Sunday, February 18, 2018

Dear Pastor: Sing something new

So after last week's missive, you can probably guess what comes next. And you are correct.

There are a multitude of reasons for the congregation to sing new songs. To make things clear: "new" in this case is a chronological category. Some of the very old songs such as were mentioned last week might well be new to your congregation, but that's not what we're talking about here. We really do mean "newly created hymns," and just for some sort of line we'll make "new" equivalent to the last forty years or so, which is a pretty quick little blip in the church's history. What may perhaps be interesting about the reasons to be discussed here (and again, there are plenty more) is that some are exactly the same or very similar to the reasons given to sing something old.

We can, for one thing, sing really, really new songs. Forget the corporate conglomerates grinding out "worship songs" on a perpetual basis. An event can happen, such as one of the mass shootings that have occurred over the past two years. A pastor and hymn writer, moved by the event, pens a poem and adjusts the text to fit with a well-known hymn tune. In the past, the next step might be distributing to her church and maybe others nearby, and otherwise waiting weeks or months or years for an opportunity for publication. Now? Thanks to the internet, that hymn can be available for churches to sing by the following Sunday.

Is that not as cool as being able to sing from Synesius of Cyrene? I mean, sing along with Hamilton: how lucky we are to be alive right now...

Others of the points from last week also repeat themselves. Hymns that span "every time and place"? Hello, "now" is included in that (and we'll have more to say about the "place" part of that formula too).

Also, if to refuse the older repertory of the church is to be "aloof and utterly separated from the church and its heritage," then to refuse those new hymns and songs is no less to be aloof and utterly separated from the church and its present. Bless Synesius's soul, he could have barely imagined the kinds of things both amazing and horrible that beset this world today, and you might imagine anything he wrote down would be strikingly different today.

Last week's reversible caveats also apply here;

1. Not everything that is sung should be new. (Obviously, after last week's post.)
2. Not everything that is new should be sung. If anything, new hymns and songs require even more exercise of discernment and critical observation, if only because fewer eyes have had the opportunity to look them over. Particularly given the rapid pace at which new songs are ground out in some genres, quality control isn't always a given (is my bias showing? Oh well...), and taking the time to give such new stuff a good theological frisking is simply a matter of basic integrity.

(Other note: it may not always be a theological reason that a hymn ultimately turns out to be a bad fit. I can think of one hymn of recent vintage that is theologically strong, musically interesting, and even kinda popular as new hymns go, but that I can never imagine placing before a congregation I lead.)

Depending on what kind of church you are, a good hymnal is still a possibility for obtaining such "new stuff" at least for a while. Remembering that the forty-year mark was pretty arbitrary, those denominations or other entities that haven't given up on the making of hymnals (in whatever format they may be distributed) can do a good job of both issuing an initial "new hymnal" and then following it up, if they so choose, with "hymnal supplements" with new material (or even recovered old material, or material that has never entered into the particular tradition of that hymnal), again whether hard copy or electronic or whatever hybrid comes along. If they choose to do so, that is.

Some basic principles apply; use your church's choir to help the congregation catch on to the song if need be, if the tune is familiar -- at minimum make sure that they are ready to sing the hymn strongly to help those who might be struggling. And be prepared to sing it strongly yourself.

So yeah, sing something old, and sing something new -- within the lifetime of a large part of your congregation. Don't be a separatist. Sing, sing with all the ancients and all our fellow sisters and brothers in Christ right here and now, and remember who we are, and where we are going.

My bias is showing: this hymnal does o.k. at including "new stuff."

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Dear Pastor: Sing something old

You were expecting the opposite instruction? Hang on, we'll get there...

So far it's all been about the act of singing as a congregation. In theory I could go on for a long time just on that subject, but that would be wrong. The church isn't a glee club, nor a community chorus. Your congregation could sing for three-fourths of the service, but if all they're singing is mindless dreck it's probably doing more damage than good. So at some point we have to talk about what we sing, because it does matter.

Rather than get super-prescriptive about things, I'm giong to throw a handful (less a thumb, possibly) of basic ideas out there, starting with the one above:

Sing something old.

Quick clarification: "old" here does not mean "from about your grandfather or great-grandfather's time." I'm not talking about the nineteenth century, no matter how much some of your congregation might be set off at a half-moment's notice about "the good old songs" and how nothing has ever been that good.

Reach back further.  You can go back as far as the eighteenth century, the likes of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. You can go back even further, to hymns and songs of the Reformation. And you can even go back farther than that.

Part of my Sunday is planning for the next Sunday. Looking through the scriptures for that week, I'm choosing or writing prayers, and also looking for hymns. Based on how next week's scriptures and what's currently in my mind look, one of the hymns that came up is a relatively simple one called "Lord Jesus, Think on Me." After some deliberation it made the cut. Then I looked again. The tune is old enough, a sixteenth-century English psalm tune. The text, or at least the originial version of it? By one Synesius of Cyrene, fifth (yes, fifth) century.

Seriously, isn't that cool? C'mon, that's cool.

Never mind all the paraphrases and reworkings of scripture that show up in the church's collection of song. We have and can sing, whether to old tune or new, hymns created by our ancestors -- way, way back ancestors -- in the faith, and not just the ones with their names in the old Bibles on the shelf. Don't tell me that's not at least a little bit cool.

Now your average hymnal is not going to be full of fifth-century devotional texts, but it does draw from a rather impressive chunk of the life span of Christianity. Think about the prayers that speak of the church "in every time and place"; well, at least some of that "every time" of the church is found amongst the hymn repertory of the church. They still speak.

Two caveats, delivered in reversible form:

1. Not everything that is old should be sung. (There's old dreck as much as there's new dreck, and there are things that worked then that just do not work anymore. Do discernment.)
2. Not everything that is sung should be old. (That comes later.)

The idea is not to gorge on the "ancient" part of Hymns Ancient and Modern; the idea is to sing at least some part of our history. The idea is to remind ourselves that we are not creating all things new; we are inheritors of a theology and a worship that has changed unbelievably over the millenia, but of which some parts have lasted and persisted in such a way that we can still hear it, be taught and challenged by it and, in that instant of communion with the Church Ancient, get just a tiny bit plugged in to that "great cloud of witnesses" from the Hebrews letter/sermon.

And frankly, the church needs that sometimes. We are not the generation that is so damned clever that we are going to get everything right that all the other generations of the church failed to do. And if we really think that forsaking all that has come before is how we make ourselves "real" Christians, I have a precise theological term for you:


Remaining aloof and utterly separated from the church and its heritage, messy and ugly and grotesque as it has often been, is no way to do better. It's just a way to do it all over again, only with more destructive weapons.

So sing something old, sometimes. Not necessarily every time (at least not millenia old). But sometimes. Don't be a separatist. Sing, sing with those ancients, and remember who we are, and where we've come from.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Dear Pastor: You know why this matters, right?

Okay, pastor, it's good to know that you are singing when the congregation sings. Good first step.

Now you know why the congregation and its song, and the congregation participating in song, is important, right? Right?

Okay, then, let's review a few points.

Note: throughout this entry I'm going to refer to congregational song with the more specific term "hymn" or "hymns." Adjust according to your situation.

Hymns teach. Indeed, when hymns were first introduced into the life of the church, that was their purpose. The likes of Ambrose of Milan and other early church leaders found that teaching congregations (who could not, for the most part, read) biblical or doctrinal basics was a lot more successful when those basics were set to song. Hymns served a didactic function from early on.

Of course, Ambrose's flock wasn't singing those hymns in worship proper. that would have to wait for the reform impulses of the likes of Luther and Calvin. For Luther the singing impulse was fairly free; translations and adaptations of old Catholic texts, newly-written hymns (including a few by Luther hmself, one of which might be familiar), anything with theological substance that could be transmitted by singing was more or less fair game.

Calvin was more suspicious (maybe he has something in common with you?), fearing what he knew to be the powerful capability of music on the human psyche. To be fair, he was somewhat following earlier church teachers in this. Even so, Calvin found his way to the acceptance of music in the form of psalms. They were scripture, after all. And so the metrical psalms of Calvinist traditions became a back-door means of teaching scripture.

Fast-forwarding to more recent times, we are a lot more informed about how memory and learning work, and being able to encounter a text by singing it still has an awful lot of power for the singer, more so than straight-up rote repetition and memorizing. People learn what they sing; that is just human basics. It still holds that if you ask a congregation member what they remember of your average service, there's a very stong chance it will be something from one of the hymns.

Beyond the learning capacity of hymns, there is also the communal aspect of singing together. Singing together brings people together, more effectively than a lot of other possible activities. Again, we are able to learn a lot nowadays of just how powerfully making music together really does create unity on virtually a bodily level.

Of course, this doesn't mean the sound you get is necessarily going to be Carnegie Hall-worthy. It will sound weird at times, some folks will be off-key, and occasionally somebody might get lost. But so what? When the congregation is singing together, the congregation is being together, and you'll never convince me that the congregation being together is not important. You know it is. Singing is almost elementary as a step to a congregation being "body of Christ" in any kind of unified way.

But maybe the most important part of congregational singing and its place in worship is the deeply vital element of participation. Congregation members shouldn't be spectators in worship. Liturgy is, after all, not a spectator sport. It is a thing to do.

There are of course other means of participation in worship. Responsive readings are good. Prayers that place part of the words in the mouths of the people are good. Singing together? Real good. The degree to which "worship" is an active verb has a lot to do with how much the stuff of worship has a fighting chance to stay with the congregation.

This could go on longer, pastor, but that is hopefully something to think about for now. And do remember to keep singing.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Dear Pastor: Are you singing?

Note: I'm sick as all get out, I have too many things about which I am agitated and which *demand* that I write about them, and I got into an online conversation yesterday that messed with my head. So, this, and maybe the beginning of a new sporadic thing...

Dear Pastor:

Congratulations on getting through another Sunday. We both know that's never as easy as it might seem, although it's possible your Sunday is longer and more stressful than mine.

Now I know that in my small church down here in Florida, I probably don't have quite the variety of concerns to wade through in any given Sunday or service as you do. You might be preaching two or even three services, for example, and who knows how many meetings or consultations as well. For myself, I have got to get over this stupid flu before I can function anything much like normal.

Nonethless I have a question for you. I'm still a relative newbie at this pastor thing, and maybe I can learn something from you about how to go about all of this. So, here is something I'd like to know:

What do you do when your congregation is singing?

I mean, I presume you're in the sanctuary, not "waiting in the wings" for some strange grand entrance thing, right? So you're there in worship, presumably on the platform or stage if there is one, right out front where the congregation can see you. So what are you doing when the congregation is singing?

Are you still mentally riffing through your sermon notes? Scanning the congregation to check attendance? Looking dignified?

Or are you in fact singing?

I hope that last is the answer.

I'm sure you have seen all the indicators that of all the stuff that happens in a worship service of whatever sort, the main thing that most congregants are likely to take home with them is something that was sung in the service, most likely something the congregation sang itself. We'll try to be expansive here; those might be good ol' traditional hymns, gospel songs, choruses of some ilk, possibly global song, Lots of possibilities for what the congregation might sing during the service--whether at the beginning, right before or after your sermon, or at the very end. Whatever those songs may be, are you singing them as well, with the congregation?

Of course, I'm presuming here. I suppose it's possible that the congregation of your church doesn't really sing. That would be terribly sad, but I suppose it's possible. So what music is taking place? Is it a praise band or whatever those are being called these days (I have trouble keeping up)? Or do you have a highly professional choir and orchestra carrying the musical load? Either way, that's really sad.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of choirs. But that's not meant to be all there is. Otherwise you're having a concert with a speech instead of a worship service, aren't you?

But anyway, whatever singing is going on, what are you doing when it's going on? Here's the thing: I'm pretty sure you'd go ballistic if you found out the choir, for example, was pretty visibly not paying attention to your sermon, wouldn't you? Heads would roll. Hopefully you, in turn, manage to at least give the impression that you are paying attention to what they're doing when the anthem is sung.

And naturally, of course, you will want to give proper respect to the congregation as they, the people, do the work of the people -- as they do liturgy.

After all, you wouldn't want to give off the impression that the music in the service is just filler, would you? You wouldn't want the congregation to believe that their participation in the service is just tap dancing until the Main Event (your sermon, naturally) comes? You wouldn't want to do that, would you? Certainly you don't actually believe that, do you?

So, pastor, when the congregation, whether "lustily" as John Wesley might put it or more tentatively, launches into their sung participation in worship, what are you doing?

I hope you're singing.

You better be singing.

(to be continued...) 

Monday, December 18, 2017

When memory attacks

So I suppose this post is a companion piece to this one from almost five years ago.

I'm not sure why -- whether it be the usual stresses of the season, amplified by many pastoral care needs; being rather sick, such that tending those needs becomes unwise or even dangerous; feeling the strain of relationships fading or failing across time and distance; the daily soul-crushing quality of life in 2017; strangely fluctuating weather; or who knows what -- I suddenly started talking about my mother yesterday in a mini-sermon.

We had a "jazz evensong" at the church yesterday afternoon (not really an evensong in the formal sense, but let it go) and, in the spirit of jazz, I concluded my brief reflection should be improvised. I had some basic ideas going in, but I wanted to try to respond to the seasonal tunes played by the quartet in "real time," so to speak.

I'm not fond of unscripted sermons (and I am wildly hacked off by the smug condescension of those preacher-types who insist that memorized sermons are the only way to go; if I'd been able to memorize that much I'd be a singer or actor, or both, and neither musicology nor preaching would ever have crossed my path). The one time I tried to do so, the sermon went twice as long as it should have. And don't even start with that Holy Spirit crap; if the Holy Spirit only "comes upon you" once a week, for an hour on Sunday morning, you seriously need to re-examine your faith.

But, for this occasion, a meditation that was necessarily going to be brief, it seemed worth a shot.

The basics were easy enough to start with -- a lot of popular Xmas tunes (not Christmas carols, but the more secular stuff) have a fairly deep streak of melancholy in them. That led to an o.k. reflection about how this particular season can be deeply painful for some, but in some ways we only harm ourselves if we can't at least acknowledge the grief or sorrow even as we celebrate the joy of the Nativity. Not going to enter it into any preaching contests (especially since it wasn't written down or recorded), but it was, I think, working for the occasion.

Then, suddenly, I was talking about my mother.

You see, she died suddenly twenty-eight years ago today.

I told that story about as much as possible eight years ago, in one of those Facebook notes that I would occasionally write before I discovered blog sites and headed off into the fool's errand of seminary and this regularly-remade blog. I can't say much has changed. As much as I blanch to admit it, there are some years where the anniversary slips by almost unnoticed. Then there are years, like this one, where it smacks me in the face out of nowhere, in the middle of ruminating about melancholy Christmas songs.

I guess I'm caught this time by our relentless drive and unflagging energy to suppress memory that we don't want to recall. We can bury it and push it away and consign it to its place in the murky and unwanted past...until we can't.

Churches do that too, on a much larger scale. We studiously avoid reflecting on the blood on our hands over decades or even centuries, until #metoo or #blacklivesmatter or Roy Moore inevitably shines that infrared or whatever on us that shows the blood we thought we had wiped away ages ago. And it's not just any one branch; mainline church folk owned slaves and oppressed and abused women and settled themselves on land stolen from the native peoples who had lived there for centuries every bit as much as more "evangelical" types did.

Memory is unpredictable. Maybe it's just the not-quite-flu-but-bad-enough bug talking, or other general sources of melancholy, or just the unquenchable need for memory -- even the nasty ones -- to assert itself and force me to look it in the eye and acknowledge its existence, its part-of-me-ness, when I just want to get well and get ready for Sunday. But even if twenty-eight is not a round number, that memory of loss and ongoing absence is claiming my attention this year. I don't quite understand what its plans are for me, as the day winds to its close. But it his here, and it is there, and there is nothing to do but ride through it.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Say what we mean to say

So a few weeks ago I was slumming about social media, when a video link came across one feed or another. I must have been overly bored or overly curious, because I clicked.

(If you're easily triggered about things like booze, don't watch. You've been warned.)

(Still, you've been warned.)

The video that came along was visually clever, but musically about as predictable as possible. The slow build over repetitive guitars, the rather vague lyrics, the rather thin wastrel voice ... it's a worship song! And it is, of a sort.

Directness in our music is a valuable thing. There's value in naming who and what we sing about early and often. I hope that is so obvious that it didn't really need saying.

What might need saying is that such directness is also useful, even needful, when our designated 'worship' is over.

We suffer, I think, from an unwillingness or inability to speak directly. We get fumble-mouthed, or we count on others -- better speakers than we, or more informed, or something -- to do the speaking for us. Whether it is from fear of seeming "too political" or simply fear of not being able to back up what we say, we shrink back.

Well, if "politics" is at root the basic mechanisms by which human beings get things done or not, it is inevitable for the church to be "political" unless it locks itself up tight in the sanctuary and never sticks its head out. And for the backing it up part, I'm pretty sure your pastor would love to help with that.

For this Reformation Sunday I had the silly epiphany that the word "Protestant" invariably contains the word "protest" if you actually spell it right. You'd be hard-pressed to know that if your only clue about mainline Protestantism was its public behavior, or that would have been the case in an awful lot of places before Charlottesville. Even so, in other venues the fellow clergy of those hardy souls haven't picked up that torch so much. With a few notable exceptions in high places, the mainline can be awfully muted.

That helps nothing.

This is one of those sermons I preach mostly because I need to hear it; if it's useful to anyone else, good.

So, mainliners (especially the painfully introverted ones), how do we speak up and speak clearly?

So, anybody wanna go nail some theses to the door?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Leave Main Street USA behind

You may not know that my wife is a fairly serious addict of Walt Disney World. Yes, she'll also generally want to see Disney movies and other stuff but Disney World is her place of bliss. I don't share that enthusiasm, but I try to go along with it because marriage. (My one complaint is that I think we should visit Disneyland at least once, which she has no desire to do.)

Admittedly I use those trips (outside of one, for Epcot's Food & Wine festival in the fall, which I use for different purposes than does she. Usually I'm mentally deconstructing the place, trying to shake out clues to the culture that made that spot so ridiculously popular. While this works to varying degrees in the different parks, it's never more rewarding (or depressing) than in the flagship park, the Magic Kingdom.

While virtually anything in that park is ripe for such rumination, it's entirely possible that ther is no more fertile ground for it than the very entrance to the park, once you get past the ticket booths and gates (and security): the Town Square and Main Street USA.

It's the site of parades every day (at least when the park doesn't get closed by hurricanes). Behind the somewhat gaudy nineteenth-century-ish veneer, it's all about what a Main Street is frequently about: selling stuff -- in this case Disney merchandise, naturally, with some food thrown in.  It's generally crowded and noisy and extremely white (in terms of the Main Street it portrays).

It's fairly public knowledge, I think, that Main Street USA is Walt Disney's attempt to recreate (in an idealized fashion to be sure, as memory tends to do) the Main Street of his hometown in Missouri. Walt did not include one for obvious reasons, but I have to wonder what church or churches were on that "real" Main Street when he was growing up. It would be interesting to know, I think to have a clue about just what churches were busily fitting themselves into the culture, personal and commercial, exemplified by that Main Street.

May I suggest that, for some segments of the church today, that Main Street USA is a pretty good representation of the problem of some of our mainline churches and denominations?

Nostalgia can be deadly, you know. The more we yearn for what is past, the more we choke off whatever future is out there for us. And yet so much of the mainline -- from the folks in the pews to the folks running things on higher levels -- are profoundly hung up on (a) preserving what little "Main Street" real estate we have left, holding on desperately to the last little shreds of influence we have (or think we have) in Mainstream America, or (b) desperately trying to get back. For every visionary you see in a pulpit or an office or a classroom trying to urge the church forward, there is at least one desperately trying to get back to Walt's Eden, between the millinery shop and the ice cream parlor.

But that's not the place for the body of Christ to be, and it never was. The poor and the oppressed may be on Main Street in your town, but they're decidedly not on Main Street USA. And (painful as it is to say sometimes) where they are is where the body of Christ needs to be.

Even this mainline guy (UCC, right?) falls for the seduction of Main Street USA... *sigh*

Time to relocate. Put out the FOR SALE sign and look for a place closer to the need. It's not without pain (I'm not above a good chili dog at Casey's Corner), but Main Street USA is not our home, and we don't need to get caught up in trying to hold on to what should never have been ours.