October 24, 2006

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Thanksgiving - Tried and True, Fresh and New On Thanksgiving Day many churches offer a very traditional worship service: Psalm 100, a litany of thanksgiving, “Come, You Thankful People, Come.” On a day when we look back with gratitude at God’s good gifts to us, it makes sense to make use of the work and wisdom of our forebears and to worship using that which is tried and true. Other congregations seek innovation: pilgrim puppets behind the pulpit, prayers of thanks colored (not written) in crayon on scraps of paper and dropped in the offering plate. Our culture craves novelty, which may explain—but doesn’t necessarily commend—our thirst for it. A more laudable urge is to offer in our worship not a stale tradition, repeated out of habit, but something original: our creative expression, our prayers and words and music, our very selves. We want to offer something fresh and new. But must it be an either/or choice? Many congregations are very successful in their efforts to examine the tried and true traditions (often more true than actually tried), identify the best in them, and then freshen them in ways sensitive to their contexts. Here are a few ideas... Call to Worship Psalm 100 is just the right Scripture to use as a call to worship on Thanksgiving Day. It’s familiar, and it summons God’s people both to worship and to give thanks. But the elevated diction of most psalm translations, and the formal quiet out of which calls to worship are often spoken, can diminish the psalm’s affective energy. To generate enthusiasm, some congregations bring out their best thespian/liturgist to lead the reading with strong voice and grand gesture. But the right song might work as well—if not better—to encourage rather than coerce the congregation into eager, participative praise. For example, teach and then sing the song “Come, All You People” (it can be found in the hymnal supplement Sing! A New Creation) at the very start of the service, and let the energy leak into the responsive reading of Psalm 100 as a call to worship. Let it leak by maintaining a soft percussive pulse, and maybe a low bass drone, throughout the speaking. Then reprise the song afterward, and the service will have begun with faithfulness and vigor. Hymn of Thanks and Praise Nearly every hymnal has its share of wonderful Thanksgiving songs. “Come, You Thankful People, Come”—despite the agricultural metaphor’s diminishing resonance with most congregations—is just one of them. Along with “Now Thank We All Our God” and “We Gather Together,” these tried and true texts are rich in theology and poetry. But older songs have no monopoly on depth. “Have We Any Gift Worth Giving” (SNC 14) is a superb contemporary hymn text by Carl Daw, based on Romans 12:1. The musical setting by Al Fedak is contemporary, but in the familiar style of a Genevan psalm tune. A recently freshened favorite I’ve heard is “Let All Things Now Living.” A shift in time signature from 3/4 to 4/4 (each q becomes q.) gives...
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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? There's a cynical take on this. CCM artists are putting out hymn “product” In the same way that any commercial act will produce a Christmas album. Let's face it: Christmas piety sells. A Christian audience responds, at least in part, to the familiar cadences of traditional hymnody. But the cynical take will only take us so far. For one thing, there is a huge segment of the Christian church for whom hymns have no nostalgic connection. They were raised on contemporary pop music on their car radio, CCM on their CD players, with praise and worship music forming a large part of their worship. It could be partly the depth and resonance that history brings. The words of historic hymn writers have survived the test of time. If you want a quick lesson on what that test means, look at an old hymnal at the hundreds of hymns. They are full of words that you could never sing today without wincing, groaning or laughing out loud. The hymns that have survived this test offer more than re-assurance and stability. In fact they are as full of the recognition of uncertainty, struggle and pain as they are of steadfast assurance. What they do is to give us perspective on our own agonies, and let us know that others have faced them before us. The cloud of witnesses still bears witness. But I think there remains a hunger that, successful as it is, contemporary music has not been able to satisfy. That is the hunger for common song - for lack of a better word, congregational song. At the time I was listening to CCM artists, I watched the documentary “Bob Dylan: No Direction Home.” I was amazed to watch everyone singing. And not doing live karaoke during a concert, when the lead singer pointed the mike at the audience, but sitting around actually singing a song from beginning to end. It felt very much like a worship service, secular perhaps, but still able to inspire, encourage and offer vision for that generation. And how strange it seemed, how anachronistic. I have little nostalgia for the supposed good-old days of the sixties, but I found it interesting that the generation noted for its activism on the public front was also active in its group singing. Could it be that...

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