Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reasons to Sing!

This year I am blessed to work with a small choir of 18 junior high school students in our day school. They are a talented group of treble singers, who do a nice job of singing SSA repertoire - both accompanied and a cappella. They are the smaller of our two junior high choirs (the other has 22 voices singing 2-part mixed), yet forms the backbone of the group when we combine the two choirs to sing SAB/SAC repertoire. As an example of this group's talent, they are having little trouble taking on René Clausen's Psalm 100 - a piece usually sung by high school and college choirs.

The music is all fine and good, but I especially enjoy working with these kids because of their spiritual maturity. I've worked with hundreds of children their age over their years, but have yet to have a group that would come up with the following list for their "reasons to sing":

*To raise spirits.
*Sustain culture.
*Bring people together.
*Sustain them on their journey.
*Have an impact on their lives.

These are pretty good goals for any Lutheran church choir to have. The raising of spirits evokes the Sursum Corda of the liturgy: "Lift up your hearts!" As the choir assists the Office of the Holy Ministry, how wonderful it is for them to have the attitude of this holy exhortation.

Sustaining culture shows how much these kids love their church. They know that their church is something special, and that they have received an authentic tradition of worship in the music of our Lutheran family. Whether they are singing a chorale, Bach, Bouman, or a contemporary psalm setting from Liturgy Solutions, they are part of a living heritage - and love it.

"Bringing People Together" might be the goal of any choral organization, but in this context we are talking about something more than "building community". The Lutheran Church choir "builds communion" by magnifying God's Word. Through this Word we proclaim, the choir becomes a tool of the Holy Spirit, as He calls, gathers, and enlightens the Church, the "ecclesia", the "called out ones". This happened today as we sang "Listen! God is Calling", and proclaimed the Lord's forgiveness, comfort, and joy.

This Word we sing "sustains people on their journey" as the Word we sing stays with them throughout the week. The Psalm antiphons we sing often stay in people's minds and hearts, as often do words from hymn stanzas or motets or preludes we sing. Working with pastors who cherish the lectionary and coordinate themes with the cantor, the choir is often able to reinforce the preaching, that people may gladly hear and learn it.

And then there is the "impact" we have on people's lives. At first I chaffed at little at that one, because "impact" is a word often used by entertainment evangelists and can reflect a consumerist attitude on the part of the hearers. But we understand that we are delivering the real "impact" that God has for our lives: the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. The Gospel makes all the difference in our lives, and so we rejoice that we can use the gift of music to proclaim that same Gospel, that those who hear our song may know the comfort, hope, and cheer Christ freely gives to us from the cross.

And so this is what happens when we sing of Jesus, the Christ, whose Word is our very song: the faithful are gathered, spirits are raised, our communion is nurtured, faith is increased, and lives are changed, all through the power of the Gospel.

No wonder we want to sing!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

ABLAZE (TM) is an Anomaly

I know what the ABLAZE (TM) movement is all about. I lived in the church growth movement for many years and am aware that ABLAZE (TM) is a pseudo-Lutheran manifestation of the very same synergistic impulses that the church growth movement bears. Essentially, the real definition is this: the Holy Spirit is hamstrung unless we do things right in our churches. If we’re not friendly enough to visitors, the Holy Spirit is hamstrung–– He can’t do His work. If our pastor is too theologically “deep” in his sermons, if he does not “meet people where they are,” the Holy Spirit is hamstrung. If the music is not relevant or entertaining enough even though the texts set forth the Word of the Gospel in clear and understandable language, the Holy Spirit is flummoxed. So, we are asked to be more relevant, interactive, casual, contemporary and all the rest. The poor Holy Spirit needs our help.

As repugnant as that is to me personally, I will say this. My church is actually an “ablaze” church! We hold the Divine Service every week. We baptized more than 6 young people last month. We are about to begin administering communion to kids that may be 7 or 8 years of age (or younger). The pastor offers private absolution. He provides catechesis for adults and children.

Additionally, we have picnics where the entire community is invited to attend. We’re holding an “Oktoberfest” next month. Local businesses are donating gift certificates for that event to benefit our parish. We have special Sundays with added music where the community is invited. The pastor is engaged with the town administration and other clergy. The parishioners serve the elderly in the apartment complex next door. We welcome visitors. We have a coffee hour where our visitors are welcome to attend. We participate in what is called an “Epiphany Walk” –– a community event where people stroll from one church to another over the course of an evening for little prayer services at each parish. When they come to ours, they hear Lutheran teaching and listen to Lutheran music. For all of these events, I would like to place an ABLAZE (TM) logo on the bulletin or announcement flyer, etc, and send it to my district office. What if I produced a Bach Cantata concert at my church? I could do that. Would this not be considered valid by the Synod as an ABLAZE (TM) initiative? Why should we not get funds to do that? After all, Bach sets forth the Gospel very clearly in all of his cantatas, right? And we would get attendance at such an event. I could slap an ABLAZE (TM) logo on the concert program and send that to the district office. And I could go on and on.

I have said all this and yet, my parish practices closed communion. We sing Divine Service 3 every week. We use LSB and sing substantive hymns from our Lutheran heritage. My pastor wears a chasuble every week. He chants the liturgy everywhere the rubrics suggest. He genuflects at the altar. He elevates the host and chalice. We’re also a small parish. We’re in New York State, where most people would have to look up the word Lutheran in the dictionary to find out what it means–– and they still would not really know.

Is there any valid reason why the LC–MS would consider us anything less than “ablaze” for the Gospel? Since when are all the things I listed not concerned with Gospel proclamation? Do they not serve our neighbor and ingratiate our community? Do we not welcome our visitors? Are we not ministering to our people and our little township? Of course we are! Are not your churches similar to mine? I know what ABLAZE (TM) is really about in the minds of the Synodical bureaucrats. I get that they have drunk the cool aid of the church growth movement. But honestly, if they were honest, our church (and probably yours also) is just as "ablaze" for the gospel as any one of their model churches–– I would argue, even more!