Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Like a Lion

This Sunday in worship we debuted "Like a Lion", a song by Daniel Bashta, a worship pastor at a church outside of Atlanta.

It's a heavy song.  The first time I heard was two years ago, when the David Crowder Band covered it for Passion 2010.  And, to tell the truth, initially I was really put off by it.  It's a very raw-natured song at it's heart.  The lyrics of the chorus go like this:
My God's not dead: he's surely alive,
And he's living on the inside, roaring like a lion!
It's the "My God's not dead" part that bothered me.  I mean, whoever said God was dead?  In seminary, we did cover for a second in my intro to theology class the "God is Dead" theologians, but I didn't really pay attention there.  I didn't see the relevance.  I did, and do, realize that there are people in this world that do not believe in the Almighty.  Or, should I say, an almighty.  But for people to devote time to theorizing on the death of God, and how we killed God, just kind of struck me as silly at a time.

Recently, however, I've been awakened to the plight of my generation.  A generation who's primary witness to God's love is given through politicians looking for sound bites (on both sides of the many aisles) or TV pastors who do the same before getting caught up in the many ways to do things that are illegal or immoral.

It's to this generation, this feeling throughout the world, that Daniel Bashta is singing for.  Not only is God not dead, God is alive, God is relevant, God is hope, and God wants to roar into the world through us.

At the raw-centered heart of this song is a call for God to come down into this world run amok like a Pentecostal fire:
Let heaven roar!
And fire fall!
Come shake the ground,
With the sound of revival!
How do our faith families speak to the people who don't find relevance in knowing God's salvation?  Specifically to our struggling millennials? 

It might start as it does throughout the Word ... We ask for help.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

What is your church's foundation?

The church's one foundation
is Jesus Christ our Lord;
we are his new creation
by water and the Word;
from heaven he came and sought us
that we might ever be
his living servant people,
by his own death set free.
- Samuel J. Stone, 1866; adapted by L. H. Stookey, 1983
As we take this Saturday to prepare for the Celebration of Worship to come on the Lord's Day (for some of you it all may start this afternoon or evening), I think it's relevant to ask ourselves:
What is our foundation?
Is it a building?  Is it a program?  Is it a band or a choir or an organ?  Is it the preacher?  We tend to think that any of these things, if just right can cure every ill.  But there's only one Divine Carpenter, one Divine Healer.

Making Jesus the foundation for anything takes work and prayer.  We should be asking ourselves through every decision made in the Lord's name: is Jesus Christ our foundation?
Called forth from every nation,
yet one o'er all the earth;
our charter of salvation:
one Lord, one faith, one birth.
One holy name professing
and at one table fed,
to one hope always pressing,
by Christ's own spirit led.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

#generationhope - a faith-based response to #generationscrewed

Last week I saw #generationscrewed trending on my twitter feed, via the Daily Beast, a fun/serious/snarky news service I follow.  My interest was piqued, so I began to read the tweets that followed.  Then I also caught the article that started it all from Newsweek, "Are Millennials the Screwed Generation?"  News Week started the #generationscrewed tag, offering to retweet anybody using the tag.

I had to do a little research of my own on who millennials even are ... The generation is summed up as anybody born between 1977 and 1994.  So, I'm at the older end (born in 1981) of a group of people that span 17 years, the youngest of which are just graduating from high school and moving on to college.  Nice to know that I'm considered to be in the same generation as my student intern!

In all seriousness, people of the Millennial generation are entering into a troubled time, with much higher than average unemployment (nearly 50% higher than the national stats) an average student loan debt of $27,000.  Because we graduate with bachelors degrees to a closed job market (older generations are not retiring as they used to), we end up going on immediately to grad school, to lump on more debt.  And then we graduate from that to a still closed job market.  Millennials have ended up often finding themselves both over educated and underemployed.  And the penchant of older generations to gravitate towards debt and social systems that the younger generations pay to support and likely won't be there for us creates a huge climate of anxiety for the current crop of young adults that the church is fishing for.

I shared in a lot of this woe when my wife and I got married.  Before we were married, my personal debt total (student loans, credit cards, vehicle loans, etc.) totalled nearly $90,000, $80,000 of which was student load debt.  A little bit from undergrad, plus a lot from seminary.  I didn't even know how to get started with it; I'd taken voluntary forbearance a couple of times, which was only racking on more interest.  Then I met Leanne, and she let me know that if a relationship with her was important, having financial order was going to be essential.  She'd already begun her journey towards getting out from under a mountain of debt and it was a big deal for her to see me, and not just my debt.  As a longtime follower of Dave Ramsey and student of his Financial Peace University program, she brought me a couple of books, and I set to work chopping down my debt, credit cards first, during our engagement.

I also, in the midst of the stress of writing a real budget and making above minimum payments on my credit cards, signed my first-ever pledge card to the church I was serving.  It wasn't the full 10% tithe, but it was something, and it felt right to do it.

My first birthday present to Leanne during our engagement was a card full of the cut-up remains of my credit cards.  I took a stand with her in that moment, we were going to live within our means when we started our life together.

I was fortunate during this time to have many answered prayers ... I stepped out of seminary at Perkins with my MSM from a loving home church to a wonderful new church home in Slidell, LA.  My career had officially started, with a real salary (not crazy by any means, but good).  I went from an underemployed graduate student to real work.  I prayed through that time, but I also took the opportunity in grad school to do what grad school does for you: make connections and network.  My job in LA came through a friend in seminary.  The Holy Spirit worked it out for me, but I put in a lot of work and prayer along the way.

My wife didn't have such an easy time of it when she landed in LA before our wedding.  She was a Perkins grad as well with her Masters of Theological Studies, but that didn't mean much in the surrounding community.  So she had to just get a job to get a job.  It ended up being a stinker.  Underpaid, underemployed, under-appreciated.  It was not a good situation in any respect and not the way to start off our marriage.  She had to quit that one, and took on three part-time jobs through friends and continued to make connections before landing on some wonderful ministry opportunities inside a year of moving to Louisiana.

The whole while we were struggling with our family budget during our first year of marriage, we kept a strict budget based only on our household income, we paid down debt as we could, and tithed.  We gave the full tithe to the church and that has created a financial foundation to our marriage.  But the important thing to note is that through every step, we prayed intentionally together.  We found as we prayed for specifics, a wonderful new job for Leanne, opportunities began to roll in.  We're not naive enough to think that the perfect job opened up just because we prayed to God for help, we worked super hard as we went, constantly in conversation with the people we met in ministry in LA. 

But I do think, that because we prayed constantly for the right path for our family, we were open to possibilities in exciting places.  I now serve a wonderful congregation as worship pastor on the south side of Dallas, and Leanne is serving at the conference level in youth and young adult ministry.  I feel like I need to say that I'm not throwing out our story to gloat - just to say that with God's help, it's been possible for us to go from unfortunate circumstances to a life of blessings over flowing.  It started though with realizing that even in the thick of our own family debt crisis, God was with us.

Keeping counsel with God has been essential in the last three years as we've budgeted, made career decisions, and moved forward as a family.  When we got married three years ago, we had nearly $120,000 in debt.  This month, after we make a payment on my student loans from seminary (the only debt we have left) we'll be down below $20,000.  If all goes well, we'll be done within the first couple months of 2013.  Then following Dave Ramsey's baby steps, it's time to build an emergency fund, start saving for retirement, buy a house, and start a college fund for Wesley.  Good stuff is coming - due to some hard work, discipline, and real prayer as a team.

So when I saw on my twitter feed last week that Newsweek was RT'ing anybody who used the hashtag #generationscrewed, I saw a lot of the sadness within my generation.  I couldn't help my self; I threw out this in response:
#generationscrewed? 30yrs old, mega school debt, but working to pay it off and raise a family. I prefer #generationhope. Made my dream.
It was retweeted an awful lot, making me think that there's something there.  Others in our generation are finding ways to be successful in a world that can be hostile towards youthful ideas, and yes, I'm also talking to the church.  Still others are looking for hope and a way out, towards some kind of peace.  My wife talks more about our family journey toward financial peace over here.

My question as reading other Twitter stories was this: where is the church in the lives of these young adults that are hurting?  What is the church doing to teach them a better way?  My wife first took FPU at a church.  It taught her, and later me, a truly bible-based theology of home finance where giving is a priority and living within your means is essential.

How can the church do a better job of creating a #generationhope?  This is my prayer today.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

My Anthem Lit Top 10

Asking a choir director what is favorite anthem is, is like asking a parent who their favorite child is.  I can't pick just one.  In practice, I often say to my choir, "This one's my favorite!"  But then I clarify by nameing the season or style period.  This list is just as much for me as it is for you, but here's my current Anthem Literature Top 10, some easy, some hard, all good:

Be Not Afraid, Taylor Davis
This anthem became "all the rage" when I was living in Louisana a few years ago.  Partly because Taylor Davis went to school at Cenenary in LA, but also because it's a beautliful setting of Isaiah 43:1-7.  It's become a staple for me on Confirmation Sunday.  With the text flowing on how God is with us and loves us always, you can't go wrong.  Definitely a tear-jerker, but so worth doing.  It's also very accessible for any choir, the kind of anthem that's a snap to learn but makes your choir sound like a million bucks.  My favorite kind of anthem.

How Can I Keep From Singing, Craig Gilpin
This raucous gospel setting of a beloved text is a favorite of mine for my youth choirs.  The three part mixed is easy to learn with some great solos.  My pianists have loved to play it as well!  Just be prepared to clap with it.  You can't do it without the claps.

Followers of the Lamb, Edwin R. Ferguson
A fun setting of the shaker tune by the same name, this anthem isn't the easiest to learn.  It stretches to 6 parts at times, but when a choir nails it, they never forget it.

The Lord is My Shepherd, John Rutter
I first sang Rutter's Requiem in highschool and the tenor line at the end of his Psalm 23 setting has stuck with me ever since, the voice writing at "and I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever ..." has to be one of the finest choral passages ever written.

Draw the Circle Wide, Mark Miller
I discovered this gem, text by Gordon Light, when the most recent UMC hymnal supplement, Worship and Song was published last March.  The message of inclusivity is relevant to our time.  We chose this as part of our stewarship emphasis last fall, and jammed our choir loft with our youth and adult choirs to sing it right.  It's pure joy.

What Does the Lord Require of You?, Mark Miller
A very dramatic anthem on Micah 6:8, it builds from an alto recitative to gospel chorus to baroque imitation back to gospel.  It's a little tougher than some with lots of rhythmic technique and a high B in the soprano toward the end, but it's wicked fun to sing (and conduct).  If you have a band, so much the better.  Your church will thank you for offering this one in worship.  And you just can't go wrong with Micah 6:8, ever.  Sing it every week!

With A Voice of Singing, Martin Shaw
I'm pretty sure I've auditioned for two different jobs with this anthem.  It's a bright anthem for organ and choir, and it needs to go fast.  That's half the fun ... How fast can you take this anthem with your choir and still understand the words?  That's how fast it should be.  The imitative sections are also perfect for introducing techniques important to the Renaissance and Baroque style periods.

Keep Your Lamps, Andre Thomas
I do this anthem the first Sunday every Advent season.  This spiritual setting really encompases already/not yet feeling of the season, the shout from John the Baptist to get ready as well as the words of Christ that you'll never know the time or the hour when salvation will greet you.  The dark minor key, done A Cappella with percussion makes this one unforgettable and an easy fave for your choir.  Our youth choir here loves this anthem.

Creation Will Be At Peace, J. Paul Williams and Anna Laura Page
A beautiful reflection on Isaiah 11, this anthem is amazingly worshipful.  I've offered it in worship with the optional handbell accompaniment.  I find myself singing it to myself often.

God So Loved the World, John Stainer
Truly, no lie, this is my favorite anthem of all time.  This setting of John 3:16-17 is at the center of John Stainer's oratorio The Crucifixion.  It's a peaceful spot in the middle of a real, visceral, reflection on Christ's ultimate sacrifice for us.  I program it in worship every Lenten season.

Honorable Mention:
The Lord Bless You and Keep You, Peter C. Lutkin
Every choir director knows this one.  Every choir member also knows this one.  And there's a reason for that - it's really good, and really accesible for choirs of all skill levels.  I've been singing it since high school, like most choir members, and I love closing concerts with it.  Just like I'll close this list with it!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Insiders

"As soon as an organization begins to exist more for insiders than outsiders, it begins to die."
Bishop Robert Schnase, Episcopal Address to the #SCJ12

Ever heard of a church described as a country club?  Ever heard of a tithe referred to as dues?  Ever been a guest at a church and just handed a bulletin by an usher without a greeting?  Ever walked in and out of a church on Sunday morning without a word spoken to you?

I've heard something of the kind at every church I've served in ... All wonderful, wonderful, communities.  But, we always have big things to work on.

Unfortunately, this description of the church experience is starting to typify what is observed in established churches nation-wide - not just in the UMC.  I think it begins when priority is put on maintaining disciples over making them.  And by maintaining disciples, I also mean maintaining antiquated systems, styles of worship, and being prideful about what 'we' used to be in our respective communities.  Our established churches start to be less about growth and creativity and more about comfort and predictability.  It starts to be more about who's inside, and less about who's outside.  Which is contrary to everything Christ's radical, revolutionary ministry was about.

Bishop Schnase also laid on the Jurisdictional conference some new statistics on demographics in the UMC - the median age of United Methodists is nearing 60, while the median age of the population is in the mid-30s.  As somebody who's 30 at the moment, that's pretty scary.  But, also inspires me to do God's work.

The last I heard, in the North Texas Conference of the UMC, there are around 16 new church starts up and running right now, with many others nation wide.  But, there are 300 other established churches in the NTC, some growing, many who are not.  Our new church starts don't always flourish, but when they have a clear mission field and the means to meet needs, they do.  Established churches, however, have what should be a leg up on any church start - a building, a known presence, members.  But it's often that these things are the ones that can sink the ship.

We love our building, why change it?

We have a great reputation in this town, why do anything different?

I've been a member here all of my life, isn't our worship great the way it is?

I think that we can agree that a universal sign of a healthy church congregation is that it grows.  The purpose of the church is that ... to grow.  Growth requires doing the work for those outside the church just as much, if not more, than work for the people already inside.

At the same time, however, we do need to do the work of maintaining the ministries of the disciples we are creating.  Growing churches grow because of the connectional ministries they foster: small group and mission ministries.  It's important to have strong, dynamic worship that meets the needs of the established member and the person coming off of the street for the first time.  But accountability groups in bible study and Sunday school will keep them coming back as well.

The first step to fixing any problem is to admit that there is one.  Bishop Schnase laid one out for us.  It's time to have honest conversation on the age gap in our churches.  Clearly young people, and families, are on the outside.  How do we get them in?  How do those of us attending and serving at established churches get them to start getting radical like new church starts?  It's hard to meet the needs of everyone in any given community, but we all need Jesus, so let's make sure at least we're offering that - and the revolutionary ministry that comes with it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

To robe? Or not to robe?

When I first started in professional ministry a few years ago, I was given the task in my home church of directing the children's choir program.  We had three choirs at the time, and they most often sang in the traditional services because that was a simpler fit for them.  Just before I was hired on staff, post-college, the choirs had fundraised and purchased brand-new robes for the entire worship ministry; matching robes for the adult choirs, bell choirs, and children's ensembles.

One Sunday morning the 1st - 3rd grade children's choir was gathering to sing, with the parents helping me to get them robed-up and ready to praise.  In the midst of this action, I had this conversation, with a snarky (and hilarious) 2nd grade boy:
"Mr. Jarrod, why do you got us wearing these dresses?"

"Jake, it's not a dress.  These are robes."

Jake raises his hand and looks at the other kids, "Who here thinks that these are dresses?"
I had no answer to that!  But it did raise some interesting questions in my mind that I still have years later.  We just entered into a more casual summer-time dress code, with no clergy, worship leadership, or choir robes.  It's Dallas, and super hot right now.  We'd have people passing out in the loft if we kept the robes on.  But what's interesting from my perspective is that when we ditch the robes, I have to dress up more than I normally would ... When leading the contemporary service, I usually wear jeans and a t-shirt.  I then throw on the robe to direct the choir at the traditional service.  No dice during the summer.  It's slacks, a button-up shirt with my guitar, add in a tie and blazer for the traditional service.

So, I'm not critical of wearing robes; I even like them.

The question I have is this, though: Do robes create a barrier between worship leadership and the people?

Maybe it's a necessary one at times.  What we wear in worship can set a tone ... Two years ago, at the church I served in Slidell, LA, we offered a U2charist Worship Service.  It was a service of Word and Table.  My senior pastor wore jeans and a nice shirt for most of the service, but when it came time to preside over the sacrament, he put his stole on in front of us.  It was a powerful image that gave me goosebumps.  But it didn't make a show of the pastor being special; it brought real weight to the work he was about to do, for us, in communion with the Trinity.

As a younger minister in a more traditional context, I've found that what I wear with whom I'm working with really matters.  With youth, it's shorts and flip-flops, with adults slacks and a polo.  Both achieve a different kind of respect depending on the context.  It's silly to me ... but apparently, what we wear in ministry really matters ... to people.

What do we think about church dress codes?  What do they say about our faith communities?  Do they help or hinder the work of the people?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What I Want for Advent

I'm a nerd for worship planning ... In case you didn't know that.  I love the summer months because with a more relaxed schedule (no children's or youth choirs), it's a great time to think and dream ahead.  The next big thing on my radar is Advent.  Yes, I'm already thinking and dreaming on Advent.  I'm the worship pastor that drives senior pastors crazy, because, well, I want to know what you're thinking about Advent ... Like, right now.

Most pastors out there probably don't know what they're thinking about Advent yet.  I mean, in the UMC, we're just coming off of Annual Conference season.  Many pastors are moving, many have just retired.  Youth groups are on mission trips, families (even pastor's families) are on vacations.  Churches are gearing up for the arduous time of writing the church budget for the coming year and hoping and praying that the annual stewardship push in the next few months will come through.  We're planning the kickoffs to our fall ministries ... The list goes on.  Summer really isn't a slow time in the life of the church.

Yet, still, I'm praying, dreaming, discerning, what I want for Advent this year.  Not Christmas.  Advent.

Advent is this season of being in-between the past and the future.  I've heard it described as a time of 'already ... but not yet'.  Advent is a preparatory time, but not for Christmas as we know it.  It's a preparatory time for the next Christmas, that day when Christ will come again.  When the Great Mystery of Faith will be a mystery no more.

I'm already prepared for the annual struggle of how many Christmas carols I'm to program in worship during the Advent season.  I'm not personally a fan of singing Christmas carols during Advent, and that makes people uncomfortable at times.  But it's a time when we're supposed to be focusing on waiting.  We're not supposed to like it.  I mean, who does like to wait?  To me, singing Christmas carols before Christmas Eve seems like cheating.  It's like opening a present too early.

But ... as a pastoral musician, I don't draw too hard of a line.  As the season builds to Christmas, I'll throw in the occasional Christmas carol.  I mean, I do want to keep my job!

So, what do I want for Advent?  I want to pray for this, starting now:
"A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
a branch will sprout from his roots.
The Lord's spirit will rest upon him,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of planning and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD.
He will delight in fearing the LORD.
He won't judge by appearances,
nor decide by hearsay.
He will judge the needy with righteousness,
and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth;
by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the young lion will feed together,
and a little child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze.
Their young will lie down together,
and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
A nursing child will play over the snake's hole;
toddlers will reach right over the serpent's den.
They won't harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the LORD,
just as the water covers the sea."
Isaiah 11:1-9 CEB
How are we supposed to help bring this vision about if we don't start planning now?

But, even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Pop Hymnology: A Mighty Fortress is Our God

When I started at seminary seven years ago I didn't really have any experience in the 'contemporary' worship style.  I was a pretty traditional guy then; I was even going into seminary to focus primarily on the traditional side of things.  My MSM focus is in choral conducting; that's all I thought I was going to do.  But when I needed a job as I started grad school, my home church had an assistant director's opening running their children's choirs and contemporary service.  Two things I knew next to nothing about.  But my home church had faith in me and since then in the ministry positions I've served I've been able to plan and lead worship in both the traditional and contemporary contexts on Sunday morning.  It has been both an education and a blessing.

It's also put me often in the position of having to defend the 'contemporary' genre of worship.  It might be hard to believe to some of you, but yes, there's still plenty of disdain for having guitars and drums in the 'traditional' worship space.  And I do mean disdain.

Truly, though, I don't mind having to defend it.  I find I'm able to use my education often in defense of contemporary music trends, because for nearly every genre of hymn in the hymnal (of which there are many), there is a popular style of music that runs along side of it.  I find it fun to open people's eyes to this fact, because it wasn't that long ago that church music wasn't allowed to even be in the language of the people, much less the styles heard on the street.

This is the first blog in a series I'm calling "Pop Hymnology", where we'll focus on the root styles of many of the hymn genres in today's hymnals (we'll be focusing on many of the classing hymns of the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal).  Our first hymn study will be focused on what one of my sacred music professors called the "Battle Hymn of the Reformation": A Mighty Fortress is Our God, by the Reformer, Martin Luther.

"Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world."
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Much like the Wesley Brothers, Martin Luther had an intimate and profound understanding of music as a way to connect us to God in worship.  Martin Luther also had a deep belief in bringing the Word of God to the people of his native Germany in their own language.  We could go all day here in discussing the life and passions of Luther, but we'll just focus here on his pastoral musicianship.

Luther was an avid (and intentional) church music composer, there are at least thirty-seven chorale (a German protestant hymn) texts and just as many tunes to go with them.  Source material to inspire Luther's tune writing can be attributed to many sources from Gregorian chant melodies, cantios (a medieval unison-style hymn), religious folk songs, and secular folk songs.  Much of his texts were also paraphrases or translations of existing material, but regardless of the material for his inspiration, Luther's main concerns were to communicate good theology and to get the people singing.

A Mighty Fortress is Our God (UMH 110), written to the tune EIN FESTE BURG was wholly composed by Martin Luther, somewhere between 1527 and 1529.  We should note that the hymn was composed after his famous posting of the Ninety-Five Theses (1517) and subsequent excommunication by the pope (1521).

The tune was written in the extremely popular barform, in which an initial music phrase, A, is sung, then repeated, then the tune is concluded with the B phrase, we note this form as AAB.  With A Mighty Fortress we define it further as a variation of the barform called "repetition-serial-barform", where melodic material from the A phrase is borrowed at the conclusion of the tune.  I'll illustrate this, breaking down the first stanza, using the translation by Frederick Hedge found in the UMH.  Sing the tune in your head!

A    a    A mighty fortress is our God,
       b    a bulwark never failing;

A     a   our helper he amid the flood,
        b   of mortal ills prevailing.

B     c   For still our ancient foe
       d    doth seek to work us woe;
       e    his craft and power are great,
       f    and armed with cruel hate,
       b   on earth is not his equal.*

That Luther used the barform for this, his most famous hymn, is significant for many reasons.  As a priest, Luther would have been afforded an incredible education not just in theology, but in the arts (music), history, mathematics, and science.  But he was also, as shown in his heart for the poor, a student of humanity.  He knew that the barform was a musical form for the traveling pop singers of the day, the Minnesingers and Meistersingers.  These characters were the traveling poet-musicians of the Medieval and Renaissance periods.  You know the traveling minstrel in the medieval movies with his trusty lute?  That was what the minnesinger was ... Only German.

As these traveling musicians went from town to town, singing in pubs and on the street, their hope would often be to teach their songs as they went.  The barform, with it's repeated musical phrases, is a very simple form for a non-musician to learn.  It's actually a form that's been popular for centuries, and is still pervasive in America with blues music.  The American National Anthem is also in barform.

As a pastoral musician, Luther would have known intimately what the caught the attention of the community around him in terms of musical style.  Luther at his heart was a rebel and wasn't afraid to take a peasant, popular form of music in what was at the time a modern-minstrel style of pop and use it to glorify God and get the people of his land of Germany singing.  Participation in the ministry of the church was of utmost importance to Luther as the Reformation took flight.

Need I also say that A Mighty Fortress is Our God was also originally sung in German?  The English Translation we use (there are actually more than 100) was translated by Frederick Hedge in 1853.  The fact that it was in German (not Latin) is another key part of Luther's purpose in ministry - the word of God was meant to be brought to the people.

Martin Luther took the vernacular - the German language, and the most basic popular music style of the barform and he elevated them to glorify God.  He showed us that it's OK to take the secular, music of the people and use it to expand the Kingdom.  Thanks be to God!

*A great deal of the facts in this post (including the hymn stanza breakdown) are found in the article "Martin Luther: A Model Pastoral Musician", found in Ritual Music: Studies in Liturgical Musicology, by Edwin Foley, a wonderful volume on the history of music in worship.  I also frequently used my Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, Carton R. Young, ed.  The Companion should be a required buy by anyone professing of liturgy nerdiness.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Impressions from the Parking Lot

Lately, matters of church hospitality have been on my mind.  My church is beginning to work through it's issues and a few weeks back I posted the plan we're working from here.  One of our biggest, and probably most overlooked problems with our church hospitality systems begins in the parking lot.  I do, however, think it's one of our greatest opportunities.  Afterall, the first brave step a guest takes is actually to load up the family, stick the keys in the ignition, and drive over to a new church experience.  How are we meeting them?

Have you ever  been in a Walmart parking lot on a Saturday?  I don't recommend it.  My wife and I do all we can to avoid going to Walmart on Saturday, because I'm convinced that Walmart, in general, brings out the worst in humanity.  Our pursuit of low-low prices turns us all into villains.

Finding a spot is usually the first adventure.  My favorite is the drive down the lane that's halted by the car in front of you waiting on the mom who's loading up the world and her five kids by herself.  The space is close to the entrance, so it's worth the wait - for the car in front of you.  Unfortunately, there's no room to go around this car because it's a one-way lane.  Sweet.  I'll just hang out with my own crying baby for a bit.  Greatness.

Then there's the awesome spot right near the front of the parking lot.  You drive up on it, thinking how lucky you are that this sweet spot is open - only to find it's reserved for the police.  Bummer. 

My personal strategy for parking at Walmart is to park in a lane that point out of the lot.  So I can make the quickest escape possible.  I don't mind parking a little further out and walking a little further.

Then I'm walking to the entrance, negotiating rude traffic along the way.  My favorite part is crossing that lane that runs in front of the store, in between the parking spaces and the store itself.  How many of you have nearly been run over crossing this river of chaos?  The people trying to run over you are looking for the perfect space themselves, and shoot, they don't have time to wait for pedestrians.  I mean, somebody might take the most amazing spot in the world before they get there!  Nevermind that in a few minutes they'll be in the same spot you are with the expectation that traffic will wait for them to cross.

Our Christian hospitality should start in the parking lot.  I've had some amazing greeting experiences in parking lots at larger churches, with attendants guiding me along in my car to the closest available space, to outside greeters ready to tell me where to go.  I've been treated as a beloved child of God from the moment I turned my car into the church driveway.  Especially when dealing with guests, our church parking lots make an important first impression.  It can set the tone for a the whole morning of worship for visitor and member alike.

It can be a really sensitive subject for more established churches, but we just love to designate parking spaces.  Maybe it's for an honored member of the community.  Maybe it's for the clergy.  Maybe we auctioned of a parking space at a youth fundraiser.  But we often put up signs in choice and wonderful places and label them for exclusive use.

And let's just get this out of the way ... The best spaces are handicap reserved.  And that's how it should be.  Texas law requires there to be at least 1 space for every 25 parking spaces to be reserved for handicap use, and they usually must be the closest spaces to any main entrance with plenty of space around those spaces for loading and unloading.  It's how it should be, but we need to acknowledge that right off the bat, front-row parking for guests is at a premium.

Churches with more seniors in attendance often have designated walking-impaired parking in spaces close to the entrance as well.  My current and previous churches have these special spaces.  The need can be understandable ... But it's not like they're a legally necessary thing.  Often if you stand at the door, you'll see people parking there that are perfectly able to run a marathon.  But they were late for worship, and it was the nearest space.

A little further out from the three previous categories of special parking spaces there are finally a few spaces reserved for our guests.  Sure, they're painted brightly, but in the zoo of other designated places, these few reserved spaces are hard to find.  Sometimes members park there too.  A guest doesn't know that ... But we members of the community do.  All a guest knows is that they need to drive on.

But maybe worse is when those special, designated, spaces are empty.  All they say to a guest is, "Sorry, these just aren't for you."

At the church I served in Louisiana, there were two designated parking spaces for clergy.  They were in front of the church office, not directly in front of the sanctuary entrance.  But they were in the main parking lot that wasn't very big.  Every Sunday morning, my pastors would arrive early and put bags over the signs for their spots and then park as far out in the lot as possible before our early service.  The team that came in after them pulled up the signs altogether and got rid of them.  They made me proud to serve with them and showed me an example of what a servant leader does for the flock.  It was a small showing of hospitality, but you never know who's going to show up on Sunday morning and first impressions always matter.

If we're thinking more like visitors, we'll think more about the impressions we're trying to make.  The signs we put up in our parking lots show preferences.  When my wife and I were expecting, we loved going to Babies"R"Us, because of their parking reserved for expectant moms.  We love going to Ikea because of the small parking lot set apart for families.

How has your church taken the steps to show Christ's love in the parking lot?  What does your parking lot say about your faith community?  How do we feel about designated parking spaces?  Leave a comment!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Prayer for Our Country

On this day, I do give thanks for my country.  My family and I are so blessed to live here and do ministry here.  But we all know it's not perfect, and neither is any other country on God's earth.

But what is God's calling in a nation?  The same one that Christ put upon on his students, and then us, some 2,000 years ago - to love neighbor as one's own self.

We lifted up this prayer in worship on Sunday from the United Methodist Book of Worship, not just for our country, but for all peoples of the world:

Almighty God, you rule all the peoples of the earth.
Inspire the minds of all women and men to who you have committed the responsibility of government and leadership in the nations of the world.
Give to them the vision of truth and justice, that by their counsel all nations and peoples may work together.
Give to the people of our country zeal for justice and strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will.
Forgive our shortcomings as a nation; purify our hearts to see and love the truth.
We pray all these things through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Monday, July 2, 2012

We Are the Church

I am the church!
You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus, all around the world!
Yes, we're the church together!

So goes the chorus hymn 558 in the United Methodist Hymnal, We Are the Church.

I first learned this one when I was leading the children's choirs at my home church, my first ministry gig out of college while I was in seminary.  I hadn't heard it before, but I was looking in the index of the hymnal for children's choir suggestions, and there it was.

Written in 1972 by clergy and musician team Richard K. Avery and Donald S. March, We Are the Church is a hymn written to be led by children, a lesson to be passed on by children.

The first stanza goes like this:
The church is not a building.
The church is not a steeple.
The church is not a resting place.
The church is a people!
I find these words especially poignant in today's church when we seem to get so hung-up on building these wonderful facilities.  Don't get me wrong, I love the beautiful sancturary I have the privilege to lead worship in.  Hearing the choirs and bands and singing with the congregation is amazing.  The house was built to the glory of God, there's no doubt about it.

But then we call it "The Church".  When in fact, it's we, the Body of Christ, who are the church.

It seems like a semantic argument, but it's an important one.  Our buildings and sanctuaries are important, but that's just where the church gathers.  How many churches have you seen meet in school auditoriums?  Or storefronts?  Or people's homes?  There's even a UMC community that meets in, of all places, local bars.  You don't need a steeple to gather as the church.

How do we make sure that the ministry of Christ is defining the church, and not the buildings we build?