The Medium is the Message: Role of Music in Corporate Worship

May 30, 2017

An interesting question came up during Bible Study today. Is there such thing as a Death Metal worship song?

My instinctual response is that generally, some mediums are more suitable for certain messages. Death metal, for instance, is less suitable for the message of the Good News, than Getty’s In Christ Alone accompanied by piano. The medium is, if not the message, invariably tied to the message. There is, after all, a reason for the incarnation.

Furthermore, I posit that worship music should never be about trying to produce an emotion. Worship, by definition, is about ascribing to God who he is and what he has done. Worship music is a form of worship. Body worship can be a form of this as well. This does not mean that one cannot worship God dancing naked, as King David did. But surely, the sons of Korah were not singing the psalms in order to produce an emotion in David so that he would dance naked.

And I warn of a danger here: it is when we assume that we can produce or affect a genuine sorrow of repentance rather than fleeting momentary ennui, or soul-consuming joy rather than a mere saccharine high, that we are close to the dangers of assuming the role of the Holy Spirit. We are in fact like Simon the sorcerer.

Furthermore, there is appropriate time for the ‘manifestation of the Spirit’ as some have argued. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14, there is to be intelligibility to worship. If you want to speak in tongues, for example, do it at home if there’s no interpreter.

18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

If you want to worship so much that you dance naked, great! But how does that build up the church? Or would you assume that you are like king David, pure in heart? Or that there is no edification of the body, i.e. the people of God, in a king throwing off his royal garments so that he could be a nobody with the Ark returned and worship with the commoners? Does not that edify the people? Surely, better is one day as a nobody than thousands elsewhere as a king.

Worship may very well produce emotions, and good uses of emotions can be made when they come. But emotions is never the goal but a mere by-product of encounter with the living God. Never get in the way of that. The bible never commands joy out of joy’s sake; it commands joy in God.

Year 3

September 15, 2016

What ruin met, what scattered stones here lay!
This place where men had dared to climb above.
Their hearts, ambitions filled, were led astray-
united, yet so far away from Love.

A tower, they had hoped, would bring them fame;
with undivided speech, they baked their bricks.
They spake the tongues of angels just to blame
each other – clanging came the ruin swift.

So here we stand, our union, may it be
not as the ones who came to such an end.
Instead of building up, dear, let us see
above and find the Ladder here descend

For only by this Ladder can we dream
to see the Love that fuels our love unseen.


Good News to All

June 11, 2016

As I reflect on all the injustice around the world, I am confronted with the question that a Christian must come to terms with. How can the Gospel be ‘good news’ to the world? For the elect, for the chosen, it’s obviously good news. And even if you don’t believe in predestination, for Christians who die and go to heaven, it’s still obviously good news. But what about for those who are ‘perishing’, the reprobate, those who are cast out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth?

Even the most liberal of theology outside of universalism cannot merely say that the Christian message is good news to everyone. And even in that simplicity of universalism, its entailments on the nature of heaven quickly turns the facile ‘goodness’ of its doctrine to something vapid and incongruous with our innate human longing for justice.

For the vast majority of Christians who do believe in some version of hell, how can we keep a straight face and proclaim to the world that the Gospel is “good news”? Is it merely good because someone has a chance to go to heaven? In which case, the gospel is good in the sense a lottery ticket is good! No, when Jesus talks about his kingdom, there is no hint of chance; there is sovereignty of God, the finality of his rule, and the good pleasure he has in all that he does.

That kingdom of God, i think, is what makes the Gospel message good news to all. Even though there are some who will be in hell (and we wont know who), the unveiling of God’s sons, the inauguration of God’s kingdom, the restoration of the universe has begun. The Eden is restored and made more beautiful. Those around us (Matthew 5:16), even those who do not believe, cannot help but praise God in some way, even as some of them are headed to destruction.

Sonnet Year 2

September 15, 2015

He traveled from some distant lands, compelled
By forces inexpressible to him.
She likewise could not tell the way she felt
But journeyed at a more than passing whim.

And even when they saw each other first –
though recognizing then that they’re the same –
politely nodded he; she gave a terse
reply – no further brays were then exchanged.

A crowd appeared that mocked their every step.
Unfazed, the two went on, with hopes unseen –
to save them from a storm unknown as yet.
They marched, the two, the pair so called unclean.

The donkeys climbed together on the ark;
Likewise, on crossing beams we place our hearts.


Things You Give Away

January 19, 2015

When winds of time have blown away
the things that you hold dear –
the oft-repeated, judgment day
is here, to your dismay.

What will you have, within your grasp,
allaying all your fears?
Your wealth and fame? that you’ve tied fast,
and thought would ever last?

Behold; for things that you have kept
will trickle like the years.
for you have sought the right, but left
yourself with love bereft.

Awake, oh sleeper, from your sleep
before that coming day;
the only things you truly keep
are things you give away.

Autism, Alzheimer’s, and Adoption

December 18, 2014

Mental disabilities can be uncomfortable to face.  As American individualists, we want to believe that one can do anything he sets his mind to.  As secularized Christians (who are at once less American yet more individualistic), we want to believe that each person will get a chance to choose God – a fair, well-balanced, and rational choice.  We hold dearly, not to grace and adoption, but to human rationality.  The secularized Christian may not explicitly consider these truth claims but appropriate them by default.

To us, to this secularized Christian, mental disabilities are especially impossible to entertain.  Our view of God as this fair bargaining fellow – someone who will inform you thoroughly so that you will make a fair decision – cannot square with this idea that some people do not have the mental capacity to make such a decision.  Even worse, we cannot face the idea that even our memories will fade away.  When the mere accouterments of personality are stripped away by loss of memory, of self, of identity, what will assure us that something resembling faith (much less mental capacity to choose) will remain?

I must affirm, against all may pride, that I am saved not by my mental faculties, that these children are not condemned due to their disabilities, that grandma’s salvation does not depend on her maintaining her lucidity .  For we are held, much tighter than we are holding.  Though we forget, He remembers.  Though we may close our eyes, He still sees us.  For nothing can separate us from the love of God – not Autism, not Alzheimer’s.

Sonnet, year 1

October 8, 2014

When Adam slept the deep and lonesome sleep,
What were his wants – desires that fueled his dreams?
He must have truly seen himself unique
when all the beasts were coupled as a team.

What pains would he have felt and most confused
would he have been if seeing God reach inside,
abstract a rib, and leave an empty groove.
No wonder God did not let man decide!

My wife, what could I’ve known to pray before
I met, then wedded thee! What sweet desire
would adequately mirror you! What’s more,
for us, I’d give my body to the fire!

Oh blazing flames, light us towards the font
that’s streaming from His side, and shapes our wants.

Sons of Thunder

February 15, 2014

His hands were tied up behind him.  A soldier knocked him to his knees.  John tried to stand back up, but another soldier held him down, stepping down on his legs and brandishing his sword in front of John’s eyes.  The soldier shouted at him to stay down and that John and his brother were being arrested for disturbing the peace.  John could not move, and he could not stop himself from trembling.  He saw his brother, James, 10 feet in front of him.  The soldiers were also binding him and holding him down.  James was shouting at the soldiers.  “Just be quiet Jame,” John thought, trying to make eye contact with his brother, “and maybe they’ll let us go.”

He kept on shouting, in his loud, thunderous voice.

“If you repent, even now, and believe in Jesus, that – .” One of the soldiers next to James hit him on his face with a hilt of a sword.  James fell sideways, his face hitting the dirt.  James slowly opened his eyes, looking dazed, his eyes searching for something, for someone and finally saw John.

They had always been together.  When they were growing up, people who first met them thought they were twins.  People of their village thought of them as pranksters, as rascals who would be good fishermen but not much more.  John and James had never studied under a house of a teacher.   Once, a rabbi told them to follow him, except this rabbi did not have a house.  So John and James followed this itinerant rabbi, as they walked across deserts and dry places, the rabbi’s feet stirring dust that would cover them as they followed behind him in awe.

John couldn’t breath.  He could not talk.  He looked at his brother, pleading through his eyes to be quiet and to go along with the authorities.  James, smiled, shook his head, and closed his eyes.  The soldiers grabbed him and set him up back on his knees.

James kept on shouting.  “Believe in Jesus, whom you have crucified, has been raised – ” A soldier kicked him, and again James was sent to the ground.  The soldier pressed his feet on James’s head.

They had followed the rabbi for three years, and they had seen miracles.  They couldn’t fathom what it all meant.  Surely, this rabbi was the one who would overthrow the Roman oppressor, restoring the glory of the Israel nation.  But the rabbi seemed disinterested in politics.  And for being a rabbi, he seemed disinterested in religion, or at least the religion that they knew about.  The rabbi didn’t wash his hands.  They were more than okay with that.  The rabbi befriended the outcasts, the tax-collectors, the prostitutes, the sinners.  The Samaritans.  John and James didn’t understand, and yet they recognized that they too were commoners.  The rabbi taught in perplexing parables.  “Look at this great temple, teacher!” John once marvelled as they entered the temple.  The reply was not what John had expected.  “Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.”  They looked at each other to see if the other knew what it meant but they were both puzzled.  But now, it was beginning to make sense.

With the soldier’s heels pressed against his head, James shouted all the more.  “That he has been raised from the dead, then you will be saved!”  The soldier raised his sword above his head and swung down. As blood gushed out of James’s open wound, as life slowly faded from his eyes, he looked one last time to his brother.

The rabbi had taken them and a fellow fisherman Peter up to a mountain.  It was pitch black.  As they steadily climbed their way up, they were suddenly blinded.  The light was brighter than a midday sun.  And the Rabbi.  He seemed to be the source of the light.  He was discussing something with two other men, whose names were ….  Moses. Elijah. The law-giver.  The prophet.   John and James didn’t understand the significance of it all.  And days later, when the Roman soldiers crucified the Rabbi, they thought he was just another prophet, just like Moses and Elijah.  But then the Rabbi came back, and they understood.

As tears rolled down John’s face, James gave a weak smile and looked at John while slowly drifting into unconsciousness.  “It’s okay,” James whispered, “I am going to be with our Rabbi.”

Wedding Poem

February 5, 2014

I must confess to you, my wife, my jewel, my star,
the lack of gifts that I’ve prepared for you
except the memories I’ve formed thus far.
A solemn oath to share our future too.

“What gifts are these?” the bride may ask the groom.
“What uses will they have for you and I?
What purpose served, in this our nuptial room,
are memories and oaths to til we die?”

Our memories can tell us who we are.
What is a man without them? He is lost!
Our oaths are what we hold near to our hearts.
My oath to you I’ll keep at any cost.

So will these two suffice for you, my wife?
For with these two I’m giving you my life.

Despairing of Beauty

July 23, 2013

The common objection to existence of an infinitely loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God is the existence of evil. And while such matters can be discussed on a purely intellectual level, most individuals who ask such questions are driven to ask it due to their own subjective and valid experience of pain. But as we live our lives, we also experience joys and beauties. We are not, however, driven to ask for the meaning of these beautiful experiences the same way we are driven to ask for the meaning of painful ones. There is no impetus, no force to ask what is behind the veil.

But when we sit still and reflect on our experiences of beauty, we are faced with the same important, ultimate questions. If God does not exist, all this beauty will pass away. All our experiences of beauty – all the idyllic hills and valleys, every majestic whale, the bluest of skies and clearest of oceans, the laughters we share with those most dear to us – they are all fleeting and will turn to dust. The whole creation groans even in its highest of joys. And so we are turned again to despair; for while we can enjoy for the present moment all of creation, in the back of our minds we know that this appearance of joy is a facade, that all is crumbling away.

But beauty itself gives us a clue. Much as pain, suffering, and evil give us a clue that there is a such as thing as right and wrong, a law, and a lawgiver, beauty points us to something that is greater than itself. For Beauty, while itself fragile and fleeting, speaks of something that is permanent, that will not be worn away through time. Lovers whisper to each other their undying love; the purple mountains that sit silently in the horizon attest to the immemorial past; the vast endless stretch of oceans and the waves roll on indeterminably. Beauty demands permanence but by itself it cannot hold its form.  Beauty suggests of something that is transcendent that Beauty itself is merely imitating.  We are, then, pointed to something outside Beauty that is everlasting.

While Beauty itself gives us this vague clue, the Gospel message gives us a clearer picture. A God who was infinite, who was not subject to impermanence, took on this fragile form. But because he was fully god and fully man, he was able to fully bridge the gap between this material world that is wasting away and the immaterial world that will last forever. The gap is fully bridged – and perhaps the old myth-makers were driven to invent genealogies of half-gods with the same impulse to somehow bridge that realm of impermanence to our decaying world. But the myth-makers could not imagine that this vast chasm could be bridged in a single blow, by a single being, of a god who would indignify himself and stoop so low. And this incarnation shows us that Beauty never pointed to itself but to him. We believed his message because his message was internally consistent; he himself did not point to himself, but to the Father. Beauty is inherently other-centered; so was he. And while for a moment it looked like he succumbed to inexistence, to death, just like the rest of creation, just like Beauty, it was not so. His resurrection demonstrated concretely that there will be ultimate renewal, that every joyful and beautiful experiences you’ve ever had matters because they are shadows of things to come, that every painful and sorrowful moments in your life matters because they point to an age when they will be no more. And so through the coming, the dying, and the rising, we can make sense of all our experiences and our lives.

What room is there for despair?