The Stars and Stripes Forever. Amen?

The fourth of July weekend is a tricky one in churches in the US. It’s especially tricky in culturally conservative parts of the country, though I don’t imagine that there’s any place that’s immune.

Anything to do with patriotism, in general, invites a lot of silliness that we wouldn’t embrace in other situations. No lie, I have been to a Christian “worship service” that included a civil war reenactment and a delivery of the Gettysburg address. (Of course, the battle ended with Lincoln guiding the two sides to stop fighting and shake hands, though I suppose the alternative – John Wilkes Booth playing the part of Judas – would have been even worse.)

Because the ideas of “God” and “country” have become so intertwined, the identity of the church as the transnational bride of Christ becomes obscured. Evangelicals in the US embrace Thomas Jefferson while shunning John Shelby Spong, despite their remarkably similar views on the Bible. Many Americans come into corporate worship on or around July 4 expecting to sing about a Grand Old Flag and amber waves of grain. In fact, many pastors and music leaders get angry calls and/or emails if America isn’t celebrated. (NB: There’s a difference between being thankful for freedoms enjoyed in America and celebrating America in a time that’s supposed to be reserved for Jesus. An Iraqi Christian living in Peoria can be thankful for the freedom to worship freely without having to say the Pledge of Allegiance.)

The wise thing to do isn’t to put up a huge middle finger and accuse everyone of idolatry. Because it’s the air so many of us have breathed for so long (especially our parents and grandparents), dealing with matters of God and country requires gentleness and wisdom. But neither should we cave in and sing My Country ‘Tis of Thee or The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

So what do I do? I cheat. We sing my favorite “fake” patriotic hymn: God of Our Fathers. It has enough civil connotation to evoke some of the nostalgia that hymns to America do, yet the text isn’t about America, it’s about our fathers (and mothers) in the faith. It’s much more Hebrews 11 than July 1776.

As wonderful as they are, the stars and stripes won’t last forever. Jesus’ kingdom will.

Kanye West and Christmas or Why I changed the melody to a beloved Christmas hymn

For a long while, I’ve disliked “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. Here’s why:

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That half step has put a stamp on the tune that says “Made in 1868″. It it’s like listening to a Kanye West song, hearing the auto-tune, and knowing immediately that it was “Made in 2008″.

Normally, there’s not a problem with older things – in fact, many older things are glorious because they seem to bear the weight of history (in a good way) – but 19th Century American hymn tunes haven’t aged well.

It’s a shame, too, because the text for the hymn, written by the great American preacher Phillips Brooks, is glorious.

O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.

Last year, I heard Sarah McLachlan’s slight edit of the tune and immediately caught a new vision for the hymn.

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You can purchase the mp3 at AmazonMP3.

McLachlan wasn’t the first to do it – my wife has an arrangement in a Christmas piano book she’s had since she was a child that has eliminated the rogue sharp – but she’s probably the most well known on a broader scale.

A change of a half step has breathed new life into a tired, old tune. I wrote out a quick arrangement for our church and have included it below for anyone who is interested.

O Little Town of Bethlehem (modernized)

August 31 Update

This week, we begin our rehearsals before holding our first worship services in our new church building on September 12.

I’m also in the process of cleaning up our Order of Worship format to be more readable and helpful. More on that to come.

(Reading books like REWORK have done wonders in helping me as an editor. Superfluous words choke out meaning.)

A Doxology – Praise to God the Father Sing

Here is a doxology that I wrote a few years back based upon the Doxology to Martin Luther’s hymn “Savior of the Nations, Come”.

Praise to God the Father sing.
Praise to God the Son, our King.
Praise to God the Spirit be,
Ever and eternally.

Page CXVI – Hymns II

Hymns II from Page CXVI drops today. To mark their new release, the band is offering a free download of their first album, Hymns, from April 27 to May 4.

I really liked the first album. The band has some great, creative arrangements of Come Thou Fount, In Christ Alone, My Jesus I Love Thee, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Nothing But the Blood, The Solid Rock, and Joy (I’ve Got the Joy along with It Is Well with My Soul). (Did I mention that you can download it free for the next week?)

One of the things that I love about this band is that they’re doing something very different with hymns than most folks (including myself) are doing. They’re using the well known tunes and reinventing them rather than throwing off the old baggage and starting again. And, of course, sometimes the old tunes are so bad or so unhelpful that they need to be thrown off, but not all the time!

The second album looks to be just as good as the first. Here’s the song list:
How Great Thou Art
Praise to the Lord
Jesus I Am Resting, Resting
Rock of Ages
Abide With Me
Battle Hymn of the Republic

Except for one song, I’m looking forward to the second album. Why a reservation? Well, I’ll let you be the judge of that. See if you can guess which song I’m not looking forward to and why that is.

The Four Rules of Preaching

John Frame gives four rules for preaching:

  1. Make it biblical
  2. Make it clear
  3. Apply it correctly to the congregation
  4. Make it interesting

Any other rules (as opposed to maxims) that you would add?