In memory of a friend and colleague in ministry, the Rev. Julie Two Suess.
Attending the Sunday evening praise service of MCC San Francisco, my partner turned to me and said, “For this service, you’re gonna need a lot more rhythm!” I had just moved there to serve as interim pastor, and the clapping and swaying and emotional singing had not been a regular feature of my worship experience.
A visit to the service a year earlier had alienated me. “What if I’m in pain when I come to the service?” I judgmentally thought, “I wouldn’t fit in with all these happy people.” Sharing that thought with the former pastor, the Rev. Jim Mitulski (one of the world’s finest preachers), he corrected, “We started that service to give voice to all of our feelings facing the AIDS crisis in the Castro.” He explained it was the old gospel songs and Taize style chants that expressed the range of their emotions, from lament and longing to hope and faith. One might compare the similar range of the Psalms.
I’ve just finished reading a book by a progressive Christian who expresses many insights I cherish, but who suggests we praise to “flatter” God to get what we want. That may be true for some, but not for me, and not for most, I would say.
Rather, we praise to be uplifted into God’s realm, to feel and to be embraced by something larger than ourselves—spiritual community, planet earth, the cosmos and all that is within it. The expanding universe calls for our own expansion. Spiritual ecstasy, like sexual ecstasy, gets us out of our selves, literally “out of stasis,” out of the status quo.
Just like prayer, praise is the place, not of God’s transformation, but of our own! To paraphrase the spiritual, “It’s not you but me, O Lord, standing in the need of praise.” In her book, Suffering, the late German theologian Dorothee Soelle affirms that collective “lament, petition, expressions of hope” empower those who suffer to address wrongs, comparing workers’ protests to liturgies, particularly the Psalms.
I come from traditions—both Baptist and Presbyterian—suspicious of the charismatic expressions of worship. Even the simple act of lifting our arms and faces upward—ironically, the praying posture of Jews and Christians of biblical times—seemed indecorous in our somber and earnest worship.
There is “bad” praise music, of course—uninspired, unpoetic, musically dull, and theologically untenable for progressive Christians. But even the theologically questionable ones, if inspired and poetic and musically interesting enough, may be fun to sing. Just don’t take them literally (just like scripture!).
I introduced a new song with just the right theology at the annual Kirkridge men’s retreat I co-lead, but when we faltered at its difficulty, someone started singing “Jesus Loves Me,” and it became the reprise of the weekend.
My preference is for Gregorian chants, songs and chants from Taize, Iona, and John Michael Talbot, as well as spirituals, sambas, salsas, and freedom songs. But I also still hum and sing the old gospel songs and staid hymns as well. Just ask our dog, Hobbes.
Serendipitously, for those of us in the Atlanta area, I just learned that John Bell from the Iona community will be leading an evening of song at 7:30 p.m. March 20 in Cannon Chapel on the Emory campus as part of the Candler School of Theology’s conference, “The Singing Church: Current Practices and Emerging Trends in Congregational Singing.” Tickets are $20 for the evening.
And, in regard to last week’s post, I have since found and recommend the film version of the book, “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers” on Netflix.
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