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First Thoughts Blog

Author: Chris Phillips, Director of Worship

The Most Important Instrument

What do you think the most important musical instrument is for our worship services? Does the answer depend upon which of our three services you attend? Can we say we have worshipped “contemporary-ish-ly” if we do not use drums? Or the electric bass? Surely the power of the pipe organ is required for the hymns. Perhaps it all hinges on the magnificent voice of your amazing worship director. (Haha! Saints preserve us! If that is the case, we are all in serious trouble.)
What is the most important musical instrument in our worship services?
It is the congregation.
That’s right. The most important musical instrument in the weekly gathered worship of our God is your voice in combination with other voices. No one can replace you. None can sing for you. Singing is one way that every individual actively fulfills the call to be a member of the holy priesthood. Our singing is one way we offer spiritual sacrifices to God and encourage one another (1 Peter 2: 4-5).
Now we at First Presbyterian are blessed with the incredible, talented, and beautiful support of instrumentalists and vocalists. Their enrichment of our musical worship takes my breath away. So often being on the platform during the beautiful music-making offers me the best seat in the house. 
But let me it put boldly. We could worship musically without the help of a single instrument and without any vocal leadership on the platform. However, we could not say that we had biblically worshiped if the gathered Elect had not sung. 
Now I know, Beloved, that you may feel awkward when you sing. You may not be ready to audition for the next season of “The Voice.” That is just fine. Whether or not you think you can sing well matters nothing at all. Truly. The quality and affection that God is looking for in worship comes from the heart (Ephesians 5: 19 & Colossians 3: 16).
So, would you have courage and take the risk of singing out loud in gathered worship?  Start softly if you must but do not be silent. We will not have the option to be silent on the Great Day. There is much we do not know about our future glory. One thing for certain, however, is that when we are gathered around the throne with every tribe, nation, people, and tongue we will be singing to God and to the Lamb (Revelation 5).
May as well get in lots of practice now!


Music Is Evocative

Victor Hugo once wrote: “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
Every culture, past or present, has expressed itself musically. There are no exceptions. Music is a powerful cultural force. The anecdotal experiences of individuals anywhere in the world testify to it. Neuroscience validates it. Music activates places in us that might remain inactive otherwise—places where ideas, emotions and truths dwell.
Sometimes, when we make music in the Lord’s house, an interesting dilemma presents itself. It is an ancient dilemma. Early in the 5th century, Augustine wrote in The Confessions: 
. . . I realize that when they are sung these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervor and kindle in me a more ardent form of piety than they would if they were not sung; and I also know that there are particular modes in song and the voice, corresponding to my various emotions and able to stimulate them because of some mysterious relationship between the two. But I ought not to allow my mind to be paralyzed by the gratification of my senses, which often leads it astray. For the senses are not content to take second place. . . . (Book 10, Chapter 33, The Confessions)
During moments of musical worship, Augustine sometimes wondered if the beautiful music was moving him rather than the truths the music was conveying. I think it is good to give this some thought. Now, the point is not that we should try to avoid enjoying the beauty of music or being moved by it. Music, by God’s design, is evocative. 
The issue is a matter of sequence and motivation. So, when we come together, dear church, let us not wait for the swelling wave of the music to move us. Rather, let us make the waves by singing Truth—combining words, melodies, voices and instruments in ways that reverberate with eternal significance. Rest assured this will deeply gratify. Will always be beautiful.
When we gather as God’s people we do so as a royal priesthood. We meet to do the work of worship. Cues are given from the pulpit to the pew. But we all are tasked with sending the various offerings of worship upward to the throne room of the Most High. We harness the power of music as one way of doing the work of worship. It has been so since the days Moses led Israel through the Red Sea (Exodus 15). And according to John’s visions in Revelation 4, 5 and 7, it will remain so throughout all eternity. 

You Are My Tribe; My Ministry

I am fairly certain I had never uttered the phrase “social distancing” before all of this began. I was just starting to get to know you. Then we were literally forbidden to visit with one another. As we pivoted to livestream worship, I found myself peering into the camera each Sunday with such a desire to connect to you that it probably sometimes looked like fidgety energy. I know you are accustomed to seeing me less animated and more subdued. (Ha!) 
The realities of a global pandemic were not on my calendar as I anticipated my first Lent and Easter season with you here at First Presbyterian. Despite having been warned about the donkey, I was anticipating the grandeur and celebration of Palm Sunday. I wanted to experience Maundy Thursday with its darkness and striking visuals. I wanted to see who wore fancy hats for Easter Sunday. Gerrit would say, “He is risen!” and we would say, “He is risen indeed!” 
The realities of the Lenten and Easter seasons were a different and strange story. Yet even in all this strangeness and interruption, something wonderful has come into clear focus for me. 
I believe that our God, in his gracious sovereignty, has brought me here. I needed you. You are my tribe. My people. It is hard to fully explain. My time in ministry here has not been long. There is surely much we will learn and walk through with one another in the coming years. But my dear brothers and sisters, you have my heart. It is my deep honor to serve you. There is a satisfying ‘click’ in my spirit. It is the click of a good, solid fit. 
We have returned now to gathered worship in our beautiful Sanctuary. While it is not the grand and massive reunion I imagined, seeing your masked faces brings me joy. Thank you! Thank you for welcoming me into this wonderful faith family. Thank you for entrusting me to lead you in giving glory to our most worthy Lord. Thank you for joining your voices with mine to sing the deep truths of the faith.

The Expression of Truth Through Art

As a musician I often think about beauty and the expression of truth through art. If we use the most puritanical lens, beauty could be seen as a distraction-maybe even a temptation. Do we really need form as long as we have function? Aren’t frills frivolous?
Since her time hiding in the Roman catacombs, the church has struggled to define her relationship to beauty. Augustine worried about being seduced by the artistry of the singer rather than the sublime truth of the text being sung. At times, the church has adorned her sanctuaries with painting, sculpture and iconography. At other times, she has abandoned this adornment, shattering stained glass and choosing white walls over detailed murals.
For me, many answers to questions about beauty can be found in the existence of a tiny little critter called the peacock spider. The peacock spider will fit on the tip of your finger with room to spare. You could easily miss him. You may have squashed him. If you get really close, however, you will see a work of art. These tiny arachnids carry on their backs paintings worthy of wall space in a fine gallery. Do an image search in your web browser and discover the delights of the peacock spider’s plumage. 
The existence of the peacock spider tells us something about the nature of our God. He made a cosmos that is extravagantly, unnecessarily beautiful. Creation is as much a canvas as it is a construction. God designed a sturdy creation that functions well. He also made something gorgeous. As creatures, we must praise such a Creator. We can delight in his stunning artistry. We can celebrate our individuality. 

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
    who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
    may the whole earth be filled with his glory!
Amen and Amen! 

Psalm 72: 18-19


Sing Aloud His Righteousness!

We have only been with you for a few weeks. Yet, we already feel like part of this wonderful Church. The friendly handshakes and “Welcome to First Presbyterian!” introductions are appreciated. I believe that the Lord in his gracious, sovereign providence has brought us together. I am asking the Lord to build his Kingdom through us. I look forward to leading you to “pour forth the fame of God’s abundant goodness and sing aloud of his righteousness” (Psalm 145: 7).