There is no more divisive topic in Christendom than the music we employ to worship the creator of the universe. We may co-exist in uneasy unity in the midst of our differing views of the Eucharist, or baptism, or Rob Bell, but nothing predicts a surefire church schism more accurately than a preening church organist during a Buxtehude prelude or an overly earnest guitarist with rockstar moves in the sanctuary.
Someone is sure to be offended.
Welcome to my church, where the opportunities for offense abound. We sing old hymns that your grandparents probably found tiresome and archaic. We sing touchy-feely worship choruses that talk about the love of God in terms of rain, rivers, and, in one memorable instance, drowning.
We take liturgical prayers and confessions and tart them up with power chords and a backbeat, turning the Nicene Creed into an anthem worthy of Bruce Springsteen. Who needs Thunder Road? We’re on the road to heaven. At every step of the way there is ample opportunity to kvetch and moan.
Just what do these people think they’re doing?
But here’s what I do instead: I shut up and worship. I make this decision consciously, deliberately, because I am prone to criticism.
And oh, there is fodder for criticism. Every grammatical error and typo that is flashed up on the big screen, every leaden line in a well-intentioned worship chorus, every saccharine metaphor that even the Hallmark Card Company would have the good sense to reject, causes me to wince inside. The English major in me erupts in high dudgeon.
“If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking” we sing, and the snarky part of me thinks “Throw out the lifeline, throw out the lifeline, the saints are sinking away.” And then I tell myself to stop it. Let it go. Focus on the intention, not the expression. In other words, worship.
Because the truth is that’s only part of the story, and a relatively minor part at that. Our worship pastor writes some of the music we sing in our worship services. It is, as you might imagine, a calculated risk, and very much a mixed bag. Sometimes it results in music that will probably not stand the test of time. But more often that not, it results in music that connects me to my church.
Last summer and fall, a young man in our church suffered and died. He was the sweetest man in the world, with the sweetest wife and the sweetest kids, and his cancer diagnosis and subsequent suffering and death rocked our little congregation. And the music that poured out of our worship pastor during that time was exactly what we needed to hear and sing.
It reflected our heartache, our confusion, and our worship, and I wouldn’t trade those raw, non-flowery, non-theological, and supremely faith-filled songs for anything in the world. Michael let it rip, and we all benefited from his honesty and vulnerability.
It was an event that tore our hearts out. And so did the songs. Singing them together on Sunday morning, offering up our confusion, our lack of understanding, our tears, and our belief in the goodness of God, united our church in ways that a common musical aesthetic couldn’t even begin to approach.
There is no common musical aesthetic in my church. But there is a shared sorrow and a shared hope that can be sung.
And this is what I hold on to on the days when the dormant English major stirs within, ready to howl indignantly about the dearth of creativity and “poetry” that couldn’t pass muster in a high school journal. “I’m desperate for You / I’m lost without You,” we sing, and I tell myself to shut up. It’s not poetic, unless the You / You rhyme has suddenly emerged as profoundly literary. It just happens to be true.
I am reminded again of the power that music can wield in our lives. One of the prayers we sing routinely is:
My Lord, open my mouth to speak to You
Open my heart to love others
Open my eyes to see and engage suffering
I want to lose my life and find it again in You
For the sake of your Son Jesus, Amen.
With a couple minor modifications, this is an ancient liturgical prayer that dates back to the early days of the Christian Church. I’ve read it, or something very much like it, in divine hours/daily office books for years. But it wasn’t until our music pastor gave it a melody that it stuck with me. Now I pull it out throughout the day, rummage through my mind and sing it softly, and it calls me to refocus on what truly matters.
I’ve witnessed more than one church ripped apart because of aesthetic differences. We hold these views religiously; often more religiously than we hold our religious views.
And I understand. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate our most deep-seated, cherished beliefs from how those beliefs are expressed. At the same time, I am convinced that there is value in shutting up, keeping our views to ourselves, and living in the tension between perfect aesthetics and imperfect human beings who like all kinds of weird and off-putting “art.”
I bite my tongue every time one of the rain/river worship choruses begins. I picture infomercials for timeshares in the Caribbean. I remember horrendously bad pop hits from the ’70s. I recall the posters I used to sell at the Christian bookstore, posters with Bible verses and puppies and kittens.
And then I open my mouth and sing. I owe it to these unfathomable, dear, infuriating people I call brothers and sisters. I owe it to God.
I open my mouth and let it rip.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.