The Divine Comedy

Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the...

Dante’s vision of God, as depicted by Gustave Dore

Have you ever wondered why Dante’s most famous work is called The Divine Comedy? Perhaps, in high school or college, you read selections from the opening section, “Inferno,” which depicts an imagined journey through hell. There was certainly bitter humor there, with sinners punished in macabre tortures that mirrored the sins they committed during life – the adulterers locked in eternal embrace, liars marching through knee-deep manure – but there wasn’t anything comedic about it. It was terrifying, as Dante intended.

Ancient critics classified drama into two basic categories: tragedy and comedy. The most basic distinction between the two was the ending. A tragedy, no matter how happy or humorous individual scenes may be, always ended badly — in death — for the protagonists. No matter how romantic the first meeting between Romeo and Juliet might be, no matter how close it seems Hamlet comes to discovering the truth about his father’s death, we know that, because these plays are tragedies, they will end in death. This foreknowledge colors the rest of the plot, giving the romance or close calls with success a bitter overtone.

A comedy, meanwhile, ends happily, usually with a joyful wedding and feast. The characters may face tribulation, even encounter brushes with death, but we know that it will all work out in the end. Not merely work out, either, but finish with a celebration. That — the joyous ending, the improvement in their lives, the discovery of true happiness — is the defining mark of a comedy. The humor of a traditional comedy, in fact, often comes from the audience’s foreknowledge that everything will be fine, making it difficult for us to take seriously any troubles faced by the heroes.

Dante’s Divine Comedy has exactly this kind of ending. “Inferno” is the section most commonly read in school, but that’s only the first of three sections of the Divine Comedy. After hell, Dante’s fictional self travels on to Purgatory in “Purgatorio,” where he meets people who are on their way to perfection, and then to Heaven, “Paradiso.” The Divine Comedy concludes with a mystical vision of Dante’s encounter with God. The final book of the Bible, Revelation, depicts this moment as both a wedding and a feast – the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. It is indeed a comedy, in the truest, deepest sense of the word.

While the Divine Comedy is a work of poetry – Dante’s imaginative depiction of what the afterlife is like – his vision of the cosmic story as fundamentally a comedy is rooted in the Bible’s own story. As we’ve already seen, Revelation shows us that God’s story ends with a wedding and a feast. No matter what troubles we encounter before the story ends, no matter how close we may come to tragedy, the story ends with a celebration.

And that knowledge should shape how we regard everything that happens between now and then.

Ash Wednesday, Valentine’s Day, and the Symbols of Love

Today is Ash Wednesday. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. I’m not sure if you could plan a better juxtaposition of symbols.

On Ash Wednesday, millions of Christians will have their foreheads marked with ashes, as a reminder of their mortality and sin. Ash Wednesday also marks the beginning of Lent, when Christians traditionally begin a pattern of fasting in preparation for Easter, which often involves giving up foods like chocolate or candy. At our church, we’re removing our usual flowers from the sanctuary as part of our Lenten preparation and replacing them with two Crown of Thorns.

On Valentine’s Day, meanwhile, we give chocolate, flowers, and jewelry to our significant others as symbols of our love. The larger, more elaborate, and more expensive they are, the better, since our gifts are supposed to represent our love.

Both of these days are about love, albeit in very different ways. Valentine’s is, reportedly, a celebration of romantic love. (I say “reportedly” because it seems to have it’s most devoted adherents among the grade school set.) Ash Wednesday, meanwhile, points us toward Easter, when we remember God’s love for us through the sacrifice of his Son. The acts of Ash Wednesday and the rest of Lent are symbols of our response to his love.

It’s good to give chocolate and flowers. It’s better to give yourself.

What Churches Can Learn from Grammy Awards Speeches

Awards show speeches aren’t usually masterpieces of rhetoric. Most, in fact, are simply lists of people whom the winner wants to thank. While their list may include celebrities or important people in the industry, it’s also likely to include their parents, their family and friends, and members of the team that helped create the film, song, album, etc., that is being honored. Occasionally, the winner will give thanks to an artist of an earlier generation who influenced their work. Unlike the credits at the end of a film, there are no contractual obligations to name certain people in an awards speech, but leaving out someone who should have been thanked can lead to major embarrassment.

What does this have to do with churches? In my experience, most churches do a great job of listing the writers and composers of worship songs when they are legally required to do so by copyright law. For songs in the public domain, however, it’s fairly common to omit any information about the source. I’ve even seen churches credit “© Public Domain”, as if we had Mr. Domain to thank for the song.

Why does this bother me? In part, I’m sure, it’s because I’ve written a few hymns and vainly hope that a church in the 23rd century will include my name in their holo-bulletin. Beyond this selfishness, I have a few reasons.

Naming others is essential to community. Our church services ought to be full of names. The Bible is, after all. Those long genealogies and the greetings at the ends of Paul’s letters aren’t just filler. Those names represent real people and real relationships, and they remind us that the people of God is made up of, well, people.

Crediting the sources gives us a sense of history, rich worship, and communion of the saints. When we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” we’re singing a song that, in one form or another, has been used in worship for over a thousand years. There’s something remarkable in the ability of a hymn written centuries ago to capture our emotions and shape our worship today.

Learning the origins of our favorite hymns can help us discover new music. It’s easy to lump all the songs in a hymnal together as a generic genre called “hymns,” but hymns come in a great variety of styles, both musically and lyrically.

  • Love the simple majesty of the doxology “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”? The tune, called “Old Hundredth,” originated in the Genevan Psalter of the 1500s and likely written by Loys Bourgeois. Consider other hymns from the Genevan Psalter for your worship.
  • Prefer the mystical harmony and imagery of “What Wondrous Love Is This?” You might want to explore other songs from Southern Harmony (edited by William Walker) and The Sacred Harp (ed. B.F. White and Elisha King), two influential song collections from early 19th century America.

You get the idea. There’s no legal requirement, of course, to include these credits. I hope, though, more churches will take the time to thank and recognize those who have enriched our worship.

Worship: Stand Out By Being Traditional

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Stand Out by Being Traditional

My friend Jeff Gissing recently wrote about why contemporary worship is not the answer for churches trying to revitalize their congregations. In fact, I would say that, if your church wants to stand out, try offering traditional worship. A church that takes its tradition seriously, that seeks creativity and freshness within its tradition rather than breaking from it, is going to stand out as different from all of the churches that are trying to look, sound, and worship in conformity with the latest trends.

Contemporary Worship Is Nothing New

There was a time — 10 years ago? 20? — when offering a “contemporary” worship service would make a church stand out from all the others. This simply isn’t the case any more. In the broader evangelical context, contemporary worship has won the worship wars. If you want contemporary worship, there are a dozen churches in your community that already offer it.

If your church is thinking about changing to a contemporary worship style or adding a contemporary service, what will you offer that’s different from the dozen churches already doing the same thing? If someone is searching for a church based on its contemporary worship, why would they choose your service over the one down the street? If they’re choosing a church based on contemporary music, can you compete with the megachurch that meets in the old mall, with the worship team of professional musicians and the best sound equipment that money can buy?

Living Tradition

When my wife and I were looking for a new church, we had a few things we were looking for:

  • Solid evangelical theology
  • A healthy community where we could serve and our kids could find friends
  • Traditional liturgy

It was extremely difficult to find churches near us that worshipped using a traditional liturgy. We love our new church — which is good, because it was the only church we could find that offered all three items!

Too often, “traditional” worship is a synonym for “old and tired” worship. I know a church that has been singing the same rotation of hymns for over 30 years, using the same pianist, who plays every hymn at the exact same tempo in the exact same style. (I think it would be called “Southern camp meeting.”) This is not “traditional” worship — this is dead worship!

“Traditional” does not mean “old.” It means that you are part of a tradition, which includes a history of styles, conventions, and content, but which should also make room for new works of art and new variations within the tradition. If a tradition does not make room for creativity, it’s an archive, not a tradition.

Ideas for Traditional Worship

If you are seeking revitalization in your church, what does your existing worship tradition offer? If it feels tired, try asking yourself a few simple questions:

  • Are we doing justice to the music? Is the music being played with a high level of skill and preparation? With the appropriate style and energy? If we’re just going through the motions, should we take a step back and examine our motivation?
  • Can we return to the tradition’s roots? For example, if the song was a Southern camp meeting song, what if we returned to traditional instruments and harmony for the song? What gave the tradition energy and life when it was new? Are there great songs that we have forgotten about that haven’t been sung in our church for decades?
  • What can we contribute to the tradition? Could we write a new verse to a traditional hymn? Write a new arrangement? Play the song on contemporary instruments? It might be as simple as discovering a new combination of songs that complement each other.

You might discover that the “old” tradition can still offer new life.

Photo credit: Laurelville Mennonite Church, via Flickr

We Wait and Watch: A New Hymn for Advent

Advent Candles

Advent Candles

As part of my master’s thesis at Regent College, I wrote a Good Friday hymn cycle based on the Seven Last Words of Christ. In the years since, I’ve written a song or two for Easter musicals, but I’ve not written any more congregational hymns. This year, my family and I began attending a new church with a strong hymn tradition, and the idea for a new hymn formed.

As with several of my Good Friday hymns, the tune inspired the lyrics. My friend Tom Trevethan introduced me to the hymn “We Rest of Thee” several years ago, and his love for the hymn and its history became my own. I later learned that the hymn had a strong connection to InterVarsity, in addition to being the hymn sung by the missionary Jim Eliot and his companions shortly before their deaths. Even though I previously had little knowledge of the hymn, after I heard Tom speak so movingly about it, I often found myself tearing up whenever I had the opportunity to sing it.

The tune is “Finlandia,” adapted from Jean Sibelius’s symphonic poem. The melody is beautiful, though one with its own challenges for lyrics. Each line is relatively long by hymn standards (10 or 11 syllables), and the 1st, 3rd, and 5th lines end with a rising motif that doesn’t fit all words. In the words, I tried to bring together several different images and themes from traditional Advent readings and things that Jesus said about his Second Coming. Many thanks to Anthony Palm for arranging and conducting the hymn for the church, as well as making some good suggestions about word choice, to the Hebron Lutheran Church Choir for singing it this morning, and to Pastor Dave Shockey for giving me this opportunity.

I hope this hymn will be a blessing to you this Advent.

We Wait and Watch

We wait and watch for our Lord Christ’s returning;
  We stand alert, like watchmen on the wall. 
We feel him near, our hearts within us burning,
  At any hour, prepared to give our all. 
We wait and watch; our hope is in his hand. 
Soon we will see, and all will understand. 

We wait and watch, like virgins did by twilight. 
  Five filled their lamps, the others left theirs dry.
Their drowsiness laid claim to all their might;
  Their eyes fell closed, until they heard the cry.  
The wisest five also rose at once to follow;
Those unprepared were left behind in woe. 

None know the hour the Father has appointed.
  Christ will appear as sudden as a thief,
Riding on clouds, revealed as God’s anointed:
  Soon he will come, confirming our belief. 
None know the hour; no one will know the day. 
We wait and watch, and in our hope we pray. 

Come quickly, Lord; your reign endures forever.
  Our Father’s will, be done upon the earth, 
The lion and lamb lay down in peace together,
  And New Jerusalem be given birth. 
We wait and watch for the whole world restored,
When every heart proclaims you as the Lord.