Archive for November, 2011

Jan Brueghel the Elder, John the Baptist preaching

Image via Wikipedia

Here is an Advent sermon about what repentance looks like, and in particular, what repentance looks like in a church setting.

Get Out of the Way of the Lord!

A Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-5 and Mark 1:1-8, Second Sunday of Advent—Year B

God was on the move into the future, the prophet Isaiah declared.  And the people of God needed to get ready to go with God.  But on the road to the future, the obstacles in the literal wilderness weren’t the only obstacles that God would have to overcome.  God would have to overcome the obstacles in the people’s hearts.  What was in God’s way?  Try stubbornly held beliefs, attitudes, fears, and just plain old habits.  Try exhaustion.

Sometimes people don’t want to take the risk of hope.  Why get their hopes up?  I can hear them right now raising objections to Isaiah’s vision of a new journey to the Promised Land:  “Isaiah, this is too far-fetched.  What if we fail?  Isaiah, we don’t want to get disappointed again.  No, thank you.”

Somewhere in the back of their minds they knew that if God wasn’t through with them, then God could still ask, expect, even demand something from them, something that would cost them.  Daring to hope opens you up to pain all over again.  You might have to drink the cup of suffering.

Some of the exiles found comfortable lives in Babylon.  Why put that at risk?  Others wanted to go home, but were afraid to make the journey.

To get the exiles moving, God had many obstacles to overcome.  “Prepare the way of the Lord,” Isaiah cried.  “Cut a road!  Open out a way!  Make room for God!  Push over the mountains!  Raise up the valleys!  Smooth out the rough places!”  And that includes those in your hearts.  To put it bluntly, prepare the way of the Lord also means get out of the way of the Lord.  Get out of the way and let God lead.  Set aside whatever gets in God’s way and let God have God’s own way.

It was a lesson that God’s people had to learn again and again.  Even the great apostles Peter and Paul had to learn to get out of God’s way.  (more…)


Read Full Post »

Compact Disc

Image via Wikipedia

In an earlier post I evaluated a free online source of mp3 files called smallchurchmusic.com.  You can read that post here.

Here are three sources of hymn accompaniments on CD:

1. Pfeiffer House Music offers 300 traditional hymns in a collection called Hymns for Church.   You can purchase it in two volumes of six CDs each, or download them as mp3 files.  The CD version costs $39.96 for each of the two volumes, and the downloads cost $30.00 for each volume.  All the accompaniments are simple (electronic) piano played at an easy tempo.  I listened to several samples on the site, and they sound quite useful for congregational singing.  Each hymn starts with the last line as an introduction, and then several verses are played.

Hymnal booklets are available for shipping to purchasers for $15.00, and the same material in downloadable pdf format is available for $5.00.  You can choose music and words together, or words only in large print.  Pfeiffer house also carries files of the words for projection onto a screen.  Free shipping and discounts are available when both volumes of CDs are purchased together.

2. The Hymn Project offers 200 hymns on seven CDs for $99.00.  The hymns are played straight from the hymnbook on piano.  On my computer, the piano on these accompaniments sounded richer than those on Hymns for the Church (above).  My guess is that they are played on an acoustic piano, and I prefer that to the sound  of an electronic piano.  The hymn list is very similar to that of the other collection.  The site includes resources, such as a tutorial for using these CDs with iTunes on a computer and transferring them to a portable device such as an iPod.  You can listen to sample music continuously as you browse the site.  I can connect you with a lay pastor who has used these.

3. The third–and by far the most expensive–option is the CD Hymnal which offers 250 hymns on a set of ten CDs.  The arrangements are orchestrated and more complex than those of options 1 and 2.  You can hear a variety of instrumental sounds.  They are enjoyable to listen to, but they might overwhelm a small congregation for singing.   Samples play as you browse the site.  The set comes with a book of words and a Powerpoint Presentation CD.  You can also order these individually, and a sampler CD is available.  This set includes some contemporary selections that are not available in the other two collections, such as “Great is the Lord,” “Majesty,” and “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.”  Disc Ten is all Advent, Christmas and Epiphany music.  You can order from the publisher.  The price on the site is $299.00 plus shipping/handling.  Cokesbury offers this set for $239.99, but was listed as out of stock on November 28, 2011.

For most small church situations I would recommend option 1 or 2.  However, if you want an orchestrated sound and can afford it, you could go with option 3.


For more small church music resources, see this post on hymnpod.com and this one on smallchurchmusic.com.

Read Full Post »

basket lid

Image by Dunbar Gardens via Flickr

I appreciate the writings of Christian author Brian McLaren.  In a recent column entitled “The Church and the Solution,” he describes what he saw on a recent Sunday at his home church:

“The music was good, as usual, and the sermon was thought-provoking and inspiring, as usual. The prayers were solid and meaningful, as usual, and the people were warm and welcoming, as usual. What stood out for me was the family seated next to me, a dad, a mom, a daughter, and a son whom I didn’t recognize. Based on the boy’s movements and the attentions given him by his mother and sister, the son seemed to have some form of autism, maybe Asperger’s syndrome.

His foot and leg were bouncing almost constantly, calming only momentarily when his mother gently touched his knee, which she did every five or ten minutes. Before and after communion, he crossed himself repeatedly. He sang with more enthusiasm than musical ability, but if one must choose, that’s the one to have.

The moment that really touched me came at the offering.

He didn’t have money, but when I handed him the basket, he bowed toward it. At first I thought he was reverencing the basket as if it were an icon or some other holy thing. But then he leaned forward even more, placing the basket on his knees and nearly touching his forehead into the checks, bills, and envelopes inside. His family didn’t intervene, as if this were his normal routine. Then he sat up again and handed the basket to his mother.

Suddenly, it dawned upon me: he was putting himself in the offering basket, diving in head-first, if you will. And this must be what he does every week, his own self-made ritual.

And at that moment, I was awash in a baptism of grace.”

And a little child shall lead them.

Read Full Post »

PianoMusic is often a struggle for smaller congregations.  What can you do if there’s no one who can play an instrument?  Here is one solution: smallchurchmusic.com.  This is a huge website with thousands of downloadable mp3 files.  Music that is in the public domain is free.  Copyrighted music requires a very small copyright fee.  (Note that reproducing words and music for your bulletin or screen requires a separate copyright license such as CCLI.)

Here’s how it works: you download the music you need to your computer.  Then you can put it on a device such as an iPod and play the music through speakers.  If you are a tiny church that meets in someone’s home, for example, you can simply dock the iPod in a home stereo system.

Just about every hymn you might need for traditional worship is available on this site, along with more contemporary selections such as “Shout to the Lord,” “Because He Lives,”Lord, I Lift Your Name on High,” and “Here I Am, Lord.”  Pdf files of the music and lyrics are available for download, and in some cases, you can download a file to use to project the lyrics up on a screen, complete with beautiful background.  Also available are mp3 files of classic pieces you can use for weddings, such as Jeremiah Clarke’s “Trumpet Voluntary.”

Most are available in multiple formats: pipe organ, piano, small band, MIDI.  Some also are available with soloists or choir.  When you click on a hymn title, all the available formats come up, and you can click to hear short samples of each.  (Click on the titles above for samples.)  You can also see how many verses of the hymn are played in the file.  I was impressed with the sound of the instrumental accompaniments.  The tempo is steady and meant to help prevent dragging.  Fear not, though, if the tempo isn’t right for you, or you need a different number of verses.  Software is available that you can use to edit your mp3 files.  There is a page on the site with information about this.  (I also know someone who knows how to do this.  Contact me for more information.  See also WavePad Audio Editing Software.)

Most of the soloists did not impress me, but the choir selections sounded good.  This choir resembles the choirs I remember hearing on the radio when I was a child.  Your congregation could easily sing along.  The choir selections come from an organization called the Center for Church Music, which has its own website.  (Click here to listen to “Come, Christians, Join to Sing.”)  Besides listening to the hymns that the CFCM has produced, you can learn more about each hymn, view pdf files of the music and lyrics and read suggestions for a devotional based on the hymn.

Smallchurchmusic.com is a labor of love and gift to small churches around the world from Clyde McLennan, a musician and Baptist pastor from Perth, Australia.  He served small churches as both pastor and musician, and he supported himself by working as a computer software specialist.  He is now retired, but he continues to update his site.  Thank you so very much, Mr. McLennan!


For more small church music resources, see this post on hymnpod.com and this one on several CD resources.

Read Full Post »

Farming is such a noble and essential calling, serving the wellbeing of the planet and its inhabitants.  It is often painful to be a farmer these days.  You can steward the land and water well, take good care of God’s creatures, and, with God’s help, produce abundantly–and still be in danger of going under because prices are so low.  Many factors contribute to the struggle.  Whether it’s debt, or problems finding dependable labor, or pressure from neighbors who don’t understand what farming is all about, or something else, farming is tough.

I came across the National Catholic Rural Life Conference website, and I discovered this prayer and more there:

Prayer for Farm Families in Crisis

O God, they call it “farm crisis!”

Our costs are up and prices for our produce down.

The loan is due and there’s no money to buy this year’s


We feel alone, embarrassed in our need, like failures in our

efforts to farm.

The harder we work, the worse it seems to get.

There’s no laughter or joy anymore, just a constant

struggle to believe, to hope and to keep trying.

Strengthen us, God.

Keep us gentle and yet firm, generous yet open to receive.

Let us see your face in those who want to help and don’t

know how.

Grant us perseverance and openness to your will.

Hold our family close as we do our best to know and act

according to your will in the days ahead.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.


Please remember to pray for our farmers!

Read Full Post »

Relationships are primary in small congregations.  Those of us who have experienced the blessings of life together in a small church often ask how other people get along without the close relationships that we cherish.  It turns out that healthy peer relationships are key for changing human behavior in general and for solving problems that seem intractable.  Recently I read an important book entitled Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.  Author Tina Rosenberg tells stories drawn from across the world and from across domains: medical, social, political and spiritual.  She shows how positive peer power can help people practice healthier life habits and follow medical regimens, develop sources of income, leave gangs and terrorist cells, bring down dictators—Slobodan Milosevic in this case—and help people draw closer to God.

Rosenberg includes a lengthy chapter chronicling the struggle of a megachurch, Willow Creek, to create true community in small groups where people actually are a part of one another’s everyday lives, encouraging each other to go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  The results have been mixed.  The author describes in detail one of Willow Creek’s successful groups, which is really a minichurch inside the megachurch.  I found myself having a new compassion for large churches, who have to work so hard to develop what comes naturally in a healthy small congregation.

In the small churches I’ve been a part of, I’ve seen the positive difference good relationships can make.  It was inspiring to read so many preachable examples of the power of community in Join the Club.  It’s a very long book, so you may not have time to read it.  Just keep it in mind for future reference.

Meanwhile, this book reminds us to look at our own communities.  Are we drawing closer to God and maturing as disciples?  Are we influencing one another in a positive way?  And are we turning outward to form community with others?  Join the Club is food for thought as we discern how to do that.

Read Full Post »

Thanks be to God for all the saints!  As we remember those who rest from their labors and those we miss so very much, here is a song to listen to.  It’s by Carrie Newcomer, a Quaker songwriter and folksinger.  Here are some of the lyrics:

there’s a gathering of spirits
there’s a festival of friends
and we’ll take up where we left off
when we all meet again.

just east of eden
but there’s heaven in our midst
and we’re never really all that far
from those we love and miss
wade out in the water
there’s a glory all around
and the wisest say there’s a 1000 ways
to kneel and kiss the ground

Peace be with you this day and every day!

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: