Maximizing congregational singing


My philosophy of song-leading in corporate worship so far: Maximize congregational participation.

Do so in the follow ways:

1. Moderate visibility and volume – Musicians should not be very prominent – low stage, no spotlights. Being completely hidden hinders communication though, so some visibility is preferred. Use enough amplification to be heard clearly throughout the room, but no more.

2. Clear intuitive cues – Give a predictable intro to establish the key. Crescendo into refrains to help people who are lost regain confidence. Give a big V-I resolution ending – always. Don’t make people think about finding their way through the form.

3. Moderate musical difficulty – Pick songs with a relatively narrow vocal range and adjust the key if necessary – most men are baritones, many women altos. Absolutely no ambiguous rhythms. Syncopation is fine if it’s consistent, but dangling space, especially at the end of phrases needs to be filled by instruments so the next attack is obvious.

4. Moderate lyrical difficulty – Don’t force eyes permanently to page or screen, make it within the grasp of eventual memorization……Most lines should rhyme if possible. Axe poor verses of longer songs.

5. Always adjust to context: Children, foreigners, elderly, high ratio of classically-trained singers, seminarians, small/large crowds, etc. All these things should be considered. No matter how constrained your tradition may be, there are creative adaptations that can be made to bring more people in the room along, or leave them out in the cold. Those who have shown up – do your best to draw them in.

(In case your wondering, the photo is of Dietrich Bonhoeffer playing the guitar.)

Who are “the wicked” in the psalms?

From Psalm 73 (2-8):

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
My steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the boastful,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For there are no pangs in their death,
But their strength is firm.
They are not in trouble as other men,
Nor are they plagued like other men.
Therefore pride serves as their necklace;
Violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes bulge with abundance;
They have more than heart could wish.
They scoff and speak wickedly concerning oppression;
They speak loftily.

In some psalms, the enemies in question are actual mortal wartime adversaries (like the people chasing David and trying to literally kill him), but in many situations (like that above), the opponents are not so clear. Who were “the wicked” the psalmist is speaking of in cases like this?

Foreigners? Kings and rich nobles is far off Egypt of Babylon? Doubtful. His knowledge of them would have been only a rumor. And even if he did know something of them, they are too distant, both physically and psychologically, to envy potently. He would have never met any of these actual folks. Their rich lives in far off lands might as well have been on another planet. He was in no danger of despairing over the lack of something he didn’t know first-hand or likely even second-hand. So no, not rich foreigners. The wicked he was fretting about must have been much closer to home. (Girard’s insights about proximity are helpful here.)

So were there wicked men in Israel? You bet. Who were they, rogue aliens who didn’t care about God’s law? No – the few aliens that were living in Israel at the time were either literal slaves or at least of the servant class. They couldn’t have been anything like the reckless high-rollers the psalmist is angered over.

So who were these “wicked” men whose eyes “bulged with abundance” and who were “not in trouble as other men”? They must have been the guy’s own proper Jewish neighbors – men with families close by to him – people he actually ran into on the street all the time. And what were these wicked men doing? Well, probably not anything particularly illegal. This psalm was written during the reign of King David. The government was strong and largely just. Local law enforcement would have been functional. The priests in the temple were in full operation. This wasn’t the lawless wild west or some place like modern Somalia or central Iraq where local thug warlords controlled each town. No, the “wicked” things these people were doing was stuff unlikely to get them thrown in jail. Maybe some of what they did was shielded by bribes and hush money, but for the most part these evil men were seemingly law-abiding citizens minding their own business.

So what were the doing that was so bad? All I can figure is that they were oppressing their subordinates: treating their servants like slaves, cheating their tenants, dealing dishonestly in their business, keeping mistresses under the table, paying off the cops when their kids got into trouble, indulging in luxury and drinking $1000 wine from Phonecia while they foreclosed on the poor people renting their land. They were raking in the bucks at the expense of their fellow humans. After long years of this, they had amassed wealth to flaunt in various ways as they meandered around the city tending to their daily affairs. People feared and respected them because of their wealth and would listen attentively whenever they would run their mouth about whatever topic was on their mind.

Everything seemed peachy for them – they had tons of food and a nice place to live. Had all their oppression caused them to have “bad karma” and experience personal disaster? It didn’t seem like it. It seemed like they were living the high life, permanently. What’s somewhat ironic is that most of these folks would probably be considered important people or “pillars” of the community, rather than shady creepers. They weren’t like a criminal drug-dealer today, but more likely a “respected” businessman, university president, or elder. Why wouldn’t they be? But the people that interacted with them closely on a daily basis would realize they were deeply corrupted. Their position they maintained, causing the more honest among their subjects much consternation.

“And look at me”, the just man says. “I’ve obeyed all the rules and what do I have? Just a bunch of debt. Also, some goats I sold to a guy last week got sick and died on him and he wants his money back. I gave it back to him, but now I’m really hurting. I could have been like the rich and screwed that guy over and kept the cash. Heck, if I had done that, then I could have fixed that leaky roof and got my wife to stop complaining for a while. Why didn’t I do that? What do I get for being honest? Nothin’ but trouble.”

Today though, who do we often think of as “the wicked” in this psalm? Evil foreign dictators. Corrupt politicians, especially perhaps the current President or Prime Minister and his entourage. The CEO of some big oil company maybe. The thing they have in common is they are all highly-visible people in the public square. They are also people you’ve never met and who probably live thousands of miles away from you. The only reason you know anything about them is from consuming modern journalism.

The information age allows our envy and anger (just or otherwise) to cast a much wider net than it did in the time of the psalmist. Our personal accompanying images are different, giving the scripture a different flavor when we read it. The truth remains the same though. Dwelling on this seeming inequality is disheartening and poisonous. The antidote is the same – “the sanctuary of God” –  communion with one’s creator, and via that some good eschatology – replacing present outrage with trust.

A Guitar


For several years now, I’ve regularly led worship (meaning, play guitar and sing) at the evangelical church I attend. My wife often joins in playing bass or flute and whistle. My oldest daughter has also contributed her violin for much of the past year. I’ve always played on the only guitar I own – a nylon-string classical leftover from the days in college when I would stay up listening to Antigoni Goni records all night. It’s never been the best tool for the medium, but I dared not try to acquire something else while adoption expenses and myriad medical bills perpetually loomed.

But alas, through various fortunes and blessings, I now have a new and nicer guitar with which to stir the congregation to their feet to sing an old hymn, or some Chris Tomlin anthem. In the off hours, it will enable me to project the correct timbre as I try to hack by way through Celtic pieces. By my calculations, I’ve achieved a level of proficiency equal with Pierre Bensusan – when he was about 14 years old. Bonus, the G string actually stays in tune. It’s pretty sweet.

No tools must mean the job is done? (Casting out demons)

Last night while perusing my book shelf, I decided to pick up and reread part of one of the classics of Pentecostal “deliverance” ministry – They Shall Expel Demons by Derek Prince. Now Prince is one of those “demon hunter” guys who sees evil spirits at work in virtually every personal or psychological hang-up. He’s a bit over the top. I’ve never been a big fan of this approach to the world, but it’s difficult to get around some of the questions Prince asks with regards to prevalence of exorcism in the New Testament. They are questions we should be able to grapple with.

The basic idea is as follows:

In the Gospel accounts and in Acts, Jesus and the apostles frequently encounter demons. It’s not just a couple of isolated cases, but a frequent occurrence. Luke uses the phrase “unclean spirit” nearly twenty times. When Jesus sends forth the 72 disciples, their success as exorcists is highlighted on their return. Years later, Paul is casting out demons from people right and left.

Beyond the scriptural accounts, who of the early church fathers believed that the work of demons disappeared after the first century? None as far as I know. Their presence and continued activity were assumed throughout the Medieval period. It’s only with the enlightenment age and the rise of rationalism that we see them fade into the dubious status they hold today.

In the modern church, I think a major pillar supporting this state of things is cessasionist theory. Cessasionists believe that the early Christian gifts or “magic” powers of prophecy, speaking in tongues, and divine healing are permanently gone and no longer in operation. Christians who believe they still DO work today are usually referred to as “charismatics”. Well, one particular tool that seems to have been flushed down the drain with the other miraculous sign gifts, was that of exorcism. It’s a little bit of a gray area since casting out demons is not right next to speaking in tongues on the usual lists in scripture. It’s status as a spiritual gift (though obviously something done via the Holy Spirit) is not as clear cut. Nevertheless, it appears to have been grouped in with all the other “magic” looking things the Holy Spirit USED to do a long time ago and stuffed in the first century closet. That makes sense, but it implies something that we should all find somewhat worrisome.

If the “tool” used to cast out demons no longer exists in the church, does that mean there are no more demons? That’s it, their all gone? They were crawling all over the place in the first century but… now they’re not? The few apostles in operation around the Mediterranean Sea got ’em all? The rest just got tired and gave up? Does any of that sound just a little bit fishy to you?

“The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”

French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote that, but most people know it from Keyser Soze and the movie “The Usual Suspects”.

Still, do you see what cessasionist theory essentially demands? No casting out demons, ’cause no demons. Boom. That simple. No tools? Well the work must be done. You have to build a house in the wilderness but you were only given hammer and nails? Just ignore all those trees and keep looking for the nice stack of finished lumber. If you were supposed to chop down the trees, the hardware store wouldn’t have been sold out of chainsaws, clearly.

Well, check out the last few chapters of Revelation – supposedly set far in the future. The demons – they’re all still there. What, are they all just too busy watching TV right now? Imprisoned so we need not bother with them? So easily defeatable now that simply saying “Jesus” out loud (no spiritual gifts required, but thanks!) is enough to do the trick? The “kinds that only come out with prayer and fasting” (to quote the Son of God) completely and utterly out of the picture? The fact that the New Testament spends so much time talking about them must just be a historical curiosity. Oh well.

Deep thinkers and philosophers out there who study the scriptures – does that answer not seem just a bit on the hokey side to you? I think so. I’m not suggesting we all follow the path of the Pentecostal “demon hunter” or anything like that, but I DO think we need a better demonology. The Roman Catholics have one actually, even if it has its own strange issues, but still – better than nothing. Let’s not have nothing. The devil would love it if we had nothing.


On a modern ballad of man and deed

Reading Tolkien to the children the past few months, I can’t help but notice how much the characters in The Lord of the Rings speak of songs of heroic deeds. Many of them wonder at the writing of verse and whether anyone will be around to hear it sung. In fact, they do this more frequently than they actually sing themselves. The works exist in Tolkien’s vast appendices of course, but in the novel proper, it is mostly contemplation and analysis. I think perhaps this is Tolkien’s own voice speaking here rather than Sam’s or Merry’s.

Today we still honor soldiers in various ways, but songs and ballads have fallen into disuse. It’s too bad really – not because we so desperately need to preserve the memory of war in art, but because it gave us something to sing about besides love and death.

There are exceptions though. What might a modern song of man and deed look like? It could look like this wonderful song, ‘Sailing to Philadelphia’, written by Mark Knoffler and featuring James Taylor. It draws on the 1997 historical novel Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon about the lives of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, astronomers and surveyors in the mid-1700s. What a curious topic for a song today, but gosh is it fabulous on many levels. It may be about scientists on the American frontier, but it feels closer to a lay about Helm Hammerhand than anything else you might stumble upon on pop radio.

Sailing to Philadelphia

I am Jeremiah Dixon
I am a Geordie boy
A glass of wine with you, sir
And the ladies I’ll enjoy
All Durham and Northumberland
Is measured up by my own hand
It was my fate from birth
To make my mark upon the earth

He calls me Charlie Mason
A stargazer am I
It seems that I was born
To chart the evening sky
They’d cut me out for baking bread
But I had other dreams instead
This baker’s boy from the west country
Would join the Royal Society

We are sailing to Philadelphia
A world away from the coaly Tyne
Sailing to Philadelphia
To draw the line
A Mason-Dixon Line

Now you’re a good surveyor, Dixon
But I swear you’ll make me mad
The West will kill us both
You gullible Geordie lad
You talk of liberty
How can America be free
A Geordie and a baker’s boy
In the forests of the Iroquois

Now hold your head up, Mason
See America lies there
The morning tide has raised
The capes of Delaware
Come up and feel the sun
A new morning has begun
Another day will make it clear
Why your stars should guide us here

We are sailing to Philadelphia
A world away from the coaly Tyne
Sailing to Philadelphia
To draw the line
A Mason-Dixon Line


‘Building’ children and the will of man

Here, Peter Leithart points out the curious language surrounding Sarai’s plan to have Hagar bear a son for Abraham.

Sarai’s goal is to obtain children, but the Hebrew of Genesis 16:2 says literally “perhaps I can build [myself] from her.” For Sarai, having a son is a construction project, which builds her.

The phrasing goes back to Genesis 2, where Yahweh constructs (banah, build) Even from Adam’s rib. Sarai wants to be the new Eve, the built woman, not by being formed from her husband’s rib but by having, through her maid, her husband’s son.

In Sarai (later Sarah’s) eyes, what’s important is that the son be of the flesh of Abraham. Whether she is the mother or not is incidental. She is determined and not without resources. What she does with her slave Hagar is done by her own concerted will. This brings to mind a phrase from the New Testament.

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
-John 1:12-13

“The will of the flesh”, and “the will of man” – I’ve often thought the presence of both phrases was redundant, but now it seems not. It was Sarai’s will to “build” a son in some fashion, even if not with her own flesh. The widespread use of in vetro fertilization and surrogate mothers today, along with the “light” eugenics that goes along with the practice (scrutinizing eggs for possible disease) seems also to be a sort of building. This would definitely fall under the category of “will of man” rather than “will of the flesh”, hence the differentiation. The having of children is a much richer topic than sex.

Our salvation on the other hand comes from neither power, but from God whose love for us is not so much engineered from what was lying around, but rather inherit in the architecture from before the earth itself was formed.

The best code is no code – Brevity of language and Adam naming the animals

“The best code is no code.” is something wise computer programmers will say from time to time. I think this is actually an alternate way to say “convention over configuration”, another frequently heard bit of philosophy in software development circles. Though some pragmatic reason is usually given (performance, simplified maintenance, lower cost, etc.) I think the underlying natural force behind these ideas is a desire for the conservation of language. The richer the vocabulary, the fewer words it takes to say something specific and the fewer verbose instructions are required. When you are limited to only a handful simple words, it can take a great deal of rambling to communicate an idea. It may even be impossible.

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter,
But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.
-Proverbs 25:2

What are the kings (or we) doing exactly? Figuring out how things work, yes, but immediately after that, or concurrently with that, they are naming things. They give things new names, they enrich the vocabulary. It now takes fewer words to describe a platypus because you can say “platypus” instead of, “That funny animal that looks like a cross between a beaver and a duck, you know what I mean?”.

So what exactly is God doing when he conceals things (his glory to do so)? He’s enchanting the world. He’s making it richer such that the words we have right now are NOT ENOUGH to describe it adequately. And we’re not stupid. We give it a shot and we immediately recognize that our vocabulary sucks. Not only that, but we can’t come up with a new name JUST YET. During the process of thinking of one, it become clear that we don’t really understand what we’re talking about. We don’t want to give it just any old name. It’s only satisfying if we give it a GOOD name. And so we must investigate what it is – tear it apart to discover how it works, or handle it for a long enough time.

People imagine Adam sitting casually on a rock and naming the animals in the garden by assigning new gibberish words to them, thus endowing the combination of syllables with meaning. But if Adam is anything like us at all, he would have thought about and investigated each animal for quite some time before deciding on a name. He might have even changed it around a bit as he went and gone back and made corrections as his observation broadened. It would have taken a long time. It would have been hard work to do a good job. He would have worked hard but he would have enjoyed it. It could have taken years. I wonder if he was done by the time the incident with the serpent happened? Maybe he thought he was done, but on that point he would have been very wrong. We, his grandchildren – billions of cousins we are – have only scratched the surface.

We think we’re so clever since we can now talk about the electromagnetic spectrum and Adam couldn’t but that wouldn’t have made his job any easier or his creative names any less impressive. The disconnect between the words and tools we have and the reality we are trying to describe is still just as vast. We try to talk about the distance between the stars using words like “red shift” and “dark matter” and “the expanding universe”. He tried to talk about the difference between two pine trees with novel words like “edges”, “points”, and “leaves”. Oh with what joy he would have leapt if the word “needle” and its full meaning were available for his task! It’s such a better word. What key word are we missing when we talk about deep space? Not sure… yet. It is concealed.

So programmers are always wrestling to say more with less code. If there is anything lacking in our newest crop of bright young developers it is a sense of history. They come up with some hip new Javascript framework and they think they are taking a leap forward in brevity when in actuality it is five steps forward and four steps back (or occasionally six steps back). They imagine themselves to be much more brilliant than their fathers, only to find themselves burdened with the same curse and similar limits, their new abstractions just as ‘leaky’ as the old ones. Simply swapping out a term here and there won’t make the architecture any better. It takes deeper thought and greater leaps to make the improvement we all desire.

Unit tests fix a real problem, but I’ve seen them make a project’s size triple. Now things are actually worse because your code is LESS maintainable, but you’ve deceived yourself into thinking it’s MORE so because of the tests. You pat yourself on the back for best practices and test coverage, even while your app breaks in the wild and the smallest feature changes now take 40 lines of work instead of 4. I think the best measure of whether some architectural element really is an improvement is brevity. At the end of the day, are you saying more with less? (Or at least the same with less?) Are you actually typing less crap in the long run? If the answer is “no”, then I suggest it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

One more example and I’ll be done – dependency injection, or “inversion of control” as it’s sometimes called. It’s a good idea and a useful way to run your software with simulated data for testing, or even an entire simulated environment. The problem is that with most implementations, it greatly increases the number of moving parts. A simple configuration approach might be 20 lines long, all in one file, and immediately readable and easy to adjust. I’ve seen dependency injections schemes span 20 files, invoke arcane syntax, introduce all kinds of mysterious reflection libraries, and even kill performance in some cases. “Oh but then your not doing it right!” the advocates yell. Well no kidding, but the people I know that DO do it right – many have them have eventually abandoned the practice, or at least scaled it back dramatically – only using it in certain cases. At the end of the day it was a lot more code, new jargon aside. But the best code is no code.

Take a deep breath and try again. You are Adam naming the animals.