I was thinking recently about what is often called “contemporary” worship music and I began to wonder what exactly is meant by “contemporary”? The obvious answer might be “Contemporary worship music is worship music that has been written/produced in recent years.” So a song that was written in the 1800s would not be “contemporary,” while a song written last year — or maybe as long ago as the 1990s? 2000s? — would be. “Contemporary” is new, “non-contemporary” is old, and the only question is what date marks the boundary line.
But two questions immediately come to my mind:
First, why should we call something “contemporary” based on the date it was written? What about its usage? Imagine that there’s a song that’s suddenly on the radio a lot, people are singing along to it, people are requesting it, and so on. You’d say that that song was popular. It’s popular at the time it’s being played. Now that song may have been written many years before it became so popular, but that doesn’t matter. It’s popular right now. In fact, not only is it popular; it’s also contemporary — an old song, sure, but one that is part of contemporary culture because people are singing, requesting, and playing it.
Apply that now to the church’s music. Some of the music that people view as “non-contemporary” or even as “traditional” is still being sung — and sung vigorously — by other people today. It’s a staple of their church’s music. It’s a song they sing several times a year. More than that, it’s a song that many people, including children in the church, love. Given the opportunity to pick a song, they request that one. Sure, the song wasn’t written in the last decade and may have been written a couple hundred years ago, but isn’t it still contemporary, not based on its date of composition but based on its being sung by congregations today?
Second, though, does “contemporary” in these discussions refer only to the date of the song’s composition or does it refer really to the style of music, and specifically to whether the song sounds like today’s pop/country/folk-rock/whatever hits on the radio? Take two songwriters. One is producing a worship song that sounds a lot like a hit by Coldplay. The other is, let’s say, working in a conservative Lutheran tradition and produces a song with a square melody that’s recognizably in the tradition of church hymnody. Both songs are completed on the same day, so in that sense they’re both “contemporary.” But that doesn’t really matter, does it? Only the first would really get called “contemporary.” The latter wouldn’t. In which case, “contemporary” isn’t really the best word to describe this sort of music, is it?
Arthur Paul Boers points out that, while many people object to daily fixed-hour prayers (or, for that matter, to liturgical worship in which much of the service is the same, Sunday after Sunday), repetition has rewards:
It gives us an accumulated store of knowledge upon which to draw, preparing us to receive new insights. We are not always ready or able to hear a particular Scripture. But if we repeatedly ponder Scriptures, they can be near our hearts, form our lives, and speak to us when we are ready. It is important to do this vital preparatory work in an ongoing way so that if there are times of crisis the texts and their meanings will be available to us.
Repetition convinces and converts us. Hearing something once may not be enough for us to hear, learn, or understand…. We often resist the challenge of Scriptures and need to hear them over and over precisely because of that resistance. There are things we do not get, understand, or absorb with one or two readings. We need to hear them again and again. Perhaps we dislike repetition because it forces us to plumb deeper, and we may dislike hearing over and over again words that challenge us and make us uncomfortable (The Rhythm of God’s Grace, 98-99).
Is repetition boring? Perhaps literally so. Boers quotes Eugene Peterson: “It’s a bit like turning a drill. It might appear boring, but he more you are turning the deeper you get. It’s literally boring. But if you only turn it once you don’t get very far” (cited 99). In fact, much of what is most valuable in life involves repetition and even some monotony. Boers cites C. W. McPherson, who says that common prayer parallels other
human experiences: an exclusive sexual relationship over a long time; practice of an art or a skill to mastery; raising a child or mentoring a young person. All these require a daily, or near daily, commitment. All involve periods of … monotony as well as occasional periods of disruptive challenge. All can eventuate in joy (cited 104).
Some complain that fixed-hour prayer is boring or repetitive. Not too often does it ignite emotional fireworks, mystical revelations, or ecstatic experiences. But the “ordinariness” of the Office is essential for sanctifying our ordinary lives and for reminding us that God is found in the ordinary and the mundane more than in the extraordinary and the melodramatic. The ordinariness, everydayness, and repetition of the Office help us appreciate God in all of our life, including its humdrum and repetitive rhythms. — Arthur Paul Boers, The Rhythm of God’s Grace, 66.
Evening and morning prayers reflect a central Christian truth, the paschal mystery: Our life comes from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Similarly, we are called to die to our old selves and to sin, and to take up our cross so that we too might know new and eternal life and be born again. Evening prayer is a small death; we surrender ourselves into God’s hands. … The morning is a small rebirth and resurrection. We often give thanks for a new day and its opportunities. The dying and rising is relived in each daily cycle. Thus, as we observe the morning and evening rhythm, we also have opportunity to live deeply and enter into the most basic and important truths of our faith. — Arthur Paul Boers, The Rhythm of God’s Grace, 61.
I know the difficulty of being prayerful. Before learning fixed-hour prayer, my prayers were ad hoc: made up without paying attention to the Christian year or the priorities of the church and God’s Reign or the needs of the wider world. They were self-directed: deciding on my own what I should pray rather than having help, support, or direction from others with maturity or experience, not to mention the wisdom of Christian tradition. They were disconnected: prayed in isolation from other believers, both nearby and around the world. They were subjective: praying what I “feel” like, freely abandoning important ways of prayer such as confession, praise, and intercession. Besides that, when prayer relied totally on my initiative and invention, it was easy to set aside when the mood did not suit me or if life circumstances were overwhelming.
Many problems of prayer could be addressed by a common discipline of daily morning and evening prayer. — Arthur Paul Boers, The Rhythm of God’s Grace, 3-4.
The other day, I requested a copy of a book by C. S. Lewis’s good friend, Charles Williams. And what did the library end up giving me? Not only a first edition of the book, somewhat frail and held together with a rubber band and stuck in an envelope for safety, but the autographed copy that Williams himself gave to the well-known British publisher, Victor Gollancz.
And they sent this to me, a total stranger, with no idea how trustworthy I might be or (apparently) how valuable the book might be.
As James Jordan points out (in the passage I quoted here), the communion of saints is not that I am connected to you and you are connected to me, but that you are in Christ and I am in Christ and we are united in Him. He is the connecting link between Christians. Jordan’s application had to do with the possibility of speaking to the saints and asking them to pray for us. But what he says also bears rich fruit for our comfort when we lose loved ones.
When a loved one dies, so much is left unsaid. We want to tell Grandpa how much we love him. We wish he could know what we’re doing. Sometimes, we wish we could ask his forgiveness for wrongs we’ve committed. But there is no indication in Scripture that our loved ones in heaven are now watching everything that we do, let alone that they can hear what we might say to them.
But then our communion with Grandpa was never first and foremost our family relationship or the fact that we could see him face to face or that the words from our mouths could reach his ear. Our communion with Grandpa was first of all in Christ: He was in Christ, and so were we. And that hasn’t changed. Jesus is still the connecting link, and Jesus does see what we do and hear what we say. Which means that if you have anything you want to say to Grandpa, you can tell Jesus about it and ask him to pass the message along.
Can Grandpa hear you? Scripture doesn’t say. But Jesus can, and he can and will pass on any message that he thinks it best to pass on. Which is a great thing to tell grieving grandchildren who wish they could say one more thing to Grandpa.
Building on what he said (in the quotation here) about the communion of saints being in Christ — the communion of saints is not that I’m connected to you and you’re connected to me, but that I’m in Christ and you’re in Christ and we’re connected in Him — Jim Jordan makes an application with regard to our unity and community as the church.
Building up our community in the church includes obeying commandments (e.g., the “one another” passages in Paul’s letters). There are things that the church ought to be doing and there are good practices we can adopt. But those practices and our obedience to the various summonses we find in the Bible aren’t the source or basis of our unity and community. We aren’t together because we share these practices but because we are in Him, and if we want community to grow, we need Him to work: “We must go through Christ, and then we have communion with everyone else. If we have a lack of communion here, we must go through Christ to get it with others.”
In his lectures on Colossians, Jim Jordan takes a short rabbit trail to talk about our communion with the saints, including the saints in heaven:
Hebrews 12 says that when we come to church — and at other times, because heaven is really always open to us — we have communion with the angels and with the saints in heaven. So … you can talk to them, can’t you? If they’re all around us, we can ask them to put in a good word for us, can’t we?
But if you’re in Christ, you’re as close to the throne as you can get. Dying and going to heaven doesn’t put you any closer to God than you already are. You may feel the closeness more, but you’re not any closer.
On Wednesday night, we share prayer requests. So if we’re all in heaven, why can’t I ask Saint Athanasius to pray for me? Why can’t I ask Mary to pray for me? We’re all in the same room, aren’t we? Lots of branches of the church have made this case. When Orthodox and Roman Catholics “pray” to the saints, this is what they have in mind.
The Protestant response is this: When we’re in worship, we’re in heaven with the saints and angels — and with all the other Christians in the world. But can I stand here and ask Robbie Peele in Atlanta, right here and now: “Robbie, please pray for me”? No! He can’t hear me. It’s true that we’re together, but it doesn’t follow that the saints can hear us. Theologically, we’re all together. But we have no reason to think that Athanasius can hear us.
Theologically speaking, the mistake is this: The reason we’re all together is not that we’re all in the same room and so we can now approach Christ. Rather, we’ve all approached Christ and now, as a result, we’re in the same room. Jesus Christ is the connecting point for the church. The connecting point for all of us in the room is not this way: I’m connected to you and you’re connected to me. The connecting point is through Christ and back. We’re connected to Athanasius through Christ and back. If you want to communicate with him, you have to go through the central trunk line, through Jesus Christ. For all I know, the departed spirits do run errands for Christ (as Samuel is assigned to come back and speak to Saul). But we can’t talk to them directly. Everything is through Christ. It is through Christ that we have access to angels and the spirits of just men made perfect. You can’t talk to them.