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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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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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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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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Thanksgiving - Tried and True, Fresh and New

840400 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...

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One More on Singing with Children

A guest minister who came to preach at our church told me that, during the “children's time”, he planned to sing one of his own songs with the children. So, he brought his guitar and taught them a song whose chorus went something like this:

Bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs,
Bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs.

I forget what the song was about: it may have had something to do with Noah and the Ark, but the kids sang willingly enough, and trooped off to Sunday School. But it made me both wince and wonder.
I winced because the guest minister pitched the song far too low for their voices, choosing a comfortable key for the guitar (C major) that had them straining to sing an F below middle C.

Therefore, if you are a guitar player, start with the children's range before you choose the key, rather than the other way round. Typically children's lowest note is the G below middle C (the open third string on the guitar). Make sure the song uses that note very little; middle C is much better as a low note. For practical purposes, children's high note is somewhere between C an octave above (first string, 8th fret), and E a third above that. Of course, children can sing higher, but I am here writing about congregational singing, not practiced choral (or solo) singing.

I wondered at how eager children are to learn and to be challenged, and how little that song offered them in the way of musical nourishment. Surprisingly, the songs that children latch onto and make their own, are often very different from what we might expect as a “children's” song. Anyone who has worked on the editorial committee for a hymn collection knows how elusive are the qualities that make a good children's song or hymn.

Rather than looking at the “genre” of the song, I wonder if it might be better to ask some of these questions: how would a 3-year old hear this song? A 6 hear old, a 10-year old? How many “doors” does it offer a child to enter by: concrete imagery? possibilities for motion and actions? sensory details? repeatable sections or phrases? Will it allow a conversation, a question and answer, a call and response between children, the leader and the choir or praise band? (Stuart Townend's “Who Paints the Skies?” is a song that allows this kind of worship conversation to happen. “All creatures of our God and King” - or any hymn that has a repeating “Alleluia” could serve as a wonderful kind of dialogue, if the congregation sang all the words, including “Oh, Praise Him” and the children sing the “Alleluia.” I should say that I haven't done this yet; when I do, I'll let you know how it went, and what pitfalls to avoid. I will probably teach the final “Alleluia” with its 3-beat penultimate note first!

I will continue to share lessons learned and insights gleaned from the front (and back) pews of congregational song, but in my next post I hope to report on some experiences in summer music and worship festivals around the continent.

7 Worship Leading Principles from Bono

B000bnxdeg01_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_ Dr. Steven Taylor is the founding pastor of Graceway Baptist Church in Ellerslie, New Zealand. He has a PhD on the Emerging Church and a Masters in Theology in communicating the cross in a postmodern world. Steve recently did a course at Fuller Seminary entitled “Communicating the Biblical Text in a PostModern Culture” in July.

He argues that to communicate the biblical text for today’s context requires one to “incarnate, indwell, our culture.”  Taylor goes on to use the phrase “DJing” with respect to the community.  A record DJ learns the historical stories (old records) and uses them authentically in contemporary culture and integrates them into the community's stories.  There is too much to summarize here, but do look for his book “The Out of Bounds Church: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change” from Zondervan.

Taylor cites Bono of U2 as a person who effectively DJs today.  According to Taylor, Bono is in fact a worship leader for over 40,000 people; Bono recontextualizes the biblical text and leads concert goers into a time of community worship and prayer. Taylor plays the “Vertigo ‘05” DVD and shows us how Bono is leading worship.  This intrigued me to the point that  Dr. Taylor and I discussed this further after the workshop. The following is from Steve’s article “7 Things I learnt from Bono about Worship Leading.”

1.    Connect uniquely. In the Vertigo DVD, Bono speaks about Chicago and his memories of Chicago. He makes a unique connection with context, day, and time.
2.    Engage through familiarity. Bono includes songs that resonate with previous experiences and previous encounters.
3.    Use repetition to call forth prayer. Bono uses the repetitive “Hallelujah.” It is easy to sing. The simple repetition enables the audience to sing with the band.
4.    Secure a 5th (visual) band member. U2 now has a 5th member of the band to add a visual layer to the experience. A wise worship leader will look to add not just singers or musicians, but a “visual” person to their team.
5.    Create hope by drawing the best from the past. Bono tells the audience in the Vertigo DVD, “We as a band are looking to the future. We’re taking the best of the past and moving forward with hope.”
6.    Plan participation. Bono can draw one boy from the audience to sing to, one woman from the audience to dance with. He uses repetition to call forth prayer and encourage congregational singing.
7.    Invoke passionate practices. Bono invites the audience to hall out their cell phones and to text “Make Poverty History campaign.”  A worship leader turns singing into action. He turns entertainment into justice.

Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven

I've written elsewhere about Kevin Twit and the Indelible Grace project, whose hope is to "help the church recover the tradition of putting old hymns to new music for each generation."  Of course, Kevin and his friends aren't the only ones doing this -- a student of mine from Fuller Seminary, Luke Hyder, has been doing it for years, too. 

PraisemysoulThe other day I came upon one of his compositions while I was searching for an upbeat setting of Psalm 103 as a way to conclude a Eucharist service.  Psalm 103 is commonly used in this liturgical position, but the more common settings -- by Andre Crouch, or Brother Roger of Taize, or Graham Ord -- weren't quite right.  This one was.  He agreed to let me post it here, as a gift to the readers of this blog.  Click here for the PDF., and here for the MP3.

The Contemporary Desert

Everyone wants heightened spirituality, but don’t know what it takes to get there. Most pastors and worship leaders have such a hectic schedule that it is impossible to slowdown enough for quiet time or solitude. Yet the Apostolic Fathers of faith placed a high value on it.

If leaders have a problem with carving out quiet moments can you imagine what the congregation is feeling? Jonny Baker and Doug Gay’s Alternative Worship: Resources from and for the Emerging Church, provides a “ritual” that contextualizes the spiritual practice of being in the desert that can be used as part of a worship service, small group gathering, or as teaching illustration.

Items needed: Removed Van seat, a boom box, selection of CD’s (ideally instrumental), a video projector and VCR. Video tape a drive down the highway, even being stuck in traffic, or driving through the city.

Description: Traveling in a car is the closest thing for most people get to solitude. “Setting up this ritual will hopefully help people to reflect positively on the space they have next time they are driving alone in the car” (Baker and Gay, Alternative Worship, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2004, 86)

123037Baker and Gay suggest setting up a station that simulates driving in a car. The guests will receive an instruction sheet encouraging them to use this time to listen to music, reflect and pray. You would set up the van/car seats facing a screen. Place the boom box or a Discman personal CD play with headsets on the seat. The listener can select the music that they would like to listen to. Project the driving video onto the screen from behind the seats, which will simulate a car ride. The goal is that every time they take a drive, they can positively connect this space with an opportunity to connect with God and creating a contemporary desert experience.