Stories Told

A cappella

Yesterday’s post about Sacred Harp singing made me want to share again a couple posts from the archive about my experiences singing in harmony. I loved to do it and I miss it.

hpj3.jpgA long time ago my wife and I visited a little Church of Christ in a plain building that stood on an empty highway in a rural corner of the city. The warm and friendly members eagerly accepted us as guests. The service began simply with a welcome and a prayer. Then a man walked to the lectern and asked us to open our hymnals. We saw no instruments; I wondered if music was played on tape. No. He sang “sol,” raised a hand, swung it down – and then everyone exploded into song, belting out Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah, without accompaniment, in four-part harmony, at the tops of their lungs.

Unprepared, I raised my hands as if to cover my ears. We stood there stunned, eyes wide, mouths open. We had been Methodists, timid singers the lot. In this building, even the tone-deaf sang out, the strong, resonant voices around them carrying everyone’s voices through the rafters and straight up to the Lord.

I loved singing, and had I missed singing in harmony as I had in school choir many years before. Elated to sing this way again, I turned to my hymnal and its shaped notes and tried to keep up with the congregation in this song I didn’t know.

In time I learned it, and many others, in joy that came from feeling a special bond with God and connection with my fellow Christians. I offered the Lord my best voice, singing directly to Him. But the congregation’s cooperative singing offered God something of much greater beauty than I could create alone. Our singing helped me not only acknowledge and praise God, but also transcend myself to remember everyone else in the room who also sought the Lord. I even considered Christians in other a cappella congregations singing unabashedly just like us. I felt in touch with the whole body of Christ.

sofap.jpgI found comfort in my travels by identifying with Christians through a cappella singing. When away on business on a Sunday or a Wednesday evening, I usually found a congregation and went to worship with them. I noticed many times that singing the bass part of songs with them was a way others recognized me as a member of the church.

Unfortunately, a cappella singing was no less than a doctrine. The Church of Christ was born from the Restoration Movement in the 1800s, which sought to restore Christian practices to patterns found in the New Testament. The movement’s churches sought Biblical authority for all of its practices. Because the Bible does not mention using instruments of music in worship, the logic goes, instruments are therefore not authorized. Today, I consider this to be a real theological stretch. But back then I heard some preachers say that congregations that use instruments in worship are sinning and face hell unless they repent, and that a cappella Christians should not associate with instrumental Christians because to do so implies acceptance of their practices.

Sadly, arguments over instrumental music have caused Restoration Movement churches to split for more than a hundred years. When I attended this little Church of Christ, an enormous Christian Church sat about a mile down the road. The two churches were one until they split in 1894, and I’m told that instrumental music was one of the reasons. I know a former Church of Christ in my hometown that lost many members in the past decade as it underwent a spiritual transformation, a portion of which included adding instruments to worship.

When I left that little congregation, I turned to God for guidance. I expected to be led to another Church of Christ, but He directed me to a particular Christian Church. This and many other independent Christian Churches have Restoration Movement roots, and so its beliefs and practices were familiar to me. But that church featured a piano, a drum kit, and a guitar on the stage, and all of them got vigorous use during Sunday-morning worship.

It took me months to feel comfortable with the instruments, as I broke free from Church of Christ orthodoxy. I finally realized that because I was where God led me, that He knew what he has asked me to do, and that He was in control. So finally I became able to sing freely. Unfortunately, the congregation sang like timid Methodists. I came to miss the powerful congregational singing that helped me feel so connected to God and His people.


Originally shared in December, 2007. Tomorrow, a memory of singing in the school choir.

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Faith

A milestone in a 175-year-old church’s history

A few years ago I wrote frequently on this blog about North Liberty Christian Church and its journey after being forced to sell its building, on land they’d occupied since 1839. At last, this congregation’s new building is complete. It was a long time coming.

NLCCnewbldg

The backstory: in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the church suffered two destructive splits, and members left in large numbers. By 2009, the offering no longer covered expenses, most of which involved heating and cooling an enormous building. I was an elder in this congregation by then, and I learned that we were burning through savings at an alarming rate. I wrote about our difficult decision to sell our building here. We got a great deal on a parcel of land on a main thoroughfare  around the corner from us, and signed a contract with a builder to erect a small, simple building on the site. And then we ran into roadblock after roadblock, which I wrote about here, which depleted our cash to the point where we no longer had enough to complete the project.

Meanwhile, we worshiped in various hotel rooms until a church that had been our neighbor for more than 150 years, Bethel United Methodist Church, allowed us to use their old sanctuary (read about it here). We never imagined it would be three more years before we could move into our new building. I use “we” loosely, because a few months after moving to Bethel, my sons and I left North Liberty Christian Church. I wrote about why here.

I didn’t keep in touch with the people of North Liberty as well as I promised I would, but I did hear from them often enough to know that they walked a difficult road trying to find the funding needed to finish their building. The money slowly appeared and bit by bit the building was finished. This past Sunday was the first service, and they invited me to join them.

NLCCinterior

It was bittersweet to see everyone again. I loved the people of that congregation and leaving was difficult, which is part of the reason why I’d not kept in very good touch. I also felt some guilt about not walking that difficult road with them to this milestone. God had different service in mind for me, and I’m doing it now (read about it here). But I never quite shook the feeling I left business unfinished at North Liberty. Yet everybody welcomed me warmly and was glad I came.

God taught us a lot as we lost our home of 171 years and wandered unsure of whether our new building would ever be built, and indeed if we would even survive as a congregation. I’m sure God taught the people of North Liberty much more after I left, just as he has taught me much as he shared the mission he had in mind for me. What I’ve learned, and what I hope the people of North Liberty learned, is that there are milestones (such as new buildings) along the journey, but it remains a journey and frequently you can’t see what’s around the next bend. So we have to keep remembering that God is in control, and not worry.

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Faith, Personal

The real value of Christmas

I first posted this in 2010 and again last year. May this Christmas Day truly bless you and those you love.

Even though I’m a Christian, I don’t celebrate the birth of Christ at this time of year.

The home in which I was raised followed no particular faith. My parents acknowledged the God the Bible described, but their devotion went no further. For us, Christmas was a big family holiday where we got to see all of the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and I have loads of warm memories from those gatherings. Many of my friends talked of the baby Jesus (after, of course, talking excitedly of the presents they anticipated). Many of my classmates were Jews and several were Serbs; they had their own celebrations at different times. And so I have always has this sense that the holidays are what you make of them.

Lit Up at Night

My mother said more than once that Christ couldn’t possibly have been born in December – his birth was more likely sometime in autumn. She also said that the whole reason the Christian church celebrated Christ’s birth on December 25th was because in the church’s early days, non-believers already celebrated a winter festival at about that time, and it was easier to convert them if the church had a celebration then, too. Christianity should be a faith of truth, she reasoned, and she couldn’t reconcile how Christmas was predicated on a falsehood. It sounded good to me, and when I grew up I looked into it and found that there was plenty of evidence to support Mom’s claims. That didn’t stop her from playing her records of traditional Christmas hymns every December, though!

None of this was enough to deter me from seeking God as an adult. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I got serious about God I did it in the Church of Christ, a branch of Christianity that celebrates Christmas only as a secular holiday. Most Church of Christ congregations hold a restrictive view of Biblical authority that leads them to observe only what they believe God commands in the Bible. The Bible tells us to celebrate Christ’s death, but never once to celebrate his birth. So they take communion (the Lord’s Supper, they call it) every week, but during December their mostly a cappella congregations sing no Christmas songs and their preachers avoid talking about Christ’s birth.

Eventually I left the Church of Christ’s narrow interpretations in search of greater love from God. Of course, I landed in a church that celebrates Christ’s birth all December; it was nearly impossible to avoid it. Until we fell on hard times, we always held a big Christmas production with a chorus singing traditional Christmas songs and a telling of the nativity story.

What's the Reason for the Season?

I never said this to anyone at church, but this was very hard for me to accept for a long time.

I’m unlikely ever to fully personally embrace Christmas as a celebration of Christ’s birth. Not only were the wrong seeds planted in me as a boy, they were well cultivated when I became an adult.

Don’t feel sorry for me. I love the Lord deeply and don’t feel like I’m missing out on one iota of his love for me. But let me tell you why I have come to think that celebrating Christ’s birth at Christmas is not just all right, but just wonderful:

Because his birth is so openly and joyfully celebrated each December 25, who in the western world has not heard of Jesus Christ?

I know, I know, the holiday has been tainted with commercialism, and because of political correctness we now say “Happy Holidays” to each other rather than “Merry Christmas.” Still, I don’t think the holiday’s connections to Christ and his promise for us have been lost. And when I consider all that celebrating Christmas has done to introduce people to Jesus, my mind boggles. Who cares about the celebration’s origins? God has certainly used it for good.

May God use this Christmas season for good in your life.

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Faith, Music

The old songs

On this Good Friday, I’d like to repost a story from a few years ago. I’m now a member of the little church in this story, and we will observe this Good Friday just as described here.

I went to an evening church service last Friday, Good Friday. I’d never done that before.

My Christian heritage has its roots in Restoration Movement churches (Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Christian Churches). These churches’ original goal was to restore Christianity as practiced in New Testament times. They mostly ignore the liturgical calendar. The ultra-conservative Churches of Christ ignore it altogether; they don’t even observe Christmas and Easter. (The Bible, they reason, doesn’t explicitly authorize those holidays.) So while we’re all aware of Good Friday, it’s often not held up any higher than any other day.

West Park Christian ChurchMy Christian Church congregation hasn’t had a Good Friday service while I’ve been a member. Other congregations in our fellowship do, however, and one of them invited us to join them this year. West Park Christian Church has served its Westside Indianapolis community for more than 100 years. 1910s and 1920s neighborhood photos hanging inside the church show tidy new working-class homes; today the houses are dilapidated, the residents are poor, and the streets are unsafe after dark.

We began by walking the neighborhood. A couple men hoisted a large wooden cross onto their shoulders and we headed out, about a hundred of us, calling out greetings to the people sitting on their front porches and out in their front yards enjoying an unusually warm early-Spring evening. We stopped at the homes of several ailing church members and of community leaders to ask them out so we could pray with and for them. We stopped at the community center and at the neighborhood park and prayed over them, too. There’s no way this neighborhood doesn’t know about West Park Christian Church and what it stands for. This church is clearly in a ripe mission field. I envied them their opportunity to serve.

West Park Christian ChurchWhen we returned to the church we shared a pitch-in meal, and then we entered the sanctuary for an evening service. We sang, took communion, and heard a short message.

So many modern churches today have rock bands and sing nothing but upbeat praise songs. I understand why; it reaches so many younger people. I’m all for what’s effective. But while I was in the Church of Christ, we sang the old hymns and spirituals a cappella in four-part harmony and I really loved it. I came to have a deep affection for many of those old songs – It Is Well with My Soul, When My Love to Christ Grows Weak, Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?, I Surrender All, When All of God’s Singers Get Home, and many others. I have missed them. We sang the old songs this Good Friday night. A pianist accompanied us through five or six songs, but after the first verse of Onward, Christian Soldiers, he stopped playing. Everybody was really singing, raising their voices to God, almost clamoring to be heard. I heard a few voices in the back singing the bass and tenor parts, emboldening me to do the same. Then the pianist played the opening notes of When I Survey The Wondrous Cross and, as we began to sing, again let his hands rest and our voices carry. After the first verse I was so moved by our blended voices lifting so powerfully to God on this day we specially gathered to observe Christ’s death that I began to cry.

The joyless work of selling our church building and planning to build a new one as we try to keep a financially challenged congregation afloat has taken me away from the real point of service. I was reminded of it on Good Friday night. We are to go bring the lost to God and turn our faces to Him in worship, giving him ourselves to use for His purposes. And it was the death of Christ on the cross that makes it all possible.

See a 1914 photo of West Park
Christian Church and its congregation here.

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Faith, Personal

The real value of Christmas

This Christmas memory was originally posted in 2010.

Even though I’m a Christian, I don’t celebrate the birth of Christ at this time of year.

The home in which I was raised followed no particular faith. My parents acknowledged the God the Bible described, but their devotion went no further. For us, Christmas was a big family holiday where we got to see all of the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and I have loads of warm memories from those gatherings. Many of my friends talked of the baby Jesus (after, of course, talking excitedly of the presents they anticipated). Many of my classmates were Jews and several were Serbs; they had their own celebrations at different times. And so I have always has this sense that the holidays are what you make of them.

Lit Up at Night

My mother said more than once that Christ couldn’t possibly have been born in December – his birth was more likely sometime in autumn. She also said that the whole reason the Christian church celebrated Christ’s birth on December 25th was because in the church’s early days, non-believers already celebrated a winter festival at about that time, and it was easier to convert them if the church had a celebration then, too. Christianity should be a faith of truth, she reasoned, and she couldn’t reconcile how Christmas was predicated on a falsehood. It sounded good to me, and when I grew up I looked into it and found that there was plenty of evidence to support Mom’s claims. That didn’t stop her from playing her records of traditional Christmas hymns every December, though!

None of this was enough to deter me from seeking God as an adult. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I got serious about God I did it in the Church of Christ, a branch of Christianity that celebrates Christmas only as a secular holiday. Most Church of Christ congregations hold a restrictive view of Biblical authority that leads them to observe only what they believe God commands in the Bible. The Bible tells us to celebrate Christ’s death, but never once to celebrate his birth. So they take communion (the Lord’s Supper, they call it) every week, but during December their mostly a cappella congregations sing no Christmas songs and their preachers avoid talking about Christ’s birth.

Eventually I left the Church of Christ’s narrow interpretations in search of greater love from God. Of course, I landed in a church that celebrates Christ’s birth all December; it was nearly impossible to avoid it. Until we fell on hard times, we always held a big Christmas production with a chorus singing traditional Christmas songs and a telling of the nativity story.

What's the Reason for the Season?

I never said this to anyone at church, but this was very hard for me to accept for a long time.

I’m unlikely ever to fully personally embrace Christmas as a celebration of Christ’s birth. Not only were the wrong seeds planted in me as a boy, they were well cultivated when I became an adult.

Don’t feel sorry for me; I love the Lord deeply and don’t feel like I’m missing out on one iota of his love for me. But let me tell you why I have come to think that celebrating Christ’s birth at Christmas is not just all right, but just wonderful:

Because his birth is so openly and joyfully celebrated each December 25, who in the western world has not heard of Jesus Christ?

I know, I know, the holiday has been tainted with commercialism, and because of political correctness we now say “Happy Holidays” to each other rather than “Merry Christmas.” Still, I don’t think the holiday’s connections to Christ and his promise for us have been lost. And when I consider all that celebrating Christmas has done to introduce people to Jesus, my mind boggles. Who cares about the celebration’s origins? God has certainly used it for good.

May God use this Christmas season for good in your life.

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Photography

Scenes from a pitch-in

We call them pitch-ins here in Indiana. I guess people in most of the rest of the country call them potlucks. When people from out of state visit our church and we announce a pitch-in, the “hunh?” look on their faces always turns to an “Oh!” look when we say, “That’s what we call a potluck.”

Pentax MEWhatever you call them, I’m sure they’re a staple of churches near you, too. My church had one not long ago. I brought my Pentax ME, sporting the 50 mm f/2 SMC Pentax-M lens and some Kodak Tri-X 400, hoping to get some good candid shots. But I was pressed into service in the buffet line placing turkey on everybody’s plates, leaving less time to photograph people than I had hoped for. I did capture part of this family. The dreadlocked fellow and his similarly dreadlocked wife have something like seven children, all remarkably well-mannered and -behaved.

Family

I caught this happy lady mid-laugh. I’m still getting my sea legs shooting people, and am learning how to be unobtrusive while recognizing and swiftly acting on the right moment to click the shutter. I hit it just right here.

Dawn

I hung around to help clean up, giving me a chance at this shot. The light from the fluorescent tubes disproportionally lit an otherwise dim space and I wondered how my camera would capture it. I kind of like the mood here, with the blown-out-bright fluorescent tubes that don’t quite light this shot all the way, leading to shadowiness at the bottom and a stark overall feel.

Washing dishes

All day long I shot this lens wide open or nearly wide open because I was working with available interior light, shooting handheld. That was more of a challenge after the pitch-in when I went up into our worship space because there is so much dark wood in there, especially the pews. My depth of field was very shallow. And of course the windows ended up blowing out with the afternoon sun streaming through them. Still, I liked how the line of the balcony’s underside harmonizes with our curved pews.

West Park Christian Church

This shot shows the curved pews even better. The floor slants toward the altar. I shot so the pews appeared level, which threw the windows off level in the background!

West Park Christian Church (crop)

I have a thing for church cornerstones and photograph them whenever I can. (Check out my church-cornerstone gallery.) The main part of our building, including our worship space and a few rooms, was completed in 1909. An education wing was completed sometime during the 1920s.

West Park Christian Church

The building has been well used over the years and while it’s far from dilapidated, it could use more TLC than the coats of paint its interior has received recently. I’d like to see some restoration work done, especially around the interior’s delightful tall woodwork and wood floors. But we’re not exactly a wealthy congregation; really, we’re doing good just to meet somewhere structurally sound!

A church I once attended found a time
capsule in its cornerstone. Check it out!

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