Singing the Lord's song in a strange land...

On Saturday, October 2, 2010 I will be leading - and our band will be supporting - a retreat for the local Baptist church called, "Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land." There will be three distinct worship encounters and conversations from Taize prayer, a liturgy from the Wild Goose Group in Iona as well as our own God Is Still Speaking the Sacred Word in Secular Songs experiment.

It will be a blast... here's my short introductory essay about our experiment that will include a reworking of tunes like: I'm a Loser, Satisfaction, One of Us, 1000 Beautiful Things, 40 and Things the Grandchildren Should Know.

My life’s work is exploring the ways that music becomes prayer. It is an experiment that sometimes uses traditional liturgical language combined with so-called secular/popular music to tease out the connections between the holy and the human – but it is equally at home with poetry, dance, painting, sculpture and film, too. It is always concerned about integrating the ordinary with the extraordinary in pursuit of God’s incarnate word.

My Pentecost, you see, was that unique moment in 1964 when the Beatles first performed on the Ed Sullivan TV show. Like Little Steven of Springsteen’s E Street Band, I, too, was transformed by that night – enraptured and filled with a new sense of meaning and hope – when those boys from Liverpool took the stage. And while many in the church would not consider “Twist and Shout” a call to worship, it was as palpable for me that night in our Massachusetts living room as it must have been for the first disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. And from that time to this I have been learning how to blend and incorporate the sounds of the streets with the invitation of the Spirit.

I experienced my call to ministry when I was 16 – at the Potter’s House ministry in Washington, DC – in 1968. That was 40 years ago which means that I have been wrestling with ways of integrating art and music, poetry and spiritual renewal in the church for as long as Israel wandered in the desert. And one of the essential truths of this wandering is that I have discovered that there really is no such thing as secular and sacred. Cathleen Falsani puts it like this:

I have a favorite T-shirt that reads, "Jesus is my mixtape." When I bought it, I thought its slogan was charmingly quirky, but over time it has acquired this transcendent quality, a motto that sums up my belief that everything - everything - is spiritual. At the cent of that everythingness, as a pastor friend of mine likes to describe it, is a universal rhythm, a song we all play, like a giant, motley orchestra. Sometimes in tune, sometimes off-key. We call it by different names. Still, it remains - if only we have ears to hear it - the eternal soundtrack that plays in the background of our lives. (p. 39 )

That is what I have discerned, too: the deeper I go into the prayer of music the more I discover that everything is spiritual. What’s more, because everything is spiritual I have been haunted by the importance of connecting the center of life with the periphery and the fringe. I was a white, suburban kid, for example, who sensed a calling to the black city.

And the deeper I embraced this journey, the more paradoxical it became: I found myself living and working with Latino farm workers in the Central Valley of California, marginalized gay dancers in LA, African American politicians and clergy in urban Cleveland, radical priests in St. Louis, screwed-up rock'n'rollers all over the place, lesbian clergy in Tucson, woodcutters in Mississippi, friends in all types of 12 step meetings to say nothing of worshipping in Episcopal cathedrals, Black Baptist store front churches, bars, picket lines and seminaries. And all the while there was a growing sense that people like me - straight, white and middle class - could be part of God’s banquet of freedom with the excluded rather than the traditional gate-keepers if… if Christ’s table really was open.

One of my seminary advisers, Dorothee Soelle, calls this "class suicide," but it never felt like death to me (maybe because she was such a dramatic German and I am waaaay too Celtic.) Rather, it felt like a dance or a feast that I had to earn a right to attend, to be sure, but a dance and a banquet of freedom nevertheless. It was about joy and grace, not obligation and judgment.
“ARE YOU TIRED? WORN OUT? BURNED OUT ON RELIGION? COME TO ME... GET AWAY WITH ME AND YOU'LL RECOVER YOUR LIFE... LEARN THE UNFORCED RHYTHMS OF GRACE BECAUSE I WON'T LAY ANYTHING HEAVY OR ILL-FITTING ON YOU.” (Matthew 11, Eugene Peterson, The Message)

So now I am convinced that one of the authentic movements of the Holy Spirit in our time – a true way of listening to a still speaking God at a time when fewer and fewer people are interested in traditional worship – has to do with the prayer of music. Not only are we aching for a true encounter with the holy, but we no longer trust our historic institutions. Again, Falsani is helpful when she notes that the crying need of this generation is to be embraced by God’s grace:

Why grace? Because some days, it's the only thing we have in common... because it's the oxygen of religious life, or so says a musician friend of mine, who tells me: "Without it, religion will surely suffocate you!" Because so many of us are gasping for air and grasping for God, but fleeing from a kind of religious experience that has little to do with anything sacred or gracious. Because you can't do grace justice with a textbook, theological definition, but you can get closer by describing it with music and film, pictures and stories...

If Dostoevsky was right that “beauty can save the world,” I suspect it has something to do with the way beauty in general – and music in particular – can cut through the words and culture so that real people can experience the blessings of faith, hope and love – grace – and then turn that experience into ethical and compassionate living. Frederick Buechner said: "Pay attention to the things that bring a tear to your eye or a lump to your throat because they are signs that the holy is drawing near."

I believe he is right – and that is my hope and commitment. The poet, Scott Cairns, puts the challenge well in his poem:

He is angry. He is just. And wile
he may have died for us,
it was not gladly. The way
his prophets talk, you’d think
the whole affair had left him
queerly out of sorts, unspeakably
indignant, more than a little
needy, and quick to dish out
just deserts. I saw him when,
as a boy in church, I first
met souls in hell. I made him
for a corrupt, corrupting fiction when
my own father (mortal that he was)
forgave me everything, unasked.
“The Spiteful Jesus.”

Like so many others, I have found the “other Jesus” – the one grounded in grace and compassion – in these songs that are prayers. I hope you can, too.

I'll keep you posted. Tomorrow we head into Boston for a little time away before the fullness of autumn in the church REALLY takes off.

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