Sunday, June 23, 2019

Holy Communion...Blues?

First of all, go listen to this. Nothing about this post will makes sense without it. (Cue readers: "and that will be different how, exactly?"...)

You can see this little ten-minute piece is labeled "Holy Communion Blues." The recording was made in 1965 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, not in a studio (clearly). The cathedral had invited a relatively popular local jazz pianist to bring his trio in for a special service of Holy Communion, complete with hymns and choral selections for which the trio would provide musical support. Additionally the trio played instrumental selections for other parts of the service, as here, while communion was being served.

The musician in question was relatively well-known locally, but not necessarily outside the San Francisco area aside from one hit, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," recorded in 1962 mostly to fill out an album of covers of tunes from the film Black Orpheus. A second album followed, in collaboration with a Brazilian guitarist, in which bossa nova and other Brazilian influences started to make their mark on his music. Enduring popularity, however, came later in 1965, when the trio provided music for a Christmas special featuring characters from the popular comic strip Peanuts. Vince Guaraldi provided some tunes for seventeen later Peanuts specials as well as the feature film A Boy Named Charlie Brown, as well as continuing a non-Peanuts musical career until his death in 1976 (having just completed the recording for It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown earlier that day).

The Grace Cathedral service included all the expected elements of a high communion service (presided by a bishop, no less), with a choir of both men and boys for responses and hymns. Guaraldi's trio gives admirable support to those portions of the service, by turns swinging and grooving with the hymn tunes and liturgical responses without dominating or "taking over" the proceedings. More than most other commercial jazz projects, this communion service remained a service of worship (despite the unfortunate album title The Grace Cathedral Concert appended decades later), even when Guaraldi's trio played two numbers on their own.

I do own this CD and wear it out frequently, and did so before getting into the ministry. Since then (and even a little bit before) my favorite track has always been the one linked above, "Holy Communion Blues." It has remained a favorite even as the title has grown more and more vexing.

Holy Communion...Blues?

I come of that modern school of sacraments in which the sentence "This is the joyful feast of the people of God" sets the tone, very near the beginning of the sacrament, whether actually spoken or not. I'm not of the school in which the Lord's Supper (and that's the only thing you can call it) is basically a memorial service for the crucified Jesus.

And yet, I'm constantly brought to a halt whenever I run into this piece again. I can only stop whatever I'm doing (with the exception of driving, I guess) and listen, and I cannot stop from wandering off into the whole idea of holy communion blues. Seriously, if I could afford a jazz trio, or even just a solo pianist to be at our church for just one communion Sunday just to play this, I could die a happy preacher.

Quite likely the naming of this movement was not at all so intentional, as far as I know. It was played during communion, it was slow and reflective - not a swing or a stomp or a jump - so blues it is. (If anyone has any evidence to the contrary I'd love to see it. I think I'd actually feel better.) Still, that name stuck in my head for reasons I couldn't make out. Why did that juxtaposition of words so stay with me? Why, besides the understated effectiveness of the music itself, did that stick in my mind so much?

I may understand it better now.

As I've gone through all the lead-up to that surgery, with the anger and and frustration and despair that came with it, and now as I'm coming out on the other side, with emotions tending more toward sadness and melancholy, it makes more sense. It might make even more sense than Guaraldi (or whoever came up with that title) ever intended.

Every act of Holy Communion, or Eucharist or Lord's Supper, has some blues involved. It comes to the table with us.

The blues may come in the form of a broken body. Maybe it has suffered irreparable injury from outside, or uncurable disease from within. It may suffer from disease or from a cure worse than the disease. It may be moving inexorably towards final collapse or may simply be saddled with a chronic, non-fatal but ongoing condition. (I am coming to know this last well.) But so many of us come to the table with a broken body.

The blues may come in the form of a troubled, self-sabotaging mind. You, dear pastor, might never spot these challenges in the pews until it's too late: the housewife's ongoing but well-hidden depression, the former football star's deteriorating brain, the respected businessman's raging addiction, the retired schoolteacher's battle with dementia. So many of us come to the table with a troubled, self-sabotaging mind.

The blues may come in the form of old, encrusted burdens of sin and rebellion yet to be cast away. The communion hymn names two of the seeming heroes of the New Testament, Peter and Paul, each each confessing their unworthiness to be at the table - Peter for his denial, Paul (as Saul) for his persecution of the church. And yet the Host bids them come. Who knows what other past malfeasance goes unknown, its bearer unable to know or receive or accept that forgiveness yet waiting? Surely the blues may come in the form of old, encrusted burdens.

The blues may come to the table in more ways than I can possibly hope to name here - loss, grief, sorrow may be set off by so many tragedies of life. And there they all are, waiting at the table.

In the heavy evangelical church in which I was raised, much was made of making yourself "worthy" before coming to the table, even warning that "he that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation unto himself." (Yes, it was sounded in King James English, and yes, it always seemed to be males only who were at risk at this.) This was of course meant to root out some unconfessed sin in the communicant, maybe even with some sort of dramatic confession?

I suspect, though, that far more people fear themselves unworthy to come to the table for very different reasons, or perhaps simply afraid to come and to be seen in all their brokenness and sorrow. Even now I find myself wondering what bizarre sabotage my rerouted body will commit against me when I finally get behind the table for the first time post-surgery.

Thing is, though, we are all bringing some kind of blues with us. It's entirely possible the worst brokenness that comes to the table is the brokenness that has no clue how broken she or he is. But we're all broken in some way, and we're all called to that table anyway, and we're not somehow supposed to turn ourselves into superheroes by the time we get to the bread and the cup. That's not how it works. We don't turn ourselves into perfect little Christians to get ourselves invited to the table; we come, broken or grieving or troubled or afraid, and are welcomed and fed by the One who knows all those broken parts and sorrows and troubles and fears, as pathetic as they seem to us, and that One who calls us and feeds us calls us sister, brother, friend. And we come away from the table made whole - not that any one individual is "fixed," but that we are made whole - we are made one body, the Body of Christ, and we go out not as merely a bunch of broken bodies but as The Body.

And it would be a shame to miss that over cancer, or dementia, or trauma, or CTE, or depression, or even this weird thing in my abdomen.

Come to the table. Come singing whatever Holy Communion Blues weighs in your heart, but come. Christ bids you come, and the broken, fearful, troubled selves that make up the Body of Christ await your broken, fearful, troubled self.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Scripture and singing

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 comment.
It is in the Psalms 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, has the instruction "with stringed instruments," as does Psalm 67, which is a fairly specific example of direction. 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 of how that tune sounds). 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 attributed to Asaph, a chief Temple musician. Otherwise, comment or instruction on music is rather limited in scripture.
A personal favorite reference to music in the Temple is found in the oft-overlooked book of 2 Chronicles. Verses 11-14 of chapter 5 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, a moment of divine validation that any church musician would relish.
One other example of song from Hebrew Scripture is found in Ezra 3, in which a song is sung at the laying of the foundation of the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. It is a brief song, at least as is recorded in 3:11, consisting of the words “for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” (Notice how this verse echoes very clearly the refrain sung in 2 Chronicles 5.) Here there are also special instructions given about the performance: 3:10 indicates that priests were stationed to “praise the Lord with trumpets” (again echoing 2 Chronicles 5), and Levites – the “sons of Asaph” – were to do so with cymbals, “according to the directions of King David of Israel.” In addition, verse 11 states that the singers sang responsively, possibly indicating some form of back-and-forth between groups of singers. 
Of course, these examples are not particularly germane to our given subject here in at least one respect. In both the Psalms and 2 Chronicles, the singers in question are pretty clearly selected singers, not the whole body of the people. (As noted above, 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: the New Testament epistles.
There are two excerpts 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. This passage in Colossians, furthermore, has a close parallel in Ephesians 5:18-20, which speaks of “singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts” with the aforementioned psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
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.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 

who, though he was in the form of God, 
did not regard equality with God 
as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself, 
taking the form of a slave, 
being born in human likeness. 
And being found in human form, 
he humbled himself 
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. 
Therefore God also highly exalted him 
and gave him the name 
that is above every name, 
so that at the name of Jesus 
every knee should bend, 
in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
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 or chanting the tune or speaking along with the text, or if the one presiding at the meeting might actually have broken into song or chant as he or she came to this text.
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.
Other examples or encouragements towards song in scripture are fairly slight. As Jesus’s last supper with his disciples came to a close, we are told in both Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels that they departed from the supper “when they had sung the hymn” (Mt 26:30; Mk 14:26); typically “the hymn” is presumed to be a hymn traditionally associated with the Passover meal, from Psalms 113-118. While the Matthew and Mark verses refer to “the hymn,” it would be hard to imagine that Jesus and his followers did not sing all of the hymns traditionally included in the Passover observance, and that the verses refer simply to singing the final hymn of the sequence, or possibly that all of the Hallel Psalms were sung together at the close of the meal. 

The applicability of the Last Supper hymn, or any of these examples of songs among the Body of Christ recorded in scripture, cannot truthfully be applied directly and without discernment to the situation of the modern church. No matter how much some pastors or thinkers might call or yearn for a “return to first-century Christianity,” the church we serve is still a twenty-first century church, and the multitudes of centuries that have passed since these were recorded in scripture are not going away.
These scriptural examples may not provide direct models for exact copying, but they can provide guidance and suggest basic ideas or principles that may be applied for the modern practice of music in worship. We see, for example, the use of instruments in worship in 2 Chronicles (as well as Psalm 150, among others), as well as the presence of a select group of singers (a choir, in other words). The Colossians reading points to the creation and use of hymns – original works of human creation – as part of the gathering of the people, and for instruction and exhortation. The Last Supper singing provides precedent for song associated with the Lord’s Supper or Communion in the modern church, as well as acknowledging psalms as material for singing. And all of these point to the ongoing presence of song in the gathering of the children of God. 

We can also note that these are not the only examples of song, or of particular songs, found in scripture. Indeed several examples of particular songs can be noted, particularly in Hebrew Scripture, where they are placed in the mouths of particular characters in particular situations. Some of them are relatively well-known, such as the song sung by the Israelites after their deliverance through the Red Sea (“horse and rider he has thrown into the sea,” Ex. 15:1), or the shorter song sung by Miriam and a group of women directly afterwards in verses 20 and 21, largely echoing phrases from the larger song. Other such relatively familiar songs include the “song of Deborah” in Judges 5, David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1, or David’s song of deliverance in 2 Samuel 22. 
Some of these songs seem unusual in their context. For example, in Numbers 21:17-18, the people of Israel are singing to a well, presumably beseeching the well to give water, or God to provide water. The song of 1 Samuel 18, in which Saul is celebrated as having slain thousands and “David his tens of thousands,” looks in context as a key moment in the growing schism between Saul and David. 
Perhaps the most unusual, or maybe unexpected song recorded in scripture is found in Deuteronomy 32, sometimes called the “Song of Moses.” Beginning in 31:19 God instructs Moses to write the song and teach it to the Israelites, as a form of witness. In this case, however, the “witness” found in the song is at least much a witness against the Israelites as it is a witness to the providence of God. The song will “confront them as a witness,” promises God (31:21), because God knows already how unfaithful the Israelites will be in their promised land. 
Indeed the song alternates between the gracious provision and unconquerable power of God (1-4, 7-14, 36-43) and the faithlessness of God’s people5-6, 15-35). While the NRSV indicates that Moses “recited all the words of this song” (31:30, 32:44) rather than singing it, it is still consistently described as a song. It would be hard to conceive of singing it, or even reciting it, before an assembly of the people. Nevertheless, Deuteronomy records this as one of the final acts of Moses: after a blessing of the tribes of the Israelites, he climbs up Mount Nebo to die. 
If these particular instances of song are even less prescriptive of the practice of song in the modern church, they may be even more indicative of the possibilities of song. If the Song of Moses can exist as an anticipatory reprimand of the people, certainly we are not free to ignore the call of Corinthians to not only teach, but to “admonish one another” in our song (Col. 3:16). The song of reprimand exists in scripture alongside songs of victory, such as that of Deborah. 
These examples point to one clear possibility. Music and singing are described in a wide variety of contexts, even if the number of references is not necessarily large. Might it be that the full life of the church, not only Sunday morning worship, could be more musical? Might the song of the people or even the sound of instruments be a greater part of the life of the church beyond Sunday?
At minimum, the ascetic stances of certain church leaders of the past simply do not hold up against the pervasive musical life of the people of God in both Hebrew Scripture and the early church. God’s people sing, scripture proclaims, in many ways and different settings. We can certainly do likewise.

2 Chronicles 5 is kind of a favorite of mine...


Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Song of the Sorrowing Church

I suspect you will find (among pastors generally, or among particular congregations) those who will rejoice greatly in singing the oldest song of the church, as well as those who complain bitterly about it. 
Similarly, there will be some who complain and some who celebrate singingnew hymns and songs, even the newest. 
There will also be advocates and opponents of singing songs from the global church. 
It is harder to find, most likely, advocates for singing hymns or songs that are “blue,” and quite easy to find those who object to it.
This is not a reference to anything profane or vulgar, of course, but speaks of singing songs and hymns that are "blue" in the sense that we speak of a particular genre of music as “the blues.” The church needs to sing songs that contain an element of lament or sorrow.
The sound of faces scrunching up in disgust is palpable: "I don't go to church to be sad." "I thought Jesus was supposed to make everything better." “Church is supposed to be an escape from that.” (I have actually heard that last claim.)
Here's the thing, though; the most prominent and widely cited 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 (for example, John Calvin) found the Psalms an acceptable outlet for congregations to sing. And the Psalms, as you might know, contain plenty of lament. Some of them are heavy with grief, and some of them are even more angry than lamenting.
Consider, for example, Psalm 137. 

You might recognize this psalm by its opening verse; "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 as a conclusion to the psalm. This one starts dark and turns darker. 
The first six verses of the psalm are fairly familiar. The lament at being mocked with the request to “sing one of the songs of Zion!” (verse 3) by their captors and tormentors cuts deeply, and the emotional avowal not to forget Jerusalem – “let my right hand wither!” in verse 5 – is both emotionally wrenching and poetically exquisite in its expressiveness.

Things go much bleaker from there, though. In the final three verses of the psalm the emotional tone plunges into full-fledged cry for vengeance. In case you have forgotten those verses, or have somehow managed to avoid them, here is a reminder:

7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jersualem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

This shocking passage begins relatably enough. The tone of lament present in the first six verses of the psalm grows more intense and is attached to a specific event, the destruction of Jerusalem. The new element here is the naming of a specific enemy, the Edomites, and the request that God hold that destruction against them. 
It is in verses eight and nine that the psalm “goes dark” in a way most of us simply cannot contemplate in an act of meditation or even worship. Babylon, the “devastator,” becomes the focus of anger again, and the screaming yearning for revenge erupts into a vicious curse against them, invoking the brutal destruction of “your little ones” as the psalm rages to a close.
That is a dark, violent image, and many congregations are possibly unaware that the passage and its violent imagery actually exist in scripture. For those occasions when this psalm appears in the lectionary, for example, pastors might well shorten the psalm, only including the first six verses – the much more familiar and less violent portion of the psalm. Similarly, many settings and paraphrases of the psalm for congregational singing do not include the final three verses in their paraphrase or setting. 
The collection Psalms For All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship, living up to its title claim, does include settings of Psalm 137, both settings for chanting or reciting and settings for strophic hymn singing. The chant settings do include the full psalm. One such setting is accompanied by a psalm prayer, the final verses of which seem to address the rage found in those final three verses:

When loss and grief rob us of song,
may we entrust our hurts and hatreds to you,
the true and final judge of all. Amen.1

Here is one possible way of including the full psalm in worship without leaving its seemingly unspeakable conclusion dangling in midair, without comment or interpretation.
Of the versified paraphrases of the psalm included in the collection, two of them do not include the final three verses in paraphrase. The third, however, does address the verses, albeit in paraphrased commentary rather than exact reproduction:

God of memory, I remember children tumbling, not in play.
I will not forget the longing to strike back in that same way.2

Richard Leach’s hymn does in fact cover the whole psalm, and while not directly quoting the challenging verses, the setting does capture and confront the singer with the desire for vengeance found in the psalm. The singer or congregation is thus confronted with the stark realization of the anger found in the psalm and the even more stark possibility that we, too, could feel such anger in such a setting.
It is not necessarily the purpose of this discussion 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 – and even anger – to be as much a subject of song in worship, as much a care to be brought before the Lord, as our praise or our petitions. For that matter, scripture more generally is not averse to lamentations, not with a whole book by that very name included in Hebrew Scripture. 
Where this gets tricky, though, is in the practical challenge presented here, one even I cannot do much about. There really are not many such hymns out there these days. Aside from psalm settings, one could say there are extremely few lament hymns.
That hasn't always been the case. I was at a Sacred Harp sing a few years 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 created in the shape-note tradition. They sing about suffering, they sing about dying, they sing about parting. They sing songs of weeping and mourning. Alongside songs that look towards hope beyond the grave are songs in which death, for example, has a hard finality to it, such as the song “Thou Art Passing Away” found in the 1854 Southern Harmony and Musical Companion3:

Thou art passing away, thou art passing away, 
Thy life has been brief as a midsummer day; 
Thy forehead is pale, and thy pulses are low,
And thy once blooming cheek wears the ominous glow.

Thou art passing away from the beautiful earth, 
Thy much lov’d abode and the land of thy birth; 
From its forests and fields – from its murmuring rills,
From its beautiful plains and its herbage-crown’d hills.

The light of thy bounty has faded and gone,
For the withering chlls have already come on;
Thy charms have departed – thy glory is fled; 
And thou soon will be liad in the house of the dead.

This medically observant hymn contains a full seven stanzas of like tone, of which these are the first, second, and fifth. These constitute a small but non-negligible portion of the hymns in such books as Southern Harmony, Sacred Harp, orMissouri Harmonythat were popular in the nineteenth century. 
Of course, death and illness were inescapable companions for many in that era, in a way that modern Christians simply do not experience them. This distancing from death and illness undoubtedly fits hand in glove with the distance the church is prone to keep from grieving and lament in worship; which is the hand and which is the glove is a question worth considering. Still, many of our ancestors in the faith faced death and illness more frequently and more directly in lifetimes marked by struggle and hard toil. 

Mainline moderns are not accustomed to that. Beyond our medical advances and avoidance techniques, we also 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 (a collection of psalm settings) 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 does not have the word "Presbyterian" in the title). But the repertoire of lament hymns is not 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 sorrow. Maybe it may be a short-term situation or a more ongoing condition. They are there, in your congregation. Is there any part of the service, any service of worship, which gives voice to their sorrow and encourages them to lift that sorrow up to God? (One might be tempted to mention intercessory prayers, but those are often targeted towards those specifically suffering physical illness, which is not always the case for those in need of lament.)
So I am asking you (and asking myself: see below) 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, constrained 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 am unwittingly calling for radical change in how we think about worship. Either way, all those Delta bluesman were not wrong; sometimes you gotta sing the blues, even (or especially) to God.
If indeed I am asking myself to take up this challenge, I can say that I have done what I can in at least one way, one that adds to the repertory of lament hymns. Below is a text I wrote in spring 2019 in anticipation of major surgery:

With our earthly bodies broken,
            While our hopes fade into fear,
Bodies failing or cut open,
            Fates we never want to hear:
Where is Christ, the Great Physician?
            Where is Jesus’ healing touch?
Dare we question why this torment,
            Why we suffer pain so much?

Have we sinned somehow, unwitting?
            Have we failed to honor you?
Is there some great deed of service
            That we somehow failed to do?
Though your words refute such wond’ring,
            Make it clear that’s not your way,
Still we cannot help but question 
            When there’s nothing left to say.

Still you promise not to leave us,
            Though our doubting is not stayed.
You have claimed us in your kingdom,
            Though our fears are strong arrayed.
Should we fail yet to recover,
            If our wounds can never heal,
Let us not despair of knowing
            That your care for us is real.

I make no claims for this as a perfect or ideal hymn of lament, but I can vouch for its directness and honesty, even after having come through the surgery and recovering more effectively than I might have hoped. The grieving is still real.

So yes, absolutely yes, 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. Do not be a separatist, confining and shutting out the voice of the sorrowing. 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.

1Paul Detterman, Psalm prayer for Psalm 137, in Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship (Grand Rapids: Faith Alive, 2012), 896.
2Richard Leach, “God of Memory,” 1994 (Copyright 1996, Selah Publishing Company), as included in Psalms for All Seasons, 900.
3William Walker, Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, ed. Glenn C. Wilcox (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1987), 329.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Hymns: they're not just for worship anymore (actually, they never were)

So I've experienced something of a mild breakthrough in my most elementary experimentation in hymn-writing. A recently completed and posted hymn actually crossed the century mark in viewings on the little hymn blog I sporadically keep up. This recent hymn was not only viewed by a lot of friends, evidently, and maybe even some folks I don't know, but was also shared on the Facebook page of the presbytery in which I serve, which was a bit surprising, but nice.

This one is a bit more personal than most of my hymn efforts. While some were written to be used when preaching a particular sermon (like this one, which was so used, or this one, which didn't get completed in time for use), many had their roots in mundane old class assignments in seminary, and quite a few were pretty random, even to the point of waking me in the middle of the night and not letting me sleep until I wrote them down. This one was deliberate, a specific attempt to grapple with my own current health situation in hymnic form. It may have touched a nerve. (As of now it's the third-most viewed hymn on that blog, behind two of those linked just above.)

A friend let me know that she had shared the hymn with a friend of hers, who I gather to be in their own precarious health situation. This helped answer something that had been nagging at me, and also reminded me of a basic truth about hymns.

I was beginning to wonder if there might be a little vanity in posting these things online and social media. This isn't something from which one makes a living, and I have very little expectation that any of these hymns will go anywhere. So, why post? That piece of information gave me my answer; even if a hymn goes only one place, it might well be desperately needed in that place. As long as I'm going to write the things, letting them go out and possibly find a place where they might be needed or useful is only proper to do, I guess.

More basically, I was reminded that hymns, while most ideal for singing as a congregation, are not only for singing as a congregation. And they never have been.

Even before singing hymns in a congregation was a thing, such songs had another function; teaching. In a pre-literate age, one of the most effective ways of conveying a tidbit of doctrine or theology was in song; people liked to sing, and it gave that tidbit of learning a fighting chance of being remembered. They were a form of popular song, and were deeply tied to the theological teaching of those who wrote and taught them. (There's a whole scholarly book on this connection of hymn and theology in the work of Ambrose of Milan, who was writing such songs way back in the fourth century.) In other words, it's perfectly o.k. to sneak some hymnals into your Sunday school classrooms and let song break forth, and I don't just mean in the children's classrooms.

Clearly, a hymn can become a means of personal comfort. Here is where those wildly individualistic old hymns and gospel songs have potential value. In devotional use, a hymn that is all about "I" actually makes sense. While I'm always going to want to keep careful watch over how often such songs get into congregational use, personal devotional use is a natural home for such works.

Anyway, as I now launch into an extended leave of absence for those aforementioned medical reasons, I am beginning that time with a three-week stretch of professional development sandwiched around a week of vacation with my wife. The first of those events, later this week, is an actual workshop in hymn writing. Since what was little more than a dabble has begun to claim more of my attention, I figure I might as well probe a little further to see if there is something worth pursuing about it. I may just get shut down, or I may be encouraged. Who knows? But I am reminded that there are a lot more potential reasons to pursue such a venture besides Sunday mornings.

They even write books about using hymns as devotions, see?

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Dear Pastor: Music is not magic

You've quite possibly heard or seen it before.

"If we just (implement x kind of music), we'll (get result y)."

Though it seems most often applied to the x and y "do praise and worship music" and "get young people in church", it really can apply across a wide array of musical styles, each of which has an audience, so to speak.

"Big classical choral music"? "People with money." (The public radio approach, you might say.)

"Good ol' gospel music"? "Real faithful Christian folk." (Judgmental much?)

You get the idea, and you can probably fill in the blanks yourself, no matter how broad or limited your musical experience. Whenever churches go looking for a magic elixir to "revitalize" or boost their numbers, music in worship seems to be a really popular place to start.

And on some level, it can work. A newly-instituted contemporary worship service can draw in some of the curious. A big fancy choir can get some onlookers. I don't know of any church that has decided to go whole hog on the gospel song approach out of the blue, but they might just poach a few old-timers from some churches if they did.

So yes, as the title of this article wants to suggest, contemporary Christian music (or gospel song or "traditional" hymnody, whatever that means) probably is bringing Christians together.

It (whichever style you name) is also driving Christians apart.

Note that I have not read and am not at all referring to the content of the article (I assume I'll get around to reading it eventually, but I'm pretty sure it won't be before Easter Sunday). Since the article is in Christianity Today I can safely that their audience is not my audience, or at least my target audience. But the title itself, as a new iteration of this familiar old refrain, is enough to provoke comment.

And that comment is one rooted in nothing more complicated than human nature. Some will glom onto the contemporary thing, others will run from it as fast as possible. And you can go down the line through whatever variety of congregational song you please, and you can get the same result.

There is reference here to a hoary old trope of music as somehow a great unifier. That itself is probably some variant of the even hoarier old trope of music as a "universal language." Do yourself a favor and spend some time with a broader variety of musics from around the world before ever uttering that line, please? For that matter, spend some time with, say, Hildegard of Bingen and Anton Webern and see if that "universal language" idea still makes sense to you. Folks who try to talk the "universal language" thing are probably not widely familiar with a lot of things, or are mostly interested in pushing a highly Westernized version of those musics (this happens a lot in popular music, in which Western - read 'American' - influence is almost impossible to escape).

One could argue that the same thing has been true in what might be called the "global song of the church" as well. Those in various "mission fields" were largely fed translated versions of American or European hymns as the stuff of their worship. It took quite a while to get away from that tendency and to see the growth of more indigenous musical expressions of faith and gospel begin to grow. Even so, any degree to which the "brings people together" argument for global church song might hold water is going to be largely a colonialist legacy as much as anything Christian.

The same is going to be true across other styles as well. The contemporary Christian impulse has a huge component of stylistic export involved, with the style being extremely American even if its biggest producers come out of Australia.

Disturbing colonialist legacies aside, it really never is the music itself that "brings people together." Music is not magic, as the title here suggests. The uniting or dividing is done by people, just as pretty much everything that happens in or to the church, for good or ill, is done by people. If some number of people choose to come to a church because of its musical performance style (and some number in turn choose to leave or stay away), it's the people doing the moving and choosing.

It would be far more accurate to say that in choosing a particular musical idiom for your congregation, you're also choosing a potential "target demographic" that you hope to bring in. If you end up drawing more baby boomers or GenXers than millennials with your contemporary service, which could easily happen, that's another issue, but the choice to plant one's flag in a particular musical category is also a choice about who you want in your church. Frankly, it should be openly acknowledged as such. You'll get exceptions to the rule for sure, but be clear about exactly what you're seeking with your church's musical choices.

This frankly is not even about declaring such choices right or wrong. You do you, dear pastor. But be honest with yourself about exactly what you're trying to do when you make one musical choice or another, and don't expect music to be a magic elixir that brings the entire world (no exceptions) under your roof.

But what about the people who didn't go to the concert?

Sunday, March 17, 2019

My worship. MINE. (Another angle)

So it's been a little while since this post, in which the subject of a church offering multiple styles of worship service became a jumping-off point for thinking about the perception of worship as MINE (a la the Finding Nemo birds). There is another angle from which such a title invites reflection, one that touches both on a history of the hymnody sung in many of our churches and possibly certain current practices as well. In this case the problem at hand can be boiled down to three letters: "I," "we."

Worship is a corporate act: that is, the body of Christ is joined together to do worship. For all the folks who go on about how they "find God" in nature or music or whatever, that isn't worship, so let's not be confused here. The very point of worship, right down to the songs sung, is to join that body, that community together in praise of God, confession of sin, proclaiming and hearing the Word and responding to that Word, and being sent out from the gathering to do Christ's work in God's world. It's something we do.

Of course, there have been stretches of the history of the church where its hymnody and congregational song didn't always reflect this sense of the body gathered in worship. Take, for a few examples:

"Will there be any stars in my crown?"
"Face to face with Christ my Savior"
"On Jordan's stormy banks I stand"
"When the roll is called up yonder I'll be there"
"O that will be glory for me"
"When I can read my title clear"
"I am satisfied with Jesus"
"Make me a blessing" (Or, "Make me a channel of blessing" - both present)
"Must I go, and empty-handed"

You get the idea. This comes from the first hymnal of my childhood, a reasonably narrow range of that hymnal. There are, of course, other hymns directed at God without first-person singular or plural usage, and it should be noted that there are also hymns that do reflect a more corporate position ("We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves," "Light of the world, we hail thee," "O God, we pray for all mankind," "We've a story to tell," "We shall see the King someday," and of course "Shall we gather at the river" also appear.) But that's a lot of first-person singular.

And when that much first-person singular gets drilled into your head Sunday after Sunday, it makes a difference. Congregational song forms us, every bit as much as anything else we do in the church and maybe more given the insidious nature of music as what Frederick Buechner called a "subcutaneous" art, one that gets under your skin.

Now imagine such song getting under your skin for thirty or forty or fifty years.

If you want to talk about some of the things that challenge the church as it stands now, and the degree to which the "mine mine mine" mindset affects the church, this is a possible surreptitious culprit to think about. If we spoke before about the possessiveness that can form around a particular worship style or service, it's worth considering how much similar possessiveness can form around a particular church itself. Indeed, the two go hand in hand.

You end up with a church that gives off the vibe or mindset of "don't change anything as long as I'm alive." They can recognize that something's not right, can see that what used to work great doesn't work so well, what used to pack them in now pushes them away, and so forth and so on, but still "don't change anything as long as I'm alive." It's almost become a part of that church's DNA. That particular body both functions as a collection of individuals and as an "individual" fearful of anything that might disrupt each comfort zone. And all the individualized congregational songs, if we take the whole idea of music and its influence seriously, have to have had an effect on that church's (or that collection of individuals') mindset.

[Note: you will possibly remember that I am not of mainline origins, so my experience - you might think - is not relevant. True, I am not of mainline origins; however, you'd be surprised how much churches that get counted as "mainline" now have rather substantial histories of much more "evangelical" approaches to worship, especially to congregational song. Maybe not in downtown Philadelphia, but, across (ahem) certain regions of the country, ... we'll just say that Southern Baptists and Presbyterians didn't necessarily sound all that different when it came time to sing.]

Now, here's the question: how much of that "I-me-mine" mode of thought still exists in congregational song? Others will have to tell me how much of that characterizes "contemporary" worship. Most hymnody that has come out of the mainline has gotten better at emphasizing the "we"-ness of worship, and other sources such as the Iona community are pretty good at keeping song corporate. (Still, some newer hymns do slip into the individual - "O Christ, surround me," Glory to God 543, comes to mind.)

But it's a thing to be aware of. Are we forming the body of Christ, everyone all together? Are we singing "we" when it's necessary to sing a first-person pronoun? There is some - some - space for congregational songs from an individual position, but it shouldn't be the bulk of the repertoire. A church full of Finding Nemo birds doesn't end up being a church with much future.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

My worship. MINE.

As has been mentioned on occasion here on this blog, I really try to stay in my mainline lane. This is in part because the mainline, as more or less always, needs to get its act together; in part because I'm not an evangelical, and my memories of when I was one aren't pleasant; and in part because as the two branches of the church currently stand I have a tough time even finding any kind of basis for even a starter conversation, particularly on the subject of music and worship where I have chosen to place myself.

(I also tend to avoid Patheos, most of the time, since they somehow decided an unrepentant Mark Driscoll was a good person to add to their roll of bloggers. Oh well.)

This particular post, however, somehow got brought to my attention (I blame Facebook). And while there are points here or there with which I can find some sympathy, and I'm an acknowledged non-fan of the so-called "contemporary" worship business, I'm a little bit uncerain whether the author here is overlooking something pretty basic about how large numbers of Christians of whatever make or model tend to approach worship.

As you can see, the author finds problematic the somewhat common practice of offering multiple worship services in varying "worship styles" (which he calls "cafeteria worship"; more on that later). To be precise, he contends that it is killing the church (which he almost immediately calls an oversimplification, to his credit).

I think on some level, while I can understand such frustration, the contention ignores something pretty basic. I don't know if it's "killing" the church to do multiple services in multiple styles, I am also dubious that it is particularly growing the church either, on the macro or micro level. For one thing, on the local level, it's pretty hard for any one church to actually be good at multiple styles of worship. The skill sets are not necessarily the same across the three. In such experience as I have, one of the worship services feels "native," for lack of a better word, while the other(s) feels like it's being done by people who don't really know how.

So, to address this, new folks are brought in. In this case, let's say it's an experienced "worship team" brought in to lead the contemporary service. Presumably under this leadership, it gets better. The pastor may still be involved, but it's pretty unlikely that she or he is actually overseeing this service, as that's not to be how it works when you've brought in a worship team. In a larger church, maybe one of the associate pastors ends up with primary responsibility for that service. Good for him/her, perhaps, a chance to lead more often. But as the two (or more) services grow more distinct in leadership and direction, guess what? For all practical purposes, you've got two (or more) churches. Give it enough time and the folks in one service don't even know the folks in the other.

And more, it isn't merely about worship being reduced to "my story," as the author puts it. I don't necessarily agree or disagree with the claim so much as I think it doesn't go far enough. Worship isn't merely reduced to "my story": worship is reduced to "mine."

A little experience here: a church in my past got into a heated disagreement over proposed changes to the two worship services needed due to personnel changes and slight decline in attendance. Make the changes to the other service. Don't change MY service. This was a very frequently repeated defense as the disagreement grew. MY service. MINE. All I can hear in my head is those birds from Finding Nemo. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE MINE...

Here's the kicker: the two worship services were exactly the same. All the way through. Even the poor choir sang both services, although the membership represented in each was different (and this was apparently part of the problem, one "branch" of the choir was losing too many members to keep up the pace). But no one could countenance a change to MY worship.

As you might guess, MY worship isn't really worship, or virtually cannot be. It doesn't go outward at all. It is constrictive to the soul, but then there's a pretty good chance that the effect works in the opposite direction; constriction of soul rigidifies worship, or capacity to respond in worship, until the only worship acceptable is MY worship.

(Oh, and attempts to blame such rigidity on, say, reliance upon liturgy as a structure for worship - which I have heard lobbed around - make about as much sense as insisting that all humans must alike because we all have skeletons. Don't be fatuous. "Free" worship can get just as samey as anything liturgy-based.)

In short, while disuptes over musical styles often take the blame for disputes over worship, the root is much deeper in most cases. At that root, we will find that, no matter our tradition, we are at odds with one another over the very question of what worship is and what it is for. Until we are coming together on why we are even there on Sunday morning or whatever time we gather, all the musical questions in the world won't get us anywhere.

Don't blame the music, whatever style it may be. We're going to have to look deeper and ask more challenging questions. And there's no guarantee, even if we do find a way forward, that such understanding will stop a church's or the church's "decline" however one is defining that.

Ultimately, we might as well put our energy and passion into, oh, I don't know...worshiping God.