12 Days of Christmas Readings

Nativity-BAR800

In recent years, I have tried to develop practices that help me observe Christmas as a season of worship. Historically in the church the celebration of Christmas was not a single day, it was a season. In fact, the Christmas season lasted for 12 days (from December 25 until January 5) as it led up to the high feast day of Epiphany on January 6.

Last year, I put together for Seedbed a series of 12 excerpts from historical writings and sermons, one for each of the 12 days of Christmas, that focus on the incarnation of Jesus Christ. I have found each writing/sermon to be meaningful for devotional contemplation as well as significant to my own observance of the Christmas season.

Below are links to each of excerpts published last year by Seedbed. I invite you to join me in reading each one as part of a daily devotion and act of worship throughout the 12 days of Christmas. May the wisdom presented from these saints of the church both challenge you and bring your heart to deeper delight in God over this Christmas season. Merry Christmas!

December 25, 1st Day of Christmas: St. Augustine of Hippo from “On the Mystery of the Incarnation” 

December 26, 2nd Day of Christmas: John Chrysostom, from “Christmas Day Sermon, Antioch, 386 A.D.”

December 27, 3rd Day of Christmas: St. Athanasius, from “On the Incarnation of the Word”

December 28, 4th Day of Christmas: St. Leo the Great, from “On the Feast of the Nativity”

December 29, 5th Day of Christmas: John Donne, from “The Showing forth of Christ”

December 30, 6th Day of Christmas: Fanny Crosby, “Sing Hallelujah!”

December 31, 7th Day of Christmas: George Whitfield, from “The True Way of Keeping Christmas”

January 1, 8th Day of Christmas: Martin Luther, from “The Story of the Birth of Jesus and the Angels’ Song”

January 2, 9th Day of Christmas: Charles Wesley, “Hark, How All the Welkin Rings”

January 3, 10th Day of Christmas: St. Bridget of Sweden, from “The Revelation of St. Bridget”

January 4, 11th Day of Christmas: Gregory of Nazianzus, from “A Christmas Sermon”

January 5, 12th Day of Christmas: John Wesley, from “The More Excellent Way”

Why is there a pink candle in the Advent wreath?

Advent-Wreath-third Sunday

For those familiar with the liturgical calendar, this upcoming Sunday (December 15) is the third Sunday in the season of Advent. A common practice in churches and homes during the season of Advent is the progressive lighting of four candles – three purple and one pink. Each week, another candle is lit as a symbol of expectation for God’s presence on earth. On the first, second, and fourth weeks in Advent, a purple candle is lit. On the third Sunday, (yes, on the third Sunday), a pink candle is lit.

In every liturgical act of the church, there is special purpose and meaning behind the patterns, symbols, and practices employed in worship. As can sometimes be the case with liturgical acts of the church, the purpose and meaning can be left neglected even though the practice persists. When uneducated, the church is left in confusion and with unanswered questions.

Lighting a pink candle on the third Sunday in Advent tends to be one of the more ambiguous practices some churches continue to do. Each Advent I hear questions and witness confusion concerning the lighting of the pink candle. For starters, there is usually debate on whether the pink candle is lit on the third or the fourth Sunday. In addition, I frequently hear the following two questions asked:

1)Why is there one pink candle in the midst of three purple candles?

2) Why is the pink candle lit on the third Sunday in Advent?

If you have asked those same questions or know someone who has, I hope the liturgical and historical context I share in this post will help give clarity to the purpose and meaning of the pink candle.

 

From catechism to calendar…

First, I think it is fitting to give a little background to the season of Advent. The development of the season of Advent arose from catechetical practices in the ancient church. As early Christians moved into increasingly pagan areas of the world, it became important for the church to find regular patterns to teach and train new converts in Christian belief and behavior. Likewise, the church wanted new converts to hear, know, celebrate, and experience God’s redeeming story through the life of Jesus Christ. To aid in new converts’ identification with the life of Christ, as well as to provide regular patterns for the church to celebrate the story of God, a yearly cycle was established for worship.

Over time, the yearly structure of worship was organized into what is commonly known today as the liturgical calendar. The liturgical calendar divides the year into a regular rotation of seasons, each signified with its own mood, practices, theological emphases, and scriptural focus. Worship is structured through cycles of light and darkness, in patterns of feasting and fasting. Particular colors displayed in paraments around the church and in the vestments worn by clergy represent each season of the liturgical calendar. All of these factors contribute to one common goal – to shape Christian life and worship in God’s story.

 

From Epiphany to Advent…

In the ancient church, two main feast days were celebrated as the most notable of all in the liturgical calendar: Epiphany and Easter.* Epiphany signified the revelation of Jesus Christ through his birth and baptism as God in human form. Easter signified victory over sin and death through Christ’s death and resurrection.

The church’s reason for highlighting Epiphany and Easter as focal points in the liturgical year was due to the importance of these Christ-events in the Christian life. Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection is the means of human salvation. The sacrament of baptism is the act of identification with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, Epiphany and Easter became the services where new converts were baptized and fully welcomed into the church.

Since the ancient church considered baptism the mark of a life completely re-oriented in Christ, a season of baptismal preparation was established preceding Easter and Epiphany. This season was an intense time of prayer and scrutiny, a time to commit one’s self to the purification of sin and transformation into Christ-like righteousness. In time, the season of baptismal preparation prior to Easter developed into the season of Lent, while the season of baptismal preparation prior to Epiphany developed into the season of Advent.

 

From repentance to joy…

In many ways, the season of Advent has been and continues to be quite similar to Lent. Both are seasons of penance and repentance, sacrifice and simplicity. They are contrite seasons observed with solemn prayer and fasting. Furthermore, according to their historic purpose, they each call the church to reflect on the baptismal reality of dying and rising with Christ. Yet, where Lent is a time for the church to focus on Christ’s salvation through Christ’s life, death, and ultimately his resurrection on Easter, Advent is a time for the church to focus on hope through Christ’s incarnation revealed in his first coming in human form, and anticipated in his second coming in final victory.

The traditional color chosen for paraments and vestments in the church during Lent and Advent has traditionally been a deep purple, signifying royalty, repentance, and suffering. This often sets a quite somber and melancholy tone for the seasons of Advent and Lent. Still, in the midst of such solemnity, the ancient church recognized that Christians are never a people without joy. When true repentance occurs, joyful obedience is the result. Thus, there is joy to be celebrated even in the most penitential times. Moreover, joy is not only a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in an individual’s life, but it is also a characteristic common in God’s Kingdom.

 

From purple to pink…

To embody such a joyful attitude within patterns of worship during the seasons of Lent and Advent, the ancient church set aside one Sunday in each season to focus on joy. On this Sunday, the color of the paraments and vestments changed from purple to pink. The color pink (or more accurately, rose) actually only appears two weeks of the liturgical year – the fourth Sunday in Lent and the third Sunday in Advent. Each of these Sundays falls close to the middle of the seasons as a reminder for the church to never cease rejoicing.

It is believed that the use of the color pink actually began during Lent. In the ancient church, a practice began on the fourth Sunday of Lent where the Pope would give a pink rose to a citizen, emphasizing the daily joys Christ brings. In that same mindset, the church began to change the paraments and vestments on the fourth Sunday in Lent from purple to pink. To center the church’s worship on joy, services began with the statement, “Laetare Jerusalem” (or “Rejoice, O Jersualem”), causing the fourth Sunday of Lent to become known as Laetare Sunday.

The church later brought the practice of wearing and displaying the pink rose vestments into the season of Advent. The third Sunday in Advent was called Guadete (or Rejoice) Sunday, so named for the use of Philippians 4:4 as a central scripture read and sung in worship: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.” The candle in the Advent wreath was changed from purple to pink on the third Sunday in Advent. Even today, the third candle in the Advent wreath is commonly referred to as the joy candle.**

 

From confusion to awareness…

As many of us prepare for worship this week, let us not forget that in the midst of the solemnity of Advent there is joy! We rejoice that Christ has come incarnate into this world! We celebrate with hope and eagerness that he will come again!

In closing, I think it is appropriate to consider some ways that joy can be emphasized in the midst of Advent. Many churches (mainly Protestant) do not continue to use the traditional “Guadete” as a focal point of worship. Other churches may not do candle lightings, or if they do, may have intentional reasons for choosing all purple candles. In the midst of diversity of Advent practice, how can an awareness of joy be brought into worship this week?

Here are a few (meager) suggestions:

  • Have a prayer time that focuses on joy in the midst of waiting/preparation. Share praises and celebrations that allow the church to rejoice in the Lord.
  • Allow a time for testimonies where repentance as led to joyful obedience in Christ-like living.
  • Sing or recite lyrics to the hymn “Joy to the World.” (This hymn by Isaac Watts is often sung as a Christmas hymn, though he wrote it as a song to focus on the second coming of Christ. Read it sometime with that perspective. Viewing the lyrics in light of Christ’s final reign often brings my heart to overflow with joyful expectation.)
  • Commit to acts of mercy throughout the week that can help bring joy to another person’s life. Prayerfully consider who may need such joy to break through the darkness during this season.
  • If you light a pink candle this week, find an appropriate way to provide background or explanation to its meaning and purpose. Be careful to not be too didactic within worship itself, but consider how you might intentionally inform your church about joy in the midst of Advent.

Admittedly, my list of suggestions is small and limited, (and I am posting it quite late for the purposes of worship planning), but hopefully it can spark an idea or prompt some form of practice. What suggestions would you add? Are there any practices you have done to help the church focus on joy in the midst of Advent?

I pray that the joy of Christ fills our worship this Sunday as we continue through the season of Advent. May we proclaim in confidence with joy that Christ has come, Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again!

 

 

 

*It could easily be argued that in the western church today, the two highest days of celebration are Christmas and Easter. Many ancient liturgical documents, however, show Epiphany as being both older and having a more important place in Christian history than Christmas. Many eastern churches still give prominence to Epiphany over Christmas.

**The development of the practice of candle lighting during Advent is somewhat obscure. At one point, the church did a similar practice of lighting seven purple candles during the season of Lent. Perhaps the practice was simply carried over from Lent to Advent. There is also speculation that the liturgical act originated in Germany, adapting a pagan practice where the Germanic people would light candles during the long December nights as a symbol of hope in the darkness.

 

2013 Advent Reading Plan

Bible Old New

This Sunday (December 1) begins a season in the church known as Advent. Advent is both a beginning and an end to the Church’s pilgrimage through the life of Christ. It is a time to recall the world’s expectation and longing for the first coming of Jesus Christ into our humanity, and a time to anticipate his second coming in final victory.

Each Advent, I commit myself to reading large sections of scripture in order to immerse myself in the Christ narrative. In the past, I have focused solely upon the New Testament for my reading plan. This year, I have decided to take a different approach. As you will see below, my reading plan this year still includes all four Gospel accounts as well as the New Testament books of Hebrews and Revelation. To these sections of scripture, I have also added Old Testament readings – the book of Genesis, part of Exodus, and readings from the prophets Isaiah, Zephaniah, and Malachi.*

Admittedly, the reading plan is quite intense as it commits to large portions of scripture each day, but I do believe that each day’s reading can be done in about a half an hour. Also, committing to reading such large portions of scripture can be quite formational if you allow it to be.

Please prayerfully consider whether or not you would like to join me in this scriptural journey over Advent! May our remembrance and anticipation this season bring us deeper into the life of God, shaping us as his people to prepare the way for his Kingdom.

DAY

DATE

READINGS

1

Sunday, Dec 1

Genesis 1-9

2

Monday, Dec 2

Genesis 10-25

3

Tuesday, Dec 3

Genesis 26-36

4

Wednesday, Dec 4

Genesis 37-50

5

Thursday, Dec 5

Exodus 1-6

6

Friday, Dec 6

Exodus 7-15

7

Saturday, Dec 7

Isaiah 1-12

8

Sunday, Dec 8

Isaiah 13-27

9

Monday, Dec 9

Isaiah 28-39

10

Tuesday, Dec 10

Isaiah 40-55

11

Wednesday, Dec 11

Isaiah 56-66

12

Thursday, Dec 12

Zephaniah

13

Friday, Dec 13

Malachi

14

Saturday, Dec 14

Matthew 1-15

15

Sunday, Dec 15

Mathew 16-28

16

Monday, Dec 16

Mark 1 – 11

17

Tuesday, Dec 17

Mark 12 – 16

18

Wednesday, Dec 18

Luke1-18

19

Thursday, Dec 19

Luke 19-24

20

Friday, Dec 20

John 1-8

21

Saturday, Dec 21

John 9-21

22

Sunday, Dec 22

Hebrews

23

Monday, Dec 23

Revelation 1 – 11

24

Tuesday, Dec 24

Revelation 12 – 22

*It was quite tough to choose what to include and what to exclude in this plan. If you join me in reading through the plan this year, I would love to hear your reflections on ways it could be adapted for the future.

Re-Thinking Christian Criticism of Black Friday

Black-Friday-Phone-Deals

I have to be honest – this post is quite different from my norm and has been a struggle for me to write. In part, I really do not want to publish it because I haven’t quite discerned whether or not the post is a reflection of my own self-righteous mindset. I do write it, however, hoping there is important perspective I may be able to offer regarding the rhetoric we often use on social media and mindset we Christians often have this time of year.

It is becoming more and more difficult to not find myself frustrated by Christian criticism of Black Friday. I am often ashamed that the main witness many Christians offer to the world is a judgmental glare.

To be clear, yes, I believe materialism and consumerism are very real dangers to the Christian soul. Likewise, as Christians, I believe we are to embody values of simplicity and generosity that stand in stark contrast to the world. These values should constantly challenge our daily lives. I do not expect the world to accept or promote the values of simplicity and generosity, however, which means I believe we Christians have to be very careful of how we engage conversations about such matters.

As a Christian, my witness shows forth through both my rhetoric and my actions. This is why I want to offer some perspectives we Christians should bear in mind before making judgments or taking to social media to offer up our criticisms this Black Friday:

1.)   Black Friday can be an issue of stewardship. Some people would rather spend less money on the same items that others will buy at the same locations for more money at another time.

2.)   Black Friday is one of the few days some people do any shopping. I have some family members whom I really respect for their continual lives of simplicity. They do not regularly go to malls, shop at Best buy, make purchases on amazon.com, or buy the latest items from their favorite technology company. For them, Black Friday is a way to continue to practice simplicity so that they can also practice more generosity.

3.)   For many lower-income persons/families, Black Friday is a prime time to purchase necessities like clothes and items for the home. Sure, unnecessary items are purchased as well, but without Black Friday, some people wouldn’t have the opportunity for the luxuries a lot of us live with every day.

4.)   Evaluate your own spending habits before criticizing others’. A few questions that may be helpful: Do I ever spend money on things I don’t really need? Will I be purchasing Christmas gifts this Christmas season, and how much money and time will I spend on those purchases? In what ways do I justify my own spending habits?

5.)   Many people actually do go out with family on Black Friday instead of neglecting family. I constantly hear stories from friends who have very cherished memories of their time together going out with their families on Black Friday.

6.)   There are those who struggle at Thanksgiving because it is not a happy holiday. In the midst of broken home lives, struggles in relationships, and financial worries, the last thing a person needs to hear is another condemning voice.

7.)   Some workers need the pay. Another day off would actually be a financial burden for some people, especially those making minimum-wage jobs who struggle to get close to forty hours a week on a normal week. To get more hours or to get overtime pay for working on Black Friday is a great blessing to some workers this time of year. So is the care and thanks that some customers will show to them for having to work.

8.)   A lot of workers really hate working on Black Friday. So let’s not make it any worse for them, okay?

9.)   Active service is a better Christian witness than passive condemnation. If I (as a Christian) expect Christians to become judgmental and condemning this time of year, what do non-Christian expect? Perhaps we can show a better witness by finding opportunities for service. For instance, a church in my town decided a couple of years ago to pass out hot chocolate at 5:00 AM on Black Friday to people waiting in line at Best Buy. I know a family that takes $5 Starbucks gift cards with them to give out as a thanks to the employees they encounter who work on Black Friday. To me, such acts of service speak volumes louder of Christian witness than self-righteous tweets, posts, and blogs.

I admit the alternate perspectives I offer are quite brief. A lot more could be (and perhaps should be) said about each one. My goal isn’t to justify each point, though. I simply want to help us think through varying perspectives before quickly making criticism.

Wherever and however you spend your time this holiday season, may it be a blessed one. And may we all seek out ways to be a blessing to others.

Theology in Praise Choruses?

praise-chorus

If you read my blog regularly, you have probably discovered that one of my favorite things to study is lyrical theology. I love to think through the words of Christian songs, breaking down their theological content and discovering what value they have in the worship of the Church. For the most part, the blog posts I have written center on the lyrics to hymns, such as my latest post, “Dissecting a Thousand Tongues.” In a recent facebook discussion, someone asked, “Could as much theology be unpacked from a praise chorus like ‘Come, Now is the Time to Worship’?” This is a great question, especially as contemporary songs tend to be criticized often for their lack of theological content.

Since the question has been raised and an example given, let us take a few moments to consider what theological content and benefit to the church is there in the praise song, “Come, Now is the Time to Worship.”

Compared to a Charles Wesley hymn, a song like “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” is quite short and simple. It only has two stanzas which when sung often get repeated over and over again. Yet, even though there are only eight lines of text, there is still much to ponder theologically.

The Importance of Gathering

In his book, Planning Blended Worship, Robert Webber breaks down the structure of a Christian worship service into four parts: Gathering, Word, Table/Response, Sending. Perhaps I will look at each of these parts of a Christian worship service in a later post. For now, I want to focus specifically on the Gathering.

Webber begins his chapter on the Gathering fold of worship with this line: “Worship always begins with an ascent into the presence of God.” In other words, as we come together in Christian worship there is (or should be) a movement toward a heavenly realm of worship where we encounter the glory of God’s presence. Or as Alexander Schmemmann’s puts it, worship moves us into the very real Kingdom of God present on this earth.

Worship begins with acts that assemble the people of God and narrate their journey into the presence of God. The gathering orders the experience of the worshiper. This is exactly the purpose of the song, “Come, Now is the Time to Worship.” Consider the first part of the chorus:

Come, now is the time to worship.

Come, now is the time to give your heart.

Come, just as you are to worship.

Come, just as you are before your God.

Come.

The call in the song is clear: come and join God’s people in their ascent to a heavenly place. And the call is to do it right now. As the people of God convene before the throne, they invite you to join in the assembly, lending your voice and heart to the worship of God.

This same idea is clear in the scriptures, specifically in Psalms 120-134, which are known as the Psalms of Ascent. The Psalms of Ascent were psalms sung by the ancient Israelites on their pilgrimages to worship at the Temple. The reason the collection of psalms is called the Psalms of Ascent is twofold: In a very literal sense, the Israelites had to “ascend” a mountain to reach the Temple; In a more spiritual significance, this collection of psalms focused on a movement from worldly concerns to heavenly praise. Worship for the Israelites had a destination – the Temple. This is why Psalm 121 begins with the statement, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”

In the same manner, Christian worship has a destination – the Kingdom. Our acts and words of worship help move us and focus us toward that end. In worship, we get a glimpse heaven. I believe this thought is captured in the next section of the song, “Come, Now is the Time to Worship”:

One day every tongue will confess You are God

One day every knee will bow

But the greatest treasure remains for those

Who gladly choose You now

In these lines, we see both the anticipatory nature of worship and the present reality of worship. The first half of the lines anticipate the final truth of what worship will be as they allude to Philippians 2:10-11 – at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. The second half reminds us that we don’t have to wait; we can join in that heavenly chorus of praise right now through the worship of the Church. Thus, the song serves as a call to come worship, serving the same purpose as many short, spoken liturgies that begin services of worship in more high-church settings.

Look Who’s Talking

If we understand the song as a call to worship, then it is important to understand who is doing the calling.

The most obvious speaker in this song is the Church. As the Church gathers to ascend to the presence of God, it invites all people to join. This is not unlike what Isaiah writes about the glory of God arising on Israel in Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you… Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you.”

In “Come, Now is the Time to Worship,” the Church claims Isaiah’s sentiment as truth – As God’s glory rises in worship, we invite all people to come just as they are to give their hearts and bow before the Lord.

Though the Church’s voice is a clear one in the song, I believe there is another speaker to consider in this text. Perhaps we can also look at the song as an invitation from the Holy Spirit. In other words, maybe the song serves as God’s invitation for his Church to come before him in worship. It is God who calls us, through his Holy Spirit, to journey to his throne by bursting forth in prayer and praise.

God’s call is for us to come to him and give ourselves fully to him. There is a great treasure to be found when we do. Our singing of song like, “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” is our acceptance of the invitation and also our way of joining in God’s song, proclaiming his desire for the world. And there is something beautiful in the idea that God extends to us a means of grace through worship by which we are able to join in God’s declaration to world.

Dissecting a Thousand Tongues

CW black and white

Dissecting A Thousand Tongues

In a recent blog post I discussed the difference between personal-story worship songs and cosmic-story worship songs. I made the qualification that personal-story songs focus mainly on how God interacts with the author’s story, whereas cosmic-story songs show how the author has been swept up in God’s saving activity, having a share in salvation history. This begs the question, which is more fitting for the content of Christian worship? The cosmic gives perspective and identity to the personal, but this does not mean the personal is invalid. I believe that Christian worship songs are at their best when they somehow strike a balance between the personal and the cosmic.

Charles Wesley is one of the best examples of a Christian songwriter who often captured both the personal-story and cosmic-story within a single song. He was able to depict the narrative of salvation in a deeply intimate way. Lyrical expression was more than a cathartic experience for Charles Wesley’s soul. Instead, Charles felt deeply the importance of communicating the theme of God’s universal invitation to salvation. Yet, his lyrics were often testimonial as well.

One of Charles’ most famous hymns, commonly known as “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” was composed as a reflection on his own faith journey. The original hymn contained eighteen verses and was written by Charles on the first anniversary of his conversion (three days prior to his brother John’s own heart-warming experience). He appropriately entitled the hymn, “For the Anniversary of One’s Conversion.” (John Wesley later pared it down to eight stanzas for use in the Methodist hymnal, beginning with the line “O for a thousand tongues…,” which is why we know it by that title today.)

Though many of Charles Wesley’s lyrical works would be a fitting example of the unity of the personal with the cosmic, in this post I will examine the full eighteen verses of “O for a Thousand to Sing.” By looking at this well-known text, I believe we will see how worship can speak to deeply intimate realities while enrapturing an individual to the grand narrative of God.

Part One: Cosmic Doxology

Though our personal stories may have a place in worship, worship is directed to God and given for God’s glory alone. In other words, our testimonies are put in their proper perspective through doxology. The first words of Saint Augustine of Hippo’s spiritual autobiography give evidence to this: “Great are you, O Lord, and greatly to be praised!” Likewise, Charles situates his hymn with a doxology, beginning with praise and glory given to God:

1. Glory to God and praise and love

Be ever, ever given

By saints below, and saints above

The Church in earth and heaven.

Worship draws us into doxology. In our meeting with God, our primary response should always be similar to that of Isaiah 6, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty! The whole earth is filled with his glory!” Doxology is the overflow of praise for who God is and what God has done. Only in this light will any following testimony be put in proper perspective.

Part Two: Personal Testimony

In stanzas two through seven, Charles Wesley turns more personal. He begins to give his testimonial account, offering a description of his own experience of salvation:

2. On this glad day the glorious Sun

Of Righteousness arose

On my benightened soul he shone

And filled it with repose

3. Sudden expired the legal strife

‘Twas then I ceased to grieve

My second, real, living life

I then began to live

4. Then with my heart I first believed

Believed with faith divine

Power with the Holy Ghost received

To call the Saviour mine

5. I felt my Lord’s atoning blood

Close to my soul applied

Me, me he loved, the Son of God

For me, for me he died!

6. I found and owned his promise true,

Ascertained my part

My pardon passed in heaven I knew

When written on my heart

7. O for a thousand tongues to sing

My great Redeemer’s praise!

The glories of my God and King

The triumphs of his grace

In this section of the song, the author (Charles Wesley) is the primary subject. This is about his experiences, his emotions, and his transformation. The language is deeply personal: “Me, me he loved, the Son of God/ For me, for me he died!” Even the singer/reader can feel a personal connection to the words. Yet, even though the lyrics tend toward an individual focus, Charles keeps the cosmic narrative in view. In part, his Trinitarian language (thereby acknowledging the Trinity’s work in his conversion) accomplishes this in lines such as, “Power with the Holy Ghost received/ To call the Saviour mine.” Additionally, Charles comes back to the doxological purpose of worship in the seventh stanza, “O for a thousand tongues to sing/ My great Redeemer’s praise!/ The glory of my God and King/ The triumphs of his grace.”

Part Three: Cosmic Proclamation

As stanza seven bring the song back to a doxological proclamation similar to how the hymn first began, it also sets up a lyrical shift in the song. In stanza seven, Charles makes the personal request for “a thousand tongues” to declare his praise to God, acknowledging his glories and triumphs. In stanza eight, Charles uses the tongue (or pen) God has given him to make such cosmic proclamation (and perhaps, through our joining him in the hymn, he is granted the thousand tongues he desired):

 8. My gracious Master and my God

Assist me to proclaim

To spread through all the earth abroad

The honors of Thy name

9.  Jesus, the name that charms our fears

That bids our sorrows cease

‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears

‘Tis life and health and peace

10. He breaks the power of cancelled sin

He sets the prisoner free

His blood can make the foulest clean

His blood availed for me

11. He speaks, and listening to his voice

New life the dead receive

The mournful, broken hearts rejoice

The humble poor believe

Stanzas eight through eleven are a sermon of the gospel message of Jesus Christ, reflecting the universal call to salvation so important in the Wesleys’ preaching. Charles shows in these lines that with the experience of conversion comes proclamation of the gospel. Furthermore, though the call for salvation is universal, Wesley gets specific. In stanzas ten and eleven he shows that Christ comes to bring salvation to specific experiences of those to whom the proclamation is addressed: sinners are freed from the power of sin; prisoners are set free; the dead are given life; the sorrowful are given joy.

Part Four: Personal Responsibility

In the final seven stanzas of the hymn, Charles once again gets personal, but in a much different way than in his testimony earlier in the song. Charles now commands in boldness for others to make the Gospel story personal in their own lives, to find themselves caught up in the cosmic narrative of God’s salvation, to accept the triumphs of Christ, and to join his doxology:

12. Hear him ye deaf, his praise, ye dumb,

Your loosened tongues employ

Ye blind behold your Saviour come

And leap ye lame for joy

13. Look unto him, ye nations, own

Your God, ye fallen race!

Look, and be saved through faith alone

And justified by grace

14. See all your sins on Jesus laid

The Lamb of God was slain

His soul was once an offering made

For every soul of man

15. Harlots and publicans and thieves

In holy triumph join

Saved is the sinner that believes

From crimes as great as mine

16. Murderers and all ye hellish crew

Ye sons of lust and pride

Believe the Saviour died for you

For me the Saviour died

17. Awake from guilty nature’s sleep

And Christ shall give you light

Cast all your sins into the deep

And wash with Ethiop white

18. With me your chief you then shall know

Shall feel your sins forgiven

Anticipate your heaven below

And own that love is heaven

Conclusion

The structure of Charles Wesley’s hymn moves from glory to testimony to proclamation and finally to exhortation. Throughout, the song demonstrates that worship is not to be primarily concerned with our own pious introspection but instead leads us to a cosmic acknowledgement and proclamation of God’s glorious work and character. Furthermore, worship brings us to share the good news of the Gospel through our doxological praise. Though many of us may not feel as gifted as Charles Wesley, we do have a story to tell. Through this hymn, Charles Wesley brilliantly shows us how every testimony presents a remarkable opportunity to give praise to God, tell the story of salvation, proclaim the Gospel message, and encourage others to take claim of it in their life. May God assist our tongues to make such proclamation.

Music and the Missionary

Ugandan Bible and hymnal

In 2004 I spent six months serving with World Gospel Mission in Uganda, Africa. The opportunity was life changing, one that continues to daily shape my understanding of Christianity and the Church. I easily fell in love with the people and culture of Uganda. Much of my time was spent in bush villages, teaching theology and Biblical studies to Ugandan pastors. Some of my most vivid memories of Uganda were the nights I would gather under the stars with Ugandan men and women, singing choruses and dancing for hours. There was great joy and life in those times together. The music was simple – repetitive choruses sung in simple harmonies, often accompanied only by a percussion instrument – but there was great beauty in the musical praise and prayers of the Ugandan people. I deeply miss sharing in those times with my friends.

My experiences in Uganda continue to prompt my reflection on music in worship. One particular feature of worship music I have come to understand is that good theological content is often fruitless without considering proper context.

One musical experience in Uganda stands out vividly in my mind, and I believe it is a good one to relate here in order to show the validity of both content and context in worship music.

A good old-fashioned hymn-sing

One week, as I prepared to lead a pastoral training in a village near Lake Victoria, a missionary friend (who would be leading the training with me) approached me with a unique opportunity. Knowing I played guitar and often led music in churches, she asked if I would teach the Ugandan pastors some American hymns during the upcoming training. She had recently begun work with a translator to create a small hymnal of American hymns in the main Ugandan dialect of the region around Lake Victoria (Lugandan).

I spent the next few days meeting with the translator, learning Lugandan pronunciation, inflection, etc, and practicing familiar hymns in Lugandan. Having led music for a Hispanic church for six months prior to my going to Uganda, I found that I was excited to lead music once again in the familiar language of non-English speakers.

When I arrived at the training, my missionary friend introduced me and told the Ugandan pastors that for part of the first morning together, I would teach them new songs. I will never forget what she said next, “I am tired of your music being so shallow and repetitive. You need better content to your songs, so we are going to teach you some of our music.”

The importance of content

In my last post, I briefly examined the differences between person-story worship songs and cosmic-story worship songs. Instead of rehashing that out here, I encourage you to go read the post. I mention my last post because I believe person-story vs. cosmic-story is at the heart of what my missionary friend was (poorly) trying to tell the Ugandan pastors. She felt the over-focus of the personal-story in the Ugandan praise songs lacked the element of cosmic-story. As a result, she found cosmic-story songs rich in theology, translated them into the local dialect, and asked me to help introduce them to the Ugandan pastors.

A common premise throughout my posts is that the content of our worship is of the utmost importance. Our words in worship – whether in liturgy, transition, song, or sermon – give content to our worship; therefore we cannot be casual and lackadaisical about the words we use in worship. Likewise, the content of worship has formational value; thus we need to constantly evaluate the words we use and seek out proper content for our services of worship.

Both my missionary friend and I felt that by introducing new musical content to the Ugandan pastors, we could help expand the sung elements of their worship. The rest of my story shows how I failed to realize that context would make all the difference in how the content was received.

Yesu Ye Mukwano Gwaffe

One of the songs I chose to teach the Ugandan pastors was the gospel-hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” or in Lugandan, “Yesu Ye Mukwano Gwaffe.” I had worked up a bluegrass arrangement of the hymn while in college, and being from Kentucky, I thought it would be fun to show the Ugandans music from my home.

After being introduced by my missionary friend, I handed out copies of “Yesu Ye Mukwano Gwaffe” to the Ugandan pastors and asked them to join me in singing. Then I played the song in a bluegrass style… in Lugandan.

I was met with two main responses. Some of the pastors whooped and applauded my ability to sing in their language. Most of them laughed, completely confused and embarrassed by the unusual rhythm I had just played for them. No one sang with me.

After the song, I asked the pastors how they liked the song. The general consensus was this: the song was strange, but they appreciated my showing it to them. I then asked them about the words to the song, what they liked or didn’t like. I was met with complete silence. Then I realized, since my demonstration of the song was so jarring to the Ugandan pastors, they paid no attention to the words. My approach then changed. I spent the next fifteen minutes talking through the words of “Yesu Ye Mukwano Gwaffe” with the pastors, and then we sang it again – a cappella.

The importance of context

The whole purpose of my teaching new songs to the Ugandan pastors was to help introduce them to how music can be theologically educational as it proclaims prayer and praise to God. Unfortunately, in my original approach, the content was lost because I failed to take the context of the Ugandan pastors into account. Instead, I tried to force them into my context, a very strange and unfamiliar world.

As much as I believe content to be of the utmost importance in worship, I cannot ignore the fact that context is crucial as well. At a basic level, context is what makes things make sense. On a theological level, context is the incarnational aspect of ministry and worship. Context gets into the lives of others, moves us to truly understand their cultural environment, and allows us to tailor our approach in ministry and worship for each occasion.

By taking context into account, we remember that people come from very particular walks of life with particular influences and particular formative backgrounds. By contextualizing our worship – including our worship music – we acknowledge that God’s Spirit is not limited to certain looks, styles, or cultures. Instead, we affirm the goodness of God’s varied creation.

Context is not, however, an excuse for bad or shallow content in worship. In fact, I believe we should often push ourselves (and slowly and carefully push our congregations) outside of our own familiar contexts and into others’. We begin to see the vast, transformative power of the Holy Spirit as we break free from our own contexts.

As I spent more and more time with the Ugandan pastors, I slowly began to understand and appreciate their ways of worship and they slowly began to understand and appreciate mine. I loved their simplicity and the repetitive nature of their music, which made sense in an oral culture. They appreciated how the American hymns told stories and were able to teach about God and His work. Eventually, American hymns made their way into the nightly musical gatherings I had with the Ugandan pastors. Similarly, just two Sundays ago, I lead the congregation of my church in Lexington, Kentucky in a Ugandan chorus.

Ways forward

I often hear content and context set against one another in conversations on worship. Some hold the content of worship at such a high level of importance that they fail to notice it has become ineffectual. Others emphasize context to such an extreme that there is no real recognition of who – or what – is being worshiped. To allow content and context to work hand-in-hand, there will be tension. There is danger of going to an extreme on either side. For this reason, I believe we need to keep both before us in constant conversation.

Regarding worship music, it is imperative that we encourage musical and lyrical composition through our theological teaching. My biggest regret in Uganda was not taking the time to teach songwriting to the Ugandan pastors. In my desire to provide a deeper lyrical theology for the Ugandan church, I failed to realize that Ugandans would be able to find the musical expression best for their culture. My role as a teacher/theologian should have been to help provide the content of the cosmic-story, perhaps through existing lyrical texts, and give tips on ways the content could be conveyed through song. The Ugandans would provide the appropriate context in which to set the song.

Of course, ancient and traditional music always have their place in worship, when put in proper context. Likewise, as pastors and worship leaders, we can help contextualize new material and old material that might be new to our congregations. One great way to bring context to good content is by re-setting traditional texts to new tunes. This is becoming common in America, as evidenced in such projects as John Hartley’s Love Divine and Kevin Twitt’s Indelible Grace.

Similarly, the modern hymn-writer movement in England has become a way of thinking through how current styles of music can be used to convey good content in worship. Songwriters such as Matt Redman, Keith and Kristyn Getty, and Stuart Townend are composing lyrical reflections on a variety of theological topics, setting the lyrics to good, singable melodies.

Our contexts are a natural expression of who we are – who God created us to be. Context is something to be celebrated and evaluated, not ignored. May we ever be willing to seek out the proper balance of content and context in our worship, ever increasing in awareness of God’s presence, attention to God’s Spirit, and the ability to express praise and prayer to God.

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