That Good Old Way

We pray, the pastor leading. Together we say a general confession and then are given time for our own silent and personal confession. Suddenly I am aware that prayer is not media-friendly. Churches web-streaming their services dare not practice silence. Music, movement, words and enthusiasm must fill each millisecond. Yet how much the human soul needs those increasingly rare and healing moments of quietness and contemplation! – Rev. Christy Thomas, “Mystery Worship That Fed My Soul,” The Thoughtful Pastor, June 18, 2015

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A baptism in a river. Far more Biblical than dunking in a tank, or sprinkling or pouring. This woman is dying and rising with Christ, as St Paul wrote.

A baptism in a river. Far more Biblical than dunking in a tank, or sprinkling or pouring. This woman is dying and rising with Christ, as St Paul wrote.

At Tuesday night’s Ordination Service, the congregation sang “Down To The River To Pray,” revived by Alison Kraus for the Coen brother’s movie O Brother Where Art Thou? Actually, the congregation didn’t sing much at all. The choir sang and some few in the congregation sang while the rest kind of sat there, not quite sure what to do. It made me sad, really, that this beautiful old spiritual didn’t have everyone singing, eyes closed, picturing ourselves gathering around the banks of a river to watch the rebirth of sisters and brothers in that cool flowing water.

According to the song’s Wikipedia page, the first printed version of the song is from an 1867 publication, Slave Songs of the United States, transcribed during Reconstruction under the title, “The Good Old Way”. In the Coen Brother’s film, the song is used to jar both characters and audience out of the narrative flow of three convicts escaped from a Mississippi chain gang. The moment is done so perfectly well in the film, it can still bring chills after repeated viewings.

And isn’t that how the best spirituals, hymns, and gospel songs should act? Shouldn’t they jar us – gently to be sure; insistently without doubt – out of our everyday, reminding us that we are singing together, our voices rising to heaven?

In something like Providence perhaps, the Rev. Christy Thomas’s entry in her “Mystery Worship” series, quoted in part and linked above (and I would invite everyone to read her simple, clear, beautiful piece) reminds readers that worship isn’t about how. It’s about who, or perhaps Who. To whom is the worship directed? How is the liturgy, the songs and the spoken word, the congregational and silent prayer structured so that the congregation becomes aware they are invited, yet again, to be called out to worship our Living God?

I continue to believe it is both possible and necessary to incorporate contemporary musics in to Christian worship with faithful integrity. In my advocacy, however, I believe I have neglected to emphasize that we need to retain what is best from our traditions of liturgy, worship, architecture, and overall feel of the worshiping experience. I despise those who dismiss contemporary musical instrumentation out of an ahistorical preference for traditional instrumentation such as the organ. When it is argued that the organ is made for Christian worship, there is little mention made of the centuries-long (and still on-going in some places) argument over what, precisely, makes for proper musical instrumentation in Christian worship. Some denominations, including the Church of Christ, continue to sing a capella, understanding any instrumentation as too worldly for Christian worship. We should honor the contingency and history of forms of Christian worship by never assuming one confession or denomination has it right. Even we United Methodists spent much of our history instrument-free, with pianos damned because of their place in bars and the sporting life, the organ to “Roman”.

We should never – ever! – discard tradition just because it is tradition. We should never – ever! – dismiss innovation because it is innovative. A favorite phrase from my seminary days explains the challenge we always face. We must keep these things in tension, a living witness to the difficulty of faithfulness in our world. Thus it is good and right there continue to be churches like the Presbyterian Church in Texas Christy attended this past Sunday. It is good and right there continues to be liturgy that offers silence and quiet, a respite from the onslaught of sounds with which we live most hours of every day. It is a blessing to enter a space built to separate those within in it, calling them together as a congregation, instead of building just another auditorium for an audience to watch a performance. We are Church, ekklesia, those called out of the world to be the Body of Christ in and for the world; our worship should, in how it looks and sounds, what is missing and in those silences, bring us together to direct our prayers, our praise, and our faith, hope, and love to the God to whom it is due.

These are just preliminary thoughts, mind you. Working it out in more detail requires time, reflection, repentance, and of course experience. Still, the challenge this simple spiritual and the history it holds; the worship experience of another reminding readers of the power of traditional liturgical forms; all this and more remind me that there is no final answer, no correct way to be about worship, and that we should work out how we do this as St Paul instructed – with fear and trembling.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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