Friday, February 26, 2010

Rediscovering the Gift of Worship

We live in a time of crisis in worship. In our culture of consumerism, worship has become seen as one of many options for how to "spend" ... "our" ... time. What if we gave ourselves to the mystery of this gift of God, given to us to continually transform us in love?

I have been asked to serve as faculty presenter for an Academy for Spiritual Formation in Northern Illinois next February. I've begun working on my curriculum on "Worship as Spiritual Discipline" and am using it during Lenten studies at Grace UMC. Here is the outline. I'd love some feedback.

Day 1 – Worship as a Means of Grace

Psalm 1 … my journey with the tree … reaching up, out, and deep … beyond functionalism and consumerism into freedom of discipline … Wesley and “means of grace” … salvation as journey of continual transformation … finding grounding in a greater mystery … what worship and liturgy are

Day 2 – Worship as the Dance of Praise

Monastery experience … beyond praise as something we do to something we join … psalms as stepping into life of ongoing prayer … congregational song, language, and symbol … movement over time … diversity of traditions … worship is not an event

Day 3 – Worship as the Rhythm of Life

Spiritual life as voyage … seasons of the year, the week, and the day … framing our life together … mindfulness … finding our true self … giving ourselves to the patterns that shape us … journey from the head to the heart … the Lord’s Day as a “little Easter”

Day 4 – Worship as Sacramental Living

Memory … hunger for mystery … Eucharistic spirituality … becoming that which we receive … living as the beloved … incarnational spirituality

Day 5 – Worship as Becoming the Body of Christ

Healing prayer … depth and passion … raccoons are welcome … confession as “being real” … brokenness and the journey of forgiveness … continually becoming the Body … the life of prayerfulness

Day 6 – Worship as Holiness and Hospitality

Striking balance between the artistic and the evangelical … opening ourselves to God and others … the blessing of diversity … the dangers of spiritual arrogance … beyond “worship wars” to beholding mystery … finding the formative center

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Blue Light of Lent

This has been a hard week in my community as we continue to walk through grief after the recent shootings at Discovery Middle School and UAH. Yet even in the midst of such tragedy, I am struck by our ability to find hope.

This picture captured a moment of silence at the memorial service at UAH on Friday. 3,000 people gathered to remember the 3 who lost their lives. An old friend from high school band, David Harwell, is the head of the theatre department at UAH and created lighting that would flood the stage with an ocean of blue. Late in the service, the crowd lit little blue lights together in a moment of unity. One by one, the names of the three senselessly killed appeared on the screen for one minute each, then faded into the darkness and silence of a blue hope.

Blue light is the perfect light for a time like this. It’s light because it is hope. It’s blue because it’s a light of joy that comes in the midst of the earthy, difficult realities of life.

Perhaps Lent is a season of blue light. We are looking forward to the joy and the victory of Easter, but it’s a time bathed in blue because we carry that candle in the real world of brokenness and searching. I’m glad God gives us such a season so that Christianity can not become a happy, clappy, spirituality of putting on a smiley face. Ours is a faith of true joy and sincere hope that comes in the midst of 40 days that mirror’s Jesus, who carried a blue light into the wilderness.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How Will We Walk Through This Tragedy?

This is my LifePoints column which appeared in the Faith & Values Section of the Huntsville Times on Friday, Feb. 12, 2010. It appeared on the day of Todd Brown's funeral and the additional tragic shootings at UAH. For a link to this article posted by the Huntsville Times electronically on, please click here.

A shot rang out at Discovery Middle School last Friday afternoon. Its sound is still reverberating in the minds and hearts of a community pierced by grief.

No matter what the disagreement might have been between two ninth grade boys, Todd Brown had every right to go to school on Friday without paying for it with his life. Who would have thought a bullet could penetrate a Madison school? Part of the tragedy is the loss of innocence itself.

It is difficult to write of something so unspeakable. Words can not take the sorrow away, and I wouldn’t presume to try with easy platitudes like “everything happens for a reason.” Spooning sugar onto a deep wound doesn’t help it heal. For family, teachers, and students: Our prayers travel with you on this journey of a thousand miles that you can only take one step at a time.

Communities have wounds, too. There are more questions than answers for all of us who feel the fresh anguish of this outburst. How will we walk through this tragedy?

It shatters our illusions about safety. We prefer to see violence as something that happens somewhere else, not here. We try to wrap our minds around what happened, but in the end, senseless killing is impossible to understand.

These are the times that try a community. We could choose a path of negativity, entering the blame game or giving in to prejudice. We could choose a path of quick fixes, as if a speech about self-esteem, a class in conflict resolution, or increased security can take the pain away. We could choose a path of denial, sweeping difficult questions of school violence and conflict in the larger culture under the rug in an attempt to move on.

Or we could choose a path of growth. God would never wish such tragedy upon us. But God never wastes a hurt. Some lessons are not worth the struggle that brought them to us, but they refine us like silver nevertheless. Pain is a great teacher.

For today, I suppose nothing could articulate my prayer for our community better than the words of hymn writer Ruth Duck:

“Out of the depths, O God, we call to you.
Wounds of the past remain, affecting all we do.
Facing our lives, we need your love so much.
Here in this community, heal us by your touch.”

There is no place for senseless violence in any faith. Let us pray for a peaceful hope that comes by the healing hands of the Holy One and work together for the sake of love that conquers death. In the process, we might learn that life is a delicacy meant to be savored.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer that serves Grace United Methodist Church in the Madison area. He blogs at

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Beyond "Worship Wars" to Beholding the Movement

I have begun working on a project for the North Alabama Historical Society entitled "The Movement of Methodist Hymnody in the United States: The Past, Present, and Future." Reflecting on my observations on my hymnal collection and other sources as well as my own experience, I'm interested in how song has been shaped over time, and the way that upholding tradition and exploring creative newness has in our faith heritage always had a vibrant, dynamic relationship.

Here are a few thoughts to ponder and I welcome everyone's input ...

1) "Worship wars" are partly based on ignorance of the joy of passionately loving both in our own tradition. We've always been "both/and" singers with a thirst for new sounds and texts as well as one foot in the door of the ancient ways.

2) Hymns are as old as Christianity, the word "hymn" itself is from Greek. Luke records canticles (songs) around the Christmas story and Paul records early hymns in the epistles. In early centuries, the dynamics of both traditional and contemporary influence began to emerge as psalm singing developed on the one hand, with Gregorian chant becoming dominant as new modes and ordering of music emerged, and plainsong hymns came along on the other hand, due in part to Benedictine influence. These were two dynamic strands of song.

3) The German reformation came along, and the Germans became proliferous in their explorations of Protestant hymnody under Luther, followed by the great composers of German chorales. They loved this because the music was more common and easier to sing and remember and the texts were in the vernacular.

4) The Wesleys came along when the English landscape was not only spiritually dry but also void of contemporary song. After Tallis, for cultural reasons they had driven back toward the more elitist chantlike melody. Germans, however, had been more evangelical and John Wesley picked this spirituality up from the Moravians. He brought it into their movement because of the heart-felt, emotive character of the singing compared to the metrical psalmnody the British elite had grown to prefer. He began by translating German chorales into English. At the same time, Isaac Watts was just ahead of Charles Wesley and was beginning to write English hymns as well.

5) Charles picked up on the movement and was lit on fire, becoming the most proliferous hymn writer in all of history. At the time, it was radical, emotionally compelling, rousing singing that was frowned on by traditionalists. The singing fueled the evangelical movement because it was sung with tunes that were easy to sing, contemporary to the ear, and was common and simple language.

6) The hymnbook was a modern phenomenon that traditionalists struggled with and frowned upon, much as traditionalists struggle with video projection and praise bands today. We think of hymnals as "traditional", because tradition is dynamic and our concept of it changes. At the time, they were new, different, and "with the times."

7) As you trace subsequent hymnals of those the Wesleys compiled personally, you can see themes that emerge in continuing the dynamic and creative balance between holding onto the gems of tradition while exploring and capturing new song. In the generation after the Wesleys during the camp meeting movement, evangelical hymns emerged such as those of Lowell Mason, simultaneously with spirituals which emerged in the African American experience. In another wave and generation later, these evangelical hymns gave way to gospel tunes with writers such as Fanny Crosby, while mountain music influence brought "shape note" singing into the mix. Even later, when I was growing up, it was common to have Sunday night services using the Cokesbury hymnal, which was the contemporary music of about 75 years ago.

8) Layer upon layer of gospel and evangelical outpourings were the new and the contemporary music of each subsequent generation. And we have witnessed it with the introduction of "praise music" in our generation, which I would argue is a pendulum swing back to the spirituality of metrical psalm singing with its simplicity of text. Praise music is, in a sense, more "traditional" than Wesleyan hymns and is best seen as the latest expression of 2,000 year old creative dynamics between singing psalmody (even if texts are new but in a similar spirit of singing simple prayer to God) and writing poetry that has "meatier" theological content.

9) One way hymnals changed over time is the way hymns were organized and presented. They didn't exist at all before the printing press, of course, though music leaves from the renaissance period begin to approximate the look that would become hymn music. First they appeared with texts only because of both convenience and expense, then with one tune written with multiple texts nearby, and finally with text written under the tune. Now in both printed and video resources we are swinging back. It appears to me the presentation of hymns is a grand pendulum of sorts rooted in the creativity of our tradition.

10) I'm fond of saying John and Charles Wesley had the Book of Common Prayer in one pocket and a collection of contemporary hymns in the other. This "both/and" singing is part of the DNA of the church. It continues to play itself out as vibrant churches offer both traditional and contemporary worship options and all kinds of blends. But that's not new anymore. Emerging is another wave and another way to continue this journey. What will it be like?

11) All in all, in mainstream American Methodism there have been 27 hymnals and 9 suppliments published. What will be next? Some argue that we don't need paperbound hymnals anymore because of the computer age. I think there will be one, but it will be a "bridge hymnal", a hybrid into something else fo the future, a paperbound hymnal but with digital components and perhaps customizable content. What will a hymnal look like in this age, and the next to come?

I do not have a degree in hymnology or anything, so I apologize for holes in my thinking. This has just emerged from a lifelong love of congregational song and study, and these are just some of my initial thoughts after one weekend of thinking and reading.

I am continuing my research as well as my own observations of printed resources spanning time. My goal is to not only understand the past but to try to peek into the window that lies in the future. I would love to hear your ideas and thoughts!