Let the eye-rolling commence!

It’s inevitable.  At some point in the next few weeks, the piano, organ, and brass will begin to play; the conductor will give the downbeat; and one of my brothers-in-law will glance out of the corner of his eye to see what’s going on in my region of the choir.

You see I cannot bring myself to sing “Joy to the World.”  Even now, I actually can feel the disappointment in my spiritual life you have at this very moment.

Take a moment and read through the lyrics.  When the hymn writer, Isaac Watts, composed the carol in 1719, it was not intended to be a Christmas/Advent/First Coming carol.  Hymnary.org notes that Watts “published it in his Psalms of David Imitated (1719) under the heading ‘The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.'”  Another article giving the background of the carol can be found here.

“Joy to the World” (based off of Psalm 98) is actually about Christ’s Second Coming and the onset of the Messianic (i.e., Millennial) Kingdom.  It has precious little to do with Christmas, as the events the carol speaks of are still yet to occur!  Now, I can understand singing the carol at Christmas if one’s understanding of Scripture leads them to believe that Christ’s Kingdom, as prophesied in the Old Testament, began with the beginning of the Church.  In that way, many of those Old Testament passages are applied to the current age.  But, in the circles I’ve traveled and in which I’ve had fellowship, that is not the case.

It’s not like there is a dirth of good Christmas carols — even carols that balance the birth of Israel’s Messiah with the realization that God had now begun to administrate His kingdom differently on the Day of Pentecost.  I know “Joy to the World” is boisterously happy and jubilant, but — like anything else — shouldn’t the text inform and guide as to proper usage?

At the end of it all (no pun intended), let me be clear.  When He comes — our glorious King — I will gladly, triumphantly, and loudly be singing “Joy to the World.”  I’d go so far as to say that I hope it is the second song in D-major that we end up singing on that day.  The first, of course, will be Handel’s chorus “Worthy is the Lamb” from The Messiah.  (What can I say?  The pedal D on the organ makes me well up every time!  I’m hoping part of the refreshing the New Covenant brings is a clearly-audible 128′ pipe for that D that will resound throughout the universe.)

So go ahead.  Roll your eyes.  Cringe.  Think ill-thoughts.  I’m really not that crazy.  Or at least for this reason.


on Sam Hsu…

It is the blight man was born for
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Spring and Fall (1880)

In the past few weeks, Daniel has discovered his fingers.  He will hold his hands out in front of his face and marvel that there is something there and that he can actually control when and how it moves.  It’s an exciting discovery for him, and I think even more so for Laura and me as we watch it unfold.  This afternoon, I’ve been looking at my own fingers, as well.  The way they move, the skill they possess, the investment that went into them.  And I think of the legacy that they contain.  Yesterday morning, one of my music professors, Dr. Sam Hsu, was hit by a car in Center City Philadelphia as he walked to the train station for his commute to Philadelphia Biblical University.  The brain injury that he sustained was too much for his physical body, and he is now in the presence of our Savior.  As I meditate on his life and his lessons, a few things come to mind.

As I look at my fingers, I am cognizant of how Dr. Hsu lives on in them.  While he was not my piano teacher, he taught my piano teacher, Ken Borrmann.  Now, by no means was I ever in the top echelon of prize students, but yet, I know that he — his legacy, his musicality, his philosophy, his love, his passion — dwells in my fingers; his influence is by no means gone.  I stand on his shoulders.  The impact that we are able to have in one another’s lives can scarcely be downplayed.  Even if the extent of his reach was purely musical, which it was not, it speaks volumes to how one person can revolutionize another — whether that is a pianist, a class, a university, or a Church.  The fire with which news of his accident and Homegoing spread testifies to that.  From his official capacities as distinguished professor at PBU, teacher at Csehy, and elder at Tenth Presbyterian (James Montgomery Boice’s former church); to his friends and mentored, it was all our corner of the world cared about.

Yet, it does not stop there.  As if it weren’t enough, Dr. Hsu was a man of utmost humility and patience, exemplifying Christ-likeness in many aspects.  In talking with him, you would surely know that the man was clearly erudite; yet, he was never intimidating or brash with his knowledge.  I sat under his tutelage for four semesters of music history and a semester of Form and Analysis, and I hated most every minute of it.  His style of teaching was not my style of learning.  Music history was more than dates and compositions, it was a veritable class on music philosophy and aesthetics.  With great long-suffering did he put up with my grandstanding on the cultural significance of Kelly Clarkson and country music.  Indeed, the man would keep up with American Idol for the sake of my ilk, if only to be able to have that conversation with me so that I would be more willing to have his conversations with him.  If he knew he would be receiving an international student, he would learn some conversational aspects of their language to help identify with them.  He was an example of becoming all things to all men.

God’s kingdom will not be the same without him here.  The hole at PBU alone would seem to be insurmountable; finding someone of his caliber in music history and piano pedagogy will be, I dare say, impossible.  In the Father’s infinite wisdom, it was time for Dr. Hsu to hear: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”  And, as Ken Borrmann said seven years ago as another one of our professors was called Home: “We don’t need to know the why, because we know the Who.”  So what do those of us who remain do?  We strive to emulate what the grace of God did in the man.  We celebrate that he is where many of us would much rather be.  We play and sing joyfully to our Creator and Gifter, knowing that His ways are far above and beyond ours.  And I personally cannot wait to celebrate his life, Homegoing, and legacy when that time comes after Christmas.  Until then, my thoughts and prayers are with his family, my friends, and my alma mater (see their tribute here), as well as the driver who hit him.  And above all else, soli Deo gloria.

on Handel’s Messiah…

When people think of Handel’s Messiah, their knowledge is usually limited to the “Hallelujah Chorus,” if that.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s  a great chorus, and a great moment of the work, but it is by no means my favorite part.  The Messiah is divided into three parts: (1) the birth of the Messiah; (2) the death of the Messiah; and (3) the resurrection of the Messiah.  One of the highlights of the work for me is near the opening of the second part, which sets Isa 53:4-6 in most glorious fashion:

24.  Chorus (click here to listen)
Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.

25.  Chorus (click here to listen)
And with His stripes we are healed.

26.  Chorus (click here to listen)
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

#24 is especially poignant to me.  Listen to it while I drone on…  For those not familiar with significant rhythms in music, allow me to explain.  The opening rhythms you hear are dotted eighth notes followed by a sixteenth notes.  In classical writing, they signify royalty and kingship.  Handel’s use of this rhythm for the first minute is nothing short of sheer genius.  Indeed, it is difficult for me not to be moved to tears every time I listen to the juxtaposition of “royal” rhythms and the text “Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.”

As if that was not enough, Handel then moves into a section that carries stark rhythmic contrast.  The luscious choral writing in the following 45 seconds is pure beauty.  Especially that Db major 7th chord at 1:38.  It may seem like nothing special now to our 21st-century ears, but for 1741, such dissonance was not yet commonplace.  If the dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythms aren’t enough, that middle section just does me in every time.

Finally, any choir worth their salt in the last minute of the song is going to paint the musical picture of the lashes that Jesus endured.  Can’t you kinda “hear” the sight when the choir sings “the chastisement?”  Awesome, huh?

This is the message of Good Friday.  It’s not some random Christian holiday that allows a good portion of the secular world to have a day off.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the eternal King, subjugated Himself to His creation by becoming a man.  He came so that He may demonstrate love by satisfying the righteous wrath of the Father by dying on the cross for the world.  Without that propitiation, His time on earth would have been pointless.

Surely Jesus Christ, the King, bore our griefs, carried our sorrows, was wounded for our transgressions, was bruised for our iniquities.  (NB:  The Hebrew covers a lot of bases by using several of its different words for “sin,” too.)

And Sunday… Sunday is even better…  =)

on the polarity of church music…

The following is a brief paper I wrote for my Pastoral Ministry class.  The assignment was to write on an existing polarity within churches today (e.g., law and grace; evangelism and discipleship; tradition and contemporary).  I wouldn’t say this is the most thorough and well-executed paper I could have written, but it is what it is, and I thought I would share it.  Enjoy!

            In the past two decades, few practical matters have divided the church more often than the concepts of the traditional and the contemporary.  This polarity manifests itself in a variety of ways; however, none so strongly as the issue of music and worship in the church.  For the purposes of this discussion, I will refrain from referring to music as either “traditional” or “contemporary;” rather, I will use the terms “classical” and “folk,” respectively.[1]  I believe that discussions on the role of tradition in the church are often fruitless because there is a lack of understanding, not only in music history, but in forgetting what we are doing with music in the first place.

            There are benefits and setbacks to each end of the spectrum.  Concerning classical worship, several benefits are noted.  First, it aids in congregational singing.  By its very nature, classical music is designed to have melodies that are easy to sing, as well as harmonies that are governed by a very strict set of rules.  In addition, the rhythm of classical worship music is more often simpler, which leads to a more unified voice in congregational singing.  This music was meant to be sung as a congregation, and its uniformity is exemplified in the existence of hymnals.  Second, the classical style is unified in the sense that it is timeless.  Chorales written by Bach three hundred years ago contain the same characteristics of living hymn writers such as Paul Jones of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.  Third, and in many ways most important, is that classical worship contains texts that are richer and more theological in meaning.  Because this style has had wide acceptance, as well as time on its side, the lyrics of classical worship often portray a grander sense of the person and work of God.  Fourth, classical worship is not dependent upon stylistic interpretation.  In this style, the composer, not the performer, has the final say in what is performed.

            All this is not to say that folk worship does not have its benefits.  First, it is easily accessible to believers in that it utilizes music that is familiar to them.  In using the familiar, they are able to identify with the style of music, and consequently, relate more with the texts.  This is the main line of support for using folk music.  Second, a believer does not need to know how to read music or be skilled in similar ways in order to make the most of folk worship.  Third, the texts are usually more personal.

            In addition, both styles have drawbacks.  In today’s American culture, unless someone either grew up in a church that employed classical worship, or is a musician, a believer will not readily identify with the style, and it will thereby become a distraction to worship.  Indeed, one would not expect a remote tribal group of South America to worship using standard four-part Western harmony.  It would be more appropriate for their folk music to be that vehicle.  As it were, classical music used to be a part of our culture, whereas in the past century, it has been declining at a rapid pace.  Perhaps one of the main reasons why it was a part of our culture was because of the church, as the church was the foremost outlet and supporter of classical music.  The history of church music is the history of classical music.

            There are also drawbacks to employing folk music.  First, it employs a familiar style of music that can be easily equated with the commercialism and individualism of today’s culture.  A believer can sing a song in church on Sunday, and then turn on the radio and sing along with Chris Tomlin in their car on Monday on their way to work.  Like it or not, the Christian music business is still, at its heart, a business.  Second, because of its nature, folk music is centered on soloists, which detracts from congregational singing.  Melodic rhythms are usually syncopated and will vary from worship leader to worship leader.  Because most recording artists are either tenors or altos, this translates into melodic ranges (usually too high) that are not suitable for people in the congregation.  To be fair, classical worship used to employ high melodies; however, this was also when many were trained to sing in that style.  One will notice that the trend in more recent hymnals is to actually lower the keys to accommodate for this lack of training!  It is an accommodation not usually found in folk music.  Third, the texts are often focused on a believer’s emotions, abilities, and responses, as opposed to the person and work of the Object of their worship.  Fourth, by its very nature, folk music changes with a people group’s culture.  Even a song written twenty years ago can be difficult to fit into a “contemporary” service.  Worship leaders must always be on the look out for the next hit worship song that will replace what came before it.

            So what can a pastor do?  I believe there are several important things to keep in mind.  First, keep the main thing the main thing!  Why are we even utilizing the vehicle of music in the first place?  It is to worship our Creator and Redeemer.  Everything else must be subservient to this goal.  Second, the pastor should be educated in what the differences truly are, and pass that on to their congregation.  Many churches that stem from the 18th century American “camp meetings,” or the 20th-century “gospel crusades” use gospel songs or Southern gospel for worship (this applies to my home church).  What many congregants do not realize is that these are not “hymns” simply because they have become “tradition!”  These gospel songs are merely the folk worship of one hundred years ago, and are fundamentally no different than what is being written today.  Likewise, many instruments that are considered “classical” are relatively recent inventions.  Just as folk music can be criticized as subjective and ever changing, even classical music has not always been around as such.

            Third, what are the congregation’s perceived needs and why?  If a congregation is thriving on classical worship (e.g., Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia), switching to folk worship in order to be relevant to today’s culture would be to lose that church’s relevancy.  Likewise, it may not be the wisest course of action as a pastor to upset the faith of half a congregation by demanding a switch to the other style of worship.  On the other hand, perhaps the congregation’s real need is to be educated and more fully understand why they want what they do.

            Fourth, your church may be one that would like to see a blend of classical and folk styles.  In my experience, I have found it best (not only in terms of musicality, but in placating the most congregants) that the blend of styles manifest itself in the co-existence, not a merging, of styles.  Performing folk songs with an organ and classical songs with a guitar and drums is probably not going to achieve the balance you are looking to strike.

            Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages, and I believe it is best to let them both stand on their own merits according to the needs of the church.  Unfortunately, churches let this issue divide them far too often, especially when we consider that this is over an act of worship and devotion to the One who died for all of us.


                [1]These words are deliberately chosen.  “Classical” will refer to music employed by the church that follows the guidelines of the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic characteristics of the last millennium of Western music, which is idealized in people like Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), whose compositions are still seen as a standard today; and Johann Fux (1660-1741), whose book Gradus Ad Parnassum codified “classical” principles relating to melody and harmony.  Normally, this group consists of hymns and choral anthems.  “Folk,” then, is that music which is historically recognized as being orally transmitted and, more importantly, related to a nation’s (or people group’s) culture.  This group not only applies to “contemporary” music (i.e., newly composed music), but the gospel songs and Southern gospel, which sometimes antiquate what can be termed “classical.”  A proper understanding of these terms aids in this discussion.