artistic worship| factory or faithful?

assembly line

(from Daniel Lim)

For the past four (almost five) years, I’ve been serving as a worship director in a small church in a small suburb in Illinois. Those who’ve known me longer than that may find that surprising. Prior to my position in the church, I was labeled as a secular musician; and I loved it. I loved the freedom it brought. I was allowed to write and create as an individual with all my frustrations, edges, and dirt. I didn’t have the need nor the desire to mask the things that the church would have deemed embarrassing. While I certainly am not asserting that I celebrate my imperfection, I believe it is a sign of maturity to sit as I am before God, knowing that I am covered by His blood.

I remember a conversation I had with my wife a week ago. We talked about how the language in music labeled “worship” was often bland and repetitive. I noticed that the vernacular used in Contemporary Christian Music was judged based on how well it fits in its narrow spectrum, rather than the content or message of the song. It got me thinking – what is worship? Or what are the characteristics of worship? And most importantly, is my art worship?

At the heart of the matter, I believe that your view on worship is dictated by your view on your relationship with God. For example, should you view your relationship with God as a mere compartment in your life, and hence void of significance in other areas, then your worship may be sterile – a representation of a nice and neat factory-cut delivery of praise to the doorstep of God’s Sunday apartment. But if you realize that God is the God of your entire life, including the dirt and the areas you are yet to be fully sanctified in, then sing to God as such a person.

Create art that speaks of your brokenness, even if it isn’t “Church ideal.” Is true worship not honest and raw? Why would we sugarcoat the truth to the God who knows and is the hard truth? If anything, labeling a song as secular (meaning void of God) because of arbitrary reasons such as a petty swear word or a cynical take on the writer’s walk will make us guilty of diminishing God’s all-encompassing presence in life. So artists, don’t create as if your walk with God is perfect. We all know it’s not. Write about this bumpy journey with all the bruises and cuts – this is true worship for the artist.

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faith and art in real time

madenewgrowth

I often write very theoretically and philosophically about art and faith. It’s easier than being very vulnerable. But today I’d like to take a detour from that path, if that’s alright, and tell you all what the intersection of faith and art looks like in my life right now.

I am applying for graduate school. For years, I’ve talked about this one goal. I remember saying goodbye to the staff at the International Christian School of Budapest, and going to grad school was my stated reason for leaving, and one that I believe is God-ordained. But then I got to Chicago, and a whole host of other issues sort of took over for a season (you can read about that here if you feel so inclined). Now I’m back in a practice room, every day, or nearly every day, and I am learning so much.

Yes, I’m obviously learning new music and new techniques, as one generally does in a practice room. I’m also learning deep, soul-stirring lessons. I’d like to share them with you, so here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Practicing is often not fun, but faithfulness to what God has asked me to do and be demands that I practice. Every day, after I get off work at 4:30, I walk down the hall from the admissions office to the practice rooms in the music building. I’d rather go home. I’d rather eat my dinner and watch Netflix, but for this season, God is calling me to practice hard. This is not merely an issue of stewardship of my voice and my talents. This has cosmic proportions. Recently, when I look at the chaos of the world around me, I wonder what I, in my frailty and ignorance, could ever do to help such a situation. Every time I think that, though, God is faithful to remind me that healing the gaping wounds of this world is His job. It is mine to be faithful to the task He has given me, and right now, even if I don’t understand how on earth it benefits anyone, my God-appointed task is to apply for graduate school, and that necessitates rigorous practice. Viewed in this light, every practice session becomes an attack against the dark. Any act done in obedience to the call of God, no matter how small, is a beacon of light. Practicing becomes a holy act of war.
  2. There is no room for fear. I am often tempted to be afraid – of rejection, of failure, of debt, of change. I often think of the admonition against fear as applying to spiritual things, or at least to life and death matters, not to my pre-audition jitters. That’s not nearly holy or significant enough to matter to God. But He sees sparrows. He clothes lilies. My fears are significant to Him, and He calls me to hand them over to Him. In a marked departure from the kind of music that I normally listen to as the music nerd that I am, the Chris Tomlin song ‘Whom Shall I Fear‘ has become my rallying cry as I face the thought of audition panels. ‘I know who goes before me, I know who stands behind, the God of angel armies is always by my side. The one who reigns forever, He is a friend of mine, the God of angel armies is always by my side’, is a potent antidote to the fear of judgment by selection committees. He walks ahead of me onto every stage, and I am eternally and unequivocally a child of the Most High. Really, whom shall I fear in any audition, no matter how exalted the stage?
  3. I am learning to take my own advice that I gave here, and invite God intentionally into my practicing. I have begun to pray before I practice. I’m learning to surrender even a practice session and ask that He would be pleased to make it productive and fun. When things aren’t going well, I ask Him who made my voice what approach I should take to get it to respond the way I want it to. I have begun to thank Him for a good practice session. This approach, coupled with a belief that my practicing matters in some eternal, invisible, supernatural way, has fueled me to greater productivity in a practice room than I have ever experienced since I was 13 years old.
  4. Phones are the death of a helpful practice session. I’ve started leaving it in my office when I practice. There’s very little chance that something earth-shatteringly important is going to happen in the 90 minutes or so that I will be separated from my phone. When I don’t have it with me, there is no temptation to browse Facebook or Instagram. If a text comes through, I don’t know about it, so its presence doesn’t derail my concentration. If my practice session isn’t going well, the easiest thing to do is to think, ‘Well, I’ll just take a little break and come back to it in a few minutes’. I’m fairly certain every single millennial reading this has pulled this stunt, whether in a practice room or somewhere else. Guess what? Your motivation probably isn’t going to improve in the 10 minutes you just spent on Facebook. If anything, you’ll likely be less motivated and interested in your sub-par practice/study/workout/Bible reading session. Don’t just put your phone down. Put it somewhere you have to exert a significant amount of effort to get it, and then get back to the task at hand.
  5. My abilities develop at precisely the rate that God intends they should develop. This is a lesson I’d rather ignore at times. The truth is that everything on this earth is under the control of Almighty God. Why would I ever think that my voice and musical development is exempt from that inviolable reality? There have been times that I have raged at my inability to do certain things as a singer. I am learning that this is also not mine to control. It has been given to me to be faithful in practicing what I have learned in a lesson, memorizing music, and accessing my God-given and God-reflecting creativity as best I can. The outcome is not mine to determine. What God makes of my faithfulness is not my business.

I am learning so much more than just new music these days, and you know what strange reality I’ve encountered as I’ve been enabled to loosen my grip on my music as my identity? Singing is so much more fun than it ever was. Yes, sometimes it’s tough to make it to a practice room, but on the whole, singing has become more joy-filled than it has been in a long time. I hope the same is true for you. In fact, you should come make music with me.

I’ll be in a practice room.

ordinary designs

made|new|altar

(contributed by Hattie Buell)

I told my boyfriend, Mr. Johnny Raincloud, about my post, as I am eager for his constant approval and he had momentarily moved his attention off of me and onto The Dread Crossword Puzzle That The NY Times Just Put Out Today And I Need You To Understand How This Makes Me Happy!!

After I explained how I was going to write terribly clever things about artists in the church, he snorted: “Like that’s never been written on before!” Let it be known that after I made shocked noises at him he laughed and told me what a good job I’m doing and that I should write the post. But his sarcasm was correct.

This subject has been written about. A lot. But maybe that’s because it’s really important?? And also it keeps changing. Art changes, popular mediums pop up, churches develop the theology of art, artists burn out, babies are born! So, in defense of this post, and every post ever written about this topic (even if it is a very stupid article): it is O.K. for us to return to this again and again and again.

If you haven’t read Chris’s post from last week, please go back and at least skim his concluding admonitions. This post relates to and is partly inspired by his. I consider this post a sort of next-step to the basic needs of artists that Chris outlined.

For me, the relationship between art and the church has been great. Super healthy and mostly inspiring. I grew up in a home of musical worship leading that was basically like a legacy, I went to an Anglican church made up of many art majors, maybe because of that it had a right and good understanding of the liturgy of art in life and worship, and I was always encouraged to explore my art faithfully. And now I’m dating a worship leader! Clearly I have a “type” that not only applies to dating relationships, but also to all of my friends. Yes, all two of them.

My involvement with the church borders the insane: I go to a three-year-old church plant in Chicago, and some of the things I do there include baking bread, sewing & embroidering cloths for the altar, playing on the worship team, and most recently I’ve written a song for Sunday worship. Truth be told, some leaders at my church realized how much I was doing and asked me how I felt about maybe cooling my freaking jets?! (They definitely did NOT say that. That’s a total paraphrase.)

But I just feel so strongly about incorporating beautiful things into worship, so strongly that I create opportunities for me to make art in the church. Yes. I sneak about the church, looking for little things to beautify. “Oh lay deacon, having that as an altar linen looks great,” I say enthusiastically, “but what if I took it and embroidered it? ….Yeah? Thought so.” Voila.

And again, in the new song-writing coalition at church, I carefully picked a text that would be used for a sermon about a month away, so that when that Sunday rolled around, I had a new song that could be sung together during the service! Note: I am not actually being sneaky! I am being ambitiously helpful. I am making spaces for myself to be creative and useful.

Now, there are already huge, lovely spaces for the artists in the service structure and life of my church. This gives me a definite advantage. The leadership never says “oh my stars sacrilege what were you thinking m’dear”, but rather, “let’s see what you can do”. (Needless to say, we have great leadership and a well-established concept of art and beauty.) Then I do a thing, which is sometimes a horrible, disastrous failure of a thing and then I melt into a great pile of incompetency. And yes, I am referring to all of my doomed embroidery designs that I would sew over and over, only to rip it out every time. But then there’s the church again! She says “oh that’s just marvelous!” or she takes my ugly thing away and says “no matter, let’s try again!”

And so I am renewed by my attempts to create beautiful things for God and the church.

I’ve talked to a couple of my artsy friends who are in positions of church leadership, and although they all expressed a desire for seeing/doing more art in churches, one has taken it upon himself to make opportunities in church life for him to do art. I think that this is the simplest, easiest, and kindest sneaky way to begin incorporating art into a church’s life. It’s perfect! It does mean work, though. You have to hunt out needs in the church, you have to take ownership over that need, and then you have to deliver the goods. You might get to the end and discover that no one cares. Now if this irks you to the core and sends into blind rages, I’m going to hazard that you have Motivations That Need Attending To.

My own motivations were poignantly called into question over my embroidery.

I delivered a purificator one Sunday morning that I had thoughtfully embroidered. (A purificator is just a linen cloth that is used on the altar to cover the chalise of wine and to wipe the rim after each person drinks the sacrament.) For the past two months I had been trying out these larger, complex designs that were gorgeous, but were just not. working. So I scrapped it. I went back to nothing so that I could create something. I embroidered a tiny red cross, signifying Christ’s humanity, and then went back in and wove a thread of blue amongst the red: Christ’s divinity! I was so pleased with myself. Then I embroidered tiny vine segments about the cross. Wow. The symbolism was impressive, I told myself. My visions of the whole congregation noticing that embroidered white cloth rivaled the effect that Cinderella had as she entered the ball and changed everyone’s lives.

Hey, that didn’t happen. The most affirmation I received was after showing my two friends the design and they liked it a lot, so that was comforting.

At church, all I got was a tap on my shoulder after I had passed the cloth on to the altar guild.

“Hey, is this supposed to be a special cloth? Like for special occasions or something?”

I stared at the member of the altar guild and felt my artistry hanging in the air before us. Finally, I answered.

“No, it’s not special. It’s ordinary*; you can use it any time.” And I turned away contented, my artistic pride staring at me open-mouthed. Because, you see, it wasn’t just answering his question so that he’d know how to set up the altar that morning. I was in fact, answering MY question:

What is this for? Who did you embroider that cloth for? Why did you do it? I think, with the Holy Spirit’s constant help, I embroidered and will continue to embroider as a creative servant, both to my Lord and to my church family. Recognized or not, I have the satisfaction of creating beauty, with the Holy Spirit and my church, using my art in a way that I pray will always be earnest and helpful.

*Ordinary refers to the longest division of the church calendar where no major feast days occur. We’re currently in ordinary time after Pentecost. 

 

the artist in church

made|new|churchartist

I once asked a friend what single thing the church needed to hear from artists, and the response was that the church on the whole doesn’t create room to hear them.

He went on to explain that artists question things, and explore areas that a lot of church folks are really uncomfortable about – for instance: doubt, fear, repulsion, sin, the felt absence of God in a life and what that means.  These run counter to an individualized, American Christianity.

The church wants beauty, and love, and righteous happy endings.  It’s about triumphant transformation and freedom from sin and courageous evangelism.  The church is about movement, a gradual increase of holy, happy living. These ideas are often the topics of priority in American churches, and for good reason. Every single thing I’ve listed above is (with deeper context) a hallmark of Christ-centered faith.

Where the disconnect occurs for artists could be that they won’t accept pat answers or lack of context.

Classifying artistic temperaments is difficult – like any classification of the complex, living, thinking beings called humans.  However, I believe that there are baseline “compulsions” of artists.  Primarily – creation, communication, exploration, and passion.

Artists live to create. This is not just artists, of course.  For instance, craftsmen – such as carpenters, engineers, plumbers – all incorporate creative expertise in their professions.  The drive to create is simply a fundamental element of created beings.

Artists create to communicate.  When sound is intentionally designed to communicate concepts and aesthetics, that is art, and its creator is an artist.  This translates to craftsmen too; when an architect designs a building to say something specific about symmetry or to model nature: that is art.  When a chef show utmost respect for ingredients and sense of place, or makes modern art on a plate: they are an artist.

Artists communicate to explore. They look at life as they find it and ask: Why? It’s this deep curiosity that is simply not satisfied with easy answers. This need to live in the question is vital to a church founded on Someone who is way beyond our finite minds.  Without the perpetuation of mystery and wonder that artists can provide, truth can seem like shallow, easy answers.  When we provide the space for artists to explore theological truths deeply, in different sensory ways, those truths take on the profound qualities they always had.  Increased artistry equals increased understanding.

So yes, the church needs to hear and value the contributions of the artistic people in their congregations.

But artists also need to listen.

Artists explore passionately.  This can be a double-edged sword. Artists, necessarily, get excited about what they are creating, communicating, and exploring.  This passion is what drives them to do it in the first place.  Passion, though, can be misdirected.

The church as a whole is full of people from a variety of backgrounds and ideologies.  When I come into a church community, there’s something at stake larger than my gifts and personality.

Yes, I am valuable. Just like everyone else.

Yes, the church should make room for my gifts. Just like they should for everyone else.

I have frequent conversations with young artists of all disciplines who are concerned about the lack of beauty and art in churches.  They are passionate about the church being a proponent for the arts in every community and serving artists in its congregation.  This is coming at it from the wrong direction.

The church is not here to serve artists.  It’s here to be served by artists. Church isn’t about me, it’s about giving glory to God with His people.

Being a part of the church is about being nourished by His Word, His sacraments, prayer, fellowship, discipline, etc.  It’s about loving those around me more than my own creative voice.  And it’s about using my creative voice to participate in all of those things.

Churches:

Don’t be afraid of where artists will go with the truth of God’s Word.  Press into relationship with them that will guide and form conclusions.  Make space for them to find mentors in the arts and in your congregation.  Reference and respect art in your sermons and liturgy.  Use their art for mutual edification in your services, and to stretch your church.  Encourage your congregation to support their work outside of the church.  Create opportunities to reach out to your community through your artists. This will be a key outreach for communicating Christ in the coming days, because it can be both loving and honest, declamatory and conversational.

Artists:

Take a chill pill.  Turn from trumpeting your temperament to submitting it to the service of the body. Get over your ambition to be heard and ask your leaders what you can do to augment worship.  Adjust your expectations by serving in small ways – even and especially ways that are outside of your comfort zone.  Encourage and applaud other people’s contributions to the life of the body – especially when they are different then your own.  Exercise patience, charity, and respect toward leadership and congregation alike.  Learn to live in love, and to let yourself be loved.

out of stillness, life

made|new|peacelake

If you walk along the eastern edge of North Pond in Lincoln Park, Chicago, right up close to the water, you may chance to find a very special tree. Many years ago, it would seem, the tree was split in half somehow, and now both halves of the tree curl over to the ground. The tree abuts the water, and so if you duck under one half of the now-horizontal trunk, you’ll walk down a little slope to the water’s edge and bulrushes. I stepped in, and found that some kindly park rangers had left a nice chunk of wood as a seat there. There in the middle of Chicago, in the semi-shelter of the park, I found an even smaller refuge where not even my fellow park-walkers could see me, and at last my mind uncoiled from everyday life long enough and free enough to dream.

As I sat beneath that ancient tree, I thought how I cannot create from a place of rush and hurry, from a place of noise. I’ve often noticed that my mind and dreams are most alive late at night when at last the world is quiet. When I get to a practice room at the end of the workday, I usually need at least 15 minutes of staring into space before I can begin warming up. As I converse with other artists, I hear similar stories: minds awakening and ideas flowing only when the rest of the world has gone to bed. It’s an old story.

It makes sense. The production of good art exacts a high price from its creators, demanding all our intellect, judgment, talent, emotion, and vulnerability. How can anyone have the presence of mind to create when so much brain space is already devoted to a steady stream of media and information? Perhaps part of the reason that arts are suffocated is the constant chatter.

This is not the paradigm of Scripture. Our LORD never created from a place of so much chaos. He is himself Peace and so all that he brought into being was made in peace. How can I think that I would be able to do better? No, we must commit to stillness before creation. We cannot create from chaos – our finite minds will not allow it.

Even more profoundly, if we are seeking to tell God’s story, we cannot hear his words through the cacophony. Our art becomes a deeply worshipful endeavor when we submit its production and content in their entirety to His control. We cannot hear how and what we should produce when so many other voices compete for our attention. No, we must commit to stillness if we are ever to find the fountainhead of our art. We are fools if we think that we can create anything apart from the Creator.

I wish I could say that I discovered today, there beneath that Hobbit-hole of a twisted tree trunk, the magic formula to stillness. I didn’t. I know enough of the ancient mystics of the Christian faith to know that stillness takes time and patience. In a world where Google reports that it took 0.53 seconds to access the entire combined knowledge of the world on the subject of MacBooks (my test subject since that’s what I’m typing on), time and patience are unheard of or simply ridiculed. To add extra time to our artistic process seems impossible, since we barely have time to devote to art in the first place.

But what if our lack of stillness has deprived our art of its oxygen? What if we have been limiting ourselves all these years because we could not take the time to sit in His presence and ask the Most Beautiful One what we should make and how? I think our deepest writer’s block and dullest paintings and most inane music could be fed and elevated not by a futile search for inspiration, but by time spent whispering into the stillness, ‘Creator…teach me!’

glimmers & resolutions

made|new|glimmer

In an age reliant on selective realism to sell art, music, and stories of all mediums, artistic communication is necessarily shot through with sadness.  Instead of escapism, serious art now champions the exploration of a surrounding darkness, bald representation of brutal realities, ingrown wallowing in self-discovery and self-pity, and the lauded unresolved ending.

This is the primary critique of much Christian art, leveled by non-Christians and world-wise Christians alike: too many happy endings.

That’s not the way the world works, we say.

Christ doesn’t solve all your problems, we insist.

You are presenting an expectation that is not reliable, I argue.

Your story does more harm to Christ’s reputation than good, I accuse.

So we start writing stories that showcase our own faults and problems, with little glimmers of hope here and there designed to make us feel better about the fact that they offer little else to the world.  We laud the cultural stories of the world for their “reliability” on the topic of sad endings and unresolved conflict.

My book club recently read the Sylvia Plath novel “The Bell Jar”, which is a classic case of a painfully real story with an unresolved ending.  Esther’s gradual insanity is so sympathetically constructed that it worried me how much I related, and the rhythm and metaphor in Plath’s prose composed a work of intimate force.  Even as the heroine is preparing to enter her final examination before leaving the asylum, she dreads a future descent of the bell jar – that isolating, suffocating illness that has been her normal for so long.  She enters the room, and the story ends.  Only a slight mention of a house and a baby on page 3 of the novel suggests that her life is now “normal.”

For Sylvia Plath in real life, the ending was much more certain and undeniably sad.

As a book club of Christians, we looked at this book and saw so much value – for those of us who had been through mental illness or depression, it provided the opportunity for validation of their experiences, and for those of us who hadn’t it offered an opportunity to empathize.  However, believers all, it didn’t offer us any sort of satisfactory answers to the problem of mental illness, because the author didn’t ever find one herself.  We don’t discount the value of this book, but we do acknowledge the absence of a right perspective or a form of truth worth grasping in such difficult situations.

What alternative can we offer?

Christian art – that which comes from a sincere belief that Christ is the answer – should have three aspects.

Christian art must be true.  

We absolutely should write heroes that grow to be more full of life then ever, or who realize pain and remain faithful.  We should aspire to exemplify the truth in our poems and songs that such growth is desirable, attractive, and worth pursuing.

We live in and affirm the truth that the world is going to hell.  We must also live in and affirm the truth that Christ is taking us to heaven.  Between this world and the heaven we long for is a life that must be informed by the resolution of it all.  If we sit and simmer on the problems of the world without offering truth and beauty – in essence, answers – we are merely patting people on the back as they drown in quicksand.

“Oh, hey there.  Look, I don’t want to be obnoxious or anything, so I’m going to sit over here with my guitar in this pit-side brewery and play some quiet confessional songs with spiritual allusions in them.  And then I’ll read you a little poem I wrote about my troubled family life and how dark our shared fate is here on the cursed earth.  It will be a suitable ode to your impending death…”

…when maybe we should be cranking out death metal, screaming, “YOU ARE DYING AND YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW IT / DO YOU FREAKING WANT A ROPE?”

We have such low expectations of the power of the Gospel to transform us and those around us into Christ’s image.  Never be ashamed of the cross.

Christian art must be excellent. 

If you’re like me you’re moaning, does that mean I have to watch the latest attempt at a movie from that one church?

The evangelical alternative to secular art that we’re all familiar with is “kitschy Christian pseudo-art.”  You know the type: blatant, half-assed gospel beat-downs with miles of smiles and miracles (s’miracles?) affixed on perfect Christians with perfect teeth.  This is crass marketing at it’s finest, not art that communicates, and it smacks of a different cultural age of evangelical crusades and big business Christianity.  Of course, our own cultural age is more about high-quality, small-batch, moody, independent faith.  Hm.  Myopic much?

Besides the irony (I am a millennial, after all), the basic fact of this faux-art is that it is simply not true because it’s trying to sell something.  Christ cannot be bought or sold.  You don’t convince someone that Christ is worth following, because all human logic says following Him is totally not worth it.

As believers we have an even higher responsibility to create something excellent when we make art.  This means depth, it means symbolism, it means beauty, skill, nuance and simplicity.  Excellence and truth can protect us from cheese-ball Christianity.  When we strive to do our best with our art, we avoid using it like a hammer (except where necessary!) on unbelievers, because our life in Christ bears incalculable nuance.  We invoke robust hope and curiosity, not easy answers worthy of the mockery they receive.  We explore the “not yet” of our current life while celebrating the “now” nature of salvation and considering the “wow” nature of glorification.

Christian art must be motivated by love.

As is everything we do in life.

Not by pride, not by fear.  Not by an ancillary desire to pay the bills.  Not by an ambition to increase our “reach” in order to “maximize our effectiveness.”

Christ’s kingdom advances when we are so connected to Christ that our actions are fully motivated by true love.  It’s not a numbers game, or a followers game, or a name game.

Love, tempered by truth, characterized by excellence, actualized as art.

this beautiful altar | surrendering the creative process

made|new|birdinreeds

(originally posted by Allison Keeport at Crabapple Creative)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve considered my creativity and sensitivity to beauty to be among my most defining personality traits. I once was mildly irritated that I am right-hand dominant because (supposedly) left-handed people are more creative because they use the right side of their brains more, and the left hand is controlled by the right side of the brain, or some such nonsense. I’ve since learned that creativity really isn’t controlled by one side of the brain over the other, that we use each half of our brains equally, and that my frustration (like so many of my neuroses) was unfounded.

But, still, I am driven by beauty. The search for beauty compels me to create. Beauty often aches, but as Rich Mullins wrote, ‘it’s a hurt that can heal with its pain’. That aching beauty binds me. It is elusive, and my best efforts to capture it are often insufficient, but I believe that if a thing is beautiful, it reflects Divinity in some way, and so I pursue beauty. I create so that I will be a part of Divinity. After all, the first thing we learn in Scripture is that God is the Creator, and shortly after that, we learn that man was made in His image. To bear his image makes us natural creators. Consequently, artists have striven to create perfect beauty for millennia. They may not recognize it as such, but that passion for beauty and the pursuit of perfection reflects the Triune God of the Bible, for God is the Most Beautiful, perfectly holy, and the consummate Artist.

My own search for beauty as an artist and creator is bound inextricably with my communion with God, my pursuit of meaning, and my bedrock belief that all beauty in this world is a dim reflection of YHWH the Most Beautiful. And yet, my own creative development is strangely divorced from this understanding that God is the Most Beautiful. I approach a practice room as my jurisdiction, as if I am the law of the land and my voice is some renegade that must be brought under my rule. As if God does not really care about what happens in a practice room, or that he does not have a vested interest in my creative development.

But how could He not care? If there is any beauty in this world, it is His beauty. It is our charge as artists who bear His name to steward that beauty well, to ensure that it reflects Him well. What a fragile thing he has entrusted to our care! Beauty is easily broken.

But what if he does care? What if the tasks of a practice room matter profoundly to the heart of this God who calls himself not only Creator, but Father too? What if our frustration during a practice session gone wrong, the elation of mastery, and the twinge of heartache that accompanies beauty evoke the same responses in the heart and mind of Almighty God? I think they must matter to Him. Our art tells His story, those joys and frustrations are the first-fruit offerings that we lay on the altar, and beauty aches because we are longing for Him – our Maker, Father, Lover, and Friend. Even one of these elements would be sufficient reason for Him to be concerned with our fledgling creative efforts. How much more must He care when so much is invested in our art?

And yet, I enter and leave my favorite practice room with a blind determination to succeed apart from Him, and with no recognition of the sacred thing I am about to do. If I were wise, I would perhaps take few moments to dedicate my effort to Him and to ask that he be  pleased with it and be pleased to bless it. I would perhaps revel more, as He does, in what I can do and grieve less what I cannot do. I would ask for His help in reproducing what I learned at my last lesson. I would squander less time on my phone. I would thank him when I am singing well, instead of wallowing like a pig in mud over the sound of my own pretty voice. And when nothing is going well – when my voice creaks, goes flat, and screeches out all the high notes (as it did today before I wrote this article) – I would thank him that He loves me apart from how well I tell the story or how clearly I reflect His beauty.

I would remember that He walks into that practice room or onto that stage before me and beside me. I would remember that whatever good I do as a musician, He did it first and best. I would remember that he made the overtone series, the singer’s formant, Puccini, and the minds that formalized the common practice theory and Western music that we all love and slave to perfect. I would remember that the morning stars sang together when He created the foundations of the earth and that one day we will sing a completely new song that will eclipse every aria yet composed.

Above all, I would remember that the beauty and the music are His, and that he has graciously loaned them to me for a season so that I would learn to use them as well as I can and then offer back to him in worship what was never mine to begin with: a passion for beauty and a mind that creates.

Take joy, my King, in what you hear – may it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ear…

a good friday liturgy

made|newgoodfriday

2,016 years ago, God couldn’t walk.  He had to be carried everywhere, like most babies.

2,014 years ago, God took some staggering first steps, fell and scraped His knee.  He cried, and His mother wiped away His tears and told Him to try again.  Or maybe He still crawled everywhere at two years old.  Some toddlers are late bloomers.

2,010 years ago, God ran across the street in a small town with the other kids, perhaps playing a version of soccer.  He might not have been very good at it.

2,000 years ago, God walked across the dirt floor of a carpenter’s shop and got a splinter stuck in his big toe.  He possibly said “ouch!”

1,986 years ago, God hoofed it all over the countryside, talking to people and healing them of diseases.  He accidentally stepped in sheep dung, and had to wipe his sandals on the grass.

1,983 years ago, God walked the streets of Jerusalem, bloodied and beaten, carrying a rough-hewn beam of wood on His back.  His feet failed Him, and someone stronger had to carry the cross for Him.

The liturgy below presents glimpses of the last walking moments of God (incognito).

We easily forget that it wasn’t just our salvation that Jesus Christ bought for us, it was the opportunity to walk out our salvation.  Through an entire sinless life −even in the unwritten mundane ways − Jesus placed before us both a standard and a directive.  We are to walk in His steps, through His strength, for His glory. We worship a God who has walked in our shoes, and our highest hope and assurance is that we would walk in His.

Stay tuned for part two on Easter Sunday.  Let’s just say, leaping may be in order.

This liturgy was written for tonight’s Good Friday service at my church, and it borrows elements from the liturgy of the Stations of the Cross.

 

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We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

God of power and mercy, in love you sent your Son that we might be cleansed of sin and live with you forever.

Bless us as we gather to reflect on his suffering and death that we may follow his example and walk in his steps. We ask this through that same Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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The Garden of Gethsemane: Matthew 26:36-41

Lord of Power and Might, in this moment, you submitted yourself to the Father. 

We are weak and weary. Our spirits are willing, sometimes. May we keep watch on this dark night with you, for you, because of you. We submit our wills and our prayers to you, knowing that you hear. May we accept your plans as exceedingly greater than we can imagine.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Go to Dark Gethsemane

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Betrayed by Judas: Mark 14:43-46

Faithful Friend, in this moment, you surrendered yourself into the hands of a faithless friend.

With the symbol of love and trust, you were betrayed; that you would be a steadfast companion to all who accept your offer of friendship. May we turn to you now in loyalty and love, and remember your faithfulness to all generations. 

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended

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Denied by Peter: Matthew 26:69-75

Resolute Father, in this moment, your strongest follower proved to be a coward. 

So often we waver and whimper our way through life. When we hang out with like-minded people, we are bold and brazen. When we face hostile consequences, we are ashamed of you and ashamed of the Gospel – like Peter. Give us the courage to claim your name with boldness.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

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Judged by Pilate: Mark 15:1-5, 11-15

Just Judge, in this moment, you made yourself weak and gave your enemies power over you. Your trial was rigged, your jury blinded by jealousy, and your judges unjust.

As sinners, you judge us with honesty and equity – based upon your holiness, we have been found guilty. As our Savior, you took our punishment as your own; based upon your sacrifice, we have been made righteous. In response, may our hearts be grateful, our attitudes toward other gracious, and our lives holy.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Man of Sorrows, What a Name

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Scourged and Crowned with Thorns: John 19:1-3

Suffering Servant, in this moment, you endured scorn and ridicule from those you came to save. You were crushed for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.

The punishment that brought us peace was placed upon you, and with your stripes we are healed. May we see your sacrifice clearly, feel you suffering deeply, and hear your voice calling us to repentance and holiness.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed

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Crucified: John 19:15-17; Luke 23:33-34

Healer of the broken, we broke you.

Binder of the wounded, we wounded you.

Lamb of God, we slaughtered you.

Yet it was the Lord’s will that you be crushed, that your life be a bloody sacrifice for our sin. You emptied out your life unto death, that we may have life overflowing. May this be ever before us, never far from us, always within us: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Blessed are those whose sin the Lord will never count against them.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Beneath the Cross of Jesus

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Promised His Kingdom to the Thief: Luke 23:39-43

Lover of the Unlovely, in this moment, you made straight the path for a crooked man to enter your rest.

Our ways are bent and our hearts are twisted, but the kingdom of God is not populated by perfect spiritual specimens. We are in a holy company of thieves, prostitutes, murderers, and liars – who have met God, in Christ. Remind us of the grace that does not give us what we truly deserve.

Lord, Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: How Deep the Father’s Love for Us 

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Died on the Cross: Luke 23:44-46

Giver of Life, in this moment, you gave yours up for us. Through the rending of your flesh, a way was made for us to enter your presence. 

Remind us of the depth of this death and the breadth of your love, that we, ever thankful, may die to ourselves daily and live a life worthy of your sacrifice.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Amazing Grace

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Placed in the Tomb: Matthew 27:57-60

Rock of Our Salvation, in this moment, all hope was sealed away.

May we remember the silence of your grave, and keep silence.

(silence may be kept)

Lord Jesus Christ, your death is the sacrifice that unites earth and heaven; through your blood you have reconciled us to you. May we, who have faithfully reflected on these mysteries, follow in your steps and so come to share your glory in heaven, where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

   Hymn: What Wondrous Love

you’ll have to boycott believers

made|new|hymns

Recently the article It’s Time to Boycott the Worship Industry came across my feed through a friend of mine, Alex Bersin, who subsequently wrote about it at The Christian Skeptic, taking on an ancillary topic – the lack of honest representation of the Christian life and ethic through modern worship.  He suggests that instead of a boycott, disciplinary action should take place.

Thinking through these two articles left my mind bubbling with ideas, so naturally I had to grapple with them.

Jonathan Aigner’s post on boycotting the worship industry brings up a lot of important criticisms: for instance – and I think most importantly – that the priority and responsibility of worship should be with the congregation and not the leaders.  The denouncements of money, idols, and remaining dissatisfied customers are important as well.  Truly, the modern worship movement has problems.  I don’t disagree.

But then I step into Church.

The fellowship of believers, company of redeemed, people who have accepted Christ and are united under whatever physical roof they’re under to know Him and make Him known, full of sinner-saints and grandstanders and rebels and those who are ashamed, broken, ambitious and beautifully loved.

And the Church is different.  In context of this post, the worship of the Church is different. This isn’t the place for celebrity or ambition just as much as it isn’t the place for judgment of those around me.  I would argue that the worship of the church should be dissatisfying to you on multiple levels, because in essence it’s not about you.  It’s absolutely impossible to please everyone in a multi-generational, multi-ethnic, multi-background, multi-class congregation, and nearly as impossible to find a congregation that matches all of those qualities – probably for that reason.

Jonathan petitions us:

There are many of you: all ages, denominations, and cultural backgrounds. What we’ve done with worship makes you cringe. Your senses are dulled by the lack of artistry, the pervasive emotional manipulation. But you remain in churches controlled by the worship industry, maybe for your family’s sake, maybe because all your friends go there, maybe because you find a certain theological like-mindedness. But it’s time to speak up or move on. We must. Corporate worship is more important than programs for your family. It’s more important than your life group relationships. It’s theological at its very core, so the like-mindedness you sense may be shallower than you realize. We have to make ourselves heard. The industry’s chokehold is starving us of the vital nutrients we so desperately need, Word and Sacrament, and offering the empty carbs of commercial entertainment in its place. It’s killing us, and we’re consenting to the slow, agonizing death.

That “certain theological like-mindedness” – maybe, Christocentric in nature? – demands something much more robust of us than running away or running our mouths off.  It demands consistent faithfulness to Christ and His Church, warts and all.  Maybe we’re uplifting an ideal of corporate worship when we should be uplifting Christ.  And maybe we’re blaming the ubiquitous “industry” for our own apathy when we should rouse ourselves to love.

Alex’s pungent (in a good way) reply to Jonathan layers on a comparison of modern worship to prosperity gospel.  In his rebuttal of said gospel he points out that:

Hope does not laugh at frailty nor does joy wink at misfortune. They endure. They persevere. They do not expect from God but rather accept his will. They remind God of his promises but they also remind us of our place. We hope in God, not our persistence, and we take joy in his plan, not our ignorance to it.
Evil will happen. We will experience trial and loss, but we must not spit in the face of divine sovereignty by ordering our own steps. God designed our suffering, like that of his son, for a purpose–a purpose we reject if we sing songs glorifying our commitment to our own happiness.

What he describes here is a full perspective of the “now but not yet” Christian life – one which is vital to corporate worship.  Many enduring songs of the church provide this perspective (which is why they have endured), but many more fell off the grid in the interim.  Some modern songs will also endure, and many will fall away.  It’s the prerogative of time to winnow out what we can’t seem to shake off now.

It’s important, I think, to remember that songs that endure are always penned by humans – frail, with stuttering tongues and faltering pens, writing song after song dedicated to chronicling the story of Christ because they just can’t escape what He did for the world and in their lives.  What makes historical feeble attempts worthy and modern feeble attempts unworthy besides the fact that we don’t see the rejects in real time?  Is full metal jacket worship attainable in the schizoid melee we currently inhabit, or only back when the printing press started this whole crazy information overload?

I think fuller perspective is attainable in corporate worship.  And I think we want it.  I also think we won’t find it solely in songs.  We’ll find it in Scripture.

Our songs will elevate our worship to the extent that they elevate the scriptural view of God and man and the collision of the two.  But there’s no rule that they have to do it all on their own.

It’s also true that God can speak through [donkeys].  Modern worship songs do exist that possess transcendence and truth.  In our pursuit of God’s Word, both inspired and Incarnate, we find heavy yokes lightened, tired souls refreshed, deep sorrow transformed into deep joy.  The resolution, in the end, will overwhelm the pain God ordained by a thousandfold.

That’s why we tell the story.  God became devastatingly human so that we could be made new in Christ.  It’s two parts of a whole that we enact again and again in our corporate worship.

This is not a “leave your brain at the door” deal.  Engage your mind and your heart and your spirit with the truth and beauty of the Word, inspired and incarnate.  It’s your responsibility as a believer.  Our own personal ideals, aesthetic preferences, and critical eyes should not be shut off.  But it might be important that they shut up until the appropriate time.

Then, to practicalities. Turning around a consumeristic trend in the worship of a church could mean some of the following:

  1. Pray.  It’s, like, a big deal in the Bible.
  2. Get involved in worship, the worship team, and in worship planning if possible.  Remember, this isn’t just a musical thing – the entire service and life of the Body is worship.
  3. Work to create spaces in the musical worship itself for times of silence, lament, confession, and definitely congregational participation.  These are sorely underrepresented in many churches.  These days creative worship techniques are fashionable anyway, so take advantage of that.
  4. Incorporate Scripture into every corner of the service and life of the congregation.
  5. Worship wholeheartedly when you are in the position of a congregant.  What’s happening on stage doesn’t have to divide your heart.
  6. Open thoughtful dialogue with people about the issue.

So, let me ask the question: are you determined to break fellowship with redeemed sinners over an admittedly real issue, or are you determined to stick it out and lovingly speak the truth?  Because I’m pretty sure the latter is what Christ decided He would do.