worship and the gospel

Worship and the Gospel Story

[Written by Jeff Koonce]

Do you ever think about why our worship service at Cross Creek is the way that it is? Why do we do the things we do, pray the things we pray, or sing the songs we sing?

Every week we tell the story of the gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ was sent to rescue God’s people from sin and death. It’s not enough for us to just tell this story once and move on. We need to hear the narrative of the gospel every single week. Why do we need to be reminded of this all the time? Martin Luther said, “Every sin since the beginning of the world has been unbelief and ignorance of Christ”.

Since it’s our nature to turn away from Christ and back toward ourselves, we forget the story of God’s creation, Adam’s Fall, the redemptive work of Christ and our hope for the restoration of all things by God almost as quickly as we hear it. Every week we tell the story of the gospel again with the goal that our worship service is habit-forming, aiming our hearts and minds toward the right end, Jesus Christ.

To this end, we weave a thread of gospel narrative through our liturgy, the form of our worship – the readings, songs, prayers and other elements –  retelling the gospel story through the theme of a service. In particular, we choose songs for their substance over their style, popularity, or personal preference. As a result, our singing in worship is not a diversion of beautiful sounds between moments of talking but continues the gospel story by engaging our hearts, our minds and even our bodies in worship.

And by hearts, I do mean emotions. I know we, as Presbyterians, sometimes scoff at that word, but emotions are not bad; they are part of our God-given make-up. In his book, The Worship Pastor, Zac Hicks states, “Emotionless worship is just as toxic to our faith as haphazardly emotional worship. We are gut- and heart-based creatures before we are head-based intellectuals.” Our emotions simply need to be directed in the right place at the right time.

In worship, we realign our love and emotions toward God. Historian and theologian Dr. Ashley Null says, “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” Our hearts lead the way and it is through music that we can express a full range of true emotions: joy, grief, sorrow, relief, and thankfulness. The Christian life is not easy, but it is good. We should take our cues from the Psalms, which are full of varied emotions, and, with truth and confidence, worship our Lord with the full range of our hearts.

We start with our hearts and emotions, but we do not end there. Our minds and our intellects are engaged during worship as well. Through their the richness and depth, the hymn texts we sing articulate and teach the gospel from a different perspective. Words combined with music illuminate a new depth of meaning that words alone cannot do while singing focuses our attention and aids in remembering. How many times have you walked out of service whistling the sermon?

Singing also physically engages our bodies in worship. We come to know the story of the gospel, not only by having it articulated verbally and conceptually to us but by participating in it. So it is through song that we share in the life and activity of the church by coming together as one body to lift one voice in prayer and praise to God, our Creator, and Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Singing is praying, and congregational singing is corporate prayer. Augustine is credited with saying “Whoever sings prays twice.” When we don’t know what to pray, we let the words of the songs we sing guide us and teach us to pray.

Therefore, when words alone are not enough to express our awe and wonder over who God is and what he has done sing:

“The heavens declare Thy glory,
The firmament Thy power;
Day unto day the story
Repeats from hour to hour;
Night unto night replying,
Proclaims in every land,
O Lord, with voice undying,
The wonders of Thy hand.”
The Heavens Declare Thy Glory

or to express, grief and shame over our sins sing:

“From the depths of woe, I raise to Thee
The voice of lamentation;
Lord, turn a gracious ear to me
And hear my supplication;
If Thou iniquities dost mark,
Our secret sins and misdeeds dark,
O who shall stand before Thee?
O who shall stand before Thee?”
Psalm 130 (From the Depths of Woe)

or to express our joy and gratitude for our salvation through Jesus sing:

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.”
Amazing Grace

or to express our longing and hope for God making all things new sing:

’Mid toil and tribulation, And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation Of peace forevermore;
Till, with the vision glorious, Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious Shall be the Church at rest.
The Church’s One Foundation

Sing, Cross Creek Church, and sing loudly!

“Oh, sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth!
Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.”
Psalm 96:1-2

“Still, Still, Still …”

[Written by Christine Cox]

Whenever I hear this Austrian Christmas carol, I see my mother leaning back in her armchair, listening to her favorite German Christmas carol record. A sweet stillness caressed over her, the sound of the music soothingly filling the room. As a child I ‘thought like a child’, (1 Corinthians 13:11-14), wondering what she was thinking and feeling, why the music was so soothing; now I know fully the spiritual depth of the music – that in this peaceful manger scene, as mother cradles the infant Jesus, she knows that He is the hope of salvation who now had been brought to mankind through The Incarnation.

Tradition, both written and pictorial, shows that in the stillness of prayer, Mary was greeted by the angel Gabriel. In the stillness of deep sleep, her earthly spouse, Joseph, was visited by an angel in a dream – twice. He should not fear to take Mary as his wife and then later warned him to take his family and flee to Egypt for Herod was about to destroy the Child. In the stillness of the night, our Savior was born. Still, yet the heavens were filled with angelic hosts, declaring the Glory of the Lord singing great Hosannas, Glory to the King!
In the stillness of the Upper Room, our Lord ushered in the New Covenant – a respite before they all would experience the greatest trial in history. After the Crucifixion, darkness and, I imagine, a still eeriness and a loneliness engulfed the whole land, until the Lord burst forth from the grave. It was a stillness preparing the way for His Resurrection. Saul – Paul had to be still before God was able to work through him. Peter, too, in the stillness of prayer saw the heavens open and the Lord calling him to minister to all peoples, showing no partiality that the Good News is for all nations!

In this Advent season, let us take this wonderful opportunity to break from the busyness of the season to embrace ‘stillness.’ Ponder upon His Word penetrating our souls, our interior life. And as we await with joyful expectation of this year’s Christmas celebrations, let it also be preparation as we await His second coming.

Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. Psalm 46:10

Audio  link,
Traditional Melody 1819
Lyrics and Translation by Tradition by Action and German Way

Still, still, still,
Weil’s Kindlein schlafen will.
Maria tut es niedersingen
Ihre keusche Brust darbringen,
Still, still, still,
Weil Kindlein schlafen will.
Still, still, still,
Let Baby sleep its fill.
Maria sings a lullaby sweet
And lays her true heart at Your feet
Still, still, still,
Let Baby sleep its fill.
Schlaf, schlaf, schlaf,
Mein liebes Kindlein, schlaf.
Die Englein tun schön musizieren
Bei dem Kindlein jubilieren,
Schlaf, schlaf, schlaf,
Mein liebes Kindlein, schlaf.
Sleep, sleep, sleep,
My precious Baby sleep.
The Angels are all music making
By the Manger jubilating
Sleep, sleep, sleep,
My precious Baby sleep.
Groß, groß, groß,
die Lieb’ ist übergroß!
Gott hat den Himmelsthron verlassen,
und muss reisen auf der Strassen.
Groß, groß, groß,
die Lieb’ ist übergroß.
Great, great, great,
the love is enormous!
God has left his heavenly throne
and must travel on the road.
Great, great, great,
the love is enormous!
Auf, auf, auf,
Ihr Adamskinder auf.
Fallet Jesum all zu Füssen,
Weil er für uns d’Sünd tut büssen.
Auf, auf, auf,
Ihr Adamskinder auf.
Rise, rise, rise,
All Adam’s children rise.
O, kneel at the feet of Jesus now,
Our sins to atone He did vow.
Rise, rise, rise,
All Adam’s children rise.
Wir, wir, wir,
Wir rufen all zu Dir:
Tu uns des Himmels Reich aufschliessen,
Wenn wir einmal sterben müssen.
Wir, wir, wir,
Wir rufen all zu Dir.

We, we, we,
We all implore Thee:
Open for us heaven’s gate
Let Your Kingdom be our fate.
We, we, we,
We all implore Thee.

bless the lord at all times

I Will Bless the Lord at All Times

[Written by Jeff Koonce]

I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
Psalm 34:1

I will bless the Lord at all times. I don’t know about you, but this can seem incredibly difficult. All times? Continually? Really? David, the writer of this Psalm, sets the bar pretty high for the rest of us. Granted, it’s easy for us to praise the Lord when things are going well when we feel good about our life and the blessings He’s given us. We are grateful for family and our health, our jobs, and our security.

What about those times when things aren’t going so well? Maybe you’re depressed, lonely, angry, grieving, upset with how the way things have turned out. Is His praise continually in your mouth during those times? We are more likely to look inward to ourselves; on our shame, fear, and failures. Or we look for someone to blame. David is a normal person. In himself, he has no special powers that we do not possess as human beings. His struggles are the same as our struggles. So how did David do it?

I sought the LORD, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant,
and their faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him
and saved him out of all his troubles.
Psalm 34:4-6

David sought the Lord and was delivered from his fears. In the midst of our difficulties and struggles, we should not look inward, but upward. We, too, should seek the Lord. For us, this means seeking him through prayer and His Word. And as we allow His Word to shine a light into the darkness of our hearts and the power of the Holy Spirit to move in us and reveal the Gospel at work in our lives, we begin to see and trust that God is good and faithful, even in the hard things. When we rest in that promise, it’s small step to bless the Lord at all times, in all circumstances, and praise Him continually.

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
Psalm 34:8

This idea of praising God in the midst of dire circumstances is the theme of a song we, the Hymn Collective, have been working on recently. “Hold on to Me” was written by Ashley Self during one of those difficult times in life when you just don’t know what to do or say. Ashley and his wife, Staci, lost their daughter, Lily Grace on the day she was born in 2012. Ashley wrote this song that night in the hospital and when we got around to recording an album we all knew that this song had to be a big part of that project.

We are happy to have a finished version to share with everyone and we hope it serves as a reminder that no matter how bad it seems, seek the Lord, rest in Him, and praise Him continually. I will bless the Lord at all times.

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.
Psalm 34:18

Hold on to Me
Words and music: Ashley Self, 2012

It’s not enough to know you love me when my heart hurts this way.
When I don’t feel your presence, I don’t know what to pray.
Right now, all I feel is empty inside and afraid this pain won’t ease.

Hold on to me;
Wipe these tears from my face in my faltering faith I cry,
Hold on to me;
In my weakness, be strong; I can’t stand or even breathe.
Hold on to me.

People try to explain it; they say she’s safe in your hands.
But I can’t help but question if this was your plan.
Right now, all I feel is empty inside and afraid this pain won’t ease.

Did you know at night that I’m afraid to close my eyes?
I see her face so clearly, and I believe the lies.
If this be a dream, awaken me that I may rise and praise thee.

“Hold on to Me” can also be found on iTunes and Spotify.

hymns, musicians

Re-Tuned Hymns? What is that?

[Written by Jeff Koonce]

If you’re new to Cross Creek Church (CCC), you may have noticed that some of the songs we sing during worship on Sundays are a little bit different from what you might sing in other churches or hear on Christian radio. The songs we sing at CCC may have 4 or 5 verses containing a lot of words, some of which you may have no idea what they mean. The words and phrases seem to come from a different era, but the music is being played by what looks like a modern worship band. What’s going on?! Well, you have just experienced some “re-tuned” hymns.

What’s a re-tuned hymn, you say?

A re-tuned hymn is simply an old hymn text that is set to a new tune or melody. In our context at CCC, we arrange the music of these hymns to fit the instruments and musicians we have available. With our set up of acoustic guitar, mandolin, and keyboard, we lean heavily on American folk and bluegrass styles.

Over the life of the historic Church, thousands of texts have been written for the purpose of being sung during worship. Some of those texts were paired with great music and become some of the most famous and best loved hymns of the Church; hymns like “Amazing Grace”, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Be Thou My Vision”. Some of these texts were less fortunate and either paired with a tune that did not stand the test of time or no tune ever really stuck with the text.

“Re-tuning” hymns is hardly a modern invention. People have been re-tuning hymns for as long as there have been hymns. It’s not uncommon to flip through a hymnal and find the same text paired with 2 or 3 tunes. It’s rare that a hymn text and tune were written together by the same person. More often, they were written separately with a musician writing music for a pre-existing text. Most hymn texts are written in a poetical meter, and it was common to apply a standard tune of compatible meter to many different texts. The hymnals of the 18th and early 19th centuries were only compilations of texts; there was no music included.

The modern re-tuned hymn movement began about 20 years ago centered around some Reformed University Fellowships (college ministries of the PCA). A few RUF pastors and musicians began taking these all-but-forgotten hymn texts and writing new music for them in an effort to expose college students to deep Gospel truth delivered in a relevant musical language.

The most prominent early adopter of re-tuned hymns was Kevin Twit, RUF pastor at Belmont University in Nashville. When Kevin, also a musician, song writer, and audio engineer, found himself pastoring to an exceptional group of young musicians, they recorded the first “Indelible Grace” album. 17 years and 9 albums later, hymns by Indelible Grace are some of the most popular and reliable re-tuned hymns being used in the Church today. Some of their hymns we sing at CCC are “And Can It Be”, “Psalm 130 (From the Depths of Woe)”, and “Jesus, I Come”

Here in Birmingham, a group of musicians from Red Mountain Church (myself included) began re-tuning hymns and released 7 albums as Red Mountain Music. Their work fostered hot bed of creativity inspiring several other hymn re-tuning projects from musicians in the area. Hymn Collective, The Corner Room, Community Presbyterian, Thy Love Inspires, Grace and Peace Music, all have some connection through Red Mountain.

So what is it about re-tuned hymns? What’s the point? Why sing them?

Fundamentally, the hymn texts used in these hymns are rich poetry, full of deep theological themes that can stir, not just our hearts, but our imaginations, our intellects, and our wills. These texts are works of art, thoughtfully constructed by masters of their craft and reflecting the creativity of our creator God. Through artful depictions and narrative structures, we sing about God’s Word and His promises while encountering a full range of emotions; from joy to sorrow, guilt to relief. We sing the beautiful, complete story of the Gospel: the glory of God, the helplessness of man, the sacrifice of the Son, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the redemption of the Church.

These texts also connect us to the larger, historic Church. They remind us that we are not alone in our struggles as Christians, our experience is not unique. For centuries, these hymns have laid bare the issues and themes of the Christian life and remind us of the faithfulness of God and his steadfast love to all generations.

By using new, modern music we connect the ancient with the authentic; historic Christianity in our own musical language. Re-tuned hymns serve as a middle path between “traditional” hymns and “contemporary” praise and worship; bridging the gap between generations and style preference. Old text, new music; richness and depth, modern musical sensibility. A heritage of beautiful poetry, demonstrating a robust theology, set in our own musical language.

Come Thou Fount

Here By Thy Great Help I’ve Come

“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is one of the best-known and most loved hymns for a reason. The text was written over 250 years ago, yet it is still as relevant today as it was then. Each of us, as Christians, can place our selves in the middle of the narrative and sing this hymn as if the words were our own. We desire to praise and worship God, yet recognizing our brokenness and inability to do it on our own we must rely on the help and grace of God to make it in our daily lives. The phrase “here by thy great help I’ve come” in the second verse is the theme woven throughout the entire text as we sing of our struggles with our own sinful nature and our daily encounter with the Gospel.

Hymns can be difficult because there are lots of words packed with even more meaning going by really fast. Often, we can skip over the depth of meaning in an effort to keep up with the music. For those unfamiliar with hymns, the richness of the poetry and language can be hard to decipher at first glance. So, we’re going to slow this one down and walk through it.

Come Thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it, Mount of Thy redeeming love.

In the first verse, we ask for the Holy Spirit to come and help us to worship. God’s grace, mercy and redeeming love deserve praise, but we don’t know the song. We are asking the Spirit to “tune our hearts to sing Thy grace”; we want to sing the same song the angels in heaven are singing: “teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above”. Without help we are unable to worship.

What shall I render to the LORD
for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the LORD.
Psalm 116:12-13, ESV

Here I raise my Ebenezer; Here by thy great help I’ve come;
And I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wand’ring from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood.

The second verse begins with “Here I raise my Ebenezer;” a reference to 1 Samuel 7. The Israelites, with God’s prodigious help, have just defeated the Philistines. Samuel places a stone as a monument of the victory and called it “Ebenezer”, which means “Till now the Lord has helped us”. So, in this second verse, we raise our own “Ebenezer” in response to God’s grace to say “here by thy great help I’ve come”. We, like sheep, have wandered off. Jesus sought us and rescued us by his blood. We now hope to arrive safely at home in heaven.

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them,
does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country,
and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?
And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
Luke 15:4-5, ESV

O to grace how great the debtor daily I’m constrained to be;
Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.

Now, in the third verse, we are debtors, bought with a price we can never repay. We confess we are aware of our sinful natures and we realize our need for His help to not leave and wander away again. We ask the Lord, with his grace and goodness as a chain, to “bind my wandering heart to Thee” and “seal it for Thy courts above”; let our hearts ever be on things of God and not of this world.

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God,
the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.
Romans 6:22, ESV
Listen to “Come Thou Fount of Everything Blessing” as performed by the Hymn Collective.