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.

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.