A neighbor's daffodils
A friendly email exchange with a regular reader of this blog about last week’s reference to “How Great Thou Art” prompts me to share again this post about praise music from 2012.
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 Sölle 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 hands and faces upward—ironically, the praying posture of the Jews and Christians of biblical times—seemed indecorous in our more 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, 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 an annual Kirkridge men’s retreat I co-led, 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, and songs and chants from Taize and Iona, and John Michael Talbot songs, 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.
I was invited to be among the contributors to Ashes to Rainbows: A Queer Lenten Devotional that includes meditations for Ash Wednesday, the Sundays of Lent, and the days of Holy Week. Go to: https://justiceunbound.org/queerlent/
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Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. I welcome the use of Progressive Christian Reflections as contemporary readings in worship, discussion starters, or other non-profit purposes. My hope is that you will also browse the archive (right column on the site) to use previous reflections in your daily or occasional meditation.