Sunday, April 22, 2018

Dear Pastor: The Appeal to Authority, part 2

Picking up where this left off...

In considering the use of congregational song in worship, it is needful to remember the point of worship. Different traditions may answer this question in different ways; I speak from the denominational tradition in which I work, and those who read this should consider these points in light of the tradition in which they work (and if you don't know what that tradition has to say, there's a homework assignment for you).

Continuing with the PC(USA)'s Book of Order, specifically the Directory for Worship, section W-3.01 opens up to a broader outline of the church's worship, offering an order for that worship while taking pains to clarify that this is not the only possible order of worship. Section W-3.0103 offers up the claim that the offered order of worship "seeks to uphold the centrality of Word and Sacraments in the church's faith, life, and worship." For those in, say, Episcopal and Lutheran traditions, there probably isn't much to make clergy blink, but we in Presbyland have to hesitate for a moment, as this cannot be said of many churches -- the Word is there, but the Sacraments are largely absent unless (a) someone is being baptized, or (b) it happens to be that one Sunday of the month the church practices the Lord's Supper.

I have no answer for this. Some Presbyterian churches manage to partake of communion weekly; most, I'm guessing, don't. Nor am I sure that congregational song offers any help here. I suppose one could sing a communion hymn even if communion isn't being taken in that worship service, but that feels a little passive-aggressive.

Nonetheless, the idea of the centrality of Word and (even absent) Sacrament in worship still has ramifications for the practice of congregational song. Do the songs or hymns we sing support and point towards the proclamation of the Word and the sharing of the Lord's Supper?

One doesn't have to be a practitioner of any particular worship style for this trap to be sprung. There are no doubt parishioners who go to contemporary worship (whatever that means) services only to hear the band do its thing, and check out on pretty much anything that happens otherwise. There are (I know this for fact) parishioners who go to traditional worship (whatever that means) services only to hear the organist tear it up on hymn or anthem or prelude or postlude, or to hear the professionally-supplemented choir knock out some Mozart or Mendelssohn, and check out on pretty much anything that happens otherwise. Neither is a desirable or even acceptable result. Neither really encourages a focus on the centrality of Word and Sacrament, and in fact are quite likely distractions from those central features of worship.

As to where in worship congregational singing might be most appropriate, that answer might well be "anywhere." Something at or near the beginning of the service is particularly appropriate, and typically a hymn or song will appear at the end of the service as well; other places might include in or around the reading of scripture (a sung psalm is particularly appropriate here) and, at least in this pastor's opinion, following the sermon. Yes, that's four possible hymns or songs in worship. Remember, they're more likely to remember one of those than any particular thing about your sermon. Swallow your pride and get your congregation singing.

Get them singing, though, with an eye towards what matters most in worship: the Word proclaimed, and the sacraments given and received. If the congregation's song is not pointing towards these central tenets of worship, then they are frankly distracting from worship (remember, not every experience, not even every spiritual experience, is worship), and may be doing more harm than good.

Just something else to think about, dear pastor.


This guy is great, really, but he's not the point of worship.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

In which this blog makes the mistake of responding to clickbait, and probably runs people off...

Note: the "response to authority" theme will resume, presumably next time. I feel compelled to get this out of the way while it's still reasonably fresh in my attention.

I don't know who runs the website "Church Leaders." My first impression is "I don't want to know, I don't want to know." I see names among their contributors I either (1) have never heard of or (2) I have heard of, and do not trust. The titles of many articles seem to be pretty clear that they aren't talking to me. We don't have a praise band, and aren't a likely candidate for one. That alone seems a good indication that the article isn't for me.

But one particular article from said site got shared, by somebody who runs the social media for my seminary alma mater, no less, and I don't have the wit to walk away. A wiser blog would simply walk away repeating to itself "not my circus, not my monkeys" over and over again, but this is not a wiser blog.

So, here this blog goes, foolishly raising up to interrogate an article with the clickbait-ish title "Nine Reasons People Aren't Singing in Worship."

Naturally, I can't even get beyond the title before starting to quibble. Who or what is this random undifferentiated "people" you speak of? You are charged with leading a congregation. The children of God. The body of Christ, or at least one community thereof. Call me pedantic if you want; clearly I'll disagree. How you see the people you are charged with leading and encouraging in worship matters, and matters intensely. There's nothing random about the gathering before you on a given Sunday (or whatever day your congregation ends up gathering). Some are long-time "belongers," and some may be absolutely new, but this isn't a random assemblage, it's not a group of patrons, and it sure as Hell isn't an audience. It's not a sporting crowd trying to encourage its team to score. It's a worshiping community.

Another question: is singing the only outlet for participation in your service of worship? Clearly I consider singing a huge, major, distinctive, unique means of participation in worship, but it's not the only one. Or is it? If your congregation members have no other means of participating in worship -- prayers, responses, liturgy of any kind -- maybe it makes sense that they aren't inclined to sing either. I don't know, I'm no expert in musical psychology, but it's maybe not a good thing if that's the only option.

OK, let's see if we can actually get to the article...so the author starts with a deeply superficial sketch of church music history that would get  maybe an F- from any professor worth hiring. No, the sketch isn't the main point of the article, but if you can't take the time to flesh out that history more effectively and accurately, maybe don't include it in your article? (And the thing is, the author isn't necessarily incorrect; it's just so sloppily and glibly stated as to be unbearable.) So my trust level is already low and I've not even gotten to one of the author's nine points.

(Oh, and let's get one thing clear: the "pre-Reformation mess" cited by the author did produce some of the most passionate, amazing, beautiful, profound sacred music ever. It wasn't meant for congregations to sing. That doesn't make it a "mess." Sheesh.)

(I'm going to trust that if you really want to follow this, you'll actually pull up the article above and follow along with those points I address.)

1. Unless the author is omniscient, I'm not sure he should be making this claim. It is true that the praise & worship industry grinds out new songs at a steady pace, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the churches that subscribe to this kind of worship are necessarily using those songs. I am told that the "best sellers" in that genre tend to be "old favorites" (by pastors who actually work with that stuff and consult those charts), so to speak (yes, the phrase is used just slightly ironically). Now such a phenomenon would be, it seems, a reaction to that very issue -- too many new songs are coming out of the fire hose too fast, so churches stick to sing what they know. That this may present a problem or challenge to the p&w industry isn't really my problem to address.

2. The list gets a little sloppy here, as (3) is really a subset of (2). A song too high for the average singer is, more or less by definition, a song not suitable for congregational singing. However, does the whole song have to be trashed? Is it not possible to rework the song so that the leaders take on the higher or more difficult parts and the congregation responds with the more accessible parts? You see, hymnals actually allow for that possibility, and even provide instruction for a leader, or maybe a choir, to sing a part of the song and for the congregation to respond. Certainly "worship teams" can figure out something like this?

4. A fairly generic point, to be honest. Churches with organs face the same questions of providing enough support for the congregation without overwhelming the sound of the congregation (and choir, when applicable). The difference is that the organ is the most naturally supporting instrument for the human voice, where guitar or even piano are not. Simple instrumental mechanics are the reason; the organ sustains the same level of sound as long as a key is held down, providing the congregation with a consistent source of supporting sound without having to be jacked up so much. With guitars or pianos or other such instruments, the sound begins to decay as soon as the key is pressed or the string is plucked. The temptation then becomes to jack up the volume so that the decay takes longer, which can lead to overwhelming volume. (Again, I'm no expert, but I do think I've experienced this as a congregation member.)

5. Now here is where I'm guessing the author is getting crosswise with his intended audience (as opposed to someone like me). Rightly or wrongly, I'm going to guess that many of the worship leaders (and a big chunk of congregation members too) are at that church precisely because of (5), and probably (6), (8), and (9), which (like 2 & 3 above) are all part of the same point. There's a pretty good chance that a not-small number of folks attend such churches precisely for professional-style performances that ask nothing of them but to be good audence members, or maybe even more good consumers. If you're going to take churches to task for these things, you're going to need to address a lot of underlying questions that aren't going to be solved by tweaks to the praise band.

7. Again, I'm not certain that congregations are not selecting their own "common body of hymnody" quite on their own, no matter how much the p&w industry turns up the spigot of new stuff. And also again, I'm not sure that praise bands or congregations are all that bothered by this when it is the case.

To wrap up, I am forced to wonder if the author is at the last addressing the wrong audience. Is this the kind of things that praise bands or worship teams should be expected to address or grasp? Or is this a situation where the pastor should be addressing in and with the congregation?

Maybe this was a "Dear Pastor" blog entry after all.

Now is where I admit my bias; I'm not convinced that a full-fledged p&w approach to worship is really compatible with a mainline theology of worship. I'm not even certain what theology of worship is in play in p&w, or even if there is one at work. Someone else is going to have to convince me on this subject, and they won't have an easy time of it.

At the same time, I am pretty certain that many, if not most, mainline churches have no clue about a theology of worship that isn't some pale copy of evangelical practice. What is Lutheran worship, or Presbyterian (my particular bailiwick) worship? What is particular to it? Where does our identity show in that worship? Are churches in mainine denominations so paralyzed by fear of shrinkage that they do their dammedest to bury their identity, either treading water in a traditional worship style in which nobody understands what "tradition" means or why we did it so long that it became traditional or running after the hot new evangelical thing (even if it's not that new) to try not to be offensively Presbyterian, or offensively of any identity at all?

And if the pastors of these congregations can't even begin to address these questions, what hope is there for any kind of thoughtful progress on the subject of worship?

And how are pastors going to learn how to address these questions?


It's just not as simple as that...

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Dear Pastor: The Appeal to Authority, part 1

Pastors get busy during Holy Week, so Good Friday and Easter Sunday passed without new entries here. However, the blog is back, and tonight is given to a minimal form of the Appeal to Authority.

In this case the "authority" at hand is the Directory for Worship, one of the components of the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination to which I belong. If you belong to another mainline denomination you may wish to consult any similar governing document (the BoO, as it is semi-affectionately known, is one-half of the constitution of the PC(USA), the other half being its Book of Confessions) to see if it has anything similar to say on the subject of congregational song. (If you are reading from an evangelical/fundamentalist position, I have nothing useful for you here, and I refer you to the first entry of this blog reboot.)


Here's an example: remember that talk about singing in worship, and why it is a needful thing? Here's what that DfW has to say about that:

The singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs is a vital and ancient form of prayer. Singing engages the whole person, and helps to unite the body of Christ in common worship. The congregation itself is the church’s primary choir; the purpose of rehearsed choirs and other musicians is to lead and support the congregation in the singing of prayer. Special songs, anthems, and instrumental music may also serve to interpret the Word and enhance the congregation’s prayer. Furthermore, many of the elements of the service of worship may be sung. Music in worship is always to be an offering to God, not merely an artistic display, source of entertainment, or cover for silence. (W-2.0202)
That is a fairly serious statement: The congregation itself is the primary "choir" in the church, and the purpose of any other choir or ensemble that may exist in the church is to lead and support the congregation in the singing of prayer. Yeowch. Note that other functions a choir may perform are not eliminated, but by this interpretation above such things are an "enhancement" of the congregation's sung prayer and not a replacement for it. Your church's choir may, in fact, be the principal "teacher" of congregational song in your church. Use it.

That same section of the DfW also contains this useful warning that does not apply only to music, but is one that pastors and musicians might both be well served to take to heart:

The gifts of the Spirit are for building up the Church. Every action in worship is to glorify God and contribute to the good of the people. Worshipers and worship leaders must avoid actions that only call attention to themselves and fail to serve the needs of the whole congregation. 
Yeah, pastors and musicians never call attention to themselves, do they?

Just a little further on, here's a nice scary selection from W-2.0304:

Ministers of the Word and Sacrament (also called teaching elders) are called to
proclaim the Word, preside at the Sacraments, and equip the people for ministry in Jesus's name. Specifically, ministers of the Word and Sacrament† are responsible for: the selection of Scriptures to be read, the preparation of the sermon, the prayers to be offered, the selection of music to be sung, printed worship aids or media presentations for a given service, and the use of drama, dance, and other art forms in a particular service of worship. (emphasis mine)

Bam. The buck really does stop with you, doesn't it? The next paragraph, W-2.0305, does lessen the blow a bit, noting that in a "particular" congregation a minister may select things such as hymnals in consultation with the church musician(s), and such consultation also apply to such things as anthems (heck, sisters and brothers, I don't even do that much consulting on our choir's anthems), but the congregation's song...sisters and brothers, that's on you. It makes sense. If to any degree one considers that the congregation's song is at all part of the proclamation of the word, or the prayer of the church, then the selection of that song really does belong among all those other responsibilities assigned to the Minister of Word and Sacrament in W-2.0304. Choice of hymns is as much about the proclamation of the Word as choice of scriptures or prayers, it seems.

Now for one last kicker (for this post, at least), here's something to strike fear not into pastors, but presbyteries, also from 2-0305:

It is appropriate that the presbyteries discuss with sessions the character of their congregation’s worship, the standards governing it, and the fruit that it bears in the mission and ministry of the church. It is appropriate that the presbyteries provide instruction in worship, making use of this Directory for Worship in the preparation of candidates for ordination, and in the ongoing nurture of ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
Show of hands: how many of your presbyteries do this? (Bueller?...Bueller? Anyone?...Bueller?)

Again, this is from the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA); Lutheran, Episcopal, and other mainline denominations may have different formulations, or not address the question at all. But there is not merely appeal to authority; there is a fundamental assumption behind the DfW's proclamation. If the congregation in song is the congregation at prayer, if the hymn is in any way part of the church's proclamation, then the choice of hymns or other forms of congregational song is to be given the same care and consideration as the choices of scriptures, prayers, and indeed any other part of worship.

And again, my minister sisters and brothers, the buck really does stop with you.


The Directory for Worship is in here. It is not to be confused with the Book of Common Worship, which is useful but does not have the force of the Book of Order behind it.




Sunday, March 18, 2018

Dear Pastor: Biblical warrant

One of the interesting things about the scriptures and music is that in an awful lot of cases, there is not necessarily a lot said about the specifics of music, whether in the life of the Temple or in the fledgling early church. Music is not typically prescribed or proscribed among the body, if anything it seems to be more or less assumed with only occasional or minimal content.

We've already addressed the Psalms, and it is there where some of the most interesting comment on music in liturgical practice appears. In those cases the comment is usually in the form of musical instruction, and is found not in the body of the psalm itself but in the small prefaces before psalms. Psalm 76, for example, is directed to be done "with stringed instruments," as is Psalm 67, which is a fairly specific example. Psalm 70 is recommended "for the memorial offering." Some psalms indicate, apparently, a known tune to which the psalm is recommended to be sung, such as Psalm 60, "according to The Lily of the Covenant" (sounds like it would be a nice tune, but we of course have no idea about it. Others are attributed to specific poets; David gets a lot of credits (whether those are accurate or not is another story), but a significant number of psalms are atributed to a chap named Asaph, who was apparently a chief Temple musician.

A personal favorite reference to music in the Temple is found in the oft-overlooked book of 2 Chronicles. Verses 11-14 describe a moment in the process of the dedication of Solomon's Temple, when the "levitical singers" (members of the priestly class, one presumes) were called up to sing out (with the "aid" of a hundred and twenty trumpets!!!) the refrain "for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever." As the chronicler tells it, when that song sounded with the trumpets,

the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.
Let's face it, that's just cool.

Of course, these bits of example are not particularly germane to our given subject here. In both the Psalms and 2 Chronicles, the singers in question are pretty clearly selected singers, not the whole body of the people. (2 Chronicles makes clear that the singers are the "levitical" singers.) Not surprisingly, to find biblical warrant for singing on the part of the congregation, we need to go to that portion of scripture that comes out of a period in which a congregation, or something like it, exists. Time to visit the New Testament epistles.

There are two exceprts from those epistles that stand out; one offers a fairly explicit instruction in using song, and the other seems to be an example of using song in the way prescribed in the first example.

The third chapter of Colossians offers a hodgepodge of instruction for the believers in that place, some of which are commonplace and some of which get a little ugly (particularly from verse 18 onwards). Before that, though, verse 16 offers up this nugget:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

This is about as explicit as you can get. The author instructs the people to sing, to sing a variety of music ("psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs"), and to sing with gratitude, and does so in the context of instruction to take in the word of Christ and to instruct one another in wisdom.

But look what happens in Philippians 2. In instructing the Philippians on humility, Paul ultimately points to Christ as an example. First encouraging them to look to one another's interests and needs, Paul then turns to the example of Christ -- but look how he does so in verses 5-11.

5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus, 
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name, 
10 so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
11 and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father. 

The text turns to poetry, or more precisely, a hymn -- apparently a hymn that had already come into at least some familiarity among the Christians in Philippi, if Paul felt free to make use of it here in this fashion. One wonders if some of the Philippians, upon hearing or reading this passage, slipped into at least humming the tune, or if the one presiding at the meeting actually broke into song.

Notice, though, what these examples say about the use of song among the people. There is not only the basic act of singing, but the singing has the quality of instruction as well. The song is apparently expected to have enough substance and content to it to be useful as a means of "teaching and admonishing" as well as conveying gratitude and grace.

I'm not sure, dear pastor, how often we think of this function when we ask our congregations to sing. It would seem imperative to give that part of our song together more consideration as we go forward.


From all appearances, Paul used a hymn as a teaching tool. You can do that too.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Dear Pastor: A lesson from a psalm

Having spent a few weeks on some basic ideas about what kind of music a congregation might sing in worship, it seems like a good idea, dear pastor, to work from something concrete and think about the qualities for what we sing, at least as far as words are concerned. So let's look at Psalm 107.

I suggest this one for a look for a few reasons: (1) it was today's psalm in the lectionary, so maybe you've noticed it recently (or maybe not); (2) it seems quite likely to have had a life as part of a liturgy, meaning worship was its home; and (3) even as only a text it might be said to have some fairly clear "musical" qualities that make it a good example to follow.

A quick breakdown: the psalm (and it's a substantial one) breaks down into sections: a prologue of sorts (1-3), which puts forth the principal theme of the psalm (the steadfast love of the Lord) and gives indication of what is to come -- those who have been redeemed by that love will come forward and tell their stories; those stories (four in all: 4-9, 10-16, 17-22, 23-32) of those who have suffered due to their own sinfulness or foolishness (made explicit twice, implied in the other two); and an epilogue (33-43) which further fills out those demonstrations of the steadfast love of the Lord and brings home that main idea in a firm and decisive conclusion.

The things that happen in this psalm text are, even with its substantial length, pretty strongly conducive to singing. One of the most helpful features is repetition. Note that in the four stories, there are two verses of text that exactly or very nearly exactly repeat:

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he (delivered/saved/brought them out) from their distress (6, 13, 19, 28);

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind (8, 15, 21, 31)

Put simply, repetition (used judiciously) helps people sing, particularly in the case of a long text like this one. Having those lines to which to return (set, most likely, to the same tune) becomes "home" for even the least confident singer. It also offers a possibility for a responsorial or responsive style of singing, in which a soloist may be assigned the lengthier parts of the psalm and the congregation might respond with the familiar repeating verses. Responsorial singing offers a means to take on larger texts without overburdening congregations, although it is possible to paraphrase such a text for full congregational singing (see Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal #653, "Give Thanks to God Who Hears Our Cries").

Another attractive aspect of the text is its vividness. The images offered in the text "pop" in a way that attracts the eye and mind of the singer. It also doesn't hurt when composers are creating music for such a text; an attractive text has a pretty good chance of provoking attractive music.

Perhaps the most attractive feature of this psalm is its directness and substance. No airy vapidities about God here (one of my main complaints about much modern song intended for church consumption); the psalmist is quite specific, even in metaphor, about just exactly what we foolish sinners have gotten ourselves into and how the steadfast love of the Lord has (delivered/saved/brought us out). The instruction is point-blank: let us thank the Lord, very specifically, for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.

Here is a place where I do something I seldom do: praise that hoary old genre of hymn sometimes known as "gospel song" or "gospel hymn," depending on who you ask. Musically, I struggle to be kind; I have a rule that any tune that sounds like it should be played by a calliope probably isn't a good choice for a hymn tune, and many of the more commercial of those nineteenth-century products fall into that category. The texts, meanwhile, usually fail to be very communal, full of "I" and "me." However, there is one thing they do well, and that is to be very specific, even if the language is metaphorical:

I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore,
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more.
But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry,
From the waters lifted me, now safe am I.
--"Love Lifted Me"

The hymn, even in its use of sea metaphor (shades of verses 23-32 of the psalm!), makes very clear that God's saving action in rescuing a "drowning" sinner is the object of the song. Even a more straightforward hymn of praise can be specific about the God who is object of that praise. After an initial verse of more general tone, a hymn like "O Worship the King" (GtG: TPH 41) gets specific:

O tell of God's might, O sing of God's grace...

The earth with its store of wonders untold, Almighty, your power has founded of old...

Your bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
And sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.
(Weren't expecting a verse about God's care through creation, were you?)

A shorter song can be more general, but a hymn of, say, more than one stanza is going to need to offer some substance and particularity. And frankly, we are on stronger ground when that substance is rooted in the human experience of God -- how God has saved/redeemed/lifted/strengthened us -- rather than grasping at the inexpressible attributes of God that we will know only in glory. Has God worked in our lives? Then let us say (and sing) so. Let us bear witness.

For us Reformed types, metrical psalms (those poetically set for singing in our language) are a heritage. Singing psalms themselves is a perfectly good part of worship, and one that allows for a remarkable range of God's actions toward humanity, and humanity's response to God, to be a part of our sung worship. Those who would create texts directed towards God (there are other possibilities for hymn singing, hopefully to be discussed later) are often most successful when the song they create points us very clearly towards the work that God does in us and for us and through us in straightforward and direct ways.

In short, I am urging upon you, dear pastor, songs and hymns for your congregation to sing that have both meaning and substance. Such hymns and songs serve both the function of drawing forth the praise of the congregation towards God and the function of enlightening and even (horrors!) educating the congregation about God and what God does in and for and through us. And you can't ask for much more from congregational song than that.

Let's face it, that storm image (23-32) is pretty vivid...

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Dear Pastor: Sing something "blue"

Well, we've gone with something old, something new, something borrowed, ... so why not?

Time for an unpopular opinion, pastor.

Of those positions I've staked out so far, I suspect you will find (among pastors generally, or among particular congregations) advocates for and against each. There will be some who complain and some who celebrate singing old or even ancient hymns, new hymns, or songs from the global church. But I'm going to guess that there will be very few who advocate for singing something "blue."

No, I'm not talking about hymns with profanity in them. Sheesh, get your mind out of the gutter.

No, I'm talking about singing songs and hymns that are "blue" in the sense we speak of a particular genre of music as the blues. I'm speaking of songs that contain an element of lament or sorrow.

I can literally hear faces scrunching up in disgust even as I type.

"I don't go to church to be sad."

"I thought Jesus was supposed to make everything better."

Here's the thing, though; the most biblical warrant we have for singing together as God's people contains plenty of lament. I speak, of course, of the Psalms, sometimes known (exaggeratedly, but not too much) as "the Bible's songbook."

Even Protestant reformers who were leery of congregational singing (looking at you, John Calvin) found the Psalms an acceptable outlet for congretations to sing. And the Psalms, as you might know, contain plenty of lament. Some of them are pretty heavy, some of them are even more angry than lamenting.

Take Psalm 137. You might recognize its opening; "By the rivers of Babylon -- there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion." The tone is set, and it doesn't let up (unlike many lament psalms that include brief interludes of praise, or at least attempted praise. This one starts dark and turns darker. I'm not necessarily going to recommend going quite as dark as those last three verses of the psalm, but it is clear here that the psalmists recognized lament and sorrow as being as much a subject of song in worship, as much a subject to be brought before the Lord, as our praise or our petitions.

(And this isn't even mentioning there's a whole book of the Bible called Lamentations.)

Where this gets tricky, though, is in the practical challenge presented here, one even I can't do much about. There really aren't a lot of such hymns out there these days.

That hasn't always been the case. I was at a Sacred Harp sing a few nights ago, and perusing the printed collection (and a few of those chosen for singing) I was reminded that lament was very much a part of the songs creaded in the shape-note tradition. They sing about suffering, they sing about dying, they sing about parting. They sing songs of weeping and mourning.

We're not really accustomed to that, we mainline moderns. We have our reputation for excessive moderation (yes, that phrasing was deliberate), and while that mostly gets blamed for keeping out more exuberant songs, it also reins in our singing experience in the opposite extreme.

How to bridge the gap? A hymnal that includes a psalter (settings of Psalms) is a start, as at least some of the lament psalms are going to be included. A very few hymns that provide for lament for specific conditions have made their way into newer hymnals like Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (and that collection does come in an ecumenical version that doesn't have the word "Presbyterian" in the title). But the repertoire of lament hymns isn't large.

Still, it matters to make some space for singing lament for a similar reason that it matters to welcome songs of the global church: it becomes a means of including. Inevitably somebody in your congregation is going to be in a condition of lament. Maybe it's a short-term thing, maybe it's a more ongoing condition. They are there, in your congregation. Is there any part of the service that gives voice to their sorrow and encourages them to lift that sorrow up to God? (You might be thinking of intercessory prayers, but those are so often targeted towards those specifically suffering physical illness, which isn't always the case for those in need of lament.)

So I'm asking you (and asking myself) to do something that is not merely emotionally or intellectually hard to do, it's practically difficult to carry out as well. But there is a place for it, not every hymn (again those reversible caveats apply--not everything that is sung should be "blue," not everything that is "blue" should be sung), but some space for worshipers to lift up their grief not merely in a formal, constricted space of public prayer, but in the viscerally physical act of singing, and singing together.

Maybe this is a call for new hymns. Maybe I'm unwittingly calling for radical change in how we think about worship. Either way, all those Delta bluesman weren't wrong; sometimes you gotta sing the blues, even (or especially) to God.

So yeah, sing something old, and sing something new, and sing something borrowed, and sing something blue -- something that lifts up our sorrows as well as our joys. Don't be a separatist. Sing with all of God's children, even those whose voices are more likely to cry than sing, and remember who we are and whose we are, and that sometime the one in need of a song of lament will be you.






Sunday, February 25, 2018

Dear Pastor: Sing something "borrowed"

Note: I didn't set out to borrow the old saw about what a bride needs for her wedding day, but I suppose if we're talking about the song of the church, i.e. the "bride of Christ"...anyway, here goes:

While we're at it, pastor, there are a couple of other ideas about what the church ought to sing when gathered together that might be worth thinking about. Approaching one of those questions might start with this seemingly simple question:

Whose church is it anyway?

We're not talking about the buildings or grounds (so calm down about the presbytery, Presbyterians), we're talking about the people who gather in those buildings, or in homes or gyms or whatever facilities may be procured for the purpose.

If, even in that case, your answer is very specific and localized, we need to talk. The answer is of course that the church is Christ's. (That is the obvious theological answer, right?)

Now, given that, who does Christ count as the church?

Surely even the most inward-turned of y'all mainline pastors out there can't possibly answer that only your little flock counts as the church. The church of Jesus Christ is not monochromatic, not by a long shot.

So why should our song sound like it?

It is high time, if not well past time, for the song of the church to sound like the church and especially like the whole church. The time when it was acceptable for the church to sound exclusviely British or German in its congregational song, if there ever really was such a time, is over.

Here let me be even a little more provocative. I like spirituals quite a lot, and there's a decent amount of hymnody derived from the black gospel tradition that is spiritually provocative and enlivening no matter how white and square your church is. In this case, though, even that song tradition is not what I'm talking about. I really am urging upon you and your congregation the strong desirability, the need even, to sing music that is generated by cultures outside of the United States. More African than African-American, for example. Or South American. Or Asian. It is time for our vocabulary of congregational song to acquire some passport stickers.

A few reasons:

1. We spent so long largely exporting/forcing our congregational song upon other cultures, some of which had distinctive musical traditions not very much like ours and which therefore suffered a bit of subconscious misconception: you have to sing these American hymns to be Christian, or at least part of the church. Not that anybody said so explicitly (although you can't rule that out, I fear), but this batch of songs in a style and manner quite outside the indigenous traditions of many mission fields became a hoop that had to be jumped through.

"Amazing Grace" is a fine hymn, but it should never be confused with a mandatory song to sing in order to pass some Christianity test.

The undoing of this regrettable bit of exportation is still an ongoing process in some corners of the world. Part of that undoing process, inevitably involves fully renouncing the sense of privilege and priority that led us American Christians to export that idea, no matter how inadvertently. Learning to expand our musical vocabulary is one concrete step in that direction.

2. Our perspectives could stand to be broadened. The Christian experiences of sisters and brothers in the continents of South America and Africa in particular (and parts of Asia as well) were informed (to use a very soft-pedaled word) by a much longer, more sustained, and far harsher experience of colonial occupation and exploitation than anything the United States experienced. (African American and Native American peoples would be exceptions to this, of course. Also, the nations of the Caribbean and Central America would also be included here.) That colonial exploitation was far too often sustained and supported by the church, while we're at it. To say the least, those experiences result in far different perspectives than hymns produced by the colonializers. It's entirely likely our perspective could use some serious reorientation, and the songs of the peoples who were on the business end of that history might at least be a start.

3. "Listen," you say, "my congregation (your congregation? have you already forgotten the intro above?) isn't up for this. We're just simple folk, basic Americans, and this is beyond us."

Don't be dense. Do you not realize that this is exactly the point?

We don't get to sit it out. We here in the US, who have basically either stood by as the church worked itself into a fever pitch of "Christian nationalism" or have actively participated in it at times, don't get to exempt ourselves from opening our ears and minds to the world we were so accustomed to bullying. If anything, such a mindset makes it all the more necessary. "Your" congregation isn't yours, unless you mean it to be an island completely cut off from any other larger part of the church (in case you have a deeply misguided idea about "the church" not to mention who exactly you're worshiping). If you are at all part of the larger church, and not cutting yourself off from it, then you need, for your own sake, to be singing the song of the larger church. It's way past time for us in the US to step off that soapbox from which we issued decrees to the rest of the world about how to be church, and this is just a small step in that direction.

Again the reversibles apply: not everything that is sung should be borrowed, and not everything that is borrowed should be sung. Discernment and scrutiny still are required. Also applicable is the instruction to use your church's choir, if you have one, to help the congregation learn such music. And again, a good hymnal may be useful for accessing a basic repertory of such global church song.

One other point, that may prove to be an unpopular opinion: don't let a lack of any "indigenous" supports to the music be a reason not to sing it. If you have African or Cuban drums or a Korean flute, and someone who can play them, great, but don't be prevented from singing the song of the whole church by their lack. Sing anyway, as best as you can.

So yeah, sing something old, and sing something new, and sing something "borrowed" (not a great term, but you get the point) -- outside of the borders of the United States. Don't be a separatist. Sing with the whole world of God's children, in every place where the church is planted, and remember who we are and whose we are, and remember that we're not the only ones who can say that.



Another note: much of this was covered in this article, perhaps in a more formal and polished manner. 



C. Michael Hawn is one of the most prolific and useful writers and scholars on this subject. Go get some of his stuff to follow up.