A Church that Teachers her Sons to Sing

During my Dad’s last months on earth and now in his last days and moments, our family has been incredibly encouraged by the songs of the church. In our family’s journey this is no accident or result of little effort. In God’s incredible and beautiful Sovereignty He provided a rich musical environment for my brothers and I. We had remarkably rich musical experiences in a small church in Metairie, LA named Highland Baptist Church, and our journey at FBC Ellisville was simply incredible. It is true that before 12 we were pushed to excellence with challenging handbell music, breathing exercises, and encouragement to embrace proclamation in song at every turn. But as life unfolds I increasingly recognize that the most important thing we learned in a church that expected every boy and man to sing was the comfort the hymns and songs of the faith bring in our darkest hour. I am particularly partial to the hymns of the faith in this regard, and those who know my ministry context know that I embrace relevance in worship ministries, but at our darkest hour it is incredibly important to be able to lock arms across generations and sing the great hymns of the faith. Great is Thy Faithfulness  has been particularly comforting for our family. This afternoon as the brothers Wood(ward) rushed to Pearl, MS to be at our mother’s side, It Is Well with My Soul seemed most appropriate. An incredible marvelous thought entered my mind this afternoon as mom and the three brothers were drawing comfort through prayer: How incredible in God’s Sovereignty that  He  would have  placed her sons in a church that  taught  her sons to sing. Do you see the beauty, the power of this concept? A church that  teaches her sons to sing will be comforted by those self-same sons in her darkest hours. Literally as saints pass from this world to our eternal home they will be comforted by the songs of the church sung by her sons. This is a heritage, which I was not only born to continue, but the Lord literally shaped my journey to allow me to see the vital role of the songs of the church. I would always want to be mindful not to raise the importance of a church song beyond which it should  be viewed under the supremacy of Christ in all and through all, and no doubt the best song sung is the life lived well for our Lord, as Clement would remind us, but truly no greater instrument hath the Lord given us than that of faith sung by the church’s sons.

The Age of Baptism

Tomorrow is a big day in the Woodward house. My middle son Luke is going to be baptized. He is 12, and his older brother  and sister were also baptized at 12 or 13. This is actually not a coincidence. In our  home, we of course look for signs of the Spirit working in the lives of our children and try to respond to their questions. All of our kids thus far–and we praise God for this reality–have sought a relationship with Christ at an early age. We  assume nothing other than sincerity with an early decision, which has occurred more than once with our six children, but we also assume a time will come later in life when the child who makes an early decision comes to a fuller  understanding of that decision or fuller sense of conviction of sin, and in some instances the child believes the later understanding or conviction coincides with the actual moment of salvation. I believe in some instances that the earliest decision is valid but each of us must wrestle with the reality of initial salvation from the Father.

Assuming the child has accepted Christ  by 12, which has  occurred for each of our oldest three  children, we proceed toward baptism at some point between the ages of 12 and 13. However, we have started another tradition to help seal this important  moment in the lives of our children. Usually the day before the baptism, we gather with immediate family and sometimes extended family or a family friend, and we question the child regarding basic doctrine. I believe the one who is being  baptized needs to be able to talk about the Trinity,doctrine of Christ, doctrine of sin, and doctrine of salvation, even if it is in 12-year-old language. We seek to assure the  child that having a right answer does not equal salvation. Rather, salvation occurred at the moment he or she genuinely accepted Christ  as Lord and Savior. We will ask again before the family council if the child asked Christ into his or her life at the earlier point–note that at this point if the child has  questions we can pray at that  very moment to receive Christ.

For those who might still be with me at this point in the article, let’s see if I can stir up all the Baptists in the room. Once the child is baptized, you are not allowed to be baptized again as long as you live in our home. If the child comes to me at 14 and says, I believe I have just now genuinely accepted Christ, I will say, “That’s wonderful; you’re mother and I rejoice with you in this decision.” But the child  will not be baptized again. I am amazed at the number of people I encounter in ministry that  have  been baptized  twice, including myself. I don’t think the original “re-baptizers” had what we do in mind when the Baptist denomination begin to emerge a few centuries ago. Sure if a person experiences infant baptism, an additional baptism is needed. But  in my view, if the average committed Christian has been baptized more than once under the category of sole-competency, something is wrong with our system. I am sure statistically that  at least one of my children will get baptized twice, but it will not be during his or her developmental years.

So some might be wondering why 12, I will answer in extended manner if anyone is interested, but for now, let me simply say that this age was determined through research on developmental understanding. At 12 a child can begin to have profound understanding of symbolism. I didn’t create this reality. This reality unfolds from God’s sovereignty of the developmental process. Notice this is also the threshold of young manhood or womanhood.

And yes you are right if guessed that there are historical models for this practice. As I have said elsewhere on this blog, our  main guides in leading our family or churches in worship are biblical and theological, but comparing our conclusions against the weight of history is not a bad idea.

He was Bruised for our Transgressions

I have been complicating pain more than unusual lately, perhaps more than I  have ever contemplated this unavoidable aspect of life on planet earth. This is due to watching my father endure terminal cancer. To  be fair, I readily admit that my father’s type of cancer, though terminal without divine intervention, is not particularly associated with pain, so I should be clear from the outset in stating that I am using pain in a broad sense (e.g., the pain of being robbed of any sense of independence, the pain of not being able to enjoy retirement, the pain of not being able to do any of those trips you had  hoped to do, the pain of realizing you won’t be able to see your grandchildren grow up, the pain of realizing a good portion of your grandchildren won’t know you, the pain of watching your wife serve you with great difficulty though with a consistent positive spirit, the pain of not being able to care for your wife). Although pure physical pain has not been a prominent aspect of dad’s difficult journey, he  recently fell face forward, which was I am sure quite  painful, though he is not able to remember what  happened nor  has he communicated a great deal regarding  the incident.

Of course some of  my contemplations on pain extend to other  family members, particularly my mother, and some are selfish. In fact the manner in which the whole journey affects me ranges from frustration to deep emotional pain. This past July 4th weekend, 2014, is more on the frustration side. A bit of context is required to fully communicate these melancholy reflections (keep reading–it gets indescribably more hopeful below). Over 30 years ago my father started a rich tradition that has been repeated  each Christmas: the Woodward family shrimp boil, which always includes the Trolios (mom’s sister’s family.)  Not knowing how much time we have left with Dad, we decided to do one more boil this past Friday. It was a last minute plan and woodward.nola was zipping up I-55 when we found out that Dad had fallen face first and was not responding verbally. He was rushed to the hospital where we met mom. And  yes, it was very difficult to see this  precious man with a huge protrusion emanating above his left eye. Mom decided that we should go forward with the shrimp boil while she sat at the hospital for most of the day Friday keeping watch over Dad, but needless to say this was not exactly the celebration we had  in mind.

For those who have  walked with someone they hold dear through the  valley of the shadow of death, you understand there is a certain deep and heavy fog that you learn to breath when in the presence  of the dear one  who is decaying. To be honest, it feels like a suffocating reality, and I actually get breaks from the reality with two brothers who are faithfully seeking to provide assistance to mom; particularly the youngest but quickly aging Charlie is bearing a good bit of the responsibility of helping mom–Charlie lives just a few miles from Mom and Dad. Mom lives constantly in this reality.

I was beginning to emerge from this latest round of the fog of death this morning as I engaged in corporate worship. Then, at some point after the Supper as my wife Michelle was leading the congregation in “Worthy Is the Lamb” a chin raising idea emerged within my innermost being. Perhaps it had been read earlier in the service but  the painfully descriptive phrase referring to the Suffering Servant was prominent in my mind: “He was bruised for our transgressions.” My thoughts were partially turned to Dad–for those who knew him (forgive me for referring to him in past tense as he is now a shell of the man we knew) the process feels so unjust–he was indeed so seemingly innocent. Of course, we know–those who know him best know that he is not actually innocent in a theological sense but he is a model of one who truly pursued holiness and selflessness, which go hand and hand.

I was reminded by the Great Teacher in that moment that my Lord Jesus was bruised and passionately as I would defend my father’s honor, I know that in reality the Messiah was infinitely innocent and was bruised in a magnitude of injustice that is incomprehensible. I am reticent to admit that seeing one who sought so earnestly to look like Jesus endure and endure and endure brings our Lord’s reality to more vivid color. I am reticent to admit this truism because the words should leap off the pages of the Word embraced in their fullness through faith, but perhaps there is a certain comprehending that comes only through living.

I also realized in this same moment the greater reality only Our Lord is capable of bringing to fruition: Only our Lord could rise above the injustice of death for the truly innocent, only our Lord could despise the inevitable decay of flesh, and only our Lord is capable of being Christus Victus, Christ the  Victor over death.

There are many many things to live for as we see our father diminish: there is a rich family legacy, which Dad has exponentially increased through my rose colored glasses; there are the lives of these precious grandchildren to celebrate and press to excellence; there is the  fruit of changed lives and the fruit of life changers. But what makes all of this possible and what gives these good things an enduring quality or at least the sparkle of the eternal . . . yes, you know the chorus: “He’s the Lily of the Valley, the bright and Morning Start, He’s the fairest of 10000 to my soul.”

History Through Worship: 20th Century

Tonight, April 10, 2014, the NOBTS Church Music Division will present “History through Worship.” The theme for this year’s concert is the “Twentieth Century.” The path of Western music certainly splintered upon its entry into the twentieth century. Within the category of art music two basic philosophies emerged.1 Some composers pursued the path of intellectual possibilities. For example, Shoenberg’s serial approach to pitch was an experiment in structural conception with little concern for the comfort of the listener. Conversely, other composers such as Stravinsky emphasized music that appeals to raw human emotions with works such as Rite of Spring.Eventually, Copeland become the leader of the Stravinsky camp, and the featured piece this evening, Rite of Spring, clearly falls into the Stravinsky/Copeland camp.2

The Requiem is certainly more diatonic than much of art music written in the 20th century. Furthermore, some 20th century composers found more fruitful territory by revisiting salient historical gestures than by experimenting with new sounds or ways of organizing sound. For example, the piece by Duruflécould be described at least in certain sections as Neo-Medieval. Kaye notes the “rhythm and flow” of chant as a primary feature in the overall construction of the piece.3 Yet the piece also has a clear twentieth century sound. For example, a section of the Kyrie is quite chromatic, and other sections include hyper-chromatic tertian harmonies as well as some use of quartel harmonies.4

However, the more important issue is how Duruflé uses these various colors in a relatively palatable manner to communicate hope in the context of a Requiem. Nineteenth-century composers were fascinated with the Requiem as a theological framework begging for weighty artistic material, and this trend continued into the 20th century. Duruflé’s setting, though not as weighty in comparison to other offerings from both the 19th and 20th centuries, carries an intimacy and worshipful atmosphere that is certainly reflective of the appropriate theological range of emotions one would expect for contemplations on death.

Another composer of note in this evening’s program is John Rutter. Rutter is perhaps the most celebrated and performed choral composer of the latter half of the twentieh century. Much of his much music is already considered enduring among the vast amount of choral music written between 1950 and the present.

Finally, the concert will feature a black gospel piece. Among the two general philosophies on twentieth music reviewed above, Duke Ellington’s purported “if it sounds good it is good” clearly fits in the early 20th century Stravinsky camp. And in a parallel sense, many Evangelical churches have adopted a philosophy on musical style that seeks to reflect the community of believers as long as worldly influence is held in check. The NOBTS Church Music Division celebrates both seminal historic works that have defined the musical culture of the church for 2000 years and  incarnational worship that defines our churches in the 21st century: Christocentric praise with cultural considerations.

       1 Tim Koch, Lecture on the evolution of 20th century, (lecture presented at the University of Southern Mississippi in the 1999 summer semester), Hattiesburg, MS.

2  “The Unanswered Question,” YouTube, last modified December 5, 2013, accessed April 9, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3HLqCHO08s; Bernstein offers an expanded review of these basic philosophies in a series of lectures that can be found on Youtube.

       3 Nicholas Kaye, “Durufle, Maurice,” in Oxford Music Online, ed. Deane Root et. al,accessed April 8, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grovemusic/08407q=durufle&search=quick&pos=2&_start=1#S08407.

       4 Luigi Zannenelli, An Introduction to Non-Functional 20th Century Harmony: A Manual, unpublished textbook, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg; this celebrated composer’s unpublished class notes for the class, 20th Century Harmony, included four categories: hyperchromatic tertian, quartal, twelve-tone, and polychordal.





Reflections on authentic night of gospel worship in New Orleans

There are certain full circle moments in one’s life that emerge with no foresight or planning. The NOBTS Seminarians had the great privilege tonight to sing with the Zion Harmonizers, a legendary New Orleans Gospel group, celebrating their 75th anniversary. We also had the great privilege of singing with about 40 men from Franklin Avenue to celebrate this joyous occasion. Most of my friends and students know that I am a native of New Orleans so I have always had a certain appreciation for this style of music. But being from New Orleans is not enough to put one in the place of being part of an event like we shared tonight. In fact, one who’s roots go back to rural Alabama on my dad’s side and rural MS on my mom’s side in MS hardly qualify me to be a gospel expert. And yet in God’s sovereignty I am a son of this incredible city. And being invited to share in this particularly event had nothing to do with wise planning by the conductor of Seminarians, yours truly. God used an extraordinary series of events that connected us to the producers of the event.

What many of us from New Orleans would love for people to know is there is a remnant of faith here. Yes, an ark of Saints who have endured and continue to endure many challenges in our city as we seek to be salt and light. In New Orleans taking a Puritan path would lead to very little success in terms of people coming to faith. Instead, what I like to call incarnational worship raises a sweet smell before the Lord when offered with sincerity, and the lost in our city see and hear that there is a deeper joy available in Christ that exceed the joy of getting a coconut at Zulu and life imperishable that sustains one through the darkest of tragedies unlike the fleeting moments of existential bliss when dancing to second line (one of my favorite things to do by the way). What probably affected me the most tonight–and their were, trust me on this, some awesome sounds literally coming out of the Joy Theater tonight, but what affected me the most was seeing the Franklin Avenue Men sing “I will Sing Hallelujah” with all their Heart Soul and Might before the Lord. I looked into the eyes of these men and realized that these Parthenons of faith in our community are surely burdened by the spiritual condition of their children, and grandchildren, and yet when they say, “I Will Sing Hallelujah” with a joyous shout, their thoughts are totally on the solution maker and not the problems or the burdens of this life. Praise be to God for their faith, and may we who live in this community of faith continue to support our brothers in Christ who are quite literally in the trenches. And may I close with a glimpse of heavenly song with the attached video clip. The men in this video singing “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” represent various cultures in our own country and 5 continents. Keep living for Jesus and singing His praises and we will one day lay our burdens down:

My Heart is Stirred by a Noble Theme

Well, it’s that time of year again in the NOBTS music division–we are working feverishly at preparing a night of worship that is entitled Crescent City Praise. This concert of worship will be presented Thursday evening, February 13, on the NOBTS campus. We’ve had a great week sitting under the leadership of Dr. Paul Clark, the TN Baptist Director of Music and Worship Ministries.

Dr. Clark challenged us from night one to move beyond laboriously trudging through notes toward expressions of worship through timeless anthem texts. As we seek to achieve that goal I was reminded in Psalms today that sometimes we are surprised with the passion of a strong theological theme as we do our spiritual routines. David says in Psalm 45 that “his heart is stirred by a noble theme as [he] recite[s] [his] verses for the king.” What we see here is that while the psalm writer is doing his due diligence to accomplish the task set before him, namely reciting verses for the king, he allows his heart to be stirred by noble themes.

What are noble themes? Noble themes are the timeless ideas we find in abundance in Psalms and throughout scripture; nobles themes are pillars upon which we can set our lives and ministries. As we move through the necessary disciplines of life, whether that be our daily devotion or learning  a bunch of notes for a night of worship, may we allow ourselves to be stirred by the noble themes that emerge ultimately in sacred text. Then our souls will be singing long after the final downbeat.

We hope you can join us in singing of the most noble theme of all, Jesus Saves! tomorrow night at CC Praise, Leavell Chapel, NOBTS campus, 7 PM, featuring student choir and community, student and community orchestra, and children’s and youth choirs.

Counter-cultural Movement in Worship

Ken Myers is certainly leading a counter-cultural charge in the area of worship, and I would say this movement is gaining a fair amount of steam. Although I certainly have  no issue and would even celebrate those who wish to worship in a traditional manner, I think we need to careful in how we determine which activities will be deemed “real” or “pure” worship. For a quick review and clip of Ken’s perspective, check out  the following link to SWBTS’s worship journal: Artistic Theologian.