Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Drafting Roughly

This is a VERY rough draft of what I would like to say, or maybe where I am right now with what is in my mind. Scary thought, that . . .

Ever get a song stuck in your head? About five years ago, I woke up one morning and as Lisa and I puttered around the kitchen, I couldn't take it anymore. I started to tell her that I had this song going through my head, and she told me she had the same thing going on - "Yellow Submarine" by the Beatles. I stopped, because I had the same song going through my head. We laughed because, after all, what are the chances that two people would just wake up and have the same song, which we hadn't heard in years, running on a loop through their heads?

Of course, being me, I couldn't leave it at that. After Lisa left for the office, I called Linda [her secretary] and explained the situation to her, and asked her to have a little fun with Lisa by humming the tune when Lisa walked in, and before Lisa could say anything, just ask, "You ever get a song stuck in your head?"

I think of this event whenever I try to figure out "what it is" about music, of all the arts. How many of us have a painting stuck in our heads, or a sculpture? Some people may think of a poem, say, but how many get a passage from a novel stuck in their heads? There is a book out on the neurophysiology of music that I have yet to read, but skimming it at Borders once, this particular phenomenon has to do with pattern recognition, and the repetition is something the brain does to occupy itself.

Which is less an explanation than it is a description.

Of course, we in the Church also get songs stuck in our heads, don't we? How many hymn-sings do we have without anyone asking for "Amazing Grace" or "How Great Thou Art"? I remember very well 20 years ago when the current [UM] hymnal was released to much controversy. Complaints ran the gamut from the folks who missed this, that, or the other hymn that had been dropped to the inclusion of hymns from, and sometimes in the language of, Mexico, Japan, various Indian nations, Ghana, South Africa, and even Vietnam. While it may be that a hymn in Japanese isn't going to be sung too often in Newark Valley, NY or Poplar Grove, IL, it might be sung in a Japanese congregation in an urban area. As a document of the changes in the denomination between 1964 and 1988, our current hymnal is a marvelous historical document.

None of this answers the question, "What is it about music?", but it does offer some hints and clues, I think.

Since St. Paul enjoined the Christian congregation in Corinth to sing a hymn during their weekly gatherings, music has been a part of Christian worship. Indeed, St. Paul quotes a hymn, in his letter to the Philippians, which shows the urge to write hymns is as old as the Christian Church.

Our Jewish and Hebrew ancestors in the faith were enjoined to sing, and writes songs of prayer and praise to God. The Psalms are nothing more than a collection of songs sung in various worship settings, prayers, complaints, and even prophetic witness to the congregation. One gets a sense of how pervasive this communal practice is in reading the exilic Psalm, "By the shores of Babylon we hung our harps". The captors of the people of Judah demanded song, and the Psalmist laments, "How can we sing our song in a foreign land?"

We read today that, when David had the Ark of the Covenant brought to the new capital of Jerusalem, he marched at the front of the procession, dancing so wildly he was criticized for it. Music, and dance which seems to go with it, is at the heart of the Israelite experience of worship. Quite apart from some kind of modern understanding of what it might be about music that compels us, moves us, we need to acknowledge that its presence is taken for granted in the Bible.

Listening to music, unlike, say, looking at a painting or sculpture, or reading a novel or poem, is a participatory thing, a sensual thing, and most of all a social thing. We aren't called to "Paint a new painting unto the LORD" in the Psalms. One Psalm in particular has always spoken to me, though. When the congregation is called to "sing a new song to the LORD", I think of the desire to play something never heard before, sing something never heard before. Jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw, interviewed as part of Ken Burns' Jazz documentary, spoke to this when he was talking about the Glenn Miller Orchestra. While noting that it contained excellent musicians, his complaint was they never played a wrong note. He went on to say that, if you aren't playing a wrong note, you aren't pushing yourself, you aren't trying to play something new. The best musicians and composers strive to figure out ways to play something new and different.

Sometimes these sounds are soft and flowing; sometimes they are very loud, dissonant even, jarring. Hearing something that is really new shakes us out of our complacency.

I think this phenomenon - listening for something new, something different, some combination of sounds that has never been put together in this particular way - goes along with the saying in the prophet Isaiah, "Behold I am doing something new." The new, the possibility of anything new is exciting. All of us here, congregation and parsonage family, are on this journey in different ways right now. All of you are about to experience the arrival of a new pastor, a new way of doing worship, of being the people called Methodist in Poplar Grove and Boone County, IL. Lisa and I and our family are about to enter in to a whole set of new relationships, learning about one another, worshiping together, praying together, laughing together, living together, in Plato Center.

And I have no doubt that when Paul and his wife arrive, they will be moved by this congregation's dedication to musical excellence. I remember vividly our very first Sunday, almost six years ago. Sitting up front, in what I have since learned is the Kniep bench, worship opened with the choir, piano, organ, and bells. I was so moved by how beautiful that musical tribute was, I teared up. Among the many blessings this church offers to God, and to the people in worship, the gift of music is certainly among the best. The sheer variety of opportunities to make music here is pretty astounding. Then, of course, there is the talent - the vocal talent, the instrumental talent, the stylistic talent. Whether it's our marvelous accompanists, the bell choirs, the chancel choir, the praise bands, or even individuals like Stephanie House and John Babcock writing and performing their original songs for us or Matt Nordman playing his trumpet or Lisa playing her flute - we here have the opportunity to participate in new songs each and every worship experience. Something new.

With the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are faced with all the possibilities and hope of all sorts of new things. New life. New creation. No longer stuck in the cycle of life and death, rooted in a past full of sin and death, we are offered the promise that something new is coming, something never witnessed, something never heard. In Revelation, after the tribulation and final battle between the forces of God and the anti-Christ, with the coming of the new heaven and new earth, we hear the song sung before the throne of God, always sung, never ending, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD and the Lamb who was slain." For me, all music is a participation in this. Whether it's some old guy sitting on a porch strumming an out-of-tune guitar, or a Bach chorale, or a jam session in some club with three musicians trying to rearrange the notes and harmonies, rhythms and melodies in a new way, if we listen close enough, we might just hear that heavenly chorus.

So what is it about music? While I am sure there are all sorts of stuff brain scientists can tell us about the phenomenon, this isn't really an answer so much as restating the question in different words. I do know that, no matter what we prefer to hear, no matter whether we like country music, or hip-hop, or only listen to the songs we grew up with, or are more inclined to tell people to turn the noise off because it's loud and annoying, music binds us, creates images and feelings in us, calls us to pray and shout and clap and cry. This congregation is a wonderful place to experience this, to hear that "something new" played to the LORD, for all of us to hear, to sing along, to join together. We are the latest in a line stretching back in the faith to the time when King David insisted that worship include the music of the harp and lyre, and danced as the Ark was brought to Jerusalem. Just remember, as we sing later, our song reaches to that throne room scene in Revelation, and our words echo there along with those of the chorus before the throne.

Any other explanation, really, pales in comparison to this one - when music is played and heard and sung, we find ourselves joining that chorus. We aren't just going through the motions, but becoming part of the choir that stands and sings before God.

I don't like the ending at all. Comments and constructive criticism welcomed.

Virtual Tin Cup

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