Friday, August 16, 2002

Faith in Exile

"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"
(Psalm 137:4)

In all the small Midwestern prairie churches I served, someone always requested "The Church in the Wildwood" when we asked the congregations for their favorite hymns. It's a simple little gospel hymn with a catchy tune that you won't find in any of the new church hymnals but someone always was able to produce an old dusty hymnal from a back closet that had the words and the people would sing it with gusto. I was as secretly disdainful of the hymn as all the rest of my "educated" colleagues in ministry because it recalled a church most of us thought we'd outgrown; mawkishly sentimental and no solid theology for the information age. But it was loved for those very reasons. It is a song from the heart and tells a story about a simpler, more gentle time and place that has vanished from the landscape, a song about an Eden that perhaps never existed except in childhood. A hymn about home.

The anguish of exile is an integral part of the human experience and the root of the malaise of our time. Many of us are permanent transients remaining at most only a few years in any one place. The new Methodist church I belonged to as a young adult was in a rapidly growing suburb where the average family moved every two years. No sooner than we and our young adult friends felt we were putting down some roots, jobs and educational opportunities had us moving again. Being in the ministry is much like being in the armed forces. Now that we are in our retirement years, there is no place we can call home. Family and friends are dispersed all over the map, older family members are gone and even the neighborhoods where we once lived have completely changed residents and character.

Yet, nothing has changed so much for us as the church and nowhere is the change more apparent than in the music. The Reformation and the Protestant church that emerged were literally founded on music. Church music in the middle ages was provided only by trained choirs and had become increasingly polyphonic and complex and distanced from the people. The story is that Martin Luther and his followers would march into a German cathedral singing the hymns he wrote, many of them set to popular tunes of the day, and convert the whole congregation en masse.

Whereas the sacraments and a mystical priesthood have been the principle mediators between the people and the transcendent in the Catholic Church, in the Protestant church it has been the music that was the principle mediator. The Protestant church has produced at least four great hymnody traditions; the German, the English, the American frontier gospel and the spirituals of the black people. Over time, the Protestant church trivialized the sacraments due to her emphasis on "the priesthood of all believers and the individual conversion experience but made up for it with singing. But the cultures that produced these great hymnody traditions have been submerged by modernity and professionalism. Church hymnal committees are now made up of professionals who have tossed out many of the old favorites in favor of theological and political correctness and professional choirs and musicians have once again come to dominate the music of the new mega churches. Hymns for Sunday worship chosen by professional musicians may lift up the themes of the day or satisfy aesthetics, but fail to lift up the heart or call the individual worshiper to commitment. Occasionally a church will host a Sunday afternoon "hymn sing" to satisfy the longing of some of the old timers and a few curious new timers for the music of the heart, but that's not worship which must be an experience that unites a community's heart, hand and mind to a transcendent tradition and value.

On the other hand, younger generations of church goers who have been brought up exclusively on listening to the electronic music of the popular culture and deprived of hands-on public school music no longer know how to sing. In many of the so-called contemporary churches, the great hymns of the church that embedded themselves into the heart and taught generations of the faithful the theology of the church have been replaced with a few easy repetitive "contemporary" choruses that have the theological and artistic content of comic books for the congregations to sing off the wall. Hymnals have disappeared. The new choruses are focused on a weak, privatized individual experience. Instead of singing about the faith, experience and hope of the community, the use of personal pronouns proliferate; I, me, my and mine. Worship is reduced to a mostly a spectator experience with entertainers and spirituality has become a course in self-actualization. It's not just the music that has been trivialized. The reading of scripture in worship also has been largely reduced to sound bites so everyone can get out in time to catch the game on t.v. and preachers no longer seek to illuminate the text and lift up the heart but have become talk show hosts doing interviews or giving out good advice while getting chummy with the audience without notes.

Balance is needed. As a professional musician before I was a pastor I appreciate good music in any form and there are many good new hymns that not only satisfy the heart but are well written in contemporary idioms and contemporary instrumentation is great if a church has access to it. But religion cannot exist without community and community isn't based on a privatized or spectator experience but on a remembered and shared tradition and values. We commit to a story but we can't know what the story is if we don't hear it and sing it.

There is a story about a famous rabbi who, during a time of crisis in the community, would go to a special place in the woods, light a fire and say a special prayer for the deliverance of the people. Deliverance always would come. Then the rabbi died and the new rabbi did not know the special place to go in the woods. Nevertheless, he lighted a fire and said the prayer. Deliverance came just the same. Then that rabbi died and the next rabbi did not know to light the fire or where to go in the woods so he just said the prayer, and deliverance still came to the people. After a time, that rabbi also was gone. The new rabbi was faced with a crisis in the community, but he did not know any of the old rituals or the prayer. So he called the elders together and said to them, "I do not know where to go or what to do and the prayer has been forgotten. But I know the story. He told them the story, and deliverance once again came to the people.

When the woods have all been cleared for new subdivisions and the church is gone and the rituals have been forgotten, may we still have the book and the story and the songs in our hearts.