Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Rock and roll prayers...

NOTE: From time to time church people ask me, "WHY are you so insistent on incorporating contemporary secular music into the fabric of worship?" Its a good question - not overly cranky and certainly one that deserves a careful reply - so what follows is the heart of it for me at this moment in time.

Many of us – dare I say too many of us – have been taught and trained to consider prayer as a mental exercise rather than an encounter with the Sacred. Consequently when we pray as adults, if we pray at all, it is either formulaic and ritualized or dry and devoid of emotional depth. As a result, a great many of us simply stopped praying – except in a superstitious or childlike way during moments of fear and anxiety – and part of our inner life became frozen in time. Trapped in immaturity, confused and unfocused.

To be sure, we still experience flashes of awe and spiritual delight – peak experiences of transcendence and peace – but they are random encounters with God rather than something born of regular intimacy. So we plateau, living lives filled with obligations and countless little details, frazzled and slightly over-whelmed by the demands of existence without a deeper awareness of grace. Further, while we know something is missing when we take the time to be still, we don’t know how to fill that hole with something satisfying and real. Our public lives have matured and become complicated, but our inner lives still feel childish – even unformed – so we abandon the quiet places and become busier still. And yet like Bob Dylan sang so long ago, there is a place within whispering: “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

To add insult to injury, our tradition has neither adequately equipped us with the tools to explore this emptiness nor offered the emotional permission to embrace our questions: we feel somehow unfaithful in our spiritual inadequacy – judged for our doubts – and left to flounder by ourselves when we don’t fit in. And in an era like our own, which is filled with social, moral and ethical confusion – let alone the reality of terror – many grow resentful and tired of banging their heads on the walls of a church that fails to hear our cries.

We have heard Christ’s call – “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." – but most of the time our churches treat us like unwelcomed outcasts who crash the dinner party.

And this is why I am so committed to exploring the way beauty in general – and music in particular – can help us cultivate a new /old worship experience that is broad enough to express radical hospitality and deep enough to nourish both head and heart. It is clearly why the story of the outcast woman pouring perfumed oil on the feet of Jesus continues to resonate within me for after being scolded by the insiders, Christ says, "She has done something beautiful for the Lord and wherever my story is told it will be shared in memory of her!" As Jesus makes room for those pushed to the periphery, so, too, does an expanded aesthetic of worship.

Too often our orthodoxies only honor beauty when it becomes translated into ethical living: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!" (Isaiah 52: 7) But this is only half of authentic spiritual maturity; good works and ethical living must be nurtured, cultivated and softened lest they give form to “good people in the worst sense of the word” as Mark Twain cautioned.

Beauty – and beautiful music more particularly – waters what is parched in our heart and soul. It lures us towards compassion and encourages us with hope. Indeed, it is one of the ways we experience the promise of God in Psalm 85:

Show us your mercy, O LORD, and grant us your salvation. I will listen to what God the LORD will say for God promises peace to his people, his saints— but let them not return to folly. Surely his salvation is near those who are in awe of the Lord that his glory may dwell in our land. Mercy and truth meet together; compassion and justice kiss. Faithfulness and truth shall spring forth from the earth and right relations will fill us from heaven. The LORD will indeed give what is good and our land will yield its harvest. Compassion goes before him and prepares the way for his steps.

Please be clear about this: the music we are now incorporating into worship is not about me and my quirky aesthetic preferences. That would be arrogant and ugly and unfitting to any worship encounter whether the music be traditional sacred hymnody or secular rock and roll. No, what we are attempting to explore is a new way of being prayerful. It is a style of opening ourselves to God in a manner that is spiritually embodied while at the same time conscious of culture, history and our lived experiences.

It is an experiment in giving Psalm 85 shape and form for adults of the 21st century where head and heart, heaven and earth, the holy and the human and the ordinary and extraordinary are held together in paradoxical unity and tension. In a word, it is a way of meeting God in heart, soul, body and mind with both our faith and our fears – a working understanding of faith that welcomes questions and doubts alongside of hope and love – so that the word becomes flesh within and among us.

Just as Stravinsky shocked the classical world by bringing the jarring tones of the industrial revolution – let alone the wild abandon of ancient mating rituals – into the high culture of his day with “Rites of Spring,” so this experiment in prayer incorporates contemporary popular culture in to the worship tapestry alongside traditional sacred music. It treats rock and jazz as equal partners in the marriage that is public worship and weaves the old into the new so that tradition and innovation becomes a unified garment. And when visual art – and dance and movement are added – then another level of integration and incarnation becomes possible. But always with a spirit of deep reverence and trust that if “God is really one of us” as Jesus said, then the historic wall of separation between sacred and secular must be destroyed and torn down as false and unholy.

People may prefer one style of music – or dance, sculpture, film and film making – over another, but let there no longer be that false and destructive pseudo-elitism in worship that relegates popular culture to the realm of kitsch and elevates tradition beyond its true significance. As the old hymn says, “In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth."

One guy who continues to help me put this all together is The Boss, Springsteen, who understand community, song, faith, hope and love and how beauty can save the world. Back in 1999 when he reunited his old buddies, the E Street Band, they closed their shows with a reworking of "If I Should Fall Behind." It was a little bit of soul, a whole lot of gospel and jazz and an embodied prayer of how this whole thing works. I have been blessed by Bruce in concert (U2, too) more times than in worship - sad, but true - but I don't give up. "For now we see as through a glass darkly..."

This experiment in worship takes St. Paul seriously when he tells us that in Christ there is “neither male nor female, young or old, neither Jew nor Gentile.” For by extension we might add: no “in” or “out” styles of music, no rock or classical, jazz or hip hop, high or low culture either, just one continuous expression of gratitude for a grace that sets us free. "Time makes ancient truth uncouth" our grandparents sang in the 19th century. Today, along with that old stand by, we also sing Gregorian chant, world music choruses from Africa and Latin America alongside U2 and Sarah McLauchlan. For just as Israel’s prayer book, the Psalms, included sounds of joy and sorrow, hope and anger, trust and profound doubt, so, too, our worship in the 21st century.


Black Pete said...

There is a need for churches to speak the musical language of their surrounding society, lest they fail in their stated mandate to spread the good news of God's Presence and Love. I'd argue that churches clinging to musical traditions have turned their back on their society and ghetto-ized themselves.

I've also experienced and felt that traditional church music and liturgy nearly always means leaving some part of myself at the church door when i come to worship. That void aches all through the service Part of who I am is music--rock and roll, folk, jazz; and theatre. If I'm to bring my whole self before God, why not the same in church when I'm supposed to be in God's Presence?

With all due respect to the many fine traditionally-oriented church musicians out there, I would maintain nonetheless that the role of churches is NOT to preserve traditional, and/or classical style music (see first paragraph). I think that many conservatory-trained church musicians have unthinkingly accepted a wrongheaded notion that God's music is the music of Bach and Wesley, and that the music of U2 and Bob Franke is the music of consumerist society. I over-simplify, and I can see some healthy changes, but old habits and world-views die hard, in my experience.

RJ said...

Man are we every on the same page. Thanks for stating it so well, my friend.

Kevin said...

Church isnt about "expressing Yourself" God has stated extensivly in His word that He does not accept the worship of a "worldly nature", reread Ezekiel, and Jerimiah. The reason todays "worship teams" play rock is because it's easy, I doubt they could even play "A Mighty Fortress". Most of the "top 40Christian songs" are just bragging about how much they do for God. The USA ranks around 70th in academic comparison to the rest of the world, (just ask any teenager if they can even name 70 other nations) we import more technical expertise than we produce, everything we own is imported except our pride. God said the sin of Sodom was Pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness, sounds like the USA today.

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