Monday, May 30, 2011

All of the Psalms

A number of months ago, I began a project that I suspected at the time would last about three years. The project? To put the entire collection of biblical psalms into modern song. The rules? Move through them sequentially, 1-150, with minimal alterations in text, omitting none of uncomfortable stuff. I’ve allowed myself to select from any of the widely accepted translations, though so far the NIV has been the primary translation I’ve worked from, simply because the language seems to translate into song better than the others. My initial goal was to put one psalm to music per week. I started the project in September and I’ve currently posted the first 8 psalms. It currently being May I’m clearly behind that rather lofty pace, although I’m not daunted by the goal. Whether three years or ten, God willing, it will get done.

The challenges are significant. Non-metered poetry is a nightmare to put to song. There is no rhyme scheme. The subject matter is often full of vindictive tribal violence, political whining and family drama. King David, the primary author of the psalms, often comes across as bi-polar, creating a profound challenge creatively. How exactly does one create appropriate musical context for poetry that extols the glory of God in one sentence, and follows immediately with a call for the destruction of the children of one’s enemies in the next?

Why have I undertaken to do this?

I’ve been a worship leader in Vineyard churches for nearly 20 years. During that time, I’ve encountered the glory hidden in the psalms over and over again. I can think of no other source material that has so influenced how we worship God. Nearly every worship song I can think of is in some significant way derived from the psalms. This is as it should be, in my opinion.

And yet...

And yet we aren’t totally honest with ourselves in our reading of these wonderful, glorious, complicated, bloody and occasionally horrific scriptures. We tend to pick and choose the “nice” bits and leave the messy stuff behind. I understand why we do it, and on one hand I don’t question the practice. It is often appropriate to simply reflect on the glory of God. The messiness of life is pretty self evident in our day-to-day existence. There’s no need to highlight it in song and sully our “God time”. But I also feel challenged to find a way take the bitter material with the sweet; the angry with the compassionate; to find a way to make room for the plea for murderous revenge against oppressors and keep it in step with earnest supplications of protection for the poor and helpless. And what of self-righteous boasting before God, judgement of others and utterly broken repentance for heinous crimes? Apparently, these are all acceptable spices in the ingredients of praise... often all pouring from the same heart, at the same time. Who knew?

And so, the AllOfThePsalms.com project.

This project has already had a deep effect on me, and I’ve hardly even started. Each psalm, taken in its entirety as a complete work of worshipful creativity, speaks to a breadth of the God/ Human relationship that eclipses the narrow sacred/secular divide that is the trademark of much western Christian spirituality. God can’t possibly be engaged with the dark emotions can He? Hate, Envy, Greed, Fear, Domination, Aggression - these are the anti-matter of the redemption story aren’t they? Irredeemable, right? Couldn’t possibly find a place in a worshipful heart, correct? Well... the psalms point to answers that are uncomfortable for my domesticated soul. They seem to suggest that the conflicts of the soul need not be resolved before we enter the holy place of dialogue with God. They hint that it’s okay to bring dusty, muddy, blood stained garments into the presence of the Lord of Glory. But, we protest, won’t they tarnish the sheen of the courts of heaven? Won’t they corrupt the luster of Christ’s throne? David and his co-writers seem not to share our concern. They are constantly the mess of heaven and it appears that they get invited back over and over again.

So, I invite you to join me as I jump into the mystery of praise, worship, prayer, repentance, anger-management and holy creativity through a musical exploration of the psalms... all of them.

Kris MacQueen, Cambridge Vineyard

Monday, May 23, 2011

Blogs that get you Thinking

As promised I am going to feature a couple blogs from the US. The Vineyard was born in Southern California, and while I know the Canadian Vineyard has forged a unique identity within the Vineyard family we still draw from our roots south of the 49th parallel. I'm sure there are many other excellent blogs from US Vineyard leaders out there, these are just two that I've found helpful voices along the journey.

I start with Jason Coker's often edgy blog - Pastoralia. I think I first encountered Jason through blog comments when I was exploring emerging church voices while researching my master's thesis. We certainly seem to follow a lot of the same bloggers. Jason and his wife Jenell pastored the recently closed the missional Vineyard Ikon (San Diego). Jason's recent reflections on the closing of his church are worth reading (and I'm not the only one saying this). There is a depth of maturity expressed in what he calls an autopsy of his church plant. Jason is also an active participant in the Society of Vineyard Scholars and has reflected on the work done there. Plus his space preacher banner rocks!

Jumping to the other side of the country, I virtually met Steven Hamilton after he read an article I wrote for Inside Worship ("Towards a Post-modern Liturgy"). His blog Verve & Verse is always full of rich reflections on life, faith, worship and pastoral theology. Another participant in the Society of Vineyard Scholars, Steven has a sharp mind and a passionate voice. He serves in the Vineyard Community Church of Central Maryland. I think you will find his blog a rich repository of reflections. (Plus he is boldly bald like myself!)

Next time I will focus on blogs that exhibit the Vineyard value of doing the stuff! As always I'm looking forward to your blog suggestions as well as comments.

Frank Emanuel - Freedom Vineyard, Ottawa

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Technocrati Claim

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Teaser

Just a quick heads up about an upcoming post by Kris MacQueen (Cambridge Vineyard) on his exciting project of putting all the Psalms to music! An excellent example of the creative ways our folk are deepening their relationship with Scripture. Watch for it. In the meantime why not check out the Songshare website we featured here. Kris is one of the passionate minds behind this resource. He has a strong desire to see a new generation of excellent Canadian Vineyard worship.

I am also working on gathering some articles dealing with doing missions - at home and abroad. It is shaping up to be an exciting summer on the Ontario Thoughtworks blog. Perhaps some of these areas are passions for you too? Want to share an excellent resource you've found? Maybe you want to share your experiences doing the works of the Kingdom? I'm always looking for fresh material to share with our region (just click on my name below and let me know what has hooked your heart).

Keep faithful my friends.

Frank Emanuel, Freedom Vineyard

Monday, May 16, 2011

Book of Note: Revise Us Again

This review originally appeared at Matte Downey's blog outWORD. Used with permission.

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I recently ordered a book by Frank Viola called Revise Us Again: Living From a Renewed Christian Script. The agreement was that I would get a free copy in return for reviewing it here on my blog (thanks to Speak Easy bloggers). Good deal, right? I had read bits and pieces of Viola's writing before - most of it I found to be prodding and often provocative rhetoric that sought to point the church in a more authentic and biblical direction. There were several glowing endorsements of the book in the email that notified me of the book's availability for review, so I took the bait.

What follows are my candid and honest opinions. You need not agree with my assessments and thoughts, but I offer them here for your consideration. First, let me say that Viola is by all indications a lover of Jesus dedicated to the purity and authenticity of the Church. That's a good thing. He hits his stride in a few places on this theme of revision: in chapter 6 he uses personal experience and numerous examples from the Bible as well as influential historical figures to develop very helpful delineations of the reality of God's presence. These are clear, concise, and serve to clarify much of the confusing language we often hear on this topic (briefly, here are his 4 distinctions: God as actually present with his people, a perceptible sense of God's presence, setting one's mind and heart actively on his presence, and the unnoticed but ever-present consciousness of God's presence).

The afterword is chock full of scriptures which illustrate the point Viola has been trying to make in the preceding 10 chapters: that our life script must come from our identity in Christ, and all actions and attitudes should naturally flow out from this realization. Those are the really good parts of the book.

Sadly, much of the rest of this easy-to-read volume finds Viola vacillating between being too general and then offering overly detailed, specific scenarios; the result is that much of the book is hard to identify with unless you are an American who has been steeped in a variety of the contemporary Christian worldviews prevalent in the USA. He assumes that we share many of his experiences, but it is just not so, Frank. He also begins most every chapter with neat and negative categories of what is wrong with current Christian thought and practice. All of us have a religious heritage which has conditioned us towards these unhelpful and inadequate mindsets, he assumes, and I venture to say that this assumption is too narrow.

No doubt the audience that he is writing for (Bible-belt or cultural Christians looking for a fresh and authentic perspective, perhaps?) will find much of what he says helpful. That's good! But unfortunately, Viola's main weakness is his failure to follow the very principle that he is putting forth: that it all begins with our true identity in Christ. Again and again, he begins addressing an issue by drawing lines such as those between libertines and legalists; he makes boxes and then herds what he calls charismatics, quoters, and pragmatics into them. None of them are getting it right, of course. Much of the time Viola uses a deconstructionist methodology which, at least in my opinion, fights against his main theme of changing how we think about who we are. While he purports that all must start with Christ, he seldom does.

Some of the generalities that I found irksome (sorry, Frank) were that Viola tends to make sweeping assumptions like "a large portion of the Christian world today has neglected a number of vital elements of the gospel" (page 58). There is no support for or explanation of statements such as this. Also, there is no definition or clarification of many of the terms he uses such as fundamentalist and literalist and we are left to assume that he is using them in a rather loose, colloquial sense.

Viola draws on a rather broad pool of references for this small book, and unfortunately, seems not to have done his research on a number of them. He is not careful with words either, sometimes choosing a clever turn of phrase over an informative and clarifying one. At one point he has a fictional stereotypical figure refer to "the subjective soup of mysticism" and becoming "lost in the sauce" (page 48). A very evocative word picture, yes, but as a student of mysticism, I can authoritatively say that it is not an accurate or informed one, even if it was coming from a fictional character. At another point when he is talking about old wineskins versus new wineskins, he states that "the new wine is always better than the old wine" (page 113). I have never heard a wine connoisseur utter those words, in fact, they all pretty much say just the opposite. Perhaps Viola is referring to a spiritual principle here, but he never explains it, so the phrase just leaves one puzzled because it is so counter-intuitive.

When Viola concentrates on the centrality of Christ, the book flows wonderfully and inspires the reader to let all of life be moored to this simple truth. However, when he spends page after page chopping contemporary Christian experience and culture into bite-sized pieces and analyzing their lack of nutritional content, the theme gets lost. Perhaps a kind but rigorous editor might have helped him keep on topic as well as take more care to exemplify his theme. The book would be much better served if it were characterised by more renewing language (as the title suggests) instead of being so focused on deconstruction.

Thanks for the read.

Matte Downey, Église Vineyard Montréal Church

Monday, May 9, 2011

How Bible Studies Can Help Your Community

I've had the pleasure of hanging out a bit with my Calvary Chapel buddy Andy. He's always encouraging me with his passion for the Bible and sharing the Bible with others. I think we have a lot to learn from Andy, I think sometimes we've given up on Bible Studies and the result is that many of our people simply do not have a good grasp of scripture. I hope this post will encourage you to think again about running Bible Studies in your congregations.

Frank asked me to share our experience in using Bible Studies to see both outreach and the church grow here in Ottawa.

My wife and I moved to Ottawa in May of 2004, and quite frankly, we had no other tactic for starting a church other than starting a Bible Study. God was gracious to us and opened doors for us to get in front of some small groups of people and just simply read the Bible and try to explain it's truths and apply them to our lives.
Maybe I could share some things that would we learned in doing that in different environments.

First - No one else is doing it. We found that there was a huge appetite among Christians and non-Christians to have someone be willing to go through a book in the Bible and explain and answer questions. There was a lady we met, who told me months after being a part of one of the Bible Studies, how she had been praying for years for God to send someone to come and simply explain the Scriptures.

Second - God honours His Word, and the Spirit will confirm the Word with signs and wonders. I've had the glorious privilege of praying with people to receive Christ after a Bible study. I've seen God heal hearts, comfort minds, give faith, hope, heal cynicism through just simply sharing, systematically through the Bible.

Third - there's more than one way to do it. I've done it where we all sit in a room and we hold all the questions until the end and we are dismissed. I've done it where people jump in with comments and questions, and I've done it where I give an overview of the passage and we split up into groups, with different translations, even other languages, and answer questions in the text together. I've done it in rehabs, half-way houses, homes, restaurants, coffee shops, business training rooms, university lounges, cottages, boats, cars, parks and back porches.

Lastly, it's incredibly effective. Some of my staff today came from a Bible study that I led at a half-way house for guys in drug and alcohol recovery. It's mind-blowing to me to see these guys so tremendously effective in ministry today, they are leading worship, preaching, teaching, serving, praying and evangelizing right next to me today. How could I have known the amazing fruit that would come from those very humble environments, with guys that their families and friends had long abandoned, and we just simply opened up the Bible and looked in it together, picking up where we left off the week before.

Frankly, I don't know what else Christians should do when they get together, other than break open this beautiful book. Jesus said: "My words are spirit, and they are life to a person's whole being" (John 6:63).

May the Lord bless you as you serve Him.

Andy Falleur, Calvary Fellowship of Ottawa

Monday, May 2, 2011

Theology and Worship

One of the things that I have often thought about is how theology undergirds everything we set out to do as Christians. Put another way, what we believe about God influences every decision we make. So if our theology is flawed, then our actions will also suffer in the same ways. Therefore it is important to spend time reflecting theologically (we do this all the time without the baggage of calling it theology anyway). One of the key areas of Christian action that I am passionate about is worship. Worship is not only shaped by our theology it also plays a key role in shaping our theology. Theologians have often described this dialectic or reciprocal relationship between theology and worship.

Just one area where our theology and worship meet is in our image of God. If our understanding of God is not one who is actually worthy of worship, then it is hard to inspire passionate worship. Likewise, if we do not sing about a God who is authentically worthy of worship then what is the point? The problem most of us develop is that our understanding of God takes on all kinds of baggage as we go through life. How significant people have behaved towards us can directly influence our understanding of God. What people we respect tell us (by their words and actions) about God also has a deep influence on our impressions of God. The further away from the corporate worship settings (where we speak and sing about our God) we get the less impact worship will have on our image of God. And I should also mention the all too common problem of Biblical illiteracy which leads to misshapen views of God. Why would you worship anything less than the God we sing, speak and read about in our Christian traditions? The simple answer is that you wouldn't.*

Worship definitely plays a role in leading us to discover the amazing qualities of our God. Worship that is theologically grounded is always the best. I remember the first time a pastor told me (when I was a young worship leader in a Foursquare church) not to use a certain song anymore. It was actually one I liked singing with great passion, so I asked "why?". This has become one of my favourite theological questions. He explained how that particular song spoke about how we established God's reign and he felt it robbed the glory from God. In other words - the image of God that this song evoked was of a god who was really only God because we declared it to be so. The theological flaw in this song is that it missed the fact that God is God not because we say so - but because that's what God always is and always will be. Anything less is merely a projection of our desires; what we would like God to be. And like my pastor friend recognized we need a God who is really God, not tamed by our desires to exercise some control over God in any way. Convinced that this was a theological problem with this song, I dropped it from our list of worship songs.

Over the years I've become more and more sophisticated in my discernment around worship songs. I feel at times like I'm terribly picky. Actually I will stop singing in worship settings if I feel the words portray something less than the awesome God I meet in the gospels. I do this because I do not want to disengage my brain in worship. And if you know me you would know I love to worship exuberantly. But more I want to worship with my whole being (mind, heart, strength, etc.) - so words matter to me. I also don't want to reinforce bad theology by singing it. I am convinced that what we sing strongly shapes what we believe and what we believe is manifest in everything we do.

Worship leaders are often even more powerful teachers than even our best preachers. I usually tell new preachers (I do a preaching/teaching training course for churches that invite me) that they are fortunate if someone remembers just one of their carefully constructed points. What people usually remember from sermons are the stories. Be that as it may, those same people will be able to remember the songs they sing week after week. Songs lodge themselves into our minds and work their way into our hearts - the words we sing need to have the same care that we give the words we preach.

When I hear comments like, "it's just a song", as if it doesn't matter what we sing, I usually shudder inside. In worship it is never just a song - it is worship of the most high God, the Lord of Lords. Worship of such a God always deserves to be our best, our most passionate expressions of our best theology (that is talk about God). I believe this is one of the key areas where the Vineyard has excelled as a movement.

Vineyard worship, from the early days, consistently told us of a God who was accessible, available, and interested in meeting us and transforming our lives. We learned to fall in love with this God, and the refrains of our love songs echo throughout many a church today (well beyond our denomination). What an amazing offering we have made to the Church. When we sing joyfully of the idea that the creator of all actually loves us, what joy that inspires. I do not want us to lose that heart - what I want us to do is continue to mature in this gift and offer even more theologically sound songs and services of worship. I believe that this is what will let even more generations fall in love with our great God. The way we do this is to continue to craft theologically sound passionate worship, and let those joyous strains fill our churches and gatherings.

How have you seen the theology of the songs you sing shape your expectations of God?

Frank Emanuel, Freedom Vineyard, Ottawa.

* I know there are all kinds of theories about why worship wanes in our communities - but the core issue is, in my opinion, one of content. It doesn't matter how "masculine" we make worship, if you aren't discovering the God who created all that is then you are just creating more problems.