Everything belongs: secular music in our sacred places...

NOTE: Here are my notes for this coming Sunday's message. As a part of our summer series, Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Grace, I'm building on last week's insight re: "everything belongs." This week, using texts from Genesis and John 1 as well as five "secular" songs, I want to show how God's still speaking voice is present to us all in even a vastly secular culture. Further, I want to suggest how weaving our ordinary music into our sacred culture brings added depth and context to an incarnational spirituality. Join us at 10:30 am if you can...

The 16th century French theologian, Jean Cauvin – better known to us as in the United States as John Calvin – once observed that knowledge of self leads to knowledge of God while knowledge of God always points towards knowledge of self. In his life’s work, The Institutes of Christian Religion, this brilliant and broken thinker observed that: “No one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he ‘lives and moves’ (Acts 17:28)” and has his being.

Positively, when we acknowledge our blessings – our gifts and abilities as well as the essence of life itself – we sense that we have been formed by a creator. “By these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us,” Calvin wrote, “we are led by rivulets to the spring itself.”

And negatively, when we consider our failing and wounds – our emptiness or sin – we yearn for God, too. “Just as hunger drives us to look for food, so also our unhappiness drives us to seek the source of true happiness… for we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God.”

Whether we win or whether we lose – whether we suffer or celebrate, begin with so-called secular considerations or those of the sacred realm, reflect on ourselves first or look to God in everything – all of creation points us in the direction of grace. St. Paul was clear: “we know that our suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character leads to hope and our hope does not disappoint because it has been poured into our hearts by the very Holy Spirit of the Lord.” (Romans 5: 3-5)

So, during this month that marks the 500th anniversary of Brother Calvin’s birth, I thought it prudent to begin our consideration of how secular popular music can enrich both our worship and our prayer lives with this insight from the master. Our tradition, you see, is holistic – comprehensive – attuned to the truth that God’s still speaking voice is present in the totality of creation. That is why we can confess that contemplation of self inevitably leads us to seek God. You see, from the very beginning… the word was becoming flesh within and among us.

Words from Scripture
GENESIS ONE: First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don't see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God's Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. So God spoke a word: "Light!" and light appeared. God saw that light was good and separated light from dark. So God named the light Day and named the dark Night. It was evening, it was morning— Day One.

Then God spoke another word: "Sky! In the middle of the waters; separate water from water!" And God made sky… And there it was: It was evening and it was morning— Day Two. Once again God spoke a word: "Separate! Water-beneath-Heaven, gather into one place; Land, appear!" And there it was. God named the land Earth and named the pooled water Ocean. God saw that it was good… and there was evening and there was morning – day three.

In time God spoke again: "Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature so they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth." So God created human beings; created them godlike, reflecting God's nature. God created them male and female by speaking a word… and then God blessed them: "Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth."

And when God looked over everything that had been created by the Word it was so good, so very good! It was evening, it was morning— Day Six… and on the seventh day when God looked at all creation and called it good… God rested.

First this: the Word. The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one. Everything was created through the Word; nothing—not one thing!— came into being without him. And what came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; and the darkness couldn't put it out…

Now the Life-Light was the real thing: Every person entering Life is brought into Light. In the beginning the Word was in the world, in fact the world was there through him, and yet the world didn't even notice. He came to his own people, but they didn't want him. But whoever is open to the Word, those who believe and follow, he made them to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves. These are the God-begotten, not blood-begotten, not flesh-begotten, and not sex-begotten. And the Word became flesh and blood and moved into our own neighborhood.

One of the challenges that people of faith in the 21st century wrestle with is how to construct an integrated spirituality. This was actually Calvin’s challenge, too, but he lived in a far more “God conscious” era than we do – a time when people began with God at the center of creation – rather than as an afterthought. That’s why I have come to articulate the quest for a contemporary spirituality like this:

• We are yearning for a way of integrating our public with our private lives – our sacred and our secular ethics – our sense that everything belongs with our experience of segregation and alienation.

• How do we strengthen compassion and justice – community and hope – when all around us we are confronted by us and them rhetoric and that incessant chorus about winners and losers?

Our Reformed tradition suggests that one antidote to the insanity and busyness of the world is worship – and I think that is true. Worship can be a place of both silence and stimulation - solitude and community - a center where I can raise my voice in song and prayer to the One who is Holy while wrestling with and reflecting upon my immediate human experiences.

You see, I need help discerning where the word has become flesh: I need a context – an earthy reality check. And all too often, I don’t find that in the music and prayers of my tradition. I find lofty hymns and words that point to God’s transcendent power and presence. And I find a great deal of elevated poetry. But not a lot about the messy and earthy reality of God’s word made flesh where I spend most of my time. Here’s a song – and a prayer – that offers an alternative.

(from a recent practice....oooh that penultimate note in the break really hurts!)

Here – alongside the beauty and majesty of tradition – is something of my real experience: a slob like one of us. This unity of the holy and the human – the joyful and the wounded to extend Calvin’s insight – gives me hope because I need both, yes? Both God’s healing power and God’s suffering presence within my pain.

• That’s the first insight I want to affirm with you today: some of the music of popular culture points to where God is taking up residence within and among us. In fact, it often is much richer and more real in this regard than most of our hymns.

• Listen to how country singer, Mindy Smith, expresses the ideas found in “Amazing Grace” in a modern context…

(Play “Hard to Know” by Mindy Smith…)

This is a prayer – a lament – and a confession that sounds like St. Paul to me. First she is saying that no matter how hard I tried all by myself, it led to only pain and emptiness. And second, God never abandoned me even when I was in the pit.

• Are you with me? In a raw and thoroughly secular way, she is preaching the wisdom of the Cross.

• How did Paul put it in Romans? “We are certain that neither death nor life, angels nor principalities, things present nor things to come nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

That’s a message the culture is aching to hear – that’s a message I am aching to hear – and she found a way to get it out there through the power of country radio. My man, Mark Everett, the heart and soul of an alternative rock band called “The Eels,” pushes this edge a little farther in his song: “Hey Man, Now You’re Really Living.” In fact, I think he gets it better than most sermons when he talks about how God’s love is flesh in the totality of our human experience…

St. Paul took up the quest of Christ in the first century and invited all different kinds of people into the spirituality of the incarnation: Jews and Gentiles, women and men, rich and poor, strangers and friends, those who loved the Lord and those who hated everything religious. And one of the ways he did this was through borrowing the poetry and music of the popular culture of his time.

• Chapter 17 of Acts tells of the time Paul travelled to Athens and shared the gospel with a sophisticated Greek audience. All around him were statues to Greek deities, poems and songs from Greek culture and images and ideas from a rich and noble tradition very different from his own. There were wounded people alongside incredible beauty. There was pain and there was wisdom.

• So Paul began his conversations with the poetry and beauty of the popular culture of his day. Whatever is true and beautiful and noble, he taught, is of the Lord whether that starts in Greece or dare I say rock’n’roll.

Over the years, I have found that by blending secular music into worship – making spiritual connections with the ordinary life experiences of those who don’t usually consider themselves spiritual – we begin to discover a common language. What’s more, when the music of our work place is played in our worship centers and sanctuaries, everything is lifted up. This isn’t dumbing down as some suggest; rather, it is searching for the sacred in even the lowly manger – or on a Cross – on in human flesh.

• The British band, Coldplay, is a master when it comes to blending sacred and secular images in their music. And right at the time of our economic collapse and crisis, they put out this song about the healing and hope that comes with lowered expectations.

• In language very similar to that found in Ecclesiastes, they sing about once ruling the world and the misery it caused – but now that they have changed course – and experienced forgiveness – they can ask, “Who would ever WANT to be king…?” What's more, like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, they warn about the consequences of building a life on shifting sand.

(Play “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay…)

This morning we have shared with you a few songs from the vast repertoire of popular culture in the 21st century that deserve a place in worship. I think that these tunes are simultaneously prayers as well as part of God’s still speaking voice to our culture.

Not all pop culture does this – and I am not speaking about baptizing the vulgar and violent – let alone the stupid and obscene. Rather, I am trying to make three points:

• First, God is speaking to us – even when we’re not in church – through some of the best songs on our radios.

• Second, some of the music of popular culture can deepen our prayers and help us live into the challenge of incarnating Christ in our generation.
In fact, some of this music is more honest and authentic when it comes to the word made flesh than we are comfortable with…

• And third, the language of popular culture can help us build bridges – and overcome alienation and segregation – with those who yearn for hope and a loving faith community.

So, we’re going to close this portion of worship with a contemporary song that is really more gospel anthem than rock and roll. It speaks not only of the pain and confusion we knew after September 11th, but of the chance to rebuild in the spirit of humility and hope.

• In a word, it speaks of creating a safe place where we can expose our doubts and fears, an honest place of radical hospitality and humility and an open place that transcends fundamentalism of any hue.

• That is a holy/human place that is big enough to receive my tears and laughter as well as my gifts and wounds with equanimity.
Music communicates on a host of levels - it can say to people your experience is real and has a place among us, or, it can tell folks to stay away - it can remind the gathered that all of our human realities are embraced by God's grace - or it can say we are a club for those who look and act right. My belief, my deepest conviction, is that Christ's incarnation despises anything that would diminish or degrade our humanity. Lord, may it be true among us...



Anonymous said…
I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


RJ said…
thank you for your kind words... I am glad you are enjoying it.

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