Weekly Worship Thought – Christ Ascended

Today is an important event in the church’s calendar. Really? On Thursday? Ascension is essential to the story of Jesus. But why do we never hear about it or even really celebrate it? We celebrate Jesus’ ascension every year on the 40th day after Easter – which puts it on a Thursday every year. That’s why it doesn’t get as much play as other holy days. Sometimes we will include it on the Sunday after, sometimes not.

Acts 1:6-14

6When [the apostles] had come together, they asked [Jesus], “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
  12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Why is ascension so important? It really is the conclusion of the story of Jesus’ time on earth. Jesus was born, lived, died, rose again, and ascended to the right hand of the Father. In the first few centuries of the church, the ascension was so central to the story that they tied it into the resurrection story and celebrated it on Easter Day. So Easter was just as much about Jesus rising from the earth as it was about Jesus rising from the dead.

The Good News of the ascension is this – Jesus was a real human. He was like you and like me. He knew all the ups and downs of life that we know. And that same human Jesus ascends to join the Father and the Holy Spirit for eternity. Jesus goes ahead of us and leads us on in modeling that our lives are not just about our present realities. We have an eternal future ahead of us, and we see glimpses of it occasionally when things line up with the way God orders things. Jesus ascends because he is made new in the resurrection, and we in turn get to be new because of Jesus. And not only us but all of creation gets to be made new as we anticipate a heaven and an earth that are joined together with God.

Weekly Worship Thought – Hymn Paraphrase of “Children of the Heavenly Father”

Putting the text of a hymn in your own words is a wonderful exercise for devotion and reflection. Here is my paraphrase of “Children of the Heavenly Father”:

1 All God’s children have a safe haven where they gather in God’s Spirit.
Rescue is found in God’s Spirit, embodied in the community of God’s people.

2 All people have an advocate and a provider in God.
God shelters from hatred and harm and raises up in the power of the resurrection.

3 There is no thing, good or evil, in all our living and dying that can separate us from God’s love.
All God’s children receive mercy and pardon because God knows their stories. God knows their troubles.

4 In times of plenty, and in times of hardship, God is there.
God is purifying us so that we might last longer and flourish.

Original Text:

1 Children of the heav’nly Father safely in his bosom gather;
nestling bird nor star in heaven such a refuge e’er was given.

2 God his own doth tend and nourish, in his holy courts they flourish.
From all evil things he spares them, in his mighty arms he bears them.

3 Neither life nor death shall ever from the Lord his children sever;
unto them his grace he showeth, and their sorrows all he knoweth.

4 Though he giveth or he taketh, God his children ne’er forsaketh;
his the loving purpose solely to preserve them pure and holy.

Text: Carolina Sandell Berg, 1832-1903; tr. Ernst W. Olson, 1870-1958
Text © 1925 Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America, admin. Augsburg Fortress.

Weekly Worship Thought – Three Leadership Tips

I think a leader is someone who does three things very well:

  1. Listens well – Leading is about relationships. If no one is following you, then you’re not a leader. In order for people to follow you, you have to be a listener. You have to know what people care about, what motivates them, what concerns them, and what will be best for them. That all comes by listening.
  2. Loves well – Because leading is about relationships, leading is also about love. You cannot lead well if you don’t love the people you are leading. A leader has to be motivated by love. The ability to do what is best for someone else is rooted in your love for them.
  3. Serves well – Jesus is our model for servant leadership. Jesus takes the towel and basin and lowers himself to the servant’s role. Jesus tells us that in God’s way of structuring the world, the last will be first and the first will be last. Anyone that wants to lead has to put themselves underneath everyone else.

Weekly Worship Thought – Top 5 Tips for Vocalists

Also check out my top 5 suggestions for keyboard, drums, and bass guitar.

Unfortunately, there is a bit of deception with my tips for vocalists.

 

  • 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Don’t be a diva.

The Parable of the Two Vocalists

Once upon a time, there were two vocalists. These two vocalists were both going to sing during a worship service for a church. Both of the vocalists went to the church for a sound check and rehearsal. The first vocalist had a pleasant attitude, sang in a simple style, had a beautiful tone, and had no problems with anyone. The first vocalist was a joy to listen to and approached singing in church with an air of humility.

The second vocalist began the rehearsal by noticing that the air conditioning made the room feel drafty. The second vocalist described how at home they had air diffusers to prevent this drafty feeling. Then the second vocalist noticed that the microphone didn’t have enough of a high frequency boost in the EQ. Next the second vocalist requested that the noise gates and compression be turned off on their mic channel. Then the second vocalist said that a church this large should have a floor wedge monitor system and refused to try the in-ear-monitor system. Next the second vocalist argued with the musician about what tempo the song should be. After the musician changed the tempo of the song, the second vocalist accused the musician of incorrectly adjusting the tempo in the opposite direction. Then the second vocalist decided to change the key of the song.

The second vocalist was a diva. Don’t be a diva. Be like the first vocalist.

This is a true story.

 

Weekly Worship Thought – Easter Vigil Recap

Faith Lutheran Church began to hold the Easter Vigil in 2012. Some of our long-term members can recall gathering for worship on the Saturday before Easter decades ago, so technically 2012 was not the first time the Vigil was held at Faith. However, Faith began to celebrate the Vigil anew in 2012. That means that this was our fifth year to gather on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday.

I’m not going to sugar coat it: this service is not easy. It is not the most “user friendly” worship we offer. It starts late (8:00 PM). It runs long (nearly two hours). There is a procession from outside the building to inside the gym. There are SIX scripture readings (but I want you to know that there are 12 readings assigned for the service, so it could be worse). The air conditioning turned off half way through the service. I could go on, but you get my drift.

Why is it so challenging? Our version of the Easter Vigil is modeled after what we know the church did based on historical documents from the first several centuries after the resurrection. In the first centuries of Christianity, believers would gather together and hold vigil, all night long from sunset on Saturday till sunrise on Sunday. The church would be gathered in prayer in one part of the building, while in another part of the building, final preparation was being made for candidates for baptism. These candidates had in some cases been preparing for three years. Three years of gathering with the believers on Sunday, hearing the word read and the gospel proclaimed, and then being ushered out of worship into a separate space for further explanation and instruction. There time of preparation was intense and included fasting and exorcisms.

Why did it take so long? Mainly because the church didn’t assume that their candidates understood the doctrinal basics of the faith. But also because these candidates weren’t simply transferring their name to a new church directory or joining a country club. They were undergoing the radical transformation that we call conversion. Their thinking, their livelihood, their origins, their idolatry, and everything else about them were called into question. It was a slow, measured, weighty process. These churches weren’t interested in the assembly line production of Christians. This was slow-growth, organic, artisanal discipleship.

Now you see some of the rationale behind the First Steps @ Faith catechumenate. Our motivating factor is slightly different though. We think that it is relational connectedness that is most needed for a newcomer in this day and age. More than fully grasping what it means that Jesus is both human and divine, more than renouncing our idolatrous ways of being, we think that candidates need to know that they are loved and cared for by a group of people called into community by God’s Spirit. That is the bed of soil that the seed of faith is planted in.

I have many favorite parts of the Easter Vigil, and one of them is how we gather together for this service. We start outside around a fire. If you’re a fan of camping you will get this. There is something magical about being outdoors around burning wood. If we try to explain the magic we can trace it all the way back to the origins of what it means to be human. What set us apart from the other animals is that we learned how to use tools and start fires. So gathering around a fire outdoors is perhaps one of the earliest, oldest cognitive memories of humanity. Fire is also a central symbol in our faith. God led Israel by fire through the desert. God spoke to Moses in a flame. All the way down to the narrative of Easter, where around the fire Peter denies even knowing the Lord. We start the service around a fire. But not any fire, a new fire, signaling a new way of being that is burning into our world.

If you’ve never been, make plans to attend the Easter Vigil next year.

Weekly Worship Thought – Inner Power

On Easter Sunday at Faith we only offered one style of worship in our sanctuary services (we offer a Chinese language service in our gym). This was a change from how we normally do Sunday mornings. Normally in the sanctuary we have one Heritage service (organ and choir) and one Gathering service (band-led).

After noticing the low attendance at our Gathering-style Christmas Eve service last year, we decided to experiment. For Easter, we only offered the Heritage style worship service. Why? Because our hunch was that people think Easter (and Christmas) should feel like “church.” Despite what hundreds of thousands of people who go to big-box churches might lead us to believe, in our context, for church to feel like “church” it needs the historical flavors of our tradition. That would be organ, choir, vestments, formality, liturgy, and hymns.

Oddly enough the building was packed and no one asked, “Who took away my worship service?”

This is not new, but the continuation of a documented trend. And here.

What is the point?

I’ve been reading a new book about the emergence of contemporary worship in the church (for an upcoming book review in the ALCM CrossAccent journal). The book chronicles the Anaheim Vineyard church as it swelled in growth through the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the components that are considered today to be the backbone of contemporary worship were synthesized at this church (a continuous set of worship songs; intimate, God-directed language; openness to God through music, etc.).

As I read the book, the one thing I am struck by is what many mainline churches have left by the wayside in their adoption of contemporary worship practices: the work of the Holy Spirit. The Anaheim Vineyard was a pentecostal-ish church with the gifts of the Holy Spirit on display in their worship. Speaking in tongues, prophetic words, healings, and other charismatic signs were regular parts of their worship. Participants would show up to church an hour before the service in expectation for God to move. I’m left wondering if we are missing something?

My impression is that, for the most part, mainline churches that employ contemporary worship practices have “taken the meat and spit out the bone” of the Anaheim Vineyard experience of worship (or maybe we just kept the bone). We have hijacked the parts of their worship that we think (hope) will cause people to encounter God (and attract them), but tossed out the questionable parts that don’t jive with our theology or make us squirm. It reminded me of 2 Timothy 3:5, “They will keep up the outward appearance of religion but will have rejected the inner power of it.” (Forgive me for pulling a sentence out of context.)

What is the inner power of contemporary worship? What is the inner power of any worship?

If the church is not filled with the breath of God’s Spirit as it worships, regardless of the style, there can be no inner power.

Weekly Worship Thought – What Do You See?

Did you ever look at those 3D hidden image posters when you were younger? I think you were supposed to cross your eyes and slowly uncross them. Or stare at the center intensely. Or put your nose against the image and then ease your way backward. Then poof! A 3D image was supposed to appear. I have to confess – I don’t think I ever saw anything in any of them.

What we see matters. Sometimes it is the things we don’t see that matter most. There’s a story in the Bible about a time that Jesus noticed someone that couldn’t see (John 9). The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” What the disciples saw was someone cursed. Jesus saw an opportunity for healing and restoration. After he was cured of his blindness, the people were baffled. “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’”

The blind man had become invisible. The community was blind to his poverty and need. As a beggar, he had faded into the background of his surroundings. No one noticed him anymore. The story shows that his neighbors couldn’t distinguish if it was really he or someone else; they forgot what he looked like. The greatest sin of this story didn’t have anything to do with the parents. The sin was a community that had forgotten their own needy.

Perhaps you’ve noticed something different at the baptismal font this Lent.

Several people have stopped me and asked what this installation symbolizes. Some have offered their own interpretation. That is the beauty of art – we can see many different things in it depending on our interpretation. When someone asks me what it is, my first response is usually to turn the table and ask them what they see in it. I’ve heard some very interesting and insightful interpretations:

  • The purple cloth could represent the robe that was mockingly placed on Jesus before the crucifixion. (The appointed liturgical color for Lent is purple because purple has long been associated with royalty. In this case, Christ reigns from a cross.)
  • The branches could represent the crown of thorns. Or they could remind us of the desert and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
  • The large, flat stones could represent the tablets that the Ten Commandments were recorded on.
  • The broken vessel could represent the vinegar that Jesus was offered on the cross. The broken pot reminds me of our brokenness and need for God to make us whole.

The point of the installation is simple: to help us recall the themes of Lent. What about you – what do you see?

Weekly Worship Thought – Top 5 Tips for Keyboard

The keyboard (both piano and organ varieties) ruled the worship music landscape for a long time. It still does in many places. However, over the last 50 years, the guitar has made itself at home in many churches, replacing keyboards as the lead instrument. Where does that leave the keyboard? Here are my top 5 tips for playing the keyboard in a worship band ensemble:

  1. Keep it simple. Do you notice the trend? The same rule applies to every instrument: less is more. When things get too busy there is no room for the song to develop. This is a chronic problem I notice from keyboard players. I guess having that many notes at your fingertips is tempting. Resist the urge to play busy parts. Occasionally force yourself to play with only one hand. Instead of playing chords all the time, try playing a simple counter-melody.
  2. Share the lead. Keyboardists are used to taking the lead. As a pianist or organist, they are used to setting the tempo, giving the downbeat, and helping the assembly sing together. Some of these skills are counterintuitive when playing as a member of a worship band ensemble. Sometimes the guitar or drums needs to push the song in order for it to sound right. This requires the keyboard to relinquish control over the tempo, feel, and sometimes even the tonal structure of the song.
  3. Explore the tones. If you’re playing a piano, I guess you’re stuck. But if you have an electronic keyboard or synth, don’t just stay on the piano sound. Try everything. There are virtually unlimited amounts of patches online. Make a list of the tones you think could have an application.
  4. Study B3. Every church keyboardist should know how to make the Hammond B3 organ sound good. It is the quintessential sound for many churches, and also the glue that holds together a lot of rock, blues, and jazz music. Get on YouTube and figure out how to make it work. Get a lesson from someone who knows.
  5. Deviate from the page. Rarely will you be able to play exactly what is written out for your keyboard part. If it is fully composed, you will probably have to simplify what you play to some extent (following tip 1 and 2). Or if all you have is a chord chart you can’t just play the changes on whole notes. Don’t be afraid to leave the page and create your own part.

Weekly Worship Thought – Top 5 Tips for Drums

Several years ago I fulfilled the dream of every musician. I bought a drum kit. Because every musician wishes they were as cool as the drummer.

I’ve had the chance to play with some amazing drummers in my musical journey. While I may not be the most proficient on drums, I can suggest a few things that make them sound better. Here are my top 5 tips for playing drums in worship:

  1. Keep it simple. Like I said, this really does apply to every instrument in the ensemble. If everyone dials back what they play there is room for the vocals (and thus the spiritual content of the song) to breathe. For drummers this primarily means simplifying the kick drum patterns. Less kick is more. You’d be surprised how often playing the kick on two and four is all a section of a song needs.
  2. Careful with the fills. Fills are tricky. You can’t leave them out. Fills occupy the transitional spaces of a song. They need to carry a song from section to section. On the other hand, fills can be overdone. A redundant fill is the worst. Too many fills are overkill. I suggest thoughtfully mapping out where fills will be used in a song. Think about how the fill helps with the transition during the song. Is it shifting down into a softer section? Is it heading to the beginning of a building section? The fill can set this up. Please – no tom rolls.
  3. Vary the cymbals. Change which cymbal you hit when you move to a different section of the song. If you’re playing high hat on the verse, don’t continue playing high hat (the same way) on the chorus. Switch to ride or open the high hat. Explore all the different ways that the cymbals can be used.
  4. Hit the drum. To get the best tone out of a drum, you have to hit it. A soft touch produces a wimpy tone. The drum doesn’t even have a chance to sound correct. Much depends on the room and how microphones are being used, which is why you have to…
  5. Use sensitivity. Hitting the drum properly to produce a good tone will cause problems. That is why they lock drummers in fish bowls. You have to know when to sacrifice tone for the greater good. That requires sensitivity (and a dose of humility). A good drummer notices all the sound levels. They know how loud the mains are, how loud the monitors are, and how the drums will need to be complimentary to all.

Weekly Worship Thought – Top 5 Tips for Bass Guitar

_dsc6429-800x533You might not know it, but when I first started leading worship in high school I played bass guitar. It is still my favorite instrument in a lot of ways. I enjoy every chance I get to play bass with a group. Here are my top 5 tips for playing the bass guitar in worship:

  1. Keep it simple. If you’ve ever played in a band with me, you’ve probably heard me say this many times. My critique is often that instruments play too much and play rhythms that are too complex. This is true of any instrument, but is especially true for the bass guitar. It doesn’t have to be complicated. There is no shame in staying on the root of the chord and letting the note sustain. The bass guitar is rarely the focus. Make room for the other instruments.
  2. Color the drums. The bass guitar is the harmonic foundation of the band. It does this work in tandem with the drums or percussion. I like to think of the bass guitar being the tonal coloring of the drums. So when the drummer plays the kick drum, giving the band a rhythmic foundation to build on, the bass guitar is providing the tonal color for the kick drum so that the rhythmic foundation now has pitch.
  3. Stand near the drummer. Because drums and bass guitar work in tandem, creating a hybrid harmonic/rhythmic foundation for the band, it makes sense that they should be in proximity to each other. But I often see them separated. Being close enough to visually cue each other is essential. Being close enough to “feel” the groove from each other is better.
  4. Use the middle of the neck. All the tone and sustain comes from the middle of the neck on the bass guitar. So instead of playing the note “A” using the open string, play it on the fifth fret of the E string.
  5. Finesse the notes. Every little detail matters. Give attention to how the notes are started and stopped. Plucking the string doesn’t have to be done so harshly. Let the amplification do the work – not your fingers. Do your notes buzz or sound rough? Make sure your finger is placed right against the fret of the note you’re playing. Work to smoothly transition from note to note, with no gaps between the pitches.