Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie: The Brutality of Christmas

Who doesn’t want to skip the “Death of the Holy Innocents” and just focus on the Magi? No one in his or her right mind wants to spoil the joy of Christmas by preaching Herod’s murder of the children two years old and under. This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading stops well shy of Herod’s murderous ways and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt as refugees. This unrealistic portrayal of the Incarnation is exactly what fuels the holiday emphasis on nostalgic sentimentality. Herod’s actions starkly remind us why this world needs a Savior. Herod lives in us every time we turn a blind eye to the poor, the refugee, and the sinner.

Like all who love feel-good Christmas, I bemoan the death of innocence in our children, but they must not be shielded from the desperate children of Aleppo or the ones down the street. The down side of Christmas for most Westerners is that the real truth gets massaged and postponed until credit card bills come due. Poor and rich alike enjoy their pretties though they differ in cost. We all want a happy ending, but Matthew’s birth narrative doesn’t have one until after truth speaks to power through the dreams offered to the Magi and Joseph. The Magi are warned to not go back to Herod, and Joseph is told to escape to Egypt. Herod is foiled by God through the obedience of those who would heed God’s dreams.

What dreams might God have for each of us in 2017? Will we heed them? Will we obey and take on Herod, or stay in ignorant bliss? But as much as we try to lie to ourselves, there will be valleys of the shadow falling across our lives in 2017. The beginning of a new year gives a hint of hope, but offers little change for the refugees, the frail, the unemployed, or the overwhelmed unless the rest of us do something about the evil lurking in the world’s Herod-like fat cats. Instead of pulling babies from the sullen stream one after another, isn’t it time to go upstream and stop whomever is throwing them in? We sing Don MClean’s “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” with gusto while we’re unsure of its sad meaning. We shouldn’t let its catchy tune and cryptic words dull our sensitivities. It dares us to ask where hope is in a cruel world.

The Holy One who offers hope shows up during Epiphany season through signs and wonders that remind us of God’s presence. It’s up to us to act on these epiphanies, to use them as inspiration. The Magi did it by following a star and a dream, and financing the Holy Family’s escape through their gifts. Joseph had his dreams, too, and acted on them. God speaks through many means and wise men and women still follow. This Gospel is all the more real because its light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Without recognizing and dealing with Herod and his kin, Christianity is what Marx called, “the opiate of the masses.” There’s enough opioid addiction in our world already. The church mustn’t be complicit in its lie.

A Christmas pageant without Herod is a feel-good farce. On Christmas Eve we saw candles brighten our sanctuary, but sanctuary must be a place of protection for everyone: the least, last, lowest, and lost. We must heed Jesus’ words to so let our light shine through good deeds so that God might be glorified (Matthew 5:16). This isn’t earning our way into heaven through social action separated from its supernatural root in God’s saving grace. Compassion for kindness’ sake is nice, but is just as much a syrupy humanism as Christmas without Herod. To think that the world’s ills can be eradicated by human action without divine intervention is to miss the real reason for Jesus’ coming and coming again. But, don’t stop! Our good deeds do bring some of heaven’s glow to every refugee family that we know. They are all around us, but we can do so much more if we do everything we do in Jesus’ mighty name and power.

There was a refugee walking down the sidewalk by the church earlier, head slumped over, with barely enough strength to put one foot in front of the other. He knows all about the Herod’s of this world. He hasn’t had enough light in his life to dispel the darkness. A gift of a left-over poinsettia wasn’t enough. He needed a meal. His Christmas was marred by family dysfunction, substance abuse, and a vain attempt to dull the pain. The real truth of the Gospel is that God will outlast all the Herod’s. Herod’s come and go, but God’s love endures forever.

Western liberalism, as I’ve seen its philosophy practiced, and observed its political machinations, is in its death throes. It can only offer short-term wins that are transitory. Mostly the elite hold onto it, and piously and pompously discuss how all we need to do is to become better people and nicer. What hubris! The humanistic demand to accept everything and everybody has a problem, though. His name is Herod. I’m not afraid to call on God to defeat him. As a matter of fact, it’s the only way! Epiphany reminds us that we cannot save ourselves, therefore we need God’s self-revelation in and through Jesus Christ. Anything or anyone less is laughable to Herod. Only Jesus causes him to quake in fear. I will enter 2017 committed to holding onto Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Come Lord Jesus, come!

Listen to the 13th century English Coventry Carol and hear the plaintive cry of Bethlehem’s mothers in the midst of loss. Their tragic plight must be noted or Herod wins. It’s not pretty. It’s not meant to be, but it’s real. Authentic faith calls upon God to deliver us from evil. First we have to admit that it exists.

 

UM IDENTITY: A WAY FORWARD

Identity is huge! Olympians display their identities by their country’s symbols and flags. Children and youth attending new schools or grades establish their unique identities pretty quickly in the ways that that dress or who they choose as friends.

Tattoos speak volumes about identity. Last names carry identity. Red State and Blue State, Republican and Democrat, are labels that carry identities especially in places where you have to register for one party or another. The upcoming college football season will bring out other identifiers like Garnet & Black or Solid Orange.

All this talk of identity has made me think about the identity crisis of the United Methodist Church. It helps me to start with what it used to mean. Having grown up as a Methodist, it meant we were middle to high church in music and worship, loved family night suppers, Vacation Bible School, and were mostly moderate in all matters inside and outside the church. We called our pastors “Mr. _______” more than “Reverend _______.”

There weren’t many “Ms.” or “Mrs.” clergy back then, but it would have been perfectly fine. We were proud to be middle-of-the-roaders. Frankly, what I liked the most about church was light green pistachio-pecan congealed salad and deviled eggs, plus a whole lot of positive vibe. Church gave me hope when my Dad was given 6 months to live when I was 8, and when I had encephalitis and had to relearn how to walk. The church exposed me to faith as a community.

I wonder if you resonate with the way Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon fame characterizes us:

“We make fun of Methodists for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed, and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese. But nobody sings like them. If you were to ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Methodist-less place, to sing along on the chorus of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” they will look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this among Methodists, they’d smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!

Many Methodists are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony, a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Methodists to sing in harmony. We are too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other. I do believe this: People, these Methodists, who love to sing in four-part harmony are the sort of people you can call up when you’re in deep distress.

 *If you’re dying, they will comfort you.

*If you are lonely, they’ll talk to you.

*And if you are hungry, they’ll give you tuna salad.

*Methodists believe in prayer, but would practically die if asked to pray out loud.

*Methodists like to sing, except when confronted with a new hymn or a hymn with more than four stanzas.

*Methodists believe their pastors will visit them in the hospital, even if they don’t notify them that they are there.

*Methodists usually follow the official liturgy and will feel it is their away of suffering for their sins.

*Methodists believe in miracles and even expect miracles, especially during their stewardship visitation programs or when passing the plate.

*Methodists think that the Bible forbids them from crossing the aisle while passing the peace.

*Methodists drink coffee as if it were the Third Sacrament.

*Methodists feel guilty for not staying to clean up after their own wedding reception in the Fellowship Hall.

*Methodists are willing to pay up to one dollar for a meal at the church.

*Methodists still serve Jell-O in the proper liturgical color of the season and think that peas in a tuna casserole adds too much color.

*Methodists believe that it is OK to poke fun at themselves and never take themselves too seriously.

And finally,

+ You know you are a Methodist when: it’s 100 degrees, with 90% humidity, and you still have coffee after the service.

+ You hear something funny during the sermon and smile as loudly as you can.

+ Donuts are a line item in the church budget, just like coffee.

+ When you watch a Star Wars movie and they say, “May the Force be with you,” and you respond, “and also with you.”

+ And lastly, it takes ten minutes to say good-bye!”

Does our local experience of United Methodism correspond to the macro view of our denomination, or is it the other way around? As much as I have been involved with our denomination at the 30,000 ft. level of general boards and agencies and 6 General Conferences, I am convinced that we are a better denomination when we view the church from the bottom up, not the top down. Everything done at the upper level is far from practical unless it makes the pistachio-pecan salad taste better on the local level.

So, who are we, and who do we want to be? Maybe if we start with answering those questions from the perspective of our thousands of local contexts then we can put to bed some of the things that divide us. What makes your local church unique? Is it having a great choir or sensational band; lively worship and practical sermons; bereavement meals that are unbelievable; an Apple Fest or annual event not to be missed; delectable church meals and scones; social action projects like soup kitchens, ramp ministries, home rehabbing; wonderful support groups of Sunday School Classes, UMW Circles, or UMM; great faithfulness for connectional giving and missions that are both far and near; youth and children’s ministries that excel; a thriving Mother’s Day Out; Bible Studies and/or Disciple; and can’t the list go on and on? In other words, “What makes your church, church?”

My challenge in the impending war over our identity as United Methodists is to let local churches define us more than anyone else. What does our common ethos declare? Let’s name everything that we all love at the local level, then ask what connectionalism looks like from that perspective. Book of Discipline Paragraph 120 sets the tone of what I’m describing as a genuine way forward for the UMC: “The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.” Paragraphs 132 and 701 are right up there, too. Let’s ask ourselves these questions: “When you recall the church of your youth, what do you remember?” “What do you think will be remembered 30 years from now about your church?” “Are we doing things that are truly memorable and why?” Our answers to these questions will determine the identity of the UMC where it counts in the eyes of God, the world, and our own.

Pistachio Salad

Hospitality and Hope

The Coen brothers are sibling film-makers that have done some marvelous work. The movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is one of my absolute favorites with its spin on the Depression-era South and the imaginative use of Homer’s “Odyssey” as its inspiration. The dialogue is classic and includes some of the funniest truths you’ll ever hear. Without spoiling it, the main trio of characters are Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), and they are on the run from the law. Their adventures, after their prison break, are a hoot, and there’s fodder for multiple sermons.

There’s an especially good segment that fits with this coming Sunday’s lectionary text from Acts 16:9-15. The text focuses on Paul’s visit to Philippi in Macedonia and preaching in Europe for the first time. Paul goes down by the river and meets Lydia and other women. Lydia and her whole household get baptized as Christians, and then she invites Paul and his entourage to stay at her house. The connection with the Coen movie is the river and baptism.

In the movie, vocalist Alison Krauss, sings “Down to the River to Pray,” in the background as the white-robed throng wade into the water. The three convicts look on. Delmar’s expression changes and he charges into the water to get baptized. When he comes out of the water he yells to Everett and Pete, “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. My sins have been washed away. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.” Pete takes him up on the invitation. Everett, the semi-brainy one of the trio, has nothing to do with it and replies, “Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”

As hard-nosed as some are to forgive, the cleansing waters of baptism are just fine for everybody. That’s what Delmar, Pete and Lydia found out. God’s got enough grace to forgive what anybody might harbor against us. This isn’t to say that if we do the crime, we shouldn’t do the time. There is God’s justice to reckon with, but Jesus has taken God’s own wrath upon Himself and invites us all, “C’mon in boys and girls, the water is fine.” You might already be an almost Christian “God-worshipper” as Lydia is described in Acts 16, or a reprobate like Delmar who robbed a Piggly Wiggly in Yazoo. God is ready and willing to “warsh us clean,” using Delmar’s accent.

This passage has a lot to say about God’s welcome for us and our hospitality towards others in response. After she gets into the water, Lydia invites Paul and his group to stay at her house. Lydia becomes the first European convert to Christianity, and that makes this scene at Philippi a momentous one for most of us. Christianity makes its first foray outside of the Middle East, and, I daresay, since that’s not where most of us are from, this has huge consequences for all Christians. Lydia’s conversion and baptism literally sets the stage for the conversion of the world.

European converts carried the faith from Philippi up the Egnatian Way and the rest is history. Now, we all know that a lot of that history fostered a Christianity propagated by coercion and sword. Nevertheless, Lydia is a primary ancestor for many of us even if the methods were sometimes awful. Lydia’s being down by the river to pray changed her and the world. She experienced the same Jesus that inspired native peoples to forgive atrocities, slaves to forgive cruel masters, and poor people to forgive oppressive policies of institutional inequity. We need that same Jesus all over this world today.

So, the song, “Down to the River to Pray,” is just as important to sing now as ever. As a matter of conjecture, the song, has been attributed to multiple sources in its history. What is known for sure is that all of the groups that it is attributed to were people looking for hope and strength. They sung it as a way to keep the faith in times of darkness. Some have said it is a Negro Spiritual written and sung by African-Americans. Others say that it originated with Native-Americans, and some say it was an old folk song that gave hope to poverty stricken people in Appalachia. One of the first known written forms of the song was in The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion in 1835. Another was in a book titled Slave Songs of the United States published in 1867. Both of those specific dates remind me of Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of American Indians from the East, and the horrors of slavery.

Either way, it’s a song whose origin is born in poverty and pain. Some have declared that its lyrics which speak of going down into the water to pray, wearing a starry crown, and a desire for God to show the way are code language for oppressed people looking for a watery way to cover their tracks and scent, and an encouragement to use the stars as guides to find the way to freedom.

In a sense it’s what the words still mean today. God’s hospitality sets us free and forgives our sins, not by overlooking them, but by washing them away. Jesus is a Redeemer who is the Way, Truth, and Life. God’s hospitality is a model for us. It was for Lydia.

 

Why Do I Like Handel’s “Messiah” More than Lessons in Carols?

Cindy and I had a wonderful 40th anniversary celebration this past weekend and regaled in hearing Handel’s “Messiah” on Friday night. This got me to thinking. Why do I love it every time I hear it and never tire of the “Hallelujah Chorus?” On the other hand, and I hate to admit it, Moravian Love Feasts and Lessons in Carols absolutely dull my senses though I am sure that others find them poignant. It’s probably my problem, but do any of these “We’ve never done it any other way” Christmas traditions ever bore you silly? Why do we seldom tire of some and hardly abide others?

Trust me, I don’t get bored at St. John’s. The music, for instance, is fantastic! I heard that I missed a wonderful Children’s and Youth Christmas Musical while we were away. I especially heard about 12 year-old Anna O’Flaherty’s expertise on our huge organ while playing “Away in a Manger.” I am so thankful for Catherine Nance and Christopher Nash and their skills. The same can be said of Jane Timmerman and the 9:02 Band. Our whole Worship Team is extraordinary.

Vibrant worship at this church is a cure for worship boredom and Sunday morning naps! This week’s cantata will yield worshipful chills, I’m sure. But maybe what I just wrote is a part of my dull worship dilemma; i.e., I’m EXPECTING chills this Sunday so the anticipation is building. Perhaps the simplest but most profound cure for underwhelming worship is better individual participation through expectant anticipation.

But, another reason for my worship apathy is self-centeredness. There’s something that I need to get off my chest to prove the point. This year at St. John’s we have said for quite some time that we will have 5, 7, and 9 p.m. Christmas Eve services. There won’t be the usual 11 pm one, and some have thought that it was my idea. Nope. I honestly don’t remember a specific reason, and, maybe, that’s my own apathy at work. My self-centeredness is that I was willing to yield on not having 11 o’clock because I was getting what I wanted at 9 – Holy Communion! I cannot tell you how important that this is to me, but in getting what I wanted some of you didn’t get what you wanted. Maybe that’s the crux of the problem – what WE want.

Sure, I can pull rank since worship is under my purview, but clergy shepherds who disregard the sheep’s needs are in for a rude awakening. I could pick 10 am on Tuesday’s for our primary worship time, but I’m not an idiot. People’s opinions count, but not near as much as God’s. Why did I agree to the switch to 9 instead of 11? I got communion at 9 out of my own self-centeredness.

Christmas Eve Communion at Trinity Episcopal Church in Edgefield shaped and solidified my call to ministry. The understated elegance was magnificent as we sang simple carols and celebrated the Eucharist by candlelight. For me, Christmas Eve without communion is like being United Methodist and saying you don’t believe in church dinners!

God was present in every atom infusing that sacred space with glorious whispers that filled my entire being with purpose, call, and sublime joy. So, yes, I want communion at Christmas Eve. To have candles without communion is a trade-off that comes up short in content and meaning. It gains time at the expense of something way better! My decision, therefore, is that I’ll be at St. John’s at 11 pm on Christmas Eve ready to worship, no choir, and no musical instruments. We’ll sing acapella. I’ll bring the bread and juice; chalice and paten. We won’t need to conjure God’s presence, but we will need expectation to notice it was already here.

In this tell-all, I think the problem for me and some of my worship experiences has become clear. At times my expectation level affects my participation. Other times it’s all about me, me, me, and what I want. So many worship wars are about what we want and me, me, me, and this is an anathema to true worship. We promote that worship is about God when the reality is that it’s often a consumer exercise: “Do I like the minister, the music, and the people?” Worship, however, isn’t about what we like, but what God likes. God is the audience, not us. We’re actors bringing homage in the best ways we know how to God. It’s God’s opinion that counts, not yours or mine!

So, if I can get rid of me-ism in worship and add an expectancy that God is going to show up, then I won’t get bored. I will be a participant that worships the Majestic Almighty Holy Other Creator Incarnate God-in-the-Flesh Jesus Christ and the Blessed Trinity. I will be able to hear echoes of the seraphim, cherubim and the whole heavenly host bringing glory to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Worship!

The wisdom of Fred Craddock strikes a chord as I write:

“Boredom is a preview of death, if not itself a form of death, and when trapped in prolonged boredom, even the most saintly of us will hope for, pray for, or even engineer relief, however demonic. Sincere Sunday worshipers will confess to welcoming in muffled celebration any interruption of the funereal droning. Be honest: Have you ever quietly cheered when a child fell off a pew, a bird flew in a window, the lights went out, the organ wheezed, the sound system picked up police calls, or a dog came down the aisle and curled up to sleep below the pulpit? Passengers on cruise ships, after nine beautiful sunsets and eighty-six invigorating games of shuffleboard, begin to ask the crew hopefully, ‘Do you think we’ll have a storm?’ … For the communicating of the Christian faith, formally or informally, to be boring is not simply ‘too bad,’ to be glossed over with the usual, ‘But he is really a genuine fellow,’ or ‘But she is very sincere.’ Boredom works against the faith by provoking contrary thoughts or lulling us to sleep or draping the whole occasion with a pall of indifference and unimportance.”

Ah, “indifference and unimportance,” which are the essence of my duly noted apathy and self-centeredness. To be clear, worship at St. John’s is wonderful, at least that’s how I perceive the way God feels about it. The rest of our opinions don’t really matter that much anyway. Sure, I want us to have a warm-hearted experience every time we’re here. That’s who we are as United Methodists! Our acts of worship carry our theology and what/Who we value, always has. So, see you somewhere, sometime on Christmas Eve, and may our hearts affirm that God is truly pleased!

candlelight_communion_small

Soul Drought and The Lord of the Dance

I’m preaching on Psalm 1 this coming Sunday and not feeling at all like a tree planted by God’s living water. There’s some soul drought going on. Do you have days when you can perceptively feel the heaviness in the air, even the cosmos? These are the times that the poem “Footprints” is helpful. It reminds me that when I have felt the most tired and alone and I’m upset that there’s only one set of footprints on the beach, that’s exactly when the Lord carried me.

We go through life thinking that we and God are walking hand in hand and see two pairs of footprints. Suddenly we notice there’s only one set and we wonder where God went. We have all been there. Whipped, tired, and worn. If another shoe falls, we don’t have the strength to pick it up. We need Jesus to carry us. Unfortunately, I often teeter into a melancholy and find myself unable to get moving again. I want Jesus to keep carrying me.

That’s not the life most of us want. We want God’s help when we’re powerless, but we prefer joy. Someone said it this way, “Joy is not the absence of suffering. It is the presence of God.” I think it’s more than that. It’s more than Jesus carrying us through tough times. It’s more than hanging in there. We want to do more than survive. We want to thrive!

This is when I most appreciate the variation on the “Footprints” poem. It fulfills Psalm 30:11, “You (Lord) have turned my mourning into dancing; you have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” I don’t know if you’re ready to hop out of the Lord’s strong sheltering grip and get on with Life with Jesus by your side, but read this and see if it describes where you are or want to be:

“Imagine you and the Lord Jesus are walking down the road together. For much of the way, the Lord’s footprints go along steadily, consistently, rarely varying the pace. But your footprints are a disorganized stream of zigzags, starts, stops, turnarounds, circles, departures and returns. For much of the way, it seems to go like this, but gradually your footprints come more in line with the Lord’s, soon paralleling His consistently.

You and Jesus are walking as true friends! This seems perfect, but then an interesting thing happens: Your footprints that once etched the sand next to Jesus’ are now walking precisely in His steps. Inside His larger footprints are your smaller ones, safely you and Jesus are becoming one. This goes on for many miles, but gradually you notice another change. The footprints inside the large footprints seem to grow larger. Eventually they disappear altogether.

There is only one set of footprints; they have become one. This goes on for a long time, but suddenly the second set of footprints is back. This time it seems even worse! Zigzags all over the place. Stops. Starts. Deep gashes in the sand. A disordered canvas on the sand, as both sets of footprints go every which direction. You are amazed and shocked. Your dream ends.

Now you pray: ‘Lord, I understand the first scene with zigzags and fits. I was a new Christian; I was just learning. But you walked on through the storm and helped me learn to walk with you.’

‘That is correct,’ says the Lord.

You continue, ‘… and when the smaller footprints were inside of Yours, I was actually learning to walk in Your steps; followed you very closely.’

‘Very good. You have understood everything so far,’ says Jesus.

‘… when the smaller footprints grew and filled in Yours, I suppose that I was becoming like you in every way.’

‘Precisely.’

‘So, Lord, was there a regression or something? The footprints separated, and this time it was worse than at first.’

There is a pause as the Lord answers with a smile in his voice. ‘You didn’t know? That was when we danced.’”

Maybe today is a day that you need Jesus to carry you and that’s fine, might even be necessary. Maybe today’s a day when you want to walk hand in hand beside Jesus with two sets of footprints. Frankly, what I’m feeling is to get up and go, and stop wallowing in this soul’s dark night. I need a dance partner today – Jesus. I want joy; to thrive, not just survive! What about you?

Music and Lent – Beating the Blues

I’ve got Lenten music on my mind this morning. Should it be somber, sober, and dark? Sundays in Lent aren’t technically Lent because the season’s 40 days don’t count Sundays since they are “Little Easters.” However, hearing the choir and congregation sing upbeat Easter-type music would feel more than a little weird. It would feel like we’re getting ahead of ourselves, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, doesn’t our faith hinge on Easter? Without Easter, Christianity falls apart. So as much as I would like for these Sundays in Lent to focus on penitence and preparation for Jesus’ suffering, I think it is a theological imperative for us to have a big dose of Easter every chance we get.

I feel it especially this week. There was a funeral for a 62 year old last Sunday, an 85 year old on Monday, and a 73 year old this Saturday. I have another family whose 59 year old daughter just died, too. I don’t need to hear gothic dirges. I desperately need to hear some Easter joy. There is no doubt that music has carried the faithful through every season of worship and life for eons. I’ve been comparing the Passion Narratives in the Gospels for a church-wide Bible Study, and I noticed that, just before Jesus’ arrest and after the Last Supper, the Lord and his disciples sang a hymn before they headed to the Mt. of Olives and his subsequent arrest in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:30).

“Hymn” or “Hymns” are interesting biblical words, and not used much – four times for the former and four times for the latter in the entire Bible. Of course there are other words like “song” or “songs” that rack up about 40 instances each, but this begs the question, “When is a song a song or a hymn?” We almost might wonder, “What’s the difference?” I think I have some semblance of an answer, but it’s a tad confusing. Is a hymn so designated because God specifically is the audience, and a song is directed at many recipients, including human ones? According to the dictionary, a hymn, coming from the Greek “humnos,” is an ode or song to a to a G(g)od or a hero. With more specificity the modern usage of the word denotes that it is a religious song of praise to a G(g)od.

Doing biblical word studies add more of clarity, and let’s know that the differences aren’t enough to fret over. Colossians 3:26 uses three almost synonymous terms, “admonish one with all wisdom, as you sing psalms “psalmos,” hymns “humos,” and spiritual songs “odais.” Maybe people back then knew the distinction but modern scholars are less certain of any differences at all. What I get out of this is that it is in our spiritual and, perhaps, human DNA to break out into song, especially when we feel moved by either tragedy or triumph. That must have been the reason that Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn as they were leaving the Last Supper. It was an encouragement for them to praise God.

Typically at Festival days like the Passover, the setting for the Last Supper, devout Jews sang the “Hallel.” The word literally means “praise’ and its words are found primarily is Psalms 113-118. These are the psalms that every Jew used during the Passover. There are other “Hallel” psalms in the Old Testament, especially 136, but Psalms 113-118 are the ones that Jesus would have used during the Passover. Therefore, it might be good for us to reread them and ponder them, even sing them, during Lent.

We need to recapture the word “Hallelujah” anyway. We almost use it as a colloquial “Whew!” when we’re relieved or things go our way. It’s actually a word that means “Let us,” which is the “u” in Hallelujah; “praise,” which is “Hallel;” and “jah,” which is short for Yahweh, the Name of Israel’s God. “Hallelujah,” therefore, is a sacred important word that is praising the Lord. It always is an act that not only lifts up the Name of the Lord, but it encourages us.

So, if and when, you’re in a week surrounded by literal funeral dirges or the emotional dregs of ordinary or overwhelming stress, SING!!! Singing about the Lord’s might and power gives us strength, hope, and the fortitude to thrive.

My favorite passage besides the one in Matthew 26 about Jesus and the disciples singing a hymn on the way to the Lord’s betrayal is found in Acts 16:25ff. Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi. They had been stripped of their clothes, beaten, feet locked in wooden stocks, and severely flogged, but they sang! It says, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” I would have been listening, too. Here were two guys who had been horribly mistreated and it was midnight for crying out loud, but instead of crying out loud and complaining, they chose to sing praise to God. The result shouldn’t be surprising. The very next verse says, “Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake … that the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose.”

Praising the Lord, especially when our circumstances are dire, reminds us that we have a God that is strong and on our side. When we praise, we let the Lord do battle with our grief, bondage, and despair. He sets us free and our chains fall off! So during this Lenten season let’s take a cue from Jesus and remember to offer praise on Sundays even if we bemoan our need for penitence the rest of the week. We are and will ever be an Easter People. Dirges don’t open prison doors. Sing out praise to God on Sundays and every day, and see what the Lord can do!