Saturday, August 27, 2022

A Manual for Personal Piety: The Book of Hours

Book of Hours manuscript kept at Harvard University

People have always encountered God outside outside of the times and spaces designated for worship. Consider how Moses stood in front of the burning bush, or how Jacob watched angles traversing their heavenly ladder.

Few of us have encounters like these, but we certainly hope to encounter God during times of personal devotions or quiet times of prayer. We usually take it for granted that these moments involve some kind of printed material: a Bible, a book of devotions, a volume of prayers, or perhaps a hymnal. For most of Christian history, however, printed materials were costly and rare, with very few people having access to books. During most of the Middle Ages, for instance, everything was handwritten on animal skins, making the duplication of books very time-consuming and expensive. Even the priests and monks who were charged with reading text during worship services had to share copies that belonged to the entire community.

Detailed artwork accompanied the text (

It wasn't until the year 1200 or so that this began to change and Christians started to have book-based personal devotions. This was the time when wealthy lay persons began to get hold of their own books of prayers, called Books of Hours because they were adapted versions of the "liturgy of hours"—the daily prayer services held throughout the day by monastic orders. For about three hundred years these were the most popular books in Europe. They provided a way for laity to participate in the prayers of the church, whether they did so at home or during the services held in the parish. Such books gave lay persons (albeit initially only rich ones) personal access to psalms, prayers, scripture passages, and important dates that were previously held only by the clergy. (Important days of the church year were written in red ink in the books' calendars; they became known as "red letter days.") 


Books of Hours were not only spiritual and practical, but they were also works of art in themselves, often containing elaborate illustrations of what the text was describing. In fact, medieval Books of Hours contain some of the best artwork from the period.

A fascinating aspect of these books are the notes that were added by their owners. These included important dates like weddings and births, and the owners would also add their own personal prayers. Some of the more common additions were devotional prayers that could be used while the priest celebrated Communion. There were also protections for one’s home and requests for deliverance from an untimely death. A fascinating book from 15th century was owned by John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury. He spent considerable time fighting in France, so his Book of Hours contains prayers relevant to an English soldier in that situation: prayers for a good death, pardon for sin, charms for protection, and petitions to particular saints associated with the areas where he campaigned. Furthermore, his own book was designed to match the format of his wife’s, with each one having the same joint portrait of the couple.

1300s manuscript from England. At the Boston Public Library.
These books, and the prayers they contained, allowed for European Christians to become more interior in their spiritual practices. It would be going too far, however, to accuse these personal devotional practices of encouraging radical individualism. Remember, people in that time rarely read silently to themselves. Most people read out loud, pronouncing all the words, even if they were alone. Unless you were alone in the wilderness, it was difficult to have personal devotions that were also private. Furthermore, the content of the Books of Hours was meant to enhance, not replace, the worship in the parish church. These books also provided the material necessary for the heads of households to lead prayer services in their homes, which were regular events that included the entire family and their servants.

For more information about Books of Hours, check out these resources:

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The Origins of Thanksgiving Day

Every third-grader in America knows that Puritan colonists in New England celebrated Thanksgiving starting in the 17th century. But it took 300 years for the United States to make it an official national holiday with a consistent nation-wide schedule. In his book Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday, James W. Baker writes about some interesting stops along the way to our present-day observance. Here are some Thanksgiving factoids that you can use as conversation starters around the dinner table on Thursday.

Eating. Feasting was probably a part of the earliest Puritan celebrations, but the meal only came after a serious period of fasting and prayer. In fact, the first observances were not harvest festivals at all. Instead, Thanksgiving was an alternative winter holiday that the Puritans celebrated in opposition to "pagan" Christmas revelry that contained too much feasting and drinking. So Thanksgiving celebrations were really not about the food at first. Annual fasts were a way to think back about the past year and give thanks for all the blessings received from God, not just the ones that came from the ground.

Turkey was probably a featured dish from the beginning, and in the earliest days this required hunting. But by the time of the American Revolution overhunting made it difficult to find a bird in the wild. But this didn't stop some intrepid sportsmen. "Turkey shoots" allowed everyone to pay for a chance to shoot at a bird tied up to a stump, with the best shot taking the prize home. (And that was often the shooter who was most sober by that time of the day.)


School. Much of what we think we know about Thanksgiving came from elementary school curricula. Before the 1890s, Americans didn't really associate the day with Pilgrims and Indians. But post-Civil War America was fractured and in need of a unified identity. Americans experienced societal changes brought on by emancipation, reconstruction, mass immigration, and growing industrialization. Public schools saw that the stories of Pilgrims fleeing persecution fit their goal of bringing the country together, teaching national virtues such as individual liberty and freedom. The fact that these European settlers supposedly cooperated with Native Americans also fit the ethos of a country becoming increasingly multi-cultural. So schools packaged several holidays to create a new American identity: Thanksgiving, the Presidents' birthdays ("I cannot tell a lie"), Memorial Day, and Labor Day. Thanksgiving Day pageants at elementary schools became rituals that reinforced an idea of the "united" states.

Football. Before the NFL there was college football. The first Thanksgiving Day game was played in 1876 by the two best college teams from the previous year. This was pretty much the beginning of the modern game, coming shortly after Harvard had adopted rules changing the sport from a soccer-style contest to one that resembled rugby. (NPR's Only a Game once aired a story with more details about the development of football as a Thanksgiving fixture.) In 1891 Harper's Weekly reported that families used the Yale-Princeton game as an excuse to get out of the house and distract them from boring dinner conversations. Thanks, football.

Shopping. Many people lament that Thanksgiving has become "Black Friday Eve." But the holiday has been linked to Christmas shopping for a long time. Thanksgiving Day became a national holiday thanks to the advocacy of Sarah Josepha Hale, who wanted an official proclamation from Congress to consolidate all the various state and regional celebrations that fell on different days. In 1863 President Lincoln declared a national holiday on the last Thursday in November, but it would not officially become the law of the land until 1941, and only then after some wrangling with the retail industry. In 1939 the last Thursday in November fell on the 30th, which shopkeepers disliked because it created a shorter Christmas shopping season. So President Roosevelt moved it up a week to November 23. This outraged traditionalists who bemoaned that the holiday had been hijacked by consumerism. The same thing happened in 1940, with some states and territories refusing to move away from the traditional "last Thursday." (Texas couldn't decide and held two Thanksgivings that year, with one on each of the last two Thursdays of the month.) Finally, in order to reduce the chaos, Congress passed a law in 1941 that required Thanksgiving to fall on the fourth Thursday of November. You win, Walmart.

Church and Worship. Thanksgiving has long held an ambiguous place in the life of the church. The Puritans definitely used it as a time to gather in worship. But nowadays, since Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday, churches often completely ignore the day. Even if there is a mid-week service at your place of worship, meeting during Thanksgiving week runs the risk of interfering with travel plans. 

Giving thanks is a spiritual discipline that we're called to do regularly, not just once a year. Unfortunately, none of us gives thanks naturally. Gratitude is something we have to learn and practice often. But the good news is that the more we give thanks, the easier it is to recognize the blessings that we already have. It is like strengthening a muscle: the more we use it, the easier it is to exercise it in the first place. Giving thanks is a response to the good things God has done, but it is also a process that shapes us into being more generous and grateful ourselves. For a great essay on the transforming power of thankfulness, check out Martin Copenhaver's article in The Christian Century:

Friday, August 14, 2020

What is Confirmation?

As a United Methodist pastor I affirm that persons of all ages are welcome to participate in God's covenant of baptism. This stance is not without controversy in the wider church, as many Christians do not baptize those who are too young to make a verbal profession of faith. United Methodists, as well as others who baptize infants and children, don't think that a personal profession of faith is unimportant, but we believe that this step can be delayed until later, sometimes happening years after baptism through a process known as confirmation.

A public profession of faith can happen whenever a person is old enough to make the following vows:
  1. To recognize and renounce evil in its cosmic, systemic, and personal forms
  2. To assert that God enables you to be victorious over evil, thereby calling you to work actively to oppose sin
  3. To affirm your commitment to Christ as Savior
Then follows a pledge to remain a faithful member of Christ's church, which includes a call to be an active member in a specific congregation.

Confirmation is the process that prepares someone to affirm these vows in public. Many churches have confirmation classes for children above a certain age, usually around the time one reaches middle school. (For adults these sessions tend to be known as "membership classes.") The pastor of each church has a great deal of freedom to tailor these classes according to the needs of the confirmands. Often the sessions cover aspects of church history, theological doctrines, details about worship practices, and ways to serve the church with one's spiritual gifts.

UMC Confirmation class from Pennsylvania  photo credit:

Once someone has both been baptized and professed their faith, they are considered a "professing member" of a United Methodist congregation. In the time before a baptized Christian is able to make the profession for themselves, they are still a member of the church. There is a specific designation for such folks that we called "baptized members."

Just one note: United Methodists do not practice "first communion." Some Christian traditions require children to wait until a certain age or to go through certain classes in order to take communion with the congregation. The UMC does not teach that there needs to be a gap between baptism and reception at the Lord's Supper.

Friday, April 10, 2020

What Does the Cross Mean?

Most Christian worship spaces contain some kind of cross, either inside the sanctuary or outside mounted to the building. Some of those crosses include a figure of the crucified Jesus, which makes the symbol a crucifix. Others—especially in Protestant churches—are empty of anything other than the horizontal and vertical boards. Regardless of their form, crosses are so common in church buildings that we have a tendency to forget why they are there and what they mean.

The Chi-Rho
The cross was not a popular symbol among Christians for the first 300 years or so of the faith. The early believers remembered what crosses were used for: to cruelly torture and execute enemies of the Roman state. Only after Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the 4th century did the stigma of persecution, along with memories of the cross as a device of torture, begin to fade from the church's collective memory.

The Greek Cross
Over time the worldwide church began to develop different symbols to represent the cross on which Jesus died. Just as his death has many levels of meaning—from forgiveness of sin, to victory over death—the cross can symbolize many different aspects of the Christian faith. Here are some examples of different cross symbols:

The Chi-Rho symbol is not technically a cross but rather a  Christogram. These two superimposed letters represent the name of Christ in Greek (Chi resembles X, and Rho looks like P). Legend has it that Constantine used this symbol as a battle standard on his soldiers' shields during the military victory at Milvian Bridge. Some scholars believe that Constantine also saw in this symbol a reference to the sun god, which he may have believed was a form of Jesus Christ. Whatever Constantine may have believed at that moment, the Chi-Rho is still a popular symbol today.

The Latin Cross
The Greek Cross is one of the earliest forms adopted by Christians in the years after Constantine. There are many variations of it, but it essentially consists of four equal arms.

The Latin Cross is the form most Americans are familiar with, with the vertical arm extending longer below the intersection.

The Jerusalem Cross
The Jerusalem Cross contains four smaller crosses around the central one. These represent the five wounds that Jesus suffered on the cross: one on each hand and foot, as well as one in his side. This is also known as the Crusader's cross, worn and carried by European soldiers on their quest to conquer Jerusalem.

The Orthodox Cross, also known as the Suppedaneum or Byzantine cross, has three horizontal bars. The top one represents the inscription over Jesus' head. The lowest bar, often set at an angle, shows the footrest Jesus used to push himself up to catch his breath. There are several versions that have the footrest pointing upwards.

The Orthodox Cross
St. Andrew's Cross is also called the Saltire. Tradition teaches us that Andrew the apostle was crucified on a cross of this shape. This form shows up on several flags, including that of Scotland.

Because these symbols of the cross carry a long history, some people react against the abuses they represent. Crosses were carried by crusading Europeans as they marched into Near Eastern lands, perpetrating unspeakable war crimes. To this day many peoples see these symbols as an affront to their heritage, making the displays of crosses on public lands a hotly contested issue.

Crosses were also co-opted by American racist groups who erected and set them
St. Andrew's Cross
on fire for the purpose of terrorizing minority communities.

Even many faithful Christians see the meaning behind the cross as a glorification of the wrong aspects of God's saving work; they feel that torture and repression is never to be celebrated or justified. 

Yet the cross is troubling even to those who do not make these difficult historic associations. The American dream, for instance, is built on the foundation of optimism and the assurance of a better future. Christians who have been raised in that environment tend to see God's story in the same way, by rushing past the events of Good Friday and focusing on the Problem-Solving God who makes everything better on Easter Sunday. (Just think how many more Americans go to church on Easter than on Good Friday. Most Protestant churches don't even have services on Friday.) Many worship spaces for newer churches don't even have crosses at all, and not just because they would get in the way of the projection screens. A cross interrupts and challenges our assumptions that all is right with the world. It reminds us that we still live in the time-in-between, where evil is still very real and terrorizes us all. The cross therefore serves as a necessary reminder—it acknowledges that life in our fallen world is still messy and painful. In spite of our best efforts to improve the world, the power to heal it can only come from the one who died there.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Charles Wesley's Christmas Hymns

Charles Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement in the 18th century, touched on almost every possible aspect of the Christian life in his approximately 6000 hymns. One of those topics was Christmas, resulting in its own published collection of songs. Wesley's volume of Nativity Hymns was originally released in 1745 and was re-printed several times throughout his life. (That link opens a pdf that contains the entire collection.)

There is an art, of course, to writing hymns. The composer can't just say what they want—the metrical restraints of the stanza lines require an economical use of words. It is therefore quite beautiful when a hymn is able to accomplish more by using just a few lines than is sometimes communicated in an entire sermon. Charles had a knack for doing just that, and two aspects of his Christmas hymns make them especially compelling even today: an emphasis on the freedom from sin that Jesus provides, and the paradoxical contrasts between humanity and the divine that occur in the incarnate Christ.

Salvation as freedom from sin and death:

From one of the hymns that survives in common usage today—"Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus":

 Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

Riffing on the post-Edenic promise in Genesis 3:15 that the child of Eve would trample the head of the serpent, we have these lines from Nativity Hymn #6 (stanza 5):

Gaze on that helpless object
Of endless adoration!
Those infant-hands
Shall burst our bands,
And work out our salvation  

Strangle the crooked serpent,
Destroy his works forever,
And open set
The heavenly gate
To every true believer

The paradox of the human meeting the divine:

Excerpted from the first two stanzas of Hymn #4:

Glory be to God on high,
And peace on earth descend;
God comes down: he bows the sky:
And shows himself our friend!

God th’ invisible appears,
God the blest, the great I AM
Sojourns in this vale of tears,
And Jesus is his name

Emptied of his majesty,
Of his dazzling glories shorn,
Being’s source begins to be,
And God himself is BORN!

Some modern-day song-writers still attempt to capture these aspects of Charles's songs. Check out, for instance, this track from Cardiphonia that is inspired by the hymn quoted above: "Glory Be to God on High." 

Of course, Charlie Brown provides the best popular culture portrayal of one of Wesley's Christmas hymns—"Hark! the Herald Angels Sing." Like the hymns mentioned above, this one grandly proclaims our freedom from sin and death ("born that we no more may die") while playing with the paradox of God-as-man ("veiled in flesh the God-head see").

For more on Charles Wesley and Christmas:

The United Methodist Church has set of devotions based on these hymns, on this site.

If you want a very detailed scholarly treatment, read Frank Baker's article "The Metamorphosis of Charles Wesley's Christmas Hymns, 1739-88."

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Ambrose: Teaching the Church through Song

Ambrose of Milan (339-66), painted by Mattias Stom (17th c)
Ambrose, the bishop of Milan in the 4th century, is remembered for how he guided the church through the Arian controversy. The Arians, in contrast to the orthodox Christians that Ambrose shepherded, believed that the Son of God had a beginning. In other words, this heresy maintained that Christ was created by the Father at a certain point in time, thereby making the Son one of God's creatures (albeit the most important one). Ambrose was committed to the truth that Christ is co-eternal with the Father (John 1:1), and he taught that the second person of the Trinity is not less than the first person. Although Ambrose has history on his side, he was actually in the minority at the time, with Arius leading many people away from the church's official teaching. The Arian heresy was denounced by the bishops who convened the council of Nicea in 325, but Ambrose had to spend a considerable amount of time and energy winning over opponents who weren't convinced by the council's vote. Ambrose wrote brilliant theology in his quest to guide heretics back to the truth, but one of his most effective teaching strategies came through songs.

In this way Ambrose was fighting fire with fire; Arius had grown so popular, in part, through singing. The Thalia, for instance, was sung in a variety of settings, probably at weddings and other occasions for drinking. Its lyrics taught some of the primary points of Arius's heresy, declaring that the Father created the Son as a creature. There are no existing copies of the Thalia that remain today, but we have Athanasius's criticisms of it. This other orthodox church leader not only disliked the content of the lyrics, but he felt that the song's musical components were themselves debased, thereby linking the Thalia to idolatry and various forms of immorality. His arguments against these tunes sound very much like fundamentalist attacks against rock music in the 20th-century. These songs did not simply reflect poor taste—their melodies and rhythms were seen as inherently bad.

Ambrose knew that he couldn't just criticize Arius's songs; he needed to respond with better songs of his own. Brian Dunkle, in his book, Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan, tells how Ambrose used songs as weapons in his fight against the heretics. Like Athanasius, he thought that music had great power that could be wielded for good or evil. So he did not simply create rally songs with doctrinally sound lyrics that could be used as propaganda against the Arians. Rather, Ambrose set out to create hymns of high quality, knowing that teaching orthodox theology was only a secondary outcome. Of primary importance was the fact that these songs should honor God with an inherent beauty. Ambrose set a new course for music in the church, composing songs were more than musical containers for theological content. They would not only teach accurate theology, but their beautiful melodies and rhythms would also spark the singers to worship the true God.

Ambrose's tunes haven't survived, so we don't know what they sounded like. But the fact that we still have some of the lyrics indicates that the hymns were beloved by many successive generations. The United Methodist Hymnal contains one of them, translated to English in the 19th century and set to a tune from the 18th:

O splendor of God's glory bright,
O thou that bringest light from light;
O Light of light, light's living spring,
O day, all days illumining.
O thou true Sun, on us thy glance
let fall in royal radiance;
the Spirit's sanctifying beam
upon our earthly senses stream.

The Father, too, our prayers implore,
Father of glory evermore;
the Father of all grace and might,
to banish sin from our delight.

  To guide whate'er we nobly do,
with love all envy to subdue;
to make ill fortune turn to fair,
and give us grace our wrongs to bear. 

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Notre Dame Cathedral: The Importance of Gothic Architecture

The fire that ravaged the Notre-Dame de Paris in April 2019 was a devastating loss from many perspectives. At least one firefighter and two police officers were injured in the attempt to rescue the building. While most of it was indeed saved, important parts were lost, including the entire roof. The damage was emotional as much as physical, since the building serves as a national symbol for France. The reason for this pride has to do with the building's history—it was one of the first to be built in the Gothic architectural style.

The construction of Notre Dame began in 1160, at a time when architecture was changing from an older Romanesque style, so called because it borrowed heavily from the designs of ancient structures of the Roman and Byzantine empires. Sanctuaries were a simple rectangle design, with a the nave (the place where the worshipers congregated) stretching out from a rounded apse that stood at the eastern end of the room. Over the 300 years or so of the Romanesque period, churches began to add wider cross-sections just west of the apse, making the sanctuary into the shape of a cross. These portions of the sanctuary, extending to the north and south, were known as transepts. Gothic churches would continue this basic layout of the building, but they would sometimes extend the transepts out even wider than the floor plan shown here:

Gothic cathedral floor plan. From

Romanesque churches were also noted for the arches and columns that supported their high ceilings. In the 12th century, however, architects discovered that pointed arches (rather than rounded or semi-circular ones) could support even higher buildings. These new arches allowed for Gothic churches to be taller, creating a more vertical perspective to the overall worship space.

Rounded arches of the Romanesque style. From

Gothic pointed arches in Notre Dame. From

In order to keep these stratospheric Gothic walls from falling over, designers came up with another innovation: the flying buttresses. These exterior supports were first used at Notre Dame, and they transferred a significant amount of stress from the walls themselves, allowing them to be thinner.

Drawing of a flying buttress at Notre Dame. From
14th-century flying buttresses at Notre Dame. From

The higher and thinner walls allowed for more windows, which let in more light to the church building. Gothic churches, therefore, were able to experiment with new techniques in stained glass. One of the most striking designs is the rose window, which is a characteristic of the Gothic style.

Rose Window at Notre Dame. From

Higher ceilings, thinner walls, and more light meant that Gothic churches took advantage of the worshipers' visual capacities more than their auditory ones. Christian worship would mirror the adaptations to the designs of the buildings, changing into an event that is seen more than heard. Priests would say the mass, but parishioners who gathered many yards away would not be able to hear what was said. They instead watched intently for the moment when the consecrated host was lifted up to be gazed at. Just like today, when churches are designed to be more functional than beautiful, Christian worship has always adjusted itself to match the values that are reflected in its buildings.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Sing the Psalms: Contemporary Settings

My previous posts about singing the psalms outlined ways of setting these important scripture passages to music by using a metrical psalter and chanting psalm tones. There is, of course, another way to bring musical settings of the psalms into your worship services: compose new tunes to fit them. Thankfully, there composers out there who are willing to share their songs with the rest of us, doing the difficult work of putting their new melodies to ancient verses. Here are a few of the artists who are hoping that new musical settings of the psalms will revitalize our worship:

Richard Bruxvoort Colligan runs the site, where he offers his own settings of various psalms. Some even have more than one setting to choose from—take Psalm 126, for instance. Colligan's songs are meant to be used, and he clearly explains the licensing agreements on his page. He provides both recordings and sheet music, the latter of which can be purchased and downloaded from the site.

Cardiphonia works at the intersection of contemporary music and liturgical worship. Their site provides several newly composed settings of the psalms. Check out their many compilations, including more than psalm-based compositions, at:

Hal Hopson has composed settings for church groups, sold as a collection titled The People's Psalter. Settings range from simple unison melodies to more advanced four-part choir pieces. The publisher also sells downloads of the individual scores for each psalm for just $1.00.

As a final note on this three-part series on the psalms, let me also recommend the following sites:

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Sing the Psalms: Chanting Psalm Tones

In my first post about singing the Psalms, I discussed metrical psalms, which are translations that allow these scripture verses to be sung to standard tunes. Another way to guide a congregation in singing the psalms is by using psalm tones. These simple melodies provide a way for congregations to sing any set of words, no matter how they are translated or arranged. By using these simple tones you can sing any passage of scripture—or even lines from a novel or a cookbook (not that you would want to).

The basic requirement for chanting psalm tones is a song leader who can guide a congregation in a simple melody. The United Methodist Hymnal, which borrows from the Lutheran Book of Worship, provides five of these melodies on page 737. In the psalter section that follows that page, the psalms are printed with red dots above the third-to-last syllable in each line. For all the syllables that precede this dot, the song leader (and the congregation, if they are joining in) chant the words to the same note. When they reach the red dot, this signals them to begin the final sequence of the tone's melody.

This is a very simple way for a congregation to sing the psalms, but it is admittedly an acquired taste. Not every church is going to embrace this style. Check out one of these short video clips from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to hear a chanted psalm.

An extensive and detailed description of how to sing psalm tones, using the resources of the United Methodist Hymnal and its companion Keyboard Edition, can be found here:

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Sing the Psalms: Metrical Psalms

We know that the Psalms are songs, originally meant to be sung in Hebrew by worshipers in ancient Israel and Judah. Some of the original performance instructions still remain in the current manuscripts. For example:
  • Psalm 6  begins with a heading: "To the Leader" and indicates the use of stringed instruments. 
  • Psalm 22 was meant to be sung to the tune of "The Deer of the Dawn."
  • Psalm 32 is called a "maskil," which is apparently some kind of musical style.
These days we don't know what "The Deer of the Dawn" sounded like or how to perform a maskil,  but modern composers have come up with a variety ways for us to sing the psalms. One involves translating the words into English, carefully arranging the syllables so that they can be sung to well-known tunes. These translations are known as metrical psalms.

Psalter: a book of singable psalms
One of the most well-known metrical psalms is called the "Doxology." It begins with the line: "Praise God, from whom all blessings flow"—a setting of Psalm 134 which is sung to a tune called "Old 100th." (It's actually more than just a translation—it is an adaptation of the original psalm, adding Trinitarian language that was not in the original Hebrew text.)

Singing the psalms together as a congregation can revitalize a worship service while simultaneously offering a way to engage more deeply with scripture. Here are a few examples of metrical psalm texts available in English: 

Seedbed offers metrical settings of all 150 canonical psalms, set to popular meters (that is, syllable arrangements). For example, Psalm 113 is set in a 87.87D meter, which means that it has alternating lines of 8 syllables and 7 syllables. This number is important when looking for a tune; most good hymnals will provide a metrical index showing which tunes fit each specific syllable count. Seedbed's site actually provides musical notation for popular hymn tunes. So for Psalm 113 there are four tune suggestions, including HYFRYDOL, which most people know as "Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus." Seedbed offers these settings freely for use in worship.

The Free Church of Scotland publishes a psalter called Sing Psalms, offering its full text online, along with its meters and suggested tunes. Some psalms even have more than one metrical setting. The Common Meter (86.86) is used for many of these psalms, which provides many options for singing, such as AZMON ("O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing") and "Amazing Grace."

Pastor Dale Shoening has also translated the psalms according to meter, which he also offers free of charge to houses of worship. is a companion site to help you use a number of psalters. It is helpful for finding a tune that fits the meter of a given metrical psalm.

Here's a short Youtube clip that explains how to match a metrical psalm text with a tune that fits the words, using the psalter from the Free Church of Scotland:

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Worship Ways: Worship and Mission

Tom Bandy and Lucinda Holmes's book Worship Ways: For the People Within Your Reach got my attention when I read, in a sidebar on page 4: "Worship is the purest form of God's mission, and God expects our collaboration to make it happen." I've spent most of my adult life trying to make worship and mission fit together, so this statement immediately put me on the side of the authors. While searching online for more information about this book, I became even more excited. I saw a recent blog post by Bandy that criticizes the "church growth leadership model," warning that it results in worship that is too focused on the performance of a few key leaders. This subject, too, is close to my heart. Recently, while researching the growth of contemporary praise and worship music in the 1990s, I found that many pastors sought to replace "traditional" worship, not so much as a mission strategy, but as a way to exert their leadership in the congregation. This book seemed to have it all: worship's integral relationship to mission, paired with a caution for centering worship around one strong personality.

Indeed, Bandy and Holmes, both clergy and leadership consultants, want to shift the conversation away from how we worship to why we worship. That necessarily means paying attention to the worshipers themselves. I'm guessing that the very title of the book—Worship Ways, just a letter off from the phrase "Worship Wars"—is intentionally calling readers to look past the battle lines of worship styles that were so rigidly drawn and defended in the 90s and 00s. Often those "wars" were more about exercising a pastor's personal leadership, and less a desire to reach new people. This book wants to give tools to a current generation of church leaders that will help them focus on the needs of those very people.

Bandy and Holmes lay out seven worship options for churches, with each one addressing a specific set of needs that might be found in a given congregation:
  1. Coaching worship, for those who are lost and seeking direction
  2. Educational worship, for the lonely who are looking for relationships
  3. Transformational worship, for those who feel trap and need deliverance
  4. Inspirational worship, for the dying who need renewal
  5. Healing worship, for those who are broken and need restoration
  6. Mission-Connectional worship, for the abused who need vindication and justice
  7. Caregiving worship, for those who are discarded and need compassion
In describing these seven styles worship, the book's chapters list specific categories of people who are most likely to respond to each one. It was quite surprising to me to learn that these categories were created from identification codes used by the credit-reporting agency Experian. For instance, Healing Worship services (#5 above), which are focused on restoring the sick and broken, tend to resonate with this category of people:  the "M45: Diapers and Debit Cards" crowd. These are people who are "young, working-class families and single-parent households living in small, established city residences." Similarly, Mission-Connectional Worship (#6), designed for those seeking to correct injustices, is a good option for "younger, up-and-coming singles living big city lifestyles located within top capital markets." These folks fit into category G25: Urban Edge.

The categories are so numerous—more than 70, that I could tell—that the descriptions have to get quite creative: "A02: Platinum prosperity"; "H27: Birkenstocks and Beemers"; and "I32: Latin Flair." (By the way, these are all considered good fits for worship option #1: Inspirational Worship.

I have mixed feelings about applying consumer categories to worship programming. On the one hand, the sheer number of categories is overwhelming and confusing, and none of these Experian lifestyles fit any categories described as spiritual gifts in the New Testament (see Romans 12:6-8 or 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 or Ephesians 4:11). The apostles built their first-century congregations around these gifts of the Holy Spirit, not on consumer preferences.

On the other hand, it is a good thing to examine the motivations and desires behind our worship designs. If we are really thinking about the missional impact of our worship services, then we ought to consider ways to really get to know our neighborhood. For instance, designing a high-church, Anglo-Catholic service with choral anthems and weekly Communion might not be a good idea if you are trying to include people who have never been inside a church building before. Similarly, we would not want to focus on teaching and education if the community actually needs to work on healing and reconciliation. If these Experian categories can indeed help us think through the needs of others, then maybe they can point us in the right direction.

I imagine that people will respond to Worship Ways in the same way that they see the Myers-Briggs typology or the Enneagram. I know many people who have been helped by these tools, using them to work through their own personality tendencies, showing why they react to certain people and situations the way they do. Bandy and Holmes offer this same kind of assessment, bringing a different set of lenses for looking at a community. If you are looking for something grounded in scripture, this book is not for you. If you need to shake up your programming staff, forcing them to think about worship as a mission, Worship Ways might work.

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