A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ – Isaiah 40:3-5
—–People get ready
For the train to Jordan
Picking up passengers
From coast to coastFaith is the key
Open the doors and board them
There’s room for all
Among the loved the most – “People Get Ready”, music and lyrics by Curtis Mayfield—–
Depending on when you counted the real start of the 20th century’s Civil Rights movement in America, by 1965 great legal strides had been made while socially and culturally things were hardly changed at all. The movement really peaked in 1963 with the March on Washington. Thousands still marched, still organized, still protested, still got arrested, still pushed and pushed the social and cultural boundaries.
That year The Impressions, a vocal group from Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project, released a song called “People Get Ready”. Similar to a slave spiritual lyrically, using the metaphor of a “train to Jordan” to talk about the need to continue to fight for African-American equality, it featured Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto reassuring people they “don’t need no baggage/Just get on board.”
Instantly this song became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement. King would play it at rallies. The Impressions were invited to sing at various Civil Rights meetings, protests, and marches. The song’s greatness, usually missed, lies in the mixture of a sweet, easy-going melody, Mayfield’s clear falsetto, both of which mask the militant insistence of the lyrics. This is no “nice” song. This is a song for people facing cops with guns, dogs, and fire-hoses, people who won’t stop because they can’t stop. This isn’t a movement. This is a locomotive that will run over anyone who gets in the way, trying to prevent people from reaching their destination.
This fourth week of Advent is a time we recognize our waiting is coming to an end. There is still preparation needed, of course – isn’t there always? – but we should remember that when the moment comes, when the Day to remember the birth of Christ; the day to celebrate the presence of the Savior; the day to look forward to our fulfilled hope of the promised return; that day comes as a thief in the night. Whether we are fully ready, the Christ-child comes, God enfleshed and living among us.
This Christ is the one who travels the straight highway in the desert. This Christ is the God With Us who makes all things new. This Christ is the one who insists we need bring nothing with us except our faith and being along with Him, who can oppose us? At Christmas we do so much more than consider a babe being held by his loving mother and father. At Christmas we do more than welcome the risen Christ in to our homes yet again. At Christmas, we renew our pledge to climb aboard the train and head to the promised land.
And that promised land, like the one at the end of the desert highway; like the one King spoke of his last night; the destination of that train is the promised land of peace, where the wolf shall lie down with the kid, the child shall play over the adder’s den and not be afraid, and swords shall be beaten in to plowshares. We are on a train not just to racial equality. We are on the train that delivers us to the Kingdom, a place where the infinite worth of each and all is more than recognized; it is celebrated. We are on the train that delivers us to freedom, real freedom, the only freedom that matters: The freedom to be fully human, to be the people God created us to be.
This Christmas, as you sit and watch your children and grandchildren unwrap gifts; as you sip a glass of wine in the evening; as you hug your family; remember that baby whose birth we celebrate isn’t just “some baby”. This baby is the engineer on the greatest ride of all time, the Train to The Promised Land. We’ve been getting ready for three weeks, and here it is. You don’t need a ticket, so just hop on board.
N.B.: I won’t be around Sunday, and tomorrow is going to be pretty crazy, so I’m publishing this a couple days early. I’m sure Jesus won’t mind.
Take nothing less, than the second best
Do not obey, you must keep your say
You can past the test
Just move on up, to a greater day
With just a little faith
If you put your mind to it you can surely do it – “Move On Up”, last stanza, music and lyrics by Curtis Mayfield
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’- Luke 1:46-55
Week three of Advent is typically celebrated as the Sunday of Joy. As we move ever closer to the day of the birth of the Christ Child, what began with hope rooted in love now moves to joy as the full import and impact of the Incarnation grows in the hearts and minds and lives of believers. Who can help but be joyful?
Certainly Mary, the mother of Jesus, couldn’t. Upon arriving at her cousin Elizabeth’s, as the older woman told her of how she felt her baby move and the Spirit fill her, Mary offers a tuneful prayer to God for the blessing that shall flow from her to all. These blessings aren’t feelings. Her joy isn’t some private affair. On the contrary, the blessing she feels and that flows from her to all through the child she will bear is nothing else but the revolutionary upsetting of the powers and principalities of this world in the face of God’s love and justice to be embodied in the life and person and death and resurrection of Jesus. Joy overwhelms Mary, just as it should overwhelm all of us at the thought of what God is doing. Not just what God has done; not just what God will do; what God is doing here and now. If we can’t see it, if we can’t proclaim it, then we don’t know the power of God.
From the early-1950’s through the early-1970’s, the African-American community moved from resistance to resistance, from victory to temporary defeat to victory to confrontation to defeat again. From the days of some early Supreme Court victories that began to strip segregation in public employment, public housing, then private housing, then public higher education, the edifice of legalized white supremacy began to crumble. With each victory came a desire for more, for real freedom. With freedom came the desire to declare the dignity of a people worn down, despised, dehumanized, murdered, their art and their work and their lives stolen for the material and spiritual gain of those who hated them. From the simple, earnest declaration of equality to the defiant declaration of Black Power, the African-American community made great strides in forcing the larger society to see and hear them as human beings.
Curtis Mayfield, as the poet-laureate of the struggle for black freedom and dignity, offered a vision of Black Pride and Black Power that defied white stereotypes of “the angry black man” that still rule way too much white thought about African-Americans. He’d already penned themes for the Civil Rights movement that Martin Luther King had incorporated in his rallies. Now, with “Move On Up”, he showed that pride and struggle are rooted in joy. One cannot contend for freedom and dignity unless one already knows one is free and of equal worth and value. As Che Guevara said, all revolutionary movements are rooted in love; so, too, the Black Power moment, while certainly tinged with rage as the recalcitrance of white supremacy and the constant violence visited upon black people, their lives, their communities, and their persons, was also buoyed by joy. After all, why fight for equality, for dignity, and for justice if the reward isn’t joy at finally, after far too long, arriving at the promised land? And why hold back that joy until the end?
In the words and music of “Move On Up”, Mayfield offers African-Americans more than simple advice; he offers them a vision of movement from their current down-trodden state through the ever-present often violent resistance of the white power structure to the joyful penultimate (“Take nothing less than the second best” makes clear that the faith that roots the struggle, a faith that was always at the heart of Mayfield’s life and music, is the best and last or ultimate) arrival. The whole setting of the song, it’s insistent beat, the horns and voice all in the upper register all show both the strength and happiness at the heart of the struggle for freedom, equality, dignity, and justice. The long instrumental section is nothing more than a soundtrack for that movement. Faster, polyrhythmic, with the guitar and piano doing a call and response with the bass underneath a sax solo, this isn’t a march at all. This is all about having arrived. This is party music!
And that fight? Well, what else was Mary singing about when she said, “[the LORD] has brought down the powerful from their thrones”? That “[the Lord] has filled the hungry with good things”? Of course, everyone always points out the contradiction at the heart of the Magnificat; it speaks in present tense of things that have not yet, even two millennia later, happened. Doesn’t that render the joy just a tad premature?
Well, full African-American emancipation hasn’t arrived either. But who would deny the joy of the insistence to”move on up”? Mayfield acknowledges the road is both long and will be filled with resistance. All the more reason, then, to be joyful; he knows the reward is that much greater precisely because of the violent resistance that will dog his people all along the way. Just like we know that the declarations Mary makes in the Magnificat are still to be fully consummated and there will be resistance to that finality, we still sing with joy with Mary as we move ever closer through this season of waiting for the coming of the birth of Jesus.
But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ* for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – Romans 3: 21-23 (emphasis added)
Sisters, Brothers and the Whities Blacks and the Crackers Police and their backers They’re all political laughters
Hurry, people running from their worries While the judge and his juries Dictate the law that’s partly
Cat calling love balling fussing and cussing
Top billing now is killing For peace no one is willing Kind of make you get that feeling
Everybody smoke Use the pill and the dope Educated fools From uneducated schools
Pimping people is the rule Polluted water in the pool
And Nixon talking about don’t worry He say don’t worry He say don’t worry He say don’t worry
But they don’t know There can be no show And if there’s hell below We’re all gonna go
Everybody’s praying And everybody’s saying But when come time to do Everybody’s laying
Just talking about don’t worry They say don’t worry They say don’t worry They say don’t worry – (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, words & music by Curtis Mayfield
As we move through this Advent season with our guide, Curtis Mayfield, we should take a moment and consider the usual or “traditional” appellations given for each week. Last week, the first Sunday in Advent, is usually considered the Sunday of Hope. So it was we considered what “Hope” means to a people who continue to live as strangers in their own land. We heard Mayfield offer to the African-American community a vision of themselves as the “people who are darker than blue”. It is a call to name the community’s sins one by one; only a voice from within that community would have either the authority or power to do so. As is usually the case, however, a call to repentance carries with it the promise of redemption. Why else name one’s community “darker than blue” is, in the words of Ebeneezer Scrooge, one is beyond all hope?
Last week I also noted that it was precisely the specificity of the song – it was not addressed to everyone; it was addressed to the African-American community at a particular time in their history – that opened it to all. Had Mayfield written a call to repentance to everyone, how might that have worked, exactly? How would it be possible to list the collective sin of all the various groups in the United States? Hearing Mayfield’s call to his people however, opened to those with ears to hear the possibility of considering their own people’s sin. It opens up hope for redemption to all.
The Second Sunday is usually named “Faith” Sunday. Yet, what “faith” is proclaimed? In what are we professing our faith? Nothing less than that the God who has created the Universe will not leave us to wallow and die in our sin. The coming of the Messiah is first, foremost and always for a particular people; again, it is only because of that specificity that we can make the universal claim that the Savior to be born, to come to us today, the return of the risen Christ to bring about the final consummation of the New Creation, is something for all of us.
A popular question is always, “Why do we need a Savior?” It’s a good question. It is part of our faith that we profess our need for salvation in part by talking about something called Original Sin. In this song, Mayfield moves from the specific hardships of the African-American community, their need for salvation and the hope of redemption to the declaration that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Not just anyone can make such a claim with authority. In a world divided by nationality, by race, by class, by religion, it is only the voice of those who suffer at the hands of history’s victors who have the power to say that all face the prospect of eternal judgment. As James Cone noted decades ago, it isn’t up to the white power structure, secular or religious, to tell African-Americans what they need to do to change. It’s up that community, as Cone writes, to get their shit together. In doing so, however, they can pronounce judgment not only upon themselves but upon all precisely because of their unique perspective.
Many people are turned off by the idea of Original Sin. It just seems to violate our contemporary sensibility, our belief in our fundamental goodness. We reward ourselves by saying that “sin” isn’t meaningful; only “sins”, individual or collective acts, are that which need forgiveness. Curtis Mayfield, however, isn’t buying it. The world isn’t just filled with people who do bad things; those people aren’t bad because they are powerful political actors (Nixon, judges, police and their backers, people on drugs, the pushers, the pimps). People do bad things because all have sinned and face the ultimate judgment not for their acts but because they refuse to see the fundamental brokenness that leads them to commit these acts.
“Don’t worry,” Mayfield says, turning the words of the powerful around not only upon them but to all, “if there’s a hell below we’re all gonna go.” Hell isn’t something that awaits bad people who do bad things. Hell isn’t the reality in which the oppressed live right now. Hell is something that awaits everyone. Our faith this Advent has to include a profession of our need for salvation, otherwise the need to prepare, the need for this child to be born, the need for a Savior is meaningless.
As we prepare, we need to remind ourselves not only to hope for the possibility of redemption; we need to declare this redemption is redemption from something. And it is a call laid upon all of us. No one escapes the final judgment. No one is so blessed that they can escape the promise of eternal separation from God. If there’s a hell below, we’re all gonna go. Only Faith can give us the strength to hear this Word. Only faith could give Curtis Mayfield the power and authority to declare this judgment.
N.B.: I had this idea last spring, actually, and worked through some ideas. I thought I’d offer these Advent thoughts here, just to see if and how people respond.
We people who are darker than blue
Are we gonna stand around this town
And let what others say come true?
We’re just good for nothing they all figure
A boyish, grown up, shiftless jigger
Now we can’t hardly stand for that
Or is that really where it’s at?
We people who are darker than blue – “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, lyrics by Curtis Mayfield
Come to earth to taste our sadness; – “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, lyrics by Charles Wesley
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land? – Psalm 137:1-4
If Bob Dylan and Joan Baez made white folk feel good about themselves in the midst of the Civil Rights struggles, Curtis Mayfield, both with his group The Impressions as well as a solo artist, gave voice not only to the hopes of a people; he offered African-Americans the simple message that they were a great people, deserving of legal and social equality. His power as a musician is best exemplified by the fact that his songs were used as soundtracks both by Martin Luther King and the Black Pride/Black Power movements. Here is a man who really could speak for his people through song.
As the Civil Rights struggle withered and the Black Power movement was choked to death by official conspiracies, however, African-American urban life took on darker tones. No longer confident they could assert their full humanity and be accepted, the realities of official neglect and a variety of social pathologies created conditions in which hopes and dreams died at the end of needles or disappeared up people’s noses. This, too, brought Mayfield’s prophetic witness to life. Most clearly in the soundtrack to the blacksploitation film Superfly but through much of his work in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, he refused to remain silent while urban communities were ravaged by drugs, poverty, crime, and neglect. The always-present shadow of the criminalization of black life – something the United States has done well even before we were an independent country – left fewer and fewer options or free spaces for action.
That didn’t hinder Mayfield, however. As courageous as he was gifted, he preached through song, offering the picture of a life that had become the epitome of racist fears and bigoted stereotypes. In “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, he held a mirror up to life in African-American urban communities and asked a simple question: Is this who we want to be? Really?
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the first season of the Christian year. We all seem to know it’s our time to get ourselves ready for Christmas. Too often, we slide quickly through Advent, ignoring our need for real preparation because Christmas, now no longer solely a religious holiday, has come to embrace much of our national life from early November through the beginning of the New Year. We think preparation means decorating our houses and churches. We prepare cookies and pies. Moving through crowds at large stores and shopping malls as we prepare to buy-buy-buy, we seem grateful only that the stores are open later so we can shop. Preparing for the birth of the Son of God is something toward which we nod on Sundays; the rest of the time we’re preparing for the stockings and wrapped packages and parties and relatives we just saw on Thanksgiving.
Curtis Mayfield, however, offers a different vision of the meaning of preparation. Before we can even get ourselves ready, we need to be clear about why preparation is necessary. It is never easy to admit just how lost we are, how in need of saving from our own blindness, our missplaced sense of self-sufficiency, and the need for our communities to see just how broken they are. If we are to bow down before the Christ-babe, however, we must see who we are. It’s true that God knows the truth, that little baby understands us better than we do ourselves. Yet if that remains the case, how is it possible to receive the blessing that lies cooing in rags in a cattle’s trough?
“We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, like Psalm 137, expresses anger. Unlike Psalm 137, however, this song doesn’t misplace the anger on some Other. Mayfield takes the measure of his people and asks a simple question: Do we want to become someone else’s worst nightmare? African-American communities seemed unable to sing their songs in this foreign homeland of theirs. Not that there weren’t artists like James Brown and George Clinton and Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock who still told their tales. Their musical witness was washed away in the promise of drugs and violence and sex that too much became the soundtrack of urban life in the 1970’s. Mayfield, already present when the dreams and hopes and pride and power seemed poised to tell a different story was now demanding that people see who they were. Only then could they be clear about what was needed.
The music of Curtis Mayfield was always a music for his people. Precisely because of that specificity, however, others, too, can hear in his words and sounds, his unique guitar playing and clear falsetto voice, the demand we be honest with ourselves. How can we make ourselves ready for freedom, for power, for equality when we are a sinful, broken people? The brokenness of our affluent white communities is no less real than that of others. The hurt, the sin, and the anger is as much a part of working class white folk as it is urban African-American communities. Violence as an expression not only of social pathology but of that fundamental brokenness we call sin is ubiquitous; it knows no color line, no socioeconomic class, no neighborhood boundaries. Until and unless we are able to hear in Mayfield’s song our own song, we aren’t ready even to get ready.
By voicing this prophetic call to repentance, however, Curtis Mayfield offers all our different communities the opportunity for real preparation. When we acknowledge just how broken, just how hurting, just how much in need of salvation we are, then Advent can really begin. First, however, we have to say yes when Mayfield asks “Now we can’t hardly stand for that/Or is that really where it’s at?”.
One of the things that I find puzzling about the whole worship conversation is all the put-on sympathy when it comes to worship practice. “You might prefer traditional worship, but I enjoy contemporary. Stop trying to force your preference on everyone else.” But everything we do in corporate worship has theological implications that are inescapable. – Jonathan Aigner, “Worship Is About Meaning, Not Preference”, Ponder Anew, January 21, 2015
One of the things I find puzzling is the way people make up quotes to frame particular discussions in ways that make their opponents look facile, superficial, and even ignorant. Whether it’s about ISIL and terrorism, or the on-going “worship wars” in mainline Christianity, few things are as aggravating as proclaiming that the position taken by those with whom one disagrees just isn’t deep enough.
Such it is with Jonathan Aigner’s “Worship Is About Meaning, Not Preference”. If “preference” is not an expression of meaning, what is it, then? It couldn’t be meaning, however, because . . . well, because Jonathan says so, apparently.
When a church holds two services with different musical “styles,” the intention is to cater to various personal tastes in the congregation, but the inescapable reality is that they are also offering different theological meaning. Whether those meanings are right or wrong is perhaps up for discussion, but it is time we moved past framing the “worship wars” as merely a difference of taste, as if we were choosing a flavor at Baskin-Robbins.
Except it would be nice to have some examples of people writing or saying these things, i.e., that preference is a matter of “taste”, as if that has not always been an important consideration in aesthetics, at least since Immanuel Kant. As if both preference and taste were not both expressions of how a particular art form is meaningful for some people and not others. While I agree that we lose something by our exclusive, either/or approach when incorporating music in to worship; while I agree that this bespeaks theological positions that are important in their differences; while I agree that our singing together is an expression of our faith, and has been thus since St. Paul first admonished congregations under his care to “sing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs” when they gathered; accepting all this, I still believe Aigner’s position is deeply flawed, not just aesthetically, but theologically. It also flows against the current of recent theological scholarship examining contemporary popular culture, discovering new depths even in its music.
To dismiss matters of taste and preference as personal quirks that should play no part in how we structure our corporate worship is to do the one thing that Jesus did not do: As a friend of mine always said, Jesus went to the people, never demanding they come to him. When he went to them, he didn’t demand they change. He went to them, listened to them, sat and ate and drank with them, cried and laughed with them, and most of all he refused to demand they change to suit his needs. Rather, he offered them a vision of a life together, in which all persons were accepted and acceptable as they are. Being beloved of God, the only requirement is that we exist; the rest, well, that can come with time, always with the understanding that it is a work in progress. Our Churches, proclaiming themselves the Body of Christ, should be no different, worshiping in Spirit and Truth as we are who we are. If that means we sometimes swing across the centuries of music offered to the Body to sing, up to and including contemporary music, musical styles, and even songs outside the traditional ideas of “Christian music”, that isn’t a matter of taste or preference. It is a question of meaning, of what expresses who that congregation is, and how it believes it best to express it praise to God, its lament to God, its plea for the silent God to hear.
I’m saying I believe emotions are secondary. Emotions are good. They’re actually very good. The problem is that we’ve decided that happy feelings about Jesus are the ultimate measuring stick of authentic worship. Churches are now stuck on the treadmill of having to provide that kind of experience every week. And that’s a pretty terrible position to be in. As soon as our production value slips, we’re in trouble.
In what universe are emotions separable from how we think? Why is it that “emotions” are something we should not express in songs to God, particularly since the songs in the Bible, particularly the Psalms, are songs overflowing with emotions: joy and sorrow, pain and rage, loneliness and community, despair and hope. One cannot have an “emotion” without thought. One cannot think without having the emotional wherewithal to feel. Even psychologists recognize this. The idea that the church’s music should eschew appeals to our emotions would dismiss so much of the musical repertoire of the church’s history, from the Biblical songs through the revival songs to the great hymns of Watts, Wesley, Crosby, and Wren; the passionate music written for the church by Taverner, Rutter, Handel, and so many others. While it is true enough that churches shouldn’t feel themselves trapped in a cycle in which they feel the need to create – or recreate – extreme spiritual experiences through the whole of corporate worship; on the other hand, we are worshiping God, and that is a great, and fearful, and courageous, and humbling, and freeing, and terrifying thing. That our worship shouldn’t contain at least an element of understanding that the gathered congregation having the boldness of faith through grace to declare its praise to God is also a terrible thing, facing the Creator of the Universe with our paltry gifts of word, sacrament, and song.
I’m saying I believe some music is more fitting than others for Christian worship. How we do music carries theological meaning. So does the music itself. I appreciate what Kenneth Hull says about this, “When [music] stands alone, its gestures and contours still carry an expressive potential that is capable of cultural and theological interpretation.” This is admittedly a difficult issue, but it’s one we can’t ignore.
I’d accept this up to a point. Prince’s “Sexy Motherfucker” probably wouldn’t work in most churches. That doesn’t mean other Prince songs wouldn’t work. Furthermore, what should determine what is “fitting” is just that: “fittinginess”, to use a word I read recently in Paul Westermeyer’s textbook history of Church music. What “fits” changes from situation to situation; from week to week; from congregation to congregation; from denomination to denomination; even within the worship experience itself, there may be movement that proceeds from lament to joy, despair to hope. That this must needs be expressed in song should go without saying. What songs “fit” all these varying, and ever changing, contexts, is a matter of theological discernment, aesthetic judgment, understanding the congregation, as well as – on occasion – challenging the congregation to hear the Spirit blowing from an odd place. For example, I wouldn’t hesitate to use, perhaps an acoustic version or perhaps not, Alice In Chains’ song “Would?” if worship included reflections on addiction. There are a great many songs about drug addiction out there, and this is just one I might well seriously consider, perhaps as an anthem. I would do so, however, only if I believed it “fit” with the entire worship experience; if it “fit” with the congregation and its expectations; if it fit with the pastor and other staff and their desire to deliver a message of the demonic power of addiction and its overcoming in and through faith. One cannot discuss addiction without hearing from an addict what that is like. “Would?” is just such as song, as is Faith No More’s “The Real Thing”, Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” and “Sad But True”, and many more I could name.
Worship isn’t about how we feel. It’s not about our likes and dislikes. It’s not about our tastes.
It’s about how we believe.
Actually, worship isn’t about us at all. It’s about God. Indeed, the whole of Christian existence isn’t about us. As I’m wont to say, God loves us but doesn’t like us all that much. That is to say, answering the call to be a Christian usually involves sacrifices: friends and family, money and opportunities for success, perhaps even safety and comfort for danger and a threat to one’s life. Our worship had better reflect the reality that it the always inadequate gift we bring to a God of love and grace, but also a God who never relents in the insistence that we get the Word outside the walls of the Church to a world hurting, dying, killing, sick and prostrate, proud and demanding, denying the very existence of God even while always trying to become God. Some of those gifts are our songs; the church’s music should always be the people’s music, the expression of their faith that even this gift, as tired and worthless as it might be, will be acceptable to the God who died for the healing of all Creation in and through the cross of Christ. Sometimes that might be a motet by Palestrina. Or, perhaps, a lament by Curtis Mayfield.
That’s why it’s important. That’s why we have to talk about the meaning behind what we do in corporate worship. That’s why we must ditch the false egalitarian notion that how we worship isn’t important. We can respect differences in belief, but we can’t deny that’s what’s at stake here aren’t just issues of taste or preference, but issues of meaning.
However we worship, whatever we call ourselves – traditional, contemporary, or anything else – we’re not just saying what kind of Jesusy entertainment we prefer.
No, we’re giving away much more about ourselves.
We’re giving away what we believe about something very important.
How we worship has meaning.
How we worship has consequences.
Maybe it’s time we were honest about it. Quickly. Before the meaning is lost.
This ending puzzles me, if only because Aigner continues to rely upon the straw argument that some – and of course those with whom he disagrees – are moved only by matters of “preference” and “taste”, again as if these weren’t precisely how we express our understanding of what is and is not aesthetically meaningful, and in the context of Christian worship, therefore, theologically meaningful. His entire post, it seems, offers a view of those with whom he disagrees that ignores so much of the work being done in Christian aesthetics, in the theological investigation of contemporary culture, including its music; and with sly condescension directed at those whose “egalitarianism” is false, when in fact the matter isn’t one of egalitarianism at all (and isn’t it funny that he introduces this loaded notion at the end, without either definition or defense?) but of coming to terms not only with our heritage, but recognizing that heritage is a living thing not in and for itself, but through the grace of God. In precisely the same way, the grace of God can speak to people through all sorts of music. The task of the church musician, it seems to me, is to have at least one ear tuned to the congregation and its desire to bring before God worship that is meaningful precisely because it expresses their reality. That this might move through the centuries of music should be viewed not with exasperation but the joyful thought of being challenged.
I agree that separating our worship does a disservice to the congregation. I disagree about what that disservice is. The congregation is a whole body; as such, it should be able to accommodate not only the tradition of the Church, but its contemporary life as well. And, yes, it should also offer its worship in such a way that those outside its walls are comfortable, feel welcome, and even perhaps willing to continue to offer worship to God through becoming a part of a particular congregation should go without saying. To say that music in worship has no evangelistic role is just ignorant. It might not have an apologetic component. All parts of the life of the Church had better include not only the recounting of the Good News, but the invitation to become a part of the Body that spreads that Good News, the music no less than anything else.
I would far prefer a discussion of music in Christian worship not front-loaded with straw arguments, unattributed quotations, and filled with a blatant erroneous view of Christian worship, as well as one dismissive of our emotional reactions to worship and the music of the church, our preferences and our tastes as of no consequence, rather than expressive of our understanding of how meaning is conveyed aesthetically. Worship is, indeed, about meaning. Insisting, however, that those who do not find meaning in traditional church hymnody and music and musical styles are “merely” expressing a “preference” without considering the possibility that expressing a preference is precisely how we demonstrate what is and is not meaningful is to ignore the depth of the discussion as well as belittle one’s opponents. After all, just as one example, isn’t rage in the face of the untimely death of a loved one – including rage at God – a perfectly rational emotional reaction?
As I wrote yesterday, I am interested in presenting my initial outline for an Advent Study I’ve been thinking about. It must seem strange, thinking about Advent just a few weeks after Easter, but if a study if going to be prepared, and written, and critiqued, and rewritten, and offered to others, that takes time. So, on this cool spring morning in May, I offer the following, the original outline I constructed on Good Friday. The Scriptures are all from Year B of the cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary for the corresponding first, second, third, and fourth Sundays in Advent. I copied and pasted them from the Oremus Bible Browser, using – I believe – the New Revised Standard Version:
People Get Ready: A Liberating Journey Through Advent with Curtis Mayfield
Week 1: “People Get Ready”; Scripture: Mark 13:26-27 – 6Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. Theme: Hear the prophetic word.
Week 2: “Come Free Your People”; Scripture: Isaiah 40:10-11 – 10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep. Theme: Repentance
Week 3: “We Are The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”; Scripture: Isaiah 41:1-3 – The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. Theme: Silence in Listening
Week 4: “Something To Believe In”; Scripture: Luke 1:26-38 – 26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her. Theme: Faith In The Coming Liberating Work Of God
Looking it over as I pasted it here, I already see some pretty substantial changes I would make, Nonetheless, I think both the concept and (initial) execution are sound. I was talking with my wife, and she said something like this might be well-received in the African-American churches. That, however, is neither my target nor goal. Ideally, it would be wonderful to have congregations work together on this, black and white. A second-best would have Anglo churches, at the very least, see this as a way of opening their eyes to new hermeneutical, ministerial, and missional possibilities. I have a kind of apologia I wrote the day after completing the outline, as well as some initial sketchy ideas for each week’s study. I need to do some work researching Mayfield and his music, particularly the genesis of the specific songs if possible (or at least the overall context in which they were originally written and presented) as a way of linking them both to the Biblical passage as well as the larger thematic content for each week of Advent.
I’m hoping for general feedback at this point. Not having comments, if you happen to read this from Facebook you can leave comments there. Or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. At this point, what I’m looking for are comments about whether or not I’m on to something; whether the direction I’m headed is an actual direction, or if I’m just spinning wheels; whether it would be relevant to potential audiences, regardless of race or ethnicity; any ways to improve what you, initial readers, might find useful but I either have botched completely or just not quite reached.
I haven’t wanted to become a controversialist.
I have no deep-seated desire to become yet another voice in the decades-long argument in the United Methodist Church over the status of sexual minorities.
As a matter of fact, my current interests are in a completely different direction. With all my reading and studying on music and theology, I’ve been working on an Advent Study using the music of Curtis Mayfield as a jumping off point for talking about our preparations for the birth of Jesus. I’d actually like to return to that, but the status of sexual minorities in my denomination is one that can neither be ignored nor set aside. I have seen a sudden upwelling among the usual suspects (Good News, in particular) of talk of schism in the United Methodist Church. This pains me, if only because, at the end of the day, there is no doctrinal, dogmatic, or theological principle involved. The sides aren’t discussing the status of the Persons of the Trinity; there is no question of the efficacy of the means of grace in the life of the congregation; we aren’t even arguing over whether to have an organ or American flag in the sanctuary (matters that once upon a time caused a great deal of conflict in our and other denominations). At the end of the day, should a split occur, we shall have two groups whose only difference will be the full acceptance or lack of full acceptance of sexual minorities in the life of the church, as well as protecting clergy who perform legal same-sex weddings in jurisdictions where they are permitted.
If I have come off sounding angry, my anger is rooted in dislike of the dehumanization of others. Claiming that “the practice of homosexuality” is in and of itself sinful, as I discussed yesterday, is dehumanizing. Being gay is not “a practice”, any more than being a red-head, or blue-eyed, or left-handed*. I didn’t say to myself at 13, “I think I’m going to like girls.” It was just always something that I felt. Same thing with men who are attracted to men or women attracted to women. To insist that who they are is contrary to Christian teaching is theologically untenable, as well as grossly insulting and dehumanizing.
There is no principle involved in this discussion, however. Perhaps that galls me more than anything. There is no deep-seated theological or biblical issue at the heart of this discussion. It is an argument rooted in the power dynamics of the denomination, as well as a reaction to changes in the surrounding culture. While I still stand firm in my insistence that the language of the Discipline be changed and sexual minorities be fully integrated in the life of the church, this is, at the end of the day, adiaphora. There will still be, perhaps all will be, those who dislike or are made uncomfortable by gays and lesbians. Human beings aren’t perfect, despite that we are to work toward it. Being uncomfortable around those who are different means a person is a human being. It should no more be a bar to ordination than being gay is currently a bar. Lord knows, when women were first ordained there were plenty of men who refused to recognize the authority granted to them. There still are. Yet, life in the church has gone on, and our church life is enriched because of it.
There are those who say that reconciliation on this topic is impossible. Those are the folks who trouble me most. Not because I believe them; on the contrary, not only would reconciliation be possible, it would be necessary. Those who say it would be impossible refuse to recognize the possibility of the Spirit’s movement within the church, the Spirit that created the blessed community on Pentecost, the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead on Easter. I believe that if the Spirit can do those things, it can certainly bring together those who disagree on this issue.
So, no, I’m not here for an argument, and I’d much rather not be a controversialist. I would much rather work on refining that Advent Study I was considering and sending a draft out to people, get some feedback, and try to see if someone at Cokesbury would be interested in it. As this whole issue isn’t about me, I would also point out that we in the United Methodist Church have much work to do. There is a world that is hurting, needing to hear the healing words of the Gospel and feel the transforming breath of Spirit. Mired in our ongoing sniping, yelling, and what-not makes us less effective at our mission. For this, we should repent, get busy becoming the church we need to be, and be about the work of transforming the world.
*Once upon a time, being a ginger and being left-handed got the side-eye from religious authorities. As a red-head myself, this is more than a little troubling. It might seem odd to think so, but it is nonetheless true.