March 6, 2010

Variety for the Sake of Community

Rob Passow is a member of the Virtual Abbey’s worship team and in his eighth year as Music director at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC. He sings in several DC area choruses and, in his spare time, works for a major government contractor. Twitter : @PilgrimsMusicDC

Although this post is about music, I believe it relates to our ongoing discussion about inclusive language in prayer.

Honestly, I initially felt uncomfortable about the thought of substituting she for he in our prayers. I know substitutions may make our worship more accessible to some, but I also wondered how it might affect me, as well as other worshipers.

“It is important to learn to sing songs I may not like for the sake of the community…By such willingness the whole community learns to appreciate a wider diversity of musical styles for the sake of caring for each other in the Body.” (Marva J. Dawn, A Royal ‘Waste’ of Time).

I share this quote to shed a little light on my own worship experiences and how they affect my music ministry. At Church of the Pilgrims, worship includes music from a wide variety of sources. In the past, I made a deliberate effort, but now it’s second nature to select music of many lands and times and peoples ─ music that faithfully reflects lessons and themes of our Sunday Liturgy.

A few years ago, I attended a worship service with a friend. We were greeted at the door, given a hymnal and a bulletin, and escorted to a seat. We settled in, listened to the organ prelude, and bookmarked the first hymn. Scanning the bulletin, I noticed there was a hymn coming up that I really disliked. In fact, I hated it. At that moment, my friend pointed to the same hymn and whispered, “Oh good! I really love that.”

Well, I didn’t even really sing the opening hymn because I was so cranky about the hymn I hated.

As worship continued, I recalled reading Marva Dawn earlier that week and thought, “If my friend and others in the congregation would be fed spiritually by this song, the least I could do is grit my teeth and sing it with them.” So, I gritted my teeth and sang. And amazingly, as I lifted my voice with others, I felt transformed by the music. As we moved to the front of the church for communion, the music drew us closer together. That hymn not only fed those around me, it fed me!

I’m still not fond of that hymn (though it now moves me each time I sing or play it), yet I realize it provides spiritual nourishment for many of my sisters and brothers. I also know it clearly expresses God’s love for us through Jesus Christ.

It doesn’t matter whether or not I like a song. It’s a question of whether music and text reveal the character and interventions of God; whether the hymn expresses the reign of God with all its truth, beauty and goodness; whether words and music help the community to participate more fully in worship. And when they are, and when they do, then we sing. Amen!

Six of Hearts: no. 1 Opus 16, collage and ink, 1991.


Brenda Finkle said...

I, like you Rob, was uncomfortable thinking about God as anything but a loving Father. However, in the last two weeks I've learned so much more thanks to loving, gentle conversations from many faithful believers. These conversations have opened my eyes to a much broader understanding - The One who created the universe transcends gender. How each of us chooses to see the Divine - is just that - a personal, spiritual choice and solely between them and God.

Your post is very helpful - it beautifully illuminates how each of our worship experiences are different and oh, so personal and intimate.

Thank you for being part of the worship team. We are blessed by you and each of your spiritual gifts (there are many).


Meredith Gould said...

Re: Hymns we love to hate. After years of choir and funerals, I've decided that if anyone sang "On Eagles Wings" at *my* funeral, I'd leap out of the coffin in protest.

Brenda Finkle said...

LOL LOL. Meredith - If I die before you do I'll join you in protest. Honestly - I will. We'd scare the heck outta everyone so badly it would be the *last* time anyone would *want* to play "On Eagles Wings". Give me the classics - I absolutely heart "Be Thou My Vision", sorry, but love "Amazing Grace" and my ALL TIME FAV "Beautiful Savior." The right arrangements - gorgeeouuus.

Made me laugh out loud.

Sue said...

Hmmm... I'd want Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, and the amazing version of the St. Francis Prayer by Sarah MacLachlan at my funeral...

What came to mind with the inclusive language issue was someone I know who, due to religious conditioning, found Jesus intimidating. So she learned to talk to Jesus by visualizing Robin Williams and found that image non-intimidating.

If one can visualize Jesus as Robin Williams and that helps one get closer to Him, then I am all for people using the images that help them get closer to God, although I hope that people keep in mind that God in the first and third forms is spirit, not form....

I don't choose to envision God as father or mother, but the human aspect/image I like is a pair of gigantic, loving, well worn hands--hands I can be scooped up in are carried in, and hands I can place my troubles.

Rob said...

I love the feedback here on hymns (I am getting an urge to write more about them here), and appreciate the discussion we are having about inclusive/expansive language.

At the risk of being overly obvious and getting into the "it-goes-without-saying-but-I'm-going-to-say-it-anyway" syndrome, the initial intent of my post was to suggest one way to respond to worship situations in which we are not 100% comfortable with some aspect of our corporate worship.

For example (just randomly, off the top of my head), using a different word for God. The new word might be a bit jarring or grating to me initially, but at that very moment, it might be helping someone else suddenly feel closer to God. And who knows? If I hear that word and think about it a bit more, (dare I say, give it a chance?) perhaps I might find my own concept of God expanding or my own relationship to God deepening.

Personal preference has always been and always will be a worship issue (words, music, dance, body prayer, sitting v.standing v. kneeling, wine v. grape juice, etc, etc).

However, I believe that God, Creator of Life, Hashem, Lord of all, does not actually have any personal preferences regarding the form of address we use. God probably simply appreciates the fact that we're there: praying, praising and acting, and then going out in the name of the one who made us all.

P.S. I have never played "Eagle's Wings" for a memorial service, but I have done both "The Wind Beneath My Wings" and (brace yourself) "It Had to be You" at funerals. (But not both in the same service!!)