Monthly Archives: March 2006

When you can’t sing in Portuguese

I go to three churches. It’s not because I think I’m holier than other people and I need three spaces to contain my glory. In fact, sometimes I worry that I help out at all three churches because I’m so unholy that I need to do things to salve my conscience. I don’t think that’s really why I go all three places but, rather, it’s because I have the freedom and opportunity to help at all three places and so I do.

On Wednesday nights, I lead the music for the high school group at River of Life Presbyterian Church. I’ve been helping there since January and had a chance to get to know several of the students. One of the students is a Brazilian boy who speaks very little English. One of his friends must translate everything into Portuguese for him. Despite the obvious language barriers, he’s been coming for about 3 months now.

A lot of Christians, and especially Christians in the Reformed heritage, disparage songs that have a lot of repetition. You know, repetition. Like in Psalm 136 with “for his steadfast love endures forever.” Like in Psalm 150 with its echoing “Hallelujah”s. Like in Psalm 67, when we say twice

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you!

Like the four living creatures in Revelation 4 [bibleblock]Revelation 4:8[/bibleblock]or the cry of the twenty-four elders [bibleblock]Revelation 4:11[/bibleblock]

(Note: I really hate that I have to put a disclaimer here. “You can’t say everything when you say anything,” as Richard Pratt [incompletely] states but I feel I’ve got to say something so that I won’t get a bunch of hate mail. Since some people read statements like “repetition can be good” or “repetition is in the Bible” and immediately assume that I’ve drifted into apostasy, I must clarify. I don’t mean repetition in the sense of saying a mantra, seeking to go into a trance or repeating a phrase so many times that the words lose their meaning.)

At youth group, we’ve started to sing May the Peoples Praise You. The best thing about singing the song is, first of all, hearing the kids sing the words of scripture and internalize the Psalm. But there are also smaller victories about the song. Whenever we sing Psalm 67, I can look out and see one student singing “May the peoples praise you, O God; May all the peoples praise you,” and know that those might be the only words he speaks in English all day. I don’t know if his friends have translated the words into Portuguese for him yet, I hope they have, but seeing him sing the refrain is a picture of what the song says – all the peoples of the Earth praising God.

Often times, when we don’t know something, repetition is how we learn. It’s how my friend learned the refrain of Psalm 67; it’s how I learned the alphabet when I was a toddler; it’s why I practiced my scales when I was a freshman in high school; it’s why my band classes started the day the same way every single day with our daily drill. Repetition is one way that we both worship God corporately, “tune our hearts to sing his praise” and train our minds to think Biblically. I can imagine small Hebrew children singing Psalm 150 and not knowing any of the words except “hallelujah” (or “praise the name of the Lord”) but singing loudly on the words they do know. “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” Everything, whether it knows the language or not. “Praise the Lord!”

Heritage and Accessibility

Over the past few weeks I have been swamped with schoolwork. I spent my spring break studying, taking exams and reading books. (Of course, since I live in Florida I was doing all of that by the pool but it was tedious nonetheless.) One of the books that I had the pleasure of reading was Marva Dawn’s Is it a Lost Cause?: Having the Heart of God for the Church’s Children. I don’t use the phrase “had the pleasure of reading” in a tongue-in-cheek manner either. When most people talk about having had the pleasure of reading something they really mean that they trudged through book half-heartedly but they either want to appear respectful to the author or want to maintain a facade of being a sophisticated, well-read person. That wasn’t my experience with Is it a Lost Cause?

I will admit that I first approached the book eagerly anticipating what Dawn would say. I enjoyed her two books on worship when I read them about 4-5 years ago and my experience as a public school teacher has led me to some convictions regarding the role of children in the local church. I wasn’t disappointed. I anticipate having more to write about the book at a later date but I thought that this quote, found on page 77, was an important one regarding worship. In a section titled Worship to Form the Missional Parallel Society, Dawn writes:

You might think … that I am opposed to the “contemporary” side in many congregations’ “worship wars.” Actually I’m opposed to the “traditional” side, too, because both sides are asking the wrong questions and failing to nurture a missional people. The Church always needs both old and new music, continuity as well as reformation, a sense of the heritage of faith going all the way back to Abraham and a consciousness of the need to put that faith in accessible forms and new wineskins. The questions we must ask are those concerning how to be faithful to the biblical descriptions of what worship is, to the content of the faith we pass on, and to the God whom we worship.

Here, Marva Dawn sounds quite like my professor and friend, Reggie Kidd. This paragraph nicely wraps up a lot of what Reggie has to say in his book With One Voice as well as what he presents in class. While I don’t think that Dawn and Kidd would agree on everything (and I have no doubt that they have differences of opinion), both communicate well the ideas of “heritage” and “accessibility”.

Bach Cantata BWV 54 – Stand Steadfast Against Temptation

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his cantata BWV 54 – “Stand Steadfast Against Temptation” for the third Sunday in Lent, 1715.

For more information on the cantata, go to bach-cantats.com.
To listen to the cantata in its entirety, go to http://www.irih.de/ihcounter/seine_musik.htm.

The text of the cantata is by Georg Christian Lehms.

1. Aria (A)

Stand steadfast against transgression,
Or its poison thee will seize.

Be thou not by Satan blinded,
For God’s glory to dishonor
Brings a curse of fatal doom.

2. Recit. (A)

The shape of vile transgression
In sooth is outward wondrous fair;
But yet one must
Receive with sorrow and dismay
Much toil and woe thereafter.
The outside is pure gold,
But, should one look within,
Appears nought but an empty shadow
And whited sepulcher.
It is the Sodom’s apple like,
And those who are with it united
Shall never reach God’s heav’nly realm.
It is just like a sharpened sword
Which doth our soul and body pierce.

3. Aria (A)

Who sin commits is of the devil,
For he it was who brought it forth.
But if one gainst its haughty fetters
With true devotion stand steadfastly,
Shall it at once from here take flight.

Ash Wednesday 2006

“For Lent, I’m giving up sex, drugs and drinking,” remarked one of my suitemates with a touch of sarcasm in his voice. I was in my second semester at the University of Houston and living on the first floor of Taub Hall.

“Gosh, that’s rude,” I thought to myself. (And I probably used really coarse language like “gosh” when I was a freshman in college.) I had heard a lot of second hand rumors about Lent when I was a kid but had never really been exposed to actual flesh and blood participants until I lived in Taub Hall and had several Roman Catholic girls living down the hall.

I suppose that my suitemate meant well. I suppose that he thought that mocking the observance of Lent was fighting a war for true Christianity against vain superstitions. Real spirituality isn’t in giving up chocolates and ice cream, it’s found in prayer and Bible study, or so he (and I, though I was too polite to admit it) thought.

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A few years later, while living in Austin, I was observing Lent for myself for the first time. I was hungry for a Christianity rooted in history prior to my birth in 1978 and saw the ancient practice as a way of preparing myself for Easter and connecting with my roots. For the season, I chose to give up caffeine (a major sacrifice for me). I got rid of all of the Dr. Pepper in my dorm room and started drinking water and the occasional root beer. Those root beers were magical. They really were. I remember thinking to myself, “Barq’s Root Beer has got to be the finest beverage on God’s green earth.” I was convinced that the new heavens and the new earth would have Barq’s Root Beer flowing out of every rock. Of course, you can already see where this story is headed. The slogan of Barq’s is “Barqs has bite!” And where does that bite come from? Caffeine. I discovered this fact about 2 weeks before Easter and sheepishly got rid of the root beer for the next two weeks.

I remember the first day of Lent 2001. I had decided to go to my first early morning Ash Wednesday service. I got up before dawn, showered and prepared my things. I had quite a bit of packing to do, as it was the day I left on a Wind Ensemble Tour through Central Texas. I loaded my bag, my tuxedo and my horn into my car and set out for a small Episcopal church on my way to school. I had big plans that year. Not only was I going to give up caffeine again, I was going to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday for spiritual devotion. I made it about 7 hours. Finally, in our van, I didn’t want the other students to think I was strange and so I ate a box lunch and drank a Dr. Pepper like everyone else.

It’s funny, I seem to be able to remember Ash Wednesdays better than other days. Ash Wednesday 2004 – the day I kept ashes on my forehead all day long and told my elementary school students not to ask what they were or else the government would take me away and I couldn’t be their music teacher anymore. Ash Wednesday 2005 – searching for days to try to find a church in St. Louis having a service, misjudging the distance to the Lutheran church I finally went to, driving through the snow and ice to show up halfway through the homily, my fingers numb from the cold.

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If my suitemate is right about Lent, if it is simply a season of abstaining from our favorite foods or television shows or shoes or luxuries, I am the biggest disappointment in the history of Christianity. My Lents are marked by frailty, weakness and failure. Even when I try to give up simple things, I usually don’t succeed and when I do, I’m so prideful about it that it ruins any positive effect that it should have had. If that’s what Lent’s all about, I ought to quit right now.

Frailty. Weakness. Failure. Those things don’t just sound like my Lent observances, they sound like me. And they don’t just sound like me, they sound like everyone I know (at least, everyone I know who is honest). Maybe, just maybe, those things are what Lent is about as well. Giving something up isn’t so that I can add something to my spiritual resume, as though making it through Lent 2003 without caffeine is something to crow about. It’s about living in anticipation of the Resurrection. When I fail during Lent (and odds are that I will fail – several times), Jesus doesn’t say to me like Napoleon Dynamite, “Gosh! I knew you couldn’t do it. Looks like I have to go and get crucified.” Rather, Jesus picks me up out of my failure, dusts me off, looks me in the eyes so deep that I start to feel uncomfortable and says, “Eric, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

“Follow me,” he says. And I do. At least I try to until I fail again and then again he picks me up, dusts me off, looks me in the eyes so deep that I start to feel uncomfortable and says, “Eric, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

“Follow me.”

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The Collect for Ash Wednesday from the Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.