Last weekend, I ended up spending Holy Saturday evening at the Orthodox cathedral in town. My own church doesn’t hold services that day, so I took a friend’s advice to sit in on the Orthodox service. I wanted to reflect upon Christ in the tomb and celebrate his resurrection, and I wanted to do both in the company of other Christians. And while the service allowed opportunity for these things, it also served as a reminder of something else: namely, how traditional liturgy can act as a type of universal language for Christians, offering a glimpse of worship as we will one day experience it in heaven.

I’m sure some of you reading this will be surprised at that assertion, particularly if you come from a more contemporary-driven worship background. For many people, liturgical worship has become synonymous with dead worship. Repeating the same prayers, chanting the same chants week in and week out? Surely it just becomes mere words, said without meaning – a matter of habit as opposed to spontaneous faith.

That may be the case for some (regrettably, no doubt, for too many Christians attending liturgical services). But that a thing can be used inappropriately doesn’t mean that the thing itself is bad. Approached rightly, liturgy offers exactly what I said before: a glimpse of heavenly worship. When we pray the “tired old prayers” so often disparaged by today’s Christians, we in effect proclaim our unity with the Church through the ages. We pray the same prayers Christians a thousand years ago prayed. In fact, we pray the prayer Christ himself prayed. And we confess the same creedal faith the Church has confessed for nearly two millenia. Likewise, we reflect each week that the worship we render here on earth is joined with that offered in heaven. “With angels, archangels and all the company of heaven,” the preface to the Sanctus begins, “we laud and magnify your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!'”

The liturgy fosters a sense of timelessness, of worship as something not bound to any particular century or culture. It reaches back to antiquity; it points us forward to the unending depths of eternity. We recognize ourselves as part of that unbroken chain, recognize the unity of the Church past, present, and future.

The Orthodox Holy Saturday service reminded me of that truth in a new way. It reached back as we listened to numerous readings from the Old and New Testaments. We declared the Christian faith according to the Nicene Creed, as it was prepared in the 4th century A.D. Likewise, the sermon was a reading from John Chrysostom’s writings, also from the 4th century. We used liturgical structures developed by the ancient church and used by many Christians over the following centuries. We sang, as so many before us have sung, the Paschal Troparion, “Christ is risen from the dead / Trampling death by death! / And upon those in the tombs / Bestowing life.”

Likewise we proclaimed to one another the glorious message of Easter: “Christ is risen!” / “Truly he is risen!” In fact, it was that Paschal greeting which made me reflect anew upon the universality of liturgy. And the reason for that was because we didn’t just say “Christ is risen!” in English. We said it in numerous languages. Saturday’s service was the most culturally diverse I’ve ever attended. The priest had a crisp, east-European accent, and he greeted the various people groups in the church in their heart languages. “Christ is risen!” he cried to the English, and we shouted back “Truly he is risen!” He proclaimed the same thing in Greek, and the Greeks responded in joy. He shouted it in Amharic, and the Ethiopians echoed in praise. He called the same in Russian, in Ukrainian, in German, and in a number of other Eastern European languages (and perhaps one Asian) that I could not identify, and every time the people declared the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Though from very different cultural backgrounds, we were all united in that moment. Though speaking different languages, we all prayed and praised God with one voice. And the words of Revelation played through my mind: “I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (7:9-10).

Every nation. Every language. One voice. “He is risen! Truly He is risen! Kristos tenestwal! Wahrlich ist er erstanden! Christos anesti!”

“Χριστός ανέστη!”

In a post last year, I noted that the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod was putting on a contemporary music songwriters conference. Frequenters of this site know that I occasionally bemoan the shallowness of much of contemporary worship music, but that I do so with a caveat: I don’t think that the style of music is in itself necessarily bad; but I do think that the lyrics too often reveal a minimal (and, in some cases, downright errant) understand of theology. What’s wrong isn’t musical style, it’s the lack of theological rigor.

guitar w cross faith pictures, backgrounds and images

That’s part of the reason why I was so eager to see the results of the LCMS Songwriters Initiative. I wanted to see contemporary music paired with strong confessional theology. I wanted to see what this genre in Lutheran hands could do.

It looks like I’ll have a chance to see just that. I’m glad to say that Concordia Publishing House has posted the songs from the Songwriters Initiative on their website. There you can download both audio files and lead sheets. Best of all, LCMS churches can use the songs for free in their congregations. (No word on whether Lutheran Church-Canada churches are given similar permission).

I haven’t had a chance to do an in-depth review of the songs myself yet, but I will say, based on a first listen, that it’s wonderful to hear such a focus on the Sacrament of the Altar in this music. Concordia Publishing House notes that all the songs on the site have been “thoroughly considered for their doctrinal content and have been approved through the LCMS doctrinal review process.” Theological rigor? Check. Contemporary music? Check. Here’s hoping this is only the first step of many towards finding a peaceful solution (without compromising confessional integrity) to the Worship Wars.

I’m not particularly shy in expressing my admiration for the new hymnody/rewriters movement. Put simply, these worship musicians are reacting against the frequently shallow (and even occasionally unbiblical) theology of much of today’s contemporary worship. To that end, they advocate a return to the Church’s rich treasury of hymns, pushing also for the writing of new hymns. But (and here’s where they differ from what might be considered the normal “traditional” side in worship debates) they just as strongly advocate for the importance of new musical settings (guitars and all) for older hymns. In other words, they argue for the importance of using theologically robust and Christ centered lyrics. But they also want those lyrics to be made accessible to a contemporary audience through a musical “language” they can actually understand. [For a more in depth analysis of the new hymnody/rewriters movement, see my post “Worship Wars: Bridging the Divide”.

Earlier this summer, the rewriter Matthew Smith wrote a guest post for Challies.com entitled “Confessions of a Failed Worshiper”. There, he recounts the events that led to his abandoning of typical contemporary worship music for new hymnody. He recalls that, when leading contemporary worship, he would always feel that he had failed to please God.

After leading the music, I would sit down and hear a message, whose point was often that I needed to try harder. Try harder to be a “good witness” at school. Try harder to avoid temptation. Try harder to obey God.

Somehow, the idea of trying harder carried over to worship. My repertoire consisted of praise and worship songs… mainly ones that talked about how much I wanted to worship God. I thought that if I tried harder, was sincere enough, and really meant it enough, that I would enter into a state of capital-w Worship. The world around me would fade away, I would lose my inhibitions, and I would achieve a spiritual state of being lost in worship.

But this state of spiritual ecstasy never arrived. And, in my mind, there was only one person to blame–me. I was a failed worshiper.

The good news of the Gospel of Christ finally broke in upon him when, while attending college, he was part of a campus group whose preaching was Christ-centered and whose worship songs consisted of hymns set to contemporary music.

Over the following weeks, as I stood and sung these hymns and sat and heard the Word preached, I found myself intrigued, fascinated, and even offended. For the first time I heard clearly that life was not about me and how hard I tried. Every way that I had tried and failed to please God, Jesus tried and succeeded. And he didn’t do it in order to put me in His debt, or just be a good example for me to follow, or show me how easy life would be if I came up with the right strategy. He did it while I was dead in my sins. Everything that needed to be done was already accomplished at the cross, and the empty tomb meant true, lasting freedom for me.

The lyrics I was singing were not about my desires and how much I wanted to worship God, they were about Jesus and His desires, and they gave specific and beautiful reasons why He was worthy of worship.

The article is well worth a read. I commend it (and the idea of new hymnody/rewriting) for your prayerful consideration. You can visit Matthew Smith’s website here.

A friend of mine linked this on Facebook earlier today. Basically, it’s one man’s rant about worship music. Among the things he criticizes are simplistic, repetitive, I-focused lyrics. But visit the site. The songs he’s “criticizing” might not be what you’d expect.

Link:  “Rant about Worship Songs”

One subject that is particularly dear to my heart is worship theology. As a bit of an amateur song/hymnwriter myself, I tend to pay particular attention to the “worship wars” which have divided large parts of Christendom, especially in my own Lutheran heritage.

One of the most frequent – and, frankly, often justified – criticisms of contemporary worship music (even when used in a liturgical framework) is that so many of the songs are theological weak or even plain wrong. In a discussion of the interpretation of Colossians 3:16, the author of Lutheran Hymn Revival (who, by the by, is a rather excellent poet) expressed his frustration that so many of the new songs the church now sings “do not have God’s Word dwelling richly in it so that we might teach and admonish each other.” I agreed with his sentiments, but continued, “I see this not so much a failing of a particular literary or musical style; it is rather the failure of the church to raise up theologically astute songwriters.” As the discussion moved to another post (Worship Wars: Bridging the Divide), he echoed my sentiments, wondering why Lutherans were failing to take up the challenge of composing new theologically strong music:

I know that every now and then we get a Presbyterian or Baptist who writes “Lord, ‘Tis Not That I Did Choose Thee,” or “My Hope is Built on Nothing Else,” or “In Christ Alone,” but what does it say of us today that we cannot put together music and hymnody that is better than all that? What has happened to us and what is our problem? Doesn’t this show a spiritual dearth among us?

I had no easy answers at the time. I still do not. But I have more hope that Lutherans are beginning to take up the challenge. Recently the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod held its first ever Lutheran Songwriter’s Conference. Michael A. Schmid has an excellent reflection on the event in this month’s issue of WorshipConcord Journal. In his words, “the intent was to gather Lutheran songwriters, to encourage and equip them in their craft, to engage in substantive discussion about theology as it pertains to worship songwriting, and then to challenge them to apply their art to blessing the church with Lutheran worship songs.” Let us pray that this truly represents the first steps in a serious commitment to “commissioning and creatin… worship songs with authentic confessional theology.”

Chantez à Dieu, célébrez son nom! Frayez le chemin à celui qui s’avance à travers les plaines! L’Éternel est son nom: réjouissez-vous devant lui!
Psaume 68:4 (Louis Segond [68:5])

Back when Concordia Publishing House (CPH) published LSB (Lutheran Service Book) in 2006, I attended one of the launch events here in Saskatchewan. The presenters praised the benefits of the new hymnal, and admittedly there were many. They praised many of the positive attributes of the new hymnal, such as the consistent pagination (a BIG improvement), and highlighted some of the excellent new songs. But one of the things they praised irked me immensely: the inclusion of many Spanish translations of songs.

Now let me be clear. It wasn’t the fact that the songs were offered in Spanish that bothered me. In fact, I think it’s an excellent feature. What bothered me was the total lack of French translations of hymns. The hymnal was a perfect fit for Lutheran churches in the United States, where Spanish is the most common second language. But it seemed to me (and to many others with me that day) that Canadian needs had not been considered in the creation of the book. Canada is, after all, a nation with two official languages: English and French. The implication seemed to be that what was good enough for Americans should be good enough for their Canadian counterparts. Needless to say, I left the hymnal launch that day frustrated and disappointed.

Recently, however, Rev. David Somers and Rev. David Saar of Lutheran Church – Canada / Église Luthérienne du Canada in conjunction with Concordia Publishing House have come to fill the void left by LSB. But they’ve gone further than just providing a few French translations of hymns. Their great work Liturgies et cantiques luthériens has recently been published by CPH. This new hymnal is the first French Lutheran hymnal published anywhere since 1975. And it’s being joyously received all over the world.

Visit LCC InfoDigest here for a few recent videos of Lutherans in Togo putting the new hymnals to good use.

You can purchase the hymnal from CPH’s website here.

Ancient words, chanted once in the depths of Roman catacombs,
Enchant us still and speak for us.
Where we would be speechless,
Be you the words upon our lips.
And let us cry out with fourth century Jerusalem,
Fifth century Rome, sixteenth century Wittenburg,
And twenty-first century Seoul, Abuja and Brasilia,
“Kyrie eleison!”

Ours is one voice, though many tongues;
Altered in form yet unaltered in meaning.
Here the Word speaks over us.
Here the Word speaks into us.
And we in return respond in unison.
With angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven,
With seraphim and cherubim, and all the saints quick and dead,
With the living creatures, and all the holy catholic and apostolic church,
Praise we the Name.

What is this text that survives centuries and cultures and civilizations?
What these words that they grip us still?
Are they not of human origin?
Human-crafted, yes, but drawn from divine logos,
And infused by the Spirit with his message,
A message that bids us come experience grace anew.

We do not speak these ancient words by mere rote.
We speak them by heart:
Reciting, repeating, reiterating changeless truths,
Until we at last we are drawn up from these catacombs
To join in undying worship with the faithful of all generations –
Those with whom we worship even now as we speak ancient words.

Mathew A. Block
November 8, 2009

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