I have been dismayed by the “entitlement” mentality that stand is stark contrast to the humility we were invited to yesterday. I am watching my brothers and sisters speak angrily and horribly to wait-staff, hotel-staff, convention center staff, and even to one another. At a restaurant, a “gentleman” reduced his server to tears and at the top of his voice screamed, “No way you get a tip!” Today, a booth scheduled to open at 7:30 had the audacity to not open until 7:38. People took their annoyance out on the poor volunteers working the booth. On person spat, “I am much too important to be made waiting this long.” And another muttered abut the “stupid assholes” who couldn’t tell time. I wish these were the only two incidents I could name, but they are examples of multiple encounters I have seen in the past two days. What a witness to the world about United Methodists… – Rev. Dan Dick, “GC2016 – Day Three”, United Methodeviations, May 12, 2016
What I worry about, however, is whether we have any ability to call ourselves Christian in the wake of how we treat one another. Granted, we have valid differences and our passion for our beliefs can lead us to use language and maintain a tone that is somewhat divorced from the call to gentleness, patience, and kindness mentioned in the scriptures. I understand passion, and often say things that I later regret, so I get that sometimes our words get away from us.
The bigger concern for me is the sense of entitlement held by several who think that their position, their office, or even their election as a delegate grants them a status beyond that of “sinner in need of God’s grace.” Humility seems to be less valued than certainty and that often misunderstood quality known as “leadership.” In the face of self-importance, God’s command of love often gets trampled. – Jay Voorhees, “Commentary: And Are We Yet Alive?”, United Methodist Reporter, May 12, 2016
But this is the one to whom I will look,
to the humble and contrite in spirit,
who trembles at my word. – Isaiah 66:2b
I had high hopes for this General Conference. I really did. After the disaster in Tampa in 2012, one would think everyone would be mindful of the need not just to do things differently, but to do them better. The sad fact is there seems to be even more anger and animosity among the delegates, even more distrust and disrespect, and pretty much none of the humility toward which the Bishop’s have been calling us each morning.
Which leads me to ponder something I thought about yesterday. I was speaking to someone about my impressions of General Conference so far, and the one thing that’s stuck out for me has been the gulf between what is powerful, Spirit-filled worship and the rancorous deliberations on the floor. There is much commentary in the Hebrew Scriptures on worship. Over and over again the message is clear: authentic worship is humility, an open and contrite heart. The prophets in particular deliver words that show Divine disgust at worship more concerned with outward devotion to ritual than with the inward Spirit of love for one another, a community gathered knowing they are sinners before a God both of love and justice, a God that desires Holy Community rather than liturgical exactness.
So after three powerful worship services so far, during which the presence of the Spirit was palpable, I have to wonder . . . who was really worshiping?
Which brings me to a radical thought rooted in sadness: I think General Conference needs to start all over again. Before anyone enters the main auditorium, rather than being prayed over, delegates should the prayer Jesus said on the Mount of Olives: Not my will, but yours be done. Rather than following Robert’s Rules of Order – endlessly exploitable by those who understand their confusing intricacies – our General Conference should follow different rules. Only speeches that build up the body should be allowed. Only words that seek to bridge gaps and heal divisions should be heard.
I am all for anger. I am all for the silenced to be heard. There is, however, a time and a place for everything, and the floor of General Conference is no more the right place for grandstanding than it should be the place for parliamentary maneuvering and sowing seeds of confusion and mistrust.
For all the glorious worship and music, for all the calls for humility, this General Conference is descending quickly in to a morass of mutual spite. If Dan Dick’s stories are true, this is spilling over in our dealings with those with whom we have no disagreements, those outside the circle of General Conference. We need a do-over and we need it NOW. For the sake of our church, its ministry, and how we might live together and serve together going forward.
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.
I once told a good friend of mine that I am someone who finds nothing uninteresting. And that’s true. Except for illegal and immoral activities, I enjoy seeing and hearing about and reading about and learning about new things all the time. We live this life just once, and there’s far too much in the world to settle for one’s immediate surroundings and personal interests.
I find madness interesting, both for personal and religious reasons. If you read the early chapters of Isaiah, there’s the prophet’s vision of the Divine throne room, with the four cherubim, etc. The book of Ezekiel is chock-full of visions, including the horrific image of a valley of dry bones. Ezekiel ate a scroll on God’s orders, and there’s so much more. Hosea took a prostitute for a wife on God’s orders. The apocalyptic books, Daniel in the Old Testament and The Revelation to St. John, have odd, coded imagery, some of it quite terrifying. In one of his novels – The Stand, perhaps? – Stephen King has a character muse that God drives mad those God chooses; sometimes, this character notes, it is possible some of those visions overloaded the circuits in the chosen ones. Which illustrates, yet again, my oft-stated insistence that while God indeed loves us, God doesn’t care that much about us.
As for personal reasons, well, I suppose you can understand, if you’ve been following along with my rather voluble confessions of living with depression. When down deep in that hole, the world just doesn’t look quite right. Colors are wrong, faded somehow, washed out. Sounds have an odd reverb quality to them, as if echoing, then suddenly dying. Brain chemistry is a funny thing. Messing it up in one spot has effects all over the place, which doesn’t help make seeking help easier. The world becomes a different place, unfriendly and uninviting. Even knowing the road one is traveling is no help; the mad-odd quality of perception endures no matter how hard you try to tell yourself it isn’t real. In the end, real is what we see, hear, taste, and touch.
Many years ago, I ordered a very special music CD. The name of the band was Dead Soul Tribe, which probably tells you what you need to know. The CD, entitled A Murder of Crows, is a concept album built around the idea that human souls have guides after death; sometimes, however, these guides fail, leaving our souls behind. One song in particular, “Flies”, offers the oh-so-cheery idea that our world is a thin veneer through which we can see, if we look closely, a truth more horrible than we can stand: We are already dead, in hell, with Satan a viper ready to devour us. I was listening to this particular song when my wife came up to me and asked me a question: Did I really see the world this way?
At the time, I said that in fact I did see much of the world this way. For all my protestations of faith; for all my attempts to be an easy-going man, a loving husband and father, and express hope in both our present and future; despite all this, as Devon Graves sings, “Sometimes it seems a laughing god has played its joke on me.” There is more than enough horror in the world to drive you mad if you think about it too much. As Albert Camus noted, the death of a single innocent child can break a person’s spirit if you dwell on it. To look around the world and see and hear and read things that should make you scream or cry or want to hide away could, if you’re not careful, leave you gasping for straws only to find all of them gone. What would be left?
Madness. The comfort of insanity, it seems to me in such circumstances, would be that the facade we build around our lives, from our parents loving arms through the fake security we try to provide our own families as adults can disappear. The allure of madness is just this pretense that St. Paul’s hazy mirror image will be the beatific vision is not only untrue; it’s that such a pretense is a horrible trick played upon us. To be able to scribble on a wall something like what appears in the photo above demonstrates, if not what seems both horrible and comforting, at the very least a familiarity with a way of seeing the world that creates a clever turn of phrase.
Most of the time, I remind myself that such things as the title to this post – another abandoned asylum graffito – are little more than people with a dark humor trying to unnerve the gullible and nervous trespasser. Sometimes, though, in the quiet, or perhaps when I’m wondering just what is and isn’t real, I see things like this and I wonder if I recognize a kindred spirit. Reality is far too porous to allow ourselves comfortable lies; even God can drive people mad, after all. These tiny windows in to the minds of others interest me if for no other reason than it seems there are many out there who, touched in some way – either through faulty brain chemistry or perhaps Divine intervention – what Ray Miland, in X:The Man With The X-Ray Eyes, discovered at the end of the film. Miland rips out his own eyes, having glimpsed something terrible beyond the bounds of everyday reality, and screams, “I CAN STILL SEE!”
N.B.: I’m quite sure some are going to read this and think, “Oh my GOD, the guy is off his nut.” In fact, I’m offering nothing more than a perspective on particular things – such as graffiti in abandoned buildings – that occur to me from time to time. Is it a far-out perspective? I readily acknowledge that. Then again, my perspective on most things tends to be far out, so why should this be any different?
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen. – The Nicene Creed
A faith and a life unexamined is a faith and a life not worth having, however, many would use such an examination of the faith to decide that suddenly they alone know what we really should be doing and to upend 2000 years of Christianity. I believe the creeds reminds us of our rather temporal nature, that we must examine and must offer reproof, but we are cannot decide the course of Christianity simply because of some new data that may in fact be overturned in the next generation of scholarship. – Joel L. Watts, Facebook comment
You have heard; now see all this;
and will you not declare it?
From this time forward I make you hear new things,
hidden things that you have not known. – Isaiah 48:6
When the Emperor Constantine, following the advice of St. Athanasius, called for a council at the Anatolian city of Nicaea, the issue facing the Church was an important disagreement regarding the teaching of the relationship between what has since become known as the Second and First Person of the Trinity. The more popular understanding, rooted in the (now lost) teachings of Bishop Arius was that Jesus, incarnating the Son of God, was not co-eternal with the Father. According to Athanasius (who is the chief source regarding Arian teaching, and hardly a reliable one considering how much he detested both Arius and the man’s teaching) the chief teaching of the Arians was “There was a time when He was not.” For Arius and those who followed his teachings, God’s sovereignty and primacy prevented any thought that another Being would be equal to God in power, majesty, and primacy. Athanasius, relying upon a particular interpretation of Aristotelean and Platonic understandings of substance, accidents, and being, taught a far more subtle, and High Christology, insisting that Christ was not a creature even if primer inter pares. The Son, being of the same substance – what was understood as defining Divinity as opposed to fallen, human substance, the “stuff” that made God distinct from all Creation – with the Father, was by necessity coeternal with the Father. Only in this way was Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and resurrection sufficient to achieve salvation.
All the same, as I wrote above, followers of Arius’ teaching were both more numerous and in positions of power in the increasingly senescent Roman Empire. Constantine’s mother was an Arian. The various tribes of Goths that had overrun parts of the western Empire, including Rome, had been Arian Christians. In a move that shows Athanasius to be as cunning a political operative as he was subtle a theologian, he convinced the Emperor to call the council for as soon as possible. It met before Arius, a fellow Bishop, could arrive; those present were predominantly those who believed as Athanasius did. While the Council was being held, discussions became both heated and absurd, spiraling down in attempts to compromise by using precise wording (in the Greek of the time) to accommodate both major parties to the dispute; thus the phrase “not an iota of difference” emerged as the attempted compromise inserted the Greek letter i into the word ousia, creating a new word, iousia, designating the Son to be “of similar subtance” with the Father. The Arians were willing (to a point) to accept this compromise, but being far outnumbered and their leader still in transit, the supporters of Athanasius managed to get “ousia”, proclaiming the Son to be “of the same substance” or “consubstantial” with the Father. Arius, his teachings, followers, and person, were anathematized in the official declaration at the end of the Council. Arius, however, did have the last laugh in a way; on his deathbed, the Emperor Constantine was baptized by an Arian Bishop.
Fast forward 1700 years, and I have to wonder what any of this history – political, ecclesial, and theological – has to do with us. Beyond creating the cornerstone for subsequent orthodox theology (an orthodoxy I hold, by the way), it also demonstrates how very human, limited, and contingent our understanding of the Godhead really is. This fundamental Christian reality – that our doctrines are always limited affirmation, ready and willing and able to be changed as circumstances change – is something we as the whole Body of Christ have always understood. No doctrine lasts forever; no theology captures the entirety of the Body’s experience of and profession of experience with the God who is revealed in the Son, through the Spirit, for the glory of the Father.
To lift up any confession, doctrine, or particular hermeneutic of Scripture or the experience of revelation as final is to ignore the reality that we do not believe the confessions; we do not live out doctrine; and our understanding and appropriation of Scripture must always be prefaced with the understanding that it is we and our lives who are interpreted by Scripture prior to our being able to grasp Scripture as testimony and witness to the revelation of God. For Joel to claim that our faith has been consistent over 2000 years is ahistorical, and violates a central tenet of the Doctrine of Creation: That our Universe and all that is within it is contingent, partial, and sinful. For these reasons, we do not have a creed, or a doctrine, or a particular hermeneutic. We have multiple examples of each and all, and the whole Body of Christ is enriched by them all. To insist that changing understandings of the world through science; changing ways of interpreting existence through philosophy; and changing ways of expressing these understandings and interpretations of existence through the evolution of language are irrelevant to our confession and profession of faith is to ignore reality. We are not 4th century Greeks, or 6th century Romans, or 16th century Saxons or English, or 18th century Oxonian Anglican priests, or even mid-20th century Germans facing the Nazis, or late 20th century Latin Americans facing North American-supported fascist governments. All of these contexts and milieus, with their varying languages, immediate concerns, views of the world, and historical situatedness have contributed to the beautiful mosaic that is the Christian faith. None of them are primary, none of them are our plumb line; rather, they are important expressions of faith, touchstones from which we can gain wisdom, containing much that should be retained while always recognizing historical distance and all that entails will always prevent us from complete appropriation of any of them.
Our faith is in the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only the Trinity, the loving coexistence of Three Persons in One God, is eternal. When Isaiah reminds the people returning to the Land that God is in the business of doing new things; when Christ announces from the Throne at the end of the Revelation of St. John the Divine that God has made all things new; when we Christians go about the task of living the Gospel in the world; we are always doing a new thing, and that new thing brings new voices, new languages, new understanding, new lives into the manifold chorus of those who praise God. We aren’t in the business of ultimacy. That’s God’s work. All any of us, the wisest, most educated, most holy, can do is add our understanding of our experience of the revelation of Holy Love in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, through the Holy Spirit, to the Glory of the Father.
Anything else, as St. Thomas noted after dropping his Summa because he realized it is “all straw”, is subject to revision, restatement, translation, and perhaps even ditching once we become clearer as a Body on what God has done for us.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. – Isaiah 64:6
The Bible simply abounds with stories about people who really seem unlovable that God just decides to love anyway. Really, it is God’s promiscuous love, a love that seems to show no discernment and gets scattered anywhere, to such a point that it almost seems immoral. I mean, some of those people really, really don’t deserve to be loved. – Christy Thomas, “Promiscuous Love”, The Thoughtful Pastor, December 4, 2014
Remember that thing your parents told you when you were a kid? “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me”? You do know that’s pretty much nonsense, right? We wouldn’t have the saying if words didn’t hurt when used to do so. Language is, among all the things we human beings have invented, perhaps the most versatile tool. It can create whole Universes, peopled by strange and wonderful, magical creatures; whether it’s Prometheus stealing fire, then chained to a rock to have his liver eaten by an eagle for all eternity, or the solution to the problem of the siege of Troy, or the latest best-selling fiction story, it is words that have the power to take us places that not only never existed but can’t exist.
Likewise, words have power not just to hurt, but kill. They sometimes kill slowly, the daily grind of insults, taunts, and jeers some children experience; the absence of words that leave some adults feeling alone, bereft of comfort and peace. When someone we love tells us we just aren’t good looking enough, or are too fat/too thin/no longer loved, these words aren’t a sharp blade that leaves us bleeding before we realize we’re injured; these words are blunt steak knives, cutting our hearts out, leaving us unable to function.
I got thinking about the power of words yesterday. First, I read Christy Thomas’s post on God’s promiscuous love, linked above. Usually, people talk about God’s “prodigal” love. It’s Biblical, after all, or at least related to a parable Jesus tells in the Gospel of St. Luke. To be prodigal is to act without thought of consequence; usually it’s the younger son who’s described as “prodigal” when in fact it is the father, running to greet his son as the young man returns home who is prodigal. He loves without thought of consequence, including how the older, faithful son will feel about the celebration the father holds. To love unconditionally, overwhelmingly is to be prodigal.
Yet, I found Christy’s use of the word “promiscuous” marvelous precisely because it is a word that holds, for many at least, all sorts of meaning and baggage, most of it quite negative. To be promiscuous is to be free with one’s sexual favors. To be promiscuous is to physically love whoever comes along to fit one’s need at any given time. To be promiscuous is to be immoral. God, however, constantly confounds our received ideas of what is right and wrong, what is moral and immoral, what is acceptable and unacceptable. This isn’t to mention the fact that there is a gender component to the use of the word “promiscuous”. Men are rarely if ever described as promiscuous. Any woman, however, who seems free with her sexual favors is usually so described, and it is not meant as a compliment. To hear God called promiscuous should shock us, regardless of how correct it may be as a description.
In the third section of Isaiah, we read the lament of a people whose world has crashed around them. They understand that responsibility for this disaster lies at the feet of no one else; the people of Judah, through their injustice, their irreverence for Divine Law, and a religion of liturgical correctness without a life lived according to the dictates of the Mitzvahs has made them unclean. This is a shocking admission; as Christy notes in her post, people not accustomed to Advent preaching cycles will be shocked by these words, with their implications of Divine rejection and human unworthiness at a time when we keep rushing ahead to the Christmas stable and the story of Divine acceptance and the restoration of human worth through the Incarnation. We cannot reach Christmas, however, without preparing ourselves through the season of Advent. Part of that preparation is to hear the stories, no matter how shocking and unsettling, of the reasons for the Incarnation and the birth of the Christ child. Isaiah 64 tells that story in graphic detail.
Later, yesterday afternoon, I was having a private chat via Facebook, venting my frustrations with a few United Methodist bloggers who, I believe (rightly or wrongly) are just a tad too smug, a tad too confident, and a tad too stupid for the good of the rest of us. I asked this person if titling a post and writing about a “United Methodist Circle Jerk” would be a bit much. The person with whom I was conversing said it might be a bit too much; it would also be correct. The alleged “United Methodist blogs”, like the “evangelical blogs” carrying on about Rob Bell going on Oprah’s cable network, are by and large a bunch of folks talking to one another about things they care about. They aren’t actually trying to communicate the Gospel to people. They aren’t wrestling with the angel. They aren’t standing in front of the empty tomb, afraid to go in. They aren’t trying to work through our troubles in a way that is constructive. Instead, they are dictating what is and is not acceptable. They are trying to control the discussion by tut-tutting and tongue-clicking anything they find offensive. I referred to this group of folks a couple times as the tone police. They don’t want anything shocking, upsetting, or God forbid profane or vulgar in our discussions.
Yet, that is precisely what we need. We need to be shocked out of our complacency. We need to shock those who use privilege and power as weapons to prevent voices of which they disapprove from being heard. This Advent season, we need to be shocked by the reality of human sin – its depth, the anger it provokes in God, and how this reality is something that is both personal (the monster is never far from the surface in any of us, no matter how well we think of ourselves) and communal (anyone besides me remember Abu Ghraib?) – so that the joy of Christmas will be all the greater precisely because we will believe to our bones how undeserved this gracious moment really is. And all of this will only come through the power of words; words preached and sung and prayed. Words written and read. Our status quo as a denomination is no longer tenable; yet, we cannot move forward unless we are willing to risk shocking others by calling attention to the many ways that status quo is maintained by the power wielded by some through the use of words and language that attempts to intimidate, silence, and sideline. We cannot appreciate the true joy and wonder of Christmas unless we are shocked by the reality of human sin, including our own.
And all of it, every bit of shock, of offense taken, of sadness and rage, all comes through the power of words. Words spoken and words read. Words not heard because those in power do not want them heard; words heard all too clearly because they bludgeon us with the conviction of our own responsibility for our broken creation, a status quo that, like that in our church, is no longer tenable. Unless we are willing to be shocking, to be shocked without shutting out those words that might offend us, we will never reach Christmas ready to see with open eyes. We won’t be able to make The United Methodist Church be the Church it can and should be if we are so afraid some people might say things that upset others.
I read today in my Advent Study that Advent is a time of whispering, of near silence. It can be that. It can, and perhaps should, also be a time of standing up and shouting that things can no longer carry on as they have been. We must use the power of words to move people to the Bethlehem stable. We must use the power of words to move the United Methodist Church forward.
Even if some don’t approve and are shocked by what we say.
[Patti Smith] has spoken about how the Bible is “very resonant” today.
“It has everything – creation, betrayal, lust, poetry, prophecy, sacrifice,” Smith told The Independent. “It doesn’t really matter what religion you are or if you have no religion, those stories are still relevant to what people go through in their lives and they’re also beautifully written passages.” – Jess Denham, “Pope Francis Invites Patti Smith To Play At Vatican Christmas Concert”, The Independent, November 14, 2014
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the end of the earth!
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,
the villages that Kedar inhabits;
let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy,
let them shout from the tops of the mountains.
Let them give glory to the Lord,
and declare his praise in the coastlands. – Isaiah 42:9-12
The difficulty of defining the musical office has often been regarded as a liability. Then an attempt at definition forces the musician into “prophetic” or “priestly” molds, which is a mistake. The lack of clarity here is part of the lyrical genius of music and a reminder of the balance needed. It points to the Christian people, their story in song, and their character as pilgrims who never can nail things down too precisely without falling into idolatry. Easy distinction between singer and leader of the song is different from them, complementary to them, and equally needed. – Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum:The Church and Music, p. 34
It is a story tailor-made for the main concerns of this site: The Pope, the Bishop of Rome, the Spiritual and Episcopal leader of one billion Roman Catholics around the globe has invited little old Patti Smith from northern New Jersey, a poet, a performer, a model, a mother, to perform at a Vatican Christmas concert to be held December 13. If ever there was an example of a church leader heeding the call to “sing a new song”, this is it. That Smith’s heyday as a musical performer is nearly four decades old now is neither here nor there; it is the wonder, the gratification, and the surprise that Pope Francis would find in her music – originals and covers – spiritual meaning and depth (which I would argue was always there; that’s what gave her power and appeal) and is unafraid to declare to the world, “Here is a new song. Join with us,” is a testament not only to the Pope’s courage, but to the change not only in the Roman Catholic Church but in the cultural milieu in which it has to exist. Considering Francis occupies the same office as Pius X who, a little more than a century ago, insisted that the best church music was Gregorian-style chant, I do believe this story should be taken lightly.
Yet as Paul Westermeyer notes in his history of music in the Church, musical decisions are fraught with complications. Some of those complications can create havoc in churches. We as a believing people are called to song; the Bible is filled with song. Our faith cries out to be sung. As for instructions about how that song is to be played . . . That’s where things get messy, cause arguments, even get folks leaving one congregation for another. One of Westermeyer’s central points is that music in the Church has always been music “of the people”, whether it was the Psalms which emerged from folk-styles, the hymnody of the Reformation (not counting Calvinist practice which reserved sole pride of place to simple musical settings for the Psalter), or even the current trend of praise music. Decisions have to be made about what is appropriate: theologically; liturgically; and most of all what “fits” best with the preferences of the congregation without losing sight of the Biblical call that, living in a new creation, declaring with the prophet that the God of Israel is doing a new thing, demands we sing a new song. It is here the distinction between priestly and prophetic, between pastoral and proclamatory, becomes most distinct. It creates hundreds of questions, and few guides other than the history of what has gone before to help us through the morass of problems and possibilities.
As someone who is working through the theological and liturgical possibilities of all music, not just so-called “sacred” or “praise” music as worthy of being the songs of the congregation before God, Pope Francis’s decision mollifies me even as reaction to it highlights the very real problems facing the acceptance of allegedly “secular” songs as part of the Church’s repertoire. There is nothing intrinsically wrong, and certainly not unChristian, in wanting to keep the music of the congregation something separate from that which is outside the walls of the church. After all, the church is the ekklesia, those gathered together who have been called out, called out of the world in order to give glory to God for the salvation brought to the world in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. The Divine Act calls for sacred acts on our part in response.
At the same time, we must always reckon not only with the Biblical call for new songs, but the Christological reality that, by being both fully human and fully divine, Jesus Christ – as described metaphorically in the tearing of the curtain in the Temple – breaks down the barrier between our fully human understanding of what is “sacred” and what is “profane”. This world, so beloved by God, is no longer in the grip of sin and death, but already a New Creation. New Creation calls for new thinking, new worshiping. It calls for new song, sometimes even challenging our notions of what praises God and what merely satisfies personal preferences without challenging a congregations inertia and comfort. There is nothing wrong with loving those hymns that have brought us comfort, or remind us of the round of liturgical seasons, from Advent through Ordinary Time after Pentecost. We have such a rich bounty of sacred music from which to bring forth praise worthy of God. At the same time, as pastoral leaders and church musicians wrestle together, hopefully along with the congregations they serve, with the ever-present possibilities offered in new songs – new styles of music, new ways of praising God, different ways of singing praise from other cultures – all should keep their minds and hearts open to the possibilities inherent in the Gospel we profess and proclaim – that God’s salvation is to all, for all, and makes the dead not only in to the living, but discards the old for something never before seen.
Pope Francis’s invitation is a marvelous example of precisely what I would love to see done more: bringing not only contemporary styles of music, but even allegedly “secular” musical style and performers within the church walls, and hear them in a new context, a new setting, and perhaps open ourselves to the possibilities that they, too, are offering God praise. We should allow ourselves to be surprised.