Yesterday, I had one of those musical days that a church musician can experience during the festival seasons of Advent and Easter, if that musician is very lucky: I spent the whole day singing something wonderful. In the morning, the Vivaldi Magnificat at Calvary Baptist Church, and in the evening, Handel’s Messiah at Millian Methodist. And this morning, despite the twitchy muscles in my calves and the desperate need to spend some time in the hot tub at the gym (thanks to a very long time standing in heels), my thoughts are all about the dualities of life and the building of community.
Okay, let me pause a minute. If you read my earlier post Our truest nature…, you will see that I have been musing about the basic duality of our human state and how the introduction of faith lifts us out of that split existence into wholeness. It is like faith completes the trinity of our nature and draws it together, or, more graphically and less theologically stated — a three-legged stool is more stable than a two-legged one.
When I start down a philosophical path like this one, I see examples everywhere. I can’t watch a news report about what a great shopping season the merchants are having this holiday, without thinking about the extreme duality that exists between the secular celebration of this holiday season as compared to the faith-filled observance of Advent that is so important to me. And I couldn’t sing the wonderful works of the season yesterday without thinking about the duality of church life that is, not so affectionately, known as the “worship wars”. In case you don’t know, this is an ongoing argument in church life about the nature of corporate worship — traditional vs. contemporary pretty much sums it up; and it often centers on the question of the type of music that will be used.
Now, I am for the most part a traditionalist: I like the well-worn hymns, I believe that worship isn’t worship without a choir in the service; I am, after all, a classical-trained musician who actually LIKES classical/concert music and who likes classical sacred music most of all. But even I from time to time can be found singing a contemporary hymn arrangement or even a contemporary Christian song in a solo context, if it best fits the text and the worship of the day. But few moments of worship can, for me, top the moments such as last night — singing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”, with a 30-voice choir, timpani and trumpet, to and with a congregation of 200 people, all singing with true spiritual belief that the the events we celebrate this week are the Good News, the best news.
And we come full circle to another dualistic topic on my mind — public versus private worship (read Public vs. Private if you haven’t already), and how that duality relates to the worship wars conversation. To me, it is clear: so-called traditional church music expresses our corporate relationship to God as it is often performed in groups and in community; and, this is just a personal opinion, but most contemporary music is about our personal relationship with the Divine.
Of course, nothing is ever that clear cut and I’m sure that many people can give me examples of “praise choirs” that sing contemporary sacred music, or the text of some song that is more corporate than personal (there is a reason it is often referred to as “Jesus is my boyfriend” music), but I think as a rule, I understand this duality. And truth be told, it is not a duality worth having a war about. But it is worth being clear about. Because when I stand on the platform as either a soloist or a member of a choir in front of a congregation, there is no mistaking that that is a corporate worship experience. What I listen to, or perform in, a service of meditation and prayer, or in support of my own private worship experience will almost always be something entirely different….I often listen to the Taize service, for example, but very little of it is suitable for our Sunday morning corporate worship experience, except as a call to prayer.
To close, I return to Sr. Joan Chittister’s book The Liturgical Year, for words about why we come together to worship with one voice on Sundays: “Sunday to the Christian mind is a ‘little Easter’. It is the collective memory of the moment when the tomb opened, empty of the death it promised, and new life began. It is the moment when the Christian community remembers together again that death does not triumph, that evil cannot prevail, that the deat of the spirit is not final, and that Jesus lives yet — in us.” Notice, she does not write “in me”, but “in us”, and “collective memory”, not “my memory”. Public worship is about community.
So, when I have the chance to stand with the amazing Festival Choir at Calvary for a picture after we completed the service, or to sing the wondeful words of “And the Glory of the Lord” from the Messiah with any choir at all, I am involved in the highest act of worship possible: an act of community. And there, the dualities just don’t matter as much.
Yes, it was a very good day.