We are both drums and wind instruments...

Tonight the liturgical poet, preacher and musician, Tom Troeger, spoke to a gathering of clergy and church musicians in the Berkshires. It was a hot day in the mountains - spring was here on Friday and suddenly it was 80 degrees and summer. Still, it was an engaging talk about three inter-related ideas that continue to shape and inform my commitments to the church:

+ First, he noted that we are all simultaneously percussion and wind instruments - heart and voice together - and music is one of the ways we reconnect to the primal blessing of being created in the image of the Creator. Our hearts beat by the grace of God. Our communication was born through our cries and laughter. And music brings all of our creativity into communion with the very heart of creation.

+ Second, the music of worship - when it embraces the totality of the human experience - helps us reconnect with this primal blessing. It cultivates depth and breadth, beauty and trust - and is the only human activity that engages the whole brain. Too often much of the contemporary church avoids tunes in a minor key because "people want something upbeat." Now, guild members can be snobby and elitist as hell about playing dead and uninspired music, but Troeger's point was well taken: human beings weep and celebrate, live in confusion as well as clarity and unless the music of worship takes us into those "hard places," we will only have exposure to sentimentality and half-truth. And as Gertrud Mueller-Nelson likes to say: a sentimental half truth is... a lie.

+ And third, because music has become ubiquitous in the 21st century - think the blessings and curses of our IPOD existence - the worship experience may be one of the few places where we can join our voices - and bodies and souls - together in doxology. Music, in other words, is a way to break through our isolation and strengthen our best selves in community.

Two stories are illustrative (and I have experienced them in my own way over the years in ministry.) As anyone who has ever spent time with aging people know, long term memory is the last to go - and many times I have sung "memory bank hymns" with people in the hospice unit when no other form of communication seems to work - and the experience is life changing. "Precious Lord, take my hand..." becomes a whole other thing in this setting - a prayer as well as communion - and we need to do everything we can to keep these connections happening.

Then Troeger spoke of a man who had once been strong and faithful but fell into hard times and lost his sense that God was real. "Did you stop attending worship?" Troeger asked. "No, I kept going, but I only heard the organ prelude... and the postlude. I don't remember ANY sermons or prayers or scripture. Just that beautiful, soulful music. And then one day - after years and years - it hit me that there MUST be a God - something more - if music that beautiful could be created and played and shared." Music, you see, was this man's path back to faith. And then he started to weep because he confessed that he had never told his church organist this story - and what her music meant to him - and now she was dead.

In a vastly different setting, Anne Lamott says much the same thing about her journey into faith: she used to sit in the back of her church and weep and weep over the hymns. She left before anyone could speak with her but kept coming back over and over again for the hymns. And eventually, those old, old hymns paved the way for her sanity, sobriety and faith.

One of Troeger's new baptismal hymn's puts it like this:
What king would wade through murky streams
And bow beneath the wave,
Ignoring how the world esteems
The powerful and brave?
Water, River, Spirit, Grace,
Sweep over me, sweep over me!
Recarve the depths your fingers traced
In sculpting me.

Come bow beneath the flowing wave.
Christ stands here at your side,
And raises you as from the grave
God raised the crucified.
Water, River, Spirit, Grace,
Sweep over me, sweep over me!
Recarve the depths your fingers traced
In sculpting me.

I was blessed tonight as I sat in the church that Jonathan Edwards preached in after his congregation kicked him out of Northampton. Stockbridge was once the western most boundary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony - and most of the congregation was made up of Indians. Some of Edwards' most mystical and beautiful writings took place here and I am grateful that the way of music is not only the way our heart reconnects with God, but that more and more of us are awakening to its original blessing. One of Troeger's communion hymns says...

Save me from the soothing sin of the empty cultic deed
And the pious, babling din of the claimed but unlived creed
Let my actions, Lord, express what my tongue and lips profess
When I dance or chant your praise, when I sing a psalm or hymn
When I preach your loving ways, let my heart add its amen
Let each cherished outward rite thus reflect your inward light.


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