From Russia with Love: a music review

Sacred-Songs-of-RussiaSergei Rachmaninoff’s All-night vigil was not Gloræ Dei Cantores first Russian voyage. In 1990 the release of Sacred Songs of Russia showcased the liturgical and sacred music inspired by the Russian Orthodox church

They perform nineteen choral pieces from composers: Alexander Kastalsky, Pavel Chesnokov, Vasily Titov, d. Bortnainsky, Mikhail Glinka, Peter Tchaikivsky, Stepan Smolensky, Alexander Arkhangel’sky, Nikolai Kedrov and Rachmaninoff.

This is a diverse collection, many of these pieces composed for a liturgical setting, though Sviridov’s three choruses were composed for a play, and several pieces were created for the Russian Imperial court. Stylistically there is some rage, there are liturgical call and responses with a baritone deacon and choral response, there are unison chants, contrapuntal and harmonic forms, as well as the incorporation of Russian folk melodies.

This is a hauntingly beautiful collection. The first time I listened I put it on as background music, a soundtrack for my working life and once, only once while my son was napping. However, the Russian melodies and liturgical call demanded attention. It is dynamic with climatic elements. This is the sort of recording which is best if you put everything aside and just take it in. —★★★★★

Gloriæ Dei Cantores  (Singers to the Glory of God), of the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts, has an impressive repertoire ranging from Americana to Gregorian Chant, both contemporary masterworks, and the classics. Their newest recording, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, Opus 37 is produced by Richard Pugsley (their director) and conducted by Peter Jermihov, a specialist in Russian and Orthodox liturgical music. For this recording, they are joined by members of three other choral ensembles: St. Romanos Cappella, The Patriarch Tikhon Choir and the Washington Master Chorale. The seventy-seven singer ensemble also includes soloists Dmitry Ivanchenk and Mariya Berezovska from the National Opera of Ukraine and Vadim Gan, protodeacon under the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox church.

The fifteen songs of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 37 are fifteen movements to prayer (these works are sometimes Identified as Vespers, but this only the first few songs. The whole collection is richer). In ten songs Rachmaninoff blends the Greek, Kievan and the Great Znamenny chant (from linear notes) He blends this with singable melodies, symphonic elements, and climactic flourishes. Rachmaninoff was not a regular church goer but this is profoundly Christian work, stamped by the spirituality of the Russian Christian East.

Gloriæ Dei Cantores, Jermihov, and the joint choir labored to be true to Rachmaninoff’s vision, inhabiting the sacred space he provides—devout and liturgical, neither theatrical or unresponsive.

I am no expert in Russian composers or choral music in general, I only know what I like. This is well executed and beautiful. I  already appreciate Gloriæ Dei Cantores fine recordings but this is amazing and definitely one of my favorites. —★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this music from Paraclete Recordings in exchange for my honest review

L is for Litany (an alphabet for penitents)

lit·a·ny [ˈlitnē]

    1. a series of petitions for use in church services or processions, usually recited by the clergy and responded to in a recurring formula by the people.

    2. a tedious recital or repetitive series: “a litany of complaints” (Source- Oxford Living Dictionaries via Bing)

 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. (Ephesians 6:18)

‘Tis the season for a tedious recital of complaints. Like Advent, the season before Christmas, Lent is a preparatory season—a season of waiting. We are nearing the midpoint and dreaming of the comforts we cast aside for our lenten journies. We want chocolate, we want sweets, we need coffee and a nice cut of meat. We want to binge watch Netflix and drink red wine and post cat memes on our friend’s timelines. We complain, “How long O Lord?” as we look forward to Resurrection (or just a return to normal life).

But we don’t just complain about our own discomfort. As we have used this Lenten season to shake our souls out of complacency  and followed Jesus on the way of the cross, we are becoming sensitized to the suffering of the world: children with absent fathers, the single mom struggling to make ends meet, a global church being martyred for their belief, people of color enduring violence, discrimination and incarceration from unjust systems, the elderly neighbor living alone, our friends gripped by grief, those suffering pain of chronic illness, the anxious and depressed, and the hurting and the dying. We should have compassion at all times, but our Lenten practice allows us to stretch our empathy and see the world beyond the comforts we use to distract our souls.

Christian worship often includes litanies. Liturgical traditions (such as Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, or the Orthodoxy) incorporate itemized prayer lists into their Sunday liturgies, often with congregational responses: Lord have mercy. Have mercy on us. Spare us, Good Lord. O Lord, deliver us. We beseech you O Lord.  Less “high church” churches, still have a place for a pastoral prayer, or ‘prayers of the people,’ which do in essence what these formal litanies do.

The line items of a litany get us to pray specifically about the needs around us in our struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. We pray for deliverance from personal sin and systemic evil. We pray for the poor, oppressed and marginalized, and for the success and wisdom of national leaders, we pray for the healing for the infirmed and the global church. We pray those who are serving Christ and that the world would long to know Him. We name every area of contemporary life in hopes of seeing God’s Kingdom break more fully into this present age.

I thought of posting a litany here, but there are tons of Lenten litanies online. For example, check out Christine Sine’s Morning Litany for Lent.  I will close this post by just saying don’t waste your seasonal discomfort and newfound empathy on personal complaints. Find some way to systematically pray for the needs of the world, preferably with a worshipping community. Keep on praying in the Spirit at all times with all kinds of prayers and requests. Certainly litanies can become dead rote, but with our hearts sensitized to the suffering of the world, it is a way to share both in the pain of others and in the Spirit’s life. Communal intercession reminds us that the Spiritual journey is not just a private affair. Always keep praying for all the Lord’s people. 


A Litany for Father’s Day

A few years ago I posted a litany for Mother’s Day here as an offering for those who found that day hard.  I didn’t  post a prayer for Father’s Day. For me this has always been a good day.  Since I’ve been a pastor, I have stepped into the pain of others who have profound difficulty with their dads.  I offer this prayer up for anyone who finds today hard and struggles to connect with the God Jesus called Abba.


Holy One reigning in heaven and on the earth, Your will be done.

Have mercy on us.

Some of us do not know dads. We know abandonment, fear and insecurity. We feel our fathers’ absence in our lives. We can’t imagine what their presence might mean.

Lord have mercy on us.

Some of us are wounded, hurt by a man who should have protected us and provided for us. We’ve been abused and broken and so have steeled our hearts against pain and unlove. We’ve grown numb to tenderness. Our hearts rage.

Lord have mercy on us.

Some of us long for approval, to hear our dad say I love you.  We’ve struggled to earn his love and his respect.

Lord have mercy on us.

Others of us are the fathers who failed: failed to love, to nurture, to protect, and to care for our kids. We carry wounds, and we have wounded.

Have mercy on us.

Prodigal Father be Our Father.

Hold us safe and welcome us back when we wander.

Show us Your strength and mercy,

Your just love and tender care.

Heavenly Father father us and re-make us like You:

a loving father who nurtures and protects,

a dad who loves and provides refuge

a papa who hurts with the hurting—

bringing courage and peace.

Lord have Mercy. Amen.



Call to Worship based on Genesis 37

For church this Sunday, I wore my Worship Leader hat. Our pastor just started a series on Joseph. It struck me that Joseph is the patron saint of anyone who has ever felt called and chosen and then wondered how, or if these dreams could ever come to pass. As a child Joseph was given dreams by God which signaled a special destiny for him, but then his brothers faked his death, sold him into slavery and for years things went from bad to worse for him. Yet underneath and behind it all, God was in control using even the missteps of others to accomplish His purposes. I wrote this call to worship which roughly follows the arc of the Joseph story.  Like him, we also have cause to pray, “How Long?” Like him, we also have reason to trust in the Lord:


L: We gather with thanksgiving for all You have given us.

P: We thank You for the gift of new life–the joy of our salvation–

and the dreams birthed by the Spirit of Your Kingdom life.

We are grateful for Your presence, Your guidance and Your love.

We press forward into our destiny in You.

L: But Lord, we also come as anxious, broken people. We are battered by circumstance and feel disconnected from others.

P: Our bodies ache, disease casts it shadow over our lives.  We’ve tasted betrayal from those who are close to us.

L: Our hearts are sick at hopes-deferred. We wonder when or if

these dreams will come to fruition. 

There are days when our only prayer is: How long, O Lord?

P: How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever?

L: Still We wait for You, the Living God.

All: Gather us together confident of your great faithfulness.

These dreams and visions  of the Kingdom, birthed  in us by the Spirit

are secure in You.

We walk by faith and not by sight.

Despite brokenness



And doubt.

L: We gather with thanksgiving for all that you have given. May we live secure in the knowledge that You will complete Your good work in us.

All: Amen

Story-Shaped Worship: a book review

Who doesn’t love a good story?  And we got one! Greatest story ever told!  But how does the Bible’s story ‘shape’ our worship?  This is a question I am deeply invested in and I am grateful for Story Shaped Worship: Following Patterns from the Bible and History for exploring the biblical story with an eye for what it tells us about how we worship God. I have reviewed Castleman’s previous volume, Parenting in the Pew and found it helpful. In that book, Castleman has her ‘parent’ hat on as she talks about how children are formed in worship. In this book, she wears her scholar hat and presents a thoroughly researched look at worship in the Bible (with a couple of historical vignettes). Castleman teaches biblical studies and theology at John Brown University  and has served on staff with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (my first exposure to her was at Urbana ’96).

Castleman proposes a canonical-theological approach to liturgical studies. By attending to the biblical story, she is countering trends in some contemporary contexts where the worship experience has been commodified. Castleman writes:

There is no question that the often historically anemic ecclesiology of some Christian congregations  has often resulted in Sunday morning programs that are focused on the subjective experience of the individual rather than true worship that is mediated by and focused on the blessing of the triune God of grace. The necessity of worship as a service mediated by the Spirit, through the Son and for the Father is often lost in the pragmatism of the commodified liturgies of many services of worship. Sunday mornings too often have become storefront windows designed to attract  and keep shoppers in the store in order to buy congregational programs. The grace of the Word and Sacrament have been sacrificed on the altar of a subtle self-help theology which actually seeks to control the divine encounter with the ultimate intention of feeling at least a little bit better about oneself and life circumstances (20).

Castleman counters the ‘personal therapeutic approach’ by rooting her vision of worship in the biblical story. She is also informed in her quest by the Church’s theological reflection on the nature of the sacraments. In the pages that follow, Castleman unfolds what the Bible tells us about worship (chapters 1-7) and examines some historic patterns from the life of the church (chapters 8-10). At the end of the chapter are ‘workshops’ which enable readers to delve deeper into the theology of each chapter with an eye towards how the Bible and theology can inform (and form) our practice of worship.

In chapter one she explores the first four chapters of Genesis and examines what they tell us about God’s character. The story of Cain and Abel illustrate the first ever ‘worship war.’ Abel understood that worship was all about God and brought his best whereas Cain’s offering (and angry reaction when it was rejected) evidences a preoccupation with himself (29). Also within these ‘texts of origins’ we hear foreshadowing of future redemption and get a sense that ‘worship is a response to God’s grace and favor(38).

Chapter two unfolds the meaning of Sabbath and the particularity of the worship of Yahweh in the Pentateuch.  Worshiping God meant for Israel (and for us) that they worship Him only.  There were certain practices excluded from their worship (i.e. divination, sooth-saying, making idols, etc.) and there were certain practices commended (i.e. the celebration of passover, sacrifices, holy days like the Day of Atonement, and sabbath keeping). While the pentateuch pattern cannot be completely mapped out on our experience, many of the characteristics of worship remain significant.  Like the Ancient Israelites we are called to worship God exclusively,  keep Sabbath (though we’ve shifted it to ‘the Lord’s day), and worship-through-reenactment (i.e. the ancient Israelites had passover and sacrifices, we reenact Jesus’s sacrifice through communion) (57-58).

Biblical worship does more than sanctify time, it also creates sacred space. In the building of the Tabernacle, people,  buildings and rooms, and objects were set aside for sacred purposes. In our age, the distinction between the sacred and the profane is obscured but we can learn from the Biblical story to  drawn into God’s presence with expectancy and preparedness.  Going to church on a Sunday morning is to go and meet God. Castleman urges that we see this as ‘holy ground’ and make the necessary preparations for divine encounter.

In chapter four, Castleman describes the ‘shape of biblical worship.’ She describes seven-fold sequence of biblical liturgy call–>praise–>confession–>forgiveness–>hearing God’s word–>responding to God’s word–>blessing. This is a rich chapter and I believe has something to say to those of us in a ‘free church’ context about how we are to fashion our liturgies.

Chapter five discusses the importance of attending to scripture in our worship and the ‘dangerous ambiguity’ when we use worship for our own ends. By examining the story of David bringing the Ark to Jerusalem and Uzzah’s death (2 Sam. 6), Castleman argues that David first tried to use the ark (and worship of Yahweh) to reinforce his reign and how Uzzah’s carelessness reveals an inattention to biblical instructions concerning the Ark. Uzzah’s death called into question David’s motives and purified his worship of God.  Chapter six explores the nature of holiness and how it relates to worship. The God of the Bible is the holy God and those who worship him in Spirit and Truth are called to be like Him. As we worship this God, we allow ourselves to be transformed into His likeness. Chapter seven explores how worship in the synagogues informed the practices of the early church.

The final three chapters form a ‘part two’ and look at historic and contemporary patterns of worship. Castleman explores three different eras: the early church, the Reformation response to late medieval corruption of worship, and our contemporary context. Certainly there is a lot of church history that is overlooked in her account and more that could be said, but her historic vignettes are instructive. By exploring the early church (especially in the Didache) and describing the theology of the Reformers, Castleman challenges us to have a more robust theology of the sacraments. She also urges more purposeful liturgical practices informed by the Bible and theology.

This is a great book for anyone interested in worship. Certainly it will be instructive for anyone who has a hand in planning weekly liturgies (i.e. pastors, worship leaders, etc.) but Castleman’s writing will be accessible to lay readers as well.  These pages will help us recover the biblical shape for our worship. Maybe our current congregations are not as anemic as the ones that Castleman describes (mine is not!). But the therapeutic-consumerist approach to worship has infected us all and we all will benefit from delving deeper into what the Bible tells us about the worship of the one true God. I highly recommend this! My one criticism is that her historic examples (early church and Reformation) makes this a peculiarly protestant book,  while many of her insights have a broader eccumenical appeal.  I give it ★★★★½

Thank you to IVP Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Confirmation Book: a book review.

The church I grew up in did not practice confirmation.  The sacraments that we celebrated were two: Communion and Baptism and not everyone called these sacraments. The way we practiced Baptism was that when people were old enough to follow Christ in obedience, they signified this by getting Baptized. We called it ‘Believers’ Baptism.’ Thus when some of my Catholic friends were getting confirmed, I got dunked.  As an adult I attend a denomination which does practice infant Baptism and Confirmation (as well as ‘Believers’ Baptism’) but still the rite of confirmation is something I never experienced personally. Yet I appreciate how this rite helps young people deepen their Baptismal vows.

When I sat down to read Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle’s My Confirmation Book, in a very real way, I read this book as an outsider. O’Boyle is a popular Catholic author and a television host on EWTN. I am a low-church protestant.  She wrote this book to help young Catholics to grow in their faith.  While I share a love for helping others mature in their faith and deepen their life commitment to God, her experience is different from my own, and her religious idiom is also different.

But then we aren’t that different.  I did go through ‘confirmation.’ For ‘believers’ baptists’ and adult converts, confirmation and baptism are all one rite.  I have experienced liturgically the moment when I had solidified my commitment to Christ and celebrated the gift of the Spirit in my life. While those who practice infant Baptism experience confirmation as a deepening of our baptismal identity, I confirmed the truth of Christ’s work in my life by entering baptismal waters.

I  appreciated the advice that O’Boyle dispenses to young Catholics. In my own religious heritage, we would emphasize growing in Biblical understanding through daily Bible reading. We would also talk about being involved in God’s mission (acts of service and evangelism). In nine pithy chapters, O’Boyle encourages the newly confirmed to enter deeper into what it means to be Catholic. By affirming their baptismal identity through Confirmation, young Catholics understand that they are ‘members of the Church.’ Through the gift of the Spirit they grow in wisdom and understanding, experience God’s counsel, grow in fortitude and piety,  have reverence for God and are empowered for mission.  The sacrament of confirmation underscores the reality that the Christian life is a Spirit led, Spirit empowered life.

But O’Boyle also lays emphasis on the prayer. Each of the short chapters closes with a small challenge and a prayer to enter deeper into union with God. These are brief and aimed at those who are young in their faith. They are not the prayers of the great mystics of the Church, but they commend an attentiveness to God in all things.   The reflections are designed for young people (I would guess 12-15). Depending on the age or maturity of the confirmand, some of these reflections are a little too youthful. But for the most part I think that high-school-age-Catholics will benefit from this book.

I am and remain a protestant Christian, but I appreciate the depth and thoughtfulness of this book and what confirmation wroughts in young Catholic believers. I heartily commend this resource as a gift book if you know a young person who is getting confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church. Much of what is said here is applicable to other ecclesial communities but it is written directly for a Catholic context, so will be most appreciated by fellow Catholics.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

. . .And Hearing by the Word of God: a book review

I love hearing the Bible read aloud in my worship service. It is a powerful experience. Unfortunately the scripture reading can be the low point in many  services. In many contexts  when the scripture reader stands up to read, eyes glaze over all over the congregation. The living and active Word obscured by a bad reading.

Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture: The Transforming Power of the Well-Spoken Word by Jeffrey D. Arthurs

Jeffrey Arthurs wrote Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture to increase the quantity and quality of scripture reading in church services (11). As professor of Preaching and Communcation and the Chair of  Practical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Arthurs is invested in helping ministers communicate the gospel. Yet this is not a book written exclusively for clergy. Anyone who is involved in the ministry of public reading will benefit from this book.

Borrowing the phrase ‘Eat this book’ from Eugene Peterson (who stole it from Ezekiel), Arthurs whets the appetite and discusses how public  readers can set the stage for a congregational feast on the Word. Seven chapters explore the eating/feasting metaphor. The first three chapters lay the groundwork  while the last four chapters  explore the dynamics of effective public reading.

In chapter one,  he ‘builds the appetite’ by making the biblical and theological case for reading the Bible in public.  In chapter two, Arthurs ‘sets the table’ by discussing what a reader of scripture does and does not  do and the necessity of spiritual, emotional and mental preparation. Chapter three talks about ‘inviting the guests,’ that is, creating a culture which values the public reading of scripture.

Chapters four and five talk about ‘serving the meal’ and the dynamics of effective communication. Chapter four focuses on nonverbal communication (i.e. distracting mannerisms, gestures and body language, posture, facial expressions). Chapter five examines the dynamics of verbal communication (projection, phrasing, pauses, pace,  pitch and punch).  In the final two chapters, Arthurs discusses creative methods  by ‘adding some spice.’ Chapter six  gives suggestions for solo readers and churches seeking to develop their public reading ministry.  Chapter seven discusses using a team of readers.

The book closes with  sample scripts which demonstrate the dynamics of public reading, and group readings. Additionally, the book comes with an accompanying DVD where Arthurs demonstrates visually what the book says about verbal and non-verbal communication and some examples.

Arthurs field makes him attuned to the dynamics of communication and he emphasizes that in the text and DVD. He recommends paying attention to bad habits and communicating with body language, diction and a good delivery.  I think a lot of the suggestions he makes are really helpful and I like the book enough to give it 5 stars; however some of the most powerful readings of scripture I’ve  heard were technically flawed. When someone opens up their Bible and reads a passage that is meaningful to them something special happens. They’ve taken the time to internalize it and the Word is not merely in their mouth but in their heart. This is real power. Arthurs alludes to this in chapter two when he talks about the reader preparing themselves spiritually but I would lay a stronger emphasis on living with the Word we speak.

But I didn’t write this book and I find it helpful, sound and informative. I would recommend this book to anyone entering the ministry of public reading or for those who would like to hone their skills at it. I am passionate about public Bible reading and Arthurs is a good guide as to how to do it well. ★★★★★

Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book through their Academic and Ministry blog review program in exchange for my honest review.

Question for Discussion: How does your church practice the public reading of scripture?