Like sounds of beautiful music, worship can renew us for God’s glory and our good by the invigorating power of God’s “reverberating” word. It is God’s story that redeems all our stories. We want to tell it again and again as best we can, clearly conveying its message, meaning, richness, claim, and call.
For our fellow Americans, and indeed millions more around the world, this weekend marked a somber day of remembrance and reflection twenty years after the heinous terrorist attacks that struck the heart of our country. Destroyed were buildings and airplanes, along with innumerable lives of those who perished, and those left behind to search through the rubble of an uncertain future without loved ones who had been snatched from them.
How many times we have since cried, “Why? Why, Lord?” would be incalculable. Trying to make sense of it all bewilders us. So much that happened is simply beyond the limits of our normal categories.
The following Sunday churches overflowed with people seeking reassurance, seeking community, even seeking answers. Our congregation in Washington, DC found no small comfort in Psalm 46 preached from our pulpit, “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved,” and in the hope against hope conviction of that same psalm, “God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.” But the gnawing question still lingered, “What would bring someone—anyone—to plan and carry out such a diabolical and self-absorbed plan against others?”
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah distills the clearest and most concise answer: The human heart is desperately wicked above all things—who can know it? (17:9) Holy Scripture clearly affirms that human beings were created good. We are part of God’s good creation, indeed made uniquely in God’s image, and declared “very good.” But something happened that marred that image, and changed the subsequent course of history: Human disobedience and sin.
It is a biblical given that sin plagues the human race as a corruption of God’s original blueprint, an insidious virus in our spiritual DNA that, apart from God’s power to forgive, transform, and guide, can lead us astray or even control us. It is at the root of all human propensity to think and do evil, spanning the spectrum from the seemingly innocuous “little white lie” to the most insidious megalomania and genocide.
In his great work of religious satire, The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis writes of spiritual warfare seen through the eyes of Screwtape and Wormwood, two conniving and sometimes comical minions of the Devil. By their pernicious bumbling Lewis stands everything on its head: Good is bad and bad is good. God is “the Enemy Above,” while Satan is “Our Father below.” In one letter to his junior assistant, Screwtape effectively sums it all up:
To us a human is basically food; our aim is the absorption of its will
Into ours, the increase of our area of selfhood at its expense. But the
obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing.
One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His
service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere
propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the
universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures
whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like his own,
not because he has absorbed them, but because their wills freely conform
to His. We want cattle who can finally become food. He wants servants
who can finally become sons.[i]
This gracious adoptive process stands as a beacon against the darkness that sin brings—darkness
in the human heart that creeps into every level of human relationship and society, darkness that can bring such horrific destruction that we finally pay enough attention to cry out, “Why? Why, Lord?”
The psalmist writes, “I waited patiently for the Lord: He inclined to me and heard my cry.” (40:1)
God bends to listen as we bow in need and trust. In his almighty mercy, God urges us, “Make the call!”
[i] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, New York: HarperCollins (2021): 38-39
When I still was a young fellow in school, in my home state there was a famous football player at the University of Oklahoma by the name of Bob Kalsu. Bob was from a small town, but through hard work and his steady exploits on the gridiron, he became known throughout our region, and indeed across the country, as one of the premiere offensive linemen in the nation.
As I recall he was a consensus All-American at his position. He was drafted into the National Football League by the Buffalo Bills, where he was named their rookie of the year, and similarly attained all-star status. Everyone followed his career. Everyone was proud of him.
But Bob Kalsu’s time in the sun coincided with the war in Vietnam. So he voluntarily left his teammates and joined our military forces to do what he considered to be his duty as an artillery officer in southeast Asia.
As you might guess, Bob eventually and tragically was killed as the result of a fateful attack and explosion. He was the only active NFL player to that point to die in combat. It wasn’t long before this tragic news filtered back with sorrowful effect to Buffalo and to Oklahoma.
You may recall from the end of the movie Chariots of Fire, when Scottish Olympic runner and later missionary Eric Liddle later lost his life in occupied China during WW II, it said “all of Scotland mourned.” When Bob Kalsu was killed, all Oklahoma mourned.
Not too long afterward, I was working a summer job in my Dad’s commercial laundry and cleaning business—at age 14 or 15 mostly just trying to stay out of trouble—when he came to me and, putting his arm around my shoulder, said, “Come with me for a moment, I want to show you something.”
Unbeknownst to me was that Bob Kalsu’s family had sent his clothing to my Dad’s Oklahoma City plant for a final cleaning and packaging. There among his effects was his official Oklahoma Sooners letter jacket—you know the kind—with special sewn-on patches up and down the sleeves commemorating his achievements: Team captain, all-conference player, All-American.
There was a lump in my throat as I ran my fingers along those sleeves, as other employee/fans also left their work stations for a moment and gathered around in quiet, reverent admiration. Bob was famous, but he was one of us, and beloved.
After moving to Washington, DC so many years later, I early on made a point of visiting the Vietnam War Memorial, where I was able to locate, among all the chiseled names of fallen heroes, the name “James Robert Kalsu.” I traced the letters with my finger, recalling yet again the valor, the sacrifice, the sense of purpose.
This year July 4th fell on a Sunday, and our worship—which focused on The Ten Commandments as “Constitutional Commandments” for Israel and all God’s children—also included “national” hymns such as “God of the Ages, Whose Almighty Hand,” and “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.” The latter was our closing hymn, and we chose to sing its third verse as our final stanza:
O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine.
This is my favorite national hymn, with its deeply stirring tune Materna, but it always is the searing phrase “mercy more than life” that catches me up short every time. What does it really mean to love “mercy more than life.”?
The answer to this question may well lie down many different paths, but singing and weighing it again on Sunday brought to my mind some cryptic words of the late preacher and seminary president Haddon Robinson. Dr. Robinson famously insisted,
You’ve no doubt heard it said, “After all, a man’s gotta live…”
But actually this is a lie straight from hell.
Nowhere is it written that a man has to live.
A man has to die and face God’s judgment,
but nowhere does it say that he has to live.
Multitudes of heroes have made the ultimate sacrifice,
and paid the ultimate price in witness to the truth
that some things are more important than life.
Our Lord himself of course said, “Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), and all of this is ultimately rooted in the truth of Micah 6…
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with yearling calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I give him my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
Late pastor and author Eugene Peterson said, “Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.”
I must say how grateful I am that worship in our own congregation always includes confession of sin, a vital time of telling the truth about ourselves to God, perhaps to each other, and certainly to ourselves. It’s a matter of acknowledging with our lips what God already knows is in our hearts. Lest we think this is an ancient anachronism for modern worship, we’re reminded by the Old Testament prophet, “The human heart is desperately wicked above all things; who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
In God’s mercy we’re not left alone to despair over this predicament. Another Old Testament prophet speaks for the Almighty: “Come, let us reason together, says, the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)
The trajectory from “desperately wicked” to “white as snow” necessarily moves from repentance to forgiveness, to restoration, but we’re assured that one follows the other as closely as our next heartbeat or breath: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
Lent is typically thought of as a season for relinquishing or giving up something as a sign of our devotion to God or the seriousness of our Christian discipleship, and there indeed may be patterns or practices that we need to jettison in favor of unencumbered, unfettered fellowship with God and with each other. This likely is part of what it means to be “consecrated,” set apart for particular, for special, for holy use.
But our holiness is determined, not by how our life stacks up against someone else’s, nor by minute attention to keeping a daunting set of rules, nor by trying over and over to scrub off what we think or know are sinful stains. St. Paul himself said, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19).
The Apostle recognized that there remains—even within our redeemed lives—a battle between good intentions and weak or willful capitulation, between supple obedience and stiff-necked resistance, between spirit and flesh and, ultimately, between life and death. Paul cries out, “Wretch that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” To this he quickly offers the only real remedy: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). It’s a matter of grace alone, and trusting by faith in that gift of God.
Discovering how in our daily lives we can unwrap that free gift is nevertheless an appropriate Lenten quest. It’s been said that the Christian life is not the most difficult life we can lead. It’s actually impossible apart from the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. This ought not surprise or frighten us. Christian living is a supernaturally-enabled process of the Spirit indwelling, filling, convicting, transforming, leading, guiding, gifting, and comforting which is at work at our very center—at the controlling interest within us—bringing true liberty and release. Thanks be to God indeed!
Paul expands in Romans 8, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
During a liturgical season often governed by self-reflection and evaluation, this striking and enduring promise of peace with God and with ourselves offers each of us the clearest view possible as we peer intently ahead through a Lenten lens.
In music there’s something called “harmonic rhythm.” We’re all generally familiar with the basic idea of rhythm, but usually as a property of what’s happening on the surface of the music. Rhythmic designs and differences in the relative length and positioning of notes in a piece help lead us to perceive and understand for example whether it’s a march, a waltz, a polka, or a mokhtar samba.
Harmonic rhythm is more about what happens beneath the surface. It’s more structural. It focuses attention on segments or architectural areas of harmony. It helps define larger or broader swaths of musical movement and direction.
This sub-surface movement is typically slower than what’s happening up top. We can remember when we got to go to the pool as kids how we would sometimes put on goggles and go underwater. Down there was like another world. We were surrounded by smooth, gentle quietness, aware of but away from the splashing, screaming, choppiness, and gleeful noise of our playmates.
Or think of the most raging storm at sea violently tossing great ships like so many matchsticks. All the while, only a few feet beneath that mortal peril, again can be found another world relatively unfazed by the turmoil and tumult above.
If you’re a surface sailor, storms really get your attention. You could be fighting for your life pretty much at a moment’s notice. Being prepared is an essential element of survival. Surface sailors do all they can to avoid that “sinking feeling.”
Submariners on the other hand experience submerging as a natural part of their professional habitat. They must like it down there in the dark and the quiet. They train hard and well, in the common parlance, to “run silent, run deep.” They learn to be in touch with a whole different set of sounds, rhythms, and senses upon which their own effectiveness and survival also depend. Their skills in navigating the world beneath the waves also work together to give them a window on the world above for tactical or strategic reasons.
In terms of Christian patterns, this is not to suggest that we seek a retreat from surface realities of our lives to an insular alternate reality of denial or protective self-deception. It is to call us to awareness that deeper understanding and fundamental meaning can be found in what undergirds or underflows us at any given moment.
One of the earliest heresies that first challenged Christians essentially argued that Jesus came to relieve or remove us from turbulence, to help us rise above the 24/7 challenges of our everyday lives to a different existential place or plane where we could become privy to some sort of special spiritual knowledge or understanding. It’s easy to imagine the attractiveness of such an offer then or now. Life is often difficult. But Jesus didn’t lower a rescue ladder from heaven so we could climb up and out of our circumstances. He climbed down to join us in their midst where he could redeem them and make all things—including us—new.
The last year has been a tumultuous and disorienting time for many or most of us. The metaphors of stormy seas or jarring music may seem all too apt. Safe harbor or soothing harmony for us may momentarily be undetectable. We find ourselves seeing or hearing only what confronts us—towering swells or rhythms of life that seem to be at cross purposes.
Yet by God’s grace we can seek meaning—indeed identity, security, and destiny—just below the surface of the turbulence facing us, trusting by faith in the purposes of the Eternal One who loves us, and of his Son our Savior standing with us in our small, vulnerable boat sovereignly declaring to the waves and to our hearts, “Peace, be still!”
The night, the air, were filled with joy
As angels sang among the heav’ns;
I stood before a newborn boy:
Who was this wondrous child there giv’n?
We’d left our flocks out in the fields,
And answered heralds’ sounding call;
They cried, “Emmanuel has come!”
He lay in lowly cattle stall.
We crept into the manger cold;
But for straw his bed was bare.
Is this the One they wrote of old;
Could this be our Messiah – there?
To Bethlehem he was to come,
And it is here he rests his head;
Near you, O great Jerusalem,
In Ephrathah the prophet said.
It is fulfilled! He’s come to us:
God with us now, O Israel!
The shepherd here beholds his birth,
With ox, and ass, and Gabriel!
What mystery this that I might see
The passing of this holy hour;
A child, the Savior come for me:
O Lord, be mine, for I am yours.
We just had a lovely and long overdue out of town visit with our precious 4 ½ year old granddaughter and her “handlers.”A wonderful time was had by all. Particularly memorable was our first evening meal together. Someone customarily said grace but, when we all looked up from praying, she clearly was not pleased, arms folded in dismay across her chest. When asked what was wrong, she emphatically replied, “I’m supposed to say the blessing…I’M THE BLESSER!”
This annoying cuteness has since had me wondering about just what might be percolating in her young heart, and how her childlike (over)exuberance for mealtime grace might root, grow, and ripen into deep love for and dependence on God. That potential of course is deeply embedded in her. Our Lord himself, after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, chided Israel’s religious leaders angered by children crying out to him in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Quoting Psalm 8, Jesus instantly and eternally legitimized their words of worship, “Have you never read, ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’?”
But what about the BLESSER in our family? What might her grandparents hope and pray that she will one day understand more fully and embrace wholeheartedly? In the Bible “blessing” is a key worship word. The psalmist says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name” (103:1). The Hebrew verb, barak, essentially means, “kneel.” When we speak of us blessing God, “bless” points to our kneeling before him. Given God’s identity and activity, it’s an appropriate gesture. When the Lord blesses us, the gesture is the opposite posture: God bends to us. We bow to bless the Lord even as the Lord bends to bless us. We act in obedience and obeisance. God acts in grace, mercy, and love.
I think we can be grateful that our 4 ½ year old recognizes the appropriateness of saying grace before meals, that such a pattern and practice have been lovingly exhibited to her, and that she wants to be thankful and say thank you for the blessings she sees and enjoys. It’s the same impulse that led Moses to write to Israel in Deuteronomy 8 as they were preparing to receive God’s blessing of the Promised Land: “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.” Even this is an echo of God’s covenant promise to Abraham in Genesis 12: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make you great, so that you will be a blessing.”
We continue in the midst of challenging times of uncertainty, hardship, turmoil, and among some no small amount of suffering. Despair and fear can lead us to fall away or turn away from what we know or hope of God, and the identity, security, and destiny that are integral to God’s gracious plans for us.
In the meantime, as our granddaughter helped remind us, God continues to bless in ways we often fail to notice, but are still invited to see. As George Herbert writes:
Thou hast given so much to me. Give me one thing more:
A grateful heart,
Not thankful when it pleaseth me, as if thy blessings had spare days,
but such a heart whose pulse may be thy praise.
Harold Best was for many years dean of Wheaton College’s Conservatory of Music. He is by training an organist, a composer, an educator, and a theologian. He helped guide and mold students there, not so much into “Christian musicians,” but into musicians who are Christians. It’s an important distinction.
He exported his convictions and his deep faith across the nation and around the world in part in his role as president of the National Association of Schools of Music. Not many days go by that I don’t recall something he taught us.
He is a gifted writer. One of his earlier books bears the title: Music through the Eyes of Faith. In this unsettling season of pandemic and anguished racial tension, and on this second day after Pentecost, a short passage from his work seems germane. Dr. Best writes,
Pentecost is Babbel turned right side up: All speech is unified
because it is God, no longer people, who is building toward the heavens.
Pentecost goes farther than its historical reality. It is also a story
that urges us into the knowledge that the gospel is comfortable in
any culture, and its message finds easy residence in the languages,
cultural ways and thought styles of countless societies. In other words,
whoever seeks to move a culture towards transformation by Christ must
join it, participating in the transformation from within.
God is not western. God is not eastern. God is not exclusively the God of
classical culture or primitive culture. God is Lord of the plethora, God of
the diverse, redeemer of the plural. Likewise, God calls for response in
different languages, dialects, and idioms, accepting them through the Son.
Pentecost tells us that one artistic tongue is only a start, and a thousand
will never suffice. There is no single chosen language, or artistic or
musical style that, better than the others, can capture and repeat back
the fullness of the glory of God. This truism cannot be avoided: Cultures
are not infinite. No single one can hold the wholeness of praise and
worship, or the fullness of the counsel of God.
“O for a thousand tongues to sing,” may indeed express Charles Wesley’s poetic and hyperbolic call for praise, but it also surely points to how it truly is and ever will be in the Kingdom of God.
 Harold M. Best, Music through the Eyes of Faith (New York: Harper Collins, 1993, 66.
Biblical worship is not speculative.
It reflects a specific message that is historical and knowable,
and which invites our consideration and response.
Holy Scripture offers us glimpses of God’s person, character, and work.
These glimpses in worship move us to bow before the Lord,
even as God bends to us in mercy and grace.
The reverberating word of God moves by the power of God’s Spirit from
inspired text, to illumined text, to transforming text, to commissioning text
in our worship and every facet of Christian living.
A transforming vision of God is what worship seeks.
We begin with the Bible’s own categories,
neither less nor more than what it says, in touch with its own concerns.
If worship is to convey the message of the biblical text,
it is Scripture that calls and captivates us.
we must first learn what it says and means.
Through preaching that stays in Scripture’s story,
and worship that tells the same story,
God’s provision and purpose for us become all the more clear.
The impact of all biblical worship follows solely
the Holy Spirit’s power to mediate, illuminate, and inculcate in us
the life of God’s Son through the message of God’s written word.
Beloved preacher Earl F. Palmer says that “worship always has two aspects: a downward, revelatory one, and an upward, experiential, and responsive one. Revelation always informs experience, and not the other way around. We must trust the Bible’s power to validate itself. We don’t have to do that for it. Over time, the text will do that for itself, as will the Lord of the text, God’s living word. We don’t need to tamper with the freedom of the listener. We need to offer the Scriptures a chance to make their mark.”
from Reverberating Word: Powerful Worship (Wipf & Stock, 2018)
A recent story on National Public Radio completely fascinated me. It began in the famed Hagia Sophia, the 6th century Byzantine “Cathedral of Holy Wisdom,” magnificently situated in what is now Istanbul. Later a mosque of the Ottoman Empire, now a museum for the Turkish government, it was for a thousand years the largest church in Christendom. By design, serendipity, or providence its interior acoustic wonder soars on matchless architectural wings!
The NPR story points to two scholars at Stanford University who had been musing about whether the way things sound in specific spaces could be captured and controlled by various digital measurements, then applied to sounds produced elsewhere. The impetus was, not to digitally simulate a sound, but to create one as we would hear it in the space in question—because that space’s precise acoustical properties could digitally come to bear upon it.
Their thesis was demonstrated first by the simple sound of a popping balloon. It was a benign enough sonic event that dissipated nearly as quickly as it had occurred. Another balloon was then popped inside the Hagia Sophia. It sounded like an explosion, as the burst emanated from its point of departure and expanded in resonant and reverberating waves through the vast reaches of the great cathedral.
With all their carefully calibrated and archived acoustical measurements in hand, the two scholars then recorded somewhere in a studio an otherwise accomplished men’s choir, who suffered in that moment from the room’s intentionally dry, bland, innocuous effects. The recording was then digitally filtered to astonishing effect through the acoustical properties gathered in Istanbul. The men sounded like they were singing in the very midst of the Hagia Sophia, and acoustically they were! The ancient, a cappella chants that had just sounded so inert in studio suddenly sounded as they were meant to sound, as they had been composed to sound, as the space where they first were heard had been designed to help them sound. The music suddenly seemed profound—something far greater than the sum of its parts.
In planning or implementing worship, we do not make God’s word “suddenly profound” through any effort of our own. Rather the Holy Spirit who inspired God’s written word illuminates and transforms us by its truth and power as it resonates and reverberates through the whole milieu of worship to our individual hearts and minds, then through the community we are formed by Christ himself to be—even when we are for a time at a distance from each other.
The Bible says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” As we place ourselves in praise, prayer and proclamation before Scripture’s witness to God’s holy wisdom, worship can bring explosive change in us and through us to a world starved for God’s beauty and grace.
Here in the United States we typically think of “Now Thank We All Our God” as a hymn of our November national day of Thanksgiving, and that is certainly an appropriate association. But it has a longer and broader history no less meaningful today as it was when it was written in the early 17th century.
Martin Rinkart (1586-1649) was a Lutheran pastor in Eilenburg, Germany during the upheaval of the Thirty Years War. His town became a refuge for political and military refugees, who crowded more and more into the confines of the city walls.
Not only were resources of food and fresh water severely stressed, plagues of deadly disease soon followed. Rinkart was the sole pastor in the community, and faithfully faced some of the most fundamental demands of ministry, caring for and burying a multitude. It is said that in 1637 he performed 4,000 funerals, including his wife’s.
It was into this crucible that he spoke the words “Nun danket alle Gott” – “Now thank we all our God” – indeed not for celebration around a family holiday table, but as a statement of bedrock theology under girding personal and potentially national trust. We only affirm what we believe until it becomes a matter of mortal danger. That is when we live and die according to what we really believe.
Jesus said in Matthew 7, “Those who hear my words and do them will be like one who builds his house upon rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” There is no way to know whether Pastor Rinkart had somewhere in mind these words of our Lord when he wrote his most enduring hymn. But I can well imagine when life seemed to be crashing down around him and those he loved that he clung to the strongest and surest foundation he knew.
Within a decade “Nun danket alle Gott” had been embraced as something of a German “Te Deum,” particularly as it was sung at the time to Johann Crüger’s new and fitting tune of the same name. That melody eventually found its way into music of J. S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn, and has become a ubiquitous musical component of thankful and grateful personal and national celebrations the world round.
From the depths of pestilence and plague emerged words and music of faith and trust, and the kind of sure and certain hope to be found only in the strength of their object. In the face of plague or pandemic, the quality of our faith means little. The object of our faith means all.
Now Thank We All Our God
Martin Rinkart (c. 1636), translated by Catherine Winkworth (1858)
Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;
Who, from our mothers’ arms, hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in God’s grace, and guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all ills in this world and the next.
All praise and thanks to God, who reigns in highest heaven,
To Father and to Son and Spirit now be given.
The one eternal God, whom heav’n and earth adore,
The God who was, and is, and shall be evermore.