Give Me Joy Or Give Me Death

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

I am convinced that the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve are some of the noisiest days in the year. There’s the noise of scratching together the proper shopping list, the boxes of decorations being dragged down from the attic, kids screaming in the car on the way to the grandparents’ house, extra services at the local church, and boxing other people out to buy the perfect present at the mall.

And right at the beginning of all this noise, the time of frenetic and frantic noise, we have Christ the King Sunday.

Like many Sundays throughout the liturgical year, this one has a special focus and significance. However, Christ the King Sunday is a more recent addition to the church calendar. Whereas Christians have celebrated the likes of Maundy Thursday and Pentecost for a long long time, Christ the King was only established as an official day in the liturgical year in 1925. It took the church nearly 1900 years to need this day the same way that we need it now.

In 1925, Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for 3 years, a loud insurrectionist in Germany named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was rapidly growing in power, and the entire world was suffering under the weight of a Great Depression.

Yet, despite the rise of autocratic dictators, despite the lack of economic opportunities, despite the strange and uncomfortable silence between the two World Wars, Christ the King asserted, and still does, that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Jesus the Christ is Alpha and Omega, the one to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance. This psalm and this day are a reminder of our first and primary allegiance to the Lord.

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Make a joyful noise to the Lord, everyone! Praise the Lord with glad and generous hearts; come into the presence of God and sing your hearts out. Know that the Lord is God. The Lord made us and we belong to the Lord. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. With every breath give thanks to God and bless the name of the Lord. God is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

We praise and sing with joy because God in Christ is the Good Shepherd. We jump to our feet and throw our hands in the air because God has already done so much for us.

But if we’re honest, sometimes it feels hard to praise God during this time of year. For some of us, all those decorations and all those songs don’t hold the joy they once did.

Rather than hopeful in expectation, we are fearful in deliberation. Instead of thinking about all the God has done for us, all we can think about are all the things we still have to do. And instead of praising God with a joyful noise, we struggle to hear God among all the sounds of this season.

The psalmist proclaims a joy for the Lord that cannot be contained, a joy that must be shouted from the rooftops. But most of us don’t want to sing to the Lord in public. In fact, we don’t want to be confused with the type of people who do sing aloud in public places.

However, Christ the King Sunday prepares us for Advent, the season dedicated to waiting for the arrival of Christ on Christmas. This is joyful, praise-filled waiting. And, ironically, in many churches it does not look like the congregation is making a joyful noise to the Lord. Rather, most churches are filled with people singing along looking slightly bored.

Thanks be to God that this church is not like other churches.

Last Sunday, during the 8:30 service, our sound system decided to no longer cooperate when it was time to sing our final hymn “I Am Thine, O Lord.” The whole service had built up to the final hymn and our chance to respond to what God had said, and I sighed as I reluctantly announced that we would be singing it acapella knowing it wouldn’t have the full strength as usual. And just when I was about to start singing the first note, Gloria raised her hand from the choir and said, “Pastor, I can play that one on the piano.”

Friends, I don’t know if we’ve ever sounded more joyful than when we sang that hymn last week. And even at the 11 o’clock service, when I knew ahead of time she was going to play it, I ran over to the drums and joined her for our final hymn and the whole congregation made a joyful noise to the Lord.

It was a shot of joy to the arm, and it was a reminder that the Lord is indeed good.

But it forces us to ask ourselves, “How can we be joyful when so much is wrong in the world?”

When a new widower attends church on a Sunday morning, he hears the familiar words of a Christmas hymn and instead of being transported to joyful memories from the past, all he can think about is the now empty spot next to him in the pew.

When a mother goes to the store to purchase Christmas presents, she goes not with the excitement of how the children will react, but with the fear of how the family will be able to afford it all.

When the refugee woman hears similarities between her story and Mary’s, she cowers in fear upon returning home and wondering if she will be caught and shipped back to her home country.

The kind of joy the psalmist sings about is not a surface-level temporary experience. It is not a fall on the floor guttural sense of laughter that eventually fades.

The joy of the Lord comes because God is still God, even when the world feels like its falling apart.

The joy of the Lord comes because we are still God’s people, even when we feel like we’re all alone.

The joy of the Lord comes because Jesus is King, even when it seems like other people are determining what happens in the world.  

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When we feel the struggle of making a joyful noise amidst all the other noise, we fall back to God’s great gift of music. For music is the magnificent agent that lifts our hearts to commune with the heavenly angelic choir. Music transforms our hearts and minds such that we give thanks to the Lord through our voices, and we know that the Lord is good.

A few summers ago I took a group of youth down to Raleigh, NC for a week-long mission trip. My particular group was assigned to help at the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Every morning we traveled to the facility in order to help lead the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise together, and respond to trivia questions. It was quite the shock to the youth to go from the comfort of their homes and friends and family to sitting in a room full of people with limited abilities and limited communication.

We tried pulling out the bingo cards and reading out the letters and number. I encouraged the youth to dance around the room to get the residents involved, but almost all of them just stared off into space. We even tried leading them through an exercise routine to the music of Michael Jackson, but it was as if we weren’t even there.

To be honest, we felt pretty worthless. Having traveled all the way to Raleigh, it was hard for the youth to feel so unsuccessful with those near the end of their lives. But then I saw a discarded hymnal on a table, and I started flipping through the pages until I found Amazing Grace.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.

All eyes in the room, though previously locked onto the walls and the floor, had all turned to the center where I stood with the hymnal in my hands.

            ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.

            The youth moved closer toward the center and started singing and humming along with the familiar tune that had all heard so many times before.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

The residents started perking up in their wheel chair, even the ones who had nothing to do with what we had done earlier, and some of them even started to mouth the words with us.

            The Lord has promised good to me, his words my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.

The aides and employees who were wandering the hall started gathering in the doorway to watch what was happening, and a few of them even opened their hands and prayerfully joined in one voice.

            Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope and peace.

            Everyone in the room was singing or humming along, every resident who was previously lost to the recesses of their minds were found by the time we all joined together for the final verse.

            When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.

It was abundantly clear that for many of the residents this was the first time they had participated in anything for a very long time. From the tears welling up in the eyes of the employees while watching the people they served each day, to the smiles and wrinkles breaking forth on individual faces, to the youth singing and dancing in the middle of the room, the Lord was giving us the strength to make a joyful noise.

From there we continued to flip through the hymnal and we joined together for a number of hymns. That previously silent room was suddenly filled with the words and tunes of Softly and Tenderly, Stand By Me, I Love to Tell they Story, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and we ended with Victory in Jesus.

            It was one of the most powerful moments in my life, and we get a hint of that same feeling every week when we gather here together.

When I hear all of you say the Lord’s Prayer just as Jesus taught his disciples, with one voice, it sends shivers up my spine. When I look out while the choir is singing and I see some of you on the edge of your seats my heart flutters in my chest. When I open my eyes right before saying “Amen” and catch all of you faithful praying with tightly clenched eyes, I feel the Spirit moving through air.

And I am filled with joy.

Even the sounds that drive some of us crazy: the shuffling around of bulletins from someone in the back row, a toddler crying from a pew, a kid cackling on their way up the stairs toward Children’s Church. These are joyful sounds!

They are a reminder of God’s wonderful majesty and mystery. They are a reminder that God still has work for us to do. They are a reminder that Jesus unites us in a way that nothing else on earth can.

We worship the King of kings in Jesus the Christ. We come into God’s presence with gladness and singing because of all that God has done for us. And in response we can make a joyful noise. Amen.

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100 Episodes; 100,000 Downloads

The Crackers & Grape Juice Team recently celebrated our 100,000th download while in Hampton, VA for Annual Conference for the UMC. We announced the milestone while gathering with some friends and fans for a Pub Theology event at which the one and only Clay Mottley played some of his tunes. For our 100th episode Jason Micheli and I caught up with Clay and we talked about how music can stir the soul. If you would like to hear the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Some Songs Considered

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Thanks to everyone who has listened to any of the episodes from the Crackers & Grape Juice and/or the Strangely Warmed podcasts. We can’t believe how much the shows have grown and we look forward to fostering even more theological conversations without using stained glass language.

 

 

The 10 Best Albums of 2016

I listen to a lot of music. Between running at the gym, sermon preparation, and a host of other activities, I am constantly sifting through new albums throughout the year. Below is my list of the top 10 albums that were released in 2016.

 

10. Wilco – Schmilco

Wilco’s tenth studio album is filled with the stuff that makes Wilco Wilco. Tweedy’s twangy vocals, smooth harmonies, and poetic verses easily solidified this as one of my most listened to albums throughout the year.

 

9. White Denim – Stiff

I started listening to White Denim during my freshman year of college and I have looked forward to each of their releases ever since. Though not as enthralling as their earlier albums “Exposition” and “Fits”, “Stiff” moves and grooves from beginning to end. Part of what keeps bringing me back to White Denim is their relentless desire to blend genres into solid music.

 

8. Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like a Levee

Hailing from Durham, North Carolina, Hiss Golden Messenger’s “Heart Like a Levee” is like listening to Megafaun’s best songs on one album. The use of blues and folk rhythms allow the record to come through warm and inviting while also staying true to the form with melancholy when necessary.

 

7. Big Thief – Masterpiece

Adrianne Lenker’s voice haunts me. From the fragility of the song Paul to the emphatic harmonies on Masterpiece she has clearly found her calling.

 

6. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

Will Toledo has recorded A LOT of music (some from the backseat of his car; hence the name). With the release of “Teens of Denial” Toledo has started to receive critical acclaim and he deserves it. This albums contains a lot of honesty which is ironic considering 2016 is being called the year of “post-truth”.

 

5. Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN

Olsen’s 2014 “Burn Your Fire for No Witnesses” is easily one of my favorite albums of the decade, and she followed it with a solid collection of songs on “MY WOMAN”. Though not as haunting as the simple strumming and singing from her previous album, her songwriting has matured and kicks with force. Her vibrato still lingers between my ears whenever I hear the songs Sister and Woman.

 

4. Explosions in the Sky – The Wilderness

Without a doubt, I listened to “The Wilderness” while writing sermons more than any other album this year. The musical project of a bunch of friends from Austin, Texas, Explosions in the Sky is one of the most contemplative and moving post-rock bands I’ve ever heard.

 

3. Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing

Greta Kline’s sweet voice rings through on each song of “Next Thing” and was one of the biggest surprises (for me) of 2016. I bought the album on a whim after hearing about it on All Songs Considered and I kept coming back to it throughout the year.

 

2. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

The most needed album of 2016.

 

1. Andrew Bird – Are You Serious 

Maybe it’s because I became a father this year, and Andrew Bird’s recent step in fatherhood shaped the album, but “Are You Serious” was my favorite album of the year. From beginning to end every song drips with the flavor that has comes to define Bird’s music: haunting harmonies, moving melodies, winsome whistling, etc.

 

 

Honorable Mentions:

Kyle Morton – What Will Destroy You

Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band – The Rarity of Experience

Ray LaMontagne – Ouroboros

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

 

 

 

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Devotional – Psalm 104.33

Devotional:

Psalm 104.33

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

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Our service yesterday was filled with music: We began with the wonderful hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” as we praised God for the many blessings of life. Our Preschoolers offered wonderful renditions of “This Is My Commandment” and “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” all with corresponding hand gestures. Our Youth Choir faithfully proclaimed the words to “You Are My All In All.” And as a congregation we all joined together for “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Out of the numerous responsibilities that come with being a pastor, selecting the hymns for Sunday morning is one of my favorite privileges. I love spending time deep in God’s Word to begin crafting a sermon, but spending time in the hymnal and choosing songs to complement the thrust of worship is incredible. I grew up learning to sing my faith out of the hymnal and I believe hymns are vitally important for us to continually learn what it means to be faithful today.

After worship, while we were celebrating our preschoolers with a reception, I had a couple come up to me to thank me for worship. We talked about how cute the children were and how wonderful it was to see them in church. We exchanged stories about what we remember from our days in Preschool (not a lot). But before I was going to thank them for their words and pick up some more food from the table they had one more thing to say: “We heard God in the songs today.”

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Have you ever been in the middle of a hymn during worship when you started to really understand it for the first time? You might’ve known all the words to something like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” but one Sunday it finally clicked? Or you’ve heard children sing “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” but when you saw them pointing at you during the service you realized, for the first time, that God has you in his hands?

“I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.” Singing our faith is at the heart of what it means to be faithful because our words, and the music, help us to grasp who we are and whose we are.

This week, let us all reflect on the meaning of the hymns we sing.

What is your favorite hymn? What has it taught you about faith and discipleship?

“A Stick, A Carrot & String”

In preparation for Holy Week…

mewithoutyou – “A Stick, A Carrot & String”

The horse’s hay lay beneath His head our Lord was born to a manger bed, that all whose wells run dry could drink of his supply.

To keep Him warm the sheep drew near, so grateful for His coming here: You come with news of grace, come to take my place!

The donkey whispered in His ear: Child, in thirty-some-odd years, You’ll ride someone who looks like me (untriumphantly).

While the cardinals warbled a joyful song: He’ll make right what man made wrong, bringing low the hills, that the valleys might be filled!

Then Child, asked the birds, well, aren’t they lovely words we sing? The tiny Baby lay there without saying anything.

As a distance stood a mangy goat with crooked teeth and a matted coat, weary eyes and worn, chipped & twisted horns.

Thinking: Maybe I’ll make friends some day with the cows in the pens and the Rambouillet, but for now I’ll keep away – I got nothin’ smart to say.

But there’s a sign on the barn in Cabbagetown: “WHEN THE RAIN PICKS UP AND THE SUN GOES DOWN, SINNERS COME INSIDE! WITH NO MONEY, COME AND BUY. NO CLEVER TALK NOR GIFT TO BRING REQUIRES OUR LOWLY, LOVELY KING. COME YOU EMPTY-HANDED, YOU DON’T NEED ANYTHING.

And the night was cool and clear as glass with the sneaking snake in the garden grass, as Deep cried out to Deep, the disciples fast asleep.

And the snake perked up when he heard You ask: If You’re willing that this cup might pass we could find our way back home, maybe start a family all our own… but does not the Father guide the Son? Not my will but Yours be done! What else here to do? What else me but You?

And the snake who’d held the world, a stick, a carrot and a string, was crushed beneath the Foot of Your not wanting anything.

Devotional – Amos 5.23-24

Devotional:

Amos 5.23-24

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  

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For me, music makes the worship service. I can listen to a mediocre sermon, but if the organist has been hitting all the notes perfectly I can walk away feeling filled with the Spirit. I can be ignored as a first time visitor, but if the gathered body sings with full vigor I can leave the service feeling that I have encountered the living God. I can witness borderline heretical theology in a bulletin, but if the musicians are truly glorifying the Lord through their instruments, I can believe that the service has been redeemed.

I started playing drums for contemporary worship services when I was in 9th grade. I played all through high school, college, and seminary for a variety of churches in a variety of places. It is difficult to describe the doxological feeling that I experience when playing drums during a service, but suffice it to say that I feel closer to God in those moments than many others. Contemporary services are not for everyone, even I will admit that I enjoy playing for those services rather than experiencing them in the pews, but they help connect a large portion of Christians to the living God in a way that shapes, molds, and grows their faith.

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When I was in college I began playing for the Crave service that was a part of the Wesley Foundation at James Madison University. Every Sunday afternoon the band would get together at Asbury UMC to practice for a few hours before the service began in the evening. We would play songs that got people placing their hands in the air and praising God. We would play songs that got people dancing in the pews. We would play songs that were so familiar and catchy that I could actually hear people singing the words over the volume of the drum-kit.

However, even when we were playing at our best, our music paled in comparison with the one night that we left the church and wandered around downtown Harrisonburg. Instead of gathering for the typical service (3-4 songs, prayer, sermon, communion, 1 song, benediction) we met on the steps of the church and walked downtown to pray for our city. We stopped at specific locations and joined hands to prayerfully lift up our community, and in particular we prayed over the local courthouse so that “justice might roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

You can have the best music in the world at your church, but when the music becomes the only life-giving part of your discipleship formation, when acts of justice and righteousness have gone missing, we limit the depth and beauty that we can experience. Music is most powerful when it points away from ourselves to God, and when it inspires us to be righteous outside of worship.

This week, let us look for the moments when we can let justice roll down like waters for others around us. Let us truly listen to the words of our Christian songs and live them out so that our righteousness can be like an ever-flowing stream.

Weekly Devotional – 12/2/13

Devotional:

Psalm 72.1-7

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

Youth Band at a Fat Tuesday Celebration

Youth Band at a Fat Tuesday Celebration

When I was in High School I was fortunate to help form a youth band at my home church. A number of us would gather on a weekly basis in the sanctuary playing contemporary Christian music with guitars, bass, drums, and singers. We always had an adult present in order to fulfill the Childcare Protection Policy, but we largely did everything on our own; we picked the music, practiced accordingly, and planned performances throughout the year.

Though I had been attending church my entire life, it was during this period that I began to have a serious appreciation for worship, scripture, and prayer. We would talk about the lyrics of the songs regarding their connection with biblical verses, we debated about how songs should be played in order to indicate the mood of a service, and we began and ended every practice with prayer.

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One of my best friends growing up was a regular for leading prayer at the end of practice. He was often filled with joy (and by the Spirit) and would wave his arms back in forth while we stood hand in hand in a circle. His way of prayer was unlike anything else I had experienced. Whereas many would pray in some sort of elevated way (“Oh Great and Holy Majestic God who knows no bounds, commit thyself to mercy” etc) Will always sounded as if he was talking to another one of his friends. God, for Will, was a constant companion, a trusted friend, and a exciting partner on this journey of life. Will’s prayers were life-giving for all of there because he made God so much more approachable for all of us. Moreover, the prayers were never limited to our specific needs as teenagers, or even as a band, but they flowed over every element of life. Will would pray for the weather (every week), the other people of our church and school, our futures, and justice in the world. He might not know it, but Will taught all of us how to be in relationship with God, and with one another.

The psalmist writes regarding the coming Messiah, “May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.” Our relationship with God through Jesus Christ is one that meets us at every moment of our lives, the glorious and the mundane. God confronts us in magnitude and in simplicity. As we continue to shape ourselves into disciples of Jesus Christ, our prayers should always be for the one who falls like rain on the mown grass of our lives.

And so, in this holiday season filled with reunion and sacrifice, remember that Christ is a living presence in your life. When you go to God in prayer, let the words of Psalm 72 help to anticipate God’s coming reign, and our responsibility to live into God’s kingdom of justice on earth here and now. Let us all pray like Will, pray for God to reign abundantly in our hearts so that we might all come within his warm and peaceful embrace.