land of promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.

What Should Worship Sound Like?: Dusting Off an Old Story

Back in July of '06, I wrote an blog post entitled, "The Pope's Rift with Riffs" on my blog,

I would like to dust it off for the sake of conversation here on Worship Helps.  Here it is:

It's official.  The Pope has entered the worship wars.

From the New York Sun this past week:

ROME - Pope Benedict XVI has called for an end to electric guitars and modern music being played in church and demanded a return to traditional choirs and Gregorian chants.

The Catholic Church has been experimenting with new ways of holding Mass to try to attract more people. The recital of Mass set to guitars has grown in popularity in Italy; in Spain, Mass has been set to flamenco music, and in America, the Electric Prunes produced a “psychedelic” album called “Mass in F Minor.”

However, the use of guitars and tambourines has irked the pope, who loves classical music. “It is possible to modernize holy music,” he said at a concert conducted by the director of music at the Sistine Chapel, Domenico Bartolucci. “But it should not happen outside the traditional path of Gregorian chants or sacred polyphonic choral music.”

His comments prompted the newspaper La Stampa to compare him with Pope Pius X, who denounced faddish classical and baroque compositions and reinstated Gregorian chants in 1903.

Uh oh.  Get your camo on...

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A Question of Accessibility

Back in Nov., I got an insightful email from a congregant about a phrase we sang in a song during our weekend church services.  The song was "Give Us Clean Hands" by Charlie Hall. 

See if you can find the phrase in question.  Here are the lyrics:

Give Us Clean Hands
Charlie Hall

We bow our hearts we bend our knees
Oh Spirit come make us humble
We turn our eyes from evil things
Oh Lord we cast down our idols

Give us clean hands give us pure hearts
Let us not lift our souls to another
Give us clean hands give us pure hearts
Let us not lift our souls to another
And oh God let us be a generation that seeks
That seeks Your face oh God of Jacob
And oh God let us be a generation that seeks
That seeks Your face oh God of Jacob

©2000 songs (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing); sixsteps Music (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing)

What was the phrase in question?

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John Mayer and Advent

During the season of Advent waiting is a central theme. The community of Jesus’ time was waiting for the promised messiah to come. They were waiting for someone to deliver them from an oppressive political structure. There was unnecessary violence, moral religious laws trumping acts of love and justice and a veiled connection between the politically powerful and the religiously powerful. We know that Jesus was crucified by both the religious majority of his time in cahoots with the political ruler Pontius Pilot. We see politics and religion today being used in ways that go against God’s plan for us and creation. John Mayer in his song “Waiting On the World To Change” expresses frustration about the current situation and hope for something better. He begins by saying:


me and all my friends
we're all misunderstood
they say we stand for nothing and
there's no way we ever could
now we see everything that's going wrong
with the world and those who lead it
we just feel like we don't have the means
to rise above and beat it

so we keep waiting
waiting on the world to change
we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change

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Hymns and CCM

I listened to a number of CCM artists recently for an article I was writing for The Hymn, and what surprised me was how often they quoted the words of well-known hymns. Jars of Clay, Kirk Franklin, Selah, DC Talk, Newsboys, all slip easily from pop vernacular into the heightened language taken directly from Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley or Fanny Crosby.

At first, I found it odd, even though I knew the work of some of them. Where does this come from? Isn't the idea of “contemporary” music to be, well, contemporary? Aren't contemporary artists supposed to be exploring a contemporary language of worship along with the contemporary musical idiom they are exploring?

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