Sunday, October 13, 2019

New music in the church, or "newmusic"?

OK, working on getting back on track here after, what, a month and a half?...

One of my many previous jobs in my life was as a classical radio announcer. After a year or two working the Saturday afternoon pre- and post-opera broadcast shift, I actually got to move into the weekday morning slot, at the point the principal live local broadcast at this particular public radio station attached to FSU, where I was doing my graduate work. It was actually a pretty good situation for me; It got me up early and thinking about music for three hours, after which I went home and wrote on my dissertation. In truth, if it had been possible to make a living doing that, whether there or elsewhere, my life might have taken a completely different path. I think I was pretty decent at it.

Beyond the straightforward playing of classical music (mostly from CDs at that time with some LPs), my job also included the occasional live on-air interview, mostly with local musicians but occasionally pre-recorded interviews with more national or even international figures (I think the conductor Robert Shaw, who regularly came to Tallahassee for performances with the local community chorus, and the violinist Gil Shaham was probably the most famous musician I interviewed).

One interview I remember at least for a particular moment was with one of the associate deans at FSU at the time, who also worked on the annual festival of new music at the school. Now for those who are not terribly familiar with the classical music world, it helps to know at this point that when it comes to a very large part of the classical music spectrum, the church can look like a radical avant-garde movement by comparison. For an awful lot of listeners and not a small number of performers, even with only three letters, "new" is a four-letter word. Playing particularly avant-garde works on the air simply didn't happen, because the powers that were didn't want to put up with the virulent and potentially violent blowback that would result.

The task in this case became to convince listeners that a new music concert didn't necessarily mean a barrage of atonal fright sounds. I remember floundering around for a bit before finally putting the question forward for the associate dean to answer: "OK, is this concert about new music or (air quotes only visible in the studio, dramatic vocal register change, words run together) newmusic?"

There can be similar reaction to the introduction of a new hymn or song in worship, at least in some cases. Here, though, the discussion is complicated by the division of labor in congregational singing. Remember, the technical meaning of the term "hymn" encompasses the text being sung, with the music to which it is being sung being identified as the "hymn tune." While songs in more contemporary genres of church music tend to be more fixedly associated in tune and text, hymns have the inherent possibility of being sung with more than one hymn tune. Admittedly no one is ever likely to set the tune NEW BRITAIN, the one most commonly assocaited with "Amazing grace," to any other text, it could be done. Many writers of new hymns take advantage of this by writing new hymns that can be sung with already-familiar tunes. Not being a composer by any means, I am among this number when I engage in hymn writing. It's not that I have any problem with a tunesmith creating a new melody for anything I write, but I can't do it myself and attaching a familiar tune makes the hymn more accessible more quickly.

At any rate, a good marriage of a new hymn to a familiar tune can ease a lot of the apprehension about singing something new. In a sense, the new text is eased into the minds and mouths of the congregation by the tune.

Still, the advancing of new tunes as well as new texts needs to be a part of a congregation's worshiping life as well. There is too much risk of stagnation without some infusion of new musical life. Furthermore, God did not quit inspiring composers after 1900. God gives creativity as a gift to many different kinds of artists, and those who choose to use that God-given creativity to compose new music for the church should not be met with indifference and point-blank rejection.

Furthermore, a church that can only repeat and parrot words (or tunes, for that matter) decades or centuries old is dying. There it is. Ancient truths speak in new words and sing in new tunes, presenting to every generation in words and music that arrest the attention and provoke the soul to new heights of praise and new depths of understanding. Cutting itself off from that is just a good way for the church to go stale and lifeless.

Make use of your instrumentalists, dear preacher, in first of all determining the singability of a new tune for your congregation, and of all your musicians in teaching the tune to the congregation. Give it time to be heard and let the congregation join in as ready, at least the first time a new song is introduced. These are fairly basic steps that help take away the fear of the new, or at least calm it just a little.

But singing something new - not everything, but something - is vital for the life, energy, imagination, and intelligence of the church. For goodness's sake, don't choke that off.

Mind you, in some styles new music is actually welcomed and craved...

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Book Review: Holy Disunity

Stepping away from the music-themed stuff (which has obviously fallen off a bit...) to give a good word for a good book...

Williams, Layton E. Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2019.

A desperately needed book for a contentious time.

Here is a book that dares to speak what is deeply uncomfortable for many to contemplate: unity – human-instigated and human-enforced unity – is not the end-all and be-all of the Christian faith. Not only does it make this needed claim, it also explores strategies and thoughts on how to deal with disunity by recognizing the forces and injustices that drive us apart from one another. 

The author makes the stakes clear quickly; just two pages into the introduction comes the throwdown statement: “…I believe that when we pursue earthly unity at all costs, it becomes for us an idol – a distraction from the greater unity that comes from God. And in fact, I think this sort of unity – which seems to value collective togetherness over genuine complex relationship – is unholy (emphasis mine) and is driving us farther and farther apart.”

With the stakes established, the author turns to those means by which disunity manifests itself – difference, doubt, argument, tension, separation, vulnerability, trouble, protest, hunger, limitations, failure, and uncertainty. While the chapters that address these points of division speak of “gift,” the author makes clear that these things themselves are not “gifts,” but provide the opportunity for relationship to be worked through and possibly even strengthened, although that isn’t always guaranteed. For example, chapter 7 (“The Gift of Trouble”) offers the caution that “in our rush to put distance between ourselves and what troubles us, we end up putting distance between ourselves and other people whose realities make us uncomfortable. By refusing to see the full scope of their story we also fail to fully see them” (111-112). Remembering this risk prompts us to listen with renewed sensitivity and compassion, opening the possibility for greater understanding and even reconciliation.

The author, an ordained Presbyterian minister, speaks from experience, and unflinchingly names those events and places in her own life that have made these lessons necessary. That experience, honestly recognized and reckoned, gives the book an authority and depth that might be possible for others who might seek to address this subject.

There is no such thing as a perfect book, nor is there a book with which you will agree with everything said (unless you write it yourself, and maybe not even then). This book, though, is undeniably necessary in a fractious time when division and strife is too readily met with demands for unity at the expense of things like justice and mercy, things that are mandates to anyone who would claim to be a follower of Christ. Read it. Get others to read it. Get your church folk to read it. Recognize those things that trouble you or provoke tension or uncertainty or doubt, and listen to those points of conflict, and learn how relationship might yet still bloom when unity is in doubt.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Worship is a concerto (grosso), not a symphony?

I don't know for sure how old it is, but it's been out there for a while: the metaphor of worship as drama. There is some logic to it: a pastor or worship leader (or is it God) might be the director, and each has a part to play, etc. Except that if worship is a drama, who is the audience? Of course the answer is "God," in which case we are all the "actors" and ... it gets confusing.

Of course, there are other ways to think about worship and help it make sense to all who participate, some of which are better than others. Perhaps the key might be to understand the particular ideas about worship being communicated.

When it comes to the music of worship, it can be a little tricky. The musical life of a congregation may operate on many different levels even in the course of one worship period. The congregation may sing (good Lord, one hopes the congregation sings!), there may be a choir or other leading vocal body that sings separately at times, and one or more instrumentalists are likely involved as well, possibly together (if more than one) or maybe each separately.

But it's more complicated than that, even. The congregation is likely to be accompanied by one or more of those instrumentalists, as is the choir. One instrumentalist, depending on the instrument, may even be accompanied by another. So there are a lot of different possible levels going on in what is meant to be a unified whole of worship.

And all of this is made a little trickier by the theological hope that, no matter what variety of musicians may be involved in a given service, the most fundamental musical act of worship is that of the singing congregation. This is not to say that there is never a service in which a choir or other ensemble takes the lead (church choirs gonna cantata, apparently, even in the mainline), but it is to say that such services are exceptions and not the rule.

And of course, there is more than music going on in any given service. A pastor or layperson may lead in prayers or spoken responses, and (surprise!) there's usually a sermon as well. Looking at a service in which musical acts are blended in with spoken (and maybe other?) acts, the texture gets fairly complicated to capture.

As a metaphor for all this, drama certainly has some positive attributes, but it has a few weaknesses as well. The cast of your average drama may be quite large, and yet the action might well be confined to a few characters. We could reach back to good ol' Greek drama and bring up the idea of the chorus that comments on the action, but that doesn't quite work; we want the congregation to be doing the work of worship, not merely observing or commenting upon it.

I wonder if the historical world of music (my world, in many ways 😎) might offer a closer, if not so well-known metaphor or two.

Perhaps the most obvious model that might come up is the symphony. It involves a large body of musicians playing together, obviously, and that makes a fairly decent comparison to a congregation (leaving aside the issue of how large or small your congregation is). At one point I thought that would be the metaphor, but now I'm not as convinced. As noted above, worship frequently includes what might be thought of as "solo" parts, to a degree that most symphonies do not. (For the musically learned and persnickety: yes, I do know that symphonies can in fact have solo parts, and very important ones at that, like this. Chill.) Symphonies can have solo parts, but those solo parts are not characteristic of the symphony, as a rule.

Also, there's the troublesome question of who exactly is the conductor in this scenario. The quick and easy answer might seem to be "God," but if God is the audience for this music, that doesn't work. I don't think the pastor works well as conductor either; one of the soloists, to be sure, and maybe even the orchestrator depending on how services get planned in your church, but I don't think that "conductor" really works as well as it might seem to describe the pastor's role. If nothing else, the pastor seems (not literally of course) to be one of the musicians, if one who has a particularly tricky and fairly long (but not too long!) solo to play.

In fact, I'm not entirely sure there's an equivalent to the conductor. The choir director may literally conduct the choir, but is unlikely to lead any other part of the service. A lay liturgist may seem to lead much of the service, but is also likely to fade from prominence at some point; that, too, seems more of a soloist role.

At this time my best-suggestion metaphor for the church at worship is the concerto.

The concerto is also an orchestral or larger-ensemble work, but one that specifically includes a soloist or soloists. What the soloist or soloists do can be pretty elaborate (although they aren't required to be), as can be the case in certain parts of worship (and no, I'm not going to accept any claim that just anybody can get up and preach, or at least can't get up and preach well). Not everyone is particularly well-suited to read scripture aloud or lead in liturgical responses, and while everybody can sing (no matter what some jerk told them when they were younger), not everybody should sing in the choir. This holds true in much the same way that not everybody should be involved in cooking when it's time for the congregational dinner, or not everybody is well-suited to tend to the nursery. Different gifts are expressed in different roles, and all are needed.

In fact, I'll go even more specific (if perhaps a bit more obscure) and suggest that worship can be decently compared to a specific type of concerto, one known as a concerto grosso. This particular genre is found mostly in the so-called Baroque Era of the western classical music tradition, and specifically makes space for two or more soloists. Furthermore, it doesn't necessarily require a conductor, as seen in this video; a soloist or keyboardist (if there is one) might give occasional cues for the ensemble, or the ensemble may simply be so much attuned to one another and to the musical score that a conductor is not necessary (really, when thinking about a congregation, that'll preach!). And while the soloists certainly play important roles, the concerto grosso doesn't work at all without all of the members of the orchestra executing their parts.

(An aside: you'll notice that the ensemble in that second video is not very large. Just making an observation...go ahead and draw a conclusion from that...)

No analogy is ever going to be perfect, and there are certainly flaws with this one. For one thing, lots of people have no idea what a concerto grosso is. (If you mention Bach's Brandenburg Concertos to them, that might help for some.) But there's something to it. There are many voices, many parts that are necessary for worship to be carried out with both theological integrity (no accidental heresy, please) and a certain level of performative skill (dirty word, "performative," I know, but still needed). Whatever individual or "solo" moments may take place, worship doesn't work unless every member of the congregation plays her or his part.

Let the concerto be played.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Singing and listening

It was around spring or summer of 1994 when, having left behind the pursuit of a career in church music, I ended up in…a church music job. Arriving at Florida State University for doctoral study in musicology, I could not immediately get the job on campus I wanted, and ended up falling back on my old experience to have even a pittance of income.
In this case the church was in a town so far south in south Georgia that it was almost in Florida, and thus not far from Tallahassee. The choir I was to direct consisted of about seven singers; singing even in three parts was a major challenge, and many Sunday “anthems” were sung in unison. The singers knew their limitations and coped with them without too much grief, and I was not under any particular pressure to perform miracles.
When looking for accessible songs during a period when one or two members would be away, I turned to some songs in the still-new-ish Presbyterian Hymnal (1990, hereafter PH90) that the congregation used. While not nearly as plentiful as in the denomination’s current hymnal, Glory to God, hymns of global origin were present in PH90 to a degree not previously seen in one of that denomination’s hymnals. It gave the choir something to sing that, in most cases, could be learned quickly; it counted as sacred song; it was new to them and to the congregation, and therefore offered the opportunity to introduce them for possible future congregational use; and it allowed me to feel like a teacher, which I was aiming to be at that point. 
A couple of those newly-introduced songs were introduced with no particular trouble or comment. It was time to introduce the Latin American representative in this series, the song “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakesore” (Tu has venido a la orilla), by Cesáreo Gabaráin, in an English translation by Gertrude Suppe, George Lockwood, and Raquel Achón, one of the several newly-introduced global songs in this particular hymnal and one quite different in style, I was pretty sure, than this congregation or choir had encountered yet.
After a couple of passes at the song, one of the ladies of the choir spoke up. Angular face, reduced version of standard Southern high hair, and something of a reputation as a church enforcer surrounded this woman, so I was prepared for what I had feared when I decided to run with this project. (What follows is my best attempt to recreate what she said; it has been around twenty-five years since then as of this writing, and I cannot claim my memory to be that precise, but it does capture the impact of her words.)
“I was shocked,” she said, “when we went through that second verse. I would never have imagined seeing the word ‘weapons’ in a hymnal, ever. I couldn’t imagine ever thinking of that idea (the phrase, given to the singer of the song, goes ‘in my boat there’s no money nor weapons’; it has been slightly modified in GtG) being something to sing about in a hymn.” Here it comes, I thought.
She did continue, but not as I feared. “But then I realized that of course I wouldn’t imagine such a thing. I’ve never really had to worry about that kind of violence in my life, not like has happened there (violence, particularly drug-related violence, in different countries in South and Central America had been a staple of the news for some years at that point). If I’d had to go through what people have had to go through there, that might very well have been on my mind even in my singing a song to Jesus. Maybe I’d want to say that my boat was a safe place for Jesus to be when I offered it to him.”
Well, that was unexpected, but she wasn’t through. “But then I thought that maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to assume that was something that only happened in other countries. There might be places in this country where violence is a part of life enough that it might be part of how somebody might respond to Jesus – not with a boat, I guess, but maybe wanting to welcome Jesus into their home and reassure that there were no guns there. I mean, even here there might be places in our little town where that might be a thing to think about.” (A couple of shooting deaths had in fact come across the headlines in this small town at that point.)
Finally she concluded, “It’s not something I would have thought about, but maybe I should. Maybe we all should. I guess this was a good song to sing.”
To this day, that remains the best experience I’ve ever had in trying to introduce a new song in any way to any part of a church.
This is what can happen when singing is joined to listening. It’s not guaranteed to happen by any means, but it can. Particularly for safe and privileged Christians in this country (most typically white Christians at that), the singing of global hymnody is about more that simply singing something new or checking off some presumed list of virtuous things to do in worship. It is about listening as much as it is about singing.
Many if not most folks in our congregations will not travel overseas. Of those who do, most of them will not travel in areas that might produce such a hymn. We simply don’t encounter many of the citizens of the world, particularly not the poorest or most oppressed, outside of the distorting glare of news headlines or political slander. We don’t know those experiences.
Singing one hymn won’t fix everything. Singing a bunch of global songs won’t fix everything. But if even one door is opened, even if one mind is challenged, even if one soul is opened to the realization that not all of the church experiences faith the way we do, and that it might behoove us to listen to the experiences, the fears, the hopes of our sisters and brothers in Christ, isn’t it worth it?
Isn’t it?
Singing can be listening, and singing and listening might just be a seed for understanding, or at least for wanting to understand. With its capacity for getting under our skin in a way that even the best sermons or lessons or studies can’t, maybe some of the songs we sing ought to offer this opportunity.
Sing, and listen.

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.