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Guest Post on Praying the Rosary

Woo hoo! I got to write a guest post for Carly Gelsinger‘s series From Grape Juice to Red Wine, stories of people shifting from mainstream, conservative, or fundamentalist evangelical to “high church” liturgical traditions.

I had the chance to meet Carly in person at the Faith & Culture Writers Conference a couple of weeks ago.  She’s really cool, the sort of person who makes you feel like you’ve known her forever even though it’s only been a single weekend.  She has a way of putting people at ease with her warmth. The coolest thing was finding someone else who shared my own experience–that of choosing (rather than having it forced on us) a conservative evangelical path before finding our way out again.

I’m excited to add my voice to the conversation, especially because it echoes my own journey so well.  Go check out my post, and while you’re at it, give Carly some bloggy love on her other writing.  Happy Friday!

Reinventing Advent

I’m taking a much-needed break from novel writing to muse about the holiday season.

Last night, we lit our Advent candle.  My husband has adapted the liturgy for use at home with our kids.  Every night, we say a blessing, light the candle, read Scripture, and recite the Lord’s Prayer.  We had the chance to talk a little about what the Bible verses mean.  It’s exciting to see the kids processing what they read, trying to understand with their hearts the deeper truths hidden in the familiar stories.

I have to admit, this is the one season when I truly miss traditional church liturgy.  The church we currently attend doesn’t do that sort of thing.  Normally, I don’t mind.  But when Advent rolls around, I find myself longing for the days of attending a church with stained glass windows and a pastor who wears robes.  I yearn for the beauty of the old Christmas hymns, sung by a choir with organ accompaniment.

If I’m honest with myself (and I do try to be honest, if nothing else), I know I wouldn’t want all that pomp and ceremony all year.  Most of the time, even though I do like traditional hymns, I enjoy the praise band more (especially when they’re playing an updated version of a familiar hymn).  I like worshiping in a building where neither the music nor the message is overshadowed by pretty architecture.

But then comes Advent, and I miss it.

Which is why I enjoyed our family celebration last night.  It had just the right amount of scripted recitation without feeling like we were just going through the motions.  We are celebrating the joyous occasion of the birth of our Lord, but it is also solemn and holy.  For that fifteen minutes each night, we are honoring the Lord with our words and actions.

How are you celebrating the season?

Bad Hymns

Lest anyone get the impression that I am pro-hymns and anti-praise and worship, this one is for you.

I do like hymns.  There are many great classics.  But that doesn’t mean they are all good, any more than all praise and worship music is bad.  (I do, in fact, like lots of praise music.)  I mentioned in my last post on worship music that I dislike the hymn “Blessed Assurance.”  For whatever reason, it rubs me the wrong way.  Still, it’s not the worst in the category of Awful Hymns.

There was a period of time, just before praise choruses became popular, when people wrote hymns that were supposed to speak to the modern consciousness.  We discovered one of these gems when my husband and I were college students.  We had chapel services in the main sanctuary of the church at the edge of campus.  I believe it was one of our friends who instructed us to open to that particular hymn.  Here, for your entertainment, are the lyrics of the first verse:

God of concrete, God of steel,
God of piston and of wheel,
God of pylon, God of steam,
God of girder and of beam,
God of atom, God of mine,
All the world of power is thine!

I don’t know whether “pylon” is a reference to the support structure or the orange traffic cone.  You can read the rest of the words to God of Concrete, God of Steel here.

The other noteworthy hymn, more recent, is Earth and All Stars, which can be found here.  This one contains brilliant lyrics about “loud rushing planets” (?), “loud humming cellos” (??) and “loud boiling test tubes” (???).

While those are, in my opinion, the two Worst Hymns Ever Written, they are not the only bad apples in the bunch:

-Onward Christian Soldiers.  I have never liked this one.  It just sounds so militaristic/nationalistic.  Add on the ho-hum tune and the fact that I will forever associate it with the last Little House on the Prairie movie, and you have a recipe for a bad hymn.

-On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand.  Actually, I like this hymn, kind of, but one of the churches I attended used to sing it almost every week.

-Were You There.  Dull, repetitive, and nonsensical.  Of course I wasn’t there!  Stop asking!

-Count Your Blessings.  Actually, there is nothing wrong with counting your blessings.  But I usually remember Who provided said blessings, offering praise and thanks, rather than just making a list of all the great things I have.  Also, the tune of this one is just so…skippy.  It reminds me of a commercial jingle.

What are your least favorite hymns?

The Bad, the Really Bad, and the Even Worse

Today I want to talk about Bad Songs.  I mostly do this because it’s cathartic.  You know what I mean—you hear some grating, brain-injuring song on the radio, which gets trapped in there until you must release it by either singing loudly in the shower or by writing angsty blog posts about it.  Since I don’t listen to much popular radio anymore, the only songs left to become lodged in my subconscious are praise and worship songs.

First, let me explain my obsession with bad songs.  Some ten years ago, my husband and I picked up a copy of Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs (trust me, it’s worth the read, even if there have been plenty of bad songs since).  We talked about our most despised songs, which had somehow not managed to find a place in the book.  (Mine: Got My Mind Set on You; his: Send in the Clowns.)  Whenever we hear a song we think is worthy, we add it to our own list of Hated Songs.  I didn’t actually know some of the songs in the book.  I had never heard of MacArthur Park, for example, although I was familiar with the Weird Al version.

Dave Barry’s criterion for a good song is that it be a son he “personally likes.”  This makes sense, given the fact that a lot of songs are both popular and bad.  In other words, while we may have impeccable taste in music, someone else (fine, a lot of someone elses) actually likes those songs.  The problem is, that may eliminate a whole category of music based on my own preference.  I don’t care for rap.  However, I don’t see it as “bad” just because it isn’t on my play list.  Also, just because I happen to like a song doesn’t make it good.  My daughter’s dance teacher made her a CD which included a couple of Hanna Montana songs.  I like them (I know!), but I admit they aren’t actually truly “good.”

Some song badness can be forgiven.  While Rebecca Black’s Friday is not a good song, in any sense, it can be excused because she’s young and wrote it herself.  She may not be a fabulous singer, but with some vocal training, she could be.  With maturity (or a good ghostwriter, like other youthful pop stars) her lyrics and music will improve.  Willow Smith can be forgiven for a similar reason, as well as the fact that adults are not her target audience.  Tom Jones, on the other hand, should not be forgiven for any of his songs.

Anyway, enter the New Era of my personal Bad Song List.  I’ve posted on bad worship songs before, but with a more serious tone.  This time, I’m just talking about songs I specifically don’t like.  The tune annoys me, it’s hard to sing, or the lyrics are flaky.  This includes things in the category that one of my dear friends refers to as “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs, which sound so much like what’s on the radio that if you replace the words “God” and “Jesus” with “baby” you get something entirely different.  So here’s a list of my 5 least favorite praise songs:

1. Our God (Chris Tomlin): The tune is meandering and the lyrics…arrgh.  I find myself wishing he would just finish a thought.  “Our God is stronger”…than what?  “Who can stand against”…what?  Finish the sentence!

2. How He Loves (John Mark McMillan): Meaningless metaphors.

3. I Know Who I Am (Israel Houghton): I can’t think of anything that isn’t wrong with this one.  It’s self-centered, repetitive, and worries me because we tend to sing it on autopilot.

4. All Who Are Thirsty (Misty Edwards): Another song full of meaningless metaphors.  This is a problem in traditional hymns, too, but this song comes with a difficult-to-sing tune.

5. Blessed Assurance (Fanny Crosby): Yes, I know this is a hymn, not a praise song.  I hate it anyway.  So sue me.  The tune is irritating and the words aren’t very clever.

What’s on your Bad Song List?

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For more on Bad Praise Songs, check out:

CCM Praise Songs We Have Trouble With- A meme

Very Bad Praise Music Lyrics

How to Write an Awful Worship Song

Top 5 Worst Worship Songs

When Worship is All About Me

I really hate this song.

And what, you may ask, is wrong with it?  This song embodies the self-centered way in which we have come to worship.  The word “I” appears 27 times in the lyrics, not counting repeats of the chorus.  The song is also repetitive, dull, and selfish.  The phrase “You are mine” in reference to Jesus makes me cringe every time.  This song lacks any form of humility whatsoever.

It’s not that I have anything against songs that speak about our relationship to our Creator.  The problem is when the song seems to turn things around so that I become the focus instead of God.  Increasingly, praise and worship music falls flat.  The lyrics are often what I call “pseudopoetic,”  meaning they have metaphors that (I think) are supposed to sound brilliant but just end up coming across as nonsense.  They repeat the same few lines endlessly.  The tunes range from nearly impossible to follow to utterly boring.  Like the song above, they draw the attention back to me, me, me–I’m saved, chosen, blessed (the implication being you’re not).

I’m not saying that old-fashioned hymns are the answer.  (Although I do think it’s pretty telling that some songwriters are either putting old hymns in new settings or are putting music to the Psalms.)  After all, hymns contain language we retired decades ago and may not be relevant for understanding God now.  But we definitely need to move away from the garbage that is cluttering up our worship.  We need real songs that actually draw us toward God Himself; we need songs that cry out what’s really inside us–the full range of human emotion and experience; we need music that makes us want to be part of God’s plan for the world.

Songwriters, here’s my challenge to you: Go out there and create something, a new way to praise our God!

Reading and Praying

I finally finished reading Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, by Brian McLaren.  What a wonderful, refreshing look at prayer!

I don’t want to give too much away.  I think this book is best appreciated by reading it for yourself and engaging with God in prayer.  Even trying to summarize feels flat to me, like trying to describe a taste or a smell.  One can get close, relating it to something known by the other person.  But it will never be exact.

McLaren takes us through stages of prayer, likening them to seasons of spiritual life.  He has chosen a particular analogy, but I think it’s fair to say that there are many ways to view the stages in the book.  Of greater importance is actively participating, using the categories of prayer and spiritual growth not as rigid commands but as flexible guides.  There is natural flow from one season to another, but I suspect that many people will find themselves moving in and out among the different seasons with a little less order.

At the outset, McLaren connects with those people who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.”  There is a growing body of people, particularly young adults, who have become disillusioned with church and all its trappings.  Yet they are crying out to experience God more deeply.  But this book is not only for those of us who feel let down by the way we “do church.”  Everyone can benefit from stripping down our souls to their very core, being utterly naked and unashamed before our God.  For anyone wanting to move toward a more meaningul prayer life, this book is for you.

If I were to attempt a summary of the book, I would not be able to convey the ways in which my heart has been changed and my prayer life intensified.  Instead, I will spend the next several posts offering prayers that have come to me as I read and reflected.  I urge you to pick up the book yourself.  Read it alone or with others, and make a habit of praying through it regularly.  You won’t regret it.

One Body, Many Ways to Worship

I had a kind of revelation last night.  We had our midweek service at church.  We were privileged to have people from the local Messianic congregation leading worship, and their Rabbi gave the message.  It was fantastic.  We were invited to join their dancers to learn some of the steps, and my son and I participated.  Even more than being able to dance myself, I enjoyed seeing my son praising God with his body.  Watching him dance gives me incredible joy!

Anyway, back to the point of this story.  As we were worshiping, I realized that it wasn’t just “nice.”  It was truly good.  By “good,” I mean in the sense that God meant it was good when he created the world.  I can imagine that this is what God wants for us, to see us both honoring Him and feeling our own pleasure.  What struck me is that in some ways, we’ve become so limited in our practice of praise.

Every church tradition has things that draw me closer to the Living and Real God.  I like our church, I usually enjoy at least part of the worship (I admit there are songs that I could take or leave, and ones I actively dislike).  But I miss aspects of other worship styles.  Over my 20+ years as a Christian, I have attended or been a member of many different kinds of churches.  Each one has something that speaks to me.

The few times I’ve attended Catholic Mass, I have been awed by the architecture, the candles, the formality.  It reminds me that God is royalty, meant to be honored and glorified in His temple.

I love the raw enthusiasm at Charismatic services.  People are unashamed to move their bodies, raise their hands, shout praises.  That excitement reminds me of my children, and how we are to become like them before our God.

I appreciate how Pentecostals are so open to the Holy Spirit.  God is incredibly powerful, and He wants to share that with us!

The uniquely Jewish flavor and the rich history of the Messianics reminds me that we must never, ever forget where we came from.  It’s very important to be aware of our heritage, to understand how God has and continues to work in and through the Jewish people.

Our services are very contemporary, with newer praise songs and a band.  I like to sing old hymns in new settings, a perfect blend of the poetry I love and the music I enjoy.  I think we’ve done a good job of helping people who want to go to church but have been hurt in the past.  We care for their emotional needs.  This is important, because it strips away the layers that might otherwise cover up genuine faith.

Some of the churches I’ve attended have had a more liturgical style, including elements such as traditional hymns and corporate prayers.  This speaks to the idea that we can honor God collectively, as well as individually, through disciplined practices.  Although this is my favorite style, I know that I would not be content in it forever.

All of that had me thinking about the ways in which we, the Church worldwide, are as much the Body of Christ as any individual congregation.  Sometimes, because we’ve decided who’s in and who’s out, or which way to worship is best, we stop acting like the Body.  We become mouths that refuse to listen to the eyes and ears, or hands that fail to connect to the heart.  But we need all of the parts of the Body!  And we need to honor each part for what it brings.

Today, I’m making it known that I want the whole thing–I want beauty and majesty, enthusiasm, openness, history, tradition, and modernity.  I desire it all!  I hope, over time, to continue to experience and appreciate the different ways we worship and honor God.  My prayer for you is that you are able to do the same.  Go, visit a church that differs from what you know.  Find a new way to feel the presence of God.